Friday, November 24, 2017

The Difference a Decade Makes

Flight of Firsts

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
23 Nov 2006 N21481 5G0 (Le Roy, NY) - PTK (Waterford, MI) 2.4 475.9

Niagara Falls photographed November 23, 2006.

Flight training is a dichotomy. Though rigorous, its completion nonetheless opens the door for the new pilot to have many new experiences and adventures. It is the very fact that newly certificated pilots do not know everything that makes flight training so worthwhile; there is always something new to be learned, some new adventure to be had. In the first few years after I earned my certificate, it was not uncommon to accumulate several firsts in a single flight. A perfect example was Thanksgiving day in 2006. We were newly relocated to western New York when surprisingly excellent weather and a desire to enjoy the holiday with family led to a flight with multiple firsts:
  • First flight over Niagara Falls
  • First flight through Canadian airspace
  • First time speaking with a Center controller (Toronto Center)
  • First time speaking with a Class Bravo controller (Detroit)
  • First time speaking with a military controller (Selfridge Air National Guard Base)
  • First landing at Oakland County International ("Pontiac") which was the busiest airport I had landed at to date (at the time, PTK routinely logged 670 operations per day)
One other first occurred that day, though I did not include it in the original blog post from 2006. It was also The Bear's first flight. Granted, she was the size of a peanut and would not actually be born until the following year, but it was technically -- very technically -- our first flight as a family of three.

Our first landing (of 24 to date) at Pontiac on November 23, 2006. Photo by Kristy.

At the time, this flight was a huge milestone for me.

It was also our last time flying on Thanksgiving until 2017.

Low and Slow

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
23 Nov 2017 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - PTK (Waterford, MI) 3.3 1739.2

Since 2006, we have celebrated Thanksgiving in New York with close friends and, in recent years, Mom has made the drive from southeast Michigan to join us. Because she was in no condition to make the trip this year, we resolved to go to her; preferably by air if at all possible. It would be our first Thanksgiving dinner with the family at my cousin's home since that day in 2006.

November weather did us no particular favors, but permitted flight on Thanksgiving day at 3,000 feet to Oakland County International against a stiff headwind. Cloud layers prevented flight at higher altitudes. Forecasts along the route presented a single pinch-point; Buffalo was likely to go IFR that morning under a low ceiling with two mile visibility in snow. Surprisingly, Niagara Falls International just thirteen miles north of Buffalo expected higher ceilings (a "generous" 3,500 feet) and no snow. As I explained to Mom on the phone shortly before departure, if we got past the Niagara River, we would make it without problem.

Normally, the thought of planning an extended cross country flight at 3,000 feet would make me cringe. Altitude equates to options by providing potential energy that can be exchanged for kinetic in the event of an emergency.  But southern Ontario is extremely flat and open, a perfect emergency landing site stretching from Buffalo to Detroit. If we were departing in any other compass direction, I would want more altitude between the airplane and the terrain. 3000 feet over the Adironacks? Central Pennsylvania? No way. But over Ontario? I could accept 3,000 feet. Nevertheless, this would be the lowest altitude I had ever flown the route.

Cruising to Michigan at a lowly 3,000 feet would introduce some additional minor challenges: the need to dodge stuff. Not cell phone towers, terrain, or anything physical, but airspace. Specifically, the restricted airspace over Niagara Falls, the Delta airspace around Niagara Falls International, and the Class E, D, and C Canadian Control Zones around St Catherines, Hamilton, and London, respectively. I plotted a course direct to Pontiac via AIRCO intersection to avoid the Niagara Falls flight restriction and decided to manage the other inconvenient obstacles en route based on which agency we were talking to at the time we encountered them.

Caution, Succulent Birds

After a flurry of activity to get underway, the first step in our journey was a whimsical one. Tuning the Rochester ATIS broadcast that morning, we heard an advisory for "succulent birds in the vicinity". Rochester ATC slipped a Thanksgiving joke into their ATIS broadcast! A familiar controller put us into the system for flight following and wished us a happy Thanksgiving as we shuffled off to Buffalo.

Our Warrior steadfastly plodded westward against the atmospheric current, her ground speed slowing into the 88-92 knot range. Ahead lay the Niagara River and a ceiling that angled progressively lower with distance from Lake Ontario, slanting earthward in our windscreen from right to left. Frequency chatter was dominated by icing reports from airliners as they descended through cloud strata on approach to Buffalo. Even if we were IFR capable that day, there would be no sampling of the clouds for us. From our position, we could see Niagara Falls and sunlight on Canadian soil beyond, but Buffalo was invisible, lost in the murk beneath that angled ceiling. The differential forecasts between Niagara Falls and Buffalo were spot-on.

Ground track near Niagara Falls International from ForeFlight.

Buffalo approach handed us off to Toronto Center well east of the international border. I realized that I had become too accustomed to IFR flying when we reached the Delta airspace around Niagara Falls International. While IFR, airspace mostly becomes invisible and, if a clearance passes through controlled airspace, then approval to enter that airspace is implicit. But we were VFR and I was speaking with a Canadian controller instead of Buffalo Approach (the controlling authority for the Delta), which meant that a hastily executed detour was in order. I cut it much closer than I should have.

With that invisible obstacle managed, the next presented itself immediately, necessitating a frequency change to St. Catherines Radio to advise on our transition of the Class E Control Zone around St. Catherines airport. I was thankful (right day for it!) for the time I spent this summer learning Canadian airspace rules. Had Toronto handed me off to St Catherines Radio back in 2006, I would have been utterly baffled as to why I needed to contact a Flight Service Station for passage through Echo airspace. These are not procedures that come into play while flying in the United States.

