A Cross Country to Die … er … Live For

How far away is Fargo, North Dakota. Well, the airport identifier tells you all you need to know: KFAR. Tis about as FAR from about anywhere in this country as you can be. I know that airport designations attempt to use the three principal characters in an airport’s name (JFK, LAX, PIT), but in this case, your g’umint actually got something right. It’s FAR away.

After a long search my partners and I found a Super Cub up in Fargo, North Dakota. Well, to be precise, it was in West Fargo, D54, and according to Garmin Pilot (sorry, I don’t do ForeFlight – just can’t drink the Steve Jobs koolaid) it lies 1252nm from San Diego on a 222° course line … as the crow flies. Of course, any self-respecting crow ain’t gonna fly that course because it’d traverse some pretty big rocks with some pretty big wind and quite possibly some pretty big weather. Said crow might have chosen our path – a couple of hundred miles longer, but a whole lot easier on the lungs and airframe:

Day One

4:30am wakeup to SAN for Delta flight to MSP

Layover MSP for 3 frkn hours to fly 45min to FAR

Inspect and fly new airplane, dinner, drinks, logbook inspection

Day Two

D54, southwest to MBG (Mobridge, SD), 169nm

MBG, southwest to RAP (Rapid City, SD), 151 nm

RAP, west/southwest to Mount Rushmore, south to BFF (Western Nebraska Regional – Scottsbluff, NE), 144nm.

TOTAL = 464NM

Day Three

BFF, south to FMM (Fort Morgan, CO), 96nm

FMM, south skirting the DEN CLASS B, PUB (Pueblo, CO), 130nm

PUB, south RTN (Raton, CO), 98nm

RTN to 21nm south RTN, via “Pole Line” due west past AXX (Angel Fire, NM), skirting south of SKX (Taos and its Pueblo), bypassing SAF (Santa Fe and its blue corn tortillas) avoiding LAM’s (Los Alamos) restricted area, then due west whilst skipping around cells to GUP (Gallup, NM), 263nm.

TOTAL = 587NM

Day Four

GUP, southwest to INW (Winslow Lindbergh Regional, what a disappointment), 103nm

INW southwest to BLH (Blythe, CA), 217nm

BLH, west skirting R-2507N, past L77 (Chiriaco Summit and the Patton Museum), southwest to JLI, MYF, 140nm.

TOTAL = 460NM

CUB TRIP TOTAL = 1511NM, 3 long days, 19.7 tach hours or 23.6 Hobbs

Herewith begins a reminiscence of the journey.

 

It didn’t take a whole lotta begging to get the best pilot at Montgomery, Bob Turner, to agree to accompany me on this journery. (No, that isn’t a mis-spell. Any journey in a Cub, even a Super Cub, that FAR would make even a saint ornery. Well, it made me ornery, but obviously I’m no saint. Bob’s halo glimmered ever brighter the longer we flew.)

Bob has flown the J-3 he’s owned for over 50 years on fifteen solo cross country flights. The man loves to fly low and slow … and, apparently, loves to fly long distances, low and slow. In September he brought another J-3 back from Minden, Nevada, up near Lake Tahoe. Last year, he and Kim Grant brought a Super Cub on floats from Maine to Idaho. He’s a glutton for long-range low and slow.

A week before we were scheduled to leave, he’d vetted the weather and emailed me a proposed route. He was antsy to get going because he figured, quite rightly, that the middle weekend in October was our last chance to get outta Fargo untouched by snow.

Looking at the route on a sectional chart – I’d bought every chart that could possibly touch any routing we took (except, as it turns out, the most important one) – I noted that a pencil line direct from D54 to MYF took us real close to Rapid City, South Dakota, a short detour west and real close to what will probably be my only chance at Mount Rushmore. The good Saint acquiesced – although we both rued that decision later.

 

So … we arrives at Fargo’s Hector International Airport under 2500′ overcast skies, late in the afternoon of 18October2014. The seller, Les Ellingson, picks us up at baggage in his big body Buick and we commence a westerly trek the 5 miles to West Fargo Airport, D54, (el. 896′, N46°55.24′ W°9648.95′). Part of the route traversed a dirt road. For the most part, Fargo is flat – very flat, being the bottom of an ice age lake bed that still floods (reference the news reports from 2013, et al.) and is part of the Red River Flood Plain.

