by Stu Simpson
The clouds boiled and lurched in a violent belching of energy and anger, doing their best to pound the mountains into rubble. The leading edge of the weather made no attempt at subtlety as it swallowed all that fell before it, steadily trooping eastward across the Livingstone Range of the Rocky Mountains of southern Alberta.
I watched the big storm from the cockpit of my Merlin, gauging its speed, watching it consume forests and stone ramparts alike. The monster was huge, but it was a slow, lumbering giant that we’d easily outpace. It wouldn’t catch us here, between the Rocks and the Porcupine Hills. But I worried about the meteorological demons awaiting in the Crowsnest Pass.
Off to the east, morning sunlight sliced its way through a mid-level cirrus layer and lit up the verdant pine forests bracing the Cowboy Trail beneath our wings. Vehicles, driven by mere mortals, slipped away behind as we continued southbound.
To my left, in his own Merlin, flew Warren Arnholtz, silhouetted against the morning sky as we snapped pictures of the mountains and each other’s planes against the dramatic back drop. The GPS showed us making excellent progress and I said a quiet thanks to the wind for the little push it gave us.
Up ahead and out of sight, Ken Beanlands radioed that he was about 20 NM back from the Cowley airstrip. I envied him because he’d see first the magnificent transformation of the landscape. He’d see the forests disappear from the valley, replaced by a stunning display of prairie where few trees had courage enough to face the dreadful Chinook winds that burnish the area year round.
Such was the beginning of the first leg of our Air Adventure Tour; a week-long flying trip with the goal of reaching the Pacific coast near Portland, Oregon.
Warren, Ken and I planned to reach Coeur d’Alene, Idaho by day’s end. Of course, that would depend on whether or not we got ambushed crossing the Continental Divide. I knew if we could cross the Divide and reach the Columbia Valley, we’d also reach Coeur d’Alene.
Ken radioed from his Christavia that he was rounding the corner near the Frank Slide and that there was definitely some challenging weather ahead. We’d likely be out of touch with him shortly as the mountains blocked our radio signals.
Ken would always be head of us on this trip. He cruises a bit better than 100 mph, while our Merlins move closer to 87 mph. Both Warren and I are pretty satisfied with those numbers, and it means we get to fly a bit longer.
As we approached the Crowsnest Pass, we heard intermittent snippets from Ken stating he couldn’t hold 8500′ and had to descend to stay clear of the clouds. We rounded the corner into the Pass and started our westward trek across the spine of the Rockies.
Warren and I checked our maps and discussed a good route that would shorten our time over the Divide and still keep us clear of the weather. The sky was moving in on us now from two directions – from the north, and from above. The storm that had earlier been stalking eastward over the Livingstones had also grown southward and was rapidly pressing on toward us. The clouds steadily came down, so we did, too.
We angled south, away from Highway 3, following a road that would lead to some railroad tracks that would then take us to a lower saddle in the mountains. That would pop us out over Fernie in the Elk Valley. From there, it was an easy hop to the south end of the valley near Elko.
We caught a fleeting message from Ken saying we’d need to be down to 6500′ to get through the Elk Valley, but once past Elko things really opened up.
“How’re you doing back there, Warren?”, I radioed.
“Oh, I’m thumping along just fine,” he replied, referring to the turbulence that shoved us around every now and then.
A logging road and a clear-cut in the highest part of the saddle, a region known as Coal Creek, slipped away beneath us. The clouds crowded down from above.
Then, Fernie appeared, nudging into view from around the corner of a mountain, and we began a steady descent to stay in the clear. I relaxed a little then, glad we weren’t any later in the day.
We flew the few miles to the end of the Elk Valley and turned to the northwest for Cranbrook. Here, the clouds were indeed fewer and higher enabling an easy flight into Canadian Rockies International.
Ken told us on the ground he was starting to get worried since he hadn’t heard from us due to the terrain blocking our radios. He was quite relieved when he heard us call up on Cranbrook’s frequency.
