Back to Cape Cod: The Old Colony Rail Trail

Since I didn’t have work on Friday I decided to take advantage of the free time and head down to Cape Cod. A friend from the gathering last week in Dennisport had explored various parts of the Cape Cod Rail Trail network and told me that one part of the trail went right past the Chatham airport. I have a Dynamic Sidekick 8 folding bicycle which fits neatly on the rear set of the Cardinal so this was perfect.

My transport sits on the backseat: The Dynamic Sidekick 8.

The weather was predicted to be clear with scattered afternoon thunderstorms. This didn’t concern me too much. With plenty of fuel and no time pressure I had plenty of ability to deviate around any weather or to divert to another airport and wait it out. One nice thing about thunderstorm weather in this kind of air mass is that they are isolated or scattered and very easy to see and avoid when you are flying under visual flight rules. Even if a thunderstorm cell is directly over your destination airport a wait of just 30 minutes to an hour maximum will generally bring it back to good flying weather.

The direct route to Chatham or anywhere on Cape Cod from Nashua goes straight over the city of Boston. Fortunately Boston Approach is very accommodating and I was cleared into their airspace at 5,500 feet. The air was very smooth at this altitude and I had no trouble maintaining the altitude with a needle width. Much like the trip to Hyannis I did receive some vectors (turn 10 degrees right) around arrival and departure corridors but once I was perhaps 10 or 15 miles south of Boston Logan airport I was cleared on course. The direct route would have taken me a fair distance over the bay so I followed the shoreline for a curved course heading towards Chatham.

My clearance was to maintain 5500 in the Boston Class B airspace. Exactly on it in smooth air. Top CDI indicates we are right of course due to ATC vectors around Logan airport arrival and departure corridors.

Eventually I could receive the automated weather report from Chatham and was dismayed to hear it reported a 300 foot overcast ceiling! This was not forecast. In fact, the entire rest of the Cape was in complete clear with not a cloud visible. Visibility was perhaps 50 or more miles. I was still talking to Cape Approach and so I told them I would take a tour down to Provincetown and back at 2500 and see if it improved.

Boston city center and Logan airport.

The weather was nice and clear over most of the Cape and perfect for sightseeing. I followed the shoreline around the Cape and checked out a few spots. There were some interesting round pounds which I assume are glacial in origin.

Some round ponds on the eastern side of the "vertical" part of the Cape.

By this time Chatham was reporting “Ceiling 500 broken variable between 500 and 700.” I decided to at least check it out and heading back towards Chatham. In fact, the bank of clouds that was causing these readings was rolling in off the ocean on the breeze. As soon as it got above land the rising warm air would completely vaporize the clouds and it was completely clear. In fact the reason why the automated weather was reported a variable broken ceiling is because the clouds (the layer itself only a few hundred feet thick) were dissipating right over the top of the airport. The approach end of runway 24 was completely in the clear. Since Chatham airport’s airspace is only controlled down to 700 feet above ground I was able to utilize “Class G” airspace VFR requirements which are 1 mile visibility (reported visibility was 10 miles) and clear of clouds. The terrain around Chatham is very flat and unobstructed which made this a good opportunity to get in VFR. With a slightly irregular pattern and a number of radio calls I maneuvered around the areas of cloud and made a very nice landing on runway 24. In honor of one of my previous CFIs who has gone off to Alaska to give people float plane instruction I dub this an “Alaska VFR Approach”!

Parked at Chatham. Weather a bit ugly but meets "Class G" airspace VFR minimums. One side of the airport is almost in fog, the other side was clear above visibility unlimited!

There is no charge to park at Chatham for the day. Sign the guest book and exit the gate right onto the bike trail. I decided to head towards Dennisport so the first step was to cross the street then you are on the old rail bed portion. As train tracks often are the trail is very straight and any grades are very mild. The folding bike was perfect for this.

The Cape Cod Rail Trail (Old Colony line). Rail trails are so straight!

The trail goes past houses and some land managed for drinking water aquifer recharge. Eventually I started to get hungry as I reached Harwich and as if by magic I came to a road where there was the word “Cafe” written in chalk on the pavement with an arrow! Clearly I was in for an adventure and began to follow these cafe arrows eventually landing at The Dancing Spoon Cooking Company. This location is off to the side of the center of town but worth searching out. The food was excellent and fast and I could put my bike in a bike rack right out front and sit outside eating it. I highly recommend it.

