11 min read

It had been just four months since I climbed out of the plane with the beaming smile on my face that proved I was certified private pilot. At age 17, it truly seemed unreal to me. Nevertheless, today was the day, and a beautiful day at that, for the longest cross country flight of my young career. I vowed to put my license to good use and discovered a great opportunity. I was in the process of deciding which college I wanted to attend at the time and had yet to visit two schools on my list: Notre Dame and Michigan. Considering my home base is in central Wisconsin, my father and I could have driven, but with my new license burning a hole in my pocket, I had a better idea.

Alec private checkride

Congratulations, you’re a private pilot – now it’s time to use that license.

Rather than driving a circuitous route around the lake, which would have taken a few days and been fairly costly, I suggested we fly over Lake Michigan to Ann Arbor and South Bend, a route I’d never attempted before. My father, apparently up for an adventure, decided to give it shot.

Relying on all the fresh knowledge I had gained from my training, I began planning. I religiously checked the extended forecast (and when I say extended, I mean really extended). I was so excited for this trip that I was fussing over the weather several weeks beforehand (when one can hardly get a reliable forecast two days in advance). As the date approached though, I was happy to see the (much more accurate) outlook looked good. I scheduled the campus visits, filled out a flight plan, and arranged the plane rental.

Now it was the day of the flight, and I finally had the opportunity to do some real exploring with my new license. There was not a single cloud in the sky. As I loaded my sectional charts, flight bag, luggage, and life jackets into the 172, I thought to myself, “Wow, everything seems just perfect.” I should have taken the lifejackets as a cue though – a cue that I was entering into the new and unfamiliar realm of flying across “the Lake.”

After an in-depth pre-flight and the customary send-off Facebook photos, we took off. In the hot July air, the Cessna struggled to reach its planned altitude of 9,500 feet, but somewhere over Eastern Wisconsin, we were in a stable cruise. The air at “high” altitude (I know 9,500 feet is nothing to those turbocharged types, but for me, it’s an accomplishment) was smooth as General Mitchell Airport passed beneath us, and we flew out over the vast expanse of cold water.

Having been an ideal trip thus far, we were faced with our first concern. On the horizon and hanging over the coast of Michigan was a layer of clouds. From far away, I couldn’t tell how extensive this cloud cover was, so I continued flying. Even so, as the coast approached, I could tell this wasn’t a scattered layer; it was overcast. I descended, hoping to fly under the overcast and to avoid being trapped on top, which was a VFR pilot’s horror story I’d heard far too many times. When I was 1,500 feet or so above the lake and had yet to reach the bottom of the cloud layer, I could tell scud running underneath wasn’t going to be an option.

Clouds by wing

Is there going to be a hole in those clouds?

Now a decision loomed. This decision was made all the poignant when the controller I contacted for flight following made the remark, “You have dropped below my radar coverage. Radar services terminated. Squawk VFR. Frequency changed approved.” I was alone, and after months of always having the support of an instructor, it was now my decision. I could turn back over the lake, where skies were clear, and forfeit our mission. Or, I could head over the top of the clouds and hope to find a break in the overcast. I decided since I always had the option to turn back to clearer skies, I would look for the hole in the clouds. I left my course and headed for the nearby airports, thinking it might be a safe idea to land and reassess the weather before continuing. As luck would have it, a break in the clouds hovered just above West Michigan Regional Airport in Holland, Michigan. I descended between the clouds, entered the pattern, and landed.

Now in retrospect, I consider my actions, which were not inherently unsafe, but were affected by an unsafe mindset. As I mulled over my options, I did have the attitude, like I commented earlier, that I was on a “mission” and that turning back would be a failure. I’d been preparing for weeks, and a diversion would surely trash some of my college tour plans. Additionally, although I know my father would have been okay with whatever decision I made, I still felt I’d be letting him down by cancelling our flight. After another year of experience and learning, as well as the reading of numerous articles in flight magazines which warned against this attitude, I now sense the danger in which I could have put myself.

Nevertheless, this flight was a learning experience, and I was safely on the ground in Michigan. In the FBO at KBIV, I checked the weather and was disheartened to discover that many of the airports on our intended route showed weather suitable only for marginal VFR and IFR flight. We were already behind schedule, but one of the greatest lessons I learned from this flight was that schedules for a VFR pilot have to be flexible. With slightly more promising weather forecast, I decided to wait for a while before determining the next step I wanted to take. My dad and I used that time to borrow the courtesy car and grab a delicious breakfast. With our spirits lifted by the food, it was now time to figure out whether our plane would lift off as well.

