The first crossing in the new plane seemed important to document. I failed on a few fronts (as soon as I announced I was on the east coast my brother asked how many gallons of fuel I burned; I realized I had neglected to log that), but I’ll try to make up for it on the return flight.
I started on Monday morning in Friday Harbor and took off a little before 7:30am. As described in my previous post, I needed a repair at Boeing Field and had a weather diversion. But, if we pretend that wasn’t necessary, that I had everything working perfectly and was able to skip out of the Seattle area ahead of the weather, I believe I would have been in Great Falls at about 10:30am, perfect for a nap and an early lunch.
That’s the most difficult leg of the trip, and it is an easier crossing than the one we did at Jackson Hole, Wyoming. For that we were squeaking along below some of the highest points with the normally aspirated Lycoming wheezing along with the high altitude. When we cross near Sedona and Albuquerque we are at 9,500 feet but we pick a very careful route and we are aware that there is high terrain all around us. The Twinstar, with the turbo-charged engines generating 75% power without any issue, climbed to 13,500 feet without pause and I cruised over Missoula, Montana, and with a little wiggle was able to start my descent for Great Falls, Montana.
The FBO at Great Falls is a retro-style stop for small planes. It is Front Line Aviation and they host the local chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), the outfit that runs Oshkosh, the largest gathering in aviation. The fellow who appeared to be in charge was the one that marshaled me in and when I popped the canopy said, “Well, that’s a great looking plane!” While they fueled the plane, I borrowed a car and drove into town where the guy said I would find “too many places to eat, too many banks, I don’t know what it is in our town.” I explained when I got back: you have gambling. People need to get their money out of the bank and every place you can eat has a casino attached to it.
The remains of the southern part of the storm that I escaped in central Washington ha followed me over the Rockies and were showing up to the south of town. I hurried a little getting back to the plane. It is big sky country, and I surveyed that expanse before taking off. It was about a three hour flight to Bismarck, North Dakota and for the first half hour I tracked a little more north than the east I wanted, because the storm was filling the sky to the south and I could occasionally see lightning from the dark clouds down to the grey, drenched ground. It is a marvel to sit in the catbird seat while one portion of a community is pummeled by nature and the rest of it escapes. I wonder about the phone calls between the two places. One virga is a deluge, swimming pools of water falling the mile from the dark cloud to the flat, high desert below. “No, blue sky over here, I see a little white airplane up there, heading north, northwest.”
I watched the NextRAD images, I talked to the controller, but mostly I pointed my little Mach I eyeballs outside and watched the sky. After thirty minutes I was able to angle east, slip between two cells and head directly across the plains to Bismarck. It is quiet a piece of real estate, Montana as it bleeds into North Dakota. It is forbidding down there. Evening drew on and the moon was visible ahead of me. These are great, wide, open spaces. Unbelievable. The stretches that I flew over, even at a hundred seventy miles per hour, without seeing any sign of human habitation was sobering. This is a vast country and we have barely settled but a few corners of it. The rocks, dirt, rivers, and scrub continued to scroll by beneath me, as the shadows grew longer and the air traffic control frequency got more and more quiet.
Then, unexpectedly, Sioux Falls Center spoke up, “Two Romeo Delta, we have a radar outage up there and I’m not going to be able to provide any further advisors. Squawk VFR and enjoy the flight to Bismarck.” Suddenly, the empty expanses below me seemed colder, really empty of people. I knew the chances of losing both engines was, essentially, nil, but I still THINK of who I might encounter on the ground if I had to set it down on a road in the middle of nowhere. I couldn’t see any roads down there. I set the transponder code for 1200, turned up Counting Crows, and watched the remaining nautical miles to KBIS count down. After an hour of silence I tried a Center frequency again and they were able to pick me up. It was lonely there for a while.
Romeo Delta and I met night head on, hanging in the sky at one five thousand five hundred feet. Center kept an eye on us, I studied up on the Bismarck airport. There were two FBOs and landing at 10:30pm you really want the better of the two. But it’s hard to know what that is. Out here on the plains, where in the winter a storm can mean the plane is pinned down for a week, I imagine both of these places have learned to deal with pilots and their emergencies. I’m not an emergency, but I’ve noticed that the places reviewed online that deal well with “We landed here in the middle of a blizzard and they took great care of us,” are also fabulous places on a warm summer evening. Good people are good people.
