Cross Country to Elmira

Over the first two weeks of July in 2005 Brenda and I flew out to attend my 20th High School reunion in Elmira, NY and see friends along the way. LA to Elmira puts the cross in cross country. We had a great trip and lots of fun when we got there. This is my usual pilot-heavy description of the trip.

More so than most of the trips, please don't take my shortness of comments about the time on the ground in Elmira and other places as an indicator of how much fun we had there. I had a great time in Elmira and enjoyed basically every minute of it. I'm only sorry that I didn't get to see everyone I wanted to.

We took a bunch of pictures that we've split up into several albums:

West to East — Day 1

Santa Monica (SMO) to Winslow, AZ (INW)

Meteor! As usual in the world of general aviation, the initial plans to get underway had to be modified. When we arrived at Santa Monica early on the morning of the 1st, we found an airport fogged to the ground. Not quite as bad as we saw at Tacoma, but bad enough that we weren't leaving on time. We shuffled off to the Spitfire Grill for a leisurely breakfast while we waited for the fog to clear.

Half the fun of the breakfast was watching the morning newscast. LA local news is a creature of its own. We were treated to a young female meteorologist decked out like Britney Spears describing the uniformly foggy conditions to an anchor who was dressed more modestly only in that the anchor's navel was covered. And just special for this day, the traffic report consisted of the traffic reporter standing on the ramp at Van Nuys pointing at his helicopter and explaining why he was on the ground. It did clear after an hour or so and we were off.

We departed IFR to VMC on top and proceeded under VFR out to our first stop in Winslow, AZ.

This was a good long leg, with the hope being that we could cover as much of the Arizona desert as possible before things got too hot and then hunker down and cover more distance in the afternoon and evening. The delay on the front end made this work out less well than planned.

Things honestly went pretty well until roughly Prescott, AZ where we began to pick up the turbulence that comes with afternoon heat in the desert. By the time we got out to Winslow, Brenda was pretty sick of going up and down and I was pretty sick of fighting it. We settled in to a long lunch at the cafe, hoping that the heat would abate. It didn't get much better, but it didn't get any worse, so we elected to set out for Santa Fe and consider one more leg after dark.

The stop at Winslow featured some good Mexican food at the airport cafe and a helpful fellow at the FBO who sold us some Dramamine to help Brenda.

Winslow, AZ (INW) to Santa Fe, NM (SAF)

Cool Santa Fe mailbox This is the leg on which I decided never to fly in the desert during the heat of the day again.

I expected the anemic takeoff performance and some turbulence, but I really wasn't set for just how miserable the flying was. Updrafts and downdrafts that outperformed my plane at 9500 feet were pretty common for this leg. The airspeed averaged over the leg wasn't bad, but it was like driving through the Appalachians when I was younger. Wheeze your way uphill passing trucks that were worse off than you and then pick up ridiculous speed as you topped the hill and came down (being passed by the same trucks). It's low fun.

The two plusses for the trip were that Brenda zonked right out, so the flight was more comfortable than the last leg and we were flying over the beautiful western desert. I never get sick of looking out at that fantasy landscape with its vivid colors and amazing topography. I did get to see some of the rock cites used by early Americans.

The plan in SAF was to park until after dark to avoid the horrific density altitude and turbulence as things cooled off and then try to get out to Liberal, KS. The fantastic folks at Million Air in Santa Fe were great in finding us a crew car and recommending the great Blue Corn Cafe for dinner. Along the way we found plenty of cool sculpture and landmarks; there are pictures of them in the album. Santa Fe looks like it would be fun to spend some time exploring.

As luck would have it, we got to spend more time there that very night. The first words from the Flight Service briefer were “You'll be flying through a band of level 4 thunderstorms from ...” to which the only sensible response is “Oh no, I'm not.” So again the fine folks at Million Air took care of us, getting us one of the last rooms at the Holiday Inn. That's good because the folks there were also very helpful and accommodating especially to unexpected guests.

Day 2

Santa Fe, NM (SAF) to Liberal, KS (LBL)

Liberal FBO Santa Fe in the morning is a much more hospitable aviation environment. Brenda was kind of half awake from staying up late blogging the previous day's events, but I was pretty invigorated by the chance to get out of the desert and into the Midwest where density altitudes are sane. In addition we we planning to meet up with Mike Meusey and his family, who I hadn't seen in some years. Mike lives in St. Louis, which did mean covering some ground. We got an early start with cool air in Santa Fe.

