OMG, Another Cross Country

OMG, another cross country ramble. What’s worse, it’s a ramble from San Diego to a northern locale – a reverse version of the trip Turner and I made in October 2014. At least, this time, I got to spend time with my wife.
So, what’s the hub-bub, Bub?
Great friends, Gary, Sue, Kim and Joe have been visiting Sandpoint, Idaho for a while now, and like it so much that Gary and Sue now have a hangar and Kim and Joe have a farm thereabouts. They’ve asked us to visit for a while, and we acquiesced this July 2nd. Herein contains the parts of the journey that are printable.
VFR cross country in a Super Cub requires a plan – one that is flexible because weather and other factors may (and probably will) cause changes. If you don’t adapt to changing conditions, others oftentimes will read about your misfortune in the “Aftermath” section of Flying Magazine.
While the distance – as that bloody crow flies – isn’t profound, 1252nm, there were airspace, terrain and overnight considerations that added miles and time to the plan. We wanted to spend a day or two with Laurel’s former next door neighbors in Sonoma. We wanted to visit Steph and Steve at their vacation spot in Trinity Center. We hoped to traverse the Columbia Gorge, or at least fly by Crater Lake if the wx kept us east of the Cascades. Plans. Plans. Follow them at your peril when the wx gods look to see if you can hit the curve ball – or avoid the heater under your chin.
Plan for Day 1, 2July15, was to fly north to Harris Ranch. That changed when one of the group decided not to make the trek. So … we still planned on Harris Ranch, but earlier and just for fuel, so that we could make Sonoma Valley (Shellville, 0Q8) early in the day and begin the merriment early. Strike One, curveball looking.
San Diego’s MayGray/JuneGloom is ‘sposed to end late in June. This year, it didn’t get the memo. We weren’t able to take off, VFR, until 11:30am. No biggie, just a small pain. ‘Twould make us arrive in Sonoma later in the day, but still in time for visit and fun. Ball, outside.
Heading north out of San Diego always requires dealing with the Big Dog, LAX and it’s Class Bravo. If you’re going the coast, you opt for Special Flight Rules (without ATC) or the Coastal Route (with). We were heading up through the central valley and wanted to make time so, when asked by ATC how we planned to negotiate the LA Class B, we replied, “Coliseum Route, please.” It’s fairly direct from SLI at 8500 towards VNY, thence on your own up over Gorman Pass into the beautiful (yes, that was a snicker you heard) San Joaquin Valley.
The best part on this specific day of this particular deal (the climbing a cub up to 8500 feet to cross the fetid LA swamp part) was the southeasterly breeze that bumped our ground speed up towards 115kts – not bad, indeed, for a 92mph sea level indicated airspeed. The tailwind stayed with us all the way until we decided to skip Harris Ranch and fuel at Los Banos, 60 miles farther along our route and half a buck cheaper for 100LL. Oorah. Ball two, down and in.
One of the side bennies of the trip was talking to the best-named air traffic control facility on earth. When the MOA’s around Lemoore, NAS, are hot, the controllers are addressed as “Showtime Approach.” I mean, really … if you chose to be an air traffic controller, wouldn’t you loved to be called, “Showtime?”
From Los Banos (not the prettiest place in summer … or, I imagine, winter), we headed northwesterly towards Tracy with the intent of skirting the SFO Bravo. We were east of Livermore by a bunch, crossed over top of Concord at 4500′, stayed above Napa’s Class Delta and north of the Skaggs Island VORTAC (SGD – conveniently named with my initials). We dropped overtop of Sonoma Valley (0Q8) to check the windsock at 2500′ and set up for a left downwind for 25. The wind was “sporty” as it always is of an afternoon, but we were able to keep it on the narrow runway and taxied in to the ramp.
Spent a fine evening and next day with Cowboy and Jill and family. Took 4 of them up for their first rides in a super cub and no one puked … and the views of the City and the Bay that washes it and the fog that teases it were fine.
We spent Independence Day morning watching half of Sonoma parade around the Plaza, while the other half watched, waved and cheered. City-bred, for me it was a novel experience in a folksy sorta way – but everyone was so damned happy that it was hard to fake ennui. Small towns are the beating heart and soul of America.
