Sunday, July 5, 2009

Flight of the Fudgies

Fudgies (noun, pl): Slang term for summer tourists to Mackinac Island, Michigan. Usage varies from the affectionate to the derogatory.
"A Big Black and White Come and Crushed My Groove Again"

DateAircraftRoute of FlightTime (hrs)Total (hrs)
05 Jul 2009N214815G0 (LeRoy, NY) - D98 (Romeo, MI) -
3BS (Midland, MI) - MCD (Mackinac Island, MI)

Romeo State Airport was quiet as Warrior 481 rolled to a stop on runway 36. Absent radio chatter or any other movement on the airport surface, Kristy and I taxied to the ramp for parking. I methodically shut down the avionics and brought the engine to a stop. Tidying the cockpit, I caught a flash of movement in my peripheral vision; a police cruiser purposefully heading directly for our parked airplane.

The cruiser stopped in front of Warrior 481 where it would block any forward movement and an imposing, uniformed figure stepped out. I opened the vent window and asked, "Is there a problem, officer?". Having my airplane "pulled over" by the police seemed an auspicious way to start a summer vacation.

Anniversaries Abound

Before describing what happened next, some context is appropriate. 2009 marked the achievement of two milestones: ten years of marriage to Kristy and twenty years since graduating from high school.

When Kristy and I married, I was still a graduate student. This meant that we lacked two critical prerequisites for a proper honeymoon: time and money. To compensate, we decided to take a trip for our tenth anniversary. We discussed going somewhere "exotic"; someplace requiring passports and driving on the wrong side of the road.

Enter The Bear, now two years old. We did not want to take a prolonged vacation away from her. Our grand plan morphed into a short excursion and we decided on Mackinac Island as the destination. The last time I set foot on Mackinac Island was thirty years earlier.

As for the high school reunion, timing was poor and I decided not to go. But I had reconnected with a few friends whom I lost track of over the last 20 years. So the trip morphed again to add visits with old friends along the way.

With The Bear at home under the watchful eye of Granny and Granddaddy, Kristy and I climbed into clear blue skies over Rochester, NY. This was Kristy's first time in the front seat of Warrior 481 in over two years. Her official flying title was "Changer of Squawk Codes and Decipherer of Air Traffic Control." We turned toward southeast Michigan, activated our VFR flight plan for passage over Canada, and contacted Buffalo for flight following. We soared over the always-spectacular Niagara Falls, crossing at 4500' in smooth, clear air.

Rainbow Bridge over the Niagara River

Aside from dodging some building cumulus clouds, flying over Canada was entirely uneventful. The Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Mount Clemens, Michigan had difficulty tracking us on radar, but was helpful in giving advisories about the parachute jumping activity near our first stop in Romeo, MI.


In high school, Jeff was one of my closest friends. We remained in contact through college, but gradually drifted apart when he got married and started a family while I left the state for graduate school. As he stood in front of my airplane in his uniform, sergeant's stripes on his shoulder, it was our first time seeing each other in 15 years.

"Is there a problem, officer?" I challenged. He laughed. A van rolled to a stop behind him; his wife, Kathy. We rode back to Jeff's house for lunch and were later joined by our friend Mike and his family.

"How long can you take for lunch?" I asked Jeff. He responded that the other sergeant on duty could manage most calls while he had lunch, though if something like a domestic disturbance occurred, he might have to leave. He managed to finish half of his first piece of pizza before the dispatcher's voice crackled from the radio to announce a domestic disturbance. Jeff finished his pizza, responded on the radio, and excused himself.

"Next time, we'll spend more time together," he promised. "And, we won't wait 15 years."
We visited longer with Mike, Kathy, and Mike's family before Kathy returned us to the airport for the next leg of our journey.

We departed Romeo State Airport in a direct crosswind, climbing above pattern altitude before turning back over the airport on course. A Cherokee was landing on runway 36 and I reached out with my camera's zoom lens to capture him prior to the landing flare.

"Bay City, Saginaw, Midland, Flint"

Our next goal was a fuel stop at Jack Barstow Airport in Midland, MI. We negotiated the airspace south of Saginaw Bay with help from Flint and Saginaw approach controllers. Considering this geography, I could not help but hear the old tagline from FM 102.5, WIOG, run through my head: "Bay City, Saginaw, Midland, Fliiiiinnnttt!". On approach into Barstow, we passed directly over Dow Chemical, a massive monument to chemical enterprise that somewhat resembled the Upjohn plant in Kalamazoo except that it was much, much larger.

