Sunday, October 14, 2018

Annual Placidity

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
14 Oct 2018 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - LKP (Lake Placid, NY) - SDC 3.3 1880.4

Lee and I flew at 7500 feet, riding smoothly over scattered clouds en route to Lake Placid, NY. Elsewhere in the sky over the Empire State, five additional aircraft (and one car!) carried other Williamson Flying Club members to a lunchtime rendezvous at New York's famed mountain home for winter Olympic training.

Lee was recovering from shoulder surgery and unable to fly himself, but I was happy to have him along. It was just like the old days before he bought his Piper Colt.

We were supposed to fly to Lake Placid a week earlier, but consistent with other planned trips in 2018, had to fall back on our rain date. The fall color may have been a bit past peak, but we made it. We try to do an autumn flight to Lake Placid every year, but it is probably best described as quasi-annual. In other words, we go on those years that the weather allows.

As the Adirondack Mountains came into view, I was surprised to see that the tallest peaks were already snow covered. I have made many fall trips to the mountains over the years, but this was the first time I ever saw frosted peaks and fall colors coexisting.

We descended below the ragged cloud deck in a loose spiral south of the Lake Placid airport. Between arriving powered aircraft and active glider tows, the traffic pattern was quite active.

When we arrived on the ramp, we found that Mike's Cessna 150 was already there along with club Skyhawk Six Echo Sierra.

Olympic ski jump towers in the background

From the ramp, we had a great view of Whiteface Mountain living up to its name.

As we waited for other club members to arrive, we watched as a glider was towed aloft.

Barry arrived in his Seneca. Unfortunately, his door was broken and would not unlatch from inside. He managed to scramble out the back door to open the main cabin door from outside, which he described as embarrassing. I did not think it was embarrassing at all. I think it was lucky that he had a back door.

Brad, Paula, and Natalie arrived in the club Archer, Eight Five X-Ray.

Paula, Brad, and Natalie

Brad and Paula shared the flying duties in Eight Five X-Ray, two of our newest private pilots stretching their wings on their first flight to Lake Placid!

With six Williamson Flying Club aircraft on the ramp at Lake Placid (Dan's RV is out of frame), we hiked to the road to hail the Trolley for a ride to lunch. While we waited, we were joined by Tom and Alicia who arrived by car while driving home from vacation in Vermont. They indicated that the leaf peeper traffic was aggravating. Arrival by air was clearly the way to go.

(l-r) Mike, Paula, me, Dan and his wife, Lee, Natalie, Brad, Tom, and Alicia

We had seventeen for lunch at Lisa G's in Lake Placid. Great food, great time, great people. They were also fast people. The crew photographed above were all that I could corral for a group photo. Right after we took this picture, Barry's Seneca streaked directly overhead on departure.

Climbing back into Warrior 481 for the return flight to Sodus, I paused to admire the remaining club aircraft on the ramp. I don't know why, but there is definitely something appealing about flying with a group of other pilots.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

With a Little Help from My Friends

Some days, it feels like all elements of the universe align your way.

Chill Out

Icing was the primary concern for the morning.

Though the destination in southeast Michigan, Oakland County International, and much of the route across Ontario were under a clear sky, it was raining in western New York. Ceilings were capped at 3,000 feet with a predicted freezing level of 2,000 feet. Conditions were not well suited for an IFR flight in a light aircraft.

At 6:00 am, my office lit only by the glow of an iPad screen, I pondered the available weather information. Twice, I decided that a flight to Michigan would be a no-go because of the icing risk.

Bobbing and Weaving

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
13 Oct 2018 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - PTK (Waterford, MI) 3.0 1874.5

Nonetheless, as forecasts shifted and outside conditions tracked with those changes, I reevaluated  and was airborne at 10:00 am, three hours later than originally planned. Light rain fell over Sodus, but the sky above the airport was clear.

The Lake Ontario shoreline between Sodus and Rochester

As is so often the case, the portion of the route between Buffalo and Rochester was the challenge, with clouds obscuring the path forward at varying altitudes. I filed a VFR flight plan for passage across Canada, meaning to use the flexibility of VFR flying to climb, descend, or change course as needed to remain clear of the clouds and their icing potential. I did not want to accept the risk of Air Traffic Control (ATC) assigning an IFR altitude that placed me into icing conditions (been there, done that).

