Ultralight Trip 10-5-2002
Circumnavigating Houston
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Follow the story in this left-side frame, and click on the links to see the pictures on the right.

Brother Jim was finally getting into the spirit of 'Texas-Flyer' and suggested we circumnavigate Houston. Hmmm, now why didn't I think of that? ;-)

I left it to him to plan, as I was busy being a "Cheerleader Parent" (my oldest son is a cheerleader for Stratford H.S.) on the night prior to the trip. We knew it would be best to make an early start, so we agreed to meet at the hangar at about 7 a.m.

But, as things usually go, it was a foggy morning and we should have slept in a bit later. When I arrived at Bailes, I couldn't help but spot this beautiful spider web on the fence. Jim arrived in short order and we prepared our planes... then waited. The fog seemed pretty thick, and we didn't really want a repeat of our Matagorda trip, so we waited about an hour or so before attempting it.

Recently, my video camera had been stolen so I had replaced it with another one, which I decided to take along on this trip. Unfortunately, I only had about 27 minutes of tape left on it (again, the cheerleaders took up the rest!). But it was a pretty cool 27 minutes!

As we taxied, the fog was patchy, with an occasional blue spot showing up. Jim took off first, and I watched him slowly dissolve into the mist. I waited to make sure he was clear, then powered on down the runway. I was just above the telephone poles when it became obvious that the blue spot I saw had been replaced with a solid cloud of fog. I nosed the plane over to stop me from ascending into a grey world of zero visibility, then banked hard to the right to give myself plenty of space away from the power lines.

I was very familiar with the field in front of me, so I arc'd around it and came around beside the baseball fields that were on the southern end of the airport. Keeping the baseball fields in sight, and making sure I had enough altitude to avoid any of the telephone poles, and keeping well clear of the power lines (which I couldn't see, but knew they were there), I made a full 180-degree turn back toward the field.

I radio'd Jim and asked him where he was -- better to be safe, than sorry! He was where I figured he was, about a half-mile away, paralleling the field, heading north. I was now heading north, too, but I was directly over the field. There was a lot of space between him and me, so I wasn't worried. And I knew no one else was crazy enough to be up in this soup, so I figured I was okay.

Just as I flew over the hangar, that blue spot showed up again, and up I went. A few moments later, I was clear of the fog and saw Jim off to the east, just where he said he was. From the air, the little clouds of fog looked well separated from each other, but my experience in the previous 60 seconds taught me otherwise.

By the way, this type of flying -- just under the fog layer -- is sometimes called "scud running" by pilots.

Just for the record, I would NEVER attempt such a crazy maneuver like that at any other field on the planet. But I've made hundreds of takeoffs and landing at Bailes and knew exactly where everything was. Ok, ok, so that sounds like just so much denial. Frankly, everything in flying is a risk, but experience and training and a heads-up attitude all help mitigate those risks. If I thought I would lose visual reference to the ground, I would never have taken off. But my previous experiences taught me that I would be able to see the ground with that kind of patchy fog.

My scud running was simply a judgement call, something to make SURE I didn't lose that visual reference. I did it that way because I felt there was a chance of losing that reference if I had continued going into that fog cloud.

Anyway, if you want to see that 3 minutes of fun -- and you are set up to view an MPG file (and have a high-speed connection to the Internet) -- then click here. (At the very end of the sequence, you'll see the hangar just below and to the right, then blue sky open up in front as I ascend.)

Ok... we're above the fog, now, and the air is cool and calm... very pleasant. I look down at the clouds and see my shadow, and one of those interesting full-circle rainbows around my shadow. I've seen something similar in a jet airliner, but this was a first for me in my own airplane. Cool!

As we fly along, the fog (which looks like clouds-near-the-ground to us) start to grow and ascend. The clouds are broken, though, so we never lose visual reference to the ground. This shot of Jim makes it look like we're thousands of feet in the air... We started off at 700 feet, above the clouds, but it didn't take long for them to start climbing. Less than 30 minutes later, trying to stay above the clouds, we're at 3,000 feet and still climbing.

Jim radio's me and tells me to look down... I do, and there's the George Observatory, peeking through the clouds! Off in the distance is Smithers Lake and the power plant, and it's obvious from the large vertical cloud above it that the heat from the power plant is making the cloud grow! (You can see from this picture that I took it through my windshield. I did that a lot on this trip. We had a long way to go, and I decided expediency was the better part of valor, or something like that, so my apologies ahead of time for less than picture-perfect, er, pictures.)

