Winter Ops

Dexter is pursuing his PhD up at the University of Ottawa. It is an eight hour drive from Cambridge, which he and I have done a couple times, but that burns a whole day for each direction of the trip. The little plane makes it in two hours up and a little longer on the way down, in calm winds. Lately it seems that the way up is two and a half hours and the way down is about the same with the stop, but we’re fighting that mean North wind.

(On the way down because we have to stop in Burlington to clear United States Customs, which treats a returning citizen much worse than Canada treats visitors. To clear customs on the way north I call ahead, answer a few questions, and then use a nifty little app on the phone (ArrivéCAN) to tell them that I have a negative Covid test, a plan for isolating myself, and where I’m landing. There is always the chance that they will show up with some customs agents in a van, especially since I am landing at a major airport and it would be a short drive for them over to the FBO, but so far that hasn’t happened in Ottawa. (It happened once in London, Ontario, I’m certain because I pissed off an American Customs and Border Patrol agent in Michigan flying home the summer before.) On the way south I need to show my passport and a bunch of FAA documents and answer too many questions. It should just be an app. I could do the same thing entering my own country: land, call, report my landing time, and place, and know that there was a possibility that I was going to have to wait for the customs van to show up at Norwood.)

Typical flight south, collect Dexter for the weekend

Nell and I are lucky that Dexter’s girlfriend is still in Cambridge. He has incentive to come down once a month or so and I am happy to go fetch him if the weather is good enough. It is colder up in Ottawa, usually, and lately the east coast has been getting really cold. Cold air is good for the plane, though. The air itself is smoother than when the sun is heating the ground all unevenly and different parts are rising at different rates. The engines and controls both operate better with more dense, cooler air. It’s a little longer on the ground to wait for the oil and coolant to warm up, but the turbo chargers seem just as happy when the OAT is -6F (recent flight) as when it is the typical 50F in the summer.

Pleasant Lake, March 2022

After decades in Southern California, watching the land change with the seasons is calming. This is the lake in New Hampshire, where we try to get to once a week or so in order to escape the hubbub of Cambridge, is frozen over. With the leaves down the wind howls through the trees and pushes tiny drifts across the frozen surface of the lake. It is hard to remember that this is where I swim each summer day that we can make it up there. Depending on our routing we fly almost directly over the lake on our way north. I’m always trying to peer over the nose to find it.

Cold Cirrus

At the Norwood airport, where we are often tied down, our plane spends a month (or three) in a hangar. That makes departures and arrivals a lot easier, but it is also seven times as expensive so as soon as the weather allows, I have them drag it back out to a spot on the ramp. This weekend there was a bomb cyclone and extremely high winds, so it was really nice to know it was protected.

The DA42 has icing protection, but that doesn’t mean it is impervious to real icing conditions. The last weekend that Dexter was home I studied the weather on Saturday and it looked like we would be able to fly up under the clouds on Sunday. A pretty easy flight at 4,500 feet over the ridge of mountains near Burlington and we’d skim right into Ottawa. In the morning, it didn’t look quite as good, and we might need an instrument clearance to get past Burlington, but the clouds were still being predicted to stay a couple thousand feet above all the airports we flew over on the way there.

N972RD waiting to head north

I recently found a less expensive source for the de-icing fluid that the FIKI system uses. I topped that off before I fetched Dexter on Thursday. I figured that if I needed to use it for an hour or so on the flight up it would be fine. Amazingly, twenty minutes into our flight, the weather predictions all updated and it did not look as good. We could see a wall of clouds up ahead, appearing even sooner on our route than the XM or ADS-B maps showed. I discussed it with Dexter. I poked around on the iPad in ForeFlight to get on-the-ground reports and Pilot Reports. It just looked like it would be an unpleasant two hours in the plane with the real possibility that we could only make it to Burlington or Montpelier, where we would be stuck until the next morning.

After another fifteen minutes, and another discussion with Dexter about whether he preferred a possible hotel in Vermont or a definite flight the following morning, we turned around and headed back. As a pilot this is always a very difficult call. I cannot remember each of the flights that weather has cancelled, especially in the new, more capable aircraft. It seems like it has only been a handful. Dexter was trying to make it back up to the university for a lab meeting on Monday morning. Instead, he did that via Zoom before we left Cambridge and we were in the plane half an hour later.

Heading over the ridge to Lake Champlain

The next morning was severe clear, a little bit of a headwind but smooth the whole time. No adventure, just gorgeous views and the usual, interesting stories that man and nature tell on the land unrolling beneath us.

North over Lake Champlain

It has been a good year traversing this route. I guess not quite a year yet. Seeing the way the landscape changes through the seasons has been illuminating. The ice on Lake Champlain is different every time I have flown over. I’ve driven the route down through Cornwall and across the lake on a little ferry. I’ve been watching that ferry’s route icing over. Apparently it moves across often enough that it does an ice-breaker move and the thin channel remains open.

The Goal

After reading a bunch and talking for a bit, Dexter took a nap for the last forty minutes of the flight. My goal is to always provide a smooth enough flight and garner enough trust that my passengers are able to fall asleep if they are tired enough. (Nell always said when I was able to get the boys to sleep when they were little, “You bore them to sleep, don’t you?” Possibly.)

It was 0F as we passed over Burlington. When it is that cold outside, the plane’s heater is not really up to the task. The canopy is a single layer of plexiglas, which means the cabin doesn’t really hold any heat. So I’m wearing a scarf, there’s long underwear under my flannel shirt, and Dexter is snuggled under a blanket. We survived. I wish we had a thermos of hot cocoa.