The weather was, in fact, looking a little better. MVFR and IFR had turned into VFR and MVFR, and that forecast only improved over time. We were clear to continue our journey, albeit a little later than we had planned. N75706 lifted into the air under a gray sky, in stark contrast to its takeoff a few hours earlier.

Alec and dad

Nothing brings fathers and sons together like a cross country flight.

Cruising altitude was drastically lower for this phase of the flight, and we flew over the farms, forests, and lakes of Michigan at around 2,500 feet. I felt envious of the people below who were enjoying their day at the lake, while I was battling low altitude thermals and turbulence above them. As Ann Arbor approached, the weather lifted, as had been forecast, and it remained solid VFR for the rest of the day. The wheels touched down on the runway at KARB, and my father and I rushed out to make our information session at Michigan.

We made it to campus a few minutes late, but just in time to hear more about diversity (with pictures of a multiracial group walking with their handicapped friend), or maybe it was student life (it seemed like every school had its own quidditch team), or holistic applications (please, just get to the point and tell me what ACT score I need).   My mind was still in the cockpit though, as I contemplated the next leg of our flight. After the campus tour, which (my apologies to Wolverine fans) wasn’t my favorite, we went back to the airport.

Under the same gray sky, we took off to head for South Bend. The flight was uneventful as the farmland of Michiana gave way beneath us. We touched down in KSBN, which, in case you were curious, has a great FBO with very comfortable chairs in the pilots’ lounge. After a quick nap in said chairs, we got dinner and retired from a very busy day.

We awoke the next morning to beautiful weather like the kind we had upon our departure from Wisconsin. After a similar information session, but a much better tour at Notre Dame, we made our way back to the airport to prepare for our departure. After further investigation, it seemed like this same great weather was in store for the whole flight. On this leg though, weather was not going to be the biggest problem. The problem was something I’d discovered earlier when I looked at the Chicago sectional chart. On it, in an inconspicuous box on the lake, I had seen a small note, which states “CAUTION, Be prepared for loss of horizontal reference at low altitude over lake during hazy conditions and at night.” This small warning went unheralded by me and would result in a surprising experience

Hazy day Cessna

It may be legal VFR, but haze can have a powerful effect.

The plane lifted off the runway at South Bend, and we ascended to a cruise altitude of 8,500 ft. As we approached the lake, the strange phenomenon of horizonal blindness made itself apparent. The sky and the lake were completely impossible to differentiate in an effect I could only equate to that of a blizzard blending the sky with the snow. For a short while, I had the coast of Indiana to reference, but then, I was flying in a complete gray void.

Although this effect caught me off guard, my training prepared me. With the horizon no longer visible, I relied on my attitude, altitude, and airspeed indicators to maintain safe, stable flight. While I sat in the left seat and focused on my instruments, my father sat in the right seat in complete silence, obviously very disquieted by the lack of exterior reference and the vertigo it may have caused. It probably hadn’t helped that, as we flew over the coast, I made the comment “Oh, so this is what horizontal blindness looks like.” Bringing up blindness while flying with an inexperienced passenger probably doesn’t instill confidence.

Yet another lesson for me. Keeping passengers in the loop, despite being a secondary responsibility, is still important. When my father sat there thinking his son was “flying blind,” I failed to reassure him that instrument flying is a safe technique that is often practiced during private pilot training. A simple comment such as this could have made my dad far more comfortable and saved him a few gray hairs.

The coast of Illinois did ultimately emerge from the void, and the skyline of Chicago was visible in the distance. A few nautical miles later, I was calling my final at Morey Airport in Wisconsin, my home base. The tires kissed the pavement, I taxied to the ramp, and I pulled the mixture to idle. The faithful Cessna’s engine sputtered and died. We were done, and I’d safely flown farther than I ever had before. We had visited both schools and also had the opportunity for an enjoyable adventure.

What was most important about this flight, and in fact, any flight, is the lessons the pilot learns from it. This flight helped me to discover that no matter how much planning and scheduling one does, there will be surprises, and one can’t let their goals overshadow their safety. Ultimately, my mindset did not cause problems for this flight, but in the future, when the chips are not stacked in my favor, I don’t want my attitude to foster unsafe decisions. Like the adage goes, “There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.” Confidence is great, but it should not eclipse the experiential learning that keeps us all safe.

