Arriving at the Cirrus Center, Smithfield airport, Indiana
After Naples, our next stop was Fort Wayne, Indiana. We were headed to Sweet Aviation, a Cirrus center, to have the plane checked. Alex knew this center from when he was flying another Cirrus -N 224 RW- in Chicago and trusted them to do a thorough job. This was all the more important now that our oil consumption had become considerably higher than usual since Puerto Plata, indicating some kind of malfunction.
The total distance to cover was about 1000 nautical miles, i.e. more than our fuel range and probably more than the oil range at this point, so we knew we had to stop somewhere. In addition, there were large thunderstorms coming from the West -so large that a hurricane specialist on the TV in the hotel lobby was explaining how to build shelters!-, so we could not go from Naples to Fort Wayne in a straight line, we would need to stay closer to the Atlantic coast via cities such as Orlando, Jacksonville, Charleston, Augusta ... before heading North. We considered waiting till the storms would pass but the next few days were worse and avoiding them by adapting our route was still possible on this Wednesday March 17th. Looking at the weather and airport map, Alex drew the best possible route (given that there was also low visibility along the coast) and picked out an airport to stop at, based on a combination of meteorological conditions and fuel prices. Because the Foreflight software does not only show all airports and weather, it also features fuel availability and prices across the country. Did I mention the US was aviation paradise?
Our stop would be KUDG (Darlington, South Carolina), and we would take a lunch break there also. The closer we got, the cloudier it became, just as the weather report had predicted. We wanted to check the ATIS (Automatic Terminal Information System) before deciding to land or not but we couldn’t hear it. ATIS are recordings that are changed every hour and give wind, visibility, cloud and other information pilots need to prepare their departures or arrivals at a given airport. Just like control centers or towers, they have on their own radio-frequencies. Every hour, the ATIS gets a different name (from Alfa to Zulu) and you are supposed to inform the tower which ATIS you have received. The closest airport to Darlington was Florence (also South Carolina) so we listened to their ATIS instead and heard that the cloud base was around 800 feet. Low but possible. Usually, Alex puts the minimum at 300 feet above ground level (AGL) for an instrument approach, which means that during the approach, if he does not see the runway at 300 feet AGL, he does not land and instead starts a missed approach procedure to land somewhere else or wait for better conditions. When we finally could hear Darlington ATIS, we found out that the ceiling was at 500 feet AGL, which was becoming even tighter. During the final approach, Alex was looking in front and I was looking on the side to see if I saw land through the fog, while continuously peeking at the altimeter to see how close we were to the minimum. Suddenly, at 500 feet, I started seeing fields on the right and the runway appeared seconds after. We were good to land!
In case you have never been there, Darlington airport is truly in the middle of nowhere and has a runway, a small FBO building, one hangar and a single self-service fuel pump. It was clear from the start there would be no lunch opportunity there! We parked next to the pump and the airport manager stepped out of his office explaining that there was a problem. Our hearts sunk but it in fact it was not too bad: the problem was that the clip of the grounding cable was missing. Grounding an airplane with a metal clip and cable while refueling is a very important part of the procedure, else static sparks could create a fire since Avgas is very flammable.
Alex immediately took a metal clip from his kneeboard and used it instead of the missing one. It worked well and seconds after he was pulling the fuel hose towards the wings.
And then put it back
We also added oil and then basically got out of there as soon as possible in case the cloud base would drop even lower. Once we were airborne, I dug a saucisson sec out of our lunchbox (left over from Martinique) and we happily continued our way to Fort Wayne, over the Black mountains, North Carolina, the highest mountains in the East United States, which we could see a little more clearly than the Darlington runway because the bad weather was behind us.
Then came the Ohio river...
... and a little later, we landed at Smithfield where we realized, and couldn't really believe, that we had completed the first big part of our journey: 42 hours divided in 9 trips over 14 days. Now it was the expert mechanics’ turn to take care of LV-GQF and our turn to spend some time with our feet closer to the ground, albeit in cooler temperatures, and celebrate...
on the hotel terrace in downtown Fort Wayne with view on Parkview Field baseball stadium