(This is a part of A Summer of Flying.)
Before I returned to London, Ontario to get the plane, I borrowed Susan’s plane to fly Rudy up to Palo Alto where he was going to be a counselor at Great Books on Stanford’s campus. Her plane is just a couple years newer than mine, but it’s got two key improvements. It’s got the Garmin autopilot instead of the King KAP-140, and the G1000 in her plane has Synthetic Vision activated. Both were fun to play with on the way up to KPAO. The autopilot has a really nice feature where it can climb at a particular airspeed instead of a feet-per-minute rate. So I could just tell it I wanted to head up to 10,500 feet at 95 knots, which is nowhere near the 47 knot stall speed, and at first the plane climbs at 800 fpm at sea level. Then, as the air thins, the engine’s performance drops off a little, and the autopilot drops the nose a little bit to maintain the airspeed. We end our climb going a little better than 300 fpm.
Dropping Rudy off is much easier with Uber. They take us from the airport to The Counter for our lunch, and then over to the hotel where the counselor training will happen over the next couple days. I leave Rudy to meet up with the rest of his co-workers and an Uber driver takes me back to the airport. Back when I first dropped him for a summer program at Stanford I had to arrange with Enterprise to leave a car at the municipal desk for the airport, closed for a lot of the weekends. I remember once having to be spy-like and retrieve the keys from under a shelf where they had been planted.
On the way to the airport we pass a lot of Google commuters, since their campus is just south of the airport by a bit, and I realize that eventually their self-driving cars will probably collect me at the airport instead of an Uber driver. I contemplate that as Susan’s plane flies me home along a course of a dozen navigation points. I have it set to keep me within gliding distance of an airport, in case I lose the single engine and need to take over from the autopilot.
A few days later I am on a WestJet, sitting in the back with the rest of the passengers. It is certainly an autopilot that flies us up over Mount Shasta all the way to Calgary, Alberta. This flight was a third the price of the next least expensive, and it meant that I got to see a new airport, even a new province. I’m in London in time to enjoy a nice walk from my hotel to dinner and then on to a Dairy Queen. At seven a.m. the next morning I am in a taxi on my way back to the airport and the factory.
The work on the plane is phenomenal. It looks like a new plane. The guys that worked on the canopy joked that I could legally fly VFR again now that I could see out. They had buffed and polished the exterior so it had the same luster and deep shine that it did when we bought it ten years ago. The new vinyl striping and numbers finished it off to look great. I sort of regretted not getting a new(ish) interior, which was offered when I was dropping it off, except that I had the unexpected cost of replacing the under-belly antenna, so I just couldn’t bring myself to add the cost of a new interior to the invoice.
After a long taxi and false start (it seemed like Com2 wasn’t working, but I believe it’s possible I didn’t have the volume turned up, it required returning to the factory and they fiddled with it until it worked), I was airborne. I had taken care of my least favorite part of the trip, the electronic paperwork and phone calls related to returning to my native country. There were some interesting moments on the way to Detroit where it was difficult to know what was happening in the sky ahead, but I just pressed on and the sky opened up each time. My plan B was to drop down below the clouds because the reported ceiling all the way to Michigan was thousands of feet. It was also still pretty early in the day so the clouds seemed limp and sleepy.
Landing in Detroit was uneventful, although it is a huge airport and my time to taxi to the FBO was pretty long. When I popped the canopy I told the lineman I had to wait for customs and that I needed the fuel topped off. A different lineman started to fill the tanks from the fuel truck and then noticed that I was still in the plane. “Oh, are you waiting for the customs agents?” I nodded. “Damn, they’ll get all cranky if they see me messing with the plane, so I’m just going to stop fueling until they are done.” Useless regulation and bureaucracy. The customs agents rolled up in their little pickup, talked to me for two minutes, checked my passport, and left.
After a quick stop inside to grab some popcorn, I was back in the air and headed for KIOW, Iowa City. Unfortunately, there was now a summer thunderstorm between me and Iowa. And as I flew on, it kept getting bigger. I kept re-routing to fly over different little airports and every fifteen minutes as the NextRad image refreshed the storm kept growing. Soon there was a wall of yellow (moderate intensity) precipitation between me and the plains. I didn’t need to get there that night, Dexter wasn’t available until pickup the next morning, so I gave up and called ATC to make one of my rare diversions for weather.
That’s the mark of a safe pilot, though. If you have never, ever changed your plan while on the flight, then you have probably taken unnecessary risks at some point. Scott Crossfield was a much better pilot than I am and a thunderstorm killed him over Washington DC. I don’t need to tangle with these high energy storms. I told the controller I needed to divert to Midway for weather. They said it was IFR and I copied down an approach. They had a whole bunch of planes approaching Midway and it took them a little while to sneak me into the sequence. The controller was apologetic, but I told him I understood that I was a little guy landing at a big airport.
I also didn’t mind the extra time in the sky. The plane kept popping in and out of the clouds, so I had the most mesmerizing views of these huge spaces between layers of the clouds. I could see the jetliners on my traffic display (and twice out the window, a thousand feet below me) and as the controller vectored me back and forth through the approach course I could see the space that he was going to eventually drop me into. When he finally did, I kept the speed up as much as I could and followed the ILS radio beacon to the airport.
