Chicago to Badlands

‘The air up there in the clouds is very pure and fine, bracing and delicious. And why shouldn’t it be? – it is the same the angels breathe.’ – Mark Twain

I wake up a few minutes before I want to get out of bed. This is pretty typical. I occasionally set an alarm if I need to be up at an extremely unusual hour, but even then usually wake up before the alarm goes off. Not sure how that happened. It certainly wasn’t how I lived my life in my younger days. Days like this it’s particularly easy. It’s dark and threatening to storm, but at some point today we get to launch our trip to Badlands, Glacier and Grand Teton national parks.

The winds are picking up as I do the flight planning. The weather radar is showing a thick band of angry red and purple in the direction of flight. It’s moving fast toward us and should pass in the next couple hours. Beyond are clear skies for at least a few hours of flying. We’ll jump in that window and make the progress we can. That’s a lesson learned from our big trip last year. We sat at home for a day and a half waiting for enough clear air to fly our entire flight plan. Once we gave up on that and decided to simply make whatever progress was possible we got halfway down south and then snuck around the edge of the front the following morning.

Putting together the plan and looking at alternatives I notice the aluminum siding pounding the house like Clubber Lang on a bender, the trees are bent halfway over and then I hear a crash from the side of the house. Poking my head out the backdoor reveals one of our trees on the neighbors garage.

As expected the storm, while quite powerful, passes through quickly and we talk with our neighbor about how to get the garage repaired. Once that’s settled we’re off to the airport to head down the magenta line.

This will be Beth’s first IFR flight and she isn’t excited about it. She has never been a big fan of flying, but has gotten ten times better during the course of the past few years. Still, flying through clouds is a new thing for her.

Everything gets loaded into the plane and we get our clearance to launch. Climbing quickly in the relatively cool air pushing the storm front our plane passes through a thin layer of clouds and we find ourselves in between layers in some smooth as glass air at 5,000 feet. The view is unlimited as we gaze across a sweeping vista of undulating clouds below and a patchy set of puffy clouds above.

Looking west it’s becoming clear we won’t be able to make it to Rapid City, so we consider other options. One that jumps out at us is Sioux Falls, SD. We’ve never been there, but the airport looks to be full service accommodations for standard rate fees. They help us out with a hotel, shuttle and restaurant suggestions. All of which turn out great.

We get up and find that the storm is still coming through. We should be able to go in an hour or two and kill some time in the lobby of Clubhouse Inn. This fairly new hotel is nicely appointed and a lot less expensive than we are used to paying in bigger cities. There are a boatload of Amish (or other plain people) staying there, including a well behaved bunch of adorable children chattering away in what sounded like German.

Finally, the radar tells us what we can see out the window, things are clearing. We dash to the airport and get there before things get busy. We’re the only plane on the line trying to get out when we arrive. The linemen get us setup and we launch for Rapid City.

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Aerobatics Flight at Gauntlet Warbirds.

‘Flying and alcohol can go well together, you just have to put them in the right order.’ – Unkown

Two Days Earlier: Excited.

One Day Earlier: Excited and telling everyone on Facebook about my excitement.

Today: Up early and ready to go.

For the past three years I’ve been taught to make sure to “keep the oily side down”. Both for the sake of the airplane and the passengers this is generally great advice. Luckily, I get to ignore it today.

Today I’m heading over to Gauntlet Warbirds to take my first aerobatics lesson. In every lesson prior to today my CFI would grade me down if I were to turn past 60 degrees. This time I’m gonna get scolded if I refuse to go past that number.

An hour before the aerobatics flight I leave for the airport to prep our airplane and fly to the destination for the lesson. It’s a beautiful day. Temps are cool, sky has just a few clouds. It’s a beautiful day to fly any flight.

Pulling through the security gate, opening the hanger and doing the pre-flight I’m getting happier and happier. Any day to fly is a good one and I’ve stretched this one a little by flying to the lesson airport. It’s literally a 10 minute flight, would probably take less time to drive but where is the fun in that.

I take off to the north and turn southwest. Just a few moments later I see my destination and request a frequency change so I can start coordinating my approach with the folks in the tower.

Then things get interesting.

