The Adventures of Greg DevOps Travel Make Lifehack

From California to Wisconson, 1700 miles in an experimental aircraft

In late July I flew my Long-EZ, a homebuilt experimental aircraft, from California to Wisconson to spend a week with friends at a lake house and to briefly attend the Oshkosh EAA airshow. The journey was 1700 miles and took me over some of the most inhospitable terrain in the country.

My first flight was a very short hop from Hollister to Tracy on Friday
evening. I wanted to get started at first light Saturday, and often
Hollister is fogged in mornings. I picked Tracy because it’s the cheapest
gas inside my flight test area and so I’ve flown in there several times.
The downside is that there’s nothing for food or lodging around the
airport. So I filled the tanks and rolled out a sleeping bag on the
tarmac. The wind was blowing and the stars were out. After I got an
abbreviated night of sleep I woke up, had a bit of an MRE and started
trying to get my telephone flight briefing. It was 5AM, and it seemed that
there were very few flight briefers and that probably everyone else was
trying to get a Saturday morning start to Oshkosh. The other unfortunate
thing is that the payphones will hang up after 10 minutes on a 1-800 call.
So after a few 10 minute hold-and-hangups and then going from my cellphone
I was able to get a flight briefer, get the weather, and file a flight
plan. It caused about a half-hour longer than I expected and so I left
with the sun rising in the east.

  • An unexpected stop in Wyoming

The worries for pilots crossing to Oshkosh is the Sierra and the Rocky
Mountains. High mountains often host turbulence and thunderstorms. But if
you get an early start the heat of the day hasn’t had a change to make
those areas dangerous. I chose an altitude that I /thought/ I wouldn’t
need oxygen (and below the FAA altitude for oxygen) but high enough to
avoid the winds and turbulence over the high terrain. My worries were
weather, or reliability of the aircraft. I didn’t expect physiological
problems with the pilot (me). After four hours in flight I started
developing a slight headache. Crossing the Rockies east of Salt Lake City
I picked up some minor turbulence and I got a bit nauseous. I was a bit
puzzled, as I never gotten motion sickness in many of the rapacious
conditions I’d experienced sailing, but chalked up my nausea to the quick
motion of air turbulence. As I progressed for another half hour my
headache got stronger and I decided I was due for a break, so I landed at
Rock Springs, which is at 7000 feet (over a mile high) but has a 10,000
runway. The landing was unremarkable. I got down and rushed to empty my
bladder, and then tried to sit back for a bit and recover. At the time it
hadn’t occurred to me why I was feeling so bad. I thought perhaps I was
dehydrated or had a bit too much sun through the plane’s bubble canopy.
But after a half hour I felt worse and threw up. I drank more water and
tried to give it a little longer, but didn’t feel any better. I used the
web browser on my phone to look up some stuff on Wikipedia and it looked
like I had Altitude Sickness. It’s typically something that mountain
climbers experience. My training as a pilot only covered the short term
effects of the lack of oxygen (hypoxia) but didn’t really cover long-term
effects of low-oxygen environments. Cessnas don’t fly for five hours at a
time at eleven-thousand feet - which is why I suspect it’s not covered
very much for a private pilot’s license. So I asked the FBO to get me a
shuttle to a hotel for the night in hopes that a good days/nights sleep
would fix me up.

I stopped by two drug stores looking for altitude sickness medicine. Rock
Springs Wyoming is at 7000 feet altitude, one of the highest places you
can live in the US. It is also 900 miles from the nearest ocean. So if
anyone can tell me why the drug stores carry a half-dozen sea-sickness
medications and nothing for altitude sickness please let me know! On the
suggestion of Cherie I got some acetaminophen based headache medicine
which seemed to help.

At the crack of dawn (again) I caught the hotel shuttle. The weather
outlook for the day’s flight was good, clear skies to Mercer with some
thunderstorm activity that was expected to remain north of my flight path.
I still had the fuel I needed to get to Scottsbluff, so off I went. I flew
lower, only a few thousand feet above the broken terrain through the high
Wyoming plain. Soon enough I was happily out of the Rockies and over some
lower-altitude and more hospitable terrain. A quick bathroom break and
some more fuel in Scottsbluff and I were off to Mercer, Wisconsin.