The unfolded Dynamic Sidekick.

After eating lunch I headed back to Chatham. As I got close I started to get worried – the clouds were obviously worse, not better, and in fact there were some areas of obvious fog! Arriving at the airport I found that the cloudy side (runway 6 approach end) had gotten cloudier with a 300 foot overcast and visibility 5 miles in mist. Of course, the runway 24 approach end was still completely in the clear. Winds were around 8 knots and favoring runway 24.

I waited for a bit to see if the weather would improve. No signs of this happening. I went out to the plane, grabbed my the POH (Pilot’s Operating Handbook) and flipped to the performance tables section. Normally one would not try to take off with a tailwind, but with considerable “fudge factor” added to the calculations I determined that despite the only 3000 feet of runway at Chatham I could take off with a tailwind and be able to clear a 50 foot obstacle several hundred feet before the end of the runway. Fortunately I did not take on fuel in Chatham and ate a light lunch!

I was happy with the performance figures and after a careful run up and pre-takeoff check I turned onto runway 6, looked straight ahead at the beautiful blue sky, and stood on the brakes bringing the power up to full for proper short field procedure. Releasing the brakes brought the speed up fast and the takeoff definitely felt fast over the ground! Sure enough, I hit flying speed with plenty of margin before reaching my planned abort point halfway down the runway as promised by the performance calculations. I climbed at best angle climb speed until I was absolutely sure I was clear of any obstacles and turned to climb away from any of the cloud bank before calling Cape Approach and asking for advisories back past Boston.

Hyannis - my destination last weekend - in the clear. Nantucket behind is solidly IFR in low stratus fog!

I didn’t get a good picture of the stratus cloud deck just south of Chatham but you can see Nantucket in that picture. Well actually you can’t – it was similarly covered in low stratus clouds. The entire width of the Cape was clear near Hyannis and the Cape Cod Canal. Again I followed the shoreline back and began to look off to the right for the thunderstorm reported by Cape Approach as being near Boston.

Passing to the east of scuddy clouds south of Boston.

Soon the thunderstorm was quite visible off to my right. I received a Bravo clearance at 6500 feet and a heading that would take me towards the west. Boston Approach is very helpful and will work with you to help you pick your way around weather (especially if they know you do not have on board weather RADAR like the big jets do). They were very busy with IFR traffic deviating left and right around the cells and yet still helped me by relaying a pilot report from someone who got into Nashua by going around the storm to the west around Fitchburg. I headed for this area and visually navigated around the areas of heavy rain and clouds. This is a case where the flexibility of VFR flight is very good – you can go around these big thunderstorms IF you can see them. You can’t if you’re flying around in a cloud.

Shooting the gap - diverting west out to a line between Framingham and Fitchburg to get far from the thunderstorm over Boston. After this point it got too turbulent and the autopilot couldn't fly anymore so I put the camera down for good :)

I got my wings a bit wet at the edge of some of the showers (no problem) and the turbulence was “continuous light chop” at times. Nothing too bad, but continuously bumpy the whole way around the outside of the cell. Sometimes you could see lighting arc up the side of the cloud about 20 miles off the right side! Not dangerous, but the pucker factor was there.

Soon after passing over the top of Fitchburg airport Nashua was visible in the clear blue skies behind the back edge of the storm. I gave the rain shafts a nice healthy margin and headed for Nashua. There was a crosswind but it was steady. Just the experience I needed and the result was a very nice smooth crosswind landing on one wheel right on the center line! A great ending to an excellent experience broadening day.

(Bigger versions and some more photos can be found on my photo site. Unfortunately I bumped my camera and didn’t notice I’d set the ISO to 400 so they are grainier than normal.)

2 thoughts on “Back to Cape Cod: The Old Colony Rail Trail

  1. Adam Z

    Dan, the cape is one of my favorite places to fly. As for the Wx they say of the cape if you don’t like the weather….wait a minute. You should also fly to KPVC I beilve the bike trail is pretty close to P-town’s airport as well as of course is P-Town.

    You know your gonna have to get your IR soon.

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