I wrote this in 2009 and submitted it to Sport Aviation, the member magazine of EAA. The editor at that time – an acquaintance whom I trusted to tell me it was garbage if, in fact, it was garbage – told me she liked it but didn't feel it was right for Sport Aviation. She suggested I submit it to Men's Health or similar magazine. An edited version of this article found a home in the January 2016 issue of Kitplanes Magazine. ~Kerry
On the morning of July 4th, 2008, I slipped from between cotton bed sheets and decided in that moment to fly. Anywhere.
To give my impromptu flight a light-hearted spin I joke that I woke up in desperate need of a shot glass with a ceramic jackalope glued to its bottom and flew six hundred seventy-eight miles to Wall Drug, in South Dakota, to buy one. But the truth is I was taking flight in more than one sense of the word. I was taking flight – running - from twenty years of Fourth of July family tradition, an unwanted holiday weekend and too much time to think. I was running from a present and future that seemed meaningless since divorce had extracted my kids from my life more efficiently than a team of Navy SEALs could have. Simply put, I was deciding in one moment what to do with the next.
Metal Illness, a Sonex I built in my garage from thirteen sheets of 4-foot by 12-foot aluminum, and I had never flown quite like this. She and I had taken trips together – each carefully planned, plotted, and prepared – but this trip began in my mind as I rolled from bed that morning and continued to develop even as we flew home the following day. We were flying on a whim and prayer.
To be honest, the seeds of this impromptu flight were planted days before with the observation that fair weather had gently settled on the Great Plains and Upper Midwest, bathing them in sunshine and humid warmth. But this admission implies I was capable of forethought, which I was not, and had clearly demonstrated weeks earlier when I abandoned weekend remodeling plans mid hammer-swing and found myself driving through Chicago three hours later with no particular destination.
I was fortunate to have just performed routine maintenance on my silver-winged Sonex: the oil and filter were changed, the cylinder heads were torqued, valves adjusted, tire pressure checked, prop tightened and tracked, brakes inspected. This maintenance was not the result of pre-planning for a trip, it was a way to pass the previous weekend with a dash of lucky timing thrown in.
While going about my morning routine I gave thought to a destination. Without conscious contemplation I knew I’d be gone overnight – even if I didn’t know where I’d be - and gathered the basics for a night away. While carrying my bag to the car I noticed my tent, evicted the spiders that had taken up residence, and decided to bring that and an old comforter as well.
The drive through Oshkosh to the Sonex Aircraft hangar, a drive I make almost daily, was automatic and allowed me to think more about a destination. West….I’ll go west. But exactly where was west? South Dakota. Specifically – the Badlands and Mount Rushmore. South Dakota had been a favorite family vacation of ours just a few years earlier and it seemed a worthy and scenic destination by air. Having made that decision I stopped at the airport’s FBO to purchase the necessary aeronautical charts (sectionals); however a Cheyenne sectional, needed for my destination, was unavailable.
Immediately upon arriving at the Sonex hangar I called for the fuel truck, checked my route’s weather and temporary flight restrictions, and drew thick, red course lines on my new sectionals. I rolled Metal Illness into the mid-morning sun for fueling, packed my baggage, and programmed the GPS with some quickly chosen, distant waypoints. By 11:00 A.M. I was sixty miles west of Oshkosh, climbing to 8,500 feet above sea level (MSL) in a clean blue sky toward a soft horizon of low, scattered, cumulus clouds. Beneath me passed Wisconsin’s green fields, dark forests, murky rivers, black, meandering streams and abundant lakes awaiting weekend boaters.
With my chosen heading and altitude stabilized, I looked for landmarks below. Volk Field in central Wisconsin was framed between clouds just where it belonged, off my right wing. La Crosse, Wisconsin, and the Mississippi River were quick to follow. My eyes searched for and found the wayside on the west bank of the Mississippi where we stopped on our family trip and the kids fed chipmunks. I couldn’t allow my thoughts to linger there, so more from boredom than hunger I ate the banana I had packed in my backpack and tossed the limp peel on the passenger’s floor. It jumped and crawled on the vibrating floor like a yellow octopus, which amused me enough to take its photo. It was, at least, a distraction.
West of the Mississippi River the land flattened and the cumulus clouds, which floated lazily above western Wisconsin, slipped behind me revealing a landscape partitioned into uniform squares by roads that converged at the horizon if not first fading into the increasing haze. Occasionally a road veered from its arrow-straight path to dodge a stream, trace the edge of a small lake, or accommodate a landowner’s needs or protests. But at least once even a lake wasn’t enough to alter a road’s course and the road appeared to have been built upon the lake’s surface. Towns, scarce on a landscape of corn and wheat, were crowded against water’s edge. Farmsteads hid within protective clusters of trees. The flat horizon remained continuously distant.
