27 May 2012

2011-09-03, An Epic Single-day, Single-engine Flight over High Plains and High Mountains


by Chuck Oates on Saturday, September 3, 2011 at 5:19pm ·

(From a letter of 3 April 2011 to a friend in Finland after *her* epic solo journey)


... I guess I'd better go ahead and pay up on my promise to describe my journey as a young man that I termed--how was it?--an epic single-day, single-engine flight over high plains and high mountains.

After my [sophomore] year in college (summer of 1968), I worked on my commercial pilot's license which required that I accumulate at least 160 flying hours, in addition to a commercial pilot's ground school, written tests, advanced flying instruction, and finally a license-producing check ride. This was in addition to the 45 hours flying time and instruction I had done the summer of 1967 to get my private pilot's license. I was expected to do a number of fairly long cross-country trips, since that is, after all pretty much what flying is for.  

Doing that much flying was quite expensive, and I was fortunate enough to have an instructor who worked me into his schedule to ferry aircraft to other locations for his business and also to split expenses with other advanced-training pilots who were needing to build cross-country pilot-in-command hours. I couldn't be paid as a pilot without the commercial license I was training for, but I often didn't have to pay the several tens-of-1968-dollars rental on the planes, either. I made a number of short trips from Amarillo to Dumas, Texas where the flight school's airplanes were overhauled and inspected, as well as trips to Denver, Colorado at the edge of the vast Rocky Mountains that split the North and South American continents lengthwise (a north-south range, in other words). 

In early August of that year, my instructor, Ken Kohler, an AHS graduate too (1948) asked if I would like to take him, his daughter, and one of her friends to their vacation spot in Lake City, Colorado way up in the Rocky Mountains, where they would be joined by Ken's wife who was driving from Amarillo in a station wagon to carry all the requisite vacation/camping supplies. (I think she didn't much like flying in the mountains and volunteered to drive up there to avoid the flight.) I did a little calculating and figured that a trip of that length would permit me to keep the aircraft "out" (away from its home airport in Amarillo) for several days, particularly if upon return to Amarillo, I flew on to Oklahoma City to see Sue, my then-fiancĂ©e. I jumped at the chance to fly, not to mention the opportunity to go see Sue during the August break between summer school and fall term. 

The plan was to take off around 7 a.m. from Amarillo and go to Guymon, Oklahoma in the Oklahoma Panhandle (a.k.a.: No Man's Land), where Mr. Kohler had a potential buyer for the Mooney Super 21 aircraft we were going to fly. After showing, demonstrating, and possibly selling the airplane, we'd go on up into the mountains near Alamosa, Colorado and from there over, around, and hopefully not through several 14,000 foot (4 267 m) mountains ("14,000-footers") between Alamosa and Lake City, where Mr. Kohler and his daughter and her friend would be picked up at the airport by his wife. I would then fly solo back through the mountains to Amarillo and exchange the hopefully-by-then-sold airplane for a similar model that I could fly over to Oklahoma City to stay with Sue and her folks for a few days. That was the plan. The reality was, of course, a bit different. 

Upon early arrival at the airport, I noted during my pre-flight inspection that the airplane would be over-due for its 100-hour inspection before I could get it back to Amarillo. By around *noon,* the airplane had been rolled back into its hangar, inspected by another flight school's licensed mechanics, had its oil changed, and was ready for flight. We took off a little after noon, reached Guymon in a little less than an hour, and within another hour had contracted to sell the airplane to Mr. Kohler's customer in Guymon. We were shortly off toward Alamosa and then up into the mountains on the way to Lake City.  

Having had ground school about mountain flying, but never having done any, I was all eyes and ears to everything I could learn about getting safely from point A to point B in the mountains. At that time, there was no radar coverage in the mountains, nor was there any aircraft radio communication at the "low" (14, 500 foot) altitudes we would be flying. Mr. Kohler had lots of experience flying in the mountains, so I learned a lot in a hurry. One phenomenon that was pretty spooky was that mountain ridges that were, say 13,000 feet high, when approached from a considerable distance at our flight altitude of 14,500 feet appeared to be higher than the airplane! This was quite disconcerting, but as one approached the ridges, their actual altitude, 1,500 feet below, became apparent. It was still pretty weird, though, to look down at my altimeter and and see it reading 14,500 feet while crossing a ridge line that was close enough to clearly make out individual rocks and rock formations. (No trees live that high above sea level.) 

