Sunday, March 25, 2012

Amidst the Clouds

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
26 Mar 2012 N21481 5G0 (LeRoy, NY) - Local Flight 1.3 1027.4

"Across the clouds I see my shadow fly..."
"Learning to Fly"
Pink Floyd


Onions have them, ogres have them, and so do clouds.

As a VFR-only private pilot, the interstitial spaces between cloud layers are places I do not often go.  Getting in and out while maintaining the proper distance from each layer of cotton candy mist can be non-trivial except under fortuitous conditions.  But conditions were just right today; layers riddled with holes, separated enough to maintain appropriate clearances, but close enough together to make it interesting.  And so, after some exercise in the pattern, I directed the Warrior into a misty realm above the airport.

My first time between layers was on a simulated instrument training flight in a Cessna 150 over a decade ago.  While I was blind to the world outside the airplane's window, Bill provided a series of vectors, then suggested I remove the foggles I was wearing.  The view outside was something exactly like this.  I was simultaneously awestruck and freaked-out.

We topped all the layers approximately one mile above the Earth and cast our glory upon their surfaces.

The one below is my favorite - the prismatic halo of the glory can just barely be perceived on a cloud that is just barely there.

In places, cloud streets hovered silently over the landscape like invading starships in a summer blockbuster.

The twisted appearance of some formations belied the quiescence of the evening air.

Eventually, we left the clouds behind and returned to Le Roy.

I tucked the Warrior back into her hangar bay as the setting sun cast a copper blush across the landscape.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Skinny Atlas

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
18 Mar 2012 N21481 5G0 (LeRoy, NY) - 6B9 (Skaneateles, NY) - 5G0 2.0 1026.1


The temperature in Le Roy maxed-out at 78°F today, with atmospheric haze and a threat of afternoon thunderstorms. It was not exactly a typical day in March.

I was en route to Skaneateles Aero Drome (pronounced "skinny atlas") for two reasons. First, I had never been there. Second, fuel prices were $5.40/gal. Some of the fields around Le Roy were flirting with the $6/gal mark.

Winds near Syracuse were mostly out of the south. As I flew over Skaneateles, the wind sock provided no differentiation between the two landing options offered by the paved east-west runway.  So I chose to land toward the east.

Google Image of Skaneateles Aerodrome (6B9)

From the pattern, I noticed two things. The first was that the approach end of the runway used to be much farther west, but a road sliced through the runway end, defining a new threshold and leaving a bit of the old runway on the wrong side of the road to crumble into disuse. The second thing I noticed was a tail dragger parked just north of where the turf runway intersected the paved one, right at the runway 10 threshold.  Standing next to the tail dragger was a woman watching me intently.

Great, an audience.

On final approach, GPS showed my ground speed to be slightly higher than my indicated airspeed - I had a minor tailwind component.  We came down to earth and I planted the main wheels more solidly than I would have preferred.

While I was fueling, an Archer approached on runway 10 and I stopped to watch.  It was too fast, floating over a significant length of runway before going to ground.  When it did, it thudded down heavily on all three gear at once.  Tires squawked, the nose was low, and the airplane was light on its main gear; it was on the verge of "wheelbarrowing" (this is a bad thing).

Once the Archer backtaxied and departed the airport, a truck towed the tail dragger off the grass and onto the large number "10" painted on the approach end of the paved runway.  Seeing the tow, I realized that something must be wrong and wandered over to offer my help.

A couple had flown the tail dragger, a Husky, into Skaneateles to have breakfast with family.  Given the southerly wind, they decided to depart on the southwest-oriented turf runway.  It was too soft.  The left main wheel of the Husky sank up to the axle.  No longer mired in the soft turf, the pilot was trying to clean mud out of the brake assembly before moving the airplane further.  The rest of us monitored the sky for incoming airplanes.

The woman in the Husky pointed out an airborne Archer in the pattern.  Presumably seeing the stricken aircraft on the end of the runway, the Archer broke off the approach.

