Monday, August 3, 2015

The Crossroads of America

"Are you guys, like, scientists or something?" 
- Girl on commercial flight, June 5, 1997 after the 45th annual ASMS Conference

Limestone and Lasers

In the late 1990s, I was a graduate student at Indiana University - Bloomington studying Analytical Chemistry. Located in a small city approximately one hour south of Indianapolis, the campus defies many people's expectations of Indiana: beautiful, architecturally-diverse limestone edifices arrayed across a densely wooded, rolling landscape. At the time, the program was generally recognized as being among the top three of its kind nationally.

It was also a crucible, as growth experiences tend to be. Along the way, I forged some excellent friendships. One of them was with Mike, who was in my wedding and went on to become a professor at Butler University in Indianapolis. Roughly thirteen years had passed since I last visited Mike. I decided that I was overdue for a return to Indiana, the self-styled "Crossroads of America" (during my time there, it said so right on the license plates, so it must be true).


Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
2 Aug 2015 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - BKL (Cleveland, OH) -
FDY (Findlay, OH) - EYE (Indianapolis, IN)
5.8 1452.1

On departure from Cleveland's Burke Lakefront Airport, we were turned due north over Lake Erie, then gradually vectored along an arcing trajectory to a southwest heading. Landfall occurred between Lorain (above) and Sandusky.

The peninsula ending at Cedar Point, a popular
amusement park destination from my childhood.

Anticipating a strong headwind, I chose to cruise at 4,000 feet. At this altitude, we still faced a 20+ knot headwind and were too low to escape the heat and turbulence. Crossing landward over the Lake Erie shore, the bumps simply intensified in frequency and magnitude. I tried to stay hydrated by drinking water along the way, but the bumps nearly always coincided with sips and I found myself wearing more water than I consumed. I could have chosen a smoother, cooler ride at higher altitude, but would have prolonged the flight significantly in exchange. I stand by my choice.

I passed the Bellevue Train Yard near Bellevue, OH. Owned by Norfolk Southern, it is touted as the second largest freight car classification yard in North America. It was certainly impressive to see from the air.

The train yard tapered down at the outlets like the throat of a venturi. Wryly, I wondered if the trains shot out of the end of this thing at a higher velocity than they possessed in the wider portion of the yard.

After a decade of flying primarily in Upstate NY, the pancake flat terrain of Ohio, largely deforested and subdivided by rectangular section lines, seemed strikingly foreign. I was reminded of stories that my mentor Dave would tell about flying his Decathlon VFR from Michigan to near Louisville, KY; he would simply select a section line and follow it all the way south to his destination.

When you live in a place flattened by glaciers - nature's steam rollers - it evidently becomes necessary to take extraordinary measures to keep water around. Witness this highly unnatural lake, the Findlay Reservoir.

I chose to land at Findlay because it was along my flight path to Indianapolis and fuel was priced at $4.65/gal (full service). Given the headwind I faced, a fuel stop made a lot of sense. My radio calls on Unicom were made to no one in particular; the place was deserted when I landed. The facility was beautiful, two long runways in excellent condition. The wind velocity blowing down runway 25 was in the high teens, gusting into the twenties. Warrior 481 and I practically descended vertically and touched down gently.

Findlay was quiet. Eerily so. I popped the Warrior's door open to provide some relief from the heat and, though this increased air movement in the cabin, the breeze came in like the hot breath of a furnace. As we taxied, the wind at our tail was strong enough to open the door against the propwash. As I took in the deserted facility, I began to wonder if I needed to fly elsewhere for fuel. Findlay does not have a self service pump.

My concerns were put to rest when a solitary city employee shambled out to the ramp and off-handedly waved me forward to the park at the pump. He was helpful enough, but not interested in chatting.

When I saw the Marathon corporate hangar, I suddenly understood the funding source for the beautiful airport. Perhaps it also explained the low fuel price.

As I disembarked, the aggressive wind clutched at me and I realized that my shirt was soaked through with sweat. I hydrated with the rather warm water that I still carried with me, then took advantage of the free Wi-Fi and air conditioning in the terminal building to file an IFR plan for the final leg of the flight to Indianapolis.

Fancy Schmancy $100 Hamburger

Bump...bump...left rudder...adjust pitch...bump...roll to heading...bump...adjust pitch. So went the remaining flight to Indianapolis, a bit of a slog in the heat.

Pictured above is a southward looking view of the border between Ohio and Indiana. Can you see the difference? Neither could I.