Alec at Notre Dame

“The Golden Dome spoke to me.”

Similarly, the flight over the lake also established how important a proper passenger briefing can be. As a pilot in command, it is our responsibility to know the state of our aircraft and of our flight status, but non-pilots cannot be held to this same standard. Accordingly, being unaware, passengers will often be nervous about flying. This nervousness could turn an excellent experience into a terrifying one. As ambassadors to general aviation, we want people to enjoy flying with us, so continuous passenger briefings, aside from ensuring a higher standard of safety, can also help to guarantee that your flight is a fun experience for the passengers.

With only 7.2 new hours in my logbook, but many more memories and lessons to look back upon, my cross country college tour was an amazing success. I’m happy to say this flight also helped me to find the college I wanted to call home. The Golden Dome spoke to me, and now I’m a proud student at the University of Notre Dame (Go Irish!). Despite my newly-packed schedule as a college freshman, I still aspire to continue my journey as a pilot, because by building on lessons of the past and by reaching for new goals, I will grow into a more confident and knowledgeable aviator.

This is the first time I’ve ever written out my story, so I hope I did okay, and likewise, I hope you enjoyed reading of my experiences. I am eager to hear what opinions you may have, as a continued commentary will help us all grow to be better pilots.

Alec Helmke
42 replies
  1. Duane
    Duane says:


    Thanks for sharing your story, it was very well written. Three points for you to consider going forward in your flying:

    1) I detect in your writing a little over-confidence in your ability, sans an instrument rating, to fly the airplane in what is effectively IMC over Lake Michigan with its known haze conditions … based apparently upon the several hours you spent under the hood with a primary flight instructor. The purpose of the hood training is NOT to equip a VFR-only PP with the ability to make extended flights in IMC – which as you learned, can be encountered in situations that aren’t necessarily declared IMC in METARs for airports. The purpose of the training was to give you the opportunity to extract yourself from momentary inadvertent entry into IMC, and make a safe 180 degree turn back to VMC.

    2) Even if you are fully capable, instrument rated, and current in flying the aircraft on the gages, vertigo can easily set in, even with the most experienced pilots. There is an airport – Everglades City – located near where I live that is situated on the water (surrounded on three sides by the Gulf of Mexico), and even the land consists mostly of the undeveloped wilderness of Everglades National Park. A highly experienced pilot who runs a business there on the airport told me that at night or during periods of haze, even highly experienced professional airline pilots have been known to experience severe vertigo attempting to land or take off at that airport, and he always discourages any pilots from landing or taking off there during such conditions. Remember that it was a similar condition of haze that killed JFK Jr. flying in a very capable aircraft in coastal MA.

    3) It may seem tempting to fly the short-cut across a large body of water like Lake Michigan, because even the simplest and least capable single engine light aircraft can do it. But it may not be the wisest route you have available, because it presents certain additional flight risks, even beyond the haze and equivalent IMC conditions that you encountered. Having life jackets on board may help prevent an immediate drowning, but if you lose engine power over the water you will be still presented with the challenges of making a successful ditching, which can be thought of as making a high speed collision with the water … and then being located successfully by SAR afterwards, in time to prevent death due to hypothermia. Being tracked by ATC under VFR flight following helps with the SAR thing, but if you fly too low to be tracked by radar, then that’s not available. I recommend that if you attempt that flight again, at least carry a portable EPIRB attached to your life preserver (the best for airplane passengers being a manually inflatable type). Better yet, carry an emergency life raft so that you can get out of the cold water.

    In any event, why take the short cut anyway? In your early flying “career”, getting more hours in the aircraft is not a “bug”, but a “feature”.

    • Alec
      Alec says:

      Duane, thank you for your insightful commentary, and I’m glad you enjoyed the story!

      I suppose that my confidence in the under the hood time I had as a student pilot may have been, like you said, overblown. After having this experince, I can attest to the fact that haze is a strange phenomena and can clearly disorient someone, as my father’s nervousness showed. In the future, I have thus made the decision to fly the lakshore VFR route, which is less affected by the horizonal blindness of haze and also, from what I’ve heard, a very senic trip.

      I agree that over the lake flight poses some unique challenges, such as rapidly changing weather and haze, but I don’t know if it should be avoided per se. It’s a challenge that I may have neglected to fully comprehend, but I think that taking on this challenge helped me to grow and to discover new habits that will help me to be a safer pilot. Having a life raft is a very good idea though, because after spending time on the beaches of the Great Lakes, I know that the water is very cold!

