My hosts at Pratt told me the field was used to “outfit” B-29s during the war. The massive bombers were built in Wichita, then flown to Pratt to receive their turrets and machine guns.
They had a crew car and said I was welcome to take it to town if I wanted to get a bite to eat. But instead I decided to feed my gear. I brought all my various electronic parasites in from the plane and plugged my GPS into the wall next to a lamp, my iPad into the plug shared by the water cooler, and my cell phone had to make friends with the microwave’s plug.
It was warm and friendly and the airport residents wanted to know where I was from, where I was going, and whether or not my Ercoupe had rudder pedals. (She does not.)
While my head was buried in weather forecasts on a huge iMac in the pilot’s lounge, I heard the lineman say to a local pilot, “Well how’s that for a change in the weather?”
I looked over my shoulder at them and was surprised to see sunlight. Stepping out onto the ramp, I could see that the entire southern sky was a towering mass of grey, like the ramparts of a fairytale castle in the air. Sun spilled over the ramparts and above us was glorious blue sky with not a single cloud. The storm was retreating south.
Still, the distant horizon to the west remained white. There were still clouds out there, but the number of reporting stations made it difficult to know what was really happening on the micro scale across my route. I decided, rather arbitrarily, to give it another go at noon, an hour away, and if I couldn’t get through, I’d stay the night at wherever it was that I managed to reach. Decision made, I had the lineman top off Tessie’s wing tanks. She actually has three gas tanks. One in each wing, and one in the nose.
The engine runs off the nose tank, sometimes called the header tank. The gas flows down from the header to the carburetor by gravity. An engine-driven fuel pump pulls gas from the two interconnected wing tanks to fill the header, which overflows back down into the wings. Like a beating heart, the pump keeps the fuel constantly flowing between the tanks. The whole design is a great safety feature: If the heart fails, the engine doesn’t die. In fact, if the pump fails you’d have about an hour’s flying time. There’s a float gauge on the nose that lets you know if the level starts to drop, signaling either empty wings or a dead fuel pump.
While the lineman gassed me up, I admired the other plane on the ramp. Sharing the tarmac with my expensive-to-maintain antique was a brand spanking new expensive-to-buy Diamond Twin with the aeronautical equivalent of the curves of a Playboy centerfold. I gotta say, this is one sexy airplane. But despite being new, the owner was having some mechanical issues dealing with the brakes. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I found some sort of perverse reassurance in the fact that new planes aren’t immune to expensive maintenance issues. My only defense is that our last annul cost nearly half as much as the plane herself did, and I’m guilty of wondering whether our family’s money might have been better spent on a newer airplane. Apparently not.
At noon as I headed for my ride, I told the twin owner that I hoped the weather gods were feeling kinder than the brake fluid gods (he assured me he thought they would be) and I was off and on my way.
I cruised in sunlight at first and wondered if I should have taken my winter flight jacket off, but soon enough I was under a high blanket of grey again and the temperature in the cockpit dropped. The ceiling seemed to stay put, but the stupid ground got higher and higher with each passing mile. The rules for the kind of airspace I was in state that I’m supposed to stay 500 feet below the clouds. How high off the ground? Actually, there is no set altitude over empty, open prairie. You just have to be high enough to land in an emergency without hurting anyone on the ground.
The horizon grew brighter and brighter as my opening between sky and ground got tighter and tighter. The final edge of the clouds clung to a ridgeline southwest of Meade. I sailed over the flat, open ridge at 200 feet above the ground and then burst into bright, clear sunshine. For a moment all was calm and beautiful.
And then the turbulence hit.
You can almost count on angry air between frontal boundaries, and this region did not disappoint. I had a momentary vision of my being bounced right out of the cockpit, and falling (with 12 bottles of expensive red wine) to the earth below. I tightened my seatbelt and shoulder belt, and then did the same for the case of wine that was riding shotgun with me. I climbed back up to 500 feet, then added another two hundred for good measure, Tessie was like a bucking bronco. I held onto her yoke with my left hand and onto her windshield support with my right. My only mission was to get the wings level when the churning air knocked one wing higher than the other. The up and down lurching I didn’t worry about. One blast of air would send us up a hundred feet, the next would fall on us like a hammer, driving us back down again.
And just when I was far enough out from the frontal boundary to escape the turbulence, I entered a popcorn sky. Well, that’s what I call it. I’m sure that’s not it’s formal name. But a popcorn sky is one populated by a sea of small cumulus clouds, all at the same altitude.
They are beautiful and look puffy and harmless like cotton candy, but each one of the little bastards has it’s own personal weather system. As you fly under each, you hit the updraft. It’s as if the cloud wants to suck your plane up into its hungry maw. And as you hit the far side, you encounter the downdraft. Angry you escaped, the cloud hits you with a rolled-up newspaper.
The game is harmless, but tiring. Like taking a roller coaster to work. After about one hour of it, I was sure glad I was transporting wine, not champagne.
And finally, after hours of being jostled and jolted, Runway 26 at my homebase appeared off my nose. I was glad to be home again: I’d had enough flying.
Well, at least for a day or two.