Thursday, November 23, 2006

Turkey Day Homecoming

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total 
  Nov 2006
5G0 (LeRoy, NY) - PTK (Waterford, MI)
2.4 475.9
  Nov 2006
N21481 PTK - 3DA (Flushing, MI) - 5G0 3.1 479.0

Turkey and Snow
For as long as I can remember, most of my Thanksgiving holidays have been spent with family in the suburbs north of Detroit.  Though every year has been different, my memories are rife with two recurring motifs: 

(1) a massive table piled high with more food than anyone could ever hope to consume and 

(2) the first, really awful snowstorm of the season.

When I lived in the area, the latter was not much of a problem.  As we moved progressively farther from southeast Michigan, the drive became significantly more hazardous.  2006 found us living outside Rochester, NY - a six(ish) hour drive through an area often blasted by lake effect snow storms.  We decided to stay home and have a quiet, relaxing Thanksgiving all to ourselves. 

Then I saw the weather forecast.

High Pressure Domination

A high pressure system covering the Great Lakes region was forecast to keep precipitation at bay for several days bracketing Thanksgiving.  Meteorologists predicted cold, clear nights and sunny days with highs in the low 50's.  Not only should Thanksgiving be a nice day to take wing, it should be a perfect one.

My first flight in Warrior 481 to the Rochester, NY area was done by flying south of Lake Erie and staying solidly in United States airspace.  At the time, the forecasts were more than a little dicey and I wanted to have flexibility to divert wherever I needed to without worrying about customs or any unknown quirks of aviating in Canada.  Diverting south of Lake Erie on a flight from Le Roy to the northern Detroit suburbs for Thanksgiving would add an extra hour of flight time versus a direct flight over Canada.

It was time to learn the rules for flight through Canadian airspace. 

Our actual GPS ground track from Le Roy to Pontiac, to Flushing and back.

Canada, eh?
AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association) provides excellent information on how to do this and it was bolstered by Piper Owner Society members who routinely fly VFR between the USA and Canada (thanks especially to Kathie and Leigh).  Put simply, a VFR (visual flight rules) overflight of Canadian territory requires the pilot to be... 

1.  ...on an active VFR flight plan.
2.  ...squawking a discrete transponder code while crossing the border.
3. two-way communication with ATC (air traffic control) during border transit.

Evidently, the FCC also requires radio station / operator licenses (issued to aircraft and pilot, respectively) for flight in foreign airspace.  There's some dissention out there about whether or not this is truly necessary and it was hard to shake the notion that no one would ever check for these pieces of paper.  I pondered the risk/benefit of these licenses for a while and finally decided to get the required "aircraft radio station" and "restricted radiotelephone operator's" permits for N21481 and myself.  I clenched my teeth and paid good money to the FCC so that I could operate my aircraft radios in someone else's country.  Bureaucracy, bah!

Thursday, November 23 (Thanksgiving):
Unexpected IFR

Lewiston, NY pumped storage facility.
Kristy and I awoke on Thanksgiving to 25°F temperatures and a heavy layer of frost covering everything.  As the sun rose, fog began to form along our intended route just like the weather textbooks claim it should.  When I called Buffalo Flight Service for a briefing, we learned that the fog was burning off in our part of New York, but that Niagara, NY; Hamilton, ON; and Detroit, MI were under IMC (instrument meteorological conditions) owing to fog.  We delayed our departure from Le Roy to allow this to burn off.  At 10:00, I called my mother and told her to expect us at Oakland County International around 12:30.  My mother lives in Clarkston, MI, right on the northern edge of the Class D ring around that airport.
We climbed away from Le Roy into some of the smoothest air we've ever experienced.  While climbing to our intended cruise altitude of 4500', I contacted Buffalo Radio via the Rochester VOR to open our flight plan.
No Barrels Today
"Buffalo Approach, Warrior 21481, twenty miles east, level four thousand five hundred, requesting VFR advisories across Canada to Pontiac, Michigan".

This transmission began our adventure with Air Traffic Control (ATC) for the day.  Before long we were  squawking 5116 (a code we would carry all the way to the pavement at Pontiac), entering Buffalo airspace, and pointed for the border.

Our passage close to Niagara Falls necessitated (in my mind) a slight deviation from the direct route for sightseeing.  As we neared Niagara, we could see a massive plume of mist rising into the very cold morning air.  Though a low cloud deck appeared at the northern edge of the hydroelectric facility near Lewiston, NY, the falls themselves were no longer in IMC and we had an unobstructed view of them.  They looked cold.  It was definitely not a good day to try the "over the falls in a barrel" trick.