      When I reflect, I realize I could have made safer decisions, and I thank you for your suggestions and for sharing your wisdom.

      • Alec
        Alec says:

        Thank you for reading my story, and yes, I have been truly blessed to have the wonderful opportunity to study here!

  2. Dave Sandidge
    Dave Sandidge says:

    Good story. Congratulations, also. Looks like you and your dad are getting the most out of your airplane that you can get: fun, adventure, education, experience, and wonderful memories to last your lifetimes (some things are simply too valuable to put a price limits on them). Go out and create more memories; and don’t forget to write about it all.

    • Alec
      Alec says:

      Thank you so much Dave! You are right on the money with that assessment, and I am truly fortunate to have the opportunity to fly with my family. Hopefully, with Air Fact’s approval, I will be able to write out more of my stories, because even though I am a low-time pilot, that does not mean I don’t have experiences to share!

  3. Hunter Heath
    Hunter Heath says:

    Alec, well told. I hope you’ll keep writing about your aviation experiences, if for no other reason that in the future, you and your descendants will enjoy reading about “the old days!” I agree with Duane that your decision-making on this trip was subpar. Luck saw you through, but vertigo, a medical emergency, or mechanical troubles could have done much more than ruin your day. I suspect that you will become more thoughtful about such matters as you gain experience. And welcome to Indiana!

    • Alec
      Alec says:

      Thank you Hunter, I’m glad you enjoyed the story! That’s a great point! At the current pace of technology, I’m sure my future family will find it archaic that I flew a plane powered by fossil fuels and one that wasn’t controlled by an autopilot! I’m grateful to receive your constructive criticism and yes, I have wondered how my story would have changed if the vacuum system became inoperable, or something of the sort. I hope to be more cautious as I learn from flights like this one!

  4. Ron
    Ron says:

    Alec, please put in writing – for yourself – a list of your personal minimums. It will save your bacon. Each time you fly you will learn something new and you are always free to change the list. It’s a contract you make with yourself. For example I’ll only fly over the Lake in the summer eastbound with a tailwind in VFR conditions for the entire route. I may change that minimum in the future depending on my skill, experience and aircraft, but for now that written minimum will help guide my decision making. Thanks for your article. Blue skies and tailwinds.

    • Alec
      Alec says:

      Ron, that is an excellent idea! I have heard a lot of people who advocate for personal minimums and believe that having such a list would be very prudent. I do stress that I only encountered challenging conditions upon entirely crossing the lake and that personal minimums would have surely been met upon my departure from WI, where there were clear skies and unlimited vis. I absolutely plan to write my own minimums nonetheless, and thank you for you comment and for reading my story!

  5. Larry M. Coleman
    Larry M. Coleman says:

    Alec, we’ve all been there as part of our own learning experiences. That’s why there’s that old adage, “Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.” Bob Buck, Ernie Gann, and many of the old-timers spoke of how sometimes 1 hour is worth a hundred hours in the logbook–this is the sort of thing they were talking about. There are also two types of pilots: those who admit that there was at least one time when they were scared in the cockpit, and those who are lying.

    I used to instruct at an airport very close to Lake Erie. As part of training, I’d take my students out at night over the lake. More often than not, they would be taken by surprise by the lack of visual references, and they got to see for themselves just what the beginning of a graveyard spiral looked like. I did this so they would get this surprise with a CFII safely next to them instead of having it sprung on them for the first time when they were alone in the cockpit. You handled it the way you should: focus on the instruments, trust them, and fly the airplane. But remember: your hood time for the private was designed to save your bacon in case you got into a situation like this, not to make it seem like it’s a situation you should have been in!

    I’ve flown directly over Lake Michigan several times on the way to and from Oshkosh. Westbound, I do it at either 7500 or 9500, depending on how the winds are. I’ve never actually taken the route along the shore, but there are those who won’t go any way but along the shoreline. There are also others who fly across the lake at 2500 (I’ve seen them on the PCAS 5000 feet below me), whereas I’d never even consider doing that. It’s all about how much risk you are willing to manage and how much risk is acceptable to you. Everyone has their own level, but I’d recommend finding out where that level is for you by starting with a low level and work up from there as your experience increases. Probably the hardest thing about making risk-based decisions is that there is no One Right Answer, but there are plenty of wrong ones.

    Enjoy school, and keep on flying!

