Friday, December 23, 2016

Reflection 2016

The Good and the Not-So-Good

I always enjoy my time in the air (well, almost always) and because of that, it is hard to be disappointed by a year where I was privileged to log 112.8 hours in control of an aircraft and visited some great destinations. Still, 2016 will be remembered as the year we lost many beloved public figures including celebrated aviators Arnold Palmer, Bob Hoover and, most recently, John Glenn.

I will also specifically remember 2016 as the year Warrior 481 required a cylinder replacement, her most significant maintenance challenge since we started flying together in March 2004. 2016 was the year I made plans to earn my tailwheel endorsement with a well-regarded instructor only to have my plans scuttled by an earlier-than-anticipated engine overhaul on a J-3 Cub in Michigan. Most importantly, 2016 was the year that I encountered an unexpected and violent atmospheric phenomenon aloft that shook my self confidence for months to follow.

But there was good in 2016, too. 2016 marked the occasion of The Bear's first air show, our first flight to Boston, and the sampling of a few truly outstanding $100 hamburger destinations from Vermont to West Virginia. Though the numbers are not as impressive as last year's, they represent a lot of good experiences in 2016.

The Numbers

2: The number of instrument approaches I flew in actual conditions to get into IFR destinations (Williamsport, PA and Luray, VA). Beyond the satisfaction of earning the rating, I am pleased to actually be using it! Aside from approaches, numerous flights involved departures through thin overcast layers that would have prevented a VFR-only pilot from safely reaching the intended destination.

112.8: The number of hours I logged in 2016, including 3.0 hours in new-to-me club aircraft N701DT and 3.8 hours in actual instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). I surpassed the 1500 hour milestone in January and accumulated over 1600 hours total before year's end.

9: The number of states visited in 2016 - Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, Vermont, and West Virginia. It was my first landing in Massachusetts. If I can contrive good excuses to land in Rhode Island (Block Island?) and Delaware, I'll have landed in every state on the eastern seaboard.

Google Earth / MyFlightBook representation of flights in 2016

31.4: The number of hours I flew with my favorite copilot, The Bear, in 2016. Often it was just the two of us exploring new (to us) places.

2: The number of different grass runways I used in 2016 (Grimes Airport, Bethel, PA and Basin Harbor Airport, Vergennes, VT). Not having been based at an airport with a grass runway since 2005, it's always a pleasure to land on high quality turf again.

7: The number of new airports visited in 2016.

22: The number of people who flew with me in 2016. Thanks to prospective flight students Barb K-F, Max K, and Ed C; Sonja K; Darrell, who braved the first flight in Warrior 481 with a new #3 cylinder; frequent safety pilot and fellow "submariner" Dave P; Mike B, who provided a check-out in N701DT in preparation for the Williamson Apple Blossom Pancake Breakfast charity flights; the twelve trusting members of the public who flew with me in One Delta Tango; safety pilot Joe E; fellow aviation blogger Steve D; and colleague Patrick P for joining me in the air.

The Photographs

Here's the good part: a randomized sampling of my favorite flying images from 2016.

This is why I fly.

Over the clouds on Victor 2 between Rochester and Buffalo

The whole family hopping down to Knoxville, TN for Easter
("The Easter Hop")

Departing Piseco Airport in the Adirondacks on the day I surpassed 1500 hours
("Kerosene Milestone")

Pennsylvania farm country
("Flying the Spectrum")

At the Golden Age Air Museum, Bethel, PA
("Flying the Spectrum")

Rochester, NY near sunset
("The Odyssey")

Sunset over Lake Ontario observed from over Fulton, NY
("Golden Hour")

On the ILS-24R at Cleveland's Burke Lakefront Airport
("Hello, Cleveland!")

Cloudscape and landscape
("Flying the Spectrum")

Sitting left seat in the Air Zoo's 1929 Ford Trimotor
("The Flying Bear Meets the Tin Goose")

Middle Falls at Letchworth State Park. Surface temperatures were 5°F.

