Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Pilgrimage That Almost Wasn't

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
22 Oct 2011 N21481 5G0 (LeRoy, NY) - OFP (Hanover, VA) -
MQI (Manteo, NC) - ONX (Currituck, NC) - 5G0
9.6 1001.8

"...Achieved by Dauntless Resolution..." 

On December 17, 1903, Orville Wright took the controls of an underpowered wooden craft with muslin-skinned wings and made a 12 second, 120 foot baby step into the age of modern aeronautics.  Though it has often been claimed that various others built a modern (self powered and controllable) aircraft before the Wrights, no evidence more compelling than the John T Daniels photo of the Flyer departing Earth under its own power has been produced to date.  Justifiably, the windswept location outside of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina is viewed as hallowed ground by most aviators.

For me, personal milestones converged in the fall of 2011: a decade since my first solo (September 26, 2001) and 1000 hours of logged flight time.  A pilgrimage to the Outer Banks, to the very spot where the Wrights first demonstrated tenuous mastery over the three axes of flight, seemed an appropriate way to celebrate.

The initial goal was to include a visit to First Flight Airport in Kill Devil Hills, NC as a part of The Bear's great southern odyssey from the previous summer.  However, once I began to flight plan the route, I came to understand that the Outer Banks are much too far east to serve as a convenient stop between Upstate New York and southwest Florida.

A weekend trip perhaps?  The round trip flight time would be close to nine hours and an overnight trip seemed a better way to maximize our time and enjoyment at the destination.  Weekends came and went; weather, work, and life failed to align in a productive manner.

Maybe a day trip, then.  A long day, surely, but manageable with an early start.  I planned a route, identified worthwhile airports to visit along the way, and developed a three dimensional understanding of the many places in the area where Warrior 481 and I should not stray.  A plan came into being.  Meanwhile, amber and scarlet leaves fluttered on a chill autumn breeze.

Finally, I identified October 22, 2011 as a day when I had time available for a solo day trip and the forecast was favorable.

Of course, there is a tremendous difference between a forecast and a promise.


I am not a crack of dawn type of pilot.  I would love to be, really.  Once I get myself out of bed, I truly am a morning person, productive and energetic.  But with the airport 45 minutes away from home, I gave up trying to beat the sun into the sky long ago.

Nevertheless, I left home in darkness on the morning of October 22 and arrived in Le Roy at dawn.  Not that dawn could be easily identified as such.  A leaden ceiling covered the entire region.  By "region", I refer to the northeast United States, not just Rochester.  The forecast remained quite favorable for a VFR flight to the Outer Banks, but it was pushed out several hours.  Although ceilings were high enough in New York to make the flight safely, they were unacceptably low through the heart of Pennsylvania.  Northern Virginia was also overcast, but VFR.  Skies were clear in southern Virginia.

Climbing through a hole in the cloud deck under the morning sun

I decided to cancel the trip, do some local flying under the ceiling, and return home.

Then, without much warning, an enormous hole opened in the clouds directly over the Le Roy airport.  Morning sunshine streamed through, banishing the dull gray world with warm, vibrant color as I stared in amazement.  I am not one to believe in signs of divine intervention, but I had to at least take a look.

Warrior 481 and I climbed above the deck to investigate.  A few other ragged holes existed around the Rochester airspace.  Beyond that, as far as the eye could see in all directions, lay a flat white expanse apparently stretching to the ends of the world.

I am generally comfortable flying VFR over the clouds provided that a verified "out" exists, usually a weather report from an airport ahead indicating scattered or fewer clouds overhead.  The object is to avoid becoming trapped over the clouds as I cannot legally descend through them.  Though it would be a long trip over an unbroken undercast, I knew that skies were already clear over airports near my destination and the conditions were steadily improving all morning.  With this assurance and plenty of fuel on board to maximize landing options, I turned on course, called Rochester approach for flight following, and was on my way.

The cloud tops were completely flat and no build ups interrupted the perfect horizon in any direction.  Some very high clouds handily attenuated the intense morning sunlight and cast large shadows across the cloudscape below.  The air was perfectly smooth.

So passed New York and Pennsylvania.  Cleveland Center was managing several aircraft en route to State College, PA and I observed several of them before they ducked into the clouds on instrument approaches.  As I was handed off from sector to sector, each controller dutifully reminded me to "remain VFR", but otherwise had very little to say.

