Monday, January 2, 2017

From Whence Came the Dressing

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
02 Jan 2017 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - Thousand islands - SDC 2.0 1613.7

My flying mostly falls into three categories:

1. Going someplace
2. Practicing airwork or instrument procedures (to safely enable #1)
3. Cruising for the sake of cruising (sort of like #1, but more about the flight than the destination)

Today's flight fell into the latter category.

Since moving to New York, I have been amazed by the natural wonders that this state offers: magnificent waterfalls (more than just Niagara), the Adirondack Mountains, the Finger Lakes, Lake Ontario (even if it's still not as cool as Lake Michigan), and -- my destination for the day -- the Thousand Islands of the Saint Lawrence River.

It was a perfect day for winter sightseeing. The sun was shining over a landscape lightly dusted in snow, the air was clear, and the wind was calm. I love the crisp contrast of deep blue water against a snowy landscape. Though the surface wind was calm, I obviously flew through three different air masses along the way. The boundary of each was announced by a temporary bout of light turbulence followed by a significantly different velocity over the ground.

Beyond that, I'll let the photographs speak for themselves.

The east end of Lake Ontario, looking north

Port Ontario

North Sandy Pond

Lakeview Wildlife Management Area

Entrance to Black River Bay

Interchange of I-81 and NY-12 near Alexandria Bay

The St Lawrence River and some of the Thousand Islands

Boldt Castle on Heart Island, Alexandria Bay, NY

Goose bay

Salmon Run Mall, Watertown, NY

Nine Mile Point Nuclear Plant, the eastern boundary of my "home territory"

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Reminiscence and Prospect

Not long after the sun rose on 2017 for the first time, I roused the Warrior from hibernation and took to the air. As an aviator, I am hard pressed to think of a better way to celebrate the start of a new year than venturing into the sky. As I climbed into the cold, crisp air, I felt a sense of renewal and hope for a year of new possibilities. 

In cruise, I found myself reflecting on a flight twelve years earlier, the only other time I took wing on New Year's Day.

Auld Lang Syne

Dave's Stearman on a cold winter's day, photographed 30 January 2005

I've been flying since 2001, nearly sixteen years. Because of weather or circumstance (or most likely both), I have only managed one other trip aloft on New Year's Day in that time. In 2005, I flew with my mentor Dave in his Stearman on January 1. The venerable open cockpit biplane was constructed in 1943 and originally tasked with primary flight training of would-be Naval aviators, but on that occasion she carried the two of us aloft on a celebratory New Year's Day flight.

Dave and Kent warm up the Stearman on 30 January 2005

Winter flying in a sixty year old open-cockpit aircraft is a drafty proposition that necessitates dressing warmly. Fortunately, the stubby windshields in front of each cockpit do a more capable job of deflecting the slipstream than casual observers might expect. The most uncomfortable part of the experience for me was the time spent idling on the ground with nothing to do as the Continental radial up front slowly warmed into its operational temperature range. This is an engine that measures its oil capacity in gallons rather than quarts and that oil -- along with the rest of the engine -- needs to warm up before take off power can be applied. Objectively speaking, it was much colder aloft than on the ground, but the experience of viewing the world framed between the Stearman's flying wires was so enthralling that I did not really notice the sub-freezing temperature once we broke ground.

OK...I lied. I did notice, but I did not mind it.

Selfie from the front cockpit of Dave's Stearman, 1 January 2005.

Fortunately, I was well-cowled so that only my nose and cheeks were exposed to the biting air. We launched from the South Haven Area Regional Airport just outside of South Haven, MI, crossed the snowy beach demarcating Michigan's west coast from Lake Michigan, and circled the red lighthouse at the end of the pier. It was not a long flight, but it was a thoroughly memorable and unique experience.

Dave's Stearman landing on runway 4 at the South Haven Area
Regional Airport (KLWA), 30 January 2005

We became known around the airport as "the two idiots who flew a Stearman on New Years Day". But even we had our limits and, when it came time to head to Plainwell for breakfast that morning, the flight was conducted in more sensible aircraft with enclosed cabins. Of course, we discovered on arrival that the restaurant was closed for the holiday. This pointless caravan of airplanes to a closed restaurant is documented in my logbook, but is mostly missing from my memory. What I remember most about that day is the incongruous joy of an open cockpit flight in the bitter cold.