    • Alec
      Alec says:

      Thank you so much for reading my story and for sharing your wisdom! I think it would be a great idea to go out with an instructor into IMC in order to experience its effects first-hand. Having that experience may help me to develop personal minimums and it also may provide me with the knowledge I need to avoid dangerous situations. I have heard some of the same things you may have heard about the Lake Michigan VFR route- some pilots say that the traffic coming into O’Hare and Midway makes the trip very taxing. It seems like both routes have their detractors, so I’ll have to discover, like you said, which flight is more comfortable for me. I’m glad, most of all, that I safely arrived at my destination and that I had the great opportunity to learn from my mistakes!

  6. Michael Woods
    Michael Woods says:


    Congratulations on surviving your learning experience. I have lived in either Michigan or Wisconsin most of my life so have many experiences crossing the lake in a twin. The lessons I have learned are to cross the lake, or any large body of water, in a twin and a current instrument rating. In a single, if the engine stops and you cannot glide to shore, your chances of survival are very slim. If the ditching does not kill you, the cold water probably will before you can be rescued. Without an instrument rating, the haze across the lake does indeed make it IFR much of the time. I have flown the lake shore many times and it is easy and does not add a whole lot to your time. Other experienced pilots have told me that they will not even do that since there are not a lot of landing options once you are near Chicago. The beach is there in some places, but it is frequently crowded. Best to head around the western edge of Chicago and enjoy adding a few more tenths to your log book. By the way, congratulations on attending ND – I am a 68 grad so welcome.

    • Alec
      Alec says:

      Thanks for reading Michael! As a novice, I hesitate to disagree with your intelligent comments, but I am not sure one should completely rule our over the lake flight in a single engine aircraft. The analogy I use to support this fact is one that you, as a resident of WI and MI, will probably understand. If we cancel flights over the lake due to the slim probability of an engine out, do we, likewise, cancel flight over heavily forested terrain due to the same reason? I have flown over the forests of Northern WI and driven through those same forests as well. Emergency landing sites are very hard to come upon and often littered with trees and debris. Maybe you can offer your opinion on this topic, as I would be interested to hear your comments. Nevertheless, I would very much love to try the lakeshore route, as I’ve heard it is an incredibly scenic flight! Thank you for the congratulations and Go Irish!

  7. Michael Woods
    Michael Woods says:

    Alec, what you say about the heavily forested areas is true, and I know many who will not fly over those areas, especially at night. During the day, you can usually at least see a road of some kind, or many partial clearings. Maybe the plane may not make it thru, but you should be able to survive. A full stall into the tops of trees or a small clearing should be survivable, while a mid lake ditching has a very high probability of death. An anesthesiologist and pilot told me they take body temps down to about the same temp as the middle of Lake Michigan in the summer when they do heart surgery. He said the muscles will not work well at that temperature. As I recall, you have around a 1/2 hr before you can’t do anything. If saving the extra 30 to 45 minutes of flying across the lake is that critical, at least invest in a good life vest and raft. Then, if you survive the ditching, and you can get the raft out, you at least have a good chance of making it. My advice, build your time and go around and fly high enough over the north woods that you can glide to a place to land.

    • Alec
      Alec says:

      Thanks for the response and I appreciate your advice! I can’t imagine overflying Northern WI at night- there would be no way to locate a safe landing area among the miles of dark forests. I suppose I failed to factor in the idea that when you make it to the ground after a crash on land, you are, effectively, free of danger (as long as you are not injured, have rescue coming, etc.). Like you pointed out though, even if you are uninjured after ditching over the lake, you still have the possibility of hypothermia, which could set in long before rescue arrives. Thank you for reminding me of this, and I look forward to many safer flights on the Chicago VFR route until I can obtain my IFR rating and/or a more reliable aircraft. Happy flying and thank you for sharing your opinion with me!

