Saturday, September 28, 2013

Sunset

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
28 Sep 2013 N21481 LWA (South Haven, MI) - PTK (Waterford, MI) - SDC (Williamson, NY) 4.3 1223.8

Reunion


On a long stabilized final for runway 9R at Oakland County International, my head was on a swivel. Air traffic control called several aircraft as traffic and I was finding and tracking each one as we collectively sequenced for landing on the parallel runways. After a nice touchdown in a direct crosswind, I was instructed to roll to the end of the 6500' runway for a right turn to the Pontiac Air Center ramp.

Hail to the victors on the PAC ramp

Usually, I choose my own parking at PAC. This time, Doug (the owner) marshaled me in, though he did so in a very casual Doug sort of way. "Your mother was worried," he noted with a gentle smile once I brought the engine to a stop. "She's been watching FlightAware and was afraid you would be late."

Mom and I stopped for a quick lunch before driving to a rehabilitation facility on the campus of a nearby senior living community. This is what I had come to Michigan to do. My grandfather suffered a stroke recently and was reportedly doing very poorly. Unable to walk without assistance, he was in a rehab facility because my diminutive grandmother was not capable of caring for him herself.

I decided that I should seize the opportunity to see him before that opportunity was gone. But before I describe what happened next, some context is relevant.

Familial Complications

At my age, I am very fortunate to have a living pair of grandparents. I am their sole grandchild and, when I was much younger, they doted on me. Once I started college, however, my relationship with them became strained and remains so twenty five years later.

Since my late teens, visits to my grandparents' home made me subject to an ostinato of petty criticism harmonized with manipulation by guilt. As the criticisms came - initially of me and later of Kristy or our home - the frequency of my visits dwindled. My grandparents countered this decrease by devoting considerable time on each subsequent visit to castigating us for not visiting often enough. This was not an enticement to visit more frequently. We have been trapped in this vicious cycle of emotional Cold War for the past quarter century. I am, after all, just as righteously stubborn as they are.

Interactions are further challenged by certain "generational ethnic biases" sprinkled freely through their patter that would make Archie Bunker wince. I openly admit to having little patience for that behavior and I struggle to balance my feelings on the matter with the fact that my grandparents are products of a different era.

And so, visits usually require steeling beforehand and therapeutic decompression afterward. Conversation between Kristy and I after visits usually take the form of, "can you believe X is harping on Y again? Let it go!" or "did X actually say Y? OMG!"  Nonetheless, my grandparents are family and they have been too long on this Earth to change their ways. We visit them when we are close enough and possess the emotional fortitude to do so, or we weather the storm of guilt when we cannot.

When it comes to family, though, a crisis can wipe that slate clean with amazing rapidity.

Rumored Demise

My grandfather is a big guy for whom, at age 93, significant health issues are relatively new (aside from poor hearing). He comes by this robust longevity honestly; his mother lived alone in an apartment until breaking a hip at age 100. I can only hope that I inherited some of their constitution.

At the rehab center, we met my grandmother in the lobby and made our way to my grandfather's room. He was dozing in a wheelchair, his expression marred by the aftereffects of the stroke. He had a difficult time speaking, though that condition existed before the stroke and its cause remains unknown (his doctors say that the necessary biomarkers indicative of a previous stroke were absent when they tested him). It was obvious that he was thinking clearly, but the biological machinery in charge of translating those thoughts and forming words was not cooperating.

January 6, 2013

I showed my grandparents pictures of The Bear engaged in her various adventures of 2013, everything from her cameo appearance in the Middle School musical, to flying the airplane, to helping make pizza for dinner. Many of the photos showed us laughing and engaged in goofy antics, prompting my mother to comment wryly that, "they never have any fun at their house at all." This earned a wan smile from my exhausted grandmother.

Then something pretty amazing happened. We accompanied my grandfather to a physical therapy session during which time the therapist had him stand and perform a number of tasks aimed at increasing strength and dexterity in the limbs affected by the stroke. In a word, he did wonderfully. In just a few short days, his strength and dexterity had increased well beyond expectations. Immediately after the stroke, some caregivers had judged him to be too old and not worth any rehabilitation effort. As he worked through his exercises with an unmistakable grin on his face, he was clearly proving them wrong.

