Friday, June 14, 2019

The Chicago Bear: Outbound

"Let's Hear It for the [Rustbelt] Tour, It's Been an Incredible Success"

Kristy lent a critical eye to my examination of the AWOS display in the clubhouse at the Williamson-Sodus Airport. It indicated wind of variable westerly direction in the low teens gusting to 19 knots. I was more concerned with the ceiling (1500') and whether I could still get an IFR clearance in the air or if I needed to get my clearance on the ground by phone.

"Gusting to ninteen?" she queried with an edge to her voice. It was 7:00 in the morning and too early to cope with wind gusts, especially without coffee.

Still fixated on the cloud ceiling while weighing my options, I tossed out an off-handed placation. "I don't worry much until it starts gusting over 20 knots."

Famous last words.

Surface gusting was merely a symptom of what was occurring aloft. Faced with a significant headwind from the west, we would not be able to make our first stop in Kalamazoo, MI without an intermediate fuel stop. That was a first. I had chosen Coleman A Young Municipal (nee Detroit City Airport, KDET) for that stop because it was towered (easier for IFR operations), immediately across the Canadian border, reputedly friendly and convenient, and had the least expensive avgas in the region ($4.50/gal, self-serve).

From Kalamazoo, the next stop would be Chicago, specifically Gary / Chicago International (GYY) in Gary, Indiana where the big city was either a $40 Uber ride or a quick trip on the South Shore Line away.

We departed Sodus on a cold June morning. Photo by Kristy.

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
14 Jun 2019 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - DET (Detroit, MI) 3.3 1961.4

With the engine running, the gusty wind mauled the propeller and caused the engine to surge. "Wind one five knots gust two two. Wind variable between two three zero and three one zero," droned the AWOS as I ran the pre-departure checklist.

"It's gusting over twenty knots," Kristy interjected. She left unsaid the bit about twenty knots being my threshold for concern, but her meaning was clear.

Ugh. I explained that twenty was not a hard stop, but a threshold where I started paying more attention. I am not certain that she was fully satisfied with that explanation, even when I pushed the throttle up to the firewall. With three people, baggage for the weekend, and full fuel, the Warrior was just shy of maximum gross weight and not at all enthusiastic about breaking ground. Once she did, I pushed the nose over to increase speed before penetrating the shear layer at treetop height. Despite the wind conditions, the climb was remarkably smooth.

I requested clearance from Rochester while airborne, still somewhat anxious that the ceiling was too low. "Reaching two thousand feet, cleared to the Detroit City Airport as filed. Climb and maintain four thousand," Approach responded. That was how I learned that the minimum vectoring altitude (MVA) for the Sodus area is 2,000 feet. Good to know.

We spent only a few minutes in the clouds before the ceiling began to unravel, providing peeks of Rochester and the surrounding metropolitan area.

With one minor vector to accommodate Rochester's departure corridor, we were soon direct to Detroit across Canada.

At altitude, Warrior 481 was making 120 knots true airspeed. Across the ground, however, our speed fluttered in the low eighty knot range as we fought the current. I calculated three hours and fifteen minutes to Detroit, nearly an hour longer than what we would normally require.

Wait! Where's The Bear?

Oh! There she is. Either that or there's a new mole on my shoulder wearing its own headset.

West of Rochester, we left the clouds behind for the remainder of the day. Over Canada, it was as though we were flying on a completely different planet from the one we departed that morning. Despite the strong headwind, the air was smooth and the flying very pleasant.

Although the atmosphere was calm, turmoil created by the passing weather was still apparent from silt churned up along the northern Lake Erie shore. We took solace in the knowledge that we were headed toward better weather -- or so we naively thought at the time.

Near the Aylmer VOR, we went through the usual rigmarole of trying to raise Cleveland Center from a low cruise altitude of 4,000 feet before eventually making contact, then being passed to Selfridge Approach, and finally Detroit.

Shore of Lake St Clair

"Cherokee Four Eight One, wind at City Airport is two four zero at twelve. Expect runway three three," broadcast Detroit Approach. Coleman Young / City Airport is completely surrounded by the city and, because of noise restrictions, runway three three is preferred over two five. On further consideration, Detroit called back. "Hey, Four Eight One, how would you like a straight in to two five?" That was perfect, right into the wind and a more convenient taxi to the fuel farm on the south side of the field. I accepted.

On descent, the Detroit skyline seemed to grow from the shore of the Detroit River. Then City Tower called with a change in plan.

"Cherokee Four Eight One, I've got three coyotes on runway two five. Can you take three three?"

I acknowledged in the affirmative as Kristy exclaimed, "Coyotes? In Detroit?"

Sure. Why not?

As we lined up on runway three three (airport #189), it was clear that some money had recently been infused into the struggling urban airport; we were greeted by 5100 feet of pristine asphalt runway.

ForeFlight ground track from Sodus (KSDC) to Detroit City (KDET)

After more than three hours in cruise, it felt good to be out of the airplane.

