Hazy trip to West Virginia

My original plans for Saturday included a Pilots n Paws trip to Delaware. However, this didn’t end up happening because there were no pilots to fly the earlier legs. I still had the day free and I was eager to stretch my wings and go for a longer trip in the Cardinal. West Virginia is one state I haven’t been to yet and represents a nice big area on the map. Plus, I’d previously learned about the Chesapeake and Ohio Towpath Trail which is accessible from the Greater Cumberland Regional Airport (which is conveniently actually in Wiley Ford, WV!).

I was watching the weather carefully because while it looked good for flying in some direction I wasn’t certain I would be able to make the journey to Cumberland. Upon waking up on Saturday the TAFs looked good for airports along the route and while it was forecast to be hazy the conditions were forecast to be VFR with the exception of potential sub-VFR haze in Harrisburg, PA which I would be traveling west of. I decided I would try and make the journey knowing with full fuel I had the flexibility to return to clearer skies in New England if cloud layers increased and got me stuck on top. I brought my camera, and the full set of pictures can be found on my photo site.

I’m still at Fitchburg due to construction at Nashua. I had line service top off the tanks there then completed my preflight and departed runway 32 in calm winds and with the visibility around 10 miles. 10 miles is the limit of most automated weather measurements, but in this case the reported 10 miles visibility represented an actual visibility of 10 miles. The air was definitely hazy. While there were few clouds above Fitchburg the haze made a view straight up into the sky look white like there was an overcast. I climbed to 6,500 and headed direct to Cumberland, calling Boston Center to request flight following.

The atmosphere was actually a lot clearer at 6,500 with the bulk of the haze beneath me. Forward visibility was good and well above VFR minimums but at cruise altitude it can be tough to see the horizon on days with even 10 miles visibility in haze. There were a few small clouds at and below my cruising altitude but for the most part the air was clear. The clouds were scattered enough that my route almost never required lateral dodging of them to remain VFR.

View south along the Hudson River, the Hudson Highlands.

Soon I was crossing the Hudson River. Boston Center called out traffic ahead for me (which I saw) then gave another traffic call out “A 757, in your 6, you won’t see them but passing overhead, restricted above you”. This was a good opportunity to grab the camera! You can’t spot traffic behind you easily in a plane but the advisory was nice since I would have been surprised otherwise. Soon the 757 passed overhead, looking quite big! They were descending and had been restricted to descend to 7000, lower after passing me. I suspect they were going into Newark airport. I wonder if passengers on board could spot me below?

United 757 passing overhead.

The direct routing doesn’t spend much time over New York and after about an hour enroute I was passing into Pennsylvania with New Jersey’s Highest Point (High Point, NJ) visible off to the left and the Delaware River ahead. Soon the famous Delaware Water Gap was off to the left, barely there through the haze.

High Point Monument, High Point, NJ

The terrain around Eastern PA is fascinating. This is the northern end of the Ridges and Valleys Appalachians. It looks like corduroy from above. The big rivers like the Delaware and Susquehanna flow right through ridge after ridge in “water gaps” which are geological evidence that the rivers are older than the mountains were uplifted.

The Delaware River, looking south from around the PA/NY state line.

At one point I spotted a pair of ridges with a deep gorge and a river and high running up the valley. A set of power lines dramatically crosses the gorge far above the base. The power line cut seems to disappear then reappear when viewed from above. If you look at the big version of the picture you can even see the power lines.

Powerlines crossing between two ridges with river and highway beneath.

Of course, it wouldn’t be Pennsylvania without mineral mining and of course there is a lot of evidence of this seen from the air. Evidence of changes in energy extraction methods are apparent near Shenandoah, PA where right next to the open mining you can see a line of wind turbines lining the ridgeline. Personally I find that wind power is much more visually attractive than open pit mining!

Wind Power and mining in PA.

The air began to get hazier as I approach Harrisburg, PA, as forecast. Lines of corduroy ridges disappeared into the haze to my left. To the right the air was clearer with puffy clouds. After passing Harrisburg the cumulus clouds started to get heavier pushing up into my altitude and I had to make several minor diversions left or right to dodge them.

Ridges and Valleys disappearing into the haze.

With about 60 miles of flying left to reach Cumberland I decided that it was time to duck below the clouds and began a descent timed to get below the bases before the next heavy batch of cumulus clouds. Unfortunately this soon put me below the altitude where I could reliably receive Harrisburg Approach or be seen on radar while I had plenty of altitude above the hills I had to drop flight following. I was only about 15 minutes from Cumberland at this point although sadly it was a lot bumpier at this altitude below the cloud deck. Of course, hindsight is 20/20 and soon after passing below the batch of clouds the sky opened up again with blue sky above. I could have gone around or over that set of clouds too.

Looking south towards Harrisburg… lots of haze.

I had my hands full with the bumpy ride but soon spotted Cumberland and the airport. Winds were reported pretty close down runway 05. Due to terrain around the airport Runway 5 is right traffic which means opposite direction from the standard airport traffic pattern which is left turns. Runway 5 was almost exactly the opposite direction I was coming from so I set up for a long downwind to the left of the runway. No one else was in the pattern. Two right turns brought me to a close in short final, full flaps to descend after clearing all terrain, and I made a reasonable landing. I was a bit left of center line which I chalk up to being less familiar with right traffic operations although the wind was gusting around a bit as well.

