Our Flight to Florida, Christmas 2002
By Kathy Sutton
Kathy and Fluffy
Steve and I bought our 1975 Cessna 150, “Fluffy” in September 2001. We wanted something cheap and fun to fly while we’re building our GlaStar. (If you’re wondering why we would name our plane Fluffy, well, that’s another story.) We keep both Fluffy and our GlaStar project in our hangar at the Brampton Flying Club, a half-hour drive north-west of our home in Toronto.
We’ve both flown ultralights for many years, but we wanted a plane we could use for longer trips and to build our experience. Over the last year we’ve logged about 30 hours in Fluffy – all short day trips, all within Ontario, and only one overnight. In fact, the furthest we’ve flown is from Toronto to Ottawa. Everything starts with an idea I’m not sure exactly when – or why – we decided to plan our first big cross-country flight for the middle of the winter. I think Steve came up with the idea, probably around mid-November, when the weather started to get colder. Once we started thinking about it, it made sense: the Christmas season is good for both of us take some time off work, and we needed to get away. It didn’t take us long to decide that Florida – our favorite holiday spot – should be our destination. So what if it was winter!
We contacted Bob and Kathie Beaty, GlaStar builders in central Florida with a B&B cabin on their private grass strip. Luckily for us, the cabin was available over the Christmas season, so we started to get serious about planning. Although we have traveled by car or commercial airliner to Florida many times, flying there ourselves would be a very big “first” for both of us. The flight would be VFR-only, in a very small aircraft with no transponder and only one radio – an old one that doesn’t receive the new split frequencies. No transponder meant we’d have to avoid all Mode C controlled airspace, and our old radio can’t pick up frequencies normally used to broadcast current weather conditions.
Still, Fluffy is equipped with all the essentials for a safe flight, so we decided to go for it.
Planning the route
Planning our route was a lot of fun. Our criteria were simple: it should be as direct as possible, take us near plenty of uncontrolled airports for fuel stops, and get us around the major obstacles – lakes, cities, mountains, restricted airspace such as military operation areas, and any airspace that required us to have a transponder. The latter includes “Mode C veils” around big cities and “TFR” or Temporary Flight Restriction areas such as stadiums and nuclear power plants. We decided to stay west of the Appalachians because the weather is generally better on that side of the mountains. We also wanted to avoid lake-effect weather, so we decided to cross the border at Port Huron, Michigan, rather than Buffalo. After that, our route would basically follow interstate I-75.
The overall flight distance from Toronto to central Florida would be over 1,200 miles. Undaunted, we bought all the required U.S. charts in early December and began planning in earnest. Fluffy’s Nav/Com would allow us to navigate by VORs, and we also have a portable GPS, which makes navigation a whole lot easier and much more accurate.
Our Garmin GPS. Photo taken as we crossed into Florida.
Our Garmin GPSMAP 295 has a colour electronic map that displays our route and current position as well as cities, roads, airspace, and more. It also has a database with information on all the airports on the continent.
Although the GPS would be our primary navigation device, charts are a mandatory backup as electronic systems can fail. They also give you a better overall picture of the route and show terrain and obstacles such as towers. Once we’d decided on the route, we marked it on our charts with highlighter tape. We also selected 5 or 6 “waypoints” – airports about 2.5 hours apart (a safe range for our fuel tanks as well as our bladders) and programmed them into the GPS. The GPS route would be our electronic “road” for the journey.
Procedures and paperwork
Beyond planning the route, we had to figure out the procedures for crossing the U.S. border. The folks running the radar do not react favorably if they see an unexpected “blip” about to cross into the U.S. or if the blip doesn’t communicate with them correctly. In fact, if you don’t follow all the rules, you just might end up in the company of some fast-flying military jets and face some very serious consequences. The customs officers are also quite procedure-oriented. They require at least two hours advance notice and expect you to arrive within 15 minutes of your planned time. Thanks to our flying friends Karen and Lynn, who I thoroughly quizzed, figuring out the procedures was only slightly overwhelming. I also downloaded useful information from the COPA web site and checked FAA NOTAMS (also online). We went to another aviation site www.airnav.com to get information on the U.S. airports we planned as waypoints. The paperwork for a cross-border flight was really not bad. We needed a U.S. customs decal for the plane ($25 U.S.), and a waiver from the FAA allowing us to fly in the U.S. without a transponder (free). After some emails and a few faxes and phone calls, both were in hand by mid-December.