The apron around the fuel farm was surrounded by empty, dilapidated hangars emblematic of the airport's decline. After topping off with inexpensive fuel, we taxied across the airport to the main ramp for a restroom break at the field's only FBO, AvFlight. We have used AvFlight facilities in both Flint and Saginaw and always found them to be welcoming (we have one in Rochester, too, but I have not had a reason to land at Rochester since my instrument check ride).

We were directed to park near the base of a slick, modern-looking control tower by the AvFlight line crew.

Moreso than the new tower, what truly caught my eye was the massive, WPA-era hangar with attached tower across the ramp. What a glorious structure it must have been in its time. Wouldn't it be wonderful if someone restored it someday?

AvFlight resides in the old terminal. Portals formerly hosting jet bridges (now gone) were sealed-off along the second story of the structure. The facility, which was once used as the main airport for Detroit until the late 1940s, seemed tired and lonely. Were it not for sunshine, fresh (i.e., still drying) paint on the door into the terminal, and the friendly AvFlight staff, the entire tableau might have resembled a scene from The Langoliers.

I chatted with an operations manager and security guard who explained that airline service ended in 2000, but that one of the budget airlines was looking at moving back in and potentially turning Coleman Young Municipal into Detroit's version of Chicago Midway. The infrastructure is certainly present, all anyone has to do is make use of it.

Because we purchased fuel, AvFlight did not charge us a ramp or handling fee. They also provided The Bear with a bottle of cold water for the next leg of the trip. She swaggered back to Warrior 481 with her free prize in hand. "Come on back and see us sometime!" exclaimed the staff at AvFlight in farewell. This was a great stop.

From the D to the 'Zoo

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
14 Jun 2019 N21481 DET (Detroit, MI) - AZO (Kalamazoo, MI) 1.5 1962.9

We were cleared to Kalamazoo by radar vectors without having to fly any of Detroit's IFR departure procedures. On take off from runway three three, a crosswind tumbling over the treeline at the airport boundary imparted a strong, sustained roll moment to the right. When I countered with significant left aileron, I needed to hold the input for several seconds before the rolling impulse relented.


It was our first clue of the clear air turbulence that we would experience between Detroit and Chicago that day. Warrior 481 shuddered and bounced all the way to Kalamazoo under the hot summer sun. Ironically, the only part of our route covered by turbulence AIRMETs was the section from Rochester to Buffalo, reinforcing my circumspect attitude about those advisories.

Someone is still really happy about that free bottle of water from AvFlight.

Consolidation is not evidently just for the pharmaceutical and media industries anymore. On clearing Detroit's airspace, we were handed off to "Great Lakes Approach" which represented a consolidation of radar approach facilities for Lansing, Kalamazoo, Flint, Saginaw, and Grand Rapids.

"Lansing...uh...Great Lakes Approach," answered the controller. The change occurred in early June and was still relatively recent for everyone involved. At the same old location near I-69, Great Lakes Approach passed us to the next sector using the old Kalamazoo eastern approach frequency.

"Where is Great Lakes Approach physically located?" I asked the controller during a light moment in traffic.

"Oh, we're in Kalamazoo." I remembered such a plan existing so many years ago that I had forgotten all about it.

While Kalamazoo may have taken on more responsibility for managing air traffic in southern Michigan, local traffic was almost nonexistent owing to a month-long rehabilitation of the main runway 17-35. In fact, the airport was to be closed to commercial air traffic for much of June. Furthermore, both 17-35 and 5-23 were closed that day with only 9-27 open. It is a good thing that conditions were solidly VFR - there are no instrument approaches serving runway nine or two seven. At only 2800 feet long, this is Kalamazoo's shortest runway. While the length posed no issue, the orientation did. Wind out of the south was right at the Warrior's maximum demonstrated crosswind velocity.

ForeFlight ground track from Detroit City (KDET) to Kalamazoo (KAZO)

I handled the crosswind with reasonable aplomb and taxied to the Duncan Aviation ramp. There was no red carpet for us today in a literal sense. Even better, we were welcomed by the appearance of Kent and his family on the ramp. Connie was working the counter at Duncan. "Welcome back! It's been a while since you've been here!"

It is always nice to be remembered when coming home.

We had a great lunch with Kent and family at an old haunt not far from where Kristy and I used to live. The Bear enjoyed spending time with her best buddy since infancy.

Lost in Translation

While briefing the next leg of the flight at Kent's house, I misread a critical NOTAM. It indicated that the airport in Gary was closing that evening for several days. Really? Just shutting the whole place down? While it seemed odd, Kalamazoo was closed to commercial traffic for the better part of a month and that seemed precedent-setting. What I missed was that the closures were only overnight during the affected time frame.

The bad news was that I changed plans away from our planned stop at Gary (which is very well reviewed as a gateway for GA pilots into Chicago). The silver lining was that the strong gusty winds out of the south would be better managed by the runway options at Lansing Municipal (KIGQ, what has to be the world's least intuitive airport identifier) just six nautical miles southwest of Gary.