The desert sweeps into plains as you transition from New Mexico to Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. There are fewer spectacular mountains, but the terrain is still beautiful. As you move into Texas and the Midwest, you begin to see how the railroads and rivers built towns. Lots of the population centers surround rail hubs or rail and river meetings. It's easy to see how the railroads made or broke communities as their crossings represented the only gathering points for work and goods in the broad flat plains. It's one thing to understand this and another to see it played out beneath your wings.

Liberal itself was a cheerful little airport where an old air base used to be. It's uncontrolled, but with fine facilities. I did miss the memo about back taxiing down the runway I landed on to the FBO, so we took a slow tour of a couple closed runways, spotting some local wildlife along the way. The helpful folks there got us fueled up and on our way pretty quickly.

Liberal, KS (LBL) to Olathe, KS (IXD)

New Century Air Center tower Because of our early start, this leg was still pretty early in the day and conditions were beautiful. On climbout from LBL we heard another pilot announce (unrequested) on one of the overlapping unicom frequencies that it was “Smooth as silk at 5500.” And that's exactly the kind of day it was. Great flying weather over the heartland.

For an urban pilot like myself used to flying around unforgiving terrain, the Midwest is just an ideal flying environment. The land is almost unbelievably flat and low, criss-crossed with regular roads and section lines. And the roads are not heavily travelled, meaning that if you need one, you can probably get it. Contemplating a landing on a California freeway is a whole other ball of wax. It's very comforting to fly over Kansas, especially with clear, smooth weather.

The trip out to Olathe was uneventful, unless you count spotting the enormous grain elevator at Hutchinson, KS. I swear it's a mile long. Another testament to the farming that settled the area.

Another reminder that I was in the Midwest was when I asked a controller who was helping me divert around parachute jumping if he wanted me to avoid Osage (Oh-sah-je) Airport. He didn't understand me, but told me to avoid Osage (Oh-say-je) Airport. I guess I've been away too long.

The New Century Air Center at Olathe, where we landed, has perhaps the coolest name of any of the places we stopped. We only stuck around long enough to fuel up, snack up and head off to see Mike.

Olathe, KS (IXD) to St. Louis, MO (SUS)

The Missouri River This was a short leg from basically Kansas City to St. Louis that I flew mostly by straight pilotage. It was good fun to follow the Missouri river out to the Mississippi and find St. Louis. Again the weather was great, making the flying easy.

After we pulled in and tied down at Spirit of St. Louis Airport, we hung out until Mike came to get us. Then we spent a delightful evening just catching up with him and Kristen, talking about old times and new things. And learning a lot about trains.

Mike and I got to go up the next morning for a short hop and look around at the area. We didn't get to go out over downtown St. Louis because the VP Fair (OK, Fair St. Louis) was holding their annual airshow. This made it kind of busy out that way. It's kind of ironic that the only airshow I've been to was the one that got in my way.

It was a source of great joy to take Mike up, and hopefully I'll get to do it again some time soon.

Day 3

St. Louis, MO (SUS) to Columbus, OH (OSU)

OSU Airport We would have loved to stay and enjoy the Meuseys as long as they were willing to put up with us, but folks in Elmira were waiting for us as well with plans for the Fourth of July, so we had to press on. We did get to fortify ourselves with a full sized meal at a Midwest pancake house before we left, and honestly we didn't need much else to eat. Good times and good friends are a tough combination to beat.

The day was great for flying again, and with the goal of getting to Columbus and then on to Elmira we set out. Things were beautiful and uneventful until we hit Indianapolis or so, when a set of mid-level clouds appeared. These nudged us down to 3500 feet or so, an gave us some turbulence and wind to grapple with.

Compared to the turbulence in New Mexico, this wasn't a real hassle, but the combination of reduced true airspeed and hazy visibilities had me considering a diversion or a hop into an IFR flight plan. I didn't wind up doing either, but I spent more time thinking about options and rechecking my flight planning than I expected to.

All things considered though, it was a pretty good leg, and though we were running a little behind time, we got to the Ohio State University Airport with plenty of reserves.

As a University of Wisconsin alum, it pains me to say anything too nice about OSU, but they run a very nice airport. Gas got consistently more expensive as we went east, and OSU was no exception, but the facilities were clean and the staff helpful and friendly. Tough to beat, really.