Even with the Metal Illness’ responsive handling, flying straight and level required little input or conscious thought. Thumb and index fingers lightly on the stick, an occasional nose-down trim correction to compensate for the lightening fuel load, a habitual if subconscious scan of the gauges. It was easy to get lost in thought in the near silence of active noise reduction headsets, the warmth of the sun, and favorite songs playing on the iPod®, but thinking was something I’d hoped to escape and I welcomed the need to concentrate on my decreasing fuel supply. Of the few airports that lay near my hastily drawn course line Pipestone, just shy of South Dakota’s eastern border, was well positioned for an unhurried cruise descent.
Pipestone was quiet. The hot, holiday weekend had most people occupied with summer recreation, parades, or family gatherings. While quenching Metal Illness’ thirst under the hot, mid-day sun a middle-aged man emerged from a distant hangar and walked over. After I entertained the usual questions about my Sonex, where I was coming from and where I was going, he told me he was restoring a Cessna 150 and, as restorations often go, it had become a larger project than anticipated. However, after his divorce, he had nothing else to do anyway. I could sympathize – the combination of divorce and aviation delivered me to Pipestone that day as well – but a drowning man cannot save another drowning man so I politely acknowledged his comments, lowered myself into the cockpit, and continued running.
Lake Madison churned with holiday boaters. From high above, the lake’s dark surface looked like a night sky filled with comets as boats created crisp, white wakes that spiraled in every direction. Some boats were chased by the smaller wake of water skiers or inner tubes towed behind. The apparent chaos on the lake’s finite surface made me appreciate the vast, three-dimensional ocean through which I flew.
West of Lake Madison something appeared on my GPS I had never seen: nothing. The screen, normally populated with towers, roads, towns, water features, and airports was white sans two thin, gray lines: Highway 34 parallel to my course and an unidentified road which T’ed in from the south. It seemed that to get somewhere I must first pass through nowhere. That would prove to be a powerful metaphor for my post-divorce life.
The sky I now occupied was far different from the one I enjoyed in Wisconsin. The sun had moved from behind and was now at my ten o’clock high position. The smart blue sky and crisp cumulus clouds had been replaced by a haze my narrowed eyes could not penetrate. I climbed to find the ceiling of the haze but there was none so I descended to bring the earth in to better focus. At 6,500 feet I passed through a scattered flock of birds, their white wings tipped with black. I was required to be a pilot again, if only briefly.
We droned on together, Metal Illness and I. We were not committed to continue west. We could turn back at any moment. We could turn left and go south, turn right and fly north, or land at the next airport and declare, “We made it!” No one was anticipating our arrival. But the Badlands and Mount Rushmore were my self-invented purpose so we continued forward. Without purpose there is no forward just as without gravity there is no up nor down. With renewed purpose I urged each landmark to appear on the GPS and celebrated as each passed under the wings.
South Dakota slowly rises toward the Rockies but with the Rockies far beyond sight and most of South Dakota flat this is easily forgotten. My eyes - calibrated over Wisconsin and Minnesota to accept 6,500 feet above sea level and 6,500 feet above ground level as equals - now needed a conscious assist to keep Metal Illness at the proper altitude. Though still flying at 6,500 feet above sea level, my chosen altitude, the ground had crept 1,700 feet closer to the resting and relaxed wheels of my Sonex and grew closer still with each passing mile.
Lake Sharpe, a lazy expansion of the Missouri River, drifted off the bottom of my GPS at 3:19 P.M. Soon I would fly off the edge of my Omaha sectional and I had been unable to find a Cheyenne sectional in Pipestone. I decided I’d continue to Wall using my GPS. I never rely fully on a GPS as batteries can die, fuses can blow, software can crash, but if it were to fail my plan was to turn south, intersect Interstate 90, and fly the interstate directly to Wall. Before leaving Oshkosh I had printed Wall’s airport diagram so I was equipped with the necessary airport information even if I needed to arrive without a sectional or GPS.
Wall cannot be ignored. Driving within five hundred miles of Wall you will see a Wall Drug billboard every two miles. On our family vacation to the Badlands and Black Hills we had no intention of stopping at Wall Drug, as our trips favored natural attractions over tourist attractions. However, the barrage of billboards had eliminated our ability to resist. The stop was thusly justified, “We’ve driven this far, and we’re this close, why not?”
I could not ignore Wall on this day either, even by air. I was nearing airspace that I dared not fly without a sectional, I needed fuel, I needed a comfort stop and I needed food. My descent to Wall allowed me a brief glimpse of the Badlands but the hot, turbulent winds in the landing pattern brought my attention back to piloting Metal Illness through a successful landing.
