It's the Filling That Counts

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Sometimes a gift can come in the form of an utterly impossible set of situations. The time constraints faced by a small-business owner and his pilot wife lead to a five-day adventure. But can adventure be found in delighted moments, rather than "I'll never do that again" experiences?

The longest flight of my aviation career begins much the same way as the day I got married: Although the event was certain, how to accomplish it wasn't. A squall line of business and personal responsibility creates a downpour of deadlines. The summer monsoon season pinpoints a three-day time frame. My youngest daughter Savannah has been practicing for her kindergarten graduation for two months. Tawny has excelled in all areas during her first year of junior high, and has amassed a collection of awards. My son Luke is graduating from high school just north of Seattle. Sandwiched between our business deadlines are three different graduations spaced 750 miles apart.

We have been pondering every option for weeks. Honest aspiration and parental guilt go toe-to-toe like gladiators. Someone will be a casualty. Desire to be there for each of my kids is clearly not a possibility. My husband Kurt's early morning idea takes verbal form: "We could make Corvallis by evening." Several of his relatives are conveniently located just past the halfway point of our proposed journey north. He has always dreamed of taking the trip to Seattle in our Tiger. Devouring miles in the air is a delightful prospect to my battle-worn road warrior.

The Crux of the Matter ...

I haven't had the privilege of using the plane for transportation before. My worst landing ever occurred with nearly every member of my family there to experience and savor along with me. Elementary physics clearly demonstrates that the harder you throw a ball on the ground, the higher it bounces. Four years of flying hadn't erased the trauma imprinted forever in the minds of my daughters. Their response to aviation ever since has been "understated cool," attributed to the jarring of gray matter that took place during that infamous event. True to form, I encounter a thick veil of resistance to the thought of a long flight.

My 13-year-old daughter Tawny gives our schedule breathing room by deferring our presence at her awards ceremony to the following year. Now, our objective will be getting from the Bay Area to Washington State. To appease the girls, we reluctantly consider a 12-hour road trip after the kindergarten graduation. Heroic efforts to make this seem like a good idea fall flat neither of us can drum up the necessary enthusiasm. The comfortable economy of the van doesn't seem worth the 36-hour price tag of driving round-trip. A three-and-a-half hour flight to Corvallis seems a much brighter option.

A persistent thought nags me. One thing that flying offers generously is time. Time to visit with the girls' great-grandmother. Time to see places we've never seen, and can't envision doing anytime in the future. And time to rest and be refreshed for my son's big event. I sense that we will be missing something irreplaceable if we opt for the economical alternative. The forecast predicts perfect weather along the coast. Despite the feminine whine I encounter, flying it will be.

Northwest Passage

Sunshine smiles warmly on us from California all the way to Canada. Bay fog flirts with Oakland in the afternoon as we depart, immediately after kindergarten cake and ice cream, to Siskiyou County. On takeoff, I am startled to discover firsthand what a small weight, shifting rapidly on a large arm, will do. We are living factors of a simple math equation. I opt to stop in Red Bluff for fuel and a baggage shuffle.

Those familiar with Red Bluff in June know that it functions at only two temperatures: hot and ridiculous. At five p.m., it is the latter. Fortunately, thermals offer us a significant hand with our vertical speed. Even with the throttle pulled way back for cooling, we obtain a respectable 1,200 fpm climb, coupled with much happier engine temps.

Late afternoon brings us along the spectacular western slopes of Mt. Shasta. I have always enjoyed this part of northern California, and it's Kurt's first opportunity to see this geological marvel from an avian perspective. We cruise in silent wonder over Ashland and Medford, until beginning our descent into Roseburg.

A Salad Bowl

Roseburg Airport is simply a piece of art. Its beauty is so distracting that I must discipline myself to keep my mind in the cockpit as I set up for landing. But we will find no relief from the scorching climate here. Fuel and drinks are soaked up like a sponge. Relief for the girls' tropical imprisonment is promised upon completion of a final short flight.

Taxiing to the run-up area at this perfect airport is wondrous. Our mag check is smooth, and I line up on the centerline to begin our departure. Our takeoff produces an anemic climb coupled with a looming question: Why is there a hill directly on our departure path? I mean, who thought this one up? The garnish on this lovely scene now has my full attention. The fully loaded Tiger is always game to give all it has, but it won't be sufficient to overcome this salad bowl. We swing right through a gentle valley and climb at a leisurely rate to 2,000 feet.

