Friday, April 19, 2024

Is it Ever Sunny in Philadelphia?

Grab Bag

My latest adventure in Warrior 481 had a little bit of everything. A long overdue meetup with an old friend, some significant IMC time ending with an instrument approach into an unfamiliar urban airport, high altitude lunch, a teachable moment from my avionics, sharing the frequency with one of the most recognizable call signs ever created, a scientific conference, an aerial sighting that became yet another aviation history rabbit hole, and an example of how truly weird physics can be. It all culminated with a glorious foray through a fantastical sky and an arrival home in time for dinner.

Science!

At least once a year, I attend a niche scientific conference dedicated to my subject matter expertise. I usually attend as a presenter, but in 2024 I was able to be lazy and merely attend while doing my best impression of a sponge.

The two day conference was held in downtown Philadelphia. The last time I attended, I drove myself and three other colleagues from Rochester to Philly in a rented SUV. It is not a bad drive, roughly five hours each way, but when we returned to Rochester around 11:00 pm after the conference ended, I was exhausted.

This year, a promising weather forecast featuring high freezing levels (expected to be 9,000+ feet) led to a decision to fly myself. Though this did not set me up to be reimbursed for the cost of travel (for both FAR and business reasons), I became very enamored with swapping a five hour return drive for a two hour flight that would deliver me at home in time for dinner rather than well after bedtime. While I have always been a fan of dinnertime, the value of bedtime is on the rise as I get older. My only other colleague attending, John, was combining the trip with an opportunity for his wife to visit her sister near Philadelphia and planned to drive his own car. Thus, I was not leaving anyone in the lurch by choosing to fly.

I planned my trip, reserved a shockingly affordable room at the very fancy Windsor Suites using the corporate booking tool, and put dibs on a backup car from Enterprise just in case. 

April 17: High Altitude Lunch

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
17 Apr 2024 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - PNE (Philadelphia, PA) 2.6 2802.6

The day before departure, satisfied that days of consistent weather forecasts reasonably assured a successful flight, I cancelled the rental car reservation. On Wednesday, April 17, I broke ground exactly at 11:00 am as planned. I expected to manage some cloud layers during the New York portion of the flight, but the forecast called for a high ceiling at Northeast Philadelphia Airport. I expected minimal IMC time and the need for an approach appeared beyond remote. (Famous last words.)

However, there was a presidential TFR (temporary flight restriction) around Scranton that lay on a direct line between Sodus and Philly. Even though I was likely to be cleared through the outer ring by ATC (air traffic control) while on an instrument flight plan, I filed a route from Sodus to the Williamsport VOR (FQM) that circumvented the TFR entirely. It added less than 10 minutes to the overall flight time.

Seneca and Cayuga Lakes in the gloom.

After a recent partial engine failure, I was very attuned to the smoothness of my engine and the indications on the JPI engine monitor after take off. However, the Warrior had no surprises in store for me and the 4.5 hours I had already put on the airplane since the repair increased my confidence that the issue was suitably managed. As I proceeded over the Finger Lakes at 7,000 feet, I was eventually engulfed by the cloud bases. While the horizontal 360° view around me featured zero visibility, I could nonetheless look straight down at the farmland passing below and identify airports in places like Seneca Falls and Elmira as I crossed over them. Spotty precipitation was light to moderate.


Thirty minutes into the flight and at my normal lunchtime, I broke out the DiBella's turkey sandwich and chips that I bought en route to the airport that morning. In a nod to airplane cleanliness, I shunned my preferred "everything" sub roll for a plain one that was guaranteed to shed less debris. (Even though that debris is undeniably delicious.) I enjoyed a relaxed lunch, happy to be away from the insanity of the interstate, and contentedly watched light rain visualize aerodynamic streamlines over my blue wingtips.

Dances with TFRs

While rounding the TFR encompassing Scranton, the bold red ring superimposed on the chart displayed by my iPad vanished. This signified that the restriction had ended. Shortly after I noticed the TFR expiration, a new voice joined the Wilkes-Barre departure frequency. The newcomer expressed himself in a competently seasoned voice tinged with a subtle Yeageresque drawl.

"Wilkes-Barre Departure, Air Force One..."

The airplane spent something like a nanosecond in Wilkes-Barre airspace before being handed off to Center. Wilkes-Barre had to deal with my slower ship for quite a while longer after that.

