Saturday, January 29, 2011

Western Kansas tells and smells

I have a few memories of western Kansas worth recollecting here.  Some are funny (and gross, beware), imprinted on me as some of the most surreal and sufferable moments of my flying career.  In spite of what you might think of western Kansas, generally known as a dry, flat farming place in the heartland, I found that the terrain is inspiring, the sky is big, the thunderstorms are incredible, and the people are honest, warmhearted, friendly, and God fearing.  A good combination, and its all accented with a western flair you won't find as much of in other parts of Kansas.  I've got three stories to share.  Dodge City is famous for good reasons, but on one overnight it became infamous for me; I'll get to that in a little bit, but first, a little Garden City infamy.

In the spring of 1998 I flew a 1964 Cessna 172 from Tulsa to Denver and back, stopping in Garden City, Kansas on the way there.  It was a VFR only plane with a rather weak 145 Hp Continental engine with an undersized propeller.  My wife was my 'co-pilot', and felt as anemic as the plane did on the second leg to Denver.  It was a beautiful day, but mountain wave prevailed over western Kansas all the way to the front range.  I got the plane up to 8,500 feet I think it was, slowly.  Our airspeed varied by plus or minus twenty-five knots in the wave if I maintained altitude, so I rode the smooth waves 300 feet up and down and minimized the speed changes.  Shannon was nauseous, but she made it there 'with the paper bag on her knee'. 

A couple days later when we were ready to fly back home, Shannon accepted a dose of Dramamine from my mother, and it helped her airsickness. I accepted a large cup of coffee from my mother, before we took off from Centennial airport near Denver.  I thought it was too large, but drank it like a dutiful son.

Our scheduled stop on the way back to Tulsa was Dodge City, east of Garden City, but after over an hour and a half (I think) of flying eastbound, my bladder was not cooperating.  I gave Shannon the sectional, asking "is this town on the map this one ahead of us?", motioning out the window.  "No, we're way back here", she responded, surprised that I couldn't quite read it.  Maybe you've been there, with your gums floating, and no way to pull over to 'the side of the road', flying a small plane with both hands, praying you can hold it till you land.  This was bad because now I couldn't concentrate enough even to read the map.  There was now way I could hold it till Dodge City, so I made a good decision to land again at Garden City, a little before Dodge City.  This was when my bladder started breathing.  Not really breathing, but cycling back and forth, telling me that it could only take so much more abuse; its a strange phenomenon.  Ahh, now, a little later we were on final approach, we were going to make it!  After a nice landing, I was concentrating on an actual FBO ramp worker guiding us in on the ramp; I was relieved that a mess wasn't going to happen after all.  However, with me distracted while parking, my bladder gave up.  It issued no further warning that it had had enough: the rubber band broke and the gates cracked open, just enough to require a change of jeans.  Doh!  My wife was embarrassed along with myself, as I attempted to stroll nonchalantly into the FBO, covering my dark spot with another pair of jeans and underwear.  Tip learned but not used on this occasion: a coffee cup or plastic bottle can be used for more than something to drink (but you need someone else to fly the plane)!

Just over two years later, in June of 2000, I found myself in western Kansas again, with a farmer from Iowa for a Captain.  I was new at my first airline, Great Lakes Airlines (named after Iowa's great lakes, not the real great lakes).  I had 'drank from the firehose' from February though March while getting through their ill reputed training, and was starting to feel comfortable on the line flying the 'mighty' Beechcraft 1900D "Beechliner" (even though it didn't have a bathroom).  After climbing out of Denver, we were headed to Liberal first, then to the Dodge City overnight in smooth air.

Western Kansas has lots of irrigated farmland, and most of it seems to be crop circles.  Not the unsolved mysteries kind, mind you, but the 'center pivot' irrigation kind.  This irrigation system is a big arm that water is pumped through.  It slowly sprays the field as the arm rotates about its center.  Its funny, two different passengers have asked me on flights when I was a fellow passenger to Denver and other points "what are those circles on the ground"?  They could hardly believe that these giant circles of brown, green, and yellow were really circularly irrigated farm fields. 

On the descent into Liberal from the north I saw many of these fields up close from my perch on the right side of the cockpit.  Except the sun low on the horizon, the type of wheat (I think) they were growing in the fields, and strange lights emanating up towards us all combined to make it one of the most surreal and beautiful sights I've ever witnessed as a pilot.

