Waiting out the weather

I draw back the curtains and peer out. It’s six A.M., but on the western cusp of the central time zone it’s still dark out. I expected that, but there’s something funny about the darkness. It doesn’t quite look right. The streetlights in the Hampton Inn parking lot look remarkably romantic. They have a postcard quality to them. Lights more distant take on a diffuse, painterly quality.

Huh. That’s strange.

I squat down and look up towards the sky. No stars.

Ut-oh.

I fetch my flight pad from the nightstand, open the Garmin Pilot App, and gently rap the screen above the airport icon at Liberal, Kansas. A blood-red symbol with white letters appears. IFR. That stands for instrument flight rules, and it means the weather minimums are below what’s legal for visual flight, called VFR.

We’re a VFR airplane. A second rap on the screen brings up the details. Ceiling 300 feet. Overcast. Mist. Crap.

Oh, the report didn’t include “crap.” That was my editorializing.

This was not in the forecast. But come to think of it, none of the weather Lisa and I have been dueling with on this cross-country was in the forecast. It’s the last day of a three-day trip back to Santa Fe for much needed maintenance after the race in Indianapolis. We’ve worked our way, hunting and pecking a route around weather, for 824 miles. We only have 302 miles to go but there’s no going anywhere at the moment.

Yesterday—barely underway—we put down on the cusp of a line of early morning thunderstorms at Sedalia, Missouri. Just west of the airport, on final approach to Runway 05, we overflew an abandoned industrial building surrounded by a moat-like chain-link fence. Weeds grew tall around it. It was sad and weather-beaten. Even its red brick walls were faded to dull pink. Still, even in a state of semi-ruin it was impressive. The building was gigantic, covering acres. All along its front were huge, tall, closely spaced doors. It looked a bit like a shipping warehouse, but the scale was wrong.

After landing, I asked the airport manager what the building was. He told me that for decades it served as the primary engine repair shop for the Missouri Pacific Railroad. In fact, his grandfather first came to Sedalia as a boilermaker for the railroad. The “Works,” built in 1904, covered 120 acres and was the largest railroad repair facility west of the Mississippi River. Generations of men worked there, at one time 4,500 of them.

But time changes all. Following the steam age, it was all downhill. For a time the building serviced cabooses, but when the railroad dropped the caboose, the facility was finally shuttered. In June of 1986 the Union Pacific, who had brought the Missouri Pacific, let the remaining 87 employees go, and held an auction to sell off the contents of the building.

We spent two hours on the ground waiting out the weather. A light rain soaked the tarmac, but the bulk of the storm slid south. When the rain stopped and the ceilings lifted we took off for Wichita.

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We never made it.

Not 60 miles downrange from Sedalia, small grey puffy clouds started forming all around us. We ducked lower. The clouds grew and merged, becoming a solid blanket of grey cotton blotting out the sky. Then the ceiling began to drop. With each passing mile the gap between the grey sky and the ground shrank. Below our wings was rich farmland, littered with cellphone towers.

It was time to land. Quickly running out of sky, we called up the nearest airport by pressing the “NRST” key on the Flight Pad. Miami County Kansas, eighteen miles away, was the winner. I turned northwest, remembering the friendly folks at Miami, Oklahoma.

My mistake.

As it turns out, there are actually eleven cities in the county named Miami. One each in Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, and West Virginia. (Only five have airports.) I’ve lived in New Mexico for half my life and didn’t know we had a city named Miami.

The old terminal building at Miami County Kansas is now a restaurant called We B Somkin BBQ, which was just closing for the day when we taxied up. Apparently they are only open half days on Sundays. The staff glared at us when we came in the door, and didn’t utter a word. We were finally directed to pilot’s “lounge,” a single, closed-off room in the far corner of the building. The air was stale and stifling, and the room was filled with buzzing flies. There was no internet, the windows were painted shut, and the amenities were limited to a few hard plastic chairs, a folding table, and a pile of brochures touting the airport. Apparently the Mid-Way Drive-in Theatre is a must-see local attraction.

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Using our cellphones, we studied the weather and plotted our escape.

Our escape route to get us free from the clouds took us southwest to Strother Field, between Winfield and Arkansas City, Kansas, on the Arkansas River. From there, we’d strike due west for Liberal, which was our goal for the day. We had originally planned to be at liberal by 1pm. It was nearly 2pm now, and we still had 400 miles to go.