Night landing at Canandaigua Airport
("Dichotomous Night")

A glory observed after climbing through the overcast
("The Easter Hop")

One of my favorite little airports, Knoxville Downtown Island Airport (KDKX)
("The Easter Hop")

The Bear arrives at the Oswego County Airport ready for pancakes!
("Bumpy Breakfast")

Middle Falls, Letchworth State Park
("Here There Be Monsters")

The biggest runway I've ever landed on: Griffiss International Airport, Rome, NY (KRME)
("That Old Autumn Magic")

Mist pooling in valleys near the Tennessee / Kentucky border
("The Easter Hop")

Night currency flight at the Canandaigua Airport
("Dichotomous Night")

Cloud cover in retreat from Buffalo, NY

Warrior 481 framed by the wires of a WACO biplane at Grimes Field, Bethel, PA
("Flying the Spectrum")

Clear air, crisp clouds, bumpy ride
("Bumpy Breakfast")

I-94 slices through civilization  near Chesterfield, MI

About to ride through a narrow band of clouds somewhere over New Hampshire

En route to Luray, VA from Latrobe, PA
("Clan of the (Flying) Cave Bear")

Wind turbines southeast of Dansville, NY
("Digital Community")

Warrior 481 at the Oswego County Airport near sunset
("Golden Hour")

The Adirondack Mountains in winter
("Kerosene Milestone")

After sunset over Western NY
("Clan of the (Flying) Cave Bear")

Overcast near the Shenandoah Valley
("Clan of the (Flying) Cave Bear")

The Adirondack Mountains in autumn
("That Old Autumn Magic")

Buffalo Niagara International Airport (KBUF)
("The Odyssey")

Preparing Warrior 481 for a flight to Michigan

See you next year!

Sunday, November 6, 2016



During my early childhood, I spent a lot of time with my Uncle Ron and his family. They lived on the water -- Lake Orion in southeast Michigan -- and owned a powerboat, which more or less guaranteed that there was always something fun and cool to do at their house. A capable mechanic who owned a truck repair business, I learned a lot from him at a young age. I enjoyed spending time with him because he was always patient with me and possessed a great sense of humor.

From left to right, Uncle Ron, Aunt Barb, Mom, Kristy, The Bear, me,
Uncle Brian, Aunt Karen. Taken at the Lapeer-Dupont Airport on August 31, 2007

As my education and career progressed, I moved away from Oakland County and then to two different states, which resulted in seeing less and less of my family over the years. In October 2016, my uncle was diagnosed with a brain tumor after being debilitated by an excruciating headache that lasted for multiple days. To hear him tell it after the fact, the tumor was approximately the size of a golf ball. On November 4, he was released from the hospital after it was successfully removed surgically.

On November 5, I was in the air over Ontario Canada and on my way to see him.

Rush Inspection

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
05 Nov 2016 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - PTK (Waterford, MI) 3.0 1600.7

Warrior 481 is subject to airworthiness directive AD 98-02-08 that requires an inspection of the hollow crankshaft bore for corrosion every 100 hours. This is mandatory for my ship because the interior of the crank is already pitted and has been for many years. The pitting has not worsened in the time that I have owned the airplane. This does not surprise me given how much oil is present inside the crankshaft and the fact that the airplane is regularly flown to keep that oil moving around. Nonetheless, every mechanic that has cared for my airplane has dutifully conducted this inspection. If anything, this inspection has brought me to grief more than it has added value, but it is still legally required.

A week before departing to visit my uncle, I did a night currency flight and realized that I only had four hours remaining before the inspection was due. Considering that the round trip to Michigan requires at least five hours, I needed to complete the inspection before leaving. Otherwise, conventional wisdom holds that "the wings would fall off" midway across Canada on the return, right? No problem: Ray and Mike at BAC Services slotted me into their schedule with urgency and took care of it.

Using the Ticket

An overcast covered western New York from 3,00 to 4,000 feet MSL. I picked up my clearance to Pontiac in the air and climbed through the deck, another excellent example of how 0.1 hours of logged IMC time can enable a cross country flight that would have been deferred had I been VFR-only.