We fuelled the Merlins and paid for the gas, then went to file our flight plans. We called Flight Service and filed for Porthill, Idaho with an intermittent stop at Creston. That would allow us to get out of Cranbrook and the rapidly building weather there. We could then fly the 5 mile jaunt to the border strip at Porthill and time our arrival more precisely.
We endured a few heart-stopping moments when we called the border station and they told us they didn’t have Warren’s pre-filed paperwork filled out properly. As we dug a little deeper into the problem, Ken realized that the date on Warren’s file was wrong. We had earlier needed to amend our departure date due to the American holiday and Warren had forgotten to make the change.
We all breathed a big sigh of relief as the border patrolman said he’d look after the change on his end, and we’d be welcome to cross today. That’s good service.
We departed Cranbrook in a line-astern formation takeoff headed southbound. We cleared Cranbrook’s airspace and all checked in on our enroute frequency.
Then Ken transmitted, his voice sounding noticeably worried. His oil temperature was much higher than normal, he reported, and he still wasn’t finished his climb. I asked him if he wanted to turn around, but he said he’d continue on. The temperature, though high, was still within limits.
This was a potentially huge problem. Ken had proclaimed proudly before we turned into the Crowsnest that his Christavia was running extremely well. What could have caused the oil temperature to so suddenly spike?
The weather was starting to haunt us again as small cells began building up. We flew through a few drops of rain as the turbulence from daytime heating and instability rocked us noticeably. The breeze stayed low, though, still giving us a gentle tailwind as we followed the highway.
Ken told us his oil had stabilized near 210 degrees, about 30 degrees higher than it normally was. He announced a fix that he could work on in Creston. He could open up the bottom of the cowling, he said, to help vent more engine cooling air. Ken still sounded worried, but also a little more encouraged now that he’d formed a plan to attack the problem.
Warren and I chatted about what I thought was a monument of some sort on the top of a small mountain near Yahk. Wade Miller had spotted it last year on our flight to Seattle and I couldn’t help wondering what it really was. Warren spotted it, too, and set things straight when he said it was most likely a radio relay tower. Warren is wise in the ways of these things, you see. Mystery solved.
The mountains in this region are fairly benign compared to those elsewhere in the Rockies. They’re lower, more rounded off, almost like overgrown foothills. They lack the dramatic jaggedness of the Continental Divide and the coastal ranges. They’re really quite pleasant to fly over.
We coasted into Creston settling deeply beneath the level of the tall pines bordering the runway. I taxied in to see Ken already popping his cowling to search for the oil cooling problem. Nothing obvious jumped out, leaving us all stumped. Ken mentioned he may have to turn back because the forecast for where we were headed called for very hot weather. Ken didn’t want to cook his engine.
He proceeded to pull the bottom part of the cowling off, opening the outflow even wider. But we all still wondered, why the sudden temperature jump?
We settled in the pilot’s lounge for a bit, killing time until our border crossing slot, and quietly pondering the oil temp mystery.
Come time to leave, we ambled out to the ramp where Ken decided to have one more look in the engine bay. He checked the oil cooler inlet and discovered some debris blocking the inlet almost totally. He’d left it there after some work on the engine prior to the trip, but it didn’t block the oil cooler until we left Cranbrook.
Another huge sigh of relief, and Ken and Warren immediately set to working re-attaching the cowl bottom. They worked quickly and happily, determined to make our time slot at Porthill.
Last Leg of the Day
We left Creston for what was likely the shortest flight I’ve ever made between two airports. 7 minutes later I touched down at Porthill and taxied to the parking ramp.
Clearing customs was easy and we enjoyed a friendly chat with the border patrol staff as they processed our papers. Soon enough, they sent us on our way and wished us a good holiday.
Minutes later we firewalled our throttles and scooted along the downhill threshold of Runway 15 for the last leg into Coeur d’Alene.
This valley is wide and lush with brightly coloured farm fields and crop types we couldn’t identify. We skirted the mountain ridge to the west, coasting upward on the afternoon thermals and keeping an eye on even more weather building in our path. Hmm, I thought. This stuff might actually give us some trouble.
