High Mountain High
By: Joel Strait
“You’ve never seen anything like that before have you Joel?” My Uncle Russell asked. He had rented a 140 Cessna at the Redding California airport for a local flight north over Shasta Mountain. He was right. Driving through the mountains just wasn’t the same. The changing colors of Shasta Lake as the depths shallowed and deepened could only be seen and appreciated by air. The sightseeing flight ended all too soon. But man was I ever hooked on flying high in the mountains!
My Uncle, Russell Zangger of Zangger Flying Service in Larchwood Iowa, started my love affair with airplanes when I was 13. I have been flying ever since, but always in flat country. I’ve flown from Iowa to Florida and even out to the Bahamas, but never back to the mountains where my love affair began. Unlike me, my flying buddy Hal Hadaller, was born and raised in the mountain country of western Washington State. Hal flies back to the mountain country for family reunions on a pretty regular basis.
Shortly after I bought my 1967 Cessna 150G, Hal asked, “Why don’t we make that trip together sometime?” Two years later we quit worrying about getting good enough weather to complete the trip and just set a date to go. My class reunion started on the 29th of June, 2000. We decided to allow a day or so on each leg of the trip so we wouldn’t be pushed by any bad weather we might encounter. Hal would fly an EAA biplane he built himself and I was flying the trusty “Spirit of St. Joe” named after my home town of Port St. Joe, Florida.
Departure day the 26th of June dawned bright and clear. By noon we throttled back to land at the Moontown grass airstrip (3M5) just northeast of Huntsville, Alabama. After lunch at a fancy country club by my wife’s relatives ( I told my wife if one of us was going to fly the other one would have to work) we went back to the 2000 foot strip nestled in the Smoky Mountain foothills. The young gas girl (Julia Sims, Private pilot/Instrument) did the honors as we sat under the watchful eye of a huge Russian AN-2 biplane. Then on to Tell City Indiana for a restful day and a half with long time friends who had recently retired, Pat and Ken Kanneberg.
The 150 didn’t turn over the same as usual getting ready to leave Tell City on the 28th but finally did. Five minutes out and another amp gauge reading showed no charge, so back to Tell City to check things out. The airport manager, Jesse Morgan, said he didn’t work on airplanes anymore because the insurance premiums for a FBO had increased to $5,000 a year, so he just closed shop. Hal checked the alternator after I took the cowling off. the cooling fan spun free. It’s NOT supposed to do that. When I took the alternator off, the shaft that connects to the engine just fell out onto the ground. One days flight from home and I’ve already got a busted airplane. Well wonder of wonders the manager, Jesse, said he thought he might just have one in his shop. He had two and one was for a 150 Cessna! My whole Sunday school class of 20 people, my Mother-in-Law and even my wife said they would be praying for us on the trip. When I told Hal he just smiled and said, ”Hmmmmm.”
We took off after a hand prop by Jesse. The amp gauge read on the right side of the center line heading for Davenport, Iowa and my class reunion. we had tailwinds the first day and now we had tailwinds again, 85 indicated, 100 MPH GPS groundspeed. The closer we got to Davenport the darker the sky became. No lightning, just lowering rainy clouds. Here and there we could see light through them so we kept going. Hal went North to check getting around ahead of it because he could throttle up to about 150 MPH. My cruise speed dictated my path more behind the storm. We separated to fly around the clouds, now traveling northeast directly over the city and the airport. A 150 Cessna came barreling out around the cloud base heading southwest as I turned into the GPS direction of the field. I scooted into the opening I saw the other 150 come out of and there about 3 miles dead ahead lay Davenport (DVN), Their Unicom said it was not raining, but heavy drops were hitting my windshield as I flew by a lighted tower to my right higher than I was. Hal called in and landed just before I did on a dry runway. Rain jackets were the uniform of the day for the gas man and the tie-down girl.