The sky was still grey above when we lifted off from my least favorite of the Miamis I’ve visited, but the ceiling had risen, and we flew over the fields at a comfortable 800 feet, keeping a sharp eye out for cell towers, both off our nose and on the moving map in the cockpit.

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By the time we reached Srother Field the sun had come out and it was a whole ‘nother world. From damp, cool grey to sun-scorched baking heat. The metal nozzle of the fuel pump singed my fingers as I topped up our fuel load for the last leg of the day.

But the weather gods weren’t done with us yet.

Flying over a country road that extended arrow-straight to the western horizon, I watched afternoon thunderstorms bloom on my cockpit radar. They began as isolated patches of green, like moss on a forest floor. Then, the centers of the larger patches turned bright, cheerful yellow, like Kansas sunflowers. Next the centers deepened to angry orange, soon topped by fire engine-red. As the powerful convective currents pushed the storm tops high into the atmosphere, the centers of the storms turned brown-red, like dried blood, on my radar, and finally, blooming like multicolored wild flowers, the tops of the storms displayed lavender purple.

One storm cell, as powerful as they come, lurked to the south of our course. It was tall and strong, but small in diameter. We couldn’t make out its direction of travel. Whether it would cut us off or not. Since we were entering a no-man’s land where airports are scarce, we started reviewing our options. As we closed in, it was clear that it would let us pass, but ahead a squall line was forming outside of Liberal. We’d beat it there, but it looked like it might be a wild weather night.

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On touchdown at Liberal, the sun was still pounding down, but the horizon was ringed with towering thunderstorms. We arranged for a hangar and crew car with the friendly folks at Lyddon Aero Center, then headed for the Hampton which offered a special airport rate on a pair of splendid king suites.

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Worn out from the day, I kicked back in my “living room” at the hotel and studied the weather for the final day of our trip. There was no forecast weather. I set my alarm for 5:15 AM.

So much for forecasts. I set my flight pad down and look out the window again. The night is retreating and now the blankets of fog are clear in the muted twilight. The far side of the street is cloaked in mist.

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My cell phone makes a sound like an old fashioned telegraph. I just got a text. It’s from Lisa, across the hall. “Ready for wings up,” it reads.

“Look out your window,” I text back.

A minute later my phone telegraphs again: “Well, crap.”

Yeah. Crap. It looks like we’ll be waiting out the weather.

Flying the anxious skies

Cleared by the tower, we pull onto Runway 20 for departure. I pull the checklist booklet from its pouch and flip it open to the proper page. Throttles forward, the engines shriek. The airframe shakes. We start to roll. To my right, my copilot leans slightly forward in her seat, crosses herself, and—in a low whisper—starts praying out loud.

As the engines spool up fully, her soft prayers are drowned out, but out of the corner of my eye, I can see her lips still moving. The G-forces start pushing me back in my seat. I cross my legs and return my attention to the checklist.

Canadian Club.

Dewar’s.

The nose pitches up sharply as the commuter jet rotates. Across the narrow aisle, a businessman in a dark suit coat is gripping his armrest so tightly his fingers are chalk-white. He stares dead ahead, jaw tight, mouth a thin, straight line.

Jack Daniel’s.

Jim Beam.

Lots of options for my inflight drink today.

Unlike my fellow passengers, I’m completely relaxed. Even though I’m not flying the plane. Even though the pimple-faced kid who is flying the plane doesn’t look old enough to drive, let alone pilot a plane full of people across the Rockies.

The Jack Daniels. Definitely. Mixed into a diet Coke.

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I’ve always found the inflight drink to be one of the great perks of not sitting in the very front seat of an airplane. If I have to leave the driving to someone else, I’m sure as heck going to enjoy the ride.

The jet starts to level out. The businessman releases his grip, massaging his left hand with his right. My seatmate finishes her prayer and settles back into her seat. The fasten seatbelt lights are still on, as are the perpetual no-smoking lights. I glance out the window. The ground seems impossibly far below.

Still, it’s beautiful. Nothing to be afraid of. But then, as I order my drink and hand my credit card to the Flight Attendant, it occurs to me: Maybe we’re all afraid to fly. Some passengers pray. Some use a death grip. Perhaps others turn to the bravado of alcohol.

Or maybe I just know how to have a good time on an airplane.