Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, March 10, 2009

53 Years Later

Pitfalls over the Rockies

finfI’m 77 and hold a commercial pilot license and an instrument rating. I’ve filled four logbooks. As a child, I made balsa-wood and tissue-paper airplanes. As a teen, I made gas U-Control model airplanes, and I used to ride my bike to the airport regularly. During the Korean War, I served in the Air Force. All in all, I guess that I’m an aviation enthusiast.

In June 1956, my young wife and I set out on a vacation flight from Salt Lake City, Utah, to Denver, Colo., in my Luscombe 8E. When measured on a map, Denver seems a short 360 miles away from Salt Lake, but this is deceiving because of the intervening Wasatch Mountains and also the high peaks of the Rocky Mountains west of Denver. The plan was to fly a circuitous route through Emigration Canyon, east of Salt Lake, and make a gas stop at Rawlins, Wyo. After Rawlins, a right-hand course was to be flown around Medicine Bow Peak. We’d then fly south above the plains east of the Rockies, some 70 miles past Fort Collins and Longmont, before landing at Denver’s Stapleton Airport.

As with many planned trips, this one wasn’t without its pitfalls. The first occurred when I was barely into Wyoming, when my low-frequency two-way Harvey Wells radio quit working. That meant there would be no more flying “the beam” on the airways in Wyoming and Colorado. And how was I to land at Stapleton without a radio? I still had my compass, my world air charts and the landmarks below. I had flown using dead reckoning and pilotage as a matter of course in those days, so that part seemed to be no problem.

Landing at Rawlins Airport can be a challenge on many fronts. It’s at 7,000 feet, high on the Wyoming plains, and in the summer, the density altitude would put a strain on my airplane with a mere 85 hp to lift it into the thin air. The Rawlins runway isn’t level, and I was cautioned to land uphill and takeoff downhill no matter what the wind conditions were. After landing, it was obvious that this was good advice: In the dirt was an Air Force C-82 Packet that had landed downhill and rolled past the runway’s end.


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