Crossing 2013

Most likely, this is our penultimate family trip in the little plane. Rudy will start college after next summer and will almost certainly have his own plans each summer. Dexter has already started down that path and our departure from Santa Monica was delayed because he was in a Shakespeare program in Topanga Canyon which he loved. We tried to work out all sorts of different permutations to get the plane across the country where we could use it to hop around, but in the end we just had a shorter vacation and all got to enjoy Dexter’s turn as Laertes.

I tried hard to get the boys (and Nell) to take a few more photographs and to contribute them to the Tumblr. I would say I met with limited success. The blog software has gotten better for displaying collections of images, so that’s a marked improvement for this trip (if you hover over the image the caption will appear; clicking on the image will bring it up in it’s full-size, screen-filling glory).

Saturday, August 10: KSMO – KFLG – KABQ.

Santa Monica, California to Flagstaff, Arizona and then overnight in Albuquerque, New Mexico. There is a wonderful moment when a journey begins, when you can’t plan or pack any more because you are on the road or in the sky.

As I put in the first transponder code for flight following out of the LA Basin the controller gave me 7253. After I punched it in I said, “I always feel a little funny putting in a code that starts with seven.” He said, “I know what you mean.” (All of the emergency transponder codes start with 7, including one that means you are being hijacked.)


Golden Shores

As we flew over Needles and east into the high desert I looked down at this tiny community. It appeared to mostly be trailers (or, my brother-in-law points out, “mobile homes”). I tried to imagine what life was like for the residents, and had difficulty. They are very near the community of Needles, California, but obviously outside of it. They are not the rugged sort who want to be out in the wilds of the desert on their own, they want to be in a community, but they have chosen a very different one than those nearby, like Needles or (on the other side of the rise) Prescott, Arizona.

Everyone can fly over this terrain now with Google, but it is so different to have it revealed little by little, like a narrative.

The last forty minutes of the flight were extremely engaging for the pilot. You can see in the photo that Rudy took of the two of us in the front seats that Nell was focused on her writing while I was plotting a course through the least active portions of a line of storms about six hundred miles long. The controllers were really helpful as we came in toward KABQ. There are three airports close to one another: the Sunport itself, Santa Fe and Double Eagle. During our two hour flight from Flagstaff the storms rolled through the valley and would cover two of the three in turns. The approach controller asked which airport we wanted to land at and I said, “We’ll take any of those three.” The entire way into the valley the controllers kept tell us what was ahead, where the precipitation was lightest and where we could probably make it through. It was unbelievable helpful and comforting. Without them I am pretty sure we would have spent the night in Gallup, New Mexico.

Sunday, August 11: KABQ – KDDC – KLWC – KIND

Departing in the morning from Albuquerque, New Mexico, we landed in Dodge City, Kansas for fuel and a Dairy Queen. As we started our take-off roll on runway one eighth I said to Nell, “This is the last difficult take off,” since it was the last runway at high elevation that we would have until we were headed home. Since the flag had torn off of the pitot cover earlier, I didn’t notice it during my pre-flight inspection and we were rolling down the runway without our airspeed indicator climbing up from zero. We aborted the takeoff, pulled off onto a taxiway, and Rudy climbed out, grabbed the cover, and we returned to the start of the runway to try again.

Our original plan had us pushing on from Albuquerque in the evening and spending the night in Dodge City. It was not a big enough town to support a comfortable hotel, so missing that goal was probably for the best. For a lot of the flying I wore oxygen. It reduces fatigue, sharpens your wits and improves your night vision. This is the trip that finally got me to look up center pivot irrigation to learn about the technology that transformed the middle of the country, particularly the high plains.

After getting out of Dodge we continued on to Lawrence, Kansas for dinner (BBQ is a requirement if you are within a certain radius of Kansas City), and then spent the night in Indianapolis, Indiana (the night landing at KIND was very exciting for Nell). During the evening flight from Kansas up into Indiana we lost the light very gradually. I imagine because the land is so flat. So the sky turned grey for a long time and then we could see the golden lights of the towns hovering in the grey gauze of late evening.

Monday, August 12: KIND – KLPR – KALB

We hopped right out of bed in Indianapolis and headed for Oberlin, Ohio for a campus tour (sort of a continuation of Rudy’s college hops). As we headed across Indiana and into Ohio I watched little towns interrupt these long stretches of farms on the plains. We were low enough that I could see a quarter of a farm-sized quadrant set aside for a cemetery in each town. I’ve noted it before and though that it was a waste of good farmland (I am a more of a cremate and spread the ashes sort of fellow). For some reason this time I thought how the land set aside for graves acted as a physical record of the families who had worked the land, settled the town, fed the country. Over the generations so much of what they accomplished would be erased by progress and the accomplishments of the following townspeople, but the graves would be there as a reminder that they were there for decades of hard work. It’s a history of the place written on the place itself.

