Flight Log for a Westward Crossing

Bringing the Graduate Down for Commencement

Dexter will be spending half his summer on San Juan Island in the University of Washington’s fish laboratories studying the creatures he is most interested in. Of all of the summers he has visited the labs this will be the first time that will be enrolled in the graduate course the makes the labs such a magnet for talent in the marine biology sciences. 

Commercial flights out of Ottawa are still not back to their pre-pandemic levels, but they have returned to summer travel pricing nonetheless. Dexter has a little more luggage than I imagine he would want to drag onto an airliner, and I need to go see my brother out there, so we are in the little plane together. 

First I went up to Ottawa and fetched him so he could walk in his pandemic-postponed commencement ceremony. That was an excellent week of family activity. Nell cheered each graduate, “You did it! (Two years ago.)” And this coming weekend is Nell’s college reunion so she has remained behind in Cambridge. She might fly out to the west coast to fly back with me in the little plane.

He and I flew back up to Ottawa on Tuesday. Dexter needed to packed up for the summer, including things at his lab.

Most of Wednesday as Dexter packed, I checked the weather. Eventually conditions in Ottawa dictated that we would be departing IFR in the morning, but we would land in the sun in Buffalo. So I filed a flight plan for that and submitted my manifest for EAPIS. I called CBP at the Buffalo airport and they treated me like I was a huge bother since I knew nothing about their procedures. (For Burlington, Vermont I call and say, “I’m coming in tomorrow in a little plane,” and they are happy. Apparently for Buffalo I have to say, “I will be arriving in a little plane and I am seeking permission to land.”)

The departure dinner

The night before our departure we went to a Japanese BBQ sort of place. Or Korean BBQ with a Japanese flavor. Some of this stuff is very confusing. But I never feel better than I do after a Japanese meal, simple meat and rice with some miso soup is the perfect thing for me. We discussed our plan for the morning.

I am going to try, with Dexter’s help, to make an accurate log of our trip across the country. That way if one of the readers of this tiny blog is going to make their way across the country they can go through it in detail and pick up some hints of what it is like. Dexter has along his plush plaque doctor, Bubbe (short for Bubonic Plague), who will work as sort of a Flat Stanley character for some of his photos.

Thursday, 6:00am

Awake in my hotel. Pack everything up and check the weather again. 


I drag my bag to the fancy hotel which had a good Belgian waffle at when Nell and I were last in Ottawa. The waffle this morning is a little mushy, but still better than anything I’ve had on the street here. I make my way to Dexter’s apartment. He woke at the same time and spent the morning finishing his packing. 


We are in the Uber to the airport. I usually use Lyft, but in Ottawa Lyft is not able to figure out a destination at the Ottawa airport other than the main terminal. At the FBO I call CBP in Buffalo again and tell them our 9:40am looks more like 10:40am. The fellow I speak to is much happier than the one that had to answer an 11pm call. Go figure. 


CYOW – KBUF: Ottawa, Ontario ro Buffalo, New York

I wanted to be in the air at 9am and we were close enough for this sort of trip. I got to watch two planes take off and two land. Since this is the main Ottawa airport and I was IFR this is reasonable. We are in the clouds for about twenty minutes before breaking out above them at 5,200 feet. I was going to cancel IFR, but soon after wheels up we were given a re-routing “to avoid some restricted airspace.” I decided we would hang onto the active control and assistance until we were over the border. And I was glad to be talking to someone as I saw strange traffic occasionally on the iPad. That must be a helicopter going that slowly.

On the first leg Dexter is snoozing in the backseat. In the footwell on the co-pilot side, deep in a Sobi’s reusable grocery bag, wrapped in a kitchen garbage bag, inside triple Ziplock bags, are thirteen fish. They have, as the Pythons say, shuffled off the mortal coil, and sit in a preservative with some alcohol. They are on their way to the scanner at my brother’s lab so that Dexter can see their cartilage in three dimensions. Currently, he only sees their bones. 

So while we are flying, we carry fish that walk. They are from mud puddles that get uncomfortable enough that the fish stroll to the next mud puddle to see if it is better. (The water is always clearer…) So Dexter is studying the way their fins work as (poor) legs. 

It reminds me that I have no business being up here in the sky. I have no adaptations for it and often supplement even my respiratory apparatus to remain comfortable. 

