Sunday, August 1
KMSN – KIAG – KLEB
Part of the lost trip report.
The thunderstorm line swept over us in the night and dissipated out over Lake Michigan. The breakfast at the hotel was surprisingly good (I have gotten used to trying to find anything edible in an “included” breakfast sort of buffet, not much effort was required that morning). Once we are packed up, the hotel shuttle van took us back to our FBO for departure. Along the way, Nell lamented that we didn’t get anything Wisconsin-specific during our stay and ventured that maybe the cheese is something to write home about. The van driver, a college-aged woman, say that it’s cheap, and that’s good, but that it’s nothing special, just fresh cheese. She then proceeded to give a running commentary about what the party scene was like around the university and how we are lucky to be there when school is not in session.
We packed the plane up and rolled out for run up. The airport was busy and it took them a while to get us routed, on the ground, over to the runway for takeoff. Once in the air, it was apparent that the skies are very busy, with lots of little planes heading northwest to Oshkosh. (When I was younger I had overalls and even a jumpsuit from Oshkosh B’gosh. Boy, did I like that jumpsuit.) We climbed up away from the airport, turning to the east and sliding between thin layers of clouds.
We were about to head across Lake Michigan. It was eighty-three miles to the other side. I couldn’t get high enough to make that a distance that I can glide to the shore if the engine quits in the middle. It is the beginning of August, and I am sure the water is pleasant, but it is pretty early in the morning and my boys would probably like to spend as little time in the water as possible if we have to ditch. In this sort of situation I consider flight following with air traffic controllers a requirement. The first Milwaukee approach controller I talked to says to try the next controller. After flying another twenty minutes toward the shore, about to head out over the water, that next controller said that due to Oshkosh traffic loads they can’t provide any flight following services.
That is a deal breaker and I am turning toward Chicago (I can just skirt the shore of the lake all the way around), but I figured I’ll try one more time. “Milwaukee approach, Diamondstar one romeo delta would rather fly directly across, but we’ll fly the shoreline because we have two little boys on board. Thanks anyway.” There was only the slightest pause and he came right back, “One romeo delta, squawk zero three eight one.”
Eighty-three miles is a little more than half an hour. It is amazing how long that seemed. I did the calculation twice for how far we would glide from 9,500 feet. I put a waypoint out ahead of us so that I knew when we had passed that point and we would make it to land. I checked the engine instruments every five minutes. The engine, of course, sounded funny, but a friend who flies Air Force jets said his engine sounds funny over the water, so I figure mine should, too. At the midway point, Milwaukee handed me off to Grand Rapids approach. I thanked him profusely. The clock ticked down to my glide-from-here waypoint and then we were past it, able to make it to shore if the engine happened to stop. The engine, of course, sounded great from then on.
Nell and I fiddled with the moving map, our course, and checked the Airport Guide. It looked like we could make it to Niagara Falls without too much of a stretch, and it seemed that would be a fun lunch stop. We crossed the entire peninsula of Michigan, looking down at bucolic little farms and communities. Things looked a little rusted, but even from over nine thousand feet the sun on the fields was magnificent.
The boys were able to amuse themselves with their Magic the Gathering card game. Last summer they would jump out of the plane at every stop and race in to get a game going on whatever surface was available in the FBO. Sometimes that was the floor. They had advanced their play enough that on this trip they were able to play IN the plane, which made for some more relaxed legs on the journey.
We approached Canadian airspace and I remembered getting bills for the short trip I take each summer up into Ontario. We would be flying through Ontario’s airspace without stopping, but I didn’t know if that would cost us something. Did we need to give a credit card? Over the radio? Were we meant to have arranged something beforehand? I felt unprepared. I queried the controller, but they said they didn’t deal with the border, I would have to ask the next controller.
This might be a drag. We might have to land to declare or something. I looked at a few of the possibilities. Nothing very exciting. We flew on. We switched to the net controller and I asked if we needed to do anything about flying through Canadian airspace, if there was a fee to pay or something to arrange. The controller said, “Well, let me know if you see a tollbooth up there. That would be a new one for me.” I guess that meant we were fine.
The plane flew directly over London, Ontario, where it was assembled back in April 2005. And we talked to Canadian controllers, who were very polite. I made sure to use the “November” portion of my call sign each time, since their call signs start with Charlie. We could see Toronto in the distance as we neared the shore of Lake Ontario. It had been a long flight (four hundred fifty-five nautical miles), a lot of it at less than optimum altitudes because of the layers of clouds.