Over Rochester, I exercised my VFR privileges. I climbed from 3,000 feet to 4,500 feet and took a meandering path away from the direct course, pushed southward by clouds encroaching from Lake Ontario. The view outside would have been beautiful were it not for the icing threat. I was busy enough that I took no photos during that portion of the flight.

Near Batavia, NY, I looked ahead and saw that any VFR path forward would be a tortuous one. I contemplated aborting the flight and returning to Sodus, but then glanced at the outside air temperature gauge.

Six degrees Celsius.

It was warmer than forecast and definitely warm enough to pass through the clouds ahead.

Ground track captured by FlightAware from Sodus to Pontiac. The moment I picked up my IFR clearance is really obvious.

"Buffalo Approach, Cherokee Four Eight One. Could I upgrade to an IFR clearance at 4,000 feet?"

"Cherokee Four Eight One, sure! Do you want to go direct Pontiac or fly south of Lake Erie?"

"Direct, Four Eight One."

"Cherokee Four Eight One is cleared Pontiac via direct, descend and maintain 4,000 feet."

I had no idea that it would be that easy. I was not even assigned a new squawk code. I had one prior experience with a pop-up IFR clearance to date, but it was in the local area of my destination. For a flight passing through two international borders, this seemed almost too easy.

Now on a clearance, I simply punched through the clouds that lay between me and my destination. My workload fell off rapidly, though I monitored the outside air temperature and kept the pitot heat going as a precaution. I still think that it was smart to depart VFR for the flexibility that that mode of flying allowed, but now IFR in warmer air, flying on a clearance was just easier.

A ship with a strikingly orange hull transits the Welland Canal from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario.

There were more clouds along the way across Ontario, but the temperatures remained well above freezing and I simply passed through them, too. Considering that I planned a VFR flight that morning, I logged a surprising 0.6 hours of IMC time without any ice accumulated.


Though I had to cancel a lunch meeting with my friend Ken on account of the three hour delay in departure time, I arrived at Mom's house in one of Michigan Aviation's courtesy cars right at 1:30 to meet Uncle Brian. He was there to pick up some of the antique furniture that originally belonged to my grandparents. Kathy and the buyer for the house were there as well and we worked together to get Uncle Brian loaded safely and on his way.

As a part of his offer on the house, the buyer also made a bid for all the contents. This was a win-win. He needed things like furniture, tools, and dishes. I avoided the need for an estate sale. As part of the deal, he agreed to take care of those things left behind that neither of us wanted, which was a tremendous service to me. We had a good conversation and settled on a mutually-agreeable price.

I departed with the last batch of things that were coming to New York. I locked the door from the inside and removed the key from my keychain to leave behind. I had carried that key since the fifth grade. I paused to take one final look around the inside of what had been Mom's house, then closed the locked door behind myself.

"Good News, Everyone!"

In 2018, full route clearances out of Oakland County have been like a box of chocolates. I never knew what I was going to get.

I filed the ADRIE route and received an email indicating an expected route via the much less efficient HHOWE1 departure procedure. As I idled on the Michigan Aviation ramp, Pontiac Ground read off the full route clearance: HHOWE1, BROKK transition, DERLO, T608, WOZEE, direct. A few minutes passed as I dialed the route into the GNS-430 one clunky digit at a time.

I was given a taxi clearance to runway 27L and asked to stop short of Charlie on Bravo 1 to do the runup. When that was complete, I was about to switch over to Pontiac Tower when a quick transmission came through from Ground.

"Cherokee Four Eight One, Pontiac Ground, you up?"

"Cherokee Four Eight One."

"Cherokee Four Eight One! I have good news! Cleveland Center just called. They want to change your clearance back to what you filed. Your new route is radar vectors, ADRIE, T781, HAVOK, T608 WOZEE direct."

I read back the clearance and proceeded to spend the next several minutes dialing the "new" route into the 430 (unfortunately, I had modified the prior instance of the route saved in the navigator and it was easier to recreate it).

Short Cut

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
13 Oct 2018 N21481 PTK (Waterford, MI) - SDC (Sodus, NY)  2.6 1877.1

Aloft, Detroit Departure vectored me onto a high downwind south of the airport, apparently to keep me away from a gaggle of aircraft north of the field, then cleared me direct ADRIE. At a point where Detroit would normally hand me off to Flint Approach, Departure had another idea.

"Cherokee Four Eight One, fly heading 030 to intercept T781. Selfridge suggested that as a shortcut for you."