Wall Municipal Airport appeared to offer less than I expected but delivered far more. With no FBO or self-serve fuel island in sight I taxied past a lone aircraft in the tie-down area to the “Welcome To Wall” sign. Opening the canopy offered no relief from the shimmering heat. Wall Municipal has four buildings, five if you count the phone booth. I approached two hangars with open doors and called out to unseen persons. An older man whom I took an immediate liking to answered my call. He asked how he could help and I prioritized my needs: bathroom, fuel, Cheyenne sectional, food. While pointing the way to the bathroom he assured me he could help with my other needs as well.
Dave Hahn is one of the gems you often find hiding at airports. After I emerged from the bathroom he explained the fuel situation (aviation fuel delivered from a non-FAA approved fuel tank), offered me one of his Cheyenne sectionals, and set about to get to know me. He was very interested in my name and took great care to commit it to memory, “Fores, F-O-R-E-S, Fores. Interesting.” As we spoke and unhurriedly fueled my parched Sonex I entertained the idea of spending the night in Wall camped next to my airplane.
Wall is a small town and the directions I requested to Wall Drug were simple and ultimately unneeded. Walking the short distance to Wall Drug through streets I’m sure few tourists arriving off the interstate see I alternated between consciously moving each foot forward, and ignoring what lay ahead. When I unexpectedly found myself walking through a parking lot where I had parked our Grand Caravan years before I stepped quickly to put distance between those memories and myself.
Wall Drug, for the two of you who have never been there, is a sprawling complex of connected stores and each is a department: cowboy hats, western shirts, ice cream, jewelry (Black Hills gold and turquoise, of course), souvenirs, art. I had no specific purpose other than, “I’ve flown this far, and I’m this close, why not?” so I moved quickly from store to store but not quickly enough to keep memories from catching up. In the souvenir store that sold mugs, ceramic bells, pop guns, and snow globes encasing Mount Rushmore, it became increasingly difficult for me to remain. It seemed my kids could appear at any moment to share their latest discovery, such as a baseball cap with seagull droppings on the bill. The sounds in the room became an indiscernible din and the people became obstacles to my departure. Yet I felt the need to leave with something to commemorate the trip. After considering the purchase for far too long I chose a shot glass with a ceramic jackalope glued to its bottom.
I no longer wanted to remain in Wall and lost interest in touring the Badlands and Mount Rushmore by air. I started this journey on a whim, so why couldn’t I change it on a whim? Approaching the airport on foot I was surprisingly amused - considering my melancholy mood punctuated by tears - by an official sign, complete with arrows, identifying a gravel-covered rectangular jog in the airport’s pasture fence as Short Term Parking and pointing the way to the Main Gate which was a four-foot tall chain link gate standing open.
Dave offered me a soda and we settled into lawn chairs placed in the shade of the open hangar door. Though I had decided I couldn’t stay, I was in no hurry to leave. The summer sunset comes late in the northern plains and my undeclared destination for the evening could be as close as twenty minutes, or as far away as the fading sun’s rays and Metal Illness’ navigation lights would comfortably take me. Dave and I picked up our conversation where we had left off earlier and I began to learn more about him. He had been an educator but South Dakota offered little room for advancement so he purchased a hardware store in Wall and operated that for a number years. The store had since been sold. Now Dave, I learned as I sipped my soda in the shade of that hangar discussing South Dakota’s weather, AirVenture, the source of the haze (wild fires) and the history and origins of Wall Drug, was not only the airport’s manager but also Wall’s Mayor.
Returning east early that evening the sun was again behind me, illuminating the way. I was flying a course that could eventually deliver me to Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, where friends Jim and Cathy and their boys were vacationing on one of Minnesota’s ten thousand lakes. They didn’t know I was coming but my arrival wasn’t guaranteed. Maybe I’d make a beeline for home or maybe I’d...well, detailed planning was not my strength nor desire so I continued to fly and think in the moment, studying the landscape below.
The smooth, green hills were carved with deep, dry gullies that radiated down the slopes like lightning bolts or cracked glass. Steep dirt banks and grassy stream bottoms waited to usher the excess waters of the next summer storm to shallow potholes, the Missouri River, and destinations beyond. The water-filled potholes attracted Black Angus cattle to their edge like ants to a dropped Popsicle®.
East of Pierre and the Missouri River the landscape quickly flattened again. It was eight in the evening and the shadows below me were growing long, racing me eastward. I needed to land for the night. Only two options existed: Highmore and Miller. Highmore would require a deviation to the north and a rapid descent, but Miller fell near my current flight path and allowed another cruise descent, just as Pipestone had earlier in the day.
