Barnstorming, 2008

[having trouble getting pix off the camera onto the computer – will be added later]

Not quite an alpine start, but everything in aviation does take a little longer. The plane is based out at Livermore, which is an hour’s drive from our home in Palo Alto. Martin’s daughter Dana swooped by to pick me up, and drove us all out to the airport, while Martin and I fretted about our piles of gear and juggled strategies for how we were going to get all that stuff in the T-6’s tiny baggage compartment.

It was 9:30 by the time we made it out to LVK. Audrey (my affectation – every airplane should have a name) was glistening out on the ramp, freshly washed after her 100-hour inspection. Dana helped us pile our gear by the hangar, and we took turns talking with the mechanic and stuffing our gear in every available crevice. Eventually, it’s time to saddle up and start. The usual 10 minutes of pre-takeoff checks, a deeeeep breath, and it’s time:

“Livermore Tower, North American 555-Quebec, ready to go 25-Right, right downwind departure.”

“Triple Five Quebec, cleared 25-Right, right downwind.” – and here we go. 36 inches of manifold pressure, keep her on the center line, raise the tail, rotate at 80. Gear up, power back to 30, airspeed on 110, clear right, turn, away, away into the blue.

Or gray. Some haze in the central valley, though we’ve seen much worse. Martin and I both know this route, or at least this part of it, like the back of our hands. Follow I-80 up through the Sierra, cut the corner short of Blue Canyon and over we go.

I mention that Devon and the kids are at Tahoe, probably on the beach at Incline Village this very moment. Well? I heel over 30 degrees right, and cross Brockwya Summit for a brief detour. Two turns over the beach will get their attention if they’re there. Then east and north – across the snaking ridges of Nevada.

By now it’s nearly noon, and even at 9500 feet, it’s hot. We’re both wearing our nomex flight suits – perhaps another affectation, but it offers plenty of protection should we need to set down in rough territory. The Snickers bar I stashed in the map case is melted – I decide to leave it sealed as a mushy blob, and dig into one of my granola bars instead.

It’s all good, though. Martin and I have exhausted our initial chatty banter, and fly along silently, taking in the majestic desolation through firesmoke haze.

Our initial stop was going to be Battle Mountain, but we’ve got a good tailwind, and we’re both eager to make the most of it. Some calculations with the GPS suggest we can make it to Brigham City, north of Salt Lake, with just over an hour’s more flight. Fuel, food and bladders are all in good shape, so we press onwards.

Brigham City is hot. Hotter than you’d expect of Utah in July. The fuel truck trundles up, and Martin negotiates while I retreat to the promise of an air-conditioned men’s room. We pull the charts out in the spartan pilots lounge, plot our course east, and launch again.

I flew the first leg from the front seat, with Martin in back, as is customary for the instructor. For the next leg, I ask if he’s willing to take the front office – I’ve never sat in back, and would like the experience. Climbing left turnout from runway 34, with plenty of power even in this heat, and up we go over the Wasatch Range. Lush valleys, deep craggy canyons, enough to spend a lifetime exploring.

But this is prelude. What I want to talk about came at the end of today’s flight.

We’d figured to have enough sunlight and fuel to make it to Alliance, Nebraska by nightfall, but as we neared the Wyoming/Nebraska border, the sky grew a little darker by degrees. A bit of rain, some towering Cu to either side, and it was time to fire up the GPS/weather box I’d borrowed from a co-worker. Time to re-evaluate: we were 30 minutes short of Alliance, but between here and there were areas of moderate precipitation. Perhaps some lightning as well.

Alternatives? Plenty. Check the weather at Torrington, 8 miles northeast of our present position. Recorded weather indicated clear, with light winds, but cautioned for lightning northeast through southeast. That was good enough for both of us – Martin swung us north and set up for the pattern at Torrington.

A beautiful little airport on the edge of a small west-to-midwestern town, everything sparkling from the thunderstorm that had just blown through. We’re set up for a straight-in arrival, so Martin can’t resist doing the “overhead break” – a 360-degree, constant turning military approach that I’ve not yet quite mastered. Short final over town, then a beatiful squeaking landing, roll out and pull off the runway.

I noticed as we taxied back that there was noone at the field – completely deserted. But we find what looks like a parking spot, Martin squeezes us in with precision, and we shut down and climb out.

By the time we’ve got our parachutes off, there’s an older couple at the airport gate. We wave and walk over to do the meet and greet. They’re Hyatt and Edith – she heard the plane go over and wanted to come out to see what was up. I walk them out to the plane for show-and-tell, while Martin begins chatting with another couple, Chuck and Tami that have arrived. Soon we have a newspaper editor, state representative and their daughter, the airport manager and a few others out on the ramp. It was a quiet Thursday evening after the storm – they heard us go over and decided to come out to see what was up.

We talk about old planes, we talk about small towns. We talk about thunderstorms, sunsets, and dreams of growing up someday. We help grownups and little kids into the pilot’s seat, showing them controls and gauges. Almost an hour later, we’re still there talking, old friends, and two strangers who’ve dropped in out of the sky in this steel and rubber apparition from long ago. The sun begins to set behind pastel purple clouds, and Hyatt offers to take us into town. We all shake hands again and again, exchange email addresses and promise to send pictures.

This is the heartland – and in the heartland, this is what flying is all about.

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