When I confirmed the new heading, Detroit handed me off to Selfridge. Once I checked in with the Air National Guard Base, the controller there said, "Cherokee Four Eight One, we thought we'd shorten the route for you. You should intercept T781 near MARGN." I glanced down at the iPad, which showed my trajectory set to exactly cross at MARGN.

"Thanks!" Perhaps in the future, I should file MARGN instead of ADRIE as my entry to T781.

South of Hamilton, Ontario, Toronto Terminal instructed me to fly a heading of 090 to avoid an active parachute drop zone. Coincidentally, this was the same heading needed to take me directly home. I asked for and received clearance to fly direct destination, which not only shortened the flight, but also set me up to view Niagara Falls.

Considering that I stewed over the go/no-go decision that morning, it was one of the easier round trip flights to Oakland County that I have experienced yet.

Ground track from Pontiac to Sodus from FlightAware with shortcuts.

An ochre glow from the setting sun warmed the instrument panel as I entered the traffic pattern at Sodus. By the time I turned final, the last sliver of crimson sun was slipping from view behind the world.

Once the engine was stopped, I sat for a moment to reflect on how ATC made the day's round-trip flight go so smoothly. I am very appreciative of how well ATC always has my back, especially when that support is as obvious as it was on October 13.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Lair of the Black Widow

"A fighter was hurtling across the sky toward them at low altitude, coming from the direction of Lingayen Gulf. Soon the aircraft was on top of them--a strange-looking plane, black as anthracite. It had a long capped snout, a swollen abdomen set with cannons, and sweeping black tails--two of them. There was a hooked needle stuck in its nose that looked vaguely like a stinger. Stair-stepping back from the cockpit was a confusing array of nacelles and bulbous Lucite housings. On the side of the nose was painted a zaftig nude in the style of Vargas, with the hand-sketched moniker Hard to Get.
Mucci smiled as the plane shot past the camp. This menacing, insectile-looking thing was, he realized, the answer to his prayers...headquarters had come through with the most impressive new fighter in the U.S. Air Force. Hard to Get was a P-61, better known as a Black Widow."
-- Ghost Soliders: The Epic Account of World War II's Greatest Rescue, Hampton Sides

Personal Day

Presented with a vacation day, beautiful fall weather, and an airplane ready to fly, I needed only to decide where to go. Mulling over the possibilities, I remembered that I had not visited the Black Widow in nine and a half years. That realization set my course.

Northrup P-61 NACA Test Aircraft, Moffett Field, California. Public domain photo (NASA)

Black Widow was the vaguely sinister name carried by the Northrup P-61, the first purpose-built U.S. night fighter. A late World War II innovation, the unusual aircraft was called "Buck Rogers come to life", "a black barn swallow", "a War of the Worlds rocket", and an "angel of death" by American prisoners of war whose rescue from the Japanese was foreshadowed by a nighttime aerial dance of distraction from a P-61 [1].


I last visited the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum in March 2009. The facility has a modest collection of airworthy World War II aircraft. Its true claim to fame and the impetus behind its creation in 1980 is the bold effort to restore a P-61 Black Widow recovered from a New Guinea mountainside. MAAM's Black Widow is one of only four remaining in the world. Other examples can be found on static display at the National Air and Space Museum, National Museum of the United States Air Force, and the Beijing Air and Space Museum.

Photo of the Smithsonian's Black Widow.

Restoration has been slow, but after nearly a decade, I was curious about the progress made in resurrecting this rare World War II veteran.

Flirting with Vapor

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
10 Oct 2018 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - RDG (Reading, PA) - SDC 3.9 1871.5

At seven thousand feet, Warrior 481 raced along the base of a stratus layer floating high above Seneca Lake, at times ducking into the vapor, turning the windows gray and bringing focus to the ship's instrumentation.

Southern end of Seneca Lake
Halfway across New York, I left the high stratus behind only to lose ground contact south of the Finger Lakes due to a low cumulus layer.

Wispy tendrils of mist streaked past my wingtip as I continued south.

Over Pennsylvania, terrain and heat worked to raise cloud tops to my cruise altitude, eventually engulfing me from below. The last forty minutes of the flight were spent in Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC) with occasional peeks of the aggressive Pennsylvanian terrain below.

