Saturday, June 18, 2016

"Hello, Cleveland!"

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
18 June 2016 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - BKL (Cleveland, OH) - SDC 4.5 1556.6

During a cool -- but rapidly warming -- June dawn, five aircraft launched from the Williamson-Sodus Airport bound for Cleveland, OH.

Why Cleveland?

First, the Burke Lakefront Airport in Cleveland is one of the rare remaining downtown airports, interposed between the concrete and steel canyons of the city and the waters of Lake Erie. It is an aviation gem and a worthy destination unto itself.

Second, the Cleveland waterfront hosts a number of interesting attractions, including among others, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the U.S.S. Cod, a World War II era submarine.

Partially inspired by my trip there last summer, the Williamson Flying Club scheduled a group fly-out trip to Burke Lakefront Airport. The day developed into a perfect one for flying with calm winds and a clear sky owing to a dome of high pressure situated over the eastern Great Lakes.

Dave flew right seat with me in Warrior 481. Dave is a Private Pilot and currently training for his instrument rating. He has been kind enough to lend both his eyes and his time to me as safety pilot on a few occasions when I wanted to practice instrument approaches.

When we arrived at the departure end of the runway, Mike was already in the process of running-up Eight Five X-Ray. Dan, our event organizer, was not far behind in his Mooney.

Warrior 481 was the first ship in the air, cleared direct on an instrument flight plan at 6,000 feet. As we transited the Rochester area, ForeFlight depicted Mike in Eight Five X-Ray 500 feet higher and roughly four miles behind. Dan, in his Mooney, was at 8,500 feet and eleven miles in trail. Over time, we gained on Eight Five X-Ray, but we watched the nondescript avatar for Dan's Mooney overtake and pass above us to arrive first in Cleveland. Just before we were switched to Buffalo Approach, we heard Mike, the club instructor, check in from Six Echo Sierra with his family. Farther along, we heard One Delta Tango arrive on frequency as well, flown by the club's newest Private Pilot treating his father to a unique Father's Day Weekend adventure.

"Warrior 481, descend to 3,000 feet and expect the visual approach to runway two four right," instructed Cleveland Approach.

Once we reached our new altitude, we were instructed to fly a heading of 270°. After turning to that heading, Cleveland Approach said, "Warrior 481, fly present heading and intercept the localizer."

Uh-oh. Having been instructed to expect a visual approach, I did not anticipate needing to have the approach procedure and its associated frequencies available. There was a moment of scrambling in the cockpit. Dave went to work on his iPad while I dove into the Garmin 430. Each of us found the localizer frequency simultaneously, though my method popped the frequency into place on the Nav 1 radio without my needing to dial it in manually. We intercepted the beam crisply and, once established, I was able to call up the ILS approach procedure and fly it as required to a landing on runway two four right.

As I did on my prior visit, I shunned the high fees at Signature and parked on the public ramp. For those interested in visiting, the city charges all non-based landing aircraft a fee of $7 that will arrive by mail. As of June 2016, a Cherokee parking at Signature will be assessed a $45 facility fee (waived if 7+ gallons of fuel are purchased at $6.98/gal) and a $5 handling/security fee on top of  the city's $7 fee. Overnight parking at Signature is $20, though none of us stayed the night. Tower can provide information on where to park; avoid tie-downs with ropes as these belong to the flight school.

This was Dave's first trip outside of New York by General Aviation. He seemed pleased by the experience.

The crews of the first four aircraft to arrive took a group photo before heading over to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

For the record, I started off holding the guitar correctly, but Dave did not like having the neck in his face and tried to convince me that I would be emulating Hendrix if I held it this way.

The infamous teacher from Pink Floyd's, The Wall.

The Hall of Fame was not my primary interest on this trip because I was just there last year. But we managed a group discount and it was an opportunity to see things I missed the first time around.

One thing that made a significant impression on me this time was how many of the exhibits were video-based. Indeed, while Rock and Roll may be about the music, its story is told very effectively through video: video of Elvis, video of television preachers and Tipper Gore decrying the depravity of rock music, video of iconic performances, video of respected artists recounting the influence of their idols.

One video that I particularly enjoyed was Jimi Hendrix's interview with Dick Cavett following his iconic performance of the National Anthem at Woodstock.

"This man was in the 101st Airborne, so when you write your nasty letters in..." Cavett said.

"Nasty letters?" interrupted Hendrix, puzzled.

"Well, when you talk about the National Anthem and playing it in an unorthodox way, you immediately get a guaranteed percentage of hate mail, people will say 'how dare he'..."