Nearly a week ago it looked like this was going to be the plan. Since we have never crossed starting in Ottawa, I looked at the routing. The great circle route (shortest distance) would have kept us north of the Canadian border all the way to Vancouver. I would love to do that sometime. My flight planning software has a trove of data about every little airport in the United States including the fuel price, how far away the nearest food is, and whether there is a decent hotel nearby. This is invaluable as we make these journeys. It’s not impossible to do it without it and, in fact, many of our first crossings were with piles of paper that were missing all of this information, but it is so much easier and more comfortable. Sadly, I do not have the same depth of information for all Canadian airports. So our first move is to cross south of the border. 

As mentioned in my Guide to Flying Across the Country, my first consideration is always the Rockies. Except in very particular circumstances I am not going to fly over them after noon. The atmosphere heats up, the pressures change, the air starts to move, and when parts of the earth are sticking up at 14,000 feet, the air can become turbulent. Because of the terrain it is a little harder to drop out of the turbulent sky to safe harbor somewhere on the ground. It’s not worth it. 

We plan to spend a night at the foot of the eastern side of the Rockies. Billings, Montana is a possibility.

Even if we left at 6am (the earliest our FBO opens at the Ottawa airport), we couldn’t make it to Billings in a day of flying. That means that we have to spend a second night somewhere. Cedar Rapids looks a little interesting, as does Waterloo, a few miles further west. But these are not firm choices, they just point us in a direction. It is the beginning of summer, but there are still thunderstorms and in the Midwest a thunderstorm can be big enough to keep us out of several states. 

When the time comes to actually pick a stop, I am scrolling around on the map peeking at the fuel prices and tapping on airports to drilling down into the info about hotels and food. 


When you are an IFR flight the controllers are responsible for keeping you separated from other planes by a thousand feet and two miles. So by canceling as I crossing the southern shore I was making it easier on the controller. I still got vectored around for the visual approach to 36 because they couldn’t have us in the airspace around the airport at the same time as the arriving instrument flights (two commercial flights, one in front of me, one on my heels). 


Parked at KBUF, FBO in the background under renovation

From the many landings at Burlington I have a Ziplock baggie with all my aviation paperwork in it. Then I have our passports. After a long taxi to the customs ramp I said, “Be sort of on the ball here, these customs guys are not going to be as nice as the ones in Burlington.” The guy walked out to the plane. I opened the canopy and he said, “You have your passports?” Without getting out, I passed those to him. I pointed to the customs decal on the jamb of the canopy. He glanced at it, passed me back the passports and said, “You’re good to go.” 

After he had walked away Dexter said, “Now you look a little silly, Dad.” That’s true. And par for the course.


KBUF – KSBN: Buffalo, New York to South Bend, Indiana

We fueled up there. In short order we were headed for South Bend, Indiana.


It seemed strange to both of us that we were still in the same time zone, but here we were, landing for a late lunch. A light bit of research and we were in the crew car headed to downtown. We had a Chipotle as a backup, but Dexter had found us a diner. After parking and walking we discovered it was a breakfast diner and closed at 2pm. So close. A little more work with the smart phone and we were strolling another few blocks to the Linden Diner. A bit loud with the jukebox, but a very cool neighborhood feeling place. We are in the Midwest now, so it is difficult to find things that aren’t fried. Dexter did get a grilled chicken breast sandwich and I had a cheeseburger. The Coke was probably the most important part of my meal. That and the walk around downtown South Bend, which included a view of the Phillip Johnson building I saw when I was last here.


KSBN – KCID: South Bend, Indiana to Cedar Rapids, Iowa

There were only two guys left on the line crew when we got back to Atlantic. They were maneuvering a business jet into a parking space so it took a little bit to get our plane fueled. But then we were in the air headed for Cedar Rapids. 


It’s difficult to know what to do with the time stamps when we cross into a new time zone. We had a two hour flight to Cedar Rapids, but we landed at 6pm. 

Tied down for the night

The FBO at KCID (Signature) does not have the least expensive gas in the area, but they have really great service and that helps when you are stopping for the night. They ran us to our hotel once I had booked it with Hotwire. We could have waited half an hour for the shuttle from the hotel, but that’s not very reliable.

I had neglected to take my usual seventeen minute naps at each of our two stops. The first one seemed impossible (the FBO was being renovated so there wasn’t a real pilot lounge, and the flight was under two hours). The second stop we spent a little more time finding lunch and strolling around so I felt like I had the necessary break from being in the plane. But that meant when I arrived at our hotel I was exhausted. I drifted for my regulation seventeen and then went down for dinner with Dexter. 

