The early days of September traditionally present some of the finest flying weather of the year. The clear skies and generally temperate weather are like those we enjoy in the Spring, but without the high winds. These late summer days are made doubly dear to us because we recognize them for what they are: the relaxed yet bitterly sad hospice days of a dying summer. We husband them as we would the last few drops of water in our canteens on a trek through the desert, knowing full well that it will be a long, hard march before we see their like again. These are the days made for memorable trips, trips that we can reflect back on during the coming hostile winter months to keep our inner fires stoked against the seasonal depressions we inevitably suffer during the bleak Ohio ice/sleet/snow days to come. In other words, we are NOT flying to Urbana for breakfast. We want, need more robust, hearty fare.
The brilliant weather we had last week was, while probably not the last good weather of the year, most assuredly a sign that we'd better get busy with the job of planning and flying the bestest, coolest flight of the year. That's harder to do than it sounds. Where to go, where to go? Fortunately, in this era of free, instant communication with like-minded people from around the globe, help is readily available with just a few clicks of the mouse. The "Where to go" question broadcast in the blind across the internet was answered at the speed of light: "Come to Chicago." That, received from my long time friend, co-worker, and Oshkosh buddy Lisa, triggered an idea long dormant in my flying plans: visit the carcass of the sadly deceased (it was murder!) Meigs Field.
That's a longer story and I'll get to it eventually, but for now let's just set it aside and concentrate on the logistics of getting to Chicago. It used to be easy: fly to Meigs Field. For reasons I'll talk about later, that no longer works. There are other airports in and near Chicago, O'Hare being the best known to anyone unfortunate enough to have required a plane change on a commercial airline trip. It's big. Very, VERY big. As such, it's not the type of airport that one could enjoyably fly a small plane like mine into. I suppose it could be done, but there are better alternatives. Midway airport is much more suitable and the hectic-factor is much lower. Basically, it's just you and Southwest Airlines. There is a third option, though, and with Lisa available to provide transportation to the city it is a very good option. We would land in Gary, Indiana.
Gary is located at the very bottom tip of Lake Michigan, just outside of the complex airspace surrounding Chicago. It's a straight shot from Bolton to Gary; an extremely simply A to B direct flight. It's a short flight, too, weighing in at a very manageable hour and a half. Still, even as a relatively simple flight I spent quite a bit of time planning it. And, as it turns out, stressing over it as well. I'm not sure quite why I was worried about it - in theory it would be no different than a flight to Fort Wayne, something I did decades ago as a student.
As I was looking at charts and maps of the Chicago airspace, I noticed something: as long as I was OK with stooging around at the 2,500' level a little bit off the lakeshore and over the water of Lake Michigan, I could fly right along the downtown Chicago skyline. Why would I want to do that, you ask? Well, it's coming upon the annual Arts in the Alley season and I have no new pictures this year that I'm thrilled enough about to enter in the photo show. Surely I could get some nice pictures of Chicago, although getting pictures unique enough to stand out from the crowd of very tough competing photos would be a tall order. But hey, why not try?
As I plotted courses and waypoints on the flight planning software, I came up with a workable solution, but there was a problem. Here's the route that I planned:
Looks perfectly feasible, right? What's the problem with that? Well, here's a graphic example of the issue. I don't think I've ever seen a more piquant depiction of one of my more dominant personal traits:
(For more of this kind of work, click here)
Yes, we'd be backtracking. Small price to pay, of course, considering. I really mention it only because it presents the opportunity to post that comic. It is true, though, that I try to plan routes for even the most mundane errands that don't involve backtracking or, to an even larger degree, the dreaded LTILTO. Nope, I just can't stand the Left Turn In, Left Turn Out. I will not do it under anything less than the most dire situations. I'm also that way with bathroom stops, but we're getting to that.