"It's not unorthodox..." Hendrix responded with gentle amazement. "I thought it was beautiful."


Standing near the top of the glass and steel pyramid looking down at the lower tiers.

A prop aircraft from one of Pink Floyd's tours.

When we had seen our fill of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Dave and I made our way to the U.S.S. Cod.

The Cod was constructed by Electric Boat in Groton, CT and launched March 21, 1943. She fought against the Japanese in the South Pacific. The submarine was powered by massive banks of lead acid batteries in her belly that were recharged by diesel engines (built in Cleveland by General Motors, appropriately enough).

Over the course of her tour of duty, the Cod's crew increased from 77 to 97 personnel, all living and working aboard a ship 312 feet long and 27 feet wide.

Flags on the side of the conning tower represent Japanese merchant ships (red suns on white fields) and warships (rising suns with rays) sunk. Hollow suns indicate damaged ships. The tri-colored flags are of Thailand (allied with Japan), the ship silhouette represents a tally of Japanese junks sunk, and the martini glass celebrates the Cod's rescue of the crew of Dutch submarine O-19.

The teak wood planking of the top deck served as a working surface suspended above the tubular submarine hull by a superstructure. To access the submarine interior, Dave and I climbed through a hatch in the top deck, past/through the superstructure supporting the upper deck (above), and through a hatch into the submarine proper (below).

These photos were taken in the forward torpedo room. There are a total of six torpedo tubes at the front of the ship as well as several crew bunks.

Submarines are a study in the optimization of limited space. The walls everywhere are festooned with conduit, valves, and gauges.

Hatches present dexterity challenges throughout the ship, but fortunately, neither Dave nor I were in a hurry and we didn't leave any flesh from our shins on the thresholds.

The control room was directly below the conning tower where a ladder led up to a higher level chamber containing the periscope.

I was puzzled by this chart at first because I did not recognize the geography. Then I realized that sailors would not be interested in inland features; the detailed portion of the chart depicted underwater regions rather than land. Once I accomplished the necessary mental juxtaposition, I recognized what I was looking at for what it was: a nautical chart of Lake Erie.

Peering into this cramped radio room, the first thought that came to mind was of the heat generated by all the vacuum tubes in this equipment.

The Galley. I will never complain about the size of our kitchen at home ever again.

The After Battery Compartment (the batteries were in a chamber below deck) was the most spacious area on board. This is where the crew would have eaten, watched movies, and played games - though, obviously, not all of them at once. There was even an ice cream machine.

Because of the crowding of equipment and utilities throughout, it was easy to become overwhelmed. This is just one of the little details that caught my eye.

One of four diesel engines that powered the ship's lead acid batteries.

Another detail that caught my eye, note the grips on these two handles.

Given the scarcity in space, I was impressed that there was room on board for a lathe. This set me to wondering - how many on-the-fly repairs were necessary to justify carrying this machinery?

These are the controls for the electric propellers providing thrust for the ship.

The aft torpedo room contained four tubes and a ladder back to the outside world.

"Hey, Mister! Watch where you're pointing that thing!"

Dave and I were the last to return to New York. We had a great flight and visit to Cleveland. While I enjoyed the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it was the U.S.S. Cod that really captured my enthusiasm. It was a wonderful day of flying and learning histories in two very different genres.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Here There Be Monsters

Ancient mariners guided their ships across the sea by relying on crude charts depicting a limited and often distorted understanding of the Earth's surface. At the edge of human knowledge, the unknown was explicitly charted with dire warnings. Here there be monsters. Enter at own risk.

Modern aeronautical charts, displayed by the cold glow of a tablet computer's screen, make no suppositions of monsters lurking in the unknown. After all, there is little unknown remaining on a planetary surface that has been been surveyed, photographed, and digitized many times over.

In this age of science and technology, real monsters nevertheless exist for the aeronautical voyager. They do not resemble dragons and are not permanently inked upon navigational charts. Instead, they exist as transients on weather maps, thunderstorms dynamically forming and dissipating, their manifestations color coded for ready assessment of risk. These are the visible monsters that can be detected by radar or with the naked eye; dangerous, but generally avoidable.

Some monsters, however, are not so readily apparent.

Golden Hour Idyll

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
6 June 2016 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - 5G0 (LeRoy, NY) - D38 (Canandaigua, NY) - SDC 1.9 1550.8

Photographers call it the golden hour, those early moments after the sun's first appearance over the horizon or the interval heralding the sun's daily decline. Colors are warmer and shadows are longer, accentuating ground features in chiseled detail. On the right day, the golden hour is a wonderful time to fly and marvel upon the good Earth below.

