Updated: Feb 20, 2020
The morning was balmy and beautiful. With temperatures on the rise, this February morning promised a gorgeous day ahead. So long as the gusty winds would hold out until afternoon, our flight to Midland Barstow would be perfect.
I texted the kind lady at Barstow Airport just before 8:00am, making sure the courtesy car was available. It wasn’t 2 minutes after that she replied, locking us in for a 9:00am arrival time and car reservation.
It was time to get a move on!
The morning sun was already melting sheets of ice off the metal roof of the hangar when we got there. When the automatic door roared to life, it groaned and creaked as if in protest on this chilly, winter morning in northern Michigan.
Next, giant ice bombs exploded across the cement in front of the hangar door as the rumbling knocked it loose from the roof’s edge. A little extra work before take off.... no big deal. At least it was melting ice, so by the time we returned from our flight, the cement would be ice and snow free.
The plane checked out well during inspection. Tires full of air, belt tight, prop clean and free of nicks, oil full, fuel strainers clean of debris, wings and tail good, lights intact and operational, etcetera.
Hooking her up to the tow bar, Kurt pulled while I pushed, coaxing Roxy out of the hangar and down the slight grade of cement at the hangar entrance. As she picked up speed, clearing her tail out the opening, I punched the close door button and snuck out before the giant, steel door unfolded, sealing over the opening.
Pulling myself up on the wing, I opened the cockpit door and stowed my flight bag in the backseat. Crawling into the pilot’s seat, I adjusted for easy reach of the rudder pedals before clasping the lap belt and shoulder harness on.
Poking the key into the ignition, I then grabbed the preflight checklist for engine start and began ticking off the steps before yelling, “Clear Prop!” and turning the engine over.
Having only been on the engine warmer for a couple of hours prior to start, Roxy seemed a little temperamental at starting, but the promise of a beautiful ride this morning spurred her on, and her engine soon roared to life.
The list continued, checking oil pressure and fuel pressure, gauges and vacuum, brake check and radios set, I grabbed the headset off the dash, and began taxiing toward the runway.
Winds were favoring runway 27 this morning with a 6-knot wind coming out of the northwest. Letting Roxy’s engine build up some heat before take off, I moseyed her slow and easy down the taxiway while setting up the flight plan to Midland Barstow airport on the iPad Mini mounted on the yoke.
Only 45 nautical miles away, with a tailwind it would be a 24-minute trip.
Performing the run-up, Roxy was perky and fit by the time I wheeled her out for take off.
The sun shone across the runway from behind, offering a clean, dry launching pad for departure. Nailing the throttle and pulling my toes back off the brakes and onto the rudder controls, Roxy shot forward like a horse through the starting gates, picking up speed until her wheels started to do their tip-toe dance before leaving the tarmac.
Up, up and away she climbed. Over the houses and trees at the edge of the lake… out over the frozen water of Houghton Lake… and buzzing smoothly above groups of diehard ice fishermen in their shanty’s below.
After a turn to compass heading 168, I locked the auto-pilot heading hold into place and continued climbing to 3,500 feet MSL for the flight south.
At our altitude, I could feel the quartering tailwind pushing Roxy side-to-side every few miles, reminding me that the wind would be building to obnoxious gusts after the sun warmed the atmosphere. And as the morning light broke across Lake Huron to the east and across the state of Michigan, I wondered whether I would have to deal with any funky wind issues at Barstow when I arrived.
Ten nautical miles out, I keyed up the mic and announced to Barstow traffic that I was coming in for a landing on runway 36, then began my steady drop to reach pattern altitude of 1,635 feet MSL.
As we neared the Midland area, I peered through the windscreen scanning the horizon. “Do you see the airport?” I asked my copilot and husband, Kurt.
He scanned the distance with no luck as well, but said, “I think it’s near those smoke stacks.”
Seeing the open spot surrounded by trees northeast of the smoke stacks, I aimed the plane that direction and headed for where I imagined runway 36 would be.
The last time I had flown to Barstow Airport, I landed on runway 06, which was 3,801 feet of fair asphalt.
A little longer, our home runway had 4,000 feet of fair asphalt.
At 3,001 feet long, Runway 36 was nearly 1,000 feet shorter than what I was used to, and I would be at my lowest altitude on final over lots of trees, clusters of houses edging black-topped subdivisions, and a main expressway running east and west across the middle of the lower peninsula.
Yes, I was feeling a bit nervous.
With the airport in sight, I performed the pre-landing checklist, and entered the downwind leg at pattern altitude calling out my location on the radio.
There wasn’t another airplane in the pattern, so I tried my best to shake off the nerves that were causing my legs to feel antsy, and continued the landing sequence like a programmed machine… Beam the numbers, pull throttle back, pull in 2 notches of flaps, adjust the trim for 75 knots airspeed, then glide until the numbers were quartering away to start the turn on left base.
