Posted on March 6, 2015
Chilly February. In multiple winters and springs past we have journeyed south in trade of chilly for chillies and the warmth of near tropical Mexico. This year there was the additional motivation of a group flight rendezvous arranged by COPA—the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association. Climate change reversal of fortunes. We departed a distinctly habanero San Diego (daytime eighties) for a decidedly minty (sixties) Baja California Sur, with rain showers en route and at our destination. The COPA planning had nearly two dozen Cirri arriving in Loreto from multiple western (and one Pennsylvania) departure point on Friday the 13th. Saddled up in N111TT we arranged an in-trail takeoff from either side of Montgomery Field’s Runway 28R centerline with chums Dan and Jackie. Whimsical happenstance, but nonetheless emblematic of our political roots (?), we took the right side of centerline, while N907DR rolled on our left. (Dan and Jackie have had active rolls in Democratic administrations.) ATC on both sides of the border was completely nonchalant as to our proximity underway. House of mirrors over the Sea of Cortez—Jackie taking a picture of me, taking a picture of her.
South of Bahia de Los Angeles we got our first look at the atypical winter Baja weather, a modest detour to the left of course providing a gentle lluvia plane wash.
We landed at MMLT three hours after takeoff, refueled and meandered the Byzantine pathways of Mexican Aduana (Customs), Migra (Immigration), and flight permits, in my case stirring up a tempest in a teapot because I had had the audacity to refuel first before attending to the formalities. Once the dust settled, Cathy and I were off to Item One on our adventure checklist—launching for the Matancitas (MTB) dirt airstrip at Puerto Adolfo Lopez Mateos abutting Bahía Magdalena. The strip extends to the edge of the water, at a port thriving on commercial fishing, and this time of the year, tourist ponga visits with the migrating baleen Gray Whales. The protected water of the bay is strewn with small islets and shoreline convolutions, making it an ideal winter nursery and the southern tether for the females, who give birth there and train their young on the exigencies of life involving the longest mammalian migration on earth.
We overflew MTB, then did a left-hand circuit to land on Runway 28, rolling to the west end next to the fishing fleet, and utilizing a handy concrete parking pad minimizing the amount of sandy dirt and seashells the prop would pick up on the subsequent pre-departure engine start.
By the time we deplaned, the local airport overseer met us to collect a landing fee and help us board a minibus that took us to the ponga fleet some :03 away. We donned our life vests and almost immediately felt the thrumming of the sea below us and the fresh salt air tugging at our hats at the outset of a very successful search for las ballenas.
Yes, you do get close to these wondrous creatures. Baleen whales lack teeth, and adults feed on krill and other tiny sea denizens by sucking in water and forcing it through sieve-like baleen bristles. The bay is filled with pairs—the recently born calves nursing on their mother’s rich milk, adding blubber as insulation for the oceanic cold. Adult females give birth to 15 foot-long, one ton calves in the bay this time of year, and are impregnated for next year’s birthing season. In the spring they depart for the roughly 6,000 mile journey back to their summer Bering and Chukchi Sea arctic feeding grounds. Surfacing gray whales affirm their mammalian credentials with a respiratory whoosh from their spiracles, visible at considerable distance, and damply, at close range. No detectable halitosis, by the way.
Mother and baby develop close bonds, aided by affectionate embraces.
Youth is always curious, and the infants gave us many look-overs.
Spy-hopping allows mom a different perspective on what’s happening in the neighborhood.
Following our whale visit, we returned on a :20 flight back to Loreto, which had us crossing the Gigantic Mountains. These are the peaks amidst which is located the lovely Jesuit Misión San Javier, established at its present site in 1702.
Clearing the peaks requires a steep descent to a left base entry to MMLT’s runway 34.
The COPA lodging choice was the Villa Palmar resort, a half hour south of the airport.
The Palmar is a very new resort with fine dining and attentive staff, but frankly Cathy and I prefer the quaintness of central Loreto, so on day two Dan, Jackie and we two taxied into town to snoop about, do a little window shopping and consume a “gigante” margarita.
The Palmar’s extraordinary view of the coast and offshore islands provided ample evidence of the unseasonal weather, which was the source of consternation and considerable careful planning for the next day’s intended flight across 100 nautical miles of the Sea of Cortez and on to the silver mining pueblo of Álamos, Sonora. There was rain this afternoon, and more the following morning, sometimes combined with lowish ceilings and reduced visibility.
This blog site belongs to a pilot. Sorry, that means you’ll get an inordinate share of pilot-speak and flight images. Deal with it. The pilots and passengers were forced to split into thirds because of transportation requirements between the resort and the airport. We four friends were in group two, which ultimately became group last, as deteriorating weather precluded group three from undertaking the crossing. Those pilots made prudent time-specific Go/No-Go decisions which allowed them adult libations at the Palmar and benign flying weather the next day. I commend their decision-making. Remember that the Cirrus is a single-engine airplane, so altitude is your friend when over inhospitable terrain or open water. The weather dampened the 11,500′ cruising altitude that I’d have preferred, and here’s what “Feet Wet” at 3,500 feet over the middle of the pond looked like on the flight deck instruments. In the synthetic vision display you can see the blue ocean beneath us, and what would appear to be blue sky above. Fortunately the engine hummed merrily along without a hint of the “auto rough” one anticipates with single-engine oceanic crossings.
In actuality, we were flying between layers, rain pelting the windscreen, and a building cumulus line ahead. I was ship one in group two, and decided to trundle on, giving time sensitive updates on flight conditions to the in-trail aircraft, which I’m told helped alleviate uncertainties for the group. Did I mention that we were operating under Visual Flight Rules? Were we able to stay uniformly clear of clouds? Whatever do you mean? Ahem.
The other side of the gulf also required some do-si-do maneuvering to avoid the worst of the budding cumulonimbus, first approaching a pre-planned group turn-in Initial Point and then the final approach to landing at Álamos (MM45 ICAO identifier). Proceed up to the reservoir, then a right 90º turn to final approach for…
MM45’s runway 13. Duck under and you’ll drop in on the casa just shy of the runway threshold.
Over the next few minutes, the birds of Group Two alighted and taxied to the ramp.
Álamos boasts a hacienda retreat that holds its own in luxury no matter your judgment standard. It is the many decades’ result of Americans (and Mexican residents) Jim and Nancy Swickard, who also recognize the benefit of a worthy hangar for guests’ private aircraft. We filled it to the brim. N111TT is the second aircraft back in the center of the scrum.
This field has the benefit of an on-site military garrison, which does mean you’ll be met with armed soldiers, and drug-sniffing dogs. It also means that your airplane is not liable to be stolen by narco-traffickers. Formalities complete, we were whisked away to the opulent retreat in the midst of the small pueblo.
Proceeding through town we passed a motor-driven vehicle, construed as a carriage “pulled” by a team of fiberglass horses. This was the Sunday before Lent, and the town was hopping with local holiday vibrance, including families in the carriage, and kids riding the horse team bareback. OSHA be damned. This marked our second time at the Hacienda de los Santos, and the understated elegance hits you right at the door.
The Hacienda is actually a melding together of multiple 300+ year-old haciendas from the Mexican silver-mining past, artfully restored and decorated to a fair-thee-well. If you don’t want to be spoiled and pampered, go somewhere else. De rigueur of Mexican haciendas, the outside is merely a high wall, hiding from view the delights within. Once through the portal, however…
… as well as the delights within the within. I think we had the finest room in the place. And I suspect everyone else felt the same. The rooms were each named for one of the saints (santos). As to our room, I could never decide if I liked St. Bernard’s bedroom, sitting room, fireplace or the outside poolside deck the best. Decisions, decisions.
Elsewhere on the grounds, amidst the flowering bougainvillea, there was a small grove of agave, the raw ingredient of tequila. Tequila in Mexico? Who knew?
We four chums struck out that afternoon and evening to take in the Álamos sites and sights, gravitating toward the zócolo, a square, central literally and figuratively to the fabric and life of Mexican villages, typically adjoined on one side by the church. This was the Sunday before Lent, and the community was festively engaged in all manner of pleasurable pursuits. The history of Mexican zócolos is as meeting place for the community, young people circling the square, boys and girls in opposite directions, sizing up each other in the ageless dance of the genes. Álamos’ zócolo boasts a delightful gazebo that provides lovely glimpses of the church spire.
The square is also a haven of calm repose amidst the tumult for more seasoned couples.
As might be expected in overtly Catholic rural Mexico, the church is a prominent and unabashedly faith-based part of the skyline and community life.
This evening, the square, and the nearby streets effused youth-engaging activities. There was a beauty pageant at the town administration building, which was lit in the national colors.
I was taken by this male-dominated happening, boys working on their upended trick bicycles while being “serenaded” by young guys doing mouth-based grunt and click timpani exhortations over warbling amplifiers and acoustically-challenged speakers. Such unassuming unbridled fun. Do you know where your kids are? At the zócolo.
A regional favorite is a mirthful activity of kids, using emptied eggs that the community women prepared, filled with confetti, which the youngsters would use, chasing their friends about the square to break atop their heads. Giggles, guffaws, and gleeful hoots and squeals everywhere. Eventually we returned to the Hacienda. The majority of the COPAns were savoring a fancy dinner, while we four chose to head for the tequila bar, giving our best to depleting the demon agave concoctions, vino and lighter dining fare. Let’s see, that is a Bohemia Oscura, an emptied shot of high-end Reposado, and a fine Sauvignon Blanc from Mexico’s Guadalupe Valley, with an absurdly delicious slice of carrot cake. No worries, I wasn’t flying anywhere the next day, and could crawl to habitación San Bernardo, it’s four-poster bed and crackling fireplace. Eat your heart out.
Notwithstanding the evening’s hedonism, I was up at the crack of early and investigating the morning light opportunities, camera in hand. If you know me, you know by now that I am gaga over color and light. If you know Mexico at these latitudes at this time of the year, it is a photographer’s target-rich environment. And this first image of a gloriously vibrant wall, is in shade, for goodness sake!
There are myriad stream beds in mountain-surrounded Álamos, arched bridges for passage, and rock foundations of adjoining structures. The near bridge was only for foot traffic, and there were many children and adults who crossed it on their way to their Monday morning school and work assignments.
A guileless elementary school girl, passing by, questioned if I might be looking for the trail up the Mirador (Viewpoint, in Spanish), which was nearby, but not immediately apparent. Following her directions, up the hill I went for splendid morning panoramas.
There were puddles from yesterday’s rains to reflect on.
And several women and men were sweeping up the confetti from the evening’s revelry.
Cathy, now up, joined me for breakfast and yet further random exploration.
In a bit of whimsy, I’ve processed this next image as a Van Goghish oil painting.
Not so ghoulish as it may sound, I often wander graveyards in places like this, a historical channeling of the lives and passings of its inhabitants. I’ve been humbled and embraced by epiphanies and emotions in places like Zermatt, Switzerland, Tombstone, Arizona, and now, Alamos, where the graveyard dates from 1703. In the afternoon, after returning from town and the graveyard, Cathy and I settled into chaise lounges and umbrella-shaded chairs around the pool next to habitación San Bernardo. I don’t normally write my thoughts underway, but let me share, word for word, the contemporaneously written thoughts I did set down in reflective savoring that afternoon of the day that was: “Warm earth tone hues of the hacienda, bold fuschia bougainvillea, bright sun and crisp shade alternating with the penumbral shadows of the drifting scattered cumulus slipping quietly northward, all a riot of contrasts to the impossibly blue sky. This morning the lad with his ‘coroneta,’ who played in the school ‘banda’, dressed in the tan slacks and blue sweater of his escuela, and the young girl in her uniform, proactively volunteering directions to the sendero leading to the Mirador. Unhurriedly meandering through the graveyard, the Espírito Santo guiding me to the headstone of Marcela Rodriguez, ‘dos mes,’ her forever youngness arresting me in tearful bittersweet recognition of the ephemeral nature of life. A day in Álamos.” Pilots need to stay up on their aviation Ps and Qs, the best pilots regularly studying flight issues. A case in point, Jim Swickard (looking modestly like the photo of revolutionary Emeliano Zapata on the wall below the rifles), maestro of “Tequila 101,” attended by all the COPA pilots and significant others, describing his collection of 500 tequilas, and all things agave and mescal in the Hacienda Tequila Bar. What? You don’t think tequila can elevate your thinking?