I was incredibly proud of him and told him so.

I went to the rehab center expecting to stare into the face of mortality. I left with hope that my grandfather might yet recover sufficiently to leave the center and return home for whatever time he had left. I have no illusions - he is 93 years old - but after such profound improvement, it was clear that he decided not to spend his remaining time bedridden.

After a lengthy visit, I needed to return to New York. As I shook my grandfather's hand in farewell, he managed to express the most important thing on his mind by speaking slowly and concentrating on the formation of each word. "Next time, can you bring [The Bear]? I'd like to see her."

"I will. I promise." And I meant it. I was glad that I made the trip and proud that my grandfather still had some fight left in him. Yes, our relationship has been challenging for the past twenty five years, but in a time of crisis, being together when needed is the most important thing.

Fade to Black

At PAC, I planned and filed for an IFR flight home as a private jet disgorged a boisterous group bound for a country music concert. Once the disembarked concert-goers were on their way, Doug's dog Lucy moved to the abandoned red carpet while mauling a pair of wheel chocks with passionate and humorous exuberance.

FlightAware let me down and did not display my anticipated clearance, but what I heard from Ground Control was the same crummy clearance I received last time that would route me down the middle of Lake Erie. Fortunately, the flight plan was still available in the Garmin 430W from last time, so I was spared a significant amount of knob turning before taxiing for departure (though I double checked it for accuracy just in case).

Loon Lake, Silver Lake, Watkins Lake, and Scott Lake seen on departure from PTK

Airborne, Detroit Approach changed my routing to direct Williamson-Sodus without my asking, which was wonderful (a HUGE thank you to the controller working departures from Pontiac that night). Once in Canadian airspace, I plugged the iPad into the Warrior's audio panel and settled in for a relaxing cruise with symphonic music playing in the background.

Approximately one hour after departure, I was scanning the instrument panel and noticed that the carbon monoxide detector (one of those disposable opto-chemical types) was darker than usual. As I stared at it, it went completely black and, with it, I transitioned from contemplating my grandfather's mortality to very focused my own.

Immediately, I opened every vent that I could reach and verified that the heater and defroster were completely off. It was the end of September, I was over Ontario at 7,000 feet, and I was wearing shorts while the cabin temperature plummeted with the influx of cold, fresh air.

Next, I did a self assessment. I studied my nail beds. They were pink, not red, though I was unsure if I would actually be able to detect the blush associated with CO poisoning (follow up research indicates that, no, I probably would not). Heading and altitude were spot on and I seemed to be mentally sharp without so much as a minor headache or hint of nausea. I glanced back at the CO detector. It was still black. Ideas bubbled out of a stream of consciousness:

Just keep going. I feel fine, the CO detector must be defective. Ok, so I ruled-out the stupid ideas first.

Land now, there's a Canadian airport directly ahead. This was a much better idea, but getting home would be a challenge. Though I usually bring my passport on flights over Canada, I forgot it this time. Nevertheless, red tape trumps a toe tag any day and, if necessary, Kristy could drive the passport to me in Ontario the next day.

Across Lake Erie, I could see United States soil. I could divert across the lake, then land in the US. No, that was also a stupid idea. If I was going to make a precautionary landing, the airport directly in front of me was a much better choice than anything on the other side of Lake Erie.

I had no headache and still felt sharp; I was right on heading and altitude.

Something did not add up.

Still, that black spot on the CO detector could indicate that I was short on time and I had just spent a few precious seconds ruminating on a handful of bad ideas and a single good one.

I was about to key the mic and declare an emergency to Toronto Center when I had another thought. Two months earlier, I found an unopened CO sensor at home and put it in my flight bag! Fumbling around in the back seat while hand flying the airplane, I quickly located it, cut open the package with a Leatherman tool that I carry in my flight bag, and stared expectantly at the yellow button in the center.

It remained yellow (normal). Opto-chemical CO sensors have response times that vary in proportion to ambient CO concentration because they are integrating detectors; they react to accumulated CO. If CO levels are high, these sensors will darken quickly because they accumulate CO quickly. If background levels are low, the sensor may require significant time to accumulate sufficient CO to elicit a warning.

