Friday, May 28, 2010

Reported Overdue

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total
28 May    2010 N21481
5G0 (Le Roy, NY) - PTK (Pontiac, MI)
2.5 812.2
29 May
N21481 PTK - AZO (Kalamazoo, MI) 1.0 813.3
31 May
N21481 AZO - PTK 1.0 814.3
31 May
N21481 PTK - 5G0 2.3 816.6

On May 28, the whole family went on vacation.  First, to Oakland County, Michigan and then on to Kalamazoo to visit with friends.

A Friday night departure looked very promising.  Clear skies, light winds, and a pristine weather briefing.  With Darrell and his oldest son there to see us off, we departed Le Roy at 5:30 in the evening.  Aloft, I contacted Buffalo Flight Service (and talked to someone decidedly NOT in Buffalo) to open our flight plan.  The briefer warned me of the chance for isolated thunderstorms in the vicinity of London, Ontario that was not a part of my original weather briefing.

With the VFR flight plan active, we contacted Buffalo approach to achieve two way communication with air traffic control and obtain a unique transponder code for our crossing into Canadian airspace.  Other than watch for thunderstorms and other airplanes, there would not be much to do for the next hour other than keep the Warrior on heading as the rural expanse of southern Ontario passed below.

The towering cumulus clouds were visible from miles away; storms were building.  There were no cotton-candy anvils in the sky, no mature thunderstorms yet.  We diverted north to pass them on the upwind side.   The cumulus cast a massive black shadow across the earth, hovering at ~4000 feet as though supported by three city-sized, opaque pillars of torrential rain spanning earth and cloud.  Meanwhile, Warrior 481 soared through blue skies, bathed in warm evening sunlight. Though the track above from Flight Aware shows us passing quite close to a strong radar return for precipitation, we actually had at least 15 miles of clearance and I suspect that the image depicts the weather at the time we launched rather than over an hour later when we actually dodged the storm.

The trip to Oakland County was good.  We saw mom, played with the doggies, and visited Uncle Ron, Aunt Barb and the retirement home they are building in the middle of nowhere.

At the conclusion of our visit, we loaded the airplane for the journey to Kalamazoo (above).  The line guy at Michigan Aviation commented that 481 was one of the nicest Warriors he had ever seen and then invited The Bear and I into the main hangar to ogle the private jets and a T-28.  

The next part of the trip supported our on-going hypothesis that:

Toddler + full belly + warm, sunny day + airplane = sleeping toddler

The Bear fell right to sleep about ten feet off the runway and did not awaken until we were on final approach for Kalamazoo.  Good thing, too.  She was up until after 11:00 pm the night before and that is a recipe for a cranky toddler, not to mention cranky parents.

The visit to Kalamazoo was wonderful: good friends, Bells (Oberon!), Erbelli's (original calzone!), the Air Zoo (free general admission!), Los Amigos, and South Haven (beach, lighthouse and airport!).  The Bear had her first beach experience on the sandy shore of Lake Michigan and was delighted to get her picture taken near Sue Parrish's pink P-40 (below).

Our original plan was to stay in Kalamazoo Saturday afternoon through Monday morning, but the weather forecasts for Monday were in a constant state of flux.  As Yoda would say, "difficult to see, always in motion the future is."  I monitored the weather closely on Sunday before convincing myself that staying another night was a good idea.

When we awoke Monday morning, Kalamazoo was pinched between two severe thunderstorms to the south and north, both tracking to the northeast (below).  A fruitful discussion with a weather briefer revealed that we could probably escape from Kalamazoo, but we had to hurry before the southern storm overtook us.  We quickly returned our rental car, loaded the plane, and launched for Pontiac before the storms reached Kalamazoo.  Kudos to the great guys at Duncan Aviation for taking such good care of us on Memorial Day.

The Flight Aware image above shows the weather situation when we left Kalamazoo along with our radar track.  The morning was hazy, but I could routinely pick out ground references about eight miles away.  The only hints of severe weather along our path were distant, towering cumulus well to the north.  When we landed in Pontiac an hour later, the southern storm had reached the outskirts of Kalamazoo and validated our decision for an expedited departure that morning.

At the Pontiac Air Center, Doug and his crew topped off Warrior 481's fuel tanks while I talked to another weather briefer about the remaining journey home.  In general, my plan received a ringing endorsement from the briefer, provided we left promptly to beat pop-up thunderstorms expected in New York that afternoon.

Before I file a flight plan, I always write down key information in a "script" to minimize the likelihood of misspeaking.  I have a consistent history of screwing up the simple mathematical conversion of "ordinary people time" to Zulu time when speaking on the fly, so I always calculate it in advance and write it down.  I also wrote down "PTK" for departure and "5G0" for destination with a three hour time en route.

