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The Historic Trail FlyersThe Historic Trail Flyers

Happy trails, pilot-styleHappy trails, pilot-style

Join the Historic Trail Flyers on their next adventure as they retrace America’s most important Western trails from the sky. It’s a fun way to make new pilot friends, see new places, and get the lowdown on local history from experts you’ll meet with personally.

  • Clowning on the cliffs at Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah, during a Historic Trail Flyers trip that followed the Old Spanish Trail from Santa Fe to Los Angeles. Photo courtesy Bob Bronson.
  • From the air, it’s often easy to see why historic trails follow the paths they do. Many pioneers on the Oregon Trail forded the treacherous Snake River at Three Island Crossing, near present-day Glenns Ferry, Idaho. Horses or oxen had to pull wagons across the river, and drownings were not uncommon. The Glenns Ferry airport is visible just north of the river. Photo by Crista Worthy.
  • Bob and Jerri Bronson at an Oregon Trail marker in Nebraska. Photo courtesy Bob Branson.
  • Join the Historic Trail Flyers in 2018 for their Route 66 Air Tour, and you can shop the huge selection of hand-made Indian jewelry and other crafts at the Old Town Plaza in Albuquerque. Photo courtesy Albuquerque CVB.
  • An artist demonstrates his gourd painting outside the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque. Photo courtesy
  • On the ground at Grants, N.M., you’ll tour the Cibola County Aviation Heritage Museum, which honors those pioneer aviators who crossed the West along the 1929-era Los Angeles-to-Amarillo segment of the Midcontinental Airway. Giant concrete arrows set into the ground literally pointed the way across the country, accompanied by bright beacons. Here, you’ll see a beautifully-restored arrow with the complete beacon and generator station, one of the few remaining. Photo courtesy Joyce Woods.
  • The Gallup airport lies right next to the railroad tracks and old Route 66 (now Interstate 40). Photo by Neil Glass.
  • The lobby at the El Rancho Hotel. Known as the “home of the movie stars,” John Wayne, Katherine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, Gregory Peck, Ronald Reagan, and more stayed here when filming nearby. The lobby exudes an old-time Southwest feel, with its great rock fireplace, curving staircase of hewn logs, Navajo rugs, and Hollywood memorabilia. The old-fashioned elevator has a full-time operator, and there’s a gift shop, pool, bar/lounge, and a popular onsite restaurant. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.
  • In Gallup, step into the Perry Null Trading Post and be astounded at the quality hand-made jewelry, pottery, kachina dolls, even a silver saddle once owned by Gene Autry. The “Rug Room” overflows with hundreds of the finest hand-woven Navajo rugs. Like jazz, this is all-original, American art, and its creation and sale brings dignity to its creators. Owner Perry Null is a pilot too! Photo courtesy Perry Null Trading Company.
  • In Gallup, the Badlands Grill serves an excellent ahi tuna appetizer. Follow it up with a great steak! Photo courtesy Badlands Grill.
  • After departing Gallup, pilots will overfly the Painted Desert, about 40 nm east of Winslow, Arizona. The desert is composed of stratified layers of easily erodible siltstone, mudstone, and shale of the Triassic Chinle Formation. These fine-grained rock layers contain abundant iron and manganese compounds that provide the pigments for the various colors, often amplified in the low light just before sunset. Photo courtesy NPS.
  • No visit to Winslow is complete without standing on THE corner—about 100,000 people do it each year. In 1999, city leaders paid tribute to the classic Jackson Brown/Glenn Frey song “Take It Easy,” the first mega-hit by the country/rock band The Eagles, by creating Standin’ on the Corner Park on a downtown corner of Route 66. They put up a bronze statue of a 70s-era troubadour with his guitar and put the word out to the public to “Slow down and take a look.” The bronze, named “Easy” stands in front with the flat-bed Ford. Photo courtesy Winslow Chamber of Commerce.
  • Back in the era of cross-country train travel, tourists flocked to Winslow, Arizona, lured by this magnificent Fred Harvey property, which opened in 1930. But in the 1950s, Americans turned to the automobile and inexpensive “motor hotels,” or motels, and La Posada closed. Then in 1997 an idealistic quartet of artists with no hotel experience decided to buy and restore La Posada, doing most of the work themselves. Now La Posada, with its Turquoise Room restaurant, is better than ever. Photo courtesy Daniel Lutzick.
  • The “Crystal Forest” area of Petrified Forest National Park is a one-hour drive east of Winslow. During the railroad-tourist era, trains stopped at the “petrified forest” so passengers could disembark and scoop up pieces as souvenirs. To stop the looting of ancient man-made artifacts by “pot hunters” and preserve special natural areas, Congress passed the Antiquities Act, signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt on June 8, 1906. Later that year, Roosevelt established Petrified Forest National Monument. Congress upgraded its status to a national park in 1962. Old Route 66 passes through the northern section of the park. Photo courtesy NPS.
  • Route 66 Tour participants will fly over Meteor Crater, about 20 miles west of Winslow. The world’s best-preserved meteor impact site measures nearly a mile in diameter. The meteorite, a chunk of nickel and iron about 150 feet across, weighed 300,000 tons and slammed into the ground about 50,000 years ago. The blast was about 150 times the force of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. The crater eventually filled with water, which evaporated after the climate dried out. Photo courtesy USGS.
  • On your way home after the Route 66 Air Tour is over, why not stop again at Albuquerque? You’ll be perfectly positioned to enjoy the incredible International Balloon Fiesta, held October 6–14, 2018. The largest event of its kind, it draws some 600 balloons and 1,000 pilots each year. Watch morning mass ascensions, Rio Grande River dips, nighttime balloon glows, or take a ride—up, up, and away! Photo by Ron Behrmann.

