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Midway in an RV-6? Why Not?

By Tom Charpentier, EAA 1082006

February 24, 2016 - “Why not?” is at once one of the most rewarding and most dangerous questions in the English language. At its worst it finds company with “hold my beer and watch this!” in the annals of famous last words. If, however, one carefully considers the potential consequences of a decision and successfully mitigates every possible concern, “why not?” can be a liberating phrase. In this role it is a license, forged of logic, to defy convention.

Tom Chicago

Such was the case when I received an invitation to attend a holiday party in Chicago for alumni of my alma mater. The party was scheduled for 6 p.m. on a Wednesday night, clearly intended for professionals and grad students in the local area to socialize after work midweek. It was not meant for someone like myself living three and a half hours away by car in central Wisconsin. Nevertheless, as I suspect many pilots do when contemplating a far away engagement that would otherwise require a long and questionably feasible road trip, I pulled up a flight planning website and started gaming out some scenarios. I do this a lot, and most of these trips never get off the computer screen. Still, it seemed like an interesting exercise.

With the demise of Meigs, the closest GA-only airports to downtown Chicago are in the northern suburbs. While these are all wonderful facilities that bring in visitors from all over the world, landing at even the closest one would have meant an expensive and lengthy ride in a rental car or cab right at rush hour. Not really practical. Mass transit would have to serve my ground transportation needs if this (still hypothetical) flight was going to happen. Once again I cursed the fact that Meigs is no longer around, as that would be a hop, skip, and a jump from my destination.

The only remaining airports close enough to downtown to be practical are O’Hare and Midway - hardly known to the casual observer for their GA operations. O’Hare was obviously out. While it is technically possible to fly a piston single into one of the busiest airports in the world, I could think of some very good reasons why it was not a good option in this case. Midway was more intriguing, but I had yet to give it serious thought. It was a Class C airport, although a busy Class C. I had been through there several times on airline flights, but as a small town, grassroots pilot I never considered it as much of an option. I discovered, however, that it did have two FBOs on the field just like any other busy GA airport, and a significant but not astronomical landing fee for an airport of its size. “Why not?” I thought.

I quickly realized if this flight was going to happen I would need some help. I was a low time pilot with not even a full year under my belt since my checkride. A solo flight through Chicago’s busy airspace was not impossible, but two sets of eyes watching for traffic was certainly prudent. I pitched the idea to Max, a coworker of mine with a lot more aviation experience than I had, offering to split the flying. “Sure,” Max said, “if you’ll pick up the landing fee.” Great. I was half hoping Max would talk me out of this crazy idea, but this little “what-if” exercise had suddenly become a very real scheme to take on Chicago Midway! Soon enough I had our flying club’s RV-6A booked for Wednesday evening and we started looking at our charts to figure out how we would transit some of the busiest airspace in the world.

Midway lies on the south side of town, which placed O’Hare and the heart of the Chicago Class B squarely in our way. Our preference was to take the more direct and scenic lakeshore route, which would allow us to fly VFR at or below 3,000 MSL and stay clear of the Bravo. After careful consideration, however, we decided that this would be problematic for the return trip. Flying down the shoreline in the daytime was all well and good because we would be able to easily spot beaches and other landable areas in an emergency. At night it was a different story, and we didn’t fancy a December swim in Lake Michigan either! We elected to fly home via the western route around O’Hare – directly from Midway to the DuPage VOR, then straight north back to Oshkosh. This aligned our route with a string of airports west of the city we could use if we got into trouble.

The week leading up to the flight I nervously checked the long range forecast, hoping that the weather would hold (or maybe just be so bad that a go/no go decision would be easy). The forecast called for a partly cloudy night on Wednesday, yielding to a dreary Thursday. Hmm. We would have to wait and see what our weather briefing said. It looked workable, but if we were wrong and got weathered out it might mean spending a lot more time in Chicago than we planned.

Soon enough it was Wednesday morning. It was a pleasant day, with the only apparent cloud layers up above 10,000 feet. At work I stole away more than a few seconds to check the METARS and TAFs, then mid-afternoon I picked up our briefing. Everything seemed to be holding up well, with the marginal weather not expected until Thursday morning. “Go” it was. We preflighted the RV, taxied out, and called up the tower for a southbound departure.

