Safely traversing the U.S. and crossing the Rocky Mountains in a single-engine aircraft requires a pilot to manage an ever-changing slate of risks. This is a first-person account of a ferry pilot who crosses the Continental Divide using his wits and 150 horsepower.
Ferry flying is never a sure thing, especially in a VFR-only airplane over mountainous terrain with rapidly-changing weather.
I’d planned to ferry a Piper PA-22/20 Pacer from Wooster, Ohio to Nampa, Idaho, in mid-October. On the day of the first ferry flight attempt, the winds were at 18 knots, gusting to 30 knots, from variable directions. I did a familiarization flight with the owner, Don, and even he had a difficult time keeping the aircraft on the runway.
Don was donating the Pacer, his perky white-and-blue baby, to Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF). Don owned two airplanes—a Cessna 190 and the Pacer. He decided to trim his fleet to just one aircraft and elected to donate the Pacer. Don’s Pacer resembles a famous MAF aircraft—a Piper PA-14 Family Cruiser—destroyed in the Ecuadorian Amazon jungle in 1956. It’s also the same model aircraft that Asas de Socorro (an MAF affiliate) first flew in Brazil. So, in addition to the tax benefit, there was a historical connection behind the gift.
We waited a day, but the winds remained the same. The forecast for the next several days showed no change as well. So, I decided to try again later. It did cost an extra airline fare, but that seemed cheaper than a broken airplane.
A few weeks later, I returned to Wooster to ferry the Pacer to Nampa. This time, conditions looked better, though late October could always hold surprises.
• Good news: Light wind, clear skies from Ohio all the way to Idaho.
• Bad news: A fast-moving system approaching the Pacific Northwest.
• Dilemma: Go now and maybe get stuck en route, or wait?
• I’ll go now.
My job was to fly the Pacer to its new home. Don removed his stuff from the cockpit. I put mine in, claiming the territory. For the next few days, the Pacer was mine.
I closed the door, reviewed checklists, then started the engine. Don raised a palm toward me, completing the transaction. I nodded, released the brakes and taxied up the grassy slope to the end of the strip. More checklists.
A clearing turn uncovered no unannounced traffic. I added full power and the Pacer moved immediately. Tail-up trundling turned to spritely, ever-lighter bounces. I eased the yoke back, wheels left turf and I rose above the trees.
Although usually thought of as a slow airplane, the Pacer climbed quickly to 6,500 feet. Dark blue sky above faded to a thin, white haze line on the horizon.
Trimmed to fly level, I steered with occasional rudder pedal taps. Then, I cycled through the pilot’s pattern: Look for traffic. Check engine gauges. Confirm heading and altitude. Verify position. Call ATC for flight following. Scout alternate landing sites. Compare previous forecasts with the view out the window. Search current forecasts for the route ahead. Repeat.
After a quick-turn at Kankakee, Illinois (KIKK), I climbed back to 6,500 feet and pointed west to Atlantic, Iowa. The Pacer cruises at 105 knots and holds four hours of gas. Subtracting a one-hour fuel margin yielded a no-wind range of 315 nautical miles—not very far when crossing a continent.
I hoped to reach North Platte, Nebraska (KLBF), by nightfall, but when I’d reached Atlantic, Iowa (KAIO), body, brain and lowering sun agreed I was done for the day.
Pre-dawn light revealed a gray sky over a gray ramp.
• Good news: Light wind, good visibility.
• Bad news: A line of low ceilings and rain crossed my route.
• Dilemma: Go now, or wait?
• I’ll go now.
At sunrise, I headed west and climbed to 6,500 feet. My Stratus-enhanced iPad showed the north-south line across my path. Already, drops peppered my windscreen, streaming back in long silver ribbons. The ceiling lowered, dropping gray columns like dirty sheer curtains bending in the wind.
• Good news: The worst rain lay south. The Pacer was equipped for basic IFR.
• Bad news: The Pacer’s IFR certification had expired, so I was VFR-only.
• Dilemma: Go on, or land and wait?
• I’ll give it just a bit longer…
Rain drummed on fabric wings and fuselage with a deep, resonant note. Streams across the windscreen increased. Drops formed inside door edges and ran down side windows.
• Good news: Reports showed good weather 20 miles ahead. Conditions remained VFR.
• Bad news: I faced a 12-minute gauntlet that threatened to reduce visibility to zero.
• Dilemma: Continue, or land and wait?