The plague is hell

There was an odd fire-place replacement in the lobby which seemed like an excellent photo op for our traveler. 

The food was fine. I have talked with the boys about how a vast number of restaurants in the country are just become Sysco depots. Creating this single point of failure seems like a bad idea (see also: baby formula shortage). I know that the offerings from Sysco are varied and you can do the Linden Diner menu or you can do the menu for the eatery in the Hotel at Kirkwood Center for triple the prices. The quality can be high. Something seems to be lost, though. Possibly because the people preparing it are not really connected to an entire end-to-end process for the entrée. I’m not sure. 

View from our hotel

The Hotel is an interesting place to stay (this is our second time, Nell and I were there in August 2019 and it was an eastbound trip where we really stretched to make it to Cedar Rapids). Surrounded by the expected Iowa cornfields (vast) and the smaller hotel chains at the intersections of the Interstate (morose), it is unexpectedly swanky. “Kirkwood Center” is part of the Kirkwood Community College, a primarily vocational training center. (It was originally named simply “Area Ten,” which Dexter pointed out was a very cool name.) They have a hospitality curriculum and the Hotel serves as a training ground and a placement after graduation. It means there are a lot of very enthusiastic employees helping during our stay.

Friday, 6:30am

Sadly, the waffle that I remember having nearly three years ago was no longer a possibility. The restaurant is closed for breakfast and they have “grab and go,” which seemed a lot like McDonalds fare. English muffin breakfast sandwiches with ham or sausage, yogurt parfait with questionable fruit choices, and a lot of coffee. I grabbed their one green apple and I am looking forward to lunch. 


Dexter and I were in the shuttle van to the airport at a nice early hour. We rolled into the FBO and I went out to the plane to supervise fueling. The tires felt a little soft the day before on taxi with full fuel, so I asked them to check the pressure. At our home field that’s a simple task for one of the line crew to take care of. They grab a little pressurized can, check the pressure and top it off to the required 73psi. The FBO said it would require a call to the maintenance people. I said that was fine, but that it wasn’t worth hundreds of dollars to do. She said he was on a visit to Allegiant, but that he’d stop by. While I was waiting I checked the oil.

See my many posts about how I have no mechanical ability. I check the right engine and couldn’t see any oil on the dipstick. That couldn’t be, it was less than twenty hours since my hundred hour oil change. It is usually fifty hours until I have to add a liter. Fortunately, I keep four liters in the plane. I had last checked when I landed in Norwood, and it was fine. But the engines were warm then. I read something about that making a difference, but that might have been on my old Lycoming engine. I checked the left engine. No oil on the dipstick. Our left engine is “the old man,” the one with 1,900 hours on it. The right engine has about half, so in my head I baby the left engine as much as possible. (The right engine was replaced before we bought the plane. The cylinder head warped and it was replaced under warranty.)

I put the funnel into the filler point and poured in the liter of oil. My Tupperware that usually has my funnel and liters of oil it now had only a lonely container of gearbox oil. I asked at the FBO and they didn’t have my special Aeroshell Diesel Ultra oil. They’d call maintenance. Just then the mechanic showed up. He said he’d take care of the tire pressure and he took the empty oil container and said he’d call a nearby place to see if they had it. He called a place on the field, then he called one in Iowa City, and then gave me the number for a place in Moline which would be open in another ten minutes. When I got through they tossed me around to a trio of different people until the authoritative one said, “I never even heard of that.” So that was a no.

I scratched my head and, as usual, texted my mechanic. But he wasn’t quite at work yet. It took me a moment or two, but I remembered that the engines were just Mercedes diesel engines, so whatever people are using in their cars should be okay for topping off my engines. I called a nearby auto parts shop (O’Reilly’s) to ask if they had some. “What year?” Uh, 2007. “What model, is that an E-320 or E-350?” Hmm, maybe E-320. “Yeah, we probably have that.” Just before he hung up he said, “We close at nine.”

It was 8:45am when I called, so that seemed like a strange thing to say. Could he have meant nine in the morning? I figured I didn’t care. Then my mechanic texted back and called. He said it was a sound idea as long as it was a matching product. There are stabilizers in the oil product and you don’t want to have them disagreeing. The stuff that was in my engines was European, essentially. So I would need the bottle to say “A3B4” on it. 

