The Wind Giveth and The Wind Taketh Away

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. Well, that isn’t an entirely accurate statement. I’m talking about a tale of two Thanksgiving trips, and both were in our Mooney, so it wasn’t “the worst of times.” How could it be “the worst of times” when…

Written by
Richard Brown
Published on
5 Feb 2023

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. Well, that isn’t an entirely accurate statement. I’m talking about a tale of two Thanksgiving trips, and both were in our Mooney, so it wasn’t “the worst of times.” How could it be “the worst of times” when I was cruising along in my Mooney and not stuck with all the poor unfortunate souls stuck on the freeways below? But, one trip was much faster than the other one. In 2018 I had the most epic trip with tailwinds coming and going. Fast forward four years to 2022 and there were headwinds both ways.

2018 Thanksgiving Trip

When planning a long cross country, I start watching the ten-day forecast to look for trends. In 2018, the forecast for the Salt Lake area kept changing from a little rain and snow on Thanksgiving Day into Saturday to quite a bit of rain and snow. It was looking more and more like we were going to have to drive instead of fly… which would mean returning Saturday to avoid the traffic on Sunday. Tuesday when I looked again it was showing clear skies Wednesday and Sunday. If I went to work in the morning and then we departed early afternoon we could get in just after dark and then fly back Sunday above all the cars stuck on the freeway.

Myself, my wife, and my two boys plus bags meant everyone and everything got on the scale at the hangar to calculate weight and balance. After the numbers were crunched the fuel limit would be 34 gallons to stay under gross weight, which would still allow my personal minimum of “on the ground with 10 gallons” for both legs of the flight. Oh, and my boys would have my backpack between them in the back seat to stay within the center of gravity envelope.

Fueled up and loaded up, we taxied down to the run-up area. The first leg of the flight would be to St George for a fuel stop. It was the day before Thanksgiving, and it was busy up in the sky. In the past, I have always been cleared on course through the Vegas Bravo airspace with instructions to notify ATC prior to any altitude changes, but that was not going to happen today. LA Center gave me the hand off to Vegas Approach.

Me: “Vegas Approach, Mooney 78878, Niner-thousand five hundred.”
Vegas: “November 78878, Vegas Altimeter xx.xx, what is your destination?”
Me: “xx.xx, going to St George, Sierra Golf Uniform.”
Vegas: “Are you going direct Boulder City?” (The Boulder City VOR is to the southeast of Vegas)
Me: “No, I was going direct Mormon Mesa and then St George.” (Mormon Mesa VOR is southwest of Mesquite and the direct route to it takes you over Vegas just east of McCarran International)
Vegas: “I can’t clear you direct Mormon Mesa, but if you want to go Boulder City I can.”
Me: “I can do Boulder City.”
Vegas: “November 78878, cleared through the Bravo, direct Boulder City, direct Mormon Mesa, notify prior to any altitude chagnes.”
Me: “Cleared through the Bravo, direct Boulder City, direct Mormon Mesa, and will notify before any altitude changes.”

With that, I tapped Boulder City VOR on my tablet to insert it into the flight plan and turned to the new heading. As we flew past Lake Meade I looked down and saw that we were still enjoying the tailwind we had had all flight and were moving along at 185 mph across the ground.

Descending into St George there were multiple aircraft inbound. There is something beautiful about multiple aircraft, from regional airliners to piston singles, and a twin converging on an un-towered field when everyone is making correct position calls and working together. From the point when we were switched over from ATC to the frequency for St George, there were two regional jets, a Cessna, a turbo commander, a Cirrus SR-22, and me all inbound.

The turbo commander passed above us and to our right while we were still about 10 miles out. The Cessna was landing when the turbo commander entered the downwind just as the first of the two regional jets was on a base leg a little way out. The turbo commander said he was going to land and that he would “keep it in tight to get out of the way.” He turned a short final, was on the ground, and off the runway as the jet was on long final.

I made another position call 2 miles west of the field and that we would be crossing over mid-field for a left downwind to runway 19 and that we would come in behind the Cirrus. (The second regional jet was on its base leg). The Cirrus said that he was going to hold east of the airport and come in behind us. I thanked him and announced we were crossing midfield and turning downwind. I had to extend our downwind slightly, but once the jet had passed we turned base and then final with the Cirrus behind us. Everything isn’t always that smooth at un-towered fields, but I don’t think that would have gone any better if there was a tower directing everyone.

