Friday, September 27, 2013

From the North Coast to the Third Coast

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
27 Sep 2013 N21481 SDC (Williamson, NY) - AZO (Kalamazoo, MI) 3.3 1218.9

Homing Instinct

"Home" is a remarkably multifaceted word.

At its most basic, home is where we start and end each day. It is a daily refuge, a place of comfort. It matters not where you were born or where you will eventually go. One aspect of home exists purely in the present, just as my house in Rochester, NY is home to me and my family.

Home can also be the familiar, safe harbor of an airport. Every aviator feels something warm in his or her heart upon seeing their home runway in the windscreen after a long aeronautical journey.

All of us came from somewhere and that place of origin, no matter how far away, is another sort of home. But for me, this notion of home has always been ill defined. I grew up on a suburban Detroit farm, but it no longer exists. In that regard, I really cannot go home again. When I was six years old, we moved to my parents' "dream house" in a rural subdivision where we lived for two years. My strongest memory of that house is the dissolution of my parents' marriage. Though that house, unlike the farm, still exists, it is not a place that inspires wistful nostalgia. Next came a year living on the wrong side of the tracks (literally) in an otherwise upscale Flint suburb. In college, I lived in the city between two hospitals, despairing from having traded the chirping of crickets for shrieking sirens. Graduate school felt a bit like a cage; I never formed a strong attachment to southern Indiana. The closest I have to a "home town" is Clarkston, MI, where I graduated from high school. It is my home town in name, but my attitude about the place is best summed up as complicated.

As a result, none of those places truly resonate as "home" for me.

After all those years of school, Kristy and I chose to make a home in Kalamazoo, MI. We bought our first house, started our careers, got a cat, and in my case, learned to fly. It is where, to a large extent, I finally became who I am today. More than any other place, Kalamazoo became home for me, an adopted place of origin and a location to which I have been inexorably drawn since leaving nearly eight years ago.

My last visit to Kalamazoo was in 2011 and with summer-like weather persisting into fall, the urge to return was strong. Such urges are hard to resist when you own an airplane.

Departure from the North Coast

Westbound, fleeing the dawn.

Though overcast at my house, the Williamson-Sodus Airport was under clear skies and the Warrior quickly climbed above the localized deck hovering over Rochester.

At 6,000 feet, I listened to the drama of an aircraft inbound to Rochester with an electrical system problem. Another airplane on the ILS-22 approach was placed into a hold pending the safe arrival of the stricken aircraft.

West of Rochester, I left the clouds behind and transitioned to Buffalo approach without hearing how the emergency situation resolved.

From the Welland Canal westward, I was on with a relatively busy Toronto Center.

It was an uneventful flight across an agrarian landscape finally succumbing to autumn's blush.

Sometimes, it is very difficult to know what you're seeing down below. If I did not know better, I would hypothesize that this is a Canadian farm where solar panels are grown from tiny solar panel seedlings.

On Guard

I crossed back into the United States over the St Clair River. The direct route from Williamson to Kalamazoo carried me closer to the outlet of the river into Lake St Clair than usual and I marveled at the delta that existed there.

I flew over this maritime version of an air park. What does one call such things? A water park? No, that does not sound quite right.

Though I was in two-way communication with the Selfridge Air National Guard Base, I was also monitoring 121.5, the emergency frequency known as "Guard".  Intercepted by the military? They will call you on Guard.  Lose communications with air traffic control? They will try to call you on Guard. Experiencing an emergency and not already speaking with air traffic control? The Guard frequency is the best place to sound your mayday.

Guard is not, however, a party line like Unicom. Inappropriate broadcasts on Guard are typically answered with a surly reminder of "on Guard" (which reminds me of the Tom and Jerry cartoon with the little mouse who would cry, "en garde, pussycat!" right before jamming his foil into Tom's rear end).

As I was flying over the north end of Lake St Clair, an inadvertent broadcast on Guard brought forth exactly this gruff warning.

"Oopsie, oopsie!" mocked the offending pilot.

Then, a third voice: "Well, YOU'RE on Guard TOO..."

"And they give you people pilot's licenses," responded the gruff voice with a world-weary tone. I had to wonder how many hours a day the fellow spent impotently reprimanding anonymous pilots over their lack of self control on the emergency frequency.


Once over my childhood home, my first thought was this:

What the hell happened to the Pontiac Silverdome?!

I was absolutely stunned by the frayed roof.

