Sunday, November 23, 2008

Only Human

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
23 Nov 2008 N21481 5G0 (Le Roy, NY) - DSV (Dansville, NY) -
ROC (Rochester, NY) - 5G0
1.2 674.6

A couple of times a year, I descend toward the heart of Class Charlie airspace surrounding the Greater Rochester International Airport for some practice with the control tower there.  I do this to keep my ear proficient because I do not routinely fly into towered airports.  As a student trained at a non-towered field, my early interactions with air traffic control (ATC) were awkward at best (e.g., “Mishaps at Muskegon”).  Learning from that experience, I worked to improve my comfort level with ATC once I became an aircraft owner.  In my opinion, it pays to exercise that ATC fluency from time to time.  While climbing away from a lunch stop at the Dansville airport, I decided that I was due for some practice and made an initial call to Rochester approach to get their attention.

“Warrior 21481, go ahead,” responded the approach controller.

”Warrior 21481 is 20 miles south at three thousand, inbound for touch and goes with echo.”  For the uninitiated, a “touch and go” is a landing with a short roll followed by an immediate departure.  I had no desire to drive around the surface of Greater Rochester International; the point was to fly in and work with the tower.

"Warrior 481, squawk 0333 and ident.”  I dialed the code into my transponder and pressed the "ident" button that would momentarily brighten my aircraft on the controller's screen.  At the moment, Rochester was moderately busy and the approach controller was working a combination of airliners, private jets, and single engine general aviation aircraft like mine.

“Warrior 481, radar contact one eight miles south of Rochester.  Turn right heading 040, vector for runway two five.”  Runway 25 is Rochester’s dedicated general aviation runway.  Instrument traffic, including everything from single engine piston aircraft to commercial airliners, was using runway 22 that day.

I turned on course and listened to the chatter between ATC and other aircraft converging on the airport.  Once I was within ten miles of Rochester, I could clearly see the airport as a snow-covered field.  Due to their orientation, the runways were invisible from my position, but I could see the control tower standing tall on the south edge of the field.  Shortly thereafter, Rochester approach called again.

“Warrior 481, turn left heading 020, vector for left base runway two five.  Let me know when you have the field in sight.”

“020, Warrior 481,” I transmitted back to approach while banking to the new heading.  “And I have the field in sight.”

“Warrior 481, contact tower on 118.3 and have a good day.”

I switched to the other radio, already set for Rochester’s tower frequency.  Protocol is to “check in” on the new frequency.  In this instance, simply calling with my tail number should have been adequate.  The approach controller should have communicated my intentions to the tower controller already.  I expected the tower to respond with a clarifying question or a directive to continue on left base leg for runway 25.

I waited for a lull on the tower frequency before checking in.  “Rochester tower, Warrior 21481.”
No response.  I waited for the tower to finish communicating with a couple of other aircraft and tried again.  “Rochester tower, Warrior 21481.”

“Warrior 481, go ahead.”  Go ahead?  It was as though the tower controller thought I was making a new request rather than checking in.  This did not fit the communication paradigm in my head.  Not knowing what else to say, I decided to remind the tower where I was and what I was doing.  “Warrior 481 is on extended left base, runway two five.”

“Warrior 481, clear to land runway two five.”  I was at least eight miles out.  I acknowledged the landing clearance, but something seemed wrong.  Then I realized that the tower should have cleared me for a touch and go, not a landing.  Did the tower controller not have information from the approach controller or had he simply made a slip of the tongue?

Rather than wonder, I called again.  “Rochester tower, Warrior 481 verifying clear for touch and go, two five.”

The controller stumbled a bit on the radio.  “Ah…negative, Warrior 481, you are clear to land two five.”

“Clear to land, two five, Warrior 481.”  I began to ponder what I would do once earthbound at Rochester.  Taxiing around the airport was not part of the plan.  Do I even have a taxiway diagram with me?  I didn't know.  Poor planning on my part, perhaps, but a diagram would not have been necessary for merely rubbing my tires on one of Rochester's runways a few times.
These thoughts were interrupted by the tower calling back.  “Warrior 481, do you want a touch and go?”

“Affirmative, Warrior 481,” I answered.

“Warrior 481, you are clear to land runway two five.  Hold on the runway.”  I repeated the clearance, half wondering if I heard it correctly.  When the controller did not correct me, I realized that it was for real.  He wanted me to land on runway 25 and just sit there, counter to every instinct I would have telling me to clear the runway as soon as possible.

On final approach, I took stock of the situation.  Another Cherokee taxied to the departure end of runway 25 and behind it was a Cessna 400 (nee Columbia) .  Across the airport, an airliner in Delta livery was plodding along a taxiway en route to the commercial terminal.  I could also see a Cessna across the airport on final approach for runway 22 with full flaps deployed.  From my time on the approach frequency, I knew that several other jet aircraft were inbound, but none had switched to the tower frequency yet.