Ken went on ahead, as usual, and served as a scout for us. He described the building cells and voiced a plan that we may have to set down for a while at Sandpoint to wait things out. I didn’t really like that idea because we might miss our rental car. Still, I knew it’d be cheaper than a funeral so I was ready to divert if required.
Warren and I watched the main troublemaker, a cell that was steadily moving eastward along a path north of Coeur d’Alene, right between us and the airport. The storm was still pretty juvenile, but maturing quickly.
As we closed to within 15 miles of the airport I radioed Warren. “What do you think of trying to sneak through that gap ahead between the showers, Warren?”
There was silence while he weighed the options. “You decide and I’ll just follow you, Stu,” he answered cagily. Smart guy, that Warren.
I heard another pilot who’d just left Coeur d’Alene and asked for his position. All I got in response was something that sounded like Charlie Brown’s teacher. He was on the other side of the storm so maybe that had an effect.
I decided to shoot for the gap between the showers.
We dropped some height to stay well clear of the bottom and I steered in toward the gap. I looked to the right and saw Warren off my right wing closing in a bit more tightly to stay within the frame of our opening.
Just as I was about to reach the storm line, Warren peeled off to the right to go around the back side of the cell. What I should have done was follow him. What I did do was press on just as the gap in the rain closed.
Suddenly, I was deluged with the heaviest rain I’ve ever experienced while flying. I could even hear it over the sound of my engine. I could still see through the storm, and quite a distance beyond it. And the turbulence, while pronounced, was still manageable. What troubled me was that I was descending at about 1000 fpm. I had hit the storm at the same instant that a microburst had bottomed out. Great timing, eh?
Luckily, I was in the storm for less than a minute and was in no danger of being forced into the ground. As I popped out of the torrent Coeur d’Alene’s airport sprang into view. Warren and I descended onto the left downwind for Runway 01.
I landed in a bucking headwind and taxied clear to watch Warren come in over the numbers with barely any forward movement. I sat in sequence behind a Hawker 125 business jet waiting to cross the button after Warren passed.
“Are you even moving?”, one of the jet pilots radioed. He marvelled at the Merlin’s snail-like approach speed against the strong headwind.
It was too rainy and windy to fuel right then so we decided to wait until morning. We all taxied over to the itinerant parking and strapped the planes down for the night.
Our first day took us just over 4 1/2 hours of flying through some very challenging weather. Each of us was glad the flying day was done. We were also looking forward to the next day where we’d all be going places we’d never seen before.
We left Coeur d’Alene late, around 1030, after sleeping in and fuelling up. We weren’t in a rush because we only had 2 legs to fly that day and the weather was perfect.
We talked with Spokane approach for the first half hour and they soon cleared us on our way. The flight across central Washington was quite dull after what we’d endured the previous day. Still, the flying had challenges, in particular, navigation.
Sure it’s easy to follow the little line on the GPS, but I always read the map, too, because someday the GPS will die. Central Washington doesn’t have grid roads like we have on the prairies. In fact, it doesn’t have many roads at all. The landscape is rather reminiscent of desolate eastern Alberta. There are lots of dry, open plains with small rolling hillocks. In some places little, if anything grows there.
Thus, picking nav points was tough. Finally, I simply resorted to marking my position on the map with lat/long data from the GPS. This was easy to do and gave me a very accurate fix on our location.
The land underwent an amazing transformation in areas close to significant rivers. In those regions the fields were dazzlingly green, perfectly circular and rich in precious moisture. It was like travelling from an agricultural ghetto across the tracks to a posh neighbourhood.
We’d all talked the previous evening about how some parts of Steven Spielberg’s movie ‘Always’ were filmed in central Washington. We laughed about the famous opening scene where a PBY firebomber terrifies a couple of fishermen into abandoning ship on the Columbia River. I peered off to the northwest, wondering if I could spot anything along the Columbia that looked familiar from the film. ‘Always’ is my favourite movie, but we were too far away to see anything I recognized.
