A Flight to the Mountains

Freedom of Flight

Everyone sees things in their own way… regardless, I am certain most  pilots would nod in the affirmative regarding the sense of freedom found in flying.  VFR flight, in particular, has in its essence a strong freeing quality.

Panhandle Farmland_DON-PC_1
Texas Panhandle

While flying visually, you don’t need most of the instruments; through sight picture and pilotage you can successfully get where you aim. This freedom can be the sort that relieves stress, helps realign your overall perspective, and points you toward a sense of adventure— lifting you out of the mundane. Furthermore, if you love the mountains, combining aviation and the wonder of our national granite scapes — well that’s about as good as it gets.

Freedom to Fly

It may be trite to say, “use it or lose it,” but there it is.  When it comes to General Aviation, that would certainly seem to apply.  What could be lost are the skills we learn but also the freedoms provided by law.  What other motivation than the aforementioned could a person possibly need to go flying? With this realization firmly in hand, I began to contemplate a long cross-country, preferably near mountains.

Taking an airplane on a Friday morning and depositing one’s person almost 600 miles away in relatively short order definitely adds to a profound sense of freedom.  Yes, there is a mountain of regulations and details which require attention, however, “with great freedom comes great responsibility,” said Eleanor Roosevelt.  Such is the reality of the pilot.

The Mountains

As with flight, I find the mountains to be uniquely freeing.  In fact, I find few things as satisfying as standing many thousands of feet above sea-level in the clean cool air, the surrounding view…nature’s masterpiece denying  man control.  One of our nation’s great aviators had some things to say on the subject:

“In wilderness I sense the miracle of life, and behind it our scientific accomplishments fade to trivia.” -Charles Lindbergh

hiking up cottonwood pass
Hiking up Cottonwood Pass

A trip… to the mountains

Several times I had mentioned to my wife my desire to visit the mountains.  A couple years ago we vacationed in the Pacific Northwest.  We definitely experienced some incredible mountain hiking (Read about that here: “Private Pilot Window Seat”).  However, we were particularly busy and couldn’t seem to work in a vacation together.

As time wore on, my flying hours growing, I began to look at the prerequisites for a commercial pilot’s license.  I really enjoy learning new skills in the airplane and accomplishing official milestones, so that seemed like a reasonable next step.  There was one big item I didn’t yet have in my logbook… the long, solo, VFR cross-country flight.  That is how the solo flight, “to the mountains,” began to take shape.

American Flag

I sorted through the details to determine exactly what a trip like this would require.  As the reality of it become clear, I settled on July 4th weekend for the adventure.  I had that Friday off, and I added a day off on the following Monday to allow some flexibility.  Despite the days off, the trip would be a bit of a marathon.  If you were to ask my wife, “why would he do that,” she’d explain, “that’s just how he is.” Pueblo, Colorado would be my destination; I would take a rental car to the west and do some hiking in the great Rocky Mountains.

The flight plan

After you become instrument rated it’s easy to forget about the trouble found in flying exclusively VFR… oh great, there’s a cloud!  As I began to observe the weather patterns for the flight, this became very clear.  My distance was more than double the commercial straight-line requirement, so I had some flexibility; one of my legs could be IFR — but only one.

I planned as direct a flight path as I could with one fuel stop each way (KTYR to KELK, KELK to KPUB, and reverse for the return).  As the day of departure came closer I became aware the weather was  NOT going to be VFR over the entire 570 miles.  The culprit, a slow moving cool front stirring up thunderstorms as it moved across Oklahoma.

A couple of days out, It appeared that my departure weather would be IFR with a broken ceiling forecast to rise mid-morning to about 1200 feet — otherwise smooth air.  Early on the morning of departure, the front had moved into southern Oklahoma; pockets of thunderstorms were developing on the northeast side of Dallas-Fort Worth — directly along my intended flight path.

I would have to file IFR for the first leg.  This meant that all of the other legs would have to be VFR or it wouldn’t count toward the commercial prerequisites.  Additionally, I would have to alter my course to avoid the thunderstorms and subsequent airline chaos of storm-laced DFW airspace.  I modified the flight plan.  Now I would fly just southwest of Dallas-Fort Worth and then turn northwest and head to Childress Municipal for my first fuel stop.  That would move me away from the weather, eventually the clouds, and ultimately into VFR conditions.  It was a go decision.

To the Plane

I awoke very early on the morning of July 3rd and checked the weather…the predicted low IFR had come true.  The forecast called for the ceiling to rise after 8am.  Indeed it did improve and the thunderstorms developing northeast of Dallas-Fort Worth hadn’t developed any further south.