What to take?
Steve prepared the plane by ensuring we had all the gear we could possibly need on the trip: tie-downs, chocks, extra oil, winter kit, tools, flashlight, sunshades, journey log and so on. I bought a few “survival snacks” and wrote lists. Steve packed a “spares” bag with our ICOM hand-held radio, an extra handheld GPS and a cell phone adapter. He also packed a lightweight blanket; later, this proved useful to plug up the air leaks around the doors in flight. In fact, we ended up using everything we brought except the winter kit for the cowling (only needed if the outside temperature is below -8 deg. C or 20 deg. F). We packed our warmest “survival” down jackets in stuff-sacks (hoping we wouldn’t need them) and selected our in-flight gear – the “layered look” for easy disrobing as the air got warmer: jacket, vest, sweatshirt, t-shirt.
Air Fluffy’s low useful load limited us to one carry-on bag each – making the selection of clothing quite critical. In hindsight, since Fluffy performed so well, even over gross weight, I guess I could have brought along that extra pair of socks after all, and maybe a few more in-flight snacks. Steve’s bag somehow ended up heavier than mine but I made up for that by doing some shopping on the way back.
Getting ready to go
The earliest date we’d be able to leave was December 21st. About a week before that we started to spend all our free time watching the Weather Channel, observing the lows, highs and various fronts march their way across the continent. We were anxious to start our holiday but knew it was best to be patient and wait for a good “slot” between weather systems. We didn’t want to get part way and have to sit out a storm for two or three days, so timing was important. On the other hand, it was unlikely that conditions would be perfect for the whole trip. While waiting until conditions looked good, we spent lots of time explaining to family and friends why we had no idea when we would be leaving. It was all up to the weather gods! On Christmas morning, just as we were starting to become discouraged, our prayers (to the weather gods) were finally answered: the storm that brought us a white Christmas was departing to the east, and a big high-pressure system looked like it would cover our entire route as of December 26.
Our delayed departure actually worked out for the best, as we ended up arriving in Florida the day after our hosts, Bob and Kathie, returned from a trip. Having them there during our stay made it even more enjoyable. On Christmas night I got a weather briefing from Flight Services. Conditions looked favorable so we decided to go for it.
Loaded up and Ready to Go!
Our trip diary.
Dec. 26 (Brampton Ontario to Wauseon Ohio, 3.8 hrs total flying time)
Up at 5 a.m. to get an interpretive weather briefing from Flight Services and file a flight plan. Quick breakfast and made sandwiches for lunch. Picked up my mother, who would be cat-sitting for the duration. Said our goodbyes and we were away at 6:15 into a dark and cold morning for the 30-minute drive to Brampton Airport. Steve plugged in the portable heater to get the engine warm enough to start. Meanwhile, we loaded our bags, making sure all the essentials could easily be reached from the seats. Steve then spent a good 20 minutes shoveling snow from in front of the hangar. Dropped by the clubhouse where Steve persuaded the snowplow operators to clear our taxiway so we could get to the runway. I did a final weather check and Steve called U.S. Customs to advise them of our arrival time. We departed runway 33 at 0820 under gloomy skies and into strong winds. Opened our flight plan in the air and headed west!
Crossing the Border at the St. Clair River
It seemed to take forever to get to our first waypoint, Port Huron, Michigan, where we had to land to clear customs. Our ground speed was only 85 mph (normal cruise speed is 105 mph) due to the strong westerly wind at 3,000 feet. As we approached the border we talked to Selfridge Approach Control and got clearance to cross into the U.S.
