See Part 1 here.
Dispatch from KEPH, Ephrata, Washington: I smell burning French toast. Yeah. There’s a hint of cinnamon mixed into the strong, pungent odor that’s filling the cockpit.
This can’t be good.
I scan my limited engine instruments. Nothing is out of the ordinary. My oil pressure is normal. My oil temp is good. The generator is pumping out its normal amount of juice. The tach is normal. Cylinder head temp is fine. The roar of the engine is steady, with no hiccups, rumbles, or pauses.
Yet I smell burning French toast.
I key my microphone. “Race five-three, turn two.” I turn and fly through another curtain of rain. For a brief moment, looking forward, it’s like driving through a carwash, but I still have excellent visibility out the sides and down. The prop vibrates as it chops though the falling water.
My airspeed sucks. My ground speed is worse. I’m tail-end Charlie of four race planes. Somewhere on the grey horizon ahead of me are the Elys.
In front of them a first-time racer in a Bonanza, and leading the pack is Jeff Barnes of Race 411, the three-time season champ in the Experimental Category. We’re the only four planes in the race. Bad weather closed in over the Sierras and most of the racers, who were coming from western Washington, “scratched.”
In fact, the race itself — the Great Northwest Air Race in Ephrata, Washington, for the Sport Air Racing League — was nearly scratched.
All day long its been pushed back. First, half an hour. Then 45 minutes. Then an hour. Race Director John Smutny summed it up nicely at each update: “The current weather is crappy with a side of crappy.”
Gathered in the Ephrata terminal, the racers, the race director, and a dwindling team of volunteers stayed glued to our tablets, watched the weather radar, and speculated on when — or if — it would clear enough to race. In the end we had a good window. Well, a good enough window, and we all launched for the short course between light drizzles.
Ahead of me, Barnes broadcasts a delighted report about an epic tailwind. By the time I get there, he’s already on the ground and the epic tailwind has dissolved and turned into epic turbulence.
Race 53’s nose thuds heavily downwards. The right wing kicks high into the sky. I’m slammed upwards and my lap belt digs into my legs. The sky is tossing Race 53 around like a feather.
It’s more lurching than racing. Keeping tightly to the course is out. Keeping right-side-up is the first order of business.
I’m relieved to finally see the finish line. I cross, make my call and enter a teardrop right-hand pattern for Runway 21. Last to launch. Last to land. I’m battered and bruised, and the feel of my mains contacting the wet runway beneath me brings a flood of relief.
For once, it’s good to be back on the ground. I taxi to the fuel pump and shut down.
In the air we racers are fierce competitors, but on the ground we are… well, not quite a family. Maybe more of a tribe.
I ask my fellow racers what they think about the burning French toast smell that fills my cockpit. Game, they each stick their noses into Race 53’s cockpit and sniff. The consensus is that rain sucked into the engine compartment washed old dirt and grime off of the sides and onto hot components, creating the breakfast you don’t want to order odor.
Time to split
The awards ceremony is brief. All four planes come in First Place in their classes. But unlike most SARL races I’ve been to, where there are first, second, and third place trophies for both the Experimental and Factory Categories, the GNAR combines the two categories.
Everyone gets a trophy but me.
I get a certificate. Printed with my name, my race number, and my worst time ever: 106.23 mph. At least I get my 100 race points, and hold the point gap between me and the Elys at 20 points. Because of the weather, we both flew unopposed in our Classes. The long trip to the short race was worth it.
I’m still in the race for the season championship, and could still wrest the trophy from the Ely’s hands.
But now I have to get home again. As I step out of the terminal the clouds are breaking up. In the distance are shafts of sunlight. Patches of blue sky appear. I check my radar and the way southeast is clearing.
For racing I don’t even carry a spare bottle of oil in the plane, so while I reload supplies and baggage, my flying adventure co-conspirator, cross country copilot, and photographer Lisa “Dubois” Bentson calls ahead to our planned stop for the night to see if they’ll hold a crew car for us. We get a green light on the car and we takeoff into the clearing late afternoon sky.
A visit to the Cloud Kingdom
The gap is plenty wide, but it’s a moving target. Ahead, the sun is shining on the distant fields. To my left, a rainstorm. To my right, a curtain of rain so heavy the midnight grey streaks of clouds look as solid as concrete.
My radar shows the pair of squalls is my last significant obstacle. As the dark grey curtain of rain moves toward us, I deviate off-course to the left to shoot the gap dead center between the two cells.
Lisa’s never been this up close and personal with a storm before and isn’t enjoying it as much as I am. I drift a bit farther left to give the more powerful storm a wide berth.
What looked like a small downburst a few miles out becomes a massive edifice as we close in. This single torrent of rain is more impressive off the wing than the mountains I flew past crossing the Rockies.
But the gap is plenty wide, and as the storms fall behind our tails, we break out into clear sunshine.
