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.