Max flew the leg into Chicago. Almost immediately we spotted trouble. A low shelf of clouds was hanging over the lakeshore and seemingly moving inland. It was a thin layer, and there was at least 2,000 feet of clearance beneath it, but still, it wasn’t in the forecast. Would Chicago be socked in? The last thing we wanted to do was to get stuck on top needing to descend to clear airspace. We agreed we would stay west of the layer, and if worst came to worst avoid Chicago, make a landing somewhere to the west, and return to Oshkosh. Oh well, if nothing else it would still be a nice long cross-country.

The RV-6A hummed along at 5,500 feet, our O-320 pulling us along at 130 knots true at this altitude with a miserly fuel burn. It hadn’t taken me long to fall in love with Mr. VanGrunsven’s modern classic since I started flying it several months previously. It has the speed, range, and efficiency to go places, yet is as docile as any trainer in the pattern. The stick forces and responsiveness are as close to flight control by telepathy as I’ve ever experienced. We wound our way down through southern Wisconsin, past the windfarms of Fond du Lac County, over the lakes west of Milwaukee and Lake Geneva further south. It was a smooth ride as Milwaukee Approach called out the occasional traffic or gave us a vector or two to keep us out of the way.

The shelf of clouds over the lakeshore only jutted a mile or two over land as we neared the Windy City. This meant that Midway was still in, as was the lakeshore approach, if we could get under the layer. This proved trickier than we bargained for. We were now over Campbell Airport, an active untowered field, and bracketed by Waukegan to the east and Chicago Executive to the south. Even though we were still outside the Bravo, approach was unable to give us lower due to traffic below us. We continued inbound as long as we could up against the layer before we requested a way out. We could go no further without entering O’Hare’s airspace or climbing atop the clouds. Approach obliged by turning us north, bringing two business jets zooming down to the left and below us as they headed into Chicago Exec. Finally, the traffic cleared for a moment, we descended to 2,500 feet, and headed for the shoreline under the clouds.

The flight down the Chicago skyline was breathtaking. I had some urban flying experience as a passenger on the Hudson River Corridor in New York, but this flight was right at dusk, with the lights of the city’s landmark buildings reflected off the lake. Behind them a bright grid of streetlights stretched out to the horizon, almost making the city look like it was set on the wireframe grid of an old videogame. We felt very privileged to be up there that night. A front row seat to this magnificent city lit up at dusk was a spectacle only visible to the handful of aircraft up there plying the lakeshore. It’s at times like this that I am reminded just how special it is to be an aviator.

With the skyline past us it was time to turn west and take the handoff to Midway Tower. In our preparation for the flight we were told by others who had flown here in small pistons to expect to be asked to keep our speed up on final. Not a problem, but it would add stress to an already stressful situation. It turned out to be much easier than we thought. The wind was out of the northeast, so we were given a left downwind for runway 4L. Airline arrivals were busily streaming into 4R, but 4L appeared to only be taking GA arrivals at that time.

As we neared a point abeam with the threshold, “Experimental Six Yankee Echo, cleared to land Four Left” cracked through our headsets. Max took a deep breath and turned base. Base leg was a bit of an act of faith, as it put us straight into the path of the airline traffic landing on the parallel runway. We just hoped we got it right and they were indeed landing on the other runway and not ours. I nervously shot a few glances to the right, keeping an eye on a 737 bearing down on us as we turned base to final. Max flew a beautiful final right down to the numbers. We landed with a soft “squeak” from the main tires, and taxied in. We had done it!

In the end, we made it to the party and had a few non-alcoholic drinks while as modestly as possible slipping “we flew here!” into every conversation we could. After an hour or two of socializing, we ate dinner and flew home. My leg of the journey was smooth as silk, although the cloud layers up high spoiled what would have been a spectacular view of the stars through the RV’s bubble canopy as we quietly made our way back north through the peaceful night airspace. Shortly before midnight we touched down in Oshkosh and taxied in. Our quest to conquer the mighty Midway was complete.

Completing this flight taught me not to discount an idea simply because it seems out of the ordinary or off-the-wall. Flying an airplane is an incredible responsibility, and aviation demands competence. But that doesn’t mean that flights outside one’s comfort zone should be ruled out right off the bat. That’s how we develop our skill sets and become better and more confident (but never cocky). Proper planning made this journey safe and achievable. We asked ourselves why we shouldn’t make the flight and had no legitimate answers. So why not?

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