It is only a short hop to Corvallis, and it is spectacular the best Oregon has to offer. Kurt and I have unwound a great deal in a short time, and we relax with a contented sigh as we find ourselves far from the urban sprawl of the Bay. Rolling green hills bordered by winding rivers and scattered farms are laid out like a picnic blanket. Early evening is remarkably serene. Lengthening shadows from a setting sun cast a decidedly purple contrast over the peaceful countryside. Winds are calm as we touch down lightly and taxi over to the terminal.

Surprise Encounter
(click images for large versions)
B-17 at Corvallis

Much to our surprise, a B-17 is occupies the tarmac. It is a personal meeting with a celebrity that I have only seen in magazines. Fatigue from the heat is quickly replaced with delighted curiosity.

"Flying Fortress" is an apt description for this incredible flying machine. Take an impregnable fortress, stock it to the gills with armament of every kind, make sure that it can defend itself from each angle imaginable, and then put wings on it. It takes only a fragment of imagination to envision flying over war-torn soil in this monster fighter.

"I know a little about these planes," an unpretentious man of gentle spirit comments to Kurt. This is a mild understatement. He is a veteran of over 400 missions in the ball turret. It seems incongruous that one experienced in war and its fury can now stand in repose under this beast. His gentle character disguises steely fearlessness of a sort that I have never witnessed before. I come to a startled realization that I am standing in the presence of no ordinary human, but of a hero.

Kurt's grandmother has come to meet us at the terminal. Nana Pat is a lively octogenarian who always has a surprise up her sleeve. She has more than a few to share with us today. As we pile into her station wagon for the drive to her home, we slowly pass a fragmented Cessna 152.

Things had gone all wrong for this little plane. An airframe separation had left the fuselage and tail estranged. Behind the back of the fuselage, the newly single tail brazenly kisses terra firma. Our curiosity nudges us to ask a friendly fuel attendant of the story behind this. Shaking his head, he describes the extraordinary event. A T-6 had been taxiing a bit too close to the parked aircraft. Its prop had neatly removed the entire empennage with ease, like a hunting knife slicing through a beer can. Damage to the offender was limited to a minor prop shop visit it hadn't stopped the engine at all.

Three Generations Earlier ...

After dinner and dessert there is a treat in store for us. "Here I have something to show you," Nana exclaims. In her hand are a half-dozen pieces of check-sized paper. Much to my surprise, they are receipts from flying lessons that she and her husband had taken back in 1939. Each lesson totaled $1.68. My dumbfounded awe at this achievement pleases her.

"Would you like to take a ride in the Tiger?" I inquire.

Her response of "Would I ever!" is disguised in the more modest "Sure." Our return trip from Washington will afford more time for leisurely flying.

Up until today, the furthest north that I have taken the Tiger is to Ashland. This trip is quite an adventure for us. I share with her the story of the flight up, and comment on how my twice-broken tailbone usually outspoken in nature hasn't given me even a twinge for the entire trip.

"Oh, those things are a bugger!" Nana exclaims. "I broke mine surfing once in Laguna Beach." Kurt slowly turns and gapes at his grandmother. She has so many sides that he's never seen. Her short widowhood has been consumed by wonder and adventure, with writing classes at the local college her newest undertaking.

A New Day
B-24 at Corvalis

Morning arrives clear and warm. As we load the plane, our curiosity is aroused by a deep radial hum. A B-24 has arrived to pair up with the B-17, and we wander over to explore yet another magnificent warbird.

Temperatures climb rapidly as we depart to our next fuel stop in Kelso, Wash., where it is quickly approaching 100 degrees. I'm punchy that we haven't gotten into the sky sooner, so that we could have more favorable conditions for the ascent to Mount St. Helens. Today is my birthday, and this particular leg is my gift to myself. I have always wanted to see this volcano from the sky. The closer we get, the more excited we become.

Mount St. Helens

Mount St. Helens
Actually seeing Mount St. Helens has the same effect as seeing the Grand Canyon after only seeing pictures. The shortcomings of mere photographs are a gross understatement of this vision unfolded before us. All along our route, we have pointed out to the girls a string of dormant volcanoes we have passed. Shasta, Hood, and Adams are all towering mountains intent on reaching the heavens. This mountain formerly tall and symmetrically perfect lost nearly a third of its height when it erupted 22 years ago. The blast area is as apparent as the fire marks on the bricks of an outdoor barbeque.