Tuesday, rested from a sumptuous dinner and sueños dulces beside the glowing fire, Cathy and I headed for the airport. The COPAns, minus us, heading back to the Estados Unidos, while we set off on the next aventura—ground exploration of Mexico’s Barrancas del Cobre, the Copper Canyon. Step one, however, involved joining a few of the COPAns with an overflight of the canyon, well, okay, flight through the canyon, before peeling off and heading to our terrestrial starting point of the colonial town of El Fuerte, Sinaloa. Full disclosure, this is the second time that I have piloted an aircraft below the rim of a, shall we say, “grand canyon.” In my more youthful past it wasn’t strictly prohibido in Arizona as it is now. Well, here’s a glimpse of this next leg of our journey.
We had arranged pickup at the El Fuerte airport (FTE, or ICAO MM79), and the driver was right on time. We paid our landing fee to the airport overseer, filled out paperwork with the soldiers of the on-site military garrison, and headed the :05 into town. Drink in the colors. Yum!
Our lodging, the Hotel Posada del Hidalgo http://www.hotelposadadelhidalgo.com was the birthplace of El Zorro, and it is located on Cinco de Mayo street, right next to #55..
…which is a touch ironic insofar as Cathy’s 5/5/50 birthdate is strewn with an equal number of cincos. Maybe you had to be there. Access to the canyon is often by the Chihuahua Pacific (ChePe) train that runs from Los Mochis past El Fuerte to Chihuahua and back. We overnighted in El Fuerte for the early morning train departure, and had arranged canyon lodging first at Cerocahui, Chihuahua state, then Barrancas, near the town of Divisadero, essentially the apex of elevation, near 8,000′. Copper Canyon is actually six canyons that run together, ground by eroding rivers coursing out of the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains to combine into the El Fuerte, and eventually emptying into the Sea of Cortez. Billed as bigger and deeper than the Grand Canyon, we found them to be similar, save the fact that Arizona’s is arid red rock terrain, and the Barrancas is pine trees on top and tropical vegetation down low. The expansive vistas are very much cut from the same cloth.
Our lodgings near Cerocahui and at Barrancas:
In the morning we climbed into the hotel courtesy vehicle headed to the train station to board the ChePe…
… and struck up a conversation with the one other couple headed out from the Posada. Quick study that I am, I referenced the Australian lilt to the gentleman’s accent, but allowed as how his wife sounded English. She set me straight, as they are both Aussies. And had they come from Australia to visit the canyon? Well, actually they had come from only as far as Mexico City where they currently resided. A conversational trailhead worth following, it turns out that we were riding to the station with the Australian Ambassador to Mexico, the Honorable Tim George, and his spouse, Geraldine. Avoiding my usual churlish behavior and drooling with atypical aplomb, we settled in to enjoying each others’ company for the next four days of Barrancas exploration and sustenance-taking. Just a delightful time with kindred adventurous souls possessed of matching keen wit and senses of humor. Arriving in Cerocahui, an absurdly pugnacious chihuahua pooch barking his territorial claim to turf, Tim, in a delivery embellished with cat that ate the canary grin and eye-twinkle, dryly asserted that clearly we were now in Chihuahua state. As, indeed, we were. Geraldine, evidencing her fun way of looking at life, regaling us with the story of her inadvertent disembarking at a workman’s’ stop on Gibraltar and having to overcome her discomfort with heights amid the scurrying monkeys to reconnect with Tim and their son. What a hoot.
Perhaps you’re aware that Barrancas del Cobre is the home turf of the Tarahumara, known for the long distance running of their canyon trails? The remoteness of the canyon, and their small homes (sometimes caves) deep in the canyon were key to avoiding the worst of the Spaniards’ machinations in earlier colonial times. The indigenous people and hiking the canyon trails have loomed large on our many years’ motivation to visit this rugged place.
The canyon walls are strewn with trails, and while plying one, quietly merging with us on a separate trail in the opposite direction, we came upon this lovely teenager, dressed as the females do, in brightly colored attire with pleated skirts. “Quizás un foto, señorita?” “Sí,” answered so quietly that only her barely perceptible affirmative head-nod assured that I had secured her permission.
This lass was offering for sale a few woven items, each for a few pesos. A purchase and a photo? Yes.
It is no overstatement to share that my religious faith is buoyed by the extraordinary beauty of nature, and the Barrancas del Cobre only serves as further reinforcement. I am drawn to light and color, to shadow, shape and texture, to the creatures and other humans with whom we inhabit this planet, to the seasons, and I revere sunrises and sunsets, moonrises and moonsets.
And then, in what amounts to an exclamation point to our Fine Mexican Winter Trip, there is this glimpse of light in motion, and the rising of the Milky Way.
The Georges continued to Chihuahua, and we returned to El Fuerte, each headed back to our respective worlds of duties and responsibilities.
From FTE we flew to Ciudad Obregon (MMCN) in accordance with the Mexican legal requirement of departing the country from a Mexican Airport of Entry (AOE) and subsequently cleared U.S. Customs and Immigration at the grandiosely, nonetheless accurately named Calexico International (KCXL).
I like Calexico, because the formalities take something like five minutes, tops, and you’re on your way. And so it was on this trip, but nature turned the tables on us yet again, returning to a northern hemisphere winter more in keeping with the season than had been our SoCal departure. A cold front was arriving as we were, and I actually had to use the privileges of my airman certificate, climbing to on top of a cumulus strewn sky with strong winds and the potential for a turbulent thrashing about. On top it was smooth, but the rumbles joined a bit of mixed icing on our descent through the inclement weather to an instrument approach back where we’d departed at Montgomery Field. What wonderful opportunities Cathy and I have.
Hasta Luego, Tomás
Posted on November 1, 2014
As a Certified Flight Instructor there are times when I am called upon to conduct a Flight Review for client pilots, required biennially as per Federal Aviation Regulation 61.56 for them to continue to exercise the privileges of their airman certificate. It’s a chance to review, practice, add some polish to perhaps disused operational skills, and to spend time savoring the unbridled joy of flight. I confess that the conduct of some Flight Reviews is more fun than others, as in this past week, “working” with friends John and Howard with their Light Sport Weight Shift trikes. Howard often refers to his as the weed whacker, and you can see why. We do sometimes fly at common general aviation aircraft altitudes, but in the desert toolies, we are oft as not down where you can nearly count the grains of sand.
As you can see, the scenery is spectacular, and the view of it is pretty much unobstructed.
Did I mention that there is very effective air conditioning with this sort of flying? And there’s always the opportunity to work on one’s suntan. Trikes’ diminutive size and weight, and their flight attitude being controlled by the occupants’ shifting weight means that flight times are routinely early or late in the day when the atmosphere is smoothest. This is also the time of low sun—of rich colors punctuated by bold shadows. Just the stuff to make a photographer or painter effuse.
Some shadows move at the speed of the earth’s rotation, some at a trike’s cruise speed. This is highly technical physics, of course, most easily explained via “the one picture is worth a thousand words” exegesis.
Now, of course, it’s not all just fun and games. This is a Flight Review, after all, so serious pilot skill refresher work is part and parcel with the event. You pilots will surely remember the hours you practiced “ground reference maneuvers?”
And then there is the ritual simulated engine failure to an off-airport forced landing. Well, there are lots of definitions for airports, especially if you’re in a trike. Howard scored especially high marks for this dry lake bed landing. A nice opportunity to stretch our legs and decaffeinate.
So, the landing, and the bush-watering completed, it was time to demonstrate a soft field takeoff, which looks like this passing the elevation of the ritual imaginary 50′ obstacle.
Okay, obstacle cleared, with us back at cruise altitude. This is a great vantage point for observing wild flowers, snakes, swallows, and other desert denizens.
A stressful and successfully completed Flight Review ends with a quiet return for landing at day’s end.
As many of you may know, Howard’s day job is as a documentary filmmaker emphasizing the underwater environment. Cameras of this sort need waterproof housings, and those are produced by John’s company. The association we three have with all that is how we came to be chums accomplishing the niceties of the FARs on a late afternoon and early morning. Howard got some extra practice by flying his trike while John and I accomplished his FR. Howard took this as opportunity to roll the cameras on the scenery and the conduct of John’s and my flying. Like I say, some Flight Reviews are just more fun than others. If you need a password for this link, it is—badlands.
Posted on August 17, 2014
Posted on August 10, 2014
Summertime, and the siren call of floats rippling on water. In years past this has always involved the joy of myriad lakes in Alaska’s Kenai peninsula. This year, after due consideration, I decided that Washington’s Puget Sound area beckoned. We made arrangements for lodging and rental car, reserved a couple of days’ floatplane rental, loaded our Cirrus, and struck out for the Pacific Northwest. During the drive to our home aerodrome for departure, the seasonal monsoonal Sea of Cortez airflow was producing a thunderstorm light show, with cloud-to-ground lightening, thunder and rain, but with the convective activity mostly over the east county. I chose a Visual Flight Rules routing that took us beneath the cumulus overhang’s periphery, offshore in San Diego and Orange counties, then over the Los Angeles basin and up the San Joaquin valley for a stretch break and fuel top off in Red Bluff, just south of Mt. Shasta.
From there we proceeded via a nearly straight line along the western foothills of the Cascades and the upper Willamette Valley to Port Angeles, nestled on a thin strip of land between the Olympic Peninsula and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Once beyond SoCal, skies were sublimely clear and smooth until closing in on Olympia, in southern Washington. The forecast actually looked like it would pan out for afternoon clearing at Port Angeles (KCLM, as ICAO identifier), but a half hour south the weather was still reporting overcast. Seattle Center was very user-friendly, agreeing to a pop-up Instrument Flight Rules clearance at 10,000′ MSL about the time we were passing Portland, and the clouds were beginning to gather beneath us as a developing undercast.
I even cajoled them out of a least circuitous routing directly to the Initial Approach fix for the Area Nav approach to runway 26 while savoring the view of Mt. Hood just behind us, and Mt. Rainier, at our three o’clock position (above). All this good fortune was shortly dashed with the dreaded, “come left 15 degrees for traffic.” Looking ahead, I surmised that they might actually be playing into my hands. Ah, such hubris. The mountains of the Olympic peninsula were pumping up a line of cumulus that was principally to the east, whereas to the west, the cloud cover looked lower, in fact altogether benign in the general direction of the Initial fix for the Instrument Landing System approach to runway 8. The latest Sirius downloaded weather still showed overcast, now with a light northeasterly wind, so “Seattle, when done with the traffic vector, how about direct YUCSU?” all the while wondering who thinks up those unpronounceable fix names.
“N1TT, cleared as requested, maintain One Zero Thousand. We’ll probably lose radio contact with each other for awhile over the Olympics, but I should pick you up again as you near YUCSU.” Hmm. I had the presence of mind to confirm that the charted 118.2 MHz frequency for Whidbey Approach air traffic control was correct, just in case things stayed quiet with Seattle Center. And fortunately, YUCSU possesses a handy holding pattern course reversal to assist in losing a mile or so of that ten thousand feet if I’m doubly bedeviled with a persisting lost communications problem. What was I thinking? Oh, yes, I was thinking of avoiding the towering cumulus on the earlier track. Well, the Center frequency did, indeed, get quiet as we neared the highest mountains over the peninsula, but that just meant having peace to enjoy the view, which was downright gorgeous.
And right beneath our left wing, amidst the dance of the veils, was a splendid glimpse of the top of Mt. Olympus, replete with glacial stretch marks. Please note the solid cloud cover beyond the peaks in this image taken maybe fifteen minutes before landing…
…because of that Hubris thing where I actually thought I was being clever in conning a clearance direct to the approach fix for an instrument approach through the clouds and into the wind. However, as we cleared the ridges northbound, the atmosphere dramatically shifted to a ripping west wind, and blew out the overcast near the water. Zeus getting the last laugh on my presumptions and for having the temerity to overfly his residence? At least this meant that I could advise “aerodrome in sight, requesting a visual, circle to land on runway 26,” which gave me the time and distance to lose all that altitude to our sea level destination. So, yes my cleverness backfired by adding a few extra minutes of extended downwind flight time, but nonetheless avoided the cumulus, and gave us a sight-seeing tour of the Olympic peninsula for which many would pay dearly. My grandmother used to allow as how “it’s an ill wind that blows no good.” Double pun, here, bless her.
