Saturday, June 27, 2015

Nature's Power Washer


Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
25 Jun 2015 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - PTK (Waterford, MI) 2.7 1427.7

Warrior 481 pushed through a veil of cloud and haze to reach Oakland County International at the conclusion of our third flight to Michigan for 2015. I was invited by the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Michigan - Flint to participate in a Curriculum Advisory Committee. Though the department is small and relatively unknown, I received excellent training there as a student and am always happy to give back when I can.

The morning following my arrival in Michigan, I set foot on campus for the first time in over a decade. I roamed the university, pleased to find everything in pristine condition. I spent most of the day in the room where I slogged through Physical Chemistry as a student, unintentionally sitting in nearly the same spot. It was a great visit with plenty of animated discussion from the committee that spanned an eclectic mix of current faculty, recent graduates, professors from nearby universities, and industrial chemists with varied levels of experience. Despite many new faces on the faculty, today's Chemistry program is clearly an evolution of the curriculum I experienced and remains infused with the spirit of thoughtful emphasis on the needs of students. They are doing a fantastic job.

Afterward, I visited with a former professor of mine who taught literature in the Honors Program. It was the Honors Program that drew me to UM-Flint in the first place. The majority of my closest college-era friends, including Kristy, were also in the program. Though it has been twenty-four years since I was her student, my former professor fondly recalled details of an essay I wrote in her class as a freshman. She also reminisced warmly about my Honors cohort; evidently we were memorable as individuals and unusual in our cohesiveness as a group.

After departing campus and dredging old memories to navigate once-familiar streets, I found my way to the home of my former roommate and Honors alumnus, Jason. We joined Cher, another member of our group, for dinner at a Mediterranean restaurant that politely allowed us to sit and talk late into the night as they closed around us.

Flight Planning

When I returned to my mother's house, I plowed into flight planning for a return home the next morning. What I saw gave me pause. There was a low pressure center forecast to arrive in northeast Ohio the next day. Cyclonic flow around that low was forecast to put 40+ knots of headwind directly on the nose of Warrior 481 if we flew our usual course directly across Ontario to Sodus. The calculated flight time would stretch the typical two and a half hour flight into a rainy slog of four hours. This would get me to Sodus with less fuel reserve than I usually prefer even before accounting for a diversion to an IFR alternate. I was immediately uncomfortable and found myself warming to the idea that a flight home the next day might not be realistically possible.

I decided to sleep on it and did so, if poorly.

I awoke early Saturday morning and resumed flight planning. Overnight, the winds aloft forecast was lessened to 35 knots, which allowed for more palatable flight times and better fuel reserves upon landing. I would face continuous instrument meteorological conditions and rain for the entire route, which would be a first for me. Fortunately, the convective outlooks were utterly clean. Though the low pressure system was dropping a lot of moisture, thunderstorms were very unlikely. I contemplated a higher altitude ride home (9,000 feet) for more favorable winds, but noted that the forecast temperatures were just 2°C above freezing at that altitude and I had no desire to trifle with ice.

As the day progressed, the forecasts worsened. Weather forecasts for Sunday were similarly unappealing. After an hour of studying the weather, I realized that an immediate departure would be in my best interests. I filed an IFR flight plan with a GPS-direct route to Sodus and 10:00 am departure. As I packed my belongings, I received an expected routing from the FAA, which naturally featured MOONN intersection. This routing would actually improve my flight time, but also take me across Lake Erie and closer to the center of the low.


Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hours) Total (hours)
27 Jun 2015 N21481 PTK (Waterford, MI) - SDC (Sodus, NY) 4.2 1431.9

Meeting expectations, constant precipitation was falling over Oakland County International when I arrived. I keyed-in the gate code and drove the rental car onto the ramp where Warrior 481 sat in the soaking rain. Wind gusted from the northeast, causing the rain to sting at times as I worked through a wet preflight inspection. I removed the cabin cover, nearly losing it in the wind, and stuffed the sodden mass inelegantly into the baggage compartment. I peeked into the fuel tanks and discovered that Michigan Aviation had not refueled the airplane yet. Then I transferred my bags from the car to the airplane and drove back to the FBO.

