Saturday, September 28, 2013


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


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.


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.


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.


  1. Nice story, Chris. Family-obligation flights are hard, though I confess that they are better for me when they involve piloting time. It is great to see some fight in your grandfather - it's very much related to recovery.

    What a fortunate situation that you had an extra CO monitor in your plane. I can almost feel the tension in the deliberations... I feel fine, but this monitor is certainly not fine, but I feel fine, but I can make it, but I feel fine, but... I get not wanting to believe what your eyes are telling you. I recall a flight I took to see my sister, and it seemed that the old Skyhawk I was flying (not even a GPS installed!!!) seemed to be taking fuel from only the right tank. I landed to figure that out... not uncommon for these planes to use fuel unevenly, and I hear that those gauges are not exactly accurate except at empty. Landing was better because if I was having a problem I would have run out of gas right over the lake as I approached Burke Lakefront in Cleveland. Yeah, bad idea.

    Great pics as always. How do you get such nice clear photos at night? Mine have always been blurry for some reason, but you look like you might have the trick down.

    1. I wondered at your reaction to this. Knowing that my audience included the Flying Shrink led me to suspect that there might be some fodder for analysis here. :-)

      I think you're right about the value of fighting. If he wants to get back home, and works for it, I think he'll succeed.

      You're not kidding about it being lucky! Actually, it was lazy. My intent in putting the detector in my flight bag was that it would go to the airport with me and be placed in the drawer of my workbench where I keep them. I just never got around to putting it away. Now I'm inclined to keep an extra in the airplane at all times, just in case.

      Those risk deliberations are tough and different pilots address them differently. I know pilots who would say that I was not conservative enough, that I should have just landed (and then what?). I try to weigh the data I have in hand and do what makes sense to me. Yes, very lucky I had that other CO detector. Without it, I think I would have landed at the remote Canadian airport. After that, I not only would have been stuck in Canada, but I'm not sure what the next steps would have been in terms of checking out the airplane with respect to safety of flight.

      Those are really the first night photos I've posted. My Nikon has a burst mode where it takes several exposures rapidly, then signal averages them to remove noise. It's obviously not perfect from a moving airplane, but it worked better than a long exposure. I also used that mode to good effect in the darker areas of the Air Zoo, but there it was easier to hold the camera steady.

  2. Wonderful story about both family and life itself, in a way at least. I'm definitely of the opinion that all families have their crazy quirks - it's just human nature. Don't think I know of anyone's without some crazy story of problems, feuds, or longstanding disagreements. But that doesn't mean we don't love people and hope for the best - as you've illustrated so well here.

    Scary about the CO detector. I must admit I don't carry one (rentals and all that) but have thought about buying an electronic one in the past - especially since I know I probably wouldn't be nearly as diligent as I should be looking at the passive, stick-on type. Then again, I'm sure the sheer change from dark to light would catch my eye if I was so used to seeing something different. I hope the Warrior doesn't have any issues. Definitely let us all know what, if anything, you find out!

    1. Thank you for your kind comments, Steve.

      The CO issue is scary. As I noted, I flew 2 hours on the new detector without a positive read. I pored over the engine on Sunday and could not find any evidence of an external exhaust leak. This does not mean that there isn't anything wrong in the muffler/heater, but I'll need more help from my mechanic at that point. I did pattern work on Sunday without any evidence of a dangerous reading. Because the old CO detector failed to equilibrate back to normal, I suspect that it was not functioning properly. Regardless, I will be watching the situation closely.

    2. Yeah, that's one of those triple-bad situations... scary, potentially deadly, and can completely catch you off-guard. I do wonder if something like this or this would be the best solution.

    3. Nice, a more affordable solution than other electronic units available through the various pilot shops!