Friday, July 21, 2017

Le Vol Vers le Québec: Comedy of Errors

Comedies Penned Before "Airplane!"

When I studied Shakespeare in high school, I was taught a very simple classification system for The Bard's larger works. Essentially, his plays could be sorted into two buckets: tragedies and comedies. Tragedies were easy to classify because serious, not-so-subtle bad stuff happened to the characters (e.g., Hamlet, everyone dies). Comedies were not necessarily humorous, but differentiated themselves from tragedies by resolving into positive outcomes (e.g., Much Ado About Nothing, nobody actually dies).

Our return to New York from Quebec falls squarely into the Elizabethan definition of a comedy. Without being particularly amusing, the flight ended with a positive outcome. I suffer no delusions about my skills as an aviator. Most of the time, I can fly my airplane, make decisions, and work the system in a wholly adequate manner. I am not Super Pilot, but I usually do a passable job of aviating. In contrast to this general adequacy, our international flight on July 21 was riddled with small, annoying errors all committed by yours truly.

Maybe I was a little off because it was the twelfth anniversary of "Box Lunch Day".

Maybe I had developed a severe case of cranial rectosis that morning.

Or, maybe, it was just one of those days.

Regardless, dessert service on today's flight included humble pie.

Cheese Fort

The weather forecast for our return on July 21st inspired enough confidence that I comfortably solidified my schedule the evening prior by filing IFR flight plans, submitting an eAPIS manifest, and calling US Customs in Burlington, VT to schedule our arrival. I planned a 10:30 am departure from Bromont with an 11:10 am arrival in Burlington, VT.

We arrived at the Bromont Airport at 8:30. While Kristy, her parents, and The Bear ordered breakfast at Le Bisto M, I untied the Warrior from the ramp, removed the cabin cover, and taxied to the fuel pump. The attendant's English was rough, but like most people we met in Quebec, sufficient for communication. A little patience and goodwill go a long way. Once fueled, I taxied back to the tie down and paid the bill which, in addition to the fuel, included roughly the equivalent of $75 USD for seven days of parking.

This timing worked out well. I returned to our table before breakfast was served. When it arrived, my omelet was delicious and filling. It contained "cheddar fort", which is obviously French for "cheddar so strong one could build a fort out of it".

After breakfast we did the necessary restroom breaks and loaded our baggage into the airplane by 10:00 am. We exchanged hugs with Kristy's parents and watched them drive off across the ramp in their Honda CR-V.

Mistake #1

Packing the airplane was a bit of a challenge because we were returning to Sodus with more luggage and people (The Bear) than we departed with. Once everything was packed and everyone in their seats, I began setting up the avionics. It was my plan to wait until 10:15, then call Canadian Flight Service (1-866-WXBRIEF) for my IFR clearance out of Bromont. Everything was humming along right on schedule.

"Where is [The Bear's] headset?" asked Kristy.

I simply gaped at her while I envisioned the case with our extra headsets sitting on a shelf in the hangar; the case that we had not needed for the outbound flight, and thus did not have on board. My heart sank.


We agreed that The Bear should wear the second Zulu headset and that we would improvise ear protection for Kristy. I know that previous generations of pilots flew around in Pipers and Cessnas without hearing protection, but I also know that the airplane is loud and headache-inducing without a headset and I felt awful that Kristy would be subjected to that kind of racket on our return to the United States.

An Attaboy from Flight Service

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
21 Jul 2017 N21481 CZBM (Bromont, Quebec, Canada) - KBTV (Burlington, VT) - KGFL (Glens Falls, NY) - SDC (Sodus, NY) 3.7 1669.5

With the engine leaned and idling, I called Flight Service via the Bluetooth link between my headset and phone. I was on hold for nearly ten minutes before a specialist answered. I gave my tail number, location, and indicated that I was requesting IFR clearance to Burlington.

