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Day 11, Legs 2 and 3: the Great Plains and the Midwest

Thunderstorms building west of our route, near Cheyenne, Wyoming

Thunderstorms building west of our route, near Cheyenne, Wyoming

After only about ten minutes on the ground at the Western Nebraska Regional Airport (KBFF) in Scottsbluff, we’re back in the air — headed west! The scattered thunderstorms we watched on the Stratus’ radar are intensifying, and we decide to take the “long route” to get out of the storms’ path, giving us a fighting chance of making it to Michigan today. Jean-Baptiste is in the left seat, and we take off and head southwest toward Cheyenne, Wyoming and then turning east over Fort Morgan, Colorado. It’s a 120 nm detour, and we were fighting 55 knot headwinds at times, but we were able to give the storms a wide (and safe!) berth and continue on for the day.

With the storms behind us, we find ourselves paralleling our route from Lincoln to Boulder, this time headed eastbound. The headwinds are stronger than we expected, so we stay relatively low and ride out the afternoon bumps in exchange for a few extra knots. We keep a close eye on the fuel totalizer, leaning the engine for best economy, and decide that Plattsmouth, Nebraska (KPMV, just south of Omaha) is as far as we’ll go on this leg — making Nebraska the only “three landing state” on the trip!  Looking behind us on the radar, we’re thankful to have kept moving, as the isolated thunderstorms we detoured around have engulfed western Nebraska and eastern Colorado.

After a quick refueling at Plattsmouth and a check of the weather in the mercifully air-conditioned terminal, we head on to our destination for the day: Kalamazoo, Michigan (KAZO). The sun sets as we move east, putting on quite a show as Chicago and Lake Michigan pass off of our left wing. We arrive in Kalamazoo just before 11 pm EDT — two time zones, 10.2 flight hours, and nearly 1400 nautical miles from West Yellowstone, Montana!

Bri, Jean-Baptiste’s girlfriend, is working in Kalamazoo for the summer, and meets us at the airport. We plan for a late start tomorrow for the final leg of the journal: back to Ithaca!


Day 11, Leg 1: the Grand Tetons and eastbound

Jackson Lake and the Grand Tetons

Jackson Lake and the Grand Tetons

We woke up early today, excited for a big day of flying, but also a little disappointed that the trip is coming to a close — we’ll cross the Continental Divide a final time, trading the mountains of the Northwest for the plains as we head east.  Our stop for tonight is Kalamazoo, Michigan (KAZO), where Jean-Baptiste’s girlfriend Bri is interning at Zoetis for the summer, and is just under 1,200 nm as the crow flies.  Although we originally planned a northerly route, overflying Mount Rushmore and Badlands National Park, a cold front is running east-west through South Dakota, and the entire area is IFR with embedded thunderstorms.  We decide to detour to the south a bit, and plan a route to the Western Nebraska Regional Airport (KBFF) in Scottsbluff for a quick-turn fuel stop.

With the plane packed, we run into West Yellowstone for breakfast at the Woodside Bakery, and grab lunch to go — we didn’t always think to do this, but it saves a lot of time on the ground, and means we won’t need to worry about finding food near an airport or borrowing a car to get into a small town.  Jim will fly our first leg today, which seems fitting as he’s done all the high-altitude takeoffs and Jean-Baptiste has done all the high-altitude landings!  7CF slowly climbs away from the runway (at an elevation of 6,649 feet), and we do a few climbing 360º degree turns before heading east to Yellowstone itself.  The perspective from the air gives a great sense of scale for the park, and we get to take in a lot of the famous sights — geysers and hot springs, river plains and lakes, and the Grand Tetons in the distance — all at once.

Following the park’s loop road, we head south to Yellowstone Lake, and then aim for Jackson Lake next.  The Grand Tetons are absolutely gorgeous, but the wind is blowing from the west, so we’re expecting lots of turbulence on the leeward side of the mountains.  We decide it’s easier to just keep on climbing, so we turn on the oxygen and head up to 13,500 feet.  It’s much cooler than when we crossed the Rockies going westbound, and 7CF happily climbs into the teens.  We get a distracted with the fantastic view of the Tetons, and overshoot our turning point by a few miles!  Finally turning east, we follow US Route 26/287 through the Togwotee Pass (9,758 feet) toward Dubois, Wyoming.