Even though that pushy tailwind was only measuring around 7 knots at the surface now, at pattern altitude it must’ve been a little bit stronger because it blew our little Piper way beyond the pattern on base leg. And by the time I turned final we were already getting closer to the treetops.
While you are that close to a residential area, you can’t help but notice all the houses and cars below as you are flying above, and holding your altitude to the safety standards dictated by the FAA:
1,000 feet over the highest obstacle when flying over congested areas, and/or 500 feet above the surface and no closer than 500 feet to any person, vessel, vehicle or structure
...it's hard not to get a little worked up about maintaining your safe distance.
“Don’t forget this runway is 1,000 feet shorter than what you’re used to, so don’t float the landing,” my copilot reminded.
“Yep,” I muttered, my hands a little shaky now... one on the throttle and one on the yoke. My legs worked the rudders to compensate for the bit of the northwest wind, and my butt cheeks clenched the seat so hard it felt like I was in the middle of a Buns of Steel workout.
Any luck and I would nail this landing without any issue.
With the wheels just above the treetops now, my copilot warned, “Okay, that’s 500 feet. Don’t go any lower.”
“Got it,” I responded, giving her a teeny bit more throttle, clearing the trees just over the expressway.
I clicked on the 2-light PAPI and waited for the glideslope indicator to verify I was perfectly positioned in the pocket. The bold yellow numbers, 36, beckoned Roxy closer and closer, but the funky puffs of wind kept floating her altitude making it seem like she wasn’t dropping like I wanted her to.
Just inside airport property now, I decided to pull the third notch of flaps. Roxy steepened her glide down, down, down. And just over the numbers I began pulling her nose up... gently now. There would be no floaters this morning! I needed this landing to stick.
Finally feeling the timing perfect, I lifted her nose up, waited for the mains to touch down, and her wheels stuck to the runway as if coated in super glue.
“YES!” I cheered inside my head so not to blow out my co-pilots eardrums, but I shouldn’t have worried about that.
“Holy shit! That was AWESOME!” he commended. “You couldn’t have landed any shorter!” he went on.
My smile about split my face in half as I wheeled Roxy toward the first exit. As soon as her tail crossed over the runway safety lines, I let out all the breath I had been holding and felt my arms and legs turn instantly to jello.
"Holy crap, that was intense!" I laughed, happy it all went as planned.
There is nothing quite like a new landing experience to get your blood pumping on a winter morning in Michigan, but the trip wasn't over yet!
After taking care of business in Midland, it was Kurt’s turn to pilot the plane back home. With the headwind pushing our little plane around all the way north, it was obvious to us that conditions in Houghton Lake were a bit different than when we left.
Hitting the ASOS button when we got into range, we quickly discovered just how much things had changed.
Winds still favored runway 27, but the direction had changed so it was almost a direct crosswind coming out of the north at 16-knots.
“Great,” Kurt grumbled.
“Meh… you got this,” I said. “Piece of cake!”
When we went through this pilot training together, I don’t think I had ever experienced a botched landing with Kurt as the pilot. It seemed he could compensate for trouble no matter what.
Crossing over the edge of the lake to position us into the downwind, Kurt hit the ASOS button again.
“Currently unavailable,” the recording announced.
“What does that mean?!” he said.
“I think it means you’re better off not knowing,” I teased, trying to ease his now jangled nerves.
At this point, I knew he was getting all hyped for the landing, dealing with this damn crosswind. It was my job as copilot to help him keep calm like he does me.
“Come on,” I said, “you’ve landed in worse,” I reminded him.
Coming in to final, the wind buffeted against Roxy’s right side to the point of crabbing in. Kurt lit up the PAPI’s and verified we were on glideslope, but as he neared the threshold of the runway, a wind shear drove Roxy down toward the ground.
“Whoa!” he gasped, hitting the throttle to gain some altitude, and keeping her wings level as we glided over the threshold.
As he neared the pavement, almost ready to pull her nose up for landing, another gust of wind lifted Roxy’s frame back up another five feet above the surface.
“Come on!” Kurt said, his arms and legs working the controls, as if becoming one with the wind.
“Give her a little wing,” I added… a favorite saying from his pilot friend, Brian, meaning to dip the wing down into the wind.
He was already on task, and the next thing you know, Roxy’s wheels were rolling down the runway, looking for the first exit off.
I won’t tell you all the fun swear words he shared after landing, but I will tell you that no matter how much the landing worked at his nerves, I felt as comfortable as if we were taking a slow cruise with the top down on a balmy summer day.
He did great, as usual, and we had another fun day of flying under our belt to write down in the record books.
Until next time, dear reader, don’t forget to “Steer with your feet!”
Thanks so much for reading!
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