Buffalo ATC called a few traffic targets to us as we transited the Niagara River and suddenly, without much ado, we were inside Canadian airspace for the first time.
N21481 - International Airplane of Mystery
Moments into our first international overflight, Buffalo handed us off to Toronto Center.  This was another first - I had never talked to a Center controller before.  The folks in Toronto were very friendly and helpful.  Our first Center controller was articulate and professional.  Nevertheless, whenever he opened his mic, he also broadcast roaring laughter from the background.  Despite our controller's steadfast professionalism, it sounded like there was a party going on at Toronto Center that day. 

From St. Catherine's to Hamilton, we flew along the edge of a low cloud deck that obscured much of the ground ahead and to the north.  To the south, however, we could see the Lake Erie shoreline clearly.  As we neared Hamilton, these clouds began to dissipate significantly.  Upon clearing the western end of Lake Ontario, the clouds vanished altogether though the haze began to build as we continued westbound.  

"Washboard" over Ontario

Overall, we were fortunate.  We had both the wind and the sun at our backs.  We crossed southern Ontario in one hour and fifteen minutes, talking to three different sectors at Toronto Center in the process.  Finally, the St. Clair River was in sight and, beyond it, southeast Michigan. 

"Radar Services Terminated"

While doing research for this trip, I encountered a horror story on the web.  The storyteller was VFR over Canada on his way to Michigan when ATC (air traffic control) terminated radar services and instructed him to squawk 1200 (a generic code for VFR flight).  With the border rapidly approaching, this pilot found himself out of compliance with two of the three requirements for transborder operations: he was no longer in two-way contact with ATC and he was no longer squawking a discrete beacon code.

I was troubled by this anecdote.  Who would we contact for the border crossing back into the USA if the same thing happened to us?

Then, fifteen miles from the border, it happened.  "481, radar services terminated..."

Kristy and I exchanged "oh, crap" glances.  After a pause, the controller continued, "...remain on this squawk code and contact Selfridge approach on 119.6 for continued advisories.  Good day."

Looking south along the St Clair River.

Whew.  Kristy tuned the approach frequency for Selfridge Air National Guard Base.  I had never talked with a military controller before - yet another first.  The controller at Selfridge was more than happy to hold our hands across the border.  In other words, except for a Citation jet that departed Port Huron for Florida (spending about a nanosecond in Selfridge's radar services area), he was bored and had no one else to talk to but us.
Oakland County International Airport
Finally back "home", the landmarks made it rather easy to track our progress.  Lake Orion could be seen to the north, the Detroit Silverdome to the south, and we practically crossed right over the Palace of Auburn Hills.  Off the left wingtip, the taller buildings in Troy could be seen sticking up through the haze layer.  We even flew over the hospital where I was born, but before I could snap a photo... 

The Palace of Auburn Hills.  Photo by Kristy.

"Warrior 481, remain this code, contact Detroit approach on 127.5."  Yup, another first.  I began talking with my first Class Bravo controller. 

Ten miles away, we spotted the parallel runways of Oakland County International.  We were nearly perfectly aligned with them already, still holding the same heading we had turned to at Niagara falls. 

Final for runway 27L at Pontiac.  Photo by Kristy.

When I was a kid, many of the local landmarks started with "The Pontiac"; "The Pontiac Airport" and "The Pontiac Mall" being pertinent examples.  But as General Motors shuttered plants in Pontiac, the name came to carry a stigma.  To make them more appealing, these landmarks were given pretty new names like "Oakland County International Airport" and "The Summit Place", respectively.  Though these name changes occurred a couple decades ago, most people still call them "The Pontiac Airport" and "The Pontiac Mall". 

With that said, it is worth mentioning that Pontiac is a thriving airport.  AirNav reports an average of 670 operations per day.  Several FBOs (fixed base operators) exist on the field servicing everyone from radio-shy student pilots to corporate types flying cargo, celebrities, and executives in and out of metropolitan Detroit.  Competition between the FBOs appears to be fierce and fuel prices at those friendly to piston aircraft were a dollar less per gallon than what I paid in Le Roy that morning.  The airport's website claims it to be the sixth busiest general aviation airport in the nation.

As a result, I was long intimidated by the notion of landing at this airport.  Previously, the busiest airports I had experience with were Kalamazoo, MI and Page Field in Fort Myers, FL - both of which average about 250 operations per day.  At more than twice that level of traffic, Pontiac is in another league.  This was yet another first for the day. 