The trees were active all day, swaying in a chaotic dance enlivened by gusty winds. Forecasts called for the air to go quiescent near 7:00 pm and, wonderfully, it did. It was to be a temporary calm overnight as thunderstorms were anticipated for much of the following day.

Hemlock, NY with Hemlock Lake in the background

The Warrior and I floated through still air, observing the lengthening shadows. I made my way to Letchworth State Park where areas deep within the gorge were already obscured in partial darkness.

Mount Morris Dam and the Genesee River

Middle Falls, Letchworth State Park

Middle Falls, Letchworth State Park

After sightseeing, I flew to Le Roy for fuel. In the distance, thunderstorms could be seen over Canada. Though the western clouds were foreboding, Foreflight showed the nearest thunderstorms to be over Toronto. They would not be a factor for us. The Warrior would be back in her hangar long before their arrival.

Still wanting to hone my landings, I turned final for runway 28 at Le Roy. I noticed the yellow Hummer parked at an angle by the airport office. Good, Ray was there. Returning to Earth, I eased the yoke back and rolled the wheels on with a single, quiet chirp.

Patron Saint

I was pleased to see Ray, whom I have often referred to as my own personal Patron Saint of Aviation. After fueling, we chatted a bit as I eyed the darkening sky. When I decided it was time to go, Ray shook my hand with a warm smile and wished me well. I did a single touch and go at Le Roy, my first since breaking in the new cylinder, and turned eastbound for home.

Things That Go Bump in the Night

After sunset, the lights of Rochester traced serpentine patterns through the darkness below. My hand on the controls was light as the air was absolutely still. Rochester Approach's frequency was silent until a Canadian commuter (call sign, "Georgian") arrived on scene. During a quietly perfunctory approach, the Rochester controller abruptly said something that caught everyone's attention.

"Georgian XYZ, we're getting a wind shear alert, anticipate a 30 knot speed gain on three mile final, runway 4."


The airliner's crew asked for details about the other runways and began working through a plan with the controller. "The readings are changing every fifteen seconds," commented the Rochester controller, sounding ever so slightly puzzled.

I was east of Rochester, floating in still twilight air. Once the approach controller switched the airliner to Rochester Tower for landing, only I remained on frequency.

The Warrior began a gentle climb. Automatically, I pulled the throttle back a bit and pushed the nose forward to hold altitude. Insistently, the climb continued. Smoothly, abruptly, the needle on the vertical speed indicator (VSI) swung clockwise and pegged in a full deflection climb of a rate exceeding 2,000 feet per minute. Tending to live in the 0 - 1000 feet per minute range, this was unexplored territory for the Warrior's VSI needle and it meant that I was in the grip of something far more powerful than the airplane itself.

I was still resisting the climb with forward pressure on the controls. I pulled the throttle entirely to idle, but nonetheless watched the airspeed increase alarmingly toward red line. In strong updrafts, such as those found in thunderstorms, the best course of action is to assume a level attitude and not fight the updraft. This avoids overstressing the airframe. Aircraft break when their airspeeds rise into the red. I relaxed the forward pressure and watched the airspeed indicator reassuringly sweep back into a safe range for rough air.

In seconds, I climbed from 3,000 to 4000 feet. Somewhere above 4,000 feet, the Warrior bucked in the first bout of turbulence. I fought to keep the wings level. One particularly nasty jolt was enough to throw my flight bag (which, among other things, contained a headset, a handheld radio, and a liter of water) from the back seat into the right seat beside me.

Then I entered a downdraft and plummeted to 2,500 feet in seconds. I restored power and stabilized the airplane. The turbulence abated and the Warrior hummed through the nighttime sky as though nothing unusual had just happened.

Rochester called. "Warrior 481, how's the ride?" Surely he already knew, having seen my altitude fluctuating wildly on his screen.

The entire incident, from initial climb to leveling at 2,500 feet lasted no more than a couple of minutes. Rattled, I could not parse my response into standard FAA jargon. "I just flew through some really nasty turbulence."

"We're getting reports of moderate turbulence at much higher altitudes." In fact, there had been an AIRMET warning issued for turbulence in the flight levels, but not for anything below 20,000 feet and I had ignored it during flight planning. Then again, there was no mention of wind shear in any of the terminal forecasts, either.

"Warrior 481, ten miles from Sodus, no traffic observed between you and the airport, squawk VFR, frequency change approved and ... be careful going in there."

