Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Flying High to Montreal, Eh?

Last Friday, after months of planning, scheming and organizing, the day that felt like it would never arrive, finally did. We were flying to Montreal!! No more ordinary commercial human mailing tube jetliners for us! Nosirree. We were flying, flying. Even a last minute glitch of having our preferred airplane go down for maintenance couldn't stop the dream team. Through the generosity of nearly half our flying club, we were able to make a last minute swap of our back-up plane, 5135R[omeo], for 739B[ravo] A[lpha]. (An extra special shout-out to Bob for his assistance in making this happen!)

Gillian met me at the office at 1, and we grabbed a quick snack pack before heading to the airport. The plan was to get there by 2, be flight-planned, plane-prepped and ready to go when Rich showed up at 3, and be in Montreal no later than 8.

Well, it sounded good in theory, anyhow.

Once I had finished making my wind corrections and totaling my gas calculations, and Gillian had exhausted her repertoire of photo-worthy shots in the airport restaurant, we made our way out to the airfield. Bob and Andy kept us company as we got Bravo Alpha ready for her long flight north.

When Rich arrived, we got down to business. By "business", of course, I mean eating lunch, showing off our new t-shirts, and pondering just what 15 degrees Celsius was going to "feel like." We were wheels-up sometime around 4:30 and headed out past the familiar sights of the tank farm, Carroll County, Westminster, and into the great beyond. (Okay, okay; Pennsylvania. But it wasn't long before I'd gone further North than ever before). The weather briefer I had spoken to had warned of thunderstorm activity and convective NOTAMs (i.e., bad things for pilots) up the East Coast, but our first encounter with adverse conditions really wasn't that adverse. Who knew that a rainbow in the sky can form a complete circle?

Gillian does, that's who. Rich and I woke her up just so she could take pictures of it so we could share them with all of you. Pretty nice of us, eh?

As we flew over Pennsylvania, dark blotches in the sky soon became rain clouds. Harrisburg Approach, who was "flight following" us as we made our way North, suggested we detour to avoid the worst of it. Rich had spent part of his morning figuring out where cheap gas could be found, so we eventually decided to put down at one of the airports on his list and let the storm pass by.

We were greeted on the ground by two gents who I'm quite sure would not be offended by me referring to them as airport b*ms. They laughed good naturedly when we told them we were hoping to get gas while the rain moved through, and assured us that they would be happy to oblige, but that there was a $150 fee to get the "gas guy" from the trailer park out to the airport. It didn't take college algebra to realize that the "cheap gas" wasn't going to be so cheap with a $150 service fee.

We waited until the rain storm had moved through, and eventually decided Syracuse offered the safest bet for gas and getting on our way, given the growing hour.

The sun set as we refueled. Rich then flew us from Syracuse to Montreal because student pilots aren't allowed to fly across the border. As our GPS unit did not have a map for Canada, I got to plug in the latitude/longitude coordinates for the Pierre Elliot Trudeau airport in Montreal. We flew the heading I'd put in up along the St. Lawrence River, and Rich and I strained to see the friendly white and green beacon that we've come to expect at U.S. airports, letting you know you are almost home. We saw nothing but the strobe light of Montreal's 737 Club, but continued on course until we were hailed by Trudeau Tower.

Rich and I had been listening to calls alternately in English and French, and he was psyched at the thought of being hailed in French. (I'm not sure why; I have a hard enough time understanding ATC when they are speaking English.) We were hailed in English, however, and directed to "follow the South Shore." Before we knew it, we were #1 for landing. The Tower told Rich to "keep [his] base tight and [his] speed up" as we entered the downwind. Although we briefly pondered how much speed the Tower was expecting from from a Cessna 172, Rich decided to just land the plane and ask questions later.

By the time we left Syracuse, we figured it would be about 10:30 when we landed in Montreal. As it turned out, it was closer to 11:15. But that's okay. The customs lady was only annoyed for a few minutes. Not annoyed enough to come out to the airfield and actually search our plane, of course. Just annoyed enough to let me know that she was annoyed. I do so love Canadians.

We were soon greeted by my childhood friends, Tamlyn and Dino, and quickly made our way out to Hudson. Gillian left us briefly to say hello to her family, and then we all met up and went on down to the local watering hole. We drank until the sun came up, slept a bit, got up to make appropriate party plans for Tamlyn's 30th Birthday (the #1 reason for the trip), partied the night away, watched the sun come up, slept a bit ... you get the idea. Apparently, I made some killer green Hulk drinks on Friday night. I don't actually remember making them, but they looked good in the pictures.

We eventually made our way into Montreal on Sunday afternoon to show Rich a few of the sights. He found the Olympic Stadium pretty quick.

