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Amphitheatre in the Sky – “Infinite Highway of the Air”: From Alabama to Alaska

The PYOA Contest 3rd Place Story

By Michael Gerhardt

These are the quiet airborne moments, when we look at the endless wonder below and around us. We marvel “…enviously on the birds soaring freely through space, at full speed, above all obstacles, on the infinite highway of the air.” This phrase aged well, considering it is attributed to the Wright brothers, Wilbur and Orville – aviation pioneers. They responded to the call of the sky, the promise of floating on air, of entering another dimension.

The Cessna 185 now part of the family, is exceptionally well travelled and has had many pilot companions before becoming my trusted friend. Its history included time spent in Alaska and later it made its way down to the deep South becoming a float plane for Southern Natural Gas in Louisiana and Mississippi. It was time to revisit the significant places in our plane’s past, and Alaska promised to be a combination of cross country combined with bush plane experiences. Importantly it was also a father-son bonding journey with my son Paul. With fifty flying hours to his name, Paul displayed a veteran’s enthusiasm for the thrill of flight. Together we wanted to experience the vastness and beauty of this continent.

We had planned an interlude at Trail Lakes at Moose Pass, on the road to Seward (south of Anchorage), having signed up for an instructional course on the art of water landings and were hoping to get our seaplane ratings. We added instruction in mountain flying, which requires serious preparation for us flatlanders.

Our journey north started in Shelby County Alabama (KEET) and took us along the inland route of the Alcan highway (Alaska Canadian highway). We met with high density altitudes on the way up around Denver, western Montana and Idaho and were alerted to rapidly changing weather systems. Our flight path continued into Canada at Lethbridge, where friendly customs and border patrol reminded us that this journey was an international adventure requiring appropriate documentation not only for ourselves but also for the Cessna. Crossing the untouched expanse of Canada humbled us with a new perspective of the enormity of North America, as viewed from our trusted pair of wings.

We took in view upon view, dwarfing us in its immensity: the towering castles of cloud, amphitheaters of mountains as we followed the Rockies, landscapes laid out like enormous patchwork quilts, in shades of brown to green. Sometimes these spaces contained the many rings of water irrigation systems, other times we could see the transition into unending forests, the beginnings and edges of arid patches, waterways in all shapes and sizes. And then the scratches on earth’s surface made by our fellow humans. Road networks, housing communities, water reservoirs; the seemingly microscopic view below remained daunting and was part of an experience of scale. We felt insignificant in comparison to the vastness and forces of nature, but the sense of wonderment overruled.

After successfully completing our seaplane ratings and mountain flying course, moving on to Talkeetna for yet another perspective on Alaska’s unique geography, Denali. The glaciers and ice falls were an unexpected sight to our southern eyes. The ‘waterlines’ on the mountain sides indicated the ice was rapidly melting which brought home the message of climate change. Later, we flew the Cessna as far north west as Nome. We had planned to go even further up to Barrow, but weather conditions were not favorable, and we were newbies feeling our way around.

For our journey home we chose a different routing along the so-called “Trench”.

From Canada, we re-entered the USA at Washington State and flew south and along the Hood River in Oregon, where the silvery reflections of the water became our visual beacon. Another interlude at Portland to attend a graduation.

This adventure taught us foundational flying skills related to environmental awareness, weather variability and the deep respect for truly hostile territory – where precautionary landing may be impossible and survival in remote locations would require planning and advanced skills. Bottom line: as safe pilots we must remain humble concerning our flying skills through ongoing training. We do well to know the limits and capabilities of our planes, so that our wings become extensions of ourselves allowing us to experience the wonder of flight the Wright brothers referred to.

The ever-changing weather systems represent huge forces of nature which can crumple us if we become cheeky in the face of their power. This lesson was brought home to us on one of the seaplane practice-runs. High in an Alaskan gorge, the ridge lift allowed Paul with his experienced Alaskan Instructor in the Supercub to take on the persona of a glider. Engine shut down, just the upslope lift to be respected and used, almost like riding a huge surf wave somewhere on a mighty sea. Re-entering the lower altitudes, under power, the wind shook their plane and almost rolled it; he had misread the telltale ripples, a “catspaw” on the water denoting turbulent downslope air meeting water. Vigilance is important in this environment where we are constantly reminded of our own fragility.

From our starting point in Alabaster, Alabama to Nome in Alaska, we went through 78 degrees of longitude change and a 180 degree heading change in perception of bush flying treading timidly in the footsteps of characters like Eielson, Crosson and Gillam. This adventure renewed our respect for our Cessna, which had met the challenge, filled us with gratitude to call Northern America our home, and sparked a desire to further expand our flying skills. The wonder elicited by flying is timeless and universal becoming increasingly accessible to professional and hobby pilots alike. Yes, the Wright brothers had a deep intuitive sense what it was about: this “…infinite highway of
the air.

 

 

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