Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Blues

When the Third Time Is Definitely Not the Charm

As a pilot with an aircraft at my disposal, I find that saying "no" -- particularly to others -- is a challenge. When conditions are unsafe or questionable in my judgement, I can scrub a flight with the confidence that it is the right thing to do, but I still agonize over the declaration. Since earning my instrument rating, the frequency of aborted flights has been reduced, but I think that the decisions are sometimes more challenging than they used to be. With the ability to fly in lousy weather comes the need to decide exactly how lousy is too lousy.

When I was VFR only, a 1,000 foot ceiling hovering over the entire state made for a simple and immediate "no". That same 1,000 foot ceiling is easily managed with an instrument rating, however. Unless there is a threat of icing. I cancelled two flights to Michigan in April for exactly this reason after pondering the risks for longer than I should have. What if there is convective activity en route? This is also not a simple black and white decision. How widespread are the thunderstorms? Are they isolated, scattered, or formed into lines? On July 1, we cancelled a flight to visit Kent in Kalamazoo because of a line of cells moving over the top of Rochester (complications included a strong headwind that would significantly lengthen the trip, forecast gusty winds at the destination, and a congested passenger). It was the third aborted flight to Michigan of 2017.

All three of us were disappointed that we would miss seeing Kent and his family.

That day, I indulged in some airplane owner masochism and scrubbed the oil, grime, and exhaust stains from the belly of the Warrior. I groused to Tony about the cancelled flight and Tony offered a compelling alternative. He and two other club members were planning a flight to the New York Air Show at Stewart International Airport in Orange County, NY on July 2.

The Blue Angels were headlining.


En Route, Re-Route

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
02 Jul 2017 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - SWF (Newburgh, NY) - SDC 3.9 1660.4

We gathered at the Williamson-Sodus Airport around 7:30 am and, by 8:00 the airplane, Kristy, and The Bear were all ready to go!

The Bear waits with Warrior 481 for departure.

Though the weather was expected to be good VFR with some low overcast along the way, I filed IFR and was cleared direct to Stewart International (airport # 178). Stewart is in the New York City suburb of Newburgh, but official sources identify the field as being in The City itself. Close enough, I suppose, but thankfully not so close that it was affected by President Trump's golf TFR (temporary flight restriction). The airport is a mixed use facility with commercial, military, and general aviation activity.

Outbound, we flew at 7,000 feet over a steadily thickening ceiling. Tony, Mike, and Tim were VFR behind us in Eight Five X-Ray. Stewart indicated a clear sky for the duration of the flight and the others were in no danger of becoming trapped on top. Nonetheless, it was comforting to know that this would not be a concern for us.

Warrior 481's radio stack possesses the world's ugliest KX-170B radio. Damn thing is bulletproof, though.

A ground speed of up to 150 knots (173 mph) expedited the trip to metropolitan New York significantly.

We were over the western edge of the Catskill Mountains when I received the first new clearance from Boston Center: Delancy (DNY), Victor 483, FILPS, direct Stewart. I had to ask Boston to repeat the spelling of FILPS. Someday, it would be nice to get an entire in-air clearance exactly right the first time.

In descent over the eastern Catskills, our clearance was amended again to direct Kingston (IGN) by New York Approach. The controller was working a lot of traffic going into Stewart and was clearly using this as a delay vector.

Landing runway 27 at Stewart. Photo by Kristy.

Even due north of the airport, the nearly 12,000 foot long east-west oriented runway was easy to spot from 15 miles away. Tower worked us into the pattern and asked us to use the displaced threshold portion of the runway to land short of the intersection with runway 16. It was my opportunity to be "super pilot" and squeak the Warrior in nice and short.

C-17 Globemaster IIIs on the military ramp at Stewart. Photo by Kristy.

Two Blue Angel F-18s being towed to the flight line. Photo by Kristy.


I floated right past the runway 16 intersection. I landed, stopped, and made an expedited 180° turn back to runway 16 in order to clear the active runway for inbound landing traffic.

Sigh. That was humbling, particularly because I can do better.

Ground track from Sodus to Stewart courtesy of FlightAware

Signature and Atlantic both operate FBO facilities on the field. I had reserved a parking spot on the Signature ramp the night before after phone calls to both business and a careful weighing of fee structures.

"Cherokee 481, right turn on 16, taxi Signature via Alpha, Charlie," instructed Ground. I never indicated where we were parking; we were clearly on a list.

Flying into the air show was another first for us!

Hats? Check. Sunglasses? Well, most of us. Check-ish. Sunscreen? Check. Camp chairs? Check.

Good to go!

Globemasters, Skytypers, Angels, and The Bear

The Bear with one of nine C-17s based at Stewart.

