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Saturday September 02, 2006

Hard decisions, lots of flying

First, I have to get this out of my system: If I never see another pine tree in my whole life, it will be too soon! It must be the state tree of South Carolina .

Being grounded due to weather in Toccoa (TOC) for a week put us even further behind schedule, but gave us the opportunity to make great friends. If any of you ever have an opportunity to fly into (or simply drive in and visit) Toccoa airport, you shouldnt miss it. Jeff and Sherri McCormack own the FBO (with a partner, Larry), and these are some of the nicest people youll ever meet.

I can't even begin to describe the frustration we've had with incorrect weather forecasts. We'd wake up expecting one thing, and the conditions weren't remotely close. Yesterday, late afternoon, I tried to depart to Greenville , but wasn't comfortable with my climb rate. I needed to re-pitch the prop. By the time that was completed it was too late to depart. At that point Rusty and I decided that we had to take drastic action to regain some lost time. The trip is already 5 weeks behind schedule. It was decided to bypass Greenville and Columbia , and head straight to Summerville, the staging point for landing on the USS Yorktown. By doing so we'd save at least 6 days (not including more days if weather intervened again) because they were publicity stops. It distresses me to bypass stops where I know the media is anxious to speak with us, but we need to take advantage of good weather when it presents itself, and move on. So we pored over the sectionals, making a list of all the airports more or less in a straight line between Toccoa and Holly Hill (5J5). Why Holly Hill? Because I'd promised a lot of people we'd give them a heads-up before getting to Summerville, and Holly Hill is only 20 miles from Summerville.

This morning perfect flying conditions were predicted. Upon awakening we found solid overcast with a ceiling barely allowing safe flying. I checked the radar, and no rain was to be found within a few hundred miles. The overcast was supposed to break up quickly in the direction I'd be flying, and the (seemingly ever present) headwinds would be light and tolerable. Rusty and I agreed for him to wait at Edgefield County (6J6), about 100 miles away. The plan was for me to fly until the fuel warning light went on, which means I have an hour of reserve left. Then I'd decide where to land, and Rusty would meet me to refuel.

It almost worked out as planned. About 10 miles after lift-off the ceiling started to drop. Safety being the better part of valor when flying, I chose a big, freshly cut field and landed. There I sat for the next hour until the ceiling rose, and then resumed the flight. Close to 4 hours later I flew by Edgefield where Rusty awaited. Hed been chatting with the airport manager, Johnny Anderson, and watching a local RC club fly their airplanes. The light hadn't lit up, so I informed Rusty I'd keep going. Although South Carolina has an over abundance of pine trees, it also has a multitude of places to land. As I flew east-south-east from Toccoa the rolling hills gradually smoothed out. lots of beautiful lakes as well. By the time I reached Edgefield the land was almost flat, and I wasn't worried about finding a landing spot. I was, however, being increasing bounced around by the thermals.

About 20 miles past Edgefield the warning light came on, and I chose a field in which to land. Then I called Rusty, who arrived quickly, and we refueled Voyager. At that point the thermals would've made flying less than enjoyable, so we covered Voyager with the army parachute to keep it cool, and then waited in the RV for time to pass.

At 6pm I lifted off, headed for Holly Hill. It turns out Holly Hill doesn't have a beacon, and although the GPS told me where it was, I arrived at the end of civil twilight and it was very hard to discern a turf landing strip (which is just a big long field) from the other big fields. Wanting to land before I couldn't make out obstacles on the ground, I chose another nice field and set down. Turns out I was very close. Rusty arrived and we took Voyager to the airfield. There we met two ultralight pilots based at Holly Hill, and we chatted for 30 minutes. They were excited about the trip, and as we've found pilots everywhere across the US, were very hospitable. I was even invited to address their ultralight club, which meets tomorrow.

And that's how this day went. I apologize to any and all in Greenville and Columbia about the very difficult decision to bypass those stops. I hope you understand. Now we stand on the brink of completing this trip, and it definitely is a relief.

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