Sunday, March 4, 2018

Celebrating Normal

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
04 Mar 2018 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - PTK (Waterford, MI) - SDC 5.9 1767.2

"Cherokee Two One Four Eight One is cleared to Pontiac as filed, climb and maintain six thousand."

A prosaic instrument clearance to be sure, but very welcome after six months shut-out of the system for lack of suitable on-board instrumentation. Climbing away from Sodus, I reached 6,000 feet just as my ship crossed through a nonexistent point in space named LORTH intersection. Simultaneously, I captured the altitude and turned to intercept Victor 2, cross-checking satellite against terrestrial navigation signals and finding them to be in agreement. I filed a full route clearance because Victor 2 largely parallels the direct course without adding significant flight time and the added workload of flying airways allows for practice with VOR navigation.

It felt good to be in the system again. Normal. Warrior 481 rode the beam with the ease of slipping into a comfortable shoe.

Irondequoit Bay east of Rochester, NY

Irondequoit Bay east of Rochester, NY

Roughly 289 nautical miles from Sodus, an invisible ring of Delta airspace encompasses both Michigan's premier General Aviation airport and my home town. Mom would be waiting there for me, having emerged victorious from a battle with pancreatic cancer. 

This visit would be a celebration.

Paralleling I-90 east of Rochester, NY

Looking west across Buffalo, NY and Lake Erie

Winter had not yet retreated from its occupation of New York State, but Lake Erie was mostly free of  ice cover that laid against the downwind shore like rumpled bedding pushed aside on waking. Light passed through the clear air with high fidelity, crisply showing the Skydome (the Rogers Centre, whatever) in Toronto from over Buffalo.

Point Abino Lighthouse, Fort Erie, Ontario, Canada

On approach to Oakland County International, I flew south of where the Pontiac Silverdome once stood. All that remained was a single segment of the lower bowl surrounded by a massive parking lot filled with recalled diesel Volkswagens; a site representing literally acres of failure.

Multiple freighters waiting their turn to transition the Welland Canal at Port Colborne from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario

Oakland County International ("Pontiac") was busy when I arrived and separate tower frequencies had been implemented to manage traffic for the north and south parallel runways. After landing short on runway 9R, I was cleared to taxi to Michigan Aviation at the east end of the airport via Charlie, Bravo 1, Alpha 1.

Ontario farm country with Lake Saint Clair in the distance

"Cherokee Four Eight One, you'll want to turn onto Bravo 1 before passing the windsock or you'll wind up on the grass." As I still had several taxiway intersections to pass before reaching that point, I scowled and silently wondered if the ground controller was trying to be funny or if I had said something on the radio that raised serious doubts about my competence. I managed to find my way to parking without any off-roading.

Outflow of the Saint Clair River

Mom was waiting for me inside the Michigan Aviation lobby where the line crew were listening to Pontiac's ground frequency at a louder volume than usual. As I hugged her in greeting she asked, "Did he tell you not to taxi on the grass?" With a shrug, I affirmed that the controller had indeed issued a turf advisory to me.

All that remained of the Pontiac Silverdome was a single segment of the lower bowl and lots of recalled VWs

At lunch, Mom described how the end of her chemotherapy regimen was marked by removal of an IV port implanted to facilitate chemo administration. It seemed a fitting moment of closure to that part of her life; with the treatment over and all screens failing to detect evidence of cancer, the port was no longer necessary. Back to normal. Forever changed and vigilant, but closer to normal than not.

Sabreliner Nine Sierra Bravo

I held up my end of the conversation by explaining my recent career change in greater detail, a move that brought me back to a company to which I had already dedicated ten years of my life. I was welcomed back enthusiastically by friends and colleagues in a homecoming that felt very much like a return to normality.

Lake Saint Clair

After lunch, Mom indulged me in a brief visit to my paternal grandmother, now living in an assisted living memory unit. This was a very difficult visit. If I harbored any doubts about her belonging there, they were quickly dispelled. She asked about The Bear's age multiple times, expressing incredulity every time I answered. She asked if I was retired yet. She told a story about me in the third person as though I was not sitting beside her. A calmly poised demeanor did little to hide her internal confusion.

