Sunday, February 23, 2020

Habu Headwinds

Faster Than a Speeding Bullet

I remember when the world's fastest, air breathing aircraft came to Kalamazoo, MI.

The SR-71B in its current home at the Air Zoo. Photographed 02 January 2006.

In what was undoubtedly a coup for an airplane museum in a small Midwestern city, the Air Zoo added the world's only surviving SR-71B Blackbird to its collection on 28 March 2003. The unique dual-cockpit trainer variant of the storied spy plane arrived by truck in pieces; thirteen of them if memory serves. As an Air Zoo volunteer, I watched as this magnificent aircraft was reconstructed on the apron outside the museum.

The SR-71B shortly after its original placement in the Air Zoo. Photographed 03 May 2003.

The Blackbird still bears its NASA tail number. Photographed 22 June 2003.

The SR-71s and their A-12 siblings are relics of the Cold War, spy planes designed to fly so high (85,000+ feet) and so fast (Mach 3.2) that they could surveil with impunity because it was virtually impossible to shoot one down. Designed by Kelly Johnson's "Skunk Works" operation at Lockheed, the first SR-71 flew on 22 December 1964 and went on to set speed and altitude records that no other air breathing, manned aircraft has beaten since. Whereas an average bullet flies at 1,700 miles per hour, the Blackbird flew at speeds exceeding 2,100 mph. It was literally faster than a speeding bullet. An SR-71 once crossed the North American continent in just 67 minutes. It is a feat all the more astounding considering that the SR-71 was designed using what Kelly Johnson called a "Michigan computer" (slide rule).

One of the two Pratt & Whitney J-58 high bypass ratio turbo ramjet engines that propelled the Blackbird to Mach 3.2.

At those speeds, frictional heating raised the aircraft's skin temperature to 600-700°F, necessitating measures to prevent the aircraft from simply melting in flight. As a result, 93% of the airframe is titanium because it possesses the required strength, light weight, and high heat resistance necessary to build a Mach 3 aircraft. Ironically, most of it was sourced from the Soviet Union through a number of foreign shell companies created by the CIA. A flying gas tank, the SR-71 cooled its own skin with low volatility JP-7 fuel before feeding it to the voracious J-58 engines. Because black bodies radiate heat more efficiently than any other color, the titanium ships were painted black to further reduce skin temperature. Like most other aircraft, the SR-71 is a prime example of function dictating form.

A 1994 NASA photograph of the Air Zoo's SR-71B in operation.

After retirement from espionage, the Air Zoo's SR-71B flew for NASA before the aircraft stopped flying altogether. The B-model's distinctive twin cockpits are readily identifiable in photographs.

The SR-71B Blackbird on the Air Zoo ramp, photographed 13 Apr 2003.

I loved watching this amazing, futuristic looking aircraft from the 1960s come together on the Air Zoo ramp in 2003. (For an excellent photo journal of the reassembly, see this website.) But I waited seventeen years for an opportunity to finally peek inside the cockpit.

Slow Flight to the D

During the month of February, the Air Zoo opened the SR-71B cockpit for public viewing and I vowed to make the journey if weather permitted. A flight from western New York to Kalamazoo, Michigan in February is not a given considering typical February weather and the multiple lake effect regions that must be crossed along the way. Defying the odds, February 23 was forecast to be ideal; warm and sunny without precipitation or low clouds. The only catch was a thirty knot westerly headwind aloft.

Thus, we set out on February 23 to visit the world's fastest aircraft by flying what was arguably one of the slowest.

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
23 Feb 2020 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - DET (Detroit, MI) - AZO (Kalamazoo, MI) - SDC 8.2 2092.5

Dan agreed to fly with me, another former Kalamazoo resident and aficionado of the Air Zoo. I warned him that it would be a long day. I wanted to be aloft by 7:00 am, estimated a noon arrival in Kalamazoo, and an 8:00 pm return to Sodus. Expecting to be slowed by forecast headwinds, the outbound trip required an intermediate fuel stop. Based on past experience, I chose Coleman A Young Municipal Airport (formerly Detroit City Airport, KDET) for an easy stop with inexpensive fuel ($4.50 / gal).

