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Flyin’ down the Mississippi

By Glen Gilchrist (Cap)

Shortly after 08:00 on Sept. 29, 1999, we completed a careful loading of GYHH, my Cessna 182RG at Springbank Airport, west of Calgary. Cargo comprised of personal items, a tent, sleeping bags, an axe, emergency rations, a couple of books, and the myriad of maps and charts we would need for an aerial exploration of the Mississippi River. We also had Flight Guide’s publication for the central States, and AOPA’s Annual Airport Directory.

On the first day of travel, we planned to fly a beeline toward the headwaters of the Mississippi, situated somewhere in the lake country west of Duluth. From there, our river-following route would enable an overview of some 1,200 miles, all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, south of New Orleans.

We enjoyed a good first day of VFR travel to the east. Later, we would repay the advantage of the 20-knot tailwind that boosted us along for the entire day. For over 220 miles, we sped along just north of the Missouri River reservoirs retained by the Fort Peck and Garrison Dams.

Our introduction to United States hospitality occurred when we were greeted by Customs and Immigration agent, Gary Wendel, at Williston, N.D. He waved us to a parking spot on the ramp and stuck his head in through our opened door. "Terrible wind, but I’ll bet it has saved you fuel on your trip from Calgary."

After very quickly doing the necessary paperwork to admit to the States, he told us where to refuel, how to get a courtesy car, and recommended a nearby restaurant. "I suggest you plan for Alexandria, Minn., it’s a nice little airport with friendly people and the FBO has a courtesy car that you can use in finding a place to stay for the night. Alexandria is a better bet than Saint Cloud which is often plagued with morning fog this time of year."

Later, en route – Williston to Alexandria – we were introduced to the fact that all U.S. airports have "K" identifier prefixes to differentiate them from their closely adjacent VOR’s. Nav had been following the WAC chart and the line we had drawn before we took off from Williston. He noted that we were diverging to the left of our intended track while I dutifully followed the GPS, keeping within a few hundred feet of the indicated routing. The investigation of this mystery, which had induced fear that the GPS was defective, made me carefully study the manual that evening.

We found that our Williston friend’s descriptions were right on the mark when we reached Alexandria’s Chandler Field around 6 p.m. The town of Alexandria is built around a group of lovely lakes, the shorelines of which were surrounded by trees and shrubs wearing their finest fall colours.

Our intended route for days two and three called for us to fly east to Little Falls, Minn., located about 75 nm north of the centre of Minneapolis. Then we intended to follow the Mississippi downstream. Our planned final destination was Patterson Field, just off the Gulf of Mexico, southwest of New Orleans, La.

Our objective was to get a feel for the importance of the mighty river to valley agriculture and to U.S. commerce and industry. We wanted to see something of the engineering structures along the way – railway and highway bridges, power plants, pipeline crossings, flood control structures and levees, navigation dams and locks, boat yards and riverbank and channel protection works. Both being retired engineers, we wanted to gain a bit of an appreciation for the complexity and magnitude of these facilities.

Having completed our route planning for day two, we checked the weather and departed Alexandria at 9 a.m., picked up a due east heading, and climbed to 5,500 ft. ASL.

En route we attached ourselves to Minneapolis Centre for VFR Flight Following and explained our intentions. We were assigned our Mode C squawk and, a short time later, were off to Minneapolis approach. We advised that we intended to pass to the east side of their Class B airspace, staying outside the 30-nm limit, and that we would be maintaining 5,500 ASL. Navigation was aided through use of the Minneapolis–St. Paul VFR Terminal Area chart, and the moving map display on the yoke-mounted Garmin GPS 90. Our route took us to the Wisconsin border (the St. Croix River) where we turned southerly, picking up the Mississippi, 50 nm downstream from where we left it. Minneapolis Centre handed us off once again, and we were on our way downstream.

We had seen no indications of the river commerce on the Mississippi north of Minneapolis, now dams and locks, towboats and barges were almost always in view. Narrow channels gradually grew to two-mile wide "lakes" then terminated abruptly at water level control dams.

