From October 9 to December 6 I did not fly an airplane. That’s the longest I have gone since learning HOW to fly an airplane. That was disorienting and a little depressing. It coincided with dropping Dexter at school and having a truly empty nest for the first time, so it was difficult to know what part of being despondent was about not having the usual energy and enthusiasm of the boys around and what part was not being able to visit the sky.
Nell and I decamped to New York City, rather than being in the empty home. That was a good decision, except that it’s pretty hard to be in Manhattan and still bum around at the airport and get up in a little plane. I debated going to a simulator club in midtown, but always decided that the aviation dollars were being Hoover-ed up fast enough by the factory. I could try to not add to that side of the ledger.
While in New York I received rather desperate looking photographs of the plane up in London, Ontario.
It is one thing to see your plane during annual, when they often remove the seats and the cowlings. It is entirely different to see it without the instrument panel and without ANY of the interior in place. It was a little jarring, but I knew this was the same factory that could put together a plane from scratch, so they’d do fine with a plane that was already mostly together.
Originally, the plane was going to be complete after the first week of November. Then I thought we would at least have it in time to fly up from NYC to Boston for Thanksgiving. Then perhaps I’d be flying it home the Santa Monica while Nell flew home from JFK commercial. In the end, we both flew home to California on Virgin American’s big Airbus, and I waited for the factory to tell me it had flown its test flight, and the weather had to be good for a few days.
In the end, I planned my trip even with a few unknown factors in the weather. And my friend Rob was the best forecast for the trip saying, “We are getting a huge Arctic wave moving across the whole country, it’s going to be cold everywhere.” I packed my scarf and wooliest hoodie, climbed on the Monday red-eye from LAX to Toronto where I had a rental car reserved.
Tuesday morning was hard. I slept as much as I could on the almost-five-hour flight, but it was a cramped coach seat. I found my way through customs, then to the rental car counter, and powered up Waze to steer me along two hours of unfamiliar highways right to the door of the Diamond Aircraft factory in Canada. Technology is my friend.
I should have checked into a hotel for a few more hours of sleep. Although the plane was meant to be ready to roll out the door they had “just a few more things to polish up.” There was a guy crawling around with a touch-up bottle of white paint and a half dozen other workers climbing in and out of the plane getting the canopy mirror-glaze perfect and the rest of the plane all spiffed up. While I unpacked the two boxes of items I had left in the plane, sorted through them, and put them back into the new plane, I worked around them. Testing the new reclining seat for Nell’s side, I discovered the button sticking (and therefore the back dropping away without any stop). Forty-five minutes of working on it and they got it back in there and operating. (There will be a separate blog entry about the mechanism used to drop the seats. In short: I am not a fan.)
This was the most tense part of the trip for me. If our northern border were as open as it should be, it would be a non-event. Instead, they treat each little plane as if it was a Gulfstream arriving from North Korea. They run a geiger counter around it, ask the pilot a lot of unconstitutional questions, and have a whole procedure for how to file your arrival (I use the same EAPIS system that the airlines use, which is as much overkill as you are picturing it being). Because of the bureaucracy they need to know WHEN you will arrive. That seems so reasonable. The plane was meant to be ready when I arrived at the factory (8am), an hour to get my stuff in and get out the door (9am), and an hour of flying to Pittsburgh (the easiest big airport with a Customs and Border Patrol office on the field, a “Port of Entry”). So I told them I would be arriving at 10am or 10:30am. Then I had to call and tell them it would be an hour later. Then I watched the weather (huge rain storm sweeping toward Pittsburgh) and called to find out what would happen if I had to divert to a smaller airport. Should I wait there? Call from there? Just stay on the ground there and hop to KPIT once it was clear? Their helpful answer: “We don’t advise you do that.” They need more information about little planes. Four seaters get pushed around by storms, it isn’t the pilot’s decision sometimes whether to continue to the original destination.
And, of course, I had to call again to say I would still be later.
At 12:30pm I was sitting in the plane, going very carefully through my checklist to start the engines. I was very aware that I had not been in a plane for three months. It felt like longer. I had already planned that if I felt unsure about the flight I’d just circle around to land, get a hotel for the night and in the morning do a flight with an instructor. I had also recently seen this little graph in my Facebook feed the week before:
I think I am about where the arrow is pointing announcing that I had said “No” to something. (I actually did that on our first family trip, so it is a position and surrender I am familiar with.) So for the journey to flying guru, I have a long way to go. And, like I said, the most stressful part of this trip was dealing with my own country’s border guards, some of which have been less than pleasant. So I launched.
