A frigid escape from the Canadian winter

By Colin T. Brown     


I am lying face-down in a snow bank with my knee throbbing in pain, surrounded by my suitcases and watching the contents of my flight bag – charts,  flashlights, granola bars – blow into the icy waters of Lake Ontario. 


If Robert Louis Stevenson once said he traveled “for travel’s sake…the great affair is to move,” then my first movement towards Palm Springs on this January morning is on my hands and knees, frantically scuttling towards the breakwater where my belongings are tumbling.


See the cool and unflappable instrument-rated airman! See him chase his 25 pages of flight plans through the snow! 


I had arrived in this ignoble position following a Dick van Dyke pratfall from the Toronto Island Airport ferry. In my defense, I should point that today the short traverse of a normally-benign harbor channel had been a harrowing voyage more resembling a winter crossing of the North Atlantic.

The shrieking west wind and driving current had necessitated a mainland departure from a dreaded leeward jetty behind an abandoned grain silo. Passengers walked – or crawled - up an ice-encrusted 45-degree steel ramp then dropped to the heaving deck.


I can report the maxim that enough crosswind can cause an airplane to run out of rudder authority applies to 150 ton ferries as well.  The old diesels howled as we bounced and clawed across the 100 yards in a tenuous windward crab.


I wondered if I was about to be listed in an accident report without ever reaching my plane. 


Witnesses last observed the pilot moving backwards across the Toronto harbor at a high rate of speed.


There was no finesse of crosswind landing technique, because the skipper simply drove us into the airport dock at the high-performance cruise setting. When you have an old iron boat and lots of tractor tires to slow you down, then braking isn’t a great concern.


Some locals say that 60 years of this merciless ramming is actually shifting the island southward. My own crash landing down the gangplank was no less spectacular.


Now I am finally inside the welcoming warmth of the hangar. Wiping the ice crystals out of my eyes, I take stock of my belongings. The only item that is lost (presumed drowned) is my methodically produced checklist of things not to lose.


Thankfully I fall into the preflight routines on my Aztec, climb aboard and am towed out to the ramp by the lone lineman on the field. 


The Lycomings come to life, and the ATIS confirms that the wind continues to blow at a nasty 20-25 knots – but straight down the main runway. 


Time to program the Garmin 530 GPS unit and pick up the IFR clearance to Detroit City.  The folks in the tower seemed happy to hear from me because I am the only airplane moving on the field.


Taxi out carefully, ailerons into the wind, mind the ice patches and snowdrifts. Run-up checks OK, review the Standard Instrument Departure plan one more time, cleared for takeoff; ready for a tussle but hardly a bump.     


Twenty minutes later I am between layers at 6000 feet, the de-icing boots having shaken off most of the light rime accumulation from the climb. The autopilot is tracking nicely in NAV mode while engine monitors give positive reports.


The Garmin is counting down the miles to KDET.  Everything seems great….and something is running down my right leg.


Reaching down  I  find – blood, quite a bit of it, coming from an 8 inch gash down my shin. It seems I hit the dock even harder than the ferry.

I am reminded that I am a bit of a klutz.  I once dropped my car keys through a sewer grate. My wife has the insurance company on speed-dial for any time I pick up a power tool. But the man at Cleveland Center on COMM 1 doesn’t know any of this, nor will I ever give him or his colleagues any reason to suspect it.


In a busy cockpit between the clouds it all comes together. The routines, the procedures, the constant checking and rechecking sharpen the senses. In the days to come I will gain a new appreciation of instrument flying. 


There will be planning challenges, brief flurries of activity and much time for reflection.  I am happy to be alone in the winter sky, with warm thoughts in a warm cockpit heading south. 


I just hope the Customs officer doesn’t ask me about my blood-soaked trousers.


Detroit City Airport is windswept and devoid of color.  The Aztec taxis to the empty customs ramp in front of the old terminal. From inside two shivering representatives of the Department of Homeland Security emerge, circle the airplane once,  snatch my entry form and retreat inside.  


This is a desolate place on a Sunday morning and I wish I wasn’t here. Until late last night I hadn’t planned on making this extra stop. For weeks I had been planning Peoria, Illinois as my airport of entry to the United States. But the forecast headwinds of 35 knots sent me to Plan B. 


Although taking off for Peoria this morning would have been perfectly legal, the fuel reserves left nothing to spare. An instrument flight plan requires an aircraft be able to arrive at its destination, conduct an approach and overshoot, hold for 45 minutes then fly to an alternate destination and land.