At that moment, the airborne Cessna called the tower.  He had obviously listened to my exchange with the tower and now doubted his own clearance.  “Ah, Rochester tower, Cessna 123, am I clear for a touch and go?”

Sounding flustered, the tower controller replied, “uh, negative Cessna 123.  You are clear to land two two.  Did you want a touch and go?”  Clearly, there was a communication breakdown between the approach and tower controllers at Rochester that afternoon.

I floated low over the runway numbers and as the stall warning horn began to sound, I rolled the Warrior’s wheels onto the runway in one of the softest landings I had made in a long time.  I pulled the yoke back to my chest and waited for the nosegear to contact the runway before pressing the brakes.  I brought the Warrior to a full stop in the middle of the runway, about one third of the way down.

From my location on runway 25, I could look to my left and see the control tower.  Don’t forget about me, I thought at the tinted windows surrounding the tower cab.  I sat there, idling, feeling very vulnerable.  I have read a few accident reports involving ATC mistakenly clearing aircraft to land or depart a runway already occupied by another airplane.  For this reason, it is generally good practice to exit a runway as soon as possible after landing.  This is particularly true at the non-towered airports I usually frequent.

From the activity on frequency, it was obvious that the controller was waiting for an opportune lull in jet traffic on runway 22 that would allow me to launch without posing a conflict.  I do not know how long I waited in the middle of that runway, intently listening for the controller to slip up and clear someone to land or depart runway 25 while I still occupied it.  My hand rested on the throttle and my eyes focused on a nearby taxiway – my closest escape if any mistakes were made.

My discomfort slowed the progress of time.  Eventually, like a golden sunbeam puncturing an iron gray overcast, I finally heard the tower controller utter my tail number.  “Warrior 481, cleared to depart runway two five, make left traffic.”  I think I actually heard angels singing in the background.

As I advanced the throttle, I could feel that my shoulders had tightened during the tense wait.  I was climbing skyward, freed from a vulnerable position on the runway, and could feel the knots in my shoulders loosening.  From the traffic pattern, I watched the Cherokee that had been holding behind me depart runway 25.  I made three touch and go landings on runway 25 that afternoon and my airmanship was excellent; patterns were well-flown and landings were greasers.  Just prior to the third landing, I told the tower that I was ready to return home to Le Roy.

“Warrior 481, turn right on course, Le Roy.”

Turn right?  I glanced at the GPS and verified a suspicion that flying runway heading would take me directly home; no turns required.  Because he did not dictate a heading, I acknowledged “on course, Le Roy, Warrior 481” and continued on runway heading.  Within the next couple of minutes I was switched back to the departure frequency, given a new transponder code, and shown the way out of Class Charlie airspace by the same controller that had guided me in.  Upon reaching Le Roy, the departure controller wished me a good day, advised that no traffic was observed in the vicinity of the airport, and released me from the system.

I brought the Warrior back to earth on a runway covered with an inch of snow.  I waited for the bump that signified contact of the main gear with the pavement, but it never came.  One moment I was floating over the runway and the next, I was rolling.  I decided that I liked having an inch of snow on the runway.  It was like landing on a pillow.

As always, the exercise of flying into Rochester was time well spent.  It certainly underscored the necessity to pay close attention (this goes without saying) and double check confusing clearances rather than trying to divine what the controller may or may not have meant.  But more importantly, the episode served as a reminder that the control tower is not Mount Olympus and its inhabitants are not deities, but human beings that can make mistakes.  This is not an indictment of Rochester ATC; the folks at Rochester work hard and, in my admittedly limited experience, have always been extremely helpful and professional.  The point is that while both pilots and controllers are capable of mistakes; the system still works well as long as we have patience and watch out for one another.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
19 Nov 2008 N21481 5G0 (Le Roy, NY) - GVQ (Batavia, NY) - 5G0 0.8 673.4

With the ambient air at thirty-three degrees Fahrenheit, a thin blanket of melting snow began to retreat, revealing runway asphalt beneath. A fortuitous break in the weather provided opportunity to launch from Le Roy on a brief ferry flight to nearby Batavia for maintenance. Since installing an engine analyzer in N21481 a few months previous, I was concerned that my #3 cylinder routinely ran hot, easily recording cylinder head temperatures (CHT) at the 400°F mark that most experts cite as unhealthy.

I pushed the throttle full forward and Warrior 481 trundled along the wet runway. As the airplane climbed into the cool air, I noticed some runway slush spattered on the leading edge of the wing. I continued to climb away from Le Roy on runway heading. As I reached 1500 feet, I noticed that the #3 cylinder already registered 400°F. I pushed the nose forward to improve the flow of cooling air over the engine.

