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Flight to Sioux FallsLeft Gaithersburg, MD on a Tuesday morning in June, heading towards the "upper left", with a goal of reaching Portland, Oregon by Thursday afternoon. The original "plan" was to leave on Monday, but some last-minute maintenance work was scheduled for the plane that morning, and having never started any trip on time, I took the day to finish preparations. This left me with 2.5 days, or so, to get across the US, which was very doable, but didn't leave much room for any major delays along the way.
Weather looked perfectly clear all the way through to "the middle", with a nasty cold front and a line of severe thunderstorms appearing as a wall across the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Kansas. The rough plan was to spend day 1 flying under clear skies, then calling it a night just short of the line of storms preceding this front, in the hopes that the front and associated storms would pass overhead during the night, leaving a clear path to the West the following day.
After a few hours of flying, I stopped for fuel (and "comfort") at Three Rivers, MI (KHAI). This is a sleepy little-plane airport with a self-serve fuel pump and a small terminal building well-suited to pilots hanging around, something we do quite well. With no spare time today, 45 minutes later we (me and the plane) were back in the air and headed for Lake Erie. We traced the Southern shore over Gary, IN, and up the Western shore to the Chicago lakefront, for a great view of the city.
There used to be a "little plane" airport on the Chicago lake front called Meigs Field, built in the 40s as Chicago's "downtown" airport. Computer geeks knew Meigs Field as the default airport you started from in Microsoft Flight Simulator. Having landed there many times in "simulated" fashion, I would have loved to be able to stop there in real life, but sadly, a few months before I finally got around to beginning flight training in 2003, Chicago's Mayor Daley sent bull-dozers to tear up the runway in the middle of the night. The next morning the runway was demolished, and the airport closed forever. The planes based there had to take-off on the taxi-way in order to be relocated. The Mayor declared that the airport presented a terrorism threat to the city. While I was unable to land at Meigs, I was clearly able to fly right over the same location, in a little plane whose capacity for terrorism approximates that of a Volkswagen.
I landed at PDC, and began the search for the missing green bulb, but it was never seen again. The yellow light was hopeless, too, apparently screwing around with it led to the bulb blowing.
So, nothing much to do but onward and upward, continuing the flight across the Mississippi, and into Minnesota.
It was starting to get late, and I was running out of room in front of the advancing thunderstorms, so I needed to find some place to spend the night. Most of these small town little-plane airports close up shop fairly early in the evening, and I needed some place where I could get a rental car. I picked out Marshall, MN as a convenient stopping point, but as I entered the traffic pattern for landing, I noticed the runway I was planning on landing on had giant Xs marked on them, a sign that the runway is closed, and there were construction crews working on the runway. This airport had a pair of runways, and the other one appeared to be open, albeit with a wicked cross-wind. After landing and taxiing around on the ground for a few minutes, there were simply no signs of life anywhere. For a minute, I was afraid that the airport itself was closed, and that I had come blundering in like a dumbass, but looking back, it appears that everything had just closed up shop early.
This didn't look too promising, so I got back up in the air, continued on, and picked out "biggish" airport Sioux Falls, SD (one with a lot of bizjet and some light airline and national guard traffic). They had services 24 hrs, and were able to hook me up with a rental car and a hotel. The hotel was a bit of a problem, because on this Tuesday night every hotel room in Sioux Falls was booked, so I had to go a few miles down I-90 to find a place. Why? Nobody was sure, but there were rumors of some event involving Newt Gingrich.
The next morning, though, the cold front and thunderstorms had barely advanced at all, and still stood between me and Portland. The intensity and coverage of the storms was "borderline" in terms of safety. If the storms increased in intensity, then it could be bad business being in the air, as thunderstorms can generate destructive turbulence that can tear a plane apart. If the storms subsided a bit, then it would just be an ugly, bumpy, rainy ride, but a safe one.
I hung around the airport for hours, checking the radar every few minutes, mulling it over, and cursing my cowardice. At one point in the morning, Newt Gingrich ducked his head in the pilot's lounge, apparently looking for a place to camp out. I wasn't in the market for a Gingrich autograph, or anything, but the mid-50s charter pilot napping next to me struck me as a Texas Republican, so I gave him a heads up, and soon heard him gushing over Newt from the hallway.
The "plan" was for Angelique to fly into Portland the next day via the airlines, and as the afternoon wore on, the probability of me making it to Portland on time was looking more and more dubious. At the same time, I wasn't looking forward to flying the remainder of the trip with no indication of whether my landing gear had successfully deployed. I figured the storms might get worse as the afternoon wore on, and that any repair to the plane would take at least a couple days for parts shipment.
I decided to plan for the worst, and as happens on these trips, an audible was called, and the trip re-planned on the fly. Angelique's ticket was rebooked for Denver, I asked the shop in Sioux Falls to replace my missing gear bulb, and I headed for Colorado in a rental car.
The shop didn't sound like they were in any great hurry to get around to looking at my plane, and since it was already nearly 5pm when I left Sioux Falls, I didn't expect to hear back from them until the next day. But a couple hours outside of town, I get a call from a mechanic with a Canadian accent saying he was surprised to find they had the exact part in their own stock, and that the plane was fixed. Meanwhile, I was driving through the area of bad weather, and could see that it was lightening up. My "plan for the worst" strategy didn't pan out, but it was too late to re-re-plan, so I continued on to Denver.
Great Sand Dunes NPAfter picking up Angelique at the airport, and having a fine lunch at a damn dirty hippie place in Denver, we sat in the car with an atlas to address the "what now" question. Ultimately, we decided to head towards Mesa Verde, near the "four corners" border of CO, NM, AZ, and UT. A bonus side diversion for this route was Great Sand Dunes NP. My cat would be jealous.
Four CornersAfter playing in the sand for a bit, we continued through the Rockies along route 160, and after a quick dinner stop of Chinese take-out in Pagosa Springs, we eventually made a late night arrival in Cortez, and stopped for the night.
The next day we were headed back East towards Mesa Verde when something triggered in the "must see world's largest ball of twine" area of my brain, when I realized that a side-trip to "Four Corners" would only be a couple hour diversion. A mere 80 miles of travel to stand on a geographic curiosity? They have a thing there that shows you where the states meet up! You can stand on it! How can you pass up an opportunity like that? We turned around and headed back West.
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Harry Mantakos / firstname.lastname@example.org