We departed around 4pm, determined to reach Trinity Center where Steph, Steve, et familie, awaited. And here’s where it starts getting weird.
The flight should have taken a touch more than two hours. We were back up around 8500′ and, after passing beautiful (and shrinking) Lake Berryessa, we tracked into the northern edge of the central valley enroute to Red Bluff, Redding, then all around the mulberry bush to Trinity.
Passing Red Bluff, I noticed some cumulus bumpus a-building to the north/northwest of us. I couldn’t tell how far away they were because the tops were way frkn high. As we approached Redding, I called FSS to find out which was whatever. ‘Tweren’t pretty.
Flight Service advised that tops of some of the cumulo nimbi were pushing 45,000’ and that a couple of them gave evidence of “very violent weather” – the briefer’s exact words.
The line of storms was about 30 or 40 miles from Trinity and moving toward it at around 15kts. I didn’t have time for the math and I didn’t like the odds – no one has ever accused me of being Captain Courageous. I have been, in my time, been called Capitan Estupido, but this was not the time. My wife, the love of my life, was just in front of me and there wasn’t any way that I would continue on to “take a look/see” at an airport I didn’t know, surrounded by mountains, with daylight waning and a line of t-storms approaching. I thanked Flight Service for the solid briefing and started descending into Redding. Foul ball, strike two, a sharp line drive that just missed hitting in fair territory.
While the tower was open and working, it appeared nothing else on the airport was close to either condition – it was, after all, early evening on July 4. Nevertheless, we parked the super cub and Laurel headed towards the Redding Jet Center terminal building whilst I tied the airplane down. Laurel gained access, and, completing the tie down, I saw a line person drive up and dismount a truck. We, as it turns out, were in luck.
The telephone service for RDD Jet Center was supposed to forward inbound phone calls to the appropriate extension, but ’twere stuck in a loop so no calls would be answered. The sterling young individual at the desk, Paul (I believe), remained at his post answering calls (an hour after he was s’posed to be home awaiting fireworks) and saving our fannies.
After failed attempts, he connected with the Gaia Spa in the next town south. His colleague shlepped our bags into the bidness van and bundled us down the road, waiting for us to check in because this was a rambling place and we had a week’s worth of schtuff. AND, as fanny serving would have it, The Woodside Grill restaurant on the site, served dinner until 9pm. Is America a great country or what?
And the food was grand – and better served by our waitress, Kallie, who, noticing my “OGG” t-shirt asked, “Do you go to Maui?” Do the pope wear a skull cap? She had lived on Maui, most of the time in our favorite spot, Ka’anapali, for five years. Small world. Great food. Better service. Fanny saving was full-on this independence night.
Up at 6AM (the things you do on long cross country flights in slow-moving airplanes), we were at the airport by 7:15. Airplane fueled and paid for, I called FSS. Fastball, high and tight, just under the chin. I stumbled out of the box.
The very nice briefer advised that our route of flight was blocked by another line of thunderstorms, from fifty miles west of Trinity another fifty miles east. Far eastern Oregon ain’t very pretty and has a lotta high terrain. We chose to go west, through the Trinity River Valley and then north up the Willamette Valley, skirting the western edge of the Cascades.
Cutting through the Trinity River Valley, even though it was nearly 180° opposite our direct route of flight, proved a delightful diversion. If you’ve never seen it – even from a car – it’s gorgeous: mountains, trees, river, road, bends in the river, hence in the road, cute little towns, not-so-cute little hamlets.
I believe we flew it, for the most part, at 4500 feet, although the memory could be fading or fueled by a lovely pinot noir that I’m sipping at this writing. It was Laurel’s cross-country leg to fly and – although we’d drawn a rough plan – we’d fly the GPS from little airport to little airport, not twisting as much as the river, but keeping her in sight for the views. The morning was fresh and clear (except, obviously, for the thunder bumpers well north of our route), and the wilderness enchanting.
