(This is part of A Summer of Flying.)
Packing up the plane the next morning (when I discovered the broken antenna), I realize that so much of the trip is repetitive. Here I am again, with the roller bag carefully stowed in the luggage area, the nose plugs and gust lock on the floor of the back seat, the canopy open in the late morning sun as I check the oil and test the fuel from the drains. Another walk around the plane, wiggling the control surfaces and checking the antennae (one loose). As I noted the Hobbs time on my kneeboard and looked over my little scribbled notes for the blog I wondered how repetitive the blog was. After over sixteen hundred hours of flying, was I thinking anything new? Even if I was, were there reliable ways to express that newness? Given the structure of the blog, where each entry is written in such isolation, it is possible that I am repeating myself over and over, especially when writing about the longer trips where I sit at ten thousand feet and watch the landscape slide past under the plane.
Maybe blogs could be used to track dementia. Just have a script that checks new entries against the text of old ones and when there is a certain amount of repetition alert the family doctor.
I sit for a few more moments and take in the feeling of the grasslands of Iowa. I got a little of it walking the campus yesterday evening, but right now the sun is baking the dew into the grass, there is still some wet concrete around the edges of the ramp, and the wind has just started to stir. The great middle of our country saturates your senses if you stop for long enough to notice. I glance up to see if there are any of the usual airliners bee-lining overhead from one major city on a coast to another major city on the opposite coast. All of the passengers sitting in pressurized comfort, the cabin feeling no higher than eight thousand feet, and breathing the same recycled air that was sealed in at Logan or Dulles or Kennedy.
The small bug-chasing birds are flitting around in the tall grass past the edge of the ramp. I can hear a little gas-powered tug being used to drag a plane out of a nearby hangar and other than that it is quiet. The airport is far enough from the road that there is no hum from the tires of people driving past. We are just a couple miles outside of town, but far enough that the usual urban hum is not audible. The kid behind the counter at the FBO was so friendly. He was working on his instrument rating and was talking about a four hour flight that he was thinking of taking with a friend so that he could fly under the hood the entire time. I talked a little about our flights. He explained that learning to fly was going to give him all these options, that there were so many places he could go with a little plane and there were so many people at the airport who would be happy to have him fly with them or for them. Every dollar he was making seemed to be going toward an adventure in one direction or another, making him very enthusiastic about his work. I thought about how the midwest churns these people out, people who want to do more, to see further, to escape. There’s a lot of horizon around the airport.
Out in the plane, I consider how lucky I am, in so many ways, and close the canopy.
The engine fires right up and I plug in Detroit Metro as my destination. It seems like a great place to find a comfortable hotel for the night and to muddle through the steps to cross the border. The radar image is a little daunting, but part of summer flying is the trick of timing the wind-blown thunder cells, figure out where they are headed, whether they will leave a path I can sneak through, how quickly they will pass by my destination so I can come in on their heels to a just-drenched runway and better visibility with the dust all wiped from the air.
It is only going to be a two hour flight to Detroit, but unfortunately my plane is going a lot faster than the eastbound storms this morning. I catch up to them in a little more than an hour. It is clear that I am not going around or through them, that they are going to pummel Detroit for the afternoon. This is the flexibility that the little plane provides and encourages. I check a few possibilities and in three minutes I am descending for South Bend, Indiana. I’ve never heard of it. They have an Atlantic FBO, though, and I know those are friendly, well-equipped, and always able to shuttle us to a nearby hotel.
There are some people reading the blog who know exactly why South Bend, Indiana has such a nice FBO. Those are football fans. And maybe people who attended Catholic school and considered attending the Catholic university that is the northern part of the town. I don’t follow football and my college search was rather narrow, but I appreciated that Notre Dame is a big enough draw to get the FBO spruce up for the bigger jets.
The shuttle driver for the downtown hotel was really friendly and told me all about trying to be a stand up comedian and attending a big Promise Keepers rally in Chicago recently. As we turned the corner onto the block where the hotel was I saw there was an art museum. “Is that open? Any idea how late?” He didn’t know, he had never been in there. The front desk didn’t know either, but I hustled getting changed and popped right down. The volunteer at the South Bend Museum of Art’s front desk waved me in and said they were only open for another hour.
My friend TW said that aviation has introduced him to more cheap hotels than he ever thought were out there. That’s true, especially when pinned down by weather, but it has also put me in towns that I would never, really never, have otherwise stopped in. And right
there in South Bend, Indiana was a painting that really captured what I was trying to say about the American plain, about the feeling of the early summer evenings, the fertile ground wet from the thunderstorm that afternoon, but the sky clear for the next morning, the way the work of our hands is dwarfed by the natural world we are trying to exploit and survive. I took it in for a while and returned to it before I left. (I also really liked a more recent piece where the artist excavated a handful of rather common bits of vegetation to show what was above and beneath the soil.
The art museum was part of a larger municipal building that seemed set up for conventions and other gatherings. It was well-positioned to take in the St. Joseph river and as I was leaving saw that it was a Phillip Johnson building. Not one that I had heard of, probably not one of his best, but certainly passable.