When I got to the shop the guy showed me 5W-30 that said “U.S.” after the grade and a 5W-40 with the lovely A3B4 on it. I called Dave just to make sure. He okay’ed the 5W-40 and I bought their last three quarts. I can’t remember when they opened, but if I had that critical piece of information at 7:45am I would have been waiting when they unlocked the door. As it was I was zipped the ten minutes back to the airport in the crew car and worrying that I had killed our timing for lunch.


KCID – KPIR: Cedar Rapids, Iowa to Pierre, South Dakota

Dexter and I are finally aloft. I admitted on the phone with my mechanic that the right engine might not have needed oil. I realized after I added the liter that the oil was still its golden syrup color which it has (particularly in the right engine) for the first thirty hours or so after an oil change. So it’s possible that when I checked that morning in the angled light that I missed where the oil was. It certainly looked like plenty after just a liter was dumped in.

It is a three hour flight to Pierre, South Dakota. Dexter has wisely decided to spend it asleep. I believe that when I get into my hotel room and collapse after the day of piloting he hops online and tries to catch up with everyone he was out of touch with for the day. 

While humming along on this flight I think about how nice it is when the aircraft is in stasis, just balanced and going where I have asked it to go. That was such a digression I made a separate blog post about it.


Pierre is the state capital, but probably shouldn’t be. There are too few people here. (One of the ones born here, Tom Brokaw, departed, and that appears to be the pattern.) It is an unbelievably beautiful convergence of plains, low hills, and river. The airport has no tower, even though it has scheduled airline service. I don’t run into that very often. 

We borrowed a crew car and Dexter did his usual expert job of Yelping. We had lunch at “Tokyo,” which had passable gyoza and fine chicken teriyaki. A stop at Dairy Queen afterwards was better than the lunch. We like Blizzards, even small ones.


KPIR – KBIL: Pierre, South Dakota to Billing, Montana

Wheels up! The plane looked so sharp on the ramp outside the FBO that two people stopped to ask me about it. As usual, they were most surprised by the fuel burn in cruise (eleven and a half gallons, both engines combined).

I can’t believe it, but when we climb to our cruise altitude we have a few knots of tailwind. Eventually it builds to a fourteen knot tailwind, which is, effectively, a thirty knot improvement over our flight to Pierre. It looks like it will only be a two and a half our flight to Billings where we will spend the night.

Watching the XM view of the storms ahead in the Rockies… yes, I think we will stop for the night. That evening watching the huge storm pass to the south was an IMAX movie event.


Magic! Well, time zone craziness is the truth. This is why pilots use Zulu time, which is unaffected by time zones or daylight savings nonsense. Sometimes I wonder if there are pilot families where they just keep the house on Zulu time. 

We have stopped a few times in Billings. The FBO is old-fashioned but the service is amazing. I don’t know that little Two Romeo Delta has ever been tied down as securely. Those appear to be ratchet straps. Winds for the night were forecast to be ten knots but this line crew clearly takes no chances. 


We use Hotwire to get a great price for the Northern Hotel in bustling downtown Billings. It was fine, but next time I will take the FBO up on their off for a $95 room at the DoubleTree. It is the same neighborhood and their building is a little newer. Dexter finds us dinner at the Montana Brewing Company and after the high stress day of thinking we were going to be stuck on the ground in Cedar Rapids it was nice to get some well-cooked comfort food. 

Saturday, 8:30am

KBIL – KMWH: Billings, Montana to Grant County, Washington (Moses Lake)

The toughest leg. There was more hours of planning and weather checking that went into the flight than the actual flight took. That might be true of a bunch of my shorter flights, now that I think about it, but that’s not usually true for a three hour fifteen minute flight. I filed IFR the night before since the airport was forecasting a low cloud layer in the morning. That turned out to be incorrect, but since there was definitely going to be some IMC, especially near the end of the flight, I stuck to the plan. Every flight plan has a place for remarks, although I suspect controllers only read the remarks on IFR plans. I put: “Tiny plane hoping to sneak past granite monsters.” The first two controllers mentioned it and all six of the controllers were incredibly helpful. (I was anxious enough about the flight that I couldn’t enjoy my breakfast sandwich biscuit at the Sassy Biscuit. The last time I was there was with Nell and it is possible my enjoyment of it was really about our surprise at finding such a cool, hipsteresque joint in Montana. Dexter doesn’t eat breakfast so as soon as I got back to the hotel we headed up to the airport in their shuttle.)