Batavia, NY seen through the deck

In cruise flight at 6,000 feet on Victor 2 between Rochester and Buffalo

Buffalo-Lancaster Airport (BQR) southeast of Buffalo, NY

The ceiling broke up east of Buffalo and the sky remained utterly clear, if a little hazy, for the remainder of the flight.

Buffalo, NY

Same Ol'

Port Colborne, Ontario and the Welland Canal

The flight along Victor 2 toward metropolitan Detroit was routine and uneventful. As usual, Cleveland Center's transmitter in this area was weak. I dutifully reported an ELT signal to Center as I came within range of it and reported again when it faded away. Was it a downed aircraft? A false alarm? I'll never know.

While still over Ontario and just west of the Aylmer VOR (YQO), Cleveland Center cleared me direct to Pontiac, a time savings of perhaps three minutes from my original full route clearance.

Outlet of the St Clair River into Lake St Clair

As I crossed back into Michigan, I found myself thinking about my uncle. The very notion of brain surgery is a terrifying one. Was there any collateral damage? Would he be still be himself or would he be changed somehow?

St Clair River, looking north toward Lake Huron

St Clair River, a zoom of the previous photograph

Those extra three minutes were quickly eaten up by a series of "vectors for spacing" given by Selfridge Approach. It was not at all clear to me what I was being separated from.

I-94 northeast of Chesterfield, MI

Autumn's Last Gasp

Descending toward Pontiac, I passed the Palace of Auburn Hills. Though I have watched a few Detroit Pistons games there, I have seen a lot more concerts. The last one was in 2015 when Kristy and I met several of our friends to see Rush on their R40 (farewell?) tour.

I wish someone would do something with the Silverdome for it is neither silver nor domed. I can't speak for the neighbors on the ground, but it's an eyesore from the air with the upper bowl seating apparently littered with shreds of inflatable roof.

Lined up for runway 27L at Oakland County International

I was cleared for a visual approach to runway 27L and flew the RNAV approach for practice.

The Visit

After I landed at Oakland County International, Mom met me at Michigan Aviation. We set out for my uncle's house after getting lunch at the new Latin restaurant in Clarkston, Honcho. It was really quite good in spite of a decor that tried too hard to achieve that post-industrial chic look; the faux plywood laminate tabletops were a bit much.

As we drove to Uncle Ron's house, I realized that my anxiety was increasing. Would he be OK? Unfortunately, I had plenty of time to dwell on this. My aunt and uncle built a large house out in the middle of nowhere that was nearly an hour drive away.

When we reached the house, I followed Mom inside. Before I set eyes on Uncle Ron, Mom exclaimed, "I didn't know we'd be looking at stitches!" Peering around her, I saw my uncle seated in the kitchen and sporting an uncovered vertical scar just forward of his right ear. He looked pale and tired.

"Not stitches. Staples," he corrected. Before my mother could exclaim again, he added, "Brass ones," and managed a shadow of his old grin.

Oh, he's going to be just fine, I thought.

We talked about that day's flight. He was particularly curious about the airworthiness directive that nearly derailed my visit. We also talked a lot about the surgery, the high-tech way it was performed, and what the experience was like for him (to sum up, it wasn't fun). He gave me a full tour of the house he had built because the last time I saw it, they were still hanging drywall. Though he was struggling to breathe and looked exhausted when we first arrived, his energy increased and his breathing improved as we interacted. I think the stimulation of our visit combined with moving around the house on foot made all the difference. Though the tour was ostensibly for me, it was excellent therapy for him. He was obviously pleased to have us there and it appeared to me that our visit did tremendous good. We departed knowing that our visit had fortified him.

I was glad to have made the trip.


That evening, I borrowed Mom's car and visited my dear college friend Cher an hour north in Bay City. She originally intended to come to me that evening, but her credit card had been compromised and deactivated, leaving her no means of buying gas. I thought that was awful, so I drove north and bought her dinner.

Yucking it up with Ed at Fino's. Photo by Heather.