After fueling and securing the airplane we collected the rental car, and decided our internal mental gyros could best spin down with a little post-flight debriefing at Port Angeles’ Bella Italia. Local micro brew for me, local white wine for Ol’ What’s Her Name, and an appetizer of peninsula chanterelle mushrooms and porcini layered on bruschetta. Post lunch, not yet dinner time, and the wine bar seemed to be a favorite of locals who welcomed us with bonhomie and insider tips as to activities and events.
Our first few days were spent with family who live between Port Angeles and Sequim, providing us time and place to peruse a bit of the Olympic peninsula. The next morning we drove the roughly two hours to Cape Flattery, beyond Neah Bay. This is a region of dense rainforest, with all manner of wind-blown twisted trees…
…abutting a damp foot trail leading to land’s end. You can’t get farther northwest in the Lower Forty-Eight.
As you can see, we were treated to dry weather, radiant blue skies overhead, with the thick morning fog retreating westward before the advancing warmth of late July sunshine. The Olympic peninsula is at once an interlude between seashore and mountains.
The following day we hiked the trail up to the apex of Hurricane Ridge. Here we are maybe a mere five miles as the seabird flies from the Strait, steeply downhill to the right.
The peninsula is a place of nature, raw, thank you, with fauna as compelling as their environment.
My sense of whimsy delights in the occasional bit of silliness. We attended a music cum local wine and brew gig at a handily nearby winery. Check out the vineyard scarecrow.
In arranging the dancing with water, I had chosen Rainier Flight Service at Renton Field (KRNT) from a list of the Seaplane Pilots Association, because it was the only operation renting floatplanes that was located on a paved airfield, which enabled my daily :30 Cirrus commute back and forth from Port Angeles. Also, the Champion 8GCBC they used was nominally similar to the Bellanca Decathlon I used to own before building my Pitts S1S, so I had modest familiarity with, and ancient muscle memory from, that two-seat tandem aircraft.
Renton’s Boeing factory is the original manufacturing home of the B707 (aka the “Renton Rocket”) and the current home of the ubiquitous B737 (aka “Guppy,” or sometimes, the “FLUF,” a pilotspeak name you’ll have to ask me about discretely, as the acronym is not for polite company). You may have heard that Seattle is blessed with more than its fair share of rain? Often as not this is associated with southerly winds? In July and August there are many fair weather days, with northerly wind patterns, which was the case on all the days we enjoyed in the region. This had me scratching my head as to how best to plan a flight from Port Angeles, which is northwest of Renton—itself, a stone’s throw SE of Boeing Field and a similar distance NE of SeaTac. Not only is there Class “Delta” tower-controlled airspace for those three, but also the overlaying Class “Bravo” airspace for the greater Seattle area, and oh, yes, a pending Temporary Flight Restriction for the upcoming Seafair airshow. I plotted out a SE routing just high enough to avoid the Olympic peninsula terrain and low enough to be under the Seattle Class “B”—for you non-pilots, a type of airspace aptly described as a three-dimensional inverted wedding cake, centered on SeaTac, flight through which is strictly verboten without a reason to be there, and ATC clearance to do so. My intention was to head over Vashon Island, WSW of SeaTac, and then overfly SeaTac’s runway numbers for northerly runway 34C via the published “Mariner Transition” which would place me south of RNT for a straight in landing on their runway 34. The right hand Cirrus cockpit display in the image below conveys that routing, and also the actual track that Seattle Approach control assigned me when I checked in with them—nowhere’s near where I had planned. Natch.
Looking out the windscreen at more or less the same time and location. That’s downtown Seattle with the Space Needle almost straight ahead, and you are looking almost directly down Boeing Field’s runway 13R just beyond Eliot Bay at the 3 o’clock position in the frame. Yes, that’s Mt. Rainier in the upper right, and Lake Washington and Mercer Island beyond downtown. Renton Field sits at the far right end of Lake Washington. So ATC managed to shorten my flight path and descend me down to a terrific sightseeing altitude and route.
The ATC path set me up flying southbound over the east shore of Lake Washington, heading past the Boeing Factory in the nearside of the frame, and doing a right 180 degree turn to land in the opposite direction on runway 34, in the center of the image. That light-colored earth with a tiny white vertical projection (its control tower) just this side of the water in the upper right distance is SeaTac. That may look a long ways off in this wide-angle image. It’s about 4 nautical miles, or a minute and a quarter at Cirrus cruise speed. The tower-controlled airspace for all three of these fields literally abuts. Those are the Boeing factory hangars just this side of the Renton runway, and as it turns out, the floatplane ramp and dock is immediately off the north end of the taxiway.
At Rainier, I met up with Byron Palmer, the instructor whose job it was to help me clear out the cobwebs of a half decade of disuse of the seaplane rating on my airman certificate. Said more succinctly, his job was to help keep me out of trouble. Poor soul. Byron comes from a corporate jet background, and moonlights float training from his day job as a B737 simulator instructor at Alaska Airlines. As if that wasn’t enough commonality, his wife is a school teacher. Go figure. We hit it off splendidly and spent a good part of our first day’s briefing thinking about which of the many available lakes we wanted to visit, and completing the preflight inspection of the aircraft. This is a straight floats machine, without the retractable wheels of amphibious floats, so when ready, we tugged it to the water off the north end of the runway with a device that defies easy description—literally the front half of a 4×4 Ford F150, with no bed, rear frame, or rear wheels, and long hydraulically-powered arms out front to lift and hold the plane by the floats until launching at what is for all the world your basic boat ramp. Looks weird as hell, but works like a charm once you get used to the pickup’s steering wheel working backwards. I let him drive, don’t you know!
Intriguingly, the seaport portion of Renton field’s operation has its own name—Will Rogers/Wiley Post Memorial Seaport. Another bit of commonality, here, as well. Last month when returning from the east coast, we landed at Oklahoma City’s Wiley Post field. Some things are just meant to be? In Alaska my float flying had always been in the wilderness, where we were untroubled by the likes of Seattle’s convoluted airspace, or the need to call a tower for takeoff clearance, not to mention boaters and water-skiers who were routinely oblivious to our floatplane comings and goings. Envision the film clip you may have seen of the little old grannie driving too slowly on the freeway and failing to see in her rearview mirror the overtaking jumbo jet about to straddle her in an emergency landing, for how I felt I needed to operate around the frolicking boats and kayaks.
When ready to go we advised Renton tower, and they cleared us to takeoff “at our own discretion” and to report airborne. I used to get that discretion caveat in helicopters, and know, of course that it refers to the fact that you’re not using their handy paved runways. But, heavens, I always figure every takeoff is at the pilot’s discretion! Once “off the water” we proceeded by the “West Channel” routing. There’s a special approval that avoids needing also to talk to Boeing Field tower. This is what staying below 800 feet in compliance with that procedure looks like, while over the water of Lake Washington to the west of Mercer Island. As it turns out, this doesn’t mean that you are clear of air traffic, because all the float planes are doing the same thing. You aerobatic pilots will note the aileron spade in this image, which is there to help lighten the roll control forces. Still rather heavier and slower than the Decathlon, which also had a symmetrical airfoil vs. this pancake flat lower wing surface. 180 horsepower constant-speed prop. Over-floated, which is to say it had plenty of buoyancy, so got off the water pretty readily down here at sea level. From this extended upwind, we turned west (below), for what would become crosswind for my first landing at busy Lake Union, right in the heart of the Seattle urban area. No pressure, right? Crosswind, at a point upwind of the touchdown zone, means that we ended up flying right over the University of Washington’s Husky Stadium, just off the nose. Our landing lake is off the frame ahead and to the left.
Left downwind, with the touchdown zone at 8 o’clock in the frame. The Space needle just right of the nose. Is this cool, or what?
We’ve just landed north on the lake, extended the water rudders, and are now taxiing southbound before turning around for a takeoff northbound into the wind. Once turned around and the launch path is confirmed to be relatively clear, its rudders up, full power and full back stick, awaiting the second, higher nose rise—like a stallion tugging on the reins, nostrils flaring—then robust forward stick to get on the step. Quickly follow with just enough back pressure to hold that sight picture with level floats, and then as the speed builds, the slightest additional back pressure allowing the plane to fly itself off the water. Operating a wheeled airplane on turf runways is great. The thrumming of a float plane on water is greater. No tower to call here, but there is a 122.8 MHz Common Traffic Advisory Frequency to keep the other floatplanes apprised. Nah, the boaters don’t monitor it.
Next up we headed west and then south to play in and out of a lake in the foothills of the Olympic mountains. I think it might have been something like Lake Cushmore. There we practiced takeoffs and landings, as well as step taxiing, including step taxi turns on the water. These are high speed water ops, just slow enough to stay attached to the water and not get airborne, but fast enough to cover the surface quickly. Step turns feel peculiar because of the centrifugal force pulling you sideways in the seat as you arc through the turn in an essentially flat attitude on the water. Attention has to be paid to turns from downwind to upwind lest the forces bury the outside float, or worse, the outside wingtip. And yet, the skill is essential when operating out of the confined areas of small lakes, with the step turn arcing directly into the takeoff “roll” as you come around into the wind, your speed already just below that needed to get airborne. Then, of course, you might have to keep circling tightly in the air to avoid trees or whatnot on the encircling shore. Flying floats routinely polishes one’s basic stick and rudder skills, not to mention remote area and mountain flying techniques.
That said, we did manage a sufficiently un-remote destination for lunch. I think this might have been Summit Lake. Not sure. Byron’s Seaplane Pilots Association online directory, which he accessed in the air on his i-Pad, said that this was a floatplane-friendly lake with a nice cafe at its north shore. After landing, we taxied up and beached at a grassy picnic area abutting the cafe. This left free their dock for the fishermen to continue casting their lines. Common courtesy between water types, right? We tied up to the picnic table and strolled onto the cafe’s lakeside deck to obtain some sustenance. A fairly suspender-snapping arrival for us non rock stars.
The next day I brought Cathy and her grand niece, Olivia, with me on the flight to and from Renton. The seaplane, having only two seats was off limits for them, but they borrowed Byron’s car and headed to Pikes Place Market and girls’ lunch and shopping. Byron and I headed south to Lake Tapps, and then overflew McChord Air Force base on our way into and out of American Lake. This generated its own singular recollective grin, as it was McChord where I returned “to the world” to process out of the Army following my tour in Viet Nam in the sixties. After clearing McChord’s airspace I finally got to use the Mariner Transition, overflying SeaTac’s numbers for runway 34C. The aft part of the left float is in the lower left of the frame.
Now if the above seems like low tech in a high tech world, it is perfectly in keeping with our floatplane TCAS (Traffic Collision and Avoidance System) during our multiple 300 feet AWL base legs for landing on Lake Sammamish.
Naturally, at the end of each day’s flying, we returned to Will Rogers/Wiley Post Memorial. On the first return Renton tower directed a conventional righthand landing pattern for runway 34. Except, for a land pilot in a floatplane this is a tad surreal as it amounts to descending over the runway centerline so as to touchdown just beyond the far upwind end of the runway! On day two it got even more whimsical as we approached Renton from Sammamish, which is to the NE, with RNT reporting a dozen or so knots of wind from 290 degrees, or about fifty degrees to the left of runway 34s bearing. It’s considered good capsize-avoidance form in floatplanes to land somewhat closely into the wind, which also attends to their pronounced tendency to weathervane into the wind once on the water. Air traffic was fairly light that afternoon, and the tower turned me loose to initiate base leg as per my own inclinations, with the usual “landing at the pilot’s discretion, report on the water.” Given the confines of the approved landing zone and the wind direction, I throttled back for descent, and laid it over smartly into a right turn to base leg, then quickly another angular change to final approach into the wind. This resulted in a glide that had us crossing over the NW corner of the most westerly Boeing factory hangar about 150 feet above the roof on our way to our splashdown. “Byron, you don’t think Boeing will complain about our ruckus over their roof?” He said he didn’t know of any admonitions to our flight path to touchdown, but I’ll bet he might have been wondering, like me, “probably not complain as much as they would over the ruckus we’d make if we landed ON their roof!” Gallows humor.