The tie-down girl called my attention to a bad oil drip coming out of the cowling. Bad oil drip! Oil was all over my nose wheel pant, the nose wheel strut, the bottom cowling and the whole underside of the plane. Peering up into the dark confines of the lower cowling I could see oil dripping off of every bolt, wire, and protrusion oft the back of the engine. And then it started to rain. We made it into the FBO with our overnight gear and called ourselves lucky. The folks behind the counter were not so gracious. They labeled us, “Crash and Burn.”
Milt Schatz, my high school friend, made arrangements for us to stay with he and his wife, Deloris, in their new home 3 miles north of the airport. He fed us royally at his favorite restaurant on the way to the house. The next day he let us use his van to go check on the, “bad oil leak.” The alternator worked fine but sitting on the parts shelf at the Tell City Airport for ten years dried up the rubber shaft seal and it leaked! Checking the oil level revealed no real oil loss. A little bit of oil can make a terrible mess. A good wipe down and the 150 looked eager and ready for the next leg.
The reunion was the best yet. More class-mates attended this one than the 5 previous ones I’ve been to. By noon on the 30th we were ready to make like birds again and left for Cedar Rapids, Iowa a whopping 55 miles to the west. We used the Marion Airport (C17) north east of Cedar Rapids. It was closer to my cousin, Jim Zangger’s place. Jim is Senior Pilot for Rockwell International and was coming in that afternoon flying the company Gulf Stream II. We wanted to be there when he landed at the Cedar Rapids Airport (CID) but made it in too late. His wife, Cecelia, who flies with him in his Oshkosh Best Original Classic 2000 Taylorcraft took us to the big airport where he gave us a walk-through of the Gulf Stream with hanger power still connected. Sitting in the left seat of that complicated big bird made me realize how little I know of flying, lf Hal had not sold me his old Garmin GPS and taught me how to use it I probably would not have recognized much on the Gulf Stream panel.
A good nights rest after 3 days of reunioning put us in the mood for more flying. But not just yet. When I looked out of the bathroom window to the east at daybreak the morning was all clear skies and fair sailing. By breakfast time fog had settled into the Cedar River Valley and we weren’t going anywhere. Finally by about 11:00 it began to clear enough to fly. MoGas was supposed to be available at Marion. Due to an airshow that weekend, July 1st, the airport changed all their tanks to 10OLL “because everybody could use that.” So back on 10OLL instead of 80-87 no-lead the 100 horse continental is supposed to burn.
The hop to St. Paul Airlake Airport (LVN) south of the suburb of Eagan where my son, Steve Unverzagt and family live, was 2 hours and 2 minutes of gusty tailwind flying. Steve is director of marketing for Art Instruction Schools in St. Paul where Charles Schulz started drawing Snoopy in his Sopwith Camel doghouse doing battle with the unseen “Red Baron”. An afternoon, a night and a Sunday morning spent with good company, good food and a good family gave us the feeling of being truly welcome. But the skies beckon and these folks still have jobs to take care of. The morning was not good for flying so had a late brunch before being carted off to the airport. We took off with more southerly winds pushing us farther and farther into the north woods country of Paul Bunyan and monster walleyes to Hayward, Wisconsin, Muskee Capital of the World.
To the unlearned, a Muskee is as close as a fresh water fish can come to being a shark! I stood beside one that was a block long and stood two stories high. Well, okay it was mostly concrete and plaster but it was still impressive. My friend, Ted Turza a big man in size and legend and could have been a model for Paul Bunyan, met us at the Sawyer Co. airport (HYR). We dropped our stuff off at the motel before heading out east of town to his Island. How many people you know in a lifetime that actually own an island by themselves? He has his own county designated dock on the mainland and uses a 9 HP pontoon boat to get to his home. I would say the only way there is by boat but I guess you could swim or walk to it on the ice in the winter or go by snowmobile when the ice gets thick enough.