As I trundled down the runway, picking up speed to the magical eighty knots, I felt the familiar straining of the plane to be in the air. With the new plane I have learned to start “flying” it long before it has the speed to get off the ground, because you can keep it going down the runway straighter and keep the weight off the nose wheel (keep it from “wheelbarrowing,” which apparently is something this plane is prone to). And then the airspeed swept past eighty, I made my callouts out loud the way I do, and we were airborne, climbing into sky, which is streaked with light and smeared with grey clouds. I bank south toward Lake Erie and the farmland of mid-Ontario cants below the humming engine on my wing. It is as magical as it was the first time. I want to dance the plane around the airport in little arcs, swoop over the control tower and the farmer’s feed silo and remind them that we have conquered the sky. I am on an instrument flight plan with a strict arrival time over a hundred miles south in another nation. I follow the GPS course to a VOR across the border.
The ceilings were around four thousand feet, so I slid along below them. The temperatures were dropping fast, and my NextRAD showed me that parts of the storm sweeping east through Pennsylvania had turned to snow. I flipped on my de-icing system and listened to the grinding of the pump. Looking out, I watched until I saw fluid running back along the wings. Now I was sort of bulletproof, at least to some of the lighter icing threats.
The second engine made the crossing of one of the Great Lakes a non-event. Crossing Lake Michigan a few summers back I had climbed to 14,500 feet and blasted Black-eyed Peas for the whole twenty-five minutes, intent on not panicking about being out of gliding range of the shore. With two (very modern diesel) engines turning, I just hummed across, talking with controllers as I was passed from Canadian control to United States control, and I picked up the weather.
With the new autopilot, which includes a yaw-damper to control the rudder and keep the plane pointed straight ahead, it felt like I was on a pair of rails in the air. We entered the clouds soon after coming ashore in Pittsburgh. I saw Erie, Pennsylvania off my left wing, that was my alternate if I couldn’t make it into KPIT. I popped out of the clouds and it felt like I had a long way ahead of me where I could stay out of them. With the temperatures dropping, that was preferable. I let the controller know, and she let me choose the route down to the Elwood City VOR, where I was able to see all the way to Pittsburgh’s main airport. (We’ve landed several times at Allegheny County, Pittsburgh’s smaller airport.) Still, even though I could see the field, I stayed on my instrument flight plan and, as I got closer, clouds closed in between me and the end of the runway. The plane followed the Instrument Landing System (ILS) down to the touchdown point, so just as I popped out of the clouds I saw the runway’s numbers and set it down. For my first landing in ninety days it was pretty smooth.
After a long taxi to my FBO I shut down and waited in the plane. I called into the FBO to let them know I couldn’t leave until Customs had cleared me into the country. “Oh, I just saw her, I’ll let her know you landed.” A very nice woman in a CBP uniform came out, scanned the plane to make sure it wasn’t a flying dirty bomb (because if it was the first thing I would do is try to clear customs in Pittsburgh?), and let me know I could get out of the plane. I grabbed my bag and followed her inside. It was very simple to get back into the country and all of my concerns about them wanting explanations for my travel or knowing about the previous troubles I had with other agents were all forgotten. I was back home and I really wanted a nap.
The Hard Decision
Two hours later I woke up in the FBO’s quiet room. It was nice and had a soft blanket and everything. I looked at my route and the weather and there weren’t a lot of options that looked good. The storm was still raking western Pennsylvania and I was too hungry to consider another two hours in the sky. So I borrowed a crew can and went to a nearby sandwich joint for a meatball sub. Not the friendliest crew running it, but I figured I wasn’t going to be a repeat customer, so what did they have to invest in me? I talked to Nell on the phone, answered some texts and email, and headed back to the FBO.
Time to study the weather. It was 33F on the ground. The ceilings were 700 foot broken, 1,800 overcast, which meant that the moment I took off I would be in the clouds. It was raining “in all quadrants.” Although it was only five o’clock it was as dark as night out on the ramp. I had a de-icing system, I certainly was capable of flying at night, and if I was following an instrument flight plan I wouldn’t be making a lot of decisions myself, so I’d probably be fine… getting another two hours west would feel good. I watched the rain for a little bit and watched my weather radar for a little longer.
I called Nell and told her I’d be spending the night in Pittsburgh. The FBO dropped me at the lovely Hilton Garden Inn (less than a month old!) where I went to bed very early and woke up at 6am without my alarm. After a wonderful breakfast buffet, I was on my way to the airport in an Uber, talking about kids and career choices.
