Sunday, March 20, 2011

(Comparatively) Speedy Return

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
20 Mar 2011 N21481 PTK (Waterford, MI) - 5G0 (Le Roy, NY) 2.5  912.7

When Dan and I flew to Pontiac on March 18, we worked against a 30+ knot headwind that lengthened our trip to three hours of actual flight time. By Sunday, March 20, the winds had relented and Warrior 481 bore us back to Le Roy after two hours and five minutes in the air (the 2.5 reported above is Hobbs time, with the extra representing the time spent on ground operations at Pontiac and, to a significantly lesser extent, Le Roy).

As the brown landscape of rural Ontario rolled past, I commented to Dan that I don't take many aerial photos during March or early April. Who wants to see pictures of brown, desolate landscapes?  As a case in point, the St Clair River above is a swath of color separating Michigan (lower frame) from Ontario, Canada. As we reached Niagara Falls, I was forced to make an exception - the falls are always spectacular.

I never get tired of this view.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Symphony in Jackson

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
19 Mar 2011 N21481 PTK (Waterford, MI) - JXN (Jackson, MI) - PTK 1.5 910.2

A flurry of traffic swirled around the Jackson County Airport. At the center of the chaos stood the control tower, its sole occupant orchestrating the arrivals and departures of all aircraft. A virtuoso conductor, standing atop a glass-enclosed podium, directed an orchestra of aircraft arrayed on an aerial stage several miles across.

The frequency crackled with crisp directives beaming forth. Call-response, call-response.

Of course, the harmony developed by this maestro was not audible on the half-duplex frequency; all participants, by definition, were soloists. Harmony existed in the weaving of disparate flight paths safely to and from the airport.

So it was when Greg and I first tuned the Jackson tower frequency from 20 miles away; brisk call-response, give and take, between aviators and controller.

"Jackson tower, Piper 123, 13 miles east, landing, kilo."

"Piper 123, report over downtown Jackson, right base runway 32."

And then, a change in tempo. A new soloist, uncertain, tremulous voice reaching out across the airwaves. "Ummm...Jackson tower...Cessna 123, six miles...ummm...can I get vectors to the airport?"

The controller immediately slowed his rapid speech. "Cessna 123, Jackson tower, where are you?"

" GPS says six miles away."

"Cessna 123, can you see I-94? Are you north or south of it?" The controller's voice floated gently with patient warmth.

"Ummm...yes...I'm north," responded the anxious pilot.

The controller matter-of-factly resumed his brisk tempo for a moment to work two other airplanes. Then he slowed again. "Cessna 123, I think I see you. I want you to cross I-94 and turn west."

Once Cessna 123 acknowledged, the Piper pilot chimed in, "Piper 123 has the Cessna off our right wing."

"Cessna 123, do you see the Piper ahead of you?" queried the controller.


"Ok, Cessna 123, I want you to follow him to the airport."

"Ok, thank you," stammered the pilot of Cessna 123. "Sorry...sorry...I'm so sorry..."

His voice ringing with paternal kindness, the controller responded. "No problem. On my first solo cross country, they had to divert airplanes in Bravo airspace because of me."

Then, a return to brisk communication to manage the business at hand.

"Piper 123, clear to land 32."

"Clear to land 32, Piper 123."

"He's good," I commented to Greg about the controller. With the drama winding down, it seemed safe to join the symphony without disrupting the exchange between Jackson and Cessna 123. "Warrior 21481, 10 east, landing, kilo."

"Warrior 481, report over downtown Jackson, enter right base runway 32."

"Right base 32, report over Jackson, Warrior 481."

Greg and I entered Jackson's Delta airspace as multiple aircraft took off and landed on runways 32 and 6 under the benevolent eye of the controller. The nervous pilot of Cessna 123 landed, taxied to the end of the runway, and launched again. I can only assume that he was a solo student on a cross country flight. And, like the controller, I recalled my own foibles with air traffic control when I reached that particular milestone ("Mishaps at Muskegon").

In the landing flare, we overheard the controller talking to a jet that just departed runway 6 prior to our touchdown on 32. "Want to do a low pass on 6? I haven't seen one of those Czech birds in a long time."

Once the other pilot accepted, we were given a clearance to taxi toward the ramp, but to hold short of runway 6. I repeated the clearance and, moments later, we rolled to a stop at the hold line.

To our right, a blue and white L39 Albatros, a Czech-built military trainer, rolled onto a high final approach. He streaked over the runway directly in front of us, smoke on, then pulled into a steep vertical climb at the airport boundary.

Moments later, as though nothing had happened, the controller was back on frequency with a nonchalant, "Warrior 481, cross runway 6-24 and taxi to the ramp."  We arrived at the ramp, found a spot to park, and shut down, thus ending our part in the masterful symphony conducted by the tower controller.