Although we were stopping in Albany for fuel, it became a longer stop since our alternator failed on the descent to the airport. Nell drove us the rest of the way and we got to relax in New London, New Hampshire that evening.

Tuesday, August 13: KALB – KLEB

A short hop to bring the airplane to New Hampshire with a sky full of clouds.

Friday, August 16: KLEB – KSYR – CYTZ – CNK4

Dexter and I flew from New Hampshire up to Parry Sound, Ontario to be on Lake Wah Wash Kesh with my family. On the last leg of the trip he sat up in the front with me and I explained everything that was happening for the trip, which lasted a little under an hour.

Tuesday, August 20: CNK4 – KMBS – KACB

Returning west, Dexter and I flew across Lake Huron to Michigan. Before we headed out over the water we flew south over the farmland of Ontario. We could see the ground below through the haze of a hot summer day. The details of the farms were lost and it was like looking down at a night quite developed Polaroid.

We spent a night on Torch Lake, which is sublime. We arrived dirty, exhausted from our travel and from several nights on the Lake without the comforts of civilization (hot showers, a laundry machine), and dragging a bag of dirty laundry. My friend TW and his wife were so welcoming and it was the perfect re-entry to the modern world. We sat around a bonfire that night, cooking hamburgers and brats and then enjoying marshmallows.

Wednesday, August 21: KACB – KCID – KEAR – KAPA

After some discussion the night before with TW (another Diamondstar pilot and a veteran of many cross-continental flights), I decided that I could fly the sixty nautical miles over Lake Michigan in a single engine plane, which cut an hour off of our flying time to Denver (where we hoped to spend the night, leaving the crossing of the Rockies for the early morning when the air would be cool and still).

It is really hard for me to find my Zen over water in the plane. Even on the ten minute crossing to Catalina the engine sounds funny. My friend Ray used to fly F-16s for the Air National Guard. He said that over the Atlantic his engine sounded funny. It is a phenomenon that pilots call “automatic rough.” The engine detects that you are no longer within gliding distance of the shore and automatically adjusts to run a little rougher.

Or at least, that’s how it feels. Dexter was napping. I was talking to a controller and between updates I cranked the Black Eyed Peas and John Hiatt. Not too many songs later I knew that I could make it to the shore of Wisconsin. We were at 14,500 feet, which is as high as we have cruised. Both Dexter and I were wearing the little oxygen canulas. The haze below made the ground indistinct, which made it harder to focus on the landscape and I found it easier to become disengaged. The O2 helped.

Landing in Kearny, Kansas it was sad to have the receptionist at the FBO recommend “Edgewater” as the place to have lunch. That meant that the downtown of Kearny was dead and we were directed to drive directly through it and continue into the suburban sprawl beyond it, where we found quite a good lunch in a strip mall. (Yelp! helped, and Dexter found the place using it.) Climbing back into the plane I realized my jeans still smelled like the bonfire from last night, which gave me a big smile.

We made it all the way to Denver, Colorado. The last half hour was a little tense, since we were entering an area of high altitude (the Mile High City!), there was rough (and then, as it got dark, unknown) terrain, a huge storm system that was pounding the main Denver airport, and we were unfamiliar with the area. We remained VFR the entire time and were very happy to finally get on the ground.

Thursday, August 22: KAPA – KFMN – KSEZ – KSMO

I understood, on my departure, that the reception the controllers had given me the night before was not an anomally. Denver controllers are just overworked (and therefore a little unfriendly). A friend of mine is a Southwest jet captain and he said it’s not just the little guys, it is a difficult area for the commercial flights to come into as well. He said that the FAA seems to keep adding STARs (Standard Terminal Arrival Routes) to get into Denver, making it more and more complex for both the pilots and the controllers. That’s too bad. It is one of the more gorgeous parts of the country and having to ask over and over for flight following makes it a little less enjoyable.

Leaving Denver I didn’t put up any sun shades. There was a lot of sun but I really wanted the view to be uninterrupted. It was so dramatic that it was hard to believe. The very start of it was a little alarming, since the peaks rose so fast and beyond the treeline, so there they are: naked and sharp, full of granite. Definitely not friendly or soft looking. Rocky, without any question. I was glad that I knew I could turn tail and glide back to some roads and flatter land without any difficulty.

But the peaks gave way to a plateau of farms and ranches. Those people probably laugh at Denver calling itself the Mile High City. Sure, sure, we’re up here at 9,000 feet… We landed after a couple hours in Farmington, New Mexico. There were five huge Chinook helicopters which were stopped for fuel. They were out doing Marine exercises.

There were storms between us and home, but we pressed on. Sometimes the shadows of the clouds worked as a map of the cloud system, drawn on the desert floor. That helped us wind our way between them. We had a delicious lunch at Sedona’s airport and pressed on through the desert. Other than a little mountain wave action neat Rialto, we entered the Los Angeles Basin without incident and ran downhill all the way home. Dexter was a great companion for the trip.

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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