I first noticed it riding the airline back to Cleveland. A big turbo-fan engine hung beneath the wing just outside my window. Around its front, a single row of rivets connected the inlet ring to the rest of the engine cowling. Hundreds of of them set in precise formation.Their pattern revealed disciplined purpose, like a single beat keeping time. Other patterns in complex harmonies, reveal themselves only from unique perspectives. Like flying, for example.
I came to Wooster, Ohio, again. Met Don, again. Met the pert Pacer, again. High winds calmed, as they would again after the next hard blow. I flew the Pacer to Holmes County airport, again. Practiced takeoffs and landings, again. Refueled, again. Don flew back to Wooster, repeating a pattern every airplane owner knows—a first and last flight.
Then the final ritual. Don removed his stuff from the cockpit. I put mine in—a pilot’s personal paraphernalia deemed necessary for flight that also claims the territory. For the next few days, the Pacer was mine.
I closed the door, repeated checklists, started the engine, then waved a last time. Don looked a moment. Then raised his hand, palm toward me. Final transaction complete, I released the brakes and taxied up the grassy slope to strip end. After more check lists, I pivoted the airplane around a complete circle to check for unannounced landing traffic. No one there, so I pushed in the throttle. Light now with just me, the Pacer moved immediately. In a moment I pushed the control yoke forward to raise the tail. Trundling turned to spritely, ever lighter bounces. I pulled the control yoke back, the wheels left the ground and we climbed above the trees. A minute later, I turned slightly right and headed west.
Though slow, the Pacer climbed quickly to 6,500 feet. Dark blue sky above faded to a thin, white haze line on the horizon. Trimmed to fly level, I took my hands off the control yoke and steered with occasional touches on the rudder pedals. Then I cycled through the pilot’s routine: Check engine gages. Confirm heading and altitude. Verify position. Call ATC (air traffic control) for radar flight following. Scout for alternate landing sites—just in case. Make sure previous weather forecasts agree with the view out the window. Search current weather forecasts for the route ahead. Repeat.
I hung above patterned land. Farms, fields, and towns connected by road and rail, traversed by rivers, splotched by woods. Regular fields, orderly fields, cultivated fields, fallow fields, harvested fields. A visitor from another world soaring over the midwest would correctly judge us to be an agricultural people. The land testifies that we have, indeed, been fruitful and multiplied. Though many people pack into cities, all live at the pleasure of farm and ranch.
Light tail winds under clear sky pushed me to my first refueling stop, Kankakee, Illinois. After a quick-turn (aviation jargon for, “Please fuel my plane asap, I need to keep moving.”) I was back at 6,500’ pointed west to Atlantic, Iowa. The Pacer cruises at 105 knots (120 mph). The fuel tanks hold four hours of gas. So subtracting a one-hour fuel margin (just in case) yields a no-wind range of 360 statute miles. Not very far for 3 hours flying, especially when crossing a continent. I hoped to fly an additional 3 hours to North Platte, Nebraska, but after landing at Atlantic, body, brain, and lowering sun agreed that I was done for the day. I found a parking spot and tied the Pacer securely to the planet. Barry & Lori—owners of the airport’s FBO (Fixed Base Operator), Airworks—recommended a hotel and loaned me a car. By the time I was eating dinner, the sun set.
Pre-dawn blew in gray sky over a gray ramp. Even the Pacer looked gray, felt gray. I was off at sunrise, climbed to 6,500’ again, heading west again. Different sky, same routine. The pattern continued in the cockpit and on the ground below. The weather, following its own, less regular, but inexorable pattern, had changed. The display on my iPad showed a line of rain running north to south across my path. The color coding said the most intense rain lay well to the south. But already drops peppered my windscreen, streaming back in long silver ribbons. The ceiling lowered, dropping slanting gray columns from cloud to ground. Like dirty shear curtains bending away from the wind, they allowed some light to pass, but filtered the view beyond. Decision time, again. Go forward, winding my way through the billowing curtain maze, or land and wait for bad weather to pass?
Flying into the clouds posed three risks. First, regulations limited this particular flight to visual conditions only. Second, freezing wet clouds could coat the wing with ice, reducing lift while also adding drag and weight. That combination could yield disappointing results. Third, without real time weather radar info (my iPad data was usually 10-15 minutes old), I chanced encountering the imbedded thunderstorm bogeyman. Never a good idea for even the biggest, most capable aircraft, such a meeting could prove disastrous for Pacer and pilot.