To my knowledge Norman Rockwell never painted an airscape but if he had it would have looked like Miller did that evening as I glided overhead with reduced throttle. Bathed in the orange light of a hazy July 4th sunset, Miller oozed Americana. To my right the bright lights of a grandstand illuminated a dirt track race and off my nose a few cars were already seated for a double feature at the drive-in theater. Miller seemed the perfect place to mark America’s birthday. I tightened my four-point harness, tidied the cockpit, and finished my descent with a landing worthy of the fresh, black, asphalt runway. As I taxied to the parking ramp I noticed numerous open, occupied hangars which gave the appearance there were people about but after extracting myself from the cockpit I found the airport to be unpopulated and the hangared aircraft to be ignored and in disrepair. I pulled Metal Illness into the grass next to an alfalfa field, and set up my home for the evening.
The small, metal-clad pilot lounge offered an opportunity to wash up but, with no vending machine, dinner would need to be found elsewhere. I began walking toward town but the longer I walked the farther away town seemed to be. I considered turning back to preserve the energy I had remaining, rather than use it up on a potentially fruitless search for food, but a family on their porch assured me I’d find food on Broadway Street and gave these directions, “Go straight to Broadway Street and then turn left.” I thanked them and as I continued walking they jokingly added, “It’s closer by car.”
The Hi Lite Bar and Lounge was my second choice, having first discounted a bar that served hamburgers but that night was hosting a class reunion with live music. I did not care to pay the $5.00 cover charge for the band and I doubted I would bump into any former classmates, so I moved on down the street. I stepped into the Hi Lite Bar and Lounge and a waitress seated me in a far corner booth of the expansive dining area, facing the wall. I slowly slid the placement and silverware to the other side of the booth and quietly told her I needed to see the door as there were people looking for me. The humor was wasted on her, or perhaps my delivery was poor. I treated myself to a steak and cocktail and trekked back to the airport under a dark sky punctuated by the sporadic flash and pop of fireworks.
As I lay in the tent, pitched in the grass next to my travel companion Metal Illness, I found myself not wishing I were home with my kids but wishing they were there with me. In the eight months since my kids had stopped being part of my daily life I had always thought about what I was missing, but on this night my thoughts were of what they were missing.
Sleep came fitfully. The town’s official fireworks began after I had committed myself to bed but from what I heard they were lengthy and spectacular. The airport’s rotating beacon flashed on the tent walls: White. Green. White. Green. White. Green. The wind would remain calm long enough to lull me to sleep, then stir the tent to wake me up. In the morning I emerged to find Metal Illness covered in dew, and the sky promising another nice day.
The Detroit Lakes airport radio frequency was busy. I landed in front of a four-passenger Cirrus and we met at the fuel pump. A little boy from the Cirrus was amazed when I lifted the tail of the six-hundred-fifty-pound Sonex with one hand to pull it away from the pump. What he didn’t know, and I didn’t tell him, is that the weight on the tail was only about forty pounds. I had an additional audience as I fueled and secured my Sonex as it was Saturday morning and the Detroit Lakes Aviation Duane Wething Coffee Club was in full session. Outside and in, aviators of all flavors holding donuts and coffee-filled foam cups milled about individually or conversed in huddled groups. And, most unusual for an aviation gathering, the hangar’s lobby was filled with women who were quilting, knitting, and crocheting.
I called my friend Cathy before I took off and surprised her with the declaration that I was nearby and wanted to make a low pass by their lake cottage before I turned for home. She gave me a heading to fly and when I was in their area I called her again and she said to look for Jim “and the boys” in the boat, circling in front of the cabin to mark their location. I felt like a fighter pilot answering an urgent request for air support. I made a low pass over the lake and traced a hill’s profile up from the lake’s surface to their cabin perched on the crest. After a few more passes I rocked my wings and told Cathy I was departing for Oshkosh, but she insisted I land and spend the afternoon with them. I didn’t refuse.
Late that afternoon, after spending time in the boat, swimming, and a simple lunch on the cabin’s deck, Jim drove me back to the airport where I topped off the aircraft with fuel in anticipation of a nonstop flight home. It seemed there was nothing left to do but point the airplane a little south of east and get safely home. As I climbed to 9,500 feet, I leaned the fuel mixture until my travel companion was sipping fuel. Home was within range of my fuel supply if the winds remained favorable and I piloted the plane well. The air was flawlessly smooth and, with Earth over a mile below me, it didn’t seem like we were moving though even with a slight headwind we were still traveling over the ground at one hundred fifty five miles per hour. If we had wanted to we could have flown like that for hours - on a whim and a prayer – limited only by our fuel supply and the approaching darkness.
Flying occupies my mind and body while nourishing my soul and spirit, just as winter flying in my unheated Sonex never feels cold as my body is warmed from within by active senses and an engaged mind. Some may question my mental capacity to have taken this flight, but flying is exactly what I needed to restore focus. Metal Illness assumed the role of mental therapist, and sport aviation became support aviation. There were more tough days ahead, to be sure, but the experiences provided by those twelve hours of flying provided spiritual nourishment from which I continue to draw.