Pittsburgh to Palo Alto, Day Three: If I had a Wagon

“The most important thing is to begin”
– Goethe

Woke this morning from the sleep of the weary, feeling like I could do anything. Well, anything within reason. The sun was shining bright, the sky was free of clouds, and the flag on the flagpole was standing strait out sideways. Pointing east. Ugh. So, I’d have a headwind, but at least I could keep going.

A quick checkout from my cozy Motel 6, and a short drive back to the airport later, I called in for a weather briefing and got the full weather story. Briefers are a mixed lot. Some love to get into the feel of the weather picture and the feel of the kind of flying you’re doing. They ask about the Skyranger, where and when it was made, and try to help me visualize what the day is going to be like: “Oh, I imagine you’ll be having a gorgeous day, but you’ll be bouncing around up there – ya better make sure everything is battened down.” I love working with that kind of briefer. This morning’s call, however, was not that kind of briefer. He spit out numbers in rapidfire UTC and shorthand (“MKCfrom1800Zulu260at34by22Zulu320at25HSYuntil15Zulu150at35…”) and sounded annoyed when I asked him to repeat.

“Umm, could you tell me what it looks like at Hayes later this afternoon?”

“Sigh. I already did: HSYuntil15Zulu150at35…”

After enough prodding, I got the idea that there was a dry but rather wicked low pressure trough lying across Kansas. Until I got on its other side, I’d be pushing against headwinds of up to 60 mph at altitude. Fine. Faced with a problem, come up with a solution: get to the other side of the trough, anddon’t do it at altitude.

Preflighting, the folks at Executive Beech again showed their amazing courtesy. They’d had to move the Skyranger in order to accommodate a few bizjets, but offered to bring it up to the front of the line for me. No, really, it’s not necessary – easier for me to walk the 50 yards. But the shuttle driver insisted on giving me a ride. And when I realized, during preflight, that I’d forgotten to pay for the fuel and tiedown, she noticed me walking back and swooped over to give me another ride. Superlative service, all the way.

Ready to go, MKC ATC offers me my choice of runway, and on handoff to departure control, the missive: “have a good trip, ‘395, come back and see us sometime…” Oh, I will, I promise I will.

Checking in to departure control, I set myself up over I-70 at 2000’. I’m getting bounced around like a rock tumbler, but I’m making progress westbound. About 60 mph over the ground, and even the motorhomes below are passing me. But I’m making progress. Departure gives me a squawk code and gets me on their charts.

“Commonwealth? What’s the designator for that?”

“SKYR – sierra kilo yankee romeo”

“Roger, what country was that built in?”

“USA. Right here in Kansas City, 54 years ago” I hope to pique his interest, but he’s got his hands full with the morning rush of airliners, so he gives me a noncommittal “Roger” and clears me on course through the class B airspace. Hey, on a day like this, I’ll take an “on course through the class B” over a conversation any day.

So off I go, flying “IFR” – “I Follow Roads”. The concrete compass points unerringly west, and makes navigation practically automatic. 60 mile per hour. No way I’m going to make my intended first stop at Hayes against a headwind like this, but there are plenty of other fields on the way. Once clear of the class B, I start hunting for more favorable winds. The direction, as well as the strength of the wind changes with altitude, so I sneak up to 3500’ to see if I can do better. The GPS tells me that I’m now tracking across the ground at a blistering 35 mph. Yikes! Back down to 2000’.

Past Lawrence, things level out pretty quickly. I check obstacles along the highway, and  determine that the terrain is generally about 450 feet above sea level, meaning I’ve got room to maneuver below. The regulations dictate that I can fly as low as I like, just so long as I “remain at an altitude that permits safe landing in the event of engine failure” and keep “at least 500’ from any persons on property on the surface.” That’s not going to be a problem here, so I drop down a few hundred feet and find that I’ve picked up five or six knots. Every little bit helps.

Settling into the routine, I start to watch the scenery (oops – gotta pull back up to altitude for Topeka!). Soft rolling hills, tractors tilling the land, green, yellow and brown sliding below the brilliant blue of an endless Kansas sky. I realize that, contrary to the opinion I must’ve carried with me from birth, Kansas is quite beautiful. It’s all a matter of the right perspective.

Take a vinyl LP of Beethoven’s 3rd symphony. Play it at 45 or 16 rpm, and it’s painful to listen to. Play it the right way, at 33 rpm, and it’s one of the most beautiful things in the world. Kansas doesn’t make much of an impression from 35000’ in a Boeing jet, or rolling along I-70 in a car. But waltzing over the hills at 500 feet, dipping wings to the tractors out in their fields, it’s a delightful place, evocative of Dorothy’s imaginary longings from half a century ago.

