St. Louis, MO to Phoenix, AZ

Friday, April 10

My entries are all on days that we flew. If there were entries for days we just got in the plane, I would have one for yesterday, too. But maybe Rudy’s entry will help explain:

I forgot to mention one thing about our cross country flight: while in St. Louis, we got a flat tire that was going take all night to fix. So mom and I hopped on American Airlines and flew to L.A. I felt pretty guilty about bailing on Dad and Dexter, but I just couldn’t stand another night on the road.

It was a poor combination of events. Part of my post-flight inspection as I tie up the plane for the night is to scout for any damage, like a flat tire. So Wednesday night when we landed and I tied up… no flat tire. Part of the pre-flight inspection is to make sure that there is no damage to the plane, because the fuel truck might have backed into it, or someone else’s plane might have bumped it. Rabid ground squirrels may have chewed through the tire to get at the sweet, sweet nitrogen inside. Well, probably not, but I look just in case.

[Part of our Spring Break 2009 Trip.]

The storm over St. Louis.

The storm over St. Louis.

So we climbed into the plane around 11:00, fired up and taxied to the exit from Signature’s parking area (“the ramp”). We were at the main St. Louis airport, their international airport. It was going to be a long taxi to the departure end of the runway. We turned out onto the taxiway and after half a mile the plane started to veer to the left and I knew what was wrong.

An airport facility manager happened to be nearby and drove Nell and the boys back to the FBO. They sent down the fuel truck, which has a compressor, in the hopes of inflating the tire enough to taxi back to the ramp. No luck. Eventually I had to return the FBO to arrange someone else to tow the plane back with a dolly under the flat tire. (This happened over the summer in Kansas City. They had it off the runway in fifteen minutes.)

It became clear very quickly that the maintenance operation on the field was really geared to taking care of charter jets and didn’t know what to do with a little plane. They didn’t have the tube on hand to fix the tire, and they couldn’t find out quickly if there was even one in St. Louis. Rudy was anxious to return to Los Angeles by the weekend because he had an activity planned with a classmate on Saturday. There was a huge thunderstorm closing in on St. Louis and Nell pictured getting stuck there for a couple more days (we already had to delay our departure from NYC because of a storm there). She booked tickets for her and Rudy to get out at 5pm on an American Airlines flight. She took the boys to lunch first, while I dealt with the shop, and then she and Rudy were gone.

It was sort of back to the original plan, with Dexter and me flying across the country by ourselves. I wished Alex could fly out to St. Louis and join us.

So Friday morning, Dexter and I were well-rested. The night before we had a swim in the hotel pool and got to sleep early. The thunderstorm had cruised over us in the night. There was still quite a bit of weather over St. Louis, but none of it was dangerous. (Nell said that on the climb out the evening before, their huge passenger jet had made some sweeping turns to avoid heavier parts of the storm system.) The shop had fixed the flat, I had re-packed the plane to work better for just me and Dexter, and at 9:00am we were rolling down the taxiway again.

I was a little nervous about the long IFR flight ahead, and the ground controller admonished me for calling the runway by the wrong name. I am getting better and more professional on the radio, but I still have lapses.

Dexter was settled in the back seat with his Gameboy, laptop and iPod (for his music and a book on tape). I was set up front with my clearance on my kneeboard, the approach plate book for Missouri and Kansas. We rolled down one-two-left, which was nearly two miles long. We climbed up and even before the plane was past the end of the runway we were in the clouds.

(Part of my clearance was to depart following the Lindy-Two departure procedure. I really liked that. It tickled me that I was flying out on a set of turns and climbs that someone had decided to name after Lindbergh.)

It rained on us. The wind bounced us around a little. The air traffic controller vectored us away from our original course on occasion and gave us deviations to get us around heavier precipitation, which he saw on his radar. We were inside the clouds for an hour and a half. That was the longest I have ever been in IMC. We were level at ten thousand feet when the tops of the clouds slowly began to ramp down, dropping below our altitude. It was as if we were making a slow climb up out of the clouds. I glanced back at Dexter and he gave me a big grin and the thumbs up. It was nice to see the sun again, and great to be in the blue sky.

We dodged in and out of some thin stuff, but as we approached Wichita, we were in fairly clear (if windy) skies. The FBO at Wichita (Ying Ling) is one of the best in the country and it was a good stop. Unfortunately, Dexter plugged his Gameboy in to charge it and forgot to collect it on our way back to the plane. That made him VERY sad on our way to Texas. I promised him that we would call as soon as we landed, that the FBO would ship it back home to us. (They did.)

Our next turning point would be Albuquerque, where we had been before. In fact, Dexter wasn’t very keen on returning to Albuquerque because he knew we had gotten stuck there before. He didn’t want to get stuck again. The little Diamondstar can’t make it from Wichita to Albuquerque in one hop (although Adam and I did the reverse flight one summer, the winds were with us then). So I found the midpoint. Previously we have stopped in Guymon, OK, a decent stab at the midpoint. Now we aimed for Dalhart, TX. There was a little cafe there for us to have lunch while they fueled the plane. My favorite radio exchange was on the way to the field. I had changed frequencies from the Center controller and had announced on the CTAF that I was inbound. The same frequency is used for the crop dusters to talk to the farmhands. So I was listening to some farmhands talking to one another.

T: Karl, you been out Road Eight this morning?

K: Naw. There more work out there, Tom?

T: Nope. Still working the drainage over here, but there was a fellow sunbathing hisself on the hood of his Bronco, right after the gate, on the should. Had his shirt off an’ everythin’. Yellow Bronco.

K: I ain’t been over this morning. Was his Bronco broke down?

T: Nope. I drove by a little later and he had driven it further along, parked in the drainage ditch and he was back on top, but full naked.

K: Had his clothes off?