As an experiment, I closed the air vents and continued monitoring the CO detector as well as consciously assessing my mental condition. After several minutes, I could detect no measurable change on the CO detector or in myself.

It was a new twist on the questions from the FAA instrument written: which instrument is faulty? I came to the conclusion that either something had gone awry with the first CO detector or that any CO leakage into the cabin must be extremely low. The preponderance of evidence - the behavior of the fresh CO detector and my lack of symptoms - suggested that, if a silent killer had joined me in the cockpit of the airplane, its potency was very low.

After careful thought, I allowed the airport ahead to slide past and I did not declare an emergency with Toronto Center. Instead, I carefully monitored the new CO detector and my mental state for the remaining two hours of flight.

Afterglow

By now, the sun was melting into the western edge of the world, enflaming the horizon directly aft of the Warrior.


I monitored the CO detector with obsessive scrutiny, but it failed to provide any indication that action was necessary. In my obsession, I half expected to develop a self-induced headache or some other physical symptom to set off alarm bells, but that never happened.


Directly ahead, a dark blue band on the horizon marked the shadow cast by Earth on its own atmosphere. Above it was a pink glow described variously as the Belt of Venus or the less poetic "anti-twilight arch". To me, the view was reminiscent of the 1960s-era special effects faced by the original crew of the starship Enterprise (upon appearance of blue/purple blob on the view screen, cut to Kirk for reaction shot).

The white line on the horizon was my first hint of a cloud deck over Buffalo.




Over Buffalo, I skimmed above the clouds as the last of the twilight gradually melted away. Rochester stepped me down toward Williamson, coincidentally bringing me through holes in the layer such that I never went IMC, not even for a moment. I cancelled IFR ten miles west once I had the Williamson-Sodus Airport in sight.

Safe Harbor

A dark, moonless night shrouded Williamson. I misjudged the wind in the pattern and flew the downwind leg too close to the runway to successfully line up on final approach. Though I was tempted to steepen the base to final turn, I decided that it was simply easier and safer to go-around than trying to salvage the approach. Besides, the go-around may have scared off any deer congregating on the runway, which I have noticed is an issue.

Warrior 481 and I landed safely in Williamson nearly two hours after I first noticed the potential for a CO leak. The "fresh" CO detector still indicated normal at the time of landing, even with the vents closed for the remainder of the flight. The original CO detector was still black and remained so a day later. These devices are supposed to re-equilibrate in fresh air and return to a normal reading. This one did not, which lead me to wonder if it was defective or somehow fouled. Regardless, the incident warrants a careful look under Warrior 481's cowling for signs of a leak because that sensor may have been responding to something, even if at a low level.

Denouement

I am ashamed to confess that I flew to Michigan solely out of a sense of familial duty, soured by years of negative interaction with my grandparents. I even felt the need to make the trip more appealing by including a trip "home" to Kalamazoo, something I really wanted to do after so much time away. Perhaps this makes me a terrible person or maybe it is just another example of how weird and complicated families can be. I doubt that my family is unique in that regard.

Obviously, I was surprised by my grandfather's progress. I was more surprised by the strong emotional reaction I had to his progress. I was genuinely rooting for him, proud of him as he accomplished each task set before him by the therapist. I was delighted by her surprise at his improving capability. He still has a way to go, but I am optimistic that he will not spend the remainder of his days in a nursing home. I think he will overcome the ravages of the stroke enough to return home to my grandmother.

Flying obviously means a lot to me, it is an amazing chimera of art and science, passion and skill. It has also become a vital bridge to the people in my life. For example, the only way The Bear sees her grandfather (my dad) is by flying to Tennessee in the Warrior. As with the recent visit to Kalamazoo, the airplane has brought us together with distant friends and helped maintain those relationships. And, this time, it provided a much appreciated connection with my estranged grandparents when it was needed most.

All airplanes harness the air to generate lift. No matter how passionately we as pilots feel about the act of flying, there is no magic there; the physics can be reduced to equations on a page. It is only after introduction of the human element that aviation becomes something less tangible, but so much more important.

