Postcards

The Gods of the Hills

February 1, 2005

Winter flying in Vermont

It was the year 1777, and war was exploding across the American colonies, when a tiny corner of New England — a place known for diamond-hard granite and even harder heads — did something so gutsy it surprised both the English and Patriots alike.

It declared independence — from everybody.

The Republic of Vermont simply tore itself some territory out of the Green Mountains between New York and New Hampshire, hammered out a constitution, outlawed slavery, minted some money, and struck out on its own.

Vermont, you see, is different.

To see why, take a flight up there this winter. You'll see a patch of mountains conveniently severed from the rest of the Appalachians by Lake Champlain and the Connecticut River. You'll see tiny towns wedged into impossible passes and roads cut through some of the hardest stone in the United States. It's cold, snowy, and beautiful — a place that breeds a certain pluckiness. "The gods of the valleys are not the gods of the hills," the Vermont revolutionary Ethan Allen once explained — and a visit will show you it's splendidly true.

Pickles, doughnuts, and snow

These days, of course, Vermont welcomes outsiders. Vermonters decided to join the Union in 1791, becoming the fourteenth state after 14 years of independence, and tourism is now its biggest industry.

The state has the best skiing east of the Rockies, a thriving arts scene, great fishing and hunting, golf courses, museums, and even a state dessert: maple syrup melted over snow, served with pickles and a plain doughnut.

Getting there by air is easy, thanks to some convenient geography. The Green Mountains form a 100-mile-long spine through the state, with relative lowlands to the north and south. Most of the state's 17 public airports lie on either side of this ridge: 10 of them sit at less than 1,000 feet msl, and none is higher than 2,000 feet msl (see the photos at www.vermontairports.com). And at only 150 nautical miles long and 30 to 70 nm wide, you can get pretty much anywhere in Vermont in less than two hours of flying. Don't be fooled, however: Vermont's mountains only rise about 4,400 feet high, but they can be plenty treacherous, especially in winter. With winds above 25 knots, beware of serious mountain waves that can bounce you like a ball in a lotto machine or suck you down into valleys.

"We glider pilots love it, because you can get up to 23,000 feet. But if it goes up, it's gotta come down somewhere," said Gregg Leslie, who flies from Warren-Sugarbush Airport. To be safe, put 2,000 feet of altitude between you and the ridges.

Another issue is the cold. You're practically in Canada here, and the mean daily temperature in central Vermont is a brisk 20 degrees Fahrenheit during January. Most lightplane engines shouldn't be started below 20 degrees without a preheat, and ice and morning frost can be a real problem.

Most FBOs will preheat your plane for about $20. To prevent frost, cover the airplane's wings with tarps held fast with bungee cords and park your airplane facing into the morning sun. Most airports up here will charge you $140 or more a night to hangar your airplane overnight, so the tarps and preheats are worth the money.

Snowstorms come and go quickly in Vermont, so call ahead to make sure the runways are clear. Be prepared for icy landings — go easy on the brakes, keep the yoke back to take advantage of aerodynamic braking, and be ready to use the rudder.

Burlington

Burlington, a city of 39,000 people on the shore of Lake Champlain, is Vermont's biggest metropolis and a good jumping-off place for a visit. Cessna 152s doing touch and goes share the city's Class C airport, Burlington International Airport, with small airliners and F-16s from the Vermont Air National Guard. For a bird's-eye view of the weather, check out the Burlington Hazecamnet ( www.hazcam.net/burlington.html).

One of Burlington's FBOs, AvCenter, serves five flavors of Green Mountain Coffee daily (try the Southern Pecan and the Viennese Cinnamon) and welcomes a steady stream of jet-setters decked out in ski gear. Grab a crew car and try the apple cider-soaked chicken at Trader Duke's restaurant (802/660-7523), or tour the Lake Champlain Chocolates Factory downtown (802/864-1808; www.lakechamplainchocolates.com).

