Flight: WY: Star Valley in the Rain

As is evident from my cantankerous ranting, the smoke has gone on way too long. Monsoonal moisture had wandered its way up here, which was welcome at the time. It meant two things: winds from the south (pushes the smoke elsewhere) and the hope for some rain to put an end to this crap. Well, it did both, including bringing bad weather so I couldn’t fly. Six of one, half a dozen of another. No smoke, plenty of thunderstorms. Coitus interruptus, again.

To make matters worse, we’re in the process of moving to the other side of the runway. That is a saga beyond compare. Suffice it to say that if you’re looking for enlightenment through penance, may I suggest masochistically capricious moving? It will certainly cause you to think about the meaning of life.

At any rate, we have been in the heat of the moment packing, which, by any measurement, sucks. In the middle of the entire process, I looked outside and saw that the steady rain was abating, and some picturesque scenery was forthcoming, with clouds interacting with the mountains and whatnot (yeah, you’ve seen that before in my blog). I looked at the piles of boxes and evidence of other complete lifestyle disarray and had a deliciously mischievous thought. Turning to my wife, I said: “I have had a childhood fantasy, during countless Fisher concentration camp family work days, to leave the prison camp project, in the middle of it, in a complete mess, and go play. I AM GOING FLYING!” “Um….is it….. safe….?” Stomping like a five year old with a temper tantrum: “YES!” I then promptly went over to my computer and got a full and proper flight briefing to keep the Feds happy (and determine if it was actually safe to fly). Then I scampered out to the hangar, leaving my wife to deal with packing.

I thought the flight would be “ok,” given what I could see from the airfield (it was really about the prison camp rebellion, at least when I took off). As I flew south, I could see an overcast cloud deck not too far from the surface, on the east side of the Star Valley. It was scattered in the center and west, overcast in the east, and a second layer up at the summit. As the clouds were within Class G airspace, I skimmed the top of them, with a heavenly view to the left, and many holes in the clouds to the right (emergency landing options). The photos were incredible and it was a purely majestic experience all around. Finally after a few weeks of miserable weather, it was a chance to get some good photos!

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View straight ahead, far more dramatic than the sum total of all of the visual components available to the pilot.
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Given the limited perspective of the photograph, this would, by all intents and purposes, look like I was about to become an accident statistic.
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This is the missing view to the right while flying. 
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Column: There is nothing like snow in July to make an introduction.

Before I get to the column part, I need to clarify the last post (“Armageddon”). Flying in the smoke was not a dangerous experience. Rather, two weeks of nonstop, thick, apocalyptic smoke was a) an ongoing Armageddon on the ground and b) a pain in the rear. Many people replied confused as to the source of the smoke. It was from the epic civilization-destroying fires in CA, WA, OR, ID, and MT. We’re safe here from the fires themselves.

I have a monthly column in the West Yellowstone News (West Yellowstone, MT). Here is a syndication of my column published on August 21, 2015.


This is the first in a series of monthly installments where I will be reporting on my travels from the air, wandering around the greater Yellowstone area in a 1949 Piper Cub two person aircraft in pursuit of photographs for a couple of my upcoming book projects on Yellowstone National Park.

In late July, I had the poorly thought out idea of taking a friend from Germany up from Alpine, WY to the Park for a flight, with grand plans to fly the heights of the Absarokas, viewing glaciers and alpine splendor along the way. Unfortunately, it snowed in July, and between the cold high altitude temperatures, residual precipitation, and stubborn clouds, the glaciers were not happening that day. After flying through the Park, we stopped at West Yellowstone airport, and decided to head in the direction of warming sunshine: the Centennial Mountains. Much to my pleasant surprise, the Centennials put on quite a display of summertime snowfall, with measurable accumulation down below 9,000’ in some places, contrasting beautifully with green grass on the peaks and bright summer sunshine. Despite having lived in Colorado with this airplane, this was the first time I captured green grass on the summit with snow on it.

On this particular day of snowfall, West Yellowstone was somewhat of boundary as to where the summer snow fell. The Tetons had a modest amount of snow above 11,000’, central Absarokas had snow at 12,000’ and northern Yellowstone still had snow at roughly 10,000’. The further west we went along the Centennials, the more the snow line descended into the foothills.

