Saturday, September 19, 2020

Nautical Air

"This is a weirdo airport."
 - The Bear, 19 September 2020

Sixth Time Is the Charm

Six times we planned a Williamson Flying Club outing to Penn's Cave. Five times we cancelled that outing due to crummy weather, though to our credit, we often found good alternative destinations that gave the airplanes and the people flying them someplace to go. 

But on the sixth scheduled attempt, the capricious aviation weather gods finally granted conditions worth waiting for, light winds and clear skies.

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
19 Sep 2020 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - N74 (Centre Hall, PA) - SDC 2.9 2158.5

Warrior Tested, Bear Approved

It was our first departure for an adventure from the new hangar.

Despite acting more like a turtle than a member of the Ursidae family, The Bear enthusiastically endorsed the new "airplane house".



It was our first day in 2020 flying together without anyone else on board. I was delighted to spend the time with my daughter. The Bear was delighted to spend time in the front seat of the Warrior instead of being relegated to the back.

"Are you going to be my autopilot today?" I asked her.

"What?" she asked, looking at me as though a lobster had just crawled out of my ear. I took that as a "no". 

We settled ourselves into the Warrior and I set up the cockpit. Stratus 2, portable electronic CO monitor, iPad...where was the iPad? Deflating, I realized that I left it and all of the valuable aeronautical data it contains at home. The Bear looked at me in shock. "What do we do now?"

"We use my phone as a back-up," I explained. This is why we always come prepared with a Plan B. My iPhone was happy to connect to Stratus and display en route traffic. Aside from a lack of yoke mount, the smaller device capably served as a replacement aeronautical chart. (With many thanks to the team at ForeFlight for finally harmonizing the iPhone and iPad app interfaces that made using the phone as a substitute far more effective.)


Canandaigua Lake

As we flew over the north end of Canandaigua Lake, The Bear was excited to locate a lake house belonging to the family of a friend. She was even more excited when her friend affirmed by text message that she had photographed the correct house.

We flew over a section of north central Pennsylvania that I have often referred to as "No Man's Land"; dense woods covering aggressive -- if not exactly mountainous -- terrain with very little human population. I used to fly over this portion of the state frequently, but realized that my flying in recent years has been along headings other than due south. It was my first time over this region in a long time. I scrupulously kept track of clearings large enough for an emergency landing that were within gliding distance, most of them off to the east.

Penn's Cave is located just east of State College in central Pennsylvania. If one were to draw lines across the state connecting the opposite corners, the "X" formed at the center would almost exactly locate Penn's Cave. Topography in this region of the state is dominated by a series of parallel ridges that I have always thought made the state look like a giant, ruffled potato chip. Ruffles might indeed have ridges, but so does the state of Pennsylvania.

Reaching Lock Haven, we departed "No Man's Land" and entered the "Ruffles" portion of the state, flying over a series of valleys separated by ridges roughly oriented along east-west lines. Descent planning is always tough in this environment when it is not entirely obvious which valley holds the destination.

Video by The Bear. Best viewed full screen.

The Penn's Cave Airport is a 2500 x 40 foot asphalt runway draped across the top of a hill like a wet noodle. Both runway ends are significantly lower in elevation than the middle and, on short final, the far end of the runway disappears from view completely, making it difficult to gauge remaining runway distance. The Bear captured a video of the landing and when she saw that we were landing uphill, remarked, "This is a weirdo airport!"

Though it was my second landing at Penn's Cave, my first visit was twelve years prior and my memory of it was a little fuzzy. I remembered that the runway elevation was parabolic, but had forgotten how steep the grade actually was.

Scott's gonna love this, I realized as I considered my friends in Eight Five X-Ray flying a few minutes in trail.

Feeding Time at the Zoo

Transient parking at Penn's Cave Airport is on grass south of the runway adjacent to the boundary of Penn's Cave Wildlife Park.

Ramp space around the hangar across the runway from us declared that it was private parking only. According to AirNav, there is only a single aircraft based at the airport. I assumed that it was inside that hangar and wondered if it happened to be a red biplane with a radial engine.