Rain drummed on the fabric wings and fuselage with a deeper, more resonant note than a metal airplane. The streams across the windscreen increased. Drops formed inside the cockpit around door edges, some running down side windows that otherwise remained clear. The reports I received showed good weather 20 miles ahead with higher ceilings and no thunderstorms. Taking into account the 5 knot headwind, the challenge was to remain legal and safe for 12 minutes. I could still see—down, forward, and behind me. So, if hard rain or cloud blocked my way, I could turn around.
I eased the control yoke forward to stay below the lowering ceiling. I leveled at 4,500’ and could see the ground clearly. Farmers’ pickups no longer raised dust. Moms called kids inside. I looked ahead. The rain veil remained translucent, a gray glow not completely hiding field and town. A newly wet highway shone silver, pointing a gleaming arrow westward. A reservoir big enough to have a name on my iPad map (Sherman Reservoir, near Loup City, Nebraska) hung just within visibility’s edge. I measured 8 miles. Great! The regs demanded only 3. The ground beyond the reservoir came into view. And then a little more. Progress.
The drumming continued, sometimes louder. Bumps. More drops around door edges. Turn left for a bit, then right, then more right avoiding the darker columns. More bumps anyway, but I could still see ahead. The reservoir slid below the left window. I was about halfway through, according to the iPad picture. Terrain ahead rose, but not abruptly. While cruising level at 4,500’ above sea level, the buffer between me and the ground had decreased from 3,000’ to 1,500’.
Then clear. Like a sudden light at night, I flew out from under dark rain into bright sunshine. Tree and road below sparkled from their recent bath, but I could see the bluff North Platte crowned 60 miles away. Bright air promised a far travel day. But bright air was also frisky air, boisterous enough to demand full attention. At the FBO I asked for another quick-turn, then went inside to check weather ahead. I really wanted to sleep in Rawlins, Wyoming that night.
Good news: clear skies.
Bad news: Gusty wind, 18 to 30 knots, worse than the Northern Ohio conditions that scrubbed my first attempt.
The Pacer can fly as slow as 30 knots. That meant I could be stopped on the ground and still find myself in the air. Rawlins was clearly unsuitable. But what about other airports? I checked Torrington, Camp Guernsey, Converse County, Cheyenne, and Casper. All the same and forecast to stay that way the rest of the day.
For a Pacer traversing the Rocky Mountains the only alternate route lay a full day’s flying south. I hung around the FBO for a couple hours, but the updated reports and forecasts offered no encouragement. “Maybe tomorrow when the front passes through …”, the Flight Service folks said. The hotel graciously sent their van just for me.
Next morning, well before first light, “The Weather Channel” on the hotel’s breakfast-bar TV agreed with the Flight Service commentary.
Good news: wind a little better, maybe operational.
Bad news: rain, snow, low ceilings.
An aviation mantra says, “Time to spare? Go by air.” What’s left unsaid, but understood, is that you must always be ready to go. So the pattern continued. Check reports and forecasts. Look for alternatives. Try to will better information out of cold numbers. Wait an hour. Repeat.
By 3:00 in the afternoon, North Platte wind whistled, western sky darkened. “It’s heading this way,” locals and forecasts said. “Could be snow or frost tonight.” The turbo-props and business jets had retreated inside. The little Pacer remained alone on the big ramp.
“Frost or snow?” I echoed a question.
“Yeah. Can happen this time of year. You never know.”
“You folks got any hangar space left tonight?” I asked, vividly remembering fingers frozen from hours removing frost and snow. For cars, cleaning off windows and lights suffices. Not so airplanes. No trace may remain on fuselage or wing if you want the craft to fly. Removing frozen water from planes, even little ones with little wings, gives whole new meaning to the term “surface area.” I put the Pacer to bed in a heated hangar and returned to the hotel for mine.
Next morning the pattern continued. Watched “The Weather Channel” over breakfast, again. Hoped the big picture would show a clear way home. I could reach Nampa that day if I started right away. Checked reports. Checked forecasts.