These current projects are just two of many simultaneous developments, a continuation of my work after having published eight books to date. My first work of significance was to take this little 100 horsepower airplane, with no heat, to the summits of all 58 peaks over 14,000’ in Colorado, during the winter. While each goal I set for myself seems to be another risky challenge, it turns out that the last project seems to set the bar for the next one.

Many have asked what drives a person to undertake such things, flying an ultimately very simple small airplane to dizzying heights in forlorn wildernesses in less than comfortable surroundings. I can best sum the experience as an ongoing, never ending quest for discovery, that enlightening moment that happens in the mind when a new view unfurls, or we round the bend and stare at a glorious waterfall, or stand on a cliff near the ocean with crashing waves. Most of us know that we are intending to see something amazing; yet, we’re still awestruck when we find it. That experience multiplies in an airplane, opening up what I call “an overwhelming amount of majesty.” Unilaterally, every single person I take up in the airplane, no matter where it is, speaks of what they saw that they did not know existed, just over the hill from their home. This is all despite the presence of Google Earth. A small airplane can take a person to any three dimensional point in the sky that one wants; if the view is no good, then fly somewhere else.

One day, things came together to start sharing the experiences I have by putting them into books, and I have decided to not only convey what it is like to be up in the sky, also to show a complete picture of seemingly familiar scenery with portions most didn’t know exist. Yellowstone is a fantastic example, filled with backcountry features many miles from the nearest road, running alongside other terrain that is not visible hiking in the woods. Stay tuned for much more from the above the Park.

Garrett Fisher lives on an airpark in Alpine WY, has published 8 books, and blogs extensively about his flights around Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming at www.garrettfisher.me. He is currently working on two books about Yellowstone from above, the Yellowstone River, glaciers of Wyoming, glaciers of Montana, Grand Teton National Park, and a few other projects.

Centennial Mountains, Montana
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Flights: Armageddon

After taking the prior two quite glorious flights into the Wyoming glaciers, I got frisky in my ambitions. “Why not do the Montana glaciers?” “Why not photograph the entire Western Continental Divide in the US?” Since things were going so well, that was a wonderful set of ambitions.

Then came the smoke, about 36 hours after I became emotionally attached to these ideas. “Oh, it should blow out in a few days.” Nope. Two weeks later, and its still here. This is like coitus interruptus (research the phrase: it’s a quite humorous medical term for the adverse affects of interrupted sex) or the honeymoon night but someone forget the condoms, or relieving oneself after having drank 14 coffees and stopping midstream, or smelling the delightful smell of a home cooked meal simmer for 4 hours, only to not be allowed to eat it. The metaphors are endless to describe the painful itch that is to have the pressure of flying thousands of miles, all needed before the winter snows come, and stuck staring at a biblical quantity of smoke in the atmosphere.

I finally got so pissy I had to just fly around. You know “prevent the engine from rusting.” I flew three different times. The first time, the smoke was forecast to be topping out at 12,000’, so I flew to 12,500’. It was not as dramatic as I hoped, lacking the contrast I was seeking. Time number two, it was just ridiculous as I could barely see anything. Time number 3 I flew over to Bondurant, WY to see a lightning-induced fire, only to be disappointed that it had gone out on its own (when I want smoke, I can’t even get it). Flight number 3 was just tantalizingly revealing enough of an improvement in the smoke levels to incite fantasies about photography flights, though no reality in actually having them.