Lodging in Vermont runs the gamut from $300-a-night bed-and-breakfasts to mom-and-pop motels that charge $50 a night, even in the winter high season. For the coziest digs, try a bed-and-breakfast ( www.bbonline.com/vt). True to its hippie tradition, the state offers plenty for the budget traveler, too. Year-round youth hostels in Middlebury (802/388-0401) and White River Junction (802/295-3118) charge as little as $13.50 per person ( www.hiusa.com).

In the winter, Lake Champlain is a shining field of white stretching to New York. Burlington flight instructor Nick Santo says he takes all of his students out for a landing on the ice.

"A lot of guys like to land out there next to the [ice fishing] shanties, offer a ride to the fishermen — which they always take you up on — and get some perch that way," Santo said. Don't try it unless you know the local conditions, though — the ice can be cracked and covered with knee-deep snow.

Just 24 nautical miles east of Burlington is Morrisville-Stowe State Airport, and between the two sits Mount Mansfield, Vermont's highest peak at 4,395 feet. Stowe Mountain Resort covers the mountain's eastern flank with 48 ski trails, 10 lifts, and two mountaintop restaurants.

Skiing, of course, is what turned Vermont from a backwater into a beacon for tourists. The nation's first chairlift was installed on Mount Mansfield in 1940, and the state now has 16 major ski areas, most of them within a 30-minute drive of an airport. You can see maps of them all online ( www.vermontskiresorts.com or www.skivermont.com). Most lodges offer free pickup at the airport.

Morrisville-Stowe and nearby Warren-Sugarbush Airport (which is closed in winter) draw glider pilots from all over the nation. Stowe Soaring offers rides beginning at $69 for two people, glider rentals for $40 an hour, and instruction for $30 an hour. Towing fees are $16 per hookup plus $4 for every 1,000 feet (800/898-7845).

In the foothills of Mount Mansfield sits the Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream Factory and Museum, where you can slurp samples and watch as the assembly line churns out flavors such as Chunky Monkey and Cherry Garcia. The company's namesakes, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, took a $5 correspondence course in making ice cream and opened their first shop in 1978. The factory exhibits a pack-rat's paradise of memorabilia tracing the entire history — from pictures of their first delivery truck (a Volkswagen station wagon) to a letter from Grateful Dead musician Jerry Garcia, written on the lid of an ice-cream carton.

Just 10 nautical miles to the southeast is Montpelier, a sleepy state capital that would be even sleepier if it weren't for the dynamite explosions echoing from nearby Barre. This is granite country, and its quarries produce the consistently smooth, fine-grained rock prized by the nation's tombstone makers, sculptors, and architects. Generations of quarrymen have followed their fathers into the business, and some of them can trace their roots all the way to stonecutters from Europe. The Rock of Ages Quarry offers tours (802/476-3119; www.rockofages.com).

At the Edward F. Knapp State Airport even the restroom doors are outfitted with carved granite signs. The legislative session brings lobbyists in their bizjets, but during the rest of the year the main draw is the $9.95 Prime Rib Night at Sambel's restaurant (802/223-6776) and the promise of a sturdy chair and some quality hangar flying with the airport bums at the Vermont Flying Service.

Farther north, you'll start to hear French on the unicom frequencies. Right on the border with Quebec you'll find Franklin County State Airport, which during the past decade has become a mecca for admirers of airplanes from Russia and the former Eastern Bloc. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Gesoco Industries has imported some 250 planes built behind the Iron Curtain — everything from Romanian Yakovlev Yak-52s and IAR Brasovs to Polish Pezetel Wilgas. Walking through the tiedown area is like strolling through a Red Army flight school.

In the early days, the big airplanes emblazoned with red stars used to raise eyebrows among the neighbors, but "everyone's pretty much used to what goes on over here by now," said Clifford Coy, a mechanic who restores the ex-Communist birds and the son of Gesoco owner George Coy.

Southern Vermont

Southern Vermont begins at Rutland, close to one of the finest ski resorts in the East, Killington. The town proves that Vermonters' rebellious streak has not faded: In March, Killington residents voted to secede from the state and become an unlikely enclave of New Hampshire, 25 miles to the east, in a dispute over taxes.