The predicted wind made Peoria a close shave. And so the first leg of a transcontinental journey is only a chip shot across the border, and tonight’s destination of Oklahoma City seems very far away indeed. 


There is nothing moving at the nearby FBO, where it inexplicably takes 40 minutes for a lineman to top off the inboard fuel tanks. The lady behind the counter eyes my blood-spattered khakis with suspicion as she takes my credit card. I scurry out to perform an abbreviated pre-flight inspection and am stopped in my tracks at the nose of the plane.    There is a grapefruit-sized clump of ice enshrouding the nose tip.


I chisel at it with my keys.  It is hard-packed nasty stuff, and I shudder thinking what it would do to an airplane without de-icing equipment. I double check the other surfaces which are clean.


By mid-Michigan the grey overcast begins to break up.  By mid-Illinois the sun is shining and I can feel the warmth on my shoulder. I turn the heater down, and staring past the engines I realize the farms and fields below are in tones of muted browns, greys and greens. 


The snow is somewhere behind, and for me this is a small but important milestone. In only a few hours, the Aztec has escaped the worst of winter.

St. Louis, Missouri, however, still lies far ahead. A true airspeed calculation reveals a steady headwind now 13 knots greater than forecast with gust to 58 knots. The last 100 miles to Peoria today would have been very tense.


Private and commercial charter flights between Canada and the US enjoy personal service and no line-ups clearing Customs on either side of the border. But this convenient system quickly turns against a pilot who does not appear when and where he is expected.  There may be dozens of airports along the route where one could land short, but none would have a Customs official expecting a foreign arrival. 


A fuel miscalculation can result in a State Trooper impounding you and your plane until the proper authority arrives.


Aviation lore is full of stories of pilots who erred on the side of optimism and I am grateful to have been taught a lesson erring on the side of caution. I make a silent vow that this airplane will never be airborne with less than ninety minutes fuel in the tanks.


I am also grateful that I have consciously tried to remove all deadline-destination pressure from the trip. I have a meeting to attend in Palm Springs on Wednesday, but I am leaving Sunday to build an extra day into the equation. 


The routing passes lots of airports where I can park the Aztec and jump on an airliner to complete the trip if the weather folds.  So, unlike the many times before when I griped about the time taken for travel, today I celebrate the time made for travel.


The sky is now clear, but the bumps have arrived. Today’s blustery upper-level winds are combining with rising warm air from the ground to produce a bothersome cocktail of mechanical and thermal turbulence. 


After an hour of driving a succession of air traffic controllers crazy searching in vain for any smooth air I give up and just bob and roll along. With an oxygen system installed, I can slip on a lightweight cannula mask and take the Aztec above 20,000 feet, but today I don’t try. The pre-flight weather briefer warned me today that’s where the wind is really blowing.


I glance at the wingtips bouncing up and down against the horizon. I like these wings.  They are thick with broad, blunt leading edges, more like an ancient DC-3 than a modern jet. 


In fact, Piper used the same airfoil as its single-engine Cub, designed in the 1930’s, when they designed the Aztec in the 1960’s. A thick wing like mine has more drag, making the airplane slower. But in the bumps the effects of unstable air are dampened, and today I am grateful for the difference.


My respect for the Aztec has grown in the past year. Nicknamed the “Aztruck” the airplane is neither sleek nor speedy. But Piper sold thousands of these airplanes in the days when it was novel to market a “personal airliner” to the businessman pilot or small charter operator.


My flight instructor, Don Ireland, who at age 70 has instructed in airliners down to two-seaters appreciates an airplane with no “bad manners” and is convinced the Aztec was the best flying machine Piper ever built.


Two engines and six seats makes a comfortable place for four people to watch the world slide by below at 175 knots. One can pay up to seven times more for a sleeker twin that will move you only 30 knots faster.


I am finally talking to St. Louis Approach Control and being vectored directly over Lambert International towards my destination airport “Spirit of St. Louis,” named for Lindbergh’s famous trans-Atlantic airplane.


Indeed, this is Lindbergh country. As airliners take off from the large modern airport  beneath me I am looking at what was once Lambert Field, a grassy expanse where he was based before his 1927 trans-Atlantic flight. 


The sky I have just traveled was his air mail route north to Chicago. Stuffed in the open cockpit of a DeHavilland biplane he would have flown close to the treetops to escape today’s fire hose of winter air. 


