Day 23 - FRI (8/13): Home Sweet Home
Promise was in the air! Thunderstorms that blocked our path the previous night moved ever so slightly west and north, leaving us a perfect escape to the east with clear weather and good ceilings. Catching the hotel shuttle to AVFlight, we pre-flighted for the last time and were airborne shortly after 9:00 am for the remaining roughly 2 hours of flight, this time with a good 20 knot tailwind to speed our travels. Although ATC initially vectored us toward the moderate rain north of Canton-Akron, they soon let us go on our easterly path into clear skies and smooth sailing. Climbing to 7500 ft, we were soon soaring above the few to scattered clouds in remarkably smooth air with 20+ mile visibility.
Our path took us back over the Youngstown airport (first stop of the trip 3 weeks earlier) and the Bradford airport before entering well known airspace around Elmira. Although there were a few cumulonimbus clouds portending thunderstorms later in the day, we never even got enough rain to clear the bugs off the windshield and wings (no free airplane wash). For almost the entire path from Youngstown to Elmira, we were shadowed by a Piper Archer 4 miles to the south and 500 feet below us; neither of us had enough of a speed advantage to make progress increasing the separation. It is interesting how small another small private plane looks just 4 miles away, but silhouetted against the few clouds made it fun to follow visually. We lost our buddy as they refueled at Elmira while we continued to Ithaca.
Descending to 4000 ft for the run from Seneca Lake to Cayuga Lake and our last pictures, we landed at 11:30 am to great rejoicing among those at the flying club. Mom was there to meet us with Fresca's and a ride home.
All that remained was the final and arduous task of off-loading all of our belongings from the plane, including not only dirty laundry but also the gratefully unused emergency kit. Cleaning all of the bugs off the plane took a few minutes before we could take the final pictures of two smiling pilots that were still talking to each other after over 40 hours of flight time and numerous weather delays. Oh ... and checking in the plane and assessing the final bill for the trip. Well worth every dollar for the memories!
Day 22 - Thu (8/12): Finally, in the Air Again!
The weather cleared, FINALLY!!!!!!! Time to get out of Winona ... almost. But at 7:00 am, doing a final check on weather, the iPad mini refused to open (Apple really hates us). Decision time ... is it safe to fly with only one iPad and no chart backup? Attempts to find a replacement in Winona were unsuccessful and ultimately decided that, since early intrepid pilots used to fly with no charts and no ATC, we should be okay with one iPad, the plane's Garmin, and ATC. Of course, once the decision was made, one last fix was tried and we found lint in the lightning port that prevented the iPad from charging. Yes ... we hate electronics ...
[Sidenote: Listen often and be open to new ideas! The instructor at WinAir suggested considering only extending flaps 10 degrees on preflight; if you forget to retract them, it won't matter on takeoff. Need to look if this might be viable in the future.]
Weather was almost clear; everything east of Winona to Lake Michigan was SKC, but of course Winona had clouds at 5000 ft. But high enough to ensure getting into clear skies to the east. We flew truly VFR up the Mississippi river to Lock and Dam 4 across from Alma, WI where grandma grew up. Continuing another 10 miles up the river to Nelson, WI, we followed County Road D and F to Lyster Church, church valley, and the family farm. The portion of roof ripped off of our barn in last week's weather was clearly visible from the air! And amazingly the cousins had finally taken down the tents from the reunion. Thirty miles across Wisconsin brought the clear blue skies without a cloud in sight; made it easy to avoid all the military jets and blackhawks playing war games in the Volk South MOA. Really important to avoid those restricted areas when they are hot!
Of course the weather only remained clear and a million until we reached Lake Michigan near Kenosha. Turning up the coastline along the VFR lakeshore flyway, the visibility dropped from smoke (smog), but still stayed good enough to great pictures at the VFR required low altitudes (below 2000 feet along the best part along the Chicago skyline). Got pictures of Lisa's alma mater (Northwestern), but we failed to understand why they paint Z's on all of the roofs of the university.
Flying along the Chicago skyline was a really interesting contrast to all the forest and farmland surrounding it. When driving, it feels like it's all dense skyscrapers but from the air it's clear that there really is just this clump in the middle of farm and forest. Must admit, though, that it's a much larger clump than the other cities we've flown over most of the trip. Amazingly, Chicago approach did not terminate flight following, but also barely talked to us. As long as we stayed at 1900 ft, the big jets approaching from the lake to ORD a couple of thousand feet above us were not a problem.
Passing by the Gary, IN airport, we opted instead to go to the Porter County airport at Valparaiso to refuel. Wind gusts forced a go-around, but after refueling we relaxed in the FBO and evaluated weather options. Significant weather was all to the south and west, so as long as we got out quickly everything looked great into Ohio. But at some point, we knew we would catch up to the front and have to stop for the night. We knew we would make it to Toledo and then assess in the air; fortunately lots of options. As we pushed toward Cleveland, the weather was clearly to the north and moving north-east, which meant choosing options south. We flew from one airport to the next, each time deciding the next was reasonable with an option to go back if necessary. That ended, ultimately, at Akron which served as the terminus for this day. But now close enough to Ithaca to expect that one more day of flying and we would be home!