Back in 1989, a small group of pilots from the airpark in Independence, Oregon, were having coffee and doing what pilots do: talking about flying. Independence happens to be the traditional end-point of the original nineteenth-century Oregon Trail. One of the pilots had the idea that it would be fun to fly the Oregon Trail from Independence, Missouri, (considered by many to be the original "jumping off point"), to Independence, Oregon, in the year of the sesquicentennial of the trail, 1993. The others at the table thought it would be a great way to combine their passion for history with their love of aviation. All were keenly aware of how the numerous long trails across the West have shaped U.S. history. These trails date back from the original Spanish explorers in the 1500s to as recently as the iconic Route 66. Driving these trails would take days or weeks and leave little time to explore on the ground. Flying them would be much more fun! That simple idea grew into the Historic Trail Flyers.

In 1993, the 150th anniversary of the Oregon Trail, 30 airplanes and 65 people converged on Independence, Missouri, and then followed the Oregon Trail, making pre-arranged stops along the way. All types of airplanes participated: Champs, Cubs, an AT–6, a Cessna 310, a Comanche, Bonanzas, Cessna 172s, you name it, and people flew in from as far as Michigan and Texas. Ground transportation, accommodations, ground tours, and guest speakers were all arranged ahead. Viewing the original paths from the air also made it evident how much the terrain dictated the routes. By the end of the trip, in Independence, Oregon, the participants had enjoyed themselves so much, they already wanted to plan their next adventure.

During a past Historic Trail Flyers trip, Bob and Jerri Bronson prepare for departure. Photo courtesy Bob Bronson.

The Historic Trail Flyers is a unique flying club. There are no officers or bylaws. The club is registered in Oregon as a nonprofit. Each year, at the end of a trip, participants meet at a “last supper” to decide where they should fly next year, what the general route should be, and who will be the lead volunteer, responsible for organizing the trip. Participants pay a fee to cover certain expenses like ground transportation (usually a bus, school bus, or motor coach) at stops. This totals about $150 per person for the entire trip, which lasts about 10 days. The club generally breaks even each year, which is the goal. Long-time member Rick Hannen says the hardest part of the planning is arranging the ground transportation. Participants make their own hotel reservations and pay their own fuel, food, and hotel expenses (the lead volunteer secures discounts when possible). Flying is done VFR, and there’s no formation flying. The club has never had an accident.

Historic Trail Flyers participants pose at the Robidoux Trading Post on the Oregon Trail near Scotts Bluff National Monument in Nebraska. Photo courtesy Bob Bronson.

Since flying the Oregon Trail, the club has explored the Lewis and Clark Trail, the Santa Fe Trail going into Fort Union, the California Trail over Donner Pass, the Old Spanish Trail from Santa Fe to Los Angeles, and many more. Hannen says, “Participants are by no means wealthy, though they’re not paupers of course. You need time and an interest in Western history for these tours. We usually recommend a few relevant books before each trip. But some of our older friends have stopped flying. Our last trip had about 10 planes and 30 people, so we’d love to have some new folks join us, have fun, and get their ideas for next year.” 

For 2018 (Sept. 22 to Oct. 1), the plan is to follow Route 66, from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Victorville, California. Meet up and you’ll take a hot air balloon ride, visit the balloon museum and Indian Pueblo Cultural Center (and fantastic Pueblo Harvest Café!), and then fly to Grants, New Mexico, to see the Airway Heritage Museum. In Gallup, free time will allow you to explore murals, museums, or the incredible trading posts that make Gallup ground zero for Indian arts, before dinner and a neon lights tour. Next, you’ll fly to Winslow, Arizona, where you can “stand on the corner” and tour or stay and dine at the amazing and beautifully restored La Posada Hotel, one the finest Fred Harvey hotels in the West. Additional stops include Holbrook and Petrified Forest National Park, Kingman and its Route 66 and model railroad museums, and Oatman for a group dinner with speaker, parade, car show, and more, before finishing at Victorville, California, and its particularly fun Route 66 museum. Want to fly along? See the photos for more information and email Bob Bronson, this year’s organizer, for the complete itinerary!

Route 66 (as Central Avenue) runs through the heart of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Photo by

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Crista Worthy

Crista V. Worthy

Crista V. Worthy has been flying around the United States with her pilot-husband Fred and their children since 1995, and writing about fun places to fly since 2006. She has single-engine land and sea ratings. Her favorite places to explore are the backcountry strips of Idaho and Utah's red rock country. She currently lives in Idaho and serves as editor of The Flyline, the monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association.
Topics: US Travel

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