The Southbridge MA airport diner opened under new management. This weekend we flew down to check it out. The old diner closed in 2014 a few years after the airport was struck by a tornado. This was my first visit to Southbridge.
I took it as an excellent opportunity to practice my pilotage skills. I rarely fly south of RT 2 in MA. The last time was early in my transition from the Cherokee to the RV-4. I planned my flight with Isaac chattering at me across the counter. There were few unique landmarks. The lakes all looked similar. That section of the chart is cluttered with airport information overlays. The best features I could identify were the Fitchburg and Spencer airports, a railroad track, a lake next to the turnpike, and a highway intersection. Winds were generally from the northwest, so I expected a slight correction to the right.
It was a chilly blue sky day. Great flying weather. I strapped Isaac into the Bearhawk and saw Tyson off so he and Mike could fly together. Mike was properly prompt, unlike us. The three of them took off straight into the sky, competing for who could turn out before the windsock.
I back taxied and did my run up. When I pulled the carburetor heat, my artificial horizon dropped. The virtual ground fell off the bottom and then it bounced around drunkenly. I checked my vacuum gauge. It was fine. So it must be the artificial horizon that bit the bucket. I still felt confident flying because the weather was clear blue VFR. Off I went.
Up in the sky I heard Mike and Tyson chatting. The usual pilot chatter — “Where are you? I’m over west Fitchburg.” “Wachusett is at my 3 o’clock.” I figured I would catch up in no time. Soon enough I was abreast Wachusett, but I couldn’t see either the Bearhawk or L-19. Then I realized that they’d said Wachusett was to their 3 o’clock, whereas I saw the mountain off to my left. I searched my chart and eventually found the peak between chart annotations. I was on the wrong side of the mountain.
Two questions arose in my mind. “Why?” and “how do I get to Southbridge from here?” I considered whether my directional gyro might be wrong since it uses the same vacuum system as my seasick artificial horizon. The vacuum gauge looked good and my directional gyro was behaving normally. My plane doesn’t have a functioning compass, so I couldn’t double check the gyro. My two guesses were, either the gyro had processed significantly since I set it on the ground, or my approximate fudge factor for the wind was wrong. In either case, I just needed to turn left a bit and identify some new features to follow. I realized later I could have computed my exact heading change from bearings on the chart.
Looking ahead to the left, I spotted a prominent radio tower. Below me, two lakes lined up with the tower. From the alignment of the lakes, and the lack of lights on the tower, I guessed the tower to be just north of the Worcester airspace. Once at the tower, I would be back on my original route. I flew to the tower and turned right to a heading with less cross wind correction. The Worcester airport was a large landmark off to my left. The runway headings matched up with my estimated position on the map. Next landmark — Spencer airport. I never found it. Neither could I find the town. I searched the chart for any other recognizable features. There was nothing but identical looking lakes out my window.
At this point, I figured my best bet was to hold heading until I crossed the turnpike and then turn east. I was 99% sure I was too far west. When I found the pike, I still couldn’t spot any of my other landmarks. Shortly after turning east, I found the highway going south, then an airport, and then the Bearhawk entering the left downwind. I had caught up just in time.
At Southbridge, the airport manager came over to greet us. The airport looked in reasonable shape for having suffered a tornado. They were digging a big foundation hole for a new terminal building. Many of the hangars looked like they predated the tornado. There was one old 1940’s vintage orange hangar with “Maint. hangar” printed in large faded letters on its sliding doors. Outside on the ramp, the row of tiedowns was filled with airplanes.
The diner is a wood building built around a real old diner car. The metal car overlooks the airport and a new deck. The new owners rearranged the traffic flow, so everyone looked confused when they entered. You now enter through the wood building on the east side. You order at the counter on the way in, and then pick out your seats in the railroad car. We chose the bar seating for a little more elbow room. I enjoyed my Polish breakfast special. My only real complaint was the diner car was a little cold.
After breakfast, Mike kept socializing with everyone in the diner. Tyson and I had to head home. We fueled up at the new self serve pump. I augmented my flight plan with some more notes (in blue). At Tyson’s suggestion, I set my DG after my run up to ensure the vacuum pump was running at full speed. Up in the air, I decided to practice a few more landings on the way home. I stopped at Spencer and Fitchburg. East of Wachusett, a tow plane pulled a glider up from Sterling and overhead. The wind at Fitchburg was steady 13 knots straight down runway 32. It seemed like a great day to practice cross wind landings, but Spencer had been too sheltered in the trees. Fitchburg was way to busy for me to use the crosswind runway. So I deviated west and tried out Gardner. No luck there either. Instead I practiced wheel landings and then headed back to Brookline. Tyson caught a video of my less than stellar landing over the trees.
Click for video https://vimeo.com/159779381
Watching my artificial horizon tumble about on the flight back, I again considered selling my RV-4. The question is what to replace it with. I could buy a nicer RV-4. However, my air work practicing landings on the way home was sloppy. I don’t hold speeds or altitudes as well as I should. My rudder coordination isn’t as good as it should be. And I’m terrible at remembering to correct for cross winds. The RV-4 is forgiving of all this. Maybe I should replace the RV with a completely different airplane that would force me to expand my comfort zone.