• Almost ready to turn around…
I eased the yoke forward to stay under the ceiling and leveled at 4,500 feet. Below me, farmers’ pickups no longer raised dust. Parents called kids inside. The translucent rain veil glowed gray, not completely hiding field and town.
A newly-wet highway shone silver, pointing a gleaming arrow westward. Sherman Reservoir near Loup City, Nebraska, hung within visibility’s edge at 8 miles. Slowly, the ground beyond the reservoir came into view. Then, the drumming grew louder and the ground ahead faded.
Suddenly, brilliant sunshine. Tree and road sparkled from their recent bath. North Platte crowned a bluff 60 miles away in bright air. But this bright air was also frisky air and demanded my full attention.
At North Platte, I asked the FBO for another quick-turn, then, still hopeful, went inside to check weather. I wanted to reach Rawlins, Wyoming (KRWL) before I called it a day.
• Good news: Clear skies.
• Bad news: Wind gusting to 30 knots along the entire route, forecast to continue all day.
• Dilemma: Go, wait or try an alternate route?
• Better to be on the ground wishing I was in the air… than in the air wishing I was on the ground.
The only other path for a Pacer traversing the Rocky Mountains lay a full day’s flying south. Updated reports and forecasts offered no encouragement, so after haunting the FBO for a couple hours, I called the hotel van.
Before first light, the Weather Channel on the hotel’s breakfast bar TV agreed with Flight Service.
• Good news: Wind a little better.
• Bad news: Rain, snow, low ceilings.
• Dilemma: Go, or wait?
• Going to wait this one out…
One aviation mantra says, “Time to spare? Go by air.” What’s left unsaid is that such a pilot with time to spare must always be ready to go. The pattern continued: Check reports and forecasts. Look for options. Wait an hour. Repeat.
By 3:00 in the afternoon, the North Platte wind whistled. The western sky darkened.
“It’s heading this way,” locals and forecasts said. “Could be snow tonight.”
“Snow?” I asked.
“Yeah. Can happen this time of year.”
I put the Pacer to bed in a heated hangar and returned to the hotel for mine.
Next morning, I watched the Weather Channel over breakfast. I could reach Nampa, Idaho, that day if I started immediately.
• Bad news: All the weather stations along my route toward Salt Lake City reported rain, snow, obscured mountains, 200-foot ceilings, visibilities 1 to 2 miles.
• Good news: Casper, Wyoming (KCPR), north of my planned route to Rawlins, reported clear skies and operable winds. Forecast was the same all day.
• Dilemma: Go to Casper, or wait?
• Let’s fly…
North Platte was cold, but Pacer slept warm in a hangar with the big boys. As the eastern horizon turned deep yellow, the Pacer’s 150 hp engine started, settling into a nice chuckle. After takeoff, I turned left toward Casper. It wasn’t the most direct route, but Casper was at least a move in the right direction.
Morning sun painted North Platte trees and roofs orange, their long shadows hiding streets and yards. Sharp glints flashed as new light touched windshield and window. No motion below, just me passing slowly overhead, a white bird pushed by the dawn.
At first, I stayed at 4,500 feet to avoid the worst headwind but soon climbed with rising terrain to 6,500 feet. Real mountains lay ahead. Already I could see the main chain of the Rockies jutting up, advancing from the south. Ground speed dropped to 87 knots, but trucks weren’t passing me—yet.
• Good news: Clear, smooth air.
• Bad news: Strong headwind. I could just reach Casper with a one-hour reserve.
• Dilemma: Continue or return?
• Stay low, under the winds…
Sky stayed clear. I stayed low. I passed Crescent Lake Wildlife Refuge in Nebraska, bent north around the restricted area near Guernsey, Wyoming, then farther north to follow the skirts of the rising Laramie Range. I flew over Douglas, Wyoming, then followed the North Platte River into Casper.
On the ground, I fueled and checked weather. Neat lines and numbers implied I could still reach Nampa that day, but they did nothing to move the messy air mass.
• Good news: Casper remained clear. Operable wind.
• Bad news: Rain, snow, obscured mountains covered my route.
• Dilemma: Go? Where?
• With nowhere to go, I’ll call it a day.
I waited an hour, but a second call to FSS confirmed Casper was the limit of that day’s travel. Local forecast snow prompted another night’s hangar space for Pacer.
A hotel van came, again. I checked into a room, again. Connected to the internet, again. Put the muted TV on the Weather Channel, again. And tried—again—to guess what might happen tomorrow.
Dawn not yet showing, breakfast bar TV and iPad aviation weather reports looked workable. If I could refuel at Logan, Utah (KLGU), I could reach Nampa with just one stop. Refueling any sooner would add more landings.