After fueling and restroom break, we climbed back in and were on our way. I picked up flight following shortly after getting in the air. We were climbing out north through the canyon and there was a Beechcraft descending south, inbound to St George. ATC initially called us out to each other and then asked what my cruising altitude would be. I told her niner thousand five hundred and she then told the Beechcraft “Traffic no factor, he is a Mooney and climbing quickly.” 🙂

We continued to have a great tailwind with ground speeds in the 170-180 mph range. As it got dark, we could see the lights of Provo off in the distance and a solid stream of headlights on the freeway. Descending over Utah Lake with a groundspeed of 197 mph it was great to be flying instead of driving.

It rarely happens, but four days later the winds had shifted in our favor, and we had tailwinds on the way home. I probably should have purchased a lottery ticket. How often do you have tailwinds on both the outbound and inbound flights? The Sunday after Thanksgiving, looking down on the miles and miles of bumper-to-bumper traffic south of Las Vegas as everyone tried to get home, we were enjoying ground speeds of 180+ mph. It was a beautiful thing.

2022 Thanksgiving Trip

Fast forward four years, all the kids are gone out of the house, and we are going to St George for Thanksgiving. My youngest son is at college there, my other son is coming down from Idaho, and my wife’s dad and his wife live there so it will be great to see them all.

The weather forecast was clear, but the winds were going to be brutal. Two months earlier I had scrubbed a trip to St George when the winds at 10,000’ were blowing perpendicular to our path at 45+mph across the 11,503’ top of San Gorgonio. That wasn’t a ride I had any interest in participating in. This time the winds were forecast just as strong but would be coming from the north across the high desert but no tall peaks. I had already received my preflight briefing when a friend sent me pics of the winds at 10,000 and 3,000 along with “You might want to stay lower.”

Winds at 10,000′
Winds at 3,000′

My plan was to go to 9,500’ until I got past the mountains north of San Bernardino to have extra altitude in the event of some mountain wave. A few years ago an M20E crashed over those same mountains, they were a little heavy and got in a downdraft that they couldn’t climb out of. Fortunately they were able to put it down in a parking lot with only minor injuries. Once over the high desert I would descend to 7,500’ where hopefully the winds would be a little more friendly. Spoiler alert, they weren’t. I couldn’t go any lower than that because there are still mountains the rest of the flight.

We left KFUL and started climbing out to the northeast. We could see clouds of dust kicked up by the winds and as we were passing over Chino (KCNO) I saw my tablet update that despite the clear skies the airport went IFR due to that dust.

We enjoyed some nice lift for a few minutes while in the updraft side of the mountain wave and leveled off at 9,500’, and then we were in the downdraft side. It was surprisingly smooth, but we struggled to maintain altitude with our IAS dropping to 106 mph. My wife looked at the tablet in front of her and pointing to the distance to the next waypoint asked, “Is that our ground speed?”

“No, that is,” I replied pointing to the 70mph. “I’m glad we’re in a Mooney and not a Cessna.” We were on a heading of 020° with 63mph winds coming from 350° equating to a 54mph headwind component.

The winds didn’t get much better after that, but at least we didn’t have much in the way of up and downdrafts anymore. Our average ground speed for the entire flight was 132mph. My plane trues out at 166mph (144 knots) and as long as I am over 150mph groundspeed (allowing for 16mph headwinds) I’m feeling pretty good. Seeing groundspeeds between 110-130mph makes me feel like I will never get there.

I had told my wife it might be a “two Dramamine flight,” but despite the high winds it was a surprisingly with a few bumps in the typical places. Finally we were on descent into St George and joined a fairly quiet pattern, there was just one more hurdle to jump. We were supposed to have a rental car waiting for us, but when I checked in at the FBO they had nothing for me. It was 11:45am, the counter at the terminal was about a mile away, they were closing at noon, and they weren’t answering the phone. The guy at the FBO offered to give me a ride to the terminal. He dropped me off and waited outside while I made sure they hadn’t closed early. Thankfully there was still someone at the counter, I walked back to the door, waved a thank you to the FBO guy and went back in to get my car.

Thanksgiving weekend was great. We got to have dinner with my wife’s dad, his wife, and my two boys, one who is at school there and one who drove down from Idaho Falls. We went to church Sunday morning and then it was time to head home. It was only three days later, but any hopes that some of those 40-60mph headwinds would be blowing in our favor were dashed to pieces. Four years earlier the Gods had smiled down on us giving use tailwinds both ways, but as mentioned earlier this year they were making up for it.

We were able to average 151mph over the ground on the way back so it fell into the “respectable range” for my plane, but it would have been nice to have just a touch of those northern winds hang around for our trip home.

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