Saturday, June 27, 2015

Nature's Power Washer


Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
25 Jun 2015 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - PTK (Waterford, MI) 2.7 1427.7

Warrior 481 pushed through a veil of cloud and haze to reach Oakland County International at the conclusion of our third flight to Michigan for 2015. I was invited by the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Michigan - Flint to participate in a Curriculum Advisory Committee. Though the department is small and relatively unknown, I received excellent training there as a student and am always happy to give back when I can.

The morning following my arrival in Michigan, I set foot on campus for the first time in over a decade. I roamed the university, pleased to find everything in pristine condition. I spent most of the day in the room where I slogged through Physical Chemistry as a student, unintentionally sitting in nearly the same spot. It was a great visit with plenty of animated discussion from the committee that spanned an eclectic mix of current faculty, recent graduates, professors from nearby universities, and industrial chemists with varied levels of experience. Despite many new faces on the faculty, today's Chemistry program is clearly an evolution of the curriculum I experienced and remains infused with the spirit of thoughtful emphasis on the needs of students. They are doing a fantastic job.

Afterward, I visited with a former professor of mine who taught literature in the Honors Program. It was the Honors Program that drew me to UM-Flint in the first place. The majority of my closest college-era friends, including Kristy, were also in the program. Though it has been twenty-four years since I was her student, my former professor fondly recalled details of an essay I wrote in her class as a freshman. She also reminisced warmly about my Honors cohort; evidently we were memorable as individuals and unusual in our cohesiveness as a group.

After departing campus and dredging old memories to navigate once-familiar streets, I found my way to the home of my former roommate and Honors alumnus, Jason. We joined Cher, another member of our group, for dinner at a Mediterranean restaurant that politely allowed us to sit and talk late into the night as they closed around us.

Flight Planning

When I returned to my mother's house, I plowed into flight planning for a return home the next morning. What I saw gave me pause. There was a low pressure center forecast to arrive in northeast Ohio the next day. Cyclonic flow around that low was forecast to put 40+ knots of headwind directly on the nose of Warrior 481 if we flew our usual course directly across Ontario to Sodus. The calculated flight time would stretch the typical two and a half hour flight into a rainy slog of four hours. This would get me to Sodus with less fuel reserve than I usually prefer even before accounting for a diversion to an IFR alternate. I was immediately uncomfortable and found myself warming to the idea that a flight home the next day might not be realistically possible.

I decided to sleep on it and did so, if poorly.

I awoke early Saturday morning and resumed flight planning. Overnight, the winds aloft forecast was lessened to 35 knots, which allowed for more palatable flight times and better fuel reserves upon landing. I would face continuous instrument meteorological conditions and rain for the entire route, which would be a first for me. Fortunately, the convective outlooks were utterly clean. Though the low pressure system was dropping a lot of moisture, thunderstorms were very unlikely. I contemplated a higher altitude ride home (9,000 feet) for more favorable winds, but noted that the forecast temperatures were just 2°C above freezing at that altitude and I had no desire to trifle with ice.

As the day progressed, the forecasts worsened. Weather forecasts for Sunday were similarly unappealing. After an hour of studying the weather, I realized that an immediate departure would be in my best interests. I filed an IFR flight plan with a GPS-direct route to Sodus and 10:00 am departure. As I packed my belongings, I received an expected routing from the FAA, which naturally featured MOONN intersection. This routing would actually improve my flight time, but also take me across Lake Erie and closer to the center of the low.


Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hours) Total (hours)
27 Jun 2015 N21481 PTK (Waterford, MI) - SDC (Sodus, NY) 4.2 1431.9

Meeting expectations, constant precipitation was falling over Oakland County International when I arrived. I keyed-in the gate code and drove the rental car onto the ramp where Warrior 481 sat in the soaking rain. Wind gusted from the northeast, causing the rain to sting at times as I worked through a wet preflight inspection. I removed the cabin cover, nearly losing it in the wind, and stuffed the sodden mass inelegantly into the baggage compartment. I peeked into the fuel tanks and discovered that Michigan Aviation had not refueled the airplane yet. Then I transferred my bags from the car to the airplane and drove back to the FBO.

When I walked inside, the fellow at the counter interrupted me before I could say a word. "He's already on his way to fuel your airplane. We weren't sure if you would be leaving this morning in the weather." I looked over my shoulder to see the fuel truck heading deliberately for my airplane.

As I waited to pay the fuel bill, I double checked the weather with a particular emphasis on the wind (and its effect on my fuel endurance) and convective forecasts (there were none). I confirmed my "go" decision. Newly rated instrument pilots talk about "getting their tickets wet". Though we have had a number of adventures in instrument meteorological conditions since I earned my instrument rating, I still considered my ticket to be merely moistened. I had not really flown in IFR from start to finish with the exception of the cross country flight I did while training with Tom. Going into the flight, I suspected that my ticket would be soaked at the end. Frankly, I was eager for the experience.

With rain pelting the windscreen and gusts rocking the wings, Warrior 481 and I powered into the gray sky. Detroit Approach granted my request for a direct routing to Sodus. I became concerned as our groundspeed fell to 42 knots in the climb away from Pontiac. I pushed the nose over to capture 7,000 feet and watched the ground speed rise to an anemic 65 knots. I would need to reassess my fuel endurance throughout the flight and already had some Plan B notions of suitable places to divert if needed.

