Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Circle of Life: A Birthday and an Endangered Species

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
19 May 2012 N21481 5G0 (LeRoy, NY) - DSV (Dansville, NY) -
N27 (Towanda, PA) - XLL (Allentown, PA) - 5G0
4.4 1043.4

"Pie Day"

As a card-carrying geek, "pi day" has always meant March 14th to me. But in 2012, May 19th became "pie day". It was the 40th birthday of my good friend and graduate school classmate, Scott. His wife engineered a "pie party" for him in which guests brought their favorite pies in lieu of gifts.  Pie-centric feats of skill (not involving the gift pies) were scheduled for the mutual delight of both participants and those watching from a safe distance. Unfortunately, Scott lives in Allentown, PA, a ten hour round trip drive by car.

Fortunately, the weather was perfect and general aviation came to the rescue again!

I arrived at the Le Roy airport under a clear sky with my favorite pie, a Wegman's Triple Berry with crumble topping, riding shotgun in the Honda. From the gate, I was greeted by the sight of Larry's freshly-washed RV-6A gleaming in the sun.  Surely, there could be no better advertisement for fun and adventure aloft.

It was going to be a good day to fly.

En route, I stopped at Dansville for lunch and lingered to watch a yellow Piper Pawnee tow gliders into the rising air generated  by the surrounding terrain.  I witnessed a pilot pre-flighting the elder statesman on the field, a magnificent Naval Aircraft Factory N3N biplane.  I longed to join him and hear wind whistling through the wires once more.

The Elmira / Corning Regional Airport (KELM)

The next stop was a new airport to me, Bradford County airport in Towanda, PA (N27), where fuel was $5.29/gal. Per comments on Airnav, I expected a friendly country airport. What I heard on the radio while inbound certainly confirmed that general impression. As I called on Unicom from five miles out, a Cessna 150 warned that it was back taxiing runway 5 for departure, but added that it would be out of the way by the time I reached the pattern. A Jet Ranger helicopter landed for fuel, exchanging some good-natured banter with folks on the ground.

From the direction of my approach, a mountain (in PA terms, not Colorado terms) blocked my view of the airport. Upon inferring that the airport lay on the other side of the mountain, I maneuvered for a left downwind entry on runway 5.  In position to enter the pattern, I could see the C-150 making its way to the departure end of the runway. I spotted the Jet Ranger on the ground next to a large white fuel tank.

 Ah-ha, the location of the fuel farm. Piece of cake.

I landed and exited on the first available taxiway. Not being accustomed to operating around helicopters, I wondered where I should park to take on fuel. I did not want to park too close. As Warrior 481 and I rolled along the taxiway and closer to the fuel farm, I realized that something was wrong. Behind the helicopter was a single tank labeled "Jet A". I needed aviation gas, not Jet A, and I did not see another tank. I brought the Warrior to a halt on the taxiway and looked around. Farther ahead, on the next ramp over, I could see a Cessna parked near what looked like an automated fuel kiosk and a box that might have been a pump. I could not see a tank, but perhaps it was underground.

Ramp Rage

Though the entrance from the taxiway to the next ramp was quite wide, the self-serve kiosk was placed unusually close to it.  The Cessna was parked on the centerline of the ramp entrance, but there was room to taxi around him and onto the ramp, which I did slowly. The geometry of the intersection reminded me of the pinch point created by the old fuel farm at Buffalo-Lancaster Airport.  It sat at the intersection of two ramps and a taxiway connecting both to the runway.  Eventually, that airport created a new fuel farm at a less congested location.

After carefully maneuvering onto the ramp, I did a U-turn and parked a safe distance behind the Cessna, whose pilot was done fueling. Once the Cessna taxied off toward the T-hangars, I taxied close to the pump and well off the center line to allow better access for aircraft movement between the ramp and taxiway.

While I was fueling, a pickup truck stopped behind the Warrior and the Cessna pilot emerged. "Hi, how are you?" I asked jovially while monitoring the flow of fuel into my tank.

The man ignored my greeting and immediately started to berate me for taxiing too close to his Cessna. I was stunned.  I have often been on ramps where aircraft taxied much closer to one another than ours had, including the very next day at the Williamson-Sodus fly-in where high and low wing airplanes avoided ramp rash solely by virtue of vertical wingtip separation.

I am not confrontational by nature and worked to stay calm. I mildly told him that I took great care to maintain adequate separation and did not think I passed too close to him.

"But it WAS too close," he screamed at me. "And people that scratch my airplane piss me off because they make me late for work!"  But there was no contact between our airplanes, no scratches imparted, and any issues with his work schedule were clearly his own.

