Saturday, December 13, 2014

Coal Country

Ever on the lookout for the occasional confluence of flyable weather and a new and interesting place to visit coinciding with Myday, I was intrigued by a destination suggestion proffered by Kyle, Master Harmonica Tuner for The Jackson Two. The most common form of 'Interesting Place' is an airport with an on-premise restaurant, and while Kyle had been to Big Sandy before, I had not. So, it was "new to me," as used car buyers are wont to say.

Big Sandy is in Kentucky, which is really the only explanation you need to understand why I haven't been there. It's an odd quirk in my decades of flying that I tend to fly to the north or to the west, with an occasional exception being made for specific destinations. I suppose the 'west' aspect could be explained by the presence of controlled airspace that I have to go around if I'm headed east, but that would be considered a somewhat silly consideration if I had to testify to it in court. At 130+ mph, that simply isn't much of an impediment. A facile argument like that would quite fairly warrant an accusation of Grubering. In any event, the southern regions remain more or less virgin territory for me, while Kyle, who lives in the southern part of Ohio, has for more experience with that region.

Big Sandy is also pretty far away. And, well, gas is kind of spendy. At least the kind of gas that I'm fueling the plane with - it's somewhat frustrating to be spend almost $6 a gallon for gas that the Rotax actively dislikes while the fuel that it does like is going for less than half of that. Besides which, it's somewhat silly and wasteful for us to both fly to the same place when his airport is almost directly on the path I would follow if I was flying direct to Big Sandy. The solution was simple: I would fly south as far as Kyle's airport and we would both fly down to Kentucky in his plane. That would give him a chance to fly too, and he would be doing it for $2.67 a gallon.


And so it was that I arrived at the airport presumably dressed adequately for the conditions, but a temperature of 27F and a 9 knot wind combine their efforts in pursuit of finding any little area of skin that may have been left exposed. In this case, it was my ears. It's funny that it takes awhile to re-learn how to dress for wintry weather, each and every year. The Rotax doesn't seem to care one way or the other, especially when its oil is kept at a balmy 150F by the electric preheater. Oddly enough, the new ADSB box did object - it did not come online with the rest of the electronic gadgetry.This being a very new experience, I was at something of a loss as to what to do about it. Leaning heavily on my 35 years of experience with computers, I resolved that the simplest and more often than not most effective rectifying action would be the classic "turn it off and back on again" gambit.

It worked.

The tower was reporting a crystalline pool of air (he said sarcastically) allowing for a mind-boggling seven miles of visibility. That sounds like plenty to people that measure visibility as being able to see the car in front of you, but 7 miles in the air really isn't that much. It's not as bad as it was in pre-GPS days, but it can still be problematic in certain conditions, as we will soon see. But yes, modern technologies have absolutely addressed the two major concerns with low-ish visibility flight, in varying degree.

With regards to navigation, GPS-based navigation has completely removed the "where in the heck am I?" angst incumbent with older technologies. In the old days (the 80's and early 90's), navigation aids were sprinkled relatively sparsely about the landscape. The 'beacons' we used as references to the places you wanted to go. You would use a map and a ruler/protractor to plot a heading from the beacon to the airport you were heading to. The distance from the beacon to the airport could be a significant number of miles. The combination of the beacon and an instrument in the airplane would insure that you knew that you were on the bearing line. Trial and error would eventually allow you to setting on a heading that would more or less keep you on that line despite crosswinds, but would not provide any indication as to distance from the beacon or to the destination unless your place had a very expensive piece of additional equipment. Very few rentals had that piece of kit.

Note, please, that this form of navigation was the best case, There were also beacons that provided nothing more than a needle that pointed directly at them. You could figure out if you were on the correct line or not, but it required mental gymnastics that could be hard to master. Also keep in mind that the precision of the navigation solution lessened with distance from the beacon, so flying TO a beacon was preferable to navigating FROM a beacon.

GPS has none of those weaknesses. If you get lost while navigating with a GPS, well, you might consider a new hobby. Just sayin'.