When I walked inside, the fellow at the counter interrupted me before I could say a word. "He's already on his way to fuel your airplane. We weren't sure if you would be leaving this morning in the weather." I looked over my shoulder to see the fuel truck heading deliberately for my airplane.

As I waited to pay the fuel bill, I double checked the weather with a particular emphasis on the wind (and its effect on my fuel endurance) and convective forecasts (there were none). I confirmed my "go" decision. Newly rated instrument pilots talk about "getting their tickets wet". Though we have had a number of adventures in instrument meteorological conditions since I earned my instrument rating, I still considered my ticket to be merely moistened. I had not really flown in IFR from start to finish with the exception of the cross country flight I did while training with Tom. Going into the flight, I suspected that my ticket would be soaked at the end. Frankly, I was eager for the experience.

With rain pelting the windscreen and gusts rocking the wings, Warrior 481 and I powered into the gray sky. Detroit Approach granted my request for a direct routing to Sodus. I became concerned as our groundspeed fell to 42 knots in the climb away from Pontiac. I pushed the nose over to capture 7,000 feet and watched the ground speed rise to an anemic 65 knots. I would need to reassess my fuel endurance throughout the flight and already had some Plan B notions of suitable places to divert if needed.

As we crawled toward the international border, the helpful controller at Selfridge Air National Guard Base provided vectors around areas of higher intensity rain. Mine was the only airplane he was working at the time and he frequently broke the silence to query "Warrior 481, say flight conditions." We were consistently in light precipitation with occasional light turbulence, which I took to mean that the vectors were helping.

We remained between layers for the entire flight, a solid deck overhead with clouds at various altitudes below and undifferentiated gray all around. We were rarely inside any clouds, just screened from the real world by them. If I looked straight down, I occasionally saw shadowy ground features slide past. At times, I watched with fascination as sheets of water streamed over the wings.

I was concerned about staring at nothing but the instruments for nearly four hours. Would I experience fatigue? Would I go a bit stir crazy in hopes of seeing the sky, horizon, or some other outside reference point? As it turned out, the flight was comfortable (except for my concerns about ground speed and fuel) and easy. In fact, it was more comfortable than a corresponding drive on the Interstate in the same rain would have been.


Midway across Ontario, I watched my indicated airspeed decrease to approximately 82 knots. I was level, the tachometer indicated that the engine was still producing the same amount of power, and my ground speed had not changed. Clearly, this indication was false. Though it was not affecting cruise flight, I did not relish the thought of making an instrument approach into Sodus with an inaccurate airspeed indicator.

The outside air temperature was 10°C, so pitot icing seemed unlikely as a culprit. Nonetheless, I switched on pitot heat and, after a few minutes, the airspeed needle gracefully swung back to indicating 110 knots. Additionally, while using Stratus/Foreflight to monitor the weather trends well ahead of my ship's position, I noticed that the radar was no longer updating. This is the second time I've observed this glitch. After cycling the power on Stratus and rebooting the iPad, everything resumed working properly and continued to do so through landing.


I was grateful to have the uplinked weather information working properly again. Ahead, Stratus/Foreflight depicted heavier precipitation near Buffalo just south of my course. It is well known that the depicted weather is delayed, but as I watched over time, the area of heavy precipitation was not moving northward across my course and, in the end, it was no factor.

As expected, the cyclonic flow shifted to a southeasterly direction with a reduced headwind component as I neared New York. I was delighted to see ground speed climb into the 80 knot range. Fantastic! I thought wryly. I'm going as fast as a Cessna 150 with a ten knot headwind. By then, however, it was clear that I would reach Sodus with over an hour of reserve fuel on board.

As I monitored the weather in Sodus from west of Rochester, conditions were degrading rapidly. It was raining at the field and the ceiling dropped from 4,000 feet to 3,000 feet between successive observations while we were still west of Rochester. Gusty winds were forecast at the field later that afternoon, but had not arrived yet.

I flew the RNAV 10 approach into Sodus, breaking out of the clouds at roughly 1,000 feet AGL (above the ground). Landing and slowing to taxi speed, the continuous light ticking sound of rain striking the windscreen transitioned to louder thumps of falling raindrops striking the horizontal surfaces of Warrior 481's aluminum skin.