Postscript: A Promise Kept
November 9, 2013

Weeks passed before I was able to keep my promise to Grandpa.  We returned by car in early November. I was itching to fly back to Michigan, but the outlook for doing so became gloomier as I considered it. The flight would have been IFR over Canada at night against a strong headwind (with high, gusty surface winds at departure and destination) with the freezing level well below where I wanted to cruise and a forecast for potentially conflicting clouds. It seemed like a bad idea. Instead we endured the tedium of the highway, inattentive drivers, and inane questions from customs agents of two adjacent nations.


Was it worth a thirteen hour round trip drive through the darkness of Ontario just so my Grandpa could work on a jigsaw puzzle with The Bear?

Yeah.  Absolutely.

Stuck in Time

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
28 Sep 2013 N21481 AZO (Kalamazoo, MI) - LWA (South Haven, MI) 0.6 1219.5

Lighter Than Air

Dawn stole upon Kalamazoo behind a shroud of mist. After eating my fill of breakfast at the hotel, I shouldered my backpack and hiked back to the airport where my aircraft patiently waited.


Once the sun climbed sufficiently skyward to cast its brilliant eye on the Kalamazoo / Battle Creek International Airport, the stubborn mist wreathing the runways grudgingly dissolved back into the warming air.


As I moved around the Warrior verifying her readiness to fly, we were both illuminated in a golden morning sheen, the top of the fuselage shimmering with the iridescence of a million tiny, dewy prisms.


Warrior 481 and I were not the only ones stirring on the airport surface. With the banishment of morning fog, the first annual High on Kalamazoo Balloon Festival launched its first volley of lighter than air flying machines over the airport. I have loved balloons ever since getting my first flight in one at a young age.


At 8:00 am, air traffic control had not yet recorded an ATIS broadcast - the ATIS frequency was simply a repeater for the automated weather observation system on the field. I went through the motions of calling clearance delivery and ground control. Tower was selecting runways based, not on the wind, but rather on where the sky was relatively free of balloons.


"Warrior 481, you've probably noticed that there are some balloons over the airport..." This was tower's polite way of telling me to not hit anything on my way out. As I waited at the hold line for runway 5, I could clearly see the airborne objects as propwash gradually coaxed errant droplets of dew from my windscreen.



Aloft, I found myself sharing the hazy morning sky with multiple balloons. "How many are there?" queried the departure controller from his darkened bunker under the tower.  "The tower guy said there are at least a dozen over the field."


It was a novel thing to see so many balloons in the hazy air over the airport and the scene appealed to my sense of whimsy.

Back in Time

As I prepared to buy my airplane in 2004, I pursued getting a hangar at the Three Rivers - Dr. Haines Municipal Airport where I learned to fly. Some of the hangars there were full of junk and others were crypts for dusty, run-out airplanes interred on flat tires. But they were all full and I was turned away from the airport that I considered my home base (unless I wanted to tie down outside).

Thanks to Dave's influence, I had the very good fortune to secure a sublease (and, later, a full lease) on a t-hangar at the South Haven Regional Airport instead. It was a much more active airport, scenically located off the shore of Lake Michigan. South Haven was home to Warrior 481 and I during our first two years together.

Now, after more than five years since our last visit, Warrior 481 and I were rapidly approaching South Haven. A southeasterly wind favored a landing on the grass, runway 14.

Super Decathlon N2468W landing on runway 14 at South Haven, Sep 17, 2003

I did not take any photos of the airport, but as I lined up on runway 14, the scene matched one that I once photographed while flying with Dave almost exactly ten years before. In fact, the same open t-hangar visible in the above picture was the only one open that morning.

It was a good landing, nice and smooth as many turf landings are. Landing on the grass at South Haven was good for my soul in a deeply fundamental way. I stopped the airplane as we reached the intersecting paved taxiway and made for the ramp.



From the ramp, I felt as though I had gone back in time eight years. South Haven looked unchanged from my memories with everything in its place as though the entire airport was stuck in time. As far as I could tell, the only change to the airport was that the paved runway 4-22 was redesignated as 5-23.

Fellowship


I had arranged in advance to meet Ron that morning. Before long, I saw his Luscombe taxiing toward me. Ron had teased me before the trip, "do you even remember how to land on grass?" I was certain that I had redeemed myself with that nice landing, but Ron never actually saw it.

