Flight: Germany: Somewhere West of Fulda

Europeans have a particular fetish with naming small regions. When I say small, I am talking the size of the average East Coast American county (Western and Midwestern US counties can be the size of half of Germany due to low population). For my European readers, an East Coast county is the size of a Landkreis, a conglomeration of maybe 10 or 20 towns into one political district.

Counties don’t mean much; they are where you go to get sentenced to jail, where you serve jail time, who to pay exorbitant property tax to, where to take your garbage, or who to pick up adopted children from when crackheads can’t take care of them. In the US, we name states, cities, mountain ranges, and general regions, like “the coast” or “the mountains.” We subdivide continental mountain ranges into smaller ones, like the “Great Smokies” or “Blue Ridge” of Appalachia, which can each cover hundreds of miles, which is a much more identifiable region than a 1,500 mile long range. Otherwise, it’s just the “Midwest” (which is the size of most of Europe), or “Texas.”

Every flight I take in Germany, even if just an hour long, is a designated region. I am not just talking political boundaries; I am talking a familiar name by which something is referred to. Germans name hilly areas, forests, valleys, river plains, mountains, everything. Look in a general direction, and the place has a name. That clump of trees, that is the SexyNameWald. In the US, it’s “that clump of trees that Billy Joe Bob owns.”

Americans would call it “the ridge outside Frankfurt.” Germans call it “the Taunus.” Americans would say: “wine country near Frankfurt.” Germans call it any number of the following subdivisions: Rheingau, Rheinhessen, Palatinate, Bergstrasse, and so on.

I took a flight up to “somewhere west of Fulda.” That is, at least, what my feeble American brain would call it. It’s a section of relative nothingness with some farm fields. According to my Google search, technically I flew through “the Wetterau” up to “Landruecken” then over to “Vogelsberg” (Bird Mountain – that loses all sex appeal when translated into English) and then down through the “Wetterau” and back to the Darmstadt-Dieburg Landkreis. Another way of wording things is that I flew through the State of Hesse administrative districts 2, 8, 5, 15, 8, then back to 2.

I whipped out the 75-300m zoom lens to play around with it for the first few images. This is a tree in a field.
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Adult legos, or capitalism.
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Yellow fields in this post are canola plant flowers.
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Someone walking the dog.
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I cannot understand the financial incentive to perform agriculture in such a fashion.
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Roundabout with 6 exits.
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Transitioning to regular lens. This is the nothingness west of Fulda….I mean… This is the Vogelsberg.
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Massive pile of mine tailings. This thing is hundreds of feet tall and they had to build a road on it.
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To atone for either environmental destruction or the souls of dead miners, they built a cross on it. Unlike Southern US cross architecture, it is small. If this was North Carolina, that cross would be 300 feet tall.
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This scenery is sort of self-evident.
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Notice that the leaves in prior images were not really growing on the trees. Well, back down here in the Wetterau, Spring has begun.
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I bet your town doesn’t have one of these.
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I thought Germans built efficient roads. This is road engineering from the College of Drunken Sailors.
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Flowers on trees.
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Main River. At the bottom is a little car ferry. They have itty bitty signs where you can’t see them off to the side, and once you board, they shake you down for cash, and cash only. Its quite fun when clueless Americans only have MasterCard or $100 US bills on hand and the German is trying to resolve the conversation before the 46 second ferry crossing completes.
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German phallic architecture (or American juvenile photographer).
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Flight: Germany: Rheinhessen

One of the conflicts with aerial photography is that sometimes the image looks better than reality. In the case of smog (“haze” as Germans call it), the visual experience is something that irks me extensively, and I can’t imagine how any of it could be worth taking pictures of. In reality, haze only affects the horizon portion of the image, not the foreground, and not the sky. Coincidentally, the horizon is the farthest away and has the least detail, so the opacity isn’t nearly as damaging as it seems to be when I go flying.

Thus, there was a day that was hazier than I would have liked; however, I needed to prove what the reality would be. Namely, when I see haze from my office window on the distant hills, how does that translate into actual imagery?

It turns out, wide-angle images aren’t overly degraded, though they lack a clarity that I am looking for. Everything else is unaffected.

This particular flight went west over the Rhein into the Rheinhessen wine region, which is an expansive area of rolling hills covered in vineyards and farm fields and windmills. There are some villages, few trees, and quite a bit of scenery. Compared to what I can find on satellite imagery, it is the largest area of its type in Germany, as other areas have something in the way of trees to break up the wide expanses.