For a moment.
Right above our heads, small wispy cumulous clouds begin to form. They grow and blossom like wild flowers after the rain. Within miles the sky is full of house-sized clouds above our heads.
We need to climb to clear the escarpment at the Washington-Oregon border, and as in class G airspace the only requirement is to stay clear of the clouds, we rise up into their midst: Going to the right around one, to the left around the next. Shadow and sun dance off the cockpit windows and our world is made up of rich, deep blue sky and stunning white clouds. Rainbows dance below us. Now Lisa is having a good time.
I know the clouds are ethereal. Ghosts made of water vapor with no more substance than fog. But up here, flying past them, they seem solid. Huge improbable floating objects, like oddly shaped Zeppelins.
It’s the most beautiful flight of my life.
The second breakdown
We barely make it to the church on time. When Lisa called from Ephrata, the FBO employee at La Grande, Oregon, agreed to stay a half hour beyond closing to give us a crew car. He told us he’d wait until 5:30. We taxi in at 5:29. He gives us the keys and disappears.
We unload our sparse luggage and tie the plane down, struggling with a bizarre tie-down chain arrangement I’ve never seen before. The last thing to do is button up the plane. I pull the copilot door upwards. It hesitates, and then there’s a sickening crunch. The door sticks fast, mostly open.
This type of thing always happens on days that are already too long.
We spend the next two hours trying to free the stuck door, removing the seat and seat pan to reach the bottom of the door track. I remove upholstery panels. It’s all in vain. In the end, with a a crunch, a snap, and the sound of Plexiglas shards striking metal, we free the door, breaking a ragged eight-inch diameter hole in it.
Tomorrow we’ll tape it up and Lisa will have to climb into the plane from the pilot’s side for the rest of the trip.
Dispatch from KLGD, La Grande, Oregon: We check out of our hotel rooms, and head for Starbucks to fuel ourselves before fueling the plane for the day’s flight.
We make a quick stop in the Airplane Repair Supplies aisle at the local Walmart (those guys sell everything) then head to the airport, where we use the roll of clear Scotch packing tape we just bought to reassemble the jigsaw puzzle of broken Plexiglas shards back into a semi-functioning window.
Our field repair is holding. Which is a good thing, as I’ve found that taking off with the doors open makes for some excitingly limp climb performance. We don’t usually open the sliding doors until we have 500 feet under our belly.
We’re flying parallel to a low ridgeline, slowly gaining on it. Suddenly, snowcapped mountains rise dramatically up from behind the ridge as if pushed up by primeval geothermal forces. Of course, it’s optical illusion. We are rising higher, revealing the secrets hidden behind the ridge, but the visual effect is striking.
Idaho to the left, Oregon to the right
We’re snaking down the Snake. Just for fun, we charted a route down the Snake River Canyon, a wide, deep, twisting tear in the earth that separates the states of Idaho and Oregon. This is no small river. The canyon is wide and lazy. I’m flying well below the rim, and have plenty of room to maneuver. After so many days of arrow-straight flight it’s refreshing to flex our wings and feel the motion of flight.
Logbook: Fuel stop at KMAN, Nampa, Idaho. Awesome-looking café with a balcony overlooking the fuel island mid-field. But no time to stop and eat. As we taxi out, I stick my arm out the top of the plane and wave to the diners. A half dozen people wave back enthusiastically.
Fuel stop at KJER, Jerome, Idaho. Crazy cool wallpaper in the men’s room, a collage of vintage aviation ads and posters. We over-fly evaporation ponds on the Great Salt Lake. Next to a large industrial building is the biggest pile of salt imaginable. We return to Skypark so Lisa can rescue her wheels, and I fly a further 55 miles to Spanish Fork for the night. I tie down and clean bugs from the windshield and wings. Top off the oil.
But we’re not done yet. Each night is a blur of flight-planning changes based on en route experience and the ever-changing weather forecasts along the multi-state flight path.
Dispatch from above Spanish Fork, Utah: 6,800 feet MSL, speed 80 mph…
I’m circling the sleeping town. The first rays of sun have kissed my wings and the distant mountain peaks, but below the city lies in a bowl of shadow. Around I go. Once. Twice. A wide shallow turn, slowly rising into the air. Each circle gives me 1,000 feet in the cool morning air. The plane is lightly loaded again. I’m solo and baggage-less. Lisa has switched from aircrew to groundcrew, and all I have in the plane with me is food and water.
Lots of water. Tripple digits temperatures are forecast by mid-morning all across today’s route.
I roll out at 7,000 feet, point Race 53 at the slot between Spanish Fork Peak and Loafer Mountain, and fly into the shadows. It’s been a sleepless night worring about this mountain crossing. Firefighting TFRs, winds, and the sail plane competition have blocked the other routes. This crossing is long and rugged, and despite the assurances of local pilots that its an easy crossing, it certainly dosen’t look easy on the chart.
