Day 2 - Charlottesville, VA (CHO) to Asheville, NC (AVL)
On the morning of April, 6th 2017, I woke up to a gloomy, stormy day. I took my time checking out of the hotel while the worst of the storms finished making their way across VA.
When I arrived at the Charlottesville airport, I carefully preflighted the helicopter, and headed upstairs to the pilot's office to check the weather and file a flight plan.
Ordinarily, I would head straight from CHO to Bristol VA which would take approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes. This is no problem for Whiskey Mike, equipped with an auxiliary fuel tank and full of fuel, it can fly for 2 and a half hours, or about 280 miles, without refueling. When filing IFR, we are required to keep half an hour fuel as a reserve. Unfortunately there was a 35 mph head wind that morning which would cut my range from 280 miles down to 210 miles. To make matters worse, strong winds cause a great deal of turbulence over the mountains which forces pilots to slow their airspeed, further reducing my range to 180 miles. Also, I knew that I wouldn't be able to fly in a straight line due to scattered thunderstorms, so I decided to play it safe and make Blacksburg VA my first stop of the day. This would be a 110-mile leg, and give me plenty of fuel to spare.
In aeromedical operations, pilots must be able to flight plan quickly and efficiently. They must consider multiple interdependent factors such as: weather and obstacles along the route of flight, the amount of fuel required, and the maximum weight available once all the passengers and crew are aboard the aircraft.
Once airborne, I entered the clouds at approximately 800 feet above the ground, and continued a climb to 6,000 feet. With assistance from the Air Traffic Controllers or ATC, and the weather radar on board the aircraft, I was able to navigate around the heavy areas of rain. About 15 minutes into the flight I exited the area of nasty weather and was able to admire the Virginia countryside as rays of sun illuminated the ground through gaps between the clouds. When I had crossed behind the line of weather, the temperature started to drop a bit, and I became concerned with the possibility of icing. Helicopters this size are not equipped with the ability to heat the rotor blades and prevent ice from accumulating. If ice were to build up on the rotors it could cause them to stop producing lift, therefore this is something that pilots must be very cautious about and is a common hazard that the LifeFlight of Maine pilots face. Fortunately, I was in an area where it was safe to descend out of the clouds and continue the flight to Blacksburg under Visual Flight Conditions or VFR.
Click on the orange circles to view photos from the flight
I landed at the Virginia Tech's Blacksburg Airport (BCB) just as a light shower was passing through. I quickly ran inside to take a brief break while the rain passed and when I returned to assist in fueling the raindrops sparkled on the glistening paint of Whiskey Mike's tail.
With a stout wind, scattered showers, and low clouds on the western side of the Blue Ridge Mountains, my best course of action for the next leg of flight would be to stay on the eastern edge and head south toward Asheville, North Carolina
Along with displaying the moving map and real time weather information, Whiskey Mike’s multi-function display screen alerts the pilot to terrain and obstacle hazards. The little red and yellow triangles on the screen in the photo to the right represent obstacles in the area surrounding the helicopter's flight path. The triangles turn red when the height of the obstacle is close to that of the helicopter altitude. An example of this is the cellphone tower shown in the photo below. Most of the obstacles depicted here are on mountain tops so they appear to be above the helicopter when flying in a valley, however, if the helicopter were to get dangerously close to one such tower, there would be an audio alert accompanying the visual depiction to warn the pilot.
Another hazard that pilots must pay careful attention to are wires. Although I never flew lower than 1,000 feet above the ground, in mountainous terrain, I was still careful to watch for wires that could be strung between mountain peaks. Sometimes wires will have red balls placed on them for higher visibility, but this is never something a pilot can count on. In these cases, altitude is a pilot's best friend.
The Blue Ridge Mountains in Western NC contain some of the highest peaks east of the Mississippi, the highest being Mt. Mitchell at 6,684 ft above sea level, rising about 4,500 ft above the elevation of Asheville, NC. With 35 kt winds blowing out of the west, this leg of the flight was very turbulent, and therefore only a few photos were taken. The wind and terrain also prevented me from flying in a straight line, therefore my flight path zig zagged through valleys and passes, seeking the safest and smoothest ride.
Click on the orange dots to view the photos along this leg of the journey
Actual snapshot of the turbulence caution near Mt Mitchell on the aviation chart.
Wires are most dangerous for aeromedical pilots when they are taking off and landing in fields, parking lots, or other unimproved landing sites. The photo to the left contains wires that are very difficult to see. This problem is compounded during night conditions which is why LifeFlight of Maine uses Night Vision Goggles or NVGs to enhance the pilots ability to see in the dark.
I arrived in Asheville around 5 pm, and with the aircraft safely parked on the ramp at the AVL airport, I decided to call it a night. Strong winds were forecast to continue throughout the night and die down mid-morning the next day. I tied Whiskey Mike's rotors down and put covers over her pitot tubes, engine intakes, and exhaust. Then I grabbed a cab to the hotel, anticipating a long flight the following day to make it back to Dallas.