Further east, the few clouds below us close into a broken layer, probably part of the storm system to the north of our route.  We haven’t been in contact with ATC since we left West Yellowstone — even at 13,500 feet, we can’t reach Salt Lake Center, so filing and activating that VFR search-and-rescue flight plan was a good idea!  We’re almost to Casper by the time we can raise Salt Lake Center on the radio, and we’re happy to have someone to talk to, and to see the “reply” light on the transponder flashing away as the 7CF gets hit with radar signals.  By the time the clouds thin out, the mountains below us are gone, and it’s nothing but grassland — the rest of the trip will be very flat!

The Stratus ADS-B receiver has been great to have on the trip, and we’ve been keeping an eye on the datalink weather reports and radar as we’ve moved east.  The airports north of our route are all IFR, so our decision to detour to the south was a good call.  But there’s a widespread SIGMET warning for convective activity over Nebraska, and there’s a line of thunderstorms right east of our fuel stop — and Scottsbluff, Nebraska isn’t our idea of a great place to get stranded!  We’re close enough that we decide it’s best to keep going and re-assess the situation when we’re on the ground.

The clouds thin out as we pass the small town of Converse, and we descend below the cloud bases and cross into western Nebraska.  We pass over a few isolated ranches and the occasional eastbound coal train, but not many other signs of life until we’re in the traffic pattern at the Western Nebraska Regional Airport.  It’s an uncontrolled field, but there’s a good amount of chatter on the radio as a crop duster comes and goes and a Cessna practices landings.  We squeeze ourselves into the traffic pattern and touch down on runway 30.  The local FBO, Valley Airways, must get a lot of visitors in a rush to keep going on their journeys, and greet us as we taxi in and start fueling before we get out of the plane.  We head into the terminal to check the weather — we need to decide if and where we’re going next today!

Day 10: on the ground in Yellowstone National Park

Bison in Yellowstone's Lamar River Valley

Bison in Yellowstone’s Lamar River Valley

After grabbing our rental car, we head into the small town of West Yellowstone, Montana to grab lunch and then go into Yellowstone itself.  The town is small, mostly just a crossroads outside of the western entrance to the Park, but we had a great lunch at the Woodside Bakery — and make a note to come back for breakfast! Heading into Yellowstone itself, we weren’t disappointed, with awesome views as soon as we crossed the toll booth.  With only the afternoon at the park, we didn’t have time to explore very far off the beaten path, so we spent most of our timing driving from sight to sight, enjoying the views along the way.

Our first planned stop was Old Faithful along the west side of the park.  After spending 30 minutes getting the authentic “summertime in Yellowstone” experience — sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, in the middle of nowhere — we made a U-turn and headed to the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone’s less-traveled northeastern corner.  Jim had (probably too much) fun driving our rental car on the beautiful mountain roads, and the weather mostly cooperated for our trip, with only occasional rain (and snow!) showers along the way.  We saw an incredible amount of wildlife: bison, mountain goats, and brown and black bears (we stayed in the car, Mom!).

We followed the Yellowstone River down to Yellowstone Lake, looping around the park and crossing the Continental Divide twice, and arrived at the Grand Prismatic Spring as the sun set.  We headed to the Wild West Pizzeria in West Yellowstone for a very late dinner, then passed out at the airport for the night.  Tomorrow brings one of the longest legs of the trip, heading from Yellowstone to Michigan, and we’ll be fighting the changing time zones as we go.

Day 10: to West Yellowstone, Montana

The Arrowrock Reservoir, just east of Boise

The Arrowrock Reservoir, just east of Boise

Today we’re headed to Yellowstone National Park, the second park we’ll be visiting on the ground this trip.  It’s a short flight from Boise: about 240 nm and a little over 90 minutes in 7CF.  Our route takes us over the Snake River Plain, just south of the Sawtooth National Forest, where the terrain rises to 12,600 ft.  The weather is perfect today, with blue skies all along our route, so it should be a pleasant flight!

