A day-long snowstorm had just passed when I flew Jean to Phoenix to see her mom. Lingering flurries receded to the east, while from the west approached the intense cobalt skies seen only after snow.
By the time I dropped Jean and steered for my next appointment at Prescott, a few new snow showers sprinkled northern Arizona’s mountains. No worry–Flagstaff’s San Francisco Peaks beckoned clearly from between them for my subsequent flight home.
Ninety minutes later, I preflighted for my final fifty-mile hop. Prescott’s Love Field Airport lies in an open valley, with Flagstaff 2,000 feet higher at the base of Arizona’s tallest mountains. Therefore you can usually see Flagstaff’s “Peaks” directly from Prescott’s airport tiedowns.
Now, however, the snow showers between here and home were denser than before…
“We’re stranded!” lamented my son, Austin. He was flying his wife Desi and family from southern New Mexico to Flagstaff to join us for Thanksgiving.
Their aero club Diamond DA-40 carried adequate fuel for what’s normally a three-hour flight, but to allow for headwinds and antsy little kids Austin had planned a pitstop at St. Johns, Arizona. Two days before, he’d phoned St. Johns Industrial Airpark (KSJN) regarding fuel availability.
“We’re closed Thanksgiving Day,” explained airport manager Gary Liston, so Austin rescheduled to travel the day before when the airport would be attended and fuel available. A career jet pilot, Austin had only recently returned to light-plane travel. On two previous journeys the family had battled headwinds, turbulence, and been stranded overnight.
Wednesday, however, dawned calm and clear—finally after those rough rides, Austin had perfect weather “to show Desi how enjoyable and efficient flying can be.” They launched after lunch, and midafternoon we received the expected call from St. Johns.
“The flight was fine,” reported Austin, “but after a perfect landing the airplane pulled progressively harder to the right as we slowed until even full left rudder and brake wouldn’t straighten it. It turns out we have a flat tire and there’s no mechanic here nor any way to pull the airplane off the runway…
My longtime dear friend and writing mentor, Penny Porter, passed away last week, and I decided to share a past column in remembering her.
When I met Penny in the late 1990s, she was president of Tucson’s Society of Southwestern Authors (SSA), author of several books, and reportedly the most-published-ever Reader’s Digest contributor back when that was a big deal.
Six feet tall with “big,” fiery red hair, Penny was a consummate writer who somehow balanced between professional woman and delightful giggling 12-year-old.
Penny introduced me to famous writers of the day like Ray Bradbury and Tony Hillerman–she induced me to fly Clive Cussler to Tucson one year for the annual SSA Writers Conference–and lovingly shared writing wisdom and humor that helped shape my own work and inspires me to this day.
Most of all, she was an artist to the core who imbued even the briefest informal message with literary richness.
Dogs commonly travel by airplane, but how often do you meet a flying cat? Transporting the skittish animals can be tough enough by car, much less by airplane. Yet my Montana friends Alyson and Travis Booher routinely aviate with Piper, their adventure cat.
“Before Piper, two geriatric cats at home limited our travel,” explains Alyson. “So when I got a new kitty, I vowed not to be homebound anymore.” Alyson used to write a “Dear Tabby,” advice column for Missoula’s Animeals food bank and adoption center. One client had trained her kitten to ride everywhere in a harness on her shoulder.
Intrigued, Alyson wondered whether most kittens can be trained to travel. Investigating online, she learned that ‘pet adventure travel’ is trending among young people. Few fly with felines but given countless other “adventure cat” activities she thought, “Let’s try it!” Travis was concerned about being tagged as ‘the crazy cat people,’ so the couple agreed Piper would travel exclusively for function, not attention.
“As with people, flying is not for every pet,” says Alyson. “My cat just happens to be really chill. Probably the key is to train kittens when they are young.” A show-cat owner advised Alyson that if a kitten isn’t bothered by vacuum-cleaner noise, it will be comfortable out and about. Piper passed that test, so she began toting him on errands in a cat backpack. Finally one day, the couple bundled Piper into their Skylane to visit Alyson’s brother in Bozeman. When Piper stretched out relaxed, Alyson freed him from his backpack to cruise the cockpit…
Wind rarely seems as threatening as other weather when flight planning, because you can’t see it. But as every pilot learns, wind is real; it can be helpful or hazardous, and often portends changing conditions.
We’d planned Christmas in Tucson, but holiday snow was forecast, urged along by a powerful cold front. Indeed, Christmas dawned snowing and blustery. Surprisingly though, Flagstaff’s forecast called for midmorning clearing. Sure enough, at precisely 10am sun warmed our yard, blue sky pierced the clouds, and ceilings rose along our route. So we packed and took off.
Ceilings again lowered as we flew south but so did the terrain, so we cruised comfortably to Tucson for a family holiday dinner. Based on a sunny forecast, we planned to brunch and hike the next day before heading home.