Leg time over 390 nm from Alexandria was 2.18 hours, for an average of 177 knots across the ground.
It’s not often one is so tail-wind fortunate two days in a row! Our quartering crosswind landing on Runway 31 at Dubuque, Ind., made it obvious that the wind had a bite to it as well. Once on the ground and tied down, we walked over to the FBO, arranged for refueling, and were directed down the line to the terminal building for lunch.

Weather checks and planning complete, we were off for the afternoon’s leg, destination Cairo, Ill., located at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Intended distance was 465 nm, anticipated leg time was 3.30 hours, including a west side circumnavigation of the St. Louis Class B airspace.

Downstream we saw on the east (Illinois) side of the river the town of Nauvoo, now the home of close to 1,200 people. It’s hard to believe that, in the early 1840’s, with a population of 20,000, Nauvoo was the second largest city in Illinois, after Chicago.

On the west (Missouri) bank, 80 miles downstream of Nauvoo, we flew by the town of Hannibal Mo. This was the boyhood home of Mark Twain, where his famous characters Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and friends experienced their river adventures.

The Missouri River joins the Mississippi at St. Louis, the jumping off spot for the early explorers and settlers of the West.
Our tail identifier GYHH presented a puzzle to the St. Louis controllers. Accents, on both sides of the conversations, were sometimes troublesome.

VFR Flight Following continued to watch over us as we headed south toward Cairo. En route we were advised of traffic at our "1:30, slow-moving, type and altitude unknown." We reported back that our scan hadn’t spotted the traffic. "Same location as previously advised, type and altitude still unknown," was the response. Then it dawned on us that the "traffic" must be the hundreds of white egrets that were coursing their way upriver off our starboard wing. Good radar, attentive controller, and about 2,000 feet of vertical separation between YHH and the birds put us at ease.

A few miles upstream of Cairo, we passed Cape Girardeau, Mo. History records that this location was one of the major river crossings of the "Trail of Tears." This melancholy name refers to the route taken by the Cherokee people, the last of the Iroquois tribes driven from their ancestral lands in Georgia and North Carolina by advancing settlement.

We had selected Cairo (pronounced KAY-roe), Ill., for our night’s stop due to its location at the confluence of two great rivers. As we crossed easterly over the field to join downwind left for Runway 20, we had our first detailed view of the Ohio. It was wide and majestic, and like the Mississippi, crowded with barge and towboat traffic. We also chose Cairo because, in our experience, service at small airports is quicker, and the locals have more time to visit with inquisitive itinerants.

Having landed and taxied in, we heard a bullhorn-like voice from the direction of the terminal hangar. "You’ll have to use your own ropes." The voice belonged to Bill "Brutus" Greer, airport manager, ex-local police officer, ex-director of Public Works for Cairo, Mississippi River barge-hand of some 25 years’ experience. When we walked over to the hangar Brutus continued, "We don’t have any fuel. They’ve been going to dig up our leaking tanks tomorrow for the last couple of months."
At the next door truck stop we bumped into a retired lawyer from nearby Mound City. Conversation started easily, but was a bit tougher to stop. Through clouds of smoke from his cigar, in the airless confines of a small front porch, he told us of the colourful history of the area. Cairo never attained the importance that early planners foresaw for it, due in large part to the rapid development of railroads after the Civil War. The town was once the home of Singer Sewing Machine Co.’s largest manufacturing plant. During the last war it was the site of a large factory that produced guided marine torpedoes.

Our Mound City friend went on to explain that Cairo has seen a lot of the history of racial adjustments, dating from the "Underground Railroad" traffic, before the Civil War, continuing until the rough days of the civil rights movement. He said that the area’s demise started decades ago and one shouldn’t be surprised to see signs of neglect and decay in the town and its surroundings.

Brutus arrived at 8 a.m. sharp and, as we were loading up, asked if we were in a hurry. "No," was our reply. "Good," he said, "because I’d like to show you around Cairo. It won’t take very long." We were shown the river level gauge and the high concrete walls that keep the flooding rivers out. We saw the mark of one flood that had come within inches of overtopping the wall. We also saw some of the now-decaying stately mansions, reminiscent of the days of Cairo’s importance as a hub of river traffic. Evidence was shown and stories were told of violent confrontations in the 1960s between forces of the law and opponents of the civil rights movement. More positive visible aspects of Cairo life include new housing developments, modern schools and parks, evidence that the residents of Cairo are trying to rise above adversity and make the best of their opportunities for a peaceful, comfortable life.