The following day, Cathy and I bid our adieus to her Port Angeles family members and launched in N111TT for Orcas, one of the San Juan Islands. Orcas’ aerodrome (KORS) carries the same Eastsound name as the primary village on the island, which is just a :10 walk from the airport transient aircraft tiedown apron. Due to the international border’s dog’s hind-leg meanderings in this area, Orcas actually sits north of British Columbia’s beautiful city of Victoria on the SE end of Vancouver Island. It’s pretty nearly as far north as you can go in the lower forty-eight and still not be in Canada. The San Juan islands are postcard gorgeous with the interplay of land and water everywhere a delight to the eyes.
Below, we are over the sound, itself, with KORS’ runway 34 straight ahead, and the village of Eastsound abutting the water just this side of the runway.
I slipped into what would be a prime valet parking spot for an auto, which put us alongside the only other airplane in the transient area. Two Cirri at the same small aerodrome! Note the understated terminal just off the nose of our plane.
We started our ambulation into town only to be offered a ride by a gentleman who had been in the terminal when we cruised in from the ramp. It turns out he’s the progenitor of the summer chamber music festival, which unfortunately for us, began the weekend after we were to depart for home. Still, we had a delightful conversation before he dropped us off at the Shearwater Kayak outfitter we were using for the next day’s circumnavigation of nearby Sucia Island. And he recommended Roses cafe, in his estimation, the best dining spot in town.
Cathy, in her inimitable way, seems mostly to luck out on lodging accommodations, and Orcas was no exception. We were here in high season, and just about everyplace was booked full. But she discovered the Old Trout Inn, a B&B off the road between Eastsound and Westsound. Normally this would mean the necessity of a rental car, which we were trying to avoid. It turns out the proprietors Henrí and Nicole were happy to pick us up at the airport after our Roses lunch, drive us to their lodge, as well as to and from our kayaking site the following day, and eventually back to the airport for departure.
The view from our room at the inn.
Perhaps I should mention that the innkeepers are French, and that Nicole was head chef in their own restaurant for many years? Presentation, for sure. But delicious and filling to cover the first half day of kayaking. We Closes have an in-family game of “Best Croissant, Ever.” Nicole’s freshly hand-prepared version was well to the top of the cream in the milk can of croissant pecking order, and a perfect accompaniment to the delicate and decadent egg soufflé. Henrí was always solicitous, and a marvelous raconteur, sharing stories of his youth when he was a test driver for the Ferrari racing stable’s mounts both in Europe, and after emigrating to the U.S.
A principle reason we added Orcas to our itinerary was to get in the Sucia Island kayaking exercise. Another way for us to enjoy the water. Spanish-speakers will chuckle over the island’s name, which translates as Dirty Island, an apparent misnomer to me. Our Shearwater group consisted of our guide, Zach, and a total of six of us guests in three ocean-going kayaks. It was seven miles circumnavigating Sucia, requiring sunscreen, exertion, and kayak-mate paddling coordination, but the views were worth the effort.
Lunch—deli sandwiches, trail-mix and lemonade, partaken al fresco from washed-ashore sun-bleached logs. Restaurateurs would love the venue. I followed our dining with a bracing full-body emersion in the water, which only raised my voice about an octave. And then Zach, a geology teacher during the year, showed us a Native American shelling site that carbon dates to 11,000 years’ age. Obviously they, too, liked the protected waters and the view, plus the plentiful seafood.
After lunch we continued our clockwise sojourn.
At the end of our paddling, we were picked up by a prearranged water taxi and returned to West Beach on Orcas, where Henrí retrieved Cathy and me. We savored a lovely French dinner from the inn’s outdoor deck, washed down with a bottle of bubbly, and prepared for our morning departure home.
Our takeoff from Eastsound was to the north, and as we turned a right crosswind, there was Sucia off our left wing, glowing in the morning light. The mountains of mainland British Columbia in the distance. Looking at all the water we’d covered, sometimes overcoming currents, we got a hint at why the arms and low backs were telling us that they had been used.
There’s a modest backstory to our routes going and coming on this trip from SoCal to the Pacific Northwest. We escaped thunderstorms on our departure from our Montgomery Field home ‘drome at the outset. And the weather pattern we had then, had slowly migrated northward, a week later to Washington and Oregon. The return morning weather, studied on my i-Pad, showed cumulonimbus with tops to 51,000 feet, rain, lightning, and hail from around Olympia south toward Salem. The Olympic peninsula was clear, as was the coast leading toward northern California. Ergo, a track back over the Olympics, going as we had come…
…and then past the mouth of the Columbia River, continuing abeam Arcata and Eureka, for a fuel stop and stretch in Healdsburg, CA. Healdsburg appeals to my penurious side, as the quaint and quiet airstrip in the heart of the wine country boasts avgas a full dollar a gallon less than others.
Hmm. Good recon for a future wine country exploration by bicycle? Autumn harvest? Have plane, will travail. Apologies to Paladin.
Posted on June 28, 2014
My wife, Cathy, has an affliction—when she’s free from her SDSU professorial duties, as with the recently completed Spring semester—she’s compelled to tempt me to travel somewhere, anywhere, but especially to regions she has not previously explored. Translated—”Let’s take the Cirrus and fly to the east coast to visit Aunt Tilda, and see some of our country I haven’t yet explored.” What? At one level, this is music to a pilot’s ears. Yet, while I’ve flown more transcontinental crossings than I can count, a bicoastal endeavor in a small plane means being down in the atmospheric levels where experience reminds me that weather actually has some teeth. The most effective methodology is careful advance planning, flexibility and a willingness to adapt—change the route, change the altitude, change the destination, and/or change what day to go or stay put. Words to live by.
We blocked out a couple of weeks and conjured up a route that would take us to the hill country of south/central Texas, the Smoky Mountains of western North Carolina, the Outer Banks abutting our county’s other ocean, a visit with Matilda in Williamsburg, VA, and back, by unknown route to unknown locales.
The trip affirmed the wonderful nature of our populace across the land, certainly in the heartland, and as pilots know, at airports small and large, where Fixed Base Operator (FBO) personnel are friendly can-do spark plugs of help and courtesy. The trip affirmed the vastness of our country, and the incredible diversity of topography, flora and fauna, and the magnificent beauty of it all. If one word sums it up—variety.
Statistics form only a framework to describe our travels. We covered 4481 nautical miles (sorry, I’m a pilot—that’s 5153 statue miles for you terrestrials) in 28.5 flying hours, for an average groundspeed of 157 knots (181 mph), takeoff to touchdown. We operated throughout at economy power settings resulting in a fuel usage of 12.9 gallons per hour. And yes, my credit card was starting to glow by the time we returned home.
We departed our San Diego Montgomery Field home aerodrome under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) due to a low marine cloud layer. East of the coastal mountains, now beyond the clouds, I cancelled our ATC IFR clearance to proceed under Visual Flight Rules (VFR), following our own noses to our first fuel stop and potty break at Santa Teresa, NM’s Doña Ana County airport, some 20 miles west of El Paso Texas. I can’t resist musing on this ability to fly by one’s own routes and inclinations as being nearly unique to our country, a reflection, I think, of the independence mindset and self-reliance of our forebears. Pilots in other countries marvel at our freedom of flight, and flock here to embrace it. Still, one has to sit up and pay attention, for instance, avoiding the 15,000′ cable securing a US Customs and Border Protection Aerostat balloon, surveilling the nearby border with Mexico. Your tax dollars at work.
A half hour after landing, we were on our way over El Paso and on to our first destination of the trip at Fredricksburg, TX. Going with the flexibility flow of small plane travel across the multiple weather patterns of great distances in a day, we routinely traveled without advanced reservations for accommodations or rental cars. This mostly worked out, but did require a little ingenuity and patience which added to the sense of adventure in our travels. Where to stay in the Fredricksburg area? Well, how about here? We’ve just landed, and taxied in to the ramp, and have a pretty decent clue before our just-stopped prop.
The hotel was just delightful, with comfortable rooms, and friendly staff. No reservation? No problem. No rental car? Here’s the keys to my car, just out the door, and there’s a really terrific restaurant, just a mile or so down the road. The FBO arranged for a car the following morning, but that first night, being a Tuesday when the adjoining WWII diner was closed, it was hotel receptionist Peggy’s no-worries offer that provided transportation to two hungry travelers. Dorothy, to Toto, I don’t think we’re in Del Mar any more. So you’ve maybe noticed that the hotel is actually a redone Hangar? At this stage we had not yet learned about Fredricksburg’s Admiral Chester Nimitz history, but it began to dawn on us that this community reveres its WWII past, and finds ways to capitalize on it, including right here at the Hangar Hotel. The lobby is delightfully art deco, replete with 1940s era music and period suitcases and decor.
Thirsty? The bar is right this way.
This is in the heart of the Texas hill country, west of Austin and north of San Antonio. Hills in Texas? Something to learn for the both of us. Fredricksburg is a city of some 27,000 inhabitants, sporting multiple fine art galleries, many fine dining establishments, and the absolutely superb National Museum of the Pacific War. What? It turns out that Chester Nimitz, Fleet Admiral, appointed Commander in Chief of the entire WWII Pacific Fleet just after Pearl Harbor, hails from Fredricksburg. The museum is chock full of interactive exhibits conveying the geopolitics and history of the vast sweep of the war from Japan’s early feudal Samurai past through Pearl Harbor and on to the unconditional surrender aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo bay.
You alert readers will have no doubt noted that Fredricksburg is a rather Germanic name—no accident, as early 19th century settlers in the region were German immigrants grown tired of working some nobleman’s land. From this ethnic history a couple of noteworthy mentionables. A few miles north of Fredricksburg was the Army post of Fort Mason, there to protect the settlers from Apache raids. The fort produced several famous soldiers, among them, generals Robert E Lee and George H Thomas, both southerners. Lee could not abide taking up Civil War arms against his fellow Virginians and so refused the offered command of all Union Forces, casting his fate to the winds leading to the Appomattox courthouse. Thomas served with distinction among the Union forces, and so was disowned by his family, who burned all his possessions and letters. In a more prosaic and current vein, aficionados of craft brewing can sample fine beers in the local micro-breweries, and at their leisure, take an open, still-being-consumed pint with them as they leave the establishment to wander about town, because the good German forefathers thought to include such freedoms in the city charter. How would I know? And, oh yes, this is also the Texas wine region, and I can assure you we discovered our share and yours of fine varietals.
The last thing I expected to see in central Texas in June was wildflowers. The highways and byways surprised me at every turn.
And then, this being rural Texas, there were sights like these, as well.
It’s that German welcome that brings a smile.
On one evening in the area we headed out to an old train tunnel located near Luckenbach Texas, a one horse spot in the road made famous by the Waylon Jennings song of the same name.
The tunnel boasts a nightly bat exodus of millions of migratory Mexican bats. They rose to the occasion, if you will, but did so late enough that the dim twilight was insufficient for photography. Instead I had to content myself with the only full moon rising on a Friday the 13th for the next century.
After a couple of days exploring Fredricksburg and the environs, we relocated to the Rose Hill Manor in nearby Stonewall, staying in a wonderful bungalow, separated a hundred yards from the main house of the B & B. Cathy knows how to pick our lodgings.
And a short walk in the opposite direction via raised wooden boardwalk through the vineyard is the Pedernales Cellars winery. Oh, must I?
You’re probably aware that I am routinely taken with sunsets, and so, looking west between dinner and desert, this caught my eye.
Now it is worth mentioning that I am not unawares that Texas is the southern tether of the region known somewhat euphemistically as our country’s Tornado Alley, and not without good reason. See, looking the other direction from the sunset, this was brewing up. Pilots, this is a clue. Tonight is not a good night to go flying.
And, then thunderstorms being what they are, all hell broke loose for a full-on light show, pealing cannonades of thunder, and rain like a cow pissing on a flat rock. Texas thunderstorm bragging rights. Remedial meteorology for you aviators, this is what is referred to in METARs remarks as LTG IC CC. That would be Lightning In Cloud and Cloud to Cloud. There was also the LTG CG variety, i.e., Lightning, Cloud to Ground. The locals were very appreciative of the precipitation.
