Over three months has passed since I left you, dear readers, hanging at the end of Installment 1 of The Return of the Cessna. Stay tuned -- there are two more installments, ending (we hope) with the safe and successful arrival of 86-Juliet at KODO in Odessa, TX. When did Texas last see so much IFR weather? Decades? A century? Before the Wright Brothers? Thankfully for the rest of us out here in West Texas, all this weather has brought a fair amount of moisture, much of it in the form of snow -- three significant snowstorms have blown through so far this year. On Christmas Eve I strapped on the ole XC skiis for the first time in... five years? And did a lap through the desert. The desert that will soon be the extension of my subdivision. Then I have to find another desert.
With so much time passed, you know there are many adventures to write of. Two more Cessna 150 trips, and in there a two-week trip to Spain with my hermana. I've got a bunch of blog backlogs, going all the way back to our Memorial Day 2011 trip to the (wildly popular) Garner State Park near Leakey, TX. That's the story where I drive Debi's CUV into a very, very large rock (ok a large boulder) late in the afternoon on Monday, Memorial Day -- in fact right as Debi was preparing to depart for Houston, over five hours away.
But let's put all that behind us right now. Look forward to hearing stories about the past later. Because today was really something.
It started off innocently enough, with sleeping in and trying to kick this flu-gastroenteritis-food poisoning I seem to have picked up. Debi decided on Saturday that she wanted to visit Carlsbad Caverns and perhaps the Guadalupe Mountains, about three hours drive west of us (Midland). She and Mary have Monday off work-school as it's MLK day. Well I don't have it off of course. So I came up with this scheme: they leave around 11 am and drive to Carlsbad, NM and go to the airport there. Josh and I fly the Cessna 150 from KODO to Carlsbad, arriving around 2 PM, the same time as Debi. Then we'd drive to Caverns, eat and come home. The perfect storm aligned: Josh was available (with some shuffling), the weather was good (but strong westerly winds reported), Debi set off in time, etc. I decided to head over to KODO a little early to ogle and caress 86J, and I thought, what the heck? -- I'll take my motorcycle! Now all legal, licensed, and insured, but with almost no riding skills to speak of except those picked up in my 2-day motorcycle course, I set off in black leather jacket, gloves, full helmet and boots for KODO, about 20 miles away. My longest previous road ride was about 5 miles, on residential streets, with no one else around.
Blasting west toward Odessa at 50 mph on the 191 frontage road (Sunday - almost nil traffic), my 250 cc enduro felt like it was giving all it could, just over 5000 rpm. The wind blasted at an equal 50 mph, in addition to my speed, heading in the opposite direction, making for what felt like a 100 mph headwind. I crouched forward to counter the wind, and the bike wavered in the gusts. Gradually I opened the throttle more (who knew there was more?) and brought the bike up to about 60 mph. The wind seemed to die down a bit, so I took the next on-ramp onto 191, which is one of three divided highways between Midland and Odessa (each towns of 100,000 souls). With the throttle wide open, I merged onto the highway and gradually saw 65, 66, 67. Barely brushing 70, I was no longer accelerating. The onrushing wind was brutal but I felt stable, yet I was taut, expecting any unexpected thing at any moment. Very gradually, I relaxed, and I thought, hey this is fun! Climbing up to an overpass, throttle still pegged, the bike slowed to 69, 68, 67, 66, 65... Cars changed lanes to pass me, sailing slowly by like land ships passing on the left. I find it odd that I'm looking down on the passing SUVs and pickups. The enduro is a tall bike and the rider sits up high and straight. I can just touch the ground on both sides on tip-toes; I need to lower the suspension one or two inches to make this a better street bike.
Pull into the airport and punch in the code, open the gate. Now that I have a hangar here it's like I own the place. Push open the triple sliding hangar door, planes taking off nearby, it's a busy Sunday at Schlemeyer. Rrrrrrrrrrrrrrooooooowwwwww, the sound of the planes hacking at the air to take off from the ground. I stand there a few moments, in awe of this -- the fact I am about to use this machine to travel through the air to a faraway place, see an interesting sight, and fly back. I am about to use an airplane. Not fly around the pattern, not go on a sightseeing or training flight (although all are uses). Actually go somewhere! In this here, my airplane.
