Saturday, November 26, 2005

Making an Impression

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
26 Nov 2005 N21481 LWA (South Haven, MI) - 3G3 (Wadsworth, OH) -
5G0 (LeRoy, NY)
3.9 393.7

I try to make a good impression the first time I meet people.  Most of us do.  Take my first meeting with Ray, for example.  Ray is the owner and operator of the Le Roy Airport (5G0) in upstate New York.  As an airport owner and flight instructor, Ray devoted much of his life to aviation.  He was the kind of person upon whom I wanted to make a good impression the first time I landed at his airport.  Not that there was much to worry about at Le Roy.  At 2600' long, there was plenty of pavement there to land a Warrior, even if it was comparatively shorter than the mile of asphalt at airports like South Haven.

My concern about making a good showing at Le Roy was that it was to become Warrior 481's new home.  In planning a relocation to Rochester, NY in late October 2005, I had the good fortune to contact Ray while he still had openings in a row of brand new T-hangars.  The price was right, the hangar sounded nice, and Ray came with a strong personal recommendation from a mutual acquaintance.

Of course, Warrior 481 was still comfortably nested at South Haven, MI (LWA) during this time.  My intent was to move the Warrior to Le Roy as soon as possible so as to avoid paying hangar rent at both places.  I planned a route from South Haven, MI to the outskirts of Cleveland, OH, then northeast to Le Roy.  As I contemplated making such a VFR cross-country flight at the onset of winter, the phrase "lake effect snow" was very prominent in my thoughts because I would be departing from one lake effect snow area, flying through another, and arriving in a third.  Three Great Lakes, each with its own unpredictable agenda.

On top of this was a more mundane concern: how to get back home to Kalamazoo, MI after the ferry flight?  An economical solution to this latter problem arose when my friend Steve (also relocating from Kalamazoo to Rochester) told me that he would be in Rochester the weekend following Thanksgiving and that he would be happy to provide ground transportation back to Kalamazoo.  All I needed to do was provide sufficient blather on the way home to keep Steve awake on the eight hour drive.  Anyone who knows me well would realize that I would have no problem keeping up my end of the bargain. 

But would the weather allow for the trip to happen at all?

Moving Day

As the weekend approached, the weather forecasts were dicey.  Unfortunately, winter weather forecasts in the Great Lakes region tend to contain blanket warnings for icing conditions and snow that may or may not materialize.  This makes it difficult to plan very far ahead with any confidence.

I crawled out of bed at 6:00 am on Saturday morning, November 26.  It was snowing in Rochester, but west Michigan was merely under a 3000' overcast.  The snow in Rochester was forecast to dissipate by early afternoon.
The ride to South Haven was encouraging.  During the drive, the sun finally climbed into the frigid sky and banished the remnants of cloud ceiling over southwest Michigan.  We arrived at the airport to find a pristine layer of snow covering all surfaces.  The snow was only two inches deep, but I had never actually operated on an unplowed runway or taxiway before.  I worried that the snow might get packed into the wheel spats during takeoff, but the temperatures were low enough to render the snow as powdery as talc.

Last trip to the South Haven fuel pump for Warrior 481
At 9:30 am, the airplane was fully fueled for its four hour cross-country flight.  I inspected the wheel pants after taxiing over snow from the other side of the airport.  There was no sign of snow inside them.

Another call to Flight Service confirmed my initial survey of the weather from home: it was still snowing in Rochester, but "expected" to stop after noon.  Ray had told me that he would ensure that the runway at Le Roy was plowed, so I called him to say that I expected to be there at 2:00 pm.  I said my goodbyes at the airport, started Warrior 481, and took runway 22 about 10:00 am.  I had never launched on snow before, but the ride was smooth and the runway over a mile long.  Warrior 481 broke ground and climbed vigorously into the chilly winter sky.

I chose a route from South Haven, over Toledo, to Wadsworth, OH.  Wadsworth is in a small corridor between Cleveland's Class B and Canton-Akron's Class C airspaces.  From Wadsworth, it is a straight shot northeast to Le Roy.  I could have flown a more direct route across Canada, but the potential for bad weather made a Stateside route more appealing.  I wanted to have plenty of flexibility to divert as needed.

I established a cruise at 5500' under clear sunny skies.  A 25 knot tailwind helped scoot Warrior 481 along as I passed over several landmarks that had meant so much me to me during my relatively brief time in aviation.
  • Snowplows were working on the main runway at Kalamazoo (AZO), where I had finally gained a comfortable familiarity in talking to air traffic control.
  • The Three Rivers airport (HAI) passed off my right wingtip, my home base while training for my private pilot certificate.
  • I passed directly over Coldwater (OEB), where I had performed my first landing in a Piper, 70 Romeo.
Once beyond these landmarks, I crossed into Ohio and unknown territory.

Toledo Express Airport
Listening to weather broadcasts (ATIS, ASOS, AWOS) from airports further ahead on my route, it became evident that the ceiling over the next portion of the trip through Ohio was around 3500'.  I descended to 3000' and contacted ATC at Toledo Express (TOL) for VFR flight following to Wadsworth.  As I passed under the cloud ceiling, the world turned monochrome with land and sky becoming a similar shade of dirty beige.  The brilliant blue of my wingtip was a Technicolor aberration in a black and white world.  I crossed directly over the top of the Toledo-Express airport.
Thirty miles southwest of Toledo, I terminated radar services so that I might listen to more weather broadcasts along my route.  The various reporting stations within range painted a reassuringly uniform picture: 3500' ceilings, light winds, unrestricted visibility, and no precipitation.

