Sunday, March 25, 2018

Fragments of Glory

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
24 Mar 2018 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - DSV (Dansville, NY) - SDC 1.3 1772.8

Three specs clustered ahead on the horizon, two Champs and one Colt. From the radio chatter, I knew that Lee's Colt was in trail behind the Champs at 3,100 feet. A cyan triangle on my ForeFlight display indicated that the transponder-equipped Colt was three miles ahead of my airplane. As primary targets only, the Champs were ignored by the ADS-B system, stealth ships as far as the FAA's traffic information service was concerned.

I flew alone alone in the Warrior, the last of four aircraft to launch from Sodus at 7:30 am that morning for breakfast in Dansville. I wrestled with conflicting desires for power settings. Pulling the power back (way back) would keep me from blowing past my friends in the other three airplanes. But I also wanted to get the engine oil hot and operating at low power would not be adequate.

They teased me on the radio that morning when I taxied into line behind them at the departure end of Sodus' runway 28. "Look, there's a real airplane joining us this morning!"

"Mornin' Chris," Lee added kindly from the Colt.

Southbound over Canandaigua Lake

I pulled the power back 100 rpm to reduce speed and studied the iPad. Lee was flying a line directly from Sodus to Dansville, so I deviated to a southern heading toward the north end of Canandaigua Lake. Having lost track of them for a few moments, my eyes swept the sky for the two Champs and found them already sliding past my right wingtip as distant white dots. My detour followed a favorite sightseeing route that carried me over Canandaigua Lake from north to south, then along the natural contours of a valley that approached Dansville from the southeast.

GPS ground track from ForeFlight showing my route from Sodus to Dansville.

The scenic route worked well as a delaying vector. Although I was the first of the flight of four to arrive, the others joined the pattern right behind me.

On the ramp, I was joined by Lee in 70Z (left of frame), Mike (right of frame) in a Champ, and Alan (background) in his Champ. The main hangar at Dansville received a facelift last summer when the original WWII era hangar doors deteriorated too much to salvage. A shame. The original facade had so much more character.

August 27, 2017: Construction on the Dansville hangar in progress last summer.

Breakfast was not quite so hearty and fresh as what I enjoyed with the guys the last time I joined them at Whitford's. There was some banter around sending a photo of the breakfast group in our fast food surroundings to John in Weedsport.

"To guilt him over how far our standards have fallen?" I asked rhetorically.

Lee, Mike, and Alan queued up to depart Dansville, Runway 32.

If the breakfast itself was less than glorious, the company was excellent and it was a truly beautiful morning to fly.

Conesus Lake

Departing Dansville, I climbed above a scattered layer to enjoy an aerial view from on top of the gauze.

Near Canandaigua, I saw it; a partial glory cast upon the fragmented hints of clouds hovering below. In that moment, a routine flight on a nice day became something a little more magical.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Patron Saint of Gallinaceous Digits


"Oh, I know this airport!" The Bear exclaimed as we taxied from runway to ramp.

Indeed, she did. We have been flying to St Marys for "$100 hamburgers" since 2009 when The Bear was not quite two years old. The on-field diner originally opened as The Silver Wing before its current incarnation as The West Wind. Past flights to St Marys have included a number of firsts for The Bear such as her first airplane flight without Kristy assisting her and her first time taking the controls of the Warrior. Considering her history and that four years have passed since her last visit, St Marys seemed like a fitting destination for The Bear's first flight of 2018.

Me and The Bear at St Mary's five years ago: March 9, 2013. Photo by Dan B. 

Paging Space[wo]man Spiff

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
18 Mar 2018 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - OYM (St. Marys, PA) - SDC 2.7 1771.5

Our sojourn to The West Wind would occur as a flight of two with Tom and Jamie sharing the piloting duties in One Delta Tango, a club Cherokee.

A frigid start to the morning meant that The Bear bundled herself in multiple layers that included a very helmet-like hood. She appeared to be garbed for either a deep sea dive or a solo flight in a Mercury capsule rather than a jaunt through the troposphere in a warm airplane.