FlightAware track of the return flight. The weather image is time stamped for the midpoint of the flight. The large yellow area near Port Huron, MI was farther south when Selfridge vectored me around it. The heavier precipitation near Buffalo had not developed yet. As I have noticed before, depicted radar tracks through Canada often show a bizarre oscillation in flight path that I do not see elsewhere (i.e., ground track in ForeFlight), including the US legs of the same flight. I believe that this is an electronic artifact and not evidence of lousy stick and rudder skills.

Parking in front of the hangar, I tallied the numbers before facing the rain outside the dry confines of the cockpit. We put 4.2 hours on the Hobbs with 3.7 hours of actual flight time in instrument meteorological conditions.

I was feeling pretty good about myself.

Hangnail Effect

I hustled out of the Warrior, opened the hangar door, and backed my car out of the space usually reserved for my airplane. Still at the wheel of the car, I looked over to contemplate the Warrior when I noticed that something was not quite right with the wheel pant on the nose gear.

If I might engage in some understatement, it was missing a bit of paint.

This poor fairing has had its share of abuse and a lot of paint has been scraped off over the years at the hands of careless line staff at various airports.

The most recent incident involved the removal of a significant patch of paint by Duncan Aviation on our last trip to Kalamazoo (unfortunately, I did not notice it until returning to Sodus). I can only assume that the removed paint provided a means for the constant rain to penetrate underneath the remaining paint to peel it back like a hangnail.

Evidently, my ticket is now not only wet, it has been power washed.

On the bright side, though I have not waxed the airplane yet this year, it appears that last year's wax is still going strong.

Overall, I am more pleased with the experience than upset over the rain damage to the paint. After all, the wheel pant needed work anyway. I logged 3.7 hours of actual IMC time, my longest to date in a single flight, for a cumulative total of 16.5 hours.

It appears that my next adventure will be finding someone who knows how to shoot paint.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

No Contrived Mission

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
20 Jun 2015 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - FZY (Fulton, NY) - LKP (Lake Placid, NY) - SDC 4.2 1425.0

Private aviators are masters of the contrived mission to justify flight. After all, how many acts of aviation have been committed in the name of hamburgers and pancakes? Sometimes, the need to go from Point A to Point B quickly and conveniently introduces some practicality. In those instances, flying a light aircraft can make a lot of sense. A case in point is the typical 2.5 hour flight from Sodus, NY to Pontiac, MI in Warrior 481 versus a 6+ hour drive through Canada with two rounds of customs stops.

At other times, however, I just want to fly and am happily willing spend some quality time alone with my airplane without pretext. It's sort of like taking a Sunday the sky.

Sodus Point

We departed the Williamson-Sodus Airport and flew direct to the Oswego County Airport (FZY) for a quick fuel stop. I love the fuel pump at Oswego; it's fast. Because of its identifier, my friend John refers to Oswego County as "Fuzzy". This cracks me up, but I am chagrined to have flown in this area for 9.5 years without that ever occurring to me.

After the fuel stop, we climbed above the scattered cloud deck and turned eastbound toward the Adirondacks. The clouds began to close in below, but surrounding areas were still reporting clear (not to mention that a pop-up IFR clearance is a wonderful back pocket safety net).

As we neared the Adirondacks, the terrain lofted the ceiling much higher. We climbed to 11,500 feet, the highest Warrior 481 has been in years, to continue on an appropriate eastbound VFR altitude with suitable cloud clearances.

East of Piseco, over the hump of high clouds, the ceiling began to disintegrate. We surrendered several thousand feet for a better view, but remained in smoother air above the clouds. The nearest automated weather station in Saranac Lake reported winds from the southwest at nine gusting to 18.

Nearing Lake Placid, we descended below the clouds and into the haze.

We overflew the Lake Placid Airport and observed the windsock to indicate a direct crosswind, consistent with weather reports out of Saranac Lake. Thus, runway choice was a 50/50 proposition. I chose runway 14 because (1) it's what the last airplane used, (2) I've never used that runway at Lake Placid, and (3) runway 14 does not end in a cliff the way runway 32 does, minimizing the likelihood of sinking air on final approach.