Moments before touch-down at Pontiac.  Photo by Kristy.

We arrived during a lull in the traffic and when Detroit handed us off to Pontiac Tower, all was quiet except for a lone aircraft practicing landings.  We were cleared for a straight-in approach on runway 27 Left.  Soon, we were rolling on that enormous runway.  I turned onto a convenient taxiway and, when the tower inquired about parking, responded that we were going to the Pontiac Air Center. 

"Roger 481, contact ground on 121.9 for that PAC-taxi.  Happy Turkey Day!" 

We taxied to PAC, partly chosen because it was on a less-congested corner of the airport and I was sure that I would be able to find it.  We parked near a Learjet whose tail was emblazoned with the logo of my alma mater.  Yup, I was home.


Once parked, Kristy pointed to the parade of airplanes landing on both parallel runways.  We had obviously arrived at a rare, quiet moment.

We went inside to wait for my mother.  She was not late.  Thanks to the tailwind, we had arrived early.

Good Eats

The weather that day was balmy and windows were flung open to keep everyone inside from cooking along with the turkey.  A rare Thanksgiving day, indeed.  The skies remained clear, the sun was warm, and the food was outstanding and plentiful.  After dark, however, the temperature plummeted and a heavy frost crystallized on everything. 

Friday, November 24:
The Great Ramp Debate and a Bruised Ego
We arrived at the Pontiac Airport and PAC around 10:15 the next morning.  The plan was to fly north to Dalton Airport in Kristy's home town of Flushing.  There, we would have lunch with her sisters before flying back to New York. 

While talking with Flight Services, I took the opportunity to explore PAC's nice Pilot's Lounge.  Located on the second floor and accessed by a secure stairwell (I had to be buzzed-in), the lounge afforded a commanding view of the airport's east end.  The phone call was going well until the briefer informed me that Dalton was NOTAMed (Notice to Airmen) as having men and equipment working on the ramp.

"There isn't a ramp at Dalton," I told him.  Ok, there is a small paved area near the fuel pump barely large enough for one, maybe two, airplanes.  Not much of a ramp.

"Hmmm.  That's strange.  When were you last there?"

"A little over a year ago," I admitted.

"Well, maybe there's a ramp now."  (Foreshadowing: there wasn't) 

Ready to depart, we threaded through a group of corporate turbine jockeys on our way onto the ramp.  One of them politely held the lobby door for us.  As we went through the door, my mother enthused, "now that you've flown in here without any problems, you don't have to be afraid of landing here anymore."

I cringed.  Once outside, I turned to my mother and in my best whiny teenager voice said, "geez, Mom, not in front of the corporate pilots!"

Out in the Cold

Though I was concerned about having a cold soaked engine from the previous night, Warrior 481 sat in the sun with her aluminum skin soaking up the solar rays.  I hoped that this was sufficient to warm her up for starting.  I was wrong. 

Pontiac Tower.  Photo by Kristy.

Fortunately, Doug from PAC was on the scene and preheated my frozen Piper with a propane heater.  Before long, we were idling merrily on the ramp, about 30 minutes late for our lunch date in Flushing.

It was at this point that I had technical difficulties with the radio.  I must have inadvertently set it to "amateur" before keying the mic.  Exasperation from the tower aside, we managed to taxi to the other end of the airport for departure on runway 9 Right.  As we taxied past the tower, I suspected they were looking down on me in more ways than just the literal. 

Aversion to Cracker Barrel

Clarkston, MI.  Photo by Kristy.

The field was moderately busy that morning when we launched.  The tower turned us on course once we cleared the pattern.  Our path took us directly over Clarkston, my home town.

We contacted Flint for passage through their airspace to Dalton.  Our course took us over the top of Flint's Bishop International Airport.  To my surprise, radar services were terminated while still over the airport, just a few moments after the photograph above was taken.  We were still well within the inner cylinder of Flint's Class Charlie airspace. 

I have flown into Dalton a lot.  It was the destination for my first cross country flight outside of southwest Michigan as a private pilot.  Located just two miles from my wife's childhood home, Kristy and I frequently made the flight from previous home base in South Haven, MI to Dalton for meals with friends and family.  I looked forward to returning. 

The trick to flying into Dalton in Flushing, MI is finding Dalton.  The runways
don't look like much, but the hangars certainly stand out.  Photo by Kristy.