Soon, with very careful navigation, checked and re-checked, we reached the very high one-way airport at Lake City. The airport, one of the highest in the U.S. at 9,300 feet (2 835 m) above Mean Sea Level (MSL) was one-way because it had trees at one end and it sloped about 50 feet (15 m) upward in that direction. (See http://bit.ly/ieHfoe .) One had to land on the up-slope and take off in the opposite direction down the downslope, regardless of the wind. Usually, takeoff and landing decisions are based mostly on pointing the nose of the aircraft into the wind, to achieve the slowest ground speed on landing and the shortest takeoff distance on takeoff. This airport forced you to sometimes take off or land down-wind: not a good situation, particularly in a place so high. Too much information. Sorry. 

After discharging my passengers (who eventually had to walk into town because Mrs. Kohler was delayed on her car trip and no one was working at the airport that day), I made the required down-slope takeoff and was pleasantly surprised at the "zip" the airplane had at this high altitude, now that it was without 300 pounds (136 kg) or so of passengers and without about 150 pounds of the maximum 300 pounds of fuel that had been burned so far. 

I have *never* paid such close attention to my navigation by reference to maps and to the ground as I did on the way from Lake City back to Alamosa. I was too "low" (14,500 feet again) to receive any radio navigation signals and couldn't even raise Alamosa Flight Service by voice radio for quite a while. I was completely on my own. I knew my business as a pilot over flat land, but virtually all of my experience was over land even flatter than most of Finland, not in country that high or that rugged.  

The flight was exciting in all senses of the word. The scenery was absolutely beautiful-without-peer. No one but a few hunters has/have ever seen the places I saw up in the mountains from as close to those mountains as I was. If I had an engine failure, I would likely not survive, or if I did, I'd have a long wait for rescue or maybe a long, long hike. The weather was magnificent. Not a cloud in the sky, excellent visibility ("severe clear" in pilot parlance), and very little wind. Wind is a real menace for light aircraft in the mountains, so I was particularly thankful for that. 

Finally, the Alamosa airport appeared in the windscreen. I called the Flight Service Station there and declared my intention to land and my need for 200 or 250 pounds (35-40 gallons, 150 L, or 110 kg) of fuel. The landing was uneventful, but I was a bit surprised when I climbed out of the cockpit and found my knees to be somewhat wobbly. I also found that my shirt was absolutely soaked from both underarms down to my waist. I had been concentrating so much on all the flight instruments, the aircraft's attitude, the fuel supply, and my accuracy navigating the mountains that I looked like someone who'd been in a sauna with his clothes on. The fellow who gassed up my airplane chuckled when I mentioned my hyper-sweaty condition. He said that I was decidedly *not* the first pilot he seen land in that condition after a flight in the mountains. 

The flight back to Amarillo was equally beautiful, but it was the beauty of the mesas of New Mexico and the seemingly unending trowel-level High Plains of the Llano Estacado (Palisaded Plains), a very different landscape from the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo (literally "Blood of Christ") mountains in southern Colorado. The low angle of the late afternoon sun highlighted every jagged ridge on eastern New Mexico's rough and wind-carved landscape. Over the High Plains, the low afternoon sun made long shadows behind buildings and even longer shadows from windmills pumping water for the cattle in the fields (http://bit.ly/ihTvDN). 

It was just at sunset when I touched down at Tradewind Airport, my home field in Amarillo. It had been a really great flight, and I was delighted to be home. I was also anxious to get to Oklahoma City where Sue awaited my considerably-delayed arrival. That prompted me to make a really bad decision. I had some experience flying at night, and it didn't seem particularly unreasonable to me to continue the flight on from Amarillo to OKC after dark. To lessen the suspense somewhat, I'll just go ahead and say that even though it was foolish to make a two and a half hour night flight after such a long day of flying, I made it just fine. It was a bad decision, in that I took on far more risk than I should have unnecessarily. I should have just gone to my parents house in Amarillo and stayed the night and continued to OKC the next morning. Sometimes bad decisions work out okay. (Conversely, sometimes well-made decisions work out badly, too.)