As a sidelight, never bother making hotel reservations if you are going to a large FBO. They have great deals with the hotels at incredible rates; just ask after landing. We are in a Hilton right next to the airport for the night and enjoyed a meal in the lounge downstairs. Beats the Super 8 that Dad would have reserved if he was responsible for hotel accommodations.
Day 21 - Wed (8/11): No fly, interesting friends
Well it's Wednesday and no chance of flying this morning. Mike is supposed to be at Cornell running a funding review with the Air Force for his ACCESS Center; will have to live with Zoom from the hotel room! Fortunately the internet survived.
There was some hope to get across the state in the afternoon and still catch the Oshkosh EAA museum, but that pesky low just sits around Milwaukee with thunderstorms swirling from Chicago up to Green Bay. Call the rental car and sheepishly extend another day.
So what to do for another day stuck in Winona. Let's see who we know. One of Dad's early colleagues from Cornell (actually one of the faculty that hired him) is now at the University of Minnesota and, despite zero notice, invited us to dinner at their home. Arriving an hour early, we explored Minnehaha park with a nice waterfall (though only maybe 1/4-1/3 the size of Taughannock falls in Ithaca). But it was also close enough to walk to see Lock and Dam 1 on the Mississippi river; the river is still huge even at the start of the lock system.
Dinner was, of course, brats on the grill (we were in Minnesota after all), corn, potatoes, and melons with a nice wine (for some). After catching on friends, kids, research and interests, conversation switched to George Floyd and Minneapolis in the news. Turns out our friends lived barely a mile from the site of his death and the site of the riots that followed. Their church, Holy Trinity, was right at the center of the riots with the adjoining police station and post office burned in the early riots. They opened their church as a medical aid station for the protestors and are now working with the community to rebuild the area. It was extremely interesting to hear the first hand both the devastation, and the efforts to help.
Day 20 - Tue (8/10): Tried to escape ... But No ...
Weather continues to haunt the exit from Wisconsin / Minnesota. Oshkosh is finally clear and getting across Wisconsin looked feasible. There was little chance to get much further with thunderstorms plaguing Chicago and the great lakes, but at least we could make progress and maybe see the EAA museum. At 7:00 AM, Winona was clear; but by the time we got to the airport clouds were rolling in and local ceilings dropping. Expecting better weather in route, we departed with just acceptable ceilings, heading toward the sunlight that was clearly visible to the east. Ten minutes out, the clouds just refused to play ball and we called it a day, hightailing it back to Winona and retrieving the rental car we had just returned. We even managed to get back the same room at the same hotel for another night (this time choosing to at least reserve the room through Friday as weather did not look to be improving quickly).
But at least the added day in Minneapolis had a positive outcome. While grandma's memorial reception was on Sunday, the actual burial of the ashes was scheduled for Tuesday at 2:00 pm and was going to occur with no family present. Being stuck in the area, we were able to go to the interment, and then spend time looking up other relatives buried in the same cemetery. Then relaxing lunch, pool and darts at the "Dam View Bar" in Alma; gotta love small towns where no one even questions 15-years old entering a bar with their parents. Dad spent the rest of the evening working with his students on presentations for a project review the next day and we called it an early night. Sometimes good to just have a relaxing day.
Day 19 - Mon (8/9): The Intended departure day
Monday morning and time to pack up for the trip back to Ithaca. If we could get out early, we considered stopping for a tour of the EAA museum in Oshkosh before a final leg and an overnight in Gary, Indiana. But alas the weather would have not of that! It was clear a morning departure was out of the question so we took a late checkout from the hotel and figured we'd try an afternoon flight just over to Oshkosh and catch a hotel there.
That delay gave Dad a chance to go back to the farm and meet up with the gentleman watching over the house on the farm. It's a farm, so it should have been no surprise to find now four dogs, several dozen chickens, and three horses in addition to the hundred-odd cattle. We are very glad that those living in Wisconsin actually know how to deal with these animals!
Annalise arose at the crack of noon and we were back on the road by 1:00 pm; weather still held some promise for a later afternoon departure (3:00 pm) to Oshkosh. Crossing the river to Nelson WI once last time, we made yet another stop at the Nelson Creamery for cheese curds (garlic this time) and ice cream. Driving back toward the farm, we planned to have lunch at the Urne bar (Whitetail) and play a final game of pool, but those plans were foiled; the bar closes on Monday to recover from the weekend. So just a final visit to the farm, a 20 minute drive lost in the back country (no cell phone service and hence no Google maps), and we were back on the Great River Road heading to the airport.
But first a couple of final stops in Alma. First, Lock and Dam 4 where great-grandpa worked as the lock-master in the 1960's. Then a stop at Buena Vista park for views of the summer. Unfortunately, none of the other "10 best things to do in Alma" grabbed our interest.
As 3:00 pm approached, it became obvious that we were not getting out today at all. A call to the airport, rental car agency, and a hotel in Winona and we were committed to another day in Minnesota / Wisconsin. After checking in to the hotel, we called up our great-aunts in Alma and offered to pick up a pizza on the way to see them yet again! At some point, they should grow weary of our company.