"November Two One Four Eight One," responded the Canadian briefer brightly. "You were a little broken up, but I imagine you're looking for your IFR clearance to Vermont!" When I affirmed this, he put me on hold while he contacted Montreal Center on my behalf.

"Novermber Two One Four Eight One," he said on his return. "There's an amendment here, but let's run through everything and check to make sure that we understand each other." He read the clearance and I wrote everything down, including the addition of the Bromont One departure procedure. When I read it back, he responded with, "That was perfect! Anything else I can help you with?"

There wasn't and we said our goodbyes. Our void time was 1445 Zulu (10:45 am) and it was already 10:35. I followed local practice and called UNICOM for a departure advisory (twice), but there was no response. The UNICOM operator also had line responsibilities and was probably away from the radio. That was fine, I could see the windsock and had already set my altimeter to the field elevation.

I throttled up, dragged the left brake, and the Warrior pirouetted in a counter clockwise circle on the ramp while I scanned the sky. There were two gliders southeast of the field and a returning Super Dog tow plane on base for the pavement. There is only a single taxiway connecting the ramp to the runway and I did not want to block it, so I waited on the ramp for the Super Dog to land.

Mistake #2

The Super Dog rolled off the runway about midfield to join the glider operation on the parallel grass at the southern end of the airport. I advanced the throttle and taxied to the runway hold short line before noticing a Cessna 150 on final that I had not seen in my prior scan nor heard on the radio. There was a lot of French being spoken on frequency and I probably missed his radio calls. Canadians seem to be very diligent about their radio calls and I do not doubt that he was making them. If the Cessna needed access to the ramp, I was now blocking him.

Ug. Maybe he'll do a touch and go.

The Cessna touched down and brakes were applied aggressively enough to compress the nose strut. Then the Cessna pivoted on one wheel with a burst of throttle and back taxied on the runway to where I was blocking the entrance to the ramp.


I maneuvered the Warrior to the far side of the taxiway to make room, thankful that the landing aircraft was a high wing instead of another low wing. As the Cessna taxied past, I keyed the mic while reading his tail number. "Sorry about that Echo Foxtrot."

The other pilot waved. "No problem." It probably happens there all the time. Regardless, I felt like a complete ass. Rude American.

The Bromont One departure for runway 23 involves a climb, a turn back to the Bromont NDB, and a hold at the NDB while climbing to 4,000 feet. This procedure is a way to manage terrain clearance before radar contact can be made with Montreal Center.

Still climbing, we passed beyond the five nautical mile boundary for the Mandatory Frequency. I gave a final position report, then contacted Montreal Approach. I was "radar identified" at 3,000 feet before turning back for the hold. The hold was cancelled and we were cleared direct Burlington.

Mistake #3

We enjoyed a quick flight across the border over a scattered layer of clouds. Burlington NOTAMs showed a variety of taxiways closed and early morning runway closures indicating significant construction on-going at the airport. At the time of our arrival, all runways were open, but taxiway closures were complicating ground handling.. We were cleared for a visual approach to runway 19.

As I maneuvered to enter the pattern, Tower called. "Cherokee Four Eight One, are you heading for runway 15?"

No, I'm pointed at 19, I thought. Then I looked again.


Instead of going straight in to runway 19, I was set up on a left base for 15. I have landed at airports that had closely aligned runways with adjacent thresholds at night without ever making a mistake like that. Why today? Insert "admonition to back up visual approaches to unfamiliar airports with an instrument procedure" here.

I confessed my mistake and apologized. "No problem," Tower responded. "Clear to land 15, right turn runway 19, no delay." Because of ramp work, runway 19 was being used as both runway and taxiway while 15 was primarily in use by the airlines and there was an airliner on its way.

Mistake #4

"Cherokee Four Eight One, contact ground for parking."

