From my Desk to the Sky: A lunch flight to Portsmouth Regional Airport

Friday, February 20, 2015

The proverbial $100 Hamburger. For pilots, it’s just about the most important and noble activity one can use an airplane for. It makes total sense (to pilots) to spend half of your day loading your family and/or friends into an airplane and blasting into the sky in search of a restaurant co-located with an airport.

That’s just the activity I chose to partake in this past weekend, along with my wife and two friends. The weather was just about perfect as a nice (read: strong) southwest flow ushered in mild air, a welcome break from the cold temperatures normally felt here in February.  The plan was to fly from Lexington to Portsmouth Regional Airport (PMH) in southeastern Ohio, only about 96 nautical miles away. During my days as a line attendant at a nearby GA airport, I had heard about the restaurant located right on the field.  I had often wanted to fly there with the “lunch bunch,” the aircraft owners who would frequently fly somewhere to eat when the weather was nice, as it was on this day. Now was my chance.

We loaded into the 1973 Piper Cherokee 6-300 and started up the engine. I expected a brief flight, and I was proved right. The winds at our cruising altitude of 5,500 feet were out of the west at about 40-45 knots. Flying on a northeast heading, our groundspeed clocked in at about 185 knots. That’s about 212 mph! I had read in the weather forecasts earlier in the day that there was the possibility of windshear. While I didn’t encounter anything dangerous, I did notice the turbulence associated with the phenomenon, and it finally stopped at about 4,200 feet. The flight was smooth at our cruising altitude and we enjoyed the clear skies and fast speeds.

We taxied in and parked next to a Cessna 182, and I was a bit surprised there weren’t more aircraft on the ramp.  It was such a perfect day (albeit windy), and avgas prices had been on a downward trend as of late. On this particular Saturday, I half-way expected to see some of the old lunch bunch and their airplanes I used to service, but it wasn’t so. The restaurant was busy enough, presumably filled with locals who drove there to eat and enjoy the airport environment.

1973 Piper Cherokee 6-300

Portsmouth Regional Airport (PMH) in southeastern Ohio

Our lunch was tasty and the time together with our friends was enjoyable. PMH is a typical GA airport, one of thousands scattered across the US. It is only about 660’ above sea level and features a 5,000’ long runway, ample room to get in and out. Oriented north to south (18 and 36), the runway created just a slight crosswind on landing, but it was manageable, even negligible. All too soon, it was time to head back.

As we climbed out from runway 18 toward the south and then southwest, we began to feel the turbulence take out its frustration on the Cherokee 6. It wasn’t comfortable at that point, and I was sorry my passengers had to endure it. I had already noticed our groundspeed was low, and I decided it was either stay low and get beat up, or climb to (hopefully) smoother air. I thought maybe climbing through 4,200 feet that we may find the boundary between rough and smooth air, but it didn’t happen this time. I continued to climb to 6,500 feet, the next altitude appropriate for our direction of flight. Finally, we found smooth air…but at a price.

It wasn’t as if I was unprepared to fly back in the face of the wind that had so graciously pushed us along as we flew northeast. But it is always amazing to see the effects – this time less-favorable effects - of the wind as we travelled back to the southwest. Remember our 185 knot groundspeed? During the return flight it dwindled to 85 knots (!), a 100 knot difference from about an hour earlier. This wasn’t a concern to me on this short flight. It definitely would have been on a 600 mile cross-country flight. It never ceases to amaze me, but it’s the price we pay when we fly. But in the end, flying slow is better than not flying at all.