Mystery Goo

The ceiling was not quite "holey" enough yet to stop at Orange County.

I bypassed my original intended stopping point, Orange County, VA.  The ceiling was disintegrating, but the holes were still too small for comfort.  I still had two hours of fuel on board, having deliberately taken on nearly a full load to maximize my options.  I changed my destination to one of several preselected alternates with Potomac Approach (the TRACON - terminal radar approach control - responsible for Washington Baltimore International, Dulles International, Regan National, Richmond, and Andrews Air Force Base).  A few miles later, the ceiling opened up over Hanover County Municipal Airport (OFP) near Richmond and I notified Potomac Approach that I was going there instead.

With concern in his voice, the controller queried, "Warrior 481, are you having an emergency?"

"Negative," I responded, "just ready for a rest room break."

The controller chuckled and asked me to report back when I had Hanover County's automated weather information and the airport in sight. As I descended below the clouds, Potomac Approach was trying to help another VFR pilot who was unsure of how high the cloud bases and tops were.  During a lull in that exchange, I keyed the microphone and reported, "Warrior 481 has the ASOS at Hanover and the airport in sight.  Cloud tops are 5000 feet with bases just above 4000."

Ducking under near Hanover County

"Thanks for that Warrior 481, squawk VFR, frequency change approved, give me a call back when you're ready to continue on your way."  I acknowledged and heard Potomac Approach verify that the other aircraft overheard my cloud data before switching frequencies.

On the ground at Hanover County, I made my way to Heart of Virginia Aviation for a pit stop and to request fuel.  While I waited, the locals were carrying on an animated debate about the chemical nature of a green mystery substance dripping from the cowling of a Piper Archer on the ramp.  Could it be antifreeze?  Not likely from an air cooled engine!  The entertaining debate continued as I paid my bill.

Walking back to Warrior 481, I passed the Archer and studied the puddle around the nose tire.  It certainly looked like antifreeze.  If it was antifreeze, somebody, somewhere, was very confused.

Back in the air on flight following with Potomac Approach, I passed through the outer area of Richmond Class C airspace and followed the James River toward Norfolk.  I was switched to a new sector that was surprisingly quiet.  In fact, I heard no other aircraft on frequency, which seemed odd for a busy TRACON.

Then I heard from Potomac Approach again.

"Warrior 481, I want to talk to you for a minute."

Uh oh.

The Chat and the Ghost Fleet

In the ensuing pause, I mentally replayed all of the interactions I had with Potomac Approach that morning, desperately trying to identify something I had done wrong.  I studied the GPS,verifying that I did not blunder through any restricted airspace.

"I almost bought your airplane seven years ago," continued Potomac Approach.  It took me a moment to realize that I was not in trouble for anything.  He continued, "it was for sale in Oklahoma January of 2004 and I went out there to look at it."

I laughed, surprised and relieved by the direction the conversation was taking.  "I bought it in Oklahoma in March of that year," I responded.

"I remember the tail number because, if you turn it into a date, it's February 14, 1981, the first Valentine's Day my wife and I were together."

"Did she ever forgive you for NOT buying the airplane?" I asked.

"The airplane seemed nice, but I was uncomfortable with the long down time it had in the 1980's."  I explained that I had worried about that too, but that the engine had been overhauled twice since and the airframe was carefully inspected for corrosion.

Interesting shoreline features along the James River near Aberdeen Field

"Makes sense," responded Potomac Approach.  "But I couldn't get past that.  It flew well and there didn't seem to be anything wrong with it except that one of the fuel drains leaked."  I smiled, remembering that one of the first things John in Three Rivers did when I brought the airplane home was replace the port wing fuel drain.

The James River, looking southeast toward Norfolk

"Small world, huh?  Good to talk to you," finished the controller.  "Why don't you give Norfolk Approach a call on one one eight point niner, I think they're ready for you now."  I thanked him for chatting and switched frequencies, immediately rewarded by the typical cacophony one expects on an approach frequency in the middle of a sunny, Saturday morning.

An unidentified river winds toward the Atlantic coastline

 Looking down, I was surprised to see several ships moored in the James River, packed tightly together side by side.  The sectional chart even identified these ships as a visual reporting point called "dead fleet".  They were all that remained of the National Defense Reserve Fleet moored in the James River, a group of mothballed ships waiting to be called back for active duty in times of need.