Barstow was a nice airport with a beautiful new terminal building. Harkening back to our trip to Fort Myers, the FBO received high marks from Kristy for having hand lotion (among many other niceties) available in the women's restroom. We bought some current charts for the journey ahead, did some additional flight planning, and topped Warrior 481's fuel tanks with relatively inexpensive fuel.

Voices from the Past

Departing Barstow, we attempted to find smooth air by climbing above cumulus clouds floating over the hot landscape. As a result, we found ourselves over 9000' and still monitoring Barstow's 122.8 MHz frequency. As any aviator knows, 122.8 is the aviation world's garbage frequency and is used by many non-towered airports, including every one that I have ever called home (Three Rivers, MI; South Haven, MI; Le Roy, NY).

N2515U at South Haven, MI on July 2, 2005

As we flew nearly two miles above Michigan, we overheard this herald from a past life:

"Allegan traffic, Warrior 2515 Uniform, left downwind, two eight, Allegan." I smiled. I had logged exactly 1.1 hours in Warrior One Five Uniform as a stepping stone in a journey culminating (so far) in this very vacation.

Ron in Cherokee N95192 on September 17, 2003

The next call was even more amusing. "South Haven traffic, Cherokee one niner two, left downwind three two, South Haven." A familiar voice and tail number from my former home base. Though I disdain chatting on frequency, I couldn't resist keying the mic.

"Cherokee 192, Warrior 481, make it a good one!"

Ron was startled. "Chris? That you?"

*click* "Affirmative." *click*

"Where are you?"

"About 9000 feet over Houghton Lake en route to Mackinac," I responded. It was a chance meeting between friends 120 nautical miles (138 ordinary miles) apart.

Home of "Gitchie Manitou"

We never successfully cleared the building cumulus clouds, but as we approached the Straits of Mackinac where Michigan's upper and lower peninsulas are at their closest, the sky cleared. Ahead, we could see our densely wooded destination resting in the waters of Lake Huron like an emerald jewel.

We joined the traffic pattern for runway 26, heeding local noise restrictions to remain beyond the lateral boundary of the island. The automated weather observation system noted that the winds were variable from 280° to 330° and gusting between 12 and 18 knots.

The above photo looks south along the eastern bluffs of Mackinac Island while on long final approach for runway 26. Round Island appears nearby and the mainland of Michigan's lower peninsula is in the distance. A close look at this photo reveals Arch Rock, one of the island's more distinctive geological features.

Considering the gusty conditions, landfall was surprisingly gentle. We taxied amongst the other aircraft parked on the ramp until we found an available tie-down. Expecting rain the next day, we fit Warrior 481 with a cabin cover and cowl plugs.

While crouched beneath the left wing tying the airplane down, I suddenly saw stars and pain exploded in my head. After 5+ years of Warrior ownership, I had finally hit my head on the pitot blade for the first time. I inspected the pitot head carefully and satisfied myself that it was undamaged before investigating my own injury. Touching my head gingerly, I found that I was bleeding and that a significant bump had risen virtually instantaneously.

Still a little dazed from the blow to the head, I made my way to the Mackinac Island Airport terminal, which was closed and locked for the evening. As I contemplated the combination lock on the door, I entered the passcode from South Haven and smiled as the door unlocked. One thing about flying in Michigan: there's a consistency across airports that seems lacking in other states.

For the uninitiated, Mackinac Island (pronounced MAK-in-naw) is free of motor vehicles. When they were first introduced in the early 20th century, "horseless carriages" spooked island horses and residents were quick to legislate a ban on the noisy contraptions. Today, in the 21st century, that ban is still in effect. What started as resistance to progress has evolved into a uniquely quaint island lifestyle. With horses still being a significant mode of transportation, however, visitors need to watch where they step when crossing the street. Fortunately, the large population of bicycles on the island is less messy.

A taxi arrived to take us into town, a surrey (with a fringe on top, no less!) drawn by two horses. Charmed as I was by the notion of stepping from an airplane into a horse drawn taxi, my head was pounding and I was ready for some modern day Motrin by the time we reached our hotel.

Our hotel

To a syncopated clopping resembling the sound of someone banging two halves of a coconut together, the pair of horses pulled our taxi out of the island's interior, past the iconic Grand Hotel, and into town. Our destination was the Main Street Inn and Suites.

Though the point of the trip was not to have a nice room, the room was very nice. Spacious and elegantly decorated, the room exuded warmth and comfort. Our balcony overlooking Main Street afforded a tremendous view of the harbor and town.

Looking west from our hotel room balcony.

The next morning, we rented a tandem bicycle. Although riding the tandem bike was reasonably easy, mounting and getting started was not. Our initial departure was a very wobbly near-disaster, but with sufficient forward momentum, we grew comfortable on the bike. Our goal was to ride the perimeter of the island, a mere eight miles.