Cue The Right Stuff theme!

Come on, Dad. Let's light this candle! It's amazing what the child can convey with just her eyes.

Cockpit Selfies

One Delta Tango launched several minutes before us with Tom at the controls. In cruise flight, the club Cherokee was a tiny black fleck on the azure dome of the sky, positioned off our left wing a finger's width above the horizon.  "In sight," replied both Tom and I when Rochester Approach called us as traffic to one another.

"I should have brought my camera," lamented The Bear.

Instead, she colored on her Kindle and tolerated my attempts at photographing us together.

"The Stink Eye"

That is, she tolerated most of my photography attempts.

At her request, in-flight music was courtesy of John Williams (Star Wars: The Force Awakens soundtrack).

Conesus, Hemlock, and Canadice Lakes (top to bottom).

Surveying the ground, The Bear commented that it looked like a black and white photograph except for the brilliant blue of the western Finger Lakes.

Conesus, Hemlock, Canadice, and Honeoye Lakes (left to right).

I was reminded of the Calvin & Hobbes installment wherein the father tries to convince Calvin that old photographs are black and white not because of a fundamental limitation of early photography, but because the world was actually black and white at the time. Had the lakes been frozen over, that could have almost been true.

Hemlock Lake

Digital masterpieces were created en route to lunch, colorful works that compensated for a landscape desaturated.

It's Not a Race!

Our groundspeed was slightly higher than One Delta Tango's and we slowly overtook and passed Tom and Jamie. When we crossed the Pennsylvania state line around noon, we had a five mile lead on our companions. It was nice to be able to monitor their position by ADS-B once they were too far aft to track visually.

Progressing into the marginally warmer latitudes of northern Pennsylvania, snow still covered the higher elevations, but brown valley floors dispelled the newsprint illusion predominant in New York. Calvin's dad would have been disappointed.

After two late nights of performing in the Middle School musical, The Bear traded giving me the stink eye for getting some shut eye. Smooth air, warm sunlight, Zulu quiet, and good tunes from a master composer all were contributing factors.

On approach to the airport, the westerly wind interacted with terrain to buffet our ship. The Bear provided a passable physical explanation for this mechanical turbulence before noting that she did not like bumps as much as she used to.

We landed at St Marys about five minutes ahead of Tom and Jamie and waited for them on the ramp. Despite a brisk wind -- The West Wind was to live up to its name that day -- the warm sun was a pleasant change from Sodus.

Tom and Jamie cleared the runway and ambled to parking past a leftover pile of winter.

After multiple checks that One Delta Tango's parking brake was set so that our airplanes did not suffer an unmanned ramp incursion on the sloped parking apron, we trooped inside for an eagerly anticipated lunch.

Chickens Do Not Have Fingers

It will come as a surprise to no one that The Bear ordered chicken fingers. Tom ordered a Reuben that arrived as a half-price discounted BLT (because: whoops). I went for a cheeseburger. Jamie got the most grandiose sandwich on the menu: The Stearman, a half pound Angus burger that, in lieu of a bun, arrived cradled between a pair of grilled cheese sandwiches (because: biplane - all it lacked were flying wires). When the colossal sandwich was placed before him, a large steak knife stabbed through its heart in order to hold the whole construct together, the size of Jamie's eyes betrayed the honest truth. He had not read the menu description carefully enough to realize that The Stearman was no run-of-the-mill burger. In the meantime, The Bear grew bored of stealing fries from my plate and ate half of Tom's.

["Hey!" objected The Bear after reading that last bit. "You make it sound like I didn't have permission!" I explained to her that it was funnier that way. I also reasoned that, if she were truly eating Tom's fries without permission, he was big enough to stop her.]

The West Wind makes a tasty burger and a good time was had by all.