Right after I landed and got inside it changed from a constant drizzle to a pounding rain. From a few miles away inside the city of Chicago my friend Tony Fitzpatrick wrote, “It’s raining like a cow pissing on a flat rock.” I killed a total of three hours at the Atlantic FBO and they couldn’t have been friendlier. I borrowed a crew car and went to Giordano’s for real Chicago-style pizza.
After a nap, answering a bunch of email, and an hour or so of watching the storm animate its way across Chicago’s outlying suburbs, I finally saw a fairly clear path to the edge of the storm and out to Iowa. I borrowed an umbrella for my pre-flight inspection, which I then left under the wing of the plane parked next to mine. Midway clearance gave me a VFR departure out of the Class Bravo and westward. I needed to stay below four thousand feet to stay out of the clouds, which was a little nerve-wracking. Altitude is my friend and gives me a lot more options for where to set down if there’s an engine problem. But there I was, droning along with the rain buzzing against the new canopy, headed for the PIKUE intersection clear of the Bravo and the rain. It was a wonderful feeling as the rain slowed and stopped and the sky ahead of the plane started to open up. In twenty minutes I was climbing up to six thousand five hundred feet and headed direct to KIOW.
The runway in Iowa City had been power-washed clean by the storm. The grass alongside the concrete runways, taxiways and ramp was super green, all the dust washed off it an hour before. I tied the plane down carefully and borrowed a car. In a little while I was on the pedestrian promenade near the university, enjoying a caramel apple. The people that strolled past my bench had weathered the same storm, but it had found them a hundred miles west of where it found me. I’m not sure why, but I had an urge to stop of few of them and say, “You know that rain that was hammering you a couple hours ago? It’s still out there, drenching Chicago and Gary.”
In the early morning I strolled the town until it was time to pick Dexter up from his dorm. I took this photograph of one of the “nondescript” buildings and thought about the architect who drew that facade, probably fifty years ago. It would have been a satisfying life, I think, drawing these careful, workman-like faces that nonetheless carry the classic lines all the way back to Palladio (who first used that trio of windows the the arched one in the middle). Five hundred years, five thousand miles and here is the idea, the solemnity of the arch flanked by two more slender rectangles than it sits upon, echoing and shimmering over a cupcake store. Someone got to shepherd a bunch of these solid little buildings onto the prairie and into the sky, which was probably a nice transition to witness and assist with.
Dexter puts a good face on an obvious lack of sleep. He says goodbye to all of his new friends as they are climbing into plain white University vans taking them up to the Cedar Rapids airport. After our short drive to the Iowa City Airport he helps load the plane up and he’s fading away as we climb through five thousand feet. The first of three hops will get us to Indianapolis. Weather crowding in on the main airport convinces me to land at the smaller airport nearby, the Eagle Creek Airpark. They loan us a car and we hunt down a breakfast spot. That turns out to be IHOP, since the one that Yelp recommends has over an hour wait.
On this sort-of-stormy Saturday morning there’s a crowd of people in the hangar of the FBO learning about thunderstorms, how to track them on their NextRAD devices, what to say to ATC to get around them, and how to manage your risk in the sky. Outside one of the pilots has parked their gorgeous, polished Piper Comanche next to our plane. We climb up into the sky, trying to dodge the clouds on our way up to 9,500 feet and a direct line to Allegheny County’s little airport just outside of Pittsburgh. The first twenty minutes are really zig zagging around towering clouds and warning ATC that we are headed ninety degrees to our intended course. But eventually we are comfortably above everything, skimming along to our hilltop airport. I’ve stopped there half a dozen times now and they are unfailingly friendly and helpful. I take a nap while Dexter catches up on his text messages and general connections to the outside world.
There are no images for the next leg, other than this quick snap over Springfield, Ohio just before things got difficult. It was one of the hardest routes of flight that I have ever done. We had filed an IFR flight plan to get into Caldwell, New Jersey. Dexter was hoping to have dinner with a school friend who happened to be in NYC that evening. I told him that with the size of the storm that was screaming toward the East coast there was a good chance we would spend the night in Ohio somewhere. He said that was fine. During some of the deviations around thunderstorms I remembered the first flight we made from Canada down to the Hamptons, when the boys were hoping to make it to their cousin’s birthday party and I explained that it was unlikely to happen. So I guess it’s been nearly a decade of the little plane affecting their carefully laid plans.
The storm was headed to the ocean at about forty knots over the ground. We were traveling a relative one hundred forty knots, so we started to catch up to the major parts of the storm. When we first left the Pittsburgh area I climbed and turned and meandered my way around the most vertical pieces of cloud, knowing that inside them, further on, there was the engine of atmospheric energy that was carrying tons of water and moving many more tons of warm air. All that energy worries me when I can’t see it acting. Out in the desert these storms tend to be more isolated and I see them from hundreds of miles away, off on their own towering to over forty thousand feet, dumping water and wind on the desert below.