Ron in his Cherokee 140. September 17, 2003

Chasing Ron with the Decathlon. September 17, 2003

Back before I bought my airplane, I would fly out of South Haven with Dave in his Decathlon and we would entertain ourselves by chasing Ron's Cherokee 140 around the sky. Ron still has the old Cherokee, but the Luscombe is clearly his favorite ride now. Throughout the morning, he tried in vain to convince me to join the "two airplane club".


Ron and I were soon joined on the ramp by John in his Mooney. John was once hangared next to Dave's Decathlon. During one of our cookouts, I had borrowed an extra headset from him for flying rides.

"Remember this guy?" asked Ron, jerking his thumb at me. John did.

Before long, the meeting table in the terminal building was crowded with pilots. Some were familiar, some were not, but all were hangar flying. We were joined by Phil, who owns a distinctive orange Stinson that used to accompany us on our morning breakfast excursions. John was planning a flight east and I was able to provide suggestions on routes and stopping points. A large box of doughnuts at the center of the table was yet another facet of the Saturday morning South Haven Airport experience that had not changed in my eight year absence.

It was a wonderful way to start the morning and a fitting end of my brief vacation.

Responsibilities

The time had come for me to attend to my responsibilities and the primary reason for flying to Michigan. As Ron and Phil departed the grass runway for breakfast in Plainwell, I fueled the Warrior. Ron's Luscombe diverted over the ramp and dipped a wing in farewell before turning on course.



As I climbed into the air over South Haven, I looked to the shore of Lake Michigan, the beach, and the little red lighthouse at the end of the pier.

Aw...what the heck...

I banked Warrior 481 over the shore and circled the pier once, just like old times, before setting course for Oakland County International Airport.

Friday, September 27, 2013

"Someone Told Me It's All Happening at the Zoo"

Visits to Kalamazoo, MI usually involve three imperatives: visits with old friends, dining at favorite restaurants, and a trip to the Air Zoo. There was a time when we routinely drove past our old house, but that became depressing when it was clearly not being well maintained.

Since my last trip to the Air Zoo, East Campus (which was the original Air Zoo facility) re-opened as a combined restoration center and aircraft display area. I was looking forward to being back in the original building and seeing some of the aircraft that have been out of public view for years. On top of this, there were some new artifacts and some surprises as well.


Of the smattering of aircraft that used to sit on the lawn outside the Air Zoo, only the Martin B-57 Canberra remains, seen here with the new Kalamazoo tower in the background.



This is the Pratt & Whitney J58 engine that pushed the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird to three times the speed of sound. This engine ran continuously in afterburner mode and operated as a ramjet at high speeds. I assume that the block of wood is used to keep museum visitors from losing fingers to freely-turning compressor vanes.



Nearby is another impressive Pratt & Whitney product: the R-4360 Wasp Major.  This supercharged 28 cylinder behemoth propelled the last generation of large piston-driven aircraft such as the Boeing Stratofortress. It developed between 2600 and 3800 horsepower, depending on the variant.


The Air Zoo's F-104 Starfighter, a Mach 2 interceptor with such a thin wing that the sharp leading edges could actually injure ground crew. During its time in operation, it was referred to as "the missile with a man in it" for obvious reasons.  For many years, this airplane was in the Air Zoo's restoration facility and could only be seen by special tour.


This was a pleasant surprise. The fuselage of this painstakingly accurate Sopwith Camel replica stood in the lobby of the Air Zoo for many years while glacial progress was made on the wings. If I recall correctly, the project was started by a Detroit area man who obtained detailed plans for the Camel and set about building it in his garage before the project transferred to the Air Zoo.


The Air Zoo has taken possession of a FM-2 Wildcat recently recovered from the the bottom of Lake Michigan.


The aircraft was remarkably intact, though understandably filthy.


There was even still air in the tires. Grumman designed their airplanes to last.


The Wildcat was lost during carrier qualification exercises on Lake Michigan. When the aircraft went into the water, the carrier struck the empennage, shearing it off (the tail section was also recovered and is sitting next to the airplane on the floor). The wings were removed for transporting the wreckage, thus explaining the wing-shaped clean spots on the side of the fuselage.