Landing on Jackson's Runway 6 with Dave in the Decathlon, April 13, 2003

When I still lived in Michigan, Jackson was my favorite $100 hamburger destination.  My last visit there was September 11, 2004.  I tried to visit in 2005, but turned away from Jackson when radio broadcasts from the tower made it clear that breakfast would be a long wait. As a result, I was excited to return to Jackson with one of my oldest and dearest friends riding right seat in Warrior 481.

Climbing out of the Warrior, we were met on the ramp by the elderly owner of a silver Ercoupe parked next to us. He looked Warrior 481 over with a keen eye.

"Is that your Cherokee?" At my affirmative response, he nodded. "Good airplanes. Owned a lot of Cherokees over the years. That's a nice looking one. I'm based out of Monroe, where are you out of?"

"Rochester, New York," I answered. His face registered mild surprise.

"Did you say, 'New York'?".

"Yup, but for this weekend, Pontiac." He nodded sagely. He was momentarily distracted by two others lingering near the Ercoupe's wingtip. In his best 'Hey, you kids!' voice, he bellowed at them, "Don't touch that airplane!" Greg and I exchanged looks; it was our turn to register surprise.

"Oh, it's OK, they're friends of mine," the old timer explained mildly. The other two approached, easily a decade younger than the Ercoupe pilot. Upon their arrival, our new friend changed topic. "You know, I think age is all about mental acuity and physical condition. Don't you?"

The ramp at Jackson as seen on my first visit, April 13, 2003

Greg and I allowed that he had an excellent point. With our agreement secured, he looked shrewdly at his friends. "See? They agree. And I'm in much better shape than either of you two." The taller of the pair flexed a bicep to refute this judgment.

"Oh, that's nothin'," countered the Ercoupe pilot. "Here's a real muscle." And he did something that neither Greg nor I had ever seen before. He showed us the back of his hand and flexed the muscle at the base of his thumb. A comparatively enormous muscle rose from his withered hand.

I looked at Greg. Greg looked at me. The word "tumor" began to unfurl in my mind, but before the thought took hold, the Ercoupe pilot spoke again. "It's a molar muscle." Then he stared at me for a moment, waiting.


"You're a dentist," I realized out loud.

"Well, retired, but yes. That's what a few decades of pulling molars will give you.  By the way, you guys have great teeth." We chatted for a few more minutes about airplanes before shaking hands and parting company.

Entering the terminal, I shook my head and muttered "molar muscle" under my breath as Greg chuckled in response.

Greg with Warrior 481 at Jackson

We spent a leisurely time eating our lunch at the Airport Restaurant, talking and watching airplanes come and go through the large picture windows separating us from the ramp. While we ate, the ramp slowly emptied as the lunch crowd returned to the clear blue sky.

When our lunch was finished and the waitress failed to pique our interest in dessert, we returned to Warrior 481 and took part in the symphony once again.

Somewhere out there flew a fledgling pilot who would likely look back on this day in gratitude for the benevolent maestro who guided him safely to port.

Thursday, March 3, 2011


Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
03 Mar 2011 N21481 5G0 (LeRoy, NY) - N23 (Sidney, NY) -
FRG (Farmingdale, NY) - 5G0
5.7 905.5

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese inflicted a very successful military strike on the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor.  For an isolationist American public, shock soon gave way to anger and the United States flexed its considerable industrial might. The result? Thousands of warbirds born from factories spanning the nation. Among them were the prolific aircraft factories of Long Island, NY that included the Grumman "Ironworks" and Republic Aviation, builders of the P-47 Thunderbolt.

I logged my 900th flight flight hour en route to Republic Airport (FRG) in Farmingdale, NY. My destination was the American Airpower Museum, an aviation museum housed in one of the few Republic Aviation structures remaining at the airport. 

The air was cold, but calm in Upstate New York as I crossed Cayuga Lake.

After one hour of flying, I stopped in Sydney (N23) for fuel ($4.26/gal). Continuing eastward from Sydney, I was soon over the foothills of the Catskill Mountains (above).  I contacted Binghamton for flight following, but the approach controller noted that I was already at the eastern edge of his airspace and suggested that I contact Boston Center.  Upon hearing my position and destination, the Boston Center controller suggested that I contact Binghamton.

What?  No one wants to work a Cherokee this morning?

I was with Binghamton for a few miles before being handed off to the first of four New York approach controllers I would talk to that morning.  My original hope was that a direct route to Republic would be possible with a clearance through the northern boundary of New York class Bravo airspace.  As we "edged" closer to the invisible threshold of Bravo airspace at 133 knots ground speed (153 mph), it became obvious that a clearance was not coming.  Instead, I diverted east over Stamford, CT so that I could approach Republic from the north.