He went on to ask why I did not use the other ramp entrance while pointing to the other side of the long ramp.  No taxiway was visible from our location, but presumably, there was a connection over there that I simply could not see.  "I'm sorry," I said. "I'm not familiar with the airport and did not realize there was another connection."

He looked at me like I was the biggest idiot to ever cross his path. "Where do you think that taxiway goes." he pointed to the parallel taxiway running along the runway.

"The end of the runway," I answered.

He started to say something else, but stopped. I could see in his face that he realized I had a valid point. Airplanes cannot simply back up and taxiing into a blind alley on a narrow taxiway in hopes of finding a ramp connection is not something I consider to be a good idea. At this point, he mumbled something unintelligible, stomped back to his truck, and roared away.

There was not much more that I could do but shrug and return to fueling. I am not entirely sure what inspired such a vehement reaction. Was it "ramp rage"?  It would have been entirely appropriate for him to let me know that there was another entrance to the ramp that I could have used.  Perhaps it was local habit to block that taxiway while fueling, forcing ground operations to occur via the other ramp entrance.  But screaming at me when no harm was done?  That was a waste of time for both of us.  Did he think I wanted to scratch my airplane, which for the record, had the superior paint job? Did he think I was out to harass him personally?  Was he just having a bad day? Perhaps he went home to whomever he goes home to and boasted with great satisfaction about the dressing down he gave to a young whipper-snapper.

So, to whoever you are, I am genuinely sorry that my actions made you uncomfortable.  Suggestions and recommendations from knowledgeable local pilots are always appreciated, but it seems to me that there are more constructive ways to convey that information.

I called Scott to update him on my progress. "How's the flight?" he asked with his usual enthusiasm.

I laughed. "Well, the sky is blue, the wind is calm, and I've just met the biggest jerk that I have ever encountered in ten years of aviation."

"Iron, Coal, Chromium Steel"

Pennsylvania is absolutely beautiful from the air with its varied terrain and interesting contour farming formations.  My final destination at Queen City airport (XLL) lay 45 minutes ahead, situated southwest of Allentown's city center. 

I settled in for a relaxing flight over the reservoirs and ridges of northeast Pennsylvania.

I must confess that once I was on frequency with Allentown Approach at Lehigh Valley International (ABE), I could not get Billy Joel's "Allentown" out of my head.  As I entered the Allentown area, I noted the above quarry.  As it turns out, the quarry is so close to Scott's house that I was only a mile away from Scott (horizontally, not vertically) when I took this picture.

Allentown, PA

I did not have much time for sightseeing in Lehigh Valley International's Charlie airspace.  My route of flight took me directly across the approach path of runway 6, which was active that afternoon. At one point, runway 6 lay off my port wing and the landing light of an inbound regional jet was to the starboard.  Because I was flying across landing traffic, Allentown approach kept very careful tabs on me.
Sectional chart showing the position of Queen City Airport relative to Lehigh Valley International

As I reached the traffic pattern for runway 7 at Queen City, my head on a swivel, I was finally released from flight following with a brisk, "Warrior 481, no traffic observed in the vicinity of Queen City airport, squawk VFR, frequency changed approved, have a good day!"  For me, it was a bit disconcerting to be in the pattern at an untowered airport and not on the Unicom frequency, but I had monitored it and the automated weather observation station while inbound and chose an appropriate runway for landing.  This decision was validated when I saw another aircraft on a taxiway below making its way to the departure end of runway 7.

Within moments of clearing the runway, Lehigh Valley Aviation Services called on the radio and guided me to parking.  I was met at the airplane, chocked, told that there would be no parking fee for the few hours I would be there, and provided with a gate code to get through the airport fence after their 6:00 pm closing time.  The fellow I met was extremely friendly, helpful, and efficient.

It seemed like a nice place, but unfortunately, I could not linger to chat.  I was already late in meeting my ride.

The Birthday Boy

I have known Scott for nearly eighteen years.  In that time, he has met my parents, Kristy's parents, and several other members of our collective family.  Strangely, it was my first time meeting Scott's father, Steve.  Steve was my ride to Scott's house on the outskirts of town.  But first, we had a mission to complete: find the bus station in Allentown and pick up another of Scott's inbound friends.  The trick here was that Steve was unfamiliar with Allentown and had, at best, a love-hate relationship with the little woman living inside his Garmin GPS.  Steve and I had a bit of an adventure in the heart of Allentown, particularly given the Garmin's predilection for taking us down streets that felt more like back alleys.