Les negotiates the semi-fenced confines of D54 and delivers us to our new Super Cub, 83679. She was built in 1977, owned by the State of Minnesota for years until a lift-challenged employee dumped her into a swamp. Les bought the wreck and restored it in 2003 and finally decided to part with it after several failed attempts. She was prettier than she photographed and flew even better during my fam flight. Her only unsightly flying characteristic was a dramatic tendency to drop her left wing, real hard, in the full power, 50° flap stall. Simple fix is to lower the nose, quickly, and apply some opposite rudder – but, unprepared and close to the ground … she could kill you.

Next morning we were late departing because Les didn’t feel comfy with the exhaust stack on one side and, at 5:30am, began replacing it with one from the Super Cub he’s keeping. He is an honorable man.

 

Second Day

Takeoff mid-morning, 19Oct, OAT 42°F and Bob’s wearing his woolies. I’m up front and happy with the view on our south/south-westerly course for the first fuel stop at Mobridge, South Dakota (el. 1716, N45°32.78′ W100°24.38′), 185nm to the southwest.

There’s not an abundance of forest near Fargo because, after all, it is farm country, but some of the ones we spy are sporting bright yellow and orange finery. The colors are not pervasive, but add a touch of charm to the flat, plowed/fallow/growing fields below. Landing sites are everywhere: fields, dirt and paved roads, almost all of which are on the east/west or north/south headings that are ubiquitous to the farming midwest.

There were a couple of tall windmill farms along our route that we managed to avoid, but some of the windmills stood upwards of 500′ above the terrain and we flew not that much farther above them. Our route paralleled a railroad line out of Fargo until it branched south and northwest – “the iron compass” helped many a lost airmail pilot find his way in the early days of flight. Flying low is different – most of my cross countries were flown higher, for winds, or VOR reception, or nerves. Down low, you get to see the countryside. And, I’m proud to say, we never flew a VOR or an airway for our entire trip. It was nostalgic and dreamy.

Mobridge, we noted, wasn’t hard to find since it’s located on the broad Missouri River and is named after a railroad bridge built in 1906 – the replacement bridge, built in the 60’s is pretty easy to spot, as bridges over waters (troubled or not) are hard to miss.

We took on fuel and resumed our southwesterly course, Bob up front. His plan involved low (slow being understood because 83679 cruises, optimistically, at 95-98mph). My main focus was ensuring that we missed tangling with any of the altitudiferous radio antennas that thrust skyward to impressive heights – oh, and their guy-wires are virtually invisible, OUCH.) Next stop, Rapid City, South Dakota, 120nw SSW (el. 3204′, N44°02.72′ W°103°03.44′).

Whilst in the back, I puttered with Garmin Pilot on my tablet. I never had time to RTFMOnline, so I worked it as best as I could. At 80 some miles from Mobridge, it managed to inform me that we were approaching a rather tall antenna ,1696 feet above the terrain, which Bob happily avoided – since we were flying lots lower than it.

Nearing Rapid City, I noted that the gradual rise in terrain was increasing more rapidly, the further west we flew. Fargo: 896 MSL; Mobridge 1716; RAP sat at 3204 and the Black Hills west/northwest climbed into the mid-high single-digit elevations, a couple thousand feet higher than Laguna or Cuyamaca.

We didn’t bother communicating with ATC unless we absolutely had to – it was, after all, a trip back in time – but we did contact Ellsworth AFB Approach to make sure we didn’t blunder into their airspace looking for Rapid City. We also asked if they could provide vectors to the reason for this detour, Mt Rushmore, and they said they’d be happy to do so. Midwesterners, even if they’re in the military, are always friendlier and better people.

It was my leg to fly departing RAP and we called Ellsworth Approach shortly after takeoff. They gave us a southwesterly heading for the short 22nm trip, but we were darned if we could see it. “It’s at your 12 o’clock, 10 miles,” said Ellsworth Approach. “Negative contact.” “It’s at your 12 o’clock, 5 miles.” I could hear the frustration in the controller’s voice when we replied, “Not in sight.” “There’s a huge parking garage, with lotsa cars, just a mile south of it.” FINALLY, the light bulb went on. “Got it in sight,” I said, “And thanks for your patience. We’re new.” He chuckled and gave us the local frequency and asked us to call him back when we were done with our look-see.