The New York terminal area chart shows a set of stacks on the north shore of Long Island that are roughly north of Republic (above).  Spotting these from over Connecticut, I turned toward them and crossed Long Island Sound.  From just west of the stacks, I was perfectly set up for a right downwind pattern entry for runway 1.  I notified New York approach that I had the airport in sight and was switched to Republic Tower.

As I joined the right downwind for runway 1 at Republic, the controller called, "Cherokee four eighteen, there's a Lear departing runway 1."  I glanced over at the runway, spotted the Learjet, saw that it would very quickly cease to be a factor, and continued to maneuver for the pattern.

"Cherokee four eighteen, that Learjet should be abeam your right wingtip."  I looked again and saw that the jet was abeam MY wingtip. I suddenly realized that the controller had garbled my tail number and was giving ME traffic advisories.

"Four eight one has the traffic," I responded.  The controller responded, adroitly correcting my tail number, with a request to make an expedited landing in front of a Cessna on a two mile final. I touched down gently on the 150 foot wide runway in a left, quartering wind of 20 knots.

I chose SheltAir because they had glowing comments on AirNav and were situated right next to the museum.  As shown above, the FBO is attached to the old control tower that was in service during World War II.  Jonathan at SheltAir saw to it that my experience there was a positive one.  Within a few minutes of landing, I drove a borrowed Camry to a nearby pizzeria and enjoyed a good lunch before exploring the museum.

Republic is a busy general aviation airport.  In 2008, the airport averaged 465 operations per day. If we assume that most of those operations took place during the eight hour period consistent with "working hours", that comes to 58 operations per hour; approximately one take-off or landing every minute.  Everyone associated with the airport, from the guys at SheltAir to the museum volunteers, were very proud of being based at the third busiest airport in New York State behind JFK and LaGuardia.

I spent a significant portion of my time at the American Airpower Museum with Mike, a knowledgeable and enthusiastic volunteer.  The museum is fairly young, only a decade old.  They have limited space, but it is well-utilized to display their beautiful airworthy aircraft. In many ways, the museum reminded me of my early days at the original Air Zoo.

Nose to nose with the mighty P-47 Thunderbolt, born in the very hangar housing the American Airpower Museum.  World War II era photographs on display showed dozens of new Thunderbolts parked on the Republic ramp beneath the control tower now attached to the SheltAir building.  The airplane, nicknamed "The Jug", short for juggernaut, was notoriously robust.  Even filled with hundreds of bullet holes, these birds always brought their pilots home.

I shudder to imagine how much elbow grease is required to keep this T6 so shiny.

I've never seen such a shiny radial engine before... even makes for a great accent to photographs of OTHER airplanes, like this airworthy C-47.

The paint job on this airworthy P-40 was absolutely magnificent.

My first exposure to the American Airpower Museum was watching several of their aircraft flying at the Greatest Show on Turf in Geneseo.  This is Miss Hap, a B-25 bomber that served as personal transport for Hap Arnold, the commanding general of the US Army Air Corps during World War II.  It was later owned by Howard Hughes.  I couldn't get a decent photo of it at the museum, but here it is as I saw it last summer at Geneseo.

The museum uses this lovely red WACO to give rides to visitors.

I spent over three hours at the museum, saw some excellent aircraft, and had terrific conversations with a few of the volunteers.  It was a day well-spent.  Other highlights of the museum included a Grumman Avenger autographed by George Bush Sr (Bush flew Avengers in the Pacific during WWII), a PBY Catalina under restoration, and several static displays and videos portraying key events and the role of Republic Aviation in the aerial war.  Knowing that I faced a headwind to get home, I departed the museum and was back at the controls of Warrior 481 by 4:00 pm.

As I left, I could not help but reflect on the amazing industrial machine that America leveraged to build over 100,000 airplanes during World War II. I thought of Long Island's Republic Aviation and the Grumman Ironworks; both gone. I thought of automotive plants in Detroit and Flint that diverted their considerable manufacturing prowess to produce airplanes instead of cars; now shuttered or razed entirely. And I could not help but wonder: if such a dire need arose today, would we still possess the manufacturing infrastructure and skilled labor capable of accomplishing the same industrial feat?

I departed to the north and crossed Long Island Sound at 2500' (above).  Looking toward the late afternoon sun, I could see the skyline of Manhattan about 30 miles to the west.

Soon enough, I was back over Upstate (i.e., the rest of New York not occupied by The City).  Above, the Hudson River winds northward to Albany.  Perched on the peninsula projecting from the west bank of the Hudson sits the US Military Academy at West Point.

The sun had already set as I entered the Rochester radar area.  Rochester approach was working a small handful of airplanes, a stark contrast to the busy controllers juggling arrivals and departures in New York's Bravo airspace.

"Hey, Warrior 481.  How's the ride?" queried the Rochester controller after a few quiet moments on frequency.

"Perfect," I responded as I set up my approach for home.