They spelled "transient" wrong, but the sign was well-placed to direct aircraft onto the grass at a safe location. East of the sign, there was a deep enough swale that taxiing through would likely lead to a prop-strike for tricycle gear aircraft like ours. Nonetheless, the grass was long enough that my prop tips picked up a badge of honor in the form of a mild green tint.

The Bear and I unpacked the camp chairs and set them up at the edge of the parking area where we were slightly protected from the wind by the crest of the hill. I had offered to carry Tom and Alicia's chairs in the Warrior to eliminate some weight from Eight Five X-Ray. The Bear and I arranged seating for lunch before the others landed.

A few minutes after we set up the picnic area, Eight Five X-Ray appeared. Scott was a little high on approach to the short runway and his landing was firm, but he did well. Penn's Cave was the shortest runway he had used to date and most certainly presented the oddest perspective.

I saw Scott hesitate on the runway, searching for an appropriate place to exit onto the grass for parking. I waved at him from near the parking sign to show him where it was safe to taxi.

There is nothing quite like baja-in' an airplane for the first time.

Finally, all six of us were ready for lunch. Aboard Eight Five X-Ray were Kim, Scott, Alicia, and Tom. 

As demonstrated by Kim's hair, there was a brisk breeze blowing across the airport.

Over lunch, we discussed the "weirdo" runway and Scott's landing. "He went 'boing'," interjected The Bear, ever the aeronautical critic.

"Yeah, I did," Scott agreed, but he was quick to point out that he did not bounce.

We enjoyed our picnic lunch alongside the wildlife park fence. We had many witnesses as we dined, including a flock of rams and a bus full of tourists. 

It was enough to make me wonder whether we were the ones on exhibit. On the left, you will see a group of aviators enjoying a traditional picnic lunch near their native runway habitat. You will note that the meal does not include beer. This is a clear sign that they plan to use their airplanes again today.

After lunch, we walked the short distance from the airport to Penn's Cave. Did everyone remember their Fitbits? Sure, the landing probably counted for cardio, but steps are important, too.

We lost enough elevation just walking a few tens of feet west of the parked airplanes that the upslope of the airport surface was very apparent.

We excel at following directions when it strikes our fancy to do so.

Home of the Aboriginal Teamsters

"Historic Penn's Cave & Wildlife Park, 1/2 mile"

What makes Penn's Cave "historic"? In my opinion, two things. First, it's been a tourist trap since 1885. That's pretty historic.

Second is the legend of Native American girl Nita-nee and her would-be lover, French trapper Malachi Boyer. Because their love was forbidden by Seneca custom, they fled the region. (Headed toward Vegas for a quickie wedding, perhaps?) They were caught by Nita-nee's overprotective brothers who tossed Boyer into the water-filled cave to die. Uncooperative as ever, Boyer is said to have clung to life for at least a week (that's a lot of dog paddling), but once he finally perished, the brothers weighted his body with stones so that it would sink into the deepest water of the cavern. Nita-nee's memory lives on in the name of Penn State's mascot, the Nittany Lion. Pretty gruesome origin story compared to the Golden Gophers, right?

No matter where we went, all the animals stopped and stared at The Bear. That included the rams at lunch as well as two donkeys and a horse at the Penn's Cave farm. They all know a predator when they see -- or smell -- one. I forgot to ask The Bear if she showered that day.

The Path of Malachi

Penn's Cave is a limestone grotto that is unique in that it can only be toured by boat

Our tour began with a steeply descending, winding path toward the cave entrance.

Kudos to Penn's Cave staff for working with us to organize this trip. For every one of our planned excursions, we had a reservation for up to 12-15 people. Because they encourage fly-in visitors and understand how aviation works, they were uniquely understanding of every weather cancellation. When WFC member availability was low for our September 19 visit, they were also very understanding when we only needed six seats.

At the time we arrived, we learned that the wait was two hours without a prior reservation. Clearly, Penn's Cave is a popular destination. The good news for Penn's Cave was that our unclaimed seats were quickly filled.

All six of us descended the stairs to gather at the boat landing. Scott and Alicia clearly thought we were in England, but there were no head-on collisions during our visit to Penn's Cave.

As we waited at the dock, a light appeared in the darkness that heralded a returning tour boat.

