Flying Cessna 150s to Reno 

by Paul Keough

Sept. 11, 2000
dawned cloudless, blue, and bright, with a huge high-pressure system covering the west half of North America and the eastern Pacific. The weather was perfect for the start of our odyssey to Reno, Nevada, for the 37th Annual National Championship Air Races and Air Show. Our transportation would be me in a Cessna 150 and a Cessna 152 piloted by Don Rivers.

Don and I had started talking about an extended airplane camping trip one day last winter while we were both cleaning snow and ice off of our planes. Don suggested the Reno Air Races. We met at the Calgary Flying Club early in July and had a careful look at the composite chart on the wall in the classroom upstairs. The trip was feasible, even though it involved mountainous and desert country. It would be a challenge to our skills and to our airplanes. A Cessna 150 does not offer much spare power, endurance, or ceiling to cope with bad conditions or rugged terrain.

We washed and waxed the planes, and changed the engine oil. I replaced my vacuum pump and battery, as well as a couple of minor parts. Don’s annual inspection had just been completed so his plane was ready.

We had loaded most of our clothing, food, tents, and sleeping bags the evening before. Luckily we also had installed wing covers, as there was a quarter inch of frost on the planes when we arrived at the airport that morning. We took our wing covers with us which proved to be a wise decision as we ran into heavy frost on the last night of our return trip.

We had planned our first leg almost directly to Great Falls, Montana to clear United States customs. The outside air temperature was a little above freezing when we left the Calgary Springbank Airport but it warmed substantially over the next couple of hours. The elapsed time between Springbank and Great Falls was about three hours. The air was smooth and visibility was unlimited. The high point of this leg was crossing the Canada/U.S. border, which we could make out as the edges of grain fields and of fence lines that stretched into the distance. It was fun to watch the latitude shown on the GPS display count down to 49 11 00 N, as we approached the international boundary. My plane had not been back to the States since it left the factory at Wichita, Kansas in 1970.

The customs officer appeared promptly, charged me the $25 U.S. annual sticker fee and cleared us to continue our trip into the U.S. Don had already paid his sticker fee on a previous trip. We went into the terminal to close our flight plan by phone and for lunch. We found the flight services office, got a weather briefing, filed a flight plan for the next leg to Dillon, Montana, and returned to the planes. Our last stop was at Holman Aviation for fuel, and finally we took off for Dillon.

The wind was gusting to 25 knots almost directly into our faces as we flew southwest from Great Falls. We started to experience some turbulence as we entered the pass between Great Falls and Wolf Creek. True ground speed decayed to as little as 40 knots due to the venturi effect of the wind through the pass. It was an interesting experience to be passed by transport trucks on the highway below.

There is a chain of reservoirs on the Missouri River north of Helena, and we followed these to Canyon Ferry Lake. I lost sight of Don somewhere along the line and we had difficulty in establishing visual contact again, despite the fact that we were in radio contact. He spotted me as we came to the northern tip of Canyon Ferry Lake. We decided that we would not allow separation to exceed a half-mile for the rest of the trip. I took the lead most of the time from then on since my plane was a little slower than Don’s.

We arrived at Dillon, Montana, (south of Butte) shortly before six p.m. Dennis and Jean DeVido, who operate Dillon Flying Service, greeted us warmly. We asked for permission to erect our tents. Camping on the airport was fine with them although they suggested that we occupy the flight school classroom upstairs in their building where they thought we would be more comfortable. They told us that there would be a Montana Pilots Association meeting and potluck supper in the hangar that evening, and that we would be welcome to join them. We had a good supper and even a beer to wash it down. We slept comfortably in our tents that night, and were awake shortly after dawn.

We were ready for takeoff by nine a.m. I was in the lead and just as I was about to rotate when two Canada geese crossed the runway at an altitude of four or five feet directly in front of me. I pulled the power and hit the brakes, giving them the margin they needed to keep their feathers intact. I didn’t know how far Don was behind me, or if he had seen the geese and slowed as well. After slowing for three or four seconds, I hit the power again and resumed my takeoff. As it turned out, he had seen the geese and had slowed as well.