For an overcast day, it was surprisingly turbulent. At 2000 feet, I corrected for a couple of significant bumps when I felt a loss of power. The airplane suddenly bucked and the engine sputtered. I saw the tachometer drop to 2000 RPM and I pulled the carburetor heat lever without really even thinking about it. That is what training in a carburetor icing-prone Cessna 150 will do for you. Not that I seriously believed carburetor icing to be the culprit - Cherokees are notoriously resistant to carburetor icing and I never experienced it during five years of all-season flying in Warrior 481. The engine continued to run rough and I saw the exhaust temperature on cylinder #3 suddenly spike. This is it, I thought. I ran that cylinder too hot too long and now I'm losing it.

I brought the throttle back to idle to get the cylinder temperatures down and wheeled the airplane into a 180° turn back to the Le Roy airport. Trimmed for a 74 knot best glide speed, I announced an emergency landing and easily managed to glide through the pattern and land; my first precautionary landing in eight years of flying.

I advanced the throttle slightly to taxi clear of the runway and switched the carburetor heating off. Once I found a dry parcel of taxiway, I locked the brakes and ran the engine up to full power. RPM came up as it normally does and the engine analyzer showed all cylinder temperatures rising evenly. Confounded, I swept my gaze across an instrument panel displaying nothing but nominal readings. It was as though the airplane was saying, "why so uptight? Everything's normal here."

Carburetor icing is the only explanation. Conditions must have been just right; air temperatures near freezing with lots of moisture soaking the air above the thawing runway. But I will never really know for sure. The problem with carburetor icing is that all evidence of the problem literally melts away.  I experienced carburetor icing several times in a Cessna 150, most notably on the day of my first solo and the day I took my mother for her first airplane ride.  But those were benign events compared to the convulsions my Warrior's Lycoming O-320 experienced that day.  In fact, the instance with my mother was so mild that I remedied the situation without her ever realizing anything was amiss.

My heart rate settled a bit as I came to accept that my first real emergency…wasn't.

Fortunately, the constant threat of carburetor icing during my student pilot days made application of carburetor heat automatic at the slightest hint of power loss. Had I not used the carburetor heat, ice may have completely choked off the flow of air and fuel to the engine and I would have had a real emergency on my hands.

I taxied to the departure end of the runway and performed another flawless full power run-up. Satisfied, I departed the wet runway a second time and circled the airport. The engine ran normally and, once I was certain that it would continue to do so, I flew to Batavia.

After some time spent with my mechanic, we repaired the loose metal baffle between cylinders #1 and #3 and improved the sealing of some of the other baffles. My engine was free of typical visual indicators of damaging heat and my mechanic surmised that, though cylinder #3 had been running hot, it had probably not been so hot as to cause any catastrophic problems. Nevertheless, I was delighted to see all four cylinder head temperatures within three degrees of each other as I climbed away from Batavia that afternoon. It was time well spent: I fixed my airplane AND joined the somewhat select ranks of pilots to experience carburetor icing in a Cherokee.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Adirondack Leaf Peeping

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
07 Oct 2008 N21481 5G0 (Le Roy, NY) - FZY (Fulton, NY) - K09 (Piseco, NY) -
4B7 (Schroon Lake, NY) - LKP (Lake Placid, NY) - 5G0
4.9 666.2

I work hard for my vacation time, so I decided that I needed to spend it in spectacular fashion: a frivolous fall color tour in the Adirondacks.  I chose a Tuesday with high pressure dominating eastern New York, verified through Ray that the mountains were bedecked in their finest fall colors, and cleared my schedule at work.

I arrived in the southern portion of the Adirondacks after 1.5 hours of flight time.  This region was clearly at peak color, as shown by the vegetation surrounding Sacandaga Lake (above).

I entered the right-handed traffic pattern for runway 4 at the Piseco Airport, positioned on the north end of Piseco Lake.

The non-standard traffic pattern for runway 4 at Piseco requires flying beyond the small island in the lower right corner of frame before turning back to the airport for final approach.  The approach is flown over the lake.

Crossing the shoreline of Piseco Lake on final for runway 4.  The runway parallels a nearby ridge that undoubtedly makes for a nasty crosswind on windy days.  Fortunately, the winds were light, which gave me a moment to snap this photo.

My arrival at Piseco was coincident with this New York State Police helicopter.  As I walked across the ramp, the pilot greeted me.  "Awful day, huh?" he chuckled.  Unlike me, however, he was working.  The helicopter was restocking fish in local lakes.  As we chatted, a truck arrived to supply the helicopter with more fish.  "Just out flying for the sake of flying?" he asked.  When I nodded, he looked a little envious.  At the same time, it seemed to me that he had one heck of a cool day job.

When I was growing up, my grandparents carpeted a significant portion of their house with yellow, red, and orange shag.  In retrospect, it was hideous stuff.  As I departed Piseco and proceeded further north into the mountains, I was struck by how much the landscape reminded me of that carpet.  Though the manmade stuff was truly awful, seeing the landscape blushing with that same color scheme was spectacular.  As stupid as it may sound, the wistful childhood memories conjured by these autumn colors made the mountains feel a little more familiar than they did before.

