Saturday, July 21, 2012

"The People Up in the Tower"

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
21 Jul 2012 N21481 5G0 (LeRoy, NY) - PTK (Waterford, MI) - 5G0 4.7 1063.4

"Someone told me it's all happening at the zoo.  I do believe it, I do believe it's true."
-- Simon and Garfunkel


At the conclusion of a recent instrument flying lesson, I told my instructor, Tom, about flying over Ontario to reach my hometown via the Oakland County International Airport (i.e., "Pontiac").  As a VFR-only pilot, making this flight for the first time was my introduction to the world of ARTCCs (air-route traffic control centers), colloquially known as "centers".  It is the job of centers to keep track of aircraft flying between terminal areas, the controlled airspaces around larger airports.

"Toronto Center is always quiet between Hamilton, ON and Michigan, there's never anything happening on frequency," I asserted.  I gave him an example of being the sole aircraft worked by a particular Toronto Center controller who became bored to the point of regaling us with $100 hamburger recommendations for airports in lower Ontario.

Naturally, the day after this conversation, a contradictory scenario presented itself.

Brilliant sunlight illuminated our Warrior as we burrowed through Ontario skies on a western heading at 6500'.  Below, popcorn cumulus floated over an agrarian landscape.  The Bear was flying right-seat, engaged in a game on her MobiGo.  I had her isolated on the audio panel to separate the antics of the Toy Story 3 characters from the unusually steady stream of chatter on Toronto Center's frequency.

Every few minutes, a new aircraft would pop up on frequency to request flight following and the controller would provide a terse "unable".  He was busy, inexplicably so.  While the controller was working at the ragged edge of his capacity, we overheard this (paraphrased) exchange:

Toronto Center:  "Cessna 123, you have an active restricted area at your twelve o' clock.  Recommend you turn twenty degrees left or ten degrees right to avoid."

Cessna 123: *silence*

Toronto Center: "Cessna 123, Toronto Center."

Cessna 123: "Was that call for Cessna 123?"

Toronto Center: "Cessna 123, you have a restricted area ahead of you.  Recommend you turn twenty degrees left to avoid."

Cessna 123: "Restricted area?  Oh...yeah...we see that on our chart."

Toronto Center:  "Well...then...don't hit it."  The poor man was clearly at a loss for words.

An explanation for the frequency congestion emerged as we were about to cross the St Clair River into Michigan.  We switched to the Selfridge Air National Guard controller, busily trying to sort out where everyone was going.  It immediately became apparent that we were caught in a great westward pilgrimage to AirVenture in Oshkosh, WI.

Return to Pontiac

Conspicuously absent from my flight bag was my passport and The Bear's birth certificate, which I always carry as back-up during Canadian overflights.  This time, my first thought about them did not occur until after I activated our flight plan with Buffalo Radio.  Ooops.  If I were superstitious, I might have worried that today would be the day for an unplanned landing on Canadian soil.  Fortunately, it wasn't.

An unusually clear atmosphere revealed ground objects with incredible crispness, but I was unable to find a single charged camera available for use in the house that morning.  Niagara Falls, a regional jet circling the falls just below us, the St Clair River, and many other wonderful sights went unphotographed as a result.  But The Bear enjoyed them all, calling out airports, race tracks, and cities as they passed below our wings.

We arrived at Pontiac as another aircraft in the vicinity developed a potential mechanical emergency.  Pontiac tower shifted all five airplanes currently in the pattern, including us, to runway Two Seven Right for landing.  This reserved the larger Two Seven Left for the aircraft in distress.  Other inbound aircraft were asked to stay away temporarily.

After landing, we were directed to taxi south and cross runway Two Seven Left, still open and waiting for the emergency aircraft.  We sat for a moment at the intersection of taxiways Charlie and Juliet, near the base of the tower, as the controllers coordinated the remaining traffic away from the emergency aircraft inbound to Two Seven Left.  The whole scene appeared to be very well managed by the tower, though I confess that I have no idea how everything worked out in the end.

GPS tracks for on and over the field at Pontiac

The Bear was oblivious to all of this tension.  "I can see the people up in the tower, Daddy!" she exclaimed over the intercom.  It seemed like no matter where we went that morning, air traffic controllers were getting a work-out.  Kudos to all of them for rising to the challenge so well, so often.

