FLYIN’ HIGH … a miss-adventure

Ready for Take-Off

It was Spring 1982, a very good time to celebrate 25 years of marriage … even if it was a little late. And snubbing the idea of a Cruise – too young for that – or a return trip to the Hawaiian, Tahitian or Caribbean islands, we opted on a flying adventure to visit friends at a ski resort in Colorado.

Fortunately (that’s a matter up for debate), hubby had a friend who had recently received his pilot’s license. Combining that with the fact that our close friends had just purchased an Italian Restaurant (appropriately named the Bacchanale after the Roman god of wine) in the ski resort of Crested Butte, we decided to hop on over and celebrate with them.

There was only one hitch … our pilot was site certified only, which meant we would be flying by landmark and not by instruments. But this was something we (at least I) found out later.

Leaving our three sons behind in the capable hands of Grandma – who thought we were flying commercially – we headed to the tiny airport off  Hwy 76 in Oceanside, CA. Awaiting us on the runway was a four-seater, Piper Archer II.

Call it trust, naiveté or just plain stupidity, I was very excited to begin my first foray into the world of small aircraft flying. As a fatalist (believing my life is in God’s hands), I truly didn’t think about any risks that might be involved.

To be continued …

FLYIN’ HIGH … a misadventure continues

Relaxed and Ready

Flight plan, site plan and radio coordinates in hand, we were finally ready to take off on our adventure. It was a beautiful Southern California spring day … azure blue, buttermilk skies, filled with puffy, fluffy clouds. Clarity as far as the eye could see.

Once airborne, our pilot set the radio frequencies and checked the weather ahead. We were surprised to hear a report of light snow, winds and slightly stormy skies. Although it was early spring, and we were headed into mountain territory, our So Cal mentality expected the weather would be perfect everywhere.

Following the suggestion that we wait out the situation, we headed to Vegas to have a little fun. Upon setting down at McCarran International, the boys (hubby and pilot) were anxious to hit the tables. Not much of a gambler – I hate losing my hard-earned money – I was more interested in a tennis match featuring Jimmy Connors and Andre Agassi than playing the slots.  But since I had three silver dollars left in my pocket from a purchase at the bar, I asked hubby to play the one dollar slot for me.

Luckier  in love than in gambling (I spent 50 great years with my husband), I was shocked when I met up with the boys after the tennis match and hubby handed me three hundred dollars. I am much better at losing than winning, and that is the only time in my life I have ever won any significant money gambling (probably a good thing). Well … actually … I wasn’t even the one who won it.

Waiting around for the weather to break, it got later and later. Not wanting to stay in Vegas, it was decided we would go to St. George, UT to spend the night. Upon approaching the St. George Municipal Airport in the darkness of evening, we discovered the landing lights on our plane were malfunctioning. For several minutes we circled the field while our pilot tried vigorously to ignite the lights.  We had no choice, we had to land, we were getting low on fuel. Finally giving up, he radioed the tower for guidance. It was an eerie feeling looking at the ground and seeing nothing but darkness all around, broken only by two slim rows of lantern-like lights. I found myself holding my breath, white-knuckling the arms of my seat as the tower coaxed and guided us into a sketchy but reasonably safe landing.

Stepping gingerly off the plane I heaved a sigh of relief, glad to connect with terra firma once again. It was the first time since planning for this trip that I began to question my judgement.

Leaving our aircraft in the capable hands of the airport mechanic we lost ourselves in the throes of renting a car, and heading for the nearest lodging … danger soon forgotten over dinner and a glass of wine. And in spite of the fact that things weren’t going exactly as planned, we were still very excited and anxious to be on our way to meet and greet our friends, explore their town and enjoy their recently purchased restaurant.

To be continued …..

FLYIN’ HIGH … on to Hanksville

Landing Approach Hanksville, Utah

Awakening to cloudy skies in St. George, we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast then made our way to the airport to check on our landing light repairs. Fueled up and relieved to find all was well, we hopped onboard to begin what we anticipated would be the final leg of our journey. And although still a little apprehensive from last night’s glitch , I relaxed when I heard that the weather, although cloudy, was holding.

I have to admit, flying in a small plane low to the ground is exhilarating. Viewing earth up closer and more personal gives you a broader idea of the size and wonder of this planet we occupy.

Described as the “Crossroads of the West,” Utah is a land of layered, flat-lying sedimentary rock. And as we followed our flight plan over Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon and the Aquarius Plateau toward our fueling stop in Hanksville, the multi-colors and configurations of the land’s plateaus, mesas, creeks and rivers was breathtaking.

Crossing a plateau with the name  Aquarius – hubby’s zodiac sign – gave us all a little laugh, lightening our mood. While not a superstitious person, I must admit little coincidences like that do give me food for thought.

Gas gauge nearing empty, we began circling Hanksville searching for our fueling station. Spotting landing lights on a huge plateau we prepared for landing. Setting down on a runway above ground with nothing on either side is a little daunting, and as the plane rolled to a safe stop, I exhaled slowly.

Approaching the terminal (shack was more like it) much to our surprise the door was locked. But taped to the window was a note: CALL THIS NUMBER FOR FUEL! We all just stood there, mouths wide open, looking at each other.

More to come …..


Recovering from our shock we began looking around for a telephone (this was the early ’80s and cell phones weren’t yet our constant companions). Finally spotting a phone booth around the corner of the building, we frantically searched our pockets looking for enough coins to make a call.  When we were good to go, the men searched for facilities to relieve themselves, and I was the DTO (designated telephone operator).