The very next day, Philadelphia was under a VIP TFR that included my destination airport, but this did not affect me because I was busy at the conference all day. On the day after that, another TFR was scheduled over Wilmington, DE starting at 5:30 pm with an outer area extending over Philadelphia. However, it ended about five nautical miles southwest of Northeast Philadelphia Airport. It seemed that I dodged presidential TFRs throughout the entire trip.

Where presidential TFRs are concerned, I don't care who is president or which of the two clubs they belong to; TFRs are truly bipartisan headaches. I am grateful that I live in a place that is not repeatedly subjected to them, I think they are a ridiculous bit of security theater that add little practical value, and I question the strategy of painting bullseyes directly on aeronautical charts that publicly forecast exactly where the president is going to be. But they have become a grudgingly acknowledged facet of pilot life.

Still, it was pretty cool to share the frequency with Air Force One for a moment.

The Inevitable Reroute

Allentown Approach: "Cherokee Four Eight One, I have an amendment to your routing, advise ready to copy."

Of course. How dare I file a direct route into class bravo territory? Foolish mortal.

The reroute was minimal, an insertion of Yardley VOR (ARD) into my flight plan. On departure from Northeast Philadelphia two days later, I was also routed outbound via Yardley. Note to self: file via Yardley if ever returning to Northeast Philadelphia.

This is where I encountered a learning opportunity. I inserted Yardley into the flight plan running on the GNS 430W. My autopilot, HAL, immediately responded by swinging the Warrior's nose far more eastbound than it should have for a direct course to Yardley. 

That's not right...

Perplexed, I studied the avionics and realized that the navigator was setting me up for a 30° intercept of a newly created leg between my previous waypoint (the Williamsport VOR) and Yardley rather than navigating directly to Yardley as instructed by Allentown. I entered the flight plan page, rolled the cursor down to Yardley, and pressed [Direct]. HAL swung the nose of the Warrior back to the southeast on a direct course to Yardley.

Midway through my correction, Allentown noticed the deviation. "Cherokee Four Eight One, I show you turning eastbound rather than direct Yardley."

I explained that I had caught the issue and was already turning direct Yardley, satisfying the controller.

This was a valuable learning experience because it can happen any time a reroute affects the current leg being flown. One way to prevent future occurrences of this would be to temporarily set HAL to continue tracking the previous magnetic heading until getting the GPS flight plan properly programmed into the navigator. Is there a more efficient way to manage this scenario?

Phantom City


Initially, I believed that the original forecast claiming high ceilings around Philadelphia would come to pass. In the vicinity of Allentown, I emerged from the clouds into clear air. But a wall of haze ahead did not bode well for the arrival to Northeast Philadelphia and the airport ATIS (automatic terminal information service) indicated that arrivals were using the RNAV instrument approach procedure to runway 6. 


Allentown stepped me down to a lower altitude and, by the time I was talking to Philadelphia Approach, I was back in the clouds and explicitly instructed to expect the RNAV 6 approach procedure.

Display from ForeFlight as I entered the Philadelphia metro area. There was a lot going on.

As I penetrated deeper into Philadelphia class bravo airspace, Approach continued to step me down while providing vectors for the approach procedure. I was fully in the clouds and flying through rain. At one point, a cluster of tall, ghostly radio towers gradually emerged from the mist -- reaching to approximately 1,000 feet below my altitude -- then seemed to dissolve back into gray obscurity. It was eerie, but this is why ATC and instrument flight rules exist: to prevent instrument pilots from colliding with obstructions, terrain, and other airplanes.

A hint of movement beyond the Plexiglas pulled my eyes from the instruments again. The skyscrapers of Philadelphia emerged from the clouds directly off my nose. I was both awestruck and stunned by the sudden appearance of the central city in my windscreen. Right after I saw the city, I was vectored away from it to the northeast and cleared for the approach.

Bases of Philadelphia's downtown skyscrapers discernible through the haze as I turned to the northeast.

Rain was forecast for Northeast Philadelphia Airport all along. My clever plan was to beat it, but the rain was faster and arrived early. I intercepted the approach course and after a few moments, reached the final approach fix at JUNIA. I pulled the power back and set a notch of flaps to establish a 90 knot, 500 foot/minute descent. Immediately after establishing myself on the glidepath, Warrior 481 descended from the belly of the clouds and emerged over a congested metropolitan area with the airport visible just over four miles away. I barely met my criterion for logging an instrument approach, but I did meet it.