Proceeding farther, the Atlantic Ocean came into sight, my destination tantalizingly close.  I flew along the Atlantic coast, marveling at the delicate arc of earth forming the barrier islands and wondering how something so fragile could survive on the cusp of open ocean.

Kill Devil Hills

First Flight Airport and the Wright Brothers Memorial

Then, my destination was in sight.  I felt a tremendous sense of satisfaction as I looked down on the massive granite memorial perched atop the dune in Kill Devil Hills, the ostensible birthplace of modern aviation.  Having finally arrived, I turned Warrior 481 southward and continued right on past.

Wally World All Over Again

While planning the flight that morning, I discovered that First Flight Airport was closed.  I would later learn that the reason for the closure was to facilitate the "Soaring 100" celebration, commemorating Orville Wright's record setting nine minute and 45 second glider flight from Kill Devil Hill on October 24, 1911.

As I stared at the impersonal NOTAM declaring the airport closed that morning, I felt an incredible sense of dismay.  After so much planning and biding my time for an appropriate day, someone went and closed Mecca on me!  Even though I had not actually traveled anywhere yet, I understood exactly how Clark Griswold felt at the end of National Lampoon's Vacation.  I wanted to punch the moose square in the nose, too.

But then I realized that I could still get there by landing at nearby Dare County Airport and driving over, still making the pilgrimage, even if not landing at First Flight Airport itself.  This seemed a reasonable compromise and, when the heavens cleared over the Le Roy airport that morning, I set out.

Oregon Inlet

Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge

I continued slightly farther south, sightseeing over the Outer Banks, then turned back to Roanoke Island and Dare County Airport (MQI) in Manteo, North Carolina.  The threshold of runway 5 is just a few feet from the water of Roanoke Bay.  On short final, I realized that, despite our summer jaunt to the Florida Keys, I was passing closer to sea water (corrosive, corrosive, sea water) than ever before.

Southern tip of Roanoke Island

I landed on Roanoke Island, home to the Lost Colony and birthplace of Virginia Dare, the first child born in the New World to English parents.  Then I completed my pilgrimage to the Wright Brothers Memorial, venturing forth in a well-used, gunmetal gray Dodge Intrepid.

Dare County Airport (OXB)

"In Commemoration of the Conquest of the Air"

Even from a distance, the enormous granite monument perched atop the dune in Kill Devil Hills was impressive.  I made my way upward, heeding signs requesting visitors to preserve the fragile hill by staying on sidewalks.  The dune evidently needed to be carefully stabilized before the monument could be built.

At the top of the hill, the 60 foot tall structure is inscribed with:

"In commemoration of the conquest of the air by the brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright conceived by genius achieved by dauntless resolution and unconquerable faith."

From the top of the hill, a steady wind blew from the northeast, modern day validation for the Wright's choice of this dune as launching point for their early glider experiments over a century ago.

I wandered the site, visiting the life sized sculpture by Stephen Smith depicting Orville's first successful flight in the Flyer.  The magnificent sculpture was commissioned specifically for the Centennial of Flight celebration in 2003.

Orville's bronze visage peered forward expectantly, seeming to see beyond 1903 and the sands of Kill Devil Hill.  I wondered what Orville would make of modern aviation?  Of TFRs (temporary flight restrictions) and other imaginary boundaries in the open sky intended to keep airplanes out?

As I pondered this, a tow plane and glider departed the airport, part of the Soaring 100 celebration.  It seemed a fitting tribute to see powered and unpowered aircraft, climbing into the air together over the historic site.

I wandered to the site of the first flights, studying the gradual advancement of markers defining the lengths of each hop that occurred on December 17, 1903; visible evidence of how the Wrights progressively improved their mastery of the notoriously unstable Flyer.

Returning Home

I returned the Intrepid to Dare County airport with more gasoline in the tank than it had when I departed.  Aloft, I flew back over Kill Devil Hills before turning north to Currituck Airport (ONX), where the fuel was anachronistically priced below five dollars a gallon.

With tanks full, I departed for home about an hour before sunset with the intention of flying non-stop.