After checking the sock, we turned out over Lake Placid to lose altitude before entering the traffic pattern.

Along the way, we flew past the distinctive Whiteface Mountain.

We made a smooth landing in a direct 15 knot crosswind (estimated from the windsock) and parked within sight of Whiteface.

I had no business or objective in Lake Placid, but simply used the stop to stretch my legs and get some crosswind landing practice. Back in the airplane, I chose a more circuitous route home. We would depart on runway 32, fly runway heading toward Potsdam to avoid the military operations areas (laterally or vertically, as appropriate), then fly westbound toward Lake Ontario and Watertown before returning home along the lakefront.

On departure, we passed south of the Lake Placid Olympic Complex where the 1980 United States men's Olympic hockey team defeated the Soviet Union National Team in what has become known as the Miracle on Ice.

I took one last glance over my shoulder as we left Whiteface and the other Adirondack High Peaks behind.

Along our northwest course, the terrain melted back into flat ground. Near Alexandria Bay, we turned southwest toward Watertown. Below, I-81 wound southward from the Thousand Islands toward Syracuse.

We went "feet wet" over the southeast corner of Lake Ontario, always remaining in gliding distance from shore. We also descended to 3,000 feet to better manage the strong headwind.

From the eastern edge of Lake Ontario, most of the cumulus clouds remained farther inland in the warmer air.

As we reached the south shore of Lake Ontario, however, conditions dropped to marginal VFR. Were it not for sunbeams on the water, all features above and below would have been a uniform grey. We flew through a light rain shower near Fair Haven and landed at Williamson-Sodus to find evidence that significant rain fell there in our absence.

Who needs a contrived excuse to fly when there are mountains, clouds, and a Great Lake to be enjoyed from aloft? I think those are excuses enough.

GPS ground track from Stratus 2, plotted in Google Earth

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Price Point

Fly Out

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
7 Jun 2015 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - ELM (Elmira, NY) - SDC 2.0 1418.7

On Sunday morning we set out as a fleet of three aircraft from the Williamson-Sodus Airport bound for the Elmira-Corning Regional Airport and the EAA Chapter 533 Pancake Breakfast. Joining me in Warrior 481 was The Bear (who is always eager for pancakes) and my Mom (who is always eager to spend time with The Bear).

Mom, The Bear, and me on the Corning ramp at Elmira (photo by Greg)

Yes, Darth Vader is playing dodge ball on The Bear's t-shirt.
And why not? Of course Vader will win; it's not as though
the storm troopers can actually hit anything. Photo by Greg. 

When I first proposed this trip, my friend Dave pointed out that Elmira had a landing fee. I was completely unaware of this, but my last flight into Elmira was in late 2007 and a lot can change in eight years. With some investigation, we confirmed that the airport charges a non-waivable $20.00 landing fee (often, FBOs at larger airports will waive landing/parking/handling fees with a fuel purchase - not the case here). Landing fees are usually collected in person by an FBO (like the new Kalamazoo airport overnight parking fee) or by billing the aircraft's registered owner (like the invoice for $2.50 I received in the mail from Republic Airport).

With a phone call, Tony was able to verify that Atlantic Aviation collects the fee. By taxiing directly to the EAA hangar and avoiding the Atlantic ramp, we would avoid the fee. With that assurance, our plans crystallized.

This freed me to ponder the next potential roadblock to our plan:

Isn't this airport in a valley prone to fogging in? Prior experience suggested that it was.

Sure enough, the field was choked with fog an hour before our intended departure. Satellite imagery clearly showed fog in the valleys along the southern New York border under otherwise clear skies. As John and Dave roared skyward in Eight Five X-Ray, I called the Elmira ASOS and learned that the temperature and dew point were identical. Though John and Dave hoped that the fog would burn off before they arrived, I had my doubts and dawdled in readying the Warrior for flight.

Their gamble paid off. By the time they arrived, the field had transitioned to solid VFR conditions. Score one for John and Dave, but I still think they got lucky.