While it is true that she lost her freedom at the end of 2017 after living independently and that is a sad thing for everyone involved, the psychologists that worked with her concluded that she no longer possessed the faculties to manage her own affairs. Unfortunately, my brief observations also supported that conclusion. When a family friend asked about my visit a week later, she did not remember that I had been there at all.

Lake Saint Clair

Before the day was completely spent, I returned to the airport and was cleared home "as filed" for the first time ever from Pontiac. I would launch from Oakland County International and be directed deeper into the Bravo airspace surrounding Detroit by radar vectors until intercepting Victor 2 at DELOW.

Section lines in Ontario, Canada

As I taxied for departure, Pontiac Ground instructed a Sabreliner to yield right of way to me.

"Sabreliner Niner Sierra Bravo, hold short of taxiway Charlie for a crossing Cherokee, then follow the Cherokee to Niner Right." The duck-billed turbine aircraft was oddly proportioned, looking more akin to something designed by Fisher Price than the creators of the F-86 Sabre.

"Why? We're bigger and prettier," came the plaintive response from the Sabreliner.

Bigger, true. But prettier? I don't think so.

The opposite shore of Lake Erie is in sight from over Canada at 7,000'

With the sun at my tail, I followed Victor 2 as it zig-zagged along the southern Canadian coast. Below, two grids of section lines, one of them twisted roughly thirty degrees relative to the other, created an odd juxtaposition where they come together. I found my thoughts idly tracing the lines below, spinning off into random directions at vertices where they intersected.

In smooth air, the Warrior occasionally needed to be nudged a degree or two back on course. During the on-going conversation with Air Traffic Control, a few twists of the frequency knob connected me with Detroit, Cleveland, Erie (amusingly, on "one two one nuthin' [121.0 MHz]"), Buffalo, and Rochester.

Those freighters were still waiting for passage through the Welland about stagnation

Mostly, I ruminated on how many things in my life seem to be returning to normal. A good sort of normal. A normal characterized by moving forward and growing in a positive direction, not merely reverting to the known and comfortable. There is no stagnation here.

The Bear and Mom, October 2017

It is very clear to me that the cancer threat brought my mother and I closer together than we had been for many years. I do not view this as a "silver lining" or part of a grand plan. Instead, I think that serious threats inspire perspective and clarity of thought around what truly matters. Sometimes, even necessary priorities are suffocated in the noise of daily life. It is an unfortunate fact of human wiring that demands near catastrophe to restore focus.

The east end of Lake Erie

I followed the Great Lakes home. Victor 2 approximates the orientation of these capricious inland seas (in the winter, it is difficult to consider them anything but capricious). It is tempting to think that the course of an airway would be aloof from ground features, but this is a route between airports and their host cities, cities whose placement on the map was directly inspired by the lakes. In this way, glacial activity that occurred long before recorded human history dictated a path home through the sky just as surely as the course of any terrestrial highway.

Another successful journey logged with many more anticipated in 2018.


  1. Happy to hear that your Mom is doing great and such a beautiful picture of bear and her G-Mom.

    I bet it felt great being back in the system, something about it provides us such a comfort factor. Amazing pics as always....I need lessons. I enjoyed the write up and shared your sabreliner story while touring PAX NAS museum with fellow BAC members. We were looking at the sabreliner they have on outside display. FYI the other members voted Cherokee for looks.

    1. Thanks, Gary! She's doing really well!

      For me, the comfort in being IFR comes with travelling through the international airspace. It's just easier to manage IFR from a flight plan perspective as well as from the perspective of unexpected weather (because VFR over Ontario, there are no divert options without some customs red tape since the customs systems are not really built to accommodate the unexpected).

      My airplane will be happy to know that she has a support group if her self-esteem was harmed by Sabreliner Dude! Thanks! :-)