After a thorough preflight inspection I saunter to the FBO in the almost-70 degree sun in my leather jacket. To the lineman (boy) behind the desk - my Cessna is sitting in front of hangar 26. Can you pull it to the line and top it off? Thanks. A few minutes later he is zipping up backwards on a riding lawnmower, my little white plane in tow. Drives over to the rickety old Ford fuel truck, maybe older than my plane, and chugs over to it, fills it with 100 octane low-lead avgas.
Josh comes in via Diamond 20 from MAF. The wind is blowing hard, gusting, and the 150 is not tied down. I'm hanging around the tail, like I could do something if it took spontaneous flight.
Another quick preflight and we hop in, do the runup on the fly, and take off south, turn right over West Odessa and point west, into the wind.
Slowly, we move westward. In this plane, the wind aloft can be a significant fraction of the top airspeed. We cross all of the Delaware Basin, and I try to spot "my" rigs. Coming into Carlsbad, no one else around. Taxi to the FBO and tie down the plane. Inside, Debi and Mary are watching. Apparently they watched my landing. I realize I've been to this airport before, in the King Air, for a visit to the BLM office located in Carlsbad.
We drop Debi's pop-up camper in the airport parking and head south to Carlsbad Caverns. Driving up to the Caverns entrance involves going up a pretty limestone canyon, but all the vegetation is brutally burned off. Still pretty, and when you get on top there is an expansive view from the front steps of the visitor center, making you feel like you're on top of the Permian Basin.
What luck -- today is "free day" at the Caverns. We join one of the last tours and spend a couple hours underground. Mary seems in a hurry to get it over with.
Debi & Mary
Poor photo of a stalagmite
After the cave we all ride to Carlsbad for some dinner. My favorite Mex place is closed, things are often closed on Sunday night. Finally we find a newer BBQ place and have a good meal. Darkness falls. Debi drives us back to the airport, drops us off and hooks onto her pop-up. They hang around a bit and end up going to a nearby KOA-type place. I preflight the plane and we get in. Using my iPad, I look at an airport diagram to get re-oriented. It is completely dark now, and the area surrounding the airport is pitch black. After checking the winds (still from the west), I taxi to the correct runway and we line up for takeoff. On the takeoff roll, nearly ready to leave the ground, my attention to drawn to what I can see straight ahead, and that's nothing. Blackness. Now, when we landed I recall seeing some significant foothills off to the west. And at this moment, we are fast approaching them (well, 70 mph or so) and climbing rather slowly... barely 500 feet per minute. Ahead there is nothing -- no light in the sky, no shadows of mountains, no ranch light or street light. All is darkness. I begin to tighten up, to tense, and I scan intently just ahead of the plane's nose, waiting to see a flash of ocotillo or some rocks just before I hear a terrible crash and feel the plane jolt. But it doesn't happen. We continue to float serenely, with almost no sense of where we are, how high we are above the ground, or how fast we are travelling. The little 100 hp motor continues to hum, indifferent to its altitude. I continue to tense until I can't bear it. Perhaps 45 seconds has passed since the wheels actually left the ground. Gently, very gently I begin a shallow bank to the left. We are not really high enough to turn sharply. Turning sharply risks losing altitude. So I turn ever so gently, hoping to balance the demands of a turn with a continuation of our climb, and we scoot over the hills as we are finally pointed south, then southeast, then east, in a slow drift like a lazy compass turning. Now we are pointed east, with the strong wind at our backs, and we are moving away from the menace of the foothills of the Guadalupes. Now they can't touch us.
Eastbound, home. The wind pushes us back and we arrive back at KODO around 10 PM. It's cold now, but after we put the airplane away I climb back on the Kawasaki and resign myself to a cold and miserable ride home. My illness is acting up again, and I feel chills coming on. But it's only 20 miles and I survive, with the help of a hot shower back home.
I slept in but damn, I sure made up for it.