A portent of things to come? Well, yes, as it turns out. Summertime is convection time in the atmosphere. Usually it helps to fly early and quit early, but that is not invariably the case. Flexibility, as mentioned. On our last night in Fredricksburg we returned to the Hangar Hotel so as to facilitate our next day’s early launch, on a northeast track past Shreveport, LA, and on to Greenville, Mississippi for fuel and limb stretching, then continuing on for a second leg past Tupelo, Huntsville, Alabama, past Chattanooga, Tennessee (the identifier of the radio navigational aid for which is Choo Choo!) and into the Macon County strip located in a Smoky Mountains valley in western North Carolina. Checking the professionally-prepared pilot forecast just before turning out the light, it showed nothing but scattered clouds and benign flying for the next day, including the Texas hill country.
Whoops, that doesn’t look like benign scattered clouds, above. Revisiting the weather product sites on line, I discovered that the several counties of the Texas hill country sat dead center below a hastily issued Convective SIGMET. SIGMET is weatherspeak for Significant Meteorology, i.e., dangerous conditions for all types of aircraft including the heavy iron I used to fly. We repaired to the next-door Airport Diner, with decor redolent of my youth, and waited out the storm and its rain, moving southeast at 35 knots. Looking at the radar returns on my i-Pad, I guessed correctly that it would be a couple of hours before we could hope to get airborne.
This, too, shall pass. And it did.
The storm track was moving southeast, and we headed north by northeast, keeping a wary eye on the the VIRGA hanging out of the clouds to our right. Surprisingly smooth. In fact, almost all of our flying for the entire vacation was in remarkably smooth air, even in these and other conditions suggestive of hammering us with a severe washboard ride. I like smooth, thank you.
As we moved farther northeast, the weather began to clear, and we came upon Ol’ Muddy just before letting down into Greenville. There’s a nuance in this image, below, which I rather like. In about the five o’clock position of the frame is the top of my flight plan flight log clipped to my knee pad (a mini pilot desk strapped to my thigh) and reflected in the left door window. We got to be good Samaritans helping ATC with a call on a CTAF (Common Traffic Advisory Frequency) for a small rural airstrip, enquiring of anyone on the frequency if an errant Cessna had landed safely. ATC could no longer raise him on the previously used frequency, and was unable to communicate on the strip’s CTAF, so asked us to intervene from the beneficial range of our lofty height. No one ever answered—not the pilot in question, nor anyone who might have been operating at the strip, monitoring the CTAF, and aware of the Cessna’s safe landing.
After a quick pitt stop, we continued on the day’s second and final leg, sashaying around bubbling towering cumulus….
…and eventually started our descent for a quasi straight-in landing on Macon County’s runway 7—that light colored earth in the left center of the frame. Quasi straight-in, because of several mountain peaks betwixt us and the runway. Adjust as needed. Let me call your attention to the lush deciduous foliage wherever one looks. Oh yes, it turned out later that this do-si-do of dodging elevated terrain while maneuvering for landing and takeoff was to become yet another operational theme during our travels. Stay tuned.
My Cirrus training colleagues Trip and Sheri Taylor have this wonderful mountain aerie outside Highlands, NC, a community reminiscent of Carmel by the Sea, but lodged amidst thickly forested mountains. They picked us up at 1A5, the aerodrome identifier for the Macon County airstrip, and off we went to toast the fín del dia from their front deck. Sherri, herself a pilot, is the Energizer Bunny that keeps the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association’s Cirrus Pilots Proficiency Program recurrent training program functioning smoothly and efficiently. Trip is a gifted pilot, a natural instructor and all-around affable gentleman with a rapier adeptness with the King’s English. And a wonderful and kind friend. Cathy and I have long wanted to visit this, for us, unexplored part of our country, and staying at their place as base of operations made the recon ever so simple and comfortable. Craft beers and vintage wines didn’t hurt, of course.
Views from this deck, conveying some of its multiple moods.
And maybe this hints at why they are called the Smoky Mountains. These low-laying clouds gathering in the valleys are fog on the ground, of course, and why it is routine to be unable to depart by plane from the likes of 1A5 until mid morning when the sun burns off the vapors.
You’ve doubtless discerned the thickness of the foliage when looking into the distance. How about up close? Well, here’s a glimpse of the gravel road leading to their place.
A few looks at the sylvan beauty of this verdant pastoral place. I should mention that our hiking about the hills and dales was accomplished with the good fortune of just getting back to the rental car before the afternoon skies opened up with the day’s sturm und drang lightning, thunder, and downpour. Recurring theme.
While casting one’s gaze at the near distance, it is good to remember the near ground, as well.
Okay, so you can see that these petals stick out at quirky angles, which is my segue into something only those of you who know and tolerate us can appreciate—our goofy, lovable house jester whippet buddy, Sawyer. Segue? Check out the similarity of ears and petals. So there. It might take a thousand words to do this one picture justice. The modern world has FaceTime between two i-Pads. Sawyer, with maybe a modicum of assistance from dog and house-sitting Torrey, called us at Trip’s and Sherri’s mountain aerie. I couldn’t help myself, and, as you can see in the small inclusion screen, pulled out my camera to capture this image of him looking at me. This is a photo of him on my i-Pad screen, and me, as I appeared to him, on Torrey’s i-Pad screen back in Del Mar. This was a wonderful moment, becoming terribly bitter sweet when I called out his name, and Torrey, turned her i-Pad to follow him racing around the house to find us. Wow, but that is devotion. What a bitchen chum is he.
Being time to move on, we elected to embrace an addition to our itinerary that Trip had suggested, and drop in on Billy Mitchell field (KHSE as ICAO identifier) at Cape Hatteras on the Outer Banks before continuing on to First Flight (KFFA) aerodrome at Kitty Hawk, and eventually to Williamsburg, VA (KJGG) to visit Aunt Tilda. Billy Mitchell was a WWI aviator convinced of the importance of air power going forward. Between the world wars, he adamantly harangued the establishment on this vision, to his personal downfall—he was reduced in rank from Brigadier General to Colonel, and court-marshalled for insubordination, before resigning from the military. He died in 1936. The outbreak of WWII proved our country as being woefully underprepared for the importance of aviation in all theaters of the war, and elevated his vision to its rightful place. Establishments hate muckrakers who are right. The twin-engine B25 bomber is named the Mitchell after him. On April 18, 1942, only four months after the Day of Infamy humiliation of our military at Pearl Harbor by the naval air forces of Imperial Japan, Colonel Jimmy Doolittle led a desperate raid of sixteen (U.S. Army) Mitchell bombers from the deck of the U.S.S. Hornet to bomb Tokyo and other targets on Honshu. These were land-based aircraft, stripped of armaments to save weight so they could operate from an aircraft carrier and takeoff without catapult assistance. The raid had to commence at maximum range from Japan because Japanese recon aircraft had spotted the Hornet task force. Doolittle and the Mitchells launched anyway, all assuming that it was a mission from which they would not return. They raced in low, dropped their ordnance and flew on to fuel starvation crash landings and whole crew bailouts in China and Siberia. Most survived. The raid was a gut punch at the Japanese hubris of invincibility, and resulted in whole portions of the Japanese war machine being called back to defend the home islands, effectively stopping the relentless Japanese advance from the Dutch East Indies southward, and saving New Guinea and Australia from the ignominy that befell the Philippines and Singapore. Aviation, with Billy Mitchell’s name on it, delivering on his vision. Anyway, there are two Mitchell fields in the U.S.—General Mitchell International in Milwaukee, WI, into which I have flown countless times with United, being one. Now I got to add the second field to my logbook.
Short final approach to Billy Mitchell field’s runway 25. I like the runway number symbolism as compared to the B25 bomber. Yes! Cathy and I tried to discern and follow a trail from the strip over the sand dunes, so as to stick our toes in the Atlantic, but were bedeviled by cactus and stickers lurking beneath the sand, so chose to return empty-footed.
Less than an hour later we were once again airborne headed for a truly wondrous pilot’s bucket list destination a mere quarter of an hour up the Outer Banks.
I am maneuvering for landing at Kitty Hawk, NC, the runway to the left in the image, and the memorial to Orville and Wilbur Wright atop Kill Devil Hill on the right.
The auto parking lot had many cars, but the aircraft parking apron contained only N111TT when we shut down. Just twenty yards from the tail is the sign that provided the vantage point for the image that begins this blog missive, juxtaposing the Centennial sign and the Kill Devil Hill monument.
This monument to the Wright brothers, atop Kill Devil Hill, was commenced in 1928 commemorating the 25th anniversary of their first powered and controlled flight in December of 1903. These were “mere” bicycle mechanics—you got that?—from Dayton, Ohio, smitten with a yearning for the freedom that flight offers. They began by flying gliders off this very hill as a means of learning about the magic of lift, the force of physics that propels all craft in our atmosphere, and about how to control their flight path. For controllability they developed a method of twisting the wings, known as wing warping, and reminiscent of the twisting of wings and tails of the birds who were their siren prototypes. As they began getting a handle on that they turned their acumen on adding power to the equation. Here I am, barely a century later, honored to gaze up their monument, juxtaposed with a pearly contrail as mute testament to the genius of those remarkable, determined, and self-reliant men.
These two images barely hint at their inspiration and brilliance. You are looking at the front end of their personally devised and hand made wind tunnel. Nothing like this existed before they created it from their own imagination. A fan was positioned before this circular opening directing a wind into the wooden structure looking for all the world in size and shape like a box kite. The X-shaped and honey-comb structures were designed to straighten the wind so it would mimic the flow of air over the wings when their powered craft was propelled through the atmosphere. They managed to figure out how much horsepower they could get from their engine, and how much of that would deliver what speed through the air when harnessed to the plane’s propellers, and then used appropriate fan speeds to equate to that imagined airspeed of the craft underway. No one knew this stuff. No one.
This inspiration was channeled to basic practicality as you can see from this image looking back into the box from the downwind end. They built this simple structure with spring tensioners that sat in the airflow coming in from the other end of the box. They designed rudimentary airfoils, the technical name for a wing that is shaped so as to generate the lift necessary to hold aloft a weighty object when that airfoil is moved through the air. They tested multiple tiny, to-scale airfoil shapes which would pull against the spring tension moving in response to the physics of lift, thus ascertaining which shape would prove most effective given the speed that their propulsion system could provide. No one knew this stuff. No one. Genius.
The museum at Kitty Hawk has replicas of both their glider and their powered Wright Flyer, and here is the latter. The original hangs in the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum on the mall in Washington, D.C. along with countless other aviation treasures. If you haven’t been there, or here, you owe yourself a reverential visit.
Outside you can walk the path of their first four powered flights on that rendezvous with destiny in December 1903. As you may know, their powered flights launched from the flat sands of Kitty Hawk, just below their glider launch point on Kill Devil Hill. Soft sand was good, as it cushioned their small crashes as they learned to put it all together. Remember, no one knew this stuff. No one. To get around the drag of attempting to move tires through soft sand at the start of a takeoff roll, they substituted skids and a short track upon which the Flyer accelerated until reaching flying speed. Four successful flights that December 17 with the brothers alternating as pilots. Each stone marker informs as to who flew, and what the duration and distance was of the respective flights. Let me put this first one, by Orville, in perspective. The length of the white dashed lines demarcating the centerline of a modern airport runway is exactly 200 feet from the beginning of one stripe to the beginning of the next. This first flight, which irrevocably changed the face of the world, is barely half that distance. The distance of this first flight was roughly three wing spans of the Cirrus that bore Cathy and me to First Flight aerodrome.
Eventually we trudged ourselves back across the fields in the June heat and humidity and stopped in the pilots-only lounge (keypad entry to the locked lounge is “Squawk VFR plus #”) to use the facilities and proudly add assertion of our presence to the register, before departing northbound to Colonial Williamsburg.
Our time in Williamsburg was short, and our arrival was late that afternoon. Like touring rock stars, the FBO manager met us with a rental car, plane side, as we shut down the engine on the parking apron. From there it was a short :05 drive to our B&B lodging for the two nights. Both of these conveniences had been secured the day before when I felt confident the day’s weather would enable completing the flight to KJGG. We had a wonderful dinner at the exquisite Prime 46 Forty restaurant that first evening. The next day we went out to visit the Berkeley plantation in the morning, before our lunchtime visit with Tilda. Located on the James River, Berkeley was the home of the Harrisons, William becoming the ninth president of the United States, and the first president to die in office. His grandson, Benjamin became the twenty-third president. That evening we drove the short distance past the College of William and Mary and had burgers and brews at the DoG Street Pub in the heart of Colonial Williamsburg.
