Sunday, September 27, 2015

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

The Big House

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
25 Sep 2015 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - PTK (Waterford, MI) 2.7 1473.4

"Warrior 481, contact Toronto Center on 133.3 and have fun in Pontiac!" Buffalo Approach signed-off cheerfully. Despite having spent the majority of my youth within 15 miles of Pontiac, it occurred to me that no one had ever wished me a fun time there. Maybe that was the problem all those years...

It was my fourth flight of the year to Oakland County International in southeast Michigan. The reasons for these trips have varied widely: a check-in with my nursing home bound grandfather, participation in a curriculum advisory committee at the University of Michigan - Flint Chemistry Department, and a quick end of summer vacation that included a trip to The Henry Ford.

This particular flight was driven by a last minute invitation to the University of Michigan home football game against Brigham Young University in appreciation for my support of the Chemistry Department. Despite having graduated over twenty years ago, neither Kristy nor I had ever attended a game. It was never really our scene, but with the opportunity being dangled in front of us, how could we refuse? The Bear was along for the ride, planning an exciting day with Grandma while Kristy and I attended the game.

We landed at Oakland County International just as the sun slipped beyond the horizon. I told my mother to expect a 7:30 pm arrival and, indeed, we taxied onto the Michigan Aviation ramp at 7:27.

Google Maps overlay of Stratus/ForeFlight GPS ground track

The next morning, Kristy and I met our hosts, Nick and Jess (faculty from the University of Michigan - Flint Chemistry Department), in Hartland. From there, we plunged into the chaos that is Ann Arbor on game day. For those unfamiliar, Michigan football is a big deal. The program has struggled over the last two years, but with a new coach - a favorite son returned home - anticipation of restored glory is so high that it is palpable.

Our seats were on the 25 yard line in the twelfth row. Michigan Stadium is known as The Big House for a reason. It is the largest stadium in the United States and the second largest in the world (according to the most recent statistics that I could locate with a casual search). Attendance at our game was officially announced at 108,940 and it was declared the 261st (if memory serves) consecutive game with attendance exceeding 100,000. I don't care where you come from, these people take their football seriously.

Spirits ran high as Michigan shut out 22nd-ranked BYU 31-0. As the clock ran out, Nick summed up the game perfectly. "If Harbaugh turns this program around, you can say you were there to see the start of it." Indeed.

We topped off a great day with a visit to the Ann Arbor Brewing Company followed by dinner at Gratzi. My sincere thanks go to the University of Michigan - Flint for treating us to a really fantastic day.

Number 165

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
27Sep 2015 N21481 PTK (Waterford, MI ) - MBS (Saginaw, MI) -
9G3 (Akron, NY) - SDC (Sodus, NY)
4.2 1477.6

"Warrior 481, contact Flint Approach on 118.8 and enjoy your flight to Saginaw!" This from Detroit Departure as we cleared Pontiac's airspace to the north.

"Flint on one one eight point eight, wilco on the enjoyment," I responded. Suddenly, air traffic control seemed very insistent that I have a good time.

Thirteen years ago, I planned a VFR cross country flight from Elkhart, Indiana to Saginaw, Michigan (MBS International Airport) for my private pilot check ride. On that September day in 2002, we only flew nine miles of the planned flight. After all this time, we were about to actually land at Saginaw, the 165th unique airport that I've landed at since I started flying.

From there, we met our college friend Cher for breakfast at Maggie's Omelet Shoppe in Bay City. It is always great to visit with Cher when we are back in Michigan, even if the visits are always too short. Despite their expensive fuel ($6.20/gallon!), the folks at AvFlight-Saginaw were very friendly and their renovated facility is well appointed.


We launched from Saginaw cleared on an instrument route intended to minimize passage over large stretches of both Lake Huron and Lake Ontario.

We overheard Cleveland Center managing an aircraft that was suddenly "negative RNAV and negative FMS." In other words, the pilot had lost the ability to navigate by GPS and was clearly en route to a GPS-defined navigational fix.

"Can you still navigate to the fix?" queried Cleveland.

"Beats the heck out of me," came the non-standard response. It was not exactly a declaration of an emergency, but a clear indication of a problem. We were handed off to Toronto Center before learning how the situation was resolved. This is typical. From our perspective, most of the tiny dramas that we overhear playing out in the national airspace system end in perpetual cliff hangers.

Established on our route at 7,000 feet under a beautiful clear sky, we took some family portraits.

The Bear fell into a sound sleep almost immediately after departure, using my flight bag and fleece jacket as a pillow. Warm sun plus a smoothly running airplane and a belly full of pancakes worked their magic just as they have since she was a toddler. It's always good when the old equations still work. Unfortunately, it meant that she slept through the most spectacular part of the flight that came as we reached Lake Huron.

Our course through Michigan's thumb region brought us into convergence with the western shore of Lake Huron. Despite the overall sunny day, stratus clouds defined a unique micoclimate associated with the south end of the Great Lake.

After a few moments in the clouds, we found ourselves between layers for the next leg of our journey.

Ahead of the right wingtip, the St Clair River defined the international border.

We were briefly feet wet over the south end of Lake Huron, but always within gliding distance of shore.

During that time, we were surrounded by water, condensed and otherwise.

After a few minutes, we made landfall on the Canadian side some distance north of the well-worn track of our typical route.

Then, there it was. Does anyone else hear Judy Garland? Evidently, the "somewhere" in this case is Plimpton-Wyoming, Ontario. Who knew?

As we left Lake Huron behind, its influence on the local climate finally waned.

The Niagara River with Lake Ontario to the north (left)
with Canadian and American pumped storage facilities

A few minutes west of the Niagara River, The Bear announced her need for a restroom break. After crossing back into the United States, I cancelled IFR with Buffalo and diverted to Akron.

"Warrior 481, say reason for diversion."

"Um...we have a...passenger...comfort issue." Smooth. It seemed like a radio-appropriate response, however. Buffalo's acknowledgement indicated that my meaning was well taken.

We dropped into the pattern at Akron during a visit from the Commemorative Air Force's T6-Texan (actually, its tail indicated that it was an SNJ). Two Stearman biplanes and a WWII era L-Bird were also hopping rides. I came in too hot, landed long, and hustled to the ramp. I am happy to report that we/she made it!

Afterward, I tried to interest The Bear in the cool antique flying hardware on the ramp, but she was tired and just wanted to go home. So we did.

When I cut the engine in front of our hangar in Sodus, The Bear presented me with this "excited to be home" face. Could there be any better way to end a wonderful trip by airplane? When flying, the rainbows always lead back to home.

Google Maps overlay of Stratus/ForeFlight GPS ground track
showing the diversion to Akron


  1. Excellent pictures and write up. Great shot of you and your Bride!

    It amazes me every time I hear those exchanges on the radio. Mary and I crack up. On our way to Kansas City we heard a pilot ask to divert because his wife had to urinate. Mary said, really, that's what he had to say. I chimed in with I bet he also has to get a bag of ice for the back of his head where she smacked him.

    The passenger comfort issue is much more appropriate.

    Tell Bear we know that happy feeling when arriving home!

    1. LOL, Gary. I usually try to exercise more decorum on the radio than the average Red Board discussion! :-)