Pizza dinner went great and was followed by a rip-roaring game of "shut-the-box". Anna proved the law of averages does not hold as she lost 24 games in a row (it is mostly a game of luck with minimal strategy), before finally winning the final round of the evening. Of course, by this time night was falling and our aunts needed to drive home. We returned to Winona with the hope of departure the next morning after a good night's rest.
Day 18 - Sunday (8/8): Memorial Gathering
Hard to get up after all the partying for the family reunion, but we managed to make it to worship services at the family church (Lyster) at the entrance to church valley, and barely a mile from the family farm. Not sure if still required by COVID, but it was an outdoor service with everyone staying in their cars with the windows down, listening to the preacher who had two large speakers. Given that everyone was okay with large family reunions, it was a bit surprising.
The rest of the morning and afternoon were devoted to setting up the Nelson community hall for grandma's memorial gathering (it was to have been last summer but had to be cancelled due to COVID). Having emptied her house, there were a large number of scrap books, photo albums, and memorabilia spanning her life from grade school to her death. The scrapbooks and family photo-albums filled two large tables, and it took a third table to handle the photos of all her cats and dogs over the years. That table looked like a bulletin board from a veterinarian's office or the local SPCA. While there was/is an annual family reunion on my grandfather's side, my grandmother's side almost never get together; the memorial gathering was the first time in many years to bring the remaining sisters and their progeny together. Having everyone around also meant that many of the ancient pictures in the albums now have names associated with the faces and some context for the photo itself!
As a side note, small midwestern towns also have some culinary gems! While the event was too small for conventional catering, the J&J BBQ restaurant right across the street from the community center (a mom and pop place for 40 years) provided pulled pork and chicken with all the fixings for dinner. One of the best meals of the trip!
Uncle Pat, Aunt Elaine and my two cousins left immediately after the gathering to drive back to Pennsylvania. They really should learn to fly ... must easier than driving through the night. We went back across the river to Wabasha for our final night before heading back to Ithaca.
Day 17 - Sat (8/7): Family Reunion
What more is there to say. We gathered on the family farm at 10:00 AM and tried to make sense of the 100+ relatives that show up every year!
Rain threatened to quell the reunion enthusiasm, but as soon as there was an alternative in place (going to the community hall that was rented for the memorial gathering the next day), the rain relented and the reunion proceeded.
There was, of course, far more food than anyone needed compliments of all the large families. We met new relatives, and embarrassingly asked names of some we should have known. There were seven kids in grandpa's family, and some of them had equally large families. They also have a big head start on our family, with up to five generations represented at the reunion for some. Annalise got excited by some of the genealogy and started tracking her local branch in a program on her phone; the complexity rapidly became apparent and a full-fledged computer database is next. Fortunately, her grand-cousins Judy Thompson had already collected and tabulated much of the history going back to the exodus from Norway in the mid-1800's.
Part of the family reunion includes games and a raffle (to pay for the next year's reunion). Annalise entered several times and won both a t-shirt and the raffle for the family quilt (they were actually her mom's tickets that won the quilt). Normally a hand-made quilt, the uncle-once-removed responsible for sewing the quilt this year decided to go with a Green Bay Packer (commercial) quilt. This will, by the way, almost certainly thrill Lisa more than any quilt based on the Thompson family history!
As is tradition, the reunion moved from the farm to the Nelson bar and grill for karaoke after initial tear-down and cleanup of the farm. Everyone appropriately embarrassed themselves with renditions of "Fat Bottom Girls" to "I Just Can't Wait to be King". Somewhere around 10:00 to 11:00 pm, the group started to thin out as everyone returned home to recover for the next day.
Day 16 - Fri (8/6): Castle Rock and Reunion Set-up
The day started with a trip back down to the Winona airport to give the A&P mechanic (doing an oil change on the plane) the keys! But we combined it with a stop at Walmart to get supplies for grandmother's memorial gathering on Sunday. Coming back up the Wisconsin side of the river, we stopped at the city clerk's office to finish the paperwork transferring the cemetery plots for grandmother. We also discovered that the county clerk was related to us ... some cousin relationship three generations back. With a name like Linda Torgerson , we had to be related (my great-great-great grandfather). While Linda does not attend the Torgerson/Thompson reunion, her sister Bernice always does; gives us someone new to intentionally find on Saturday.
After visiting with my great-aunts in Alma and going through old photos, Dad and I headed into Alma to a museum we discovered looking for the clerk yesterday; Castlerock Museum. Turns out it is a local judge's personal collection (extremely extensive) of medieval armor, art, and weaponry. Armor dated back to the Roman conquests up through the age of chivalry with pieces that rival many European museums. The most surprising thing to Anna was just how BIG all the spears were. She also got to feel the weight of a chain mail shirt and hold a 2 handed sword. The sword was relatively light, but the chain mail was another story...she could only hold it for about 20 seconds before her arms got too tired. We also got to see barding (horse armor) and now know why it was so rare and expensive to have a horse in battle. It was really interesting to see all the variation in the helmet designs and especially the differences between time periods.
The afternoon was spent setting up the farm for the reunion; primarily putting up half a dozen large tents and a dozen tables for the crowds. Dad and me took on the task of assembling new tables for this year; Dad got the drill as a screwdriver but I was a purist and only used a real screwdriver for assembly. We managed to even get the first one assembled correctly which made the rest go fair fast (though we did remove and replace many more screws than necessary).
