Spring Break for Pilots

We had been looking forward to Sun-n-Fun with great anticipation this year. The weather in Florida had been great although they were forecasting 50% chance of rain Monday through Thursday; but that sounded like typical hit or miss Florida afternoon showers. No worries. We would be camping so we took along some extra tarps to help with that occasional shower.

Departure day was Monday even though Sun-n-Fun did not start until Tuesday. We wanted to get a good spot so we could see the airshow from camp and not be so far into the back 40 that that hike would take us all day. Mother Mature had other plans for us, however. Checking weather, there was a storm stretching across Florida, roughtly from Fort Myers to Tampa, amazingly enough RIGHT where we were going to fly. The remainder of the state was clear. I know which 50% we were in. Alva was under a severe thunderstorm alert so we were going nowhere fast in spite of our filing for an 0800 departure. The idea was to get in to Lakeland and have camp set up 11snf15.JPGbefore the 1000 storm hit. That was not happening. At 1000 we were still on the ground in LaBelle and I called flight services to get another opinion. The 1000 cell was approaching Tampa and looked to be coming through the Lakeland area by 1130. If we delayed our departure until 1100, we would be able to sneak in on the back side of it and have a couple of hours until the next wave of rain hit. Satisfied that I was reading the weather correctly, we launched just after 1100, filing IFR even though the ceilings were reported at 6,000. We wanted to be sure there was not an occasional low cloud to contend with as we made our way to "Spring Break".

The Sun-n-Fun NOTAM called for the use of the Lake Parker arrival. We wold continue IFR until the Lake Parker area and, if ceilings were above 3,000', we would cancel IFR and become a standard VFR arrival. The plan was to take our time to give that 1000 storm time to move out and lope on in - a tailwind was NOT what we were asking for this morning and we got one of the best we had seen in a long time. We throttled Wild Mama back to 15/20, just in the lowest part of the green arc and were11snf14.JPG still making 145-150 kts over the ground! So far the plan is not working. By the time we arrived, the airport was clear but the 1000 storm was over top of Lake Parker just to the northeast so ATC vectored us in from the west for a left downwind to 27right. We plopped in and were ushered into a really nice parking spot; but we could see that 2 hour window to set up camp was rapidly disappearing and it was already sprinkling.

11snf13.JPGWe made short order of setting up camp, opting out of the top layer to give us an awning to protect the tent door from the rain. Within 30 minutes the rain started pounding and Vern and I were soaked as we got the last little bits inside. Most everything non-essential remained in Wild Mama for the rest of the day. About that time, Jo and Steve Alcorn called to invite us to a hot meal in a dry house. We jumped at the chance and enjoyed a dry evening of hangar flying while we remained int he wrong11snf12.JPG 50%. The rains continued through the evening and long into the night but stopped short of Tuesday morning.

Tuesday brought a dense fog in the early morning hours: a fog that did not release its stranglehold on the airport until nearly 1100. The crowds were thin as no one could fly in and driving was not much better. Vern went off and did his thing and I went to forums and a fabric covering workshop. Wild Child needs some fabric repair on her 11snf11.JPGhorizontal stabilizers as the finish has cracked and does not look nice. I figured I would take this covering workshop - where, oddly enough we practiced on a horizontal stabilizer - so I could make my mistakes somewhere else first. The guys at the poly-fiber workshop were great, teaching about the basic fabric covering techniques and passing along tips from the pros about hiding seams, fixing boo-boos (much needed) and even product application. I finished the workshop and wandered about looking at11snf10.JPG planes the rest of the day that turned out to be pretty nice. We got back to camp for the end of the airshow, finished setting up camp and relaxed for a nice cool evening.

Wednesday at Sun-n-Fun was a mixed day: it started off nice and warm but there were threats of severe weather and a tornado watch until 2000 that night. We were all 11snf9.JPGon our toes and the volunteers at the GAC parking were very kind and let me keep the computer in their shelter for protection. Late afternoon, the rains came with a vengence, pounding for hours on end. The Royal Air Force cadets -part of the volunteer crew from the UK - had their evening program of Warbirds cancelled so they asked me to be the guest speaker to talk about racing and flying in the US. We had a delightful time with some really outstanding youth from the UK talking about their flying and differences between he 2 countries. We ended with a plan (oooo, there goes that word again) for me to fly the 6 female cadets early Friday morning. This will be fun.

We spent a long night Wednesday night with driving rains and the wind whipping around the tent flaps and covers, making sleeping nearly impossible with the excess of noise. We looked forward to morning and, hopefully, a dryer day; but it was not in the cards. The skies were menacing all morning with tornado watches posted for the area. We checked the weather to find most of the severe cells riding a line just north of Lakeland. There was this one cell, however, that seemed to be a bit more southerly than the rest. I had a day full of speaking and seminars. I was named official BAHAMAS AVIATION AMBASSADOR for women who fly. My first official act was an interview with Gregg Rolle from the Ministry of Tourism, Bahamas, to talk about the Ambassador program and invite folks to come to the Bahamas. The interview was to be the rooftop radio but, because of the weather, we were moved to Studio B. After the interview I wanted to see the King's give their Practical Risk Management - Avoiding Unwanted Adventures seminar. Every time I had tried to attend the live version before (I have seen the DVD which was a riot and highly recommended) something has come up and prohibited my attending. Today, I opted out of the WASP luncheon to attend the seminar at 1130. About mid-way through the seminar the lights started to flicker and the noise of the rain and winds hitting Studio A was making it hard to hear Martha speak then the lights went out but the King's kept on talking. As the King's were wrapping up, still on emergency lighting, a kid came in and sat next to his dad in front of me making a comment that took me by surprise: "Daddy: You should see all of the up-side-down airplanes outside." Oh no: how is Wild Mama? I made a beeline out the door and toward the campgrounds.