We eventually made it thanks to a combination of GPS assistance, careful attention to detail, some aggressive driving (where warranted), and a not inconsiderable amount of dumb luck.  With Kelly (I am terrible with names, but am 83% that I have this one correct) safely on board, Steve began navigating back to Scott's house.  Along the way, I could not help but take note of streets like Orefield Road and Lime Kiln Road that struck me as so evocative of the region's history.

As it turns out, Wegman's Triple Berry is a favorite pie of Scott's wife, Kate.  The pie survived the journey intact and our hostess was pleased with me.  While there, I became reacquainted with Craig and Heidi.  The last time I saw them was in their apartment near the Pentagon nearly ten years ago.  My primary memory of Craig was that he prepared an amazing, multiple course meal for us.

Scott wore a blue ribbon indicating him to be the "birthday boy".  Considering that this was his 40th birthday, I asked him if he started the day a "birthday boy, but would return a birthday man" (thank you, Chris Elliot).

The fun and games started innocently enough, with two teams carrying flimsy pie tins full of water across the yard, each vying to be the first to fill their respective buckets.  The pie-related events escalated, finally devolving into a pie ingredient battle royale.  It ended with a mixture of adults and children (including me) wandering dazedly across the field of battle, clad in plastic ponchos augmented with safety goggles, and smeared in whipped cream that rapidly melted under the hot sun.  The birthday boy was completely coated with whipped cream accentuated by candy sprinkles and chocolate Jimmies.  As I panned my gaze across the aftermath, I thought I detected a faint strain of Barber's Adagio for Strings.

Scott's party, like Scott, was unabashedly fun, full of life, and perhaps a little juvenile.

Endangered Species

Steve and Fredda, Scott's parents, dropped me off at the Queen City Airport on their way out of town.  Fredda wanted to see the airplane, so I brought her through the gate with me and posed for pictures in my whipped cream stained shirt.  Steve offered to wait until I was rolling for take-off, but I still needed to contact Flight Service and did not want to delay them.  I expressed my gratitude for the ride and watched them depart.

Alone with Warrior 481, I contemplated the airport facility.  I have read numerous articles in the news about Queen City airport being under siege.  The mayor of Allentown, a vocal member of the airport authority, wants to close -- or at least drastically reduce the footprint of -- the airport.  This would be a shame.  The airport features crossing runways (3159 and 3949 feet long) in excellent condition.  According to AirNav, there are 75 aircraft based on the field and an average of 148 operations occur per day (12 month period ending October 25, 2011).  By all appearances, it is a vigorous, healthy airport that is the local center of the general aviation universe.

I hope that local pilots and the FAA are able to fight for this airport.  It appears to be well worth saving. Queen City's challenges represent those faced by many communities within general aviation.  If places like Queen City Airport are closed, where will new pilots train?  Where will air ambulance, mercy flights, private flights, or business flights be based?  Larger airports (unfortunately regarded by the general population as "real airports") simply cannot accommodate such a mix of traffic and, in that sense, airports like Queen City and Le Roy provide valuable relief to nearby commercial facilities.

GPS ground track of the round trip where the red line shows the return flight.

Flying home in a darkening sky, I realized that it was a great day.  I ate some wonderful pies, celebrated with a good old friend, visited a couple of new (to me) airports, watched gliders being towed aloft, got lost in Allentown, tossed whipped cream pies at veritable strangers, and landed at home just as the red disk of the sun slid below the horizon.  What a fun, exhausting day!

Of course, I also had someone scream at me, but the pluses more than compensate for the minuses.


  1. Some people just aren't worth your time. Sure sounds like that jackwad is one of them. I doubt most of us would've behaved any differently as transient pilots unfamiliar with the airport.

    On a better note, superb photos as usual. Glad to see you put GA to good use for a fun trip over the holiday weekend!

    1. I tend to take things personally and stew on them after the fact. But that's just me.

      The trip was actually LAST weekend, which was so busy with flying both days, that I didn't get around to posting it until this weekend. I actually stayed out of the air this weekend.

    2. Once again proving that I clearly don't read these things as carefully as I appear to...

      It would've pissed me off too, so I don't blame you. Anywho, hope you had a nice extra day off!

    3. Don't worry, Steve, it's still a well-crafted illusion! ;-)

  2. Come know you picked that fuel stop just so you could mess with someone. ;) Wow, what a welcome to the airport. I'm glad the remainder of the flight went well and the pie arrived intact!

    1. That's me. I try to a pick a fight wherever I go. Otherwise, flying just isn't exciting enough. :-)

      But in the end, it's all about the pie.