“Danke” means “Thank you.”
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Satellite facilities amongst farm fields. Very German. There is no shortage of odd things as seen from the air.
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Rhein River levee. Germans turn it into walking paths. In America, there would be fences around it to prevent terrorism, with signs threatening 25 year prison sentences for trespassing. 
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These are fields with roads.
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I cannot understand the German fetish with seemingly pointless construction of towers.
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Farm fields and vineyards.
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Haze in the background. Not the end of the world, though not the kind of clarity I am looking for. It doesn’t come from pollen or humidity on this particular day, though Germans don’t like it if, after identifying it is sourced from diesel particulate pollution, that you call it “smog.”
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I would love it if the Germans built a church in the vineyard to make it more efficient for workers to go to church and harvest grapes, though, with thousands of years of history in Germany, the rationale behind this scene could be absolutely anything.
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Not a vineyard.
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Road (though if you can read English and need that explanation, there is something wrong with you.) I wonder if there is a law that requires the road to look that way, or if all farmers alongside it naturally fall into line and plant a row of trees at exactly the same time.
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It is extremely difficult to get all 4 roads to terminate precisely at the corners of the image. It has to do with viewing angle and a precisely planned arcing turn with the airplane that I did not do.
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Yellow flowers are rapeseed/canola among the vineyard.
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Flight: Germany: Palatinate, Pfaelzerwald, Rhein Valley

Some of the hellaciously persistent smog that is well known in German winters finally started to abate. Spring has been extremely late this year, with aircraft movements at the local field as much as 65% lower than the prior year.

I decided to emphasize lower elevation farm fields. I learned a few things from Wyoming: early in the agriculture season has some texture that is unavailable any other time of year. While a freshly tilled field of dirt or some shallow sprouted plants may seem anemic compared to harvest time, it is surprisingly beautiful, as the patterns of the land show themselves as purely as any time of year. The taller the plants, the less the dirt talks.

I decided to head down to the Palatinate region, which is a wine section of the western Rhein River Valley, then over the Pfaelzerwald, north to Rammstein Air Base, and then northeast to home.

I had no clue how utterly gorgeous it would be.

Germans know how to take care of land, paving a path in gold that seemingly exists solely for my style of photography! There are no power lines, no sheds, no piles of trash, no unkempt weeds. Land and field patterns are a bit strange. Where the USA defers to rotary irrigation and old Homestead Act parcels of 160 perfectly squared acres (with piles of visual distraction strewn about), Germans seem to favor quadrangles. Fields are four sided, though perfect squares do not seem to be important. Roads either have evenly spaced trees along them, or nothing at all, except rolling fields of beauty. In amongst trapezoids and quadrangles, roads curve with the arc of a painter’s brush, accenting the countryside perfectly.

To make matters even better, people are fenced off into their pens, living together in villages while surrounded by space. In the US, we would allow them all to sprawl out, and it would become a visually pugnacious cesspool of disorganized mass. That is a matter of contention, as the Germans envy America for the same said cesspool of disorganized mass (freedom factors here). I envy Germany because it’s pretty. Alas, that is the same old pendulum that can be argued back and forth til the end of time. In the end, some sections of the highlands west of the Rhein feel like the Midwest: wide open fields, big sky, windmills, and farm country. Sure, there is the occasional Autobahn and electric high-speed rail service, though that is what makes Germany amazing: the 500 year old castle next to vineyards planted in 900 AD alongside a highway with the most modern cars in the world driving at blazing speeds. There is a depth here that is profound, and I can feel it from the air.

It felt good to be in the air for almost three hours. Back in the saddle, 1442 photographs later.

Crossing the Rhein
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Vineyards – Really awful emergency landing locations.
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Regular agriculture.
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I usually avoid roads and other human influences. This is quite pretty.
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Normally I attract to wild nature. This is the Pfaelzerwald, and its just not doing it for me like the Rhein Valley. Part of the problem is increased clouds in the hills and lack of leaves as of yet.
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The area S of Rammstein didn’t turn out as I expected, so NE back to the Rhein area. You can see the German struggle between farming efficiency and the efficiency of getting from point A to B battling it out here. Agricultural production wins, as those that travel this road must make an astonishing six 90 degree turns to travel straight.
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It would be very cool if that is a Roman aqueduct, though it probably isn’t. This is a splendid fusion of old versus new, curves versus lines.
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Windmills. Gigantic swirling blades to avoid flying into. And people tell me flying in the mountains is somehow dangerous….?
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Crossing the Rhein heading back east.
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Column: Yellowstone caldera rim

This column originally ran in West Yellowstone News, West Yellowstone MT.

Yellowstone, like any other place on the planet, has its share of rewards as seen from an airplane. It’s a tried and true maxim that the view from above is always interesting and sometimes unexpected. As an adventure pilot, I routinely go to the brink of what is possible. Yellowstone so far is the only place that makes me nervous before every flight.

“Aren’t you more afraid of mountains than Yellowstone?” No.

Mountains have timberline and valleys. Winds are rarely a surprise, though they are usually intense. If an above timberline emergency landing is not viable, then something in the valley, or a high altitude meadow almost certainly will be. Yellowstone, on the other hand, is filled with gnarly rocks, boiling water, bears, trees, and grand distances between potential crash sites and civilization. I have a personal thing against using trees as emergency landing locations, especially pines. My kind of airplane can literally be landed in the crown of a deciduous tree forest and hang in the trees afterward. It will most likely tip forward and nose into the ground in a fireball in a pine forest. If I am not charred to a crisp or smashed to a pulp, then I become a steak that fell out of the sky for the overabundance of massive carnivores in Yellowstone. If those factors don’t kill me, then I have to choose between the philosophical questions of how well my satellite transmitter works compared to the choice of hiking 25 miles through bear country without a map.

