Friday, June 21, 2019

A Shower Before Dinner


Inspiration struck in July 2017 when Kristy, The Bear, and I were on our way home from Montreal in Warrior 481. We stopped in Glens Falls, NY (KGFL) for lunch at The Aviator Restaurant. Among the pantheon of airport diners where I have spent my $100 hamburger money, The Aviator clearly rests at the "fine dining" end of the spectrum. I wondered about making it an evening destination for the Williamson Flying Club (WFC). A fancy dinner, flying near sounded to me like a wonderful evening out.

The Aviator Restaurant on 21 July 2017.

I was too busy in 2018 to make that idea a reality, but organized a dinner fly-out to The Aviator on the evening of June 7, 2019. When an American Airlines mechanical issue stranded me in Boston for seven hours following a restless overnight flight from San Diego, I returned to Rochester as a zombie. Zombies should not fly airplanes, so I stayed home. Those who went thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Scott, arguably an expert in the preparation of red meat, declared his steak to be the best he'd ever had in a restaurant; undeniably high praise.

Not wanting to miss out, I organized a repeat trip for June 21. This time, I had sixteen takers. It is always great to generate enthusiasm for one of our Club excursions. Unfortunately, this was too much of a good thing.

The problem was that The Aviator would not accept reservations for a party of sixteen on a Friday night at 6:30. It was their peak time. Could we do a different day? Smaller group? Earlier in the evening? Later in the evening? Concerned about overwhelming their kitchen, they suggested anything and everything to move our group away from peak dining hours. After a few conversations with the restaurant, it was clear that The Aviator was not going to work out for the evening we had planned. For clarity, I am not disparaging The Aviator; they are protecting their quality standard. I hope to make it there someday with a smaller group.

Plan B

All good aviators have a Plan B (I had a Plan C, too, but it was not very good). I switched the destination to The West Wind in St Marys, PA. While not exemplifying fine dining in quite the same way as The Aviator, The West Wind is definitely superior to the average airport diner. To their credit, when I called The West Wind on Wednesday night and asked if they could handle sixteen people on Friday at 6:30, the immediate response was "no problem!"

All of the Club members signed up for the event stuck with me through the change in venue. I fielded questions from newer pilots about recommended cruise altitudes, navigating the Duke MOA, and whether they should be night current for the trip. With respect to night currency, I think that it is better to be night current and prepared to fly in the dark than to spend the entire evening worrying about racing the sun home. The latter seems like a perfect recipe for sucking all the fun out of the experience. Taking my suggestion, everyone refreshed their night currency. That included me, because my night currency lapsed a few weeks prior. In my case, this meant a round robin flight to various Finger Lakes area airports an hour after sunset on a rather rainy, but surprisingly VFR night.


My philosophy around Club fly-outs is that they need to be conducted in good VFR weather. Ragged-edge, gusty, marginal VFR days are best avoided. Not only is it my intent to make our trips accessible to pilots of all skill levels, but also to ensure that newer pilots do not feel peer pressure to fly in conditions exceeding their ability, experience, or comfort level if other participating Club members are willing to launch. I have no desire to shame anyone -- tacitly or explicitly -- into flying in weather that makes them uncomfortable. This is supposed to be fun; we're not delivering organs to transplant patients. None of these trips need to happen and if the weather is terrible or borderline, we cancel them.

A weather system was moving through the area that day and I followed its progress with great interest. Would it move out in time for us to go? By mid-afternoon, all signs pointed to "yes". Ceilings along the route rose to 8,000 - 10,000 feet. The evening looked to be just about perfect.

The Pinch

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
21 Jun 2019 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - OYM (St Marys, PA) - SDC 2.9 1972.0

We queued up for departure from runway 28 with Kristy and The Bear in Warrior 481 as the lead ship; Tom, Alicia, and Bonnie in One Delta Tango; Brad, Aubrie, and Mike S in Cirrus Two Mike Sierra; Paula and Steve in Nine Four Romeo on their first cross country flight since purchasing their immaculate Cherokee 180; and Ian and Rachel in Five Five Whiskey. Rachel, Ian, and Bonnie were joining on their first WFC group fly-out.

An underwing view of Warrior 481 from One Delta Tango, courtesy of Tom

Content that the ceiling was sufficiently high, I contacted Rochester for flight following and declared an intended cruise altitude of 6,500 feet.

It was a stunningly beautiful day, rich green below and sharply defined clouds popping in crisp blue heavens above.

In the vicinity of the western Finger Lakes, the terrain rises and the clouds were clearly much lower than when the previous METARs were issued. I descended to 4,000 feet, but was feeling the pinch. We were now lower than the altitude I had recommended to one of the other Club pilots.

My eyes and my iPad both told me that there were showers of light to moderate intensity scattered beneath that cloud layer. I diverted westward toward higher ceilings (above). It was evident from the weather display that precipitation tracked eastward from Olean, NY. I reasoned that it was in my best interest to detour around it on the upwind side.