We retired to our B&B on the early side, as I had some serious decision-making to accomplish. Our plan had been to fly to Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C.. I had already arranged through the Landmark FBO on the field there for ramp space for our plane, nearby hotel reservations with their crew rate, and the use of their shuttle to take us to and from the Air & Space’s expansive Steven F Udvar-Hazy museum located on a far corner of the field at Dulles. The next morning’s weather looked modestly problematic, but I was confident it would not present insurmountable hurdles. However, the day after that, and the next several ensuing days looked like the entire eastern and central U.S. would be slammed by extensive and widespread thunderstorm activity likely to keep us from departing toward home. Command decision time—I cancelled our D.C. plans, and worked out a WSW routing to start us homeward bound. The plan was to depart under IFR because of forecast morning weather, residual to the evening’s thunderstorms and proceed to Huntsville, Alabama for fuel, then on to Oklahoma City’s Wiley Post airport, and if still able due to weather vagaries, carry on to Taos, NM. Three legs, a long day, by all accounts.
The morning dawned, demonstrating the necessity of operating under Instrument Flight Rules, with a ceiling and visibility adequate for takeoff, but below landing minima if a problem should develop after becoming airborne. Shortly after takeoff the lower clouds, now below us, began to break up, but we still had to maneuver so as to avoid the residual towering cumulus. And as we proceeded westbound the clouds were a solid undercast below us with all airports for the first hour of flight below landing minima. I know because I pretty much continuously alternated between checking the health of our engine parameters, and pulling up the weather on our onboard displays for countless nearby airports we were overflying on our track.
A momentary break in the clouds during the climb out from KJGG.
If you are a user of cockpit Multi Function displays, you will note the red flags for low Instrument Meteorological Conditions at aerodromes either side of our ground track.
The solid undercast cleared about an hour after takeoff on a route that would take us near Greensboro, and Charlotte, NC, past Choo Choo and further westward. Near the western North Carolina/Tennessee border the skies looked like this. Hmm, let’s see, we are at 10,000′ and it is still relatively early in the morning, and those cumulus are fairly numerous, many already punching up above our altitude. Hmm. Another flexibility decision point—I changed our destination with ATC, electing to substitute Muscle Shoals, Alabama, near the western border of the Crimson Tide state for the more easterly Huntsville, hoping to get beyond the developing cumulus before the cotton balls turned into full-blown thunderstorms.
That turned out to be a modestly prudent decision, but prudence only goes so far. After the briefest of time at Muscle Shoals, our climb out had me threading the eyes of multiple needles to work our way up to a 12,500′ cruise altitude detouring around innumerable towering cumulus to stay in the clear during the climb and at cruise. Still the gaps between the clouds stayed adequate to continue operating VFR. See, it turns out that the vertical air currents that produce these towering clouds can produce rather nasty turbulence. Staying in the clear even if the pilot and the aircraft are capable of flight in the clouds is vastly smoother, and has the advantage of minimizing the risk of inadvertently stumbling into something, well, more or less like what it eventually came to near Fort Smith, to the NW of Little Rock, Arkansas. It’s that Hmm, thing on steroids, now. We are still nearly 100 miles away from this developing line of fire-breathing thunderstorms at what is now the early afternoon. I could discern a portion of the line with less development at our twelve o’clock position, right off the nose in this frame. I considered diverting ninety degrees left and landing at Little Rock, but figured I could proceed farther westbound before having to commit to that plan, while appraising what was possible in that central slot as time advanced.
If we had been a half hour earlier, I think we could have gone through there at our existing 12,500′ altitude, but as I got in closer, I decided that a more comfortable option would be to drop down low (around 1,000′ above ground level) and proceed through the now-closing gap, using both the onboard radar display and careful visual scanning to sashay left and right diverting from our flight plan ground track so as to avoid the ugliest of the billowing cumulus still observable above us, and naturally avoid the rain shafts wherever they presented themselves. Worked like a charm, and, again was remarkably smooth notwithstanding the seething nature of the cumulonimbus either side of us. You’ll note from the MFD depiction, where the inner, dashed scale ring is 25 nautical miles, that I was unable to secure a gap of at least 20 nautical miles either side of me to where the thunderstorms glowed red. Real world, that generally accepted separation maxim is frequently unobtainable. Incidentally, ATC seems to have learned from past gaffs, and was routinely warning pilots at all flight levels of “an area of precipitation at X o’clock with moderate, heavy and extreme precipitation.” You non pilots should know that the rate of precipitation in thunderstorms correlates directly with the severity of turbulence.
This location corresponded to a chart admonition of caution for “Rapidly Rising Terrain,” which fortunately I was able to keep in sight. But the low altitude eventually cost us our communication link with ATC, who was able to enquire as to our well being by a relay from a passing jetliner up in the flight levels, more or less turning the tables on our comm relay near Greenville, MS while heading eastward a week earlier. Sometimes you give and you get. After fifteen or twenty miles we were now getting west of the worst of it, and I could climb back up to 12,500′ and resume the back and forth avoidance of what was once again merely modest towering cumulus. This is looking back over my left shoulder at the line of thunderstorms as we proceeded away from it westbound. It looked more or less the same off to the right. All better now.
Flexibility resumed its seminal role yet again following our second landing of the day, at Wiley Post in Oklahoma City. Knowing that weather contentiousness near Fort Smith was a distinct possibility we had purposely not made any accommodation or car rental arrangements at our desired end of the day Taos, NM destination. Said more succinctly, it hadn’t been clear that we’d get that far. We refueled at Atlantic Aviation at KPWA, and got busy with the i-Pad and cell phone seeing what we could drum up at Taos. It was now 3 PM-ish, and we could find no room at the inns, nor rental vehicles. How about if we call it a night, and sort this out in the morning? Atlantic quickly arranged for lodging with their crew discount at a nearby Crown Plaza, and handed us the keys to one of their two crew cars. The hotel room was very nice, the bar and restaurant were terrific, and the hotel staff as friendly as that at Atlantic. A real winner.
By morning Cathy found a room for us at the Touchstone Inn B & B, and so off we went, still without ground transportation. Oklahoma, northern Texas and far eastern New Mexico are flat, but that changes abruptly as you near Taos from the east. Here we are just to the south of Cimarron, and proceeding to overfly the Angel Fire airstrip in a hanging valley between the middle and most distant mountains ahead. Taos is immediately the other side of the third range.
Short final approach to Taos, KSKX. Not much airport development, as you can see. This was another theme at most of our landing sites.
The Big Fella upstairs continued to favor us with His blessings. We shut down, and fueled for our subsequent departure, then learned from Leah—the do-it-all gal and only staff member on duty keeping the FBO humming—that a rental car had been unexpectedly returned this morning. If we weren’t bothered by it being dusty, we had our transportation. She was also a fount of local insider tips including the micro brewery (do you discern a trend here?) just down the road, and the fun that could be had at KTAO, the local solar-powered radio station cum locals’ watering hole. A solar-powered radio station/bar? “Well, Taos is very much a hippy town,” allowed Leah. Happy hour is 4 PM to 6 PM with good cheap drinks and tasty bar food. Well, okay, then. I’m not sure when the radio station broadcasts, but you walk right past the broadcast booth on the way to the bar. Maybe our local public radio station could stifle some of the incessant fund-grovelling if they implemented a similar business model? We managed to maximize what we saw and did during our two days and two nights.
We headed out by the Rio Grande gorge to get in some photos and some Time-Lapse sequences.
Always mindful to look down and enjoy the foreground as well as the vistas.
Cathy spotted this delightful collared lizard. These creatures can run at warp speed on their hind legs. Isn’t he handsome, absorbing the warmth of the rock while surveying his kingdom?
The views of his kingdom aren’t too shabby, either.
And, his atmosphere is as dynamic as is he.
We stopped at the brewery and stumbled on why so many places were booked the night before—a sizable conclave of the Hogs and Heifers motorcycle club that was great for people watching over my IPA. Dinner at a fresh and local cafe with great wines by the glass and literally next door to the Touchstone Inn. The next day we hiked some four hours the Devisadero Loop trail in the mountains east of Taos. Devisadero refers to lookout, and it was a site the Taos Pueblo Indians used for advanced warning of impending raids by other marauding tribes. Nice views of the Pueblo below. And of course, we had to peruse the galleries and shops that are part of the charm of Taos.
Well, okay, one always has time for sunsets and sunrises.
Then time to carry on farther westward, heading to Escalante, UT, for a rendezvous with middle daughter, Paisley who was conducting yoga workshops at the Boulder Mountain Lodge in proximal Boulder, Utah. This is the Four Corners region of the U.S., slick rock country with topography and colors unlike any place on earth.
And the scenery from the air was matched by the splendors down on the ground. You fancy Anasazi cliff dwellings alongside a bubbling stream nurturing cottonwood shade?
How about industrious bees and still additional raucous color?
And late in the day, the glow of low light and deep shadows. As I am prone to say…”it’s always about the light.” The fantasy shapes and swirls of the land don’t hurt, either.
Following a gourmet dinner at the Hells Backbone Grill (named for a narrow twisting highway atop a ridge spine leading to Boulder from Escalante) it was time to call it a day. But this is dark sky country, as well, a perfect opportunity for a celestial Time-Lapse, devolving into sunrise, and using the large pond right below our room as worthy foreground for the sequence. Dawn alarm clock? Provided by the ducks and geese.
And then back the 28 miles to the Escalante (1L7) strip, where N111TT was the only airplane on the ramp. Grateful hugs for Paisley being who she is, with thanks for sharing this locale with us, before the southwest flight home on our final day of aviating. First, a stop for fuel in Kanab, UT, just above the Arizona border. Another place I’d never before been, but the maneuvering past a raised plateau just off the north end of KKNB’s runway 19 reminded me of the dance flying the 747 into Hong Kong’s old Kai Tak airport. No checkerboard on the hill, but still, the same bank shot for the runway. Yes, I’m turning base leg to final, and dropping rapidly down between those scalloped ridges on both sides of the airplane.
After fueling up it was nonstop to Montgomery Field, including the opportunity for a look at one more icon of the Four Corners region, the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River.
Random reflections. Our country is vast, and the scenery is stunning. If you are feeling put-upon by urban or suburban pressures, let the sights and people of Middle Earth refresh you. There was tremendous variety in what we saw and did, and each day seemed like the best one so far. Our Cirrus time machine provided a means of accomplishing things not otherwise so easily achieved, not to mention doubling as a splendid vantage point for gawking at the earth slipping by, below. Oh, and Texans are fond of saying “y’all,” the plural of which is “all y’all.”
Thanks for letting me carry on with this all y’all. T
Posted on May 27, 2014
For eight of the past nine years, our Solana Beach Presbyterian church has done a mission trip, building homes for struggling families across the border in northern Baja California. Known within our church as Come Build Hope, and accomplished in concert with Amor Ministries, which provides the logistical support and building materials, it is always done over Memorial Day weekend. This year was Cathy’s and my second wade-in, and Solana Presbyterian fielded 315 of us from throughout San Diego County and as far away as Colorado to construct 15 homes. Our building subgroup numbered 19, I think—three women, seven adult men, seven male teens/young adults, and two elementary school boys. The two-room home we were slated to build for Maria Guadalupe (Lupita), her husband Ezequiel, and her brother Jaime, rose up on the back of a tiny lot they owned in the hills overlooking Rosarito Beach, located in the Libertador (Liberator) neighborhood at the dirt street intersection of Armageddon and The Savior. You can’t make this stuff up.
Amor Ministries, headquartered in San Diego, works with Mexican churches and community groups throughout the border region to identify and vet families in need of assistance. As one of many examples of Christian outreach our church enacts worldwide, Solana Beach Presbyterian signs on to provide X worker bees like us to give our time, funds and energy to turning simple plans and a pile of two-by-fours, plywood, wire, paper, windows and stucco into two-room homes the recipient families can call their own.
On Friday, we met at the church and were bussed to a dusty open field campsite just east of the toll road from Tijuana to Ensenada. In a logistical tour de force an Army brigade could be proud of, our names were on a list informing which of the hundreds of already erected tents would be our sleeping quarters, our bags and personal tool kits were stacked on a ground cover between our subgroup’s tents, surrounding a pile of firewood, a shovel to dig a fire pit, and folding chairs we could use to encircle the fire after a great Mexican food dinner. Fellowship time. Time to learn about the old friends and strangers with whom we would spend the next two days living out what we see as fulfillment of God’s plan for truly loving thy neighbor. Enjoy this quiet time of sharing and contemplation, because tomorrow morning we all hit the ground running. The Amor rooster assures a predawn wake up, so that you’ve time to make your brown paper bag lunch, eat breakfast, and board the busses for your 8 AM transport to the job site.
