Saturday, September 16, 2017



Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
16 Sep 2017 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - PTK (Waterford, MI) - SDC 5.6 1711.9

In my brief four years as an instrument rated pilot, I have become spoiled by how much easier the flight across Canada between New York and Michigan is when flown in the IFR system rather than VFR. In the VFR days, the procedure was this:

  • Call flight service to submit a flight plan (though, later, I submitted electronically through DUAT),
  • Depart the airport and contact / try to contact Flight Service in the air to activate the flight plan,
  • Call the nearest radar facility for flight following and a transponder code,
  • Close the flight plan by phone on arrival (I used to write "CFP" for "close flight plan" on the back of my hand to help me remember this).
These actions would satisfy the requirements of being on a flight plan, squawking a discrete transponder code, and participating in two way communication with air traffic control for the border crossing.

After a 2010 mishap with Flight Service resulting in our being reported overdue while still en route across Ontario, I followed the advice of a Flight Service briefer and regularly activated my VFR flight plans on the ground by phone. This was useful because in-air activation was often problematic as a result of RCO outages and/or poor audio quality.

Since earning my instrument rating, I feel that the process has been streamlined:

  • I file IFR flight plans electronically through ForeFlight,
  • Depending on the situation, I receive clearance from Ground Control or Clearance Delivery (at towered airports), by phone prior to take-off, or in the air from the local radar facility (Approach or Center). 
The rest of it is automatic. There are no concerns about hearing "radar service terminated" along the way. That can and does happen while VFR. There are no concerns about remaining VFR should a cloud layer present itself en route. On landing, Tower closes the IFR flight plan automatically or, if landing at a non-towered airport, I cancel in the air when I can. On occasions when I fly an approach to a non-towered airport, I may still need to remember the phone call for cancellation. Exercising an instrument rating has definitely shifted my preference to using towered airports.

Two weeks ago.

Then, two weeks ago, my attitude indicator malfunctioned.

Mission: Pontiac

Mom was out of the hospital and recuperating at home. With a pristine weather forecast and high pressure dominating the entire route of flight such that there was virtually no wind aloft, I decided to visit. The Bear had a cold and remained at home with Kristy. We always want clear heads in the airplane (in more ways than one).

I have scheduled Warrior 481 to have her mechanical attitude gyro replaced with a Garmin G5 solid state electronic indicator. These are selling faster than Garmin can make them and they are currently back-ordered into October. In the meantime, the Warrior's vacuum pump was old enough that I had it replaced as a preventive measure. Without a reliable attitude indicator, however, I was not going to file IFR to Michigan.

Going Old School

I read a self-contradictory weather forecast the morning of the flight. Though every terminal area forecast for every airport along the route indicated VFR conditions after 9:00 am, three separate IFR AIRMETs covered the entire route of flight until 11:00 am. I decided to launch anyway and resolved to use Flint as my alternate because it had a better forecast than the rest of the route, was outside of the AIRMET areas, and still reasonably close to Mom.

After filing a VFR flight plan through ForeFlight for the first time, I was on the run-up pad for runway 28 at Sodus. It was 9:00 am with 10+ mile visibility and a clear sky. With run-up complete, I attempted to call Flight Service to activate the flight plan before take-off, but I could not get my phone to pair with the Zulu headset by Bluetooth. First world problems, true, but I did not want to waste time fiddling with it and I did not want to shut the engine down just for the sake of making a phone call. Instead, I consulted the sectional chart, identified the frequency for the Flight Service RCO co-located with the Rochester VOR (122.6), and decided to activate in the air.

After making contact with Rochester for flight following, I requested to go off frequency to contact Flight Service.

"Buffalo Radio, Warrior 21481 on 122.6," I broadcast. Then I waited.


I broadcast again and waited.

Still nothing.

I swapped over to my #2 radio, which has a lower squelch setting than the #1 and repeated the call.

Nope. I was reminded of numerous experiences in years past when I struggled to reach Flight Service while airborne.

I double checked the frequency, verified adequate volume on the radio, ensured that I had the correct radio selected at the audio panel, and tried a fourth time.

At first, there was nothing but a faint crackle. Then, I heard an elderly voice with just a hint of a waver that lacked the confident presence one usually hears on the aviation band.

"Aircraft calling Buffalo Radio, say call sign again." The audio quality was abysmal, but understandable.