I watched electronic avatars of the other aircraft each take somewhat unique courses around the scattered weather and listened to their interactions with Cleveland Center. I was the only one who chose to make an end run around the upwind side of the weather. Cleveland Center was helpfully providing vectors around individual showers, but some of the newer pilots were a bit tongue tied as this was a new experience for them. Conditions were far from my "easy VFR" ideal for Club fly-outs. I watched and I listened and I worried.

If anyone is uncomfortable with the weather situation, will they do the right thing for themselves and turn around? Does the fact that I continued on create pressure for the others to proceed as well? Though I decided that everyone was an adult in possession of an FAA-issued pilot certificate and that I did not need to play mother hen to them, I still worried as I steered my own ship around the weather.

ForeFlight ground track from Sodus to St Marys.

Near Olean, we cleared the rain showers, escaped the overhanging clouds, and emerged back into sunlight. I set a direct course to St Marys under a clear sky, leaving the weather behind.

Ten minutes after turning direct to St Marys, Cleveland Center called. "Cherokee Four Eight One, you should be able to turn direct to St Marys now."

I stifled the flood of sarcastic comments that came to mind and simply responded with, "Four Eight One."

Some of the other Club ships had disappeared from my ADS-B display, but I could still hear Tom and Paula interacting with Cleveland Center. I wondered about Brad and Ian until I saw that Brad's faster Cirrus had circumvented the weather to our east and was already on approach to St Marys.

After all of the gusty weather we experienced flying to Chicago the previous weekend, Kristy was not thrilled when the St Marys AWOS blurted out a report of strong, gusty wind. But it was right down the runway and, despite bumping and rolling a bit in the pattern, the landing was as smooth as anyone could ask.

We joined Brad, Aubrie, and Mike on the ramp and waited for the slower airplanes to arrive. Eventually, all of them did. Not a single pilot chose to turn back.

Weather Wise(r)

As we gathered on the ramp, I expressed my apologies to the newer pilots, explaining that I had not predicted the low weather and rain showers. I certainly did not mean for the flight to be quite as exciting as it became.

I need not have worried. All of them were thrilled with the flight. For several, it was the first time working around weather and receiving weather deviation vectors from air traffic control. Though the weather needed to be managed, it was scattered and not particularly severe. Several contemplated turning back, but made their own carefully weighed decisions to proceed. In short, everyone thought that they had received an excellent learning experience on what would otherwise have been just another $100 hamburger run. It was a success beyond my highest expectation.

The Bear went immediately for the crab stuffed mushrooms. She has an expensive palate, my Little Bear.

Dinner was truly excellent and The West Wind staff took great care of us.

Photoshoot on the Ramp

We paused on the ramp after dinner to commemorate the adventure in photographs.

Aubrie made her second cross country flight ever with Brad in their Cirrus and is still smiling about it! Meanwhile, Mike traded flying the champ for a ride in the fastest airplane in play that evening.

Bonnie joined Tom and Alicia in One Delta Tango, a lapsed pilot returning to the cockpit after many years and discovering that the rules and the technology of flying have changed significantly since her last flight as Pilot in Command.

Paula and Steve were thrilled to have flown their recently purchased airplane somewhere new. Paula had visited St Marys in 2018, but as a passenger in Warrior 481. It is exciting to see her confidence and experience grow with each new adventure.

Ian revealed that this was his longest distance flight to date. Rachel described how training for her private pilot certificate in Arizona did not prepare her to manage clouds like the ones we encountered that evening.

Airplanes in the Gloaming

We climbed into the sky as the sun slipped beyond the horizon.

The bumps were gone and, though some clouds still loitered near our cruise altitude, the weather had shut itself down with the arrival of dusk. On a gorgeous evening, our ride home was everything that a night flight should be.

Tom departed ahead of us in One Delta Tango and we caught up with him while passing southeast of Rochester.

"One Delta Tango, do you see the Cherokee passing you on the left? He's overtaking by ten knots," advised Rochester Approach.

"Yeah," Tom responded sounding vaguely annoyed. "I see him." Kristy and I howled with laughter at the tone of his response, but judiciously confined our mirth to the cabin of Warrior 481.

Brad arrived first in the Cirrus, hopefully scaring all the deer from the runway. Ten miles out from Sodus, I cancelled flight following with Rochester. "Cherokee Four Eight One, frequency change approved, squawk VFR, we'll talk to you soon." 

Tom later groused at me that I received a "talk to you soon" from the controller, but that he got "nothing" when he switched frequencies. Honestly, I suspect that some of the controllers hear me often enough to recognize when I call.

Self Reflection

In the final analysis, we had a beautiful flight, a great meal, and a manageable learning experience about working around weather for the newer pilots. But the evening held a lesson for me, too. I take my role as an event planner for the Club very seriously and strive to make smart weather decisions on behalf of the entire group whenever we fly-out together. I might also angst about the weather a little too much. I learned that, no matter how much I fret over what the weather is doing, the unexpected can still occur. When it does, I need to trust that our well trained WFC pilots will make the best decisions for themselves; that it is not just all up to me. 

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