"Ground, one two one point niner, Cherokee Four Eight One." I already had this frequency set on Comm 2 - something I'd done correctly that morning! Except that, when I changed radios and tried to raise Burlington Ground, there was no response. I had found 121.9, a common ground frequency at many airports, listed in ForeFlight while still approaching Burlington. I was puzzled for a moment. Was it not the correct frequency? If I had the wrong frequency, why didn't Tower correct my readback? For that matter, why didn't Tower provide the frequency in the first place? The likely answer to both is that they were busy.

Still rolling down runway 19, I consulted the taxi diagram and it listed 126.3 for Ground Control. Success! We received taxi instructions to the customs ramp adjacent to Heritage Aviation, shutting the engine down within ten minutes of our scheduled ETA.

One Problem Solved

Our view from the customs ramp.

Once shut down, I called Burlington customs. An officer strode out to the Warrior and scanned my ship for radioactivity, both inside and out. Then, he invited us inside the customs office where he reviewed our passports, asked some questions, and cleared us back into the country. The process in Burlington was quite different from the process in Buffalo.

From customs, we walked over to Heritage Aviation to use the restrooms. When I indicated that we were there to clear customs in a Cherokee, the woman at the counter smiled and said, "Oh, then you don't owe us a thing! Have a great day!"

With a moment's inspiration, I asked if they had a pilot shop that sold earplugs. "No," she responded, "but it you need earplugs, you can have some." She opened a cabinet and provided me with a fresh set of foam earplugs.

Wow! That is the second time this month that a high end FBO has come to the rescue.

Mistake #5

While enjoying some chocolate chip cookies prepared in Quebec by the Collaborative Aunt Collective, we watched some Vermont Air National Guard F-16s moving around on the ramp. Once the cookies were finished and the the crumbs managed, we climbed back into the Warrior for the next step in our journey: lunch at The Aviator Restaurant in Glens Falls, NY. I had already filed an IFR flight plan to KGFL the night before and, so far, we were managing to stay close to the original schedule.

We received our clearance (as filed, with the addition of the Burlington Eight departure procedure) and then proceeded to execute a series of short taxis to the north end of the airport. Taxi Charlie, hold short 19 for a landing Archer. Back taxi 19, left on Golf, right on Alpha, hold short 15 for two inbound airliners. Cross 15 on Alpha, hold short 19.

With modern airport markings, it would be really hard to inadvertently taxi onto a runway. I'm sure it still happens.

Ready at 19, we waited while ATC moved other ground traffic around on the departure end of our runway. Clearly, the taxiway closures were significantly complicating ATC's job at Burlington. Once the runway was available again, we were cleared for an expedited take off ahead of a general aviation airplane on a two mile final.

We crossed over the tops of the trees at the end of 19 while pitched to Vy to satisfy the minimum climb gradient required by the SID.

"Cherokee Four Eight One, reset transponder, squawk 5566, and contact departure."

I looked down at the transponder, still programmed with the 6202 code assigned on the ground at ... Bromont.

Really? Ug. Total amateur mistake. Foul: inadequate use of checklist.

To his credit, Burlington Tower was cool about it. As I punched in the correct squawk from my clearance and hit the flip-flop button to bring up the departure frequency, a brief scene played in my mind in which the Tower guy looked at the Ground guy and said, "Hey, remember that guy who couldn't tell runway 15 from 19 and didn't have the right ground frequency? He doesn't know how to operate his transponder, either."

Shoot me now.

I'm Givin' Her All She's Got, Cap'n!

We were at 8,000 feet, leaned and trimmed for cruise. Kristy was enjoying her new earplugs and a quieter ride. My ears, on the other hand, were filled with constant chatter from Boston Center. Below, Lake Champlain was visible between scattered clouds.

Then, the Warrior began to sink. There was no plummeting, no nose diving. She just started to sink. I pitched up to compensate in  hopes of maintaining my assigned altitude, but it wasn't enough. I firewalled the mixture and throttle while pitching to Vx (best angle of climb, 63 KIAS), but it still wasn't enough. We were sinking.