  8. Paul
    Paul says:

    Alec, I live on the lake in SW Michigan, and my 182 retract is based in Michigan City, KMGC. I am very familiar with the weather conditions associated with the lake, and they are as much a part of my decision-making as the long range weather forecast. Our planes are trustworthy, but failures do occur, and being over the water is one of the worst places to be if things go south. Every flight plan should involve risk management analysis. I often fly friends and visitors along the lakeshore for sight-seeing from Michigan to Chicago, with a turn at the Baha’i Temple in Wilmette, and back. I’m over the water, at relatively low altitude, but never out of gliding distance to terra firma. If transiting the lake, I am up high to maximize gliding distance, although there is a window where no matter what direction I go, I’m in the water. I am instrument rated, and proficient (not the same!) and my plane is well-equipped for long over-water IFR flight. You can’t practice ditching, but you can read and stay current on best recommended ditching technique for your intended aircraft (fixed vs. retract). But in a fixed gear 172, going west-bound into the haze, at relatively low altitude, over the lake, the risk is too high to warrant basically a recreational flight back to Wisconsin. Always think about what could go wrong at different stages of flight, and plan for an “out”. Don’t attempt a flight that might be beyond the plane’s (or your) capabilities. Always remember that the plane will find a way to kill you, if you let it, and mother nature is often a co-conspirator. Stay ahead of the weather, stay ahead of the plane, and always employ a risk management strategy when flight planning. What are the risks associated with this intended flight? Can you manage them, or ameliorate them? You will have a long and very enjoyable career as PIC no matter what you fly, so long as you .incorporate a thorough risk-management analysis in your flight planning. Fair winds, and blue skies!

    • Alec
      Alec says:

      Thanks so much for reading Paul! I appreciate you commentary! I suppose, like you said, my risk management on the flight over the lake was questionable, but one reason this may have occurred was because I didn’t truly understand the risks involved. To me, who had never seen how haze affected VFR flight, a short flight over the lake seemed like a no-brainer. After having this experience though, I realize the danger it posed. In the future, I think I will follow a route similar to the one you do when touring the lakeshore area, as it allows me to remain close to the shore and also negates the effects of haze. I’m curious though, at what altitude do you fly the lakeshore VFR route? The floor of class B airspace is 3000msl, but does flying under that floor (2500msl, 2000msl, for instance) put the flight at odds with traffic flying into Midway or with the wake turbulence that traffic creates? I’d love to hear what you, as a pilot very experienced with that route, prefer.

      • Brandon Freeman
        Brandon Freeman says:

        “…I truly didn’t understand the risks involved.”

        Alec, that’s just it, isn’t it? I think all newly minted pilots have to navigate that forest of gaining experience without scaring ourselves out of the cockpit. I know I’ve done a couple things in planes I initially thought nothing of. Nothing illegal, but not stellar decision making. Years later, I look back and wonder why I did it (with a healthy dose of cold sweats).

        You have a great flair for writing! I look forward to more stories. Keep using that license!

        Blue skies,


        • Alec
          Alec says:

          Absolutely Brandon, experiential learning is just part of the process, but we must strive to learn from every flight so we don’t continue to make “rookie mistakes.” That’s one reason why I decided to write this story down, and I am so pleased that you enjoyed reading it! I hope to provide many more articles in the future and I thank you for the compliments!

  9. Michael Woods
    Michael Woods says:

    Alec, I did not see a response to your question about attitudes and wake turbulence along the lake shore. If you buy a Chicago TAC (Terminal Area Chart), the altitudes you can fly are very easy to see as well as frequencies to use to call ATC to transit the area. Anything below 3000′ will keep you clear of the Airline traffic and you should not have any wake turbulence problems. If you see an airliner that makes you wonder about wake turbulence, let ATC know and slow down or do a 360 to allow more time. They are normally high enough that it is not a problem. I would highly recommend that if you have strobes, to be sure they are on an turn your landing light on (don’t forget to turn it off when thru the area). Also, fly at an odd altitude such as 2740, etc. in case you do not see a plane going the other way. Usually, you do not see any other traffic, and you will be talking to ATC, but your are not their primary responsibility so if they get busy they may not call out traffic to you. Keep on learning and keep on having fun. I think flying is the most enjoyable thing you can do and hopefully you will never stop learning.

    • Alec
      Alec says:

      Thanks for the help Michael! In the process if searching for a Chicago TAC like you suggested, I found a Chicago VFR Flyway chart, which has all the information you noted in a very easy to understand format. Likewise, I will make sure to follow your advice about utilizing strobe lights and avoiding other aircraft. I really appreciate your commentary and I know that, as long as I am flying, I will aspire to learn and to grow into a more experienced aviator!

  10. Paul
    Paul says:

    Hi, Alec. I fly about 2,000 msl which puts me almost 1,500 agl relative to the lake. I fly close to shore, between the offshore water intake cribs, and the harbors, and just off the end of Navy Pier. Well below the overlying class C and B airspace for Midway and O’Hare, never have an issue with commercial traffic or wake turbulence. On weekends with sporting events at Soldier Field, U.S. Cellular Field, and Wrigley there will be TFR’s for those events, just make sure to keep your distance, and watch for traffic, such as helicopters, banner towers, etc. Flying this time of year just off the beaches in Indiana is beautiful. You do transit the Gary Class D airspace, but the controllers there are great. KMGC is a terrific airport, and flying up the west side of Michigan is a treat.

