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).