There’s nothing like flying to escape the beaten path. Returning from Massachusetts to Arizona, Jean and I steered for Warren and Melissa Smith’s private Atlanta, Illinois farm strip. Landing on grass is like alighting on a cloud, but you must always scout it first. Warren, an FAA Aviation Safety Inspector, shared details.
“It rained the other night, so I drove the strip in my car,” he said. “It’s in great shape, plus I confirmed the 2300-foot usable length with a wheel. Ideally, land from the south because there’s a 300-foot overrun at the north end–touch down upon clearing the corn. From the north, land past the metal “Hoblit Farms” building. In case of concerns, of course, divert to nearby Logan County Airport.”
We’d hoped to make Illinois nonstop, but headwinds dictated refueling at Logansport, Indiana. Despite bargain prices, I resisted topping tanks; it’s best to operate light on turf.
During our final one-hour leg, I reviewed soft-field procedures and runway requirements. Although 2300 feet is plenty for a Skylane, grass demands proper technique and lengthens takeoff roll…
We relaxed with our son Hannis and his fiancée Marissa on Richmond Pond in western Massachusetts, our fourth flying destination crossing the continent from Arizona.
Marissa’s folks Alex and Sabina had been consummate hosts, treating us to sightseeing, concerts, and savory meals. Alex even let me drive his vintage Miata sports car. In return, all he asked was to go flying. Alex had once taken lessons, but circumstances prevented him from finishing. Now he was eager to retake the controls. Once a pilot, always a pilot.
On the appointed morning, however, broken clouds shrouded the lush green mountaintops surrounding Pittsfield Municipal Airport, with no improvement expected. To our mutual disappointment, it wasn’t safe to fly.
Midday came, and as I toted luggage to Hannis and Marissa’s car for their drive home, sunlight momentarily silvered Richmond Pond. Quietly, I checked weather. Area ceilings were indeed thinning, and had risen off all but the highest peaks. What’s more, an amended forecast indicated continuing improvement. I asked Alex what was planned for the afternoon.
“Be aware of a Citation jet practicing instrument approaches, and numerous aircraft flying the Trois-Rivières traffic pattern,” cautioned Montreal Center after issuing our instrument clearance from Quebec back to the States.
Not until reaching the runway did Jean and I fully appreciate the implications. How could we determine when to take the runway with so much traffic chattering in a foreign tongue? We might as well be on another planet!
Every aspect of this flight to French Canada had been impacted by language…
You’d expect a flying carpet to deliver you to enchanted destinations. Well, 2,000 miles and fifteen flight hours from home over French Canada, Jean and I truly felt our steed’s magic. After clearing customs at Windsor, Ontario, we gazed down upon Toronto, Ottawa, and then, Montreal. Each resurrected memories of a long-ago youthful journey.
In 1971, I drove this route on a post-graduation road trip with two Chicago high-school buddies in my 1939 Chevy. After setting up camp in Trois-Rivières, Quebec, we picked up a hitchhiker named Marcel while cruising town. Lacking a common language, we couldn’t determine his destination, so he gestured us to a nearby tavern.
“If you’ll break camp and drive me 15 miles to Champlain,” Marcel offered via the bilingual bartender, “you can stay in the guest cottage behind my parents’ house.” We accepted, and while the others slept, Marcel and I “talked” late into the night via sketch pad and French-English dictionary. The next morning, I was startled awake by the horn blast of an oceangoing freighter. Having arrived in darkness, I never guessed the St. Lawrence Seaway was steps away.
I was recounting this story to Jean for the umpteenth time when Toronto Center issued a frequency change. Bienvenue au Québec! Air traffic control is bilingual in Quebec, so Montreal Center controllers swap seamlessly between French with Québécois pilots, and English with Anglophones like me. The mighty St. Lawrence River materialized off our right wing, and thirty minutes later converged with our course at our destination. Inbound to land at the uncontrolled airport, we heard the following transmission.
“Trafic Trois-Rivières, Cessna Un-Sept-Deux Golf Alpha Bravo Charlie, présentement sur Alpha, je m’aligne Piste Deux Trois pour un décollage immédiat.” Jean and I looked to each another, eyebrows raised. The pilot was obviously in the local traffic pattern, but where? I requested his position in English, but he answered in French. Eventually he managed the word, “takeoff,” but we never spotted the airplane. Clearly, great care would be required to safely operate here.
I was securing the Flying Carpet when two figures rushed from the terminal, arms outstretched. It was Marcel Duval, the very hitchhiker I picked up in 1971, and his captivating wife, Lise Marquis. Who’d have imagined that our chance friendship would endure for decades…
When a family wedding beckoned from Chicago, our first thought was to book airline tickets because it’s too far to fly for a weekend. But then Jean and I got to talking.
Think of all the sights to see and friends to visit within flying range of Chicago. And soon, Where shall we go this time? In short order, a weekend wedding trip blossomed into a full-fledged flying vacation to three states and Canada.
Canada! Consider your feelings when flying into a new-to-you state. Now make that destination Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean and you’ve got one memorable trip.
This would be our first foreign border crossing by private aircraft since 9/11, and security procedures would accordingly be more complicated and stringent than before. I might have waited too long to start planning, if not for chatting a month before the trip with pilot Mark Harris who routinely flies into Mexico.
Every aircraft crossing US borders must have a current Department of Homeland Security Customs and Border Protection (CPB) decal. These annual stickers cost only $27.50, but can take several weeks to receive. In addition, pilots must pre-file crew, passenger, aircraft, and itinerary information for each crossing via CPB’s “Electronic Advance Passenger Information System” (eAPIS) web site. While individual trip manifests can be filed as little as an hour before takeoff, the required pre-registration can take up to a week for email confirmation.