    • Alec
      Alec says:

      Thanks for the response Paul! I think the altitudes you fly correspond closely to those I saw on the VFR Flyway chart and I’m glad to hear that you enjoy the route, because I hope to attempt it in a few weeks. I’ll keep your advice in mind and who knows, by the time I fly over the area, there may be a TFR for a Cubs’ home game in the World Series! I sincerely appreciate your advice and happy flying!

  11. Lyle
    Lyle says:


    I enjoyed the story. Reading it, I wondered why you would take a longer flight over water than you need to. On the flight from Ann Arbor back home, it would not have been much farther to fly over land, or at least within sight of land all the way. It would help with the disorientation problem, and if there was a need for an emergency landing, it would give you more options, like something dry and firm to put your wheels on.

    When I flew (as a solo student pilot) from Langley Air Force Base (Hampton, VA) to Tangier Island, a direct course would have put me over the Chesapeake Bay for almost all of the 48 mile course, but by staying to one side of the bay and crossing at the narrowest place, I was only over the bay for 12 miles. Adding 20 miles to the flight was well worth it. As I went across the Chesapeake Bay, I climbed to allow myself more glide distance if needed, and started descending as I approached the coast of the Delmarva peninsula. That way I knew I should be able to glide to land from anywhere in my flight, if the need arose.

    Another thing I thought of is that I have never been able to get my mother to fly with me. When she was young, she rode with her cousin’s boyfriend, and he scared her. She has not been in a small plane since, and doesn’t like planes at all, but will fly commercial if she has to. It is good to remember that anytime you have a non-pilot on the plane, you might be setting their future attitude about flying.

    Keep flying and learning!

    • Alec
      Alec says:

      Lyle, I am so pleased you enjoyed my article! I suppose the only “excuse” I could really provide for making my decision was that I failed to comprehend the more challenging facets of over-lake flying (haze, weather, etc.). After having more experience with this type of flying (through my trip over the lake), I am confident I will make better decisions, just like the ones you made as you flew over the Chesapeake. Also, absolutely I agree with your statement about our actions with passengers affecting their opinion of flying as a whole. I feel especially prone to this idea considering I am so young, which makes people wonder about how experienced I am and how safe a pilot I am. I have to make each passenger feel very comfortable flying with me, and I sincerely hope to do so. Thanks for the comment!

  12. Dirk
    Dirk says:

    Hi Alec,

    well done – the flight as well as the report. Keep on dude!
    And don’t worry about what triggered your decisions. You took all your options into account and imho there was nothing unsafe on it. It was a quite “far from the edge” thing and maybe situations like this may occour again in your flying experience. The most important thing is to have some Plan B (that hopefully has a safe way out of situation).
    To try to reach your shedueled destination is a normal attitude, for what reason else does one fly cross country? And changing to an alternate airport due to weather conditions shows, you put safety first. If the “hole of service” hadn’t appeared as it did, you would have had the option to heading back to your home base.

    And you were prepared for the situation of horizontal blindness (in Europe not all private pilotes are, due to our licensing system, I’m not!). And yes, you missed the opportunity to calm your fathers thoughts during the over water section.

    But again: in summary well done.

    Greetz from Germany


    • Alec
      Alec says:

      Thanks so much Dirk (or, should I say “danke”)! I really appreciate your compliments towards my writing, as I was a little nervous posting my article for the first time! I don’t know if I’d say there was “nothing unsafe” about my decisions, but I’m glad you recognize that I did try to make well-thought-out decisions towards the best interest of our flight’s safe conclusion. Like you said, I did always try to have an “out.” Nevertheless, the haze situation was a little different because it surprised me so much. Once again, thank you for your kind opinion, and I hope to share more stories soon!

  13. Phil
    Phil says:

    The story was great. As a 52 year old newborn pilot with few hours, I find myself loving the aviation brotherhood where the opinions and experiences of all others are brought forward to aid a young pilot to better themselves. There is so much for us to learn, and as long as we have an open mind, we will always become better pilots..

