Lewiston, Idaho; The Red Lion Hotel. I woke up at 4:30 am after a restless night of sleep. Yesterday being my Mother's Birthday, and the stress of having been battling the weather and losing, is starting to take a mental toll on me. This is the critical place where, as a pilot, you have to be VERY careful. The forecast showed about a 50/50 shot of me making through the mountains without hitting clouds or snow. This is the same general area where Steve Fossett went missing, and a common place/time of year for pilots to find themselves in full white out conditions (almost always deadly). The white out comes from snow, which can also be mixed with freezing rain, and this equals icing on the wings, which is about the worst thing you can have happen in flight. It also means not being able to see anything - which is absolutely deadly in the mountains. So it is with this knowledge that I departed into clear Lewiston, Idaho skies at about 6 am and set the GPS course directly for Nampa, Idaho which would take me over the mountains to civilization in the shortest amount of time. About 1/2 hour into the trip at 9,000 feet - I started losing my clear visibility forward so I made a 180 to head back to clearer skies. Unfortunately it looked like it had dropped behind me as well so I hit the "Nearest" Button on my GPS which show's the shortest route to the nearest airport to your location. And guess where that was? COTTONWOOD! I made it close to the Cottonwood airport, the home of my "Interesting" stay over, and saw that it was clear enough to continue to follow the I-95 highway south a little further to Idaho County Airport which actually does have fuel available as advertised. Once over the highway I saw that it was clear south as far as I could see so decided to try following it on down to Nampa with the option of turning around if I needed. There are also a few more small airports along this route (Grass Mountain Strips mostly) but the highway affords you one tiny extra piece of comfort just in case. So down through the valley I went repeating the white-knuckle experience I had five days earlier through the Columbia River Gorge! I put on my XM radio on to my favorite Country station to calm my nerves. The down side to that was the same XM radio that plays music is connected to the audible terrain awareness system, so I spent the next 30 minutes listening to country music interspersed with "Terrain! Terrain! Pull up! Pull Up!." Then it happened. I could no longer see the way ahead. Full white out in front of me and I was in a narrow canyon. This is precisely why I practiced sharp 180 degree turns over the Coeur d'Alene Airport before. Now I was freaked. I noted that the hill immediately to my left was visibly lower than the way ahead so I made a full power climbing left turn and then dove back into the valley headed north again. I set the "Nearest" feature up to a grass strip as my first bail out, and when I was sure I could see well enough to make it farther north, I dialed in the Idaho County Airport and bee lined for the bathroom. My red-faced – cheery expression pretty much sums up my gratitude for surviving. The Airport was empty, but warm and yes, they have gas! Only problem is, my plane is doing the same exact thing it pulled on me in Cottonwood. It wouldn’t turn over to start the engine. So that's where I am right now, typing on my laptop waiting for the weather to change and my plane to change it's mind...
Idaho County Airport 11:30am
I spoke with WX-brief (the aviation weather service) and decided that my best shot at making it through the southern mountain pass would be to go immediately. Since the earlier snow shower wasn't predicted, there's still a chance of not being able to get through however so I was skeptically optimistic. My biggest concern is the possibility of getting down in the valley and having something develop behind me, leaving me no “outs” - like the one I used earlier. Based on the larger weather patterns coming in off the Pacific though, this could be the only chance for another week or more so here I go....
Well, here's how it went down. I took off with a slight tail wind as it turned out. When the wind reports for an airport say light and variable, then it's pretty much your choice as to the direction you take off. So I naturally taxied to the end of the runway that was closest to me, did my engine run-up (a process you complete before every flight to make sure everything is working the way it should). Just as I started to roll for take off I noticed the windsock was holding steadily at my back. No big deal, as I have a really powerful engine, and figured the wind strength to be not that strong. I'm used to lifting off the ground in this plane within a couple hundred feet - five hundred at the most, so when I was still on the ground at a thousand feet, I started to get a little nervous. Finally at about 1/2 way down the runway I slowly lifted off and began a very slow climb. Analysis; sometime during my run-up the wind went from being light and variable to being a fairly stiff tailwind added to the fact that at an elevation of 5,000 feet (nearly a mile high) the air is thin to begin with making it a long take off. Note to self: Mountain flying is no joke... My nerves were a little rattled at this point and I was heading into the den of potential doom, so I dawned my oxygen system to help keep from inadvertently hyperventilating and in case I’d need to fly high at a moments notice. Plus, I had it, hadn’t used it yet, and thought it looked fun. So with a successful launch, oxygen on, and all systems looking a go, I headed back down the valley towards McCall, Idaho, the place I had to turn around last time. My throat got extremely tight as I came up to the place I had retreated from as it now dawned on me how much of a mistake it would have been not to turn around when I did. For starters, I would have been headed directly into a mountain 1/2 mile ahead. Even had I made it around the tight corner, I realized there was a stretch of about 2 miles where it would have been next to impossible to turn around due to the narrow-ness of this valley. Luckily the sky had indeed cleared to about a hundred feet above the mountain tops giving me more comfort this time, and a real understanding of why better pilots than myself have found themselves trapped, never to make it out. To further illustrate this fact, one of my fears did materialize as I saw, while making the steep banked turn at McCall, that the weather HAD closed down behind me. If it were to close down up front, I was looking at landing at the bottom of the valley. Needless to say, that wasn't necessary and I was finally headed for the edge of Idaho where it meets Utah and Nevada. This is no-mans-land and was traversing a 50 mile stretch without roads or civilization. At least I could see!