Columbus, OH (OSU) to Elmira, NY (ELM)

Elmira Airport After all the concerns and discomfort of sitting under the clouds over the flat parts of Indiana and Ohio, I decided I'd rather be up in the clouds as we headed into more mountainous terrain. IFR to Elmira.

We got to climb out through a fairly good layer of clouds, and were pretty well on top at 7000, though occasional tufts reached up for us. The first part of the flight was basically VMC along the airways up toward Erie, PA. Near Youngstown a controller asked us what our direct heading to ELM would be and it apparently fit in his plans, so we got a nice direct routing.

As we headed across northwestern PA and southwestern NY, the mountains got higher and the clouds came up to meet us. We were in and out of some clouds with enough vertical development to make the views spectacular, but not enough to be flight hazards. It was a lot of fun, though I was looking forward to overflying some of the area that I'd driven through so much and seeing it from the air. I was happy to see the clouds, but sad to miss the ground.

As we came into Elmira, we were able to get down below the layers and be set up for a visual approach. We got to Elmira just as night was falling, so we landed from day right into night. This is a neat effect. (The timing is also why the picture of the field looks so blurry – light conditions are pretty dim.)

We found ourselves sharing the airspace with another plane with a registration number ending in 169, which was pretty unusual.

Our good friend Tom Beecher met us as we pulled into the FBO with a free ice cream cone in his hands, and whisked us off for a week of fun (and food) in Elmira.

Hanging Out in Elmira

on the lake The excuse for the long flight out to Elmira was to go to my 20th high school reunion. We got out that way early enough to spend a week with our old friends Tom & Soni Beecher and other friends in Elmira. We got to spend time at Seneca Lake, wander around Elmira and take some pictures, tour some wineries, take a hayride at the Hoose's (Soni's family) and have Soni's baby shower as well. The reunion was a great time, and I got to see many people I haven't seen in years. I also found some time to check out the Wings of Eagles Air Museum at the Elmira Airport. Thanks to everyone we got to see.

We took many pictures, a few of which are in this album. On the way out of Elmira, we took some aerial pictures as well.


Elmira, NY (ELM) to Syracuse, NY (SYR)

Traffic light with green on top in Syracuse After a great week in Elmira, we flew up to Syracuse to see my brother and his wife (well, she wasn't his wife at the time, but was a couple months later) as well as meeting up with the rest of our family. The flight up was short and pretty uneventful, other than circling around Elmira taking some pictures of old landmarks.

Jack gave us the red carpet treatment in Syracuse, with a driving tour to show off the city, lunch at the Dinosaur Grill, and dinner on the river. We also got to see his beautiful house and hang out with everyone. It was a great relaxing day with the family.

East to West — Day 1

Syracuse, NY (SYR) to Mansfield, OH (MFD)

Mansfield Airport The dominant feature of the eastern part of our trip home was Hurricane Dennis. As we started back, Dennis was sitting over Kentucky and Indiana, covering the area with rain and overcast as well as more than the usual thunderstorms. As a result, we decided not to dip into Indiana to see my old friend Nick Johnson. We skirted to the north, planning a stop in Michigan for lunch to see another friend Liz Teviotdale (Dr. EC).

Before Michigan, however was a leg to Mansfield, Ohio. The forecast was for clouds over western Ohio and it really wasn't clear if Mansfield was going to be clouded in or not. We filed IFR, just to be sure.

It was hazy, but otherwise perfect flying weather from Syracuse through western New York and out into Ohio. The only big challenges were some rerouting around the busy Cleveland airspace to Mansfield. Rerouting isn't much trouble when you're VMC.

Mansfield itself was a nice little airfield and we had no trouble getting fueled up and ready for our next leg.

Mansfield, OH (MFD) to Kalamazoo, MI (AZO)

The Kalamazoo Air Zoo The forecast out of MFD was for middle level clouds off and on between us and Kalamazoo. This was going to be an IFR leg with some IMC in it. No convection was forecast, though, so I was looking forward to the instrument time.

Sure enough, shortly after climbout we entered a layer of persistent clouds with a bit of turbulence. Good fun, and I stuck around in the layer for a fair amount of time before I asked for a climb out of the clouds. Another 2000 feet up and we were comfortably on top in smoother air, which Brenda was thankful for. The turbulence was starting to bother her some.

The rest of the flight was easy enough, and we even got some unsolicited direct routings to make life a little easier. Once we arrived near Kalamazoo, there was still a layer of clouds between us and the airport, but we were able to descend below it on instruments and spot the airport for a visual approach.