Inbound it becomes clear the controller isn’t on top of things. She doesn’t know exactly where people are in the pattern and is busy enough that she’s not responding to everyone. She is calling out traffic at the wrong locations and doesn’t respond to my queries at all. One of the warbirds in the pattern unilaterally informs her that he’s going to do a 360 degree turn to allow for spacing and let things settle down a bit. I’m on short final, just moments before touching down before I finally get a confirmation from the tower that I’m clear to land and thus don’t have to go around.

Once I’m passed over to ground things improve quite a bit. This controller is much more experienced and, while also quite busy, has everything under control. He has four of us lined up at the intersection of a runway and, once the opposing traffic lands, releases each of us in sequence to continue to the ramp with a quick “thanks for your patience”.

I taxi passed the rows of airplanes on the ramp and get quick confirmation of where the Gauntlet hanger is located. My plane starts to wonder what’s up as we pull in next to a Decathlon and a T-6 Texan parks on the other side. The pilot of the T-6 jumps out and introduces himself as the instructor for my flight and we compare notes on the mess the controller had made. He turned out to be the plane that did a 360 to allow some clearance.

While he debriefs his previous flight I wander around and take some pictures. The have a couple T6s, two E300s, the Decathlon and an L39 Albatros. The latter is available for a measly $2,200 an hour including the instructor.

After a while we briefed the flight. The plan was to do rolls, loops, cubans and spins. He walked me through each, complete with Top Gun style airplane on a stick. It was, of course, painted the same color as the aircraft we would be flying.

These sessions are a bit like drinking from a fire hose. Lots of material is covered in a short time and the excitement of getting closer to flight time makes it hard to remember everything. They have a pretty well developed system though and I get all the highlights to the point where I’m very comfortable.

Next came getting fitted for a helmet and flight suit. I am literally the biggest person they can fit in the airplane. At 6’2″ I just manage to squeak into the cockpit, so he pretty much just gives me the biggest flight suit in the joint. Finally, we wrap ourselves in parachutes and do a quick lesson on how to escape an airplane in the event of an emergency.

The engine fires up and it’s immediately obvious that this is a higher performance bird than the poor little thing I in which I arrived. It’s also a tail wheel aircraft so we can’t see over the nose. Forward visibility is achieved by driving an S pattern down the ramp and constantly switching back and forth between being able to look out the left side or right side of the S. This is really different for someone like me who has only flown tricycle gear aircraft. I’m sure I’d get used to it, but not being able to see some portion of the taxiway without physically re-orienting the plane was really strange.

At the end of the runway we’re ready to go and I’m happy to hear that there is a different controller in the tower. He gives us approval to take-off and we go full throttle. The difference between this and my Cessna is startling. Between being much lighter and having a much more powerful engine I’m authoritatively pushed back into my seat. Seemingly instantly we’re airborne and climbing at two thousand feet per minute. This climb rate was a particularly stark contrast as Beth and I had just gotten back from the mountains where the fully loaded Cessna struggled to climb more than 300 feet per minute in the thin mountain air.

The Extra has a very small cockpit and a very large piece of acrylic covering it. The combination of those two things means it gets warm quite quickly. We are flying on a comfortable day, but climbing in between the clouds and into the cool air was still fantastic.

We break through the clouds and the controls are passed over to me to get a feel for the plane. This was my first flight in an airplane with a stick control instead of a yoke. That didn’t pose any problem. What really surprised me was how little force the stick required to make the plane move.

In the Cessna one throws the yoke nearly all the way from one side to another in bumpy skies. The extra required only the smallest of moves to make a change in orientation. And the Extra wants to stay where you put it. If you turn into a 30 degree turn, it wants to stay in a 30 degree turn, so the control forces are light and don’t require a lot of maintenance to hold a position.

We first do a roll to the left. My instructor flew it and walked me through what was going on. Then I fly one just like it. For the rest of the flight he talks me through all the maneuvers rather than flying them first.

My favorite was a half cuban eight. Starting in level flight you do 5/8ths of a loop and then do a half roll on the way down before pull the stick back into level flight.

In the case of the actual aerobatics a picture is worth a thousand words. So I leave you with this recording of the flight…

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