Lake St Clair

Averaging 94 knots across the ground, we flew over western NY, Niagara Falls, southern Ontario, and returned to United States airspace by crossing a frozen Lake St Clair. This was one of those rare days where flying higher resulted in lower headwinds on our westerly course. As usual, the Cleveland Center frequency east of Aylmer was problematic, even at 8,000 feet.

Lake St Clair

Though the surface wind was out of the southwest, City Airport was landing to the southeast on runway 15. I requested and was cleared to land on runway 25 instead. Fortunately, there were no coyotes on the runway this time. Our flight from Sodus to Detroit lasted over three hours, presenting quite a workout for my left hand and wrist that were sprained just a week earlier. I wore a brace all day and that increased my endurance significantly.

The new ramp ornament at KDET. I think the trailer is missing a "wide load" banner.
Note that the outer wheels of the dual wheeled main landing gear do not fit on the trailer at all.

When I asked to taxi to the self-service fuel pump, the sleepy-sounding City Tower controller commented, "Uh...I don't think that's working, but maybe it is. Let me know if it's not.”

It wasn't. But our detour to the fuel farm allowed us to check out the field’s newest ramp ornament, a wrecked jet that barely fit on a flatbed trailer. In place of a nose gear, the belly was adorned with mud and grass, providing silent testimony of the jet's recent history. Aircraft like this are simply not built for off-roading. Its eventual fate was the subject of extensive speculation at the AvFlight FBO. One staffer suggested that they were opening a museum with this as the first artifact. Another whimsically speculated that it would be converted into a fountain.

Warrior 481 on the AvFlight ramp at KDET. Photo from 14 June 2019.

AvFlight gave us a quick turn by fueling us from the truck, engaged us in some light banter about the wreck on the ramp, and charged us the self-serve fuel rate because of the inoperative fuel pump. Consistent with my last experience, these folks were friendly and provided top notch service at a great price.

A Sleepy Controller and Career Paths Not Taken

We launched from City Airport's runway 15 on an IFR flight plan at 11:00 am with instructions to fly runway heading. I expected to be switched to Detroit Departure once we gained a couple hundred feet of altitude, but City Tower remained silent throughout the climb. Finally, as we neared the edge of City Airport's Class Delta airspace and the Canadian border, I poked the controller.

"City Tower, do you want Cherokee 481 to contact Departure?"

Sleepily, "Uh, yeah, Cherokee 481, go ahead and contact Detroit Departure."

I acknowledged while giving Dan an exaggerated "oh boy" face and switched over to Departure.

ForeFlight display while overflying Detroit Metro. Breadcrumb trail shown in green.

A decidedly less sleepy Detroit radar controller vectored us over the Windsor Airport, then perpendicularly across Detroit's arrival corridor at 5,000 feet. Dan and I got to admire the sight of airliners lining up to land underneath us. Once west of Detroit Metro Airport and no longer a factor for inbound traffic, we were cleared direct to Kalamazoo. Ground speed was lower on this leg, averaging 86 knots. As we paralleled I-94, I saw that we were passing traffic on the Interstate, but not by any significant margin.

UberCo's Ann Arbor facility

For me and Dan, a defining event in our professional lives occurred on 21 July 2005 when our employer in Kalamazoo, UberCo (not its actual name), disbanded all 500 scientists in our division. Both of us were offered opportunities to remain with the company by moving to UberCo's Ann Arbor, MI R&D facility. Dan took the offer, but I declined and moved to my current employer in Rochester, NY instead. Roughly a year later, UberCo announced that Ann Arbor would be shut down as well. (I once speculated that UberCo's slogan should be, "And you will know us by the trail of the [figurative] dead.") In 2007, Dan and I reunited as colleagues in Rochester.