With the old style navigation, you commonly supplemented your understanding of your current location with a technique carrying the pretentious title of 'pilotage.' Translated to its inherent mundanity, all it really means is "looking out the window." The charts showed towns, roads, lakes, rivers, railroad tracks, and any number of identifying features on the ground. In low visibility, it was easy for this technique to fail.

GPS solved all of that, and with the modern moving map technology, it is nearly impossible to get lost.

The other big concern with low visibility days was the utter inability to see other airplanes. That has been partially solved by the ADSB box that I installed. It does a pretty good job of alerting me to other airplanes, but I don't fully trust it to detect and report every possible target. There's still a bit of reliance on the big sky theory when the air gets murky. I'm jumping way ahead in the story here, but consider this picture of my arrival back at home base later in the day. There are three other planes being shown, but that are all at least 1,100' above my current altitude. What isn't shown is the Cessna that was on left base, landing at KTZR. Had there not been a control tower in operation, I might never have seen him. He was on the radio, of course, so I would/should (depending on his mood/abilities) known he was there, but the point is still valid. ADSB does not solve the low viz issues to the same degree that GPS does.

The low-ish visibility isn't always a problem. Many times it just depends on what direction you're looking in. Just off the runway and climbing to the south, the west looked fairly decent, although the picture makes it look better than it was.

The south, on the other hand... not so great. The sun tends to make the low-lying haze very opaque in the mornings and evenings.

That sharp, distinct line on the horizon that starkly delineates the murky, hazy air I was dealing with while climbing to altitude from the crystal clear air that I found at 5,500' is caused by a temperature inversion. I actually felt it before I noticed it visually; I was impressed at how well the somewhat mediocre heater was working at what should have been 20F or thereabouts. Sure enough, the SKyview helpfully provided a more accurate value: 42F.

A temperature inversion is a thin layer of the atmosphere where the normal decrease in temperature with height switches to the temperature increasing with height. An inversion acts like a lid, keeping normal convective overturning of the atmosphere from penetrating through the inversion.

This can cause several weather-related effects. One is the trapping of pollutants below the inversion, allowing them to build up. If the sky is very hazy, or is sunsets are very red, there is likely an inversion somewhere in the lower atmosphere. This happens more frequently in high pressure zones, where the gradual sinking of air in the high pressure dome typically causes an inversion to form at the base of a sinking layer of air.

Another effect that an inversion has is to make clouds just below the inversion to spread out and take on a flattened appearance. For instance, marine stratocumulus clouds over cold ocean waters; or the tops of thunderstorms when they reach the base of the stratosphere, which also forms a temperature inversion.
Like so:

On the plus side, even though I couldn't really see where I was going, I was getting there right quickly due to a pretty decent tailwind. 158 mile per hour is a blistering pace in an RV-12!

With the air as smooth as the scalp under my comb-over and the autopilot taking care of the scut work of flying the plane, I was able to just sit back and relax. With very little to see out in front of me, it was easy to just ride along watching the gauges to make sure everything was mechanically copacetic and no interlopers had popped up on the traffic display. It was also easy to be completely surprised when I noticed that I was only 7 miles away from Jackson Co. and still at 5,500'.   That extra 40-some miles per hour kinda snuck up on me.

The nice thing about a small, light plane is that it's pretty simple to just throttle back and point the nose down. I was able achieve a 1,500 foot per minute descent while also slowing the plane down to 90-95 knots. Naturally this eventually put me right back down in the scuddy air, but I have struggled with finding Jackson Co. airport on bright, shiny days to have formulated a fool proof way of finding it: I just follow highway 35 past the city of Jackson until I see the building with the red roof, then turn right about 30 degrees. That puts me on a straight line towards runway 19.

There was a problem, though. The thick, hazy air sucked all of the color out of everything, and even at 2,000' it was hard to really pick out a lot of details. The GPS confirmed that I had found the proper landmark, so I turned towards the runway. It was still hard to see that close in, but I could see enough of it to know that I was still too high. Down went the flaps, my right foot clamped down on its assigned rudder pedal, and down we came in a slip. The slip served perfectly to shed the excess altitude and I flared right over the numbers.

