It’s been a lot of years since I’ve done this, so I finally got to fly on one of my weekend trips. And it turned into a bit of an adventure.
Ok, flying to Oshawa is on the edge of aircraft utility – it’s only about a 3.5 hour drive, or a 1 hour flight, but add in all the time you spend before hand planning and pre-flighting and the like, and any time advantage is immediately sucked away. But it doesn’t matter, because driving is a drag and flying is fun. And I haven’t done this since 1999, so I was ready.
On Friday morning, the weather looked like it would be do-able, but only just barely. Friday was going to be good weather, Saturday all day and Sunday morning were going to be thunderstorms, but Sunday late afternoon looked ok. I didn’t really look much further ahead. So at 4:00pm I drove down to the airport, expecting to pre-flight, file, call CANPASS and lift off at 5:00pm. Unfortunately, the first hurdle came up – Customs won’t come to Oshawa airport after 4:30pm.
I should mention at this point that in between the last time I flew to Oshawa and now, the city build a HUGE new passenger terminal at Oshawa in a vain attempt to lure a commuter airline. They didn’t get one. And with no customs service after 4:30pm, I can see why.
I should also mention one of the really cool things about flying to Canada – before you leave, you phone 1-888-CANPASS and give them all your details. Then when you arrive, you phone the same number and tell them you arrived. Then Customs has two options – they can either say “hold on, and a customs agent will be right with you”, or they can say “Ok, here is your arrival report number, you can go.” Yes, that’s right, you write down this number somewhere (I write it on the back of my flight plan) and you have cleared customs, without having seen a human. Since it’s usually the case that I clear customs without seeing anybody, having arbitrary times when I couldn’t not see anybody was annoying.
So I changed my flight plan – St. Catherines Ontario wasn’t *that* far off my route (since I don’t just strike off across the lake because of the danger of being too far from shore if the engine conks out – our aircraft engines don’t conk out that often, but once would be enough) so I decided to land and clear customs there. And sure enough, I cleared over the phone. I went into the FBO there to buy a coke and file a flight plan, and away I went again, this time direct to Oshawa VFR. Sure, it’s a little too far from the shore to glide, but it was still daylight and good weather, so I decided to risk it. It’s sure nice in a situation like that to have a plane that climbs like stink. I swear I was nearly 4,000 feet up before I crossed the shoreline – I went over at 9,000 feet showing the usual 130 knots air speed and about 160 knots ground speed. I also left the throttle in on the descent, and easily topped 180 knots ground speed as I approached the airport.
On Saturday, a reason came up for me to stay for Monday morning. Oh, this complicated things. Because while Sunday afternoon looked like a definite good weather day, Monday was shaping up to have thunderstorms most of the day. And small planes and thunderstorms don’t mix. I wouldn’t mind a little rain, that’s why I got an instrument rating, but even with a stormscope to show me approximately where the thunderstorms were, I didn’t want to risk it. But it looked like the thunderstorms would peter out around dusk, as they usually do, and Tuesday would be a good clear day even if I couldn’t get out on Monday. Of course Tuesday is also the day with the president would be in Buffalo, complicating the airspace around the route home, but that’s another matter.
I anxiously watched the weather on Monday morning, and sure enough while there weren’t any thunderstorms yet before the meeting I had to go to, they were still calling for them. And sure enough, they hit right during the meeting. After the meeting, I looked at the radar map, and there was a big diagonal band of rain (mostly green echos) and thunderstorms (yellow and red echos) that were right over us in Oshawa, and looked like they’d clear Rochester in a couple of hours. I thought maybe I could launch at 2-ish and stay behind them. So I called the weather briefer. And this is why live human being weather briefers have it all over self-briefing on the Internet. He told me that he thought that those couple of green blotches behind the band of thunderstorms would form up into another band of thunderstorms, and worse than the first one, because they were close ahead of the cold front and the jet stream was right above the cold front. He said I’d probably have to wait to 23Z (7:00pm). And sure enough, an hour or two later I was seeing another diagonal line of thunderstorms (lots of red on the radar map), this one due to hit Oshawa about 4-ish, and not clearing Rochester until 7-ish. The Weather Network on TV was going on about a severe thunderstorm watch and high wind warning. I watched this band on the radar for the next couple of hours, hoping that the other green blotches behind them wouldn’t coalese into anything.
The green blotches dissapated, and the thunderstorms were nearly at Rochester at 7pm when I called the weather briefer again. He agreed with my assessment that the thunderstorms would be clear of Rochester in an hour or so, but he warned of high winds both on the ground at both ends, and in the air. Not a problem – this is a nice big fast plane, the Piper Dakota (a 235 horsepower version of the Warriors and Archers I have the most experience with) and I’ve had a lot of experience with landing in strong gusty winds. But the winds aloft at 9,000 feet were predicted to be 50 knots, which would be a drag during the part of the flight where I was going up the lake towards Toronto, and a tail wind after I turned the corner.
I called US Customs, and found they required two hours notice, not one hour as I thought, so I asked for a 9:10pm arrival. That gave me some time to get ready.