Why did we do it?

Because we could.

Dave bought the Stearman during the summer of 2004 and received several hours of dual instruction in it before continuing to hone his proficiency with the narrow-legged, top-heavy antique until convinced that he could fly passengers without treating them to a ground loop. Because he achieved that level of comfort just in time for winter, Dave flew whenever available time and VFR weather coincided. The temperature was not much of a factor in the decision to fly and all of us at the airport were eager to join in.

Celebrating in Relative Comfort

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
01 Jan 2017 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - GVQ (Batavia, NY) - 5G0 LeRoy. NY) - SDC 1.9 1611.7

Reminiscence of that New Year's Day from twelve years past faded. In 2017, my flight was a solitary one. Ensconced in my "modern" 1979 Piper, the engine rumble was lessened from that of the radial and the harmonic song of the Stearman's flying wires was absent. The airplane was comfortably warm inside and I had shed my coat while boarding (dropping my iPhone on the ramp in the process, but I found it unbroken and without any airplane tire tracks across it when I returned). To be honest, the Warrior's heater never stays set at "just right", but it is content to remain at either "grocery store freezer section" or "surface of the sun".

The first day of 2017 dawned so clear that visibility was limited more by the curvature of the Earth than atmospheric haze. It was a high definition sky so perfectly transparent that it seemed I could have peered into the future if only my visual acuity were keen enough.

North end of Irondequoit Bay

A plume of muddy Lake Ontario water expands into Irondequoit Bay

I turned west along the Lake Ontario shore and established two way radio communication with Rochester Approach for transit of the Charlie airspace. Near the shore, Lake Ontario's normally blue surface was transformed into a brownish grey by suspended silt churned up after several days of chaotic weather.

Delving Into Details

Every so often, something on the ground will catch my eye. Today, it was a ship docked in the Genesee River north of Rochester. With curiosity piqued, I photographed it.

Starting with the letters "ESSROC" painted prominently on the flank of the ship, a post-flight session with Google led to identification of the ship and its story. Launched as the Fort William in 1965, the freighter has a colorful history that includes a head on collision with another ship, a capsizing, and an explosion. Currently hauling cement for ESSROC under the name Stephen B. Roman, it makes frequent runs between ports in Toronto, Rochester, and Oswego with occasional trips through the Welland Canal to Lake Erie. It is the last of its class of package freighters still operating on the Great Lakes.

It always amazes me how a stray observation of something from the air can lead to volumes of narrative when researched. I love this about flying. I often feel that the best way to explore what's happening on the ground is to get above it all.


West of Rochester, I passed beneath a band of broken clouds that spread a localized dusk across the landscape. Though my flight was inspired by the prospect of a new year, my course was driven by nostalgia and I steered the airplane toward former haunts of the Genesee County and Le Roy airports.

I-90 disappears into the west as observed from over Batavia, NY

A field between Batavia and LeRoy, NY

Warrior 481 at the Le Roy Airport (5G0)

Speed Bumps

After landings at Genesee County and Le Roy, my next thought was to fly south and visit the falls in Letchworth State Park. I changed my mind on take-off from Le Roy when the Warrior was buffeted by some attention-getting turbulence. I decided to retrace my route home by flying north to Lake Ontario and making a right turn to follow the shoreline back to Sodus.

The flight home at 3,000 feet was bumpy enough that I reduced airspeed and ensured that my seat belt was cinched tightly.

Lake Ontario and the Port of Rochester

As I passed the Port of Rochester, I was struck by the different blues beyond my windscreen; the pale blue of the sky, the deep blue of Lake Ontario, the grey-blue of the silty water near shore, and the gradients of color within.

The airplane was suddenly wracked by an abrupt, intense impulse of turbulence. Despite the tightened seat belt, the jolt sent me out of my seat. I felt the crunch of brittle 38 year old plastic as my noggin smashed into the overhead air plenum. Tiny pieces of gray plastic momentarily rained down from above.

That's gonna leave a mark, I thought.

A prime example of me using my head.

And it did - on the airplane. It looks like 2017 will be a good year to treat the Warrior to some interior work. Until then, the overhead air will be distributed in a more diffuse manner than before.