Near Richmond, Virginia, a thin layer of clouds appeared below my 6500 foot cruise altitude.  From flight planning, I expected the skies to be clear of clouds until I reached Altoona, Pennsylvania.  North of that, I anticipated that the remainder of the flight would be under a scattered to overcast layer.

The sun set while I was rounding the southwest corner of the Washington DC Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA).  Weather reports from airports ahead in northern Virginia verified clear skies along my course, so I remained above the ceiling during the glorious sunset and shortly left the clouds behind

Skies remained clear until I reached State College, Pennsylvania.  I descended to 4500 feet and cruised the rest of the way home at that altitude, listening intently to weather reports ahead.  Though the automated stations frequently called for overcast ceilings, the Big Dipper was often visible at my 11:00 and provided a handy check of sky condition.  I marked safe ports as I passed them, knowing them to be clear in the event that I needed to return for the night.  I monitored ground lights, watching for any voids that might mark the intrusion of a cloud into my flight path. There was one south of Rochester, easily detected by the fact that a dark horizon existed where the lights of Rochester should have been.  After navigating around the black hole, the lights of Rochester appeared to guide me home.

GPS ground track from Currituck, NC to Le Roy, NY

Somewhere in the darkness along the way, I surpassed the 1000 hour mark.  The landing at Le Roy was, fittingly, nearly perfect.

I took a moment to reflect on the day after settling Warrior 481 back in the hangar.  I had made the pilgrimage and achieved 1000 flight hours in the process.  It was my longest day of flying ever, yet I still felt energized and mentally sharp.  I think upgrading to the Zulu active noise reduction headset has significantly improved my endurance and resistance to fatigue on long flights.  Reupholstering the seats two years ago probably helped, too.  Though I am not certain of this, I believe that the 4.1 hour flight from Currituck to Le Roy is the longest single leg I have flown to date.

I arrived home in darkness, just as I had left early that morning.

Epilogue: The Airplane with No Wheels

Twenty four hours after departing Kill Devil Hills, I was aboard an airliner flying over the Potomac River bound for Reagan National Airport.  The view was outstanding as my window momentarily aligned with the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, and Capitol.  I was traveling to Washington DC to give an invited presentation at a conference.

The Bear plays with the "airplane with no wheels"
On Thursday, October 27, I brought closure to my pilgrimage by visiting the 1903 Wright Flyer at the Smithsonian.  Since she was old enough to speak, The Bear has referred to the Flyer as "the airplane with no wheels".

A docent stood before the Flyer, skillfully regaling his listeners with tales of the brothers from Dayton who conquered the sky.  He spoke knowledgeably about the site at Kitty Hawk / Kill Devil Hills, describing the terrain in the detailed fashion of someone who had personally made the pilgrimage.  The specifics resonated strongly with my recent memory.  I could not help but smirk a bit when he pointed out something that my daughter had always noticed, that the Flyer had no wheels.

The tour group moved on.  I remained behind, momentarily alone in the exhibit, to contemplate the delicate contraption from which my beloved Piper is descended and to pay silent tribute to the men whose dauntless resolution finally tamed the ether.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Quiet Celebration

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
10 Oct 2011 N21481 5G0 (LeRoy, NY) - FZY (Fulton, NY) - K09 (Piseco, NY) - 5G0 3.7 992.2

I took a vacation day from work in hopes of seeing some fall color. From "The Weather Channel", I knew that the Adirondack High Peaks were already past peak color, but that foliage on the more diminutive peaks to the south might still favor a brighter complexion.

It was a quiet morning at the Le Roy Airport on October 10.  Not a creature (or airplane) was stirring.

Oswego County Airport looked inviting, so I stopped for fuel.  When did $5.30/gal become a bargain?

The low-lying areas around Piseco Lake were still quite colorful, though the higher peaks surrounding the area skewed more amber than crimson.

The Piseco Airport, located on the north end of Piseco Lake, was deserted when we arrived.  

I seated myself on a shaded bench with a view of the trees paralleling the runway to the west.  Breathing deep of the clean air, alone at the quiet country airport, I savored a simple picnic lunch.

As I finished, another aircraft landed.  The pilot of the Light Sport Aircraft handled the squirrely winds spilling over the western peaks far more capably than I.

On departure, I circled the area once to get a final look before returning home.

Back to work tomorrow...