One thing flight service told me was that I could put in the remarks of my flight plan that I didn’t want to be out too far overwater, which is a good thing at night in bad weather. On a sunny summer day I’ll take my chances that I might be able to put down near a pleasure boat and not have to wait too long for the rescue helicopter, but at night in a high wind, I don’t think so. I filed a flight plan that involved going right to Toronto’s VOR, which put me right on top of the busiest airport in Canada, which I knew would never “fly”, and I’d get vectored all over the place, but then I’d hopefully follow an airway that went almost due south from there over a narrow part of Lake Ontario, and then fairly directly back to Rochester. At 8,000 feet with that 50 knot wind from the west, it should only take an hour.
When I called for my IFR clearance, they of course gave me a re-route. But strangely enough, it still involved going over the Toronto VOR, and going on a airway that was further out of my way to the west. Oh oh, I’m not going to make customs on time, I thought. So I took off, and immediately they started vectoring me. Toronto told me to stay at 3,000, which I didn’t like, and gave me the option of being vectored 10 miles off shore or around to the north of Pearson International. I didn’t like either option very much, but said I’d take the ten miles off shore. Cruising along at 3,000 feet it was a little bumpy, and I was in and out of some very thin clouds. But suddenly, instead of being vectored off shore, I was given a climb to 8,000 feet (which is what I had filed for) and a vector right along the shore line. It was beautiful, you could see a lot of the Golden Horseshoe from up there, and the air was smooth. I could see lightning down to the south, but the Stormscope showed that it was far to the south where I was going to be when I turned the corner. And while I was showing 130 knots air speed, I was making 90 knots ground speed, so only 40 knots head wind instead of the 50 I was expecting – or maybe it was just quartering a bit. I flew right past Pearson and only a few miles south of it, all the while hearing Toronto controllers telling departing big jets “maintain 7,000 feet for 5 minutes” to sneak them under me. I felt so special.
When I intercepted the airway I had gotten in my clearance, the controller asked me if I wanted to go direct to Buffalo or Rochester from there. While I could punch either into my handheld GPS, to be strictly legal I should at least tune the VOR and pretend to follow it, and since I could get Buffalo but not Rochester yet, I asked for direct Buffalo. And so I was told to proceed direct to Buffalo. When I turned, I couldn’t believe my eyes – both the handheld and the DME were saying that my gound speed was varying between 190 and 200 knots. That means that the wind was now directly behind me, and it was 70 knots instead of the predicted 50 knots. I don’t think I’ve ever gone so fast in a piston engine plane, not even in a twin.
A few minutes later I was passed off to Buffalo approach controllers. I was almost sorry to say goodbye to the Toronto controllers. I’d been passed between three or four controllers at Toronto, and all of them were busy as hell. I wish the frequency hadn’t been so crowded so I could tell them how much I appreciated the fine service they’d given me. The last time I’d attempted to penetrate Toronto airspace had been soon after NavCanada had taken over as a private company running Canada’s air traffic control system, and the air traffic controllers had been on a work-to-rule, so being a VFR plane, I’d been told to remain clear of their airspace, and ended up having to stooge along the shoreline at 1,000 feet to stay under their airspace. Having them move big iron to accomodate me was just such a welcome change.
The rest of the en-route trip passed quite quickly and uneventfully. I could still see lightning ahead and to the south, and the Stormscope was showing more that I couldn’t see, but Rochester was reporting 6,500 foot ceilings and gusty winds, but no rain or thunderstorms.
Rochester approach kept giving me lower altitudes, but once I got below about 4,000 feet I found it very bumpy and hard to maintain altitude. I’d look away from the instruments for a second and be 300 feet low or 200 feet high, and that’s not good. The only way I could have been better about the altitude was if I went to full instruments mode and not looked out the window, and you’re not supposed to do that if you can see outside – the pilot in command still has primary responsibility for seeing and avoiding other aircraft, even when being vectored by air traffic control.
I was vectored past the airport and asked if I wanted to shoot the ILS or just do a visual approach. Doing a visual is better for them, because it allows them to bring the following traffic on closer, and I was trying to be accomodating, so I told them I’d take the visual. But as I turned towards the airport, I suddenly realized I was turning to the wrong black hole on the ground, and that wasn’t the airport at all. So I frantically punched a couple of buttons on the GPS to get it to show me where the airport was, and shamefacedly confessed that I’d lost sight of it. The controller said “no problem” and gave me a vector towards the airport, which agreed with what my GPS finally got around to telling me. I tell you, when it gets bumpy down low, it’s something hard to do three things at once. Just after I got my vector, I noticed that the ILS that I’d tuned in as a backup was also coming in nicely, so I intercepted that and followed it, even though I could now see the runway. The ILS gave me a nice glide slope so I could be sure I wasn’t getting sucked in to flying too low by the lights. It was bumpy, it was windy, and it wasn’t the prettiest landing I’ve ever seen, but I didn’t stress the gear too much and I didn’t leave any parts on the runway. And I got to customs only 10 minutes after the time I’d told them I would arrive. I’d even filled out my customs form 178 before hand, so the customs guy took the form, asked me a couple of questions, and left. No muss, no fuss, no bother.