"Hey, I think we're over the Ann Arbor site," I said to Dan. I was not certain because I only visited the site a couple of times. On one of those visits, I gave a seminar that earned me some notoriety for offhandedly shutting down a stupid question from the local know-it-all. A director level Ann Arbor colleague later described my handling of the moment as "awesome". I opened the Warrior's window to get a photo and passed the camera to Dan for his inspection.

"Yep, that's it," he confirmed, then fell silent. There was not much else to say about the site. He certainly didn't work there long enough to feel any attachment to the place, quite unlike the nostalgia we both still carry for Kalamazoo.


After 1.5 hours of flying, we landed in Kalamazoo and I taxied to the Kalamazoo Pilots Association fuel pump hidden among the rambling "South Ts". At $4.29 / gallon, the KPA sells some of the least expensive avgas in the southwestern quadrant of the Mitten. It was my first time using their facility, which led me to wonder why I had not done so sooner in the previous 16 years of landing at Kalamazoo.

With fuel topped off for the return flight, we taxied onto the Air Zoo ramp via good ol' Bravo 3. I saw immediately that my last minute messaging to friends had netted results.

Jeff was waiting for us on the ramp. We have known each other since our days as newbie Cherokee owners asking questions on the Piper Owner Society forums (before that forum melted down in the late 2000s over petty nastiness and political bickering). Despite having a few mutual friends, we had only met once in person during a lunch stop at Virginia's Dinwiddie Airport in 2014. Since then, Jeff relocated his family and Turbo Saratoga to western Michigan. His flight to the Air Zoo that morning was a lot shorter and more expedient than ours.

Waiting with Jeff was Dar, one of my fellow Saturday docents at the Air Zoo. An affable fellow and a consummate storyteller, Dar possesses an enviable knack for engaging museum visitors.

Cap'n Dave, me, Dan, and Jeff with ol' Hognose. Photo by John.

Inside, we encountered Cap'n Dave, skipper of the South Haven based Fairwind. Cap'n Dave worked as a chemist with me and Dan in Kalamazoo. We used to engage in debates (i.e., arguments) over which avocation was superior: flying versus sailing.

"I'm faster than you, can actually go places, and can fly year round instead of having to put my airplane away for the winter like you do with the boat," I would boast.

"I can drink beer on the boat," Cap'n Dave would respond, consistently winning the debate.

Saturday docent reunion: Dar, me and John. We were just missing Garrett and Dave. Photo by Jeff.

We were later joined by John, another Saturday Air Zoo docent. John went with me and Dave on our first trip to Sun 'n' Fun in 2005.

Ode to Erbelli's

Given the noontime arrival, I already knew that we would need lunch when we landed. I assumed that we would eat at the Air Zoo's greasy spoon snack bar because I did not anticipate any ground transportation being available. That plan was scrapped immediately when Cap'n Dave uttered a single word: Erbelli's. Every time I get pizza in Rochester, I dearly miss Erbelli's. With Cap'n Dave willing to drive, Jeff, Dan, and I were in. The Blackbird would have to wait.

An unassuming storefront on what appears to be a former service station conceals a kitchen that makes some of the best stuff on Earth. If happiness has a flavor, it must taste something like an Original Erbelli's Calzone. Jeff, Dan, Cap'n Dave, and I each ordered one.

Me and Dan at Erbelli's. Photo by Cap'n Dave.

To my mind, that calzone would have been enough to justify the entire five hour slog to Kalamazoo. But there was so much more to see and do during our quick trip than appease our taste buds.

Code Name: Oxcart

The SR-71B photographed 27 September 2013.

As we waited to view the Blackbird's cockpits, Dar slid into docent mode, regaling us with stories about the airplane and the space-suited pilots that flew her. I smiled when I caught Dar recounting a tale that I had heard him tell many times before. It was one that I also used to share with visitors, but Dar always told it better.

A dual cockpit SR-71 trainer was critical to success of the SR-71 program because the Blackbird was a handful to fly, particularly given the the propensity for engine "unstarts". The positions of the conical spikes in front of the engine intakes were adjusted as a function of Mach number to manage the airflow into the engine once the aircraft was supersonic. Improper management of that airflow could suddenly drop the efficiency of the engine dramatically -- a so-called "unstart". Consider for a moment the violent yaw that would manifest from asymmetric thrust at Mach 3.2. It was a phenomenon best experienced for the first time with another seasoned pilot on board.