After saying goodbye to Max, Maria and Buck, we take off from Boise and head due east toward Friedman Memorial Airport (KSUN) in Hailey.  We’re only in the air for about 5 minutes — including the time to make a u-turn to get on course after takeoff! — before we’re over the desert, with signs of human life few and far between.  We keep the Sawtooth Range off our left wing and keep marching east.

After overflying Friedman and Sun Valley, the next waypoint is Craters of the Moon National Monument, which really does look otherworld from the air. We start turning northeast overhead Idaho National Laboratory, which is labeled on the chart with a simple request: “For reasons of national security, pilots are requested to avoid flight at and below 6,000 ft in this area”.

Approaching the West Yellowstone (KWYS), Big Sky Approach seems very worried about another plane descending into the airport:  a Cessna Citation, 10 miles ahead of us. It must have been a slow day in the radar room, but we politely explain that there’s no way 7CF is going to catch up with a business jet!  Crossing into Montana, we don’t need to descend very much to set up for our traffic pattern; West Yellowstone airport is at 6,649 ft, the highest of the trip, just 40 ft higher than Grand Canyon airport.  We’re careful to make sure the fuel mixture is set properly before landing, and we’re happy that — unlike at the Grand Canyon — we can taxi to the ramp under our own power!

Yellowstone Aviation is the small, but very helpful, FBO on the field, and the Montana Department of Aeronautics has a nice ramp-side campground for visiting pilots — perfect for us.  There’s occasionally airline service into the airport, so we head over to the terminal and grab our rental car, then set off to explore the Park.

Day 9: Eastbound to Idaho

The Snake River, along the Oregon (on the left) and Idaho (on the right) border

The Snake River, along the Oregon (on the left) and Idaho (on the right) border

Today’s flight isn’t long (375 nm and 2.5 hours — we’ve recalibrated our definition of “long flight in the Mooney”), but it’s a turning point in the trip:  our first eastbound leg of the journey!  We’re leaving the west coast behind and heading to Boise, Idaho (KBOI), where we’ll spend the night with our friends Max and Maria.

The weather was “classic Seattle”, with overcast skies at 800 feet, so this is also the first leg of the trip that we’ll actually need that expensive instrument rating.  The off-route obstruction clearance altitude is 16,800 feet around Mount Rainier, so going direct isn’t exactly Plan A. Instead, we file an airways route to Boise that keeps us over “lower” terrain — but the minimum enroute altitude for the airway is still 9,000 feet, so it’s all relative.

It’s Jim’s turn in the left seat, and we takeoff from the middle of Everett’s 9,000 foot runway and are quickly in the clouds. Seattle Departure vectors us on course, and after about ten minutes, we’re in the sunshine and enjoying a gorgeous view.  We didn’t need to fly IFR for long, but who knows how long we would have been grounded waiting for the weather to clear up, and we’re glad we had the capability.

Seattle reminds us that we can request “VFR-on-top” — still technically on an instrument flight plan, but flying at visual altitudes and navigating ourselves.  We’re happy to oblige, and they cut us loose, direct to Boise.

It takes only about 20 miles before the clouds thin out and we’re treated to a great view of the mountains around us.  Further east, the Cascades give way to the Columbia River Plateau, and we overfly Yakima, Washington as we head southeast and into the high desert. It’s amazing how much geographic diversity we’ve seen within each state along the Pacific.  We cross the Columbia River at Umatilla, Oregon, and follow Interstate 84 through the valley between the Blue Mountains to our south and the Wallowa Mountains to our north.

Crossing the Snake River and entering Idaho, Boise really is the “City of Trees” that they claim, especially in contrast with the surrounding desert! Runway 28 Right, which is on the civilian side of the airport, is closed for construction, so Boise Tower clears us to land on runway 28 Left — the Idaho Air National Guard has two A-10 Warthogs holding short of the runway, and we’re holding them up!

We park 7CF at the Jackson Jet Center for the night, and spend the rest of the day relaxing with Max, Maria, and their gigantic Newfoundland, Buck.  Tomorrow brings another short leg, this time to West Yellowstone, Montana, and we plan on being back home just two days after that!