But this was July 2nd the middle of summer. So why were we all wearing jackets and starting to shiver? I forgot about the cold when Ted pointed out a Bald Eagle sitting in the top of a Spruce tree on an island not much bigger then his boat. Hal got some good nature shots on his digital camera of an eagle that looked close enough to spit on us. The nights were cold in Wisconsin with the days partly cloudy. We looked at a zillion stuffed fish. Every restaurant, bar and convenience store advertised Hayward fishing to the max.
Ted had an appointment at the V.A. hospital in Superior, Wisconsin on the fifth so we went along for the ride. Ted let us use his pick- up to go to the Bong Airport (SUW) to check out the story on Maj. Bong and his exploits in a P-38 in the Pacific WWII. We went to the wrong end of the field and wound up getting acquainted with a rescue squad and a hospital helicopter they used. Then brunch, next door with a runway view and THEN the Bong Museum at the FBO end of the airport. There a full size radial engine biplane wind vane pivoted on a spindly 8ft. steel pipe smack dab in the middle of the parking lot. Hal and I couldn’t decide if it was a real airplane or one just made out of old biplane parts. Neither of us recognized it’s make. Ted told us the P-38 Richard Bong flew was now at the museum but we couldn’t find it. Lots of pictures, newspaper articles, parts of his uniform and pieces of airplanes, military types, props etc. “That’s not the museum I was talking about” Ted said when we picked him up again at the hospital. The P-38 wasn’t at the next museum in Bong’s home town either. It was back at the Duluth International Airport being restored. Well, maybe next year. Ted’s Island had all the comforts including a floatplane dock but health problems precludes a floatplane ever sitting there. Ted and his wife both cook, Ted on the grill with steaks, Nan everything else. A Lumberjack show on Hayward Lake in town center and a free Bratwurst lunch given by the local Electric CO-OP rounded out the– time and events at Hayward.
Early departure from Hayward did not look promising on the 6th. Thick clouds hung damp and low. We tried leaving but 10 miles out we couldn’t see the tops of the TV towers we were flying around. We gave up and went back to the Sawyer Co. airport. Weather on the FAA monitor showed clearing conditions north of Minn.-St Paul by 11:00 so we tried again. A couple more awkward minutes from time to time saw us move into better and better skies as the day wore on. About one hour out the messy weather was all behind us. Scattered clouds and comfortable temps at 6500 ft. the rest of the flight to Zangger Airport 17 miles east of Sioux Falls, SD.
“I’ll buy us all supper if you’ll take us into Sioux Falls so we can pick up a rental car,” I said to my Aunt Dolly and Uncle Russell later that afternoon of the 6th. A 20MPH steady wind out of the southeast made landing on my Uncle’s 20 foot wide 2,200 foot long blacktop runway easy with tricycle gear and full flaps. I landed first and taxied back to the hangers on the north end of the field. Hal looked the situation over circling above. Hal didn’t like narrow runways like the one at Marion outside of Cedar Rapids. “I just can’t tell where I am when I pull the nose up to slow down,” I’ve heard him say many times. He bounced on the right gear, poured on the juice and flew away only to return and land downwind on a wide grass runway between waist high rows of corn.
After a leisurely supper at the Royal Knight Cafeteria in Sioux Falls we drove out to Joe Foss Field to pick up the Enterprise rental car. They weren’t there. I don’t mean the office wasn’t open I mean they weren’t there. No office at the airport only the one downtown. So back down the very way we just came. The office was closed by the time we got there, naturally. My Aunt and Uncle drove us to a motel on the east side of town. With many assurances we could get a car the next day they dropped us off.