We parked at the Pontiac Air Center at 11:40 am, where my Mom was already waiting.  Our goal for the day was to make-up for an aborted (weather-related) Mother's Day visit.  Our day trip to Michigan included some $100 nachos at Qdoba (not available in New York), a trip to the Detroit Zoo, and quality time with Grandma for The Bear.

"Without You, There's No Zoo"

My last visit to the Detroit Zoo occurred when I was nine years old.  I cannot remember much about the zoo other than that it was huge and the day uncomfortably hot.  I do remember my Dad locking the keys inside his Pinto and a police officer using a "slim jim" to unlock the recalcitrant door with the aplomb of a master car thief.  I guess it was a good thing for my Dad that no one in their right mind would ever actually want to steal a Pinto, because it appeared to be really easy.

At the Detroit Zoo.  Photo by Mom

Our Seneca Park Zoo membership gained us entry to the zoo at a fraction of the standard price.  Other than the fact that the zoo is still really big and the day also uncomfortably hot, nothing seemed familiar to me.  Everything was in excellent condition and the zoo volunteers with whom we interacted were all friendly and knowledgeable.  It is a nice zoo - we spent hours there and The Bear had an absolute blast.

On the way out of the zoo.  Photo by Mom.

At the end of the day, we were all tired, dehydrated (despite the water I brought with us), and completely walked-out.  After dinner, we returned to the Pontiac airport and were airborne by 7:20 pm, The Bear choosing once again to ride up front with me.

"Daddy, can we go back to Michigan sometime and visit that zoo again?" she asked as we flew over the Chrysler Technology Center.

"Absolutely."  With her many past adventures flying to Michigan, she seems to have developed a sense that Michigan is where one goes to do fun things.

After making a flight following request to the controller at Selfridge ANG, an unusually long time passed without comment or the critical transponder code we needed to cross the border.  Eventually, he came back on frequency to verify that our destination was "five golf quebec".  Clearly, he had some trouble deciphering his own handwritten notes from my initial contact.

"Warrior 481 is going to five golf zero," I corrected.

"Ah," he responded in an "oh!  that explains it" tone of voice.  A few minutes later, he responded that he could not find 5G0 in the database and asked for a nearby major airport as alternative destination to put in the system.  I provided the identifier for Rochester.  This evidently worked because he quickly responded with a transponder code.  It was just in time, moments before we reached the international border.  I do not fully understand what issues he faced entering us into the system, but it was another example of the "people up in the tower" working tenaciously to help.

First Flying Lesson?

On the way home, The Bear became very interested in the airplane instruments.  I showed her the depictions of Lake St Clair and the St Clair river on the GPS as we crossed them.  She peered out the window and back to the Garmin 430W, making the connection between the digital image on the panel and the real world spread below.

"Cool," she commented with wonder.

Next she asked about the directional gyro.  "That tells us what direction we're going," I explained.

"You mean like a compass?"

"Yes, exactly like a compass."

She pondered this for a moment, studied the directional gyro (currently indicating an east-ish heading) then pointed out her window to where Lake Erie was visible to the south.  "So, if we turned that way, the compass would show south?"

"Yup," I answered, fascinated by the way her five year old mind quickly analyzed the situation, combined it with new information, and produced an accurate interpretation of the instrument's use.

We also discussed the purpose of the #1 CDI (course deviation indicator) that was slaved to the GPS at the time.  Periodically, she would study it to satisfy herself that we were still on course.

Near London, Ontario, I pointed out that the sun was beginning to set.  The Bear turned her head to look out one of the rear windows and immediately winced when the brilliant rays struck her eyes.

"Daddy.  Do not look over there," she declared with all the authority that her little voice could muster.

I kept her supplied with a steady stream of books as we flew over Canada.  Over time, the ambient lighting shifted to crimson from the burgeoning sunset.  I occasionally invited her to pull her head out of a book to see some of the lovely cotton-candy pink cloud formations that passed above our windscreen.

"Cool..." she would say with sincere awe upon seeing each one.  It became something of a refrain.

The Planet Sleeps

GPS tracks for inbound to Pontiac (red) and en route to Le Roy (green).  Something tells me that I have been a bit more precise in my flying lately.