My first visit to the Adirondacks was January 2007.  I took several photographs of Indian Lake (above) on that trip, the brilliant blue water surrounded by a stark landscape completely drained of color.  The fall color rendered this scene fantastically, beautifully, different.

Flying along Schroon Lake on the way to another small airport tucked among the mountains.

I landed at Schroon Lake Airport (#83, if anyone besides me is bothering to keep track).  At 800 feet elevation and 3000 feet long, this is hardly a "mountain strip".  However, the approach end of runway 34 is obscured by very tall trees and rising terrain that slopes skyward at a greater rate than many light aircraft climb.  A "typical" approach would be impossible here and pilots that dogmatically adhere to 3° glideslopes should not even bother trying.  As a result, landings are recommended on 16, departures on 34.  Unfortunately, the wind was definitely favoring 34.  I flew a very steep final approach in a full forward slip.  As I slid my airplane sideways through the air, I watched the treetops pass just below and was reminded of landing on the grass runway at my old home airport in South Haven, MI.  Even with the steep approach I flew, the trees and terrain made it such that I was unable to touch down until half the runway was already behind me.  It did not help that the long tapered wing on the Warrior simply does not like to stop flying.  In the end, it was a landing I was proud of, but I had to work hard for it.

Ready to depart runway 34 at Schroon Lake.  The trees encroaching on the final approach path begin immediately behind the Warrior's tail.  As the photo shows, the runway is well maintained; it is just challenging to reach on days when the wind is out of the northwest.

I departed Schroon Lake and turned northward along I-87, enjoying the emergency landing strip below for as long as it was available.

Although the lower slopes of the mountains were still speckled with color, trees on the taller peaks in the northern part of the Adirondacks were already well past peak color.

Mount Marcy (5344 feet), the highest peak in the Adirondacks, is already snowcapped (top center of frame, if I read my sectional chart correctly).  I navigated along the downwind side of a valley between Mount Marcy and Giant Mountain to reach Lake Placid, nestled amongst the High Peaks of the Adirondacks.

Flying past the peak of the distinctively shaped, yet curiously-named, Giant Mountain.  Topping out at 4,626 feet, it is hardly "giant", but merely the twelfth highest of the Adirondack High Peaks.

On the ground at Lake Placid, the folks at Adirondack Flying Service arranged a ride for me on the free trolley.  Unfortunately, the trolley driver forgot to stop at the airport and as I stood in the shadow of the nearby Olympic ski jumps, I watched it drive right past the airport.  When an FBO staffer contacted the driver on a walkie-talkie, I heard the driver laugh and say, "I completely forgot, I'll be right back!"  When the trolley reappeared, the driver stretched her hand out the window and jovially waved at me.  "I'm so sorry," she enthused.

Not knowing where to go for lunch (the airport staff recommended The Cottage, which is good, but I had already been there twice), I threw myself on the mercy of the driver and a female passenger for advice.  The two of them generated a huge list of restaurants that, with minimal input from me, they eventually narrowed to three through a consensus process primarily driven by good natured banter.  "Stick with us," the driver laughed, "and we'll have our way with you."  *eep*

Not far from the airport, the trolley deposited me in front of The Downhill Grill.  The driver's recommendation was a good one and I left the restaurant with not only my hunger, but my palate, satisfied.  At 2:30 pm, with a full stomach and an equally full day behind me, I was back at the controls of Warrior 481, preparing to depart Lake Placid (above) for home.

As I climbed away from the Lake Placid airport, Whiteface Mountain (4867 feet) towered over the scene (above).  At its base was Lake Placid (below).

The return flight to Le Roy required just shy of two hours.  As I flew southwest, the terrain of the Adirondacks melted back into the landscape and the brilliant colors transformed back into green.  I had returned to the mundane.

Trips to the Adirondacks are always fun, but sometimes it takes a well-timed vacation day to behold them in their greatest splendor.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Fall Color, Stony Brook, and...Jello?

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
05 Oct 2008 N21481 5G0 (Le Roy, NY) - DSV (Dansville, NY) -
N38 (Wellsboro, PA) - GVQ (Batavia, NY) - 5G0
2.4 661.3

October 5 was a day to savor great flying weather, fall colors, and the freedom afforded by owning a light aircraft.  The day's flying began with a stop in Dansville, NY for lunch.

While waiting at the hold line to depart runway 32 at Dansville, I watched this Piper Pawnee tow a glider aloft, breaking ground from the grass runway running parallel to the pavement.  Glider activity, something I do not see often, always makes Dansville an enjoyable place to visit.

Several days previous, Kristy, The Bear, and I went hiking with several of our friends in Stony Brook State Park.  The park, located just south of Dansville, is a steep, narrow river gorge featuring several reasonably impressive waterfalls.  From the air, the narrow gorge is difficult to find, especially compared to the the massive gorge in Letchworth State Park just to the west.

