I earned my private pilot certificate in October 2006 at the age of 35. A few months later, in July 2007, a pilot friend of the family heard I was a new pilot and invited me along to EAA AirVenture Oshkosh. Even though I had just met Steve, I thought it was an awesome opportunity, so of course I said yes. It was my first real flying trip, and it was to Oshkosh! I was excited, to say the least. All my training was still fresh in my mind, so I felt like I would make a good co-pilot and also learn a lot from this guy who has his own airplane. His plan was to fly there and back in the same day. I had a whole 11 hours of PIC time and not much cross-country experience.
I met Steve at his hangar for our 7:30 a.m. departure. We departed in his 1970 Cessna 172 from the Detroit area (PTK) and headed directly toward Oshkosh, planning to fly over Lake Michigan. I was concerned about visibility and horizon issues over the lake, but I felt I wasn’t experienced enough to say anything. Steve told me that he wasn’t instrument rated, and I cracked half a smile when he commented, “The airplane doesn’t know it’s over water.” His comment was the first of many eye-openers for me. I remember the day was overcast with scattered rain showers over all of Michigan and Wisconsin.
We headed direct to Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, and flew a west-northwest heading of about 290 degrees at 2,500 feet because Steve liked to stay low and enjoy the view. This was in direct opposition to my training — that there is safety in altitude — but Steve blew me off when I mentioned a higher altitude. Steve also thought my idea of flight following was a bad one. He was starting to make me feel like a safety freak. The first half of our flight was uneventful. We did encounter occasional rain showers, but ceilings were somewhere above us (not hard to do at 1,500 feet agl). After about an hour we started a climb to gain some altitude for the crossing. (So Steve’s not totally crazy!) We reached the shoreline of Lake Michigan, and looking out over the lake, all we could see was haze and clouds. The forward visibility was nil and there was no horizon to be seen — everything was a gray blob. Steve was not concerned about this, but without an IFR flight plan I insisted we turn and follow the shore of Lake Michigan around to Chicago. Steve reluctantly agreed, and as we flew south along the shoreline, storms were popping up everywhere. We got some weather information about a storm heading our way from Flight Watch, so we stopped at Andrews University (C20) to wait for the approaching thunderstorm to pass. After about an hour we took off and continued our journey. The rest of the trip was met with rain showers and thunderstorms, but fortunately the ceilings were high enough and we could continue VFR. We spotted many heavy rain showers as we made our way (many thanks to the great controllers throughout Wisconsin who helped us pick our way through). Eventually we made it to Fond du Lac. It was about 11 a.m. by now, and we parked the airplane, filled out our fuel card and attached it to the prop. We hopped on the shuttle bus and headed to the fun!
Our day at Oshkosh was amazing. The storm clouds finally parted and it was hot and sunny. We saw as much as we could have, and around 5 p.m. we started back to the airport for a departure. The shuttle bus took quite a while, and when we reached our airplane we found it hadn’t been fueled up. Before we could get fuel, another rainstorm rolled in, and it wasn’t until after 8 p.m. when we were finally fueled up and we departed for home, with clear skies and a beautiful setting sun at our backs.