T: Yup. Nothing on him at all, just tanning hisself. Was wondering if you happened by that later on.

K: Uh, nope.

I glanced out the window to the grid of dirt roads below. Southwest Texas was a little more interesting than I thought it would be.

There was a Mooney at the fuel pumps with a Canadian tail number. We shut down, headed in for lunch and they fueled the plane. Dexter had a bacon omelette, which seemed to hit the spot. I had a burger, and kept debating pie. I chickened out, figuring I’d have a big, sticky dessert that night when we found the city we were going to sleep in.

When we went in to pay the bill there was a huge World War II fighter trainer inside the FBO (a Texan, actually). It was for sale and Dexter said maybe he could fly that one home alongside me in our plane. He found that pretty amusing. There was an old-style range map on the wall, six feet high. It was a bunch of VFR charts wallpapered on with a string and pulley centered at the Dalhart Airport. When you pulled the string a weight traveled up a mileage scale at the side, so I showed Dexter how long we had flown from Wichita and how much further we had to go.

In a stiff wind, we took off and headed west. It was some intimidating terrain as the Texas hill country turned into the remains of the Rockies near Santa Fe. We came into the Albuquerque area through the same pass as the I-10, very high for our approach to runway two-one. We slipped and bounced down a steep final approach, fully prepared to go around in the pattern, but in the end I was able to dump all our potential energy in a couple of tail wags.

The Sunport is a little bit of a sad place for General Aviation these days because Eclipse Jet’s factory was here, and all of their sales and training. They went Chapter 7 and now there are a couple hundred plane owners with cute little jets orphaned. We parked at Cutter Aviation, right across the field from the factory.

We checked the weather, Dexter played a little three-dimensional pinball on their computer, and I got us some snacks. I discussed the options with Dexter and after forty minutes we decided we wanted to press on. It was six o’clock. We called ahead to the Cutter Aviation in Phoenix and made sure they would be able to take us to a hotel when we landed.

Another pre-flight, checking the fuel, Dexter climbed in and was clearly enjoying his influence on our travel plans. We were going to sleep in Phoenix, which is where he said we should sleep. There were some dark clouds in the sky and I had a little of my usual impatience with the departure controllers as they vectored us north and took a little time before letting us turn on course. Over a two and a half hour flight, it doesn’t make a significant difference. I have to learn to relax about it.

The nice thing about flying along with Dexter is that he and I are both fairly solitary. So he watched the scenery from the back seat and I watched it from the front seat, and we both thought our thoughts, only occasionally interrupting the other with a musing or exclamation about what was below.

We saw a spectacularly little town on top of a mesa a hundred miles outside of the city. That seemed crazy. We couldn’t figure out how the people got up on top of it.

As we passed Winslow, AZ we had mysterious weather up ahead. It was a wall of grey. Or it wasn’t because there was bright grey filtering through. It was the shadow of something, or mist from the cloud above and dust from the ground below. We just couldn’t tell. As we flew closer it faded away like a mirage. This happened a few times on the second half of the flight to Phoenix and each time it was stressful because the illusion was that I was flying toward a squall line or IMC. I wasn’t interested in flying into either one.

Even with the occasional stress, it was the most dramatic landscape of the entire trip in either direction. Dexter and I kept talking about it once we were on the ground. At our altitude, you could really see that there was once one level for the ground, but most of it had been eroded away. The tops of all of the mesas were congruent, and shared a similar flora, very different from the desert floor below them. So they looked like patches and pieces of a grey-green blanket that was torn and scattered.

The sight that stays with me is of a watering hole atop a mesa. It had regular sides and was very nearly a square. It held a few days of rain. The dirt from the shallow depression was piled in neat rows on two sides of the rectangle. But there was no way up onto the mesa. And no one up there. Who made it? What was it for? I saw more than one, but couldn’t make sense of any of them.

There were high winds and a dust cloud in the Phoenix basin. After twelve hours of travel I was ready to be on the ground. I already missed Nell’s usual assurances that she would take care of selecting the hotel. The approach controller at Phoenix replied to my check in transmission but said she didn’t have me identified yet on radar, but probably would in about forty miles. Over the dramatic, inhospitable terrain, with a grey sky full of dust ahead, it was a lonely forty miles. It was the only time during the entire trip in both directions that Dexter asked if we were close to landing. I gave him ten minute updates from there in.

The Phoenix area is usually what pilots call “severe clear,” which is clear skies with unlimited visibility. So when the winds pick up on occasion and hurl the top layer of the desert into the air, there is resulting chaos. We could see half a dozen miles ahead and the controllers were more and more abrupt. My request for a clearance into the Bravo airspace so I could keep my descent shallow was denied. I altered course and steered around the shelf of Bravo I wanted to nick.

We were landing, for a change, at the little airport in town, Deer Valley. We touched down in very high gusty winds, with a sprinkle of rain. I made sure that the plane was well-chocked and snugly tied down before unpacking. Dexter trundled happily into the FBO with me.

The day's travel

The day’s travel

It took forty minutes of sitting in the hotel room before we could even decide if we were hungry enough to explore the industrial area around our suites hotel. We finally stopped vibrating and decided it was worth a look. We were glad we did because it was Panda Express (Dexter’s favorite) and Cold Stone Creamery. Both were delicious, since we hadn’t eaten since Texas. We strolled back to our hotel full and happy.

We had completed the longest day of flying on the entire trip. We crossed from St. Louis to Phoenix, through Missouri, Kansas, Texas, a corner of Oklahoma, New Mexico and into Arizona. It was eleven hundred nautical miles. The most we had done with all four in the plane was seven hundred seventy-five nautical miles. We slept soundly.

About Colin Summers

I am an architect, programmer, private pilot, husband and father. A couple of those I am good at.
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