In contract, it only took Uncle Pat and his cousins an hour or so to discover they were using the wrong instructions to assemble the tents. Guess the failure to secure a 1/4 keg for the beer cooler meant they had few brain cells left to devote to the task of tent assembly while the remainder of their brain-power pondered the question of how to address the absence of beer at the reunion.
A brat and corn dinner closed out the setup before everyone retired to the Whitetail bar in Urne for pool and drinks. Urne, WI is the thriving megalopis with a population of about 40 located only a mile and a half from the farm. The population doubles when the bar is open. Annalise got to play pool against her cousins; Joel pretty much destroyed her, but she was able to hold her own better with Seth. Dad proved he is still a pool shark giving Joel a challenge. We finally played teams, Dad and I against Seth and Joel; I go to make the winning shot putting the 8-ball into the corner pocket and walk away victorious.
Day 15 - Thursday (8/5): Finding our way around
Thursday was a very simple day with no specific agenda beyond becoming acclimated with small town farm life again. The towns of our relatives are really small, ranging from the great Buffalo County seat at Alma with a shopping 688 residents (in 2019), to Nelson, WI as the big city 10 miles from the family farm (340 residents in 2019), to the local center of social life around the farm (1.5 miles) in Urne, WI (there might be 40 residents, but that may include their pets). Wabasha, with the real hotel that we called home, lies just across the Mississippi from Nelson, WI, barely a 10 minute drive. First stop was the Nelson Cheese Factory to get real cheese curds; the kind that when warm really do squeak as you eat them.
The cousins we visited in St. Louis two weeks earlier (Clarice and Michael) made their reservations for staying at the farmhouse itself (not sure if they won or lost the lottery). But turns out other relatives spent several weeks cleaning up the farmhouse with even lattice work hiding the under porch. We made our way to the farm to invite them for lunch, but missed them and headed into Urne for lunch and pool. Can't beat the prices for food and drinks out in the country, and the pool table remained the draw that it has always been for young (and old) kids. Only disappointment was that the dart board had disappeared; we had practiced extensively back in Ithaca to be credible playing the locals. Oh well ... there will be other bars.
The windstorm that hit Oshkosh and the EAA gathering had passed through western Wisconsin before heading east. While in the neighborhood of Urne, it decided to take off ~10% of the tin roof from the farm my dad and uncle own (and ultimately I guess I will own). It didn't rip off the tin, but rather ripped off the 2x4's that the tin was attached to. Fortunately, the neighbors are helping to arrange for some Amish workmen to come in an repair the damage; no way me or my dad are going up there!
From Urne, we drove south back to Alma and first to the cemetery where grandma was to be buried. After climbing the hill to the spot, we grabbed a few pictures and then went to meet up with her sisters, Delma and Avis. Though both are getting along in years too, they remain very much lively and independent in their homes. Can't ever say enough for having good genes! Their hospitality was equally warm and we spent probably three hours catching up on their lives and ours, and going through some of the scrapbooks that we salvaged from grandma's house in El Paso. We also learned that dad's cousin Maxine was doing a great job publicizing the memorial gathering among our relatives, and it was expected to be a successful event.
Another quiet night at the hotel to get ready for the next day.
Day 14 - Wednesday (8/4): Good Ol' Wisconsin
There was no rush to make the final leg to Wisconsin (now less than 4 hours away and hence a very high probability of making for the family reunion and memorial gathering). Our friend in Manhattan is a professor in the veterinary college at the University of Kansas and treated us to a private tour of the campus. Great fun to get off the "tourist" tours and see the bowels of the vet college including small animal surgery, and facilities for the big animal surgery. Learned that cows and horses walk on their fingers/toes and the joint we typically thought was a elbow/knee is actually the wrist/ankle. Oh well, what we get for not growing up on a farm. Probably should find a way to get an equivalent tour at Cornell to compare the facilities.
Bruce dropped us off at the airport; security at least required us to call to be let onto the tarmac. We needed a fuel stop on the way, so how to decide where to go. One could consider avgas prices, but it was much more fun just to go by the locations. For this leg, we chose Ft. Dodge, having just left Dodge City. Annalise was must impressed with the airport there; they have a passenger terminal with full TSA complement and screening, but a single door leads to the FBO where we get to walk out to our plane freely. But they did have a good vending machine for snacks and a soda before the last leg of the day.
Our ultimate destination was Winona, MN, is a small airport with a single runway right on the Mississippi river, but having a good maintenance facility to get an oil change. Winona lies halfway between La Crosse (with commercial air service) to the south, and Durand Airport (a very small airport that sometimes has fuel) that is only a few miles from the family farm. Winona also had readily accessible rental cars which made it a no-brainer. Being an even smaller airport, we were able to drive right up to the plane and transfer our belongings before tying down 53045 for the four days we would be in the area.
It is always fun to talk with the operators/owners/chief pilots at these smaller FBOs (WinAir). It turned out he and dad had linked histories; he was well familiar with Cal Tech and Cornell, and any mistakes my dad made were quickly dismissed for two reasons: (i) he was a PhD and (ii) he had gone to Cal Tech. He also owned a plane that he purchased from the former Cornell Flying Club in the 1960's (possibly the Piper Archer that he using for flight instruction).
