Monday, June 3, 2013

Michigan to Central New York in a Challenger I

A couple weeks back Michael Haley found a Challenger I online that looked promising. A few of the Challenger owners at Marcellus Airport (NK71) met with him one evening to look at pictures and documents sent by the then current owner.

Very quickly the opinion among our group was that this nice looking plane was in good shape and well cared for. The engine had recently been overhauled with only 11 hours logged since then.

Michael decided he should move forward with purchasing this plane and began talking about disassembling and transporting it back to New York. I said, "It's only in Michigan. Why don't we just fly it back? How far is Michigan anyway?" Michael asked if I would be interested in flying it. "Sure", was my response.

That evening I used to quickly map out the flight. At this point not knowing where in Michigan the plane was located I picked a point in the middle of the state giving me a mostly straight flight to New York. It turns out the plane was located at East Jordan, MI (Y94) which is further north in the state, almost to where Lake Huron and Lake Michigan meet.

I've flown across the country from west to east and a couple times south to Florida in light aircraft but had never flown more than 100 miles in something like a Challenger. Flying hundreds of miles in light aircraft is always an adventure. In something the size and speed of a Challenger, EVERY FLIGHT anywhere is an adventure!

Since purchasing my Challenger II last fall I had thought about making a long flight. With no storage space, carrying enough 2-stroke oil and a few tools, not to mention a little luggage becomes a challenge. Over the winter I made a fabric pouch that hangs between the rear seat and the fuel tank. In this I can carry about 12-8 oz oil containers and a few tools. With a full tank and what oil I could carry, there would be enough oil to mix with Avgas for 15 hours of flying at 60 mph or about 900 miles.

Thus one of my first questions about the flight was about carrying oil. Michael would be driving back as I flew but there were points along the route where our paths would be separated by quite some distance as I take either a more direct route or longer route to avoid Mode C airspace. If the winds were favorable, and they weren't, I would make much better time leaving him far behind. Oil needed to be carried in the aircraft with me to avoid long delays.

Now it was just a matter of watching the weather for a window to make the flight and getting the free time needed.

Fortunately we didn't need to wait long. As Memorial Day weekend approached a low pressure system was in the process of slowly moving out of NY while high pressure was building over Michigan and Ohio holding off the next system just to the west.

We left Saturday morning when I got off the night shift with Michael driving. Taking a shortcut across Canada from Buffalo to Port Huron saved us a couple hours getting us to East Jordan airport before sunset. They are on the western end of the eastern time zone and thus we were given an extra 1/2 hour of light.

We looking over the plane and it was indeed in very good shape. There were a couple small items that I felt needed attention before departing. The rudder felt quite stiff and squeaked when moved. After oiling everything I inspected the rudder cables and found them as tight as guitar strings. Shellie loosened the turnbuckles and that fixed it. Also the re-drive belt was too tight. Other that that, we seemed ready to go. Shellie, the current owner, had found spots to secure 3-32 oz containers of oil. More than enough for the flight.

 Shellie and his wife Cyndy opening a hatch in the nose for access to the rudder turnbuckles.


We woke early the following morning, ate a quick breakfast and headed to the airport. Shellie already had the plane pulled out of the hangar. I busied myself mounting my Dual Bluetooth GPS, Google Nexus tablet and a Spot Satellite Messenger while Michael and Shellie took care of the necessary paperwork.

After a final check of the plane, I climbed in and taxied out for a ride around the pattern before heading south. Everything seemed fine and the airplane flew with the enthusiasm I expected, being a single place powered by the same engine as my 2 place. Saying goodbye, I departed and made a broad circle of the field as the airplane climbed to cruising altitude.

East Jordan City Airport

East Jordan and Lake Charlevoix with Lake Michigan beyond

Me, in flight.

Settling in on cruise I began thinking about fuel consumption. There is no fuel gauge installed on the plane and the previous owner never accurately calculated fuel usage during cruise. My Challenger burns about 2.8 gph at an easy cruise about 60 mph, but I've heard stories of 3.5-4.5 gph. After some quick math I realize I might barely make my first planned fuel stop if it turns out to be at the high end of this range! 

An extra stop to visually check fuel will be necessary. About an hour and a quarter after leaving East Jordan I stopped at Gladwin Zettle (KGDW) to find about 4 gallons drawn from the 12.5 gallon tank. That means a little under 3 gph in cruise. Perfect! On to Owosso (KRNP). 

Approaching Owosso I decide instead to stop at Prices (9G2). This puts me within miles of RT 23 that Michael will be driving on. This turned out to be a very good decision...

It won't start!

After fueling up, the engine won't start. I let it crank for a while. I tried different throttle positions. Even primed. Nothing. No spark. A call to Shellie for suggestions, then finally Michael who fortunately wasn't too far away at that point.

While waiting, I pulled the plane away from the pumps and over to a tie-down, as we might be here for a while. A short time later a pickup truck pulled up to a stop next to me and a person I had seen doing some painting by the hangars got out. It is the airport mechanic, and he has experience with Rotax engines. He heads straight for the plugs.

