Pandora Moving Services, part 2
This is part of a 5 part series on my adventures helping my friend move. Check out part 1 and start there!
To make sure that I was able to minimize the amount of flying I'd be doing during the hottest parts of the day, I planned to do most of my flying taking off right around dawn. Unfortunately, doing so on the first leg, out of Reid-Hillview, could be a problem. Specifically, San Jose has a nasty habit of being covered by a blanket of clouds every morning until as late as 10:00AM, and I'm not an instrument rated pilot (yet).
To avoid being trapped inside San Jose and being forced to do a lot of flying during the heat of the day, I decided that we'd fly out part way on Friday evening, close to sunset. This would avoid the hottest parts of the day over the desert and get us out of San Jose while we could.
The first planned route was KRHV VPBAV VPBAS HNW SWR FMG LLC BAM KEKO. It would take roughly 3 hours to traverse. At the other end, I used some rewards points and got us a “free” hotel directly across the street from the airport.
My partner @coda agreed at the last minute to join me on our flight out to Denver. They've learned enough about flying now that they can help out with things like steering the plane and such, reducing the workload on me and giving me more brain space to work on other problems. I knew that we were going to run into the possibilities of bad weather on our way out there, and having them as a sort of “co-pilot” would really help.
We departed Reid-Hillview around 4:30pm on Friday evening. Our plan was to fly to Elko, NV and get there before the sunset, since we didn't want to be dealing with mountains in the way. With 3 hours of flying in front of us, that left us basically an extra 60-90 minutes of sufficient light to see where we were going. While we would also have moonlight, I didn't want to rely on it. I also didn't want to leave so early that we'd be running into really bad weather.
As we climbed up over the Sierra Nevada mountain range, I called up flight service, reported our position, and started asking about the weather up ahead. According to them, there was a thunderstorm just southwest of Lovelock that was heading northwest and would probably get in our way. We continued on, recognizing that we may have to divert before we got there.
I don't know what this collection of trees is, but we saw it just east of Yuba Pass and it was wild looking, so I snapped a photo of it.
The first blocks of weather
As we went west of Reno, I called up Flight Service again to talk about our options. Things had degraded massively. The weather south of Lovelock had moved out of our way for the most part. But the weather around Battle Mountain was horrible and getting worse by the second. A massive storm, easily 30 miles in diameter, was brewing and getting worse and worse. This was smack dab right between us and our destination. Flight Service advised that we do not continue our flight past Lovelock, and I agreed. But what to do instead?
One of the cool things about using Foreflight and an ADS-B equipped airplane is that we were able to view the same weather radar information that Flight Service and ATC were looking at. As @coda flew the plane further east on our course, I poured over the map and considered our options.
Looking at this map of where we wanted to go, you can see that Battle Mountain was smack dab directly between us and Elko. Looking past the clusterfuck that was at Battle Mountain, we could see that Elko was still in the clear. In theory, we could still get over there... But how? Going north wasn't a good option. That flew us into other weather that had already continued north, and put us right in the path of some of this really bad weather. Plus, it would eat a lot of time that we didn't necessarily have. That option out, I looked south.
Now, south of Lovelock, Battle Mountain, and Elko, the weather seemed largely good. While there were some rain storms down there, they weren't yet developing into the monster thunderstorms they would become further to the north. They were just dark clouds and gentle rain down there, at least from the radar. But getting there would require us to fly through restricted airspace.
I called up Flight Service and asked if that would work out. They said “Huh. Yeah, actually. That looks good to us over here.” I thanked them and flipped over to ATC and asked permission to go through the restricted airspace.
ATC: “Well uh, R-4813 is currently active. We have special use military vehicles active in that area.”
Me: “What about R-4816? Could we go through there?”
ATC: “Yeah, actually. That should work. You are cleared through restricted area 4816”
WOO HOOO!!! That meant we could make it in good time towards our destination. We pressed on!
I don't know what kinds of “special use” vehicles they had over there, but I do know that a flight of several F-16s in tight formation wound up flying right underneath us as we passed through the restricted airspace.
