After my long, nearly 2.5 hour flight from Birmingham, Alabama to Columbia, Mississippi on Sunday, I'd hoped that we'd have a nice tailwind on the way home.
No such luck.
Storms moved through the area all day long. But by the time we finally got to leave at 6:00 pm, the weather had cleared up nicely. And calmed down. The ripping wind out of the southwest had died. I climbed up into cool air at 3,500 feet for the flight home, but we only were able to attain a groundspeed of 115 knots - a mere eleven greater than our airspeed. And it was more of a crosswind than a pure tailwind. Still, I'll take any tailwind component I can get.
Chris's wife was concerned as we readied to leave. It was storming in Birmingham, she said. I knew this, as I'd been watching the various weather resources all day long. I knew that the storms would move out of the Birmingham area well before our scheduled arrival. And that's just what they did.
However, as we neared Birmingham I could see little traces of fog forming in valleys and riverbeds. This normal in an area of high humidity after a rain event. But it is never a good sign, especially so close to sundown. Birmingham Approach Control wanted me to stay south of their departure corridor for runway 24. While the airport was just in the clear, the hills immediately to the south were completely blanketed in low clouds that went right down to the trees. I would call it "fog" but it really wasn't. It was just a lot of visible moisture in the air behind those storms. The temperature and the dew point were very close at the surface, and evidently came together at about 1,600 feet above sea level.
It was right at sunset. I was still way up high, over the cloud deck, but still with the ability to turn and glide to a clear area if need be. The Tower controller kept asking me if I had the airport in sight, and was puzzled as to why I didn't. But I did not, technically, because the clouds were blocking my slant-range view. Finally I was able to see the flashing runway-end identifier lights of their north/south runway. The controller cleared me to land on that runway, and since the wind was light I did just that with only slight manuevering to stay out of the clouds.
Helicopters don't need runways and we generally avoid them to stay out of the way of the airplanes that have to use them. But when it's dark and you're approaching an airport in an unfamiliar area, you can be confident that the route leading into a runway is fairly obstruction-free. The Birmingham, Alabama airport is surrounded by hills on top of which are scads of tall towers. It's a really tough place to get into at night when the cloud ceiling is low and you have to fly under them.
I needed to get back to Home Base, some 150 miles to the south. As I shut down to take on more fuel, I thought about the flight back...at night. Although the skies were generally clear, I didn't like the idea of the low clouds/fog forming below me. Being caught on top of a widespread fog layer or cloud deck is no fun. Plus it had been a long day and I was tired. So instead of continuing for home I just overnighted there in Birmingham.
As I tied the main rotor blade down and gathered my bags, I looked up. Those clouds that had been south of the airport had rolled over us. The weather observer was calling it a 1,000 foot ceiling. The hills and antennas surrounding the airport are higher than that, especially in the direction I needed to go.
Sometimes you have to know when to say, "Enough." I probably could have scud-run my way out of Birmingham and probably could have found a clear enough area to climb to altitude. And I probably would've been able to get back into Home Base. But why chance it if you don't have to? It's nice to have options. And in this case, the best option was to just stay put for the night.
And so this bright, clear, sunny Monday morning, I took off at a little after nine a.m. for home. It was a beautiful flight. I even had a little tailwind the whole way. The weather gods might have been messing with me yesterday, but they sure were smiling on me today.