Approaching the booth doubtfully, I stepped in and dialed the number. After about four or five rings a voice on the other end croaked, “Yep … what can I do for you?”

“We’re at the Hanksville Airport (and I use that word loosely) and we need some fuel for our aircraft,” I explained tentatively.

“Okey dokey,” the voice responded, “I’ll be there in a while.”

“How long a while,” I asked, hesitantly.

“Well … let’s see … I have to fuel up my truck and close up shop and then I should be on my way. Shouldn’t be too long … maybe three shakes of a lamb’s tail,” he assured me.

Completely un-assured I said, “OK, see you in a while.” And hanging up I joined my companions to begin our vigil atop our little piece of heaven in the middle of nowhere.

Which direction would he come from? Would he come at all? If not … we would have a very long walk ahead of us to who knows where. A million thoughts ran through my mind as we watched and waited.

After about a half hour I spotted a small black dot on the road far in the distance. Wondering if it was a mirage I stared intently. Suddenly I realized it truly was a moving object, and since there was only one road leading to our location I was pretty sure this was our knight in shining armor … well … maybe overalls.

I can’t remember a time when I was ever as excited to see a large, greasy tank truck, complete with long-haired, stubble-chinned driver, wending its way slowly toward me up a winding dirt road.

As we climbed back into our refueled aircraft I couldn’t help but wonder what else could happen. Little did I know what awaited us in the mountains of Colorado.

More  miss-adventure to come ….

FLYIN’ HIGH … over the river and into the wilderness.

Flying amidst bright but cloudy skies and brisk weather, we looked forward to the next leg of our journey. Re-checking our landmarks we headed confidently for the Colorado River and our next destination,  Grand Junction, CO.

Having had opportunity to boat and ski on the river, and to view it from the top of the Grand Canyon, I was amazed at the perspective that flying low over it brought to the table. Weaving slowly and leisurely across the river’s surface, surrounded by colorful caverns and cliffs, reminded me once again that there is no beauty so awesome as that created by God. And as we finally veered off-river, changing course to head for our next stop, I was saddened to leave such beautiful territory.

Sensing a slight change in the weather, upon landing in Grand Junction we were advised of a late Spring snow building between us and our destination. Told we couldn’t fly directly into Crested Butte as planned, we were advised to discontinue our journey.

Extremely disappointed, we inquired about an alternate plan. The only possible way we could continue the journey was to change course, fly into Gunnison, rent a car and drive the rest of the way to our destination. Ignoring advisement to end our journey and return home, we refueled and headed for Gunnison in a hurried attempt to beat the weather.

More FLYIN’ HIGH to come …..

FLYIN’ HIGH … despite all obstacles …

Armed with a new flight plan and fresh landmarks, we took off for Gunnison. Flying into the mountainous region, replete with huge canyons and beautiful green valleys, I felt small and insignificant compared to the vastness around and below us, bringing to mind Psalm 8: 3-4: When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? In that tiny aircraft high above the earth all I could think was … oh puny man/woman.

Drawing nearer to our destination the clouds became thicker, and the wind stronger. It wasn’t long before we lost sight of land. Adding to our distress … we were getting low on fuel and our pilot couldn’t raise the Gunnison airport on the two-way radio.

This was it, I thought, my poor mom, left with three boys to bring up. How in the world would she do it?

Funny – although at that point no one knew where we were, and if we went down probably wouldn’t find us for a while – I truly didn’t give a thought to the peril threatening our lives. All I could think about was my aged mom having sole responsibility of raising our three sons.

But obviously, it wasn’t our time yet.

Getting Our Bearings

Suddenly there was a break in the clouds, and we realized we had flown into one of the black canyons of the Gunnison Tunnel. We regained sight of land, managed to rediscover our landmarks, turned our plane around and were on our way.  And though the weather remained sketchy, we regained radio contact and soon were settled safely on the ground.

As it was getting late, I called our friends to let them know all was well, that we would be arriving later than anticipated, and that we were now traveling via auto, not plane. Relieved to know we were safely grounded, they told us the whole town had turned out to celebrate our coming. In the background I could hear the restaurant rocking, and I could hardly wait to complete our journey.

FLYIN’ HIGH … the final chapter to come …

FLYIN’ HIGH … the journey ends


The road from Gunnison to Crested Butte was covered with a late spring snow. A virtual winter wonderland, the descending twilight lent a painter’s hue to the snow-spattered dwellings scattered along the way. Although somewhat weary, our anticipation grew as more dwellings filled the open spaces, and the outline of a town loomed invitingly in the distance.

Colorful Village Buildings – A Welcome Sight for Weary Travellers

Relieved and happy when we finally made it, we stood outside the Bacchanale for a few minutes enjoying the sounds of the party going on. Stepping inside, we slowly made our way to the bar amid hugs, shoulder slaps and high fives. It was a hearty welcome and a celebratory drink was definitely  in order!

For the rest of the week we enjoyed the hospitality of our friends and all that the town had to offer, and I am happy to say the drive/flight home was uneventful.

Outside the Bacchanale

Safely home, when relating this story to friends, we were asked if knowing what we knew then, would we do it again. I think our answer at that time was, “sure, why not?”  Today … if my husband were still living, he would probably say we should go for it. As for me, I’m a little older, perhaps a little wiser now (probably a little more cautious as well), and although it was a great, unforgettable adventure – that in the end turned out well – I probably would have to give that question a lot of thought before I provided an answer.

Brent says:

Came across this blog by accident looking for articles about piper archers. What a wonderful story.. I’m glad you got to experience the joy of flying in a small plane. Hope the next time the pilot is instrument rated!


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