Greg, Tim, Tony, The Bear, John, Me, and Dave with Eight Five X-Ray

As the last of the three Williamson airplanes to arrive (on account of the aforementioned dawdling), we were marshaled to parking near our club-mates by Chris, president of EAA Chapter 533. Besides our three ships, there were only two other airplanes parked on the ramp. I was stunned. I had assumed that such a big facility with so much available parking would have drawn a lot of visitors that morning.

When I asked Chris about the turn out, he shook his head in frustration. "It's the landing fee. It scares everyone off." I understood his frustration. A lot of work goes into organizing a fundraiser breakfast. The Elmira EAAers must have been severely disappointed by the poor attendance.

Tony, Greg, and Tim with Six Echo Sierra

Some non-aviators might be surprised that "fat cat" pilots would balk at a $20 fee. But those of us who fly 35+ year old basic Cessnas and Pipers are not really part of the wealthy "Jet Set". Think of it this way: if the city of Rochester, NY charged a $20 fee to drive a car into the city limits, I imagine this would have chilling effect on downtown businesses. Yes, I realize that some cities do this already, but the intent in those cases is to reduce traffic congestion in metropolitan areas with robust public transit. The point is, no one likes being nickel-and-dimed to death, particularly when engaged in an avocation that is already expensive. Some airports/FBOs charge these fees to help fund their operational expenses and will waive them if the visiting pilot purchases fuel (in which the mark-up helps cover their costs). Fuel at Elmira is already expensive, $1.60 more per gallon than at home (i.e., if I bought four hours worth of fuel at Elmira, I would spend $58 more than I would at home). With a non-waivable $20 fee incurred regardless of fuel purchase, it starts to feel a bit like piling on.

So, yes, a $20 landing fee is enough to scare off pilots like me, my fellow Williamson Flying Club members, and other potential pancake breakfast fly-in guests. It's always a shame when airports adopt policies that actively stifle general aviation activity. When an airport charging a landing fee is surrounded by others that do not charge one, the path of least resistance for airmen is to think with their wallets.

It's hard to look really cool from the right seat, but John made a go of it

We entered the relatively deserted EAA hangar as volunteers fired up the griddles and cooked fresh pancakes for us, including a valiant effort at a Mickey Mouse pancake for The Bear. Everyone was very friendly and clearly appreciated that we had flown in. In conversation, it was mentioned that we served 1,859 breakfasts at our fly-in/drive-in event in May. Taking in the many empty chairs at empty breakfast tables, I regretted that this information was shared; it felt like we were rubbing it in.

John and Dave with Eight Five X-Ray

We invited the Elmira EAAers to visit our field on Saturdays for the weekly "coffee can" lunches at the Williamson Aeronautical Services hangar. These regular events work very simply: toss some money in a coffee can and join the crew in devouring whatever Jake cooked up for lunch that day. All are welcome.

I hope they come. In the current climate, aviators need to stick together.

When this helicopter settled to the ground near the EAA hangar, all I could think of was M*A*S*H. Nothing grabs The Bear's attention quite like a helicopter.

Climbing away from Elmira on runway heading, we saw this river (the Chemung, I think) passing through strikingly crenelated terrain.

Interestingly, The Bear chose to ride up front for the better view.

We flew northbound over the Finger Lakes until reaching Sodus Bay, then turned west to enter the airport traffic pattern. A gusty wind from the northeast made for a less than elegant arrival, but a good time was had by all three generations aboard Warrior 481 that morning.

Flight Review

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hours) Total Time (hours)
7 Jun 2015 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - 7G0 (Brockport, NY) - SDC 2.1 1420.8

I was due for a flight review and have missed flying with Tom since I earned my instrument rating two years ago under his tutelage. After multiple tries, we finally found available time and an adequate forecast to meet that afternoon at Ledgedale Airpark in Brockport, NY. Compared to that morning's pancake flight, the wind was stronger and the air significantly more turbulent. As I bumped along from Sodus to Brockport in true Flight of the Bumblebee manner, I wondered about how successful a flight review would be under such conditions.

Along the way, I passed over work and noted the solar array installed last fall.

Over downtown Rochester, my trajectory to Brockport provided a great view of the muddy Genesee River tumbling over High Falls.