After crossing the St. Clair River we were cleared to switch to the Port Huron frequency. I did the usual radio call to Port Huron Unicom for an airport advisory and the snowplow operator said “the runway is covered with ice, zero braking.” Fortunately, the wind was right down the runway. We landed with due caution, taxied to the customs building and shut down. We then sat in the plane until our personal U.S. Customs officer showed up, about 15 minutes later, then went with him to complete the paperwork and show him our documents. Once that was done, we went into the airport office so we could call Flight Services and close our flight plan. Found that they had already called the airport to ask if we had safely arrived! I guess when we estimated our “time elapsed” when flight planning, we did not consider how strong the headwind would be, nor how long it would take to get through customs! Nice to know that someone is looking out for us though.
While at Port Huron we got a new weather report. The forecast wasn’t as good as we had hoped and it looked like low clouds near Dayton might present a problem. But we decided to see how far we could get, so we topped up the fuel and off we went. We bypassed the big Mode C area around Detroit, listening in to several airport radio frequencies along the way and noting all the big towers in the area. Eventually we got past Detroit and pointed the plane south (yay!!) instead of west.
Our speed started to pick up and soon we were over snow-covered Ohio farmland. As we got further south, the ceiling got too low for us to fly “legal” VFR a little sooner than expected. We used the GPS to pick out a nearby airport and a few minutes later landed at Fulton County Airport near Wauseon, Ohio. Checked weather on the computer, ate our sandwiches and chatted with Steve, the airport manager. Decided there was no way we’d be airborne again today so we tied down the plane, borrowed the courtesy car, got a motel (Chief Wauseon), bought a hair dryer and hand lotion at Wal-Mart, then had a great steak dinner at Doc Holliday’s. Lots of snow on the ground here. In bed (watching the Weather Channel) by 8 p.m. Ate some of the good dark chocolate Steve had packed as a late Christmas present for me.
Dec. 27 (Wauseon to Cleveland Tennessee, 4.5 hrs)
Up at 5:30 a.m. to an even lower overcast. Breakfast at 6 at McDonald’s and a new weather briefing by payphone (can’t reach U.S. Flight Services using our Canadian-based cell phone). Back to the motel for more weather channel, then to the airport at 8. Got Fluffy fueled up and into the hangar to defrost. The forecast was not too promising so we borrowed the car again and stretched our legs at a big antique mall (bought a cast-iron squirrel nutcracker, had it mailed). Early buffet lunch at the Barn. Just past noon the ceiling looked like it was breaking up, so back to the airport for another weather check. It looked good, and soon we were on our way again, departing Fulton County at 1235. Scattered cloud at 1,000 feet but we could maintain VFR and the weather improved enroute. Soon we passed Cincinnati and crossed over the Ohio River into Kentucky. The weather steadily improved but just to make sure, we used our handheld radio to tune in to automated weather reports at airports further down the way. Didn’t see another single aircraft but listened to a few. Quick fuel stop at Mt Sterling, Kentucky. Weather great by now. For the next two hours we crossed gently rolling hills and some small mountains in Tennessee – still lightly dusted with snow – beautiful skies and lots to see. At about 5 p.m. we picked a place to land and ended up at Hardwick Airport near Cleveland, Tennessee, just short of the Georgia border. I guess one of the joys of cross-country trips is you never know just exactly where you’ll be staying! Fuelled the plane, tied down, and took a taxi to a nearby motel. Steve called our dear friend Jack R. and we heard the very sad news that his wife Maggie had passed away today. Went for a walk, had dinner and spent the rest of the evening at the motel (more weather channel). Prayed for Jack and Maggie.
Scraping Frost off the wings
Dec. 28 (Cleveland TN to Burntwood Ranch, Florida, 4.9 hrs)
Up early, free breakfast at hotel, taxi to airport at 8 am. Sunny but very cold. Spent two hours scraping frost off Fluffy. Met some nice people while we worked. Weather looks great! Airborne at 0955 and soon we were over Georgia. Now we’re getting somewhere! Clear and sunny weather all the way across Georgia and into Florida. Fuel stop at Cook City, Georgia (future reference: within walking distance of motels). Again, very little traffic in the air. We listened in to various airports along the way and enjoyed the chatter and southern accents. It’s a LONG way around the Atlanta mode C veil and we couldn’t see the city at all. The further south we got, the more the ground greened up and soon we were in summer again. Picked up a really nice tailwind at 4,500 ft and soon were really smokin’ – our groundspeed got all the way up to 138 mph! Sure beats driving! Crossed the Florida border in style, with I-75 far below. We found our last waypoint and destination – Burntwood Ranch – with little trouble, thanks to the GPS. What a beautiful sight! The whole area looked really wet (recent rains) but the runway was dry and our hosts were waving us in, so we landed.