We began with toting our tools off the bus that drove us up into the hills of the colonia, setting up the water jugs, and then gathering for a prayer and a giving of thanks for the bounty in our lives. Our foreman, Dan Salzman, a church and airplane friend of mine (Inspector of Aircraft for the mechanics at High Performance Aircraft), quickly determined that the concrete pad Amor had pre-poured on site was a true rectangle vs. a parallelogram and relatively level. Then he asked the family where they wanted the two windows and front door of their home. That accomplished, he and the assistant foreman, Kent, an architect and builder, split us into two subgroups to start building the front and rear walls, and building the side and interior walls, which are sloped to give the flat roof the necessary angle to achieve runoff in a rain. Our pile of two-by-fours were in 8′ and 12′ lengths, and each group foreman got us separating the lumber and headed to our two hammer and nail spots—on the dirt of El Salvador out front, and my group forming the front and rear walls on the slab, itself.
Meanwhile, Sergio—an Oceanside resident originally from Monterrey, Mexico, and our nominal interpreter, with liltingly accented English on a par with Ricardo Montalban—got his two sons, Sergio Jr. and Samuel started in shoveling the gritty sand pile through a wire strainer. That assured the stucco mud we’d be applying next day would be pebble-free. Embracing the sweat-equity concept, they were quickly joined by Ezequiel and his wife, Lupita.
Let me share a brief bio of our family—Ezequiel and Lupita, and Lupita’s brother Jaime, currently living in the tiny cottage you see on the left, above. Ezequiel is a packer and the breadwinner with his $62/week income, and Lupita takes care of the house, and cares for Jaime, who is developing dementia. Both she and her brother have diabetes. The home we were to build was to give them a bit more room for their unique family dynamic. Things to note in the picture, above—nothing is wasted. If they happen to come upon some societal detritus, like a washer/dryer, they carefully husband it, even if there is no running water or sewer in the colonia. And all three of them were immaculate in their dress, pants ironed to a stiff crease, shoes polished, the whole bit. No one in their neighborhood is buying pre-distressed jeans, I can assure you.
Dan, on the left edge, and Jordan and John measuring and hammering. I had bought a nifty short crosscut saw at Home Depot, and was routinely called into measure and cut duty to produce the proper lengths of studs and cross braces. Then we worked in small groups of two and three hammering together the two-by-fours, and constantly remeasuring the framed wall, corner to corner, to assure us that it was staying square.
Meanwhile, Kent’s group of Paul and his son Joshua were well into building the three sloped walls out on the street, with Deborah looking on. Paul is a retired Navy P3 pilot from Coronado, and Josh is a student at Texas A&M. Deborah happened to find out about Come Build Hope when she came to Easter Service at our church. She brought along her son, Connor (backwards ball cap) and his friend Cameron, both hard-working sixteen year-olds.
Taking a drink break I wondered what Paul was doing, sawing his studs on edge like this. He marked the top of each vertical stud with the angle of the roof slope so that the top plate, and eventually the roofing plywood would sit snugly. We had no sawhorses or miter boxes. For safety and because of the lack of adequate power, no power tools, either, except Dan’s battery hand drill, used for the door hinges and handle. Paul is using the tool box provided by Amor as his support, the other end of the wood supported by the growing walls in the image above.
Dan and Kent kept us all cracking, augmented by personal initiative when one could see a job that needed to be done. Various activities were being done simultaneously all over our tiny site, and using whatever we could find to get the job done. Dan and Sergio set up the front door just off the street, and measured and marked the placement of the hinges. Then Dan headed off to continue assisting the rest of us while Sergio chiseled the recesses for the hinges on the door frame that will eventually be hammered in place.
Then those walls get hoisted into place, to be nailed together and strapped down with the steel connectors that had been installed in the slab when it was poured. Amazingly, no blue fingernails at the end of our project, but lots of tired hands, stiff backs, and aching hamstrings.
The roof was added in the afternoon of the first day, with sheets of plywood nailed securely to the tops of the walls. The crew was reminded of the importance of watching where they placed their bodies before everything was nailed in place, and also to be very deliberate about laying down any hammers, as others of us were working directly below them. On Saturday morning, the roofing material was applied, and the seams and roofing nails all sealed with caulking. Then the roofing material was rolled over the edge and additionally secured with end strips. Kent, Joshua, Paul and Jordan (a music production student at Southwestern College) left to right. Jordan’s shirt pretty much conveying the spirit of the weekend.
Paul, hammering in the end strips. Note the view, above, not that we ever took the time to drink it in.
Lupita, having borrowed Cathy’s hammer, is securing bailing wire that encircles the framed house about every six inches vertically. I think that’s Tomas’ hand holding up the wire before Lupita nails it in place. By pulling the wire up on one stud, and down on the next, then nailing it taut in that zigzag, a great deal of tension is placed on the structure to give it rigidity. The wires all sounded about C sharp when strummed. This is also an essential step for getting the tar paper to lay snugly flat against the walls for when the stucco would be shortly added.
Urgently working to stay on pace, Tomás and Misael, high school students from the Hispanic population of our church, were spreading the lower layer of tarpaper, while on the upper reaches of the back wall, the last of the bailing wire was still being made tight. Now, you need to understand how this was no simple task, given the confines of the site. You can see how close is the block wall belonging to the home next door behind the lads. There was only enough room for the one-at-a-time shoulders of a single person on three sides of the house, and room for about two people on the remaining, front side. This lack of maneuvering room had us constantly adjusting and wriggling sideways past one another. Teamwork.
Cameron, Tomás and Connor trying to find a way to use our two ladders to wriggle up and attach the top layer of tarpaper, while simultaneously notching the paper to fit snugly around each roof joist as it stuck out from the walls for the roof overhang. The property line “fence” on the right is actually equipment crates, laid on end and barely held by a couple of flimsy stakes from falling over into the neighboring yard some eight feet below.
Next comes the chicken wire, which is the substrate upon which the cement/stucco “mud” will be applied. The chicken wire is strung in one continuous roll around first the bottom, then secondly around the top. Here, Sergio, who always got the stretch jobs because of his body height, and Dan are hanging the wire from nails in the wall’s top plate, and Glen, who came as reinforcement from another, less minuscule job site with more workers, and thus more rapid progress, is holding up the unwieldy column of wire, while Kent is working on the door frame. Glen is a high-schooler who selflessly gives to others—he’s been on multiple Come Build Hope builds, and has accompanied our SBPC team four times to work with the Afar people in Ethiopia. Once the chicken wire is nailed along its periphery, it is stretched with small hand lengths of PVC pipe over nails seemingly too far to reach, and then another, unique one-turn corkscrew device tightens it even further by grasping it and securing it on itself, eliminating any vestiges of slack.
Windows and doors create special challenges for installation of the bailing wire, tarpaper, and chicken wire. The window has to fit snugly in place, and the interface must include waterproofing with the paper, and eventually with the mud. Here, Dan is securing the chicken wire along the lower edge of the window, while Cameron is using the PVC “tool” to stretch the wire heading toward the nearby corner of the wall.
Now, in the afternoon of our last day, it’s time to start mixing the mud, using cement, and the sand that Sergio Jr. and Samuel had filtered through wire mesh the morning before. Everyone has a job, and every job is necessary to arrive at the finished product. Here, Kent, Cameron, John, and another young lad from Glen’s site are mixing in the water to get the correct consistency—not unlike oatmeal going a bit stiff.
Have you ever wondered about the term “hod carrier?” Cathy, scurrying along with a heavy hod of mud to be applied along the back and east side walls by the high schoolers, and Lupita and Jaime. Sergio nailing in place the top portion of the doorjamb, which I had just finished sawing to the precise dimension needed. Incidentally, Amor has this construction stuff really fine-tuned. There are enough materials if the foremen assure our being careful. We finished with “excess” of half a loop of bailing wire, a partial roll of chicken wire, a single wheel-barrow of two-by-four scraps, a half a bag each of the three nail types we used, and no extra tarpaper or roofing material. This did not resemble a government cost + contract.
Back inside, Deborah is mounting window curtains hand-made by women in our church…
…while outside on the west wall, Jay, another retired Navy pilot from Coronado who joined our team, along with Paul (seen on the very bottom of this image), Joshua, Jordan and Kent, all as outreach from their church across the bay, is busy layering on the mud. What motivates people to pay for the privilege of crossing borders, sleeping on the ground, exhausting themselves and generating aches and pains in muscle groups they didn’t even know they possess, to give up their holiday weekend and create a living space for people they hadn’t met until arriving on site? For all of us there’s the belief that we’ve been gifted greatly, and we feel it’s incumbent upon us to follow the Lord’s motto of giving unto others as we’ve been given to. Of course, there’s the undeniable fact that this sort of mission gives back to us considerably more than we give out, and then at the end, when it’s all coming together that is made manifest in the joyful and loving gratitude of our home family.
Lupita is holding a bible, in Spanish, signed by each of us, and given to her along with a group photo taken on our first morning.
Dan’s wife, Holly, our group physician, and spiritual spark plug, sharing a prayer of closure, reflecting on the John 15:13 verse that was our byline for our Come Build Hope exercise. (“For greater love hath no man, than to lay down his life for his friends.” A doubly fitting mission motivation, given that this was Memorial Day weekend.) Sergio is dutifully translating Holly’s words into Spanish. Lupita and her brother, Jaime, are holding housewarming gifts, also hand-made by women of our church.
We pulled together our tools and stiff bodies, signed the wall stud nearest the front doorjamb, and wished them Amor, Paz, y Familia, trudged out to our waiting bus, and turned to look back on the finished project. Two rooms, two windows, a lockable front door. Secure protection from the elements. And much more that words don’t convey.
Posted on April 17, 2014
Cathy conjured up the idea of Spring in our nation’s capital, with a side trip to visit Aunt Tilda in Williamsburg. Plans laid on, including a visit, at last, to the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy expansion to the Air and Space Museum for me, a pilot’s pilgrimage to Mecca. Unfortunately, as we sat in the boarding area awaiting our flight, cancellations on other departures filled our plane to the exclusion of mere Space Available retirees like the three of us. Well, house/Sawyer sitters had been arranged, and ol’ What’s Her Name had time off from her SDSU class demands, so couldn’t we please find somewhere else to go? A day later we were set for a visit to Granada, Nicaragua, and surrounding regions. When it comes to travel pangs, you have to be light on your feet around Cathy.
Granada, population on the order of 120,000, is a Spanish colonial city dating from 1524, on Lake Nicaragua, about 45 minutes south of Managua by car. That we could actually find space on United airplanes to and from Nicaragua was both something of a miracle, and should have been a heads-up clue as to the climate in April—the end of the dry season, and just plain hot and clear-skied day in and day out. Dawn temperatures were all the way down to the upper 70s, with mid afternoon routinely hitting the upper 90s. But this was dry heat with regular breezes, shade that could be sought out, ceiling fans, not to mention cold libations. Glad we didn’t know in advance, because the trip was just dandy once we got there.
We’d found a VRBO house, a short walk from the town’s central park. A plus on this rental was Julio, the Chicago owner’s local agent, who was keen to provide us transportation, and tourist help from his indigenous perspective. His assistance included picking us up at the Managua airport at our 9:30 PM arrival. This relationship provided our first glimpse of the warmth of the Nicaraguan people, right from the get-go. As we reached the Immigration officer’s desk for admission to the country, we nearly foundered on a modest detail we’d not covered—the address of the Dos Palmas rental home in Granada. This entirely stopped that immigration line, with me discussing in my best Spanish our plans, propmting the Nicaraguan officer to call over an assistant to take me outside and find Julio awaiting us curb-side with a hand lettered “Close, Caty” sign. That’s the only way I knew who Julio was, and he and the assistant quickly covered the details, after which the latter took me back through the labyrinth of the airport’s inner corridors to the immigration officer patiently waiting for us. Smiles and thank-yous all around, and the passports were stamped and we were welcomed to Nicaragua. Throughout our stay, the populace again and again demonstrated their friendly, patient, and industrious ways.