The wind was a direct crosswind and did nothing to slow the speed we were going over the ground, so I rolled out a little further down the runway than usual, but I was still able to make the 2nd turnoff. Just as I got the plane reined in enough to make the turn, I saw something a little unusual off to the side of the runway:

Trust me on this: just when you think you've seen it all.....

I wasn't really sure what to do about this. I didn't cotton to the idea of someone's lost dog getting run over by an airplane, but I didn't want to shut down the plane on the runway so I could jump out and get the dog. I decided I'd pull off onto the taxiway first. That actually solved everything - it was soon apparent that the dog was not lost at all - it simply belonged to a careless worker in the group of contractors that are building the new terminal building.

The plane transfer went easily enough and we were soon in the neighborhood of the Big Sandy airport. Big Sandy is coal country - any land that wasn't being actively mined already had been. The only other sign of life in the region was this imposing compound:

I'm not sure if is common to put prisons near airports or if I just notice them more from the higher vantage point I have when flying, but it sure does seem like the two are deliberately placed in proximity to each other. Presumably to aid in escapes, I guess. Seems to me that it presents something of a (wait for it.... waaaiiiitttt foorrr iiitttt.....) flight risk.

In any event, I took one look at that place and told Kyle that it must be a federal prison just by the look of it. The Feds can print as much money as they want, states can't. This one looked expensive. And with six guard towers and what looked like three separate layers of fence, it also looked like a pretty serious place.

As it turns out, I was correct on all counts.
The United States Penitentiary, Big Sandy (USP Big Sandy) is a high-security United States federal prison for male inmates in Kentucky, near Inez. It is operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, a division of the United States Department of Justice. The facility also has a satellite prison camp which houses minimum-security male inmates.
USP Big Sandy is located in eastern Kentucky, approximately 163 miles (262 km) from Frankfort, and 140 miles (230 km) from Lexington.

Notable inmates (current and former)

Inmate NameRegister NumberStatusDetails
Roy Belfast, Jr.76556-004Serving a 97-year sentence; scheduled for release in 2091.Son of former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor; convicted in 2008 of crimes related to the torture of his father's political and military opponents in Liberia between 1999 and 2003; the first prosecution of a US citizen for committing acts of torture outside the US.
Vicente Garcia, Jr.43509-279Serving a 40-year sentence; scheduled for release in 2043.Second-in-command or "Supreme Regional Inca" to Chicago Latin Kings leader or "Corona" Augustin Zambrano; convicted in 2011 of racketeering conspiracy for running a drug-trafficking enterprise which engaged in murder, attempted murder, assault, and extortion.
Shain Duka61284-066Serving a life sentence.Involved in the 2007 Fort Dix attack plot; convicted in 2008 of conspiring to kill American soldiers and possessing firearms with the intent to conduct a terrorist attack at the New Jersey military base. Four accomplices are serving sentences in other federal facilities.
Abdi Wali Dire
Said Abdi Fooley
Serving a life sentence.Somalis convicted of piracy; Dire for a 2010 attack on the American warship USS Nicholas, Fooley for the 2010 hijacking of the civilian yacht Quest, during which four US citizens were killed; the convictions marked the first time in over 190 years that an American jury has convicted defendants of piracy.
Eli Mungia26371-077Serving a life sentence.White supremacist; convicted of civil rights and weapons violations for taking part in a shooting spree targeting African-Americans in Lubbock, Texas, killing one man and wounding two others.
Lonnell Glover22163-083Serving a life sentence.Drug kingpin; convicted in 2008 of drug trafficking conspiracy for his role as leader of a Washington, D.C. PCP ring, described as the largest in the city's history, which distributed over $1 million of the drug during the mid-2000s.
Maurice Douglas10951-007Serving a life sentence.Convicted in 1998 of first-degree murder in connection with the fatal shooting of Officer Robert L. Johnson of the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Department on April 27, 1997; accomplice Dominic Gibson was also sentenced to life.
Grim, yes, but still fascinating in a way.

