Sometimes flying a light plane is like driving a Jeep over a bad mountain road: A bumpy, jarring, tooth-rattling, stomach-churing journey. The sky is not a calm place. It’s full of wind currents, updrafts, down drafts, strange unexpected eddies, and whirlpools. The true texture of the sky, that large jetliners are oblivious to, makes itself known to a thousand-pound two-seat airplane.
But this day the air was like glass. I’ve never felt it so smooth. We sailed through the sky like a canoe gliding over a tranquil pond at dawn. Above our open canopy a patchy layer of grey clouds slid by, below us the incredible New Mexico landscape unfolded–dry canyons, twisting arroyos, yellow rock and red earth. Off in the distance to our right ran a small rain storm, dragging its grey tendrils from cloud to earth; and to the left shafts of sunlight pierced the clouds to illuminate mesa tops and dance off green junipers and piñon pines.
Our destination today: Starvation Peak. Estimated time enroute: 33 minutes. Fuel required for round trip, plus legal reserve: 8.1 gallons. Direct Magnetic Course 298 degrees.
One local legend holds that the Colonial Spanish Militia pursued a band of Indian raiders to the very spot we are flying to, the Natives retreating to the high ground for safety. The cliff walls made a direct assault deadly, so the Spaniards surrounded the peak and waited, besieging the warriors on the top until they starved–to the last man.
Oh. Right. And then there’s another version of the Legend of Starvation Peak. And it’s that hostile Indians chased Spanish settlers up to the top of the peak and held them under siege until the settlers all starved–to the last woman and child.
You hear both stories equally. Most likely, nobody starved at Starvation Peak.
But it’s a beautiful, perfectly round, isolated mesa. One that just begs to be circumnavigated. As the peak grew in our windscreen, the sky got wilder, the shafts of sunlight speeding across the landscape like heavenly searchlights. The patchy clouds grew, becoming an upside down ocean above our heads, waves tossing, turning and twisting. And still, like magic, we flew through a be-stilled atmosphere.
And then we we arrive. I slide the throttle lever downwards, slowing the plane, and pitch the nose up a hair to keep from losing altitude. I’m eye to eye with the flat top of the butte, and I want to keep it that way.
Keeping my wings level I fly in close to the ringing wall of cliffs, the butte on Rio’s side of the plane. When it’s exactly off our right wingtip I begin our turn by gently tipping the yoke to the right. The left aileron rises, and the right drops, deflecting air, pushing the right wing down while the left rises. The interconnected twin rudders point right and the tail slides to the left. We enter a long, shallow, lazy bank as we chase the cliffs.
And around the peak we go.
As we circle, Starvation Peak looks like the base of a giant Oscar trophy, minus the golden man.
The fourth time is the charm. Rio gives me the thumbs up and we turn for home. The storms part before us, shafts of sunlight like beacons to light our way.