Runway and raindrops.

Still in the rain, I landed on runway 6 and followed taxi instructions to the Atlantic ramp. Line staff seemed confused about where to park me, initially gesturing to the left then, after a moment of dithering, directing me to the right. To be fair, it was raining vigorously and I am sure that the line staff was miserable standing around outside.

I felt their discomfort. Once parked, I wrangled the cabin cover onto the Warrior for the first time in a steady rain and hoofed it across the large ramp with my bags. I was completely soaked by the time I reached the FBO where Lee was waiting for me.

Old Friends

My graduate studies at Indiana University seem like they occurred four lifetimes ago. Nonetheless, as I looked at Lee through my water-spotted glasses, it was like he had not changed at all. (The air was so full of pollen that I could barely see through the residue remaining on my glasses once the rain evaporated.)

I gestured at my sopping hair and clothing and greeted him by saying, "What do you think of my glamorous lifestyle?" 

I have a fond memory of Lee going to dinner with me on the evening before I defended my dissertation, his friendship helping to calm an anxious and exhausted mind. Even though I last saw him as recently as 2010, when we sat down to talk he said, "Catch me up. Start with grad school."

We spent about eight hours together, right on through dinner with my colleague John and his wife. (Ah! Worlds colliding!) It was great to reconnect after all these years.

April 18-19: Extracting Knowledge

From the archive: a photo of me presenting at the 2022 conference in Philadelphia.

The conference was terrific. These conferences always are. When John and I arrived on the morning of April 18th, the first person we encountered was Kim, CEO of the company that runs the conference. I've known her for over ten years.

"Chris! Thanks for coming again this year and for presenting!"

"Oh, I'm not presenting this year," I responded, puzzled.

Kim frowned. "You're not? Why not?"

"No one asked me to."

I watched her mind work quickly and she vowed to fix that oversight for the next one. I found that I was not the only regular speaker in attendance who was not speaking. It was all fine with me. Sometimes it is nice to just learn. One downside of not presenting is that I am not good at small talk during conference mixers. When I attend as a speaker, people usually want to talk with me about what I presented. Presentations make better conversation starters than idle observations on the weather.

I learned about the latest updates in my field, made a few notes whenever someone said something that gave me an "ah ha!" moment, and learned that I was slated to author a national standard focused on my niche expertise -- and that, even though I had not been fully vetted through the onboarding process, could I please get started on that right away?

For lunch on the second day, John saved a seat for me at a table with a group of toxicologists that had just presented in the prior session. As I joined them, their heads all turned to peer up at me expectantly. John explained, "I was just telling them about how you flew yourself here."

"And we're curious why you did not bring John with you!" finished one of the toxicologists.

"Uh..." I stammered, feeling more than a little put on the spot. I usually don't talk about aviation or being a pilot at professional meetings and John had just outed me. I never wanted to be the guy from the joke, the one that goes, "How do you know if you meet a pilot at a party?" with the not-at-all subtle punchline of, "He'll tell you."  In fact, during the cocktail mixer at the conclusion of the previous day, I was talking to Mike whom I have known for seventeen years. I mentioned that I had flown myself to the conference and he immediately looked confused.

"What do you mean by that?" Mike asked. In seventeen years of friendship, I had not once mentioned to him that I was a pilot.

Recovering my bearings with the toxicologists, I said to John, "Hey! You had separate plans with your wife that required you to drive yourself." Thus called out, John laughed and conceded the point. 

That night, John and I had dinner with a new friend, Sam, and his sales associate, Paris. We found an Irish pub with great atmosphere, great food, and deafening live music that constantly got in the way of conversation. In addition to being loud, we found the singer to be significantly lacking in range, particularly compared to the ambitious repertoire he attempted.

Also from the archive: Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, Philadelphia, taken 2022 (it was never this sunny in 2024).

Database Dilemma

As most instrument pilots are well aware, the FAA navigational database turns over every 28 days. In order to be legally compliant while flying on an IFR flight plan, the database in my navigation system needs to be current, especially if any instrument approach procedures are to be flown. Unfortunately, a new cycle began on April 18, meaning that I needed to update the database after arriving in Philadelphia on April 17 if I wanted to be legal to file IFR for the flight home on the 19th. From the weather forecast, I definitely anticipated the need to file.

