Saturday, October 15, 2016

That Old Autumn Magic

Modest Goals

There is magic in the combination of flight, fall color, and mountainous terrain.

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hours) Total Time (hours)
15 Oct 2016 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - B06 (Vergennes, VT) - RME (Rome, NY) - SDC 4.0 1596.4

Pilot and copilot. One of them is not properly using her microphone.

On a sunny October morning, The Bear and I set out for the Basin Harbor Airport (B06) for lunch at the Red Mill. A turf facility on the Vermont side of Lake Champlain, Basin Harbor is a beloved destination for aviators in the Northeast. It would be our first - and very overdue - visit there as well as The Bear's first time landing on grass. Underpinning the entire trip was a desire to see some of that fall magic as our route took us across the Adirondack Mountains bedecked in their harvest time colors.

While it is true that the Lake Ontario shore possess its own beauty, it is so familiar and close to home that it is always more exciting to venture into a different part of the world.

As we climbed into the air, The Bear was well-armed with her camera so that she might capture a little bit of that autumn magic to call her own.

Elementary Mountain Flying

When the Earth below wrinkled and stretched skyward to form the Adirondacks, The Bear booted her digital camera and waited for just the right shot. With some significant surface winds out of the south, I chose a cruise altitude of 7,500' in hopes of avoiding any significant updrafts while still remaining below an active Military Operations Area with a NOTAMed floor of 8,000' (the area in question is usually only active Monday through Friday with a floor of 6,000').

As the terrain below became more aggressive, I warned The Bear that there might be some bumps.

"I think I know why," she said. "Can I say?"

At my nod, she explained, "I think the wind hits the mountains and gets pushed up and that's what makes the bumps."

Spot on. She's a smart Bear.

We crossed the Adirondacks well south of the High Peaks.

I am always struck by the inhomogeneous distribution of color along the mountain slopes.

Lake Champlain lies along the center of a large, wide basin between the eastern Adirondacks and the Green Mountains of Vermont. Once we cleared the mountains, we descended into the wide valley surrounding the lake.

Basin Harbor Club

Basin Harbor is easy to locate, situated directly opposite a distinctive barb in Lake Champlain near Westport, NY.

We flew across Westport, NY (above) and out over Lake Champlain. ADS-B showed numerous targets inbound to Basin Harbor that were also confirmed by Burlington Approach. I chose to stay high to survey the lay of the land before joining the flow of traffic.

Looking north along Lake Champlain

The Basin Harbor Club has existed since the 1890s. Among other things, the resort includes a golf course, the airport, and the Red Mill. With an attached golf course, the facility is easy to locate from the air. The grass runway (02-20) runs diagonally across the upper right quadrant of the above photo.

A closer look at the Basin Harbor Airport runway

As we overflew, a Cessna 120 was just touching down. Another aircraft, a Cardinal, had just entered the pattern. A Skyhawk was still a few miles out and inbound from the south. We slipped into the pattern between the Cardinal and the Skyhawk, who were obviously together based on their air-to-air radio communications.

We extended our downwind out over Lake Champlain to allow the pilot of the Cardinal time to backtaxi on the runway to parking.

Left base, runway 20, Basin Harbor. A large white tent adjacent to the runway is visible.

A stiff wind was blowing directly down the runway, causing a bumpy approach as it swirled among the trees at the approach end.

"The sun is really bright!"

"What did you think of your first grass landing?" I asked of The Bear once we were down and parked.

"It was bumpy." The Bear never pulls any punches.

"But they were soft bumps, right?" She looked at me like I'd just sprouted an aileron from my forehead.

Frankly, this was the best-manicured grass runway I'd ever seen, likely benefiting from the talents of groundskeepers from the adjacent golf course. The grass at South Haven was never this close-cropped.

Looking southwest along runway 20.

When we overflew the field, there was only a single aircraft parked below. By the time I shut the engine down, we were one of five. The Cardinal that landed ahead of us and the Skyhawk that landed behind us were both from Connecticut. Several more aircraft arrived before we departed. I counted ten aircraft parked alongside the runway when we returned to the Warrior.

The Red Mill was situated directly behind our parked airplane. The makings of an impressive bonfire stood nearby and behind the overgrown pile of kindling was...

"Daddy! There's a playground here?! Did you know that there was a playground here!" I smirked at her. Of course I did. "Why didn't you tell me that there was a playground here?!"

A Cessna 150 on short final at Basin Harbor

We watched several other people land; most acquitted themselves quite well. We observed an Ercoupe that bounced several times in what was surely a sportier landing than its pilot would have preferred in front of an audience. If Basin Harbor has large placards with numbers to grade landings like we had at South Haven, no one produced them.

The Cessna 120 that landed while we overflew the field.

A V-tailed Bonanza on short final for runway 20.

As impressed as I was with the bonfire-to-be, I found the notion of such a massive fire so close to airplane parking to be a little disconcerting. Of course, as a daytime only field, those airplanes and their very flammable fuel will be gone before this thing is lit.

Closing Time

The 2016 season was drawing to a close for the Red Mill. We arrived on the last weekend of operation. Evidently, insulation would have detracted from the rustic authenticity of the old 1940s saw mill. As a result, the Red Mill is only open between mid-May and mid-October.

As he led us to our table, which had a great view of the runway and our parked airplane, our host asked us if we were staying for that evening's Octoberfest event. He indicated the large white tent that had been erected next to the airplane parking area.

"Hmmm...airplanes and beer...I just don't know that that is a good combination..." I offered. He laughed.

As the world's greatest authority on chicken fingers, The Bear stayed true to form with her lunch order and she thoroughly enjoyed everything. I ordered the Maryland Crab Cake BLT. It was wonderful, packing an unexpected citrus tang with every bite.

