Aircraft—Big Sandy unicom…Cherokee…3…9…4…3…Whiskey…departing runway 2…1 …to the west…
Unicom—Winds calm…have a safe trip…
My longest trip
After I finished fueling the Massey Energy jet a few years ago, I reached for their credit card and asked their pilot, my good friend, Dave Nichols, “Where are you guys going to today?”
Dave said, “I don’t know, I was just about to look at the schedule and see where we are going.” I started laughing, I just couldn’t imagine being so comfortable about a tirp that I didn’t even check to see where I was going until minutes before I was to take off. I was planning the longest trip I had ever attempted and I had been looking at maps and weather for almost two weeks. As it turned out, my friend Dave and the Massey people, were going to International Falls, Minnesota. I was planning a trip to Yellowstone National Park, in Wyoming.
Of course it’s a little more difficult to plan for a small plane, with a jet you can usually go above weather or around it and you’re going to get there a whole lot faster. I had to plan how far I could make it each day, the things I wanted to see along the way and places to stay. Weather, mountains I had to cross and restricted airspaces had to be considered, too. I was much more comfortable knowing that my brother, Larry Joe, an experienced helicopter pilot, was going too, along with his girlfriend, Janette and my wife, Rossalene.
The plan was to depart on Friday evening and fly to St. Louis, Missouri, that’s about a 3 1/2 hour trip in my Piper Cherokee Six. I decided to land in East St. Louis, Illinois, just across the river from St. Louis because they had a hotel that was running a special on rooms for the weekend and from our room we could see the Gateway Arch. That’s why I picked St. Louis, for my first stop, I wanted to go up in the arch.
East St. Louis airport is a general aviation airport, busier than Big Sandy because it’s near a major city but not really much different than landing at my airport. Small airplanes like mine usually avoid the big commercial airports because of the traffic and expenses. Commercial airports really don’t want small plane traffic so they charge us enough to make us look somewhere else.
After landing we got a taxi to our hotel, then took another taxi across the Mississippi River to the Gateway Arch, at 630 feet it’s the tallest monument in the United States. It also has the smallest, most claustrophobic elevator I have ever been in. They use every seat when there is a line to go up, the elevator seats 5 people and the four of us and another person crammed into this tiny car to ride to the top was a tight fit.
The view from the top is impressive and I especially liked looking directly down into Busch Stadium and being able to see how the Missouri River meets the Mississippi River, that’s why St. Louis is named the “Gateway to the West” because river travel was how the West was discovered in the early days.
We got a good night’s sleep and early the next morning I asked the front dest to call us a cab to the airport, I should have been more specific about which airport because the driver was starting to take us to the commercial airport and I had to redirect him to East St. Louis airport.
The next phase of our trip was to North Platte, Nebraska. I chose North Platte because it was about 4 hours away and had a restaurant on field, just like Big Sandy. (People would be surprised by how much business Cloud 9 Cafe’ brings to Big Sandy Regional) The flight across Missouri followed the Missouri River most of the way and I could see all the different tributaries that drain water from the “Great Plains” to form this mighty river. The first half of Missouri looked a lot like Kentucky with the tree cover but the northwest corner and all of Nebraska was definitely farm country, huge tracts of farms as far as you could see. A lot of small two lane roads dividing them and just a few small towns here and there.
North Platte has two different runways, another reason why I chose them. If the winds are very strong a pilot can choose the runway that’s most directly into the wind, that’s better than trying to do a strong crosswind landing. You cover a lot of ground in four hours of flying but it does take a lot out of you. We decided after eating to rest for about an hour before getting back in the plane.
Our next planned stop was Riverton, Wyoming but we had to cross the Laramie Mountains first. The highest peak is 11,000 feet and our path took us near there. I climbed to 11,500 and changed course to a section in the mountains that was about 10,000 feet in elevation. There were no homes, no farms below us, just wilderness and an occasional dirt road. Larry Joe and I started talking about how scary it would be to have to emergency land out in this wilderness and find our way to civilization. We were only about 1,000 feet above the ground when Larry Joe’s cell phone rang, we were surprised that a friend of his from Lexington could get a call through and wondered where on earth the cell tower was. We had a good laugh and said although he only got to talk to him for a few seconds, at least we knew there was a tower down there somewhere.
After crossing the Laramie Mountains we slowly started our descent into Riverton, the airport elevation is 5,515 feet and the temperature was 92, that made the density altitude 9,400. What that means is the air is as thin as it would be if you were flying at 9,400 feet in elevation. Your airplane has less performance and less lift. You need to carry more speed to compensate for less performance and that’s why runways in the western states are usually around 8,000 feet long. I knew what I needed to do but came in too slow and did the worst landing I have ever done. I had flown almost eight hours that day and had planned on flying across one more mountain range but decided I needed to call it quits for the day. We spent the night in Riverton.