Along the way, we made several stops for side excursions. The first started with a climb up the face of the island's eastern bluff. At the top, we were able to see Arch Rock, one of the more distinctive island landmarks.

During the second to last mile, the rain began and we picked up the pace of our cycling. After successfully circumnavigating the island on the tandem bicycle, we returned to the congested Main Street where pedestrians, other cyclists, horses, and the inevitable byproducts of those horses added extra challenges to maneuvering the tandem bike.

Lunch was at Sinclair's Irish Pub, where I devoured a delicious example of fish and chips made from Great Lakes whitefish. The pub was named for Patrick Sinclair, the British Commandant of Fort Michilimackinac located on the south side of the Straits. Sinclair decided that, with the American Revolution in progress, the fort should be relocated to the more defensible Mackinac Island.

After lunch, we climbed up the long, steep rampart leading to the entrance of Fort Mackinac. Sinclair chose an excellent site for the fort, perched atop a bluff overlooking Mackinac Island's harbor. We spent hours exploring the fort, site of the first land battle in the War of 1812 (we lost). The fort was remarkably well preserved / restored and the existing grounds matched ancient photographs of the fort taken during its time of active duty.

Fort Mackinac

Dinner that night was at the Yankee Rebel Tavern, recommended by Emily, a former student of Kristy's working on the island for the summer. As we dined with Emily, the heavens sent a deluge of rainwater to soak the island. I worried briefly about Warrior 481 sitting outside at the airport, but did not act on my concerns. After all, the airport was a two mile walk from town. The airplane had to wait.

The next day, July 7, dawned dark and gloomy, but dry. After breakfast, we set off on foot to explore the island's interior. It was immediately obvious to us that the majority of the island's visitors stay close to town or the island perimeter. We had most of the trails to ourselves.

Sugarloaf Rock viewed from an overlook near Fort Holmes.

We visited Fort Holmes, an earthen fortification set atop the island's highest point that was built to protect the vulnerable back side of Fort Mackinac (see prior comment about Americans losing the first land battle in the War of 1812). From there, we visited Skull Cave, Sugarloaf Rock, the Crack in the Island, the Cave in the Woods, and various other interior destinations. And, of course, we enjoyed our time simply being alone together.

The Crack in the Island. It does not appear to go all the way through, which is probably a good thing.

After so much time alone in the island's interior, it was jarring to return to the densely populated tourist area of town. After a late lunch, we decided that we had done everything we wanted to do on the island. It was time to take wing for St Ignace in the Upper Peninsula for our final night in northern Michigan.

The Cave in the Woods.

The Patron Saint of Volcanic Rock?

DateAircraftRoute of FlightTime (hrs)Total (hrs)
07 Jul 2009N21481MCD (Mackinac Island, MI) - 83D (St Ignace, MI)0.3733.9

Our taxi ride back to the airport was mostly uphill and the driver gave her team of horses two rest periods. As a result, the trek lasted nearly thirty minutes.

Sectional chart depicting Mackinac Island and St Ignace

I was relieved to find the interior of the Warrior to be dry and the fuel uncontaminated with rainwater. We loaded the airplane, paid our landing/parking fees, and launched into gusty winds with a 2100' scattered layer of clouds above. The flight to St Ignace was a short one, just five miles, and I suspect that the recorded tachometer time of 0.3 hours probably reflects more time spent taxiing than flying.

My family vacationed in the Mackinac area when I was still quite young. First hearing "St Ignace" at that age, almost immediately after learning about volcanoes in school, I misheard the name as "St Igneous". Evidently, the Patron Saint of Volcanic Rock is one of the lesser known saints, like Spinal Tap's Patron Saint of Quality Footwear.

We refueled in St Ignace, then covered and tied down the airplane. It was only five-o-clock in the afternoon, but we were wearied from a day spent hiking around the island. The St Ignace FBO provided us with a courtesy car for the night and we drove it directly to the Best Western Harbour Pointe Lakefront hotel. We ignored the pool and the 9:00 bonfire, opting instead for dinner and a dumb movie on HBO. It was all quite relaxing.

A Partially Unplanned Aerial Tour of Western Michigan

DateAircraftRoute of FlightTime (hrs)Total (hrs)
08 Jul 2009N2148183D (St Ignace, MI) - LDM (Ludington, MI) - MKG (Muskegon, MI) -
08C (Jenison, MI) - HAI (Three Rivers, MI) - AZO (Kalamazoo, MI)

After breakfast on July 8, we returned to the St Ignace airport and prepared for the flight home. We found the airplane beaded with dew, but ready to go. The flight would not be direct. After some aerial sightseeing along the west coast of Michigan, we planned to stop in Ludington for lunch, and visit a couple of other old friends before returning to New York.

