Dubuque — who knew?

For the second consecutive year, my trip to EAA Airventure landed me in Dubuque, Iowa. My back to back visits to Iowa’s beautiful city on the Mississippi River were  different, each delightfully containing little reminders to live more fully present in the moment. Even when in an unfamiliar city with no plan regarding accomodations.  

To VFR or IFR, is the Question

The first year, a solo flight, I planned a stop in KDBQ due to weather that was welling up in the vicinity of Oshkosh. This was my first time in Iowa, ever. In my imagination, Iowa was the land of endlessly flat farmland — and national election kerfuffle. For about an hour from DBQ on an IFR flight plan above a solid deck of clouds, I anticipated an eventual VOR approach to runway 13. The late afternoon sun was casting a somewhat ominous glare across the sky above the overcast. Ahead of my C172/180 there appeared to be a large dark moon-shaped area of clouds. I listened to the weather at DBQ which reported clear. “What?,” I thought.  Just as I was about to call approach and ask for, well — an approach, they called and dropped me like a hot potato with instructions  to contact the Dubuque tower. I called back and inquired about getting an approach, where they advised me to dial in a different frequency. There I was told DBQ was reporting clear and landing VFR. I began to slow the airplane a bit and process the seemingly conflicting information as the fluffy blanket of clouds passed beneath the 172. I struggled with my eyes to deduce the visually confusing space ahead. After a moment, I contacted Dubuque tower. They confirmed VFR over the field and landing accordingly. I described the view from my perspective, chuckled, and then accepted right base for runway 31.

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PA28R just east of Dubuque

Wow, It Looks Like That?

In the time it took to discuss and cogitate the varying perspectives on the exact weather  at the airport, I had traveled close enough to finally see the dark moon-shaped area in the clouds was, in fact, not dark and ominous, but a rather large hole in the overcast. Upon this discovery, I swung the airplane around to the right and began a circling descent that would allow me to enter the hole coincident with a stabilized approach to runway 31. As I descended toward Iowa’s patch of earth, I begrudgingly relinquished the cool comfort of the en route air as humidity rushed into the cockpit. Gliding below the cloud layer and into the virtual receiving portal in the sky, a beautiful rolling green landscape appeared below. I was overcome by the view and how it differed from what I had imagined. The flat and uninspiring farmland was actually flowing and adorned by the greenest plants over almost every square inch of ground.

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Upon landing, I taxied to Dubuque Jet Center, where I discovered a really spacious FBO and terrifically helpful young folks. The ramp was occupied by only a few other planes. The respective pilots were in the lobby pouring over the weather on their iPads. I escaped to the back room and plugged in my devices and began to peruse the weather information and formulate a plan. It was nice to rest for a bit. I had been hand flying for about five and a half hours. I didn’t really know why, but this little spot on the edge of Iowa felt like home. It was humid as all hell, but that really wasn’t it. There was a feeling of rightness in being there — I have no idea why. The front passed through and after about 45 minutes on the ground, the sky opened up and Oshkosh beckoned from the east. Destination Fon du Lac Skyport — my first Airventure experience ever so close. 

Rolling hills, historic downtown, and a touch of Mark Twain

A year later, for my second trip to Oshkosh, I had a passenger, Greg, our aircraft a Piper Arrow. With Greg aboard, a formal military aviator, and longtime airline pilot, I decided this would be a good year to fly the FISKE arrival into Whitman Regional. Yep, time for ole Airventure rite of passage.

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Once again, the weather was iffy at Whitman Regional, however, not enough to constitute tracking as far west as Dubuque. However, something else made it seem like the thing to do. For one, I was there the year before and it felt like home. Also, Greg is an airline pilot and also flies a Mig 17 — for fun? As a part of the war bird community he has several friends who are similarly afflicted. Between the two of us, several of our mutual friends and acquaintances were in Dubuque as part of a war bird formation flying clinic. The group consisted of more T-6 Texans than I’ve ever seen in one place, several P51 Mustangs, some Nanchangs, and some P39 Aircobras. Gosh, what more motivation does a person need to point the ole sky chicken direct DBQ. A several thousand foot cloud layer was in place to the north, so I filed IFR direct KDBQ from our fuel stop in Springfield, Missouri — huzzah, “cleared as file.”  

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My, what company (our Piper Arrow stabilizer in foreground)

The RVR is T-6’s?

In contrast with the year before, my anticipation of an instrument approach into Iowa’s beautiful airport near the fair city on the Mississippi was ensured. What appeared in the air and on the ATIS played out in an ILS approach for runway 36. We broke out at around 1400′. Behold, awaiting our inglorious arrival were a handful of T-6 Texans standing by for departure. This was certainly the coolest welcoming committee I’ve yet had on landing. As we taxied toward Dubuque Jet Center, the ramp revealed a massive collection of planes of the aforementioned types. I felt as if we had been let in on a really cool secret. A veritable aviation, “back stage pass.” Greg and I received a warm welcome and even an invite to the group’s evening soiree across the river in Illinois. Our original plan was to check the weather and go on to Whitman Regional. However, this seemed like an opportunity we had to take advantage of. Quickly, Greg and I offloaded what we would need to stay the night and locked up the Arrow. We hitched a ride into town with one of the guys in the formation group. One the way, Greg and I feverishly contacted one hotel after another in search of rooms, my iPhone battery threatening mutiny. Virtually every place was booked. As we traveled closer to town, winding down and around toward the river, the roadway was cut down into the hills whose rocky faces stood mightily alongside. As we entered downtown, historic architecture proudly a bygone era, while modern businesses occupied their hallowed spaces ensuring continued existence. We decided to set up camp in our driver’s hotel bar, have a beer, and continue to search for accommodations.

Normally persnickety in my insistence on preparation, these moments of spontaneity were terribly fun. The bartender suggested a local brew from across the river in Illinois. I forget the name, but the suggestion was well placed. While preparation causes your mind to always be in the future, the ever unfolding adventure of this particular late Saturday afternoon was all about being present in each moment — in real time. We consciously acknowledged each sip of the local craft beer, were awed by the unfolding landscape, and possibly feeling even sensed the quirk of Mark Twain in the air. Dammit, there’s something magical about Dubuque. “Darn, we gotta find a room….”

Downtown Dubuque Iowa
Dubuque, Iowa

A Fine End to a Big Day of Flying

As my phone battery tumbled famously toward death, I let Greg do most of the calling. Finally, he struck gold with a call to Hotel Julien. They were kind enough to negotiate with us a bit, and we locked in two rooms for the night. Now, we could relax and carry on with the evening. A friendly Uber driver promptly delivered us to the venue for the night’s event. Greg definitely had the credentials to be there, I on the other hand, was just a guy. A plain old general aviation plane driver, nonetheless, everyone was gracious and it was an incredible evening of outrageous aviation stories and camaraderie.

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On the ramp at KDBQ – July 2017

After the official hootenanny, a handful of us headed back across the Mississippi to downtown Dubuque. We sampled the atmosphere of a few pubs. One was too youthful, another oddly bright, then we came to 1st and Main — not terribly loud, the lighting just right. We finished solving all of the world’s problems, and after a while walked to our respective rooms. Having now been in the Dubuque proper, I still felt it was special somehow — particularly friendly. Perhaps it’s the corn? People love corn. Nonetheless, Greg and I, having flown all day, were terrifically tired, and perfectly contented in a day fully lived.


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