We landed in Richland for fuel and food, where it was 95 degrees (35 Celsius) on the ramp, and climbing. There was a bit of excitement as some clown in a Cessna 150 flew right through Warren’s final approach path. There was no imminent danger, but I couldn’t help thinking of all the redneck pilot jokes I’d ever heard.
With our tanks and tummies all topped off we wandered back out to the ramp. Ken chatted briefly with a Stearman pilot preflighting his newly purchased plane. As we checked our maps, the bright blue biplane taxied past and took off. It was a perfect day for open cockpit flying, but the finicky afternoon winds would make that pilot glad for his tail-wheel training when it came time to land.
Along the Columbia Gorge
We turned south-westward immediately after takeoff, clawing our way out of the sweltering furnace on the ground. We topped a broad flat plateau north of the Columbia River to see a quartet of enormous spires on the horizon. These were some of the Cascade Volcanoes
Mounts Hood, Adams, Rainier and St. Helens jammed themselves skyward, dwarfing the next highest mountains by several thousand feet. They absolutely dominated the skyline, as prominent as B-52’s at a Cessna 150 convention.
Immediately below us, and causing us no end of thermal grief was the top of the plateau; dry, wide and bare, spotted with windmills and dust devils. On a couple of occasions I saw climb rates of 1000 fpm, which left me smiling but wondering just who was flying Merl – me or the heat. The next instant, my hopes were dashed by downdrafts of 700 fpm. A bit disheartening, but after doing the math I figured I was making a 30% profit on climb rate. I’ve had plenty worse.
We passed town after town, and more than a few little airstrips, as we cruised our way along the northern bank of the Columbia. It’s easy to see how the pioneers who settled the area would be drawn to the river and the life-giving riches it provides.
The volcanoes, impressive from far away, were even more imposing the closer we got to them. And we didn’t even really get close! I snapped some shots of Warren’s plane framed against Mt. St. Helens forty miles distant, and thought of the devastation it wrought on the Pacific Northwest when it erupted in 1980.
Warren and I approached a town called Hood River, which was clearly the deepest part of the Columbia Gorge. I reminded Warren to keep a sharp look out for Sasquatches as there have historically been a large number of sightings in the area. He promised to inform me if he spotted one.
It was also here that I saw the highest ground-speed I’ve ever seen in my airplane. The GPS showed us cooking along at 8000′ at 120 mph! Those are big numbers for a Merlin and I was pretty happy seeing them.
We’d all been looking forward to seeing the fabled Columbia Gorge, but, I have to admit, we were each pretty underwhelmed by what we saw. Maybe it’s because we saw it from 8000’, but really, it looked like just another river valley. It’s probably better if you drive it.
Portland’s metropolis steadily appeared out of the haze and we switched over to Portland Approach. The controller guided us westward and progressively lower as she fit us in between airliners, small planes and helicopters.
The field where we were headed was actually Vancouver Pearson, on the Washington side of the Columbia, and just 2 miles from Portland International. The controller soon cleared us into Pearson’s airspace and we turned onto the downwind for Runway 26.
Now, I’m very trusting of the O-200 engine under Merl’s cowl. But not so trusting as to consider it infallible. So I was really uncomfortable as our downwind led us at low altitude directly over an industrial area. Final approach, in the blazing hot afternoon, with a 13 to 17 knot, 90 degree crosswind, took us directly over a shopping mall and parking lot, whose property ended across the street from the runway threshold.
It was a very tough approach and my landing was horrid. I was just about to settle when a hot blast of wind shot me upward ten feet and pushed me hard to the left. I goosed the power, made the correction, and breathlessly planted Merl on the ground.
Warren’s landing was equally challenging. His Merlin has vortex generators that allow for ridiculously slow landings, but the STOL kit really hampered this approach. With the combined effects of the Merlin’s high-lift wing, the VGs, the temperature and the wind, his plane just would not land! He floated and floated, right wing down, bubbling along on a cushion of heat until gravity finally prevailed and he mushed down onto the runway.
