Sunday, April 18, 2021

Cloudy with a Chance of Sushi

(K)not So Gordian
  
Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
18 Apr 2021 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - BAF (Westfield, MA) - SDC 4.3 2235.6

We launched in a gaggle. The clumping of aircraft was both inevitable and entirely our fault.

"No one did anything wrong," began the Syracuse approach controller with a gentle rebuke. "But all you guys headed to Barnes are awfully close together and you're overlapping on my scope." I could not hear the proximity alarm shrieking in the background through the controller's mic, but suspect that it was decrying the spacing of our aircraft to every human being in the radar room.

With time and distance, the knot spontaneously untangled itself as I proceeded on an indirect airway route per my instrument clearance, Brad pulled ahead of the slower Pipers in his Cirrus, Ed diverted to Whitford's Airport to investigate and rectify a door latch issue, and Dan in One Delta Tango trailed the others by virtue of piloting the slowest airplane in the group. 

"What's going on at Barnes today?" queried Syracuse during a lull in activity. On hearing the answer, he responded, "Sushi? Nice. Perfect day for it." I wondered if it was the same Syracuse controller that interrogated Ed and I about breakfast costs at Sky Acres last fall. I remain amused by the fact that our numbers so often attract controller curiosity whenever we travel in a pack.

 The Passage

My goals for the morning included camaraderie, finally leaving New York state's boundaries, exploring a new airport (Westfield-Barnes Regional in Massachusetts, #218), sampling a "$100 hamburger" bearing no resemblance to an actual burger at Westfield's Tobiko Sushi, and exercising my instrument privileges. The latter primarily involved filing, flying a full route clearance, handling any re-routes, and managing the autopilot. One aspect of IFR flying not planned for the day was actually flying in the clouds: most of the route was covered by an icing AIRMET from 3,000 feet up. Put mildly, it was a good day to avoid the fluffy ice makers floating above the planet.

From the forecast, we suspected that clouds might present a challenge near Albany and this proved to be exactly the case.


With HAL dutifully keeping the Warrior on course and pegged at a 7,000 foot cruise altitude, there was more opportunity than in times past to enjoy the magnificent cloudscapes along the way. The route from Sodus to Westfield was KONDO - Victor 2 - Albany VOR - Victor 146 - Barnes VOR and I backed the whole thing up with VOR navigation on the geriatric number two radio.


Though we launched into a clear sky over Sodus, we first encountered low clouds west of Syracuse. While the other Williamson Flying Club aircraft maintained a southeast heading direct to Westfield, I split away from the gaggle and put myself on a slightly diverging course along airway Victor 2.


It is often said that nature abhors a vacuum. Nature also apparently abhors Oneida Lake because clouds refused to form over it, disrupting the undercast with a curiously Oneida Lake shaped hole.


Before losing complete contact with the ground, I caught a glimpse of the Mohawk River near Johnstown, NY. 


Closer to Albany, the radio chatter contained a disproportionate number of requests for altitude changes from my friends. They were several miles to the south off my right wing and the clouds were manifesting as obstacles for them. Each pilot guided his ship along a unique path to remain clear of them.


Meanwhile, as HAL steadfastly navigated Warrior 481 along my cleared route at 7,000 feet, I found myself flying through a passage in the clouds with layers immediately above and below and build-ups to the south.


To the north lay a vast expanse of undercast free of building cumulus. I felt almost guilty that the challenges my friends were experiencing failed to appear along my filed route. It was as though a corridor had spontaneously opened through the icy mist to allow my ship unfettered passage. But I know better. It was all just dumb luck.

Dunn Memorial Bridge over the Hudson River in Albany, NY


While overflying Albany, starboard views were consistently gloomy while sunlight and color dominated to port. It was as though my airplane slid along a line of demarcation between darkness and light in the heavens.


Things That Go Bump in the Clouds

Albany Approach passed me to Bradley Approach and I began to ponder the clouds between me and the promised meal of sushi down below. Though scattered, they were dense enough to require a descent through them. The layer was not thick and I decided that a descent through it would be brief enough to avoid a significant icing hazard.


Bradley Approach held me at a high altitude for longer than I would have preferred, but I was eventually granted permission to dive earthward through the frigid clouds. As soon as Warrior 481's windows were engulfed in white, I experienced a bump severe enough that my head hit the ceiling. HAL was still flying and, for some reason, I was disconcerted by not holding onto the controls as though doing so would somehow make me more secure than a properly tightened seatbelt.

Breaking out of the clouds, I spotted an airport-shaped clearing nearby and reported the field in sight. I was told, "Cherokee Four Eight One, cleared for the visual approach, runway 2."

I quickly realized my error when I looked just past the nose of my rapidly descending airplane to see that I was nearly on top of Westfield-Barnes. I mistook Westover ARB seven miles to the east for Westfield. 