Though the sky over the Straits of Mackinac was crystal clear, Traverse City and Charlevoix were blanketed with low clouds. I received a "VFR not recommended" admonition from the weather briefer based on those inland reports, but we launched anyway. Past experience indicated that the shoreline would be clear of clouds and, happily, it was.

Before proceeding south along the shoreline, we circled the Straits of Mackinac to capture some aerial photographs. I have been fascinated by the Mackinac Bridge since I was a child. The bridge spans the five miles between the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan. At age six, I participated in the annual Labor Day bridge walk, walking the entire five miles of bridge. The suspension portion is considered the longest suspension bridge between anchorages (the two large concrete blocks at the edges of the above photo) in the western hemisphere. It is an impressive sight.

After the bridge, we flew around Mackinac Island, once again careful to keep our noise footprint offshore. The Grand Hotel on the island's southwest side stood out as a prominent landmark.

Circling the island, the airport came into sight. Situated within the island's interior, it is well-hidden from typical visitors who rarely stray from the island's perimeter.

After circling the Straits, we ventured south along the western shore of Lake Michigan. True to the weather briefer's comments, the inland areas were covered with low clouds, but the lakeshore itself was clear.

Lake Charlevoix

We wound lazily along the shoreline, following every contour. We flew over the distinctive Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes, noting the steep incline of the massive dune as it climbed away from Like Michigan. We circled lighthouses at Point Betsie and Frankfort.

Lighthouse at Point Betsie, Michigan.

Eventually, we found our way to Ludington, a favorite flying destination during our past life in Kalamazoo. My landing there was probably the best of the trip. We walked across the street from the airport and had a late breakfast / early lunch at the local Big Boy. My omelet really hit the spot. Kristy, of course, went for the strawberry pancakes. Breakfast was very true to form for us both.

North pier lighthouse at Frankfort, MI.

The north pier lighthouse at Ludington, MI. Nearly four years ago, Kristy and I spent part of an afternoon leaning against this lighthouse and pondering our collective future.


Our next stop was Muskegon, MI - the site of one of my less-than-stellar flight training experiences. Our objective was to meet with my friend Ross. Though I came to regard him as a kindred spirit during my senior year of high school, we completely lost contact for twenty years.

We landed at Muskegon and parked at the Executive Air FBO. Ross met us at the airport and brought us back to his nearby home to meet his wife Lisa and three kids. It was terrific to see Ross again and learn that he was doing well. We talked with a comfort level that belied twenty years apart.

Last Stop...?

After parting company with Ross, we made the brief hop from Muskegon to Jenison Riverview Airport. For this leg of the trip, it took us longer to taxi for takeoff than it did to actually make the flight.

Waiting for us in Jenison was my friend Kristen, whom I have been friends with since junior high school. After many years of hearing about them, I finally got to meet her husband Bryan and their two daughters. They were quite insistent on taking us to dinner and asked if we liked Thai food. Being huge fans of Thai food, Kristy and I were immediately on board with their plan.

The restaurant was named "Bangkok Taste" and, upon entering, we were struck by how similar the decor was to our favorite in Kalamazoo, "Bangkok Flavor". I asked our waitress if this restaurant was affiliated with the one in Kalamazoo.

"That's my aunt's restaurant," the girl responded somewhat shyly. The panang curry with chicken I had for dinner was clearly prepared from a different recipe than used by the aunt's restaurant in Kalamazoo, but it was nonetheless good.

Reflecting back on the visits with my old friends, I was amazed at how comfortably conversation flowed after so many years apart. Though all the visits were brief, the original spark of friendship was alive and well. I was left with a warm feeling in knowing that these people with whom I had been so close years ago were all still out there and doing well in their lives. The three brief visits were more enjoyable than I anticipated a full-out class reunion would have been.

Downtown Grand Rapids, MI

As Kristen drove us back to the Jenison airport, Kristy and I were thinking of The Bear and how much we missed seeing her. We were very ready to be back home. Returning to the airport, however, our plans to get home that evening began to disintegrate.

Returning "Home"

The plan was simple: dinner with Kristen and Bryan, top off the Warrior's fuel tanks with inexpensive fuel from Jenison, then fly directly home across Canada. But time, weather, and circumstance were against us and I was slow to realize it.