We carefully and cautiously approached the dark band of clouds that was feeding the monster thunderstorm some 60 miles north of us at Battle Mountains. It was largely uneventful. A little rain, a little minor turbulence, and we were through. That put us through the weakest part of the line of storms and left us seemingly in the clear to reach our destination. We began our left turn towards the mountains, steering down the valleys between the tall mountains below us.
Racing to the finish line
As we closed in on our destination, we checked in again with NexRAD and Flight Service to see how we were doing. To our horror, a thunderstorm had developed over the top of Elko. Worse, another system was starting to build just south of it and was heading right for Elko.
It was starting to look more and more like we weren't going to be able to put into Elko this evening. I pulled out my iPad and started researching alternative destinations to go to. Having lost time for our existing diversion, we didn't have a lot of daylight left to spend. The best place for a diversion, I thought, would be Wendover, UT, a small town 90 miles east of Elko. I should have liked to go further, perhaps all the way to Salt Lake City, but looking on NexRAD indicated the presence of more thunderstorms in the way, and I wasn't about to start navigating around those at night.
We travelled up the valley, silently hoping for the weather around Elko to move further north. And... it started to. The weather reports I was getting on the ground seemed to be clearing up.
But it was hard to be sure, right? While having all this information on board the airplane is fantastic to help you make the right decisions, ultimately it is only advisory. The reality is what you see with your eyes when you get there. The weather reports sounded better, but were they actually better? I decided we'd fly past Elko on our way to Wendover to get a better look.
It was around this time that I noticed we were flying up a valley north right in between two thunderstorms. Uhhh. NO. I took the controls and executed a quick 90º turn to the right to switch valleys and get us a little more space from the storms. We skirted the northwest edge of a TFR (A temporary flight restriction due, in this case, to fire fighting.) and came up along the Ruby Dome mountains.
At this point, the small rain storm just south of Elko was starting to develop into a thunderstorm of its own. We watched lighting come out of it and strike a peak just south of the town. We were racing it north, keeping far to the east of it, watching it grow in strength.
As we moved further north, we finally could see the giant fuck-off thunderstorm that was hovering over Battle Mountain to the northwest, miles beyond Elko. That thing was a monster.
By some miracle, as we worked our way north next to Ruby Dome, Elko came into view. Beautiful. Clear. VFR for days. While the small storm loomed to the south of it, Elko itself was clear for now. I viewed the situation carefully.
I know that flying near thunderstorms can be extremely dangerous, especially in their path. They can cause severe turbulence even in the clear air ahead of them, lulling unwary pilots into their dangerous traps.
With this knowledge in my head, I considered several things all at once. 1. The storm just south of Elko was small and slow. It wasn't very strong. 2. Diverting to Wendover at this point would result in us needing to do a little bit of night flying over unfamiliar mountainous terrain, not something I was keen on. 3. I had the Elko airport in sight, and knew we could be on the ground in less than 5 minutes.
I put it all together and made what was probably the riskiest decision of the whole flight. I turned left and made for the Elko airport. I descended quickly over the town, made a beeline for the runway, and landed with nary a blip of turbulence.
As we rolled out down the runway, both of us let out a little cheer of nervousness and relief. We were on the ground, safe, and done flying for the evening. We rolled over to the fuel pods to refuel the airplane and watch the storm.
The rain storm briefly dropped a little rain on our heads, but quickly moved north and west of the town, ignoring us. Shortly after this, multiple other airplanes started to arrive, including at least one commercial jet. We tied the airplane down, grabbed our bags, and left.
Our final course looked like this
An evening in Elko
Figuring out how to get out of the airport was hard. Both of us had missed dinner, and were famished and tired. We grabbed the first door out of the airport, even though we didn't see a door code or any way back in, and headed for dinner. We had food at this amazing Mexican place next to the airport called Costa Vida, then crossed the street to go to our hotel.
The Hampton Inn we stayed at was surprisingly posh and comfy for being “free” for us, and honestly pretty cheap even if it wasn't free. @coda and I turned in, watched the new Rocko's Modern Life movie on Netflix, then went to bed in a super comfy bed, alarms set for 4:30am the next morning.