The flight to Dalton from Pontiac required ten minutes, about the same length of time that we consumed taxiing from PAC to the departure end of 9 Right that morning.  We landed on runway 18 and taxied to the grass alongside the runway that doubles as Dalton's "ramp".  Based on the collective cravings of the group, we narrowed our lunch choices to places where we could also get breakfast.  Out of deference to my sister-in-law's Cracker Barrel aversion (she worked there as a student), we drove to Bob Evans for breakfast / lunch. 

Second Verse, (More or Less) Same as the First
Back at Dalton, I called Lansing Flight Service to make arrangements for the return flight.  Weather conditions were similar to the day before, though the border region between Michigan and Ontario was marginal VFR at the surface owing to more low clouds. 

While filing my flight plan, the briefer balked at my request for a "Canadian overflight - no landing" comment in the remarks session.  "What's that for?" 

"That's what AOPA recommends," I offered. 

"Well, please advise AOPA that perhaps it should read, 'no intended landing'."  I conceded that he had a point and we both chuckled. 

We departed Dalton at 2:20 and made contact with Flint approach, responsible for the airspace directly above Dalton.  We leveled off at 5500' with the afternoon sun behind us.  Though the winds aloft had been out of the east on Thanksgiving, they were now blowing out of the southwest and we were once again endowed with a higher groundspeed than planned.  We went off-frequency momentarily to activate our VFR flight plan and then settled back for a smooth ride to New York. 

Flint handed us off to Selfridge ANGB who later handed us to Toronto Center just before we crossed the St Clair river into Ontario.  We were well above the haze layer, but the Port Huron / Sarnia area was quite fuzzy down below.  We spotted the Bluewater Bridge as we crossed into Canada.  I almost ran my car out of gas the last time I crossed that bridge, idling for ninety minutes waiting to get through customs.  Not to mention the empty belly and full bladder.  It gave me great pleasure to speed over it at 125 knots (our groundspeed at the time). 

"There is no place like London!"

Pointed toward Niagara Falls once again, we soared over the relatively flat and rural expanse of southern Ontario.  Passed from sector to sector by Toronto Center, London was the only significant city we saw on our way home.  Soon, we found ourselves over the isthmus between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, which resulted in an impromptu rendition of "Stuck in the Middle with You" overheard on Warrior 481's intercom (with apologies to Stealers Wheel).


In the reddish glow of the setting sun, we approached Niagara Falls.  We hadn't heard a peep from Toronto Center in over 15 minutes and I began to wonder if we were still with them.  At my "do you still have us?" radio call, the controller promptly told us to contact Buffalo approach and we established communications moments before crossing the Niagara River. 

The sun was perched on the horizon when we entered the pattern at Le Roy behind an Avid Flyer based there.  By the time we turned base for runway 10, the sun had almost entirely disappeared.  With a timid squeak from the stall horn and a gentle chirp of the tires, we settled back to Earth. 

Home Again

In the traffic pattern at Le Roy.  Photo by Kristy.

The temperature was already dropping toward freezing when we pushed Warrior 481 back into her hangar.  We bundled her up in her winter pre-heating gear with a sense of accomplishment.  Sure, the flight was the sort made by many pilots every day.  But, for me, it was a string of firsts.  First time in foreign airspace, first time talking with a Center controller, first time talking to a military controller, first time talking to a Class Bravo approach controller, and my first time at a busy airport like County International.  Not bad for a guy who was once all thumbs with the mic key. Sure, I had my inept moment with the ground controller at Pontiac that morning, but I won't hold that against me.
All for a simple turkey dinner with family.  But so worthwhile. 

Saturday, October 7, 2006

Alexandria Bay and Boldt Castle

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
07 Oct 2006 N21481 5G0 (LeRoy, NY) - 89N (Alexandria Bay, NY) - 5G0 3.3 465.4

On a perfect October day, with clear skies and high pressure dominating the northeast, Kristy and I departed from Le Roy, NY and ventured into northern New York to visit the Thousand Islands region in the St Lawrence.  This meant that we flew from the birthplace of Jell-O to the birthplace of Thousand Island dressing.  Isn't New York great?

Overlooking Irondequoit Bay from 5500'.  The bay separates Irondequoit, NY on the left from Webster / Penfield on the right.

During a flight along Lake Ontario to Alexandria Bay, we encountered this striking fen as we rounded the eastern end of the lake.  This photo was taken from 5500'.