Flying north I am talking to Boston Center, switch to Burlington Approach, back to Boston, then New York Center. As I cross the border Center hands me off to Montreal Terminal, who then gives me to Ottawa Terminal. Sometimes I get Quebec Center in there, but I haven’t figured out what determines if I get to talk to them (probably altitude). This time I went right from one Terminal to another (in the States these would be Approach frequencies). As I turned to join the final visual approach to runway, 24 Dexter woke up and packed up his few things.

CYOW – Ottawa International Airport

(Airports in the United States tend to start with a K for the identifier, although civilians think of them by the three letters that follow the K: BOS, LAX, JFK. When I plug those into the navigation system they become KBOS, KLAX, and KJFK. The flight north is from Norwood, MA (KOWD) to Ottawa, Ontario, CYOW. The Canadian airport identifiers mostly start with C, or Charlie. So I think of Ottawa as Charlie Yow.)

Things are cold on the ground, six degrees Fahrenheit, but the wind is calm and it doesn’t seem that bad. The snow removal is more problematic up there because it doesn’t warm up enough to melt any of the piles for months and months. There’s one snowbank out of frame to the right which is the height of a two story building. There’s also a layer of ice on a lot of the ramps, taxiways, and even the runways themselves. I am extremely careful on landing. I don’t think they are allowed to use salt to melt the stuff on the airport because it would increase corrosion on the planes. So all removal has to be mechanical (there are some amazing big whirling broom vehicles to clean it right down to the asphalt).

When I arrived to pick Dexter up, the ramp in front of the FBO was entirely iced over. It appeared to have some gravel on it or something meant to give me some grip for turning, so I proceeded very slowly onto it from the taxiway. Then I tried to make a turn and the plane kept going straight ahead toward the FBO’s huge glass windows. Very exciting. I saw a little bare patch in the sun and used a little differential power on the engines to turn the plane toward it. The brakes did nothing and I glided forward toward that patch with my nose wheel hard over to the left. When I found it, the plane swiveled and I headed onto a larger area of bare asphalt that was further from the FBO’s door than I would usually be. As soon as all three wheels were off the ice I braked, shutdown the engines and hopped out. It was not a good parking job and it was a bit of a hike for my passenger, but I was happy I didn’t have to shut down the engines and bump the nose into a wall of glass. That would have been embarassing.

This time, dropping Dexter off, there was some more open asphalt, which I think means they had some complaints, since it certainly hadn’t gotten warm enough to melt any of the ice. After a quick phone call to customs we headed into the FBO. Dexter called a Lyft and I waved at the customer service agent and headed back out to the plane. On the phone the night before when the Canadian Customs agent asked, “How long will you be in Ottawa?” I said, “Maybe ten minutes.” I was pretty close.

Closing in on Lake Champlain, Plattsburgh airport just below our nose

Flying south, I like to check the St. Lawrence river, the First People’s reservation which is on an island in the river near Cornwall, and the various arrangements of the settlements around the water. There is a forest of wind turbines along the northern border New York State has with Canada, which I have now both flown over and driven past.

The US CBP requires that I have a squawk code assigned at my Canadian airport, have a flight plan open (IFR or VFR, I am usually VFR), and that I am talking to someone the entire time I make the flight to my United States airport. That’s a nice idea, but the truth is that in practice the ATC services in the more rural portions of Canada (that includes some of the country just south of their capital) are overburdened and the controllers are not really interested in helping one tiny little November bird across the border.

So my Ottawa Terminal controller lets me go and when I ask where I might next tune my radio to he says, “Montreal Center probably doesn’t want to talk to you, but in a little while you can try New York Center.” When I eventually get ahold of the New York controller and apologize for not being handed off in the usual way she says, “The truth is that’s the sort of service you should expect when you are flying south.”

Snow removal machine, Burlington Airport

I land on Burlington’s long runway, right behind a regional jet probably bringing people up from Boston. There is a National Guard wing based at the airport so there are sometimes fighter jets on the taxiway. Not today. It is pretty quiet as I taxi over to the Customs ramp.

I have to stay by the plane when I park so that they can come out and wave a Geiger counter over the wings and into the cabin. I might be trying to fly a dirty bomb into the country. (If that were the case I am not sure why I would stop at customs.) Then I follow the two agents inside so that they can check my passport against the EAPIS (an electronic manifest which I file for every flight across the border), and peruse my aviation-related documents. Those are now correct, even the pilot certificate.

It is foolish to complain, because I am usually in and out of the little office in less than ten minutes now. Most of the agents are getting to know me and they are aware that I never have anything to declare, I was only in Canada for ten minutes, and everything is always in order.

In case we thought that it was just the Canadians who had trouble removing the snow and ice from their ramps, this was what I walked back to after clearing customs in Burlington:

N972RD on some snow

No ice that I could find, but a decent amount of hard-packed snow. Yes, I used a little differential throttle to get the plane turned in the correct direction and moved onto the taxiway. There was a good thirty knot tailwind for a lot of the flight home, and it’s one of my favorite stretches of land and sky now. I listen to the Bah-ston accents on the radio (one of the navigation intersections is LBSTA) as the hills slide under the wing.

KOWD, currently home base for N972RD

Back home, the ATIS reminds me that it is not a usual time for the airport. There are warnings about piles of snow five to ten feet high alongside the runways and taxiways and that pilots should not rely on the centerline to ensure clearance from snow banks.

I am looking forward to spring.

About Colin Summers

I am an architect, programmer, private pilot, husband and father. A couple of those I am good at.
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