I wanted to write and share this narrative for a couple of reasons. Primarily, and admittedly selfishly, I want a good account of what happened so that I can get a good dose of nostalgia whenever I feel like it. Second, I want to give back to the COPA community my experiences because without the information and experiences I learned from here I would not have even attempted this trip.
My father and I bought (my inclusion as an owner here is a stretch at best, but my name is on the LLC, so we are going to roll with it) N594TS a 2012 SR22T G3 GTS in early September 2021. He had owned a lovely PA28-180 for about a decade prior, which we thoroughly enjoyed and both learned in. He has about 1000 hours, and I have about 400 hours and my instrument rating. I got my license at the start of my senior year of high school and flying quickly became a love of mine. In late fall my family decided that we wanted to go to Cabo San Lucas after the new year for my winter break from college and to just generally get away, which we had not done in over two years because of COVID. However, as my mother was about to buy our airlines tickets I made a last-ditch effort, using some admittedly generous time and speed figures, that we might as well take the candy apple red Cirrus, which was just sitting in our hanger begging to be flown on an adventure, instead of the airlines. I had already convinced my father that this would be a trip of a lifetime and that there could not be a better way to get to know the plane than to fly it across all of North America and back, but he did not think my mother would go for it. Ultimately the decision swung my way after some more pestering. But then the daunting task of planning and executing the 2,142 NM trip set in.
I knew that we were going to be wanting to fly max range, full fuel legs to get any kind of efficiency out of the trip. Hence, the three of us only traveled with a personal bag and all of our luggage got shipped forward or was brought by my brother who would be meeting us in Mexico. His schedule did not match ours and he also would have made things impossible from a W&B perspective. Also, we were bringing the family dog, which presented its own unique challenges. My main concern for him was oxygen, which after doing research could have potentially been necessary for him above about 8,000 feet. I made oxygen preparations for him along with the rest of rest, as we would be forced to fly in the mid to high teens in Central Mexico and would prefer to fly up high when we were eastbound on the way home. MH O2D2 for upfront, a cannula setup for mom, and a special Aerox mask for the dog were all set up. I also put together a fairly comprehensive survival kit and made sure we had reliable life jackets aboard. The document list for traveling into Mexico is also a little daunting, but below is everything I prepared, which I hope is helpful.
- Airworthiness certificate
- Notarized letter providing proof of ownership and granting use of the aircraft (needed if the aircraft is owned by an LLC)
- Mexican liability insurance
- Domestic insurance policy with international permissions
- Pilot License(s)
- Radio operators license
- CBP decal
- Small animal health certificate (dog only)
- Rabies and other vaccination certifications (dog only)
Leg #1 KHVN-KIAD (12/28/2021)
My father and I were both concerned that heavier weather would be coming to the tri-state area the next morning, so we made the late afternoon call to launch a day early and head down to Washington D.C. to my apartment back at college for the night. This first major decision marked a theme for the entire trip: stay flexible and do not get frustrated. We choose KIAD because I was familiar, they have great 24hr services at Signature, it is the closest airport besides KGAI to where I live in D.C., and I don’t like flying into KGAI when the weather is questionable. Although this leg was meant to help us avoid weather, we still caught the first part of the front, and we had to deal with 50+ knot headwinds, rain, and occasional moderate turbulence on the way down. Needless to say, my mother was not thrilled with the start of our trip or my father and me, but a well-flown ILS-1R at KIAD convinced her that she was in good hands.
Leg #2 KIAD-KGAD (12/29/2021)
I planned this leg to go from KIAD to KMKL, McKellar-Sipes Regional Airport, but large weather systems moving across Tennessee and Oklahoma had other plans for us. My father made the excellent suggestion for us to dive south to avoid the weather that was moving northeast altogether. Four hours and one diversion later we ended up in Gadsden Alabama. Nothing special to say about Gadsden other than that it has inexpensive 100LL and a nice long runway with an ILS. One notable thing did happen in Gadsden though. Although we had asked to be topped off, we got filled a few gallons short on each side. My father failed to watch the fueler the whole time as the dog distracted him. As my SIC, I trusted him to make sure that sure we were full, and I did not check the tanks. A failure of my PIC responsibilities coupled with a breakdown of the PIC-SIC relationship had taken place and would lead to the unwinding of our next leg.
Leg #3 KGAD-KBHM (12/29/2021)
After a rapid VFR departure and an in-air reception of our IFR clearance to KEDC from Birmingham approach, I still believed that we had departed with full fuel. However, our fuel gauges were showing a different story and I frantically looked for a cause. Fuel flow was normal, no sign of electrical issues, no sign of instrumentation failures, but what did catch my eye was the left fuel cap, which was locked 90 degrees off-axis from how I normally latched it and was accompanied by a small stream of liquid. I immediately assumed we were leaking fuel, and my father did not rebuff this idea since to the best of his knowledge we should have departed with full tanks and our gauges were showing us abnormally low on our left side. I stopped short of declaring an emergency, but I did request an immediate descent and vectors towards Birmingham International. Another wrench in this quasi-emergency was that for some reason in the middle of the day the control tower at Birmingham International was not operating. Two commercial flights, along with a business jet, and myself were all on CTAF trying to figure out who was first in line. Birmingham approach had been nice enough to tell these other aircraft about what I still believed to be a real issue and they all allowed me priority. Upon landing and inspecting the fuel tank and cap I realized that it could indeed be latched properly in that position, that the liquid I saw was just excess TKS weeping, and that we had just been under fueled in Gadsden. A big lesson was learned about my responsibilities and how my father and I had to work better as a crew moving forward. On the plus side, I had managed myself surprisingly well under pressure for the first time in the aircraft so that helped to build confidence for the rest of the trip.