That being said, there is a perspective that can only be seen by an airplane in Yellowstone National Park. It is where the edge of the caldera gives way to the Idaho Snake River Plain. It is verdantly green, receives insane amounts of snow, is almost 100% covered in pine trees, and is inaccessible by road. There are a few distant mountains one could climb and look into this area with binoculars. A hiker can walk in the forest, staying under the canopy at all times. Otherwise, one must fly to it.

Truth be told, I have not yet actually flown over it (that whole fireball/bear food thing). This would be the section west of Old Faithful and the Madison Plateau. I have gotten close, as my preferred path to get home to Alpine after some binge photography is to head over Targhee Pass and fly south. There are a few places where people live, along with a few dirt roads here and there, though by and large, the pine forests of Yellowstone descend out of the Park, into national forest, and then onto the relatively flat Snake River Plain before giving way to open range and then agricultural lands.

It still amazes me that a large flat section of the West is something I can’t seem to not be afraid of. Yet, like a moth to a flame, I keep going back.

Snake River Plain giving way to caldera rim.
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National forest in the foreground, rising elevation is the caldera rim in the background.
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Flight: Germany: Northern Odenwald

After the test flight in Germany, there were a few squawks (maintenance issues) to be attended to. Finally completing those, it was time for another test flight. The weather was supposed to be nice on the weekend for a Black Forest flight, and I knew enough from my little adventures in Yellowstone to know that I needed a much longer flight than the first test flight beforehand to make sure all issues had successfully worked themselves out. Making repairs and/or changes and mixing it with a very long flight over unfamiliar terrain in a new country is a recipe for disaster, or at the very least, a big bunch of annoyance as I have to turn around, go home, and fix something.

I did a max performance takeoff climb. Good Lord, this thing can fly and fly incredibly slow with the vortex generators I installed last summer. This was the second sea level flight with these bad boys, and they are something else with the denser air down here.

As I was departing the pattern, the tower kindly advised (barked) me that I needed to turn my transponder to altitude reporting mode. “Egelsbach Info, the transponder is on altitude mode.” “You really must turn it on!” “Egelsbach Info, the transponder has been on altitude mode since prior to takeoff.” “This is a very important transponder zone. You must have it on!” “It must be broken!” “Oh.”

I putzed around a bit outside Egelsbach’s airspace, came back in, and confirmed that they still had no reading. Fiddlesticks. Landing, I pulled up to the hangar, extremely cranky, wondering what on earth is wrong with my $2500 transponder that doesn’t work on the second usage.

I checked the antenna wire to see if it was snug. It popped out. I removed the other side, took it to a mechanic, and he looked and said I might need a new one, he doesn’t know where to get the parts, and that I might want to ask around. “Isn’t it bad for the transponder to have the unit on and the antenna not connected?” “Yes, it can blow it.” At this moment, I was fuming inside, throwing a little temper tantrum. “I hate everything. I hate European stupid regulations and I should just go back to the US.” (Forgetting that the reason I don’t need this stuff in the US is because of a loophole. Its still standard procedure to have a transponder in the US.)

I found another mechanic, who looked at it and said it needed to be re-crimped. He had the tool, got the job done, and I slapped it back in. I advised the tower this takeoff would be a transponder test, and I will stay in the pattern. At about 600 feet above the ground, he advised that he had me on radar. “Egelsbach Info, forget the pattern, I’ll head to Kilo departure point for a local flight.” It was sunny and pretty, and my transponder worked. Since I was in for another €7.98 landing fee, I might as well enjoy it.

The air was clear and the sun was out over the Northern Odenwald foothills, so I got some good old farm field photography, which reminded me a lot of the Star Valley in Wyoming in May of last year. Newly tilled fields, yellow sun, glorious villages, nice hills, a castle, and a beautiful sky. “Europe is so cool! This is awesome!” I thought to myself, forgetting that just 20 minutes ago, I was breathing threats of throwing in the towel and giving up. Just don’t talk to me about the smog the next morning when I didn’t go to the Black Forest. Europe needs to come to grips with their little diesel car obsession and what that does to air quality.

The farm fields thing is working here….
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Looking south into the Odenwald. The difference between this and Appalachia is the fact that Germans keep it clean.
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I could swap this for the Star Valley if I wanted, and people would believe it. Its amazing how there is no giveaway about Germany in this image.
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Nieder-Beerbach. It would be kind of ironic if people in this cute village hated each other.
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Rhein Valley. Not quite so glorious compared to the hills a few miles away.
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Approaching Egelsbach. This is the Autobahn where I do well over 100mph on the way to the airport. I was actually getting passed by cars while flying.
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