"I think that's the same one that landed here after you did," she said to me.

I agreed.  "I was glad when they came in and landed; they made my landing look good."

"Oh, yours WAS good," she responded.  "You were right on centerline."

"And you landed on your mains," deadpanned the Husky pilot, fishing glop out of the brake caliper with the pointy end of a fuel tester.

We continued making small talk until the Husky's pilot declared the aircraft fit for taxi.  Several minutes later, two aircraft departed Skaneateles: an eastbound Husky and a Warrior heading west in hopes of reaching Le Roy before the nasty weather moved in.

All in all, this was a good reminder for me.  There is nothing better than landing on a well-tended grass runway.  But it's best to not be promiscuous about it, especially with a nose dragger like mine.  I try to get to know those fields first.  Fortunately for my new friends in the Husky, they also knew better than to try landing on a grass strip in unknown condition.  They only attempted a backtaxi for takeoff; a landing would have likely ended with a Husky standing on its nose.

New York State Geography and History Lesson

A direct route between Skaneateles and Le Roy had me flying along the north end of several of the Finger Lakes, a route that I do not fly often.

I flew over Auburn, perched on the north end of Owasco Lake.  I was struck by how clear the water was and how easily I could see the rippled bottom of the north end of the lake.  Considering the abrupt color change, I can only assume that the bottom really drops south of the pier.

When I crossed Cayuga Lake, I saw this strange dotted line in the water, so I circled to investigate.

It was quite obvious that the underwater features were exactly in line with roads on both sides of the lake.  Some web research suggests that this is evidence of the Cayuga Long Bridge.  Completed in 1800, it was a wooden bridge approximately one mile in length, making it the longest such bridge in the Western hemisphere at the time.  This led one source to dub it a "marvel of backwoods engineering".  The bridge was eventually abandoned in 1857.  Another source notes that "the old pilings are visible just under the surface of the water", which would seem to validate my identification of what I saw from the air.

The things you learn just flying around with your eyes open can surprise you.  This is an aspect of flying that I truly relish; the discovery of things that I might not have encountered or observed otherwise.  I enjoy the internet research that illuminates what these things are and reveals their stories.

Just north of the former Cayuga Long Bridge site, a railroad cuts through the marshland at the end of the lake.  The colors in the water and the angular cut of the railway caught my eye.

Cayuga and Seneca Lakes are linked together and to the Erie Canal by the cleverly named Cayuga-Seneca Canal.  One of the canal's locks is situated just east of Seneca Falls.

This is a closer look at the lock.

Back at home, I showed this picture to The Bear and began to explain what the lock did.

"Oh, you mean like the thing at the museum," she said off-handedly, referencing a very nifty working model of a lock at the Rochester Museum and Science Center.

Way to steal my thunder, Rochester Museum and Science Center.

As Canandaigua Lake came into sight, the cumulus was building and the air became commensurately choppy.  Weather was finally moving in; it was time to land and give Warrior 481 her first bath of the year.

Those who were born and raised in New York state learn about the history and geography of New York in school.  I may not have been raised here, but I've learned a lot buzzing back and forth across this beautiful state.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


"You know what the first rule of flying is?  ...  Love. take a boat in the air that you don't love, she'll shake you off just as sure as a turn of the worlds. Love keeps her in the air when she ought to fall down, tells you she's hurting before she keels, makes her a home."
- Malcolm Reynolds

A strange bond exists between pilots and the aircraft they routinely fly.  Though an airplane is nothing more than an assemblage of parts held aloft by virtue of an airfoil, it may nonetheless inspire a strong connection from its human pilot.  From a rational perspective, it seems like an odd thing to become so attached to an inanimate object.  Perhaps the reason lies in the fundamental nature of aviation, the fact that flight is such an intimate partnership between machine and man.

Warrior 481 has been a part of my family for eight years as of March 11, 2012.  Though I am not superstitious by nature, I have developed a habit of patting the Warrior's fiberglass snout in gratitude after each flight.  Apparently, the thirty-four year old Spam Can has grown on me.

