2012 March 12, Monday
Saucier, MS to Los Angeles, CA, and on to the Philippines
This was not your typical dog or cat rescue transport! Two prized young female Nubian goats -- "Jewel" and "Harmony" -- are destined for a pampered life of peace and plenty in the Philippines. But to get there, they first they had to get from their home farm in the scenic green hilly pastures of Saucier, Mississippi to Los Angeles, California. Their human caretakers knew of On Wings Of Care's work, and they asked us if the goats could fly with us together in one large comfortable crate and be well tended for the entire flight. Well, of course! That's what we do for animals. The only hitch was how to get them from Mississippi across Texas, which was beset with dense lines of thunderstorms all week due to a very slow moving cold front.
The weather depiction charts looked like one of the horror stories of all time from the Weather Channel. We had had to postpone the trip from Wednesday to Thursday, then to Saturday, and then to Monday. Monday looked like a possible brief window of flyable weather. Tuesday threatened to slam Louisiana and Mississippi with a week of storms from new tropical fronts. We readied the plane and they readied the goats, all the while running to our phones or computers every few hours to check the status of that front moving slowly in from Texas. At 4am Monday in New Orleans, the skies were exploding with lightning and thunder. We called our friends to advise them to go back to bed for a few hours, but they were already on the road with the goats! With some serious thunderstorm cells between us and them, we headed off to meet them. Although the ground transfer took place in the rain, we proceeded with it because the storm cells were moving fast enough northeastward that it seemed possible that they would pass and allow us to take off safely by 0830 or so. That would be a very late start to try to make it to California that evening, especially since that front from Texas was causing seriously strong headwinds. But it seemed better to chance an overnight goat adventure in a Motel 6 in Arizona somewhere than to delay and then not be able to get out for the rest of the week. Such are the behind-the-scenes efforts involved with flying rather than driving in the animal rescue transport arena!
The goats were as sweet and friendly and cooperative as could be. Jewel and Harmony each wore brand new bright red nylon collars with matching leashes, and their crate was fitted luxuriously with a thick bed of cedar shavings, lots of hay to munch on, and a water bowl securely hung from the wall. While two friends put the empty crate into the airplane, I walked the girls around for one last stretch. Ohhhh were they sweet! Gentle, calm, self-assured, affectionate. These gals definitely have the "beauty-queen poise" genes! I half-joked with my friends and said "Maybe my next dogs should be goats! These gals are incredibly easy!" I lifted them into the plane and their crate, and they lay down, chose some strands of hay and began munching contentedly. That was a relief for me on one front (no pun intended) -- the goats were going to be easy. Now to figure out what route to take through this weather. Here are videos of the start of the girls' adventure!
Our IFR flight plan was filed for departure at 0830, and we left exactly on time. As soon as we got through the first low-lying cloud layers, our Garmin weather radar screamed with red, showing that the direct route was going to be impossible. Air Traffic Control invited us to deviate south or north, our choice, and basically said we should do whatever we felt we needed. (The quiet radio suggested that nobody else was up there flying around...) I decided to deviate southward, so we wouldn't be trying to outrun those cells as they moved northeastward.
It was a full-time job flying through those beautiful but merciless layers and lines of turbulent cumulus build-ups, and I don't know as I've ever been as grateful as I was then, that we invested in the XM weather option for our GPS unit last year. By the time we reached 10,000' and were continuing up to 12,000', the girls in their crate were konked out asleep. They weren't even noticing the bumps and jostling around that the clouds were giving us. "Whew", I thought, because I really needed to concentrate on flying. It was an attention-grabbing several hours before we broke out into where we could see blue skies ahead and just a solid overcast below us. I was pretty happy up at 12,000', because there were occasional gaps in the clouds that permitted me to see where the worst build-ups were, so I could guide deviate in an informed way. But just then, Air Traffic Control (ATC) informed me that if I couldn't go up to 18,000' (which of course Bessie could not -- what did they think this Cessna 172 had under her cowling, anyway?), I would have to descend to 10,000' in order to avoid arrivals and departures around Lake Charles. When I told them I would prefer not to descend, they told me my alternative was to turn 60 degrees to the right (northward). It didn't take me long to figure out that doing that could add hours to the trip, so I turned the pitot heat back on (a heater for the airspeed instrument needed when flying in cold precipitation) and braced myself for more hard instrument flying.