The 7th was spent doing laundry and ironing the fancy cotton shirts my wife and daughter buy me so I won’t wear my comfortable (ugly) no-iron shirts. The Cessna needed a 50 hour oil and filter change too. After breakfast at the Country Kitchen restaurant next to the motel we drove back out to Joe Foss Field and picked up the supplies. The alternator was still leaking oil badly. The “Spirit” needed a bath to look it’s best for the Fly-In to be held the next day. My Uncle couldn’t find the hose normally used to drain the sump tank into a 5 gallon bucket. We managed to wedge the bucket on top of the front wheel pant and engine mount. It worked until we got to wiggling the filter trying to loosen it. The 5 gallon bucket, now with 4 qts. of oil in it, slipped off it’s perch and fell toward my Uncle. Fortunately he was wearing black shoes. That’s the fastest I’ve ever seen him move! By the time I got all that oil up off the concrete and finished with the oil change I didn’t have the energy left to give my lady the bath she needed. A quick wipe-down and I was through for the day. While we were finishing up with the planes Bob & Jane Stark drove up on the other side of the runway. They were on their way to Calgary Canada from Panama City, Florida where Hal lives. Bob flies a Glassair he built and is a member of our EAA chapter 202 in Panama City. He heard us plan this trip week after week before we departed. “Jane and I should be passing through your Uncle’s place about the time you guys are talking about. Maybe we will see you there,” Bob said half serious. The Starks pulled their motor home next to the main house and right next to the grove of shade trees our planes were parked under. Russell ran a drop cord out to them from the garage supplying electricity and all the comforts of home.
Larchwood Family Days falls every year on the same day that Russell and Dolly have their Pork Loin Supper/Fly-In get-together. Always on the first Saturday after the 4th of July. It starts off in the morning with a Belgian Waffle breakfast in the City Gym. All you can eat for $6.00. 20 electric waffle cookers, count ‘em 20, No waiting and just about that many kinds of toppings from local goose berry to homemade maple syrup. Then the parade. Five different surrounding towns come to Larchwood to show off their fire trucks, local bands, tractors, cars and horses. One even brought their local Pork Queen. She was pretty although a bit on the hefty side as she stretched the ball gown she wore in the parade convertible. Fire trucks sprayed mist on us as we sat in the shade of Cottonwood trees lining the parade streets. Lunch under the Larchwood trees in the City Park. Bar-B-Que pork, hamburgers, home made pie and ice cream, slushies and cold drinks. Ice cold water from bare galvanized faucets. Cars, cars, cars. Antique, restored and souped up roadsters glistened in the noon day sun. Two miles of tractors rebuilt and sounding like new chugged past, red, green, yellow and white. More John Deere and Farmall, but Case, Allis Chalmbers, Ford and some I’d never heard of before, puttered stately by.
The wind was still up to 20 MPH at two o’clock that afternoon when the airplane poker run was to start. That was one of the events I came to participate in. Not enough interest was generated so it was cancelled. By 4:00 Bob and Jane Stark had all the waiting for something to take place at the Fly-In they could handle, and left for parts west. The wind let up a little at 4:30 and planes started landing from all points of the compass. In an hour 35 planes were parked south of the grove sheltering our ships. Flour bombing, spot landings, plane rides and aerobatic fly-by’s prevailed the rest of the day. A rescue Helicopter landed and Hal even did his airshow routine. Pilots flying in did not have to pay $6.00 for the delicious Pork Loin supper.
Sunday the 9th we took in the Sioux Falls Zoo and taxidermy animal museum. Hundreds of animals were on display, from elephants to the tiny Dic Dic antelope of Africa. All shot and put on display by a local hardware Sport Hunter now deceased.
Rain off and on all day made it a good day for anything but flying. After a hot dog lunch at the Zoo waiting out one of the rain showers we left for a look at the Sioux Falls namesake. The Big Sioux River doubles back on itself within the city limits and exits the area running northeast at the edge of town out by the stockyards. It’s been renovated back to it’s turn of the century grandeur. For years hippies and drug pushers used this area to spoil eager youth until the city fathers and mothers finally took over and made a landscaped park for all to enjoy, complete with a 3 story elevator equipped viewing tower. The granite falls only drop about 40 feet but do it in a space of half a city block. It’s a sight worth seeing and not just because it’s free. A restored wheat mill nearby that was originally constructed by a fast talking con artist is the stuff of local legend.