This is probably the largest waterfall we saw on our hike up the river bed.  Stone steps carved directly into the gorge wall allow access to the top of the falls and are visible curving along the right wall of the canyon.

I turned south toward northern Pennsylvania and Wellsboro-Johnston Airport for fuel.  This photo was taken on approach to the airport.

Fully loaded with inexpensive Pennsylvanian fuel, I stopped for some touch and go landings at the Genesee County Airport in Batavia, then turned back home to Le Roy.  This is downtown Le Roy, a picturesque little town with a river running through it.  Le Roy is famous for exactly two things.  Most notably, it is the birthplace of Jell-O.  Had to be invented somewhere, right? 

Secondly, Henry Ford received a speeding ticket in August of 1922 while traveling to Detroit on Route 5 (Main Street).  Evidently, Ford was so angry about the speeding ticket that he posted signs outside the village limits warning tourists that the town operated a speed trap.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Homeward Bound

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total 
Sep 2008
5G0 (Le Roy, NY) - PTK (Waterford, MI)
5.1 860.0
Sep 2008
N21481 PTK - 5G0 5.0 865.0

I've heard that you can't go home again,
And God, I hope that's wrong.
Or is it that I just don't recognize anywhere I'm from?
-- "Always Already", Empty Orchestra*
* Thank you for the amazing lyrics, Stephen.

At 4500 feet over southern Ontario, we flew west in vain pursuit of the sun.  Struggling against both a headwind and the rotation of the Earth, we were losing the race as the sun slipped ever closer to the horizon.  I pulled my hat lower to manage the glare and watched for air traffic.  In the back seat, Kristy was feeding The Bear (above, photo by Kristy).

We were en route to Pontiac, Michigan from our home in western New York.  While this would be our third trip into Oakland County International Airport, it would be our first real overnight visit to my hometown of Clarkston in several years.  Our original plan had been to arrive between 7:00 and 7:30 pm, but we had a late start.  This should not have come as a surprise, we have been consistently tardy for everything since The Bear was born.  With the flight half over, I estimated that we would not return to United States airspace until 7:30, roughly coincident with sunset.  From the border, an additional twenty minutes of flight time would be necessary to reach Pontiac.  I was glad that I was night current, having done a night flight just a week earlier with Kent and Pete.

Flying over Canada is extremely convenient and offers a direct route between western New York and southeast Michigan.  Controllers at Toronto Approach and Toronto Center are very helpful.  The problem with flying over this portion of Canada is that it is boring.  Once west of the Welland Canal, there is not much to look at on the ground and air traffic is rather light.  After ninety minutes of droning along without much to do, crossing the St Clair river into Michigan and switching over to the Detroit approach frequency can be rather jarring; the pacing of events picks up quite abruptly.

From over Mount Clemmens, I radioed Pontiac Air Center to warn them that we were running late and would arrive close to 8:00.  I hated to do this; it was Friday night and the FBO closed at 8:00.  But the woman who answered my call cheerfully responded that they would wait for us.
Despite the ground clutter and light pollution below, I spotted the beacon atop the control tower at Oakland County International from several miles out.  There was a moderate amount of traffic coming into Pontiac that evening.  We were first to land in front of a business jet and a light twin.  An aircraft approaching from the west wanted to land opposite direction on the same piece of pavement filling my windscreen.  The pilot of another aircraft north of the airport was confused about his location.  Pontiac tower vectored both of those arrivals well around the airport to enter the pattern behind the three of us already queued for landing.

On short final, as we descended toward the lights surrounding runway 27L, I realized that this was my first night landing at a large airport.  It was a greaser of a landing (what is it about having The Bear ride along that always makes my landings so good?) and we were soon stopped on the Pontiac Air Center ramp.  It was 8:00 pm.  We worked to unload the airplane quickly so that Doug and the others at PAC could go home.

By 8:30, we were in Clarkston with my Mom and eating dinner at a restaurant that did not exist when I last lived there seventeen years before.  Despite being up past her bed time, my fifteen month old daughter managed to grin at every person to walk past her high chair.

We had a terrific weekend and met with a lot of old friends, some from high school and others from college.  As we wandered around Clarkston, I was struck by how little it had changed in character, yet many things were sufficiently different that it no longer seemed like home.  We walked past the homes of childhood friends whose families had long since moved elsewhere.  My former high school, demoted to middle school with the completion of a new facility, was nonetheless larger than it was when I graduated.  Nearly half of the old junior high school was missing.  In my day, the building was a kluged-together hybrid of elegant 1932 two story architecture fused with a blandly utilitarian single story addition erected sometime in the 50's or 60's.  Now, the addition was completely gone, effectively stripping the facility of the former cafeteria, wood and metal shops, and other locations prominently featured in my memories of the place.  A parking lot now existed at the approximate location of the ninth grade Algebra classroom where my stunned classmates and I watched a broadcast of the Challenger erupting into a fireball against the clear blue Florida sky.

