Western States Flying
by T. Dietz
Flight Leg 1
Metal in the oil filter. Not good. I’d been having increasing amount of various types of it depositing on my plane’s oil filter over the last year and it finally got close to the
manufacturer’s limit and certainly mine. Time for a major engine overhaul. A lot went into the decision to have the overhaul performed at a facility in western Colorado versus closer to home and I was excited to make the journey. The flight plan had as its primary goal to maximize the safety margin with my metal producing engine. That entailed staying within gliding distance as much as possible to general aviation airports and near or over the major highways I-80 and I-70. Launching into a very dark predawn morning, the route had me arcing north eastward toward the Great Salt Lake and then heading south and east to Montrose, Colorado.
Taking off in the early morning darkness immediately puts you in a unique environment where a combination of your normal flying and visual skills need complimenting by significant reference to the plane’s instruments. The isolation of the cockpit environment in a darkened sky is all encompassing. With the glowing cockpit lights turned up only producing a warm glow and the muted portable GPS units adding marginally to the light, I was in a world entirely of my own. I would have good radar coverage over most of my almost 1,000-mile flight so I contacted air traffic control (ATC) for Flight Following. After speaking with ATC to get a unique transponder code, the cockpit drew quiet once again as the wee hours did not invite a lot of traffic in my first couple of radar sectors.
My climb into the dark sky was quickly highlighted by the glow of fires to the distant north in Lake County, CA. In the utter darkness the distant fires had a menacing feel. That feeling didn’t last long though as another one took over. I was getting cold and added heat to the cockpit (outside air temp was 37F). About 90 minutes into the flight the slowly increasing dawn light took the curtain up on the terrain over 2 miles below me. As I winged my way north of Reno the dawn continued to hasten and brought the world below me to life as well as more regular communications chatter on my ATC frequency.
Although airworthy, the reason for this flight was the plane’s engine overhaul. I kept a close eye on the gauges and especially the digital engine monitor while feeling like a solo explorer as I looked down at the alien-like landscapes of our planet. From my vantage point there were small outposts of human habitation in spots that resembled otherworldly self-sufficient colonies. I made notes, took photos, and was on another adventure.
The landscapes below me were fascinating and varied with so much desolate geographic diversity. As I motored over the land at about 160mph, I notified ATC that I was making a fuel stop in Wendover, UT. The airport in Wendover, KENV, was planned not only for its timing re my fuel requirements but because in a previous life it was an Airforce field and hangered the Enola Gay B-29 bomber that played such a pivotal role in ending WWII and that I had visited a few years ago at the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum annex at Dulles Airport in Washington, DC.
Approaching KENV from the west about 20 miles out, the smoke from a nearby forest fire became so thick below me that I decided to divert to my alternate fuel stop Bolinder Field-Tooele Valley (KTVY), approximately 25miles southwest of Salt Lake City. On to KTVY brought me over the Bonneville Salt Flats in the Great Salt Lake Desert and then into the Great Salt Lake basin just north of the field. It was still early in the morning, about 4 hours since I launched, and already 100F outside.
At KTVY I met an overly enthusiast group of skydivers gearing up to jump out of a perfectly good airplane and helped a woman fuel her plane who subsequently did the same for me. My only notable mistake of the flight was leaving my credit card at the self-serve gas pump and only realizing it when I had already taxied to the departure end of the runway. Humbled, I motored back to the pumps in
front of a smiling sky dive crew to retrieve my card. Departing KTVY with my credit card secured, I headed south to the only real turbulence of the flight as I climbed and passed through the gap between Victory and Flat Top mountains on my way to pick up I-70 eastbound. Heading to the south of The Great Salt Lake area there would be gaps in ATC radar-coverage so I filed a flight plan to my final destination of Montrose.
Large cumulus clouds were building and some further maturing into thunderstorms. Having studied the weather patterns for the locations of the cumulus build ups when I laid out my flight path, I was pleased to see that my route was at safe distances to the growing atmospheric instability. I-70, like most highways are laid in valleys that tend to avoid the weather disturbances around mountains. 2 hours after I landed in Montrose, predicted overcast skies and thunderstorms moved in there as well. All in the flight took about six and half hours.
I buttoned up the plane for the night, walked to the local motel and found myself some chow. In the morning after dropping the plane off for the overhaul I caught a commuter flight to Denver and then onwards to San Francisco.
I had passed over incredible landscapes, breathtakingly large escarpments in Nevada and Utah, red rock canyons and sandstone bluffs (home to many hundreds of millions of year old fossils), salt flats, and historically interesting sites like the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation in UT, home of the Ute Indian Tribe and established in 1861 by President Lincoln. I was ready for more new vistas but that would have to wait for the return flight home.
Flight Leg 2
Two months later I was back on a commercial flight to Montrose via Denver to bring my newly overhauled flying SUV home. This time I had planned the flight to the south and west to see Bryce and Grand Canyons. After some test flights I took half a day to drive to Telluride to see the Fall yellow and green colors emerging on the Aspen trees.