The Monida Pass on the border of Idaho was no problem. It is several miles wide. A four-lane highway meanders through it and the distance from the surface of the highway to the tops of the ridges on either side is not more than 2,000 feet. Once we had traversed the Monida Pass we came to the huge flat valley that is home to the Craters of the Moon National Monument. Our planned track took us southwest for 140 nautical miles to Twin Falls, Idaho.

The scenery in the valley is spectacular although it would be a very inhospitable place to try to make a forced landing. The lava flows appear to have taken place intermittently over thousands of years. All of it resembles the surface of a huge rasp. Much of the area has been covered over time by a thin layer of dust that softens the outline of the surface a bit and supports scattered desert plant forms. However some of the lava appears to be fairly recent with the surface being jet black and supporting no plant life whatever.

We made a fuel and lunch stop at Twin Falls. To enter the valley that would take us to Battle Mountain, Nevada, we had to cross a ridge of about 6,500 feet with 7,500-foot high peaks on either side. We agreed that we wanted an altitude of at least 8,000 feet to cross the ridge safely. We were now in the heat of the afternoon with a density altitude of 11,000 feet at 8,000 feet. Our Cessnas were reluctant to climb. We found it impossible to maintain a constant altitude of 8,000 feet. When I did our preliminary flight planning I had assumed that we might meet maximum outside air temperatures of no more than 70 degrees F at that altitude. We hadn’t expected the heat wave that we were now flying into.

It became quite turbulent. I had a problem keeping the plane under control while trying to get the map under control at the same time. Don and I had a brief consultation over the radio and we decided to shorten the leg and follow the highway to Wells, Nevada to consider what we would do next.

We landed at Wells, closed our flight plan by phone, and had a look at the chart. Wells is about 40 nm from Elko by way of a wide valley. We decided that Elko would be our next stop. We filed a fresh flight plan and took off. The western half of North America was experiencing a record heat wave and the outside air temperature was now over 35 C. My engine soon heated up to the point where the needle on the oil temperature gage was only a couple of widths from the red line. I richened the mixture and throttled back a bit but the temperature reading did not decrease. The desert terrain below us did not look like an inviting place to make a forced landing.

We contacted the tower as we approached Elko. We did not yet have the airport in sight and the instructions the controller gave us did not make sense to us. Finally it dawned on us that there are two parts to Elko. A fairly high ridge separates them. What we took to be Elko was actually a bedroom community located immediately to the south on the other side of the ridge. Elko was hidden from us at our altitude by the ridge. I spotted the highway that crosses the ridge and decided to follow it. As I topped the ridge, the town, the airport buildings, and the 7,200-foot runway immediately came into view.

When we called flight services to close our flight plan from Wells to Elko we were informed that they had not opened it. They had expected us to confirm by radio that we wanted it opened once we were in the air. This jarred us because we presumed that the flight plan would be opened automatically at our planned time of departure, just as it would be in Canada.

We decided that we would take a motel for the night and plan further strategy from a position of cool comfort. The weather forecast was for continued extreme high temperatures for the next week. A density altitude calculation and a look at the published altitudes of some of the features we would have to cross told us that we might be asking more of our Cessnas than they could safely give us.

One option that we considered was to just follow the highway. We later discovered that the highway uses a tunnel to pass through a high ridge between Elko and Carlin, Nevada. The tunnel shows on the chart but you are unlikely to notice it if you do not know that it is there. A further consideration was that mountains surround Reno and, with the high-density altitude we could expect, we might have difficulty leaving Reno if we persisted in our original plan.

We agreed that the sensible way to continue was by Greyhound.

We returned to the airport the following morning and made arrangements to leave the planes tied down on the apron. The folks at the FBO, El Aero Services Ltd., loaned us a car so that we could go back into town to buy our bus tickets. They also drove us to the bus station when it was time to leave.

We arrived in Reno at about 6 p.m. on Wednesday. Our hotel was situated only a few steps from the bus depot so we walked. We checked into the hotel, freshened up a bit, and then went out for a meal and a look at Reno.

