Michael McCafferty - European Biplane Tour

To Go or Not To Go

Stuttgart, Germany

I woke up early after a night of good sleep, fully rested and ready to fly. The weather outside the window was sunny, but with puffy rain clouds in the vicinity. The ceiling looked low, but high enough to fly. Soon the phone rang with Mattias' call. He had already looked up the aviation weather forecast and mapped out a route to our next stop. The forecast was for ceilings no less than 500 feet above the ground, with rain throughout the day, but getting worse around 11am. The long term forecast was for more of the same, and worse, for the next two days. His feeling was that if we left before 9am we could make it. We agreed to meet for breakfast after showering and go for it.

By the time we finished breakfast and checked out of the hotel, the weather was looking a lot different. The ceiling was still flyable, but the sky was a lot darker. I was not feeling comfortable. There was additional pressure to go flying because Nici's vacation would end next Wednesday, and she was very much looking forward to getting to the north coast of Europe as soon as possible.

Mattias felt ok with going flying because he knows the territory. I reviewed the proposed route on the chart, looking for radio towers and power lines, obstructions that would be a nasty end to the flight if visibility and ceilings forced me in harm's way. There were none! Mattias and I discussed the details. He said he felt we could fly around rainstorms, but if we got separated, like we did in the Alps, I would probably be on my own to find an alternate destination, or to make it through. That really didn't bother me. I had all the right avionics to find my way.

What I didn't like was the way the sky looked. Big dark gray cumulus clouds hanging low and moving fast from the northwest. It had already rained this morning, and the sky in the direction we had to go was not looking very good either.

Go or No-Go? That's the big question in aviation. Sometimes there is just no clear answer. According to the numbers (forward visibility, ceiling, wind speed, forecasts, etc), it was flyable, but just barely. The final decision came down to unquantifiable gut feelings.

My philosophy on the Go or No-Go question is based on the basic premise that I am flying for pleasure, not business. There is just no reason which would force me to go flying the way an airline pilot is required to. I have no schedule to meet, no paying passengers counting on reaching their destination. I have the great luxury of looking up in the sky and deciding if it will be fun to go fly. And this morning, it didn't. The final straw came when we considered that even if we did reach our destination for today, the next couple of days would be even worse weather, so why push it?

We decided to keep our planes in the hangar. So then what? Jump on a commercial airliner and head for sunshine? How about Madrid? Guaranteed to have sunshine. No, because it would take a day to get there, and a day to get back, and we would only have a day to play before the sun was due back in Germany. We decided to rent a car and drive to Stuttgart, about 100 kilometers from Donaueschlingen, for a first class hotel, some shopping, entertainment and good food. Nici really brightened up at the thought of shopping, and had never been to Stuttgart before. Things were looking more like fun.

About 5 minutes after we absolutely decided not to fly, the sky opened up with a huge torrential downpour, and lasted for the next hour! If we had just gone flying, without all the decision making, we would have been taking off, or sitting on the ramp in all this rain, and we would have been totally soaked.

Mattias rented a big Mercedes Benz, and soon we were on the main highway to Stuttgart. Mattias drove, Nici was stretched out in the back seat, and I was riding shotgun. Out of my peripheral vision I saw a car riding our bumper, and Mattias was doing well over 80mph. He pulled over to let the other guy go past, and a couple more cars passed us like we were standing still. Then the thought came to me: This is Germany. Autobahn. No speed limits! Wow!!! And I turned to Mattias and said: "Hey Mattias, let's go driving on the Autobahn, where is that?" His reply was simply "This is it!".

Absolutely incredible. Ever since I was a kid dreaming about fast cars, the Autobahn has always had an irresistible pull. No speed limit at all! What a fantasy. Here you could drive as fast as you wanted, and never have to look in the rear view mirror for police. No radar. Wow!!

We were still in a driving rain (pun intended), and since this was the first time I've been on the Autobahn, I figured I would take a pass at driving this big Mercedes for now, and take it for a spin when the road was more dry, maybe on the weekend when the big truck traffic is less, it isn't raining, and I know more about the road. I can't wait!

Mattias did a great job of driving, and in some stretches we were doing over 110 mph. It was an eerie feeling to blast along without looking over my shoulder for police. I am thinking how great it would be to drive the Ferrari over here.

After checking in at the Hotel Inter-Continental, with the assistance of the fun-loving and spirited Daniella at the front desk, we all went shopping on Konigstrasse. This is a 2km long shopping mall, with loads of good stuff. Nici loved it! I keep looking for a PCMCIA card for my laptop which I can use to download video from the JVC digital video recorder. Nobody over here seems to know anything about it. Any ideas? I want to upload some video to the web site, maybe some action shots of landing on a grass field, or what it looks like at 150mph on the Autobahn, or flying low over the English Channel.

I love this stuff. This morning I never even knew where Stuttgart was. Now I'm here, and really enjoying it. What an adventure! I wonder what will happen next?

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