Okay, no one is going to purposefully stop in Champaign, IL are they? (Actually, not true. Bob and I stopped on our way west in 2007.)
We started the day early with a bad breakfast (when they say the included breakfast is “grab and go,” don’t expect a lot) at the hotel and an 8:00am departure from the Sunport. Once again, I had spent a little more time in Albuquerque than I wanted to. We climbed slowly from the high altitude airport and leveled at 9,500. We had a tailwind (we often seem to with Nell in the plane) and headed toward Wichita. Guymon, OK was our planned fuel stop and that looked like the best bet for a midpoint fueling. It was a stiff crosswind on landing, but a comfortable place to stretch (air conditioned, vending machines, and comfortable couches). The guy who fueled the plane was very friendly. On takeoff the plane skittered a little in the crosswind and in less than an hour we were buzzing toward Wichita.
Nell looked at the map and we talked about what there might be in Wichita. We decided that since the boys were comfortable in the back we would press on to Kansas City. The boys were fine with that and as we passed over Wichita they started watching a few Simpsons episodes to take them to the next stop.
On approach into KMKC it got hotter in the plane. A lot hotter. So hot the sweat was pouring down my forehead and into my eyes. Nell saved herself from having to land the plane by finding me a tissue to mop the sweat moments before there was pilot incapacitation (blinded by salty sweat in the eyes). I need to get a headband for the more southern states.
You know, on the first flight in the plane I landed with a flat tire and departed the runway. Since then I have always wondered if the same thing happened today, with over six hundred hours in the plane, if I could keep it on the runway. At Kansas City’s downtown airport I was able to find out. One of their runways was closed for construction so I was landing on one-niner. I detected the flat tire on the left main immediately. If I was a little slower I might have been able to turn off on the taxiway. That would have been better for the airport, since I closed it to arrivals. Departures taxied past me and took off a few yards upwind (it was a long runway, I didn’t use much). The tower told me they were sending out a truck for passengers and would send a tow for the plane.
The plane itself looked fine. The wheel pant didn’t even look damaged. So we took the offered ride when it arrived, signed some maintenance release form as we passed the tow crew and continued to the FBO’s passenger lounge. It’s a great FBO (Executive Beechcraft) in the hanger and space of the old TWA operation. Howard Hughes strolled through the same hanger I did, looking at his plane. He sometimes probably even looked at a recently repaired flat tire and inspected a worn out tube.
After all of that flying (over six hundred miles) we needed a little break. We need lunch. Fortunately, we were in Kansas City and there’s always some BBQ to be had. We were dropped at Jack Stack’s by the FBO. It was perfect. Dark (after being sun-blasted in the cockpit), quiet (after all the engine noise and vibration), and they brought the food pretty quickly. We strolled over a great pedestrian bridge to the Union Station and poked around there. Everything was closed because on Monday everything interesting is closed in Kansas City. So we walked across the street and up a big long hill (in 95 degrees and high humidity) to the only World War One memorial in the country. (I guess there are others for specific soldiers, but this is the one for the country.) It was closed. We trooped back down the hill to meet the courtesy van and went back to the airport.
After settling up we checked the weather (clear from Kansas City to Midway in Chicago with forecasts for clear skies) and took off. It was hot on take off. Ninety-seven degrees. As we climbed to 9,500 we dropped thirty degrees in outside air temperature. As we flew along we watched the weather on the XM. It looked like we were racing a storm to Midway. Oddly, it wasn’t forecast, so I assumed we would beat it there. Well, they rarely can forecast tornados. At the time of our projected arrival at Midway they had evacuated the tower. The evacuated Wrigley Field. There were sixty knots of wind on the ground at the airport and all sorts of trouble. As you can see in our flight track, we diverted.
At first I punched in Gary, IN as an alternate. We figured we’d have to drive a little to Chicago, but we’d still be there for the night. (We were trying to get in to see our friend Tony Fitzpatrick.) The storm was moving so fast that the controller said that commercial jets were unable to make it to Gary in time. He suggested Kankakee. That sounded fun.
All along the southbound odyssey
The train pulls out of Kankakee
Rolls along past houses, farms & fields
Passin’ trains that have no name, freight yards full of old black men
And the graveyards of the rusted automobiles
Good old Arlo. Always painting the picture. After a conversation with a small plane pilot ahead of us the controller said the storm was hitting KIKK (Kankakee). Pontiac Airport was directly in front of us in just five miles. I pulled the power as the sky darkened to our left and put the plane into a steep, descending turn to the right as we came over the field. It was small, just twenty-five hundred feet of runway, so I flew a tight pattern and slowed way down. There was no tower, so I announced on the CTAF and landed.
It was a creepy little airfield. Over two dozen crop dusters (huge turbine engines, a single pilot sitting in a fighter-like cockpit, high landing gear to protect the sprayer bars under the wings. All yellow like wasps. No other little planes like ours. We parked and climbed out as the wind blew a little stronger and swirled around. Nell found a set of “after hour numbers” and we called and left a message. It was eight o’clock and we hung around for half an hour. A van showed up and one point and I thought, “That’s good service, he didn’t call back, but he drove right out here.” The van rolled slowly past us and turned the corner toward the hangers. Man, it was creepy. He did something out by the hanger (I’m convinced it was a serial killer and he was power washing the inside of the van), then drove slowly past us again. There was a big black dog in the passenger seat.
This seemed to be a bad place to be. We climbed back into the plane and decided to head south to the nearest big airport. That looked like Champaign, IL. At the time I didn’t remember that Bob and I had landed there. We listened to the automated weather in Pontiac. The wind had shifted a hundred eighty degrees and picked up a little. The sky was reported clear. So we announced, checked the engine, and rolled for a takeoff. I was very alert to the possibility of deer on the runway. We started our climb and started the turn to the south. At five hundred feet off the ground we flew right into a cloud.
It is so great to have the instrument training and all the time in real IMC.
A real comfort in a moment like this. Forty per cent of the fatal accidents are inadvertent VFR flight into IMC conditions. That is exactly what we just did. The wind was shifting around a lot, the strobes were bouncing back off the cloud (so I switched them off), and there were updrafts and downdrafts pushing the plane around. I kept the wings level, I kept the airspeed at a solid eighty knots, I kept the climb steady. We popped out at two thousand feet or so. I called Champaign Approach (calling the Chicago Center by mistake) and asked for some help to Champaign. They were happy to oblige. It was nice to
hear their calm, smiling voice.
In half an hour we were on final for runway one-four-left at KCMI. There was a forty knot wind pushing us back, but we edged toward the landing. In the darkness the lights of the airport were beautiful. The FBO inside was incredibly nice and helpful. They got us a hotel room (another suites place, a much better breakfast) and the hotel sent a van to get us. Within an hour of landing the plane was tied down, we were settled in our hotel room and the boys were eating some popcorn and watching Simpsons. I was so drained from the day’s flying that I don’t remember falling asleep.