A 38 mile drive up the river from Winona to Wabasha and we checked into a nice hotel for the evening. Didn't get to stay at the family farm this trip, which did not disappoint Annalise too terribly. Having showers and running water is definitely a plus to the hotel!
Day 13 - Tuesday (8/3): Getting Into (And Outa) DoDge City
Weather in the morning was questionable, so we just relaxed in the hotel. Annalise again rose spritely at the crack of noon as we headed into Dodge to visit the "Dodge City Museum". Dodge City lies on the 100th meridian and marks the transition from the "wet" eastern part of the US and the "dry" western part. But Dodge City is more famous as the home of Wyatt Earp. The museum was not bad, giving a good history of the development of the town from the start of the Santa Fe trail to the center of culture in a developing world. Annalise also learned of the many uses for buffalo chips, including drying and powdering for use as toothpaste; maybe we should be happy living in the modern world.
We could not stay long enough to see an enactment of the gun battles. But weather was clear and we headed back to the airport to "Get The Hell Out of Dodge" and continue on the Manhattan KS and our friends there. By 4:00 pm we were on our way again in clear skies. The trip was uneventful and we landed in KMHK just before 6:00 met by Bruce on the tarmac; waiting at the FBO, he immediately recognized that we had arrived when one of the crew noted someone in a Hawaiian shirt had just landed.
Driving out to Bruce and Kathy's house, we took the back roads learning about these pesky invasive trees on what should be pure prairie; and how the trees create a challenge for the what should be regular burns of the prairie grass. Most interesting on the trip was the Shamrock Cafe (check it out on Google maps ... Shamrock Cafe, Tall Grass Road, Alma, Kansas)! The cafe is just a cutout on the side of the road with four chairs, a table, and a ledger that visitors sign; don't expect any food however. Looks like it might also be used for geo-caching, but how it made it to Google maps is the puzzle. The other great entry in the area is the "Beecher Bible and Rifle Church" out in the country!
Bruce and Kathy treated us to a great and traditional Kansas dinner with steaks (of course) and fresh corn and vegetables pulled a few minutes earlier from their garden. And balanced by a couple bottles of wine for my dad; wine brewed by Bruce in this basement (which Dad said was quite good).
As usual when meeting friends, it was maybe a bit later than expected when we finally settled down for the night.
Day 12 - Monday (8/2): Goodbye El Paso
The weather turned promising on Monday for a flight back north toward Wisconsin, at least into Kansas. But the real challenge was Dad saying goodbye to the house he had grown up in and visited for the past 50 years. The house might still be there next time, but it will never be the same house again. Somewhere around 10:00 am Dad was finally ready to head out; a few last stops and we picked up our friends Michele and Richard and headed to the Dona Ana County airport.
After showing off 53045 to our friends, and talking up the joys of private planes, we departed KDNA closer to noon with a plan to fly back along V280 (to avoid being shot down in the MOAs) but going onward to Clovis, NM which was showing (and forecasting) clear skies (on the border of NM and the Texas panhandle). Although initially denied, ATC changed their minds and let us proceed around the bottom of the mountains along the US/Mexico border and over downtown El Paso (as well as the ELP and Biggs airfields). Sprawling cities are always pretty, but the contrast between the US and Mexico was also startling.
Established on V280 (with the PIO VOR operating this time), we flew initially at 8500 ft before seeing a good break in the clouds and deciding to see just how high a basic Skyhawk could fly. The climb performance dropped significantly above 10,000 ft, but we were ultimately able to fly at 12,500 ft across Roswell (all the planes still parked there) and toward Clovis, NM. At 12,500, we were over a scattered to broken cloud bank that Annalise loved; reminded her of flying on Toothless in "How to train your dragon"; her dad, on the other hand, was more focused on ensuring it remained on the scattered side of broken and being able to see paths down!
As promised, the clouds disappeared and skies were completely clear by the time we reached Clovis, NM. With new fuel and an hour relaxation, it was clear we could not reach Manhattan, KS that night and we decided that the next best choice was Dodge City, KS; if for no other reason than to say we could honestly say "Time to Get the Hell Out of Dodge". Travel was uneventful at 9,500 ft and we landed near sunset at 7:45 with a beautiful sky (having lost an hour going east). The FBO suggested a good hotel in town and calling one of the local taxis (quasi Uber/Lyft operations), we were nestled in for another night.
Day 11 - Sunday (8/1):
Weather in El Paso indeed proved to be good, but that was about it! By 6:00 AM, it was clear we were going nowhere and would spend at least another day in El Paso. As always, there was some good as that meant having an extra day to do a final go through of the house. A few more interesting finds, but not much left that had not been checked previously.
But we did go back to Richard and Michele's house to finish that evening of cards. With a very relaxed time, we enjoyed just relaxing and playing cards and listening to the Elvis music (did we mention that they were really really big fans of Elvis).
Day 10 - Saturday (7/31):
We packed up and took Uncle Pat and cousins to the airport for their flights back to Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, there was still much to do at the house!
More packing up the house, going through everything and more. Finding more rooms and boxes with more photographs, albums, and memorabilia.