We also navigated around the irregularly-shaped Class D Control Zone surrounding Hamilton and ensured that our course would keep us clear of London's Class C Control Zone. Our low cruise altitude yielded a new perspective on southern Ontario; still sparsely populated, but the limited civilization below appeared in greater detail and made for a unique perspective on a route that has become so familiar over the last eleven years.

A Room at the Inn

After three hours at 3,000 feet (have I ever flown three hours at 3,000 feet before?), Oakland County International finally emerged from the gloom. It was my fourth landing at Pontiac since Mom's diagnosis in September, but only the second time in eleven years that I landed on 27R.

Parking on the ramp at Michigan Aviation, Scott emerged from the FBO to chock the airplane as he has so many times over the years. I called the day before to investigate whether I could plug in my engine heater overnight. The lineman I spoke with indicated that I could, but that it would be easier for them to push the Warrior into the hangar.

"Your sheet says that you want your airplane in the hangar," Scott said to me as I climbed down from the wing.

"Or we could just plug in the engine heater, whichever works." I'm flexible.

Like his colleague, Scott decided that the hangar would be easier.

"What is that going to cost?" I asked, suddenly anxious.

Scott shrugged. "I'll write 'do not charge' on your sheet."

Well, that was easy. A free hangar stay for the night? Who was I to refuse? Michigan Aviation has always treated us well.


At Mom's, we had some time to play with the dogs before departing for dinner at my cousin's house in Oxford. When one of the dogs mounted one of the others, The Bear exclaimed, "Aw! They're having snuggle time!"

This was quickly followed by, "What's so funny?"

We received a warm welcome from my family when we arrived for dinner with nearly everyone reminiscing about how Kristy was pregnant with The Bear on our last visit. My cousin's daughter had announced her pregnancy at that same Thanksgiving dinner in 2006. Having successfully reached the grand old age of ten, both former fetuses spent much of Thanksgiving 2017 playing together. On-line research was necessary for us to parse their exact relationship and we concluded that he was The Bear's second cousin once removed.

My uncle's absence was keenly felt on this first Thanksgiving since his passing. If anything, it made me appreciate the family still around me all the more.

Express Lane

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
24 Nov 2017 N21481 PTK (Waterford, MI) - SDC (Sodus, NY) 2.3 1741.5

A 30 knot tailwind was expected to propel us back home accompanied by an AIRMET for turbulence from the surface to 12,000 feet that enveloped our entire route. Best case scenario was smooth sailing, worst case scenario was getting knocked around the entire way home. Waiting was not an option; surface gusts and low level wind shear were expected to increase throughout the day. We stopped at our favorite breakfast spot in Clarkston for people fuel, then proceeded directly to the airport without delay.

Michigan Aviation had pulled the Warrior out of the hangar and topped off her fuel tanks. She was waiting for us on the ramp, warm(ish) and ready to go.

Pontiac Tower was too busy to put us in for flight following that morning. "Cherokee Four Eight One, cleared for take-off runway 27L, east departure approved." That was the last call directed at us by Tower.

Surface winds were eleven knots out of the southwest. Climbing out, we were shaken by turbulence and the stall warning horn squawked as we passed through a shear layer and into the high velocity air aloft. Still at pattern altitude and indicating 80 knots in the climb, Warrior 481 was already showing a ground speed of 120 knots.

Screen shot from ForeFlight near London, Ontario showing a 150 knot ground speed in level flight.

We climbed to 7,500 feet in the smooth current flowing eastward, our ground speed constant at all altitudes in the climb. Usually, wind speed increases with altitude, but not that day. My mind conjured an image of the atmosphere as a snowplow, a vertical wall several thousands of feet tall moving over the Earth just two thousand feet above the surface. It was no wonder that there was a low level turbulence warning; the shear layer between the snowplow and the surface air was bound to be abrupt and unpleasant. We maintained approximately 150 knots (173 mph) of ground speed for the entire route home in perfectly smooth air.


"Cherokee Four Eight One, radar services terminated, squawk twelve hundred."

Selfridge Approach put us in for flight following across the border, but dropped us once we were in Canada without recommending a frequency for additional flight following. The possibility of this exact scenario had kept me up the night before our first trip through Canadian airspace in 2006. In 2006, I would not have known who to call next. In 2017, I consulted the low altitude IFR en route chart, found the Toronto Center frequency for my region of airspace, and was soon back on a discrete transponder code with Canadian ATC. It is amazing what a decade of experience and some additional training can do for one's ability to manage minor issues in flight.

The rest of the flight passed incredibly quickly and, before long, Rochester was in sight. On descent, we maintained a constant ground speed until about 3,00 feet when we hit the shear layer again. Warrior 481 shook significantly for a few moments as our ground speed abruptly dropped to almost match our airspeed. There were definitely some potholes on the exit ramp from the express lane.

When we touched down in erratic wind at Sodus, the transponder showed a flight time just shy of two hours and one minute. I asked The Bear if she felt like the fastest bear alive.


Our round trip Thankgiving flight this year was an absolute mess of contradictions. It was slow and fast, routine and yet still novel, a happy family reunion and a melancholy reminder of loss. On this Thanksgiving, I found myself thankful for family, thankful for my first decade as father to The Bear, and thankful for the eleven years of aeronautical experience that I have had the good fortune to accumulate since our previous Thanksgiving flight.

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