He would judge the wind’s velocity and direction from flagpoles, chimneys or the surface of a lake. He would use railway lines to make his drift corrections, and judge his groundspeed against steam trains.


Without the Global Positioning System, satellite datalink weather and radios I have packed into the Aztec, Lindbergh would estimate his own arrival time at his home field, and not be one minute in error. 


Perhaps it was on a day like this, counting down the towns and roads to Lambert Field, that the genesis of the flight that changed the world took place. Or perhaps, struggling to make 40 miles per hour over the ground, he simply wanted to get home to a hot shower.


Cleared to land now by Spirit tower, soon the Aztec is taxiing to the FBO ramp where people are walking around in shirtsleeves. I shut down the engines, climb out into the warm and welcome mid-afternoon sun and glad fully peel off two layers of extra winter clothing.


The Aztec takes on 110 gallons of fuel while the weather ahead is checked. The upper wind is blowing from 220 degrees – smack on the nose all the way to Oklahoma City.


Nightfall reaches Oklahoma City at the same time I do. I have been watching the sunset through the right cockpit windshield, then it is gone, and the lights of the city ahead now illuminate the blackness below.


I have opted for the larger airport – Will Rogers International – to overnight the Aztec.  KOKC can be a busy place, but on this Sunday night Approach Control has vectored a steady stream of airline jets towards the left parallel runway, leaving runway 18 Right solely to me.


As I turn south to intercept the runway’s localizer beam I am grateful for this, because I do not have to go faster than normal to stay in trail with the jets, and no doubt the jet crews are happy not to have to follow an Aztec to the runway.  


Final approach now, three miles to the beckoning lights of the runway. An American Airlines MD-80, less than a mile away, flashes by on the left. He is likely doing 140 knots down his glideslope; I am comfortable at 120 knots on mine, and I have no desire to race him to the airport.


The large office complex immediately to the right of my runway is the headquarters of the FAA, so I resolve to make this a textbook smooth landing. Unfortunately my sensory awareness has other ideas.


I am used to landing on runways 100 feet in width.  The large heavy jet tracks of Will Rogers are 200 feet wide. Thinking I must be close to the ground I cut the power and pull the nose up to a gentle flare into the sea of lights. But there is no comforting chirp of tires subtly brushing concrete. 


After the best day of flying in my life and a velvety smooth approach, I have flared five feet too high.  There is a moment of disbelief, an expletive, then a sickening, clattering crunch onto the tarmac.


I turn off the runway, mortified. I imagine an FAA inspector turning from his office window to phone the control tower. No doubt, over its 2,800 hours of flight time, the sturdy Aztec has suffered worse landings, but this one hurts the crew as well. Alone in the dark amidst the blue taxiway lights, I apologize to my airplane.

I manage to taxi to the FBO without further incident. As I am late on my arrival due to the headwind, I wonder if anyone is still there at 6:00 on a Sunday night. Then I see a welcoming sight - two bright orange wands in the hands of a lineman waving me to the deserted ramp.


As I shut down the airplane, a van appears and my bags are quickly loaded into it. In the time it often takes to get the door open of an airliner at an airport gate, I am being whisked to my hotel. 


It has been a near perfect day - except for that damn landing and the dull throbbing in my right leg.


Dawn brings muted color to the Oklahoma panhandle as the Aztec flies westward in a cloudless sky. At 6,000 feet, the air is perfectly smooth and the only vibration comes from the thrumming of the propellers biting the crisp morning area.


Distant white stratus appear on the horizon. Forty minutes ago I was in Oklahoma City and now I am making 180 knots with the utter absence of a headwind. What a welcome change this is from yesterday’s upwind pounding from Toronto.


Aside from my well-bandaged leg, I am holding up very well so far. I expected to be uncomfortable and exhausted last night but wasn’t.  A good night’s sleep left me keen to get to the airport at sunrise. 


There is still an element of unreality to this. I have proudly held a pilot’s license since my 17th birthday, but never had the resources to make a trip like this. I was always short on money, time, training or airplanes. There have been 30 years of looking around distant airports and vowing to return one day in my own plane. Can that really be the Texas border up ahead?


I am approaching Amarillo and noticing – perhaps imagining - farms and roads below sliding by faster. Is the airplane picking up a tailwind?  No, the Garmin reports the same groundspeed. 


Altitude? Still 6,000 feet. Altimeter setting? Still 30.02 inches of mercury, set when I checked in with Fort Worth Center minutes ago. Then why this sensation of acceleration?  I peer down from the cockpit of the Aztec and it seems I am racing down the main street of the city, shooting by the cars of morning commuters. I can see people on the sidewalks.