First off, we were running much later than planned. When we returned to the airport after dinner, we discovered that it was closed. We also discovered that the fuel pump was not self-serve. Another fuel stop would be necessary. We decided to launch from Jenison, fly to Owosso (just outside of Flint), refuel, file the flight plan, and fly home. Before launching, I let myself into the terminal (same code as Mackinac Island and South Haven) and checked the weather. Though weather radar showed spotty rainfall in western New York, Buffalo and Rochester were reporting VFR conditions with scattered layers at multiple altitudes.

We launched from Jenison and contacted Grand Rapids approach for flight following to Owosso. As we climbed, I began to run scenarios through my head. Sunset would probably occur while we were still over Ontario. Twilight would linger long enough for comfortable completion of the trip. Except...

...I suddenly remembered that I was not night current...

...and that VFR operations at night require a special rating in Canada.

To the east, I could see scattered cloud layers that would become invisible after dark; a potential hazard for the entire flight home.

Hmmm. Links in the proverbial accident chain? 

I decided that, at a minimum, flying over Canada that evening was a bad idea.

I looked at Kristy and shook my head. We both wanted to see The Bear, but the simple reality was that our window of opportunity was closing. We agreed that staying the night in Kalamazoo was the best thing to do.

A few minutes later, we were on final approach to runway 35 at Kalamazoo (above, photo by Kristy), another homecoming of sorts. We landed gently and turned onto Bravo 3, the taxiway leading to the Air Zoo.

We parked on the Duncan Aviation ramp at 8:30 that evening. Because we were only staying for the night, the line guys were content to park us directly in front of the lobby doors rather than banishing us to the tie-down area. The smiling young woman sitting behind the counter has been there every time we've walked into the lobby over the last four years. She grinned and said, "I recognize you." We suspect she remembers us because The Bear was with us the last three times we visited. There are probably not a lot of infants traipsing through the Duncan Aviation lobby.

The Obscene Radio Call

DateAircraftRoute of FlightTime (hrs)Total (hrs)
09 Jul 2009N21481AZO (Kalamazoo, MI) ) - 5g0 (Le Roy, NY)3.7741.7

We awoke the next morning refreshed, with clear sunny skies over our entire route home. We departed Kalamazoo, climbed to 5500 feet, and pointed the nose almost due east to Le Roy.

Flying in our former home territory, we observed I-69 to slide under the nose. "Kalamazoo will probably hand us off to Lansing soon," I noted to Kristy. Kristy chuckled when we received our hand-off a few seconds later. The trick to being comfortable with air traffic control often lies in knowing what to expect.

Lansing passed us to Detroit approach and I received my first ever clearance into Class Bravo airspace. At this point, I realized that we had talked with every radar-equipped airport in the Lower Peninsula on this trip: Selfridge, Flint, Saginaw, Muskegon, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Lansing, and Detroit.

The outlet of the St Clair River into Lake St Clair.

Finally, we were in communication with Selfridge approach for the border crossing. Right after making initial contact, another transmitter broke the squelch on frequency, but nobody said anything. The silence persisted for an extended period of time.

"Sounds like someone's got a stuck mic," I said to Kristy. She nodded, understanding that this could render us deaf to any directives from air traffic control.

"And it sounds like they have asthma," she noted. Indeed, the only sound being transmitted was audible breathing that gradually became louder and more urgent sounding as the minutes passed.

As the breathing built to a crescendo of sorts, I turned to Kristy, " someone joining the Mile High Club?" She laughed and commented that the same thought had occurred to her. By now, several minutes had passed and we were in Canadian airspace. Finally, after the breathing became progressively louder and faster, the frequency was released and we were able to transmit again.


"Selfridge approach, how do you read Warrior 481?"

"Loud and clear," came the response, "why?"

"The frequency has been tied up for the last several minutes with some heavy breathing and I wanted to make sure we didn't miss a call from you."

Though I expected my comment to confuse the controller, instead, his voice immediately hardened. "Are you hearing that on 119.6?"

Had this happened before?


"Ok," the response dripped with ire. "Warrior 481, thanks for reporting that. Contact Cleveland Center on 132.25 and have a good day."

The remainder of the flight was uneventful - no more heavy breathing, no traffic to speak of, and not much to look at on the ground in Ontario. Back in United States airspace, we crossed directly over downtown Buffalo and descended toward Le Roy. True to form, after making several decent landings at unfamiliar airports, I plunked the Warrior down gracelessly at home. 


In the end, we had a wonderful trip that served as a rejuvenating escape from the responsibilities of the real world. Time alone together is precious and we both marveled at how well the airplane made such a trip possible. With that recognition, we both realized how much we missed The Bear. We quickly packed the car and hurried home for a reunion with our two year old daughter.

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