The next morning we departed Riverton for Cody, Wyoming, our final destination for visiting Yellowstone. Density altitude was still high because of the elevation of the airport and we used 5,000 feet of runway getting airborne. The climb to get over the big mountain in front of me seemed to take forever and I thought I might have to circle to get enough altitude to clear it but we made it over and it was just about one hour on to the beautiful western town of Cody. We spend three days staying in Cody and driving back and forth into Yellowstone. That national park is really something special, there is so much to see, the wildlife, the geysers and the diversity of the land is incredible. We saw vast valleys filled with bison, steep rocky mountains that seemed to be impossible to climb and beautiful waterfalls. I loved Yellowstone and plan on taking my grandchildren to see it soon. Three days just isn’t enough but that was all we had planned.
It rained the night before we planned on departing and that morning the clouds were low and I wasn’t going to depart until the skies cleared. About noon the skies cleared but the winds started picking up and we decided we could leave but might have to change our destination because of the winds. Our next planned stop was Rapid City, South Dakota to see Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse monument, about a 3 hour flight.
Once we got airborne the turbulences near the ground were pretty bad but when we got some altitude it was smooth and we picked up a 40 knot tail wind. My plane usually flies at about 150 mph but we were doing almost 200 mph as we were approaching the Big Horn Mountains in central Wyoming. The highest peak in the Big Horn Mountains is over 13,000 feet and we had planned to cross at a place that was just over 10,000 feet. I have studied something called the mountain wave effect and with the 40 knot tailwind I was pretty concerned about that. A mountain wave effect will cause your plane to be sucked down as the air compresses when it hits the mountain, for that reason you are supposed to get as much altitude as possible before crossing. Pilots aren’t supposed to go directly across the mountain either, you are supposed to fly at a 45 degree angle to the top, in the event that a downdraft starts taking you down you have more time to turn away from the mountain.
Larry Joe and I debated on which direction to do the 45 degree angle, using the tail wind directly behind us or at an angle and we decided to just keep it behind us. The Big Horn Mountains don’t just come to peak like you might think, they are probably a mile wide on top and mostly level when not in elevation changes. I was watching my altitude closely and we never descended any until we had crossed the mountain, then the winds started pulling me down pretty good. Since I now no longer needed altitude I just enjoyed the ride. With the 40 knot tail wind and descending in altitude, my ground speed was over 220 mph, that’s the fastest I have ever seen my plane fly. After leveling off at 7,000 feet I still had a 40 knot tail wind and we made it to Rapid City much sooner than we expected. There was one problem though, strong winds on the ground, the winds were 320 degrees at 22 mph, gusting to 32 mph, I didn’t want to attempt a crosswind landing at those speeds but the runway alignment at Rapid City is 14 and 32, winds were straight down runway 32.
We toured Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse, something I really enjoyed. The rock monuments are huge and the people who did that work really knew what they are doing. I especially liked the Native American museum at Crazy Horse, the pictures and artifacts were fascinating.
After lunch we headed to Des Moines, Iowa for our planned overnight stay. Still maintaining a 40 knot tail wind we made it well before dark but after refueling I asked the FBO for help with a rental car and room and they informed me all the rooms in the entire city were booked due to an “Ironman'” competition. We decided to see how far out of town we could get before it got dark and made it about 75 miles to Newton, Iowa, As I was landing no one was talking to us on the unicom so I told Larry Joe to pay close attention to the layout of the city as we landed because I didn’t think we are going to get any help from the FBO, they were closed but, Janette was able to connect to their WIFI and got us a taxi and we got the last two rooms at a hotel by Interstate 80.
The next morning we got to the airport early but there still wasn’t anyone there, I hadn’t burned much fuel from my stop in Des Moines, so we set course to our planned stop in Indianapolis, Indiana. There was very little wind at ground level but when we got to 7,000 feet we got that 40 knot tail wind again. To my surprise, some of the prettiest scenery was flying over Iowa’s farm country. From about 4,000 feet above the ground you could see the big squares of green farmland. Each square had a corner with a big farmhouse and barns. I could just imagine those farms had been in the same families for years with their livelyhood depending on that crop in front of them. A two lane road went from town to town bordering the farms.
Rossalene and Janette would sit in the back of the plane napping, reading and sight seeing, they never put on their headsets much and when we loaded up to leave Newton I told them our next stop was in Indianapolis, state capitol of Indiana. Larry Joe and I started doing our fuel calculations and it was obvious we could make it a lot farther with the 40 knot tail wind. The numbers said we could make it all the way home but we would be really low on fuel. We decided to stop in Frankfort and refuel. As we were descending into Frankfort we passed very close to the capitol. I yelled back to Rossalene, “Look at Indiana’s capitol building.”
She said, “It’s very pretty but I think it looks just like Kentucky’s.”
Larry Joe and I just grinned and the girls didn’t know they were in Kentucky until they went inside the FBO to the restrooms. Fifty minutes later our 9 states in 6 days and 22 hours of flying were over.
Aircraft—Big Sandy unicom….3…9…4…3…Whiskey…inbound for landing…airport advisory please…
Unicom—Winds calm…welcome home…
(Gary Wayne Cox is airport manager at Big Sandy Regional Airport owned by Floyd, Johnson, Magoffin and Martin Counties)