Friday, September 19, 2008

Homeward Bound

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total 
Sep 2008
5G0 (Le Roy, NY) - PTK (Waterford, MI)
5.1 860.0
Sep 2008
N21481 PTK - 5G0 5.0 865.0

I've heard that you can't go home again,
And God, I hope that's wrong.
Or is it that I just don't recognize anywhere I'm from?
-- "Always Already", Empty Orchestra*
* Thank you for the amazing lyrics, Stephen.

At 4500 feet over southern Ontario, we flew west in vain pursuit of the sun.  Struggling against both a headwind and the rotation of the Earth, we were losing the race as the sun slipped ever closer to the horizon.  I pulled my hat lower to manage the glare and watched for air traffic.  In the back seat, Kristy was feeding The Bear (above, photo by Kristy).

We were en route to Pontiac, Michigan from our home in western New York.  While this would be our third trip into Oakland County International Airport, it would be our first real overnight visit to my hometown of Clarkston in several years.  Our original plan had been to arrive between 7:00 and 7:30 pm, but we had a late start.  This should not have come as a surprise, we have been consistently tardy for everything since The Bear was born.  With the flight half over, I estimated that we would not return to United States airspace until 7:30, roughly coincident with sunset.  From the border, an additional twenty minutes of flight time would be necessary to reach Pontiac.  I was glad that I was night current, having done a night flight just a week earlier with Kent and Pete.

Flying over Canada is extremely convenient and offers a direct route between western New York and southeast Michigan.  Controllers at Toronto Approach and Toronto Center are very helpful.  The problem with flying over this portion of Canada is that it is boring.  Once west of the Welland Canal, there is not much to look at on the ground and air traffic is rather light.  After ninety minutes of droning along without much to do, crossing the St Clair river into Michigan and switching over to the Detroit approach frequency can be rather jarring; the pacing of events picks up quite abruptly.

From over Mount Clemmens, I radioed Pontiac Air Center to warn them that we were running late and would arrive close to 8:00.  I hated to do this; it was Friday night and the FBO closed at 8:00.  But the woman who answered my call cheerfully responded that they would wait for us.
Despite the ground clutter and light pollution below, I spotted the beacon atop the control tower at Oakland County International from several miles out.  There was a moderate amount of traffic coming into Pontiac that evening.  We were first to land in front of a business jet and a light twin.  An aircraft approaching from the west wanted to land opposite direction on the same piece of pavement filling my windscreen.  The pilot of another aircraft north of the airport was confused about his location.  Pontiac tower vectored both of those arrivals well around the airport to enter the pattern behind the three of us already queued for landing.

On short final, as we descended toward the lights surrounding runway 27L, I realized that this was my first night landing at a large airport.  It was a greaser of a landing (what is it about having The Bear ride along that always makes my landings so good?) and we were soon stopped on the Pontiac Air Center ramp.  It was 8:00 pm.  We worked to unload the airplane quickly so that Doug and the others at PAC could go home.

By 8:30, we were in Clarkston with my Mom and eating dinner at a restaurant that did not exist when I last lived there seventeen years before.  Despite being up past her bed time, my fifteen month old daughter managed to grin at every person to walk past her high chair.

We had a terrific weekend and met with a lot of old friends, some from high school and others from college.  As we wandered around Clarkston, I was struck by how little it had changed in character, yet many things were sufficiently different that it no longer seemed like home.  We walked past the homes of childhood friends whose families had long since moved elsewhere.  My former high school, demoted to middle school with the completion of a new facility, was nonetheless larger than it was when I graduated.  Nearly half of the old junior high school was missing.  In my day, the building was a kluged-together hybrid of elegant 1932 two story architecture fused with a blandly utilitarian single story addition erected sometime in the 50's or 60's.  Now, the addition was completely gone, effectively stripping the facility of the former cafeteria, wood and metal shops, and other locations prominently featured in my memories of the place.  A parking lot now existed at the approximate location of the ninth grade Algebra classroom where my stunned classmates and I watched a broadcast of the Challenger erupting into a fireball against the clear blue Florida sky.

Maudlin nostalgia aside, it was a terrific trip.  And my mother was able to spend some much desired time with her granddaughter.  We had intended to return to New York on Sunday, a day forecast by the Rochester-area weather guessers as "beautiful after some light rain in the morning".  Unfortunately, a 500 foot ceiling hovered over Rochester all day long, a typical example of how weather in the Great Lakes can turn on anyone too trusting of forecasts.  By lunchtime, it was obvious that a VFR flight home that day would not be possible.  Options included staying an extra day in Clarkston (which meant time off of work for both Kristy and me) or renting a car, driving back, and returning for the airplane at a later date.  But neither one of us was thrilled about exchanging a 2.5 hour airplane ride for a six hour trip in a rental car with The Bear.  So we stayed the extra day.

Monday morning, the skies over Rochester were clear. Skies over Pontiac were not. The low overcast (fog, really) was expected to dissipate around 11:00 am.  When we arrived at Pontiac Air Center, the beacon still signaled IFR conditions.  Remarkably, right about 11:00 am, I felt the ramp heat with direct sunlight.  The ceiling did not last long after that and at 12:15, we were airborne.

We flew directly over Clarkston to take some photographs.  This photo was taken looking northwest along the Dixie Highway corridor.  Traffic on Dixie was shockingly light, but it was the middle of the day.  The road veering off toward the upper right of frame is M-15, Clarkston's Main Street.

In the foreground is Clarkston Middle School, formerly Clarkston Senior High School.  The facility is considerably larger than it was when I graduated.  The truncated, former Clarkston Junior High is in the upper right corner.

North of Clarkston, we turned due east for the remainder of the flight home.  Pictured above are remains of the cloud ceiling that delayed our departure until just after noon.  

The Bear fell asleep before we aver left the ground, but Kristy was wide awake and alert...

...for, at least, the first few minutes.  Here, Kristy and The Bear work on their synchronized sleeping routine.

The flight across Ontario (above), our eighth since the first time on Thanksgiving 2006, was no more exciting going east than it had been flying west.  With the onset of fall, however, the fields had all turned unique colors, endowing the province with the appearance of a quilt spread between Port Huron and Buffalo.

As if the strip farming below was not eye catching enough, the odd colors of these fields made photographing them a necessity.

Directly north of the Buffalo airport, at 5500 feet, the approach controller warned me of 727 traffic departing the airport at my three o' clock; directly under my right wing.  I lowered the wing and pressed the left rudder to maintain heading.  As the airplane began slipping sideways through the air, Kristy and The Bear awoke.  We saw the airliner depart Buffalo, climb at an angle that would have been impossible for my little Piper, then turn south away from us.

We landed on runway 10 at Le Roy under magnificent clear skies, validating our decision to defer the return flight a day.  It was good to be home.

Reflecting on the trip to Clarkston, I understood the truth of the cliché that "you can't go home again".  Certainly, Clarkston was still there and my Mom still lived in the same house.  But in the seventeen years since I moved away from home, I had matured (well...a little), experienced more, and generally viewed the world through a different lens than I did as a teenager.  Though the town had undergone change as well, I blame the changes within myself for rendering the place foreign.  It's true, you can't go home again because home is more than an "X" on a map.  Home is a subtle blend of place and time, nuanced by people, events, and emotions. Take away enough ingredients and even the most precise GPS will fail to pinpoint a location with the correct sense of place.

As Kristy, The Bear, and I drove away from the airport, I was content with the knowledge that my present home was better than any past home ever could be.

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