As we crawled toward the international border, the helpful controller at Selfridge Air National Guard Base provided vectors around areas of higher intensity rain. Mine was the only airplane he was working at the time and he frequently broke the silence to query "Warrior 481, say flight conditions." We were consistently in light precipitation with occasional light turbulence, which I took to mean that the vectors were helping.

We remained between layers for the entire flight, a solid deck overhead with clouds at various altitudes below and undifferentiated gray all around. We were rarely inside any clouds, just screened from the real world by them. If I looked straight down, I occasionally saw shadowy ground features slide past. At times, I watched with fascination as sheets of water streamed over the wings.

I was concerned about staring at nothing but the instruments for nearly four hours. Would I experience fatigue? Would I go a bit stir crazy in hopes of seeing the sky, horizon, or some other outside reference point? As it turned out, the flight was comfortable (except for my concerns about ground speed and fuel) and easy. In fact, it was more comfortable than a corresponding drive on the Interstate in the same rain would have been.


Midway across Ontario, I watched my indicated airspeed decrease to approximately 82 knots. I was level, the tachometer indicated that the engine was still producing the same amount of power, and my ground speed had not changed. Clearly, this indication was false. Though it was not affecting cruise flight, I did not relish the thought of making an instrument approach into Sodus with an inaccurate airspeed indicator.

The outside air temperature was 10°C, so pitot icing seemed unlikely as a culprit. Nonetheless, I switched on pitot heat and, after a few minutes, the airspeed needle gracefully swung back to indicating 110 knots. Additionally, while using Stratus/Foreflight to monitor the weather trends well ahead of my ship's position, I noticed that the radar was no longer updating. This is the second time I've observed this glitch. After cycling the power on Stratus and rebooting the iPad, everything resumed working properly and continued to do so through landing.


I was grateful to have the uplinked weather information working properly again. Ahead, Stratus/Foreflight depicted heavier precipitation near Buffalo just south of my course. It is well known that the depicted weather is delayed, but as I watched over time, the area of heavy precipitation was not moving northward across my course and, in the end, it was no factor.

As expected, the cyclonic flow shifted to a southeasterly direction with a reduced headwind component as I neared New York. I was delighted to see ground speed climb into the 80 knot range. Fantastic! I thought wryly. I'm going as fast as a Cessna 150 with a ten knot headwind. By then, however, it was clear that I would reach Sodus with over an hour of reserve fuel on board.

As I monitored the weather in Sodus from west of Rochester, conditions were degrading rapidly. It was raining at the field and the ceiling dropped from 4,000 feet to 3,000 feet between successive observations while we were still west of Rochester. Gusty winds were forecast at the field later that afternoon, but had not arrived yet.

I flew the RNAV 10 approach into Sodus, breaking out of the clouds at roughly 1,000 feet AGL (above the ground). Landing and slowing to taxi speed, the continuous light ticking sound of rain striking the windscreen transitioned to louder thumps of falling raindrops striking the horizontal surfaces of Warrior 481's aluminum skin.

FlightAware track of the return flight. The weather image is time stamped for the midpoint of the flight. The large yellow area near Port Huron, MI was farther south when Selfridge vectored me around it. The heavier precipitation near Buffalo had not developed yet. As I have noticed before, depicted radar tracks through Canada often show a bizarre oscillation in flight path that I do not see elsewhere (i.e., ground track in ForeFlight), including the US legs of the same flight. I believe that this is an electronic artifact and not evidence of lousy stick and rudder skills.

Parking in front of the hangar, I tallied the numbers before facing the rain outside the dry confines of the cockpit. We put 4.2 hours on the Hobbs with 3.7 hours of actual flight time in instrument meteorological conditions.

I was feeling pretty good about myself.

Hangnail Effect

I hustled out of the Warrior, opened the hangar door, and backed my car out of the space usually reserved for my airplane. Still at the wheel of the car, I looked over to contemplate the Warrior when I noticed that something was not quite right with the wheel pant on the nose gear.

If I might engage in some understatement, it was missing a bit of paint.

This poor fairing has had its share of abuse and a lot of paint has been scraped off over the years at the hands of careless line staff at various airports.

The most recent incident involved the removal of a significant patch of paint by Duncan Aviation on our last trip to Kalamazoo (unfortunately, I did not notice it until returning to Sodus). I can only assume that the removed paint provided a means for the constant rain to penetrate underneath the remaining paint to peel it back like a hangnail.

Evidently, my ticket is now not only wet, it has been power washed.

On the bright side, though I have not waxed the airplane yet this year, it appears that last year's wax is still going strong.

Overall, I am more pleased with the experience than upset over the rain damage to the paint. After all, the wheel pant needed work anyway. I logged 3.7 hours of actual IMC time, my longest to date in a single flight, for a cumulative total of 16.5 hours.

It appears that my next adventure will be finding someone who knows how to shoot paint.


  1. Glad to see you making use of that ticket, Chris. Cool Trip. Ed D.

    1. Thanks, Ed! I hope you're well.

  2. Except for the power washing of the nose gear wheel pant it looked to be a great flight. Rain does make my eyes tired after time but you seemed to do a great job. It's always rewarding adding to the experience.

    1. It was rewarding! Helped to compensate for the entire paint thing. :-)