On the ground at Cumberland airport. There is a fancy terminal building but no airline service right now. Hills rise all around.

As I taxied off the runway line service called to ask if I needed any services. I asked for parking for a short while and a top off. I parked right out in front of the terminal building. There is a fancy building here including baggage claim, security, and ticket counters but it is all closed. According to Wikipedia this airport has not had commercial service from a major airline since 2001 and all airline service ended in 2003. Cumberland is one of the poorest metropolitan areas in the US and it is not surprising that the past ten years have not seen a revitalization of air service. I was happy to put some money into the local economy especially with a very reasonable fuel price. The top off took 25.7 gallons which was what it took to get here from Fitchburg.

Topped off at Cumberland Regional airport by a friendly line guy.

I had brought my folding bike to check out the C&O Towpath and after confirming the location of the airport restaurant (in a separate building across the parking lot) I took off on the bike down a hill towards the Potomac. After crossing the river on a highway bridge you are actually in Cumberland, Maryland. The entrance to the Towpath National Historic Park is just to the right after crossing the bridge.

The towpath itself is unpaved with just gravel but well graded and relatively flat. At various points along the length I biked down there are obvious signs of the original canal even where it has been filled in or turned into forested sections. The Potomac itself can be seen through the trees to the right at times. I didn’t go too far since I was hungry for a late lunch and knew that I had to bike back up the big hill to get to the airport! Next time I will explore further.

The Chesapeake and Ohio canal (now filled in here) and towpath is down the hill and across the Potomac (in Cumberland, MD).

I had a quick sit down Philly Cheese Steak at Louie Louie’s airport diner. More money into the local economy (and I left a big tip). I did a quick weather briefing at the computer in the terminal’s pilot’s lounge since my iPad didn’t get any Verizon data service at all. No rain, no thunderstorms, and VFR all the way. After preflight I was ready to depart. I climbed straight out direct on course planning 7,500. I checked in with Johnstown Approach after clearing all of the terrain around the airport and got flight following to Fitchburg.

Heading back. Some bigger cumulus buildups to the west (might turn into very isolated tstorms).

The clouds had definitely built up higher but still scattered and my altitude of 7,500 kept me above all of it. Off to the west you could see some big clusters of buildups reaching well above my altitude and well off to the east over southern NJ there looked like there might be an area of convective rain clouds although I didn’t see any lightning.

Angrier clouds to the east over NJ.

While it was clear, cool, and excellent visibility at my altitude the haze below was definitely bad. The picture below shows how you can’t really see the horizon with the haze like this. This is legal VFR and doesn’t require an instrument rating but in some sense is instrument conditions because reference to the instruments is needed in order to remain oriented. At no point did it feel unsafe and when there was other traffic I saw it with many miles of margin indicating that flight visibility was more than adequate for visual flight. The air was perfectly smooth with not even a ripple of turbulence. Headwinds were around 9-10 knots.

The haze was very extreme over PA here. Hills poke up out of the haze layer well beneath me (I am at 7,5000 feet). It is clear, smooth, cool, and visibility is good and legal VFR at my altitude.

Eventually I encountered a knot of clouds southeast of Wilkes-Barre, PA that would require substantial diversion to the left and decided to climb to 9,500 instead. This would let me clear the clouds with plenty of margin and reduce the chances of another diversion. It turned out that the clouds soon dissipated almost entirely but there was no major issue with 9,500 as a cruising altitude. The temperate was quite cool up there – close to 40 degrees – and I turned on the heat and dialed the vents back a bit.

As I entered the NY area I was talking to Boston Center (due to my higher altitude). Several regional airlines were being instructed to hold at various altitudes underneath and above me due to congestion coming into Newark. I caught one of them proceeding on course just after exiting the hold beneath me – a Colgan Air (United Express) Dash-8 turboprop.

Dash-8 (Colgan Airlines) traffic beneath me. They have just exited holding due to congestion at Newark.

Soon I was crossing the Hudson River into quieter airspace and began planning the descent. Descending out of 9,500 feet does require a good bit of planning. I have learned two rules of thumb depending on how fast you want to descend. In VFR you can descend at 250 feet per minute and plan 10 miles for every thousand feet you need to lose. In the IFR environment 500 foot per minute descents are the norm so plan 5 miles per thousand feet. Adjusted for the slight headwind I headed down starting over the northwest corner of Connecticut. For power in the descent I will generally let the airspeed pick up and reduce power as needed to keep airspeed in the green arc.

Looking back towards NY with sunlight glinting off of the Hudson River.

I snapped a final picture looking back towards the through the clouds and glinting off of the Hudson river then stowed the camera and got the weather at Fitchburg. With the winds now favoring runway 14 I planned to overfly the field about 500 feet above pattern altitude (1500 feet above ground) then circle around to enter left traffic for runway 14 behind traffic that was already in the pattern. This time the landing was very nice and right on the center line. I taxied back to my home away from home tie down in Fitchburg and put the plane to bed.

The logged flight time (engine start to stop) was 2.9 hours for the way down and 3.1 for the way back making for 6.0 hours round trip flying. This also marks 153.9 hours of total flying time so I passed 150 hours on my way down. The trip ended up being a great addition to my experience with the weather, ATC communications, and long cross country. Next up, getting back to more instrument training!

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