Bad news: The front was indeed sitting squarely over the 300+ miles across the Rockies north of Salt Lake City. For Rawlins and other airports tucked into the mountains, the forecaster used words like, “rain”, “snow”, “sleet”, “mountains obscured.” Ceilings 200’ or less. Visibilities of 1 to 2 miles or less. Winds the same as yesterday.
Good news: Casper, Wyoming had clear skies and operable winds and was forecast to remain the same all day. Easy decision this time. Head for Casper.
North Platte was, indeed, cold. But Pacer slept warm in a hangar with the big boys. I preflighted. The duty lineman and I pushed the plane onto the ramp—didn’t need the big tug. As the eastern horizon turned deep yellow, Pacer’s 150hp engine started, settling into a nice chuckle, ready to get back into the sky. I took off and turned left towards Casper.
Morning sun, now crossing the horizon, painted North Platte trees and roofs orange, their long shadows hiding streets and yards. Sharp glints flashed as new light touched windshield and window. No motion below yet. All still asleep. Just me passing slowly overhead, a white bird pushed by the dawn.
At first I stayed low at 4,500’ to avoid the worst headwind. Trucks weren’t passing me on the freeway—yet. But the land rose to the west and I climbed with it, leveling at 6,500’. And I had to be ready climb even more. Real mountains lay ahead. Already I could see the main chain of the Rockies jutting up, advancing from the south. But clear, surprisingly calm air prevailed. I accepted the gift.
The headwind increased, but the ride remained smooth. My iPad showed the ground speed had dropped to 87 knots (100mph). Still faster than trucks, though the roads had veered away denying the tenuous satisfaction of seeing highway denizens drop behind. Years flying with MAF over the Amazon jungle had infused my aviator DNA with an abhorrence of ever landing with less than 1 hour of fuel remaining in the tanks. So, decision time, again. I updated my refueling options. The numbers still allowed Casper, but if headwinds got worse, I’d have to divert to something closer.
Sky stayed clear. Air stayed smooth. I stayed low. Passed Crescent Lake Wildlife Refuge, crossed into Wyoming, bent north around the Restricted Area near Guernsey, then farther north to follow the skirts of the rising Laramie Range. Flew over Douglas then joined the North Platte River and I-25 marching into Casper.
On the ground I asked for another quick-turn and, once again, connected to the FBO’s WiFi to get the latest weather info, then called Flight Service on the phone. I could still reach Nampa that day if the weather cooperated. Unfortunately, a little knowledge about weather reports and maps easily deceives. Neat lines, concise symbols and precise numbers imply someone knows what will happen when. Reality falls short. Hope based on optimism did not move the messy airmass. A hundred miles ahead, rain and snow fell with impunity, clouds filled valleys, rolled over ridges, hid peaks. Both ignored human desire, quite content to stay as is where is, thank you.
I waited an hour, just in case. But, a second report reading and phone call confirmed Casper was the limit of that day’s travel. Forecast snow in Casper itself prompted another night’s hangar space for Pacer. A hotel van came, again. I checked into a room, again. Connected to the Internet, again. Put the muted TV on The Weather Channel, again. And tried, again, to guess what might happen tomorrow.
Clear morning. Cold morning. Dawn not yet showing. Breakfast bar TV and iPad weather reports looked workable. Checked out. Van ride to the airport. No snow. Gray glow to the east. Walked past a small crew unloading UPS trucks into a waiting turboprop. Preflighted in the hangar, glad to be out of the wind. Another lineman helped me push out to the ramp. Climbed in. Arranged cables, camera and snacks. Checklists, again. Took off again, just as the Sun crossed to eastern horizon.
I turned southwest. The flat ground rose steadily in broad valleys punctuated by abrupt mesas towards peaks 150 miles ahead. That combination precluded any thought of flying low to avoid stronger headwinds, so climbed to 10,500’ right away. Vestiges of yesterday’s clouds remained as fog clinging to deeper shaded valleys, or white shards hovering in scattered layers over flat-topped mesas, or broad, flowing strands following the upward curves of draws leading to higher peaks. The air shone diamond clear, but cloud edges were ragged, torn. That meant wind.
A ground speed check confirmed slow progress. I hoped to reach Logan, Utah for refueling. A quick calculation revealed I still could. But, their weather was not improving as forecast. I’d reach Logan at the end of my normal fuel range. If the weather prevented me from landing there, I’d have to dip into my reserve fuel to find another place to go.
