However, this P-51 Mustang was absolutely awesome! There was no one to ask if this aircraft was airworthy, but she sure is beautiful.
This F-15 is in need of some restoration, but I remember dreaming about flying one of these or an F-14 Tom Cat (thanks, Top Gun) when I was about 12. Honestly, I still do.
The museum also has a T-6 Texan and a B-25 Mitchell Bomber that are in the midst of restoration, a Skymaster, a number of other fighters, a C-130, many other vintage aircraft, and even a room full of old Frasca simulators. The entire list can be viewed here, thought honestly I don't recall seeing all of these aircraft. Makes me wonder if I missed part of of the museum. Eh, guess I'll just have to go back.
Over the City and Above the Woods
I was accompanied on this flight by my mother, who flew with me several months ago along the Chicago shoreline. This day we would be flying in that Diamond Star DA-40 that I wrote about a few weeks ago. I initially planned to take the school's G1000-equipped Skyhawk since I knew that she could get in and out with little problem (and I have around 70 hours in type), but because of bad weather Thursday morning it did not fly and thus had too much fuel on board. I really need to work on my contribution to weight and balance.
I picked up my IFR clearance: cleared from Waukegan (KUGN) to Rantoul (KTIP) via vectors JORJO - BACEN - BLOKR - RBS - DIRECT. Some of these are points on the JORJO1.RBS departure procedure. This took us over the metropolitan Chicago area just west of O'Hare (KORD). We saw plenty of aircraft coming and going from KORD and KMDW.
Departing runway 5, I was turned on headings that essentially took me along the shore line of Lake Michigan until I was turned southwest. Before long, we had broken through the clouds and were skimming along at 7000. This was the first time my mother had the experience of going through clouds and being essentially VFR on top (except that there were more clouds and the overcast layer hardly made for a good horizon).
As we began our descent into Rantoul, we had to fly an approach in order to come down through the scattered to broken layer. Smooth sailing and a very gentle touchdown on runway 18 earned some accolades from the very satisfied passenger.
The folks at KTIP were great. They set us up in a courtesy car, and suggested a nice little home-cookin' Mexican place called Sol Azteca. The food was very good; seemed very authentic, tasty, fast and very reasonably priced. I'd highly recommend checking this place out if you are out that way.
After lunch and visiting the museum, we needed to spend a little time at the FBO while we waited out some storms that were passing through the Chicago area. Soon, we were off and on our way back to UGN... maybe.
The Pink Dot
Picking up my IFR clearance, we were cleared to KUGN via PNT - PLANO - OBK - DIRECT. We had more time above and through the clouds as we motored along at 8000 MSL. Based on my weather check at the FBO, I knew that I was going to need to fly an approach into Waukegan, and that I'd expect Runway 5. I was all set up for that and briefing the approach by the time I crossed PLANO, and as I checked the ForeFlight weather from the Stratus I see the... dreaded... pink... dot. UGN had gone LIFR due to fog with 200 foot overcast However, I was flying a non-WAAS aircraft and there is only an RNAV approach into runway 5. There was no point in flying this approach as the non-precision minimums were far higher than the weather.
I began considering my options when ATC advised me that two jets had just gone missed from KUGN. Having checked the weather at other reporting stations, I decided to fly the ILS 16 approach into Chicago Executive (KPWK). Although I had only flown this particular approach in a simulator, I am very familiar with this airport since I did my private training primarily from this location. My approach and landing were quite solid, and we taxied to Signature and shut down to enjoy their very comfortable accommodations while I sorted out what I was going to do next.
Sitting on the ground at PWK, I started to review options. The organization from which I had rented this plane recently stopped operations at PWK, so this removed one option. It was a 45 minute cab ride home, and I could have taken my wife's car and my mother to retrieve my car from UGN. I finally got a hold of the owner of the school, who said that he had just come in not long ago on the ILS 23 approach with a slight tailwind but no problems, except that it was right down to minimums. "Do you think you can do it?"
I thought this over for 20 minutes, and decided that the two-axis autopilot that I had been using all day because of my low time in the plane could fly the approach - it didn't know it was dark and down to minimums, after all. Though I had hand-flown the other two approaches, this seemed to be the time to allow the computer to earn its keep.
Earning a Manhattan
We loaded up in the Diamond Star and were cleared vectors to UGN. I briefed the approach on the ground because it is a VERY short flight (it was all of 16 minutes according to my track at Flight Aware), and I just wanted to hit the highlights for review in the air. I had everything loaded up and ready to go when I was cleared for takeoff.
I was a bit worried because PWK had been marginal VFR and then went IFR with a 600 foot overcast as I was preparing to leave. There was a guy who really wanted to depart VFR to the east out over the lake, and the controllers were really trying to talk him out of it. I hope they did because that would have been pretty high risk. But I hoped that these changes did not reflect further deterioration at my hoped-for destination.
Here was the METAR from my weather briefing:
KUGN 042252Z 02004KT 4SM BR OVC002 18/18 A2996 RMK AO2 SLP138 P0001 T01780178
Now doesn't that look like fun? I know some of you are jealous.
As I am passed off to the departure controller, it occurs to me that I am flying in pretty solid IMC in the dark and flying my first night approach in actual IMC (although I have flown quite a few approaches to minimums in simulated conditions during night flight). I saw myself as focused, but my mother informs me that she knew I was a bit nervous. She was thrilled by the whole thing and really enjoyed the entire day of flying, but I had to tell her that I was pretty focused and needed a sterile cockpit until we were on the ground. She understood and was quiet.
"419AM, turn left heading 260 to intercept the localizer. Cleared ILS 23 approach, maintain 2500 until established." It's on, and I'm in the soup past my eyeballs. Two miles from the final approach fix, I am passed off to tower and am cleared to land. I peak up and see only clouds through the windscreen, but I am on path and glideslope, but a bit fast.
Descending through 1600 for 930, I am able to see the ground. At 1100, I am very happy break out and see the runway. The controller then states that "things are clearing here if you'd like to circle to land on runway 5, that's approved." Was this guy crazy? It was pitch black out, I just broke out and he thinks I might like to circle to land. Umm... no. I'll take that five knot tailwind when I have a plane that can be stopped in well under 1500 feet and I have 6000 feet of runway. "9-Alpha-Mike will stay with 23."
Although I floated a bit because I was a bit fast, I had my third gentle and on-centerline touchdown of the day. "Oh, yeah!" I failed to mention to my mother that this was the first time I had flown an approach at night in actual instrument conditions. I did offer to send her home in a cab and I'd go by myself, but she insisted on going with me. However, she claims to have not been worried the whole time.
I have to say that I would have been far less anxious had I been flying my club's Arrow or Archer because I am so much more familiar and comfortable in them. The only part of the flight I've really spent time reflecting on was my decision to fly the short flight and approach into Waukegan. It worked out well, and the flight was never in any risk beyond the typical risks of flying in these conditions. But was we know, night IFR is the riskiest flight in which most GA pilots will ever engage. Add to this that I was flying a pretty new-to-me aircraft and I had a passenger, and it seems that it was "pretty interesting" to say the least.
However, I had been using the auto pilot all day because I was not yet totally confident in my ability to hold altitude solid in this plane. I always use it while briefing an approach or doing some other task with high cognitive demands. So although I prefer to hand fly most of the time, this last flight was not the time to decide to give it a go (although as I mentioned above I hand-flew the other two approaches). It obviously worked out just fine, and fortunately I was overall pretty well practiced in approaches and night current.