We're still trying to keep above the clouds where it's nice and smooth, but finally it's just too hard to do. I take one last shot of Jim, then radio him and say we need to go ahead and drop below the clouds. He agrees, and right in front of us is a convenient "canyon" of clouds that we easily slip between.

At the "bottom" of the canyon, we find ourselves in familiar territory, both in terms of terrain as well as the increased turbulence in the air. Before long, we're below the clouds completely, and approach Interstate-10 while nearing our first waypoint, Sport Flyer airfield.

My video tape has run out long before this point and I knew I wouldn't get to view it until the long trip is over. But you can view it now... what I did, though, to make it a bit more interesting, is -- through a little movie magic -- I've sped up the 28 minutes of video so that you can view it in exactly 2 minutes, 48 seconds. That's about a 10 times increase in speed... so, instead of my 65mph speed, it will look like I was doing 650 mph! It's definitely fun to watch. Click here for a Flash video, or if you want a high quality MPG file, click here.

I look off to the northwest and see a cloud bank hugging the ground, and was glad we weren't heading in that direction! I radio Jim and suggest we cut the corner -- i.e., not go directly to the Sport Flyer waypoint, but start making the turn to our next waypoint -- and he agrees. We have just crossed I-10 and are now heading northeast (see map) toward Dry Creek.

Dry Creek was a waypoint because there is an ultralight pilot, Gary Haley, who lives there whom I have exchanged some emails with over the Internet. He had invited me to drop in, so I decided to do just that.

On the way there, I get my first tractor shot of the trip... and I see a quadrant of baseball fields being constructed.

Our first problem happens, though, when Jim says "2 miles to Dry Creek" and my GPS says 8 miles. I wondered why he was slowly turning to the east, while my track was decidedly northeast. As it turns out, I simply forgot to put Dry Creek in my GPS route for the trip! So I was headed for the waypoint after Dry Creek, Fields Field.

I make it to Fields, and Jim heads my way so we can stay together. He tells me I missed Dry Creek and does a really good job of not calling me a dunderhead, but I probably deserve it... I felt like a dunderhead! Should we go on, or go back, he asks? He's being really considerate since he knows I was looking forward to meeting Gary. I ask him how far... 8 miles... so, sure, that's not far so we head southeast.

Dry Creek turns out to be a nice, neat little aviation community with a grass strip. Gary's house and hangar are on the bottom left corner of the photo.

We land on their extremely well-kept runway, and taxi down to his house. His Kolb Mark III is sitting out and looking pretty. Gary is there to greet us and he's as friendly as they come. Even his wife comes out to say hello (the wives usually beat a path away from us). We're given the tour of his hangar where he keeps his Cessna as well as the parts of the RV-7 he's building. Very cool... I was green with envy!

Here is a stitched-together image of our planes sitting out in front of Garys house and hangar. (You may have to scroll this one to see it all.)

After a bit of socializing, we decide to get back to the task at hand. But my plane had other ideas, and wouldn't start. I had new spark plugs with me, so I swapped out the one I figured was the culprit, and, sure enough, it starts right up! We're off!

We stick to the plan, and head again toward Fields Field. Not far north of Dry Creek is May Field. We pass by Fields Field again and keep heading north since we need to avoid the Class D airspace around Hooks Airport. The nature of the terrain changes quickly here and we find ourselves above thick piney forest. This, I think, is Lake Woodlands. Spotting landmarks among the forest is trickier than in the open fields I'm used to.

Before long, we see The Woodlands in the distance and we cross I-45. Our next waypoint will also be a refueling stop, Williams Airport. All I can say is, thank goodness for GPS! All we can see is forest, forest and more forest, until we are practically on top of the airport. I enter the pattern, announce my intentions, and land to the north. It's a hard-surfaced runway, but it seems very old. We taxi over to the large gasoline tank, and refuel. Everything about the place makes it feel very old. The attendent is a quiet old man who doesn't say much... quite the opposite of most airport types... but he's very nice and gets us on our way quickly.

We're pretty excited since this is about the halfway point. We've never flown around this part of Houston before, so everything is new.

A few minutes later, we're crossing US Highway 59... the forest is still thick. We fret over the scarcity of emergency landing spots. In this picture, you can see mostly forest, but possibly a place in the background that we could have used if we had had an engine-out.

Off in the distance, we now see Lake Houston. To my left is what appears to be a sand-mining operation. East Texas soil is very sandy... that sand you put in your child's sandbox has to come from somewhere! This might be the place!