At Ledgedale, Tom and I sat at a picnic table alongside the EAA Chapter 44 building where he proceeded to quiz me on basic ground school material with a focus on charts and airspace. He seemed pleased that he was unable to really stump me on anything critical, even after digging into some IFR minutiae. Aloft, we did some basic air work (steep turns, slow flight, stalls). Then he pulled the throttle to idle to simulate an engine failure. I identified a field, made for it, and demonstrated that I could have glided the Warrior there safely. We returned to the airport where I did a normal landing, a landing with no flaps (using a slip), a simulated engine out landing from the pattern (which also required a slip to avoid overshooting the runway), a simulated soft field landing, and a short field landing. For the latter, we defined our short runway as the pavement between the middle two taxiways, ~ 600 feet (I made it). It was a great workout in lousy atmospheric conditions. When we were done, Tom happily signed off my flight review and I headed back to Sodus.

One of the things that I like about time spent with instructors is that it provides an opportunity to get feedback on my flying and to detect any bad habits that have formed. Tom worked me hard, but was pleased with my performance.

I was pleased with the workout as well. I just might have burned off some of those darn pancakes cooked that morning by my new friends at EAA Chapter 533.

Saturday, June 6, 2015


A Little Bit Special

"You are ineligible for medical certification under Title 14, Code of Federal Regulations (CFRs) revised part 61; specifically under paragraph(s) or section(s) 113 (b) (c), 213 (b) (c) and 313 (b) (c)."

Words to chill the soul of any aviator, inscribed in a letter dispatched to me many years ago from the FAA's Aerospace Medical Certification Division in Oklahoma City, OK. These words were profoundly difficult to read and absorb, but were softened by the fact that the situation was resolved before I ever received them. The letter went on to say:

"I have determined, however, that you may be granted an Authorization for special issuance of the enclosed third-class airman medical certificate as provided for in Title 14 of the CFRs, Section 67.401."

In brief, a "special issuance" indicates that, despite a disqualifying medical condition, the FAA has determined that the disorder is sufficiently managed to restore medical certification. No one wants to be "special" in the eyes of the FAA, myself included. Nevertheless, I would continue to fly for many years after this letter arrived. In many ways, I was better off than before, though my improvement in quality of life came with an annual commitment to interface with the bureaucracy of the Aerospace Medical Certification Division.

Pathological Exhaustion

My wife was the first to mention the phrase in the early 2000s: sleep apnea. She observed that I occasionally stopped breathing in the middle of the night. Sleep apnea? I certainly did not fit the profile. Though stouter than I was as a teenager or twenty-something graduate student, I was still relatively scrawny and my BMI has always been in the normal range.

But there was no mistaking that I was tired; a lot. Not with a simple weariness of the sort that dulls the edge after a night of inadequate rest. This was a deeply rooted fatigue that blurred the mind, derailed concentration, and disconnected my consciousness from the real world as though it were wrapped in a thick, suffocating blanket. I was well beyond tired, I was experiencing pathological exhaustion.

As a student pilot, I learned that such fatigue turned the mind to stone making it impermeable to learning. A flying lesson taken thus impaired was an exercise in maddening futility. In such a state, I was sometimes able to perform adequately on tasks already mastered, but there was no improvement and no hope of learning anything new. Once I realized this, I cancelled lessons on bad days. Before each flight, every pilot should critically review his or her condition and "self-certify" as suggested by the well-known IMSAFE mnemonic (illness, medication, stress, alcohol, fatigue, eating). This need to carefully assess my fatigue state concretely established this essential preflight concept for me long before I earned my private pilot certificate. Fatigue was responsible for many cancelled flights over the years, opportunities to fly necessarily surrendered. The greatest disappointments came on those clear, calm, glorious days that seem tailor made for an aviator's pleasure.

Was Kristy's proffered diagnosis correct? If so, how would it impact my flying? 

Resistance Is Futile

The conundrum with disqualifying medical conditions is that diagnosis and disclosure may jeopardize an airman's medical certificate. It is tempting to allow the condition to remain undiagnosed, but this is obviously unwise; genuine health issues will not disappear when ignored. I explained the fatigue to my doctor, dreading the final diagnosis that the process might uncover.