Although I have a corporate laptop, I do not have administrative privileges on it to install any software. So that was of no help to me. The ultimate solution was to borrow an old Mac Book from Kristy to do the update. Fortunately, I remembered to pull the GNS 430W data card out of the panel when I arrived at Northeast Philly. I performed the update from my hotel room on the evening of the 18th and congratulated myself on being so well prepared.

April 19: Excessive Clearance

At the conclusion of the conference, John and I walked back to the Windsor Suites, retrieved our bags ("That bag is so cute!" enthused the young woman at the counter on seeing my Flight Outfitters flight bag), and called two Ubers. One took John out of the city to reunite with his wife and the other dropped me at Northeast Philadelphia Airport.

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
19 Apr 2024 N21481 PNE (Philadelphia, PA) - SDC (Sodus, NY) 2.6 2805.2


I found Warrior 481 exactly where I left her, though the line crew had at least chocked the wheels. Her skin was yellow with pollen. Between a quantity of fuel bought at $8.26/gallon, plus fees for landing  and parking, and with a $40 handling fee waived for fuel purchased, I escaped Atlantic with a $200 invoice. Not bad for a towered field in a major metropolitan area. At $20/night, overnight parking was less than what John paid at the hotel for his car.

With a preflight completed, I listened to the ATIS that included a reminder of the TFR over Wilmington going live in 30 minutes. Ending five miles southwest of Northeast Philly, it would not affect my route of flight.

By now, instead of displaying the normal boot-up screen, the GNS 430W displayed "Aviation database integrity error." Well, that was a first in 12 years. I checked to ensure that the card was well-seated in the panel. It was. Evidently, the database update I performed at the hotel did not take.

Dammit.

Fearing that I might be stuck in Philadelphia, I shut the airplane down and schlepped the Mac Book, data card, and Garmin USB card reader back to the FBO. "Hi, it's me again," I quipped to the surprised Atlantic staffer who did not expect to see me return. I struggled a bit with the unfamiliar Mac OS, but eventually installed the update. The second time was the charm.

Northeast Ground did not like that I had filed direct to home and notified me that a full route clearance was coming. It was: "Fly runway heading, then radar vectors to Yardley (ARD), Allentown (FJC) Tango 455, WLKES, Tango 440, Elmira (ULW), Buffalo (BUF), direct."

Oof. Dammit.

This was the third time that I was assigned a clearance out of this part of the world that tacked an extra 1.5 hours on to the route by taking me past Sodus all the way to Buffalo, then backtracking east again to Sodus. But I knew the drill. The route was reasonable as far as Elmira and I was sure that I could get someone to send me direct home before I reached Elmira. I swallowed my objection and read the clearance back to the controller.

Historical Failure

Northeast Philadelphia Airport.

Climbing through ragged clouds roughly ten miles north of Northeast Philadelphia Airport I saw what looked like the end of a massive closed runway.



After a doubletake, I confirmed it. The remains of an enormous runway lay below. I was looking at Warminster Community Park and all that was left of the 8,000 foot long runway of the defunct Warminster Naval Air Warfare Center (NAWC). The field was originally home to the Brewster Aircraft Company, makers of the poorly-received Brewster Buffalo single engine fighter that was ultimately canceled by the Navy in favor of the Grumman Wildcat in 1940. During World War II, the company license-built F3A Corsairs that were withdrawn from front-line duty during WWII because the wings fell off a few of them. The Navy eventually assumed control of the field, where it was home to a research center boasting a large centrifuge for high G training of pilots and astronauts. The centrifuge facility is now an event center known as The Fuge. The airfield was closed around 1995 and NAWC operations moved to Patuxent River NAS. It is now a park with some of the former runway having been converted to basketball courts. (Lots and lots of basketball courts.)

Cloudscapes


Although I logged about 0.6 hours in the clouds on the way home, most of the flight was between layers and, as I continued north, the sun began to reassert dominance.



While exiting the conference, I snagged a free bag of chips to snack on during the flight home. At 8,000 feet, my munchies resembled a gorged tick ready to burst. I did not want the bag to pop and make a mess, so I clearly needed to open it in a controlled manner and deal appropriately with the contents. It was a tough job, but I was duty-bound to take care of it as a responsible aircraft owner.


