Up the Detroit River: A flight of three

Last Saturday, six Flyers packed into three of the club's Cessnas and took flight for a beautiful trip up the Detroit River and beyond Lake St. Clair to Port Huron. For two weeks, we'd been planning for such a weekend flight, but bad weather kept us grounded, mulling VFR charts at an Ann Arbor Coney Island.

I was thrilled to bring along an old college friend, John Zambenini with me in 222UM; Lindsay Snider flew 333UM with a new Flyer, Andy Blyler, who's currently training with Jayne. Veterans Bruce Williams and Dave Boprie packed into 1377S.

We had heard rumors of weekly pancake breakfasts at Detroit's City Airport (KDET), and after confirming with their FBO, "Barnstormers," we knew it was an important stop in the flight.

The six of us crammed into the Flyers' briefing room and made a call to Flight Service to get a weather briefing and to file a flight plan for the first leg of our trip. Since we were flying so close to Canada, any need to divert over the border would be much easier with flight plans on the books. After the briefer confirmed the beautiful weather and TFR-free airspace over a speakerphone, we sat down to finalize our procedures and did some cross-checks of frequencies and charts.

Our initial route would take us below Detroit's class B airspace, dipping south over W87 airfield, then into Grosse Ile (KONZ) for a touch-and-go. It would be a busy trip for everyone!

We taxied to runway 6, and thanks to our plane with far fewer gadgets, John and I finished our run-up in 2UM before Dave and Bruce in the G-1000-equipped Cessna 172. They waved us on, and with the throttle to the firewall, we were quickly climbing over Ann Arbor as we made our turn toward the south.

The rest of our formation was airborne a minute behind us, and soon Dave and Bruce passed us off of our right wing, as Ann Arbor tower wished us a good flight. A brief radio call to Lansing opened our flight plan, and we were soon talking to Detroit approach, who would follow us on radar, watch for other planes, and remind us to stay clear of their airspace.

The smooth morning air and good preparation gave us a chance to soak in the view: Toledo 50 miles to the south, Lake Erie growing in front of us, and a freight train powering into Detroit below. Calm rising steam from power plants forecast little wind to affect our landings.

Detroit River flows south from the city into Lake Erie and marks the U.S.-Canada border.  At the mouth is Grosse Ile -- an island with a modest airport at the southernmost point. Two runways form a V that points into Lake Erie. For this approach, we'd be landing to the north, placing us over water for all but the last hundred feet.

Soon Detroit turned us over to the local frequency for Grosse Ile. Since the field has no tower, we would be using radio procedures wherein aircraft self-announce their positions and intentions, at specific points in a standard pattern over the field. Though it sounds hectic, I've found it's often easier to form the mental map of each plane and its location at these uncontrolled fields. As we entered the downwind leg for runway 4, we heard and watched 77S gracefully touch-and-go below us, then continue on north up the river. My own approach was a bit high, but an extra notch of flaps got us on the ground in the first 1/3 of the runway with no bumps to make John nervous for the rest of the day!

The leg up the river was perhaps the most scenic area of the day. Heavy industry on our left marked the south side of Detroit, and to our right was rural Canada. Factories gave way to downtown Detroit, with Ford Field, the GM tower and Comerica park. On the other side of the river, in Canada, sat Windsor, with more highrises and even a bright casino.

Amelia Earhart said that "You haven't seen a tree until you've seen its shadow from the sky," and the same is true of our cities. The scale, complexity, and dimension is just breathtaking. Soaring above the city in the company of friends on a bright, chilly March morning was a terrific experience.

We continued up the river to the north, and reached Belle Isle, where we contacted Detroit City tower for our landing. The controller warned of a chemical fire on the final approach, and we were quite intrigued to do a bit of rubbernecking from 500ft in the air. We dipped to the right to avoid overflying it, and had plenty of time to line back up before we touched town for another smooth landing. The friendly controller pointed us toward the appropriate building, and told us to enjoy the pancakes. With the Flyers' fleet lined up on the ramp (adjacent to a conspicuous Piaggio P180), and the prerequisite photos snapped, we piled into the terminal for breakfast.

In what used to be a much busier terminal building, with baggage conveyors and jetways, we found a friendly crowd of pilots and locals, plus a table of piping hot bacon and pancakes. As we swapped stories with other aviators and finished up our breakfast, Lindsay suddenly remembered what we had all forgotten in our focus on pancakes: closing the flight plan. A quick call to Flight Service and a friendly briefer closed all three plans.

The next phase of the flight would be calmer than the first: no flight following and no adjacent class B airspace. We would climb to 3500 feet to avoid the class D airspace en route to KPHN, St. Claire / Port Huron Airport, where we'd make touch-and-gos and return to Ann Arbor. Since that field is over 50 NM from Ann Arbor, we'd be able to log the trip as cross-country time, useful toward a future instrument rating.

As we pre-flighted the planes for departure, we watched several Schweizer SGM 2-37 motorgliders arrive at KDET, quite striking in their yellow livery and steep bank angles. In single file, a minute apart, we departed runway 7. We promised the tower controller we'd be back soon, and heard a fleet of several Grummans on approach as we changed frequencies.

To the north, we could see ceilings were a bit lower than forecast, and at our altitude of 3500 feet, we were beginning to close in on the 500-foot minimum distance below clouds. We contacted KMTC, the Air National Guard airport whose class D airspace we would overfly, and asked permission to descend into their airspace if the clouds continued to descend.

As it turned out, we did end up descending into the KMTC airspace, giving the clouds above plenty of clearance, and affording us a better view of the large cargo planes parked below on the ramps. 

We continued en route to KPHN, eventually tuning in the uncontrolled field's CTAF frequency, to listen for other traffic. 77S was the first plane in our flight, and with a faster cruise speed, they reached the field when our 152s were still 10 minutes out. By the time Lindsay and I reached the field, Bruce and Dave were headed back to Ann Arbor. We made a smooth touch-and-go and pointed our plane home. 

En route back to Ann Arbor, we all tuned to a common frequency to stay in contact with each other. We spotted a speedy Cirrus rolling down the runway at Romeo airport, and though we weren't near his altitude, we switched to the local advisory frequency, so he'd know about us. He continued his touch-and-go pattern work at Romeo, and we pressed on to Ann Arbor.

While 77S has a Garmin G-1000 cockpit with full GPS navigation, the 152s only have simple VOR tuners. Lindsay and I both have ForeFlight installed on iPads with GPS receivers, which proved invaluable for this flight. During our planning, we could easily gather all the necessary frequencies, and en route, John and Andy could monitor our progress over the magenta routing line. On the way home, it helped us pick out the most direct path to Ann Arbor, outside of the KDTW class B airspace.

For the last 30 minutes of the flight, I requested flight following from Detroit -- it's comforting to have one more person watching for other planes, especially on a sunny day when everybody is eager to fly. They quite helpfully pointed out a nearby Cessna as we closed on downtown Ann Arbor. After we got our clearance to land from a familiar controller, we watched Lindsay touch down on runway 6, and saw 77S refuelling back at the Flyers' hangars.

With 2.4 hours clocked on the Hobbs meter, John and I climbed out of the tight cockpit and refueled the plane for Will Lawler and his student. Our gang of 6 spent an hour in the Flyers' office debriefing, sharing photos, and planning for future adventures. What a terrific way to spend a Saturday morning -- we'll report back on our next adventure, and if you're in the area, we hope you'll join us!

-- Andy, John, Lindsay, Andy, Bruce, and Dave