In mid-September, my husband Jim and I made our third trip back to Erie, Pennsylvania. Fortunately, while Erie is approximately 400 driving miles from Washington, D.C., where we live, the straight-line distance is much shorter. Flying time in our little Cirrus SR-22 propeller airplane is about an hour and fifteen minutes, at our cruising speed of 170 knots, or a little more or less depending on headwinds or tail winds.
We made this latest trip home from Erie on a quiet Monday afternoon. The weather was warm and clear. We marched through our departure routines: return the rental car, gas up the plane, and since we knew some weather (in airplane talk, “weather” means “bad weather”) was predicted along our route, file an Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) plan for the trip home in instrument conditions, meaning we would be following instructions from the air traffic controllers (ATC). Also, high on my list was a stop at the produce stand I had spied across from the airport to pick up some tomatoes, honey from the local hives, and corn that was still in its prime this much farther north.
We were cleared for takeoff on Runway 24. Runways are laid out where possible to match the prevailing wind, and you choose which runway to use and which direction to take off based on the winds at the time you depart. Ideally you want to take off, and to land, flying into the wind—with a headwind, not a tailwind—because that reduces how fast you need to get going along the runway before lifting off, and how fast the plane’s speed relative to the runway will be when it touches down.
For the moment, the point is that the winds in Erie that day were from the west, so we took off on runway 24, which points to compass direction 240 degrees, or mostly west. The Erie International Airport is also called Tom Ridge Field for the hometown son, who was raised in public housing in Erie. The runway was recently extended to an impressive length of more than 8,400 feet, which is nearly three times as long as our little Cirrus would require and also plenty for the flights from Delta, United, and American.
The ATC gave us these instructions: climb and maintain 3,000 feet, expect 5,000 within one-zero minutes. The ATC language is very programmed, designed for efficiency and clarity, and also, at this point, to preview upcoming expectations in case you lose radio contact. We circled around to head south toward home, and I looked back and across through the pilot-side windows to see the town of Erie and the beautiful Presque Isle peninsula with the Bay to the south and Lake Erie to the north.
It wasn’t long before the first clouds materialized ahead of us. We had cross-winds at about 5,000 feet, and you could see that the clear, flat shear of wind seemed to hold up the bottom of the clouds like a tabletop. We were listening on the radio to ATCs guiding planes in the Cleveland Center airspace by this point. This airspace of this part of the country is quiet compared with the busy Atlantic coast, and it is buzzing compared with the quiet spaces of Wyoming or Montana, where we could fly for hours with no contact.
A dramatic foggy-cloud layer was developing ahead of us, and we were trying to decide if we should request an altitude from the ATC that would be below the clouds or above them. We often choose high when we have tailwinds, which are likely to be stronger the higher up you go. And lower if we have headwinds. Frequently, there will be pilot reports of flying conditions, like “smooth ride” or “light chop,” which the ATCs will relay to other planes heading into that airspace.
We broke through the layers at just about 5,000 feet. There were still occasional cloud buildups to the right or left, and we sometimes requested course changes 10 or 15 degrees so we could dart between them. ATCs have no problem allowing you to do this, if you can remain well separated from other planes.