Per the tach, the engine was producing the expected amount of power. Grasping at straws, I activated carb heat to check for ice. By all indications, carb icing was not causing a loss of power. Then again, I was not exactly in prime carburetor ice conditions and the Warrior's carb has only iced up once in thirteen years, so icing was a long shot.

When flying IFR, certain occurrences must be reported to ATC. One is vacating an assigned altitude. Another is a change in airspeed of more than 10 knots or 5%. I had just experienced both as the Warrior was sinking while pitched skyward in a maximum performance climb at 63 knots. As the altimeter continued to unwind through 7,700 feet, I contacted Boston Center and informed the controller that I was unable to hold altitude.

I had his attention immediately. "Cherokee Four Eight One, are you OK?"

I responded that we were fine, that the engine seemed to be performing normally, but that we were sinking. A downdraft, perhaps? We were downwind of the Adirondacks, maybe it was a mild mountain wave?

"Cherokee Four Eight One, descend and maintain six thousand. There's nothing in your way down there." When I leveled at 6,000 feet, all was right with the world again from an aircraft performance perspective. We were now in and out of the clouds, however, which Kristy did not particularly appreciate. To compound the issue, without a headset, she was completely unaware of what had just happened.

Boston Center checked on us two more times to ensure that we were safe before handing us off to Albany Approach as we neared Glens Falls.

$100 Lobster with Style

"I've never been here before," The Bear stated flatly as we climbed out of the Warrior at Glens Falls.

"Actually, you have," I told her.

"Isn't this the airport where she peed on me?" asked Kristy.

"Yup," I confirmed.

"WHAT???!" exclaimed The Bear, aghast. We recounted the tale of the leaky diaper.

While former airport restaurants occupied a corner of the old terminal building, the new restaurant is immediately south of the terminal in its own building and is accessed from the street side of the airport fence.

Called "The Aviator Restaurant", the eatery is open for lunch and dinner and features a fancier menu than the average greasy spoon.

The children's  menu was also educational.

"I already know all of this stuff," deadpanned The Bear.

She may have not been enthusiastic about the educational value of the menu, but she clearly lit up when the plate of food was placed before her. Chicken fingers! Good old reliable chicken fingers! Kristy had a delicious looking salad and I had a lobster roll with a house salad. Everything was excellent.

Dressed in t-shirts and shorts, I think we were the only fly-in patrons in The Aviator that afternoon. Aside from making us feel under-dressed, presence of non-aviator clientele was a good sign that indicated a healthy amount of street traffic. This appears to be critical for the success of airport restaurants.

After lunch, we relaxed on a shaded bench at the base of the old control tower. We enjoyed the fresh breeze and watched aircraft come and go.

A lineman from Rich Air walked past, wiping the sweat from his brow. "Let me guess, you're waiting for a jet to take you away from this heat. Maybe to Alaska?"

That sounded nice. A couple of private jets landed while we dawdled, but they were not for us.

Home Again

Floyd Bennett Memorial Airport, Glens Falls, NY.

I filed IFR for home because Rochester was forecasting a low broken layer. Albany was busy when I tried to get our clearance in the air, but we finally received it about twenty miles west of Glens Falls.

At 6,000 feet, we busted a few clouds while tracking our airway route home. I backed up our navigation with the VORs, completing a VOR check in the process. Kristy dozed. The Bear played games on her iPad while complaining that she could only hear out of one ear on the Zulu, something we discovered very recently about the back seat intercom jacks. First World problems, anyone?

Syracuse in the haze from 6,000 feet.

A hot, humid day in Upstate New York had created a hazy atmosphere reminiscent of flying through Georgia in mid-summer, blurring ground features only a mile below our wings. Other than the pervasive summer haze, we found the Williamson-Sodus Airport under a clear sky and good VFR conditions. I cancelled IFR with Rochester and brought the airplane home.

Ground track from KGFL - KSDC courtesy of FlightAware.