After 1.5 hours airtime along Lake Ontario, we landed at Maxson Airfield (89N).  The airport is two miles south of Alexandria and its eponymous bay.  Hank from Thousand Island Aviation Services gave us a ride into town.  From the moment we entered it, Alexandria inspired a wistful remembrance of South Haven, MI.  We had lunch at Brass Tacks and boarded a boat for the five minute cruise to Heart Island.

Heart Island is home to Boldt Castle.  Intended as the dream home of hotel magnate George Boldt and his wife, Louise, the castle was reminiscent of the eastern European castles of George's homeland.  With the exterior largely completed, construction was abruptly halted in 1904 upon the death of Louise Boldt.  This spectacular property is now undergoing renovation.

The first structure we visited on the island was Alster Tower.

Alster Tower is also known as The Playhouse.  It even contains a bowling alley, one of the oldest in the state of New York.

An up-close view of Alster Tower.

Another significant structure on the island is the Power House.   As the name implies, this structure contained the steam engine generator for producing electricity on the island.

Of course, the most significant structure on the island is the residence, Boldt Castle itself.

Given the gorgeous exterior, one is in for quite a surprise upon stepping inside.  Because the castle was never finished, the interior is rather barren.  However, the current "restoration" effort is actually aimed at finishing many of the areas left undone using the abandoned building materials that were left crated inside. 

I did not take many interior photos, but here's an example.  This lead glass rotunda over the grand staircase in Boldt Castle is one of the most recently completed renovations.  Note the "heart" motif.  This theme is repeated throughout the property...

Here's another example.  One might wonder why there were statues of male deer at various locations around the property, but, naturally, they're "harts"!  Ah, it must be nice to be wealthy AND clever.  That is one expensive pun perched up there.

After visiting the castle, we took to the sky and flew overhead.  The view below was far more meaningful to us after the visit than it would have been had we circled the island on our way to Alexandria Bay.

Notice how the heart shape of the island was artificially augmented by the breakwater constructed for the miniature harbor.

Heart Island is just one of the Thousand Islands in the St Lawrence River.

The stretch of the St Lawrence River just east of Lake Ontario is known as the Thousand Islands region for fairly obvious reasons.  Lots and lots of islands (Heart Island is about 2/3 up from the bottom in the middle of frame). 

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Ontario Shoreline

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
14 Jun 2006 N21481 5G0 (LeRoy, NY) - FZY (Fulton, NY) - 5G0 2.2 430.1

During my time in Michigan, nothing would relax me more than cruising above the sandy beaches of Lake Michigan in the still evening air.  The Lake Ontario shoreline lacks the sandy beaches of Lake Michigan, but it does have its own charm.

Just east of Sodus Bay is Chimney Bluffs, a rather unique geological feature.

Chimney Bluffs viewed from the lake side.

This tranquil scene of Sodus Bay near dusk is one of my favorite photos.  Whenever I look at it, I feel the tension release from my shoulders.

I descended lower over the water and circled the channel outlet from Sodus Bay into Lake Ontario.

A tidy little lighthouse presides over the end of the pier.  After circling the pier, I flew west and contacted Rochester approach for passage through their Charlie airspace.

Once west of Rochester, I turned inland for Le Roy.  Looking over my right shoulder, I observed the setting sun to momentarily align with a hole in the clouds, casting a searchlight onto the surface of Lake Ontario.

Friday, April 28, 2006

The Second Breather

Date Route of Flight Time
28 Apr 2006 5G0 (LeRoy, NY) - HAI (Three Rivers, MI) 3.5 416.8
28 Apr 2006 HAI - LWA (South Haven, MI)
- AZO (Kalamazoo, MI)
1.3 418.1
29 Apr 2006 AZO - 29G (Portage County, OH) 2.6 420.7
29 Apr 2006 29G - 5G0 2.0 422.7

A pilot's most important decision is always made outside the confines of a cockpit.  To fly or not to fly.  From the nuances of a fidgety windsock to the occasional loose nut on an engine exhaust flange, one must weigh a lot of information before deciding to take wing. 

An Idyllic Westward Flight

It is Friday, April 28 2006, and I am flying at 5500' over southern Michigan.  The decision that brought me here was the proverbial no-brainer.  The ride is smooth, the sun dazzling, and the visibility is exactly what the guy who coined the phrase "severe clear" must have had in mind.  A high pressure center floating somewhere in the vicinity of Montreal is providing an extra 20 knot push toward my destination in Kalamazoo, MI. 