I’d also need a restricted radiotelephone operators permit for international travel, and a radio station license for the Flying Carpet. Canadian charts and GPS navigator database are of course required, and aircraft insurance certificate. Non-aviation planning included current passports, international cellphone and data service, informing our credit card issuers, and medical insurance coverage…
Attending a kid’s 4th birthday party might sound unimportant, but Jean and I felt high emotional stakes in flying to Alamogordo, New Mexico for the occasion.
Our son and daughter-in-law Austin and Desi and their children had recently moved there from overseas. That would make our grandson’s “pirate pool party” our first family celebration together in six years.
Alamogordo is nine hours’ drive from Flagstaff, but less than three hours by Flying Carpet. Perusing the charts, I was pleased to find manageable terrain en route. However, a 140-mile thicket of restricted airspace encompasses nearby White Sands Missile Range and Holloman Air Force Base, blocking general aviation access from the west. High mountains and additional military airspace also limit access from the east.
That leaves two flying routes from Arizona, neither direct. Shortest is to fly east beyond Socorro to JUPTR intersection, then steer 90 miles south between military airspace and the Sacramento Mountains. The longer alternative is to fly southeast to El Paso over high and remote terrain, then thread an exceedingly narrow 60-mile corridor northward between restricted areas. Both routes are comfortably flyable in good weather, but given such tight quarters each can be blocked over many miles by a single thunderstorm…
Smoky air filled my cockpit as I navigated the final miles home. Thankfully the odor emanated from outside the airplane, but it was stressful and unpleasant all the same. Still, today had been a delightful and practical Flying Carpet mission.
Our son Austin has worked overseas the last few years, necessitating storing his car in California. While visiting Flagstaff for a few days, he’d asked that we retrieve it for his family’s pending return to the States. The pickup location was just a mile from San Diego’s Gillespie Airport (KSEE), and we’d enjoy some family piloting in the process.
After shuffling our planned schedule due to weather, we launched for Gillespie on the one good flying day during Austin’s brief visit. Jean joined us to share driving duties back to Flagstaff.
Even the nicest flying days offer surprises. Thirty minutes after takeoff, Phoenix Approach vectored us around Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University traffic holding at Drake VOR near Prescott. Then Albuquerque Center radioed asking about a possible wildfire off our right wing as we crossed the Colorado River…
**READ THIS MONTH’S ENTIRE COLUMN,“CAR SHUTTLE“** (mobile optimized version here)
Photo: “Flagstaff Pulliam Airport (KFLG) materializes behind a wall of forest-fire smoke.”
Except for two brief local hops, I haven’t flown in a month. First rain stopped me, then weeks of winds gusting as high as 48 knots.
Today I awoke to the first beautiful morning in forever. I long to fly! I’ve scheduled routine avionics maintenance next week in Prescott—perhaps they could take me today instead. Nope, I call but they’re too busy.
“Jean, want to fly somewhere for breakfast?”
“No, I’m playing tennis this morning.” (No kidding; she really says that to me all the time.)
Okay, if I can’t find anyone to join me I’ll go myself. No way am I letting a morning like this pass after being grounded for weeks, mission or not. I grab a weather briefing to Payson. It’s a mere 30-minute flight, but scenic, and the field’s Crosswinds Restaurant boasts great affordable food and a “million-dollar view” of the towering Mogollon Rim.
Who might consider joining me for such a mission, at the last minute on a weekday morning? It’s a long shot but I phone my nature-photographer buddy Don Hill. He and Barb are usually booked busy but today she’s out of town visiting relatives, and…
“Yeah, I’d love to go, Greg! I’ll just load my camera with a fresh memory card and battery and meet you at the airport.”
Don starts snapping photos as our wheels leave the ground. It’s bumpier than I expected, but Don says it doesn’t bother him. I guess a guy who served in Vietnamese river ships in Viet Nam has experienced worse than a little turbulence…
I awoke to a text from my friend Sergio Schaar of San Antonio, asking if I’d noticed the airline-window view of Flagstaff he’d posted online. I had, and wondered at the time where he might be going.
“We’re in Las Vegas to see Rascal Flats; Deanna is a big fan.” he explained. “When I spotted the San Francisco Peaks from 40,000 feet coming from Texas yesterday, it didn’t take long to identify Flag.” I asked how long the two were staying in Vegas.
“We’re leaving tomorrow at noon,” he replied.
“Ugh. I was thinking of flying over tomorrow to meet you for lunch. You’re only 90 minutes from Flagstaff by Flying Carpet, practically in the neighborhood.”
“That’s a cool idea—how about today?!” wrote Sergio. This is what airplanes are for, right? So I texted back “Sure!” and scrambled to get up and out the door to the airport.
It proved to be a sparkling clear day, with light winds on the ground and aloft. En route to Las Vegas I entertained myself ogling vistas of the western Grand Canyon. In seemingly no time, I rendezvoused with my friends at Henderson Executive Airport (KHND).
Jean and I first met Sergio and his son Max three years ago when they toured the Southwest in their 180hp Cessna 172, the Green Hornet. (See Flying Carpet Tour, FT 6/13.) We dined with Sergio and Deanna in San Antonio a few months later, but that’s the last time I’d seen them in person.
Sergio flies often, including numerous Pilots N Paws missions, and excitedly revealed that he’s changing careers to pursue pro piloting. He recently earned his commercial pilot certificate, and just enrolled for flight-instructor training.
Deanna backs Sergio’s dream 100%, having left a corporate job to indulge her own passion for animals with a thriving pet-sitting business. What an inspiring couple! A brief but fulfilling hour later, my friends dashed off to catch the shuttle back to the Strip.
I was cruising happily homeward through cobalt skies, when a nasty odor filled the cockpit…