Sunday, June 2, 2013

Bearhawk to Alaska - Part 2

Achieving maximum range in the shortest amount of time was the plan for our second day of flying.  This is something the Bearhawk makes easy.  Ordinarily, were you to throw everything you own and 72 gallons of gas in a plane you could land below 40 mph, you would not expect it to have six hours of range at 150 mph.  In the bearhawk you can count on it.  And let me tell you, when trying to get to Alaska in April, that's damn handy.
Lifting off from Texas, it was great to know and hard to believe we could land in Wyoming.  Our goal was Laramie but the Bearhawk, especially when fitted with long range tanks, is one of those planes that always take you further than expected.  Unfortunately, this also comes with a potential negative.
Aviation is a sport of long distance friends.  That’s the nature of it.  It is also another reason range and speed are such great positives.  But, those traits can have a downside.

When you are able to fly nearly 900 miles at 150 miles an hour you tend to build your day around those numbers.  Meanwhile, the same 900 miles bypasses friends that live somewhere in between.  To me, that’s a serious negative.  On the upside, the solution to any aviation problem almost always creates more fun.
Hey look!  More farmland.
Enroute to Wyoming I dug out my phone.  Pitching wildly, often drifting off course thirty degrees or more, slowing and accelerating, I texted Mark Beam, a friend who was living near Denver.  Well, actually Ginger was flying straight and level when I was texting.  I just love stir up the safety Nazis.  Anyway, where was I?  Oh yeah, the text I sent Mark was to let him know roughly when we’d be passing by the area and to ask if he or his wife Cindy (also a friend and pilot) would be around.  Then we waited, and we waited, until finally our bladders caught up with us before Mark did.
Rolling to a stop on the ramp at Lamar (Colorado) the usual deal was struck.  Ginger would let me pump gas, and in exchange she would get first use of the restroom.  What could I say to that?  She drives a hard bargain.  So, as I stood upon the ladder leaning over the wing on that beautiful day, I received a message.  Mark was home and would be able to meet us but he wondered where.  Knowing he was always up for a little fun, I sent him back the message “How about in the air”.  He agreed.
Trading off pit crew duties when Ginger returned, she checked the oil and all the other important details while I went inside to do pilot stuff.  Having little spare time I kept it to a minimum.  First there was the obligatory, “Hey, did you see that chic out there flying that Bearhawk?”, which I said to the only guy inside.  “That girl that was just in here? Is that what she’s flying?”, he asked.  Then I went to the restroom.  On the return I said, “You’re still here?  If you’re not going to talk to her I am”, and I headed out the door.  Walking up to the plane, I did my best to appear like a stranger introducing myself, knowing full well Ginger would just write it off as me being a dork.  Next I helped her put things away and we climbed in to depart.  I wonder if anyone has ever fallen for it?
Look close to see Denver (middle right) below the pitot..  I didn't say it was a great photo.
Climbing away from Lamar, we plugged in the agreed point of intercept and sent an ETA to Mark.  Then we cruised.  A flight from Lamar to Laramie has much to offer the senses.  It’s a lesson in topography, geology, and sociology all wrapped into one.

Beyond the crop land, elevation varies, colored stratum betray hidden elements, and pockets of population reveal patterns of survival.  A particular seemingly insignificant photo comes to mind.  Approaching Denver at a tangent, farm land was back-dropped by skyscrapers back-dropped by snow covered mountains.  It was a beautiful day and something to see.  It was also the perfect day to catch up with a buddy.
Approaching the designated intercept zone, Ginger queued up the agreed frequency and listened.  It wasn’t long until a familiar voice came through, “You guys up”?  We both smiled.
It would be difficult for me to guess how many times I’ve heard those exact words.  Whatever the number, it’s safe to say it is well over a hundred.  And yet they never get old.  Perceived as a vague question to anyone who doesn’t fly,  they hold a chapter’s worth of meaning to any aviator.
On questionable days, “you guys up” (or singular “You up”?) conveys comfort in the knowledge you aren’t alone. When the sun is rising and the wind is calm, they mean a plan is coming together and a good day lies ahead.  If you hear the words unexpectedly, you have stumbled across a friend in the air and a conversation of catch-up is about to happen.  And on other days they can mean something as simple as “hello”, “where are you going”, or “I see you up there”.  But even then there is a deeper unspoken meaning conveyed in this simle question.  When shared between pilots, conveyed are the notions “I am one of you, I understand your love of flight, I have fought the same battles, and I am your friend.  Mark definitely fits them all and it was great to hear his voice.
Growing nearer our rendezvous, each of us reported landmarks and altitude.  When almost on point, attitude was added in, “I’m circling over the intersection at 6500’, coming through the west heading”.   Several vectors later, he was in sight, or maybe it was us. Somebody spotted somebody. Throttling back the Bearhawk’s 540 was next.  Mark was flying an L-5, an observer model he and his wife Cindy had purchased from my brother, and despite it easily being one of the best flying planes ever built, it in no way matched our speed.  But hey, who’s counting?
Notice the tailwheel.  They all seem to do that in the air.
Seeing Mark ease the old girl up beside us was great.  In addition to the memories of flying the plane from Lee Bottom and all the laughs we had shared with him and Cindy, the fact we were meeting up in the air a thousand miles from home as if no time had passed made it all the more special.  There among the clouds we shared the freedom only aviation can deliver; a conversation between friends without the irritations of life.  We had met, not like mortals in a cafĂ© or parking lot, but like aviators, among the clouds.  It was officially a great day.
You'll see this building and beacon tower below in an old photo.
As all good flying buddies would do, Mark and his passenger (mustn’t have an empty seat) flew along with us for quite a while.  We took photos of each other, exchanged the best stories we had to tell, lied and said we would catch up again soon, and admired the other aircraft.  Then, when it was time for him to return for fuel and us to burn off the plugs, he peeled away and we pushed it up.

Watching the L-5 disappear toward Denver, that feeling we had felt at Nelson’s came over us.  With aviation, you’re always leaving friends, old or new, with the hopeful assumption of seeing them again.  Ginger took one last look back, then offered up the information for Laramie.
Crossing a high plain covered with snow, we marveled at the rapidly changing terrain.  Within our field of view were three distinct climates we would cross in twenty minutes; beyond that, more.  Aviation's version of a winding road on a summer Sunday was passing us by and it was  going fast.
The hangar at Laramie.  Note the original part in the back.
Taxiing up to the FBO in Laramie once could sense it would be an interesting stop.  Inside the  building, the old black and white photos proved it.  There was a lot of history in those walls and we took time to see all we could.  Walking around to the old hangar, we even found a couple of guys talking airplanes.  One of them had an interest in the Bearhawk.
On the wall at Laramie.
Ten minutes later, while leaning on the wing with the fuel hose over my shoulder, I talked the guy through a tour.  He was a “plans owner” and excited to look around.  Then came the usual performance questions of, "Does it actually do the company numbers"?  My answer was always “Yes”.  It really is a wonderful plane.  Unfortunately though, its speed was going to allow us one more flight than we originally thought possible.  Therefore, like the other times before, we apologized for having to leave and blasted off.  Alaska was on our mind and it kept us moving.
Landing in Cody, behind us was a big day.  We’d left friends in Texas, met one in the air near Denver, and made another in Wyoming.  The terrain had been spectacular, the weather perfect, and we had crossed the USA South to North.  It was amazing progress that would lift the next days' numbers.
On the wall at Cody.  The closest airframe is N1781A.

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