Posted on January 17, 2016 at 12:40 AM


In November, the Michigan Aviators flew four planes east from Ann Arbor, flew over Detroit, then back to Ann Arbor. What may sound like a fairly straightforward flight was actually surprisingly complex. Read on to find out why!

On November 22, the Michigan Aviators set out for downtown Detroit with four airplanes. Mike Stengel flew N9608K, a Piper Arrow from the Ann Arbor Aviation Center, Chuky Mbagwu flew N73199, a Cessna 172 from Solo Aviation, Eric Killian flew N4098F, a Piper Warrior also from Solo, and I flew N1377S, a Cessna 172 which I got from the Michigan Flyers. Here's a (stock) picture of my plane for the day:

It's a very nice plane. It has the Garmin G1000 avionics system, which means that it has two big screens that provide a truly incredible amount of information to the pilot. More on that later. It also has a very nice (relatively new) fuel injected 180 hp engine, and it handles a lot like a Cadillac. It's also got a nice two-axis autopilot with altitude capture, meaning that you can preselect a vertical speed (how fast you want to ascend or descend) and the altitude you wish to end at, and it'll do the rest.

The pilots and passengers all met at the main terminal building of the Ann Arbor airport where we briefed the flight. Such a briefing is always good practice, especially when multiple planes will be flying in relatively close quarters, as was the case with this flight.

Here's a bit of detail on what made this trip so complex (feel free to skip ahead if you just want the narrative). First, as I alluded to, we would have four planes flying in (relatively) close proximity to each other, which always makes pilots think twice. We therefore devised a scheme such that pilots flying to Detroit would stay south of I-96, while pilots flying from Detroit would stay north of I-96. Then, while we were flying around downtown, we would all follow exactly the same route, as given by landmarks on the ground. Second, there was actually a TFR (temporary flight restriction) in place over downtown Detroit for the Lions game that day. Since we were hoping to fly over downtown for some sightseeing, this theoretically posed a bit of a problem. However, we called Approach prior to our flight and confirmed that the TFR actually ends at the border with Canada and that it would be no problem at all for us to fly on the Canadian side of the river, thus avoiding the TFR on the US side of the river, all the while enjoying quite the same view. Indeed, it is quite visible on our flight route below that we would be entering Canadian airspace during our flight. Third, Windsor Airport in Canada and Detroit City Airport on the US side both have Class D airspace (because of their control towers) that extended into our flight path. Thus, it was conceivable that we would have to do a lot of frequency switching very quickly. Finally, we were doing this flight below the very busy Class B airspace of Detroit Metro Airport, a massive hub for Delta Air Lines. All this meant that the pilots would have to be on their toes throughout the flight.

After the pilot and passenger briefing was complete, we split up to head to the planes. The Michigan Flyers, where 77S is located, is in the so-called "northwest tees," which is a set of T hangars located at the northwest corner of the airport, so that's where I headed. Eric and Chuky headed that way as well, because while Solo is located in the main terminal building, their planes are kept in the northwest tees as well. Mike headed to the Aviation Center, which is on the northeast corner of the airport.

With preflight complete, it was time to fire up the engine and taxi for takeoff! We typically stagger trips so that faster planes go first, and Mike's plane was definitely the fastest of the bunch, so he went first. When it came time for my plane to take off, Mike and his passengers were long gone!

After takeoff, we turned to the northeast until we could pick up I-96, which served as an excellent landmark for much of our flight. As we had discussed at the briefing, I remained south of I-96 at all times when heading towards Detroit to minimize any conflicts with other members of our party heading westbound after flying over the city. As we got closer to Detroit, I asked Approach if it was okay with them if I transited the Canadian side of the river, including Windsor's Class D airspace, and then continued into Detroit City's Class D before heading back west to Ann Arbor. Much to my surprise, the controller came back with "Yep, we've already taken care of it." I was fully expecting to be able to do what I asked for, but I was surprised that they had already worked it out! Mike had told them we were coming, though, and so they knew what we were going to do

We made a turn towards the south to set us up for our flight along the river, and once we were positioned well south of the TFR, we crossed into Canadian airspace (and got a text from AT&T welcoming me to Canada, and oh by the way, get ready to pay through the nose for data!). Then, we turned northbound and got some excellent views of downtown Detroit that really can't be seen any other way. Before we knew it, Detroit was behind us, and it was time to start thinking about heading back. As we had briefed, we would enter the Detroit City Class D airspace and turn directly towards our initial turning point, right where we picked up I-96. From here until the end of the flight was mostly uneventful.

Except...as we were being handed off from Detroit Approach to Ann Arbor Tower, we had an interesting encounter with another airplane. Remember how I mentioned that the G1000 avionics system presented the pilot with lots of information? One bit of information that it presents that I really really like is traffic overlayed onto a map. This is becoming a more common feature on planes, and while the technology isn't 100% perfect, it does really enhance situational awareness. Just as Approach was handing us off to Tower, she gave us one last traffic call for a plane to our 2-3 o'clock, same altitude, southeast-bound. At this point, we were southwest-bound, so his course was offset by 90 degrees to ours. I didn't have the traffic in sight, although it did appear on the TIS (traffic information system) in the cockpit, and I tracked it for a few minutes on the screen. I did finally get it in sight, and as soon as I did, I initiated a climb, because he was getting closer and closer and his course was not wavering. In fact, it's a good thing that I initiated this climb, because he passed directly underneath our plane moving from right to left. While the chances of a midair collision are indeed exceedingly slim, and this would likely not have ended up in a midair due to my changing speed during the climb, it was still an eye-opening experience (no pun intended) about keeping a hawk eye out for traffic at all times.

With that bit of excitement under our belts, we landed back at Ann Arbor, taxied back to the northwest tees, and put the plane to bed for the day. We then went back to the terminal building for a quick debrief with all of the other planes before heading home.

If this sort of flight experience sounds remotely fun to you, and if you are somehow affiliated with the University of Michigan, you should definitely go to our home page and click the link under "sign up." That way, you'll be notified of future events like this!

Hope to see you sometime in the future!

--James Power, President (January 2016)