On the ground at Duncan Aviation Dr. EC met us and took us to lunch at the nearby Kalamazoo Air Zoo. I can't say much for the food there, but the view of the restored aircraft is tremendous. We didn't stick around to tour the place as we wanted to spend some time with Liz and then get one more leg in.

Liz took us back to her house and we talked a while. As we headed back to the airport, I heard thunder and then we got a good dose of rain as a thundershower passed overhead. A look at the weather radar told us this wasn't an isolated incident. There were lines of storms to the south and west – right where we wanted to go. Fortunately, Liz was happy to have us for the night and we took her up on it.

There are worse places to be stuck than Kalamazoo. We had a fine evening with Liz and got some excellent Indian food at a fine restaurant whose name escapes me. It was great to see Liz and catch up on old times.

Day 2

Kalamazoo, MI (AZO) to Cedar Rapids, IA (CID)

Iowa Our first leg of this really long day started early at AZO where DR EC dropped us off. The forecast was for continued clouds until we got further out west and we filed IFR to Cedar Rapids, IA.

Climbout was nice, and although we passed through some occasional tongues of cloud that reached up to our cruising altitude, we were largely above the clouds most of the way. Brenda nodded right back to sleep, and it was just me and the morning push into O'Hare.

O'Hare is certainly the big time of flying, though on reflection McCarran is probably every bit as challenging. I wasn't too close to O'Hare, but I was still on my best behavior when they put me over to O'Hare approach control.

In fact, they'd already routed me somewhat further south than I'd filed to get me further outside O'Hare's Class B. I thought I had routed far enough outside, but the reroute was easy enough to deal with. I even got to report a crossing jet in sight immediately and offer visual separation in to O'Hare Approach. As I say, I was on my best behavior.

As Illinois gave way to Iowa, the clouds opened up and we got to view more of that (to a pilot) beautiful flat Midwestern landscape. The approach into Cedar Rapids was completely visual and we were able to grab a crew car to have lunch in town.

One of the great joys of traveling with Brenda is that whenever possible we eat at local places. In Cedar Rapids, this was the Kauffee Kup, a little local diner. The food was fine; it was no frills, but tasty and inexpensive. The place was clearly a local hangout. Fun to check out.

Cedar Rapids, IA (CID) to Hutchinson, KS (HUT)

Hutchinson Terminal After being refreshed and refueled, we were off to Hutchinson, KS. Weather along the way was predicted VFR, so we took off VFR, planning to file IFR en route if the need arose. We squeaked out of CID in front of a couple commuter flights that were awaiting their clearances, which is always kind of cool. I expect that they beat us to where they were going, but it's always fun to get the head start.

The flight was smooth enough, though we encountered a layer of clouds at about our cruise altitude. It was too wide to go around, and low enough to climb over, so we did. First I checked with Flight Service about the layer, which they reported to end right around Wichita. Well, it didn't, and was under us almost the whole way to Hutchinson. It was really a thickly scattered layer, and we did find a hole in the clouds that we could settle down through while maintaining legal VFR a few miles before Hutchinson, so it all worked out.

There was a little more excitement as the center controller we were talking to informed us that there were thunderstorms reported in the Hutchinson area. We had alternates and enough fuel to get to them safely and visibility to see by, so we decided to get a little closer and see what's what. When we contacted the tower, they informed us that the activity was south of the field, and had not affected other traffic. I kept an eye out for shear, and landed uneventfully.

Even though we were just in and out, it's clear that the Hutchinson Airport is a homey, well run field. There's an interesting looking cafe, good pilot facilities and a friendly staff. We even bought some BBQ sauce and saw a SabreLiner. This was a nice stop.

Hutchinson, KS (HUT) to Dalhart, TX (DHT)

Runway at DHT When we'd gotten up in Kalamazoo that morning, the plan had been to go AZO to CID to HUT to SAF. And finish the day in Santa Fe having flown 3 legs. The weather out of Hutchinson was uncooperative, though. There was a line of storms between us and the obvious route to Santa Fe. With the help of a sharp fellow at Flight Service and a little willingness to reroute, we filed a flight plan that took us out to the north and west, around the line of storms and into Dalhart, TX. I would have liked to go around all the way to Santa Fe, but getting into Dalhart for fuel was prudent, besides giving us a place to stop if things deteriorated. I thought of this as Art of War IFR. Avoid unnecessary conflict.