• Good news: The front passed. Clear skies. Logan was forecast VFR.
• Bad news: Salt Lake reported stratus and fog. Headwind continued.
• Dilemma: Go, or wait?
• Into the wild blue…
I took off just as the sun crossed the eastern horizon, then I turned southwest. Flat ground rose steadily in broad valleys punctuated by abrupt mesas toward peaks 150 miles ahead. I climbed to 10,500 feet.
Vestiges of yesterday’s clouds remained as fog clung to shaded valleys, white shards hovered in scattered layers over flat-topped mesas, and broad flowing strands followed the upward curves of draws leading to higher mounts. The air shone diamond-clear, but ragged, torn cloud edges warned of wind.
I recalculated. Logan remained within reach. But if it didn’t open by the time I arrived, I’d have to cut into my reserve to find an alternate. An hour later, Logan was still below minimums.
• Good news: Good visibility east of Salt Lake.
• Bad news: Salt Lake remained IFR. Strong headwinds continued.
• Dilemma: Time to refuel, but where?
• Let’s stay out of the clouds.
I diverted to Kemmerer, Wyoming (KEMM), the last spot on the eastern, good-weather side of the mountains. The airport sat atop a mesa barely big enough to contain its three runways and building cluster.
Nothing moved except the windsock dancing straight out. The radio remained silent, but the directory said they had fuel. I landed with my hour reserve still in the tanks.
• Good news: I found fuel pumps.
• Bad news: No fuel pump controls visible.
• Dilemma: Backtrack and add a day, or try to fuel here?
• They’re supposed to have fuel…
Inside a small but new building, warm air, fresh paint, new carpet and comfortable chairs greeted me. A guest sign-in sheet lay on the counter. No people appeared. Outside, scattered puff clouds raced across clear sky and the wind whistled like the soundtrack to a Clint Eastwood western.
Back at the fuel pumps, I found neither card reader nor switches. But a small sign pointed to a shed down the ramp. Inside, controls hung near a small table. The door rattled. The wall groaned. The motivation for putting gloves-off controls indoors became clear.
I entered the data, swiped the card, then fueled the Pacer. Still alone, only windsock and clouds moved.
The Pacer wanted to point into the wind, but with flight controls and brakes I managed to reach the runway, complete the checklist and do a clearing turn while keeping all wheels touching pavement. I pushed the throttle in, barely moving before leaping from the earth.
At first, 10,500 feet seemed fine. But over Bear Lake, just west of where Wyoming, Idaho and Utah meet, heading for the 9,200-foot ridge on the far side, my scan revealed dropping airspeed while holding altitude along with disappearing terrain beyond the ridge—both signs of sinking air.
• Good news: Clear air above and scattered clouds below.
• Bad news: Air coming across the ridge sank faster than the Pacer climbed.
• Dilemma: Return to Kemmerer and wait, hunt for a better route, or shop for lift and climb?
• Up, up and away!
Over the west shore of the lake, I spotted a cluster of ragged clouds taller than the rest with bases well above the ridgetop. Perfect. I turned toward them and a moment later felt a bump. The VSI needle jumped above zero, so I turned right to stay under the cloud.
The climb rate increased immediately, rewarding my guess. I stayed in the spiral up to 12,500 feet, then continued west.
Crossing the ridge 20 miles north of Logan, the entire Salt Lake City basin lay under the low clouds which forecasts had failed to predict. Ahead, valleys and ridges cleared, but now an overcast formed and thickened, following lowering terrain down.
I started a cruise descent, calculating I could reach Nampa with 30 to 45 minutes of fuel left.
• Good news: Good visibility below the overcast.
• Bad news: Overcast sprouted scattered showers. Headwind increased.
• Dilemma: Stop for fuel again, or stretch the last leg?
• Time for one last stop…
The heavy overcast and scattered showers darkened midafternoon skies as I entered the broad valley dominating southwestern Idaho.
On the ground at Burley (KBYI), despite cold wind and spitting rain, I received a gracious quick-turn.
Another takeoff, followed by its landing an hour and 50 minutes later at Nampa, Idaho (KMAN), completed the Pacer’s patterned journey.
Jim Manley is a former FBO owner, U.S. Forest Service air attack pilot and Amazon jungle pilot with commercial, SEL, MEL, CFI and CFII ratings. He now works as a freelance writer in Meridian, Idaho. Send questions or comments to editor [AT] piperflyer [DOT] com.