So that's how that happens. I was reminded of instances when pilots landed at the wrong neighboring airport at night. While it wasn't night, I am always a bit discombobulated when dropping out of the cloud base in an unfamiliar area. Fortunately, my confusion was brief, but it did force an aggressive power-off descent into the pattern as I made initial contact with a harried Westfield Tower controller.

"Cherokee 481, winds are twenty knots, would you prefer runway 33?" Given the wind direction, I accepted.

"Cherokee 481, report midfield left downwind runway 33, number three to land." She then moved her attention to other traffic converging on her airport, including the rest of my Sodus cohort.


A steep, power off descent into the downwind brought me to pattern altitude. Adapting to the dynamic traffic situation, Tower changed pattern entry instructions to Tom and redirected Brad from landing on runway 2 to 33.

About twenty feet above the surface, Warrior 481 abruptly rolled to the right. Surprised, I countered with full left aileron and managed to settle the airplane to the runway smoothly, but in a flatter attitude than I prefer. It was workmanlike, but not elegant.

Still rolling out from the landing, I received another call from Tower: "Aircraft on the runway, say call sign." My first thought was, shouldn't she already know that? Then I mentally replayed my interactions with Tower out of fear that I landed without clearance. But no, I distinctly remembered being cleared to land while still number two. I responded with my call sign and heard nothing more on the matter. I can only surmise that the question hinted at how truly task saturated Tower was in the moment.

Brad exits the runway after landing.

I was the first arrival and no one from Rectrix was marshalling aircraft to parking, so I parked in the middle of the ramp wingtip-to-wingtip with another Cherokee. If that was not the right place to be, I assert that the other guy set the precedent.


Brad and Melodie were the second to land, followed by Tom with Alicia, Dan, and Ed.

Ed and Dan parked at Westfield-Barnes Regional.

Warrior 481, Brad's Cirrus, and Tom's Cherokee on the ramp at Westfield.

Dan, Tom, me, Alicia, Ed, Melodie, and Brad. Photo courtesy of Dan.

ForeFlight ground track from Sodus to Westfield.

Tobiko Sushi

Located in the same building with Rectrix, Tobiko Sushi has a Japanese-themed menu that encompasses sushi, hibachi, and ramen dishes. The restaurant has a great view of the parking ramp and a second floor exterior patio gives diners an excellent perspective on airport operations during the summer. I was a little surprised when Melodie's eel roll came complete with a tail, but nothing went to waste and everyone agreed that their meals were truly outstanding. Tobiko Sushi was worth the trip.


As the others made their way back to the ramp after lunch, I explored the second story patio and caught Melodie, Alicia, and Tom lollygagging.


BAF, the Barnes VOR


A view of the structure housing Rectrix (left) and Tobiko Sushi (right) with the second story patio.


Always Have an Out

Brad decided to file for the trip home, making it his first experience flying IFR since earning the rating. I filed my return flight plan the night before and managed to be wheels up within 20 minutes of my guesstimated departure time. Though Brad and I picked up our clearances from Westfield Ground without issue, the controller barked at Tom for dawdling in his parking place a couple of seconds after acknowledging that he was ready to taxi.


I followed Tom to the departure end of runway 33. Despite departing IFR, I was released almost immediately. Of course, I am most accustomed to IFR release out of Oakland County International under the Detroit Bravo and, compared to that, the traffic density around Bradley was significantly lower. I had filed for 6,000 feet, but it quickly became evident that I would be flying through the cloud bases if I stayed there. Bradley Approach approved a climb to 8,000 feet.

Even at the higher altitude, I was a collision course with a puffy white cumulus cloud and needed to make a decision. Though surface temperatures were in the mid fifties, the icing threat over a mile up was very credible. Fortunately, the layer was merely scattered and there were opportunities to escape icing in virtually any direction conceivable in three dimensional space. Entering the clouds would not consign me to a lengthy flight through the mist and I determined that it was a manageable risk by virtue of not breaking the cardinal rule of flying: always have an out. Moments after I made that decision, Warrior 481 penetrated the clouds.


When I emerged back into clear air, a faint haze of ice had formed along the lower portion of my windshield.


A bit of ice had also accumulated on the fuel cap. All of it sublimed quickly in the sunlight, but there was little point in tempting fate. I requested and was approved for a climb to 10,000 feet.


At that altitude, some of the tops posed a conflict with my flight path, but the vast majority of the white stuff was below. Overall, I estimated spending 0.2 hours in IMC on the round trip.


Hidden Valley

The southern "valley" wall

Crossing into New York state and flying over the Hudson River, we discovered that the cloudscape was drastically transformed since late morning. A long clear break in the clouds extended westward from our position. It resembled a massive gauzy valley, bounded to the north and south by ominous looking structures of vapor. ADS-B weather reported rain in the gloom beneath the northern valley wall.

Albany from 10,000 feet.

The northern "valley" wall.




