The AOPA’s 2012 “Tougher Than A Tornado” Sweepstakes Husky will have traveled to all four corners of the United States by the time it is awarded to its winner in Palm Springs, California in the fall.
It’s already been to western Montana and coastal Maine. But returning to Lakeland, Florida, where it was tossed about by the infamous Sun ’n Fun tornado in 2011 (and earned its “tougher than a tornado” monicker) was perhaps the most challenging outing from a weather standpoint.
The 2012 Sun ’n Fun Fly-In brought with it a gorgeous weather forecast of sunshine for almost the entire week of the event. But getting there in advance from AOPA’s home base in the mid-Atlantic in a VFR-only airplane required making lots of “over, under, or around” decisions regarding the low ceilings and rain that can almost always be found on the 750-nm route in early spring.
This year, a persistent overcast in Maryland and Virginia, rain showers in North Carolina, thunderstorms South Carolina, and headwinds and turbulence in Florida, made the south-bound trip especially challenging from a weather standpoint—but still safely doable with the Tornado Husky’s capable tools.
The Tornado Husky’s instrument panel has a Garmin GPSMAP 696 linked to graphical XM Satellite Weather that allows pilots to make informed choices about conditions well beyond what they can see through the windshield. The Doppler radar displays as well as METARs and TAFs proved especially handy this year as weather came into play throughout the trip which began on an overcast afternoon in Maryland.
Instead of making the trip solo, this year AOPA President Craig Fuller accompanied the Tornado Husky in his own airplane, a 1999 Husky A-1A that he was bringing to Sun ‘n Fun for the week. (Huskys run in packs!)
Leaving Maryland, we crept along under the overcast, flew through the well-known notch in the mountains at Harpers Ferry, the historic town where the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers meet, and continued southwest through Virginia’s scenic Shenandoah Valley.
We finally happened upon our first blue sky there and climbed to 6,500 feet where we easily topped the low clouds. We had planned to fly to the Atlanta, Georgia, area but a building line of rain and thunderstorms seen on the XM Weather display along that route convinced us to make a left turn toward the coast instead. In addition to being more direct, it also has much lower elevations and, on this day, fewer clouds.
We refueled in Danville, Virginia, then set our sights on Beaufort County Airport (a.k.a. “Frogmore International”) and expected to arrive a few minutes after sunset. Having elected to go over the clouds on the first leg of the trip, we went around them on the second, but still managed to get good and wet at the edges of a few downpours in the carolinas.
Paul Harrop, a videographer who recently joined AOPA and was traveling in the Tornado Husky with me and making his first cross-country trip in a GA airplane. I guess I felt compelled to reassure him about the weather many times during the journey, and the laconic Oklahoman eventually tired of my frequent (and false) pronouncements that each line of showers we went around would be the last before a “straight shot” to our destination.
“You don’t need to keep saying that,“ he told me. “I’ll panic when you panic—and not before.”
For the record, no one in our traveling party ever panicked. But I did push the power on the Tornado Husky’s 180-horsepower Lycoming engine up and had the three-blade MT prop singing at 2,500 rpm for the final dash into Beaufort.
(My wingman, whose 13-year-old Husky is equipped with normal-sized tires instead of the Tornado Husky’s 29-inch Alaskan Bushwheels, had no trouble keeping up.)
We arrived a few minutes after sunset and landed on the east-facing Runway 7 with the powerful LED landing lights on the Tornado Husky’s left wing putting out a beam powerful enough to stun the swarms of sand flies that call the marsh home.
The next morning brought patchy fog and rain, but conditions improved enough by mid-morning to get underway. We hugged the east coast as a flight of two until Savannah, Georgia, then turned inland and flew under the clouds for a time, then over them, to Cross City, our final refueling point and a time-honored stop for many fliers on the way to or from Sun ’n Fun.
The last leg to central Florida involved a stiff headwind and air lumpy enough to convince Paul to put down his video camera. And the Tornado Husky, which got a few good baths on the way south from the passing rain, sparkled in the Florida sunshine as it prepared to greet Sun ’n Fun visitors—one of whom may even get to take it home from AOPA Summit 2012.