A day in the traffic pattern brings unexpected joy

I woke up tired. The night before we had a swath of family and friends over to celebrate my son’s 4th birthday. I looked outside and noticed the sun was struggling to make a presence and it was visibly cold and wet. After a brief wait for my morning coffee, I quickly opened ForeFlight and began my investigation of the weather at my home airport. Marginal VFR. Great, another cancellation or day of ground school, it felt like forever since I had been in the air. I decided not to contact my flight instructor and continue my day as planned, making my way to Oakland International Airport (PTK), Pontiac, Michigan, for my flight lesson.

Broken ceiling
A day to cancel? No, just a day to be flexible.

On arrival to the airport, I instantly noticed the wet tarmac and water droplets in a consistent pattern across the top surfaces of the Diamond DA40 as I began my preflight routine. After pre-flighting, I made my way inside to once again check the weather reports. I clicked on the METAR: winds 240 at 5 knots, visibility 6SM, and ceilings at 2,000 feet. The situation was marginal VFR, especially with the cold temperatures and a low dew point spread, on this early November morning. My instructor texted me and said I will meet you in the office for a briefing, which was standard protocol for our flight lessons, so I swiftly obliged.

When I walked into the office, I brought my study guides, notes, and lesson plans fully ready to call it a day and start discussing aircraft systems and emergency procedures. To my surprise, my instructor looked at me and said, “Let’s do some traffic pattern work here at PTK; we need to get you in the air.”

My instructor is a former police officer, ATP, and CFIII. He is by the book and completely subscribed to aeronautical decision-making (ADM) and other acronyms that guide pilots toward responsible decision making. We loaded into the plane, grabbed the latest ATIS, and taxied to runway 27R (6,521 ft. x 150 ft.) for “takeoff into the pattern.”

After a few uneventful trips through the pattern, I noticed my instructor looking down toward his iPad. He popped up from the device and said, “How about we leave the pattern and head to the Coleman A. Young International Airport (formally Detroit City Airport/DET)?”

I responded without thought: “Yes, let’s go!” He checked the weather and noticed the cloud ceilings were higher toward Detroit and the precipitation was moving east, on its way to terrorize another community of pilots elsewhere.

Home
That house looks familiar.

We contacted the tower at PTK, notified them of our intentions and set our heading bug for DET. While en route, I noticed the sun was starting to make its presence known and the overcast was becoming a broken ceiling of clouds at 2,500 feet. The light was shining directly on our course, as if it were highlighting the way for us to Runway 7 (3,714 ft. x 100 ft.).

In the background, you could see the silhouette of the Detroit skyline and Canada in the distance. While coming in for a landing, my instructor pointed out the old control tower that is no longer in use, and the World War II-era hangars that sat unassumingly beyond a severely unmaintained taxiway. This is an airport with lots of Motor City history. From when it first opened in 1927, it served as the primary airport for Detroit until around 1941, when almost all airline flights moved west to Henry Ford’s new Willow Run Airport (YIP). It was there that Ford constructed the largest WWII factory in the world, producing, at its height in 1944, one B-24 bomber per day.

In 1966, all airlines moved again to the new Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport (DTW) where they remain today, leaving only corporate and cargo operations at both DET and YIP.

We continued pattern work around DET, and I continued my pursuit toward a landing that would be worthy of a solo endorsement. After a couple routes through the pattern, we decided to head back to PTK before the next batch of precipitation showed up and the ceilings got any lower.

On the way back, my instructor asked me if I wanted to fly over my home and see my neighborhood from the air. I jumped at the opportunity and handed him the controls so I could text my wife and have her bring the kids into the front yard. After some old-fashioned pilotage, we were able to identify my neighborhood and my home amongst a sea of auburn, orange, and yellow leaves that were showcasing their best attempt at fall.

Sun
The sun finally made an appearance.

Later my wife would let me know how excited the kids were to see me fly over the house and, in fact, how excited she was to see me as well. Our decision to head back to PTK was the right one and at the right time. As we made our way through a 4-mile final to runway 27L, we started getting some light rain, which rolled right off the sleek curvature of the Diamond’s windshield. The temperatures were also starting to lower with the sun now completely hidden behind the low ceiling of thick, dark clouds just above us in the pattern. The approach, landing, and taxi to our midfield location were nicely executed and a fitting end to this flight training adventure.

What started as a cold, wet, routine training day at the airport quickly turned into one of the best flying days I have had thus far. Contrary to typical social media posts, flying doesn’t require exotic trips through canyons and over beaches to have a good time. This day of flying incorporated what I refer to as the four F’s of flying: Family, Friends, Flying and Fun. While the goal might be my PPL, the journey is something I will never get back. I am grateful for days like this and will forever be thankful for the opportunity to chase my dream of becoming a private pilot.

4 Comments

    • Great catch Bob. That is my error. Amazing production rate! Check out Freedoms Forge, a fantastic book on this topic and many other amazing production stories from WWII.

  • A typical fall day in Detroit.

    Your account brings back many memories as an airport kid in the ’60s. Pontiac, Berz and Big Beaver were all going strong. We were taught to call flight service at City airport for a long-count DF steer if we got lost. Sea planes competed with water skiers on Cass Lake. A wealthy entrepreneur flew his Jet Commander out of a private strip right next to I-75 in Troy. Williams Research was a tiny startup company in Walled Lake developing drone engines for the Navy. Yipsi still had passenger carriers and you could fly direct to Wayne Major with a single radio call to get your landing clearance.

    Almost all of that is gone now. So thanks Tim for taking me on flight down memory lane.

    • I love the memories you shared. Michigan has a great history of general aviation with a large number of fantastic public airports to go explore. I appreciate the feedback!

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