Over Buffalo, the sun had set and I turned on the instrument panel lighting.  Back over her native soil, the now heavily-lidded Bear requested her "sleeping music".  Her sleeping music is from a CD called "The Planet Sleeps", a compilation of lullabies from around the world that was given to Kristy in graduate school.  It waited, unopened, for years until The Bear was born.  When The Bear was an infant, I rocked her to sleep every night while listening to that CD and it remains popular at bedtime to this day.

As shadows crawled across the landscape, the cabin was filled by the lovely "Chi Mi Na Morbheanna", a Gaelic tune about the mountains.  The Bear, now awake well past her bedtime, turned partially sideways in her seat and made an attempt to doze.  But the lullaby was periodically interrupted by another aircraft en route to Niagara Falls International Airport that was unable to visually locate the field.

"I'll call the tower over there and ask them to turn up the lighting," offered the controller sitting fourteen miles away in Buffalo.

"Those guys are loud," commented The Bear.  Unable to doze, she peered out of her window at the lights of Buffalo passing below.  The amber glow of sodium vapor lights reached pointillistic tendrils toward the 'burbs from city center. 

"Wow, are those the lights from the city?" she asked.  When I answered in the affirmative, I received another, quiet, "cool...".

On descent to Le Roy, I noticed that someone had turned the lights on full at the Genesee County Airport.  I dipped the left wing and entered a side slip so that The Bear could see the lights from her seat.

"Oh!  I see!  There are two rows of lights because they are on both sides of the runway!"

Clever girl.

"But, Daddy, who turns on the lights?"

Before I could answer, we were handed-off to Rochester Approach, who asked me to verify that we were landing in Le Roy.  Evidently, the controller in Selfridge found a way to get 5G0 into his system after all.

I launched into a brief explanation of pilot controlled lighting, which particularly enthused The Bear.  "I want to see you turn the lights on at OUR airport!".  And so, as "Hace Tuto Guagua" hummed (literally) through the intercom, I waited until we were on downwind at Le Roy before switching on the runway lighting so that The Bear was guaranteed to see them blossom in the night.

Stopped in front of our hangar, The Bear stared out of the open Warrior door at the colorful lights leading away to runway's end.  "I like those lights," she said.

"Me too," I responded.  We sat for a quiet moment contemplating the colorful lights that had just guided us to a safe night landing.

Tired though she may have been, she nonetheless insisted on helping me clean bugs off of the airplane and signing my logbook.  By the time we finished, it was 10:00 at night.

"I sure hope you sleep-in tomorrow, Little Bear," I said.
"Oh, I will," she answered.  "If Mama comes in to wake me up, I won't even listen to her."

On the way out of the airport, I stumbled upon two Oshkosh pilgrims overnighting in the terminal building.  I apologized for disturbing them, but they were quite pleased to chat for a moment and extoll Ray's virtues for letting them camp in comfort after flying in from Maine that afternoon.  They planned to continue their journey on Sunday.  I welcomed them to Le Roy and wished them good night, softly closing the door behind me.

We continued our listening of "The Planet Sleeps" in the car.  This finally did the trick and The Bear fell asleep shortly into our commute home.  At the house, I carried a virtually comatose five year old to bed after a very big day.

It was a great Daddy-Daughter-Grandma day.  Thanks again to the "people up in the tower" for helping to make it all happen safely.


  1. Replies
    1. Now that your annual is complete, surely you have a good family trip up your sleeve...

  2. Geoff, hit that one word home run.

    I'll add, nothing beats the innocence and interests of a child, you're both very blessed. Thanks for sharing your flight!

    1. You're absolutely right Gary...she definitely sees things from a different perspective.

  3. As the father of a five-year old girl (whom I recently treated to her first flight out of KLOM), longtime pilot, and frequent reader of your blog - I just had to leave you a kudos comment on this post. You captured it perfectly ... thanks! Safe flying.

    -Kevin C. / Jamison, PA.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Kevin. I've been into LOM a couple of times over the years and it seems like a great, active airport! I hope your daughter enjoyed the experience!

  4. With her many past adventures flying to Michigan, she seems to have developed a sense that Michigan is where one goes to do fun things.

    She's wise beyond her years! :)

    1. :-) Just wait...I'm trying to put together a trip to Traverse City / Sleeping Bear Dunes for later this year! Maybe a quick trip to Mackinac Island again...

    2. I'd be lying if I didn't say I'd be tempted to meet up... keep me in the loop!