Reading through the Warrior's extensive airframe and powerplant logbooks, a sense of the previous owners emerges.  N21481 started her life at a Florida flight school, experiencing her first 100 hour inspection in October of 1978.  Entries made by the flight school are very businesslike, characterized by perfunctory 100 hour inspections, oil changes, and tire replacements (ah, students...).  Under the care of private owners; however, some personality begins to develop.  Private owners tend to upgrade their airplanes, adding amenities or newer equipment that a flight school might deem superfluous.

Dave in his Stearman in formation with Warrior 481 over South Haven, MI on October 9, 2004

The notion that we are caretakers of our aircraft is well-ingrained in those who fly vintage airplanes.  For example, a 70+ year old Stearman has probably outlived many of those who once flew her.  She survives into the twenty-first century solely because of past owners who invested themselves in  maintaining her: true caretakers.

Whenever I find myself flipping through Warrior 481's logs, I always take note of Walter.  N21481 was resurrected from purgatory in 1993 after several years of inactivity.  She came to Walter in central Tennessee with a freshly overhauled engine and a careful inspection.  From the logs, it is clear that Walter took very good care of her.  He added IFR avionics, installed a four place intercom, and generally oversaw a period of careful maintenance.  From the logbook entries and Form 337s (the FAA paperwork for major repair or alteration), it is clear that Walter put a lot of himself into Warrior 481 during the brief two years that he owned her.

June 14, 2004: South Haven, MI

Walter sold the Warrior in 1995 for reasons unknown to me.  I came to wonder if he would even recognize the airplane as she appears today with her 2003 paint scheme.  Conversely, I often wonder what Warrior 481 looked like in Walter's day.  These thoughts led me to contemplate contacting Walter.  In his place, I would not only be delighted to hear that my old airplane was still flying, but curious about the places she had been and changes she had undergone.

The problem is that I do not like cold-calling strangers.  I did enough internet research to verify that Walter still lived at the same address shown on the FAA paperwork in the Warrior's logbooks.  I located a phone number, but was too shy to use it.

Time passed.  On the day of my eight year anniversary with Warrior 481, I thought again of the Warrior's former caretaker and was struck by the obvious.  Why not send Walter a short letter with some pictures of the airplane enclosed?  Surely, that would be an entirely inoffensive way to make contact and, perhaps, learn more about Warrior 481's past.

Excited about this idea, I resolved to write Walter that very day.  First, I did more search engine work to verify the address.  Instead of an address, however, the first item fetched by Google was that of a 2010 obituary.

Walter had gone west while I was too shy or too busy to contact him.  I felt my throat tighten as I stared at the computer.  What a funny thing, to mourn the loss of someone I had never met.  All I know of the man came from seventeen year old entries made on his behalf in the Warrior's maintenance logs.  Yet, from those entries emerged a picture of a caretaker and kindred spirit.  Other past owners of Warrior 481 who held her for longer time failed to engender such a strong positive impression.

Good bye, Walter.  I'll try to take good care of our girl.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Know Your Limits

My house creaked and groaned, buffeted by fifty knot gusts. It was not a good day to fly; anyone could see that.  Sometimes, however, conditions are not so extreme and deciding to launch requires some careful thought. I learned this lesson well three years ago on another windy day when I witnessed the misfortune of another.

My friend Scott was in town visiting.  I had promised him an airplane ride in Warrior 481 and was eager to deliver on that promise.  With respect to weather, the day was borderline.  Winds were running directly across the runway in the mid teens, gusting occasionally.  It was within my envelope and Scott is not particularly timid.  I knew that I could handle the conditions, but was trying to decide if flying that day was worth the effort.

We checked on the Warrior to make sure her pre-heater was working.  It was.  Driving back to the terminal building, I observed a Cessna 172 lined up for runway 28.  The aircraft was high and fast; I assumed that someone was practicing the missed approach for the VOR-A approach into Le Roy.  I was wrong.