Even as I write this, it’s just a strong “haze,” having been downgraded from biblical to poetic literarily metaphoric intensity. And here I sit, watching the days go by, one by one, ticking them off as I get closer to old age and natural death……

Snake River Range looking toward Star Valley. No, this is not pretty.
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Los Angeles…er…I mean…. Jackson Hole.
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Grand Teton, obfuscated in filth.
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Snake River Range in Idaho.
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You know, people move to Idaho because the air is so clear.
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“This is God. Thou shalt not be flying!”
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I’ve heard the West is really pretty. Especially the views.
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It disgusts me that I managed to make the Snake River look pretty in this situation.
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Insult to injury! Fall is beginning, slathered in smoke. The blue sky is thanks to a polarizer, don’t get all worked up that things improved. Though I must admit that I surprise even myself with superb contrast and composition. 
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At least someone is enjoying the gift of flight

Flight: WY: Wind River Glaciers

The Wind River Range is where the rubber meets the road on glaciers around here. Most don’t know that they exist to the level that they do. Here is some perspective: of the top 10 glaciers in the Rockies (not including the Cascades), 5 are in the Wind River Range, including the largest. Timberline is about 10,400’, and the grass quits growing at 11,500’ or so, with over 2,000’ more to go until the highest peak in the range and the state at 13,809’. It’s like staring at the Arctic, a surreal inhospitable tundra that doesn’t look at all like Wyoming. 20 miles away and the desert basins return.

Most of the glaciers in Wyoming are. I got there by passing along the Gros Ventre Range at 11,000’, last seen on a prior blog post in June with the last of the snow melting on it. Now it looks less like an alpine scene and more like a dry one. Don’t be fooled: the terrain exceeds 11,000’ along the ridge.

This time I was angling for the east side of the Wind River Range, which is generally more dangerous in a westerly wind and also has more of the glaciers than the west side. Today was a southerly breeze, with the puffy clouds much higher up. The only concern was the typical drama about losing an engine, landing down in forlorn wilderness where grizzly bears live. Such a nice thought….

I discovered the frequency for Salt Lake Center, the agency handling instrument flights in the higher reaches of the atmosphere, mostly airliners though also some private aircraft. At the altitude over the Wind River Range, I could hear all of the traffic and SLC Center clearly, and stayed on in the event of an emergency, as they could relay my impending doom. “Salt Lake Center, Piper Cub 4-7 Hotel at flight level 155 declaring an emergency….” Thankfully that didn’t need to happen, though there would be quite a few pilots on the frequency wondering what the hell a Cub is doing up there.

I ran into a few pilots 10 days after this flight at Alpine Airpark that had flown up in private aircraft from Mexico. I thought it was a novelty to see my first airplane begin its tail number with an “X.” They thought it was a novelty that a big fat white guy spoke fluent Spanish. While it was a bit hazy to understand, they told me about a plan to fly (it goes something like this): ‘down low over a really big glacier near Green River Lakes.” Hmmm….. “You’re going to the Wind River Range?” “Yes, just the one glacier.” So I showed them on the map the last chance they have before they die if an engine quits, how long of a hike it was, and where the parking lot is to escape to. I pointed to the Cessna 182 and suggested NOT taking that airplane and taking one of their bush planes instead.

A few days later, I find out that they crashed into Mammoth Glacier, in the Cessna 182. Two onboard, both lived, though quite banged up. It took 8 hours to get helicoptered out and it was a near death experience for these two on multiple fronts: both the crash and the hypothermia on the glacier afterward. Thankfully they should recover.

While my photos look compelling and like the work of a fearless maniac, everything is a highly calculated risk with escape avenues and mitigating factors to known disasters (all except the wing falling off). I really don’t go that close to the glaciers, as my airplane simply doesn’t have the power at that altitude to cope with surprises. Mountain flying is less about some incredible falcon-like skill in operating the aircraft; it’s more about understanding the wind and weather and using outside circumstances to one’s advantage. Other than Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride (and getting turned upside down in Virginia), most of the time mountain flying is a quiet cockpit experience, with heavy mental processing deciding where to go.

Gros Ventre Range
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Gros Ventre Range, getting closer
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Gros Ventre again.
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Northern Wind River Range, above timberline. These are NOT Scottish hills. The terrain here is about 11,000′ and very rocky.
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Wind River Range, looking south. Continental Glacier to the left.
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Wind River Range, looking SE toward Riverton, WY. Follow the last letter of my name at the bottom straight up 30% and you’ll see an itty bitty meadow. That’s the emergency landing location, and the hike goes to the flat land on the horizon….
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Seriously badass glaciers. Terrain here tops out at almost 14,000′. Everything you see is above 11,500′.
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Glacial melt flowing into Little Milky Lake (9,721′). Also an emergency landing location, probably right into an inhabited bear cave. That wouldn’t have been the first time I stumbled across one….
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Mammoth Glacier, where the Cessna 182 crashed recently.
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Wind River Range, after finishing the job and breathing one hell of a sigh of relief…
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Flight: WY: Teton Glaciers & Teton Range