Up relatively early I pre-flighted the plane and launched again in the just pre-dawn hours having carefully planned my climb and route of departure around the mountainous and unfamiliar terrain. My focus had to be not only on the climb out but on the temperatures of the newly installed cylinders. Temperature management was important to maintain the proper levels during the critical break-in period. Until the break-in period was over (likely 20-25 hours of flying), I would need to keep fuel flows up, cowl flaps open and the nose closer to the horizon than I would have liked especially on climbs in heavy mountainous terrain.
For departure, I circled to altitude in the Montrose valley until I had enough safety margin to comfortably clear the escarpment west of the airport. By that time, the sun was coming up behind me and I got a great view of three prominent mountain peaks in the La Sal range, Mt. Waas (12,331 ft), Mt. Peal (12,721 ft), and South Mountain (11,817 ft), while flying over the Uncompahgre Plateau which rises out of the Colorado River to 9,500 feet. These peaks on the Colorado-Utah boarder lie just east of Moab and Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.
From the Uncompahgre Plateau and at 12,500 feet I flew to the upper reaches of the Colorado River just north of Lake Powell. With the Henry Mountains on my right, I crossed over Capital Reef National Park and over the Escalonte Mountains heading to my first fuel stop and oil check at Bryce Canyon airport (KBCE, 7,589 ft) in southwestern Utah. I had always wanted to see Bryce Canyon and what a view flying over it. As you cross over the ridgeline from the National Park, the “Barn or log hangar” comes into view with “Bryce Canyon Airport” painted in large white letters on the roof. I made my way into the traffic pattern being conscience of several helicopters arriving and departing.
A modern facility with a great taxidermy display sits next door to the Barn and after shut-down I was kindly greeted by the line attendant who I had fuel the plane for my next leg while I checked and then adjusted the oil level. The Barn was built in 1936 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Bryce Canyon National Park is home to the largest concentration of hoodoos (thin spires of rock) on earth. Flying over the area was highlighted by the uniformity of colorful bands that run horizontally across the hoodoos and the “streams” of green forest running through hoodoo fields.
With topped off fuel tanks, I launched into the morning again and towards the Grand Canyon. About an hour out of Bryce, while in a visual coma, a piercing alarm sounded concurrently with an abrupt attitude pitch up. Instantly wrestling the yoke forward against the autopilot resulted in strained by level flight. I thought very briefly about pulling the power but then wisely thumbed the autopilot disengage switch.
The pressure relief was instant and I quickly readjusted the trim manually and pulled the autopilot circuit breaker which alleviated the alarm. Settling into hand flying I focused on what was likely not an issue, my newly overhauled engine. Everything looked nominal. I then had some time to contemplate what just happened.
Figuring I could always pull the circuit breaker again, I went about diagnosing the problem. Working out that I could hold altitude by setting the autopilot to 0 feet up/down climb rather than locking in the altitude hold feature which controls the trim I had a good semblance of my
autopilot back. After passing over the Los Vegas Strip, I headed for a landing at Eastern Sierra Regional Airport near Bishop, CA for fuel. While waiting for the fuel truck who was busy pumping jet A into a helo, I gingerly moved the plane’s elevator through a full range of motion to feel for any restrictions and check the trim tab for security. Nothing unusual. The problem did not reappear for the remainder of the flight, although I did not again engage the altitude hold feature again. Once back at home base I had the mechanics take a look and unfortunately, they could not reproduce the issue to make repairs. After some reading, it could be an overheating sensor. Need to stay diligent on longer flights. Despite the constant vigilance of watching the cylinder head temperatures, adjusting the manifold pressure every 30-45 minutes and dealing with the autopilot and its alarms, I managed to take some pictures of the incredible landscapes I was privileged to fly over.
Departing north out of Bishop, I had Kings Canyon National Park, the John Muir Wilderness and Mammoth Mountain and Lakes on my left. Climb out was a slow affair as I battled 100+F heat and the need to keep my climb shallow to avoid high temperatures on the new cylinders all the while flying into a rising terrain. As I headed up to Mono Lake and approached my planned Sierra crossing through Tioga Pass, the winds and turbulence had me rethink my approach. Climbing for smoother air, I put my oxygen back on and climbed to about 15,000 feet and headed further north to cross at Buckeye Pass. That did the trick. Smooth air and great visibility. When in gliding distance to the flat lands I started a cruise decent on a line that tracked just north of Stockton to San Pablo Bay just south of my destination at Gnoss Field. Thirty minutes out from home base I texted for my ride.
Another almost 1,000 mile journey for the home-bound flight with 2 fuel stops. An absolute fantastic adventure. At one point in the flight I thought it would be nice to have a flying companion along but it passed quickly. A solo adventure with all it entails is very good for the soul.