As forecast, icing levels remained greater than 9,000 feet. No convection was in evidence. It was an easy flight home. Even the occasional rain was minor and did a better job of streaking the pollen coating Warrior 481 than removing any of it. With HAL manning the helm, I blasted through the smooth air and marveled at the fantastical creations painted in water vapor across the azure canvas of sky.


Much to my surprise, I was cleared direct to Buffalo while still over Allentown. Fortunately, I was able to negotiate a route direct to Sodus from Wilkes-Barre Approach before taking too great a detour toward Buffalo. My intended two hour flight home -- and the whole reason I chose to fly in the first place -- was preserved.



Passive Intermodulation

On 118.6 MHz with Binghamton Approach, my #1 radio started popping, indicating a weak signal periodically breaking the squelch. I opened the squelch and found myself listening to a DJ promoting a personal appearance somewhere in the area. (Which area? I have no idea.) Moments later, I was treated to Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics performing the 1980s classic "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)".

WTF?

FM radio broadcasts are transmitted over a separate range of frequencies (88 - 108 MHz) from the block reserved for civil VHF aviation communications (108 - 137 MHz). It should not be possible to hear FM broadcasts on 118.6 MHz.

Puzzled, I took advantage of the minimal radio traffic to query Binghamton if anyone had reported hearing FM radio on the approach frequency. Being at a higher altitude, I was better positioned to receive the weak signal than Binghamton's ground receiver.

"Negative," came the dismissive response. But I must have piqued the controller's interest, because she called another aircraft she was working to inquire if they heard it too.

"Negative," came the response.

But then a third pilot on frequency chimed in. "I hear it, too." So I wasn't crazy.

"November Four Eight One, let me know if that signal disrupts our communications." I acknowledged, but then moments later, she switched me to Elmira Approach and the issue became moot for me.

After the fact, I posed this scenario to my friend and fellow club member Jamie, an electrical engineer and ham radio enthusiast who knows far more about these things than I do. He named a phenomenon called passive intermodulation (also known less elegantly as the "rusty bolt effect") that effectively results from the mixing of frequencies in metal objects containing dissimilar metal corrosion (Jamie used an example of a gutter) and giving rise to non-linear effects that can result in emission of a signal on a wholly different frequency. It is a form of radio interference that can disrupt critical frequencies (police, fire, aviation) and may necessitate a search for the offending structure creating the interference.

Physics is weird. I wondered if my interference report to Binghamton would result in any follow-up investigation.

Did Anyone See That?


I popped out of the clouds (again) in time to see Cayuga Lake below my right wing while passing Ithaca. I was in the home stretch. In communication with Rochester Approach, I opted for the RNAV-28 approach to the Williamson Sodus Airport.

Crossing the Erie Canal near Clyde, NY.








Inbound to WALCO on the RNAV-28 approach with Sodus Bay in sight.

Sodus Bay.

The Williamson Sodus Airport was VFR when I arrived, but the descent through multiple layers of clouds validated the decision to fly an instrument approach, even if I broke out in the descent to the final approach fix and could not officially log it. As usual, the field AWOS (automated weather observation system) lied its nonexistent ass off with a declaration of five knot winds. Lined up on runway 28 at the usual 90 knot approach speed, I was buffeted by such strong mechanical turbulence that the stall horn complained, suggesting just shy of 50 knots of wind shear in that moment. An earlier National Weather Service warning for low level wind shear had already moved eastward out of the area, but the effects obviously still lingered. I rode chaotic air currents all the way to the ground and the landing was not one of my best. At least there were no witnesses.

Recap

Overall, I logged 5.2 hours on the round trip, 1.9 hours in the clouds, and one instrument approach. I added one new airport to my map (Northeast Philadelphia), experienced (and mitigated and learned from) a gotcha with my avionics, was inspired to learn some new history about a failed aircraft manufacturer, enjoyed an excellent conference, reconnected with terrific old friends, exercised my instrument flying chops, shared the frequency with Air Force One and Annie Lennox, and bore witness to nature's grand artistry.

I have been flying for over twenty years, but I am still amazed that I have the good fortune to experience the wonderful things that aviation has to offer. Best of all, at the end of the day, I found myself sitting at home having dinner with Kristy and The Bear instead of arriving to a slumbering household, handily satisfying my original goal in flying.