Thank you to this great guy who helped us along the way and changed the outcome of the day

With the help of a universal joint plugged into his drive he was able to get around the heater unit that restricted access to the plugs. He pulled one from each cylinder and cleaned them. They were soaked with gas/oil.

Plugs back in and with fingers crossed, I pressed the starter button. Yes! It started.

Although instructing in a Challenger for 8 years back in the 90's without a problem, I never really trusted these 2-stroke engines. For every flight and almost every moment of those flights in the back of my mind was concern for an engine failure. Fear of this limited me. Kept me close to home. This is one of the reasons that this flight was such a big deal to me. It has reassured me that, yes, you can head out cross country. (with some tools and spare plugs)

When flying I always watch for suitable fields and fly at an altitude that will give me ample gliding range to make a safe landing.

Of course, engine failures may occur at some point, but fear of this is just not worth missing out on all the great adventures that wait for us out there.

Prices airport. A fly-in community.

With an additional 6 gallons of fuel I head out on a southwesterly heading to rejoin my track and work my way around the 30 mile radius of the Detroit Mode C airspace before turning southeast and directly over Toledo.

Chrysler Proving Grounds near Detroit.

Creek meandering though farmland towards Lake Erie

Toledo, OH

Cruising at 6,500 feet in smooth air I feel comfortable overflying this developed area. Squeezing between the Detroit and Toledo Mode C airspaces I get a nice view of downtown Toledo.

It was about 40 minutes to Sandusky and another 40 or so to Ashland, OH (3G4). This brings me to over 3 hours since the last fueling. Time for a stop. Descending into Ashland it is beginning to feel like a long day already. Obviously I will not make Dunkirk before evening so I might as well stop here for the night.

Descending into Ashland with 3:07 on the E.I.S.

Upon landing I am greeted by a couple who have a Grumman on the field. They open the office for me and bring me a glass of water and offer some cake. Hoping to loose a few pounds now that winter is over, I decline. Carrot cake? My favorite. I will take a piece.

Michael is only about 15 minutes away. As I finish my cake they bring me over to show me their hangar. They have done a bit of work and turned it into a comfortable hangout. Carpet, chairs and refrigerator. All the comforts of home for their plane named Taz.

Michael arrives and is shown some recent engine work

It turns out to be a good decision to have stopped here for the night. By the time we tie down the plane, drive into town for dinner and find a hotel it is getting late. By tomorrow the winds across New York should have died down with the low that lingered over the eastern part of the state moving northeast.

During the night the high pressure over Michigan has moved to the east allowing moisture from the next system to move eastward. The Weather Channel, aviation weather online and finally, stepping outside the door confirmed this with showers visible just to the southwest of our location.

We don't waste any time and head out, stopping at McD for a quick bite to eat. Driving to the airport I receive a text message with a picture of Wilmington, NY with 3 feet of snow. Snow was in the forecast for the mountains of northeast New york but I assumed it was going to be more like a few inches. In less than 2 weeks I will be camping and hiking in that area!

At the field the airport manager came out to greet us and pumped 6 gallons into the plane giving me about 10 gallons for the next leg. (Early on I decided that to keep oil calculations simple by just adding multiples of 3 gallons to the tank)

With cautious priming the engine started and as I taxi out a light rain is beginning to fall. In the air the precipitation is like a curtain to the south of me as I head out on course. In the distance to the north and east the skies are lighter with sunshine at the horizon.

For over an hour Cleveland is visible almost 50 miles in the distance as I first head SSE then ENE rounding the Akron Class C airspace.

Looking ahead along the route to the BSV VOR which at this point is still 30 miles ahead. Note the rain drops on the windshield. Timing for this trip couldn't have worked out better. If we were any earlier or later, weather would have been a big problem.

After rounding the Akron airspace my next stop was Port Meadville, PA (GKJ) for fuel. Again concerns over starting hot are on my mind.

After quite a bit of cranking and waiting, the engine fires and I'm on my way toward my final fuel stop in Dunkirk, NY.

Just west of Dunkirk I head out over Lake Ontario, both to line up a shot of the town, harbor and the airport and also to enter downwind for runway 33. Several other aircraft are already in the pattern and I circle over the lake once before joining the downwind leg to provide adequate spacing.

A beautiful Waco on the ramp.

Another hard start, but I was confident it would. Final leg to Marcellus. On the last half of the leg into Dunkirk it was getting bumpy at altitude and it had me thinking there was some wind sheer over 5,000 feet. Now it was quite bumpy down low too.

Passing Letchworth I got tired of the rough ride and climbed to 6,500' where things finally smoothed out. This gave me a nice view over the Finger Lakes towards home.

Looking east over Canandaigua, Seneca and Cayuga Lakes

Finally home to Marcellus!

About 650 miles and over 12 hours of flying. What a way to spend a holiday weekend!
A great experience, and as always I met many friendly, helpful people along the way.

And, yes, you can fly a Challenger over some serious distance. All you need is the time.
It isn't much faster than driving, but WAY more fun!

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