Front cockpit.

Rear instructor's cockpit.

The SR-71 was designed on slide rules over a decade before I was born and, not surprisingly, cockpit instrumentation is densely analog. Behind the dials and switches, however, lurked rather advanced avionics for the era. At high speed, even subtle changes in pitch had massive impact on the trajectory of the aircraft. Imprecision or a twitchy hand on the stick could get a pilot into trouble in a hurry. As a result, the airplane was flown precisely by an Automatic Flight Control System. It was thus the pilot's job to manage the autopilot.

As I surveyed the cockpit instrumentation, I was amused to note that one of the most prominent instruments on the panel is an ADF. While period-appropriate, I was nonetheless amused by its prominence in an aircraft so advanced.

Snoopy's Steed

This homebuilt replica of a Sopwith Camel stood in the lobby of the original Air Zoo for many years without wings. The Air Zoo completed the wings a few years ago and chose not to cover them so that visitors could see how the wings were constructed. I think this was a brilliant decision.

Whistlin' Britches

The P-39 Airacobra photographed 27 Sep 2013. This is not the actual Whistlin' Britches of Guadalcanal fame.

Other cockpits were available for visitors to explore that weekend, including the Air Zoo's Curtiss P-39 Airacobra, an airplane built entirely around a nose-mounted 37 mm cannon. To the best of my knowledge, it was the first single engine fighter of WWII to feature a tricycle gear.

This was my first time seeing inside. Compared to the Grumman Cats and the Corsair, the P-39 struck me as much flimsier in construction.

It was a tight fit, but I was able to settle myself into the pilot's seat.

Check out the window crank on the P-39's "car door".

Dan did not even bother trying to pull his left leg all the way inside. Cheater.

Ambient lighting was set much brighter than usual at the Air Zoo that day. I assume that this was to facilitate people's views of the cockpits. I found it disorienting to be inside the museum while it was so brightly lit.

The Ace Maker

Finally, we visited "my" airplane, the museum's Grumman F6F Hellcat. I researched the Hellcat for my presentation during docent training nearly twenty years ago and, as a result, I have always thought of this airplane as mine.

About eighteen years have passed since the last time I sat in this cockpit.

The Hellcat's throttle quadrant, flap lever, and smoke control (surely the latter was an aftermarket add on).

"Smoke on!"

Dan did not feel limber enough to climb into the Hellcat, so we faked it with this shot. I know, it probably won't fool anyone.

Whistling Death

Next to the Hellcat stood a Corsair, a more glamorous American air superiority fighter from the WWII Pacific Theater. Whereas the Hellcat was brutishly utilitarian, the Corsair design was more elegant. Both were deadly.

John lobbied for many years to open up the wing access panels covering the 50 caliber machine guns for viewing. It was my first time seeing them.

The Beast Master

As the angle of incident light outside rapidly decreased, we called it a day. Dar, John, and Cap'n Dave returned to their Kalamazoo area homes while Dan, Jeff, and I returned to the Air Zoo ramp to preflight the airplanes for our respective flights home.

The museum's MiG-21 now sits outside along the path between the museum buildings.

Jeff invited me to sit in his Turbo Saratoga, which was great fun, but I felt more than a little outclassed. It was ironic that Jeff's powerful beast (does that make Jeff the "Beast Master"?) only had to hop north to Holland, MI while my puny Warrior would bear me and Dan back across Michigan, through two international borders, over one Canadian province, and partway across New York state that evening.

The Beast Master (I am going to keep calling Jeff this until the nickname sticks).

On an IFR flight plan at 7,000 feet, the ride home was expedient. Our flight time was 2.75 hours with an average ground speed of 140 knots that peaked around 150 knots. We landed at Sodus 1.5 hours after sunset in air that was dead-calm.

As we pushed the Warrior back into my hangar, Dan said, "Thanks. That was everything you promised it would be."

