Thursday, June 15, 2017

Wall In the Sky

Square Peg

After earning my tailwheel endorsement, I made preparations to depart the Aeroflex-Andover Airport for home. I had checked out of the Wooden Duck and returned the rental car early that morning. The airplane was already packed. I filed an IFR flight plan from Andover to Sodus with an anticipated 5:00 pm departure. Forecasts indicated some possibility for thunderstorm activity that was expected to end by early evening (blunt foreshadowing: it didn't).

I unlocked the door to the Warrior and slid inside with a practiced ease that was entirely unlike my ungainly entries to the Cub. Despite this comfortable familiarity, everything felt wrong as I settled into the left seat. Compared to the Cub, I was sitting up too high with incredible visibility, like sitting in the bubble canopy of a D-model Mustang. The cabin seemed too roomy; Warrior 481 was a Cadillac.

After engine start, she rolled docilely in whatever direction I prompted, making no effort to test my attention on taxi. S-turns were entirely unnecessary. I was utterly amazed at how a mere seven hours in a vintage Piper Cub could make the familiar Warrior seem so foreign and trivial to operate.

No Clearance

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
15 Jun 2017 N21481 12N (Andover, NJ) - FZY (Fulton, NY) 1.6 1653.2

New York Approach has a phone number listed in the Chart Supplement (former A/FD) for obtaining IFR clearance on the ground at Andover. With good VFR conditions in New Jersey, I decided to contact New York Approach for clearance once airborne rather than risk an extended wait for IFR release.

As it turned out, that was a terrible plan.

Climbing away from Aeroflex-Andover, I tuned New York Approach and listened to a steady stream of communications with no opportunity to interject anything, let alone request clearance. I climbed to a VFR cruise altitude of 4500' and decided to ask for clearance at the next facility. Frankly, after a week of training in a NORDO Cub, this felt more natural than it would have a week earlier.

On the emergency frequency, the captain of an airliner bound for Newark broadcast his final descent and tray table disposition announcement to all aircraft within line of sight. Yeah, that never gets old. His broadcast was answered by a chorus of silly voices saying "on guard!" that were punctuated with "nice announcement!" It is reassuring to know that the sky is so full of professionals.

The next facility was Wilkes-Barre and I planned to contact them for clearance once over Cherry Ridge Airport. To my surprise, the approach controller at Wilkes-Barre was managing a lot of traffic as well. As I listened, I also discovered that the controller was a trainee. At one point, he provided a frequency for New York Approach to an airliner. He evidently got the numbers wrong because, before he released his mic, everyone on frequency heard his trainer shriek (and I do mean shriek) the correct frequency at him. Twice. That must have been a fun training environment.

Hmmm...maybe I don't want to trouble Wilkes-Barre Approach with my request for clearance, either.

As I continued along, I was eyeing the height of the cloud deck and debating whether I needed to be at a low altitude to remain VFR. Because it appeared that I would need to fly either through or just above Binghamton's airspace, I contacted them from 20 miles south and requested flight following.

The Wall

Via ADS-B, ForeFlight depicted a line of thunderstorms and heavy precipitation arrayed along a stationary front extending from Rochester and Sodus south-southwest across Pennsylvania. It was a veritable wall in the sky and there would be no getting into Sodus anytime soon. Nor would any of my old haunts be reachable: Dansville, Le Roy, Canandaigua, Genesee County, or even Rochester. I chose to divert east to the Oswego County Airport (FZY) and wait for the storms to either dissipate or pass overhead.

I arrived at Oswego ahead of the rain around 6:00 pm, landed in a brisk southeasterly wind, and tied Warrior 481 down on the ramp in the event that the winds kicked up even more as the weather advanced.


My stomach groused with a meandering rumble. I had not eaten since noon and was already tired from a rigorous training session with Damian that culminated in a series of comparatively extreme simulated engine out landings. I ate peanuts from my flight bag, monitored the weather radar, and called my Dad to catch up with him while I waited for a break in the weather.

Years ago, Kristy and I were stranded by weather on a flying trip to Michigan. It was before I earned my instrument rating and she asked me if the rating would have helped us get home. I answered in the negative; we were stranded by thunderstorms and going IFR would not have been safe. Indeed, there I sat stranded, IFR ticket uselessly in hand..

Thanks to the wonder of modern electronics, I could easily see that the weather picture remained ugly for the better part of three hours. By 9:00, I was extremely hungry and needed a plan. I imagined that I could sleep in the comfortable leather recliners of the FBO if necessary, but there still would not be any food available to me in the morning. True to form, the stationary front was not going anywhere. Fortunately, the energy of the storm was dissipating with dwindling sunlight. Red and yellow returns on the radar reverted to green. At nightfall, Oswego County was marginal VFR with eight miles visibility in rain and a 3,000 foot ceiling. It was lousy, but perfectly workable.

Instrument Conditions

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
15 Jun 2017 N21481 FZY (Fulton, NY) - SDC (Sodus, NY) 0.5 1653.7

I saw my chance and took it. I filed an IFR flight plan from Oswego County to Sodus with a departure at 9:30. It was my first flight in the dark in a few months. Climbing away from the airport, I saw a dense curtain of significantly-less-than-VFR weather obscuring the westward course toward home. I contacted Syracuse Approach at 1500 feet over Oswego, received my clearance in the air, and set course for home through the rain and murk.

For much of the route, I found myself in nighttime instrument conditions and engulfed in a gentle rain left in the wake of the storm. The frontal passage was choppy, but not unreasonably or even uncomfortably so. Syracuse passed me to Rochester Approach, who cleared me direct to WALCO, a fix on the RNAV-28 approach into Sodus.

Radar track provided by FlightAware

Once established on the approach and beyond the stationary front, the visibility improved dramatically. Tracking the GPS-generated localizer, I cancelled IFR with Rochester and finished the landing into Sodus with a 10+ knot direct crosswind.

Warrior 481 required some TLC because the rain was insufficient to remove many of the bugs picked up on the way to New Jersey a few days earlier. I made it home around 11:00 pm and indulged in a very late dinner.


The wall of storms as depicted by FlightAware. Clearly, the FAA computer (dashed lines indicating the
anticipated route) was confused by my filing, but not using, an IFR flight plan.

I did not earn my instrument rating out of a strong desire to fly in instrument conditions for long stretches at a time (though I have). I earned it because I wanted the ability to push through thin ceilings or mild weather preventing safe VFR flight at either the departure or arrival end of a trip. Once the intensity of the weather died down, this example fit the bill exactly, a short hop through mild weather to get home (albeit with the added risk factor of nighttime).

The brief IFR flight tapped a very different skill set than what I'd exercised much earlier that day in flying the Cub at Aeroflex-Andover. It means that my envelope is broader than it once was and that is a very good thing.

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