As I bounced in and out of the clouds, I was cleared for the RNAV instrument approach procedure to runway 18 at Reading Regional Airport / Carl Spaatz Field (RDG) located about 45 nautical miles northwest of Philadelphia. I broke out around 2,500 feet, just shy of the final approach fix (which meant that I did not fly enough of the procedure to justify logging it) and made a nice landing on runway 18.

A Temporary Addition to the Menagerie

On its webpage, the MAAM advises fly-in visitors to park on the museum ramp to avoid fees from the neighboring FBO.

I stopped next to a Bellanca Viking already parked near the museum's outdoor collection.

Clearly, only one of these aircraft is routinely hangared.

During the tour, the docent indicated that he did not know where the blue and white aircraft came from.

"That's mine," I interjected.

"Is that a Warrior?" asked the young man next to me with interest. In his late 20s, he was visiting from Columbia where he flew Airbus A320s for a local Columbian airline. He had trained in Warriors.

The docent was more interested in the Viking when I confirmed its identity. "I have never seen one before!" he exclaimed.


MAAM has limited indoor storage. Much of the collection sits exposed outside, weather-beaten veterans slowly crumbling away. In many cases, it is not just a matter of faded cosmetics, but open windows and canopies allowing the elements access to aircraft interiors. If I had any disappointment with the MAAM, it was this.

This is a Martin 4-0-4 dubbed the "Silver Falcon". These aircraft were meant to replace tried-and-true World War II vintage DC-3s and were probably much more comfortable for passengers owing to pressurization and available air conditioning. However, the 4-0-4 appears to have been evolutionary rather than revolutionary and does not carry the respect of the DC-3 that it supplanted. This aircraft flew for Eastern Air Lines starting in 1952.

The Martin 4-0-4 featured two Pratt & Whitney R-2800 engines, once-revolutionary 18 cylinder powerplants that propelled U.S. single engine fighters to incredible speeds in the early 1940s only to be yoked in pairs to flying buses at the dawn of the jet age.

A Flying Boxcar! This was one of many new additions to the MAAM ramp since my last visit.

This Naval version of the DC-3, the R4D, was once an award winning restoration.

After too much time in the elements, however, her paint was tired and plumage tattered.

Another fading warrior, a Republic F-84 Thunderjet, struck me as looking exactly like a rocket ship should to the average American in the 1940s. The Thunderjet debuted in 1947 bearing a straight wing like those found on other early American jet fighters such as the P-80.

Its markings have faded significantly since I first saw it in 2009.

Multiple layers of laminated glass made for a bulletproof windscreen, now left open to the elements.

Even corrosion and weathering cannot hide the noble bearing of this early jet fighter.

First flown in 1945, the Lockheed P-2 Neptune with its distinctive bulbous belly dome was a patrol and surveillance aircraft. I wonder if the designer of the Neptune's landing gear went on to design the ones on my airplane, because Warrior 481 always seems a little lopsided on the ground, too.

Primarily piston-driven, the required loiter time of this patrol-craft meant that it carried heavy fuel loads aloft. As a result, the ship is equipped for jet-assisted take-off. When the docent told our tour group that both engine types ran on the same fuel, we were skeptical, but further research verifies that these jet engines were designed to run on avgas to avoid equipping the Neptune with two separate fuel systems.

Reading Tower framed by the Neptune.

Simultaneously the ugliest and the most interesting aircraft on the ramp, the aptly-named Custer Channel Wing was designed to pull air across the wing in a way that generated lift at remarkably low airspeed, reportedly 8 - 11 mph.

A Vickers Viscount airliner sporting the colors of yet another defunct airline, Capital.

Captial grew out of Pennsylvania Central Airlines and was headquartered at Washington National Airport before being absorbed by United in 1960.

Close Quarters

Finished with the various aircraft on the ramp, we moved inside.

Instrument panel of a Northrup F-89 Scorpion, a jet fighter first introduced in 1950.

Once inside the MAAM hangar, tight quarters are evident. This Ercoupe is squeezed beneath the empennage of the museum's B-25 Mitchell bomber.

All of the museum's airworthy aircraft are stored inside, including this immaculate Beech 18.

As on my last visit, it is hard to find good angles to photograph this burly Grumman Avenger torpedo bomber.

Whenever I look at a Grumman wing folded back for storage, I am reminded of how Roy Grumman famously worked out this skewed-axis hinge arrangement using a paperclip and an eraser.