I was scheduled for a sleep study at Bronson Hospital in downtown Kalamazoo. When I arrived at the sleep center, I was promptly wired up with electrodes and other sensors meant to measure limb movements, eye movements, breathing, brain activity, heart rate, and blood oxygen content. The various wires from every sensor were brought together into a single umbilical connecting me to a device that recorded all the data.

"We are the Borg. Resistance is futile," I thought, contemplating the braid of wires extending from my body.

This was not a good experience. Mostly, I remember lying awake that night, frustrated, incapable of sleep. I stared at a red LED light across the room, the only sign of life on an infrared camera that impassively returned my gaze. I became lost in the head game of the situation. I desperately wanted to fall asleep so that we would collect useful data and, the more I wanted it, the more it eluded me. I perceived that I was awake all night. This was not actually the case; I dozed periodically and was simply fooled by the subjective nature of time's passage while on the brink of sleep. Still, the evening was not remotely representative of a typical night's rest. I was so exhausted the next day that I could not function at work and left early to take a nap.

"Well, you don't have sleep apnea. You did wake up up about 8 times an hour, but we're not sure why," explained the doctor holding the report in her hand. All that effort for nothing? Based on my memories of the night, I suspected prevailing circumstances made for a lousy, non-representative test (I still do).

I returned to managing as best as I could, foregoing flights in Warrior 481 on days when I was clearly dulled by fatigue. Before any additional follow-up on the sleep study could occur, however, there was a "minor" distraction. My work site was shut down and there was a scramble to find a new job that culminated in a move from Kalamazoo, MI to Rochester, NY.

The Machine

A couple of years passed. We relocated, started new jobs, and The Bear was born. I was still fatigued and began the process all over again, this time with the Strong Sleep Disorders Center at the University of Rochester Medical Center. Knowing what to expect from my previous experience, I calmly submitted myself to be wired back up for observation. I did not sleep well, but it was enough.

"You have moderate sleep apnea," my new doctor explained during our follow-up, reviewing the data with me methodically and thoroughly. I like my sleep doctor; he talks to me like I'm an intelligent adult. "I am going to write you a prescription for CPAP," he continued. For the unfamiliar, CPAP stands for continuous positive airway pressure. This is a machine that delivers pressurized air through a mask to prevent apenas by keeping the airway open.

Though I was pleased to know what was wrong with me, I was also thoroughly dismayed by the undeniable reality of the data. I was now diagnosed with a disqualifying medical condition in the eyes of the FAA. Moreover, I would be dependent on a machine to breathe adequately in my sleep. I was consumed with loathing at the very thought.

I underwent a follow-up sleep study to determine the appropriate pressure for the CPAP machine, received my personal machine set to the prescribed pressure, and proceeded to fight with the damn thing nightly for many weeks.


Statistics on the matter vary widely, but CPAP compliance among first time patients is generally poor. In those early weeks, I completely understood why. An ill fitting mask means a leak, which not only reduces the effectiveness of the treatment, but also creates an obnoxious hissing sound loud enough to wake the sleeper. The first mask type that I tried fit over my nose. The bridge of my nose is narrow (actually, this is part of the problem - my nasal passages are extremely narrow) and, whenever the mask shifted in the night, a cold jet of air would squirt directly into my eye. That will wake you up in a hurry. I went through phases of alternately tightening the straps more, then wearing them more loosely. The sensitive skin on the bridge of my nose reacted poorly to the mask material and an open sore developed there.

But I stayed with it, trying different mask geometries and different ways of tensioning the straps. It seemed like no matter what I did, I frequently woke in the middle of the night and, as frustration set in, I often needed to suppress violent urges to throw The Machine through a window. We fought for roughly six weeks, The Machine and I, before finally coming to terms.

That truce was brokered, serendipitously, by a trip to Europe. I was invited to present at a scientific conference. As I contemplated the logistics of the trip, I was not eager to lug The Machine along, particularly through airport security. It was expensive, its fragility unknown, and, frankly, I was embarrassed at the thought of having to remove it for screening and display my infirmity in a public place. To my mind, all I ever did was fight with The Machine anyway, so I left it behind.