Trapped in the Sky

I thanked him and switched to Unicom. On the number two radio, I tuned the automated weather station for the Williamson-Sodus Airport and allowed it to loop continuously in the background.

"Williamson-Sodus Airport, Sodus, New York, automated weather observation...wind calm..." droned the synthesized voice. I was relieved. All was calm on the home front.

I called five miles out, turned on the runway lighting, and began a descent. I was briskly shaken several more times by abrupt turbulence as the automated weather observation broadcast continued to recite the real time weather.

"...wind calm..."

Then, each successive broadcast changed.

"...wind, three five zero at five..."

I announced a 45 degree pattern entry for runway 28.

"...wind, two niner zero at seven..."

I called downwind for runway 28.

"...wind, three four zero at ten..."

"...wind, three zero zero at one two..."

I called left base.

"...wind, three five zero at one two, peak gust one seven. Wind variable between two niner zero and three five zero..."

In moments, the air surrounding the airport had gone from still to chaotic. I rolled onto final approach, fixated on the precision approach path indicator (PAPI) showing two white lights that indicated I was above the safe glideslope. Treetops stretched skyward, hidden in the dark like reefs beneath the waves waiting to gouge a ship's hull. I decided to ride the glideslope high, just in case. My hand clenched the throttle, poised to abort the landing if the turbulence became too severe.

I entered another downdraft, suddenly sinking through the visual glideslope toward the invisible trees. As first one, then the other PAPI light turned red, I fed the Warrior full throttle and leveled the nose to arrest the descent.

I continued to sink.

As airspeed increased, I eased the flaps out.

I continued to sink.

I pitched the Warrior into a maximum performance climb and was finally able to counteract the downdraft, struggling back into the chaotic sky at an anemic 100 feet per minute while being shaken violently.

I was stranded aloft, at least for the moment. There was no way that I would attempt another landing at home base until the weather changed again. It was a perfect example of the old saw that it is far better to be on the ground wishing to be in the air than the other way around.

Safe Harbor

Back at altitude in moderate turbulence, I pondered my next move. Clearly, something was moving into the area from the northwest. I suspected that it was a gust front of an early arriving thunderstorm, but did not know for certain.

My first thought was of Fuzzy, the Oswego Count Airport (FZY) to the east. Their automated weather broadcast indicated that the winds were calm. Perhaps, I thought, I could land there ahead of this weather, let it roll past, then backtrack to Sodus in calm air. But what if the atmospheric chaos resulted from the gust front of an approaching thunderstorm? I would be stranded at Fuzzy and very far from home.

Canandaigua Airport (D38), photographed 30 May 2016

Then, I listened to Canandaigua Airport's weather. As a Rochester area airport, Canandaigua was a more appealing alternate airport. I have diverted there before. Yes, Canandaigua is west of Sodus and back toward Rochester, but it was also farther south and the weather was clearly moving in from the northwest.

"...wind calm..."

I turned toward Canandaigua, occasionally riding through bouts of turbulence strong enough to upset the airplane into rather steep bank angles. Incandescent stars lighting towns and streets below rotated crazily in the Warrior's windscreen as I made my way to port.

"...wind calm..."

I was perfectly positioned to enter a left base leg for runway 13 and did so, flying an arcing base to final leg to expedite an arrival to the safe harbor of runway below.

"...wind calm..."

Chirp, chirp. I was rolling.

As I taxied to the ramp, I exhaled a shaky sigh of relief and maneuvered to an available tie down spot on Canandaigua's ramp. I had just shut down the avionics when I caught a stirring in my peripheral vision. The Warrior's landing light illuminated tall grass at the ramp's edge that had suddenly started moving frantically. I restored power to the radio.

"...wind, three four zero at one zero, peak gust one seven..."

The monster had caught up with me, but this time, I had thwarted him. I was safely on the ground. I finished shutting down the airplane and hurried outside to tie down the tough old girl, certain that a storm was coming in the wake of the crazy gusting. Opening the baggage compartment, I discovered that everything inside had been thrown about, a parting reminder of the significant turbulence I experienced.


At 10:22 pm, I called home for help. There was no answer because Kristy was already asleep. So I turned to my Patron Saint of Aviation. Not only did I know that Ray was a night owl, I also knew that he would exactly understand my situation. Ray could tell that I was rattled and generously agreed to pick me up from the airport. I later learned that paperwork and keys for rental cars are available for unannounced late night arrivals on the FBO desk, information that I filed away for any future diversions to Canandaigua.

I waited inside the Canandaigua FBO for nearly an hour. Over time, I stopped shaking and started working through the logistics of getting to work the next morning and eventually retrieving a car from Sodus and an airplane from Canandaigua.