The sight made me feel old. I still have a vague memory of visiting the stadium shortly before it opened because my dad was there helping to install the phone system. I have been there many times over the years since, having beer spilled on me during Lions games or sitting in nosebleed seats watching the Pistons scurry around on a postage stamp sized floor far below. Kristy and I saw Pink Floyd there in 1994, which was quite possibly the most amazing concert I have ever seen.

Now the roof hangs in tatters and cheers no longer reverberate off the arena walls. The sports teams have gone elsewhere and, with them, the crowds.

Over downtown Pontiac, the lack of traffic at 10:00 in the morning was absolutely astounding.

From my comfortable vantage point in the sky, I could see the Phoenix Center and the iconic old Michigan Bell microwave tower; decaying monuments testifying to the memory of a city that once was.

Detroit Approach vectored me over the Pontiac Airport (Oakland Country International, PTK) to keep me out of their Bravo airspace. Along the way, I flew over the very definition of a dead mall: the former Pontiac Mall, later dubbed Summit Place in a failed attempt to distance the facility from the stigma of Pontiac. This is where I did all of my shopping in junior high and high school. Now it is just another derelict mall, a victim of our disposable culture.

Beyond the dead mall lay terrain typical of Oakland County, where Orchard Lake, Cass Lake, Elizabeth Lake, Sylvan Lake, and some others whose names I no longer remember lay scattered across the landscape.

Over the Pontiac Airport, Detroit Approach cleared me direct to Kalamazoo. I put Pontiac on my tail and flew from the place of my childhood, away from the dead city with its dead mall and dead sports arena.

Red Carpet Arrival

With the exception of the General Motors Proving Grounds (above), my track from Pontiac to Kalamazoo crossed relatively nondescript terrain south of Flint and Lansing. Lansing handed me off to Kalamazoo at the usual place just east of I-69, a comfortable routine from years past.

I was cleared for the visual approach to runway 17 at Kalamazoo and aimed my airplane for the clearing south of Kalamazoo's vibrant downtown. When I gently rolled the Warrior onto the runway, I surely wore a smile on my face, happy to be home again.

Duncan Aviation at Kalamazoo always treats the little guy well, but today they outdid themselves. Even though my little ship will never drink kerosene, I received the red carpet treatment for the first time in my 1200 hours of flying. Duncan has never charged me a landing, handling, or tie down fee.

The remainder of the day was spent with a small number of old friends, enjoying calzones from Erbelli's for lunch, exploring the changes at the Air Zoo, dining at Food Dance, and sampling a tasty beverage from Bell's Eccentric Cafe. It was comforting to be back in Kalamazoo. Everything there just fit.

When you're home, you feel it in your heart; you don't need a red carpet welcoming you back.

But it certainly doesn't hurt.

Ground track from FlightAware


  1. Wonderful post and photos! Gina and I certainly share similar memories of Kalamazoo. Not to mention tastes in food and beer - we ate at Erbelli's and went to Bell's last month. What'd ya sample at the Eccentric Cafe this time?

    As usual, I wish more people realized just how beautiful Michigan is. So many photogenic places. I spotted where I grew up (annotated here - in your photo of the proving grounds, too! :)

    1. Hey Steve! Thanks for commenting. I know you're one of the people out there who completely gets what I'm saying.

      The original Erbelli's is just south of my old company on Portage Rd. A coworker took me there for calzones not long after I moved to K'zoo and I've been addicted ever since. That calzone was the perfect antidote to the bland "my sauce came out of a can" pizza that western New Yorkers seem to prefer. At Bell's, I had the Best Brown Ale (yummy!).

      There is beauty all around us and we are privileged to see things from the air that many people never will.

      I did not realize you grew up so close to the proving grounds. For some reason, I had it in my head that you hailed from points further east - closer to Detroit.

    2. Yup, it's a wonderful part of the country. Sometimes wish we were closer, but at least it's still only a (relatively) short drive or flight away.

      We ate at the same Erbelli's last month - I had pizza and wings, both delicious. I'll have to try a calzone next time! From the sound of things, western NYers and SW Ohioans have similar (lack of) taste in pizza. Blech.

      As for growing up, yup, I spent my younger years in Brighton. We lived on the eastern edge (near the proving grounds) for the first decade or so, then moved closer into town. Gina hails from Novi. So I guess that makes us west-side east-siders?

    3. You were definitely west of me!