After wandering over the Teton Range wildernessy areas with the second German, it came to my attention that the above timberline sections were primed for the glacier project. One of the books I am working on is the Glaciers of Wyoming, from an airplane, and those are best seen when the annual snowfall melts. The time finally arrived and I decided to get off my rear end and start getting it done.

The first day of the attack was the Teton Range. I decided to go for a few things. First, it’s a not a documentary book, it’s a work of art. Lamely photographing the glaciers like they are museum or library exhibits is not compelling. It needs to jump out from the page when people look at it, and the way to do that is to bring the terrain in with the glacier. Second, I have a book in progress on Grand Teton National Park. One would think the back of the Tetons, in green summery color, would be an important part of the whole equation, as opposed to an overly cliched view of the front that everyone sees. The third factor is simply that I don’t always know what to look for. The Tetons are both too majestic and too multi-dimensional to do a quick pass (a Colorado 14er qualifies for the quick pass because its often a simple hill). The Tetons need constant flying back and forth to get it right.

While I thought it would be a glorious blue sky day, I was wrong. There were puffy clouds all around messing things up, or so I thought. By the time I was done, I realized they were perfect, adding texture and intrigue to the whole thing.

The winds were nearly perfectly calm, so I was able to do things I usually cannot, like get up close and personal to lots of stuff. It was a top notch flight experience, a lot of work flying so close to spires of rock, though worth every minute of it. I chose to show some of the closer zooms in this blog post, as a lot of the content from the flight will be heavily featured in the books, and the zooms usually get overlooked.

Snowdrift Lake

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Some really big rock that I am too uncompelled to figure out what it is
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Cirque Lake
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Mt. Moran (12,605′)
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Precipitous ridge…
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Some lake
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Unnamed snowfield (roughly 11,000′)
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Menacing perspective of Grand Teton
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Triple Glacier
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Unnamed lake
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Teton Glacier closeup
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Delightful mix of rock, snow, and sky
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Lake Taminah (9,070′) with associated waterfall
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East side of Grand Teton (peak hiding in the clouds)
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Flight: WY, ID, MT: Teton Valley, Teton Range, Hebgen Lake, Yellowstone

Two Germans are not always better than one. With one passenger seat in the airplane and two Germans, then we take two flights to show the guests Yellowstone. The advantage of repeating myself is a wholesale change in the weather. This flight was one day after the prior, and visibility was impeccable, over 75 miles with fall-like air, blue skies, and [mostly] light winds. Lets not talk about how there is ALWAYS high wind over the hot springs in Yellowstone, or how the wind was blowing in three different directions simultaneously at West Yellowstone, Montana.

The thing about flying around here is that absolutely nothing goes as planned, period. Now day two where I fantasize about flying all over the glaciers of the Absarokas (and didn’t), things got off to a rocky start on takeoff. Two planes were inbound and indicated there was enough time for us to take off. At 300’ above the ground, they were on a collision course, so I opted for hugging the north shore of the lake as they came in on final. Two airplanes turned into a massive beehive of activity, nonstop radio calls, and a continuous line of airplanes piling in. We couldn’t get a safe window to make a left 180 to head up the Snake River until at least 10 miles away. I opted to make the pass into Victor, ID instead, and climb up the west side of the Tetons en route to Yellowstone.

That turned out to be a welcome change. As I had a pilot with me skilled on flying in the Swiss Alps (no whining about silly things like dying), we plunged into the Teton Range as we climbed (slowly). The snowpack was gone, with green grass above timberline, a beautiful sight that inspired me to return and hit up the Teton Glaciers (next post). Grand Teton was as beautiful as ever, adorned in a cobalt blue sky. Yellowstone was iridescent as well, reminding me that most times it is cloudy in the park, a dynamic resulting from the fetch of the Snake River plain and high terrain.

