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Low and slow or high and fast? Low and slow or high and fast?

What is your favorite method for crossing the country?

Spring day in New Zealand. Photo by Amy Laboda.

Here are a few of my favorite things:

  • The multiengine Lockwood AirCam (on floats? Even better!).
  • Single-engine Van’s Aircraft RVs (haven’t met one I didn’t like or couldn’t fly).
  • Aerial landscapes of any kind (the wilder the better).
  • The world as seen from the International Space Station.
  • Coffee-table bucket-list books that include any of the above.

And here’s a little secret: My living room and office space are littered with those oversized coffee-table books. Stacks of them. Bookcases full of them. Throughout the very slow months of March, April, and May 2020, these books have come off the shelf and out of the piles with regularity; their glossy, thick pages full of photos, in black and white and in color, reminding me of the luxurious cross-country flights I long to take this coming summer.

The books are diverse in nature and can soothe any mood. When I crave reminders of low-and-slow flying, I pull out Chasing Lewis & Clark Across America, by Ron Lowery and Mary Walker, who retraced the pioneer cartographer/explorers’ path up the Mississippi River, the Missouri River, and more, all the way to the Pacific Ocean at the mouth of the Columbia River in present-day Oregon. They photographed thousands of miles of riverbank close up from the open cockpit of a brilliant lime-green AirCam. The advantage of that kind of low-and-slow flying is immediately apparent in the intimate photos of wildlife captured by Lowery’s lenses as they cruised leisurely at altitudes well below 1,000 feet agl. The tightly positioned wing-mounted twin Rotax engines provide the AirCam with complete redundancy, considerably increasing the safety factor of flying low and slow.

I’ve flown most of that trip, and there is something magical about flipping the pages of the large-format book to be surprised by a photo—such as the approach to land at tiny Orofino airport, set on a wide curve in the 2,000-foot-deep canyon carved by the Clearwater River in the rugged mountains of northern Idaho. I’ve landed there twice in my Van’s Aircraft RV–10, and I can verify that the approach to either end of the single runway will have your full and undivided attention. The town has been built up since the photo in the book was taken, but that just adds to the challenge.

Orofino Municipal Airport on the banks of the Clearwater River. Photo courtesy of the city of Orofino.Leaving Orofino to the west, the high plateau above the river slopes down, and eventually the canyon opens to the golden plain of eastern Washington state, east of Lewiston and Clarkville. The view is breathtaking, with patterns of undulating cropland superimposed on the landscape. A pilot can do the route nice and low right up to the backside of the Cascade mountains, where rocks and towering snow-covered dormant volcanoes will fill your windscreen if you don’t anticipate the rising terrain in time.

To the east of Orofino, the earth folds and juts 10,000 feet or more above sea level. Best to fly high and fast (and in the morning) here. What I love about my RV–10 is its ability, even on high-density-altitude days, to climb quickly away from the earth, leaping toward the relative safety of heights well above the inhospitable terrain strewn with boulders and scree and lingering snow fields.

Flying high (above 10,000 feet msl and/or 2,500 feet agl in the mountains) has the advantage of catching smooth, cool air above the clouds, and the occasional tailwind. In my single-engine piston-powered airplane, I can also take advantage of the thin air and lean the powerplant’s fuel-to-air mixture so that it burns far less fuel than near the ground. The double efficiency of a tailwind and lean mixture can give me miles-per-gallon stats that pilots of certified aircraft envy and ground speeds that literally shove me forward, rushing me to my next fuel stop. Sometimes conditions are sweet enough that I can skip a refueling stop completely, which only adds to the speed and efficiency of the day.

As for the view: It can be unparalleled. There are days flying high across the western United States where I can see for 200 miles in any direction, the deep cerulean blue sky arcing above us and making us feel entirely alone in the universe as the wild patterns of the southern Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado deserts unroll below in a tapestry of oranges, reds, browns, grays, blacks, and tans, slashed by the violent churning auburn of the Colorado River. A more northerly track (such as the one Lowery and Walker traced along the Missouri River) runs past Missoula and Bozeman, Montana, then southeastward.

Flying high here helps one see and avoid the summer weather, which can be sudden and destructive on the wide-open plains of the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Iowa. Even when the rain doesn’t reach the parched ground and sweeps in curtains of virga, aluminum-ripping up- and downdrafts lurk, ready to punish unwary pilots for venturing too close. I like keeping enough altitude below me to see my options, so that I can give these thunderstorms and microbursts a wide berth.

I’m hoping that my traditional summer cross-country is something I can complete again this year.The airplane has had its condition inspection and sports a new powerplant. I’m eager to see how it breathes on a few long stretches of 1,000 miles or more.I’ll log its performance both high and low, and note it in my pilot’s operating handbook for future flights.

In the meantime, those large-format, beautiful, glossy-covered books will have to carry me through.

Stay safe and keep your heart open to the beauty of it all. We will be soaring again soon.

Susitna River just outside Talkeetna, Alaska. Photo by Amy Laboda.
Amy Laboda

Amy Laboda

Aviation freelance writer
Amy Laboda has been flying airplanes since she was 15 years old. She's taught flight students from East Coast to West, and currently serves as a National FAA FAAST Team member, providing Aviation Safety Seminars for FAA certified pilots in the U.S. and abroad. She was the Editor in Chief of Aviation for Women magazine for nearly 13 years before returning to her freelance writing and multimedia career.
Topics: Travel, US Travel, International Travel

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