Our Jamaican waitress, Barbara, checked in on us while I was eating The Bear's applesauce. Caught red-handed, I summoned my best Jedi-mind-trick voice and said, "You didn't just see me eating the child's applesauce."

"Oh, no, of course not," she agreed in her lilting accent.

It worked!

The Little General

As I finished my meal (OK, actually, The Bear's applesauce), The Bear contemplated the elaborate play structure outside while talking her way through a plan of attack.

"Like a general before the battlefield," I commented aloud.

"What are you talking about, Daddy?"

In what must have made for delightful lunchtime viewing by my fellow pilots, The Bear and I ran around and played on the playground equipment.

I learned that I am a bit too wide to successfully navigate this slide in the manner intended by its makers. The Bear found my discomfort to be very funny.

Across the Mountains

After a very enjoyable meal and time on the playground, The Bear and I launched from Basin Harbor's grass runway. It is easy to understand why Basin Harbor is such a cherished destination for pilots in the Northeast: a well maintained grass runway in a beautiful part of the world, excellent cuisine from the Red Mill restaurant, and even something to amuse the kids.

We tracked southbound along Lake Champlain toward lowering terrain before turning west on course to Griffiss International Airport.

My copilot quickly returned to Minecrafting on her Kindle.

Lake Champlain wending its way south along the Vermont - New York border

By special request from The Bear, we overflew Fort Ticonderoga, which was a favorite previous destination for us in eastern New York.

From Fort Ticonderoga, situated near the north end of Lake George, we turned southwest and flew back over the lower peaks of the southern Adirondacks.

As the mountains slid past in technicolor grandeur, The Bear dozed off.


I selected Griffiss International Airport in Rome, NY as a fuel stop on the way home. I chose it partly because I had never been there before (airport #172), partly because I am sure that I have never landed on a runway that big before (it is 11,821' by 200'), and I may have been enticed by Million Air's advertised self service fuel price of $4.15/gal. With such a ridiculously huge runway, Griffiss is obviously a re-purposed former military airport.

Incidentally, "Griffiss" is a funny thing to say on the radio. I have known people with the last names "Griffith" or "Griffiths" and saying "Griffiss" makes me feel as though I am lisping.

Pilots sometimes have trouble judging perspective when landing on a runway with substantially different dimensions from the facilities they routinely use. Over the years, I have not experienced much difficulty going between little runways and big runways.

However, the perspective caught me on this one. With the runway so long and wide compared to, well, everywhere else, my eyes told me that we were much lower than we actually were when I stabilized on final approach. It seemed to take forever to reach the pavement and, when we did, the girth of this thing exceeded my available peripheral vision in a way that the 60' wide runway at Sodus cannot. Even so, I judged the flare well and rolled the wheels on smoothly. Once on the runway, it seemed that the entire world was paved over.

I would be hard pressed to identify another landing facility more different from Basin Harbor than Griffiss.

On the ground, I asked Tower for directions to the self-serve fuel pump. It is not on the Million Air ramp, but located on an adjacent ramp off taxiway Delta (noted as "Apron B" on the official FAA airport diagram and adjacent to two rows of blue t-hangars).

The Bear awoke in the pattern at Griffiss, but even after we parked and opened the door, she was still drowsy. Evidently, I ran the Little General harder on that playground in Vermont than I realized.

After fueling, we wandered over to Million Air. As soon as we stepped into the FBO lobby, I felt underdressed and wondered if my paycheck was adequate to qualify me for entrance. The Bear was nonchalant about the place, but was very excited about a popcorn machine in the corner with little metal airplanes as door handles.

Griffiss made for a great fuel stop, despite the constant lisping. Tower was friendly and efficient, fuel was remarkably inexpensive, and the folks at Million Air were friendly enough, even to this jeans and t-shirt clad pilot of a decades-old Cherokee.

"Weird Sack"

On the way home, we fell victim to the scourge of late afternoon westbound fliers: the sun. Whereas I had my hat, The Bear chose to innovate a sun shield of her own design.

Traversing Syracuse Charlie airspace over Oneida Lake, we overheard this exchange on the radio:

"Mooney 123, contact Wheeler-Sack Approach on one two four point eight seven."

"Weird sack on one two four point eight seven, Mooney 123," came the response.

After a brief pause, Syracuse Approach came back on frequency. "WHEELER. That's Wheeler-Sack." The Mooney pilot acknowledged and switched frequencies.

Moments later a new aircraft checked in with, "Syracuse Approach, Warrior 123."

"Wheeler 123...uh...WARRIOR 123, Syracuse Approach, go ahead."

I glanced at The Bear. "Oh no, it's contagious!" Considering the confused look she gave me, I must have been sporting a second aileron on my forehead.

Same Ol', Same Ol'

As has been my custom for - oh, years - I bounced the landing at home after making terrific landings on two unfamiliar and very dissimilar runways. To be fair it was a small, gentle sort of bounce; more of a skip, really. It was nothing like the Ercoupe's performance at Basin Harbor and I take solace in that.

The Bear was too engrossed in her book to notice. Even as I gingerly removed her headset while trying not to remove any hair with it, she remained focused on the novel in her lap.

Overall, we had a great day. Highlights for The Bear included taking photos of the colorful mountains, her lunch, and the playground. Though she has been been intrigued by the notion of landing on grass for many years, the reality of it was such a nonevent that I think she was a little disappointed.

For me, it meant finally sampling a popular Northeast flying destination, a chance to take my annual autumn flight over the Adirondacks, a landing on a true monster of a runway, two new airports added to the map, and time with my favorite copilot.