“Gunnison Crested Butte Regional Airport, automated weather observation one three zero seven Zulu, wind calm, visibility one zero, sky conditions 600 scattered, overcast 4,400, temperature one-two Celsius, dewpoint one-one Celsius, altimeter three zero four one, remarks, density altitude 8,400.”
I listened to the automated Gunnison AWOS with more than usual interest as I drove from Crested Butte, Colorado on an early Saturday morning in late July. I was headed to Dallas (KDAL) with precious cargo, my family. The “monsoon season” had just begun, creating a vast wet weather pattern throughout the Rockies. Most of the mountain peaks were shrouded in cloud as light mist covered my rental car windshield.
I squirmed a little in my seat.
My personal minimums for departing Gunnison’s uncontrolled airport are 5,000 and 5, which offers me a safety margin in case I need an immediate return. The nearest alternate is Montrose about 50 miles away, requiring a climb over mountainous terrain.
I arrived 45 minutes before the family to pre-flight and look closely at the weather. The heavier precipitation was just west of Gunnison and stationary. Weather on our departure route was better, skies clearing east of the front range. I had no idea about the tops or icing reports this early in the morning.
The airport, normally bustling on a summer weekend, was eerily quiet.
Our C90A, with an increased gross weight mod, would allow a non-stop flight to Dallas with a full passenger load. But departing at close to gross weight would not be safe. Our climb performance in the event of an engine failure after takeoff would be marginal. And given that our climb would be in solid IMC conditions, I wanted optimum performance. A fuel stop in Amarillo (KAMA) was the safest option.
I noticed a TBM land after an ILS approach to runway six. As the passengers deplaned, I asked who the pilot was. “I am,” the youngest one said. “Any icing on the approach?” I questioned. “I got light icing above FL240 but nothing below 18,000,” he responded.
Now I had a little more knowledge. Enough to make the go/no-go decision.
Passengers boarded, Patty reading the checklist and holding short of runway zero six, I called Denver Center. “November three niner six delta mike, I have a King Air on the approach to Gunnison. You are cleared as filed, climb and maintain one-six thousand, contact me on one two four point five after departure, hold for release,” came the clearance.
The B200 King Air crossed high over the threshold and used all of the 9,000-foot runway. Released for takeoff, I had the obstacle departure programmed into the Garmin G1000 flight plan, including a right turn after takeoff and a climb in the hold at Blue Mesa VOR. We were enveloped in the clouds within 2,000 feet. This is probably the highest workload environment in a multi-engine turboprop – power management, checks for icing, airspeed control, communicating and navigating, all simultaneously.
The Pratt -135 engines on the airplane had us climbing at 1,600 feet per minute through thick moisture-laden clouds. Prior to the hold, we were already passing 15,000. “Center, three niner six delta mike requesting direct Alamosa,” I said. “Six delta mike, you are cleared direct destination.”
We broke out at FL230 into beautiful skies and headed home.