The flight from Amarillo to Oklahoma city was magnificent beyond description. The sidewalk-flat High Plains and the the eastern edge of the Great Plains (western Oklahoma) stretched out before me like a great black ocean with islands of light (the towns) every 30 miles (50 km) or so in the Panhandle and then every 15 miles (25 km) or so as I crossed into central Oklahoma. Ribbons of highway, dotted with tiny headlights (the cars themselves are invisible) flowed from light island to light island. Airports near the towns sporting rotating light beacons blinked their messages: "I'm here; come this way if there's trouble." I could often see as many as a dozen of these beacons in the far distance at once. The view was overwhelmingly beautiful. (You get some of it in a commercial airplane at night, but at only 10,000 feet [~3 000 m] in a light aircraft with a view out the front window, it's a completely different experience.)

Soon I approached Oklahoma City's now-closed Downtown Airpark where Sue and her mom were waiting for me. I had not realized that I was putting Sue and her family in a bad part of town at 10 p.m. by continuing the flight into the night: error number two. The Oklahoma City Approach Control radar controller wasn't too busy and was kind enough to direct me right to the Downtown Airpark runway approach, even though I wasn't on an instrument flight plan. It was here that the only near-mishap of the flight began. 

Airport runways are outlined in white lights, and every lighted airport where I had landed before at night had these outlining lights around the full length of the runway. I perceived that the lighted area at Downtown Airpark was pretty short and made sure that I touched down close to the approach end of the runway. After I touched down and was rolling out, I noticed that I was going to run out of lights before my ground roll was completed. I assumed that meant I was going to go off the end of the runway, still rolling on the ground. I immediately snapped my wing flaps, set at landing angle, completely up to put all the weight of the aircraft on the wheels (not the wings) and almost literally stood on the brakes. (On a airplane, the brakes are activated by toe-push levers at the top of the rudder pedals.)

I loudly screeched to a near-stop, and then my landing light illuminated another several hundred feet of runway that wasn't outlined by white lights! I will not write here what I said when I realized that only about half of the runway had marker lights, but it had something to do with the ancestry of the person who decided to light only half that runway.

I taxied to a tie-down spot, stopped the engine, chained the airplane in its parking space and went to the otherwise-empty airport lobby where Sue and her mom were waiting. To make a long story a little shorter, Sue and I and her family had a good visit for the next few days, and I returned to Amarillo, this time in daylight. 

I was mildly surprised at Amarillo when after I had touched down and slowed to about 15 mph (20 - 25 km/h). The airplane turned suddenly to the left, and despite my application full right rudder and full right deflection to the steerable nose wheel, the airplane went off the runway and settled quite gently, thank goodness, into a depression beside the end of the runway. The tow truck came and pulled me out of the depression, and towed me to the aircraft parking area. 

A quick inspection revealed mistake number three: I had forgotten to check the tires before I took off for Amarillo from OKC. The screeching, heavily-braked stop at OKC had evidently scraped a serious amount of rubber off the tires on the two main landing gear. Both tires had held through the takeoff at OKC and most of the landing at Amarillo, but the left tire had finally blown near the end of the roll-out. When I saw what had happened, my knees absolutely buckled. If that tire had blown 20 seconds earlier on touchdown, I'd have been in real trouble and, as the U.S. National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) people so gently put it sometimes, "my error could have resulted in loss of both vehicle and crew."

It wasn't a perfect trip, because I was young and impulsive and, though pretty thoroughly skilled at actually flying the airplane, made a mistake in judgement that, thank goodness, finally resulted in nothing worse than replacing the tires on the airplane's two main landing gear. It might have been far worse. 

Will I ever forget the experience of flying in the mountains and for such a distance both by day and night over the plains, as well as a good many other shorter cross-country flights? Not as long as I have any memory at all, I won't. Did I learn a lot? You bet I did. Mountain flying, staying focused on a task on which one's life depends, correctly weighing risks versus benefits, the list goes on and on.

Do I think young people should, when they're reasonably ready, go out and try their wings, figuratively, literally or both? Certainly. What I'm not looking forward to is Amy coming in when I'm very old and even grayer, telling me she's headed out on her adventure. I hope I have the good sense to swallow the lump in my throat, sit on my hands (which will doubtless want to hold her safe with me), and wish her a safe, but wondrous trip.


Your fellow adventurer, though long-separated in time, geography, and purpose,

Chuck