Monday, and our impending departure, came all too quick. After some last minute confusion with Trudeau Clearance over the IFR Jadee 6 something something, Rich took off. It was my first experience with IFR conditions in a small plane. I'm not going to lie to you. When I first looked out and saw nothing but white, I had a similar thought to the first time I jumped into water that was 2 degrees Celsius (36F) -- JUST BREATHE!!!!!!!!!!

Of course, it didn't help that just as I turned from looking at Gillian to looking into the white nothingness, a rather stressed sounding pilot hailed ATC, "This is Air Canada flight XXXX. Please be advised that we've just been struck by lightening." I glanced at Rich, probably with more concern on my face than I'd intended to convey. He looked away briefly from the instruments and said, "And I'd like a clean pair of shorts." His light-heartedness instantly put me at ease. It occurred to me then, although not for the first time, that I would need to remember that when I was a pilot my passengers would look to me to gauge their own reaction. So, no cursing over dropped pencils.

Fortunately, the other pilot soon assured ATC that her plane's systems were intact, and we continued to climb up to our assigned altitude of 4,000 feet. Within about twenty minutes, we broke free of the clouds and caught a few glimpses of the St. Lawrence.

After calling the Customs Border Patrol officers in Massena a half dozen times with updated ETAs, including once while en route, we managed to arrive within fifteen minutes of our predicted time. Four customs agents and about 45 minutes of interrogation later, we finally convinced them to let Gillian back into the United States. I still don't know what their problem was. Maybe they saw her new shirt, eh?

We left Massena in clearer weather than that in which we'd arrived, and Gillian managed to snap some nice shots of the river. We had been hoping to fly down to Massena over our home town of Hudson, Quebec, but there seemed little point given the IFR conditions. Oh, well. That just means we need to go back (soon!!)

The forecast for our flight home was not great, but we managed to stay ahead of the thunderstorm cell moving across upstate New York.

Around six o'clock, our stomachs got the better of us and we decided to land in Hamilton, New York and get dinner. The town turned out to be the home of Colgate University, so we took a quick spin around the campus in the pilot's courtesy car. Rich alternately amazed and shocked us with his knowledge of fraternities/sororities (a relatively foreign concept at Canadian universities).

We took off with our stomachs full of Italian food, and Bravo Alpha straining under our load and her full tank of gas. The cloud-speckled sky made for some great photographs. I climbed initially to 8,500 feet, but couldn't get sufficiently on top of the clouds, so we went back down to 4,500 and fought an occasionally bump of turbulence instead. The sun through the clouds was gorgeous.

Of course, I didn't see too much of the view, as Rich and I decided I might as well finish off some of my instruments training while en route. I'm convinced he forgot his foggles (i.e., glasses that block out everything but the instrument panel) on purpose. But, for the next hour and a half, I practiced flying a heading while holding the plane straight and level based on the instruments alone.

The pictures of me flying instruments, ghetto-style are quite comical, I'll give you that.

When I finally emerged from my Rich-built map cave, the sun had nearly set. Lightning off in the distance to the West instantly caught my attention. Rich assured me he had been watching the storm's progress. We flew on until it was good and dark, but the storm continued to arch ever closer to our flight path. We decided to switch frequencies and get a weather update. The briefer advised us that our line of flight to Gaithersburg was closing rapidly.

By the time we switched back to Harrisburg Approach, the conditions in the sky left little room for doubt that the safest course of action was to get the plane on the ground. Rich showed me how to lose altitude and speed rapidly through exaggerated S-turns, while I got the frequencies plugged in for Capital City. After we landed, Gillian ran for the FBO, while Rich and I tied down the plane and shouted at each over the increasing wind. We made it inside before the skies opened up, and hunkered down for the next few hours to wait out the storm.

Time to spare, go by air...

Although we were a bit travel weary by the time we got home, the entire weekend was a fantastic experience. I love that general aviation puts a weekend trip to Montreal within my grasp. And yes, I'm already planning trip #2.


At June 29, 2008 at 8:28 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

fantastic! I so miss Montreal, lots of fond memories! Loved the story. Hope you are home and finding sometime to recover! :) Miss ya Jared!

At July 4, 2008 at 10:13 AM , Blogger Jude said...

Hi Amy,
Your trip via "Flight Bravo" was a little too exciting for me--it's all about missing cells of storms. Two weeks ago on return to Ott. the AC plane spent an entire hour circling the airport trying to avoid a cell. Outside the sky looked totally black. Actually you three are pretty amazing and it's such fun sharing your adventures. Love Judy

At July 4, 2008 at 1:21 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

The adventures keep getting "better and Better"!! From a Mum's point of view the best part is knowing you are safely back on the ground when you update the blog! Congrats too to the intrepid photographer! The pix are a spectacular accompaniment to the story being shared. And soon Dad and I will get to "ride"!! Mum


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