Impotent machine gun ports in the leading edges of the Wildcat wing.



Back at Main Campus, I visited with the world's only surviving Curtiss XP-55 Ascender. This aircraft arrived in pieces early during my tenure at the Air Zoo and restoration was completed just prior to my departure.


A Vought F-8 Crusader with a unique wing capable of variable angle of incidence.


My old friend, the P-47 Thunderbolt.


The Bell P-39 Airacobra was not one of the most successful aircraft of WWII, but it was always interesting to talk about.


The museum's CG-4A cargo glider was restored to resemble The Fighting Falcon "presented by Greenville Schools." The students in Greenville (northeast of Grand Rapids) raised enough money through war bonds to buy three gliders. In recognition of that accomplishment, The Fighting Falcon was slated to be the first CG-4A to land at Normandy on D-Day.


The CG-4A would have been towed by this aeronautical workhorse, a militarized Douglas DC-3 rebranded as the C-47 Skytrain. As of the early 2000's, there were still an estimated 100 DC-3/C-47 aircraft still employed as working airplanes around the world.


The Air Zoo's faux-Blue Angel, a T-28 in which I once flew over a decade ago.


An airworthy FM-2 Wildcat. Though it is unlikely that the Air Zoo will restore the Wildcat recovered from Lake Michigan to airworthy condition, it should look like this one when completed.


Some people think that the Grumman F6F Hellcat is a brutish looking thing. But just look at that smile! How could anyone find it brutish? Regardless of appearances, it was undeniably one of the best single engine Naval fighters of the war with a victory to loss ratio of 19:1. When I was in training to be a docent, I researched the Hellcat extensively. Not many of these airplanes survived into the 21st century - this airworthy example is a rare gem.


And, of course, the Corsair - one of the most distinctly recognizable WWII fighters built. If I am not mistaken, it was the first single engine piston aircraft to exceed 400 mph. This example is an FG-1D built under contract by Goodyear with a Pratt & Whitney R-2800 engine built by Nash Kelvinator; a prime example of how the United States flexed not only its manufacturing might, but also its manufacturing flexibility (skilled tradesman from other industries applying their skills to building aircraft), during WWII.



The museum's Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bomber shares a lot in common with the Air Zoo's newest acquisition - it also spent decades submerged in Lake Michigan. The museum did a fantastic job restoring this aircraft. As I understand it, the strength of this restoration was a significant factor in earning the Air Zoo its Smithsonian affiliate status, which in turn brought in the XP-55 project.


The Douglas AD-1 Skyraider. I have pictures of my wife sitting in this beefy single engine aircraft with a huge grin on her face. The huge powerplant on this thing produced so much P-factor (left turning tendency) that the vertical stabilizer is visibly twisted to compensate.


No set of Air Zoo photographs is complete without a picture of the F-14 Tomcat. I once gave a tour to the family of Bob Hall, famous WWII-era Grumman aircraft designer and test pilot. After my spiel on the F-14, one of his sons said to me, "that was very well done." Evidently, he followed in his father's footsteps and proceeded to show me the parts of the Tomcat that he had personally designed when he worked for Grumman. Sometimes, you just never know who is on your tour.



The Air Zoo's elegant Grumman Mallard seaplane is a centerpiece added to the museum since my departure.


I liked this little cluster of golden age aircraft with a faithfully-reproduced Travel Air Mystery Ship replica front and center.


I ended my visit staring down the world's fastest, highest-flying, air-breathing, manned aircraft, the magnificent Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird. This particular blackbird, the world's only remaining "B" model trainer with a second cockpit, is said to be the most photographed Blackbird of them all.

After so much time in years past spent taking visitors through the museum and telling the stories of these aircraft and the people who flew them, visiting with them again is like seeing old friends. I've missed them.

I think the museum can be best summarized by a comment I overheard from a woman standing on the Main Campus balcony while I was photographing the Blackbird: "This is IMPRESSIVE!"

And it is.  If you've never been, you should go. And, for pilots, the museum is once again accepting fly-in visitors on its ramp located off of taxiway B-3 at the Kalamazoo / Battle Creek International Airport. General admission is $10.