It has been a long while since I’ve done actual cross-country work, so when Dan suggested attending the Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association Regional Fly-In in Battle Creek, MI, I jumped at the chance, especially when he and Marc agreed to come to Gary, IN to pick me up. So on a Friday afternoon, I took the train down from Chicago to a stop at Gary/Chicago International Airport. (Actually, the train stop is practically a whistle stop with seriously dilapidated streets and no phone/cabs located about 1.3 miles from Gary Jet Center, the FBO I was heading to. Like an idiot, I walked it with three bags on a sticky humid afternoon. I should have just called and asked for a ride, as the FBO guy said to me when I arrived sweating like a pig!)
While waiting for Dan and Marc, I had a great chat with Tim, one of the line crew, about his family (sounds like some great parenting there with his kids doing all the right things!) and got some recommendations for dinner, as well as signed out the crew car. As soon as Gigi landed and was fueled, we headed off to an international family restaurant for dinner.
NOTE: Vagary of Indiana—Gary area (and a southwest corner of IN) are on Central Time. The rest of Indiana is on Eastern Time. So we took off about 9:30ish from Gary for the hour flight to Battle Creek, landing just about 11:40pm. It was a beautiful and smooth night flight--a few clouds off in the distance and beautiful stars above as well as a rising moon. Touching down, we didn't see any aircraft marshallers at that late hour and not wanting to run near to where people were camping (and likely sleeping) next to their airplanes, we headed down to the FBO Duncan Aviation, who kindly helped us get sorted for the night and we were soon in a cab to the hotel.
It was pouring the next morning as we grabbed a cab back to the airport and signed in for the Fly-In.
We started off with a pancake breakfast before we each attended a number of seminars—I chose:
- Mind Over Matter: Becoming a Better, Safer Pilot (discussion around risk management strategies)
- IFR Cross-Country Challenge (review of individual pieces and decision-making around a long instrument flight with real weather concerns)
- Medical Certification Reform (a review of major new law signed in July that significantly revamps the third class medical certification program to make it easier and less costly for pilots to get medically certified, particularly those on a Special Issuance medical certificate)
- Emergency! Getting It Right When Things Go Wrong (review of emergency procedures and training around them to keep proficient)
We also got a little bit of time to walk around the ramp and look at some of the different airplanes out there, from a B-25 Mitchell to small jets (Eclipse Jet donated a pretty little one to Veterans Airlift Command, so it’s all tricked out in VAC colors with the logo embroidered into the leather seats!), to big and small prop planes, including Waco biplanes, which are built right there in Battle Creek. To end the day, we had a Town Hall, including a presentation on AOPA initiatives by president Mark Baker.
After picking up the requisite t-shirts and other assorted “stuff” (Marc bought a new headset for himself!), we headed back out to the airplane and figured out our route home, including dodging some thunderstorms across our path. We settled on heading to Latrobe, PA (good old Arnold Palmer Airport (KLBE)) that I’ve gone through a number of times. That would be our dinner/refuel stop and then on home. (Post script—Sadly, Arnold Palmer passed away this past weekend. I hadn’t realized he was an avid pilot, as well as golfer, and in fact, had been a member of Civil Air Patrol as well.)
I took the two legs home. We waited in line a bit for takeoff as the tower sorted out numerous VFR and IFR departures from two different runways. It didn’t help when more than a few folks didn’t follow the published procedures and called in before they were at the front of the line or weren’t listening to their radios when they were at the front of the line (like the guy in front of us!). But eventually we got our IFR clearance and were cleared for takeoff.
Since I seemingly only fly Dan’s Bonanza once a year, it always takes a little while to get used to her handling. In addition, I was flying from the right seat (all of the instruments are on the left side) so I essentially flew straight with my head cocked 45’ degrees to the left. All in all though, I didn’t do too poorly and kept us mostly straight and level during the roughly 2 hour flight to Latrobe. We were in an out of clouds for much of the leg, including finally breaking through the cold front that had passed over Battle Creek that morning. Marc took a bunch of cloud shots with my camera and Dan snapped a great picture of Gigi on the side of a cloud we were passing, surrounded by a halo of a rainbow (look just ahead of the wing's leading edge).
The ATC controller left us pretty high as we passed Pittsburgh and neared Latrobe, so we got a fast descent in when allowed. As we joined the downwind, a Spirit Airlines flight was taxiing up for takeoff and tower requested we do a short approach (abbreviated turn in to the numbers on the runway, rather than the squared off normal traffic pattern). I handed the controls back to Dan for that as I felt far too rusty landing Gigi for anything out of the normal.
As we refueled, we got some nice shots of Gigi with a setting sun behind her.
Then it was off to dinner at DiNunzio’s Italian Chophouse, right in the airport terminal building. Like the last time I had been there, the food was great, especially after the less than satisfying lunch at the Fly-In. We all ate very well and, despite Michiko having earlier texted me that it was National Apple Dumpling Day, I passed on dessert when I saw it listed on the specials. Such self-restraint!
For the next leg, we filed a flight plan back to the NYC metro area and launched back up into some clouds. I had another 2 hour leg of in and out of cloud, this time in the dark, including skimming the tops, with a full moon for some of the flight. It was a beautiful night, even with the instrument conditions, and at one point I commented that it was actually deeply relaxing. Dan and Marc laughed because they knew exactly what I was talking about. Day in and day out we live our lives hustling and bustling, responding to life on multiple fronts—family, friends, work, politics, news, etc—but up there, in actual instrument conditions particularly, and especially at night, you’ve only got ONE focus, one concern—flying the airplane. I found myself just in the moment and reaching a point of zen-like calmness, focused on the instruments to my left to keep up level and on course as we worked our way home. So while the skill I was practicing was complex and demanding, at the same time it was just so oddly peaceful too.
The only weird thing we heard on the ride home was night time parachute jumping somewhere out in eastern Pennsylvania. Especially with being in and out of clouds, we found the idea of jumping out of an airplane, at night, in clouds, perfectly terrifying. I know the military would have to train for such a thing, but amateurs? No thank you!
As we entered New Jersey, we got vectors from ATC towards Westchester. With some low clouds remaining in the area (mostly over the Hudson River), Westchester was landing via the ILS 16 instrument approach so I again handed over the controls to Dan. Someday I may have to start practicing ILS approaches from the right seat, but I’m going to be stone cold comfortable in the airplane first.
It was great trip and always fun hanging out with Dan and Marc on an adventure. The one catch, I told Michiko, is that I feel like I got bit by the big cross-country bug again, especially with the weather flying….I want more now!