Day 8: on the ground in Seattle(ish)

The Future of Flight Aviation Center, the start of the Boeing-Everett tour

The Future of Flight Aviation Center, the start of the Boeing-Everett tour

After a week away from home, we decided to play it safe in Seattle, spending our rest day relaxing and avoiding the temptation to go to Seattle-proper and do too much.  The line crew at Castle & Cooke picked us up from our hotel, and took us to the rental car office — the service was better than yesterday’s “sorry, we just closed”, but not by much!

The main event for the day was a tour of Boeing’s widebody factory in Everett, which starts from the Future of Flight Aviation Center.  No cameras (or even phones) are allowed, so we knew it was going to be a real tour of the production line.  The tour guide was fantastic and showed our group a great time.  After the tour, we explored the museum, which is small but nicely done, and had a few significant airplanes on display: an old Glasair, a Beech Starship, and a battery-powered Diamond HK36 motor glider that Boeing’s R&D team had put together.

We drove to the sound and had a late lunch at Ivar’s in Mukilteo Landing — Art at EHFC recommended it, and the fish was worth the trip from Ithaca!  After lunch, we visited the plane to grab some random item we left in it (packing, unpacking, and then forgetting things in the plane is the story of the trip!), then spent some time relaxing at the hotel.  We joined a friend of Jean-Baptiste’s (from his time at Microsoft) for dinner, and called it an early night.  Boise tomorrow!

Day 7, Leg 2: Along the Cascades to Seattle

Mount Saint Helens

Mount Saint Helens

After lunch in Medford, we hung out for a bit at the FBO — mostly so we could let all of our electronics charge! Keeping an eye on the weather, we saw the beginnings of afternoon thunderstorms forming over the Cascades, so we modified our route a bit:  first, to nearby Crater Lake, then to Eugene and up the Willamette Valley (west of the mountains and the isolated storms) to Portland, followed by Seattle.  Jean-Baptiste was still our pilot in command, so we could even out our time in the left seat, and we took off and turned northeast, back into the mountains.

We leveled off at 9,500 feet, just below the cloud bases, and Crater Lake put on a gorgeous show: unbelievably blue water contrasting with scattered low clouds and snow-covered peaks.  The lake, formed when a volcano erupted over 7,000 years ago, is the deepest in the United States at 1,943 ft.

Leaving Crater Lake behind, we turned northwest toward the relatively flat terrain of the Willamette Valley, passing row after row of logging sites (many with young, recently-planted trees) along the way.  We followed the valley north to Portland, enjoying great views of many mountains poking through the haze off our right wing: the Three Sisters, Mount Jefferson, Mount Hood.

Crossing the Columbia River and heading into Washington, we could already see our next two waypoints:  Mount Saint Helens, and far in the distance, Mount Rainier.  Mount Saint Helens, which erupted spectacularly in 1980, is almost otherworldly from the air — the top of the mountain is simply gone, and what’s left of the peak (now at 8,365 ft) is surrounded by lava flows and landslide debris.

It seemed like we spent a long time actually flying to Mount Rainier (14,410 ft).  Unlike Mount Shasta earlier in the day, which is only a few hundred feet shorter, less haze and a better angle with the sun meant that we could see Rainier from almost 75 miles away!  The peak was partly in the clouds, and there was some serious thunderstorm activity just behind it, which made for a great view.

Seattle Approach cleared us into their Bravo airspace, with the caveat that we stay at least 12 miles away from Seattle-Tacoma International (KSEA), and we descended into Paine Field in Everett, Washington — home of Boeing’s wide-body factory.  On downwind to the runway, the landing traffic ahead of us (on the parallel runway) was a still-green 747 on its very first flight! We flew right over the Boeing factory on final, which seemed so gigantic that it felt like the ground instead of just a building, and taxied to Castle & Cooke Aviation, where 7CF would spend the next two nights.

After unpacking our gear, the line crew at Castle & Cooke was nice enough to drop us off at the rental car office, but we arrived just minutes after they closed for the night!  Thankfully, the line crew was happy to take us to our hotel, then retrieve us in the morning — saving us a day’s car rental in the process!  We grabbed a quick dinner and settled in, looking forward to an easy day exploring tomorrow.