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.

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