When you file your Instrument Flight Plan you can put a few words in a note area. As each controller gets your flight strip, they can see that little note. Mine said, “Would like to remain clear of moderate and extreme precip.” Those are the yellow and red areas on my NextRAD, but when the storm is moving (and changing) this fast the delay on the NextRAD makes it less useful for trying to avoid the heavier rain. The controller has live radar, so they see my little triangle traipsing along and they can vector me around the ugly stuff.
At first I’m doing it on my own and the controllers are very helpful with my deviations from course. They just want to know when I am back on course, headed to my next navigation point. But forty minutes in there’s no clear sky ahead and I have to just enter the clouds. I check the outside temperature and test my pitot heat (which I already did as part of my run up). The autopilot is doing the actual flying, I am monitoring all the systems and keeping track of our “back door,” where we will head if the air gets too rough or if the temperature drops and we unexpectedly enter icing conditions. Occasionally I see a glimpse of the ground and those are good moments because I remember that in a real emergency I would drop out of the bottom of the clouds, beelining to the nearest runway.
The last thirty minutes are the hardest. There is pouring rain, buzzing against the canopy and, a new sound, a rumbling thrumming along the belly of the plane. It’s a lot of water. We plunge into clouds and bump a little bit through them and pop out the other side. Every once in a while I again see the rumple of the Appalachian ridge and trailing eastern hills below us. I’m unsure, though. We’re in Pennsylvania, then western New Jersey and we’re in surreal landscapes of grey, white and blue-hued clouds, between layers with shifting sheets of rain and light distorting our sense of what is vertical and what is horizontal. In the last twenty minutes the tail wind rotates a full hundred eighty degrees and we fight forty knot headwind all the way to the airport.
I keep hoping to hear other little airplanes on frequency. That always makes me feel better. But I haven’t heard one, it is all business jets and airliners. I peg every significant airport we go by, marking them in my mind as our Plan B, if it gets too rough we will turn it around and drop into Springfield, or Cincinnati, or whatever we happen to be over. There is only one bad moment of turbulence, one sharp bump where the oxygen bottle strains against the seatbelt trying to get to the ceiling, everything else jumping off the seat. Dexter and I both thump against our seat belts, but escape without bumping our heads. Other than that, it is just what I hear the professional pilots calling “continuous light chop.” I keep telling myself that the engineers that designed the air intake for the engine thought about the plane flying through rain and there was something really clever that kept the pistons from ingesting a bunch of rainwater. A twist of the manifold, maybe. I can’t picture it, so I think about the twin openings in the nose of our plane and the gallons of water that must be hammering through them every minute. I am drenched in sweat.
The moving map is showing each minute ticking down to the navigation point. Now that the wind is against us it is excruciatingly slow, which means we are only one hundred five miles an hour over the ground. As the crow flies, if crows could fly in this hammering rain and gusts of wind. One controller says I am cleared to Caldwell without having to head to the Stillwater VOR. It seems like a reprieve of hours, but it actually only changes our arrival time by two minutes. The next controller corrects him and says, “No, all traffic has to come in over Stillwater, you should be direct STW.” I don’t whine, I just slip it back into the flight plane, the wing dips a little and we’re headed over it again.
I told my parents that we’d be coming along, but that I wasn’t positive what time we would landing or if we’d be spending the night in Stroudsburg, or the Poconos. I explained that if they wanted to check our estimated arrival time they could punch in the tail number on FlightAware. Apparently that meant that my mother watched every single minute of the flight from Pittsburgh, occasionally going into my father’s office and saying, “Colin just descended to five thousand feet, do you think that was because the wind was too strong up high?” I should have explained that I’d be under positive control and that the decisions were not really mine. Personally, I would not have flown over the Stillwater VOR.
I was switched to New York Approach control and it was wonderful to hear all the traffic being vectored into Newark, Teterboro, Morristown and finally Caldwell. I heard one call to a Mooney, but it really sounded like all business jets, passenger jets and a few big twins. Every three minutes felt like half an hour, but I was finally vectored onto the approach, and at four thousand feet I dropped out of the bottom of the clouds and could see the hills of Southern New Jersey below me. We set up on the RNAV approach to runway four and after five minutes of a buffeting headwind bouncing us over the hills the approach controller handed us off to the tower.
I am not sure that I’ve ever been so glad to see the approach end of a runway. Moments before we were being lashed by rain, but all of a sudden it was quiet. I slowed us down, dropped the flaps, checked my fuel selector and engine. The headwind meant that it wasn’t difficult to get us on the proper slope to the landing zone without getting much closer. So we came over the fence right on the target airspeed, our wings dipping left and right to counter the crosswinds swirling around the airport. Then the wheels were down and I relaxed. I love flying, every moment, but it was so much better to finally be on the ground.
We parked at the FBO as the rain started up again. Once inside we called an Uber and headed into the city. I napped in the car and Dexter texted his friends to arrange dinner plans. The next day is the huge Gay Pride parade down Fifth Avenue and I love the celebration of the Supreme Court decision and the apocalyptic aftermath. We even have a visitor the next day all the way from Venice, California.