If you want to try something different in Killington, Arctic Paws (802/746-8028) will let you drive a dogsled on a frozen lake for $34. Finish the run without flipping your sled, and you'll get an "Official Musher" certificate. The Mountain Top Inn Resort (802/483-6089) offers rides in a horse-drawn sleigh: $25 for adults for a half-hour ride, $15 for kids, children under 3 free. And for a real adrenaline rush, fire up a Polaris 550 with Killington Snowmobile Tours (802/422-2121). One-hour rides are $69 for one person, $89 for two. Two-hour rides are $119 for one person, $149 for two.

While in Rutland, stop by the New England Maple Museum (802/483-9414; www.maplemuseum.com), which tells all the gooey details of Vermont's sweetest export. The sap doesn't begin to run until late February, but dozens of "sugar houses" around Vermont offer tours and samples all winter. You can find a list of them online ( www.vermontmaple.org).

South of Rutland is Bennington, site of a crucial victory by American revolutionaries over the British in 1777. After the battle, British Gen. John Burgoyne groused to his superiors that Vermont "now abounds in the most active and most rebellious race on the continent and hangs like a gathering storm on my left." Just off Runway 13 is the Bennington Battle Monument, a 306-foot-high obelisk commemorating the event.

For pilots who ski, the coolest airport in Vermont is Mount Snow Airport in West Dover. This airstrip lies within sight of two ski areas, Haystack and Mount Snow, and there is cross-country skiing on the golf course that abuts the airfield. The airport will rent you a car for $25 a day.

Of course, the proximity of those peaks means you're in for some serious mountain flying. The 2,650-foot-long runway runs north-south, so watch out for strong westerly crosswinds rolling over the mountains.

"Mount Snow is known for eating a few airplanes," said Mark Wood, a pilot from Middlebury. "It's got some nasty winds, and it's not a very big strip."

But on a clear day, the trip is worth it just to see the sunrise light up the mountains and see the ski slopes turn into rivers of orange and gold. Views like that are what winter flying in Vermont is all about — forests that roll to the horizon like oceans, twisting snowmobile tracks on frozen lakes, church spires rising up through snow-covered pines.

"Here one gets close to nature," President Calvin Coolidge, a Vermonter, once wrote. Those who have followed agree.

"I don't think there's anything more beautiful than flying here," said flight instructor Gail Isenberg, a Maryland transplant who teaches in Burlington. "We have the mountains and Lake Champlain all in our back yard. It's the best."


Chris Hawley is a private pilot and journalist living in Mexico City.


Postcards Online

No matter where your home airport is, AOPA Online has a weekend destination for you. Postcards Online's latest destinations are Kingston and Hunter Mountain, New York (East), Palm Springs, California (West), and Quad Cities, Iowa and Illinois (Central). Kingston is New York's first capital, and today a charming and pleasant historic city at the confluence of the Hudson River and Rondout Creek, at the eastern edge of the Catskill Mountains just 20 minutes from the slopes at Hunter Mountain. In Palm Springs, a lush oasis of eight resort communities on the edge of the Mojave Desert, you can drive a golf ball 250 miles without playing the same hole twice. Palm Springs International Airport is a large, busy field. Quad Cities International Airport is a very large Class C field. Because of Quad Cities International Airport's size, and the surrounding terrain — which is flat as a pancake — you'll have no problem spotting the field. It sits just south of the Rock River, about 5 nm east of the confluence of the Rock River and the Mississippi.

AOPA Online's Postcards Online is a monthly collection of travel sites designed for the general aviation pilot and customized to the region that you live in. Delivered once a month via AOPA ePilot, Postcards Online is a partnership between AOPA Pilot magazine and Flyguides, a comprehensive online general aviation resource that spotlights the best places to fly in the United States. To read the complete features, visit the Web site ( www.aopa.org/members/files/pilot/postcards/).