  • Not your typical California weather

For this leg of the trip the terrain was much more hospitable. Flat
farmer’s fields for as far as the eye could see, however I was further
from what I’d consider civilization. No interstate like my trip through
the Rockies. Very few airports as well. I felt off the beaten path as it
were. A few hours into my flight I decided it was a good time to get a
weather update to see what the possible weather was doing ahead of my
route. I dialed up the flight-watch frequency on the radio. Flight-watch
is a service that provides in-route weather updates as pilots request
them. The weather system with the thunderstorms was moving faster than
predicted into the Minneapolis area, and I was advised to divert further
east to avoid it. I continued flying and you could see the dramatic swept
clouds ahead of the front, some of them with light sprinkles underneath.
It was as if the clouds were charcoal drawings and the bottoms were
smudged towards the earth. The sky progressively but very subtly got
darker as I smelled the moisture in the air ahead of the coming storm. The
clouds were not the thin white clouds of California, but towering beefy
clouds of substance. I was apprehensive but knew I could divert, and
unlike a sailboat I could out-run any storm.

As I approached Minneapolis and its surrounding congested airspace I
started talking to the controllers who were busy with routing aircraft
around the weather that had set itself upon Minneapolis ahead of schedule.
I was advised to fly south-of-east, which was even further from my
intended destination. The clouds were getting lower and several times I
found myself informing the controllers that I was descending to get below
the cloud base. The weather continued to get lower and darker and the busy
controller handed me off to another frequency. All I got on that frequency
was dead air, and the weather continued to get worse. I switched back and
the controller told me to go to the new frequency and keep trying… I was
counting on the controllers keeping me away from any really nasty stuff
that showed up on their radars and falling through the cracks of the air
traffic control system was unnerving. I decided I had enough, and I really
needed to LOOK at the weather radar with my own eyes, so I punched the
‘Direct To’ button on the GPS and headed for the closest paved runway… A
charming place called ‘Dodge Center’.

I landed at the quiet unassuming airport, with a short roll-out due to the
stiffening wind. I wondered into the pilot lounge and found a technician
tinkering with the weather terminal. Very friendly folks in dodge, he
helped me navigate the two weather computers… It seems there’s this one
particular type of flight planning / weather computer that are present at
many of the pilot lounges I’ve stopped at. My personal preference is just
a plain old web browser and a high-speed internet connection and I can
find my own way. However internet savvyness and broadband are less common
away from California and these terminals do the trick okay. A line of very
nasty weather stretched from Minneapolis to Rheinlander, blocking my path
but moving southeast. Behind it, still in Canada was another band of very
similar weather. I evaluated my options and it seemed to me the best thing
was to give it a few hours to move south of my flight path and depart
before the line behind it moved into the region. This would give me a few
hours to get some late lunch and explore Dodge Center.

After so many hours in the plane I looked forward to what I was told was a
long walk into town. It’s funny, I get lots of offers for rides whenever I
make one of these stops after a long trip, but I can’t imagine sitting for
a moment longer after I get on the ground. Now Dodge center is not what
you’d call a metropolis. I walked to the downtown, which was about two
blocks long, with half the stores closed down. I did find the one
restaurant, and it had one thing on the menu. I passed; I wasn’t in the
mood for fried chicken and mashed potatoes. Luckily the grocery store on
the way back to the airport had some hot food to satisfy my hunger. Back
to the airport, another look at weather - looks like my window is opening
up. I put a few more gallons of fuel in the plane, make the call that I’m
on my way, and off I went.

I got up in the air and the clouds were still pretty low, as I’m right on
the tail end of the tempest. I close in on the Minneapolis airspace, and
this time I choose to just stay at the edge, clear of the controlled
airspace to give myself more options on dodging clouds as needed. From the
air you can sense the slick water everywhere on the ground… The wetted
cement shines more from the air, and the grass is a darker green. As I
progress behind and away from the storm the clouds get higher, holes
appear to the blue above, and I climb up and into a blue sky with friendly
white puffy clouds… As I climb the terrain below changes from farmland
to pine forest so I am relieved to get more altitude. Altitude is life,
and options… When everything is farmland you can land anywhere; with
airplane-eating pine trees altitude provides the comfort of a further
glide to an airport or clearing if anything were to go wrong. Further into
the pine forest there are less signs of civilization. Towns become fewer
and roads less obvious below the forest canopy. I close in on the quiet
Manitowish towers airport and circle down evaluating the runway below.
Manitowish has a narrow and relatively short runway fringed with 50ft tall
‘airplane eating pine trees’. It’s important here to pay attention on
landing or takeoff here or you could end up in the trees. As luck would
have it the wind is directly across the runway, adding additional demand
for skill to the landing. I came in for landing and as I get close to the
ground I really realize how narrow the runway is. I’d call it
claustrophobic, when lining up, while being attentive to airspeed and
approach angle, and slipping to one side so the crosswind does not blow me
into the grass. I find it’s usually the ‘easy’ landings that are the
roughest due to not having the same focus as when the landing is
challenging. When it’s hard and I’m very focused my landings come out
textbook and so while I was stressed the landing came off perfectly and I
taxied in and shut down; a journey of 1700 miles finally complete.