The Dropoff

(This is part of A Summer of Flying.)

Santa Monica Departure

Santa Monica Departure

We started out at the end of June. It was sort of luxurious to have the front seat as an empty space to pile my bag of necessities (Kind bars, iPad mini, water) and Dexter seemed like a young CEO climbing into the back with his laptop, iPhone and small fleecy blanket. But it was very sad to take off into the eastern, summer sky without Nell and Rudy along.

Handy Items

Handy Items

Although this is the seventeenth time I will have departed KSMO for the east coast, there are no shortcuts. I have carefully briefed the flight to KSEZ this morning, and studied the weather, NOTAMs and information for each of the airports we hope to make it to that day. I am careful taking off and navigating east as I was the very first time I did this. That’s one of the things that’s interesting about aviation, the excitement remains the same I think in part because the risks remain nearly as constant. That means I have to be just as vigilant this morning as Adam and I were in 2007 when we had never seen the Sedona airport.

Climbing out of the LA basin and turning north through the pass to the desert I was having trouble getting L67 dialed in for my navigation. I finally gave up. Then I thought to ask the controller if the Rialto airport still existed. “Of course it does, let me check the identifier.” After quite a while (in radio time) he returned and said, “I guess it has been closed down.” That’s sad. There was sort of a cluster of little airports there and I guess the community just didn’t have a need for it anymore. San Bernardino and Cable airport are both nearby. As the Santa Monica City Council continues to try to close our local airport in order to turn the valuable land over to developers, I have become more sensitive to these stories.

Weather permitting, it will be a long day of flying. I have my Kindle, iPad mini and iPhone for music on board, but I don’t break out any of them. The longest leg is actually this first one to Sedona, so I allow the movement to entertain me. There are small rain clouds gathering at the edge of the desert, against the San Bernardino mountains, and I dodge the rain and clouds. For a long time seeing the ground between the clouds, coming in and out of the pouring rain, and seeing the shadows crawl along the desert is a better show than anything I could dial up on the iPad or listen to in the headphones.

Sedona Under Grey Skies

Sedona Under Grey Skies

The sky is the most mysterious and dynamic landscape we can inhabit. It is so rare to say, “What exactly am I looking at?” when you are on the ground, but that happens all the time when you are aloft. There is no scale or direction in the sky, other than the direction of the wind and the pull of gravity. But the airplane allows us to overcome one and since we are within the medium the wind is not a movement we perceive. It is not really the movement that makes flight so fascinating, but the occupation of an infinite and mysterious space.

Rain Pounding the Desert

Rain Pounding the Desert

Before I know it, I am planning the descent for Sedona where we will have a late breakfast. (The restaurant was renovated and completely rebuilt in the past few years. This breakfast is a real disappointment with Dexter’s pancakes arriving wet inside and very sour tasting. The waitress apologizes that the cook probably used the Lemon Ricotta batter by mistake. The replacement pancakes are still under-cooked and not very good. Dexter doesn’t complain much, but I am underwhelmed by the fancy place. I would have preferred a decent diner.

The high desert between Sedona and Albuquerque is some of my favorite landscape in the country. I am always a little nervous crossing it, since the plane is only a few thousand feet above the ground, but operating at 9,500 MSL (Mean Sea Level). So our grasp on our assigned altitude and our safety margin that allows for a good twenty minutes of gliding to find a landing spot begin feel a little more tenuous than usual. The landing at KABQ is the most difficult of the trip (high altitude airport, highest temperature of the day, busy commercial field), but I know to be on my most alert and soon Dexter and I are having lunch at Asian Street Food, our favorite restaurant in Albuquerque. Afterwards we walk down to the frozen custard place, but neither of us are very interested.

Albuquerque's Valley

Albuquerque’s Valley

With the last difficult takeoff of the trip behind us, we climbed slowly back to 9,500 and eighty miles later the desert floor started to drop away.

It is that section of the desert, between the Cajon Pass and the MOA (Military Operations Area) past Albuquerque, that I think a lot about our relationship with the landscape and water. The desert is the great equalizer. With all of our technology it is impossible to live out there. We can fly over it, drive through, or live carefully at the edge of survival, but we can’t force water out of the ground where it doesn’t exist and without it we are only visitors in that landscape.

Especially around the stretch from Apple Valley to Needles the land tells us of another time, when all those volcanos were underwater, the lava flow stopping early as the magma met the sea and turned to rock. The flow of huge sections of mud and the slide of massive pieces of rock. In that same landscape you see the scale of efforts necessary to control the sudden deluge that storms bring to the desert. There are huge berms angled uphill from the railroad tracks, redirecting runoff to carefully planned paths and culverts that run under the trackbed.

Really, so much of the landscape below, seen at this scale, is our struggle to control water. It is an epic tale, told across the entire continent, trying to gather and use it for irrigation, to keep rivers from flooding, to keep wastewater away from the source of the drinking water, and on and on. I am sure nothing seems as impossible to survive as the lack of one more gallon of clean drinking water, and then, as we are landing in Liberal, Kansas, I remember that on these plains a flood can seem biblical and watching the water rise up three feet, covering your cornfields as far as you can see, must seem as hopeless.

