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Feature Article

Matt Debsky, Aircraft Owner WVFC

Western Family Flying Adventure

This past winter, I made plans to visit one of my friends in Bozeman, Montana.  As much as I had hoped and wanted to fly myself there, the premium over airline tickets didn’t seem justifiable.  However, when one of my wife’s best friends residing in Portland, Oregon announced her pregnancy, making the three-leg trip on our schedule, with abundant room for our stuff and our 18-month old son, and the chance to see some incredible flying country made our summer western flying adventure fall into place.  Our trip began on Friday, September 6 and we returned Sunday, September 15.  We flew in N81034, a WVFC Piper Archer based out of San Carlos.

As great as our 18-month old is about flying, asking him to sit still for seven flying hours in one day didn’t seem fair.  So we planned to leave on Friday night and stop in Elko, Nevada, almost exactly half way between San Carlos and Bozeman.  The weekend prior I had tried to cross the Sierras on almost the exact same route, only to be stymied by smoke from the Rim Fire.  The smoke had been so thick that it would have required an IFR clearance to penetrate and the Archer’s ceiling wasn’t high enough to remain above it.  Fortunately, the winds and fire-fighting efforts meant that while visibility was severely reduced, we were able to push past South Lake Tahoe and on to Elko.  I’m always surprised by how extensive the effects of forest fire smoke are; it wasn’t until we were almost all the way to Elko, and past another, smaller mountain range, before the smoke wasn’t having some effects on visibility.

Departing Elko the next day, we had the best hotel shuttle driver ever.  When I checked NOTAMs before leaving San Carlos, they said one of the Elko runways would be closed and there were numerous other notices about air show activity.  When I called the airport, the FBO said that they didn’t anticipate there would be much impact on our flight.  Nevertheless, when we arrived on Saturday morning, the ramp was filled with display aircraft and people milling about; our shuttle driver skillfully and politely maneuvered to bring our planeload of stuff right up next to the Archer.

We arrived at the airport as early as reasonable, as the weather along our route was forecast to deteriorate over the day, with the usually-present possibility of thunderstorms later in the afternoon.  We had planned the route to take us near several alternate landing sites as well as to avoid the highest mountains along the route.  In the event, the timing with respect to the weather worked well, for much of the route, we could see rain and buildups to the west, but clear skies to the northeast and our destination.  I was also reminded again of the topography of this part of the Rockies: really big mountains, but nice broad, flat valleys in between.  This means lots of reasonable off-airport landing areas.  Given the lack of modern in-cockpit weather in the Archer, we also employed the old-fashion method by using Flight Watch.  Before entering the areas of highest terrain, I checked and was greeted with the comforting words that there was no weather between us and our destination, nor did there appear that there would be.  We pressed on and arrived beneath sunny skies in Bozeman.

We spent the next several days visiting with my friends.  My family took a several days excursion via rental car to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks before returning to the airport and the next leg of our journey.

There were two main possible routes to consider between Bozeman and Troutdale, one of the Portland reliever airports and our destination.  One route was to head due west from Bozeman.  The route was the most direct and offered the opportunity to fly along the Columbia River Gorge.  It also exposed us to a thirty-minute window after crossing the Bitterroot Range where there were not an abundance of alternate landing sites.  The other route followed I-90 well north of the direct route, but offered more landing sites.  We decided to embark initially on the more direct route.  Then, if the weather looked unambiguously clear, we could continue over the Bitterroot Range and on into Washington.  If we arrived at the decision point and there was a question as to continued clear skies, we could either land there to wait for better weather or take a diversion to the I-90 route.  When we reached the abruptly rising wall of the Bitterroot Range, the weather decision ended up being similar to that of the Elko to Bozeman journey.  There were some puffy clouds well to the south, with no forecast weather in front of us.  We continued over the Bitterroot Range into a gorgeous mountain landscape.  While looking as rugged as the Sierras, the mountain tops were at eight thousand feet instead of fourteen thousand, giving us the opportunity to see more and remain comfortably above the peaks.

After crossing the Rockies, we made a quick fuel stop at the Tri-Cities airport in Pasco, Washington.  After fueling up on the traditional fresh-baked cookies, it was on to the Columbia River Gorge.  This part of the journey exceeded my expectations for scenic flight.  Flying along the river itself was remarkable, with various twists and turns, the blue water in stark contrast to the first yellow-brown then green shoreline.  Then, I was awed when the hulking figure of Mount St. Helens emerged from the haze.  Mount Hood and Mount Adams provided great viewing.  We landed at Troutdale and headed into Portland to visit with my wife’s friend.

As it seems to pass every time I visit Portland, the best weather of the trip was what we had when we landed.  For the next forty-eight hours, I kept watching the forecast for our departure day, as it changed from various types of IFR conditions, with or without thunderstorms.  The morning of our departure called for a line of thunderstorms to appear directly over Portland by midday and dissipate in the afternoon.  So, it was another early morning arrival at the airport to depart before the thunderstorms formed.  If the weather had gotten worse before we departed, we would have waited until later in the day to leave.  However, we managed to depart IFR from Troutdale and emerge above the 4500-foot overcast around twenty minutes after takeoff.  The thunderstorms did appear as forecast, but we were a comfortable distance south by that point.

Again as is typical in Oregon, a solid undercast lasted until we hit the Siskiyou foothills.  The clouds seemed to be prevented from moving farther south and into California, and the terrain became visible.  We had planned to stop in Red Bluff for lunch, but our current ETA placed us at the airport as the diner on the field would be closing; headwinds at times had our ground speed down to 90 knots.  We attempted to order omelets to go via mobile phone from the air, but got disconnected twice.  We figured we’d do the best we could once we arrived.  To our surprise and delight, the diner had taken a chance on our arrival and we had two tasty omelets and plenty of toast and potatoes waiting for us when we landed.  The diner was still closing, but we were able to enjoy our take-out on the cement picnic tables overlooking the ramp.

After filling up on brunch and av gas, we hopped back into the Archer for an uneventful trip down the Sacramento Valley.  No weather, the headwinds had abated somewhat, and there wasn’t even a lot of traffic.  Our early departure from Troutdale put us back at San Carlos in plenty of time to unpack before returning to work on Monday. 

The primary flying lessons reinforced by the trip were to remain flexible in schedule when traveling by small plane.  Most of our departures were earlier than planned due to the prospect of being trapped by unfriendly flying weather.  While we were fortunate in not having to exercise any of them, all of our routes had multiple options along the way to change course or land short in the case of engine or system trouble, or inclement weather.  This was also the first long trip that my family and I had taken in the small plane together; the previous longest flight having been around two and one-half hours.  I can’t say that my son enjoyed being in the plane for five hours during the day we went from Bozeman to Portland, but everyone emerged smiling when we arrived and commented on how well the flight went and how gorgeous it was.  That convinced us that we could do another flying adventure when the time comes.