    • Alec
      Alec says:

      Thanks for the comment Phil, and I couldn’t agree more! I love this Air Facts forum, where, despite being a low time pilot, I can still share my stories. I also enjoy learning from those who are more experienced than I, so I truly appreciate all the constructive criticism and support I am receiving. Good luck on your young flying career!

  14. Lakotahope
    Lakotahope says:

    Yeah, flying over that cold water, I would have serious considerations about ditching if the time came….I’d worry more about the frigid temperatures than most other possibilities. Pretty good flight for having less than 8 hours in the Book.

    • Alec
      Alec says:

      Thanks for reading! The water in that lake, I know from experience, is very cold! It does make a ditching attempt very difficult because, like another reader noted, you not only have to survive the crash, but you also have to survive the hypothermia.

  15. John
    John says:

    Thanks for posting your story Alec. As the previous commenter noted, pretty good flight for having less than 8 hours since getting your ticket. Does remind me, though, of some of the “adventurous” stuff we (wife and I were both licensed in the late 60s) did in the early days, and we learned a lot from those experiences and were happy to have survived them. We are both Michigan grads and live in northern lower Michigan. We have family in Minnesota and fly across the Lake to visit them, but do so with life jackets, raft, and personal locator beacon on board. I have 32 crossings noted in my log books, but have encountered the horizontal visibility thing on occasion (same thing that did in John Kennedy). With an instrument rating, it’s not much of an issue – suggest you pursue that next. On another note, I also volunteer for a medical transport organization, and they do not allow single engine airplanes to carry patients across large bodies of water like Lake Michigan.
    Keep being adventurous, but do set yourself some personal limits.

    • Alec
      Alec says:

      Thanks for offering your expertise John, and I hope you enjoyed the article! My apologies for being misleading, the flight itself took around eight hours, it didn’t occur eight hours after I got my license. 32 crossings probably gave you quite a bit of experience with the challenges I encountered, and I agree that an instrument rating would be a great next step for me to take. Obtaining one will help me to be a safer and more capable pilot, which will surely allow me to expand my personal limits.

  16. John
    John says:

    I should have said John Kennedy Jr, but the point was made. I should also add that we’re on our third C-172, and I have no multi-engine time save for five minutes in the right seat of a Ford Tri-Motor (bucket list for sure).

    Fly safe.

    • Alec
      Alec says:

      Yes, Kennedy’s flight has been mentioned a few times, and I surely understand why those comparisons have been drawn. Both my flight and his dealt with haze. Fortunately, my flight had a better outcome and far less press coverage! Wow, flying in a Tri-Motor must have been an incredible opportunity! It’s up there on my list along with flying a Piper Cub, a DC-3, and a Grumman Goose.

  17. chris graul
    chris graul says:

    I had a friend, much more experienced than you, Alec, who was returning to Chicago from dropping his girlfriend off at Valparaiso Unversity (near ND) and disappeared flying over Lake Michigan (he had been told to follow the highway around the lake but took the short cut). Lesson taught; lesson learned?

    • Alec
      Alec says:

      I’m sorry to hear about the tragic conclusion of your friend’s flight. I am so fortunate to learn my lesson without having to incur the same result. I don’t think the short cut will be the route for me in the future. Thank you for your comment.

  18. Gordy Weigle
    Gordy Weigle says:

    Hi Alec,

    Hope everything’s going well with your studies and flying experiences. Nothing else compares with the joys and freedom of flight.

    I will forego any lecture regarding your flight over open water under less than deal conditions.

    I love night flying; which also presents it own unique risks and challenges. Over many years I have flown out of Rockford, Illinois (Cottonwood – K1C8) hundreds of times, either in my Cessna-140 or Piper Comanche, always well after sunset. A favorite destination was the Racine, Wisconsin airport; with a short walk to the old “Round-the-Clock” 24-hour restaurant for a late night snack.

    Departing to the north, we would always flew east, circled around the lighthouse, and followed the Lake Michigan shoreline south for a few minutes – before heading southwest for our return to Cottonwood. It’s a spectacular view at night.

    Being a cautious pilot, I always noted a huge open area north of the Racine airport; potentially useful in the event of an emergency landing. One Sunday afternoon, several years later, I drove my family into Racine, making a stop at the “Clock” for an early dinner, just for “old-times sake.”

    Leaving there, we drove north past the noted “huge open area” – and discovered it to be an immense limestone quarry at least a couple hundred feet feet.

    A valuable lesson learned – things aren’t always what they may appear to be!

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