The plane was still a little wet, but the sky was gorgeous and the engines started right up. I talked to Pittsburgh Clearance, Pittsburgh Ground, and then Pittsburgh Tower before I was rolling down two eight right, the weight leaving the wheels, then the nose rising to seven degrees to set the wings’ bite into the air and carry me back up into the sky.
This is one of the things I missed, sledding across the tops of the clouds, or just under them, listening to the virtual community of other pilots, planes and controllers, watching the landscape unfold below. I think about the farms, about the lives being led in the smaller communities I cross, how from below I’m just one quiet little white plane against the blue, ignored by almost everyone, I’m sure. You can sit on the porch and watch the sky, or you can launch into it and be inside the sky watching the porches down below. It was a little more than four hours to the Spirit of St. Louis airport, but it was fours of a great movie, sitting in the Twinstar watching the sky filled with the aftermath of the previous day’s storm, and the building of the next one.
As I was landing at KSUS I happen to glance down and saw a Chipotle in a strip mall not far from the airport. That’s how I picked where to have lunch. The FBO was a Millionaire, which meant that the crew car was a Mercedes. I’ve never owned one, certainly would never rent one, and so it’s the one time I get to drive in them. Back at the airport after lunch I had the shop at the other end of the field fill my oxygen bottle so that I had the option.
(That’s one of the most variable costs I have found in my travels. Filling this little four hundred liter bottle with regular old atmosphere costs sixty-five dollars here in Santa Monica (where prices are inflated because of the zip code). The same exact bottle was going to cost three hundred dollars up at Portland, Oregon, at the main airport. I declined to have it filled and just stayed below the required altitude for the next leg. At Medford, Oregon it was fifty dollars. In St. Louis it was sixty dollars, but then they gave me back ten because they didn’t have enough pressure to get it to where they wanted.)
When people hear that we cross the country in a little plane I know that they are always comparing it to climbing onto Jet Blue and watching a couple bad movies before strolling off on the opposite coast. I never think of the commercial jet passenger plane when I am motoring over the plains. Instead, my imagination is filled with images from when they first charged across this terrain on horseback, or explored it with a wagon train, trying to figure out if the hills ahead are going to let them through or block their way and force them north or south. Everything is so obviously now, especially from my catbird seat, but back then the horizon was all you could study.
One of the things I realized on a flight I took last summer was that the landscape of the sky is one of the few times we still have mystery in our journey. Google Maps and the GPS have made the terrain below known to even those who have never traveled it before, laying it out in all sorts of detail, including where the Chipotle is, where the next secure night can be slept, where the horses will be fed. A hundred years ago, or a little more, people stared at that horizon with as much curiosity as I now stared at the snow storms that were drifting north through Kansas.
As I approached Wichita I was nervous because their ATIS was reporting “light snow.” I have never put the plane down on snow, or even taxied it around experimentally on snow or ice. I have seen some scary videos of passenger jets flying off the ends of the runway in places like Jackson Hole, Wyoming, but it is really out of my experience. Talked to the approach controller I request the ILS to the left runway, the one that was two miles long. The sky around me was VFR, which I told them, but I figured I was better off getting all the guidance I could to the touchdown zone. If I couldn’t get the plane stopped in the first mile I still had enough runway to take off again and I’d fly on, south, to some airport without snow.
It was a non-event. And my arrival on the longer runway was unusual enough that the tower asked if I had requested it (all of the General Aviation services are on the other side of the airport). I admitted to being anxious about the snow and he was polite enough not to laugh. Taxiing over to Yingling (the number one FBO in the country), I didn’t notice any snow, but when I stepped out it was bitter cold and, indeed, there were flurries blowing around me. I decided that my usual forty-five minute rule would be broken, since my next stop (Albuquerque) would be the stop for the night, and I didn’t want to get stuck here. As soon as they had the tanks topped off, I jumped in and fired up.
The storm had dropped another thousand feet in the scant twenty minutes I was on the ground. I poked along southward, talking to Wichita departures, hoping for a hole that would allow me to climb up through the overcast later. It was a little grim under the grey, and I was also hoping for a last bit of sunlight for my last leg of the day’s flying. Just as the controller started to say that he would lose radio contact with me if I stayed at 2,600 feet much longer, I saw light up ahead. With a slow climb dialed in on the autopilot, the plane ascended through a last wispy edge of the snow storm and we were above in the sun.