And it was. I had so much fun seeing Dar, John, Cap'n Dave, and Jeff again. I loved seeing the different cockpits, both the familiar and the new. Throw in a beautiful, if exhausting, day of flying and lunch at Erbelli's and it is hard to conceive of any way to improve on the day.


Wondering why Kelly Johnson referred to his slide rule as a "Michigan computer"? Johnson earned his Bachelor's and Master's degrees in Aeronautical Engineering at the University of Michigan, which is where he would have learned his slide rule skills.

What the heck is "habu"? The habu is a venomous southeast Asian snake. When the Blackbird was flown from an Air Force base in Okinawa, the local population saw a resemblance between the snake and the strikingly unusual aircraft, dubbing the Blackbird "habu". This nickname was embraced by Blackbird crews and eventually came to be emblematic of the entire Blackbird program.

Monday, February 17, 2020

The "Daveciples"


Mark and me with N3343P. Photo by Joel.

Mark and I have a lot in common. We both grew up in the metropolitan Detroit area, both hold advanced degrees in Chemistry with the same specialty, both work in the same industry (though never for the same company), we're both pilots, and as the photo above shows, we even have the same Alton Bay Ice Runway hats. I knew of Mark before meeting him in person because one of his research papers is cited in my dissertation.

Dave in the cockpit of his beloved Stearman at South Haven Regional Airport. Photo by Gary E on September 17, 2005.

But our personal connection is through Dave, who inspired us both to fly. Mark one-upped me in that regard; he bought Dave's first airplane, the Citabria in which I had my first light aircraft ride, when Dave moved up to a Super Decathlon.

Mark in 33P and Dave in 68W flying formation off Warrior 481's wing over South Haven, MI on July 30, 2005. Photo by Jonathon W.

Mark and I have been trying to reconnect for the better part of a year and finally met for breakfast at Cherry Ridge.

"Remember That Time...?"

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
17 Feb 2020 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - N30 (Honesdale, PA) - SDC 3.0 2084.3

Though excited about visiting with Mark, my memory of the day will probably be overshadowed by circumstance and I suspect that I will always recall it as "that time I flew a three hour cross country with an injured wrist."

That morning, I gave the flight a 50/50 chance of actually happening. Though the sky over Cherry Ridge was predicted to be clear, most of western New York was under a low overcast. I had no desire to fly across the state at 2,000 feet, especially toward the higher terrain to the south. However, I could see a few holes in the deck and expected that the lakeshore might actually be clear, so I readied the Warrior for flight to investigate my options.

I admit that I was rushing because I was running late. As a result, when I walked around the wingtip and encountered some black ice, my legs went right out from under me. In an instant, I was staring up at the bottom of my wing. I landed on my left shoulder, left hand, and judging by the bruise I found a couple of days later, my head. I climbed back to my feet and assessed my condition. For the most part, I felt fine. There was some mild pain in my hand, but that was all. A few minutes later, I was motoring skyward. The ice-cold of the Warrior's cast aluminum yoke felt good on my injured hand and I could detect no impairment in my ability to manipulate the controls.

Aloft, I could see that the ceiling cleared over Lake Ontario, but that I would need to fly halfway across the lake into Canadian airspace to fly around the edge. That was a no go. After hunting for a couple of minutes, I found what was probably the only hole big enough to safely admit me VFR to my desired cruise altitude. I could have filed IFR, but was not enamored with climbing through clouds along the south shore of Lake Ontario in a region covered by an icing AIRMET. As a result, VFR definitely seemed like the way to go and I climbed through the large hole without any ice-inducing tendrils of vapor contacting my aircraft.

At 7,500 feet, a tailwind compensated for my tardiness. I averaged 152 knots over the ground in cruise, which allowed me to arrive at Cherry Ridge right at the appointed 9:00 meeting time.