Welcome to Portland
Warren’s primary purpose for flying his Merlin nearly 700 miles was simply this: He’s always wanted to see the Spruce Goose. Howard Hughes’ all-wood behemoth is ensconced in the Evergreen Aviation Museum at McMinnville, Oregon, about an hour’s drive from our hotel.
Our original plan was to fly to McMinnville and land at the airport right across the street from the museum. After touring there we wanted to head out to the Pacific coast just a few more miles away, and then return to Pearson.
The weather had other ideas. The afternoon forecast called for winds up to 30 knots with 100 degree (37 C) temperatures. We decide to drive.
Warren’s dream came true, through, and he even got the cockpit tour the museum offers. The Evergreen Aviation Museum is a must if you’re ever in the Portland area.
Thursday dawned beautifully clear with a continuing perfect forecast for the route to Seattle. Our goal was to fly up the Columbia River to where it meets the Pacific Ocean at a place called Cape Disappointment. Then we’d head north along the coast to another little airport at a town named Hoquiam. We’d fuel there and then fly inland around the northwest end of Seattle’s and Everett’s airspace
We headed out early to the airport to get a good jump on the day. As I unstrapped Merl I heard the distinctive sound of military jet engines. They were four F-15s shooting off from the Air National Guard base at Portland International. A nice treat to start the morning, I thought.
Our takeoff from Pearson Field was one of the most exciting I’ve ever had. First, we were limited to only 700’ for the first few miles. Then the departure route put us right over a freeway interchange, a lifting bridge, a riverside industrial park, a floating bridge, and a set of 500’ high unmarked power lines. The river was dotted with ocean-going cargo ships and naval vessels, all of which were very strange to see so far inland. Though it only lasted a few minutes, the departure phase of our flight was tremendously dramatic; especially for prairie pilots whose biggest obstacle is often just a barbed-wire fence.
We rounded the corner of the Columbia to head more northerly and relaxed a bit as we climbed higher. We headed up the river toward a city called Longview. There, the western horizon quickly changed our plans for the day. The coast was clearly socked in with a low, thick fog layer. With such diminished visibility of the heavily wooded and unfamiliar ground if anything went awry, Warren and I decided to forgo our trip to the beach. It’ll give us something to come back for.
Ken, though, turned westward and picked his way through the area. He later reported that only half the runway at Hoquiam was visible through the fog. Warren and I kept our noses pointed north toward Seattle and followed the I-5 Interstate.
The morning was nothing short of breathtaking as the sunshine soaked the Pacific Northwest countryside. Beneath us, people carried on with their day, miniscule and ant-like in our sight, oblivious to our passage. We coasted there, a few thousand feet nearer to Heaven, having the time of our lives watching it all pass by.
We departed the Interstate east of Centralia, cutting across a more forested ridge to put us over the basin at the south end of Puget Sound.
Seattle’s Mode C veil was coming up, requiring us to contact Seattle approach. Warren eye-balled a behemoth C-17 cargo jet climbing out southeast bound from McChord AFB. I briefly wondered where the plane was headed. Then Warren spotted another one that passed behind us.
We switched frequencies and I called Seattle. The controller gave me a squawk code and soon had us radar identified south of McChord. He really didn’t sound happy about us being there, likely due to our relatively slow speed.
We told him our destination was Harvey Field, which is at the north end of the Seattle airspace. He soon cleared us down to 3500’ and a few minutes later switched us over to another controller.
“Delta Delta November, Seattle Approach,” I heard in my headphones, “Descend now to below 3000 feet and maintain VFR.”
“Wilco, ma’am,” I replied, “We’ll descend and maintain two thousand five hundred.” Of course, IFR was impossible that morning.
“Roger, Delta Delta November. Stay east of Pierce County, Auburn and Renton.” I knew these were all airports in the area, and I had their locations pegged, too.
