MY FRIEND, FELLOW PILOT, golfer and motorcycle buddy, and I thought it would be a great adventure to fly west, and learn how to fly in the mountains and canyons of the Rockies. He, Heaton, is an established Vietnam-era jet pilot with over 3,000 hours and 300 plus landings on an aircraft carrier. I, on the other hand, have never landed on a boat—intentionally or otherwise—have only 1,000 hours, and own a Maule MXT-7, a slow airplane without an auto pilot.
Which plane to fly was our first decision. His is faster, but mine can land on short, unimproved strips. So, the Maule made the cut.
Next up was where to stop enroute. We didn’t know our stamina, but thought three-hour legs probably would work for we’d need to stop for fuel and bladder relief. With this in mind, we planned to depart Beverly at 8 a.m., and fly to Dubois, PA via Penn Valley Airport in Selinsgrove, PA. This initial leg was immediately interrupted by weather, and we diverted to safely land at Binghamton, NY. Refueled, we pushed on to Dubois. The two legs were largely flown in the clouds, called IMC for “instrument meteorological conditions.” Without an autopilot, this required a bit of focus.
We secured hanger space in Dubois, and called Uber for a ride to downtown Dubois. Room and board were adequate, but a bit spartan.
The next morning, we departed for a 2¼-hour IMC journey to Toledo, OH. Our plan to fly in clear skies was going out the window. With landed in Toledo very focused for the runway environment wasn’t visible until shortly before touchdown. With a butt rest, bladder and fuel attended to, we moved on to Dubuque, IA, a 3:20-hour leg.
Then, of course, a curve ball. Air Traffic Control diverted us over Lake Michigan. I donned the life vest, and hoped the engine would remain happy. I was a competitive swimmer in my youth, but not a 50-mile event as this would have been had we ditched. Eventually, we spotted Milwaukee off to the right as we closed in on the western coastline. It was comforting to be over land.
We dropped down to 4,000 ft. to better see the beautiful topography. We put the plane to bed and headed to the Hotel Julien (highly recommended) in downtown Dubuque. Dinner was at Vinny’s, an excellent choice for Italian food.
One thing that we found through the entire expedition was the kindness and openness of all the folks we met. This observation was reinforced by an experience I’ll get to in a minute.
The next morning, we departed for Rapid City, SD via Sioux Falls, SD. This was a perfect day to fly—no wind or turbulence, and clear as the eye could see. We flew over The Field of Dreams baseball park, where the Yankees and the White Sox recently played. What a special treat. The land was lush with prosperous farms. Simply beautiful, and a reinforcement of why we fly.
The Sioux Falls landing was uneventful, but the departure was windy and a little dicey, and we were buffeted at 4,000 ft. It was also quite warm, and the oil temperature reached 233 degrees which concerned me a bit. Dropping the RPMs seemed to help.
As we headed further west, the topography changed from flat and flush, to hilly and arid. Land use changed from agriculture to livestock. The view was endless with little habitation. If we had engine problems, we could have landed safely, but it would have taken a month for anybody to find us. After landing in Rapid City, and a wild night on the town, the next day was to be Casper, WY for flight mountain-flying lessons.
Unfortunately, bad weather forced us to scrap that plan, and we headed back home. The first leg, 3.5 hours to SW Minnesota Regional Airport, was largely in the clouds. By now, Heaton and I had a routine going. I’d fly the plane, and he’d manage the communications and the weather. Thirty minutes later, we’d shift the responsibilities. This worked well, and became rhythmical.
Then to Madison, WI, an uneventful flight in clear skies. While the plane was being refueled, we asked where we might fly the next day. We were told of a small island in northern Lake Michigan called Washington Island. That sounded intriguing, so we kept it in mind as we had a delicious meal at a local fish restaurant, and bed down for the night in downtown Madison.
We flew to the little island in clear skies, landed, and taxied to the tie-down area. Then, “what do we do now?” for there was no fuel, no people, no anything. We were alone, hungry, had no food, but it looked like a nice island, and there were a couple of bicycles. Perhaps we could peddle to a restaurant if there were one.
Then a car pulled up from nowhere, and the gentleman, Ron, asked what we were up to. We shared with him our situation. He graciously offered us lunch at his house, and assured us that his wife, Mary, was a good cook. We enthusiastically accepted.
As we left their house after lunch I noticed a guitar, a Taylor guitar—the kind I play. I asked permission to play it, and got into a short blues riff. Ron’s new to the instrument so I suggested some things that might help him in his studying.
Ron and Mary could not have been more giving or gracious. It was their taking us in, no questions asked, and their midwestern down-to-earth manner that impressed us so. In a way they epitomize the comradery we pilots are so blessed to enjoy. Within our small general aviation community people are helpful, giving, interesting and interested in you. Although our goal of mountain flying was scrubbed, it was the multiple experiences like ours on Washington Island that made our adventure so memorable.
We then flew to Harbor Springs, MI the place where, so we were told, the important people from Chicago and Detroit hang out during the summer months. Getting there was straight forward, and the skies were clear. While we hugged the upper shore of Lake Michigan I noticed that north of the lake it is desolate. Nothing going on. For those who like the great outdoors, and without crowds, this is country to consider.
Getting a room in Harbor Springs during the summer is near impossible, but luckily, we commandeered the last two at a motel about a nine iron from the airport. Just OK, but very pricey. The folks at the airport generously lent us an old Buick Roadster for the evening. It was not quite as old as I, but close. As with me, some things didn’t work, like the AC and the headlights. We drove to town, checked out the marina and a local four-piece band playing on the village green, had dinner, and limped back to the motel in the Roadster.
The next morning, we departed for Toledo. This leg was in clear skies, and we landed for more fuel for the next leg to Syracuse, NY, about 4 hours, half of which was in IMC. We pressed on into more IMC over the Catskills, and on to Beverly.
We landed at Beverly all in one piece, pleased and satisfied that we embarked on this journey. If we are lucky enough to avoid dementia during our remaining years, we’ll scheme up another trip. I haven’t told Heaton that yet, so I don’t know if the old naval officer and jet pilot wants to sit beside me for that long. I’ll let this adventure rest a bit before I bring it up.
Bill Shipman is a resident of Manchester. Ideas for Postcards Home may be submitted at email@example.com.