I moved to Rochester, NY four months earlier, though my wife still lives in Kalamazoo.  Usually, I make the seven to eight hour trip by car.  But on this day, favorable weather led to a faster, and far more enjoyable, mode of westward travel.  It is a perfect flying day.  With the completion of an annual inspection four flight hours previous, I can say with confidence that the Warrior is literally firing on all cylinders.

It is my first time in Michigan skies since relocating the Warrior to Le Roy, NY.  After four months of Unicom radio chatter from unfamiliar Upstate airports, tuning 122.8 MHz brings forth a welcome cacophony from the ubiquitous student pilots in Allegan (35D), my former home base in South Haven (LWA), and my destination in Three Rivers (HAI).

The Old Stomping Grounds

With a 20 knot tailwind, my flight from Le Roy (5G0) to southwest Michigan required a mere three hours.  I am early and my wife will still be at work.  Rather than twiddle my thumbs at the Kalamazoo airport, I take the opportunity to visit Three Rivers.  I trained for my private pilot certificate at this non-towered field south of Kalamazoo and entering the pattern there feels like slipping on a favorite old shoe: it just fits.  I park the Warrior on the ramp under the warmth of the afternoon sun.

Three River Airport, photographed September 27, 2005

As soon as I am out of the airplane, John meets me on the ramp and shakes my hand.  John runs Conrad Aero, the Three Rivers flight school where I learned to fly.  As a mechanic, he helped me during the purchase of N21481 and then took good care of her maintenance needs until I moved to New York. 

I talk with John for some time about new developments at the airport and tell him about my first few months in New York. 

We also discuss my recent annual inspection in New York because I am concerned about the way the shop remounted my propeller.  It now stops in a different position and I have noticed new vibrations during takeoff since the change.  I ask John if something might be slightly out of balance as a result.  He concurs and I resolve to ask the mechanic in New York about this upon my return. 

"I Got a Gal in Kalamazoo"

I call my wife to check in with her.  Apologetically, she explains that she is running late and will not be available for another couple of hours.

John has work to do and I have other places to see.  Within a few minutes of saying goodbye to John, I am back at the Warrior's controls with the engine humming a  smooth idle.  I taxi out to runway 27 on a new taxiway that I have never used before.  Climbing away from Three Rivers, I note the unusual vibration in the Warrior again, but it ceases once I level off.

I savor the perfect flying day by dropping in on my former home base at South Haven and doing some sightseeing over downtown Kalamazoo.  The skyline has been radically altered from the razing of some downtown buildings by my former employer.  My morbid curiosity satisfied, I land on runway 5 at Kalamazoo in dwindling daylight.  Per ground controller instructions, I taxi past the rear ends of a couple Embraer RJs parked on the commercial ramp before reaching the tie downs outside of Duncan Aviation. 

Kalamazoo "Before" (Oct 9, 2003)

Kalamazoo "After"
Once she is safely tied to the tarmac, I pat the Warrior's spinner in silent thanks for the wonderful flying day we have shared.  I contemplate the unusual position of the stopped propeller for a moment before hefting my bags and ambling toward the Duncan Aviation lobby for a much anticipated reunion with my wife.

April Showers
Despite the triumph that is modern meteorology, weather forecasts remain best guesses of future events.  It is certainly true that these guesses are far more educated than they were during the days of Lindbergh.  But they still describe nothing more than a potential future.  There are no assurances. 

Coldwater Airport
The weekend weather was predicted to be entirely free of precipitation, but new data show a weather system approaching more rapidly from the west than originally forecast.  Though I would prefer to stay in Kalamazoo for the full weekend, the changing weather leads to another "no-brainer" decision.  If I leave Saturday afternoon, a mere 24 hours after my arrival in Michigan, I will be aloft and home ahead of the weather.

During preflight, I am surprised to find the Warrior's oil level down to six quarts.  She prefers to run at seven quarts and will defiantly cough any excess onto her belly through the engine breather.  Normally, she consumes a quart of oil every nineteen to twenty hours, but now she is a quart low after a mere eight hours of flight time.  This is still within what Lycoming considers normal, though it is unusual for my bird.  I cannot find any obvious indications of a leak under the airplane or inside the cowling and the rest of the Warrior appears to be in nominal condition.

I add another quart of oil, listening to it gurgle as the Warrior greedily drinks it down.  In doing my flight planning, AirNav revealed that Portage County airport (29G) east of Cleveland has very inexpensive fuel.  With this fuel stop only two hours away, I decide that I will stop there, reap the advantages of modestly priced avgas, and check the oil again. 