Once we were aboard, the boat motored smoothly into the depths of the cave. I took one last look back at the entrance before peering forward into the gloom.

Geology for Aviators

Our tour guide, Dakota (not to be confused with a tapered-wing version of a Pathfinder) used a spotlight to illuminate formations throughout the cave. In some areas, entire chambers were wired for light.

Penn's Cave is carved from limestone that likely accreted at the bottom of a primordial ocean before tectonic activity pushed the region to a higher elevation.

Our guide described this chamber as "the dry room". No mineral-laden moisture seeps through the ceiling of this portion of the cave and, as a result, there are no significant stalactites to be seen anywhere.

This formation in the dry room is called the Nittany Lion.

And this one is known as Jabba the Hutt.

Because limestone is not known for its vast variety of color, the owners of Penn's Cave use light to colorize the formations. Like those early efforts to colorize movies, the colors looked unnaturally out of place to me.

Eventually, we emerged from the other end of the cave into Lake Nittany. Before mankind interfered, water in Penn's Cave used to exit through a natural sump deep in the rock. Our exit was manmade, created with a substance that accelerates geological timelines: dynamite.

You might think that seeing duck butts on the tour would cost extra. Nope! All duck butts were included in the cost of admission.

After a brief tour of Lake Nittany that involved a sighting of some piebald deer, we returned to the darkness.

On the outbound portion of the tour, this pale stalagmite was dubbed the Statue of Liberty. But when returning inbound? Leaning Tower of Pisa. It's a two-fer!

Uphill, Both Ways

Everyone enjoyed the tour. The Bear talked me into buying her a Penn's Cave hoodie and, because they were so reasonably priced, I bought myself one as well. In fact, everyone picked up some Penn's Cave swag to commemorate a fantastic day trip. Tom and I got sweatshirts of the same design, but in different colors so that no one could accuse either of us of copying the other.

With both approach ends of the Penn's Cave Airport being uphill, it seemed the perfect manifestation of the old gag about a hard life in olden times with snowy walks to school that were "uphill, both ways". Tom chose a single notch of flaps for departure and charged up the hill on runway 7. We watched with bated breath as the Archer disappeared from view over the hill while still rolling. Moments later, Eight Five X-Ray reappeared climbing away from the airport.

Uphill take-off roll, photo by The Bear

I considered how I wanted to conduct the take-off. By the book, short field take-offs are done with two notches of flaps, 25°. But I was concerned about hanging all that drag out while trying to power up the slope. So I chose a single notch of flaps to provide a little extra lift with minimal drag. 

Considering that the runway is not quite half a mile long, being unable to see the entire length from the departure end is disconcerting. From my perspective, it seemed as though we were on a ramp about to be catapulted off the very edge of the world. At full throttle, the Warrior accelerated grudgingly uphill, but picked up speed more rapidly as the grade flattened, then turned downhill. Despite a bizarre sight picture, the departure was trivial.

Tom and I both received VFR flight following back to Sodus from an unenthusiastic New York Center controller who accepted no more VFR requests after ours. Clearly, Tom and I were a handful. We established communication with Center over Lock Haven before setting out across No Man's Land again at 7,500 feet.


It is always fun to fly places with my friends. I always derive a great deal of satisfaction in completing another successful fly-out under the auspices of the Williamson Flying Club's Activities Committee. (Tom organized the trip to Penn's Cave, but I tend to be involved in much of the trip planning in my role as committee chair.) Penn's Cave was certainly worth the visit and everyone enjoyed the tour. The Penn's Cave Airport runway was definitely something new for Scott and probably provided some novelty to Tom in spite of his greater experience. And we had beautiful weather to make the journey. 

But more than anything else, the best part of the day was having The Bear as my copilot again. In a year characterized by COVID, an engine failure, a stranded airplane abused by weather and birds for months, loss of currency, a kidney stone while on vacation, an emergency landing that led to on-going high CHT troubleshooting, looming uncertainty at work with a pending corporate split, a challenging and tentative return to school, and an increasingly vitriolic political climate in the runup to November's election, this flight with The Bear was one of the few things in 2020 that just felt right. 

It was a rare day of life playing out as it should instead of the way that it has been.