The plan worked out great. Though we passed through a couple clouds, we were by and large in VMC, and able to see when we cleared the line of storms that were between us and SAF/DHT. It was a longer flight than we'd planned, but very low stress. The longer route took us over some very lightly inhabited parts of Kansas and Oklahoma. Desolate country with a long way between settlements.

We also heard the SabreLiner we'd seen at HUT negotiating block altitudes for what we assumed was a photo shoot. Though the controllers were being very professional about it, it seemed to us like the pilots were trying to get some space that had become very important because of the thunderstorms rerouting everyone. I'm not sure how it all worked out, but I suspect that the photo shoot didn't do as well as they wanted.

We cruised into Dalhart for a quick turn into Santa Fe.

Dalhart, TX (DHT) to Santa Fe, NM (SAF)

NM desert The guys at Dalhart were the great guys you find at small airports if you're lucky. Helpful and friendly, even if they aren't wearing the FBO uniform. They'd also restored a Piper Tri-Pacer to fabulous condition, and had it inside the terminal.

The flight to SAF promised good weather, but as dusk was approaching and we'd already had to dodge some storms, we filed IFR and headed out.

The trip was relaxing and beautiful. Dusk over the desert is one of those gorgeous sights that's, IMHO, best seen from a small plane. The sun's pallette of reds and oranges splashing across the colors of the western desert is not to be missed. And you can see a lot of it from 8500 feet.

We had arranged a hotel room with our friends at Million Air in Santa Fe from DHT and everything was perfect when we got there. We even got to have dinner at the Blue Corn Cafe again.

This was the end of a pretty long day of flying. Overall something like 11 hours ticked off the Hobbes. Most of it was daylight flying (crossing 2 time zones helped), but I was pretty bushed at the end of the day, anyway.

Day 3

Santa Fe, NM (SAF) to Prescott, AZ (PRC)

NM desert Another day. Off to Santa Monica! Of course, by way of Prescott, AZ. Good VFR weather, even if we are once again crossing the western desert. The plan is a stop in Prescott and then home to Santa Monica if we can get out of the high desert early enough.

The trip to Prescott is uneventful, but beautiful. A nice cool crossing, and a stop for lunch.

Prescott, AZ (PRC) to Needles, CA (EED)

Needles Here's where I forgot my own good advice about the desert during the day. Rather than just stay here at Prescott until the sun goes down, and the density altitude and drafts abate some, I figured we could just zip out toward California where, for some reason, I thought the desert would be calmer.

The plan was to leave Prescott without full tanks and refill at Needles, where the density altitude would be lower. Needles was forecast to be extremely hot, but it's also less than 1000 MSL. Even in ungodly heat the density altitude would be well within the aircraft's limits.

Getting out of Prescott turned out to be a little tricky. Prescott is a busy airport. I think Embry-Riddle has a school out there and when we were leaving, the air was thick with ER trainers. We squeezed into the sequence somewhere and got out.

The flight out to Needles was more turbulent than I would have liked, but not completely horrible. And the desert's beautiful, but altogether, I think I'll really remember my own advice on this in the future.

Needles, CA (EED) to Santa Monica (SMO)

temp in Needles Needles is hot.

Needles is so hot, my whole definition of “hot” changed after having been there. It was 120 degrees F on the ground and there was no humidity. It was a whole new world for me. I've never had the world around me so hot.

We gassed up as was the plan and shot the breeze with the fellows at Pair A Dice Aviation there. These guys alone are a good reason to visit the airport. In the winter.

On climbout is when I learned something important about the desert. Absolute temperature matters. Despite the fact that the density altitude was completely manageable, my air-cooled engine was not at all pleased about using 120 degree air to carry off heat. I'd climbed a couple thousand feet when I realized that the oil temperature gauge was coming up toward its redline. This is not a happy feeling at all.

I caught it very early, and reduced the power and got the nose down to cool it off. It still was a very slow climb out of Needles. Pick up a thousand feet, cool the engine. Repeat. Eventually we had the altitude to get on our way with the gauges all still within the green arcs, but it was a lesson that won't be forgotten soon.

The rest of the flight was something of an anti-climax after that. We cruised through the familiar desert to the LA basin and got into that basin as soon as practical. Turbulence wasn't as bad as it was going out to Santa Fe from Winslow, but I may just have been happy that my oil gauge was back in the green.

The landing at SMO was uneventful, and it was nice to be home after such a great adventure.

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