Maudlin nostalgia aside, it was a terrific trip.  And my mother was able to spend some much desired time with her granddaughter.  We had intended to return to New York on Sunday, a day forecast by the Rochester-area weather guessers as "beautiful after some light rain in the morning".  Unfortunately, a 500 foot ceiling hovered over Rochester all day long, a typical example of how weather in the Great Lakes can turn on anyone too trusting of forecasts.  By lunchtime, it was obvious that a VFR flight home that day would not be possible.  Options included staying an extra day in Clarkston (which meant time off of work for both Kristy and me) or renting a car, driving back, and returning for the airplane at a later date.  But neither one of us was thrilled about exchanging a 2.5 hour airplane ride for a six hour trip in a rental car with The Bear.  So we stayed the extra day.

Monday morning, the skies over Rochester were clear. Skies over Pontiac were not. The low overcast (fog, really) was expected to dissipate around 11:00 am.  When we arrived at Pontiac Air Center, the beacon still signaled IFR conditions.  Remarkably, right about 11:00 am, I felt the ramp heat with direct sunlight.  The ceiling did not last long after that and at 12:15, we were airborne.

We flew directly over Clarkston to take some photographs.  This photo was taken looking northwest along the Dixie Highway corridor.  Traffic on Dixie was shockingly light, but it was the middle of the day.  The road veering off toward the upper right of frame is M-15, Clarkston's Main Street.

In the foreground is Clarkston Middle School, formerly Clarkston Senior High School.  The facility is considerably larger than it was when I graduated.  The truncated, former Clarkston Junior High is in the upper right corner.

North of Clarkston, we turned due east for the remainder of the flight home.  Pictured above are remains of the cloud ceiling that delayed our departure until just after noon.  

The Bear fell asleep before we aver left the ground, but Kristy was wide awake and alert...

...for, at least, the first few minutes.  Here, Kristy and The Bear work on their synchronized sleeping routine.

The flight across Ontario (above), our eighth since the first time on Thanksgiving 2006, was no more exciting going east than it had been flying west.  With the onset of fall, however, the fields had all turned unique colors, endowing the province with the appearance of a quilt spread between Port Huron and Buffalo.

As if the strip farming below was not eye catching enough, the odd colors of these fields made photographing them a necessity.

Directly north of the Buffalo airport, at 5500 feet, the approach controller warned me of 727 traffic departing the airport at my three o' clock; directly under my right wing.  I lowered the wing and pressed the left rudder to maintain heading.  As the airplane began slipping sideways through the air, Kristy and The Bear awoke.  We saw the airliner depart Buffalo, climb at an angle that would have been impossible for my little Piper, then turn south away from us.

We landed on runway 10 at Le Roy under magnificent clear skies, validating our decision to defer the return flight a day.  It was good to be home.

Reflecting on the trip to Clarkston, I understood the truth of the cliché that "you can't go home again".  Certainly, Clarkston was still there and my Mom still lived in the same house.  But in the seventeen years since I moved away from home, I had matured (well...a little), experienced more, and generally viewed the world through a different lens than I did as a teenager.  Though the town had undergone change as well, I blame the changes within myself for rendering the place foreign.  It's true, you can't go home again because home is more than an "X" on a map.  Home is a subtle blend of place and time, nuanced by people, events, and emotions. Take away enough ingredients and even the most precise GPS will fail to pinpoint a location with the correct sense of place.

As Kristy, The Bear, and I drove away from the airport, I was content with the knowledge that my present home was better than any past home ever could be.

Monday, September 1, 2008

A Rare Bird and the Horseshoe

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
01 Sep 2008 N21481 5G0 (Le Roy, NY) - BQR (Lancaster, NY) -
JHW (Jamestown, NY) > 5G0
2.9 652.7

Labor Day.  The funny thing about Labor Day is that not many people are actually laboring.  While I realize that this is the point of the holiday, it definitely impacted my flying plans.  A high pressure system had settled over Upstate New York.  The skies were bright and clear, the surface winds were no higher than 5 knots anywhere in a flyable radius of Le Roy, and I had the day off from work.  I decided to do some exploring by flying to an unfamiliar airport, preferably one with food available.  The problem was that every airport restaurant I called was closed for the holiday.  Finally, I called the Jamestown Aviation Company at the Jamestown-Chautauqua County Airport.  While the Tailwinds Cafe was closed, the person I spoke to practically insisted that I fly in and take their courtesy car into town for food.  With that being the best offer I heard all morning, I accepted it.

During the take-off roll at Le Roy, I noticed a pair of wide-jawed vice grip pliers lying on the runway centerline.  I jabbed the right rudder pedal to veer around the FOD (foreign object debris).  Then I called Dan on Unicom to have him remove it in case the next pilot was less observant than I was.  No one is sure where the pliers came from yet, but everyone agrees that it would have been bad news for any aircraft that caught it with a whirling propeller.

