What is your favorite method for crossing the country?
Here are a few of my favorite things:
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.
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.
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.