I acknowledged her instructions and started matching map points with the GPS. I was really happy then to have a sophisticated GPS with a moving map display. My Anywhere Map clearly showed all the airspace and airports in the area. This is an enormous safety feature that I never really appreciated until then. The VTA chart was equally essential.
Next to the weather in the Crowsnest Pass, this was easily the most challenging leg of the trip. We were surrounded by incredibly busy airspace, mixing with airliners and private aircraft alike. Our heads swivelled constantly and we paid rapt attention to the radio. To top it all we were flying continuously over a huge city that offered just about nowhere to land safely should the unthinkable happen. This is exciting stuff for a couple of Alberta Merlin pilots used to having nearly the whole province available as a landing strip!
It was also exhilarating seeing airliners land and takeoff just a few miles off my wing at SEATAC and Boeing Field. Unfinished 737s sat parked on the ramp at the Boeing factory at Renton, and Seattle’s beautiful downtown core dominated the western skyline. I saw Safeco Field in the distance, where we’d be watching a Mariners baseball game that night.
We finally ran out of urban sprawl and the controller cleared us on to Snohomish/Harvey Field, just a few miles east of the main Boeing plant at Everett’s Paine Field.
Ken arrived at Harvey shortly after us and talked excitedly of how he’d seen one of Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliners fly beneath him as he came around the north end of Seattle’s and Everett’s airspace.
We tied down, got our car and headed to the hotel. Tomorrow we’d hit the Arlington airshow and an enormous display of homebuilt and other aircraft of all types. I could hardly wait.
Our day at the Arlington Airshow is best covered by one word: Hot!
The temperature easily hit 100 degrees (37 C) on the ramp there, and we were guzzling water constantly.
We saw a few CRUFC members there, too. Troy Branch and Carl Forman flew to the show in Troy’s RV-10. And Calvin Thorne hopped a ride over in an RV-6.
The other word that characterizes Arlington for me is ‘disappointing’. I’ve read for years about what a great event this is, with no end of vendors and a nearly unmatched airshow. For sure, there were plenty of great airplanes to look at on the grounds; and there was a good display of vendors and their wares, too. But the airshow itself was a joke.
For one thing, the spectator’s area was way too distant from the show line. The show planes were all small aircraft and difficult to see at such a distance. As far as I could tell, the airshow consisted of about half a dozen civilian aerobatic acts, each of whom did just about the same manoeuvres as the act before them. Not exactly spellbinding.
I was so bored that I fell asleep in the shade of Troy’s wing watching the second or third act, which was a two-ship of Yaks. When I woke up 20 minutes later I heard the same radial engine sound, but saw only one plane emulating precisely the Yaks’ performance. I wondered where the other plane was until I realized it was a T-6 Texan now performing. I went back to sleep.
I won’t be heading back to Arlington for the airshow.
I couldn’t believe our luck as I checked the forecast. It called for another great day of flying weather, and even the chance of a tailwind.
Warren and I departed Harvey Field way ahead of Ken. He graciously agreed to drop the car and then walk back to the field from the rental office, since it didn’t open early enough for us.
Arnholtz and I decided to follow Interstate 90 through the Snoqualmie Pass and on to Ellensberg, where we’d gas up. From there we’d head across Washington State to Coleville, file to cross the border and then depart for Castlegar, only 40 minutes north. Ken filed with Flight Service to follow the Stevens Pass to the Wenatchee area, and then on to Coleville and Castlegar. We’d stay with my Dad there for the last night of the Tour.
Once airborne, we sopped up the morning and remarked contentedly on the beautiful landscape surrounding us. Mt. Ranier captured all our attention on the southern horizon, its snow cap glowing brightly under the early sun, while the jagged spires of the Cascades scraped the sky to the north. Who’d want to miss flying like this? I wondered.
Soon after we cleared the Snoqualmie Pass, I got to thinking; we didn’t really need to stop at Ellensberg. We could go on to an airport further east for our first fuel stop. I began checking the map and the flight guide looking for a conveniently located spot that sold fuel.
