blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Dodging storms over the St. John River

Big clouds ahead, at Grand Falls
Chris is sitting comfortably on a deck chair outside our Quality Inn room at Grand Falls / Grand-Sault, this evening. We are a good 5km from the town itself, and the famous falls, but no matter. When we acted helpless without a car, the hotel manager handed us the keys to his truck so we could drive into town anyway, thus avoiding either a soak from the oncoming storm cloud on a long and hungry walk, or an expensive taxi fare.

The clouds are our reason for staying here tonight. They are too big to penetrate, therefore we aren't where we had planned to be. We have had a dramatic day, but according to Chris we were perfectly safe at all times.

1st leg, Yarmouth to St. John, over the water in a straight line.
The wriggly snakelike line on the left is the edge of Maine, USA.

This is the flight-tracker picture of our afternoon flight
"1hr 44mins, diverted", but as this shows, we went straight
through the large cloud to the left of our starting point!

Local fog over Yarmouth
Because it was meant to be a long day, including the stop for maintenance, we got up early. A quick bite to eat and cup of tea at Tim Horton's along the Yarmouth commercial strip opposite our hotel, me rather envious of the group of elderly chaps clearly intending to sit chatting to one another a long time in their quaint Nova Scotian accent, over their daily breakfast in the corner, then we returned the rental car to Enterprise. The Enterprise lady was kind enough to drop us off at the airport after we had checked out, so we loaded and unloaded our luggage twice.

Chris had spoken with the mechanics at the Atlantic Flight Centre of St. John airport who'd offered him an appointment at 10:30am to change PTN's oil and oil filter, check her tyre pressures and check for traces of metal in the oil (not good --- fortunately they found none), clean the engine and the inside of the cowling -- it was a job thoroughly well done, costing $$$, but still.

Yarmouth at low tide
We first had to get there on time, cloud ceiling and winds permitting, so we felt lucky that the local mist seemed to be gathering elsewhere than at Yarmouth airport. We saw it hanging over the marshes as we took off, also noticing that the tide was right out, leaving the channel between Yarmouth and Yarmouth Bar quite unlike what we had seen of it on Monday: a narrow stream meandering between mud flats. No sign of the lighthouse, since fog lay over that too. We more or less followed the line of yesterday's drive to Digby, to start with, then our "St. John direct" line took us over the Digby Neck and out to sea. Only for 25 minutes, with views of the ferry entering the channel to Digby to our right and Grand Manan Island in the distance to our left. When, wearing my life jacket again, I looked straight down below our wheel, I could actually see the seabed with its treacherous reefs below me. I might have spotted
whales too, if we hadn't been at 7000ft above sea level ... literally. We told ATC at Moncton that we could now see the airport ahead and so we could do a visual approach to the circuit, none too soon, because this necessitated a fairly steep (1000ft per minute) descent during which our ears popped. In my experience, ears are pretty reliable altimeters.

Into the towering cumuli
At St. John, while the young men were working on our plane in their hangar, we had some snacks at the terminal building and watched (with some trepidation in my case!) the developing line of TCU clouds hanging in the sky in the direction of our next leg. Chris spent a long time studying the radar pictures, charts and weather advisories en route, showed me what he was interpreting, and thought we had a good chance of reaching Riviere-du-Loup on the St. Lawrence by the end of the afternoon, a two-and-a-half hour flight. I was not so sure, but climbed meekly into the passenger seat and resigned myself to whatever fate we'd meet, up there. We could see the first line of "build-ups" ahead which were highish, but didn't look any more threatening than towering cumuli we have flown through in the past. Chris asked for a deviation 10deg. to the left of one big cloud, but a necessary change of heading actually took us straight through an even larger one beyond it. Not many minutes after coming out the other side, rain having lashed onto our windscreen within the cloud, we were rather surprised to hear over the airwaves a commercial flight diverting around this very spot (the waypoint called MOWND). I'm guessing that this "build-up" was about 20,000ft high. Ahead, we could see sun shining on the ground, which was encouraging, implying holes between the clouds, but we could also see several of those ominous red dots on our strike finder in the cockpit, which mean lightning strikes in the vicinity, some of them straight ahead. So another deviation, this time to the right, and saw very black colours in the sky and on the ground to our left. From ATC's point of view we were "in the mix", says Chris, with all the other aircraft trying to avoid the larger cloud masses, to save their passengers from too much turbulence. Everyone was veering all over the sky round here. Their radio calls also warned us what was ahead, such as a cluster of "build-ups" close to Presque-Isle in Maine, the area through which we were about to fly!

Heavy showers over the New Brunswick-Maine border
Chris keeps admirably calm on these occasions. "I was interested, but didn't get excited," as he puts it. Which, I suppose, reassures me. We certainly would not cope so well if there were a nervous person like me in the pilot's seat. I helped him to look up some alternative landing places on our electronic charts, because it was clear that we wouldn't be able to continue as planned --- the storms ahead now becoming visible, too. "What beautiful clouds!" exclaims Chris, "Can you get a picture of them?" as I reply, "There's a small airport on the other side of the river, only 10 miles away. We could go there." Chris looks at the map and decides to continue a further 25 miles from this area, aiming to land at Grand Falls.

On the ground at Grand Falls
We did not actually cross the US border into Maine although we were talking to Boston Centre (kindly giving us the altimeter readings for nearby airports and advising us of dangers to the west of our new track when we told them that we were changing our flight plan). Grand Falls looks like a tiny airport in comparison to the others at which we have landed at on this trip; it is a narrow, anciently paved, 4000ft strip in a field, hard to locate from the air, and the uneven surface putting a considerable strain on our shimmy dampers as we landed in the crosswind that had sprung up ahead of the heavy shower approaching, but to me, it felt a lot safer being down on the ground than up in the air.

The Grand Falls
The manager has managed this airfield for 40 years, he told us, living in a house beside the airport buildings and I think we met him before when we landed here, for similar reasons, in 1997. This time, he offered to let us sleep at the airport where there are guest rooms and three or four double beds, but the accommodation did look a bit basic, and we had no available food to cook, so we chose to book whatever hotel we could find in Grand Falls. The Best Western was full, so I rang the Quality Inn who could offer us a room. I should have asked how far it was from town, too late now. A lady with a taxi came to fetch us, and when we borrowed the hotel manager's truck as mentioned above, we were able to view the falls like proper tourists and find a satisfying Chinese meal on Broadway. The Grand Falls Broadway, that is. The annual Potato Festival is supposed to be in full swing this week, but we didn't see any sign of it, other than on the posters.

I have been editing this outside our room in bare feet at the end of a glorious sunset that is reflected in the motel's duck pond. Someone has blocked my view of the duckpond by parking his boat on a trailer opposite our room. An extremely long freight train is rattling past along the railway behind the bushes to my right. On my left at the end of the row of rooms, a man is singing and playing the guitar to his friends. A crescent moon has replaced the storm clouds. Time to sleep soon.

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