Looking to the west reveals the remains of an enormous swath of ash and debris several miles wide, swept downhill by the choking mountain. Kurt counts one, two, then three rows of mountains that a pyroclastic flow has utterly scoured At the base of this spectacular display is the formerly pristine Spirit Lake, still crowded by remains of the explosion around the outer edges, but blue in the center. We are traveling along at 140 mph, and we have been over the debris alone for 15 minutes or more.

Getting There

We are all in a state of wonder as we begin our long descent towards Northern Seattle. Our arrival coincides with the hottest day on record. It is incredibly busy as we near Seattle from the south. Approach has me just under Class Bravo, and continually making 5-, 10-, or 15-degree course changes for traffic separation. At 2,000 feet, the ride is bumpy, and as I approach Paine Field, I am utterly perplexed at trying to understand the lay of the airport. My borrowed Jepp Guide has a very clear picture of what this is supposed to look like, but I can't for the world of me make sense of it. Is that a taxiway, or a runway? Every time I think I understand, I get a bit closer and must guess again. My options are narrowed by a nearby TFR. Paine Tower is more than gracious with these fumbling efforts at determining my location, and clears me to land on the closest runway. We have arrived!

Mission Accomplished

It is wonderful to see my son Luke. I know that these next two days will be jammed with activity and obligation, and any time that I get to spend with him is precious. He and his girlfriend Marin suggest dinner in Edmonds, a lovely postcard-quality town on the eastern slope of Puget Sound. A mouth-watering meal capped by a piece of cake shared amongst the six of us concludes an incredible day.

A Battle Won
Graduation Day

The birth of a new day introduces the arrival of graduation. The entire afternoon is a warm whirlwind of bustling activity and eager anticipation. Beautiful young women and handsome young men are charged to conduct themselves with studied solemnness. This is a poor disguise for their exuberance, and they gleefully float to their assigned seats occupying the football field. Crowds of those who treasure them pack the western-facing stadium bleachers. A magnificent sky, spackled lightly with clouds, flings rays you could walk on as the sun lowers to the horizon. Seaplanes crisscross the sky frequently. I have a mothers' heart full of emotion, and I find the distractions welcome. For eternal moments, I witness the final scene of a battle won. Character has been grafted and developed, finally becoming a part of this group of fledgling adults.

The conclusion of this event is marked by a flock of mortarboards erupting from the crowd of graduates. Wise parents have prepared a grad-night party for four years, so I make a dash to hug my son tightly before he is off to celebrate. We agree to pick him up at 6 a.m. from the all-nighter, and head back to our hotel to pack up for the next day's trip.

Dawn Patrol

Morning twilight comes remarkably early in Washington latitudes. With coffee in hand, I greet my zombie-like son and steer him to the car. We all travel back to the hotel, attempting to keep Luke vertical so that we might have brunch with him prior to our departure. Marin's folks have prepared a healthful array of food coupled with enjoyable company. Yet departing is imminent and rather gray, like the Seattle sky.

We have been waiting for the cloud layer to rise, but it apparently isn't in any mood to accommodate a lady from the Golden State. When in the Pacific Northwest, you must do as the locals do. Shipping back some of our clothing from the graduation allows us to travel lighter. The Tiger responds noticeably to the cooler temps and lighter load as we swing south and depart towards Hillsboro, Ore. We bump up against a ceiling of clouds at 2,300 feet. The forecast had optimistically placed them 700 to 1,000 feet higher. Slightly modifying our course keeps us clear of terrain as we approach Kelso.

Hunting for Warm Fuzzies

In Hillsboro, puppies await. We have been in contact with a breeder up here for several weeks after the loss of our Irish wolfhound. Lyn greets us warmly at the airport, and we drive through the quaint town of Hillsboro and out to the countryside to become the welcome guests of 14 Scottish deerhounds and a deceptively feisty Skye terrier. The terrier is no more than a shaggy pillow with pointed ears who would rip your arm off if he thought you were a threat. Apparently he has judged us as harmless, so he happily flops all over our assorted bodies.