Dad, of course, could not totally escape work and finally finished reading and editing a master's thesis that had to be submitted before the August 1 deadline.
But the biggest accomplishment was clearing off the pool table allowing us to play pool. Uncle Pat took most of the good pool cues, but even the slightly crooked ones made for good fun. Handicapping dad with a required bank of the 8-ball made the games much more balanced!
We returned to our friends Michelle and Richard's house for dinner and to play with the dogs (ever more convincing Annalise that the Thompson house needed a dog). While getting ready to play cards for the evening, Richard offered that the weather was looking good for the morning but that it was unlikely to hold. Checking the forecast for the El Paso area confirmed the nice weather in the morning, and the evening was cut short with a rapid drive home and plan to finish up for departure in the morning. Fortunately we were getting close!
Day 9 - Friday (7/30): TopGolf!!
Friday was a key packing and organizing day. The local humane society was the beneficiary of most of grandma's pet supplies, including multiple kennels, pet beds, climbing posts, etc. We finally got to the point of actually packing things into boxes after a real mexican lunch.
Taking a break from packing in the evening (there was some packing, but not enough), we went out golfing with our friends Michele and Richard, and their daughter/son in law/grand-daughter, at Top Golf (driving range with big circular targets). Anna's game started with 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 but after a while some points started accumulating. First time golfing for her she managed to beat everyone by the last game. Her biggest lesson about golf is that it's all about having the confidence to a large swing but know that it will hit the ball.
Day 8 - Thursday (7/29): El Paso
Thursday morning provided beautiful weather for the flight down to El Paso. The biggest challenge was threading the needle between all the MOAs (Military Operation Areas) in the New Mexico airspace (actually most of New Mexico). Out of Roswell, we picked up V280 which fortunately also followed relatively low terrain and avoided all of the mountain ridges, giving Mike no chance to practice his mountain flying. But equally there were few signs of civilization along the way save a ranch or two with watering holes in the middle of the desert. We climbed to 10,500' and flew basically flew over both the El Paso airport and the Biggs Army airfield before crossing the Franklin Mountains into Dona Ana county airport (KDNA) on the west side of town (and only a few miles from the Mexico border).
After coming from flat New York it was a really cool change of pace to see all the mountains and terrain in Texas. The mountains are much greener than one would expect for a desert, and the water makes really interesting deltas in the rocks. It has been a very wet summer for them, and the desert is surprisingly green and live. Benefits of the Monsoon season.
Waiting for Annalise's uncle, we enjoyed a very nice FBO movie lounge with a wall-size projector screen and caught up on Terminator 2. A short drive back into Texas landed us at the house Mike grew up in, and finally our meal at Whataburger.
Day 7 - Wednesday (7/28): ALIENS!!!!
The overnight allowed much of the weather to dissipate and it looked like we should have no trouble continuing into New Mexico, and potentially pushing for a longer day and continuing all the way to El Paso, TX. We again planned a northly route out of Ft. Smith to avoid the few hills, with a fuel stop at F05, Wilbarger County Airport. That would at least put us back into Texas for a few minutes.
As expected, the weather was clear and we flew most of the way at 8500'. There was a lot of weather developing far to the south around Lubbock, TX, but the front was clearly moving away from flight route. Flight following again proved essential crossing areas with numerous MOAs and flight training!
Coming into F05, the AWOS indicated winds favoring RWY 20; but while overflying the field to enter the downwind, the wind sock was clear and strongly pointing to a RWY 34 landing. Believing our eyes rather than those pesky electronics, we reconfigured for landing on RWY 34; primary concern was non-insignificant turbulence below 1500'. Landing seemed fast, but with an 4304' runway was no problem. As we taxi'd to the FBO, we saw a truck head out to the windsock; turns out they were doing maintenance and had locked it in place aligned to the runway. Oh well, can't believe your eyes either.
After a nice visit with the FBO manager and two women waiting for their ride, we headed back out toward Roswell, NM. Discussion with the flight briefer confirmed that the significant weather would remain to the south and not impact our northerly route. We decided to stay further north and give the convective activity a good 100 miles of clearance. Cruising at 8500' initially, as the landscape became more and more deserted, we climbed to 10,500' in beautiful clear skies; finally visibility was over 50 miles. We almost expected to lose flight following as we listened to center managing all the flights through the convective activity to the south, but they just happily passed us along from controller to controller.
Heading into Roswell, we got a clearance to proceed north for a straight in to RWY 17 avoiding all the C130's and Black Hawks playing on RWY 21. Winds were reported as 9 kts gusting 12 as we approached Roswell; we should maybe have anticipated some change as all the C130's were aborting their IFR practice. As we turned on final, tower called winds 21 kts gusting 29, fortunately straight down the runway. Those winds made it interesting getting the plane on the ground, and keeping it there as we taxi'd. Any thought of continuing to El Paso dissipated with the landing and we knew we would spend the night in the alien capital of the world.