We settled ourselves in the crowd assembled along the closed parallel taxiway Alpha (hence the U-turn on landing) and immediately indulged in some typically terrible airshow food. Hunger abated, we explored the static display aircraft starting with the C-17 Globemaster III.

The Bear asked how much fuel the airplane carried. The answer: 200,000 pounds for high endurance flights. So, just a touch more than the Warrior.

"Um...Daddy? There is an entire truck inside this airplane!"

The child may have made a comment about being "pooped out" the back of the C-17. A nearby adult might have laughed at it. None of these things can be proven.

The F-35 Lightning II.

Whenever I see someone peering into the exhaust end of a turbine engine, I am reminded of the Far Side comic with the kid looking into a nuclear missile silo and the caption, "never, never do this."

A pair of F-15s on the ramp attracted a lot of attention.

Rotor hub on the Blackhawk

Sitting in the Blackhawk. Photo by Kristy.

From the static display area, my zoom lens was able to bring the parked Blue Angel F-18s closer. I think I saw the Blue Angels perform once when I was younger than The Bear. If so, I have not seen them since they started flying F-18s, which occurred in 1986.

Mike Wiskus put his Pitts Special through its paces during the show.

Though they are not sexy, there is something about the competent and capable cargo ships that appeals to me greatly. The C-17 performed like a bigger version of the C-130 Hercules, including the ability to back-up on the runway using reverse thrust.

Even my family was impressed by the C-17 demonstration. No, really, The Bear too.


The Bear's least favorite pop song ("Shut Up and Dance") was part of one of the routines. When it started, she spluttered while drinking lemonade and covered herself in a fine mist of citrus-y beverage. I caught a photo of the resulting chagrin.

The Geico Skytypers put on a fantastic show and I spent some time explaining to The Bear why T-6s sound like T-6s (i.e., "awesome"). My favorite air show sound is a chorus of T-6s performing together.

An active wind over Stewart led to smoke trails dissipating quickly, in this case leaving what appeared to be a skeletal hand hovering over the crowd (albeit a mutant skeletal hand with six fingers).

How do you explain the significance of a Heritage Flight to a ten year old? My attempt involved telling her that the Mustang first flew when her Grandma was a child, the F-16 first flew when Kristy and I were kids, and the F-35 first flew a year before she was born.

I think the only thing that The Bear processed was that the F-16 Viper and the F-35 Lightning II were loud; "stick your fingers in your ears and feel your lungs rattle" loud. Note to self for the next airshow: ear plugs.

An Air Tractor made for an unusual participant in the show. Kudos to the organizers for giving some visibility to this underappreciated segment of aviation.

The heat and noise finally got to The Bear, who took a quick nap before the headliners came out to do their thing.

The Blue Angels put on an amazing show of precision flying ("18 inches wingtip to canopy"), raw power, and finely honed aerobatic talent. All three of us were enthralled. Their show was fast paced, deftly timed, and simply beautiful to watch. The Bear could not take her eyes off the sky. Unfortunately, The Blues are really hard to photograph with a basic point and shoot camera. They refuse to stay in frame...

...until they slow down for high alpha maneuvers.

The Blue Angels completely exceeded my initial high expectations.

Signature Service

We managed to avoid common air show pitfalls. We were not sunburned or dehydrated. Despite that success, we still returned to Signature hot, tired, and hungry. Had we planned better, we would have eaten before the air show vendors packed up their kiosks. Though the show ended at 4:00, the TFR around Stewart would remain in place until 4:30 and there was a ground stop in effect until 5:00 because air show attendees needed to cross the taxiway leading out of the FBOs to return to their cars.

True to form, parking at Signature involved a $25 parking fee. The $37 handling fee was waived with a minimum 7 gal fuel purchase. I bought 10 gal at...egad...$7.25/gal. But credit must be given where credit is due. Though the Signature lobby was utter chaos in the wake of the airshow, Natalie and Ivette managed the zoo very effectively with smiles on their faces the entire time.

When I asked Natalie about nearby food options, she explained that there weren't any. Then she invited me to come back to the kitchen where they had leftover food from the cookout that fed the police and army of air show volunteers that day. "I'll make you a plate," she offered. "But we'll have to be quiet about it because we can't do that for everyone." I declined, explaining that it would not be fair for me to eat without the rest of my family. She nodded in understanding.

Minutes later, Ivette offered The Bear a doughnut leftover from that morning. Unfortunately, doughnuts are often contaminated with peanuts and are on her list of forbidden foods. This is a sore spot for The Bear. She loves doughnuts and hates that she cannot eat them when nearly everyone else she knows can. After the heat of the long day, the noise (wow, that F-16 demo), the crowd, and the unflinching sun, she completely lost it. Crying, she ran back across the lobby to me and Kristy.

