Steam fog
5 min read

I opened my eyes on the morning of November 22, 2015. I looked through the window to see all the trees covered with snow. I was very aware snow was falling when I went to bed the day before; however, as a typical pilot, I looked around to judge whether it was going to be flyable as I was planning to experience winter flying for the first time.

Borys with mother

Flying with a very special passenger.

It was Sunday. I quickly decided to check the METARs and TAFs at nearby airports just to get a feel of what to expect, and then I called my mom. It was still early in the morning, and I was expecting her to still be sleeping, although she picked up the phone and she was ready for the flight as soon as I asked her.

I live around an hour’s drive from my mom, so I packed my gear and all my aviation toys (camera, iPad, ADS-B receiver, headsets, etc.). I headed out the door saying “Good morning, Honey” to my wife Magdalena. I love her so much and I had to go against the wind to leave her behind, but it was one of the days when my mom’s day and mine matched up to be off from work. It was time for a mom and son day. My mom and my wife are the two most important women in my life.

I met my mom at her house in Aurora, Illinois, and we headed out to Aurora Airport (KARR). It was one of the coldest days of the year (-6F). We arrived at the airport with the airplane waiting for us. The pre-flight was very routine, but taxiing not so much. It was my first flight in winter. I have only about 200 hours so far, aiming for my commercial certificate.

Snow below Cessna wheel

Snow hides a lot, but not from a pilot.

It was very slippery that day. The airplane was “dancing” on the taxiways with reported poor braking action. The runway itself was clear with snow banks on its sides. Before departure, I checked with my mom to make sure we were both ready for departure.

N751JA – Runway 27 cleared for takeoff.

I added full power slowly and the airplane started to gain speed.

55kts – rotate.

The airplane started to climb out of the runway very rapidly as the low temperature significantly improved the airplane’s performance.

Aurora Tower – Requesting frequency change.

Frequency Change approved, have a good day.

Chicago Approach, Skyhawk 571JA with request.

Skyhawk 1JA, squawk 6444, what’s your request?

Requesting flight following to the east toward Lake Michigan then north along Lake Shore Drive.

Lake Michigan shoreline

Lake Michigan in sight.

Now it was time to enjoy the outside view. My mom was hypnotized by the view she had never seen before in her lifetime. The view which made us think outside of everyday life. The view which seemed to be easy to reach (once you are the pilot) and enjoy, like a dream. We could easily see Lake Michigan out in front of us. Visibility was great. Down below us, everything was still white and untouched. It was too early for nature to hide this beautiful view away from pilots. I was very aware that everything around us was temporary and will dissipate like a dream in the morning and now it’s the time to enjoy while it lasts.

My mom had flown with me once before, and it was a very short flight, but this flight was special. It was the first flight we had flown without anyone else on board and it was my first winter flight. She was very excited and surprisingly calm. We approached Lake Michigan and turned north just underneath Chicago’s Bravo airspace.

Chicago lakefront

One of the best views in aviation – the Lake Shore Drive route.

1JA maintain 2000MSL or below and clear of Bravo Airspace.

On our east side was just the Lake, a huge body of water which didn’t seem to end. I looked twice as I could not believe how beautiful steam fog actually is. It was rising just above the water and clearly visible. Looking east was like another world. It wasn’t hard to feel something magical in that view. We flew further north along Lake Shore Drive toward the Navy Pier. I pointed to Meigs Field (it will always be Meigs Field for me) and we approached the tallest buildings.

We were staying a little farther than the required distance but within gliding distance to land. It’s an easy flight path but it could be really difficult in case of emergency. I never take this route the easy way. Always have a plan, always close enough to stay safe.

Downtown Chicago appeared. We could see how cold the city was that day. We could see steam from the heaters and pipes on the buildings. Marinas were all frozen in time; the clock stopped for them. It felt like everyone was still hiding from the cold. The sun was rising slowly, already high above the horizon but it was still early.

Steam fog

Steam fog rises off Lake Michigan.

O’Hare Airport wasn’t visible, but the usual west flow into the airport was clearly visible above us. We were approaching the path of big jets above us, and, yes, we could feel them too. Wake turbulence from aircraft not too high above made us rock our wings and wave to others down below. We headed toward Northbrook VOR (OBK) and proceeded above Forest Preserve where I took some pictures. From there it was just another short leg for the approach into Aurora Airport.

The runway seemed to be dry; however reports stated that the braking action was “fair.” I decided to gently touch the runway and hold my nose up until below 35 kts. I had to let the aircraft slow down on its own before I attempted to use the brakes.

It was great day and a perfectly innocent way to spend a day with mom. She has done a lot for me – now it’s my turn. Thank you, Mom, for waking up very early in the morning to spend time with me. I will never forget this experience; this flight will always be very special in my logbook.

Borys Pawlowski
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4 replies
  1. Hunter Heath
    Hunter Heath says:

    Borys, thank you for the heartwarming story. I envy you, because my mom died before I got my PPL, and it would have been a great pleasure for us to share such a flight.

  2. Dave Lourie
    Dave Lourie says:

    Great story. Thanks for sharing. I did that flight at night a few months back from KVYS and back. An experience one will never forget. Hoping to repeat in the daytime. Again, thanks for sharing a terrific story!

  3. Mike L
    Mike L says:

    Great story, Borys. Consider going a little further north to Milwaukee. The controllers there are very flexible, and you can circle their very scenic downtown skyline north of Milwaukee Mitchell. Both Chicago’s and Milwaukee’s skylines make for a great flight. Good luck with your continued flight training.

  4. Phil Toleikis
    Phil Toleikis says:

    Great story. I personally fly out of KARR and plan to have my sport pilot license by the end of the year. My mom has passed but I plan to take my wife on your same flight down the lake shore soon. Happy flying and blue sky’s.

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