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One Fall Flight

Sometimes things just go right

Perhaps it was a surfeit of optimism accompanying the warming airs last April; maybe it was lingering too long over the advertising photos of new airplanes in perpetually clear, blue skies. No matter what the cause, you made that fateful utterance, "Dear, how would you like to get away from the kids for a weekend? You know, just the two of us, flying to one of those places you like on the beach, or maybe camping on a little airport." Immediately you heard, "Honey, that sounds wonderful, but the campsite better have room service and I want to be able to look at the scenery on the way.

Perhaps it was a surfeit of optimism accompanying the warming airs last April; maybe it was lingering too long over the advertising photos of new airplanes in perpetually clear, blue skies. No matter what the cause, you made that fateful utterance, "Dear, how would you like to get away from the kids for a weekend?

You know, just the two of us, flying to one of those places you like on the beach, or maybe camping on a little airport."

Immediately you heard, "Honey, that sounds wonderful, but the campsite better have room service and I want to be able to look at the scenery on the way. It's no fun flying in the clouds and it means that when we get there, the weather is crummy."

Still bedazzled by those magazine photos of the Cirrus, Columbia, and Saratoga, you riposte, "It's no problem at all, sweetheart; we occasionally get good weather in Michigan. I'll put something together right away."

You try. In May the airplane you share with two others was available only one weekend and your boss needed you in the office that Saturday. Of course the weather was perfect. In June you tried twice, but persistent fog prevented departure one morning, and a day prior to the next attempt one of your airplane partners called with news of a mechanical problem that could not be fixed before the weekend. July passed before you could blink, the kids had soccer, your spouse had commitments with work and the neighborhood association, and then it was time for Oshkosh. August was Thunderstorm City, and in early September you were still cleaning up the limbs that were down in the yard, and then just plain low, gray skies moved in. Now it's October and your spouse just made another comment about the size of the check you write each month for the airplane, and holy smokes, the leaves are already turning.

The leaves are turning

You smack yourself on the forehead and recall how incredibly beautiful the state of Michigan is in October and that you also have promised friends in the Upper Peninsula, who live right on the shore of Lake Superior, that you would visit. Perfect, now if only weather and the airplane will cooperate. A few phone calls and computer time later you've made sure your partners do not need the airplane for the weekend and the weather looks promising. Your friends in Grand Marais have made "yes, get up here" noises and you start flight planning. The fall foliage Web sites predict the colors will be either approaching or at peak. Hmmm, the stars are starting to align propitiously. You just might be able to pull this off.

The days are short enough and the two of you busy enough that you won't be able to depart before dark on Friday. No problem, a Saturday morning launch will be just fine. Besides, you can pack lighter for one night than for two, your airplane is quite modest in all respects, and with the two of you and fuel, allowable luggage weight is quite limited.

Friday evening you visit the hangar and make sure the airplane is fueled and ready to go. You want this to be very special for the person you wooed and won a while back, so you make a few extra preparations for the flight.

Saturday dawns and you rise early to confirm the weather will be as forecast. It is that rarity around the Great Lakes, utterly clear with visibility seemingly into tomorrow. There will be a price for this perfection; the wind will eventually come up and blow hard. You've practiced your crosswind landings and resolve to fly high enough for smooth air.

Together you drive to the hangar and prepare the airplane. Strapped in, you suggest to the most important person in your life that there might be something of interest in the glove box. Upon opening it, a small container of very high-end chocolates is discovered. You've also been thoughtful enough to provide a bottle of water and some other light snacks for the flight. The mind-blowing smile you get from the one you so desire to please on this trip is an indication that things are starting well.

Engine running and all systems confirmed to be in the mood to operate as designed, you motor aloft into morning air so smooth you feel as if you are flying in liquid. You again experience the amazing transformation of the world when viewed from above as it seems to snap from black and white into the purest and brightest color about the time the airplane passes through an altitude of 50 feet. You hear a delighted "oh, wow" over the intercom as your beloved looks to the right at the reds and oranges of the trees on the nearby hillside.

Choosing to take a circuitous route to your first stop, you cruise north by west toward the Lake Michigan shoreline. You keep your eyes outside, watching for the others you know will be flying on such a fine day. Your spouse is raptly gazing a world made magical by autumn's finery. Acres of brilliant reds, oranges, and yellows flow in all directions, interrupted at one point by a small lake that is, inexplicably, surrounded by a very thin belt of trees that are still, determinedly and vividly, green. The air is so smooth that you dare not put more than fingertips on the yoke for fear of somehow insulting the medium and breaking the spell that holds the two of you entranced.

In about 90 minutes the shore of Lake Michigan slides into view and you turn to follow it northeast, living in the moment, enjoying the magnificent palate spread before you. Your partner points out a ship, one of the powerful lakers, carrying the raw materials that power a nation, leaving its long wake on water that is surprisingly calm despite an increasing wind.