But the incident was more annoying than frightening. Though I tightened my seat belt even further, I did not encounter anything quite so intense for the rest of the flight that ended at the Williamson-Sodus Airport with an unremarkable landing. Though displeased about the damage to the Warrior's interior, my unconcerned response to the encounter with strong turbulence proved to be a revelation.


On an otherwise beautiful summer evening in 2016, I encountered the most powerful atmospheric disturbance I have ever experienced. I was utterly blindsided by it. Though I kept my head and performed well in the situation, I had never been more frightened while at the controls of an airplane.

Ray described me as being "rattled" by the experience, but I think the aftereffects ran far deeper than that. Subsequent experiences with turbulence in 2016, especially updrafts, caused a chill to spread through my stomach, a sudden reaction of oh no, not again. I was more than "rattled"; my confidence in turbulence while at the controls was completely undermined.

This was very troubling to me. Flying should be enjoyable and, when that is no longer the case, I should stop; not only for my own sake, but for the safety of anyone flying with me. However, I am rather invested in aviation (that's probably putting it mildly) and that investment goes beyond time, focus, and the airplane I bought in 2004. My investment is also emotional. Flying has been my escape, my therapy, my "moment of Zen". My identity as a pilot is part of the foundation of my self confidence.

The reasons for this probably require some explanation.

I have an extremely critical inner voice. I do not think that I was born with it. My outlook changed significantly as a kid between the ages of 10 and 15 when I lived with an alcoholic stepparent. Being scrawny and bookish, I bore my share of bullying at school, but that was nothing compared to what I experienced at home. On a daily basis, I was told that I was lazy, stupid, and dishonest. That I would never amount to anything. That I would never do anything right or worthwhile. On some occasions, I endured hour-long diatribes that expounded on everything that was wrong with me. I would absorb these lectures while studying the wood grain of the kitchen table, occasionally looking up to meet a stony-eyed glare behind the smoldering tip of a cigarette that seemed to glow, not because it was lit, but as a physical manifestation of that person's outrage at my very existence.

The Middle School years are challenging enough for everyone, even under the best circumstances. Trying to form a sense of self under a barrage of criticism from the household authority figure had a significant impact on my self confidence. Five years is an eternity to an adolescent and I internalized a lot of bad stuff over that time. Though I went on to enjoy successes in the years that followed, the echo of that continuous, scathing criticism became a part of my own inner voice that I have never completely excised. That echo, the internalized demon, always whispers criticism and doubt into my ear.

It is not my goal to turn this post into an After School Special. The point is this: the day I first soloed an airplane, the echo was silenced. It was not a miracle cure and the silencing was not permanent. But when I squeaked the wheels of that battered Cessna 150 onto the runway at Dowagiac, completely alone, I felt a sense of accomplishment like no other. If I can do this, I can do anything, I thought. For the last 16 years, despite the occasional setbacks, aviation has been a welcome balm to my sense of self, a recurring example that I can achieve things that my beleaguered younger self would have considered out of reach. For this reason, flying is extremely important to me.

After the frightening experience last June and my later skittishness in turbulence, I ended 2016 fearing that my shaken confidence would never be restored. I was literally afraid of being afraid, that every time I experienced an updraft, no matter how small, I would need to quell a rush of fear. I think that some fear -- perhaps best translated as wariness and healthy respect -- while flying is beneficial. It keeps the pilot in the moment and alert. But a balance is necessary, a suitable compromise between the debilitating effects of irrational fear and the complacency of overconfidence. My pendulum had swung too far toward the irrational fear end of the spectrum. Throughout 2016, I continued to fly on gusty and bumpy days in an effort to normalize my reactions and rebuild my confidence. I completed 2016 unsure if that effort was working.


With the stage thus set for 2017, I went aloft on New Year's Day for the second time ever. Though I flew to celebrate the milestone just as I did in the Stearman in 2005, it was a very different experience and perhaps even more meaningful and unique. I was shaken by turbulence, including one impulse so strong that I cracked the Warrior's overhead duct work with my head. While I would not describe using my head in this way as a fun experience, I responded to it accordingly and flew on without much inner turmoil...with confidence.

That was a very good sign for the future.

Welcome to 2017, where the past is ever present, but the future looks promising.