So we were skimming over the farms of southern Ontario at only three thousand feet because of clouds above us. That makes the engine less efficient and our range shorter. We weren’t in danger of running out of fuel (we never are), but we were going to come close to entering our IFR reserve (the last forty-five minutes of fuel on board), something I try not to do.
We managed to squeak into KIAG without tapping the reserves (totally a virtual event in any case, there is no separate tank, just electronic bookkeeping by the computer in the plane). The approach and tower controllers for KIAG keep incoming flights high, because there is a lot of low-level VFR traffic in a little racetrack-oval over the Falls. That suited us (and our fuel burn) just fine and we got to look down at the horseshoe of the Falls as we came across the American border.
The FBO was stuck in time (the way a lot of things that close to Canada are), but they were very friendly. They suggested the restaurant across the street for lunch and said they would let us borrow the crew car to go see the Falls. The lunch place was the worst place we ate on the entire trip (eastbound and westbound), but the trip to the Falls was fantastic. We’ve talked about it many times since, about how much water goes over in a day, how power is generated, what would happen to someone who fell in and so on. It was great.
We had to find our way out onto Goat Island, which is in the middle of the flow above the Falls. There was a wedding going on, which was really annoying, since the wedding party and guests took up all the Goat Island parking we only had the crew car for a little while and couldn’t park all the way at one end to walk down to the Falls, so we parked a little illegally and made ourselves nervous hiking around a bit. We circled again and Nell ran down to the edge of the Falls with the boys. That turned out great. Then I ran down with them, too.
We hustled back to the airport and saddled up for the last leg of the trip. We flew across New York State (over the Adirondack State Park, which is vast), over Vermont and into New Hampshire. As we were crossing over Burlington clouds were closing over Lebanon, New Hampshire, where we wanted to land. Rudy passed up the proper book of Instrument Approach Procedures and I told Air Traffic Control I needed clearance into the airport down through the clouds. They gave me the next points to fly to and cleared me for the approach.
Then I made the only flying mistake I made on the entire trip. Not bad, over two thousand miles, over twenty hours of flying and one mistake. And not a particularly grievous one. When flying the instrument approach into Lebanon, NH you come in over the mountains to the west, so you are quite high up. You are flying outbound (away from the airport) and do what is called a procedure turn. That’s where you turn away from the approach course into the airport, fly off into the unknown for a couple minutes, and then turn back and intercept the approach course again.
On most approaches you are meant to descend during the turn. I was a little disoriented by the controller plopping me onto the approach at what seemed like a non-standard entry point, and performed my turn without performing a descent. So as I intercepted the course back to the airport I was at 4,500 instead of 3,500. It took me a moment to realize my mistake, but once I saw it I just pulled the power out and pushed the nose down. The ceiling above the airport was quite high (it was a thin layer of clouds at a decent altitude, lots of space under them), and I popped out of the bottom of the clouds more than a couple miles from the airport, still a little high on the approach.
I skewed the plane a little sideways to drop it faster, pulled the nose up a little to slow down and watched the airspeed decay and the altitude unwind. Two more minutes and I let the plane wiggle back to straight ahead, and it settled right onto the glide slope for the last mile of the final approach.
If you are going to make a mistake in a particular direction, be high on the approach. Being low is not good. And learn from every mistake. If possible, learn from other pilots’ mistakes, so you don’t have to make your own. That’s why I subscribe to the NTSB reporter and read it every month. I am now much more vigilant about studying the procedure turn (if there is one) on the approach plate.
(I should point out that there was never any danger to the passengers. If we were too high to land at the airport we would have gone back up into the clouds, the controller would have vectored us around a little, and we would have just started the approach again. Sort of like missing the parallel parking spot – you just have to try again. It might have cost us ten minutes. If we were trying again we would have started east of the airport and we wouldn’t have done the procedure turn. The turn is there for people coming west over the mountains who need to stay high for the mountains but then need to lose altitude for the airport.)
And then we were unpacking the plane for the week in New Hampshire. I put the cover on nice and tight, made sure I had all of the food out of the plan (oh, when you leave a banana behind for a week, you are quite sad), and climbed into the rental car for the forty minute drive down to Pleasant Lake. The boys had a fabulous time racing around with their cousin.