My first stop was at Buffalo-Lancaster (BQR), where the fuel price was listed on AirNav as $5.22/gal (a veritable bargain these days).  It was my first visit to Lancaster, making it my 82nd airport.  Lancaster resides under the outer class Charlie shelf of Buffalo Niagara International's (BUF) airspace.  While descending to slip under the Charlie airspace, I saw a landmark that had eluded me for nearly three years of flying in western New York: Darien Lake Theme Park.

Flying low over the Darien Lake Theme Park.  That ferris wheel really caught the morning light (click on the photo to see the larger size version).

Roller coasters at Darien Lake: pretty, swooping, vomit-inducing architecture.
When I arrived at Lancaster, I found that the fuel was actually $4.99/gal - probably the only time I have ever been bait and switched in a way that worked out in my favor (actually, AirNav shows that the price was updated on the same day as my visit, but it must have happened after I finished flight planning).  Unfortunately, there was a King Air in front of the pump when I arrived.  After waiting a long time for them to finish fueling the beast, I wandered over to check on their progress.

"What's your fuel capacity?" I asked.

"Over 300 gallons," said the pilot with a grin.  "But we're only taking on 270 today.  Otherwise, this would take forever!"  He invited me to pull the Warrior in front of his Jet A devouring  behemoth.  "Don't wait for us," he admonished.  Good thing - I was hungry!   His ground crew helped me push my airplane into a convenient position to reach the 100LL pump.

Once fueled, I made the short flight southwest to Jamestown.  One unique aspect of the Jamestown airport is a tunnel that allows a nearby road to pass under the final approach path to runway 7.  It's like a western New York version of Van Nuys (with only about 7% of the daily traffic that Van Nuys gets if the numbers posted on AirNav are a reliable indicator).

After I landed, a rare bird took the runway and launched: a 1931 Sikorsky S-39 flying boat.  I recognized it because I had inspected one up close in Kalamazoo during the 2003 National Air Tour.  What I did not appreciate until later that evening was that there is only one flying S-39 left in the world.  Thus, this had to be the same aircraft I had seen in Kalamazoo five years earlier (whoa, taking "Intro to Logic" in college really paid off here, didn't it?).  Perhaps I should have known; how many people would deliberately paint an airplane in a giraffe motif? The paint scheme, of course, is a tribute to the "Spirit of Africa" - an S-39 flown by African naturalists Martin and Osa Johnson back in the 1930's. 

The restored Sikorsky S-39 "Spirit of Igor" as I photographed it in September 2003 during the Kalamazoo stop of the National Air Tour.  The little tyke standing next to it is the son of one of my former Air Zoo colleagues.

A Jamestown lineman directed me to parking and chocked the wheels once I brought the engine to a stop.  As soon as I had my headset off, he welcomed me to Jamestown and asked if I was the one who had reserved the courtesy car.  I responded that I was and he pointed to a white Chrysler minivan parked just outside the airport fence.  He noted that it was already running with the air conditioning cranked to cool it off.

Another Jamestown Aviation employee provided a recommendation for La Herradura (spanish for "the horseshoe"), a local Mexican restaurant just outside of town.  Minutes later, I drove the minivan through the tunnel at the southwest corner of the airport on the final leg of my quest for lunch.

The food and service at La Herradura were fantastic.  The food quality reminded me of Los Amigos, another family owned and much beloved Mexican restaurant in the Kalamazoo area that my palate missed dearly since moving to New York.  Once I was happily stuffed, the minivan hauled me and my bloated stomach back to the airport.  When I returned the minivan keys, I offered the lineman some cash for the gasoline fund.  He refused to take it.

"It's just a nice day to get out and fly.  Enjoy it and come back and visit us some other time."  I seem to have had the good fortune this year to visit some terrific FBOs at some wonderful airports.

I returned to Le Roy in calm air at 5500'.  The winds were slightly favoring runway 10 which meant that I had a rare view of my Warrior's shadow while on final approach.

On the ground at Le Roy, Matt was working on his Lancair while Dan tried to help him overcome an apparent phobia of torque wrenches.  Matt recently finished building and flew his Lancair after thirteen years of work.  Evidence of recent flights (i.e., bugs) were splattered across the leading edges of the Lancair's tiny wings.

"Your wings look like crap," I observed.  Matt grinned and cheerfully responded that I was not the first to tell him so that day.  There was nothing anyone could say that would dampen Matt's enthusiasm over the completion of a thirteen year odyssey.  To Matt, those bugs were a badge of honor; a sign that the Lancair was routinely flying after years of sitting unblemished in a hangar.

As I wiped the splattered bugs from my Warrior's wings, I took the above photo of the instrument panel.  The fancy new glass cockpits in newer aircraft may have more "wow factor" than a six-pack of steam gauges, but as I admired my instrument panel from an oblique angle, it seemed to me that it had more character (especially with the master switch off).