We shut down the plane and were greeted by Bob and Kathie. Taxied to the south end of the 2,500 ft grass runway and parked near our cabin. What a wonderful feeling to be here – really quite hard to believe that we have actually arrived in Florida, after all that planning and waiting!
We’ve arrived! We took a quick look at the cabin, which is absolutely charming, then Kathie drove us to town to pick up our rental car before Avis closed. Bought groceries and found our way back. Unpacked the plane and checked out the cabin. And what a great cabin it is – large living room, cute kitchen and bathroom, big bedroom with king size bed, and dining room with windows all around. The interior walls are all cypress boards, now a protected tree as explained by Bob, who dropped by with recommendations on some flying day trips. Bob told us that the original owner of the property cut cypress to build with and a fire swept through, charring some of the logs used for the interior – hence the name Burntwood Ranch.
We’re in the middle of a cattle ranch about 15 minutes north of Lakeland in central Florida, half way between Tampa and Orlando. The pond by the cabin has a five-foot alligator in it (we’re not to feed it!) and an orange tree just outside. Also a large palm tree in front. BBQ chicken dinner, quiet evening and early to bed. Fantastic stars!
In Florida Dec. 29 (to Lake Wales and Venice, 2.5 hrs total flying time)
Up really early because I just couldn’t wait to see the property and enjoy being in Florida. Coffee, muffins, orange juice. Cows mooing and “sweet country air.” To town for film then back to the cabin. A short while later, under sunny skies, we were in the air again! With all the gear unloaded and half tanks, Fluffy took off just fine despite the calm air and grass strip. To Lake Wales for self-serve fuel and to watch skydiving – brought back some memories! We then headed west to Venice Airport on the Gulf coast. Swooped out over the ocean, landed, tied down and got a ride to Sharky’s on the beach for lunch. Grouper sandwich, key lime pie, yum! Walked down to the beach to taste the ocean and look for sharks’ teeth (didn’t find any) then back to the airport. Held up for a few minutes when a Citation jet taxied right in front of us and blocked our exit from the ramp. Took off to the north and as we departed looked out over the keys, with Sarasota and Anna Maria Island in the far distance. Then back to the nest.
After we got home we went for a drive to the nearby “Green Swamp” recreational area to see what it looked like, but it’s hunting season (turkey, wild pigs) and we didn’t dare go for a walk! Bob told us there’s lots of wildlife in the area and they’d even seen the rare Florida bobcat. Cold drinks and Steve made dinner. Made a few phone calls and read aviation magazines for the rest of the evening. A perfect day!
Dec. 30 (to Lake Wales and Merritt Island, 2.7 hrs total flying time)
Up early again to another beautiful sunrise. Must start watching weather again – can’t stay here forever, unfortunately. Freshly-picked oranges and french toast with jam and bacon for breakfast. Watched a cowboy round up “Studley,” the Beatys’ bull, and herd him down the runway. Shortly after breakfast we were off to Lake Wales (more fuel) and then Merritt Island to visit Bobbi and Ric Lasher, fellow GlaStar builders we met through the GlaStar builders association. Merritt Island is an interesting airport with the runway jutting out into the ocean like an aircraft carrier. From the air, we could not quite see the 2.5 mile space shuttle landing strip a few miles north, but we could pick out the huge shuttle assembly building. Couldn’t fly near there because of airspace restrictions, unfortunately.
Bobbi and Ric told us that before Sept 11, pilots were permitted to fly low over the huge runway. At that length, you could make numerous approaches and departures! After we admired Bobbi and Ric’s beautiful work-in-progress and their lovely Cessna 150, they took us for lunch. We exchanged lots of stories and building tips. Nice to make new friends and I’m sure our paths will cross again.