Well, I’m not sure how impressive Mount Rushmore is from the ground, looking up, but from a mile south and a thousand feet in the air, it ain’t much. The figures face south and the sun was lowering in the western sky, so Messrs Lincoln, Jefferson and Roosevelt were cast in shadow. Big George stood out, the sunlight illuminating his balding pate, but even he wasn’t worth the 200 mile detour. Bummer. Chances are the National Park Service will never see my dollars after what I viewed from above.

So … with the uber-unimpressive detour, we got to negotiate the badlands of South Dakota. Not far south of Rushmore was Custer State Park (el. 3980′ N43°050′ W103°21.03 and Custer County Airports (el. 5602′ N43°44.02′ W103°37.17′) not too far from the town of the same name commemorating, I guess, the bozo who led his 7th Cavalry troopers to their grisly demise. (Odd what people choose to commemorate, isn’t it? Could you imagine visiting the Nixon Library? Gives me the shudders, just thinking of the crook.)

While the General giving the area its name was famed for his massacre, the county was named after that same General, whose expedition to the Black Hills confirmed that gold could be found thereabouts. So the good folk of South Dakota aren’t commemorating the megalomaniacal mo’fo’ – they’re immortalizing Mammon. Besides, the Little Big Horn runs through what is now known as Montana.

There was a lake south of the Custer airports and a town and another airport called Hot Springs (el. 3150′, N°3422.10′ W103°23.30′). There’s a grass strip along with an asphalt runway, but we needed to make time and couldn’t take time for a bounce on the grass.

We needed to make time because, just as soon as we turned south out of Rushmore, we picked up 20-25kts right on our nose. And it stayed that way for the entire time we flew south. When you’re flying 95-98 mph and the GPS is telling you that your ground speed is 60-65kts, it’s not a happy time. Especially when you’re over the badlands with few places to land; especially when your engine starts running rough.

“Why’d the engine start running rough?” you ask. Well, the greatest flight training writer, Bill Kershner, once described it as “auto rough”, an event which occurs anytime you’re flying over inhospitable terrain, or at night. In our case, ’tweren’t “auto rough”; ’twas instead “carb ice”. Bob and I probably noticed it at the same time – although I’m sure he thought about it sooner than I.

“Why don’t you turn on the carb heat,” he said, “And where do you think we’ll put it down?” I was bizzy enough trying to get the blasted hard-to-budge carb heat lever to engage … but when I did, I started scanning flat places nearby. There were a couple that would have sufficed; one was near a paved road so that, months later, a vehicle passing through that desolate stretch of southwestern most Nebraska might have alerted the authorities to collect our corpses.

Immediately the engine ran rougher. The quest for a suitable landing place possessed my consciousness. Then after a few moments, as almost always happens, the engine began to smooth out as the ice in the carburetor melted. OAT hovered in the mid 40’s at probably 5500′ on our 175°-ish heading. I periodically engaged the carb heat for the rest of that leg – the last leg of the day.

That leg would take us to Scottsbluff, Nebraska, and the somewhat pompously named, Western Nebraska Regional/William B. Heilig Field (el. 3967′ N41°52.44′ W103°35.74′). On Sunday late afternoon, 19Oct14, nothing much was happening in Scottsbluff. There was a line guy working and he provided info on hotels and restaurants as well as filling the airplane’s tanks.

Scottsbluff’s claim to fame is the sugar mill in town. Holiday Inn Express was the best choice of accommodations. The best steak house, whose name escapes me, was in the next town over. It was a $25 cab ride. On Sunday, @5:30pm, it was closed. The cabbie, a pleasant young man, drove us back to Whiskey Creek Wood Fire Grill, just a short stumble across US 26 from our hotel. He apologized for not knowing that the other place was closed and asked me for $15 – I gave him $25. The food was edible.

Thus ends Part I of “A Cross Country to Die … er … Live For”. Stay tuned for the final installment of this gripping narrative, next month. (Since we’re publishing this on 29Nov, and a goodly portion of the finale is complete, it may only be a few days until its December publication. Considering how lazy I am, however, it may well be New Year’s Eve afore y’all get to read it.)

 

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