Thursday, June 17, 2010

A First Time for Everything

Next morning the weather looks passable on my iPod Touch, but there is such a paucity of reporting stations, or civilization of any description, around the north shore of Lake Superior that we can't be certain. And I know the GFA is based on the same kind of interpolation I have to do. I know what the weather was like half an hour ago at three five mile circles scattered around the north of the lake, so from that I try to interpolate the suitability for flight between them. While the PIC is in the shower, I pick up the phone and call an expert for a briefing. He starts describing the moisture content, stability and direction of travel of air masses, then interrupts himself. "Did you say Brampton?"

"Yes. I'm in Brampton now; it's clear skies."

"Someone just yelled a NOTAM for Brampton across the room, 'All runways closed."

He isn't able to elucidate the reason for a sudden airport closure, or suggest when they may reopen. In my experience, airports have closed for resurfacing, drag racing, severe weather, special security events, or major accidents. I'm guessing the last, and we decide to drive out to the airport anyway, hoping that everyone is okay and the wreckage is cleared before we want to depart.

As we pull into the parking lot we can see police cars and police officers on the airfield. This is weird, but hey, they are allowed to be there, and the NOTAM says the runways are closed, not the apron. My new guess is that there is some kind of drug bust going on. I live in a country where one is not obliged to cower in terror at the mere presence of law enforcement officials, so while the other pilot makes a few last minute decisions about what to take and what to lock in the trunk, I walk through the unlocked front gate from the car parking lot and into the aircraft parking area.

I'm immediately approached by a young man in a reflective vest. "Where are you going?" he asks.

"Thunder Bay," I reply.

I love to watch the moment of adjustment a person goes through when you give a valid answer to a question, but it is not the same order of magnitude as they were expecting. He asks if I am renting a flying school plane and I tell him, no, a private aircraft, and give the call sign.

Then it's his turn to watch someone react to the unexpected, "Make sure you do a very thorough preflight." He doesn't know if our little one-fifty was one of the victims, but there was extensive vandalism on the field last night, and a number of aircraft were damaged. As I walk further I can see a flying school light twin with all the windows bashed in and a fire extinguisher lying beside it on the apron. Detritus such as engine plugs, aircraft covers and seat cushions are strewn on the grass. A Katana has been pushed up against a hangar. There are footprints on the horizontal stabilizer of an older Skyhawk. The perpetrators have also left broken beer bottles and what looks like a corsage. Evidence suggests that some high school students have chosen to celebrate their putative entry into adulthood by getting drunk and committing a federal crime against thousands of dollars worth of other people's property.

The airplane tied tail-to-tail with ours has been hit, but ours looks good. It's tied down, the doors are still locked, and the only exterior damage is what looks like a long-ago mend to a rear window, probably broken by an unsecured object in turbulence. Not the first one I've seen like that. There are tiedown rings inside and I secure all our cargo as I calculated it should go, with the light objects like our jackets and the engine cover at the back and the snacks and water on top right behind the seats.

I've never seen this kind of vandalism at an airfield before. I call back flight services to update them on the situation. The briefer says he's never seen it before either. I ask if they have an UNTIL time on that NOTAM. It's midnight zulu, which is eight pm here, but "midnight zulu" is a default kind of time, not something with a real reason behind it. The weather forecast suggests we can get at least to Thunder Bay today, so only this NOTAM is stopping us. After a bit of waiting around I decide I don't like this NOTAM.

A police officer in blue latex gloves is dusting the rear window of the airplane behind us for fingerprints. I ask whether it is the police or airport management who has imposed or has power to change the NOTAM. Reflective-vest guy is there, and says that it's his responsibility, and that he will change it right now. He picks up his phone and does so. In the time it takes me to call Flight Services to file our flight plan, they have received and propagated the cancelling NOTAM. Excellent. This, right here, is an example of why pilots are so infuriated by incompetent security. Aviation has a lot of rules, a lot of procedures, a lot of things forbidden from time to time. But they are for a reason and in the vast majority of cases when you have a reason that is more reasonable than their reason, you find the right person, you explain your reason, and you go do what you have to do. You may have to prove it is safe, and it may cost money, but it's easier than getting thirty millilitres of shampoo through security in a 110 mL bottle.

We fuel, taxi out and she starts the take-off roll. My flight instructor instinct kicks in and I advise, "Rotate normally and wait. The airplane will take off slowly." I know she's been bombing around solo in this airplane, but we're now close to max weight, and it's worth being tagged as a back seat driver not to be in the plane during a departure stall. She follows my advice, and the airplane rolls along the runway on its rear wheels for a bit before it lifts off and slowly climbs. If a pilot isn't used to this behaviour in a loaded airplane, she may pull back harder on the control column, trying to get it to fly. It may become airborne in ground effect and then stall, crashing back down on the runway.