Planning the night before

The first two hours were fine. Dexter was mostly asleep or listening to his podcast. The last ninety minutes of the flight were a lot of work. I do not like being stuck inside a ping pong ball. I’m fine doing that for twenty minutes to get up or down from the ground to the sky and back, but doing it for much more is not interesting to me. Having the canopy hammered by the rain, having the FIKI system pump grinding away to push the frozen daiquiri mix out onto the wings, and negotiating with the controllers to get into some warmer air is hard work. Because of the consequence of an equipment failure in IMC, you cannot do anything but pay attention. When I am gliding along in the blue, sunny sky I admire the landscape, read a few pages of a book, paw the iPad so I can find our next stop, and general enjoy a few minutes of distraction before checking the engine instruments, confirming our automation is engaged, and double-checking our position and flight path. When we are inside a cloud no distraction is safe, but nothing is actually happening minute to minute. I do my instrument scan, check the engine instruments, glance at the moving map, check our groundspeed and miles counting down, then back to the instrument scan.

It is not a good cycle for a sometimes anxious brain. There are no captions in the gallery images now, but you can see Dexter with his sleep mask on, inside the ping pong ball. The view from the hotel that morning was so gorgeous, it would have been amazing if that was the sky for our entire trip. As we took off from Billings the terrain map was just all red in front of us. And climbing to 12,000 feet a path through the mountains slowly appeared. The first controller said, “Two Romeo Delta we’re going to get you past these granite monsters. Twenty degrees right for terrain.” I thanked him and said we were flat landers. He said, “No problem at all.” The start of the flight showed weather data confirming that we would be in the clouds for the last third of the flight and that portions of the clouds would be cold enough to freeze some moisture onto the wings. That’s why on the profile of our actual flight you can see the altitude stepping down as I spoke to the controllers and asked, “Can we get lower? How long can you still see us on radar and talk to us on the radio?” They let us descend to 11,000, then 10,000, and as we exited the Rockies, 8,000.

The Sentry unit in the luggage area picks up position, weather, traffic, and a bunch of text data from the ADS-B ground stations. One of the things that shows up is the set of Pilot Reports (PiReps) that other pilots make to Air Traffic Controller. This is hugely useful to get in flight. I wish it were possible to file them through the iPad in flight as well, but that’s going to be another few years. I saw a new PiRep pop up. It’s the last image in the gallery below and a pilot in a Boeing 767-300ER said that on his descent into Spokane he experience moderate turbulence. That would be “changes in your altitude or attitude, but your aircraft remains in positive control at all times.” So a 400,000 pound plane (two hundred tons, I guess) is complaining about getting bumped around? When the controller asks if I would like to shortcut before MLP and go direct to the Grant County airport I accept. There are no appreciable bumps on the way there. I fly an instrument approach down through the clouds, breaking out at a thousand feet to see the incredibly long runway in front of us.


Arrival at Moses Lake, where there are 200 jets parked for a while

Grant County Airport is at Moses Lake. It is a vast military complex and the Boeing test facility there is responsible for a lot of the operations on the field. Currently the 737 MAX airplanes which were grounded by the FAA are all stored there. A few leave each week.


KMWH – KFHR: Grant County, Washington to Friday Harbor, Washington

The easiest leg of the entire trip. Part of that is that the plane can smell the barn, so it knows the way to go. The Puget Sound is some of the most gorgeous terrain to fly over. At one point I have to turn off the “distant traffic” in the display on ForeFlight because there are just so many planes around Seattle. A convergence of epic proportions. There’s a rainbow as we are crossing over toward Port Townsend.


Arrived KFHR and tied down in a light drizzle

In my excitement to land at Friday Harbor I came in a little fast. It’s a short runway and I was ready to just put the throttles back in and go around for another try. But the airframe is very good at shedding energy if you know what to ask of it, and we made one hop before I had the brakes slowing us down. We turned off easily at the end of the runway. Dexter said, “I’m going to send our usual ‘Landed’ message twice.” I suppose it is a good sign that the landing that had a single bounce was worth commenting on.

Dexter is on the island to study fish, but since my brother is part of the faculty and lives here it means that Deter gets to see his cousins. And my sister’s son came out to work the tourist trade and do some ceramics.

Cousins: Abel, Jasper, and Dexter

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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