“Dragonfly One to Two,” I called.
“Go ahead, One.”
“Warren, what do you think about skipping Ellensberg and going on a bit further to Ephrata, about 50 miles northeast of there?”
Warren was silent for a moment, then, “That sounds good to me. You go ahead and I’ll follow.”
“Roger that,” I affirmed, and altered our course more to the left.
An Unexpected Treat
In time, we cleared the last big ridge of the Cascade foothills, known as – and I’m not kidding here – Whiskey Dick Mountain, and started our downhill slide toward Ephrata.
Ephrata is an old World War II bomber training base, and it shows. The triangular runway layout seems to have been the standard in both Canada and the U.S. then. A few hangars from that era still survive at Ephrata, sturdy and seemingly impervious to time.
I curved around onto final about a quarter mile back and fought the thermals right down to the asphalt. I taxied off the runway, absorbing the sights of a new airfield and feeling just a bit strange about this place. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but there was some sort of familiarity here. Likely, I thought, just because so many of airports look the same.
Warren taxied up to the pumps just after me and we set about fuelling. We soon finished with the avgas and walked to the terminal to start calling in our flight plan and border crossing info. I gazed again across the ramp and out at the baking runways. I’d never been here before, but what was it about this place?
As we stepped into the terminal lounge a movie poster stared out from the far wall, and it all snapped into place. The poster advertised the movie ‘Always’, and I instantly realized this is where they shot part of the film!
I learned long ago that Libby, Montana, was the location for half of he airport scenes, but for 20 years I’d wondered about the location of the other airfield used. This discovery was a very enjoyable thrill for us, especially since we’d spoken so recently about the movie and its shooting locations. The PBY used in the movie was still on the airport, too, though it sported a new coat of paint. I couldn’t wait to get home and watch the movie again.
Back to Canada
We left Ephrata after filing with Flight Services and Canada Border Services. The remainder of the flight across Washington State was bumpy in the late morning thermals, until we turned north along the Columbia at a place called Seven Bays. We could see some weather building in from the north and I found it ironic that it should only bother us once we crossed back into Canada.
We hit the border just southwest of Trail, BC, and eye-balled Castlegar in the distance. We made our calls to the FSS there and soon touched down on Runway 15. Ken was already there waiting, having done the whole trip with only a brief stop at Coleville.
We beat the inbound thunderstorm by about 20 minutes.
It was another stunning morning as we left Castlegar northbound up the Kootenay River toward Nelson. Shortly beyond there, we turned more easterly along the valley and continued to drift upwards. The spot where we’d cross the mountains east of Crawford Bay sat at about 6500’. I’d be pretty in the crossing if we had an extra 500’ in the bank.
Morning flight in the Rockies is simply a feast for the senses, immersing anyone aloft in all the colours and textures of the sky, the forest, the mountains and the water. The angle of the early sun highlights these features better than at any other time of day. And even though pilots float god-like above it all, the spectacle serves to remind us of just how finite we and our fragile machines really are. No matter how often I see them, mountain mornings in the air never fail to affect me.
We reached the Kootenay Lake where a ferry plied its way eastbound, leaving a foamy white wake in the water. I checked the map, looking for Redding Creek Road, a logging and utility trail that marked our path over the next ridge. It stood out easily against the deep forest green and bare brown clear cuts.
We crossed the ridge at about 7000’, which was the highest altitude we’d need for the remainder of the trip. The only other high pass ahead was the Vermillion Pass near Castle Junction on Highway 1, which sits around 5400’. In other words it was, on average, all down hill from there.
We coasted through the St. Mary’s Valley and turned north at Kimberly. The airport at Invermere, our next, and last, fuel stop was less than an hour north. Ken left us at this point, electing to go straight over the Divide and on to Carstairs. He filed a ‘flight plan’ by phone with his wife Renee’, and kept heading east. We wished him luck and promised to get in touch once we got home.