Sectional chart depicting Eagle Creek and Indianapolis International

We passed through areas controlled by Toledo Approach, Fort Wayne Approach, and eventually, Indianapolis Approach. The Indianapolis controller provided a vector to line us up with runway 21 at Eagle Creek Airpark, tucked well under the outer Class Charlie shelf of Indianapolis International's airspace. Despite the haze and my unfamiliarity with the area, I reported the field in sight from fifteen miles out. Indianapolis cleared me for a descent and cut me loose from the system over a collection of towers whose tops reached nearly 1900 feet above sea level (yikes!).

Stratus / ForeFlight GPS ground track from BKL - FDY - EYE

I was thoroughly exhausted when I landed at Eagle Creek, but proud to have hand flown the route so precisely as shown by my radar track.

The staff at Eagle Creek Aviation were very attentive and courteous. In the time it took me to use the restroom, they had already relocated Warrior 481 and securely tied her down. The folks at Granite Air Center in Lebanon, who also charge $15/night for parking, could take some lessons from these guys.

Though tired, I was happy to be back at the "Crossroads of America". The day's flight included landings at three new-to-me airports (BKL, FDY, EYE). Flight planning prior to the availability of winds aloft data anticipated a four hour and five minute total flight time. With headwind, the actual time flown was 5.8 hours.

Eagle Creek is reasonably well known in the aviation community. Microsoft Flight Simulator X even featured a mission involving a Piper Cub at Eagle Creek. Across the street from Eagle Creek is Rick's Cafe Boatyard, a casually upscale restaurant focused on seafood. I was seated quickly, plied with lots of water (per request), and had an excellent dinner while I waited for Mike. I think that I can say without hyperbole that Rick's served the best airport meal I have ever consumed.


Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hours) Total Time (hours)
3 Aug 2015 N21481 EYE (Indianapolis, IN) - BMG (Bloomington, IN) - EYE 1.7 1453.8

There is something amazing about reconnecting with old friends and discovering that the bond is still strong after so many years apart. Mike and I had a great conversation the evening I arrived, part current events, part reminiscence.

The next morning, Mike got his first light aircraft flight in Warrior 481. We launched from Eagle Creek and flew to Bloomington. Along the way, we discovered an abandoned airport (the former Speedway Airport) and Mike took the controls and flew a circle around a farm.

Comrades and Artifacts

At the Monroe County Airport in Bloomington, we parked at Cook Aviation and borrowed one of their Cadillac courtesy cars to visit campus. Both of us strained our rusty memories to navigate a city neither of us have inhabited for fifteen years. On campus, we encountered a former contemporary, Steve, who was leaving his role there as a staff scientist to take a tenure track position at the University at Buffalo. We found my former office mate, Jon, on the fourth floor of the Chemistry Building where he manages the IU Mass Spectrometry Facility. Jon's heartfelt claims that I taught him much of what he knows were warmly appreciated but, I think, a bit exaggerated. We also chanced upon Randy, another alumnus of my old research group now working for a scientific instrument company. He happened to be on site making a sales call. This impromptu reunion moved to Siam House for lunch, an old favorite where I had my very first taste of Thai food many years ago.

After lunch, we sought out my graduate adviser. We found him working in the lab with his college-aged son. While there, I found that the mass spectrometer I built (with help from group mates Randy and Noah) was still in place. It had been unused for several years and the diffusion pump was cool to the touch, but the chamber was still under a partial vacuum. I peered inside at the interior components, reliving late nights in the lab figuring out how to minimize electronic noise in a device designed to accept up to a 16,000 V pulse delivered over tens of nanoseconds. Cables and power supplies still bore labels written in my hand, now faded and brittle.

I published four papers with data acquired on this instrument, though I think the most important moment for me was the day that it started producing useful data.

Stratus / ForeFlight GPS track from EYE to BMG (including Mike's circle) and back.

We returned to Cook Aviation and launched toward the puffy cumulus crowding the sky. I have only high praise for Cook; we were welcomed warmly and at $4.96/gal, their fuel prices were well below the on-field competition (which I used previously).

Back in Indianapolis, Mike escorted me through the chemistry laboratory at the Indianapolis Museum of Art where he periodically volunteers in support of artwork conservation efforts. It was a fascinating look at the application of chemistry to restoring damaged antiquities.

The day ended with dinner at Mike's house with his wife Laura and their teenage daughters whom I last saw as infants.

Good food, good friends, and good science makes for a great trip by general aviation!

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