Utah became a whole other ball of wax. My plan was to head over Salt Lake City and then down towards Arizona where I'd be south of the cold front that had plagued me. The Salt Lake, International Airport, Airspace all but limits flights near it to being below 6,000 feet and requires you to stay out over the lake (open water) something I don't relish doing for long in a single engine airplane. It also has this nice area off to the right (if you're heading south) that is restricted for "National Security" reasons which means that crossing the imaginary boundary line in the sky would likely invite a military escort at best, or being shot down at worst. All of this added up to a tiny path that I had to navigate in order to get where I was going.I didn't get shot down so that was cool! This picture is cool cause you can actually see the salt flats on the ground where the lake has receded.
I now had one last mountain pass between me and Arizona where I'd be staying at my little sister's and where I'd finally get to meet my 2 week old nephew who's named after my Mother. With the exception of a "High bird alert" for the whole Utah Valley Area, the rest of my Journey through the area was uneventful. I made one last fuel stop at a quiet little airport in Burly Idaho. The FBO there was quite the experience. A really nice gentleman greeted me from inside a hanger full of airplanes in various stages of disassembly and about a dozen cats running around. A loud stereo playing 50's music and some really dramatic spotlighting coming from two sides, made this place seem like I had stepped back in time. It was a nice distraction from brooding over my less than stellar landing that about required me to change my shorts...again (a running theme?!) My goal at this point was to climb as high as the clouds would let me, set the autopilot on my next airport, and try to relax for a bit and that's exactly what I did. Autopilot is great. It'll hold your altitude at one level and then you have the choice of steering by twisting a tiny knob to change direction or by designating a destination by GPS to fly too. Either way, it reduces the workload enough to multi-task -like planning alternate routes or figuring out where I would be sleeping tonight.
My next gas stop was Kanab, UT which sits right on the edge of the Grand Canyon which you literally see the northern end of right here.The Grand Canyon itself is a highly regulated area for flying over, and I had planned a way around it in order to get to Scottsdale, but with it already 6pm I was getting a little concerned about arriving after dark, though it's often easier to find airports at night. I'm just hyper nervous about mountains and bumping into them right now.The Airport attendant at Knaab suggested a route that not many folks know about that would take me over the canyon legally, as long as I maintained at least 10,500 feet. It would also save me about an hour of flying and likely get me to Scottsdale before dark, so I took his suggestion and launched. I'll let the pictures do the talking on this one since the experience would be impossible to describe in words. I will say that It was biblical in it's awesome power. I'm not entirely sure why, but I put on some Whitesnake and rocked for the hour or so it took to cross this geological wonder. It became very clear that had I NOT flown over the Grand Canyon, I would have been landing at night for certain. I snapped this picture about 1/2 hour from the Scottsdale Municipal airport. Landing at a large airport has its advantages. Their services are red carpet and comprehensive. I mention this as I had one last snafu before the night was over. After refueling, I was about to taxi to a parking spot for the night when I heard a horrible grind on start up. I knew right away it was a problem with my starter. I couldn't deal with it tonight so I had them tow it into a spot and decided to take a peek tomorrow am. I had a Nephew to meet. All of this was worth it the moment I got to hold my 2-week-old nephew. What an amazing day: Escape from the mountains, four different states, several obstacles over come, flying over one of the world's most breathtaking sights, and holding my new born nephew for the first time. Life is good!