Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Lucky Night.

Hmm… there used to be a CN Tower there”. The weather on the morning of my scheduled night cross-country flight did not look promising as low ceilings and some kind of precipitation blanketed downtown Toronto. The aviation forecast however indicated that the low front would pass, skies would clear and the surface winds would die down by the evening. And, amazingly, they did.

Not quite believing my luck, I drove to the airport for my 6pm booking. My luck almost ran out then as the major highway between my house and the airport was closed till 9pm. Luckily, the closure was in the other direction, so by the time I pulled into the airport parking lot, I was hoping I would be flying as there was no way I would be getting home any time soon if flying was cancelled.

Walking to the dispatch desk, I noticed red “No Flying” sign on the information board and asked about it. Apparently, the few inches of snow up north and a few inches of rain downtown came as an inch or two of sheer ice on the field, covering everything, including the rental planes, which are all parked outside. My hopes sinking, I barely caught on to what the person was saying – there was ONE airplane in flyable condition, and my instructor reserved it for MY FLIGHT!

The instructor showed up and we started to look at the weather which was still somewhat unstable. I initially planned a run for Kingston, right along the shoreline of Lake Ontario. Seeing that the front was passing West to East, I also planned the route in the other direction – from Buttonville to London, via Newmarket and Orangeville to get me out of Toronto Pearson airspace and allow me to climb higher. Couple of destinations on a way to Kingston reported low ceilings, so that route was out and we shifted focus to London route, which appeared to be in the clear. I checked the upper winds at 6,000 ft (270 at 21 knots), recalculated headings based on wind corrections and the estimated times and filed the flight plan with 7:20pm departure time (giving me 30 mins to do pre-flight and walk around), went out to the field… and almost fell flat on my face.

The apron and field in front of the terminal building were a cross between a skating rink and an Ice Kingdom. I was walking on ice, the taxiways were all ice and ice covered everything in sight, including the airplanes. Walking very carefully, I made way to ‘my’ airplane, the only one on the field not covered in ice… and discovered it was covered by frost instead. Frost on critical surfaces is almost as bad as ice and is a definite no-go in my books. Luckily, the fuel truck stopped by to top up the tanks and I asked if they had a de-ice on a field. They did and he told me where to go. I was starting to worry how long my luck was going to hold.

I finished the pre-flight, we climbed into the airplane and taxied it to de-icing location. Amazingly, the taxiing was not too hard (I guess it would have been much trickier in a tail dragger). Deicing completed, we climbed back in… and then climbed back out and went searching for paper towels to clean the windows. It was 5 mins to 8pm when we finally took off.

Once in the air, following familiar route north to Newmarket, I finally realized that my luck held, relaxed, marked my times and started looking around. It was insanely beautiful night. There were some scattered clouds over Toronto and they were on fire, reflecting the bright lights of the downtown. The visibility along the route was unlimited and all the separate towns shone up brightly surrounded by relative darkness. Flying at 2500 ASL (under 2,000 AGL), I could see Christmas decorations in front of the houses I flew over.

Upon reaching Newmarket, I turned to the closest bright spot in the West – that would have been Orangeville. We also got Flight Following from Toronto Terminal and were allowed to climb to 6,000 – just underneath the arrival path for Pearson airport.

Climbing to 6,000, I marveled how easy it was to navigate by maps at night in the winter. All the towns and settlements were bright spots, all the roads and rail roads were clearly visible against the snow-covered fields. This was my first time ever flying that route and I felt very comfortable, knowing where I was at all times. From Orangeville, I headed straight for London, navigating by Kitchener as my route marker. My instructor had his iPhone on board and he checked conditions at London and reported that it was under an overcast layer. But it was high enough to allow us to come in underneath.

Getting closer to London, we descended underneath the cloud layer and I started looking for the airport. I would have had difficulties finding it, but the ILS approach lighting system and the running blinking lights that it produces, cued me to where the airport was. I got in my clearance from the Tower and landed uneventfully. We parked right in front of the Katana café to stamp my logbook. I expected another $100 hamburger place, but this was different. I was very impressed by the settings and the menu – I will definitely want to come back there for lunch or dinner.

Climbing into the airplane for a return trip, I experienced another first – an intersection departure. The Rwy in London was over 8,000 ft long and intersection departure meant 4,000 ft Rwy left – still longer then the Rwy in Buttonville.

Getting out of London zone, we got Flight Following again and asked for a route direct to Buttonville. This would have take us right over Pearson, so we were denied that, but they routed us pretty closely just around Pearson. I did not plant that route, so had to navigate by maps and it worked well. As I was navigating I kept stealing glances towards downtown Toronto and all the towers thinking I’d like to get back there…

Closer to Buttonville, we switched to Tower frequency and got cleared to land almost right away as we were the only plane in that airspace. I came in too close and too high, so had to slip aggressively and discovered that Cessna does not slip as well as Citabria, but got back on a good glide path and had a very nice landing. Back to the Ice Kingdom we went searching for a place to tie the plane down.

And with that flight over, I finally had met all the requirements for the night rating. It was almost exactly two year after I started the night rating with the flight that started this blog

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