I look down at a fairly dilapidated house and barn, but see the Texas spirit is alive and well. And here is an interesting shot of the shadow of my brothers plane, among a field of cotton. Cotton? Oh! The trees are thinning out and the fields are returning! Thank goodness! Off to my right is... what? It looks like a runway, and a big hangar, but what are all those cars doing? I never do figure it out. But the picture shows how the fields are starting to return.

Then I fly by what is absolutely a private airstrip... there are, after all, two windsocks! Very nice set-up... very nice!

Right about this time I notice that I can no longer transmit on my radio! It seems the power is going out. No problem, I think, since I grabbed the 12-volt adapter before we left. I reach into my bag and... nope, I grabbed the adapter for the intercom, not for the radio. Oh great. I can hear Jim when he transmits, but when I try to reply, the radio dies. It doesn't take long for him to figure out I've got a radio problem.

I want to land at the next waypoint to fill him in on the problem, but he says "If you can hear me, turn 45-degrees to the right and head for Baytown." Well, I immediately turn, which tells him I can still hear him. Baytown is a little further beyond the next waypoint, but he at least knows my predicament.

We approach Baytown... I changed the channel on the radio to listen for any traffic at Baytown, but there is none. I make a quick pattern then land. I turned on to the taxiway then pull off into the grass. I never really even thought I'd turn off my engine... I just wanted to signal that my radio was dead, and take another look in my gear bag.

After a thorough look, I decide that I really don't have it and figured we'd better stop and chat a bit about our plans. I stop my engine and Jim stops his. He jumps out and starts looking in the grass around his plane. I walk over and ask what's up... he's lost his voice recorder. After a brief search, it shows up inside his plane, under his seat.

We then discuss the lack of radio communication, and we plan our route back to Bailes. Since this part of Houston was known to us, the route back was the same we had used before, so no problems there. He decided he would follow me in case I had to do an emergency landing. Everything agreed, we jumped back into our planes and fired up the engines. Well, I tried to, anyway.

It wouldn't catch, no matter what I did. So, I hauled out all my other spare spark plugs and replaced them all. By the time I did that, I had tried to start it so many times, the battery had run down. We tried to hand-prop it -- which usually works -- but had no luck with it. I finally ran through all the processes I had been taught about an engine that wouldn't start, but nothing seemed to help.

I realized I would never get it started by hand-propping it, so Jim and I walked the plane down the remainder of the taxiway to an area where we had seen some people hanging around. I popped my head into a hangar and asked for a jump. A few minutes later, I had the plane hooked up to a car battery, and I turned the key. On the 2nd attempt, it started right up! Relief!

I profusely thanked the gentleman, waited for him to clear out of the way and taxied back to the runway, and off we went. That took over an hour of hard, hot work. I can't begin to tell you how glad I was to be back in the air!

We circled around Baytown, and kept the Baytown Bridge to our right. The Houston Ship Channel was as active as always, and the container ship off-loading site was a full as ever. Off in the distance to the north was the San Jacinto Monument, something I never tire of seeing.

As I cross the northern part of Galveston Bay, I see this muddy track in the water. A large sailboat, probably from the Houston Yacht Club, plies the Bay, and then I see a lot of little sailboats enjoying the nice day, too. As I pass near Clear Lake, I can see there's lot of boat traffic today.

One of the usual waypoints in this part of town is the old Houston Gulf Aiport. It's being torn down, and the runways are "X'd", meaning, "no landing!" I think it's being converted to yet another subdivision.

We're making a bee-line for Bailes, if for no other reason than it's been a long flight. But there is always a tractor picture, or two, to take!

We fly by Ray's private airstrip... we usually stop and chat, but we're tired! But, suddenly, we have an even better reason... in the far distance, a thundercloud with rain* seems to be sitting over our airport. I start to slow down thinking we can fly around a bit and wait for it to pass. But as I get closer, I realize it has not yet reached the airport, so I pour on the gas, and make a quick landing. Jim is immediately behind me and, after he lands, we both taxi quickly to the hangar. Less than a minute after we get the planes in the hangar, the skies open up. The rain is so loud on the hangar roof, you can hardly hear each other talk.

That was a close one!

We left at about 9am, and arrived back at our hangar at about 3:30pm... but our time in the air was 3 hours 28 minutes, and we covered 225 miles. That gave us an average of 64.9 mph... not a bad cruise speed considering the turbulence we had to fly through.


-- Robert




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* Photo by Jim Laird