Just shy of two hours into the flight, I stopped at Wadsworth, OH to stretch my legs and fuel up.  All was quiet on 122.80 MHz as I approached, with only one other airplane doing pattern work when I arrived.  However, by the time I had shut down on the ramp, there were five other airplanes in the pattern.  Wadsworth was bustling given that it was an uninspiring flying day.
Once inside the FBO, I checked the weather again and found that light snow was still falling in Rochester.  I bought fuel at Wadsworth, though I did not really need it.  Having extra fuel on board was a good idea in case I needed to divert from my intended destination.

Upon learning that I was from Kalamazoo, the owner of the FBO commented that he was a big fan of the Air Zoo.  I explained that I gave tours there and we chatted about the many changes that had occurred at the museum in the three years since his last visit.

Back in the air, I pointed the nose toward Le Roy and established a cruise at 3000'.  Crossing over a corner of Pennsylvania and into southwest New York, the area became significantly less populated.  The topography changed from flat to rolling.  It was not much to look at that day, but it was obvious that the view would have been gorgeous on a summer day with blue skies.

Throughout the flight, I continued to wonder if the snow would indeed stop by the time I reached my destination.  Not that snow was the real issue; visibility was.  About 20 miles from my destination, I was finally able to pick up weather information for airports in the vicinity of Le Roy.  All of them were calling ten mile visibility.  At this point, the proverbial weight was lifted from my shoulders and I knew that I would reach Warrior 481's new home.

Arrival at Le Roy

Fifteen miles out of Le Roy, I checked the weather at Genesee County (GVQ - 11 miles west of Le Roy) and Rochester (ROC - 14 miles northeast of Le Roy).  Both were calling for winds out of the southwest.  While still keeping my options open, I began to plan for landing on runway 28.  With a single strip running approximately east/west, options at Le Roy are limited.

At 2:00 pm, five miles out and right on time, I announced on Unicom that I was inbound for Le Roy.  A Cessna responded that it was departing on runway 28 and that Ray was still plowing.  I crossed over the field and checked the windsock, verifying that the winds favored runway 28.  The Cessna departed the area promptly and I circled back for a left crosswind entry to the pattern for 28.  After I called downwind, Phil's voice came over the radio.

"Chris, is that you?"

"Affirmative," I responded.

"Welcome to Le Roy!"  Down on the airport surface, I could see Ray's plow truck waiting on a taxiway for me to complete my landing.  He was pointed toward the final approach path where he would have a perfect vantage point to evaluate my approach and landing.  I could also see Steve waiting outside my hangar with his family.  Landings with an audience always seem to go a bit awry for me; it's the aviator's corollary to Murphy's Law.

The moment I turned final, I knew something was wrong.  I was way too high and not coming down fast enough.  I entered a slip in hopes of coaxing the Warrior down to the runway, but merely watched my aim point continue to move down the 2600' long strip of pavement.  About 100' off the ground, I exited the slip, added full throttle, retracted the flaps, and aborted the landing.

On the second time around, things still didn't look right, but I aggressively slipped the Warrior to the runway.  With about 50% of the runway already behind me, I rounded out.  Warrior 481 finally settled to the runway so softly that I cannot say exactly when she transitioned her weight from the wings to wheels.  Not knowing my braking effectiveness on the slick looking runway, I was content to brake lightly and use the remaining runway (there wasn't much) to lose speed gradually.  I turned off at the end of the runway, taxied Warrior 481 to her new hangar, and shut down.  It was the first time that I had ever used an entire runway for landing and rollout.
Ray drove over and shook my hand when I emerged from the Warrior.  "Nice landing," he enthused.  Looking over his shoulder, the windsock told me exactly what had gone wrong.  Despite having checked the sock on my overflight, I had just made a downwind landing ... in front of my new airport manager ... who was a CFI.  I cringed inside, smiled outwardly, and thanked him for the compliment.

New digs at the Le Roy airport.  January 11, 2006.

My embarrassment was momentarily forgotten once Warrior 481 was safely inside the hangar.  To say the least, it was a very nice hangar.  The concrete floor was clean enough to eat on.  Ray had customized the hangars with bright fluorescent lighting and electrical outlets on the walls near the tail and each wingtip.  The outside walls were well insulated.

During the ride home, I brooded about the downwind landing.  It was a fundamental thing and I was irritated with myself for not recognizing the signs of a downwind landing prior to the go-around.  Perhaps it was just fatigue.  I had worried about the trip days before it actually occurred, not slept well, then spent four hours in my Piper over unfamiliar territory.  Regardless of the cause, I was annoyed and certain that I had not left a very favorable first impression at Le Roy.


A few days after my return to Kalamazoo from Le Roy, I received an email note from Ray.  In my response, I observed that I generally did not try to impress other pilots by performing downwind landings on short runways right before their eyes.  Ray came to the rescue of my ego in his next email, where he pointed out that the winds had been changing direction all day at Le Roy and that mine was one of the better landings he saw that afternoon.  In the end, Warrior 481 was moved into her nice new home and I received an unexpected compliment from Ray.  Evidently, I made a better impression than I thought.

A tranquil dusk scene from the Le Roy airport, March 6, 2006