Our Merlins were soon over top Columbia Lake, the headwaters of the Columbia River. Here we were at its beginning, having just days ago come within sight of its end. How strange, I thought, that so much of our adventure touched that mighty river.
The wind aloft in the Columbia Valley had been kind to us, giving us a gentle push and a smooth ride. But at Invermere it turned my landing, or rather, landings, into a circus show. I was very grateful when Merl finally stopped bouncing and I was able to roll up to the gas pumps.
Fuelling went quickly, and as we taxied out I spoke with a Twin Seneca pilot inbound from the Calgary area. He reported that Calgary was IFR when he’d left there a while ago. But I knew the forecast and maps called for steady improvement through the day, so I wasn’t very concerned, especially since we were still an hour and a half back from Calgary.
We followed Highway 93 through the Kootenay and Vermillion valleys. It was a great thrill to fly along next to some of the mountains, seemingly close enough to scrape them with a wing tip. Pilots get to be up close to the details of these high peaks and see things that are simply invisible from the highway and the valley floor.
We popped out into the Bow Valley over Castle Junction and the Trans Canada Highway. I looked east, hoping to catch a glimpse of what the weather might be doing along our route. Everything was clear for us, though we could only see as far as Banff.
On we flew, approaching the corner in the valley past Canmore. If there was going to be weather, the mouth of the Bow Valley is where it would be piling up on us. But a heli-tour pilot in the area gave no indication of any meteorological messiness ahead.
Our Merlins rounded the last corner in the mountains and Warren and I breathed a final sigh of relief. The way ahead was clear and passable with a good ceiling, though it dropped steadily to the east.
There were more choppers at the heli-tour base adjacent to the intersection of Highway 40 and the TransCanada. Warren and I traded position reports and intentions with them, and we all promised to stay out of each others’ way.
Scott Lake Hill was next, and the few wisps of cloud that topped it. Once past there, a steady descent would be in order to stay clear of Springbank’s recently expanded airspace.
Just for kicks I picked one of the small clouds ahead and made straight for it. Merl and I zipped through it. Suddenly, the smell of the cloud gripped my memory. It smelled exactly like the air in Hawaii. I could only pass it off to extreme humidity, but I’ve never before smelled clouds like that. It was very enjoyable.
Warren and I spent the rest of the flight ducking lower and lower to be clear of the lingering remnants of the earlier bad weather. My Anywhere Map was again very helpful avoiding the unusually shaped airspace boundaries near YBW.
Ken sent a text message stating that he was down safely at Bishell’s. Turns out he had his own adventure with the weather and had to divert to near Sundre before turning for home. Warren’s and my timing turned out to be pretty good, I guess.
The end of our voyage drew closer as Calgary’s skyline grew larger in our sight. There’s always a strange mixture of excitement, fatigue and regret at the end of these trips. We want to be home, to be back with our loved ones; but the flying and exploring – the true aerial adventure – is so intoxicating that we just don’t want it to end.
Our Merlins shot across the south end of Calgary, taking quite a kicking from an incorrigible southerly wind. Warren and I bid each other farewell at the southeast corner of the city; I banked away on course for Kirkby’s, and he for Indus. The wind still refused to cooperate at Kirkby’s, gusting now near 20 knots and causing me a frustratingly bad arrival. I’d really hoped for better for the last landing of the trip.
I added things up a few days after returning home. We flew a total of 1500 miles in about 19 hours over five flying days. We saw one museum, a ball game, an airshow, and my dad. We touched two provinces and three U.S. states, and BC easily had the highest fuel prices, by about 20%. And, we wouldn’t have missed any of it.
I won’t forget this trip, this 2010 Air Adventure. I’ll remember the weather in the Crowsnest; the Columbia River coursing through the deserts of central Washington; the unexpected treasure of the Ephrata airport; and the smell of Hawaii in a cloud over the Alberta foothills.
I’ll remember, too, my wingmen, the images of their planes against mountains, volcanoes and the sky; the laughter and the fun we had; the shared adversity; the friendship.
I won’t forget any of it. Because those are the things that make the best air adventures.