Big Mac, the suspension bridge across the five miles of the sparkling sun-reflected waters of the Mackinac Straits, is to your right as you begin a descent at a passenger-friendly 300 feet per minute to the traffic pattern at St. Ignace, where you will stop for fuel and a chance to stretch a bit. The wind is gusting to above 15 knots, but almost down the runway, and you manage to time the gusts and roll it on, earning a quiet compliment from the other seat.

The bright, friendly FBO staff member welcomes your partner as you help with fueling and make quick telephone calls to confirm your motel reservation for the evening with the extra details you've requested, and arrange for ground transportation, because you will be returning here after dark.

Aloft, you continue to head north, now across the true wilderness of the sparsely populated and wildly beautiful Upper Peninsula. You climb a little higher than before because the wind is generating low-level turbulence and you want to make this ride as comfortable as possible. After all, the reality for a nonpilot is that the airplane is cramped and noisy; adding the violence of turbulence to that equation, if it can be avoided, is foolish.

Soon Lake Superior appears in its horizon-spanning magnificence. You find yourself thinking of the weather that can be generated on this, the largest of the Great Lakes, and of the tragic demise of the huge laker, the Edmund Fitzgerald, back in November 1975, when it sank in winds that were reported to have approached 100 mph.

Today the winds are blowing to 25 knots on the surface, slowing you as you turn west to fly over Tahquamenon Falls, its tannin-stained water a dramatic contrast to the brilliant colors of the trees on both sides. Farther on you pass the Two Hearted River, which gave its name to one of Ernest Hemingway's short stories of this fascinating land.

Before long you are descending for the pattern at the picturesque grass airport that serves Grand Marais and, checking your flight guide, realize that it will close in another week. It snows a great deal up here, and by late October this airport will be given back to Mother Nature until the snow is gone in May.

On the ground you are met by your friends. They treat the two of you to a picnic and a hike at the nearby Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, a tour of Grand Marais, and hours of pleasant conversation. You catch yourself glancing at your better half and noting a level of relaxation and stress reduction that you haven't seen in months.

A little before sunset you are back at the airplane and confirming its readiness for a bit more flying. The wind is still blowing and gusting, so you advise your very special passenger that even though the evening is perfectly clear and the visibility is fabulous, the wind will make the takeoff bumpy until you get through about 300 feet above the ground. Your prophecy proves accurate and, looking to your right, you observe a certain level of discomfort. However, at 500 feet, still heading into the teeth of the gale, the tension breaks when your spouse starts laughing, points to the GPS, and, between guffaws, comments that the groundspeed is but 29 knots and asks if you've ever seen it that low in flight. You allow as how you have not and, joining the laughter, start a gentle turn toward St. Ignace. The two of you watch the groundspeed climb into triple digits as the wind becomes an ally, hastening you toward your motel.

In less than 45 minutes you are turning final and landing at the now quiet airport. The act of turning on the runway lights by keying the transmitter proves fascinating to the person leaning gently on your shoulder and you again wonder at the little things in aviation that we take for granted but can intrigue those who look in from the outside.

Once the airplane is tied down and your small bag removed, you are pleased to find that the car promised is there and that the motel is ready for your arrival. Your phone calls have worked - your room is indeed on the top floor, it has a deck that looks out over Lake Huron and Mackinac Island, the wine is in the ice bucket, and your spouse's eyes and smile have exceeded the 100-watt level.

Sunday morning is unhurried. There is a pleasant coolness to the air, but you still spend time on the balcony drinking in the view of the lake and island and listening to the waves and the seabirds. The two of you make the most of the morning without kids, cell phones turned off.

Hunger pangs finally drive you to check out and drive to the restaurant you passed last night that advertised a Sunday brunch. It turns out to be most acceptable. By 1 p.m. you are back at the airplane. There is a cold front approaching from the northwest, but it is still several hours away and there is nothing but high cirrus above you. The winds of yesterday have returned, blowing from the southwest down low but swinging to the west up higher. You would prefer to stay at about 2,000 feet agl for the scenery but you would rather not be mired in the sky by headwinds, so you climb to 6,500 feet and find smooth air for the leg home. There you discover that the west wind means only a small headwind component and the higher altitude gives a new and captivating perspective on the fall color extravaganza. You hear a comment over the intercom regarding a desire to bottle the view and take it home to release a little at a time in about three months when the landscape is an iron-gray world of low clouds and bare trees. You concur heartily and hold the thought through rolling the wheels on home plate and returning the airplane to the hangar.

On the drive home your spouse thanks you for the trip, pauses and says, "Dear, you know it would be nice if we could get an airplane that could carry a little more and go faster. What do you think?"

Sometimes, things just go right.

Rick Durden is an aviation attorney in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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