Yet again, we saw Old Faithful blow. The German desired to see it, and we circled for about 15 minutes while Googling to see when it blows. It is not as faithful as advertised, varying from every 35 to 120 minutes. The shots belong in National Geographic; thus, I am not posting them here. At the very least, they will be in my upcoming Yellowstone book.

While in flight, I was asked (ordered) to move my window, because of an exhaust smell in the backseat. When the window was moved such that I did not have fresh air, the German did, and I was wallowing in exhaust. If I had fresh air, he was wallowing in exhaust. Between that and the intensity of photography zooming in on the springs, we opted to cut the flight short at West Yellowstone, heading straight south through Idaho with the door open and ski jackets on. Still a beautiful flight, the Absarokas will have to wait. Plans seem to make more sense sitting at a desk than behind the controls of an airplane.

Thankfully, the exhaust problem is fixed now. Maybe that is why three people have puked recently. One would think the first two could have mentioned an exhaust smell in the back…..?

Victor ID, Teton Valley
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Tetons from the back, Teton Range
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Teton Range, looking south – This place gets an unbelievable amount of snow in winter
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Crossing to the eastern ridge of the Teton Range, Grand Teton in distance
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Grand Teton, Teewinot Peak in foreground (The German told me not to go any closer to the smaller peak. I made a point of doing so the next time I went flying)
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Mt. Moran, Grand Teton in distance, looking south (Triple Glacier to the right)
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Yellowstone National Park (Yellowstone Lake in distance)
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More Yellowstone – Much of the park has textures and wilderness like this
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Hebgen Lake, Montana
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Barrier Island on Hebgen Lake (A sign of some serious wind at times)
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Snake River Plain Fields. Midsummer heat is turning the fields into various golden hues.
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Northern Teton Valley ID, Grand Teton in the distance
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PA-11 during landing, courtesy of the second German. Notice how it blinds the camera because of being washed and waxed.
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Flight: WY, MT, ID: Snow in Montana, Centennial Mountains, Glaciers, Puke

Germans. They are good excuses to take a flight, even if it’s too cold. Being aviation fanatics, I figured the run up to Yellowstone would be a good showing for them.

It was the day after the speed record caused by a strong cold front, and it was quite cold out. Both the passenger and me had regular ski gear on, and surface air temps were in the 50s. At altitude, it was quite bitter, and the clouds thickened up over Yellowstone, messing up my fantasies about wandering around the Beartooth Mountains. It was too damn cold, windy, and showery to bother.

On the way up, we got to see Old Faithful blow from a distance, as well as get some close-ups of tons of hot springs. I give a preview of one spring. The rest you’ll have to just buy the books to see.

After landing at West Yellowstone, we decided to head west into the Centennial Mountains of Montana, where it had snowed the night before down to 8,000’ to 9,000’. According to the folks at the airport, this is a once in 10-year occurrence, evident from some of the green grass visible on the mountain peaks with snow on them as well.

Crossing over the Centennials into Idaho, I asked my passenger if he wanted to pilot the aircraft. His microphone had broken that morning, so all I saw was a terribly beleaguered shaking of his head to my left. Sensing something was wrong, I looked to my right, only to witness him vomiting entirely into my airplane. Aw, shit. Ironically, I heard him basically yell “shit!” from the back, with a German accent, of course. I hit the “nearest” function on my iPad, normally reserved for engine troubles, and the nearest airport was a grass strip, likely without a hose. I went to Stanford/St. Anthony, ID instead, a 21 minute flight with puke smell everywhere. At this moment, I was glad the outer shell of my ski jacket is water resistant, given that I quite likely had been puked upon.

At St. Anthony Airport, the only hose was hot water. Needless to say, that made hosing puke out an even more disgusting experience. There is an inspection panel on the bottom of the fuselage under the cockpit, and I simply hosed the hell out of the thing and rinsed it all out. Thank goodness the airplane has no electronics, or worse, upholstery! Wood, metal, and aircraft grade fabric derived of plastic compounds are the materials I had to work with, which turned out ok. Also what worked well was the fact that we were dressed in layers. The puke layer came off and got stuffed in a bag.