The next morning, however, we were wakened by a smartphone weather alert. Despite yesterday’s clear-skies forecast, Flagstaff now expected morning snow flurries, followed by northeasterly 35-knot wind gusts tumbling from the mountains. What’s more, 40-knot headwinds would plague our normal 8500-foot cruising altitude. I suggested staying another night, but Jean wanted to return for the neighborhood holiday party. That meant departing immediately in hopes of beating the winds home…
“Oh, and the St. Johns VOR is out of service,” said the flight service briefer before we departed Santa Fe for Scottsdale.
In those pre-GPS days, St. Johns was the only enroute radio navigation aid on Victor-190, the 274nm instrument airway between Albuquerque and Phoenix. No matter, I anticipated good weather throughout the 2½-hour flight.
Launching late afternoon in a rented Cessna 172RG Cutlass, we cruised clear skies southwestward. Entering Arizona, however, I spotted unexpected clouds ahead. It turned out that an unforecast stratus layer had developed almost to Phoenix. Fortunately, visual flight conditions prevailed underneath, the only concerning weather being a line of heavy thunderstorms paralleling our route 30 miles to the north.
Soon we cruised under clouds at 8,500 feet, ogling intense distant lightning off our right wing. I’d anticipated reaching lower country by nightfall, but we’d been slowed by headwinds, and darkness falls early under clouds. I calculated ceilings to be 1,000 feet above the highest ridges ahead. While usually plenty in daytime, that’s risky for night flight over mountains…
Recently I flew out-of-town visitors over the Grand Canyon. As always it was amazing, but I found myself dodging clouds so we returned early.
On our way back, however, sun pierced clouds over flaming autumn aspens lining the Inner Basin of Arizona’s San Francisco Peaks, and… Wow, one of my most amazing aerial sights ever! (Click on photo to see a larger image.)
“Inner Basin Flaming Aspens” Fine Art Metal Print sizes and pricing* in ready-to-hang frameless floating wall mounts (pictured at my Fine Art Metal Prints page):
*Prices include standard shipping within Continental US. (Contact me for pricing of custom sizes and framing options.)
Order your “Inner Basin Aspens” Fine Art Metal Prints HERE.
NEW! 2019 “Views from Kachina Wetlands” Photo Wall Calendars
Nearly every day for years I’ve hiked or biked this beautiful wetlands near Flagstaff, photographing sunsets, weather phenomena, wildflowers, and birds.
(The Audubon Society ranks Kachina Wetlands among Northern Arizona’s top birding sites.)
Finally this year I’ve collected some of my favorite and most unique Kachina Wetlands images into Standard and Premium-sized wall calendars, including many from my “Down to Earth” series of Fine Art Metal Prints.
2019 “Views from Flagstaff” Photo Wall Calendars
These calendars feature some of my favorite photographs shot in and around our beloved Flagstaff, Arizona, including several from my “Down to Earth” series of Fine Art Metal Prints.
Among them are photographs of historic downtown Flagstaff including the landmark Weatherford and Monte Vista hotels, the San Francisco Peaks, Coconino County Fair, seasonal views of summer sunflowers and autumn aspens, and Flagstaff’s famed New Years “Great Pinecone Drop!”
(Previous buyers note that this year’s “Views from Flagstaff” calendars contain the same great photos as last year’s.)
2019 “Views from Japan” Photo Wall Calendars
Once again, I’m also offering my terrestrial, “Views from Japan” photographic wall calendars.
Although a departure from my aerial persona, Jean and I have been so taken with Japan’s beauty and character during our travels that I can’t resist sharing special images from there.
This is one country you must make plans to visit! And once seeing the included photographs, I suspect you’ll agree.
Included are amazing views of Kyoto’s and Nara’s exquisite temples, Matsumoto Castle, Osaka’s Dotombori Entertainment District, a Shinto wedding at Miyajima Island, Tokyo’s Ginza District, and Ogimachi Historic Town.
(Previous buyers note that this year’s “Views from Japan” calendars contain the same great photos as in prior years.)
2019 “Views from Korea” Photo Wall Calendars
Check out my “Views from Korea” photographic wall calendars!
Included are amazing photographs taken in the Republic of [South] Korea, little-known among Americans, with its fascinating blend of old and new.
See Seoul’s renowned Gyeongbokgung Palace, Gunsan’s Barley Festival, traditional Korean horsemen in Jeonju, Gochang-eup Fortress, and more troubling, North Korea viewed from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) Joint Security Area.
(Previous buyers note that this year’s “Views from Korea” calendars contain the same great photos as in prior years.)
“For once,” said Jean, “a routine flight.” We cruised homeward through cool, calm skies thanks to a high overcast filtering New Mexico’s high-desert summertime sun.
Driving from Flagstaff to Alamogordo takes eight hours each way. Going commercially requires two airline legs plus ninety minutes’ drive from El Paso. So general aviation truly offers the fastest way to get there, circumstances permitting, and this weekend was proving to be such an occasion.
But what is a routine flight, anyway? Piloting light airplanes turns out to be more about anomaly than routine. However often we travel a given route, every flight is different. Most aviators learn to appreciate that variety as adventure, but anyone expecting uneventful aerial “auto trips” is doomed to disappointment…