The sectional chart gives the answer. Slowly, deceptively, the panhandle has risen beneath the Aztec traveling west. The field elevation of Will Rogers Airport at takeoff was 1,500 feet above sea level. I check the chart for Amarillo and discover a field elevation of 4,200 feet. That’s half a mile of vertical climb - more than the tallest Adirondack I have flown near. 


Now the ground has risen as high as one of those peaks, and it’s still endlessly, endlessly flat.


I must be very near the floor of the instrument airway known as Victor 12 leading me to Albuquerque. There are no tall buildings or radio towers in sight, so it is legal and safe to be this low to the ground, but soon the airplane must run out of room. 


Aztec Charlie Golf Oscar Sierra Oscar – Fort Worth Center.  I ‘ll need you to climb to eight thousand after Amarillo.


Somewhere in a busy radar room near Dallas Forth Worth airport a controller has read my thoughts. With a nudge of the throttles the Aztec is climbing. This is Texas, and already the Rockies are pushing the airplane skyward. And with a start I notice those aren’t really white clouds on the western horizon.


I am filed to land at Albuquerque’s Double Eagle II airport, some 15 miles north of the international field. KAEG is  named for another intrepid trans-Atlantic flying machine which hangs today in the Smithsonian Institute - Maxie Anderson accomplished his feat in a balloon some 60 years after Lindbergh.


Now for the one thing I really don’t like about flying in the IFR system, and that is leaving it. KAEG has no tower control, so communications are accomplished on a Unicom frequency, a de-facto party line for pilots with a ground advisory facility that seldom responds.


It is a pilot’s responsibility to listen on Unicom to gauge landing patterns, traffic and develop his own 3-dimensional sense of what is happening in the surrounding airspace.  This is fine if (1.) The pilot keeps a vigilant ear to the radio (2) knows how to relate his position and intentions in clear, concise language that others can understand, and (3) isn’t just flying around with Aunt Mabel with the radios turned down.


I once watched in horror as a Piper Cheyenne turboprop narrowly missed running over a Piper Cub on final approach at an uncontrolled airport like this one. The fellow in the little Cub said later his radio was unreliable and he hadn’t heard the three inbound position calls from the Cheyenne.


The Cub had been flying under visual flight rules – VFR.  There is nothing wrong with VFR flying. All pilots start with VFR training first, and the vast majority don’t pursue things further.


But I obtained an instrument rating to get away from the often vague nature of VFR.  Now I fly almost everywhere on instrument flight plans. While the demand on the pilot are greater and the rules much tougher, I appreciate the structure it gives to every flight.  In short, the discipline of IFR makes flying more enjoyable, which sounds odd, coming from a freedom junkie like me.


As expected, being dumped out of the IFR system to perform a visual approach proves a nerve-wracking experience. Crossing over Albuquerque International at 10,000 feet,  Double Eagle II is only 12 miles distant, and still 6,000 feet below, and I still don’t know the active runway.


With the absence of an automated runway information frequency on a calm day like today, aircraft could be taking off and landing in either direction. I have been monitoring snatches of their Unicom frequency on the #2 radio while talking to Approach Control.  As the controller turns me loose advising that there are “various targets” on his scope in the vicinity, a Cessna on Unicom broadcasts she is landing on Runway 22. 


I decide to follow her lead and descend rapidly into the traffic pattern calling out my altitude and position. 


Rolling out onto final approach something is askew…..the runway looks correct in the windshield but I am close – far too close – to the ground to still be a mile from the airport. 


Welcome to the second visual landing trick in less than 24 hours. Runway 22 slopes uphill, giving the impression that you are on a normal approach path when in reality you are significantly beneath a normal glidepath. 


At night with no lights on the featureless scrub terrain, somebody could get in real trouble out here. I add a burst of power to carry me to the threshold. 

The FBO is decidedly not big-city and my Canadian registration draws some questions from the friendly locals. I am awarded a coupon for a free burrito with my fill-up. But there is no-one in the kitchen, and as I am about to cross the Rockies, I decide it is better to keep any in-flight turbulence outside the cabin.  Soon I am taking off – uphill – towards the nearby mountains.


I am waiting to be bored.  I am supposed to be bored.  The conventional wisdom of spending 12 hours flight time traveling in one direction in a small and slow airplane dictates it. 