After checking the weather and opening a flight plan we departed from Runway 14. We circled across the Ohio, then made a lazy climbing right turn to get a good view of the Ohio-Mississippi confluence, of the river traffic, huge sand bars, lacy steel bridges, broad levies and, right in the middle, Cairo.

Our brief stop at Sikeston Mo., 25 nm west of Cairo, we encountered quick and efficient credit card – actuated, self-serve pumps delivering 100LL at a much-appreciated low price! We also needed camera film for the day.

We traveled due south for about 15 nm to pick up the river again. Now it was a meandering behemoth, often more than a mile wide. The levees were sometimes right on the river’s edge and at others set back several miles, with only farmed fields between them.

We skirted the west side of the Memphis Class B airspace under Memphis Centre’s watchful eye and were back on the river some 40 nm downstream from the centre of the city. That circumnavigation measured 90 nm and eliminated about the same length of river from our aerial examination.

Our flight plan had been filed with destination Tallulah, La., about 40 nm south of the Arkansas-Louisiana state line. It’s a small airport located about 10 miles west, across the river, from Vicksburg, M.S. Tallulah has one runway, several hangars, a crop spraying operations base, fueling trucks, and a small public terminal for itinerant traffic such as YHH.

A fast food lunch hit the spot and then we used the courtesy van for a quick tour of the town. We discovered that Vicksburg is spread over hilly topography extending back from the steep escarpment at the edge of the river valley. It’s a pre-Civil War town of important note, boasting many lovely ante-bellum mansions. We drove by the huge Vicksburg National Military Park, which contains elaborate monuments, each dedicated to one of the states that sent troops to the great battle for control of the Mississippi River.

We caught fleeting glimpses of the river as we wound our way back toward the Interstate bridge we had crossed earlier. Although the tour lasted but 20 minutes it imprinted on us a bit of the area’s vivid history. The pride of the South is still very much evident.

Back at the airport, fuel charges paid, we took a stroll over to the hangar displaying the Cessna emblem and talked to a young fellow standing beside a 182.

"It’s brand new," he said. "I’ll be delivering it to the owner later today." Invited to have a glance inside, we were impressed by the leather upholstery, the instrument panel and avionics, and the serviceable carpet that covered the floor.

Weather checked, and flight plan filed for Patterson, La., we lifted off for the 170 nm last leg of our Mississippi excursion. We followed the river until we approached Baton Rouge Class C airspace, close enough to see the tall white State Capitol building erected by former Governor Hughie P. Long, the famous (or infamous, as you like) Kingfish, and the site of his assassination. From there we chose direct to Patterson Airport, situated about 60 nm WSW of the centre of New Orleans. This route crosses the Atchafalaya Basin, a largely uninhabited, marshy section of the ancestral delta of the Mississippi. Patterson Airport was difficult to see in the haze of increasing humidity but we noted from our Flight Guide that the runway was paralleled by a sea-lane that we spotted first. With the AWOS checked, Cap decided to land into a five knot wind on Runway 24.

The day was hot and Nav’s relatives were waiting for us at a picnic table in the shade of the terminal building. That evening we enjoyed their southern hospitality, complete with a tasty shrimp casserole, after a clip or two of duty-free Glenlivet.
The next morning, we took a trip in our host’s fishing boat, down the Bayou Teche, along a stretch of the Intracoastal Waterway and up a maze of minor bayous for lunch at his hunting/fishing camp. After a lunch of cheese/cold cuts/mayonnaise sandwiches, washed down with chilled Bud, we headed home. On the way we spotted herons, kingfishers and a few alligators.

At the Minor home we enjoyed a feed of skillfully prepared local catfish. Hospitality of the finest kind! As they say down that way, "We pass a fine time in Louisiana."