Executive Air Taxi won out. I talked to a very nice tower controller as I followed the ILS to runway one three (following the new night flying rules, even though it was VFR), and she stayed with me for the long taxi to the FBO. I felt a little badly for Bismarck Aero Services, which had a huge hangar, all of their lights on to look friendly, and a couple guys out on the ramps with their marshaling wands at the ready. I trundled past to Executive (their fuel was cheaper by six cents). And they had the most interesting decor of any FBO we have stopped at. The only guy there signed me in, told me there was one hotel that would send a shuttle van, and called to make a reservation for me there. When I came out of the restroom he said the van was on the way.
Here is what I can tell you about Bismarck: I won’t stop there again for an overnight, unless forced down by weather. Even then I have a feeling I would be better off just a little to the south, even if it was a smaller town. It’s a city of a seventy thousand with forty hotels. I had forgotten about the whole “oil boom” thing (which is really a natural gas, fracking and oil boom), which has spawned some nightmarish stories as the little towns through North Dakota try to absorb all of these incoming workers. I arrived a half year past the “bust” portion of the boom-and-bust cycle. Apparently if I had arrived during the boom it would have been really hard to get a hotel room. As it was the clerk asked what sort of room I wanted (one with a bed), and if I preferred a higher floor (that would be great). “I’ll put you on the north side, away from the trains.” I was a little buzzed from the day of flying, so I didn’t really registered what that meant.
To move the oil (and gas) they load up the trains. The trains move every two hours. Through the entire day and night. Maybe that would be okay, although I could feel the rumble of their steel wheels on the rails all the way up on the ninth floor. Federal law says that they have to blow their whistle when they are approaching an on-grade crossing. The trains seemed to go through the center of town, through a dozen on-grade crossings, and possible through the lobby of the hotel. The whistle is the entire horn section of Satan’s orchestra.
After not a lot of sleep I got up and went down for breakfast. Better than the usual hotel breakfast and I read the Bismarck paper about how they were working hard to revere from the hail storm of a few weeks back that broke the windows on “every car that was not parked under cover.” I am not tough enough for the plains. Time to fly on.
Flight planning at breakfast, I was torn between stopping somewhere around Green Bay or pressing across the Lake to Upper Michigan on the other side. The weather was definitely keeping me north. I decided I’d figure it out at altitude depending on my tailwind. Two hours into the flight I was unable to figure out lunch at any of the airports on the other side of Lake Michigan, so just planned for Green Bay. It was sweaty hot on the ground, and hazy with the humidity, but the FBO suggested an excellent burger spot for lunch at the nearby ball field. And that’s how I got to see the three-story tall Lombard trophy.
Those arrivals are one of the times I really miss having Nell along. Or, at least, one of the boys. It’s hard to do all the flying and then, as you are stepping out of the plane and happy to have a break from the scanning of instruments, planning around weather, study of the airport and our route, to switch over to figuring out where lunch is going to be or what sort of hotel we could get nearby. I took my regulation sixteen minute nap when I got back to the FBO, and climbed into the fully-fueled Romeo Delta to continue east.
The last time I crossed a great lake it was with Dexter and he was napping. I had climbed to over twelve thousand feet so that I had as much gliding distance as I could if I lost the engine. I had figured it out and there was only ten minutes in the middle where I wouldn’t make it to shore. We had our floatation devices within easy reach. I turned up my Few & Far Between playlist for the whole way. Even with the chilly air shooting through the vents, it was a bit of sweaty flying. This time, I sat happy at fifteen thousand, five hundred feet with a thirty knot tailwind, both engines humming along. It’s not that I didn’t track our progress across, and I was certainly happy that I was talking to a controller, but I didn’t have the constant feeling that something might be wrong with the engine. (That’s a well-known phenomenon in aviation and is called “automatic rough,” when your engine sounds different when you are crossing water.)
I wasn’t certain that I would be able to make it to Caldwell, New Jersey in a single hop. I had places picked out for fuel stops, but the tailwind helped a lot. I dodged a few clouds as we closed in on the Scranton Wilkes-Barre area and had to descend to remain VFR. And then I was dialing in the ATIS for KCDW, planning my arrival, talking as quickly as I possibly could for New York Center and Approach controllers, and the landing gear was coming down for my final landing of the trip. It was 8pm and I managed to get into Manhattan, settled, and was walking down Fifth Avenue toward a late night snack at Cho Cho San before 9:30pm. Not bad for a late start and weather diversion the day before.
In another two weeks from now I will try another solo crossing from Santa Monica to KBED in Massachusetts.