About fifteen minutes into the flight, the adrenaline from my fall ebbed away and I realized that my left hand and wrist took more damage that I initially realized. My grip was strong, but my wrist and the heel of my hand were injured and swollen. My wrist did not want to twist, bend, or bear any significant weight. Inspecting the heel of my hand, I discovered some new bumps that did not belong there. When I arrived at Cherry Ridge, I successfully flew the pattern and landed using my left hand, but I was lucky that the air was calm so that the flying was not too strenuous.

Catch Up

At breakfast, Mark, his friend Joel, and I talked engine overhauls, electronic magnetos, career development, homebuilt airplanes (Joel is a repeat offender in this category), and the dynamics between teenagers and their parents. It was great to meet Joel, visit Mark, and enjoy an excellent breakfast from the wonderful folks at the Cherry Ridge Airport Restaurant.

That day at Cherry Ridge was the first time I ever got a picture of Warrior 481 parked with the Citabria partly responsible for sparking my love of flying. Joel's RV is parked next to the Citabria.

Photo by Joel

We took photos for Dave that commemorated this meeting of his disciples. Minutes later, Mark and Joel turned their airplanes back toward New Jersey while Warrior 481 and I pushed against a headwind that stretched the ride home to two hours.

Through the Layer

To stay out of the clouds, I climbed to 8,500 feet. This gave me a beautiful, lofty view of the winter landscape, but it also placed a stronger headwind on my nose.

Though the forecast suggested a clear sky over Sodus by the time of my return, an overcast still hovered over most of western New York. After listening to cloud base and tops reports fed to Rochester ATC by a few airliners, I learned that the layer was about 1,000 feet thick. No one reported icing while climbing through the layer. Rochester granted a pop-up IFR clearance for the descent through the clouds and I pushed the nose forward for a 1,000 foot/minute plunge to minimize exposure to potential icing conditions. It was my first time in instrument meteorological conditions for 2020, but it was brief by design. I did not pick up any ice in the descent, cancelled IFR once in the gloom beneath the layer, and flew the pattern to a landing on runway 10.

The surface wind was squirrely and I experienced a lot of pain in my left wrist as I worked the controls to land the airplane. Once landing was assured, I flared with both hands on the yoke to ease the load on my left wrist. After the flight, my hand and wrist ached deeply, clearly overworked. Fortunately, John G was available to help me push the Warrior back into my hangar.

Painful Lesson

On the way home, I stopped at an urgent care clinic. X-rays showed nothing broken, but I had a severely sprained wrist and my hand sported some additional bruising and inflammation.

The lesson for me is, the next time I injure myself at the airport, I need to pause and assess more carefully than I did in this case. Had I waited twenty minutes and allowed the adrenaline rush to subside, I would have made a more accurate assessment of my condition. Had I done that, I probably would have chosen to stay on the ground. All's well that ends well, but I did not do myself any favors by working my injured wrist as hard as I did while flying.

Saturday, February 15, 2020


Super Cool

Warrior 481's wings and horizontal tail surfaces were sporting a dense array of translucent warts, large beaded droplets of super cooled liquid water that remained fluid despite a hangar temperature significantly below freezing. Minor disruption promoted immediate crystallization, a problem if I wanted to fly the next morning (February 15).

Do they ever issue Airmet Zulus for the insides of hangars?

I elected to mop up as much as I could with clean towels. Though I removed most of the water, an unwelcome side effect of my labor was a lift-destroying icy film left behind on the wings and stabilator. I hoped that the high surface area of the frost and the incredibly dry air would promote rapid sublimation or else flying would be a no-go the next day.

When I returned the next morning, the wings were completely free of ice. I love it when the laws of nature work out in my favor. That is not always the case.

Yin and Yang

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
15 Feb 2020 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - K09 (Piseco, NY) - LKP (Lake Placid, NY) -
SLK (Saranac Lake, NY) - SDC
4.8 2081.3

Like all eastbound treks, the journey began with an aerial survey of the Lake Ontario shore and Sodus Bay. But my goal for the day was not to fly around my back yard. Instead, I had my sights set on the Adirondack Mountains and hoped to eat lunch in Lake Placid.

