June 21, 2019
What a difference a day can make.
The forecast showed that there would be about a one hour window just after sunrise that Key Field would be VFR before becoming IFR for a couple of hours. I did not want to get up that early, so didn’t set an alarm and still woke up earlier than I intended.
The plan for the day? Fly to Cleburne Regional Airport just south of Dallas for fuel before continuing on to Carlsbad, New Mexico where we would stay the night. We would have had enough daylight to easily make it to Phoenix on about 8 1/2-9 hours of flying, but I wanted to check off New Mexico on my ‘states landed in map‘ and by about 7 hours of flying (no auto-pilot) I’m ready to take a break. There is just no good reason to push it and fly when tired. We would eventually regret going to Carlsbad instead of Roswell.
We went to the IHOP nextdoor to the hotel for breakfast and the boys noted that the IHOP logo looks like a smiley face (not sure why none of us noticed that before).
After breakfast it was back to the airport to turn in the crew car and pay the fuel bill. The clouds by this point had broken up enough that we would be able to depart, and after preflight and run-up we were departing on 22 and climbing up through the morning haze and a few very scattered small puffs of cloud to 8,500′ on course direct to Cleburne.
Twenty-four hours earlier we were sweating, bouncing around at 2,500′ with ground speeds from around 115-125 mph. Today the ground speeds were generally around 150 mph and the air was smooth and cool. The next 3 1/2 hours and 500+ miles were a straight line above what went from a few clouds to a broken layer over most of Louisiana, back to a few, and then clear skies south of Dallas.
A week ago we were crossing the Mississippi East-bound, flying a downwind and base right above the river on approach into General DeWitt Spain Airport. Today we were at 8,500′ looking down through breaks in the clouds as we crossed the Mississippi West-bound above Vicksburg, MS.
The further west we got the more scattered the clouds became. About 50 miles to the South-East of Dallas ATC was calling out a steady stream of traffic to us, all big commercial planes. We were flying through one of the approach corridors for planes heading into Dallas Fort Worth airport and ATC finally just asked us to descend to 6,500′ which we were happy to do as I was getting ready to start our descent into Cleburne soon anyway. If we had not been on flight following with ATC they would have given the airliners altitude restrictions to maintain separation, but as we were already talking to them it is easier to just ask us to change our altitude.
With the haze it wasn’t until we were about 7 miles out that I saw the airport. We flew over mid-field before entering a right downwind for runway 15. It was windy (I hear it always is in Texas) but the landing was uneventful and we pulled right up to the pumps and shut down. The boys headed inside the FBO while I fueled up the plane and then I went in for a restroom break and to get my weather briefing for the next leg to Carlsbad.
After a short rest we were back in the plane and taxied down for a run-up and departure on 15 followed by a turn to the West. I hadn’t decided yet if we were going to cruise at 8,500′ or 10,500′, but when we got to 8,500′ and it was still a little warm outside we continued the climb to 10,500′ before leveling off. The visibility was incredible, we could see the tops of a massive thunderstorm that according to the Nexrad image on the tablet was 230 miles to the south of us.
It was cool and smooth for the next hour and a half, but then up ahead I could see some clouds building. The bases were about 10,000′, there was some vertical development, but they were small, and from our vantage point it didn’t look like they went on very far. I thought it looked like there might be room between them, but decided to descend to 8,500′ and go underneath them.
The temperature difference from 10,500′ down to 8,500′ was uncomfortably warmer, and the air was decidedly rougher. Those couple thousand feet put us down into the summer afternoon thermals and I was constantly adjusting to try and maintain altitude. At one point I had the nose pitched down, power pulled back to avoid too much speed, and the vertical speed indicator was still showing a 1,500 foot per minute gain in altitude. It didn’t last long before we were through that thermal, but while we were in it we caught a huge bug on the windscreen that hit with a splat right in front of me and proceeded to have it’s insides slide up the plexiglass… All I thought was “That poor guy was stuck in the same thermal I was in.” Really, hitting a huge bug at 8,500′ (about 5,000′ above the barren West Texas landscape).
I turned out that descending under the clouds was the right decision as it wasn’t just a short line of clouds but continued on for about 20 miles and got quite thick in places without much room between them.
There isn’t much to see in West Texas besides mile after mile of oil fields, and southern New Mexico isn’t any more exciting. The northern part that we flew over eastbound was pretty, but the southern part? Not so much… We began our descent into Carlsbad and it just got warmer and bumpier. Eventually we were on a final for 21 and touched down then taxied to the FBO. By the time we were coming to a stop in front of the lineman I had sweat running into and burning my eyes.
The FBO there was very nice and the line guy was very friendly, but Carlsbad was not the right choice. The White Sands Missile Range covers a big section of Western New Mexico and goes from the surface to unlimited so I wanted to plan for easy routing north or south of it tomorrow on the leg to Phoenix. I had considered Roswell (that would have been cool to land and spend the night there, assuming the aliens didn’t show up) but decided on Carlsbad as I would be taking on a lot of fuel and it was cheaper there. Sadly I think everything else in Carlsbad was more expensive and overall Roswell might have been cheaper (and just nicer). The Carlsbad FBO has placed big limits on the crew cars there. You can’t take them overnight (like at the other places we stopped) and if you are planning to go to the caverns you should know they won’t let you use them for that either. I think it is so they can force you to pay $70 for a one day rental of a mid-size car. Yes, you read that right, we spent $70 for a Chevy Malibu because there was no other way to get to a hotel. No Uber, Lyft, or taxis. The hotels were insanely expensive too. We spent more for one night at a mostly clean (although you could smell the marijuana from neighboring rooms) hotel room. The guy at the FBO blamed the prices on the oil boom that had swallowed up Carlsbad and after driving around town I believed him. Probably 8-10 vehicles we passed on the road were all work trucks (covered in dust and dirt) with equipment in the beds for working the oil fields.
We found a Subway in town (not much else to choose from) and after each of us downed a foot-long sandwich we went back to the hotel which thankfully had a good air conditioner as the temp outside was well above the triple digit mark. Live and learn, New Mexico has been checked off the list, and I may not ever land in that state again.