Yelp led me past protestors at a luxury restaurant (something about the geese and their livers), and to a very nice Japanese dinner. As I finished up I remembered that when Bob and I flew westward after the first crossing we ate primarily in chains, because we didn’t have a reliable way to find good food. (Yelp had been around a couple years, but I sort of doubt they had many reviews in a place like Springfield, Illinois, where we had a choice between Outback Steakhouse, Burger King or Hooters. Now even when we stop in a place like Walla Walla, Washington the boys and I are led directly to the best sandwich joint in the state.)
After dinner I wandered a little past the downtown and into the residential fringe. There were some fascinating buildings although the only photos I took and kept were of the municipal buildings as I came back through. Excellent masonry work, though, and a beautiful enamel finish on ceramic pieces for the facade of an early steel frame building. Really the same quality of work I was looking at when we were in Chicago, which was nice to see making it out into the smaller cities nearby.
In a place where the microclimate was affected by the river running through the downtown the architects of my hotel decided my room should instead look out into the enclosed courtyard, which was lit all night through. That made it easier to get up a 6am and get to the airport for my scheduled 8am departure. (I needed to confirm that the plane was topped off (nope) and the oxygen bottle filled (nope). And I wanted to repack a few things in the back of the plane. Since I would be dropping it at the factory I figured I should have it fairly neat in case they needed to move things around.)
The storms from the day before were still sweeping east, but this early in the day they were sort of sleepy. Taking off from South Bend I was IFR and under positive control. I debated canceling my instrument clearance once I was up to cruising altitude, but instead I just talked to the controller when I needed to deviate around the huge, vertical monsters that loomed alongside. I had no interest in seeing what would happen if I flew directly into one. (Judging from the wind speed, precipitation and METARs from airports below there was no convective activity in those clouds, but I had no need to test that.) So I was careful all the way to London, Ontario where the vectored me for a visual approach and I continued dodging little storm clouds on the downwind.
I need to write a separate blog entry about our northern border and how much I hate crossing it. I am sure it is not nearly as bad as the same traverse of the southern border, but I won’t even contemplate that until our failed War on Drugs is over and the cartels have lost their power.
All of the infrastructure that is in place in the United States for the two percent is, for the most part, absent in Canada. I can’t figure out if that’s because it is hidden from me somehow (I am not landing at the absolute biggest airports), if they have fewer wealthy people, or if there are regulations that make it less likely to happen. In any case, landing at London I taxi to the “fuel handler,” instead of an FBO. A customs crew in a pickup truck enters the airport via a nearby gate and they get out to talk to me. For the first time, I am asked to show “a flight log.” I have no idea what they are hoping to see, but I show them my iPad, they seem satisfied and depart. Inside I ask about dropping the plane at the factory, which I assume is the large hangar-like building directly ahead that says “Diamond Aircraft” on it. Nope. After they have fueled the plane I need to get back in and taxi down to the south end of the airport and down the longest taxiway I have ever been on. It winds through the woods like a portage trail and if it weren’t so narrow I would have pulled out the phone to take a photo.
When I finally came within sight of the factory I told the ground controller that I was there, and it had taken so long that I was a little surprised not to have come out by the cottage instead. That got a laugh out of him. This is the second time I have brought the plane back to the factory. The first time was back in 2007 when I had both boys with me and it was fascinating to see the whole assembly line in operation (the first assembly line I had ever seen). The factory is a lot quieter now, after the financial collapse of 2008 the sale of general aviation aircraft pretty much fell of a cliff. Diamond Aircraft was
employing a couple thousand people here and probably in related operations nearby. That force was decimated. One of the reasons I brought the plane back for this work is that I liked the idea of having these skilled workers doing what they were trained to do: work on airplanes. This same factory once made the Moth, a WW2 aircraft. In fact, the Diamond Aircraft company now builds planes on both sides of the Atlantic, both efforts taking place in former WW2 factories, but back then they were building, uh, competing models.
After dropping the plane and pointing out that the radio antenna needed to be fixed as well, I walked the couple miles to the passenger terminal for my flight to Chicago (and then on to home). As the time for the flight neared I started looking at the weather and what I saw was not encouraging. It is not weather that I would have flown into with my little plane, and probably not even stuff I would have flown into with a jet. Apparently WestJet’s pilot agreed with me and my flight was canceled. After a night spent in the city with the highest concentration of serial killers (at one point three at once were operating in a city with fewer than half a million citizens), I was on an early morning flight into O’Hare.
Although I was glad to have made motion west, O’Hare was filled with very unhappy people. They all had flights canceled the day before and had to spend the night in a city they weren’t planning to (some clearly in the airport). Or they were there for their regular departure this morning and their airport was crowded with these high-stress individuals. I sat quietly on the floor sipping my hot cocoa and making a list of my arrival home. As we took off I looked out and saw the Third Coast, all the skyscrapers that Dexter and I had discussed during our stay, and then we skimmed past Midway, where N971RD had waited patiently while we toured the city. I reclined the seat and let someone else fly for a little while.