At 7,500 feet, my true airspeed was 120 knots, but I was making 151 knots over the ground. Though I appreciated the tailwind and how it expedited my journey to the mountains (flight time from Sodus to Piseco was under an hour), I knew that I would be subject to the inevitable yang to my tailwind's yin. Getting home would be a slog.

Frontier Field

I planned my first stop at the desolate Piseco Airport for two reasons. For one, I just wanted to land there for fun. More practically, I was hoping to get fuel there because none was unavailable in Lake Placid that morning and I would need more to overcome the inevitable headwind home. Piseco has self serve avgas available for $4.90/gal.

Because Piseco sits in the lee of a large ridge line, GPS direct navigation from the West is not very practical. Instead, I picked up highway NY-8 just east of the Hinckley Reservoir and followed it around the terrain to the south end of Piseco Lake.

Highway NY-8 winding through frosty evergreens

It has not been much of a winter in Rochester, but the landscape of the Adirondacks, even the southern Adirondacks near Piseco, was well-frosted.

I rounded the southern end of the ridge line, picked up Piseco Lake, and turned northbound toward the airport. From over the lake, I could see a dark strip of runway indicating that the airport was well-plowed (above). Piseco does not have weather reporting, but nearby airports indicated a southwest wind and my groundspeed certainly suggested that a landing on runway 22 would be most appropriate.

Piseco Airport

Left downwind, runway 22, Piseco Airport

Final approach, runway 22, Piseco

Westerly winds rolling off the nearby ridge often wreak havoc with graceful landings, but not today.

The welcome sign not withstanding, I found Piseco to be deserted (not uncommon), the fuel hose to be completely iced up (disappointing), and three feet of snow drifted against the bathroom door (damn annoying). Plan B was to stop at Adirondack Regional in Saranac Lake for fuel after Lake Placid. Always have a Plan B.

Because of the Warrior's wing dihedral, the wingtips have at least three feet of ground clearance. During taxi at Piseco, the snow surrounding the plowed taxiway was deep enough that I crept along, worried that my wing tips did not have adequate vertical clearance. A better strategy, especially given how deserted the field was, would have been to backtaxi on the much wider runway where edge effects would not have been a factor. Nonetheless, I made it out without any structural damage despite one pile of snow near the end of the taxiway that probably just brushed the bottom of my right wing.

Climbout from runway 22 at Piseco

No Man's Land

Geologically, there is very little going on in the geographic center of the Adirondack Mountains. Though the area is ringed by mountains and bounded to the north by the Adirondack High Peaks, the center is comparatively flat, low and kind of boring. It is also desolate. Very, very desolate.

A solitary road runs through no-man's land.

My goal was to fly northbound toward the High Peaks that encircle Lake Placid. A valley between Mount Marcy and Dix Mountain allows passage between the peaks east of town. The valley containing Lake Placid can be entered from the northeast through a notch in the terrain just south of Whiteface Mountain. It was my goal to get some photos of the High Peaks while flying this route near the tops of the mountains.

Flying the Terrain

As I proceeded north, the terrain rose to meet me. The tallest peak at frame right is Mount Marcy. With a 5,344 foot elevation (and a 3,166 foot elevation gain), Mt Marcy is the highest point in New York State.

Similar to flying among the Rocky Mountains, navigation via GPS-direct is useless for this scenario. I followed State Highway 73 north to discover the valley I sought. Upper Au Sable Lake provided a useful landmark for the point of entry.

View to the east.

View to the west.

Entering the valley

Snow billowing from the tops of the High Peaks left little doubt as to the direction of the wind. Aligned with my direction of flight, the airflow hastened my transit of the valley without generating any turbulence. (The turbulence came farther north once I was directly downwind of the peaks.)

This sight was exactly what brought me to the mountains that morning. Mission accomplished.

In the distance, fifth-highest Whiteface Mountain (4,872 foot elevation) came into view.

Mount Giant.


South of Whiteface Mountain, I turned southeast toward Lake Placid. I sometimes like to leave airplane bits in the finished photographs to provide a sense of scale.

More airplane bits.