The next morning, I reunited with high school friends Ed (and his girlfriend Jessica whom I had not met previously), Lisa, Heather, and Joe. Though I have been in contact with Joe and Heather over the years, I had not seen Lisa in person since high school graduation nor Ed since my second year in college. Unfortunately, I didn't think to take any pictures with my friends. What was I thinking?


All trips to Michigan end with a return home.

Ed and Jessica were kind enough to drop me at the airport after breakfast so that I could make my way back to New York.

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
06 Nov 2016 N21481 PTK (Waterford, MI) - SDC (Sodus, NY) 3.0 1603.7

After wrapping up my final check on the weather, I was prepared to hike to the far corner of the Michigan Aviation ramp where my airplane was tied down. But when I looked up from my iPad, I saw that the line staff was towing the Warrior to a spot right outside the lobby door. I was pleased by the service, but even more pleased by their use of a red cover on the nosewheel fairing to prevent it from being scratched by the tow bar. If only all FBOs followed their example.

We have settled into a comfortably circuitous routine for departing Pontiac, ATC and I. This day was no exception. It goes something like this:

Step 1: I file a palatable overland route home from Pontiac. I try something different every time, but it never matters -- the outcome is always the same.

Step 2: The FAA computers assign the preferred MOONN intersection departure routing over Lake Erie. Thanks a bunch, Skynet.

Step 3: The human controller in Pontiac Tower reads my flight plan request to avoid flying over the Great Lake and negotiates with Center for something more akin to what I filed in the first place. Aren't humans great?

I was cleared for taxi before this negotiation was complete and received the new clearance after I completed my preflight checks at the Bravo Runup Pad. Within minutes of programming the new clearance into the navigator, I was airborne and receiving eastbound vectors from Detroit Departure.

The unusually shaped St Thomas Airport (CYQS) in Ontario, Canada.

The airport in Dunnville, Ontario closed in 2013 to make way for this wind turbine farm

Eye-catching ponds near Port Maitland, Ontario

"Sprawling on the fringes of the city, in geometric order, an insulated
 border, in between the bright lights and the far unlit unknown."
 (Rush, Subdivisions, from the album Signals, 1982)

I was struck by the densely packed suburbs north of Buffalo. Sure, I grew up in suburbs radiating dozens of miles beyond Detroit, but I was used to suburbs with space.

Genesee River valley north of downtown Rochester, NY

Home again - Irondequoit Bay

As I let down toward the Williamson-Sodus Airport, I had some concerns about the ride. Forecasts called for moderate turbulence over much of New York state from the surface to just shy of my cruise altitude. But the air remained smooth in the descent and the wind was dead calm as I squeaked Warrior 481 onto runway 28. It was yet another example of how turbulence AIRMETS can be hit or miss.

FlightAware ground track (green) and original MOONN routing (dashed)


When I landed at home, I was very glad to have made the trip and pleased to have had the capability to accomplish it. I have expounded previously on how my airplane makes such an effective bridge to the important people in my life. It is not my intent to belabor a point already made many times over. Nonetheless, I am losing count of the number of times that the airplane has reunited me with old friends, strengthened existing relationships, or brought me to someone in need just when it mattered most. This weekend, Warrior 481 facilitated all three situations.

Because I have observed many instances of aviation enhancing human connection over the years, I should not be surprised when it happens. Still, I am struck by it every single time. Maybe I am a slow learner. Or maybe it's because of mindset. I pursued flying for the technical challenge and for opportunities to gaze upon the Earth from above; I did not consider flying as a means to connect or stay connected with people.

Still, I would be hard pressed to name an avocation that requires more knowledgeable skill, creates stronger human connections, and comes with a better view than flying.

Postscript: March 4, 2017

I never saw my uncle again. His recovery was hard, complicated by cardiac issues, two bouts of pneumonia, blood clots, and a fall resulting in a fractured spine. After experiencing a litany of complicating conditions that impeded his recovery, he passed away in the hospital surrounded by as many family members as could be summoned on a moment's notice. This did not -- could not -- include me because I live too far away. There is magic in flight and I am grateful that flying made it possible to have one last visit with him. But on his final day, those reliable aluminum wings would not have been enough to get me there in time.