After Lunch, the Buffet

After lunch, Tom and Jamie exchanged PIC duties in One Delta Tango for the return flight to Sodus. The winds had increased significantly and, on climb out, Warrior 481's vertical speed indicator varied wildly as the wind buffeted our ascent, even pegging at its maximum reading of 2000 feet/min a couple of times. Much of the ride home at 7500 feet was rough until we crossed back into New York.

Somewhere in there, there's probably a joke about New York taxes and fixing potholes in the air.

Over Dansville, NY, it was obvious that the residual snow was purely a higher elevation phenomenon.

Hemlock Lake, again.

A little closer to Sodus, I worried that there was going to be a head-on collision north of the airport, but it all worked out. By practical necessity, the airplane avatars in ForeFlight are much larger than the actual airplanes they represent, making spacing look tighter than it really is.

Back on the ground and after a second nap at altitude, The Bear demonstrated her active sunlight cancelling goggles. 

Call me "short-sighted", but I just don't "see" a market for these.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Celebrating Normal

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
04 Mar 2018 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - PTK (Waterford, MI) - SDC 5.9 1767.2

"Cherokee Two One Four Eight One is cleared to Pontiac as filed, climb and maintain six thousand."

A prosaic instrument clearance to be sure, but very welcome after six months shut-out of the system for lack of suitable on-board instrumentation. Climbing away from Sodus, I reached 6,000 feet just as my ship crossed through a nonexistent point in space named LORTH intersection. Simultaneously, I captured the altitude and turned to intercept Victor 2, cross-checking satellite against terrestrial navigation signals and finding them to be in agreement. I filed a full route clearance because Victor 2 largely parallels the direct course without adding significant flight time and the added workload of flying airways allows for practice with VOR navigation.

It felt good to be in the system again. Normal. Warrior 481 rode the beam with the ease of slipping into a comfortable shoe.

Irondequoit Bay east of Rochester, NY

Irondequoit Bay east of Rochester, NY

Roughly 289 nautical miles from Sodus, an invisible ring of Delta airspace encompasses both Michigan's premier General Aviation airport and my home town. Mom would be waiting there for me, having emerged victorious from a battle with pancreatic cancer. 

This visit would be a celebration.

Paralleling I-90 east of Rochester, NY

Looking west across Buffalo, NY and Lake Erie

Winter had not yet retreated from its occupation of New York State, but Lake Erie was mostly free of  ice cover that laid against the downwind shore like rumpled bedding pushed aside on waking. Light passed through the clear air with high fidelity, crisply showing the Skydome (the Rogers Centre, whatever) in Toronto from over Buffalo.

Point Abino Lighthouse, Fort Erie, Ontario, Canada

On approach to Oakland County International, I flew south of where the Pontiac Silverdome once stood. All that remained was a single segment of the lower bowl surrounded by a massive parking lot filled with recalled diesel Volkswagens; a site representing literally acres of failure.

Multiple freighters waiting their turn to transition the Welland Canal at Port Colborne from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario

Oakland County International ("Pontiac") was busy when I arrived and separate tower frequencies had been implemented to manage traffic for the north and south parallel runways. After landing short on runway 9R, I was cleared to taxi to Michigan Aviation at the east end of the airport via Charlie, Bravo 1, Alpha 1.

Ontario farm country with Lake Saint Clair in the distance

"Cherokee Four Eight One, you'll want to turn onto Bravo 1 before passing the windsock or you'll wind up on the grass." As I still had several taxiway intersections to pass before reaching that point, I scowled and silently wondered if the ground controller was trying to be funny or if I had said something on the radio that raised serious doubts about my competence. I managed to find my way to parking without any off-roading.

Outflow of the Saint Clair River

Mom was waiting for me inside the Michigan Aviation lobby where the line crew were listening to Pontiac's ground frequency at a louder volume than usual. As I hugged her in greeting she asked, "Did he tell you not to taxi on the grass?" With a shrug, I affirmed that the controller had indeed issued a turf advisory to me.