West of Redding we passed some lyrically named locales: French Gulch, Lewiston, Weaverville, Junction City, Helena, Big Bar (a personal favorite – I always liked a big bar); then north/northwesterly to Burnt Ranch, Salyer, Willow Creek, Hoopa (a great name, after the famous Indian Tribe), Weitchpec (where the Trinity flows into the Klamath River); then northeasterly towards Orleans, Somes Bar (hoy, these people like to drink – oh, wait, it’s a bar in the river ’tisn’t it … I like my version better), Dragon’s Tooth and finally, the absolute best place on earth, HAPPY CAMP. It may not be, but wouldn’t you really wanna try to live in Happy Camp? “I’m so happy. I’m camping. I’m in Happy Camp.” Hell, it sounds like a Disney creation.
After Happy Camp, we took a northerly cut up towards Grants Pass in the Rogue River Valley, thence north/northeasterly towards the western edge of the Cascades, generally paralleling, and to the east of, I-5. The wilderness was slowly leaving us, but the memories linger still.
We had cleared the cumulous nastious by a wide margin and were occasionally graced with views of some of the spectacular Cascadian high terrain: Mt Thiesen at 9182′, Mt Bachelor at 9080′, the Three Sisters at 10,358′, 10,047′ and 10,085′; then farther north, Mt Jefferson at 10,497′ and finally, the Big Daddy, Mt Hood at 11,239. (Sadly, the storms and viz down south never gave us a peak at Shasta, grand as she is at 14,162′.)
We tracked east of Roseburg and east of Eugene until we found cheap fuel and charming folk at Lebanon State (S30), which all the locals called Lebanon. The FBO had 3 crew cars available at this one 2,900′ runway, west of the banks of the South Santiam River, with pictures of airplanes on the walls and Lebanair’s official dog (whose name escapes my addled memory – sweet and happy greeter that it was). We scored fuel at $4.80/gallon after 3.2 hours on the Hobbs and Tach, landing just before noon. The smiles were free of charge.
Skirting west of the Cascades with hints of the aforementioned tall peaks in view, we proceeded in that general north/northeasterly direction, east of Salem and finally sighting the Columbia River. We dropped down to 1000′ into the river gorge east of Troutdale and the PDX Class C, and proceeded upstream with the higher terrain of the Columbia Wilderness Area to our south. It was almost Hawai’i-like, with high cliffs and waterfalls tumbling into the waiting river below – all we lacked were flower leis and mai tais. The ride went on for 35nm until we picked up the Klickitat VOR/DME and tracked northeasterly enroute an intended fuel stop near the Yakima River, Sunnyside (1S5). Mt Adams, 12,120′ loomed off our left and the prospects of central Washington beckoned – and NEVER have I been so unimpressed with the earth’s surface. It’s as if a 40 nm blob of basalt had dropped from the sky and destroyed all life forms below. And it was hot. And there were constant thermals beating us up and down. And, lawdy, it was ugly as ass. If you ever make the trek, follow the river valley towards Walla Walla, Washington – great name, what? – or Pasco. Avoid South Central Washington like the plague.
There was a bit of cultivation approaching the Yakima River, but it looked half-hearted. Then, as we circled overhead Sunnyside, we could not find a fuel tank despite the Garmin Pilot’s and A/FD’s insistence that there was one. We didn’t want the added aggravation of landing in this hostile land, so we pressed on. And on. And on.
Well northeast of Sunnyside, we started to realize that fuel stops were fewer and farther between in this land that man aptly forgot. Lotsa private strips. Lotsa flat land. Not lotsa fueling opportunities. Inside and well above the Hanford “National Security Area”, we decided to make a beeline for Pullman, or Lewiston, where we were certain to find fuel – we hoped.
We tracked the Snake River 40 miles east of Hanford. Perhaps the name, Snake, had kept civilization from recognizing the river’s charms because for the nearly 50nm we tracked it, there were two kinds of human habitation: slim and none – and Slim was packing his bags to head anywhere but here.