Both women waved us over. "Come with me," Ivette commanded as Natalie slipped out the back door. Ivette led us out of the crowded lobby and past Tony, Mike, and Tim who were planning their flight back to Sodus in Eight Five X-Ray. We followed her into the closed diner, trying to explain why The Bear reacted to the proferred doughnut the way she had.

Leftovers from the volunteer picnic were waiting for us. She provided us with plates and plastic flatware (just knives as it turned out, but beggars definitely can't be choosers) and invited us to help ourselves, entreating us to keep it quiet lest we incite a stampede of hungry pilots. Much like graduate students, pilots are always on the look-out for food, especially inexpensive or free food. The spread included smoked chicken, hamburgers, hot dogs, and potato salad. The chicken and potato salad were excellent and we devoured what we put on our plates. Ivette graciously returned a few minutes later with water for everyone.

When we were done, we tidied up and I discretely disposed of our plates in the men's restroom. When we returned to the lobby, the pair were still managing the chaos of the lobby with grace. We thanked them profusely for their help. As we departed, they waved enthusiastically in farewell.

I have paid parking/security/handling fees at many large airport FBOs over the years, including other Signature operations. This was the first time I ever received a level of service commensurate with the cost of visiting a pricey FBO. For those who encounter Natalie or Ivette in the Signature FBO at Stewart International, treat them well. Surrounded by an impatient rabble of pilots waiting out the ground stop in their lobby, they truly went above and beyond to make us feel welcome and comfortable.

Airborne Deviants

As another pilot observed while we walked out to the ramp together, there was an unusually high number of Warriors gathered on the Signature ramp. I stopped to talk with the owners of a beautiful Archer II (center of frame) parked in front of Warrior 481. They explained that the turquoise stripe down the side was inspired by the paint scheme of a '57 Chevy.

Mike fired-up Eight Five X-Ray while we boarded Warrior 481. Within minutes we joined the parade of airplanes heading for the departure end of runway 27.

When we reached the departure end of the runway, we were number three for departure behind Eight Five X-Ray and (go-figure) another Warrior. Two other Pipers taxied into line behind us.

Climbing away from Stewart, ADS-B uplink data indicated the positions of aircraft participating in the post-air show exodus. It certainly beat sitting in traffic trying to escape from an event parking lot!

ADS-B also displayed the presence of thunderstorm cells over the Catskills. Mike and I turned our ships westward to circumvent the storms, passing roughly 25 nautical miles north of the Presidential golf TFR.

As we deviated around the weather, I overhead the interception of an aircraft near Princeton, NJ that had strayed into the TFR. The interceptor politely advised a heading for the most expeditious exit from restricted airspace. I could not help but think that the conversation would be less polite on the ground.

What a massive waste of time, energy, and money. We should absolutely protect the President of the United States, but we should do it in a way that makes sense.

Thunderstorm cells off our right wing were mostly shrouded in haze, though I occasionally caught sight of charcoal gray rain shafts pouring forth from the convective centers.

Binghamton, NY

We successfully navigated around the weather with Eight Five X-Ray flying approximately 10 miles in trail. It was a terrific, but very long, day and the sight of the Finger Lakes was a welcome one.

Ground track courtesy of FlightAware. The radar image was taken at the time of our departure from Stewart and all cells were significantly farther east as we passed them. Our track was not as close to any of them as this image makes it appear, but the image helps explain why the direct route to Sodus was not going to work.

How did the girls handle this storm deviation?

Rather calmly, I think.

There is something about sleeping passengers that makes precious cargo even more precious.


At Sodus, we landed well short of the midfield taxiway turnoff because I apparently only land short when Tower is not counting on me to do so. Sigh. Eight Five X-Ray joined us at the fuel pump a few minutes later.

Yes, it was a long day. We departed Sodus at 8:00 that morning and returned around 7:30 pm. The day was hot, long, and loud. That is a fundamental problem with air shows. They happen at airports in the summer where there is no respite from the sun. Nevertheless, it was also a great day. After their nap, the girls were feeling perkier and The Bear was excited about what she saw at the air show.

I decided to get a photograph of the ladies before we put the Warrior to bed.

No, that was really not what I had in mind.

The Bear had something in her teeth. Mommy to the rescue! (Ew)

Oh boy, there's a look.

OK, so I gave up. We had a great day. I decided to call it done.

As for flying to Michigan, August looks like a promising month. Surely we won't be weathered out a fourth time this year!


  1. Nice flight Chris. I heard you switch off of Rochester approach on your way back as I was heading down to Dansville on a tune up flight in 55W. Also, were you doing pattern work today? I am pretty sure I drove right under you today as you were turning crosswind for 10 around 7 PM.

    1. Thanks, Matt. It was a great trip.

      Good eye! Yes, I was out doing some pattern work this evening. I've been wanting some solo time in the airplane to rethink my landing technique in light of some of the things I learned in tailwheel training. It was a beautiful night to fly.