An hour later Flight Service told me Logan weather was still below minimums. I could’ve made it all the way from Logan to Nampa on one fuel load. Stopping before Logan meant an additional refueling stop before reaching Nampa. Unavoidable now, it was time to divert to Kemmerer, WY.
The airport sat atop a mesa barely big enough to contain its three runways. The windsock stood almost straight out, showing strong, steady wind right down the shortest runway. A couple buildings clung to the edge of one corner. Neither plane, nor car, nor person moved. Their radio remained silent to my calls for information. The directory said they had fuel …
Good news: I found the fuel pumps. Shut down in front of them and climbed out.
Bad news: No chocks. No tie down rings. No fuel pump controls visible
I set the parking brake and waited a couple minutes. The wind remained steady and Pacer didn’t move. I walked across the ramp to a small, but new looking building. Inside, out of the wind, warm, fresh paint, nice carpet, comfortable chairs. A clean counter with a guest sign-in sheet. No people. Empty. Outside, not desolate, but plain, deserted. Scattered puff clouds raced across clear sky. The wind whistled like a Clint Eastwood western.
Back at the fuel pumps I ran the grounding cable to the Pacer, manhandled the ladder platform in front of the far wing, pulled the heavy black hose 30 feet out of the reel box, then zeroed the meter. But how to start the pump? No card reader. No pump switches. Then I saw it. A small sign pointed to an older shed down the ramp. The controls hung on the wall inside. The door rattled. The wall groaned. The motivation for putting the gloves-off controls indoors became clear. I entered the data, swiped the card then returned to the Pacer. I heaved the thick hose onto my shoulder and hauled it up the platform, removed the cap and filled the wing tank. Down the steps, moved the platform to the other wing, hauled the hose up the steps again and filled the right tank. Muscled the platform back to its parking spot, hand cranked the hose back onto its reel, unclipped the grounding cable and let the ratchet pull it back onto its spool. Walked to the shed to retrieve the receipt, then back to the airplane. Still no one appeared. Nothing moved except wind-sock and clouds.
Repeat the pattern. Check lists to start and taxi. Carefully. Pacer wants to point into the wind. Even though all three wheels remained on the ground, I used flight controls along with the brakes to get to the runway. Another check list, another circle to check for silent traffic. All clear, so I pushed the throttle in and barely moved before becoming airborne. Then a circling climb to clear the 8,500’ ridge to the west.
At first 10,500’ seemed fine. Crossed clouds and near ridge with just a few small bumps. Then I was over Bear Lake. According to the chart I should’ve also been able to clear the higher, 9,200’ ridge on the far side. Looked okay. But soon saw my airspeed was dropping while I held altitude. More revealing, the terrain beyond the ridge and its caping clouds was disappearing. Tell-tale signs of the sinking air trap. Made sense. I was heading west into the wind. That meant it was blowing up the far side of the ridge then back down the near side and over the lake. Time to climb. Over the west shore of the lake I shopped for lift, looking for rising columns of air warmed by the terrain below. I spotted a small cluster of raggedy clouds, taller than the rest. Perfect. I turned towards them and a moment later felt a welcome bump. The needle on the vertical speed indicator jumped above zero and I was climbing. I guessed a right turn would keep me in the column. Yep, my climb rate increased. I stayed in the spiral up to 12,500’ then continued west.
Crossing that ridge 20 miles to the north of Logan, I saw the entire Salt Lake City basin covered by the low clouds forecasts failed to predict, but reports and eye-balls confirmed. Beyond most valleys and some ridges cleared, but an overcast formed and thickened. The terrain ahead lowered, so I started a cruise descent and picked up a few knots ground speed. A little faster, but not nearly enough to preclude another fuel stop.
Heavy overcast and scattered showers darkened the mid afternoon sky as I entered the broad, curved valley dominating south western Idaho. The Burley, ID airport lay tucked in tight between the Snake River and town’s edge. Houses, streets and cars sported lights, making it post card-ish. On the ground, despite cold wind and spitting rain, they gave me a quick-turn. Then, another takeoff followed by its landing an hour and 50 minutes later at Nampa, ID completed many patterns and signaled Pacer leaving its old home for a new life.