We reassembled the puke-smelling aircraft and flew home, and then hosed it out with the high-pressure hose at the house, thankfully with cold temperatures. The next day, the Germans decided my airplane had “never been washed” (it was washed in May) and they spent 6 hours degreasing, washing, and waxing the entire thing. I asked myself if it is was guilt, and then realized that Germans don’t possess the ability to feel guilt. They simply cannot tolerate something that does not meet unrealistic standards and must handle it with expedience. It was interesting though that I found puke in the baggage compartment, on the seat (after having cleaned it), in the front of the plane, on the bottom of the fuselage, on the side of the fuselage, and on the tail of the airplane.


Grand Teton hiding in the clouds, Teton Glacier
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Teton Glacier
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Blue Lake, Yellowstone
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Centennial Mountains (MT this side, ID other side)
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Centennial Mountains (MT left, ID right)
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St. Anthony Sand Dunes, ID – Imagine the puke smell accompanying this image
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Idaho farm fields, after hosed out pukeplane
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Bottom end of Swan Valley, Snake River in the middle
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Disassembled aircraft. Note inspection plate removed below blue stick. Never thought it was a puke drain.
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Yeah, these get rinsed off.
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Note the official aviation papers on the right (yellow folder). The German was more concerned having puked on authoritative looking papers than, you know, having puked in my airplane. Germans……
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You really thought you’d get Old Faithful photos? Ha!

Flight: Rainbows and Speed Records

As is usual in Alpine, the weather is something of a mystery. A front supposedly had come through, as the air was cold and a few showers were in the area. The wind was forecast to be somewhat high, and it was still, though clouds moving over the top of the peaks were moving at a good clip. As my German guest arrived, we decided to take the plane up for a spin around the pattern.

In the process, a rain shower developed, so we kept our distance, as those things can transfer upper atmosphere energy down into the valleys in this area. It moved through pretty quick, so I came up behind it, under the presumption I could catch a rainbow. Not surprisingly, I found one and got a picture, ironically in the exact same place I got the last rainbow in the air.

It became time to head back to the airport, and the automated weather indicated a crosswind of 10 knots, favoring runway 13. I entered on the downwind (parallel, going opposite direction of landing), and saw that the windsock was all crazy at the approach end, so I turned around and proceeded down left downwind runway 31, believing the windsocks over the automated weather sensors. At this point, the airplane picked up quite a bit of groundspeed, which was evident visually as my airspeed continued to read 65mph to 70mph, while the ground went by like I attached a rocket to the airplane. The turn to final was like a controlled skid, and the landing was quite interesting, to say the least. Winds were 90-degree crosswind at 13mph to 20mph, gusty, and turbulent.

After pulling into the hangar, my [pilot] passenger advised me that he was using his Garmin GPS watch, which is effectively a really cool backup navigation watch for pilots. It read a GPS speed of 122 knots on downwind, which translates to 140mph. As my airspeed indicator read 65mph to 70mph, that meant that the wind speed was 70mph to 75mph (hurricane force) while in the traffic pattern. This ground speed of 140mph is a new record, where the prior one was 121mph.

75mph wind? Is this guy nuts? A few bits of data are in order. The wind, at 800 feet above the ground, got up to that speed. It was still +/- 20mph at the surface. This is consistent with my previous speed record over southern Illinois. Surface winds were 10mph, and winds at 1,000’ altitude were 40mph, so the 3x to 4x multiplier holds true. Secondly, it appears the front was blowing through at the precise moment I chose to land, and the wind was funneling from a broad area into one channel into the Salt River Range, over a narrow opening for which we were upwind of it. Mountain air through channels and passes is actually both faster and less turbulent, whereas winds over peaks are usually slower and rougher. It likely was 70mph over a rather small area.

The other factor is that the airplane experienced only 70mph total cruise airspeed on the airframe, within winds that were moving the same speed. 140mph forces on the airframe would mean that likely I wouldn’t be here to write about it. 140mph over the ground is only a problem when one wishes to land and make contact with same said ground. Airspeed, wind speed, and groundspeed are three separate things.

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