And on a satellite image it looks absolutely terrifying.
Loafer Mountain is just off my right wingtip. It fills my field of view. Impossibly tall. Impossibly steep. It rises, nearly vertically, from 5,000 feet at the narrow canyon bottom to 10,192 feet at the crest. I’m a fly on the wall of the mountain. Tall, deep, green pines cling to the slopes until blocked by shear grey granite cliffs capped in snow painted pink by the rising sun.
On my wife’s playlist, Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere” floats into my headset. It’s an appropriate theme song for this five-day flight.
I’ve been everywhere, man. I’ve been everywhere, man. Crossed the deserts bare, man. I’ve breathed the mountain air, man…
I sure as heck crossed deserts bare, man. And now I’m breathing mountain air in a big way.
I’m holding Race 53 at 85 miles per hour now, sacrificing speed for altitude. And, boy, is the old girl climbing today. Up, up, up out of the canyon. Out of the shadows and into the the pink dawn light. Up out of the pink light into to pale yellow, then pure white sunlight fills the cockpit. The mountains fall below.
10, 762 feet. I can see forever. To the ends of the earth and beyond. I abanodon my twisty canyon-following route and fly stright for Price, on the east side of the Rockies.
The crossing is so simple it’s anticlimactic.
Beating the heat
Logbook: Fuel stop at KPUC, Price, Utah, where the heat is already rising. Rapidly. Then 133° magnetic to Cortez, Colorado.
Now I’m in another race. A race against time. At Santa Fe, 6,349 feet above sea level, the mercury is predicted to reach 103, sending the density altitude up to as much as 10,000 feet. I can land at a density altitude that high, but I wouldn’t put any money on getting off the ground again.
But it’s not Santa Fe I’m worried about. Santa Fe is the end of the road for me. Race 53 is headed for her maintenance base for an oil change (even though we just had one) new tires on her mains, and now, a replacement copilot door and a French toast checkup.
It’s Cortez that I’m worried about. Temps will be pushing 90 by the time I’ll arrive, and the 7,205-foot runway sits at 5,918 feet above sea level. As I roll into the pattern, the ASOS announces an 8,300-foot density altitude.
I do an Indy-style pit stop.
Now the density altitude is up to 8,600 feet. Prairie Dogs scurry back and forth across the parched runway as I start my takeoff roll. To my left are signs every 1,000 feet alerting me to how much runway I’ve used up. How much remains. The signs are black with white letters, negative images of tombstones.
My airspeed indicator is “in the green” by the second sign. Shed of my skinny copilot and our meager luggage, Race 53 leaps into the air, rocket-like, blasts to 300 feet above the ground and… stops? I hang above the runway, barely creeping upward. The vertical speed indicator is showing a painful climb of less than 50 feet per minute. I turn into the wide valley south and east of Cortez and head out into Indian Country.
The canopy is still buttoned up tight as I try to gain altitude, and my iPad overheats and shuts down. Overheated. I fish my iPhone out of my pants pocket, but for some reason, it won’t load the flight plan. I fly from memory, finding US Highway 160 and following it south toward Shiprock.
Then I hit the Alligator Turbulence. That’s what I call turbulence that’s heavy enough that flying the plane is more work than wrestling an alligator. Violent wingovers powered by rapidly rising currents of air from the desert furnace below keep me busy in the cockpit.
South of Nageezi, New Mexico, a sleek high-wing plane darts below me. Outside of airport traffic patterns, this unlikely encounter in the middle of nowhere is the only time I’ve seen another airplane on the whole trip.
I slip under a veil of ugly yellow-brown smoke that stretches for miles, the scorched floating remains of a forest near Magdalena, New Mexico, vomited up by a massive 36,000-acre fire and smeared across the sky of two states. The sun turns blood red.
Finally Santa Fe is off my nose. ATIS requests all aircraft to fly with their landing lights on due to the smoke. It’s been quite a trip. I’ve flown low over some of the most stunningly beautiful desert and mountain scenery imaginable.
As Race 53 and I make our final approach, we’ve travelled 2,256 nautical miles, racked up 27.2 hours on the Hobbs meter, and burned through more than 118 gallons of avgas.
My League Points: It’s a draw! Due to the weather, both Team Ely and I ran unopposed. The one plane I was to take on, and the four they were to run against all “scratched.” We each added 100 points to our totals but the 20-point gap between us remains the same.
I’m still in the game, and with some luck I can still beat them this season. I’m now up to 740 points. Team Ely is top of the leader board, with 760 points, a full 130 points more than they had in the entire season last year, and we still have nine more races left to run. At least I’m making them work hard to hold on to their title!
My League Standing: I am now in second place in the league, behind Team Ely. We are both ahead of the leading planes in the Experimental Category in point totals, and our “rivalry” has become the talk of the league.