For an hour I flew above a rumpled white blanket of clouds, and then it slowly thinned out until I was watching the shadows lengthen on the desert floor over west Texas. The high desert is so dramatic that my mind usually drifts back to when wagon trains were pushing west and how they had spent weeks camping in the long grasses of the prairie, leaving behind the Gateway to the Frontier in St. Louis and getting nervous as their chances to water the horses got fewer. But the views, after the monotony of the plains, must have been so startling. And then the resources really got scare and the red rock cliffs rising around them must have felt like the walls of hell.
It was easy for me, I put pulled Counting Crows in iTunes and listened to the bang of the guitars as that desert floor climbed beneath me. You can see the careful routing a little to the south of the airport to get around the mountainous terrain to the east of the Albuquerque Sunport. It might have been a minute or two of flight time, but it was a smart selection of route: the approach controller and tower controller were much happier with where I was. The oxygen had been flowing since St. Louis, so I wasn’t even that tired from the flight (and the O2 sharpens your night vision). It was one more ILS approach in VFR conditions (meeting the requirements of our new Night Flying Rules), and then I was on a long, slow taxi to Cutter Aviation.
It was brisk on the ground. It might have even been a little outright cold. I had on my fuzzy hoodie and locked the plane up after grabbing my bag. An Uber came and took me to my hotel for the night, where I grabbed half a cheeseburger before collapsing into bed. It had been a long day of poking around in the sky.
There is a pleasant dislocation I feel when I wake up in a hotel room and I am not sure what city I am in. It’s possible that it is unpleasant but that I have come to associate it with crossing the continent, so it is now pleasant. But I had no idea where I was as I surfaced from dreams of clouds, ice, and sunsets.
It was really cold on the ramp that morning. 30F, but more importantly it had been 20F that night, and the engines were cold soaked. It took almost twenty seconds of cranking before they would fire up and they coughed for a little while until they were warm. I love the FADEC and the diesels, but this cold start triggered ECU A and ECU B errors for each engine. I knew what they were from and now I’ve talked the mechanic enough that I understand the spurious errors. I still didn’t like taking off and flying more than four hours with the yellow text on the screen. I wish that Technify and Garmin would get together and create an error page on the G1000 for the engines. That way I would have seen what my mechanic saw the next day: RPMs out of bounds. That was it. The engine thought the RPMs were a little low. They sure were. That’s why I kept the engine cranking until I saw the RPMs go up over 500, just as the ferry pilot taught me.
As I exited the Albuquerque Valley and flew over Sedona I passed into the Chino Valley, where there is a flight training university (Embry Riddle). You can see all of the tail numbers with ER, which are students training around the Prescott airport.
We have flown many times between Albuquerque and Santa Monica, usually stopping in Phoenix or Sedona on the way. Since I was alone and willing to stop anywhere, I decided I would try to draw the straightest line between the two. That meant going through a Military Operations Area (MOA) near Twenty-nine Palms’ Marine base. There is a set of restricted areas around the base that I can’t fly into at all, but there are also some areas of the sky set aside for training flights where I’m allowed to fly in there with them, I just need to be aware there’s a little more risk (little plane + fast fighter jet). Since I am always talking to an approach controller and I had my fancy new ADS-B traffic device I decided I was okay with a little additional risk. It meant a much straighter line to home.
I always ask controllers if a MOA is “hot,” which checks to see if it is active. This morning, even though it was before 9am, apparently there were training flights using the Bagdad 1 MOA. I kept my eyes peeled during the twenty minutes I was traversing the space. I never saw anyone and the controller never called out any traffic.
When I used to ride a motorcycle between Las Vegas and Los Angeles there was a magic moment on Interstate 15. I was leaving the desert and entering the Los Angeles sprawl. There was a hump on the highway just before I started down and the moisture in the air hit you like a strong perfume when the elevator doors open. It was the moment I knew I was close to home (close to seeing Nell again, which is really the same thing). My father, Alex, used to say, “We can smell the barn,” which I guess is a reference to horses returning to the ranch.
I haven’t identified that moment on flights home from the East. I know moments that are after it, but I don’t really know the moment. By the time I can tune in the ATIS on 119.15 I am definitely home. I’m probably over downtown Los Angeles. Perhaps it is entering the LA Basin, through the Banning or Cojon Pass? I’m not certain yet. A few more flights in while I am waiting for that moment will help.
Since it was a new route over the desert, I was fascinated. And then I was angling into the valley of Palm Springs, coming through the Banning Pass and cruising a little north of Ontario, the way the controllers like me to. And I collected the ATIS, started my descent, followed a few vectors to let the business jets into Santa Monica ahead of me, and dropped my landing gear. The tires kissed the concrete and I angled off to the taxiway. The ground controller said, “N972RD, welcome back.” Considering I was gone for three months that was nice to hear.