Harbingers of the storm have already swept over Kalamazoo.  The skies darken from an 8000 foot overcast and the wind begins to gust from what seems like all directions at once.  With my takeoff clearance received, I speed down Kalamazoo's runway, a ridiculously huge slab of asphalt for my single engine Warrior.  Aloft, I place Kalamazoo at my tail and steer toward Toledo, Ohio.  I cross over the top of Coldwater airport, a former Sunday breakfast destination for the "South Haven Tribe" of which my Piper Warrior was once a happy member.

Following the Lake Erie shoreline toward Cleveland, I notice a densely packed little spit of land jutting into the lake.  The point is free of homes or condos.  Instead, it is dominated by rolling curves and spindly towers painted brightly from a palette of primary colors.  I run my finger along the sectional chart: Sandusky, Ohio.  Of course.  I am looking at Cedar Point, one of the premiere amusement parks in the Midwest.  I circle the park, which is quite obviously closed for the season, before continuing eastbound.  A nearby power plant along the shoreline makes for an impressive windsock, telling me that I am now facing a headwind as opposed to the tailwind I had leaving Kalamazoo. 

I let down toward the Portage County airport after two hours aloft, briefly sharing the pattern with a couple of Cessnas practicing touch and goes.  As the propeller stops, I notice something that, to me, invokes an instant hotel stay in Ohio.

There is oil on the back of the prop.

A Second Breather?

The oil appears to be seeping from the propeller hub, driven along the length of the propeller through the force of its spinning.

I refuel the airplane and open the cowling to check the oil.  Six quarts.  Exactly the amount I observed in Kalamazoo before adding the extra quart.  Given the oil on the back of the prop, I obviously have a leak somewhere and managed to lose a quart of oil in two hours.

I wander toward the FBO building looking for (1) help and (2) a restroom.  The FBO is closed for the day.  According to the hours posted on the door, I have arrived thirty minutes after closing time.  

I am faced with the prospect of finding some place to stay in an unfamiliar town.  Oh, joy.

Walking back toward the wounded Warrior, I notice that the hangar door of the maintenance shop is slightly open.  I venture inside, taking in a tidy hangar space home to several aircraft.  A mechanic is working on the nose gear of a Cessna.  By now, my priorities are reversed and my first question to him is for directions to a restroom.

With that out of the way, I describe my problem and ask if he minds taking a look.  He grabs an inspection mirror and a flashlight from his toolbox and follows me back to the Warrior.  He inspects the prop and spinner for a moment and asks, "have you, by chance, just had the crankshaft inspection AD performed?"

This inspection involves examination of the crankshaft bore for corrosion and requires removal of a plug at the end of the crankshaft.  When I answer in the affirmative, he nods at the verification.  "This happens all the time.  The plug in the end of the crankshaft sometimes doesn't seat properly when reinstalled and can fall out within a few hours.  You effectively have a hole in a low pressure region of your engine and can lose some oil through it.  It should act much like a second breather."

I describe the oil consumption behavior and he nods again.  "You will obviously want to get this fixed, but it will get you home without any real problem.  You may lose a little more oil as it sloshes around inside the engine, but it appears to have found its new level at six quarts."

To Fly or Not To Fly?

We talk longer and I pepper him with questions to feed my decision making process.  As pilot, the final decision is mine.  There are really only two options: stay the night and try to get the airplane fixed locally or fly it back to Le Roy and have it fixed later.  The mechanic is confident that my Lycoming O-320 will carry me home without any problem.  Despite his confidence, a two hour flight home with a known oil leak is a daunting prospect.  And sunset is a mere hour away.

I weigh the expert's advice against my fears of catastrophe.  The mechanic obviously knows more about this engine than I do and his diagnosis matches the oil loss behavior perfectly.  In my professional life, much of my job requires making decisions based on available data; finding a balance between the extremes of knee jerk conservatism and indulging in unnecessary risk.  In the end, the rational explanation appeals most and I decide to go.  It is obviously not the most conservative solution to the problem, but I decide that the risk is mitigated by the mechanic's input.  I thank him for his time and promptly depart Portage County hoping to seize what little daylight remains.  The Warrior shakes tremendously for a few moments as we climb away from the runway - another reminder that the prop balance issue must be dealt with when I return to New York.

