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 in the present moment. Even when in an unfamiliar city with no plan regarding accommodations, or ground transportation.
To Fly VFR or IFR, tis the Question
The first year flying solo, I planned a stop at DBQ due to weather welling up in the vicinity of Oshkosh. This was my first time in Iowa. 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. 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 skies. “What?,” I thought. Just as I was about to call approach and ask for — an approach, they called and dropped my IFR status like a hot potato with instructions to contact the Dubuque tower. I responded with an inquiry about getting an approach. 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. I struggled with my eyes to deduce the visually confusing space ahead. “Fine,” I thought, and contacted Dubuque tower. They confirmed VFR over the field and landing thus. I described the view from my perspective, chuckled, and then accepted right base for runway 31.
Look at those Hills
In the time it took to discuss and cogitate the varying perspectives on the weather at the airport, I had traveled close enough to finally see the dark moon-shaped area in the clouds was, in fact, not ominous at all. Instead it was a rather large moon shaped hole in the overcast, directly over the airport. 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. Humidity rushed into the cockpit. Gliding below the cloud layer, 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 nearly every square inch of ground.
Welcome to Dubuque
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 whose 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. Probably because it was humid as all hell. A cool front that was causing the unfriendly weather finally passed through. 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.
Hills, Historic Downtown, and a Touch of Mark Twain
A year later, on my second trip to Oshkosh, I had a fellow pilot along to share the flight. Greg, a former military pilot and current airline captain was right seat in the Piper Arrow I had procured for the trip. With Greg aboard, I decided this would be a good year to fly the FISKE arrival into Whitman Regional. Yep, time for ole AirVenture rite of passage.
Once again, the weather was iffy at Whitman Regional, however, not enough to constitute tracking as far west as Dubuque. However, we wound up going there for other reasons. For one, I was there the year before and it is a great stop. Also, Greg 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 at least one P39 Aircobra. Gosh, do you really need any more motivation that that to head to 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,” and we were on our way.
The RVR is 6 T-6’s, ‘Cleared to Land’
In contrast with the year before, my anticipation of an instrument approach into Iowa’s beautiful airport near their 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, a handful of T-6 Texans holding short of 36. This was certainly the coolest welcoming committee I’ve ever had on landing. As we taxied toward Dubuque Jet Center, a massive collection of war birds covered most of the ramp. 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 had been to check the weather and go on to Whitman Regional. However, this seemed like a fantastic opportunity so we had to take advantage of it. 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. Every place we contacted was booked solid. As we traveled closer to town, winding down and around toward the river, the roadway went down into the hills whose rocky faces stood mightily alongside. As we entered downtown, historic building stood proudly, a time capsule of a bygone era. Modern businesses occupied many of these their hallowed spaces and people where bustling along the sidewalks. We decided to set up camp in our driver’s hotel bar, have a beer, and continue to search for accommodations.
Craft Beer and Hotels and Spontaneity
Normally persnickety in my preparation, these moments of spontaneity are terrifically fun. The bartender suggested a local craft brew from across the river in Illinois. After clarifying that she had it on hand and would not have to zip across the river to fetch it, we agreed to a pour. 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 moment. As we enjoyed our beer, we reflected on the adventure of the day. A nice flight, a frenzy of war bird activity and an interesting town on the banks of the mighty Mississippi River. You could almost find yourself looking down the river for Mark Twain to go steam boating by. There’s something magical about Dubuque. “Darn, we gotta find a room!”
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. Nevertheless, everyone was gracious and it was an incredible evening of outrageous aviation stories and camaraderie.
After the 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, the atmosphere left room for great conversation. 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, while terrifically tired, were perfectly contented in a day fully lived.