I also contemplated the atmospheric monster with which I had just tussled. What was it? What created it? Was there anything in the forecast that might have warned me of its presence before I went aloft? Powerful updrafts and downdrafts are generally associated with thunderstorms or strong winds impinging on mountainous terrain. The initial updraft I experienced was reminiscent of riding ridge lift over Weston Pass in the Rocky Mountains. But I was over relatively flat country and, as Foreflight's weather radar revealed, there was no thunderstorm in the vicinity. My assumption about a coming storm was completely false. Even the storm that had been over Toronto during my visit to Le Roy had meandered eastward over Lake Ontario and dissipated before reaching Rochester.

So, what happened? I do not truly know. There was a cold front approaching the area and perhaps the atmospheric chaos I experienced was air being pushed ahead of a rapidly moving front, but I have not experienced anything so profoundly violent in fifteen years of flying. It was not the magnitude of the wind that was distressing, it was the strength of the turbulence, the variable direction of the wind, and combinations of updrafts and downdrafts unlike anything I have ever experienced over flat terrain.

This monster did not appear on the charts. It lurked silently, without the visual spectacle of torrential rain and lighting, and it struck without warning.

I stepped back outside into cool nighttime air sometime after 11:00 pm. Intense pinpoints of light marked the locations of stars sprinkled over a cloudless celestial dome. The atmosphere was still and all evidence of the monster's fury was gone. 

I checked various weather reporting stations around the region:

Rochester, wind calm. 

Sodus, wind calm. 

Syracuse, wind calm.

The most active weather in the region that I could find was a light rain shower somewhere over the middle of Lake Ontario, closer to the Canadian shore than to home.

When Ray arrived around 11:20, I talked through what happened. Ray noted that a few minutes after I departed Le Roy, the windsock there began thrashing about as though possessed. Evidently, the monster had been chasing me ever since I left my former home base.

I felt foolish for pulling him away from home so late at night only to have the weather go calm before he arrived. The most logical path forward was for me to climb back into the Warrior and return home. Ray agreed, though he was anxious about letting a spooked pilot return to the sky. I assured him that I was no longer rattled, that the hour spent waiting and thinking had expunged most of the fear.

"OK, but I'm going to stay right here," Ray insisted. Of course, he was. "If you run into problems, come back here. When you get back to Sodus, call me. If you don't call, I will be very angry with you!" he added with a smile.

We guessed the combination to the airport's vehicle gate and drove Ray's truck out to the Warrior where, in the glow of its headlights, I un-battened hatches so hastily battened down after landing (tie downs, cabin cover, cowl plugs, and gust lock). My fear that something even worse was coming seemed laughable in the now dormant night.

As I climbed away from the airport, I watched the lights of Ray's truck return to the airport parking lot where he waited for my call.

No longer stranded in a choppy, aeronautical sea, I made easy landfall at Sodus and called Ray to release him from his vigil. I cannot express how grateful I am to have such good friends.

Pushing Warrior 481 back into the safe confines of her hangar, I noted that she was severely splattered with bugs. Though it was midnight, I took the time to wipe her wings, stabilator, cowling, and windshield clean in a therapeutic post-flight ritual. With that completed, I patted her cowling and left her to rest. I reached home at 1:00 am nearly completely wrung out.


What did I learn?

In some cases, I reinforced things that I already knew:
  • The best way to manage a scary situation is to keep calm and fly the airplane. 
  • This experience reinforced that a dangerous airspeed can be reached quickly in a powerful updraft. When caught in a powerful updraft, maintaining a level attitude, rather than trying to maintain altitude becomes important. Because this recommendation is usually given in the context of becoming caught in a thunderstorm, it is not knowledge that I ever anticipated using. Ordinary summer thermals lack the kind of power I experienced on this flight.
  • Always be ready to abort a landing if the situation does not look right.
  • The weather is always changing. Pay attention.
Though my landing attempt at Sodus was performed with a healthy readiness to abort, I wonder if this unusual situation warranted an even more conservative approach. Considering the rapid development of chaotic conditions on the field, a better choice may have been to divert without trying to land.

Finally, this experience underscored the need to thoroughly brief the weather. This is not to say that I did not review the weather before going aloft. I did and saw nothing to foreshadow the monster I encountered over Rochester that night. This makes me wonder if my weather knowledge is adequate. Was there a sign that I missed or failed to recognize? Regardless, if the data are not gathered in the first place, discussions on what to do with it are entirely moot.