The ride home was just as magnificent as the outbound flight had been, albeit slower. At 10,000 feet I had a true airspeed of 129 knots against a direct 20 knot headwind. I reveled in flying through an oddly structured fantasy realm nearly two miles above the Earth.

25 miles southeast of Griffiss. I had been cleared direct SYR and off the original route (shown in cyan). Precipitation was evident to the north and my friends' aircraft were clearly shown by ADS-B traffic.

Ed (N4344P), Brad (N352MS), Tom (N3426R), and Dan (N701DT) each chose their own paths through the valley, some flying high above the clouds and some low to stay beneath them. Brad and I simply bored through the little ones that stood in our way. I did not pick up any more ice after the initial encounter over Massachusetts and that thin film had long since sublimed.

Syracuse Hancock International Airport from 10,000 feet.

Denouement

On my first long cross country flight with HAL, I was pleased by the reduction in fatigue and the enhanced opportunity for strategic thinking while en route. Not that I was incapable of hand flying without exhaustion or strategic thought in the past, but I felt significantly unencumbered by HAL. Despite the workload reduction, I was never truly idle while HAL flew the Warrior. If anything, I believe that my situational awareness of weather and the condition of my aircraft was enhanced. I appreciated having the extra bandwidth to brief the RNAV-2 approach at Westfield-Barnes without simultaneously trying to maintain course and altitude by hand. In the end, I did not need to fly that procedure, but I was well prepared for it had the situation resolved differently.

I cannot say what it was about this particular journey, but all seven participants remarked on being deeply satisfied when it was done. Maybe it was the beautiful and impressive cloudscape we traversed that, while passable, still required judicious thought to navigate. Perhaps it was the visit to a new airport that was just busy enough to keep everyone -- including the controller -- on their toes. The excellent meal certainly contributed, eel tail notwithstanding (or maybe because of it). It might have been the greater taste of freedom coming after a year of societal paralysis from a global pandemic. I believe that the ultimate effect of the day was greater than the sum of its parts and that all of us will fondly recall our trip to Westfield for many years to come.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Flashback: The Dark Night

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
28 Oct 2002 N9327U HAI (Three Rivers, MI) - C91 (Dowagiac, MI) - HAI 1.2 102.4
 
Final approach at Canandaigua in Warrior 481 on 30 August 2016 during a dark night currency flight

Mike Blackburn is a private pilot who blogs about his flying adventures in South Africa. He recently posted an article entitled "The Night Life - Nov 2020" in which he reflected on night flying and earning the separate rating that allowed him to operate in the sky after dark. As I read his article, I was strongly reminded of my early night flying experiences.

I absolutely love night flying, though I recognize that it comes with additional risks. (Cue the well-worn saw about how to handle an engine failure at night: turn on the landing light just before reaching the ground and, if you don't like what you see, turn it off again.) After sunset, nighttime air becomes smoothly quiescent and flying feels like swimming through the most dilute of fluids. Radio chatter subsides and daytime's tension and urgency are absent from the few voices drifting across the airwaves. Flying through darkened skies can be a wonderfully meditative experience if a suitable night is chosen.

Unlike other regions around the world (like Canada and South Africa), the United States does not have a separate night rating. Night privileges come as a package deal with the private pilot certificate. Because I trained in the north where winter days are quite short, my instructor Bill believed that his students should receive more than the minimum three hours of night training. Good on him, even if  cynics at the airport attributed this practice to padding his billable hours.

Despite having double the required dual instruction at night, I am not convinced that it was enough to prepare me for future excursions after sunset. I did most of my night training in January under clear skies and over snowy landscapes. A little moonlight goes a long way in those conditions and, though it was nighttime on the clock, there was almost always a lot of ambient light. As a result, I developed a very unrealistic impression of what night flying was actually like.

I was "enlightened" (oh, the irony) on my first solo night flight in the fall of 2002 after earning my private pilot certificate. I chose a dark night without realizing how that would affect the experience. Very high overcast, no moon, and too warm for there to be reflective snow on the ground. It was dark. I vividly remember rolling for takeoff and pitching skyward to launch from runway 5 at the Three Rivers - Dr. Haines Municipal Airport. As soon as my tiny little Cessna 150 broke ground, the runway lighting was suddenly blocked by the rest of the airframe. 

All outside visual references immediately vanished. I was in a black void – it could have been outer space. An expletive was uttered; I no longer remember which one. This took me completely by surprise because it was entirely outside of my experience. Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to go on instruments before spatial disorientation set in and that saved me. In the end, I had an overall positive outcome and gained an excellent learning experience. It was one of many early examples of the private pilot certificate being a “license to learn”, as cliché as that sounds. The other trope that comes to mind is the one about filling the bucket of experience before exhausting the bucket of luck.

Eighteen years later, I purposely target dark nights for nighttime proficiency flights because I realize what a profound difference true darkness makes. For night VFR, it is the worst case scenario. But for pleasure flying at night, nothing beats a clear sky under a full moon with a nice reflective coating of snow on the ground.