Between weather prognostication and other equally nebulous deciding factors, we agreed on Saturday as the target day for the flight. The regional forecast was for extreme goodness in the morning with a still-really-good afternoon to follow. Light winds and temps in the 80's, albeit with the promise of some humidity, and a few clouds here and there. "Muggy," to use the vernacular, but eminently flyable. Nothing to worry about, really, but I nonetheless found myself wide awake and feeling the need to check the weather for the umpteenth time at 0530 Saturday morning. That's my normal get-up time during the work week anyway, so I got up and started the day. I didn't have to meet Co-pilot Rick at the airport until 0730, so there was plenty of time to figure out what to do about the caffeine problem.
Caffeine is one of my unhealthy addictions and, as a pilot planning a flight lasting longer than 15 to 20 minutes, it causes issues. If I don't drink any coffee, I get horrible headaches later in the day. If I do drink coffee, well... that presents a whole different set of issues having to do with bladder capacity and coffee's undying need to seek sea level. Man may have a visceral need for freedom, but that need doesn't hold a candle to coffee's desire to keep moving on its path back to the ocean. When it wants out, it wants out now!
To address this issue, I usually use Espresso. Espresso tastes like mud (of course it does - it was just ground this morning) but it has the salutary trait of providing all (or more!) of the caffeine you need in a relatively low liquid volume. There's a down side, though. Espresso is made under steam pressure, and the noise that the Espresso maker makes is deleterious to the weekend slumber of the rest of the family. At 0530, I don't need a brewer that generates the sound of a steam locomotive bursting its boiler waking up the wife, child, dog, and cat. It's bad enough already that I have to take the coffee grinder out into the garage to grind up the coffee beans; I'm not going to take the Espresso maker out there too. I decided that I'd split the difference and limit myself to a single cup of normal coffee. With almost two hours for the fluids to work through my plumbing, how bad could that be?
'Twas all for naught. I had no sooner sat down with my hot cup of headache preventative when the Co-owner and the cat emerged. The Co-owner joined me on the sofa as I checked DUATs and read the news. The cat did what cats do: alternated between performing personal hygiene chores and staring at us as if he still can't understand why we believe that we have domestic supremacy over him. Just to make his point, he looked at the Co-owner and said, "Meeowwf!!" She leapt from the couch in what I thought was a particularly subservient response.
"Wow, does he ever have you trained," I said, thinking that he was squawking because he hadn't been fed immediately upon awakening.
"No, he said he's getting ready to throw up," she replied.
Just as I was getting ready to ask just how in the world she could possibly be that sure about what the cat was saying, he threw up. Huh, my wife speaks Cat. Who knew??
As the clock rolled around to the time that I needed to head for the airport, I hustled through the normal last minute stuff I put off until, well, the last minute. There's usually one print-out or another that I hadn't gotten around to printing, or a piece of photo equipment that I've failed to retrieve. This is also when I make my final weather check.
"Hmm, visibility at Bolton is only four miles. I just need three to be legal, right? Better Google that to make sure."
"Oh, look at the time!! Better get going!!"
As I pulled into the hangar area, I saw a guy pushing his plane back into his hangar. It seemed odd for him to be returning at 0725, so I stopped to chat. Well, I really just wanted to know if he had canceled for low visibility or something else I should know about. Nope, his radio transmit switch had broken and he couldn't use the radio. Tough break on a gorgeous Saturday, but luckily I had one in the hangar (and even more luckily, I could actually find it) that he could have. I don't know if he was able to make a repair and get some flying in, but I hope so. Here's his plane - it's an Ercoupe:
These are nice, old two-seaters and while they are not particularly fast, they are very affordable. In fact, I just recommended one to a Twitter friend that was considering buying a fabric and tube ultralight. For right around the same money, I'd take an Ercoupe.
The Co-pilot was as punctual as usual, which means that I hadn't even gotten Papa out of the hangar yet, having spent the time reserved for that task chatting with the Ercoupe owner. Also yet-to-be-done was the preflight, and by that I mean the final trip to the Men's Room where I would sacrifice as much coffee as possible in an offering to the great God of Continence in the hope that he would in turn grant me a comfortable flight.