After a string of stupid errors committed throughout the day, execution of a good landing at home was just what I needed to end the day's flying.

Because the bureaucracy of international flight is still new to me, I spent a lot of energy on flight planning, getting the timing correct, and understanding applicable Canadian air traffic control practices. All of these aspects of the flight went well and, in that regard, the trip was a success.

Pursuit of Excellence

Pilots often talk about flying the perfect flight, a flight where absolutely everything is done properly. Wiser pilots may admit that this is chasing a ghost, that there is always something about a flight that could have been done better. Fortunately, the system is robust enough that individual minor mistakes rarely become major mistakes. Perhaps the only pilots to ever fly a perfect flight are those too oblivious or egotistical to see the flaws. Despite this, even if we can only approach it asymptotically, perfection is nonetheless a worthy goal.

This flight, on the other hand, was far from perfect. If only I could have kept track of the number of headsets required for the trip, had better situational awareness while taxiing out at Bromont, had lined up for the correct runway at Burlington, had found the correct Ground frequency for Burlington, and had used my transponder properly at Burlington -- all things, incidentally, that I have successfully accomplished for years without issue -- then maybe, just maybe, this flight would have been almost, possibly, close to something resembling a nearly perfect endeavor.

Of course, in the narrow scope of Elizabethan-era theater, I would much rather headline a comedy than a tragedy.


  1. I would have taken a nap on the ground in Burlington. You were adding up little mistakes in a way that always makes me uncomfortable. Although they seem tiny and minor, they chip away at a sense of confidence and comfort in your awareness that can be critical when something goes wrong. For instance, when you start sinking without a good explanation.

    One of my rules is after two mistakes I stay on the ground, but I admit there is some fuzziness about what constitutes a mistake. Lining up on the wrong runway (or, in my case, a parking lot at night instead of the runway) definitely counts as a mistake. Headset, squawk, spotting the 150... I am a little less sure how to classify them. But even putting them in as 1/3 each I would have taken a nap at the FBO in Burlington. That's a brain reset that can save you if something goes wrong on the flight. (If you're the sort of person that can nap. I can now do a 16 minute nap on command any time of day.)

    Make an immediate change: ear protection in the flight bag that stays permanently in the plane. I've gotten a few little baggies at FBOs, but also bought some at hardware stores so I have a variety.

    1. Hi Colin - Thank you for a great comment.

      I try to be analytical about my flying and every flight usually ends with an internal review. How did that go? Is there anything that needs to be fixed? Did something happen that I don't understand? Am I doing something consistently that needs to be nipped in the bud? Many of those reflections wind up in this blog, with this post being an example. I believe that any learning experience for me may also be valuable to others.

      I think your two mistake rule is a pretty good one, despite the fuzziness around defining a mistake. I've had moments while flying where a couple of things have gone wrong and the phrase "accident chain" has flashed through my head. It's a good phrase. It stimulates an attitude adjustment and sharpens attention. At least, it does for me.

      I'll be honest, I did not feel the need for a reset at Burlington. I did, however, feel the need for one at Glens Falls. I don't nap well and I envy your ability to nap on command. But after getting a nice, leisurely meal, we sat outside in the shade enjoying the breeze for a while. It wasn't a nap, but I think it cleared my head.

      Good idea on the earplugs. It hasn't been an issue over the last 13 years of aircraft ownership, but it was last week.

  2. Live and learn!!!! At least I enjoyed the comedy of the story, so thank you and I'm glad nothing serious really happened. Maybe it was just your visit to the Great White North rubbing off on you hoser!

  3. Do your Zulus have a mono/stereo switch? I had the same problem with my Bose and I found the switch in the battery compartment which fixed it.

    1. Good question. I'm not sure at the moment, but it might be moot. Tom Carter was flying back seat last weekend and found that by working the plug in and out of the jack, that he restored audio on both channels. Those back seat headset jacks do not get used as often as the front and I wonder if I just had some dirty contacts.