We departed Merritt Island at 3:30 or so, climbed to 4,000 feet to avoid some restricted airspace, and wound our way back to the ranch. Florida has a large population but most of the settled areas are near the edges. In central Florida we saw vast areas of empty land, forest, swamp, reservoirs, farms, and orange groves. There’s a great selection of uncontrolled airports in most areas and many private strips. Would love to see them all. Steve did the landing and a nice one it was. Sat on the west steps, watched a glorious sunset then off to a movie.
New Year’s Eve
Another great morning in Florida: up at 6, coffee, shower, amazing coral sunrise with pink/mauve clouds, cows lowing, perfect reflection of Fluffy in glass-still pond. But the forecast called for rain and wind, so we decided to take the day off flying and do chores. Did the laundry and drove to Lakeland Airport to check on weather and buy oil for the plane. Went to Gulf Coast Avionics and bought a new artificial horizon for Fluffy (old one keeps tumbling and is beyond repair). Came back, changed the oil, and securely tied down. Then back to town for a movie. We planned on dinner out but the restaurants all had lineups and the rain was really heavy, so we went to the Winn Dixie, bought groceries (shrimp, chicken, ice cream) and had a great dinner at “home.” Early to bed.
New Year’s Day
We had a real treat today – went to 7:30 a.m. mass with Bob and Kathie their church in San Antonio, near Dade City. Saw a lot of flooded land on the way – 7 inches of rain fell in the area yesterday! We greatly enjoyed the lovely church service then headed back for a wonderful New Year’s breakfast at the Beatys. Joined by Carolyn and Larry from Zephyr Hills (pilots of Champ and Breezy). Kathie and Bob served mamosas/bloody marys, eggs, barbequed smoked sausage, grits, biscuits and jam, home-made carrot loafs, coffee and tea. What a meal and great conversation too – lots of laughs.
Spent a bit of time after that sponging water out of the back of the plane. Will have find and fix where it leaks. About noon we headed off to the nearby “Fantasy of Flight,” a local aviation museum with great World War II displays and an interesting collection of historic aircraft, including a huge amphibian (forget the name). Flew the simulators, which was fun. Then to Lakeland to check weather again. Still not certain when we can leave but tomorrow looks promising. Dropped off the rental car. Kathie met us and drove us back to Burntwood. Spent evening writing postcards, making lunch for tomorrow and packing. Although we don’t want to leave, we’re also looking forward to the flight home. Foggy morning. The cows didn’t seem to mind the 7 inches of rain.
Jan. 2 (Burntwood to Chattanooga Tennessee, 5.6 hrs)
Up early to load the plane. Very foggy – Fluffy was coated with dew, inside and out. Once the fog lifted enough, we said our goodbyes to Bob and Kathie, and off we went at about 8:30 a.m. Very slow takeoff roll, as the runway was still wet and somewhat soft. Used a combined short/soft field technique with 10 deg. flaps. Eventually we picked up speed and were off the runway with room to spare. Glad to have only half tanks though. It was too foggy to go to Zephyr Hills to fuel up, so we headed to Leesburg, a few miles north. While doing a computer weather check in the pilot’s lounge I chatted to two smartly dressed young aviators. Found out they were planning a 50 mile cross-country to Ocala (maybe their first x-country?). They decided the weather wasn’t quite good enough so they cancelled. Must have been students. When we told them we were off to Toronto, one of them said, “now, that’s a cross country!” The weather was clear all across northern Florida and well into Georgia. But as we got into north Georgia, we caught up with a weather system over western Tennessee. The cloud base was pretty low and we could see some rain showers to the west. Although we were hoping to make Nashville and visit friends overnight, we could see conditions were deteriorating so we decided to land at Collegedale Airport, just outside the Chattanooga Airport control zone. Got into some rain but could maintain 2,500 ft out of cloud. We flew about 10 miles in the rain, carefully noting the positions of high towers and avoiding them, and finally (happily) landed at Collegedale just after 3 p.m. It would have been challenging to find the airport without the GPS since it’s behind a ridge.