Intellectually, I understood that I was not talking to someone in Buffalo. Flight Service Stations were privatized and consolidated into a small number of facilities years ago. I wondered if low demand had driven even further consolidation since the last time I called Flight Service. I envisioned a cartoonishly weather-beaten little shack in the middle of Nebraska to which all Flight Service RCOs fed. It was staffed by one little old man with a long white beard who listened to an ancient radio set through an ear trumpet, his face lit by the glow of vacuum tubes. In a corner, a rusty saucepan collected water leaking through the roof. Somewhere in the distance, a donkey brayed.

I shook my head, reigning in my imagination, and responded. "Buffalo Radio, this is Warrior 21481."

"Warrior," repeated the Flight Service Specialist haltingly, struggling with the readback. "Say request." I gave my spiel, requesting activation of my flight plan to Pontiac as of 1300Z.

"Warrior 21481, VFR flight plan will be activated as of 1315Z...wait..." The radio fell silent. If he wanted to activate at the current time, I was fine with that. I was more concerned about how long I had been off-frequency from Rochester.

He returned, amending the activation time to 9:00 am and warning me that I was departing from an area with an active IFR AIRMET. I already knew that, of course. The air was hazy, but I could already see Buffalo roughly 30 miles away. I acknowledged and flipped back to Rochester Approach. A new controller was working the position, but she seemed unperturbed by my absence. A few minutes later, she passed me to Buffalo.

The ubiquitous Niagara Falls photo

I was admiring Niagara Falls from just east of the international border when Buffalo called. "Warrior 481, radar service terminated." He paused just long enough for me to process a mental "dammit!", then continued. "Keep the squawk. If you want further flight following, try contacting Toronto Center on 133.4." I did and Toronto was helpful as always.

Everything worked out fine. I was on my way to visit Mom, substituting a 2.5 hour flight for a 6+ hour drive. However, I was annoyed by both the clunky radio interaction with Flight Service and about being dropped from flight following. This thought was quickly followed by the realization that I was spoiled after four years of seamless IFR travel across Canada.


I enjoyed the sights of Ontario passing below, including localized low clouds around some wind turbines. It was not Fall yet, but the landscape was beginning to hint at Autumn's arrival.

Just Like Old Times

On a long final approach to runway 27L at Oakland County International, I spied the former Pontiac Silverdome in its death throes. The lower bowl seating was almost entirely demolished. At the airport, taxiway rework continued. This week's visit presented an entirely different array of closed taxiways to negotiate than two weeks prior. As I rolled out for landing, the controller pitched a roundabout taxi route to Michigan Aviation requiring three runway crossings before countermanding himself and offering a simplified route that involved back-taxiing on the main runway.

As before, the wonderful people at Michigan Aviation offered me one of their crew cars for the day. When I expressed concern about tying it up for several hours, the lineman waved this off by saying, "That's what they're there for." Like last time, I topped off the tank before returning the car. Michigan Aviation has been our home at Oakland County International for many years now and they have always treated us very well.

Jeff and me standing. Photo by Mom, sitting.

Mom looked great, even though she was only a couple of weeks into recovery from her surgery. We talked for a while until Jeff, one of my closest friends from high school, arrived for lunch. I knew that I would be hungry when I arrived in Michigan, but Mom's feeding tube and limited mobility meant that I would not be going out to lunch with her. I worried a little bit about subjecting her to more visitors, but Jeff and I used to spend enough time at each other's houses that he has referred to her as "Mom" for years and the three of us had a good reunion.

After lunch, I spent the rest of the afternoon with Mom. We went for a short, careful walk around the village and stopped by a luncheon at a neighbor's house. By 3:30, Mom needed rest and I needed to head back to the airport. It was a short visit, even though the logistics of flying back and forth made it a long day for me. Regardless, Mom appreciated having me there, which is what I set out to achieve in the first place.

Mission accomplished!

A VFR Return

Learning from that morning's mistake, I called Flight Service on the phone from the airplane just before I was ready to crank the engine. In the old days, Flight Service would sometimes balk at a request to activate a flight plan a few minutes in the future. Not so today.

"This is N21481 on the ground at Pontiac. Can you activate my flight plan to Sierra Delta Charlie ten minutes from now?"

"I sure can!" came the enthusiastic response. I like enthusiasm, but this was a little bit over the top. The rest was easy and before long I was in the air squawking and talking with Detroit.

Left downwind departure from runway 27L at Oakland County International

At 7500 feet, I listened to some music and enjoyed the proto-Autumn landscape of Ontario rolling past in reverse order from that morning. I had the late afternoon sun at my back and a mild tailwind.