Roswell also proved "never trust the electronics". As we landed, tower instructed us to turn off on Hotel and taxi via Alpha and Charlie to the FBO. Having become dependent on ForeFlight's "Safe Taxi" diagrams, I just looked down to see where to go. Aargh ... "IPAD OVERHEATED" was the only message. After a sheepish call to tower with an explanation and request for progressive taxi, and after they finished laughing, we were directed down the taxiway to the FBO. It was definitely a place that we very securely tied down 53045 for the night!
While in Roswell, we had no choice but to visit THE destination, the UFO and Alien museum. It was pretty interesting to hear all the court statements and also see how much of an influence the 1947 "Roswell Incident" has had on pop culture with movies like Independence Day. There is a lot of history at the event at the museum, and well worth an hour or so to read and listen to the statements they've collected. Unfortunately, the exhibit with the actual alien bodies in formaldehyde wasn't open so we didn't get to actually see the ET's that purportedly perished in the crash.
After the museum closed we decided to head over to a rock shop nearby where we watched them crack open a few geodes and Annalise bought a bismuth crystal. Our Amazon recommendation feed is now corrupted with ads for 8 lbs of bismuth metal as Anna now wants to try growing her own crystals using her dad's labs at Cornell. Who knows, she can probably recover the cost easily if she sells the crystals to friends.
Back close to God's country, we hoped to snag a dinner at Whataburger; but alas, they were still closed to in-person dining and a stop at Applebee's had to suffice. Another relaxing night and a plan for an early departure the next morning for the final leg down to El Paso over very sparsely populated and relatively in-hospitable terrain.
Day 6 - Tuesday (7/27): The word of the day is Flexibility...
Weather is a challenge anytime in a small plane and flying across hot-humid mid-west will also pose more than minor concerns. The weather wasn't bad, but there were widely dispersed thunderstorms and convective sigmet outlooks. The plan was to fly to Witchita Falls, TX, and get back into God's country, following a northly route toward Oklahoma City to avoid what passes for mountains in the east and to stay north of the majority of the weather. A fuel stop was planned in Fort Smith, AK (KFSM) with a reassessment of the weather at that point. After conversations with Flight Service, the decision was made to proceed. The best comment of the day from the briefer was "Sigmet Outlooks are so broad and non-specific to be almost useless". He expected widely scattered pop-up thunderstorms but no significant convective activity.
The flight out of Memphis was great, holding up a couple of FedEx flights for the "slow moving VFR traffic" as we departed RWY 27. Only surprise was the Clearance Delivery at Memphis would not provide immediate flight following; it had to be picked up in the air after departure. Also, clearance into the Class Bravo is given explicitly as part of taxi instructions.
The flight to Fort Smith proceeded at 6500' and 8500' while we watched isolated rain developing along our route of flight. With a final jog to the north to avoid the R-2402A restricted zone, we landed and grabbed a crew car to head into town for lunch at a great recommended pizza place. Reviewing the weather, Ft. Smith remained clear (below 12,000) and calm, but 20 miles out in almost all directions had thunderstorms popping up routinely. We sat most of the afternoon, checking every half hour or so to see if the storm would pass. Now, we have to admit it is really tough sitting in a nice reclining chair in the FBO's pilot lounge napping the afternoon away. But finally about 4:30 pm, we called it and decided to spend the night in Ft. Smith. The FBO was incredible - getting us reservations at a nice hotel that included transport to/from the airport for less than we spent on any other accommodations.
Equally, we have to admit there wasn't a lot to do in Ft. Smith. But it was a relaxing night and offered a chance for an early morning departure the next day in better weather.
Day 5 - Monday (7/26): The King of Rock & Roll
Monday morning indeed brought tolerable, but not great, weather for the flight to Memphis. We delayed departure to 9:30 AM to allow some of the weather to burn off, but that meant arriving near noon in the heat and humidity. Ouch.
Coming out of Spirit of St. Louis (KSUS), we got the magic words "cleared into the Class Bravo" from flight following and proceeded across St. Louis at 5,000'. The remainder of the flight to near Memphis was scattered as we climbed to 8500' as weather permitted. But as we approached Memphis, clouds and weather developed to the south. Millington (KNQA) became the plan as it remained clear and unlimited while Memphis was dropping below 5,000' with rain. But once cleared into the Class Bravo, the controllers vectored us over KNQA (as an alternative) and around for straight in RWY 27 east of the weather. Only challenge was staying below 2500' almost the entire way. We landed 27 with nary a drop of rain (amidst all the FedEx flights) and taxied to the Wilson Air Center. The crew at Wilson gave us a ride to our hotel where we checked in and called Lyft for a ride to Graceland.
Annalise spent the flight listening to the "essential Elvis Presley" songs; her family having failed her education into the key developments of music. We chose to focus on the history of Elvis and hence did not actually go to the Graceland Mansion, opting instead to use the extra time to visit a travelling exhibition from the Walt Disney archives showing at Graceland. The museum is a nice tribute and history of Elvis's impact on music as well as his fun-loving lifestyle with cars, motorcycles, boats and planes. One of the more interesting rooms included tributes from many modern singers acknowledging his impact on their careers. These most often included outfits from shows they had done dressed in Elvis's style of sequined vests and bell bottoms; including Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and KISS.