With that done, we embarked on the journey. As we passed over Urbana and I commented on the relative scarcity of pushing past this boundary this year, I captured a picture of the Garmin:
Why? Because that is the exact spot where the needle on my Bladder Pressure Gauge moved itself off the lower pin. Not a good omen, that, and one that definitely portended potential problems during the next hour. And there was another problem as well: the little yellow inverted pyramid by the PADKE intersection was the weather indicator for Gary. Yellow means IFR. In other words, yellow means I can't land. I pushed the buttons to get a more detailed (and as it turns out, ominous) report and was not happy with the result: overcast at 500'. Oh my! That's not good! But, as you can see, that problem was more than an hour away and wasn't unexpected. Those clouds would burn off by the time we arrived, or so we hoped.
The Co-pilot and I discussed it as we sailed along in the clear, smooth air. If we arrived at Gary before the clouds had lifted or burned off, we could still do the sightseeing portion of the flight and simply fly back to the southeast a little bit to the known good conditions we were currently in. And, it was decided, there would actually be benefit to that. First, there was some chance that Chicago itself would be fogged in, and that might provide just the stellar photo conditions we were hoping for. Second, the Co-pilot had done some research on local gas prices and found an airport (Starke Co. KOXI) that had fuel for $3.57 per, much cheaper than the $5.00+ fuel at Gary. Oh, and look at that! We were going to fly right over the top of KOXI on our way to PADKE! With the Bladder Pressure Gauge having moved through yellow and well into red, it was an easy decision: we'd stop at Starke to fill Papa's tanks and empty ours! The perfect plan! And that, folks, is why Rick is the Co-pilot. Tremendous work!
Starke is a little different than most airports in that it was left traffic for one runway and right for the other. After a few minutes of trying to figure out just what that meant to us with regards to entering the pattern (and thanking the Garmin for alerting us to it in the first place) we decided that we'd cross over the airport to enter a left downwind for runway 36. Starke seems to be the place to land:
Wow, that's a big bug!
Rick filled the tanks while I made the desperately needed trip to the bathroom:
I also walked around a bit looking at some of the other planes based there. This is a Moni motorglider, one of the planes I lusted after back when I was a teenager and first beginning to realize that the dream of flying my own plane someday wasn't as far-fetched as it seemed:
There were a few friendly folks around the airport, one of them who was a transient that wanted to talk about his RV-7 that he's just about done building. We had a schedule to meet, though, so couldn't spend too much time chatting. That's a shame; I love the chit-chat at the airport, especially when the topic turns to RVs. We got back into the air and I gave Papa as much free rein as he'd take:
163 knots!! That's what's known as boogeying right along!
We were soon over Gary, a city destined to never be known for its pleasant scenery:
In just a few more miles Chicago comes into sight:
That grass strip just east of the football stadium looks like it could be a runway. That's because it was a runway. But we're still not ready to dig into that, so to speak.
A closer look:
So far, it looks like a beautiful morning in Chicago. But then:
Wow! That is sooooo cool!
And last but certainly not least, my personal favorite:
We had planned to fly further north up the lakeshore, but everything was under a solid layer of cloud. It was looking pretty ugly in front of us too, so we turned around and headed back to Gary. I called the tower while we were about ten miles out and was instructed to enter a right base to runway 30. That seemed odd to me; we were perfectly positioned to enter a right downwind. 'The Man' gets what 'The Man' wants in this relationship, so I didn't argue. I put us a little further north out over the lake in what was in effect a 3 mile downwind, figuring I'd enter the right base and give him a call when we where east of the aiport. As we were abeam the airport, the tower called and cleared us to land. Huh?? How'd he see us way out here over the lake? Oh, duh. Radar!
The runway at Gary is one of those humongous things like they have at big airports, and as such I did what I normally do: hunted and hunted and hunted for the runway in the flare, Papa's talons extended in anticipation of touching the runway, eventually. The runway is so wide that by the time we actually touched down, the unfamiliar sight picture in my peripheral vision had me absolutely convinced that we had tunneled below the concrete surface.
We taxied over to park at the Gary Jet Center uneventfully, got the plane parked, and made an on-time rendezvous with Lisa. Off we went for our adventure in Chicago!
Click here for Part 2