I have the local airspace on the VTA and displayed on a handheld GPS receiver so I navigate while she flies. We call Toronto Terminal for flight following and they laugh right on the radio as they radar identify us "grounding fifty knots." A voice in the background of the transmission says "... only has four hours of fuel." I have a picture of a crowd of people gathered around a radar scope laughing at our slow-moving blip. Freaking headwinds.

We gain a little speed as we level out at 4500' so we're mostly keeping ahead of traffic on the highway. Mostly. Metropolitan Toronto thins out behind us and Wiarton, where Canada's most famous groundhog lives, slowly comes up ahead. We pass it and continue up the peninsula and then across the water to Manitoulin Island. It's a short over-water stretch, but the briefer said that many pilots choose to go the long way around to avoid it. We're not even out of gliding distance of land, and the beach that we would end up on in the case of engine failure looks more hospitable to me than something we might find between North Bay and Sudbury. But everyone has different risk tolerances.

Manitoulin Island is pretty, with lots of little inlets. I wonder if someday there will be a bridge, making this shortcut available to car drivers, too. Our first stop will be Gore Bay. It's easy to find, and we land and taxi in, parking next to the fuel pumps. There is a white building on uphill next to the apron and I walk up there in search of a phone and washroom. They have both, and sell us the fuel we need.

I'm writing this blog entry tired, and while that's not dangerous like flying tired, it's in danger of being boring, so I'll leave off here and continue the story after we depart, with full tanks and empty bladders.


Capt. Schmoe said...

Wow, what a trip. Across the country in a 150, what an experience. Hope things go/went well.

Thanks for the post.

Anonymous said...

What Capt. Schmoe said... also, I use my iPhone for radar pictures before I call dispatch for a briefing. Really cool technology.

Traveller said...

I hope the drama stays on the periphery.

For our anniversary one year, my wife and I drove around Lake Huron. We took the ferry from the Bruce Peninsula to Manitoulin Island. Our anniversary is usually close to (sometimes on) Thanksgiving Day in October.

The last time we were in Thunder Bay was more recently. We were driving home from Alaska in February. We were the last car through when they closed the Trans-Canada near Kenora due to an accident. We were actually behind the accident, but were in the incident zone when the got everything sorted and it was easier to get us out of there by proceeding.

My father owns an Aeronca Champ. He has suggested that it would be faster to drive from Oklahoma to Michigan than to fly it. BTW, I still remember your amphib ferry and I enjoyed that series. These blogs are fun to follow.

Fair Winds!

Anonymous said...

It was almost 30 years ago an airplane (Cessna 177B) I was part owner of (and learned to fly in) was vandalized.

It was quite a shock getting 'the call' and being asked to come out to the airport. You wonder why.

It was tied down next to an Ercoupe whose owner was an insurance adjuster. While the Cessna had 7 smashed windows and a dented cowl, it was repairable. The Ercoupe was totaled.

Still have the airplane. Have kept it in a hanger ever since. Love flying it.

Sarah said...

Vandalism like that is terrible. I just can't imagine what is going on in their heads that makes it seem like fun to be so destructive. They have no idea how cherished airplanes are to their owners ( well, most of them ) I suppose --- but it still makes me angry to think someone could be so uncaring and hostile. I hope they catch the idiots.

Aluwings said...

A few years ago I set out from Montreal to Vancouver Island. I got as far as North Bay, encountered some weather delays and thought to myself: "This is too much like work." I had a good tailwind heading back to Montreal and the aircraft ended up on a cross-country trailer ride instead. So I wish you better endurance than I was capable of!

Also good luck across the Praries. I don't know if you're blogging this story in real time, but if so you're up against a lot of unsettled rain and stormy weather from CYWG to the foothills - and beyond.

(Verification word just came up: railsit - I hope this is not a hint of how you will finish your trip. Do we even have a transcontinental train service any more?)

Anonymous said...

Gore Bay

D.B. said...

"we depart, with full tanks and empty bladders"

I would guess then that the C150 has wet wings....


My last long XC was TX to PA in my Baby Beech (75% cruise @ 115kts) last month. 40 - 50 kts tailwind there, paid for by the same wind on the nose coming back. At one point Memphis center called me in a concerned tone to tell me to watch my speed in the climb - but I had 90kts IAS on the dial (and 45 kts on the ground)!