Speaking of Beethoven, there’s no one to talk to on the radio, so it’s time to pull out the shortwave again. I spin the dial past God and college stations, and find NPR’s “High Plains Radio” with their fundraiser in full swing. Normally, radio fundraisers are painful affairs, but they’re talking about classical music, and the voices are comfortable traveling companions for the day. They’re also playing some great stuff I’ve never heard, so I stay with them.

Eventually, it’s time to start thinking about fuel. With the added headway of my lower altitude, I’ll be able to make Hayes after all. But the winds are blistering out of the west, and the runway at Hayes is north-south. Russell, on the other hand, has a short grass strip lined right up with the surface winds. Flight guide indicates that they’ve got 100LL, but one answers the radio. Overflying the field, the grass strip looks viable, so I swoop in for a visit. Short pattern, airspeed 65 on final, flare at cornstalk level, and smell the fresh cut hay as I roll to a bouncy stop.

I pull up to the gas pump, and when I kill the engine, I’m taken by the silence around me. Yes, there’s the wind, but only the wind. No traffic, no other engines, none of the bustle of human habitation I’ve grown so accustomed to. I climb out, survey the beautiful, peaceful openness of farmland around me and nearly jump out of my skin when a voice behind me asks if I’d like gas. Yes please, and we make small talk as I fuel the plane. We talk of grass strips, Kansas aviation, wind, weather and Skyrangers (of course!). Good pilot talk. I tell him my Beethoven theory and he smiles knowingly. “Yup, but you haven’t seen real flat until you’ve seen west Kansas – you’ll see it soon enough, though.” He gives me directions to a diner in town a few miles up the road, tosses me the keys to his car, and excuses himself to finish up a project out in the hangar. Ah, airport people. I love airport people.

Soon, I’m westbound again. I-70 turns north, while I veer a few degrees south, aiming for Walsenburg. I’ve always told friends that what I like about traveling by small plane is that you get to see places off the beaten path. Anywhere near an interstate, things have been homogenized to some extent. Now, as I leave I-70, the chart shows nothing but back roads and grain silos for the next 300 miles. I’m looking forward to it.

I drop down to the deck again, and am surprised to see the GPS indicating a tailwind. Dust rising from a tractor’s plume in the distance confirms it – I’m past the trough, and the wind is now on my side. I fiddle with the shortwave and find High Plains Radio again. They’ve just finished Vivaldi and are playing “Hi ho, Mozart” – Disney done in the style of the classics. I’m disturbed to discover that I actually like the theme from “Pocahontas” done in the style of Dvorak, and resolve to call in a pledge when I land (hmmm, better do that now while I’m writing – I copied their phone number on my sectional chart).

The land below me is rising slowly. I’m at 3000’ as I pass Scott City, with the farmland not much more than 500’ below my wheels. 395’s next real challenge slowly creeps into my mind. The Skyranger was built to traverse flatland quickly – it does not like to climb. My destination in Colorado, chosen with some trepidation, is Walsenburg’s Spanish Peaks airfield, at over 6000’ above sea level. It’s not going to be a piece of cake. Landing and taking off at altitude is very different from at sea level: the thin air robs you of power, thrust and lift – a triple whammy. Landing and takeoff speeds will be much higher, and at 6000’, I’ll have only about 70% of the Skyranger’s already nominal power available. But I’ve done more with less before, so we’re headed for Walsenburg.

The tailwind above west Kansas grows stronger, and a little calculation reveals that I can safely skip my fuel stop in Lamar. Beyond saving time, this means the Skyranger will be lighter at landing, another grace on this unusually warm October day. I peel off from my ground-hugging reverie to try out the winds (and handling) at altitude. I’m pleased at the climb rate, and more pleased as my ground speed picks up to 115 mph. On the horizon, I pick up the faint, ominous outlines of the approaching Rocky Mountains.

Lama, Las Animas and La Junta slide below me – no chatter on the CTAF frequencies, but a lone Cessna 120 flits by in the other direction. We rock wings at each other and resume course. I realize that I’ve only seen two other airplanes the entire day, and wonder where everyone is. Answer – there just aren’t a lot of people out this way.

Anyhow – I’m writing way too much, so I’ll cut things short here, and won’t talk about looking for Bent’s Fort, buzzing the Sporleder Ranch, or the almost perfect landing at Walsenburg. Ask me some time if you’re really interested. I’m safe and sound in southeastern Colorado, and I’m going to take the next day off with my friends Brian and Gretchen (and their kids Ruth, Conor, Thomas and Liam) while I figure out how I’m going to cross the Rockies. Stay tuned! -pablo

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