Speaking of industriousness, wherever you looked people were making a living in ways as old as the ascendancy of humans over beasts of burden. And when beasts aren’t in the cards, there’s always the bicycle or feet.
The streets abound with vendors like the lady above, walking the neighborhoods from early morning to early evening, calling out their wares…”Pan,” or “Fruitas,” perhaps—”Bread” or “Fruit.”
Presumably this will not be a last minute news flash for those of you who know me, but Tom, is always gaga over color. And Latin America and I have held a long-requited love affair over colors. Granada is very much the rule, not the exception. Yum.
What sounded hokey when Julio mentioned it, turned out to be a real treat for exploring the byways of Granada. We began with a visit to a local church, and a climb to its bell tower to take in the 360º vista, followed by a multiple hours’ carriage ride. Even the horses were colorful.
As were other forms of transportation…
With a latitude of 12º north, volcanic soil and rain (except when we were there), tropical fruits are abundant. The industrious fruit vendors sell delicious fruits and delights for the eyes.
As you might guess, the people are as colorful as their communities. In multiple locales we saw young people energetically whirling in costume to the beat of raucous drumming. Exercise and income for them, entertainment for us. This scene is along Avenida Guzman, if I recall correctly—a couple of blocks of which are dedicated to outside dining and pedestrians only, a happening place at the dinner hour. The figure in the distance would appear to be a ten-foot tall woman with whirling skirts, but the effect is produced with a dress-draped mannequin of sorts, “stretched” vertically with a frame, held up by a youngster underneath, who feverishly spins the contraption. In the foreground it is a tiny elementary school-age kid ensconced in what must have been a large papier maché mask, spinning so fast as to literally blur before the eye. Can you guess how hot it must have been in these props, not to mention the dizziness of it all? You can bet that these folks have never heard of minimum wage, OSHA, or child labor laws.
Late one afternoon while visiting artisans in one of the Pueblos Blancos, or White Villages, I stepped out to sit in the breeze, to be treated to this street parade. Nicaragua is a deeply Catholic country, and we were there during the Lenten season, just ahead of the beginning of Semana Santa, or Holy Week. Neighborhoods all over had versions of this, a statue of a colorful, bloodied Christ carrying the cross to his crucifixion. Local priests would preach on something biblical, and then the group would begin marching forward to band accompaniment.
In a modestly similar vein, we encountered this large group pilgrimage along the road from Granada to San Juan del Sur, a beach community on the Pacific near the border with Costa Rica. We were told that the entire group proceeded hundreds? of kilometers, one day at a time, taking their animals and camps with them. Lest the caption be too esoteric, RAGBRAI refers to the (Des Moines) Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa, a weeklong block party by bike. There are literally hundreds of travelers with their livestock in this large open field.
Herewith, images generally describable as local color shots, figuratively, although literally, in the bargain.
During our carriage ride we proceeded to the original Granada train station, now a museum of sorts, from whence came the first picture in this post. Clopping along the street, this young lad ran alongside just because he could. What a grin.
Now, as I say, the days were downright hot, and the relative cooling of evenings made being outside a family affair all along the streets of Granada. The sun having just set, twilight coming on, this family was relaxing across the street from what became our favorite watering hole, the bar at the Hotel Corazon, a couple of blocks from our local digs. “Un foto de su familia con la puesta del sol, y luz hermosa?” “Claro que sí.” Street photographer daughter, Torrey, is much more surreptitious than my “go direct” approach. Different strokes for different folks.
The large cathedral adjoining Granada’s central park.
Below, the view from the bell tower above, and from whence we began our carriage ride around town. The cathedral is a couple of blocks away, and Lake Nicaragua is visible above the rooftops in the distance.
Perhaps you are aware that Central America is Exhibit Number One to Plate Tectonics? If it wasn’t for the crunching of plates and its coincident volcanism, shippers wouldn’t need the Panama Canal. It would be ocean from Mexico to South America. This plays out with numerous volcanos, active and dormant throughout Nicaragua. There’s a Volcanos National Park just outside of Granada, close enough for an easy day trip. The museum headquarters is very nicely put together, including this nifty diorama that more or less tells it like it is.
That’s a painting on the wall, with a view looking west toward the Pacific, and a clay topographic map in the foreground. Check out all the white cotton plumes emanating from the model’s volcanos. In case you need a more upfront example of this, there’s always the park’s Masaya Volcano.
Julio drove us up to the volcano, and you can look right into its sulfurous maw, and get a whiff of magma halitosis. It was a bit of a photographic letdown because you are effectively in the plume while standing there at the edge of the active part of Vulcan Masaya, known as Santiago vent. So I elected to hike up the face of the adjoining volcano, which is currently dormant, for the perspective above. You can see the rim of the dormant portion of the volcano in the foreground, with Santiago’s plume emanating from its own caldera in the distance. Cathy, Torrey, and Julio indulged me on this longish hike to heed the creative muse in me—a steep and slippery climb of some duration.
Some craters collapse and form lovely lakes, such as Apoyo, above. Not missing an opportunity when they see it, the Nicaraguans have developed lovely small spas and resorts along the edge of the lake. The water is warm, and the cerveza is cold. Below, Cathy and Torrey making their way to the cantina, where we treated ourselves to lunch and libations, followed by refreshing inner tube floating in the waters.
We ended our carriage ride through Granada at a modest dock at Lake Nicaragua, where we boarded a panga, or small boat, to visit a labyrinth of tropical isletas, a cross between something from Pirates of the Caribbean, Jurassic Park, and Century 21 real estate. Homes on some, including a few rather sumptuous examples, but lots of growth and wildlife in the bargain. This would include Monkey Island, where our boatman, over time has befriended one particular monkey he calls Lucy, gaining her acceptance while he feeds her penchant for tomatoes. As we drew nigh, she swung from an overhanging branch and gave the boatman an affectionate hug before scampering over Cathy’s shoulder on her way to the bow to hang out and consume her treat.
Now I shall move on to the shameless fruits of Gringo tourism. On our first morning in town, we took the advice of the owner of Dos Palmas and walked to Kathy’s Waffle Shop near the town’s central park. Much as I like waffles, we chose a typical Nicaraguan breakfast of juevos revueltos y gallopinto—scrambled eggs and a mixture of black beans, rice and spices common in this part of Central America. Fresh orange juice and a wonderful whole grain toast. Fried plantains, in the bargain, another Nicaraguan staple. Good to go for the next several hours.
Our proximity to the bar at the nearby Hotel Corazon made us early evening “Cheers” regulars, night after night, and we struck up a marvelous camaraderie with barman José Luis, hand crafting the most delicious margaritas. No mixes—tequila, cointreau, and fresh limes, which he’d literally go pull off the tree when you ordered your drink, and slice and squeeze while fielding our Pavlovian salivating banter delivered with our best quasi effective Spanish.
We felt we ought to at least explore someplace farther afield than Granada, and eventually decided on San Juan del Sur, on the Pacific near the border with Nicaragua. Cathy was researching an eco resort out in the toolies, when I put my foot down for a short dose of full decadence. We selected the Pelican Eyes resort, far and above the fanciest place in the region.
The sunset view from our casita wasn’t too shabby, either. It’s a small natural harbor buttressed on both sides with headlands— on the right, a large Christ statue reminiscent of our time in San Sebastián, Spain.
Mention of Nicaragua’s dark history is inescapable. I profess no expertise on this subject, but given the vibe with the people in these days of quiescence, I wonder if they haven’t been saddled with excess from both sides of the political spectrum. Our own country has had its fair share of interference in Nicaragua’s affairs, including U.S. Marines (long before Ollie North), endeavoring to put down a revolt against their presence in-country led by Augusto Sandino, whom our country referred to as a bandit, and who Julio likened to a Robin Hood. Sandino waged a guerrilla war against the Marines, who eventually left Nicaragua, probably a response to the fiscal realities of the Great Depression. Before they left, the Marines oversaw the installation of Juan Sacasa, and, in 1934, Sandino was assassinated by forces under General Anastasio Somoza, who later took dictatorial power in a coup, and then elected as president in 1936. That was the extreme right government of Nicaragua until being overthrown by Marxist-Leninist Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front in 1979. A dictator on the right replaced by one on the left. Ortega retained power until 1990. Since then he tried in 1996 and 2001 to return to power until successfully being reelected president of Nicaragua again in 2006. Make of all this what you will, Marine colonel Ollie North, overseeing the secret sale of arms to Iran, and using the funds to support anti-Sandinista contras in Nicaragua. Ortega, alleged to have sexually abused his adopted stepdaughter, evidencing favor of, and receiving succor from Iran’s Ahmadinejad, and Venezuela’s Chavez, and seeking to gain approval from Nicaragua’s judiciary to exceed current constitutional limits to terms in office.
Julio thought we might find a visit to the hilltop fortaleza (fortress) not far outside Granada informative as to the recent political history of the country, and he was correct. This edifice has existed as a fortress, prison, and of late, a country home of the Boy Scouts. Go figure. This is the look as you climb the hill to the fortress, or prison site.
If you were a guard, this might be a common view.
And if you were picked up by whoever was in power from the right or the left, this is about where you confront Virgil’s admonition to “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
And, then, they close the doors on you.
To give you a little idea of just how grim things could be for prisoners, this is a barred-off window, dimensionally about three feet by three feet, maybe nine feet above the floor of a cell for dozens of prisoners. As it turns out, in some cases, the jailers installed three prisoners in the window cube, and closed off the outside.
It gets even worse, like the excrement cell. Use your imagination. And the prison had three levels below ground, so the bottom two levels had no light whatsoever. Large numbers of internees were never seen again. Dead or alive, their bodies were tossed into handy active volcanos. Man’s inhumanity to man. Give praise to our own relative political stability, and take none of your freedoms for granted. Evil exists, and we humans have plenty of history to prove it.
Last glimpses. Scattered throughout the towns and highways are billboards like this.
And a favorite glimpse of Nicaragua for me.
Bags dropped with the desk staff of Pelican Eyes Resort, Cathy and I hiked down to the beach and decided on lunch at beachfront el Timón. While waiting on our meal, and savoring a Nicaraguan Toña cerveza, the occasional hawker would meander by to offer up their wares—hand wrought bracelets, pottery, knock-off sunglasses, and such. And then this tiny fellow, who could only just barely reach our table top, pushed up his chicle supply. I told him I’d buy a pack of gum, but that he should keep it and resell it to the next chew-needful Gringo. He shyly accepted my offer, and slipped off to other sales opportunities. Take that Daniel Ortega, Anastasio Somoza, and whoever else would hold down, or corruptly prey on these fine people in their volcanic land.
Posted on March 29, 2014
Not much to say, perhaps better to let the images speak for themselves. Some storms, some sun. And Spring flowers. Elements of life.
A time-lapse sequence. Dvorak, adagio movement, Symphony from the New World.
Posted on March 4, 2014
My mom, Rea Close, was born on March 4, 1905 in, or near Chappell, Nebraska. I say near, because my grandparents had a farm. Grandpa was also a banker, so they may well have had a house in town. In either case, it is a very small place, (2012 population 943; 13 square blocks) in the SW corner of the state, located between the Platte rivers. I suspect birth, itself, might have been anywhere, including Sidney, the nearest larger town. When she was five, my grandparents relocated to rural Fallbrook, California in the northeast of San Diego County. My mom went on to blaze a trail for today’s achievement-oriented women, graduating from Cal Berkeley and then maintaining both a career in teaching business courses and raising a family.
Last evening, the 3rd, there was a rather nice sunset, which I was able to capture in both stills and time-lapse. I started work on creating the T-L movie after supper, but was tired enough from flying over two days, that I cashed in my chips so as to resume work today. For whatever reason at some point in the middle of the night it came to me that today is mom’s birthday. She lived 95 very full years, before passing on ‘yonder, and I still miss her, revere her, and love all that she was and did for my siblings and me.
So today, I’m giving mom a present of some of last evening’s sunset and the time-lapse. I hope you enjoy it as much as I know she does.
I’m not sure that the setting crescent new moon shows up at this resolution. It peeked in and out of the upper buttermilk sky clouds as both of them moved relative to one another. Hide and seek.
And here’s the time-lapse, composed of three separate consecutive sequences, threaded together. Happy Birthday, mom. Love, Tommy
Posted on February 24, 2014