11snf17.jpgIt was a shock to walk outside and see the utter destruction and chaos: airplanes were flipped, tents were torn to shreds, fire rescue and emergency personnel were on a mission, debris was all over the ground and people were huddled in any shelter they could find. The rains 11snf18.jpgwere still pounding but the worst of the storm had passed. In less than a minute, I was soaked to the bone sloshing through puddles and mud to get to Wild Mama. I got a call from Vern who was heading in the same direction. At least I knew he was OK. We met up at the bicycles at the east end of the camping area and peddled as fast as we could dodging downed trees and debris. When we got to the airplane camping area a downed powerline and trees blocked our way so we ditched the bicycles, hopped the fence and took off on foot until we got there. Our tent was trashed and in a crumpled heap; a 172 lay up-side-down on top of a 11snf16.jpgBonanza, planes were turned in every direction with varying degrees of crimps and crumples but Wild Mama was intact. I heaved a heavy sigh of relief but there was another cell coming and the police called to clear the camp grounds. Although our tent was still firmly staked to the ground, there were debris all over. We cut the tent free, salvaged what we could of our personal belongings, threw them in Wild Mama soaking wet and gathered the remaining debris stuffing it into the dumpster before fleeing the camping area. We made our way11snf7.JPG back to the Echo Hangar and took shelter before the next severe wave hit. Steve and Jo Alcorn called and said they heard about the tornado and were on their way to get us out of there. We were grateful to be heading to some place dry.

11snf8.JPGWith nothing more than the computer, iPad and the clothes on our backs we looked like a herd of migrant workers as Vern and I and 2 other of Steves' friends, piled into the back of the van and headed out of the area. By that time we learned of the collapsed tent - the 99s luncheon tent - loads of damage and the Sun-n-Fun officials evacuating the show so they could get to work assessing damage, tending to the needy and cleaning the mess. We stopped at Walmart to buy a change of clothes and a toothbrush and headed to Winter Haven to spend the remainder of our time with Steve and Jo. It was great to be warm, dry and safe.

11snf5.JPGFriday was a new day. It was sunny, blue skies and light winds. We rented a car and made our way back to Sun-n-Fun to check on Wild Mama. For those campers who could stay, today was the day to dry out and airplanes were covered with wet clothes, blankets and shoes. Vern told me that he noticed the ailerons were looking low but with the evacuation and driving rains, we did not spend any time investigating. We would get a good look at her today.  When we got there she was stuck in the mud. We emptied her of all of the wet stuff we salvaged and got the lady cadets and a cadre of other volunteers to pull us out of the mud 11snf6.JPGan on to high ground. Vern then confirmed that we had aileron damage and would not be able to complete the flights with the cadets. While the damage did not look severe, it was a chance not worth taking. Vern flew her out to Winter Haven for further inspection and to get her away from the mayhem at the campgrounds.

I continued on to the main show. Had you not been there the day before, you would be hard pressed to recognize that an F-1 tornado had passed through the day before except for the downed tree limbs that dotted the campus. The Sun-n-Fun organizers had done an outstanding job at cleaning the mangled airplanes, removing the torn tents and cleaning the debris field and the Friday show went on as planned with the appearance of the F-22 Raptor and the Blue Angels. In all, there were only 15 injuries and none were serious. It was time to get on the with business of airplanes again!!!!

All of the remaining plans that I had for seminars were blown out the window so I just decided to be lazy, hand with the 99s and watch airplanes. The Raptor and P-5111snf1.JPG 11snf3.JPGMustang did a beautiful Hertiage flight and the Blue Angels performed flawlessly, as usual. I toured the flight line and looked at some of the other airplane exhibits to try to wind down after such an exciting few days. I met Laura and Matt and our 2012 teammates. We had what turned out to be 30 11snf2.JPGloads of laundery to do this evening. Some of the show seemed a little light on airplanes and one small little crumpled plane remained next to the Explorers youth display. The11snf21.JPG Explorers had worked so hard to build their little airplane to raffle off to raise money for another youth project and there lay their plane in a crumpled heap. While it was quite sad to see, it was refreshing to see their little donation box getting full. Aviation folks are wonderful people.

11snf4.JPGSaturday morning was our last day at the show and it was another day to wander around and spend some time the 99s for me. The luncheon caterer brought lunch for everyone because he was paid and felt compelled to help back out. The Suncoast Chapter held their 11snf22.JPGmeeting where Betty "Liz" Stohfus talked about her WASP and post-WASP era stories - her flying an F-16 at the age of 71 and about the guardian angel who pulled her out of the tent after the tornado on Thursday and carried her in his arms to the safety of the Aviation Museum. "Such a lovely young man", she said with a giddiness in her voice. Another Blue Angel performance and it was time to go home.

We spent one last night with Steve and Jo and headed for home Sunday morning with Wild Mama. She flew OK but there was a definite difference in her ailerons. We have some unexpected work to do before race time in just over 2 months. . .

Hey, hey, hey. It's FAT ALBERT!!