The museum gives rides in this gorgeous Stearman Kaydet. Previously, the museum also had a nice N3N naval trainer, but it was not in evidence this time around.

An L-3, a military version of the Aeronca Champ used for liaison work and reconnaissance.

The Vultee Valiant always struck me as a wannabe SNJ/T-6 Texan designed with the wrong proportions; scrawny landing gear, too little fuselage, too much canopy.

Naval SNJ WWII advanced trainer 

Speaking of which...

MAAM flies this airworthy B-25 Mitchell bomber on the air show circuit regularly enough that I have seen it at Geneseo before.

MAAM indicates that their B-25 is one of the most complete restorations in the world and carries all of the equipment that it would have during active duty, including a Norden bombsight.

This B-25 is also a movie star and appeared in Catch 22.

The Main Attraction

For me, the tour ended with the P-61 Black Widow, still tucked away in the back corner as it was when I first saw it in 2009.

The Black Widow as I saw it in 2009, viewed from the rear radar-operator's position

When I visited the museum in 2009, only the central portion of the aircraft was assembled (above). No engines, no tail booms, no tail control surfaces.

Also, there was no giant spider attached to the then-non-existent vertical stabilizer in 2009.

Today, the Black Widow looks more like an airplane. Engines are mounted and the tails are attached. The only significant portion of the structure missing are the wings outboard from the engine nacelles.

Thematically-relevant nose art is already in development. The unusual vane projecting laterally from the fuselage is a side-viewing radar meant to add some peripheral vision to the large dish in the nose. Radar is what differentiates night fighters from day fighters. Early experiments with aerial radar involved hanging a pod beneath the right wing of singe engine fighters (commonly Hellcats, but MAAM's Avenger has one). Understandably, this made for lousy flight characteristics. Placing the primary radar in the nose of a twin-engine aircraft cleans up the balance and aerodynamics of the ship considerably.

Deciding that I was sufficiently airplane-savvy to avoid hurting myself, the docent allowed me to climb a step-ladder into the cockpit. To put it mildly, there is more work to do. Then again, the last time a pilot took the controls in this cockpit was 1945 and the aircraft has crashed into a mountain since.

Looking back toward the tail of the aircraft from the cockpit, a circular opening in the top of the fuselage is apparent where the top turret was/will be located.

One of the Black Widow's two Pratt & Whitney R-2800 engines.

The tail end of the fuselage is now fully enclosed and ensconced between twin tail booms.

It was quite exciting to see so much progress accomplished on the restoration. Will it ever fly again? The museum hopes so. Only time will tell.

Dinner Date

Despite a large, late morning breakfast, I was famished when I finished my tour of the museum. The previous restaurant on the field, Malibooz, has since been replaced by Klinger's. The restaurant has good reviews (both on-line and per folks at the museum), but I had a dinner date in Rochester and no time to dawdle.

I walked to the neighboring flight school thinking that it looked like the sort of place that would have snacks available. It was. After devouring a package of peanuts, I called for my clearance and returned to the air.

It was a beautiful flight home and, best of all, I was actually on time for dinner. Aviation for the win!

Overall, visiting the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum is a mixed bag. Airworthy aircraft in the collection are well-maintained and the Black Widow project, despite its glacial progress, demonstrates excellent craftsmanship and attention to detail. In my opinion, these strengths of the museum are offset by deterioration of artifacts on the ramp, past restorations now in retrograde. I am certain that the museum would have all of these aircraft under cover if it had the means, but the sad truth is that they are woefully exposed.

Someday, I hope to see the Black Widow in the sky and know that I spent a moment in the cockpit during its reconstruction.


1. "To the men of Cabanatuan, the plane, whatever it was, seemed a powerful, almost eerie emblem of how far American technology had evolved in the three years of their captivity. Mechanically, logistically, conceptually, this was a different Army. On Bataan, they'd starved in their shallow metal helmets fighting old-fashioned pitched battles with dud shells and rusty artillery. Thirty-odd months later, they had only to gaze upon this sci-fi lozenge streaking through the clouds at 300 miles per hour to understand that everything, the whole social and industrial universe back home, had changed."
Excerpted from Ghost Soliders: The Epic Account of World War II's Greatest Rescue by Hampton Sides. Though the Black Widow only played a brief, if memorable, role in Ghost Soldiers, the book is highly recommended for anyone interested in WWII history and the war in the Pacific. It is well-researched and beautifully written.