But things are too interesting. The mountains sliding by the wingtips are good sightseeing – especially when at the minimum enroute altitude of 12,000 feet, you are relatively close to the peaks.


I decide the earth below is made to be viewed through a windshield, not the porthole beside seat 29F.


Speaking of airliners, it sounds like they’re having a miserable time up there today.  Crews are complaining of “light to moderate chop” in the flight levels and badgering Albuquerque Center for altitude changes.


But on this day, there is little the controller can do. Despite the fact that we are all flying over thousands of square miles of uninhabited mountainous mesa, the high level airspace above is often very, very busy with transcontinental flights.


Military Operations Areas - MOA’s – which can extend from ground to high altitude, litter the airspace. Today 3 MOA’s west of Albuquerque have gone “hot.”


I was once cleared through a MOA on an IFR flight plan, only to receive hurried exit instructions from the controller 10 minutes later. A pair of F-16’s had showed up to claim their neighborhood. An Aztec flies much faster when it is scared.


There are other ways to keep busy. Even with the autopilot guiding the plane flawlessly, there is constantly changing information on the instrument panel. As I have moved from east to west, there have been subtle changes in the air pressure and temperature, which make minute changes in the performance of the Lycoming turbocharged engines.


These appear on the EDM analyzers which measure power, fuel consumption and exact reading from each cylinder.


One can sometimes ignore the multitude of bar graphs and LED’s but on this trip, anxious to wring the very best performance out of the Aztec, I am keeping diligent watch on them. Every 10 minutes or so, there is a fractional nudge of a mixture or power is made.


Finally, my “In Flight Entertainment System.”  When I purchased this aircraft, it had a CD player installed, which failed the first time I tried it, so I decided to replace it. The new unit cost $300 but the installation was double that again. 


It is wired to cut off on ATC communication so I cue up Tom Petty whose folky drawl seems to match the territory below. After 3 songs I am fussing with other cockpit chores and the music is distracting. Therefore I shut it off – a real bargain so far at $300 per cut.


So, the Aztec motors along, low and slow in wonderful smooth air, while the bitching continues on the radios from the less-fortunate souls above. From 50 miles distant, the red rocks of Sedona come into view and I am handed off to Los Angeles Center.


In the moving map window of the Garmin navigator “KPSP” – Palm Springs – has popped into view on the 200 mile scale. I dig the approach charts out of the flight bag and review the anticipated arrival procedure.


Like Albuquerque this will be a visual slam-dunk descent, but under positive control with a tower on the field.


Down to 10,000 feet, starting to gently peel off inches of manifold pressure to not shock cool the engines whose cylinders have been toasting along at 425 degrees for the past 2 1/2 hours.


The Aztec crosses the last mountain range and suddenly the brilliant, enormous Palm Springs valley fills the windshield. Descent instructions come urgently and rapidly now.  There is an MD-80 in sight well ahead of me, a Beech twin sliding southbound across my nose and somewhere behind a Continental 737 is checking in.


I am vectored onto a wide downwind leg, heading due south and glimpse the airport where I will land off the right wingtip. Normally at this point of a traffic pattern the Aztec would be 1,000 feet above the ground.  Today we are at 4,500, the altimeter unwinding, still too high.


I am handed off to the Tower man who says “keep it coming.” Down, down, down onto final now, 3 miles, 2,200 feet, level off momentarily to bleed off speed, gear down, flaps 20, now push the nose way over. Steep but stable.  


The Aztec sweeps past a waiting Airbus at the threshold, then the tires bite the asphalt.  Two lineman are waving me to a tie-down spot. Brakes on, mixtures to cut-off, the props shudder to a halt, master and mags off. 


One lineman is pulling a golf cart up to the rear to get my bags. The other grins from behind his Oakleys and says “Welcome!”


And….I take a minute. I just sit perfectly still in my airplane listening to the gyros spin down as the desert sun heats the cockpit. I look at the palm trees, then the mountains, with a sense of disbelief. 


All my training and flight planning has stood me well on this trip, but it hasn’t prepared me for the unexpected emotion of arriving. I’m really here and it is only 1:15PM local time. 


Almost reluctantly I climb out of the cockpit. The man with the Oakleys is eyeing the Canadian registration on the tail.

“How long did it take ya?” he asks. 


I instinctively look down to the wad of flight planning forms in my hand, the same forms I was desperately snatching at in the freezing cold of Toronto 30 hours ago. But at this moment, standing happily beside my airplane under the hot California sun, they don’t hold the answer.

“Thirty years,” I reply.