By Monday morning the 10th we had been on the ground 4 days and were ready to fly again. Peering at the early morning sky, from the side of the motel curtains in Sioux Falls, showed a dull red. “Red sky in the morning sailor take warning.” This is the day we had scheduled to take wing for the Black Hills of South Dakota. Don Horn, a long time friend I hunt Pheasants with, arrived early to take us to the Larchwood airport. We had dropped the rental car off the night before and now needed a ride back to the airplanes.
We ate breakfast and watched the clouds turn dark to the east from the large picture windows of the restaurant. My Aunt and Uncle stepped out of their house and told us a hail storm had passed over the airport earlier. They were worried about out planes but a close look showed no damage. The weather looked better to the west the way we were going. We said some fast thank you’s, gassed up quickly and took off. The 10OLL, MoGas mix was as close as we came to using 87 octane car gas on the whole trip.
The clouds thinned out south of Mitchell, South Dakota. Visibility was great and good tailwinds again ghosting the “Spirit of St. Joe” along at 105 MPH ground speed. Visibility still CAVU crossing the muddy Missouri at Chamberland but a low gray scud lay across our path on the horizon. We made a pit stop for relief and coffee at Presho, SD 35 miles on down the interstate. The narrow gravel airstrip, a hanger and an outhouse were all the amenities Presho had to offer. We decided the wasps and spiders should remain the unmolested rulers of their domain and used the great outdoors instead.
Our trusty steeds caught up with the scud layer east of Murdo which lays about half way across South Dakota on 1-90. A few miles past Murdo we turned tail again when we got down to 500 feet with clouds falling rapidly around us. The 3,400 hundred foot long hard surfaced strip at Murdo was welcome as we taxied up to another long ago deserted FBO business. Reading about the death of aviation across the country from a magazine in my den did not really prepare me for what we were seeing. Bare dust coated light bulbs swung outside the locked run-down office as the breeze changed to a cool wind out of the northwest. We waited under the protection of our 1967 high wing umbrella as a smattering of rain and dark clouds wet the tarmac. That was it. The dark turned to gray and the gray to light in the west in about the time it took to write this down.
We were airborne again after about a 30 minute stop. by the time we ran off the Omaha Sectional and onto the Cheyenne we could see the Badlands of western South Dakota in clear sunlight!
Jay and Betty Anderson from Larchwood, IA moved to Custer, SD two years ago. They built a snug log cabin home on the southern edge of the Black Hills 5 miles south of the Custer Colorado (CUT) airport, elevation 5,602 feet. 5,602 FEET! Good grief, I don’t FLY that high let alone LAND that high! I didn’t know it at the time but that was to be the highest airport landing I was to make anywhere in the mountains. Flying downwind to the west on the east-west runway at 6,500 ft. made the 4,700 ft. strip look like an aircraft carrier deck. I’ve never made a carrier landing but surely that must be what it looks like. Hal warned me about turbulence flying in the mountains but I forgot to think about it and just landed like I normally do. Piece of cake, no sweat, “now I’m a real mountain pilot” I said kidding myself while rolling out towards the tie downs.
In the evenings we were wined and dined in log cabin style. Their son, Mick, who owns a motorcycle rebuilding business, ate with us and listened politely to our flying stories. There is too much to see in the Black Hills. We rented a car ($33.00 a day, the first 100 miles free ) and went to see the sights. Neither of us had been to the Crazy Horse carvings so elected to go there first on out way to Mt. Rushmore. $6.00 apiece and an hour later we stood outside the brand new visitor center waiting for an old school bus tour of the Mt. and surrounding area. The visitor center housed the sculptures, paintings and wood carvings of Ziolkowski and the background history of Crazy Horse. Several levels and viewing points guided us through shops, stores, and talented Indian craftsman plying their trades. Old west memorabilia, including a full size stage coach, steeped the onlooker in visions of the past. We missed the bus. We were the next to board when the driver announced it was full. The next bus was 30 minutes later so we headed back to the parking lot and Mt. Rushmore. Passing trout filled Horse Thief Lake, we came onto Mt. Rushmore from behind. Tiers of paid parking levels came into view rounding the last turn to the Presidents. There didn’t seem to be any room for us as we rolled by, pressured by traffic from behind. A little farther on we spotted a sign indicating free parking. A-ha, our price range. We swung in quickly to avoid oncoming traffic, drove down a short narrow decline and stopped at the foot of stone steps leading back up the mountain. We didn’t have far to walk, well not too far. Besides there was this nice handrail and convenient benches every fifty steps or so for old people and flat land tourists. The Presidents heads seemed closer at this lower viewing level and more impressive than the main level farther up. I sure would like to take a close fly-by for the picture value but that is no longer an option in Wilderness Areas, National Parks or Monuments.