New friends Leon & Harlis at Collegedale, TN
We met a lot of nice folks at Collegedale. Leon (on the Unicom, gas pump and front desk) looked after us well. Harlis, who lives just across the runway, befriended and later drove us to the motel. Frank, the airport manager, told us a lot about the history and future of the airport. They just opened their new building and evidently they’re looking for a restaurant manager. (Will keep that in mind for future reference!) Small airports are great places to meet some very fine people.
We took advantage of our stopover to see if a mechanic could install our new artificial horizon while we were there. Andy Cox said he could do it in the morning, so Fluffy got to stay in his hangar overnight. We unloaded our gear and Harlis drove us to a motel (the guys picked one near a mall, for me!). After settling in we made a few phone calls then went for a great dinner and walked the mall. Early to bed.
January 3 (0 hrs)
Took a taxi back to the airport in the morning. Andy installed the new artificial horizon and we fuelled up. Low clouds obscured the mountains, and the forecast wasn’t too promising, so we took advantage of the airport courtesy car and toured Chattanooga. Had lunch and cruised the antique shops, picking up a pair of china cats. Back at the airport again and had a good time chatting with Harlis, Frank and Leon. Found out that people at Collegedale are familiar with GlaStars because this is where the Weitzels live, just across the runway, and where they built the GlaStar they had up for sale a couple of years ago. Harlis drove us back to the same motel for another night and gave us a local tour on the way.
January 4 (8.5 hrs)
Up early to call weather, and the forecast was good! Half a bagel for breakfast, back to the airport and loaded up. Someone gave us a hand with de-icing, then we said our goodbyes to the “boys.” We departed Collegedale at 8:30 a.m. under clear and cold skies. The runway is 5000 feet of nice smooth asphalt with an interesting dip in the middle. Climbed out into a headwind and were soon crossing the hills of Tennessee. Clear skies prevailed and on we went, landing at Mt Sterling KY (again) for fuel. After that we flew at 3,500 feet in the sunshine, just above a light layer of scattered clouds. Then scattered became broken, and we decided to descend through a hole before the ceiling closed in. But by going lower we picked up a tailwind and made good time, about 126 mph!
Refueled at Fulton County Airport in Wauseon Ohio (where we stopped on the way south), filed a U.S. flight plan for crossing the border, phoned Canada customs and gave them the required two hours advance notice. Got brownies out of the vending machine for lunch and took off again. The ceiling got lower near Detroit but was still acceptable. Once again we called Selfridge Control and soon crossed the St. Clair River back into Canadian airspace. Stopped at Sarnia Airport to clear customs. We figured we could get home before sunset, so took off again in a hurry and hightailed it for Brampton. Aided by a tailwind, we made it back just before official sunset, according to the GPS, so actually we had half an hour to spare.
As we approached Brampton I radioed in for a runway condition report – snow-covered! Later we heard that we were only the third airplane to land at Brampton all day. We landed, taxied in, shut down and tucked our faithful Fluffy back into the hangar just by dark, after a half hour of snow shoveling! Unloaded our gear, closed the hangar door, then drove back home – tired but very happy with our adventure. Can’t wait till next time!
Steve and Kathy Enjoying “The Best Seats in the House.”
Our trip to Florida was a wonderful education for us. We flew over 3,000 miles and logged a total of 32.5 hours. We used everything we brought along except the winter kit. We learned a lot about flight planning, navigation, weather, and border-crossing procedures. We made new friends, had a wonderful holiday at less cost and a whole lot more fun than flying commercially, and got home safe and sound with plenty of memories and a real sense of accomplishment. Steve and I had a great time the whole trip. We shared the workload and made good decisions together (aided by our cockpit rule – which we adopted from an airline pilot – “no fighting or drinking below 5,000 feet”).
As for what we would do differently next time – we’d bring a better camera, improve our snack planning – and stay longer! We are very grateful to our families, especially my mother who house-sat, looked after our cats, Zak and Kali.