These circular wheat fields were a color purple.  There is such a thing as purple wheat, really, even purple bread, see?  I don't know if it was that, whether the golden light from the setting sun reflected that color from the soil, or a combination of the two.  To cap this scene of wonderment off, the center pivot of each field had a blinking strobe light on it.  In silence, my farmer turned pilot and I  watched this alien world flow by while finding our way into the 'airport' at dusk.  Was this an unknown, alien world we were about to touch down onto?  Were these strange fields landing bases for the UFO's my previously mentioned ignorant fellow passengers seemed to suspect?  No, but it was an engrossing thing to imagine, if even for a few moments.  But why were there strobe lights on the center pivots of the irrigation systems?  

Maybe for these reasons.  The wheat harvest has an intensity unrivalled in the grain world, because wheat has a fairly limited time between ripening and spoiling.  Large commercial harvesting crews attack fields with a team of large combines 24-7, they tell me.  My guess is strobe lights are on these center pivots because the crop dusters (agricultural aviators) work long days to keep the wheat healthy, from early dawn to late dusk, and need to see the obstructions that the irrigation systems are.  Here's a cool crop dusting video, they really skim over the crops.  

Fourteen months later, I was headed toward Dodge City again, this time as a Captain.  This informative link about Dodge City says that they slaughter 20,000 head of cattle a day there.  Actually, there's a slaughterhouse right next to the final approach into the airport.  And the corresponding odor of 'boiled blood' ("the smell of money") greeted us in August 2001 as we landed there on a 'high-speed' overnight (as we called them at Great Lakes).  A high-speed is a continuous duty overnight, meaning that you never go off duty, even though you go to the hotel (most nights, most airlines).  Instead of getting eight hours or more rest at the hotel, you get less than that, six if you're lucky, five or less if you're not.  I don't particularly enjoy high-speed overnights, especially into Dodge City.  I had done this particular short trip before, though, and had braced myself. 

Braced myself for the particularly bad hotel, no, motel we stayed in.  Braced myself for the smell and the short, six hour period between our scheduled arrival and departure time.  But it turned out I didn't brace myself enough.  By the way, Dodge City itself is a great place to spend some time exploring the real wild west history that occurred there.  I just never had time to do it myself.

I and my Italian-American First Officer were about to experience my worst overnight, ever.  I had warned him about the motel car, a first generation Dodge minivan with the second coat of spray can paint on it, which we could start without a key and drive back and forth to the motel.  But no one had told us about the gallon of milk someone had left in it for a few days, during the summer.  The smell was awful, as bad as the boiled blood from the cows were, and the container of carpet fresh they sympathetically left for us to spread around only masked it for a few seconds, it seemed.  The short ride into town was our saving grace.  Gagging on the sour, spoiled milk odor, I would stick my head out the window till I couldn't stand the smell from the daily slaughter.  Holding my nose didn't help because the taste was just as bad!  Back and forth our heads zig-zagged till we made it to the lovely Best Western a couple of miles from the airport, a favorite of bikers and a blue collar drinkers.  And it was a weekend night, as I remember.

In my room later, with the door shut, I got ready to hit the sack quickly, the alarm would buzz in about four hours.  After washing up I returned to my open bedding to find the biggest cockroach I've ever seem in my life smiling up at me, on the center of my pillow.  Incredulous, I managed to send it to an early death, then looked over and under the bed, and tucked in.  For about five minutes, that is, before switching to the other bed, logically.

In the shower a few short hours later I was cursing my luck, not only for what we were being put through, but because the maids conveniently forgot to leave towels or washcloths for me.  Actually, I was able to dry off with the lone foot towel, which they had left.  Some night drunk had smashed the glass door to the motel lobby, and after checking out we carefully went back through it and said good riddance to Dodge City, holding our breath back to the airport on a prairie hill.

Its crazy what pilots go through and are willing to put up with, in order to have a career in the skies.  They must love it, or they wouldn't be willing to put up with it, and this was true in my case.  I was glad to get out of Great Lakes and fly an MD-80 for Vanguard Airlines for three short months in Kansas City, before they went bankrupt and shut down.  But I'll always remember the sacrifices and hardships I and my family endured at Lakes, and the camaraderie, friendships, and adventure I had there in two short years.  I learned a lot, gained great experience (some of which were flying mistakes I made in western Kansas) that will benefit me for the rest of my career, and essentially earned my chops.  My hat is off to the 'Lakers' who continue being real 'airmen' still today.

God bless you, and thanks for reading my blog.


rhinosky said...

God bless the Lakers!

Shannon said...

I'll be your navigator any old day - and do your laundry too - I guess. :) That was a memorable trip.