I have the honor of being "chosen" by a 14-week-old male deerhound who has decided that my lap and affection are more valuable than his siblings' naptime fiesta. Any call to him is rewarded with his wholehearted response and a lap-warming visit. We will have to make a return trip up to bring him home, and I relinquish the comfort of his squirming body with reluctance. Lyn is delighted to see the match with our family. We ride back to the airport for the trip to Corvallis.

Return to Corvallis

This is a short hop, and we wait only minutes until Kurt's Aunt Linda and Uncle Don arrive. Nana isn't far behind. We pile into the Jeep, heading off to Don and Linda's 100-year-old farmhouse in the hills west of Corvallis. Driving through a narrow valley, we enter a wonderland of enormous oaks, and the remains of old growth pine and cedar.

Don and Linda raise sheep for wool, amongst their many talents. A fluffy pile from a recent shearing in their barn is angora soft. Linda is rightfully proud of her results. There is a lot of added work for this quality. When she set out to raise high-quality wool, she was told that it couldn't be done. "Oh yeah? Watch me!" was her response. The character flaw of stubborn persistence has given a string of success to this family.

Nana has joined us on our evening tour of the farm, and wanders over to a 25-foot rope swing off the back porch with her lemonade in hand. With a twinkle in her eye she challenges, "Dare me!" I know nothing would delight her more, and offer to hold her lemonade for her. But she is sufficiently satisfied with herself, and opts to stroll on with us instead.

Evening is full of enjoyable conversation and warm companionship. Prior to our trip upstairs to bed, we are warned of the antics of the farm cat. We will be awakened on a schedule that you can mark a clock by. We defend ourselves by closing the door.

A Gift to Remember

Morning beds cannot be made while the cat is around, who can burrow into blankets faster than a sand crab on a beach. I fake him out for precious seconds by placing him one bed over and quickly smoothing a quilt over the mattress. It's time to pay a visit to the horses and say our good-byes.

Before we leave, I can't resist the privilege of taking Nana up for a spin in the Tiger. I intuitively try to discern the reason for her stoic silence. It is clear to me that she is bursting with the anticipated joy of returning to a place she hasn't visited in a span of years.

Nana and Sherry

With her hands folded neatly in her lap and eyes starboard, we commit ourselves to the sky. Circling over the field, we climb and follow the road to downtown. "It looks so different up here!" she exclaims as we circle over her house. She points to her daughter Joanie's home, and we dutifully orbit the location. I see her scanning further and further out on the horizon, spotting neighboring towns and calling them by name. Over colorful nurseries of flowers, ponds, and the University we fly, making our circuitous way back to the airport. Nana isn't normally an excitable lady, but her elation has made us light and airy our landing virtually kisses the ground. "If Dick were here, we'd go out and buy an airplane today!" she exclaims with an enormous smile. Overflowing enthusiasm can't be contained in her feisty 4'-10" frame her sparkling blue eyes are a dead giveaway.

Into the Wild Blue

Hugs, kisses, and promises are distributed as we load up and head towards Medford. The cloud cover is solid and forecast to stay this way past Roseburg, but safety calls for altitude higher than this layer. A tunnel between here and there is hunted for rigorously. Patches of sunshine on the ground direct our sights to the telltale blue-sky holes that cause them. Spotting our objective inspires a full-throttle climb. The cockpit becomes a cinema where we view our climb through lavender cotton candy to the wide openness of clear sky.

Casting one final look at the ground for a spell, we continue to a place where Tigers are content to frequent smooth air at 7,500 feet. The solid layer becomes scattered, then non-existent as we approach Medford. Linda has packed us a traveling lunch, which we complement with vending-machine fare. As any family traveler knows, happy kids make for happy flying. The girls are quite happy.

Jungmeisters at Red Bluff

Our leg to Red Bluff is slowed by headwinds, but no one minds much. Two flawless Jungmeisters in the three-digit heat guard the fuel island. Departing south once again, we gain thermal altitude-assistance. Oakland is severe clear rather than the usual fog, and a perfect landing punctuates a lovely trip.

More Than Beginning ...

What a difference a few days can make. Five days prior, our girls were begging for a 36-hour car trip rather than the flight. Now they had found the adventure of flying across the country rewarding. Three children had graduated to a new station in life. We have been blessed with the generosity of those who not only have accommodated our unconventional travel mode, but also have simply been thrilled that we would pay them a visit. It's clearly not the beginning plan or the destination that made for a successful adventure. What we took time to savor in the middle has made it memorable. It's the filling that counts.