Weren't there fields like this in an X-Files episode?

Throughout the flight, I periodically uncovered the attitude indicator to check in on how it was doing, glutton for punishment that I am. It displayed a number of different attitudes, some surprisingly accurate, some wildly off-kilter. Aside from these spot checks, I left the instrument covered for the duration of the flight.

Not quite halfway home, I caught myself yawning. I could feel fatigue gathering in my shoulders.

I am not nearly so tired as I would have been driving the 13 hour round trip, I thought to myself as I flew over where the 402 out of Sarnia dead-ends into the 401 near London, Ontario. Coincidentally, this is usually the point on the return drive where traffic usually picks up and fatigue sets in.

At one point, I encountered a large build up near Tillsonburg. It was the only one and I could see it from miles away. I had a brief moment of anxiety. Should I climb or descend? What lurked behind it? I went around.

FlightAware ground track from PTK to SDC

My deviation planning and return to course were a little crisper than they were during my VFR days. Flying IFR has certainly tightened my flying precision.

Despite many crossings of the Welland Canal, this was the first time that I took a moment to study three of the eight locks that step ships down a total of 326 feet from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario.

A downhill swath of the Niagara River foamed with rapids leading to the Whirlpool. I noticed a large, red-roofed resort set near the river gorge and wondered if it was the Great Wolf Lodge. It was. Score one for me.

Growing Accustomed

As someone who was devoutly VFR-only for many years, my sour reactions to flying this trip VFR surprised me. Opening the VFR flight plan through Flight Service on the outbound leg was an annoyance. Being dropped from VFR flight following and debating about whether to go above, below or around the cloud build-ups added a little bit of extra work and angst to the flight of a sort that I have not needed to worry about for a while.

With respect to that angst, I realized that flying IFR has become a security blanket for me on the hop across Ontario. It brings a comforting level of certainty. I know that I will not be dropped from the system. I know that I will not become trapped above the clouds. While I am still learning and the IFR rating comes with some additional concerns that must be managed (e.g., go/no-go weather decisions, undesirable routing), I am evidently more comfortable in the system than I realized.

However, the most important thing is that I was there in person to support Mom in her recovery, regardless of how I accomplished it.


  1. Seems as though you found all the good (i.e. bad to the pilot) examples of the "workload permitting" nature of ATC for VFR. T'was a beautiful day to fly, at least. Glad the trip worked out well!

    1. Well, certainly getting dropped from flight following is a key example. Toronto was happy to pick me back up, but that is not always the case. Hence the little bit of extra angst - I like staying in constant contact across Canada. As for the rest of it, that was more about Flight Service than ATC.

      It was certainly a nice day to fly, though!

    2. This is true. I've had mediocre at success with FSS in the air myself - and I honestly don't think I've even tried to contact them in the past few years.

    3. Yeah, it's definitely problematic and I haven't tried it in years. The newer app-based approaches look like a much better way to go. I will confess that I do not generally file VFR flight plans except for crossing the borders (where it's required). I almost always use flight following on VFR trips and, in the event of an emergency, I think it's more beneficial to be (1) on someone's radar screen and (2) actively talking to ATC than to rely on search and rescue after the fact when a VFR flight plan goes late. If I flew in areas where radar coverage was poor or I was routinely refused flight following, I would feel differently about it. A case in point: in Canada, VFR flights more than 25 miles from the departure airport require a VFR flight plan. But this might make sense in Canada where it is easier to fly somewhere with poor or nonexistent radar coverage.

    4. Totally agree. I've only ever really filed VFR flight plans when going over relatively remote terrain (e.g. the UP in MI) where radar/radio coverage can be spotty. Otherwise, I'm almost always getting flight following and in contact with ATC the whole way.

  2. I usually just activate and close my VFR flight plan right on ForeFlight. I do it after I'm done with the run up. I remember Mike made me activate in the air, and I had the same experience as you.

    1. This is good info, Matt! I've been using ForeFlight solely in IFR mode and did not realize that VFR flight plans could be activated and closed through the app. It does not work that way for IFR. You don't activate your flight plan, you receive a clearance and you don't close your flight plan, you cancel IFR - both activities require ATC involvement, even in cases where Flight Service might be an intermediary). I have not paid much attention to the ForeFlight developments for VFR flight plans, this was the first time I've filed one in nearly five years.

    2. Good to know, indeed! Quite helpful.