All that remained of the Pontiac Silverdome was a single segment of the lower bowl and lots of recalled VWs

At lunch, Mom described how the end of her chemotherapy regimen was marked by removal of an IV port implanted to facilitate chemo administration. It seemed a fitting moment of closure to that part of her life; with the treatment over and all screens failing to detect evidence of cancer, the port was no longer necessary. Back to normal. Forever changed and vigilant, but closer to normal than not.

Sabreliner Nine Sierra Bravo

I held up my end of the conversation by explaining my recent career change in greater detail, a move that brought me back to a company to which I had already dedicated ten years of my life. I was welcomed back enthusiastically by friends and colleagues in a homecoming that felt very much like a return to normality.

Lake Saint Clair

After lunch, Mom indulged me in a brief visit to my paternal grandmother, now living in an assisted living memory unit. This was a very difficult visit. If I harbored any doubts about her belonging there, they were quickly dispelled. She asked about The Bear's age multiple times, expressing incredulity every time I answered. She asked if I was retired yet. She told a story about me in the third person as though I was not sitting beside her. A calmly poised demeanor did little to hide her internal confusion.

While it is true that she lost her freedom at the end of 2017 after living independently and that is a sad thing for everyone involved, the psychologists that worked with her concluded that she no longer possessed the faculties to manage her own affairs. Unfortunately, my brief observations also supported that conclusion. When a family friend asked about my visit a week later, she did not remember that I had been there at all.

Lake Saint Clair

Before the day was completely spent, I returned to the airport and was cleared home "as filed" for the first time ever from Pontiac. I would launch from Oakland County International and be directed deeper into the Bravo airspace surrounding Detroit by radar vectors until intercepting Victor 2 at DELOW.

Section lines in Ontario, Canada

As I taxied for departure, Pontiac Ground instructed a Sabreliner to yield right of way to me.

"Sabreliner Niner Sierra Bravo, hold short of taxiway Charlie for a crossing Cherokee, then follow the Cherokee to Niner Right." The duck-billed turbine aircraft was oddly proportioned, looking more akin to something designed by Fisher Price than the creators of the F-86 Sabre.

"Why? We're bigger and prettier," came the plaintive response from the Sabreliner.

Bigger, true. But prettier? I don't think so.

The opposite shore of Lake Erie is in sight from over Canada at 7,000'

With the sun at my tail, I followed Victor 2 as it zig-zagged along the southern Canadian coast. Below, two grids of section lines, one of them twisted roughly thirty degrees relative to the other, created an odd juxtaposition where they come together. I found my thoughts idly tracing the lines below, spinning off into random directions at vertices where they intersected.

In smooth air, the Warrior occasionally needed to be nudged a degree or two back on course. During the on-going conversation with Air Traffic Control, a few twists of the frequency knob connected me with Detroit, Cleveland, Erie (amusingly, on "one two one nuthin' [121.0 MHz]"), Buffalo, and Rochester.

Those freighters were still waiting for passage through the Welland about stagnation

Mostly, I ruminated on how many things in my life seem to be returning to normal. A good sort of normal. A normal characterized by moving forward and growing in a positive direction, not merely reverting to the known and comfortable. There is no stagnation here.

The Bear and Mom, October 2017

It is very clear to me that the cancer threat brought my mother and I closer together than we had been for many years. I do not view this as a "silver lining" or part of a grand plan. Instead, I think that serious threats inspire perspective and clarity of thought around what truly matters. Sometimes, even necessary priorities are suffocated in the noise of daily life. It is an unfortunate fact of human wiring that demands near catastrophe to restore focus.

The east end of Lake Erie

I followed the Great Lakes home. Victor 2 approximates the orientation of these capricious inland seas (in the winter, it is difficult to consider them anything but capricious). It is tempting to think that the course of an airway would be aloof from ground features, but this is a route between airports and their host cities, cities whose placement on the map was directly inspired by the lakes. In this way, glacial activity that occurred long before recorded human history dictated a path home through the sky just as surely as the course of any terrestrial highway.

Another successful journey logged with many more anticipated in 2018.