Keystone, SD just down the hill from Rushmore is a visual delight after all that gray rock. Too much to describe here. The food’s good with plenty of sit down open air restaurants and fast grub places. Good shopping, decent prices and lots of people (girl) watching from the covered wooden sidewalks. Look out for the six foot six cowboy in the street with his cracking whip and blazing six-gun!
The drive south out of the mountain into rolling prairie where the Buffalo roamed brought us to Hot Springs, SD and the Mammoth digs. The skeleton of the huge glacier age elephant stood 4 feet taller than any other elephant species found to date including the Wooly Mammoth of Siberia. The bones of a long legged Plat Nose bear from the same time period measured 6 feet at eye level standing flat-footed on the ground.
Before going out to the Anderson’s for supper we checked CNN weather at the motel. the next day looked like it was clear flying all the way to the west coast. Two days can make a big difference in go-no-go conditions. We had used up our 100 miles of free travel on the car so decided to hit the airways the next morning. Jay pulled up in the parking lot as we finished fueling to see us off. Hal’s biplane always drew a crowd of admirers. As was his custom after my ho-hum departure he went up and did his mini-airshow. I never got to see this as I was always pedaling hard to get to altitude before he caught up with me.
There are not enough towns or people between Custer, SD and Sheridan, WY to fill a college football stadium. More moonscape than earth-like, the desolation seemed to drone on forever. “Take a look to your 10 O’clock,” Hal said on the 122.85 freq. Just like that, we had arrived. The real thing. My first glimpse of the High Mountain High! Snow capped peaks from 9,358 ft. to 11,370 and this in July. We landed next to a limp windsock on the 8,300 foot runway at Sheridan, WY (SHR). Taxied a mile on the rejuvenated WW II bomber base to the FBO to top off before heading deeper into the Rockies. We knew it had to be a bomber base because of the battle camouflaged B-24 Liberator getting ready for flight to continents unknown. Paying for my fill up I was glad I didn’t have the Liberators fuel bill on my Visa card. The 150 was averaging 4.6 GPH on the new Millennium cylinders at 2,450 RPM at a fairly constant 100 MPH (thanks to the tailwinds).
The view South from a dog leg over the Fort Smith (5U7) MT airport was startling, the north flowing Big Horn River cut a 1,000 foot deep gash surging through the border mountains between Wyoming and Montana. Oh yeah, we were definitely forging our way into the old west. Names on the charts like Bridger, Clarks Fork, and Yellowstone lay in our path. I know men who say they would like to have lived in wagon train days. 10 miles a day, temperatures 100 degrees plus, behind a double tree hitch of sweaty oxen pulling a loaded Conestoga Wagon. Whew! Stink! No thank you. Here we are at 7,500 MSL, cool as cucumbers, passing the time on air to air com radios, no jolts or rough ride (Hal still can’t believe how calm it is) of any kind. Another gentle dog leg at Columbus (6S3) and Mission, (LVM) MT my gauge began to read overfull. No, not the one in the panel, the one in me. I carry a large neck plastic bottle for just such occasions. I’m good for about half way through a 3 to 3 and a half hour flight. Must be all that engine vibration. AHHHHHH, Butte here we come.