The airplane was still descending.  At midfield, the Cessna was much too high to land.  It was pitched down significantly and its airspeed appeared excessive.  I realized that the pilot was trying to force the airplane down onto the 2600 x 60 foot runway.

"Go around..." I muttered softly, unable to take my eyes from Cessna.  With less than one third of the available runway length remaining, the Cessna pilot added power and began to climb.  I released the breath I had been holding.

Satisfied that certain disaster was averted, Scott and I continued to the terminal building where I checked additional weather data for the local area.  The sound of an airplane engine broke my concentration and I looked out the window to see the Cessna making another landing attempt. It was already midfield, high and fast ... again.  This time, the airplane touched down on the last third of the runway.  Some aggressive braking would be necessary to avoid going off of the end of the runway, but the pavement was uncontaminated with water or ice.

As I watched, the Cessna deviated from the runway center line, drifting toward the downwind runway edge.  It slowed as the right main wheel encountered the snowbank alongside the pavement.  Then the nosegear departed the runway and began to drag through snow.  This brought the Cessna to a rather abrupt stop.

In slow motion, the tail came up, pointed skyward, and quivered for just a moment.  Then, slowly, the airplane nosed over onto its back in the snow beside the runway.  I could not believe what I was seeing.

Then I realized that Scott and I were at the airport by ourselves.

I called 911 first, then Ray.  Ray issued a NOTAM closing the airport.  Scott (an EMT) and I drove to the scene to check on the pilot and any passengers who may have been aboard.  As we approached, the pilot and sole occupant of the Skyhawk climbed from the cockpit and stumbled away from the wreck.  We were relieved to see that he was out and moving on his own.

We parked on the opposite side of the runway from the stricken Skyhawk.  Scott and I met the pilot on the runway center line.  He was shaken, but appeared to be completely uninjured.  The airplane, on the other hand, looked rough.

As we waited for the cavalry to arrive, we engaged in small talk.  I learned several things about the accident pilot very quickly.  He was a low time private pilot, having accumulated approximately 125 hours in the span of five years.  The airplane was a rental out of Rochester.  He expressed that he was more accustomed to the larger runways there.  The smallest runway at Greater Rochester International is 4000 x 100 feet - significantly longer and wider than what Le Roy had to offer.  He was cognizant of the windy conditions, but had not flown in a long time and was eager to get back into the sky.  The aborted landing we witnessed was actually his second; the accident occurred on the third attempt at landing.

I cringed as he told me all of this.

I expressed how relieved I was that he was unhurt, but his focus was elsewhere.  He was worried about the wrecked airplane disrupting airport operations, that his wife would forbid him from flying again, and that the Cessna's owner would be irate (he was right about that last one).

I was sympathetic and tried to be supportive, reminding him that no one was hurt.  With only some bent metal, it was a best case scenario for any accident.  Internally, however, I was seething.

Note the skidmark and how close to the end of the runway the airplane came to rest.
A low time pilot, not current, and accustomed to long, wide runways chose this day to land at my airport with its comparatively short, narrow runway and direct crosswind near the maximum demonstrated capability of the aircraft he was flying.  Two aborted landings were not enough to convince him that a return to Rochester, with six choices in landing direction on more forgiving runways, might be in his best interests.


I understand an overwhelming desire to fly after a long time away from the sky.  But I was genuinely baffled by the pilot's aeronautical decision making and the number of opportunities for a different outcome that he ignored before coming to rest upside down in someone else's Cessna at Le Roy.

But I held these thoughts hidden behind a calm smile.  Soon enough, the fire department and police arrived on the scene.  I think the firemen were quite disappointed that there was no fireball for them battle.  Ray arrived shortly thereafter and handled the media with a charm and purposeful grace that left me quite impressed.

Scott did not get his ride in Warrior 481 that day.  But all of us based at the Le Roy Airport received an important reminder: know your limits and respect them.

Photo credit: These photos were all taken with my camera, but it was either Ray or Scott who took them.