I departed my home airport IFR and climbed into the clouds headed West.  The air was pretty smooth as I climbed to my filed 8000 feet, eventually leveling off between layers.  As I reached the southwest corner of DFW and turn Northwest toward the Texas panhandle I reentered the clouds.  Radio chatter from class B airspace, just northeast of my position, was buzzing with energy caused by the thunderstorms and subsequent frenzy of commercial air traffic.  Finally after a cumulative forty minutes or so of flying in clouds, I was in the clear.  A virtual sigh of relief followed as I settled into the VFR flying.

As I approached Childress Municipal Airport, I found it difficult to distinguish in the surrounding flat farmland.  Finally I spotted the runways and overflew mid-field where I saw they had planted crops between the runways — and runway 4-22 appeared to be turning back into a field.  It was around lunchtime when I taxied to ramp.  There wasn’t a living human being anywhere… or so I thought.  I took immediate advantage of the port-a-potty which stood as a beacon in the hot and humid afternoon sun.  As I was about to move the plane to the fuel pump a couple in a C182 landed.  They graciously helped me push the plane toward the pump.  They asked where I was headed.  I told them Pueblo and they asked about my airplane.  I said, “it’s got a 180 horse, “ to which the man urged caution due to high terrain and density altitude.

Sign at Childress Muni Airport_DON-PC_1
First fuel stop

I ate from my cache of food supplies and stretched my legs for a bit.  After a look at the weather ahead of me, I cranked the plane and maneuvered onto the taxiway for runway 36.  As I passed the large hangar buildings on my left, the aloneness I was so sure of before was washed

away by reality.  A large prison yard surrounded by a high fence and razor wire was revealed.  Inmates, gathered around various weightlifting stations, watched me taxi by.  I waved, and they returned the gesture with smiles.  I couldn’t help but ponder the irony of my overt exercise of freedom, juxtaposed with their being disallowed all but the very minimal of liberties.  As I lifted off into the hot air of the Texas Panhandle, I reflected on having just witnessed what the airport comments meant by, “runway concealed by plants,” and, “vegetation on runway.” And…inmates near runway….

Into the foothills — an air mass change

Instrument Panel_10-500 feet_DON-PC_1
First time at 10,5k’

My plan was to climb to 10,500 in order to provide plenty of options flying toward ever elevating terrain.  Initially there was a few thousand feet between me and the top of the afternoon cumulus buildups below.  As I flew on, the cumulus tops began to loom ever closer requiring consideration of an altitude change — up not being an option.  I really didn’t want to go beneath, as I knew it would be hot and bumpy and where I was the air was cool and smooth. Suddenly, as if the world turned on end, I flew from one air mass into another and the clouds were suddenly a few thousand feet above me.  Problem solved!When I was about and hour from my destination of Pueblo Memorial Airport the afternoon heat had roiled the atmosphere resulting in isolated showers.  Straight ahead was a 5 or 6 mile wide isolated cell of heavy rain I’d been watching on ForeFlight for a while.  I began to fudge a little to the left to give it a wide birth when ATC called it out to me.  As I made my way well southwest of the dark monster, I only encounter one really strong turbulent moment.  Beyond Pueblo I could see the mountains giving rise to afternoon storms.  The weather at KPUB was more than agreeable and just beyond the reach of the mountain tumult.With the airport in site and the ATIS received, approach eventually handed me over to Pueblo tower.  The controller gave me a right down-wind and with nobody else in the pattern, a clearance to land on runway 17.  As I shut the plane down in front of Rocky Mountain FBO, I thought about what I had experienced, having just departed Northeast Texas a little over 6 hours earlier.  I’d successfully managed the weather scenario, landed at a new airport— one with a prison.  I had experienced flying from one air mass into another, flown higher than ever before, and negotiated, somewhat successfully, that funky urinal bottle.

Pueblo FBO_US Flag in Frame
Bet there’s a bathroom in there

I made it!  I had flown myself from Texas to Colorado.  That may not seem like such a big deal.  However, considering the many things which can go askew — it’s fairly remarkable.  On July 3rd, 2015 I exercised my freedom to fly across our vast states, enjoying some of our nation’s stunning public lands.  John Adams said, “It [Independence Day] ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever.”

I am certain, exercising the freedom of flight, and experiencing part of our country’s natural beauty are  more than appropriate as celebratory actions regarding our nation’s sovereignty.  I may even make this an annual tradition.


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