Three years ago, I relocated from Salt Lake City, Utah, to Seattle, Wash. Though I had a lot of experience flying in a variety of weather conditions and in mountainous terrain, I didn’t have a lot of hard IFR flight time.
I viewed this not as problem, but as an opportunity to hone my IFR skills flying in conditions that were challenging in different ways than those I had experienced in Utah.
I spent some quality time with a knowledgeable local instructor, studied the weather patterns typical of the Pacific Northwest, and learned to enjoy the challenge of flying approaches to minimums, flying full procedures in non-radar environments and navigating the unique icing conditions created by the warm, moist Pacific air pushing up and over the Cascades.
Though the combination of challenging weather and unforgiving terrain creates a formidable flying environment, the epic scenery is a worthy reward.
On clear days, one can see the snow-capped volcanoes of the Cascades jutting skyward, Mt. Baker to north and as far as Mt. Jefferson to the south. On days when Seattle is shrouded in fog, only the tallest buildings of the skyline are visible above the blanket of white, giving the illusion of a floating city.
At sunset, the orange and red sky creates a fiery glow reflected in the clouds above and Puget Sound below, and at sunrise the pink alpenglow illuminates Mt. Rainier, a reminder of just how close this colossal volcano is to our comparatively small city.
Since moving to Seattle, I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to take flight above the mountains, islands, and coastline of Washington State almost daily. I have met amazing people, visited awe-inspiring places, and have seized every opportunity for adventure, but adventures by their very nature are finite, and my Pacific Northwest Adventure has come to an end.
Last week, I departed from Boeing Field for the last time as a Seattle-based pilot to embark on my next adventure: Relocating to Duluth, Minn.
It was a grey winter day when my husband and I took off from Boeing Field to head east to Minnesota. It was 50° Fahrenheit with light drizzle and, as I loaded the plane, I tried to enjoy the warmth of the day knowing that the forecast temperature in Minot, N.D., was a bone-chilling negative 4° and the temperature in Duluth was even colder.
As the plane climbed away from the Puget Sound and over the Cascades, we broke free of the overcast and into the bright winter sky where the sun warmed the cabin. The peak of Mt. Rainier was standing tall above the cloud tops as if to say goodbye.
Landing in Minot was a rude welcome to our new winter reality. The frigid wind was blowing waves of snow across the runway, and it was a struggle to keep the plane aligned with the centerline. I pulled up to the FBO and the line personnel were bundled under so many layers of winter clothing that they almost didn’t look human.
The furry bomber hat I once purchased as a joke during a visit to Alaska was now required gear. I opened the door of the plane and the piercing wind instantaneously took my breath away and froze any exposed skin.
There is truth to that old expression: “Why not Minot? Freezins’ the reason.” We didn’t stay long.
Darkness had settled on Duluth by the time we arrived, and though there was a frozen layer of cloud between the airplane and the airport, it was far too cold for ice. The ATIS reported a temperature of minus 9°, wind 22 knots gusting to 29 knots and, when I checked in with tower, the controller cleared me to land, then courteously let me know that the wind chill was minus 35°.
As we were taxiing to the ramp and the wind was jostling the plane, my husband turned to me and asked, “Is this when you tell me welcome home?”
Flying in the Midwest offers a whole new set of challenges and adventure. While there is not as much terrain to be concerned with, there are very tall radio towers dotting the landscape and rising to altitudes of over 1,300 feet. Though they are lit, they are much harder to see than a mountain!
The wind whips across the flatlands, and the winter temperatures dip well below freezing, creating unbearable wind chill. Last year, Duluth recorded a record 23 days in a row below 0° Fahrenheit with wind chill temperatures as low as negative 60!
The runways in Minnesota are often ice- and snow-covered in winter, and in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, new runways or “iceports” are created like the one at Twin Pines Resort on Lake Mille Lacs.
My first flight departing Duluth as my home airport, it was cold with a thin but solid overcast layer. When I broke through the cloud tops, all I could see was an endless white blanket with no peaks or buildings piercing the sky. The short flight concluded at an uncontrolled and snow-covered runway that was only distinguishable as such by the runway lights.
I couldn’t help but grin as the tires kissed the snow and the plane rolled down the runway, making a sound similar to rolling on grass. Welcome home.
Though this next chapter of adventure will be a bit colder than the last, I look forward to adding new skills to my quiver: Ski flying, landing on an ice runway, and once summer arrives I predict I will be spending a lot of time flying on and off some of those 10,000 lakes.