I had a wonderful trip on many levels, but getting good sleep was not one of them. I found myself struggling to breathe at night. To my absolute shock, I realized that The Machine had already started to improve my quality of life. In that moment, I made my peace with it. When I returned home, I embraced The Machine (mentally and physically). I began sleeping through the night and waking up absolutely refreshed.

I still despise the thought of being dependent on The Machine, but I cannot deny the positive impact it has made on my quality of life. For years, I awoke with a headache every morning. Thanks to The Machine, the headaches are gone. I used to wake up every morning with phlegm in my throat and a stuffy nose. I used to suffer through multiple sinus infections each year. All gone, fringe benefits of an open airway that no longer serves as a collection point for glop and bacteria. Best of all, I am no longer exhausted and my thoughts are often crisp and clear - exactly what a pilot needs when making command decisions at the helm of an airplane, no matter how small or slow.

However, there remained the small matter of my disqualifying condition. Fortunately, my diagnosis came in November and my self-grounding was facilitated by dreadful weather. I dropped the matter in the lap of my AME (aviation medical examiner) and developed a plan with him.

My AME is a cool guy. He served as a flight surgeon for the Space Shuttle program for many years and his office is decorated with photographs of NASA spacecraft autographed by the men and women who flew them. He believes in general aviation and is committed to keeping as many pilots flying safely as he can. I am grateful for his help.


We decided that the best, most rapid path back to medical certification would be to conduct a maintenance of wakefulness test (MWT). It is one thing to be diagnosed and prescribed CPAP treatment. It is quite another to demonstrate that the treatment is actually working. That is where the MWT helps.

For the MWT, I spent the day in a dimly lit, comfortably warm room at the Strong Sleep Center. The MWT is administered in four, forty minute intervals throughout the day where the subject (in this case, me) has to sit quietly without dozing off during each test interval. Reading, watching TV, moving, talking, singing out loud, and any other activity that might stave off sleep are strictly prohibited. I would have never passed this test before CPAP, particularly during the afternoon intervals. However, I easily aced the test, a testament to the effectiveness of my treatment.

With test results in hand, my AME called everything in to Oklahoma City and received authorization over the phone to issue my medical. I was back in the air! The paperwork containing my special issuance, as described earlier, arrived within weeks. Annually, I need a report from my sleep doctor demonstrating my CPAP compliance (no worries there) and lack of symptoms. He submits this directly to my AME who then issues my medical (under the AME Assisted Special Issuance program, AASI). The best part is that I keep flying.

Current Events

There is some mild irony in the fact that, with treatment, I am a safer pilot than I was before the diagnosis, but I am now subject to far more FAA scrutiny than before.

In 2013, FAA Federal Air Surgeon Dr. Fred Tilton incurred the wrath of pilots and the aeronautically-oriented alphabet associations by suggesting that any pilot with a BMI over 40 needed an assessment for sleep apnea (usually in the form of a sleep study). Editorials blared pithy headlines like "Are You Too Fat To Fly?" and "FAA Targets Fat Pilots". While I agree -- from deep experience -- that sleep apnea is something that needs to be managed, I concur with this outrage because I am not convinced that BMI is truly predictive on its own. After all, BMI would have never flagged my condition. Perhaps I am an outlier. Regardless, it seems a poor practice to demand that a pilot undergo an expensive sleep study on the basis of a single metric when there are so many other corroborating symptoms to assess.

After retreating on the issue for a time, the FAA issued new guidelines in March 2015 with an improved, risk-based approach that allows an AME to evaluate several signs and symptoms beyond just BMI (though it remains one of several risk factors for the AME to consider). I think this is a much better approach. Then again, who am I to say? It's a moot point for me.

Despite the annual inconvenience of being "special", I went down the right path. In seeking to understand the cause of my fatigue and receiving adequate treatment for it, the disruption to my flying was minimal and my life is decidedly better in just about every way.

Except for dealing with The Machine (now on its second incarnation) at TSA checkpoints when flying commercial. That still sucks.

Fly safe, everyone.