Panorama of Liberal, Kansas

Panorama of Liberal, Kansas

And I think of that epic tale of water and landscape even when I see tiny vignettes. East of Albuquerque, before I have started our descent for Liberal, I look down on the high desert and see a cliff wall that is seventy feet high. It’s always so difficult to know how long these sort of places go without the footsteps of a single person, but I can see a hard scrabble path, maybe just easy enough for a horse to make it up or down and at the bottom is a single tree, a tiny patch of grass, and there must be a bit of water there. A tiny oasis, and I wonder how many people know about it, have planned their days around making it back there to the shade of that tree.

It is cool in the plane two miles above the earth, with 56F air coming in the vents. Dexter is napping under a fleecy blanket. This is hard to keep in mind as we land at Kansas City in 85F degree heat.


On the Way to Breakfast

On the Way to Breakfast

The next morning Dexter found us an amazing crêpe place for breakfast. To get there, we walked through the Performing Arts District of Kansas City, which had a very cool building and quite a view of historic parts of the city. Well-fortified for our journey north we saddled up and pointed the nose up the Mississippi. It was only a couple of hours of flying, but it was already close to midday and the thunderstorms were starting to form. A lot of the journey was spent trying to figure out what the landscape of the sky would be as we were approaching it, using METARs, XM radar images, what we could see out the window, and chatter on the radio.

The landing at Midway is exciting, since it is an extremely busy airport. Atlantic is extremely professional at KMDW, and they bring us to the train station for the ride into Chicago. We spent a few nights in town, touring the University of Chicago and Northwestern, checking out the studio and gallery show of Tony Fitzpatrick, and eating one of the best dinners I have had anywhere at Charlatan. I took an evening tour of the city’s architecture seen from a boat on the river.


Soon enough we were back at the airport and took off into a summer haze, headed for Grinnell airport. Grinnell College is interesting because it is so well-funded that it attracts some of the best faculty even though it is in a tiny town in Iowa.

Flat, in a word

Flat, in a word

The airport is as small as the town’s size would suggest and there is no tower. I self-announced on the CTAF as we came within range. These little concrete strips surrounded by the lush green of the prairie are so beautiful, so iconic, so American to me. Unfortunately, as the wheels dragged onto the pavement I could feel the plane pulling to the left. It was my fifth flat tire in the DA40, so I recognized the feeling very quickly. I also knew that there were not a lot of options. I wasn’t going to make it to the parking area. I steered so that the left wheel was right on the edge of the runway as we came to a stop and hopped out. Leaning on the tail I quickly spun the plane ninety degrees so that only four feet of the seventy-five foot runway is blocked by our plane. It would be pretty hard to *not see* our plane if you were coming in the land, but I figure if there’s a FedEx plane or something they might decide to land halfway down the runway, or to the right side.

Grinnell College

Grinnell College

Ron Lowry of Lowry Motor Sports runs a crop dusting operation at the airport. It looks like it is substantial and well-run. He answered the phone on a Saturday when I called and said he would come right out. Once he saw the deal, and I gave him the spare tube that I carry with me, he said he would take care of it. He pointed us to a white sedan in the parking lot and said, “Take my car, just go have lunch, do what you need to do and I’ll get on this.”

So Dexter Yelped! and found the Chinese place in town that would have his fried rice. We had that, checked out some sort of bicycle race that seemed to be happening in the downtown, and then stopped by the campus to look at Grinnell College. It was deemed “nice enough, if you want to go to a small school in a small town in the middle of nowhere.” At least it wasn’t eliminated the way Northwestern was.

Almost Complete

Almost Complete

Back at the airport Ron had just about finished getting the tire back on the wheel and we stayed in the air conditioned lounge while he finished it up. The flat tire might have cost us an hour, but maybe not even. I taxied the plane into the parking area and he topped off the fuel for us. He had to call a clerk out to the airport to run the credit card and I felt badly about disturbing her weekend for a single transaction. Dexter and I climbed in for the half hour flight to Iowa City.

As we approached KIOW the weather was deteriorating, with a storm blowing in from the north. I get a little anxious in the flatlands about the transmission towers, some of which are 2,500 feet tall with supporting wires that are forty-five degrees to the tower. So far I have only read a couple NTSB accident reports related to these towers, but that’s enough to keep me pretty aware of them. Fortunately, they are marked on the moving map on the MFD in the panel. So I am watching those as we come into Iowa City, having to descend a little early because of the clouds. One my traffic display I can see that there’s a plane on an instrument approach into the airport. As I announce my position relative to the field, I am annoyed that he doesn’t. That continues all the way to the airport, where I enter the traffic pattern close on his heels and he never makes one peep about his position or intentions. I chalk it up to the difference in regional piloting styles. Later, on the ground I see that the lower radio antenna has come loose, probably from the swift rotation of the plane’s tail into the grassy area next to the runway in Grinnell. So I couldn’t hear anything on Com2, and might not have been transmitting either. Good to know.

We are given a crew car for the night and Dexter I head to the Sheraton. I’m very happy that there’s a Rocky Mountain Fudge Company location, where I can get a caramel apple as a reward for some decent flying for the day. In the morning I will drop Dexter off for his summer program at the Iowa City Writers Workshop and I’ll take the plane back to its origin location in Canada.

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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One Response to The Dropoff

  1. leslie says:

    A beautiful, poetic description of the wonder that awaits those who fly.

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