Night Swimming

Despite my lingering concern about further oil loss and a near obsessive fascination with the oil pressure gauge, the flight home is magnificent.  In the nascent dusk, the air settles into quiescence and the Warrior swims through it as though immersed in still water.  Once pointed on course, I leave the controls untouched for well over thirty minutes and the airplane holds course and altitude so faithfully that it seems to be riding along an invisible rail.  In the gradual transition from day to night, the radio chatter subsides and the lights of Buffalo form an oasis of color in the gathering darkness.  The last vestiges of color in the twilight sky finally dim to a vague purple glow on the western horizon.

I follow I-90 home, a prudent practice when flying a single engine craft at night over the terrain of western New York.   In the distance, I can see an airport beacon: Genesee County Airport in Batavia, NY.  The next collection of lights east of Batavia must be Le Roy, though I cannot see the airport beacon there.  I have always enjoyed navigation at night, simply counting off each cluster of lights to determine which city is which.  The GPS is on, as always, but I leave the screen dark lest it intrude on the peaceful darkness suffusing the cockpit.  I do not need it for navigation.  Even the rumble from the engine seems muted as shadows spread across the landscape.  Within five miles of Le Roy, I am still unable to find the beacon, my eyes searching a dark region just east of town where the airport should be.  Seven rapid clicks of the microphone key brings the runway lighting up to full intensity.  My home airport blooms in the night at the exact location my eyes are focused.

Descending toward Le Roy, I announce my intentions to the void.  No one else is broadcasting.  With the arrival of complete darkness, the red pulse of the Warrior's tail strobe flashes off of wing surfaces in my peripheral vision.  Occasionally, I catch a red tinged coruscation from ahead of the airplane as the strobe and propeller fall momentarily into phase with each other.  I've never seen this before, but then I realize that the normally non-reflective backside of the propeller is coated with an oily sheen.

This cringe-worthy thought is immediately followed by another: I am almost home.

A Wimpy Beacon and a Broken Bulb

I reach forward and toggle the landing light.  Nothing happens.  The usual telltale shimmer of the propeller spinning in front of the landing light is absent.  I toggle the switch back and forth a couple of times and watch the ammeter.  No change.  The landing light was still working when I left Ohio; I checked it before departure.  Then I remember the excessive vibration while launching from Portage County and realize that this probably shook the guts of the landing light to pieces.

A new creeping discomfort steals through my mind, but its effects are banished with the memory of practicing nighttime landings without a landing light during flight training.  I silently thank Bill, my instructor, for those drills.  I can do this.  I have done it before.  Once in the traffic pattern, I finally spot the airport beacon and resolve to tease Ray, the airport manager, about its wimpy output.

On final approach for runway 28, I am aimed at a black rectangle of pavement surrounded by multicolored Lite Brite pegs.  There is no depth to the runway, it appears as a black bottomless pit at the center of the airport.  Gliding earthward, the runway surface gradually materializes in the glow from the runway lighting.  I close the throttle and pitch the Warrior nose high, feeling for the ground with pneumatic rubber feet.  I am rewarded with a gentle bump as the main gear rolls onto the pavement.  It is probably my best nighttime landing since I bought the Warrior two years earlier.

Back in the hangar, I pat the Warrior's fiberglass snout in gratitude for another safe, wonderful flight.  It's a ritual made more meaningful by the circumstances.  I unlatch the cowling and check the oil.  Six quarts.  The mechanic at Portage County was right.


A few days later, the Warrior is fitted with a new crankshaft plug and, this time, the propeller stays oil free.  The propeller is also remounted in its original orientation.  Not only does the maddening take-off vibration disappear, but my new landing light remains intact.  I suspect that vibration from the previous propeller orientation was probably a contributing factor to losing the crankshaft plug in the first place.

Was my decision to fly home a sound one?  It is often said that "hindsight is 20/20", but that sentiment does not really apply in this case.  Obviously, the final outcome of the flight was a good one.  This makes for an interesting debate among my aviator friends.  The split is nearly 50/50 between those who thought I made good use of available data versus those regarding a Motel 6 in the heartland as cheap insurance.

Is there a moral to the story?  This time, I am not so sure.

Hey, what's a breather?  

The breather is a vent in the top of the crankcase to prevent it from over pressurizing.  It also tends to be a point of oil loss when too much oil is in the engine.  For example, the oil capacity of my Warrior is supposedly 8 qts, but in practice, 8 qts is too much and one of those quarts will be quickly lost through the breather until the level reaches about 7 qts.  Unfortunately, the breather vents to the Warrior's belly, where the excess oil picks up dirt and grime that can foster corrosion if left unchecked.