We enjoyed the air show immensely although we were greatly affected by the blistering heat. We used lots of sunscreen and both of us left the hotel room in the morning carrying the equivalent of one and a half litres of water, which was none too much. Pint containers of bottled water were selling for in excess of $2, about eight times the price of avgas. We had tickets for all four days and we staggered our times of attendance so as to take in all of the events over the four days without baking in the sun at the airport for more than six hours on any one day.

Those of us who are old enough to remember the Commonwealth Air Training Plan or the NATO pilot training project in Canada can relate to the unique howl and the vibration produced by even a single Harvard. The Harvards, or T6s as they are known in the States, had their own class at Reno. Every day a heat of six or eight of them thrilled us with their singular brand of nostalgia as they made the bleachers shudder from the snarl of their radial engines straining to the maximum.

The unlimited class consisted mainly of Sea Furies, Mustangs, and a couple of YAK 11s. Many of them had extensively modified airframes and none used anything like a stock engine. Speeds for this class over the eight-mile course were as high as 470 mph. Lap times were just over a minute so much of the course was flown in a 90-degree bank to the left.

For our return trip, we wanted to be at the Elko Airport by daylight on Monday morning in order to fly from Elko to Twin Falls in the cool of the morning. This meant that we had to be on the bus leaving Reno at 7:30 p.m. Sunday evening, so we had to miss the final unlimited race and the closing ceremonies. We caught the bus from Stead Airport into Reno in mid-afternoon, prepared our luggage for the trip home.

We were at the Elko Airport shortly after daylight. We fueled our planes, settled our accounts, and were in the air by 7:30 a.m. local time. The one and a half-hour flight from Elko to Twin Falls, by way of Wells, was uneventful.

We refueled at Twin Falls, filed for Dillon, and were off again. There was a fairly strong flow from the northwest as we set out over the Craters of the Moon and some mild turbulence. The wind and the turbulence increased as we made our way east. We spoke briefly, on the Twin Falls tower frequency, to two pilots who had participated in the air races and who had called Twin Falls to inform the tower that they were transiting the Twin Falls airspace on their way home. They were flying a Mustang and a Sea-Fury.

We could see lenticular and rotor clouds developing over the Monida pass as we approached. However visibility through the pass was unobstructed and we had no problem maintaining an altitude of 8,500 feet asl which gave us 2,000 feet of clearance. Turbulence increased as we progressed northward and, as we passed under the leading edges of each of the rotor clouds, we received the unwanted gift of several hundred feet of free lift as the rotors tried to take us into custody. We added power and put the noses down to reverse this trend, and a minute or two later were unceremoniously spat out again as we entered the downdrafts from the trailing edges of the rotor clouds.

We landed at Dillon after almost three hours in the air. The wind at ground level was gusting to 30 knots. We were tired so we decided to stay the night even though the forecast for the next day was not very promising. Jean and Dennis gave us carte blanche to use their facilities. We used their kitchen to make a supper from the canned food we had with us. We enjoyed a couple of their videos, including the story of the "Flight of the Memphis Belle." Then we spread out our sleeping bags in the flight school classroom and had a restful night’s sleep broken a couple of times by the sound of rain pelting on the roof.

It was raining hard and the wind was strong and gusting when we awoke the next morning. After a couple of hours the ceiling increased somewhat and the frequency of the isolated storms that had been parading from west to east decreased as well. We decided to fly to Helena and to take another look at conditions from there.

We had adequate visibility on the flight to Helena although the wind continued to gust and we encountered continual turbulence. We stopped at "Mustang Mickey’s" FBO where we prepared something to eat. We had a good look at the charts, got the updated weather, and decided to press on for Great Falls in spite of wind and predicted isolated showers.

We followed the Missouri River through its canyon from Helena to Great Falls. This entailed climbing 3,000 feet in about 15 miles in order to get over a ridge and into the canyon. We encountered turbulence as we crossed the ridge and then heavy rain as we turned west to follow the chain of reservoirs. When we approached the pass that leads from Wolf Creek to Great Falls we could see that we would have a marginal ceiling and rain all the way to Great Falls. Don suggested diverting in the direction of Fairfield, Montana, to take advantage of more open terrain and a higher ceiling. I immediately concurred.