Photo by Connie

Best buddies. Photo by Kristy.

As we said our goodbyes on the Duncan Aviation ramp, the wind howled around us. It was out of the south, almost directly across the only available runway at seventeen knots gusting to twenty-nine. While blasting down the runway at full throttle, even with aileron wind correction in use, I found myself working the rudder like I was back on the controls of a taildragger. On climb out, Tower's instruction to fly runway heading resulted in a serious sideways drift at low altitude that was so foreign to anything I had previously experienced that it bordered on the terrifying. It also placed that morning's discussion about paying attention to the wind above 20 knots into sharper focus.

Kristy pulled her mic away from her lips so as not to distract me with her gasps of surprise each time the Warrior was pummeled by a fresh gust.

We turned on heading for Lansing and began the final, turbulence-riddled slog to Chicagoland. There was no practical value in taking any pictures along the way, it was simply too turbulent.

Noise Sensitive Area

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
14 Jun 2019 N21481 AZO (Kalamazoo, MI) - IGQ (Lansing, IL) 1.6 1964.5

"All pattern flying in noise sensitive area," proclaimed the official FAA publication about Lansing Municipal. That usually means pricey homes nearby, I thought to myself.

Sure enough, as we descended toward the pattern to land on runway one seven, we crossed over a vast tract of big box homes situated on a golf course. And a golf course. Naturally. The wind was out of the south, gusting well into the twenties, and I somehow greased the Warrior onto the runway and made it stick (airport #190). It was a landing to be proud of.

After six and a half hours of hand flying with the last half of the route in turbulence, I was exhausted and completely done flying for the day. As we taxied onto the ramp just a little after 5:00 local time, I saw an array of poles placed around the fuel farm apparently intended to limit how close airplanes could taxi to the pumps. As I contemplated the geometry of the whole thing, my head began to hurt.

Screw it. I'm too tired to figure this out today. I directed the Warrior to a boring-old tie down spot (I already know how those work) and gratefully brought the engine to a stop. I would later learn from the FBO that many transients are confused by the fuel pump arrangement.

I thoroughly enjoy flying and the speed with which we can cover distance in our airplane, even with a headwind, makes it a worthwhile alternative to many more hours in the car. But today was simply punishing.

Hot and tired, we ambled from the Warrior to the Midwest Business Center only to find it closed for the evening because it was after 4:00 central time.


ForeFlight ground track from Kalamazoo (KAZO) to Lansing (KIGQ)

We unloaded our baggage and secured the Warrior with tie downs and cabin cover. With the FBO closed, it initially appeared that we were trapped on airport property. After exploring along the fence line, we eventually found a way off the ramp at the corner of the building housing Lynnie Que's Airport Bar and Grill.

The windswept ramp at Lansing, IL with Warrior 481 under cover.

An adjacent hangar building was originally constructed by Henry Ford to build Tri-Motors. Peering through the window, I was disappointed not to find one inside.

While Kristy waited for our Uber driver to take us into the city ($45), I led The Bear inside the restaurant for a restroom break and a lemonade. I raised my glass to chink against hers. Without stopping her continuous draw on the straw, she reluctantly raised her glass to mine. She drained two glasses and I emptied three while our friendly, talkative waiter kept us well-supplied.

The older couple at the next table smiled over at us. "Did you just get out of that airplane down there?" I nodded. "Watching the two of you reminds me of how my husband was with our daughter when she was young," said the woman smiling warmly.

"Was your daughter a smart aleck, too?" I asked.

The husband laughed. "You bet she was!" The Bear scowled at me.

What does it mean when the most inspiring thing you've seen all day is on the bathroom wall of Lynnie Que's Airport Bar and Grill?

Visions of Days Past

Our Uber driver dropped us off right in front of the Hotel Allegro, our favorite overnight spot from our days of visiting Chicago when we were newly married and living in Kalamazoo before The Bear was born.

Located directly in Chicago's theater district, Hotel Allegro is an old hotel that has been thoroughly modernized...

...while still retaining its art deco charm. We enjoyed dinner at cleverly-named Naansense, an Indian take on Chipotle-style restaurants located just a block away.

"Get some sleep Little Bear. We have a big day tomorrow," I told her when we returned to our room.

Instead, The Bear brandished her shoes at me. Little did I realize at the time that there would be much more wackiness to experience in Chicago that weekend.


  1. Nothing beats the body up more than a rough ride, and it takes a toll on the pilot. Reminders of my Jupiter Florida trip.....Ughhhh.

    I'm looking forward to the follow up activity posts and the return flight home.

    1. Is that you, Gary? Yeah, it was rough. I am pleased to have added two new airports and the experience in Detroit was really quite good. Besides, if we had gone by car or airliner, several hour visit with Kent in Kalamazoo would not have been possible.

  2. Yes, that was me. I managed to select anonymous. For some reason I can't seem to post under Google on any of the blogs I follow.