Fully loaded to within a few pounds of gross weight with fuel, spare oil, and wine, I taxied down the giant apron originally laid down for B-29 bombers during World War II. I was going faster than normal to minimize low power running, as my cylinder break-in was only half over. I zipped past rows of brick chimneys that are all that remain of huge arched-ceiling hangars that once lined the field to house fleets of the big birds, contemporaries of my little ride.
I did a running runup, checking the mags and the carb heat as I taxied, so when I reached the end of the runway I made my radio call and rolled right onto the 100-foot-wide mile-and-a-half long stretch of asphalt without stopping.
It was cold and cloudy, with a solid ceiling about 3,000 feet up. As I was still generally flying at 500 feet, this was not an issue at all. I’d studied the weather in my hotel room before driving out to the airport and it looked like the cloud cover would stay with me for about the first quarter of the trip. There would be some low—but legal and safe—ceilings near Dodge City, but the airports beyond were reporting clear skies.
I lifted off, banked left at 500 feet, and headed west, anticipating a late breakfast at the Red Barron in Dalhart, and being home with my new case of wine by noon.
Neither of those things happened.
Half an hour into the flight something odd happened to the horizon. It turned white. A knot formed in the pit of my stomach. This didn’t look good for the home team. I tried to tune into the Dodge City automated weather broadcast, but it was still too far away. I activated the weather reporting on my iPad and was stunned to see a red dot above the Dodge airport. I clicked for details and learned that the airport was shrouded in freezing fog with virtually no visibility. As I looked wider, airports to the north seemed clear, while airports to the south were reporting low, but legal ceilings. Deviating north seemed to be the best option. But as I approached the great while wall I could see an orange glow to the south. The sun was trying to break through down there. Looking north, the color of the sky was such a dark grey as to nearly be evil.
Cockpit weather is a great thing, but the types of systems we use in general aviation are never quite up to the minute, so I believe in trusting my eyes over my tech. I turned south, keeping well clear of the wall of cloud and fog.
After flying south for about ten minutes I thought I’d found the end of it. I turned west again, congratulating myself on my superior airmanship and decision-making skills. Still, I kept one eye behind me to ensure that I had a safe escape option.
Everything was going fine, when suddenly the clouds exploded downwards and patches of fog sprouted up everywhere below me. The way ahead became dangerous, and the escape route behind was closing off.
It was clear I couldn’t get the hell out of Dodge because I’d never get there.
I did a quick one-eighty and dropped down to 400 feet. Then to 300 as the cloud deck chased me. It’s hard to estimate how far above you the wispy grey tendrils are when you look up at them through the clear canopy, but I knew for damn sure I couldn’t risk flying into that soup. It was time to get on the ground. I called up the nearest airport on my flight pad: Kinsley. I selected the “Direct To” command and a course was plotted for me.
As I came in low over the farm fields, I could see neither hide nor hair of the airport, even though my navigation said I was right on top of it. Finally, I spied the hangars and then the strip: A frozen ribbon of white, narrow and short. Was it snow or was it ice? There was no way to know from above.
Still, any harbor in the storm. I’d rather risk sliding off the runway and pranging the plane than fly into the grey soup and risk ramming a cellphone tower or some other cloaked obstacle at full speed.
I wheeled over the airport and entered into a low downwind pattern for the north-facing runway. I wanted to touch down at the slowest possible speed and give myself as much runway as possible to slow down without braking. I powered back, raised the nose and slowed the plane to the lowest airspeed I dared use, and aimed for the first few feet of the runway.
Slowly, slowly, down we came. The wheels touched the white-cloaked asphalt, and…
It was a totally uneventful landing. I decided it must be snow, not ice, painting the runway white. I exited at the only taxiway and parked in front of a hanger. I shut down the transponder, radios, the engine, and then cracked open the canopy. A wave of bitter cold air poured into the plane. I hoisted myself up out of the cockpit, grabbed my cell phone, and stepped onto the wing. I closed the canopy behind me and jumped down the to the ground where I did the crazy chicken dance trying to stay on my feet. The apron was a sheet of black ice. As was everything on the ground at Kinsley.
I skated my way to the grass at the edge of the apron and then tromped through a thin layer of snow to what I thought was the terminal building. It turns out it was the local gun club, and based on a sign on the window, it hadn’t been used since 2005.
Next I checked the doors at five hangars. All locked. All cold. No signs posted about who to call or where to go. It was like a ghost airport, abandoned and frozen. Large chemical tubs stood in stacks everywhere between the buildings. It was a crop duster strip, but it was the off-season. No one would be back until spring. There was nowhere warm to stay and wait out the weather.
I trudged back across the black ice to my forlorn-looking little plane. I climbed back in, buttoned myself in and looked around. From the ground, the sky didn’t look that bad. I checked weather for Dodge again and was highly annoyed to find it reported good visual conditions. My unscheduled landing was unnecessary. Oh well. I reminded myself of the old aviation saying: It’s better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air than being in the air wishing you were on the ground.
I fired Tessie back up and taxied with utmost care to the very end of the short runway. I gently tapped on the brakes to stop the plane, and then held her in place and applied full power for an aircraft carrier-style takeoff. The strip was short, with tall tress on both ends. The official “obstructions” text for the airport reads: “Trees, both sides, 45 feet high, 1,700 feet from end, 33:1 clearance slope.” I released the brakes and in a cloud of snow Tessie shot down the icy runway. We lifted off, easily cleared the trees and headed back up into the grey sky.
No sooner than I was off the ground than the blue “friendly weather” icon for Dodge City turned red again and the sky returned to its threatening antics. I flew dead south, towards the orange glow. Still, the way west was blocked. Near a wind farm the sky was a patchwork of low dense clouds and beautiful blue. The blue holes in the clouds were inviting: Come up on top and enjoy the sun, they seemed to say. I could see how thin the cloud deck was. Popping up through a hole would be quick and easy. But there were two problems: I’m flying under the Light Sport privileges of my commercial license. That means I’m not “allowed” to fly out of sight of the ground on top of the clouds; plus the problem with popping up through a hole is you can’t be sure there will be another hole to get back down through at the other end of your flight.
I decided I needed to pack it in and find an airport with a warm terminal and wait out the weather. I checked my options and chose Pratt Regional, about 30 miles away, back to the east.
When you absolutely need to be somewhere on time, take a car.
As I approached Pratt I could see that it, like Great Bend, had once been an Army Air Force field, with its distinctive triangle of three runways, except now a cattle feedlot covered two of them. From above I could see a dozen airplanes and many hangars with welcomingly open doors. I entered the pattern and descended toward my new shelter from the storm. When I touched down after more than an hour and a half of flying, I was actually farther away from home than when I lifted off that morning.
Next time: Waiting for the weather