Another driving rainstorm intercepted us when we had traveled about half of the way to Fairfield. Visibility diminished to less than two miles and the ceiling dropped to 700-800 feet. We both had our hands full as we flew, keeping a sharp lookout for objects ahead, and checking the charts for published obstructions.

The field at Fairfield came into sight, we declared our intentions, and we set up for landing straight into driving rain and with a brisk crosswind component. The asphalt runway didn’t appear to have received much in the way of maintenance. It had an assortment of vegetation poking through the cracks. Don called flight services at Great Falls as I touched down to advise them that we were making a precautionary landing at Fairfield. He asked the specialist to close our flight plan but was asked to confirm by phone when we were on the ground. He agreed to do so. However there was no phone at the airport from which to call.

The only building on the airport was an empty double hanger that was just off the runway. We pushed the planes in to get them, and ourselves, out of the wind and rain. We decided to walk into town, a distance of a mile or so, once the rain abated. In the meantime we had a bite to eat and had a look at the charts. We also got an update on the weather on my hand-held radio.

The rain petered out after a half-hour or so and we started walking toward town. We had scarcely left the airport gate when a police car appeared. Great Falls Flight Service had asked the Teton County Sheriffs Office to check on us because they hadn’t heard from us by phone. The officer satisfied himself that we were the people he was looking for and contacted his office by radio with the request that they relay our whereabouts to flight services. He then drove us into town, checked us out for outstanding warrants, and gave us advice on where to eat. He also checked on us again at the airport later in the afternoon and offered to let us spend the night at his house if we were unable to continue our journey that afternoon.

Fairfield is served by a local telephone system that doesn’t handle collect or calling card calls. After several fruitless attempts to call Don’s wife, Catherine, we obtained a few pounds of quarters from a grocery store. Then we were able to make the call to bring our wives up to date on our whereabouts.

The ceiling lifted as the afternoon waned and we decided to fly to Cut Bank, Montana just south of the Canadian border, a distance of about 60 nm. There we would be able to obtain fuel, food, and lodging if needed. We landed at Cut Bank about 40 minutes after taking off from Fairfield. Cut Bank has facilities for itinerant pilots so, as darkness was coming, we decided to spend the night there.We fueled the planes at the card-lock and put on the wing covers. We staked out rooms in the pilot’s rest area in the terminal building, and cooked a meal in their well-appointed kitchen. We also called customs to advise them that we wanted to clear customs at Lethbridge the next morning. By the time we had brought our logbooks up to date and had read for a few minutes, it was time to crawl into our sleeping bags.

We were awake before daylight the next morning. The ceiling was a good 10,000 feet above ground level and the wind was calm. We stripped the wing covers from the wings, shook as much frost as we could from the covers, and were airborne by 7:15 a.m. As we flew north we remarked on the irony of finally having ideal flying weather just as we encountered endless stubble fields, any one of which would have made a safe place for an emergency landing.

We landed at Lethbridge at 8:00 a.m., cleared customs by phone, and took off again for Springbank. The air was smooth, conditions were great, and we were on the ground at Springbank before 10:00 a.m. after an absence of nine days.

Flying in formation as a flight of two for such a distance was a great deal of fun. We both found that pooling our knowledge was advantageous and I am sure we learned from each other. We both contributed to the pre-decision discussions that were necessitated by the adverse conditions. We consciously tried to avoid falling into the trap of presuming that the observations of one were not to be critically examined by the other.

We were continually amazed at how well we were treated at each of our stops, particularly considering the quality of the services we received. Our largest fuel purchase was 15 gallons for each plane but we felt that we would not have expected to be better received if we had been buying hundreds of gallons.

Don took all kinds of great pictures during our trip. I recently arranged several dozen of them into an album. As I re-lived the trip by reviewing the pictures I asked myself the question ‘Where do we go next year?"