I filed my flight plan, did an abbreviated preflight on the airplane, and we departed Pontiac within twenty minutes of our arrival there.  We were soon trimmed, leaned, and on course for home at 7500 feet.  We crossed the border squawking our Detroit-assigned transponder code while communicating with the Air National Guard controller at Selfridge.  All was well with the world.  We had a great vacation, prudently avoided some nasty weather, and were on the way home.

Over the Welland Canal, Toronto Center handed us off to Buffalo approach for re-entry into United States airspace.  The ensuing conversation went something like this:

Me: "Buffalo approach, Warrior 21481, seven thousand five hundred."

Buffalo: "Warrior 21481, Buffalo approach.  Radar contact two zero miles west of Buffalo.  Verify that you departed Pontiac and are going to Le Roy."

"Affirmative, Warrior 481".  That was an unusual request.

A few minutes passed.  "Warrior 481, please contact Buffalo Flight Service on 122.6.  You have been reported overdue.  Search and rescue has already begun."

WHAT?!! This raised my heart rate a bit.

We contacted Flight Service and discovered that, though our departure time was correct in the system, they had our flight time between Pontiac and Le Roy as one hour, rather than three.  We were nearly an hour "overdue".  With my call to Flight Service, search and rescue operations were halted.

What went wrong?  My flight plan script was still on my kneeboard with "3 hours" written on it.  Did I misspeak anyway?  Did Flight Service make an error?  How did this happen?
As we continued home, we were passed from the approach controller handling airspace to the west of Buffalo to his counterpart managing airspace to the east.  This controller immediately brought to our attention the fact that Flight Service had called looking for us.

"We know," I responded.

Closer to home, Buffalo handed us off to Rochester Approach, who noted, "hey, they've been looking for you!"

"We know," I responded again.

Ray was mowing the grass at Le Roy when we landed.  As soon as I was out of the airplane, my cell phone rang.  It was Ray.

"You should call Flight Service, they've been looking for you."

"We know, Ray.  Thanks."

I called Flight Service, asked for a briefer, and told the nice computer "any" when asked what state I wanted.  It was my good fortune to connect with a random briefer who happened to be both a pilot (previously based in Michigan) and an ex-Lansing Flight Service Center briefer.  He understood the flight we had just made better than most; he had briefed it and personally flown it many times.

I told him that I was puzzled about how the system had the wrong en route time because I still had my "script" showing three hours.  Did I say something wrong?

"Probably not," he responded.  "This happens more often than you would think and it's very likely that someone keyed the information into the system wrong.  Don't worry, no one is going to send you a bill." I was glad he said this because, though I did not verbalize it, this was exactly what I was worried about.

To mitigate this in the future, he recommended I open my flight plan by phone as well as filing and closing it by phone.  While I already do the latter, I usually open flight plans while airborne.  He supported his recommendation to open flight plans by phone for these reasons:
  • First, even cell phone communications are often easier to understand than radio transmissions that are digitized, sent across the country by VOIP, and converted back into analog phone signals. 
  • Next, it avoids issues like nonfunctional remote communications outlets that can make it hard to reach Flight Service.  I've certainly experienced that multiple times.
  • Finally, and most relevant here, it gives the pilot time to verify that the flight plan information is correct while workload is low.  The briefer recommended that I always verify point of origin, destination, and time en route because those pieces of information are critical and often scrambled.
Just warming up, the briefer continued.  "You wouldn't believe how many Michigan pilots fly over Canada without bringing their passports."  I had that one covered.  Our passports and The Bear's birth certificate were in my flight bag in case of any unintended landings in Ontario.

"The ironic thing is that I was on flight following with Toronto Center the entire way across Ontario.  I realize that's a separate system, but the Canadians knew where I was the entire time," I commented.

"Not only do we not talk to them, we can't," he replied.  "Unless you file a flight plan in Canada through their Flight Service, search and rescue can't even happen in Canada."  He went on to explain that according to ICAO rules, even over-flights are supposed to be on a Canadian flight plan when in Canada's airspace.  That flight plan would need to be opened and closed upon entering and exiting Canada and would effectively be nested within the US flight plan required by the United States for flights across the border.  "I would say that less than 5% of the pilots flying over Canada between Michigan and New York actually do this," he added.  This did not surprise me.  Although I knew that VFR flight to or between Canadian airports required a flight plan, I had never seen a recommendation for the sort of nested flight plan arrangement recommended by the briefer.

I suppose I'll never actually know if the mistake was mine or merely a Flight Service gaffe.  While it was an unpleasant surprise to be informed that search and rescue had begun for us, it is good to know that the system actually works and, should we go missing, someone will do something about it.

As I ended the call, another thought occurred to me.  Why is it that Flight Service can't find me in Canada when Flight Aware, a free website, can?

Sometimes, technology only serves to deepen life's mysteries.

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