I don't claim to be an expert on the subject, or even a novice, but this looks like reclaimed mine land to me:

The black rubber stripes at the end of this road come from a pretty obvious source. I doubt if they deliberately built a road perfectly suiting for illicit drag racing, but to do so would have only required the addition of the starting lights:

As is typical of many airports in Kentucky and West Virginia, there is a hard and fast rule about landing: land short, you die.

Definitely coal country. That big chunk of black rock is a clue. There was a broken off piece sitting on top of it that I considered taking as a souvenir, but I decided against it. Coal is abused enough already by "green" electric car driving people who vilify it as an energy source, seemingly unaware that their "green" car actually runs on it. They don't need some yankee flying in from the north and stealing it.

Well, that and the fact that the place next door didn't look all that appealing should I get caught. Having now seen the list of potential roommates, I think I decided wisely.

The airport building is welcoming by anyone's standards.

As is the cafe/diner.

I held the door open for a woman that was coming in - she turned out to be the person that makes these little "who was here" signs. She said she'd be happy to make one for both Kyle and me, but we lost track of her and couldn't find her later to write down the info. Maybe next time.

Ah, 'tis the season,

The decor made it clear that this was an airport cafe to its very core:

I have been to many, many airport restaurants with cutesy, themed menus, but I don't remember ever seeing this particular pun:

Or this one, for that matter:

There were a couple things that stood out from the normal diner fare. Chief amongst them was the Captains's Pork Chop.

A close second was the 172 Monto Cristo. I had trouble getting the image, whether it be right or wrong, of a deep-fried sandwich out of my head, so I went with the Captain.

I was not disappointed!

I looked up the Monto Cristo when I got home. I don't think I would have been disappointed in it either, although I do think it should be named the Monto Crisco™ instead:

They even have a recovery room for anyone that over indulges in the fried stuff:

On the way out, Kyle notice this, and commented on how it must be a lonely job:

Having now had the chance to determine what the function of that division is, I would also hazard that it's probably a thankless job too, but shouldn't be:
The Division of Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) works throughout the state’s coal fields to protect the public from health and safety problems caused by mining that occurred prior to 1982. 
Examples of hazards that can be found on abandoned mine sites are landslides, water-filled pits, open mine portals and dilapidated equipment and buildings. The division restores these degraded sites to a safe and environmentally stable condition through a process known as reclamation. 
The division also administers a bond forfeiture reclamation program. Before coal companies begin mining at a site, they must post a reclamation bond. A company's bond may be forfeited to the Commonwealth if the company fails to mine and reclaim a site to the standards specified in its mining permit. The forfeited funds are used by the state to reclaim the site for which the bond was posted. 
AML also administers a water supply replacement program. The division extends waterlines into areas where drinking water has been contaminated by past mining.
So, yeah, I do have to admit that there is a valid point to be made regarding coal mining's effects on the environment, but that's true of nearly all of the traditional manufacturing practices. Clearly that situation is not what it used to be. There's also a strong argument for finding suitable replacements for it. 

Thorny, difficult issues to be sure.

As trying as times are in Coal Country, some of the locals don't seem overly concerned about it at all.

I have to think sleeping in the shade of a wing is a habit for this guy - the temperatures were in the high 40's, probably not high enough to provide and actual need for shade.

All in all, Big Shady is a friendly place to visit.

Reclaimed or not, it's also quite scenic.

Coming back north, I couldn't help thinking that if I was able to travel back in time, I would buy up all of the land that surrounds river confluences. They are all heavily developed in support of river-borne commerce.

I thought the difference in the color of the water was interesting. I'm guessing that it's the result of the faster Ohio picking up more silt and sediment than the desultory tributary.

The flight back was as smooth as the outbound leg had been, but the hazy air was still a factor. This was my view as I turned to the southwest for landing:

1 comment:

Chris said...

Great destination! My family and I stopped at Big Sandy four years ago for lunch. We found the folks to be friendly and the cafe whimsical. We made some good memories there and I'm glad to know that the cafe is still operating.

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