Lake Placid's Big Slide

Lake Placid

The Olympic ice rinks dominate downtown Lake Placid.

Regardless of the direction I landed at Lake Placid, I was going to have a direct crosswind. I chose runway 14 and touched down in 2" of undisturbed snow. It seems that everyone else was using runway 32 that morning, but I arrived at a quiet moment and did not disrupt anyone's flights.

Overlay of my GPS track through the mountains on a sectional chart.

In fact, I was surprised at how quiet the airport was. After I landed, Adirondack Flying Services' yellow sightseeing airplane was loaded up with paying passengers. I waved to them without mentioning that big wallop of turbulence that wracked my airplane as I overflew the airport a few minutes before. Why put them on edge?

Parked on the ramp at the Lake Placid Airport.

Airplanes. Mountains. Blue Sky. In my book, a perfect day.

Rather than fuss with Lake Placid's sometimes balky public transportation, I elected to walk a couple of blocks from the airport for lunch at the Big Slide Brewery and Public House. Any place offering an appetizer called "Smells Like Poutine Spirit" has to be good, right?

Honestly, I liked the clever name of the brewery and its reference to Lake Placid's tallest landmark.

Olympic ski jump towers photographed 15 Jan 2015

I decided on the "So Mushroom for Activities" pizza (flatbread crust, herb and garlic base, shredded mozzarella, Dutch Knuckle and pecorino cheese, mixed mushrooms, arugula, balsamic vinegar syrup) and it really hit the spot. My waitress confided that this was her favorite. Maybe I have become too cynical because I always wonder whether these endorsements are actually true.

Back at the Lake Placid Airport, Whiteface Mountain still presided over a largely deserted field.

As I fired up the Warrior, Adirondack Flying Service loaded more passengers for a sightseeing flight.

Adirondack Flying Service's distinctive yellow Cessna.

On take-off from runway 32, I noticed my tracks in the snow from landing the opposite direction. I could clearly see where I'd brought the upwind main wheel down first to manage the crosswind, then the downwind main, then the nosegear. I did not even remember thinking about managing the crosswind, but the irrefutable snow record clearly showed that I had gone about it the right way whether I was deliberately conscious of it or not.

The wind increased significantly during my brief stay in Lake Placid and I was bounced around in the climb, which made it difficult to get clear photos of downtown on the way out. I wondered how the sightseeing passengers were enjoying their ride.

Pit Stop

I departed Lake Placid with about 1.5 hours worth of fuel remaining, but calculations showed that the headwind would stretch the return flight home to two hours. Because fuel was unavailable at both Piseco and Lake Placid, Adirondack Regional Airport in Saranac Lake was undeniably best place to fuel up for the return home. Located just 13 nautical miles northwest of Lake Placid, it is mostly a straight shot over low terrain.

Landing runway 23 at Adirondack Regional Airport.

Warrior 481 bucked in turbulence as we departed the Lake Placid area. I was not surprised to hear that the wind was gusting into the low 20 knot range when I listened to the automated weather broadcast at Adirondack Regional. Final approach to the 6,600 foot long runway 23 was done at a crawl against the headwind.

As I taxied in to the ramp, I observed some of the additional challenges that snow presented to airports with commercial service in the Adirondacks.

It was a quick turn. The FBO topped off my fuel from the fuel truck ($5.09/gallon) while I chatted with the line crew.

Uneven Balance

I always seem to run at a Karmic disadvantage when it comes to headwinds versus tailwinds. I was happy to accept that morning's 31 knot tailwind en route to the mountains. But on the return flight, my true airspeed (corrected for pressure altitude and temperature) was 120 knots while my groundspeed was only 75 knots, meaning that I faced a 45 knot headwind. It seemed grossly unfair.

I figuratively put my head down against the stiff breeze and trundled home at a rate marginally above where a typical Detroit driver sets their cruise control on I-75.

Fort Oswego, Oswego, NY.

Still, at the tail end of a challenging and tiring week, the journey did its job and largely purged the stress that I carried with me into the weekend. It was a particularly good flight with incredible scenery.

I give this one a "star".