Monday, August 18, 2008

Skyscrapers in the Mist

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
18 Aug 2008 N21481 SMQ (Somerville, NJ) - Hudson River VFR Corridor - SMQ 1.1 646.8

June 2004, New York, NY:  I stood on the deck of the Intrepid moored in the Hudson River.  Above the World War II aircraft carrier, a steady stream of fixed and rotary wing aircraft passed back and forth along the river at relatively low altitude.  This was my first exposure to the Hudson River VFR Corridor; a virtual tunnel bored directly through the complex superposition of Class Bravo (i.e. really busy) airspaces surrounding Newark, La Guardia, and JFK.  The corridor provides free passage to aircraft transiting the busy New York City terminal area without forcing them to contact air traffic control.  After all, those controllers are busy juggling heavies queued up for the limited runway real estate available in the New York City area.  As I watched the light aircraft flying along the river, I envied them their magnificent view of the city and hoped that someday I might have an opportunity to fly the corridor.

August 17, 2008:   Kristy, the Bear and I took wing to visit our friends Brent and Jackie in New Jersey.  Warrior 481 spent the night at Somerset Airport (SMQ), a bustling general aviation airport west of Newark that became the 80th airport I landed at as pilot in command.  Being so close to New York City, it struck me as an excellent home base for an excursion down the Hudson River Corridor.

There is a lot of information available concerning the corridor and I won't bother trying to repeat it here.  The basic rules are simple.  Aircraft self-announce their positions on the designated frequency as though flying into a non-towered airport.  While the ceiling of the corridor is an imaginary deck at 1100 feet, the floor and walls are defined by the river itself.

This is what the corridor looks like on the New York Terminal Area Chart.  Within the morass of overlapping airspace, the corridor is visible as regions with a floor of 1100 feet that VFR pilots must remain below unless specifically cleared into the Class Bravo space overhead.  The red trace represents my actual flight path through the corridor as logged by my GPS and superimposed using Google Earth.

I wanted to make the trip in the early evening, when the setting sun would provide ideal lighting of the skyline for photographs.  But the Yankees had a game scheduled that afternoon, thus creating a temporary flight restriction on the northern end of the corridor.  And who wants to mess around with one of those?

This is how I found myself departing Somerset airport on Monday morning at 9:00.  Being the only one in my family who can swim, I made an executive decision to fly alone.  My route took me southeast below Newark's Bravo airspace, across Raritan Bay, and over the Verrazano Narrows Bridge that links Staten Island to Brooklyn.  Once in the corridor, I continued north past Manhattan to the Tappan Zee Bridge before returning to Somerset.  I took a few pictures along the way, but was rather busy keeping track  of my position and altitude lest I wander into Bravo airspace without permission or, worse, into another aircraft; Manhattan is surrounded by a nimbus of helicopters that circle the city like gnats.

Over Raritan Bay, approaching the Hudson River Corridor via the Verrazano Narrows Bridge.  Manhattan is visible in the distance with only the tallest buildings poking up above the haze.  The ceiling of the Hudson River Corridor is 1100' above sea level and I maintained 900' for the entire trip.

The Hudson River Corridor operates much like a road - opposite traffic keeps to the right.  My northbound track meant that I was on the wrong side of the corridor to get close to the Statue of Liberty.  But it was amazing to see her highlighted by the rising sun.

Ellis Island, just north of the Statue of Liberty. 

Lower Manhattan.  The lighting made me wish that I had been able to make this flight in the evening, but it was nevertheless an awesome sight.

From street level, it seems as though the concrete and steel canyons of New York City must go on forever.  Strangely enough, from 900' over the Hudson River, I was overcome by the same impression.  This is a huge city.

The Goldman Sachs Tower in Jersey City on the west side of the Hudson River.

Beyond Lower Manhattan, the buildings dwindle in stature somewhat until Midtown, which is dominated by the Empire State Building.

Midtown Manhattan, silhouetted in the morning haze.

A new building reaches for the heavens.

Abeam the Empire State Building.  No giant apes in sight today.

Before I knew it, I had reached the George Washington Bridge.  The mightiest of New York City's skyscrapers were behind me.

The Tappan Zee Bridge marked the end of my northward trek along the Hudson.  Beyond the bridge, I climbed to 2500' and turned west toward Somerset.  When I returned to Brent and Jackie's house, Kristy met me at the door to ask how it went.  "Amazing" was the only thing I could think of to say.  And like flying through the Rocky Mountains, the photographs are interesting enough, but cannot convey a real sense of the experience.

This image was generated by exporting data from my Airmap 500 GPS into Google Earth.  The blue trace shows my actual ground track through the southern portion of the Hudson River Corridor.  Isn't technology great?  In this case, the GPS was more of a spectator than anything else.  I relied on the river and my altimeter to keep myself out of trouble.