And it was hard. Those clouds may look pretty and gently puffy on their boundaries, but inside those castles of cotton are steel-bending forces. My radar led me around the worst of them, but more than once Bessie was being pushed nose-up while I was pushing her hard nose-down. I glanced at the goats a couple of times, and those blessed peaceful spirits were sound asleep. After I came out of the last really difficult cloud and into some clear sky where I could see the clouds around me again, I spotted a rainbow just ahead of me. I mean just ahead. I flew right through it! That was one of the neatest things ever, not that I could feel anything, but just noticing that I was doing it! I also took it as a sign that some good hearts somewhere were making this flight with us, and somehow the universe was making safe pathways appear for us.
Around San Angelo, Texas, we were finally in the clear with nothing fighting us except the 30-kt westerlies. Now, 30 kts of headwind may not be much for jet aircraft that travel at 400-500 kts. But our good old reliable "Bessie" cruises at around 120 kts, so that headwind meant a loss of about 25% of our typical ground speed -- or more importantly, 25% more time to our trip.
I chose small, uncrowded airports for refueling, first because fuel prices tend to be lower there and second because I didn't want to draw a lot of attention to the goats and hoped for a place where I could take them out for a stretch on the grass. So we stopped first at Lampasas, TX, and then at Lordsburg, NM. Never saw a soul at either airport. The girls didn't seem to want or need to get out, so I just refueled and we took off again. Those two fuel stops combined didn't cost us more than 40 minutes on the ground. My fastest pit stops ever!
It was growing dark by the time we made Phoenix. I told myself we could always land somewhere between there and Blythe, CA and spend the night, but the brilliant star-studded desert night sky gave me a second wind (or was it the Eliza Gilkyson music I decided to play on my iPod about that time?). Once I could see the distant lights of Palm Springs, the sleepies were gone and we were looking toward home. We picked up the ILS (instrument landing system) for our home airport a long ways out and followed that to help find our way efficiently across the endless sea of lights that are the Los Angeles basin. I was amazed to see lights, because forecasts earlier in the day had called for an overcast marine layer! I had mentally prepared myself to have to come in to Los Angeles on instruments and had just hoped that our home airport would not be too socked in to land there. We landed smoothly at around 9:45 pm PDT (11:45 pm back in New Orleans). I noticed later, after arriving home, that by midnight, the entire Los Angeles basin had become covered in that predicted thick marine layer. That universe-helping-out thing again.
The goats' new handler was there and waiting at the hangar of our longtime friend and airplane mechanic. They waved us in, I parked the plane, and it was all smiles from then on. They took video of me unloading the goats, but I'm very sorry to say I inadvertently erased it a few minutes ago (aggh! I'm so sorry!). Suffice it to say, the girls were pleased to get out and walk around and greet us, and especially pleased when I opened the container of special goat food. Simple pleasures make for happy goats, and happy goats are really easy company to be around! I walked them around for a bit while the guys transferred the crate to the car, and then lifted the goats back into their crate. No complaints, easy as could be.
The girls had held their bladders almost the entire time -- about 30 minutes before landing, as we began a gentle descent around Palm Springs, I noticed an odor that told me that at least one of them had urinated. Another pleasant surprise though -- not only are goat "poops" odorless and trivial to pick up, their "pee" is also very mild! (Or was it all those cedar chips?) After this pleasant goat adventure, it occurred to me that maybe people who have such troubles with behaviors of their cats and dogs should have pet goats instead!
Apologies for losing the video. Here are a few photos I snapped with my cell phone during breaks in the clouds while we flying through the weather in east Texas and Louisiana.