Being a flying adventure, a highlight was the Lisa Marie (N880EP), the Commodore 880 4-engine jet he bought and refurbished as his house in the sky. Comparing the Lisa Marie to Air Force One (at the Air Force Museum), Elvis wins hands down with gold-plated fixtures in the bathrooms and a king-size bed in the back, complete with a seat belt across the full width to satisfy FAA requirements (not sure it would have been very useful). Stories have it that the call sign would often be abbreviated as "Hound Dog One". Elvis later added a smaller quad-engine jet which primarily served the manager during tours.
The Disney archives were not quite as impressive as expected, but there were a number of gems that made the visit worthwhile. Favorites included (i) Herbie the Love Bug (#53), (ii) Wilson (the soccer ball from Castaway), (iii) the gun from Honey I Shrunk the Kids, and (iv) Cogsworth and Lumiere from Beauty and the Beast.
The one failure was Lyft on the return to the hotel; one driver cancelled after starting toward Graceland and a second abandoned the ride when she couldn't figure out how to follow GPS directions. A two mile walk back through less than ideal neighborhoods has diminished our willingness to go with Uber and Lyft for any future trips; taxis may have their issues, but there is some control.
Day 4 - Sunday (7/25): St. Louis, the sequel!
Weather in the morning included extensive thunderstorm activity from a slow moving front. Made the decision to spend an extra day with the cousins a no-brainer; fortunately St. Louis has a great and free zoo to visit. While the weather was extremely hot an humid, there abounded opportunities to freeze in the penguin exhibit held at a nice frigid 40 F. Most of the residents of the zoo were equally distressed with the weather and were nowhere to be found, or were resting as much as they could in whatever shade the habitats offered. Anna's favorite exhibit was the puffins and she even decided to adopted one (luckily not a real puffin, but just as cute).
Weather for Monday morning looks acceptable for the short flight to Memphis and a planned tour of Graceland. Unfortunately, Annalise's parents have been delinquent in her education and she is unlikely to know many, if any, of the cultural references to the king of pop. But there is also a travelling Disney exhibit at Graceland this year with original costumes and cells from early Disney movies; this may well be the highlight of the visit.
The flight is planned directly to KMEM this time, which will tax the pilot's skills in more complex airspace. Thank goodness for flight following and an expectation that we will go in under equivalent cover of an IFR flight plan. We do hope to avoid being the gnat on a FedEx cargo plane departing at the same time we arrive. KMEM lies only 4 miles from Graceland which makes even the expensive fuel worth the direct trip. And we expect the FBO to be brimming with accommodations even for a lowly C172.
Day 3 - Saturday (7/24): St. Louis
The first conflicts of the day arose at the break of dawn. One of us was looking to leave the hotel by 7:30 to be ready to depart the airport by 8:30 am; the other co-conspirator thought 7:30 was meant to be time to begin thinking about arranging a process to evaluate options for a transition from sleep to a more active state. Somewhere around 9:00 marked the eventual departure from the hotel back to KDAY.
Weather was promising for the day; clouds few to scattered in layers and only becoming more prevalent near St. Louis. But visibility was definitely a concern; early morning mist was burning off but there was a definite haze limiting visibility to 10-15 sm. But after a smooth takeoff, we were soon cruising at 6500 ft in a 15 kt headwind (at least we were still going faster than the cars). Finding runways 10 miles away in the haze became the in-flight past time.
The first stop of the day was for refueling (2 hrs) at Robinson (KRSV); partially chosen for the cheap avgas. From there, halfway to St. Louis the visibility increased dramatically and we had 20-25 sm by the time we were watching for the big planes at STL (St. Louis's air carrier airport).
With flight following, we were shepherded to the "Spirit of St. Louis" airport (KSUS) on the western side of the city. Indeed, we were routed directly over KSTL with the admonition only to maintain at or above 3500. Took a little discussion with the controllers to stay VRF while being vectored, but ATC was very accommodating.
After fueling (relatively cheap self-serve at $5.15/gal at KSUS) and tie-down at the FBO, we met up with cousins for a nice lunch (with wine). We headed into to St. Louis proper to visit the science museum (highlight being the game section and a most interesting cylindrical ping pong table), and then obviously the quintessential Gateway Arch National Park downtown. One of the downsides of not being able to schedule far in advance, we did not get to ride the tram up the arch (sold out until August), but we did get an equally interesting presentation on the engineering challenges around fabricating the arch in the 1960's.
Day 2 - Friday (7/23): United States Air-force Museum
We decided to stay in Dayton another day and got to see all kinds of planes in the museum, old ones, new ones, large ones, famous ones, and REALLY fast jets. Anna learned how piston engines worked, and Michael found a plane with 6 engines along the back (looked a lot like the opening shot of Space Balls.)
We got to walk through an old airforce one and see some of the other aircraft that have had that designation over the years
Day 1 - Thursday (7/22): Takeoff!
Left New York and visited some old friends before continuing on to Dayton, OH. Tomorrow we'll go see the Air Force museum.
Anna: "Flying into airports is really fun when you get all the same benefits as the pilots who fly the private jets around; people fueling the plane for you, cookies in the lobby, and a car ready for you just off the runway."
Michael: "After all the weather concerns and delays, it was just such a beautiful and relaxing flight. And surprising how well you can get along in flight when the headphones allow each to listen to totally different music while still talking about the world below."