To Portland and Back Again

Owning an airplane comes with some advantages. Given that it’s February, it’s that time of the year when I need to meet up with my CPA to work out the details of filing 2015 taxes. The trouble is my CPA lives in Portland. So earlier this week on Monday, I flew down to Portland in the morning, then flew back later in the afternoon.

This in an of itself is not particularly interesting. It’s a path I’ve flown a few times before. But this time was probably one of the strangest flights I’ve ever been on. Let’s start with the flight track, which as you can see is quite predictable and normal-looking:

I flew down in nearly ideal conditions. The air was thick with a slight wind from the north that was so steady it was nearly imperceptible in flight. I left around 9 AM after dropping off the children for school. At Bremerton airport, the sky was completely blue; however, there were low-clouds and fog all along the route south.

Once in the air, I opened my flight plan. The briefer noted that IFR conditions had been reported along most of the route of flight to the south, but I knew the fog would be so low and patchy I’d be able to make it through quite safely. The fog was thick in some places, but you could make out the tips of trees even in the low-lands. And of course the tops of hills and mountains were clearly visible. I wish I had thought to take some pictures. It was extremely pretty.

With the flight plan opened, I called up Seattle Approach to request flight following. But this is where the weird stuff started. The controller couldn’t see me on his radar at first. Then the controller was able to pick me up, but he couldn’t receive my transponder. I tried cycling power on it, but that didn’t seem to work. It was clearly getting power, and I could even see it’s “I’m responding to a radar ping” light going off in it’s usual pattern of flashes. But the controller still couldn’t get a signal back.

I flew southward, and although I could have flown purely visually, I decided to use my VORs and pretend I was flying an IFR course. As you can see from the flight track, one of my checkpoints was the VOR at the Olympia airport. From there, I headed south to the Battleground VOR, eventually getting south enough to leave the Seattle controller’s range. So we said our good-byes. He never got a pong from my transponder the whole time.

I wasn’t paying super close attention to my VORs the whole flight because I kept looking out the window (which in my defense is required in VFR flight). On the flight track, you can see how I’d drift ever so slightly to one side, then correct, then correct, and so on.

When I was about 18 nautical miles north of Portland, I called up Portland Approach to establish a transition through Class-C airspace. The airspace around Portland International Airport is Class-C and requires I be in contact with a controller. ATC gave me a squawk code (a number I enter into my transponder), and I dialed it in. This time, the controller was able to see my transponder pongs, so I’m still a bit baffled what the problem was with Seattle.

I descended over Vancouver, heading southeast toward the river. As I proceeded, I descended. The air was still mostly calm with a gentle tailwind, but prior to the flight I had looked up the forecast winds at my destination, which were expected to be strong. As I continued my descent, I checked the automated weather reporting from Portland Troutdale (my destination), and it was reporting 25 knot winds. Portland Approach handed me off to Portland Troutdale tower, and the tower cleared me to enter a left base for runway 07.

It was about this time when things got quite bumpy. All of a sudden, a side-wind slammed into me and started knocking me all over. I kept descending, but I decided to shallow the descent so I could come in very high. I wanted extra altitude in case the winds forced me to abort. And I knew that if I wanted, I could power completely off and drop like a rock thanks to the way my airplane is designed.

As I crossed over the Columbia River, I was crabbed into the wind nearly 40 degrees. It was crazy. As I turned to final, I asked for updated winds from the tower, and he said 27 gusting 32. Fortunately, they were coming nearly straight down the runway. Consequently, the landing was so slow that I didn’t even notice the point when my tires touched the pavement. Even in the gentlest of landings, there’s usually a little skidding sound when the tires first touch. This time, total silence, except for the wind howling.

Later that afternoon, when I was departing, the winds had grown to 34 knots, gusting 38. They were still straight down the runway, but that was of little use to me when I was taxiing out. Taxiing directly away from the wind wasn’t so bad, but turning broadsides to it was a challenge.

On takeoff, I used maybe 200 feet of runway. It was crazy. Normally, I use about 800 feet of runway. I rotate (or lift off) at about 55, so a lot of my required airspeed I got for free from the wind. And once I got airborne, I shot up like a rocket.

I headed out east for a while, heading over the river. The wind was so strong that I could clearly see heavy waves with whitecaps and spray lines even near the sides of the river. I got bounced around like a pinball, but once I had turned north and put about 5 or 6 miles of distance between me and the river, the wind dropped down to almost nothing once again.

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