We found Pullman (PUW) easily enough – the obvious home of Washington State University which apparently occupies all of the town. The airport was in a small cradle of a valley that kept the nasty reported crosswind from making our landing a chore. People were sparse, but nice; OAT at 15:34 PDT was not: mid-nineties on the Fahrenheit scale. Fuel from Interstate Aviation was reasonable @ $5.39/gal and we drank 31.5 gallons of it, leaving us with an FAA-approved 30 minute reserve. (If you ever make the trek, track the Columbia River. While it will add miles and time to your trip, there are lotsa fuel stops from which to choose and that will save lotsa stomach lining and worry. Phew.)
‘Twas here at Pullman we turned almost due north for the ninety-five or so nm remaining to Sandpoint. ‘Twas here, also, that we began to see evidence from the 3 TFR-overlaid fires that populated northeastern Washington and northern Idaho. One was somewhat north of Spokane and two were north and west of Priest Lake, 30nm north and a touch west of Sandpoint. The evidence was a growing intrusion of smoke thrown aloft and south of the fires by the northwesterly breeze. We had periodically stayed in touch with FSS to keep apprised of the TFR’s and none of them affected our route. Our last contact had been near Pullman and we were confident that we were safe. We were not. Fastball at the knees, on the black, but I dropped the bat to foul it off. Close call.
Our initial altitude choice was 6500′ which would keep us safe from terrain on this last leg, just west of the north/south hemispheric altitude line. But the farther north we flew, the thicker and higher climbed the smoke from the fires, so, with the southern bank of Coeur d’ Alene Lake in sight we climbed to 8500′.
The forward visibility continued to diminish as we approached the namesake city on the Lake’s northern shore, so we were forced to climb to 10,500′, and still the forward visibility worsened. We flew a touch northeasterly in an effort to gain better viz and we managed a glimpse of the southern shore of Lake Pend Oreille. Drifting a tad farther east, we emerged from the smoke and Laurel, sitting up front, gasped, “There’s an airplane below us.”
I looked. It was a twin-engined air attack bomber a good 4000′ below us, and I watched it deliver a load of fire retardant on a pine-covered hillside just east of the lake and just north of the town of Bayview. The entire ridge was aflame. “Frk,” I thought, “I’ve flown us into a TFR.” We were still at 10,500′ and I flew farther east over the lake, then saw another air attack bomber laying another load of retardant onto the ridge.
What had happened, as I found out the next day from Chris, who volunteered for the local fire company, was that a couple of clowns had been on the lake on this Sunday, July 5, 2015, (perhaps drinking), discovered that their boat was sinking and so they fired their flare to get some attention and their aim was a tad off. The flare landed on the dry, tinder-box ridge west of them, and ignited the hillside in minutes. A TFR had been declared, long after we had landed at Sandpoint (SZT) at 17:34 PDT. Knee high fastball, over the plate. Wave bye-bye it’s outta the park
Steve and Steph had landed 10 minutes earlier, Gary, Sue, Joe, Kim and Wendy were all waiting to watch me grease a 3-pointer on Runway 1. They all congratulated Laurel on her great landing.
We were 8.3 hours, Hobbs and Tach, on this leg of the flight. It was about 4.3 hours longer than one should spend in a Super Cub without an hour or so of tush massage between flying legs. Our friends had plans for a fun flight in the next AM, but I vowed that my aging fanny would not be planting itself in either seat of our cub for a minimum of 24 hours. (The fun flights were postponed a day due to a “sporty” 25-30kt easterly crosswind at Sandpoint.)
The smoke from the fires diminished some of our fun, but Sandpoint may well inhabit the prettiest terrain I’ve ever seen in this country – at least in the summer. Since snow don’t do much to improve my opinion of a place, I won’t be visiting when the white shite starts dumping onto it from above.
The town itself is compact, easily walkable, with pretty vistas of water, mountain and pine-covered hillsides everywhere. We dined in four different restaurants and had superior meals and service in each. And the Idaho Pour Authority, 233 Cedar Street, Sandpoint, ID 83864 (http://www.idahopourauthority.com/) may well be the best beer bar in America, with a staff of knowledgeable and delightful beer lovers and servers.
If you go, tell Samantha that we’ll be back.

Posted in Aviation Stories