Day 15 - Out of this World

Sunday, May 24 2020

Day 15


We woke up before sunrise in Richfield and headed to the plane for some early morning shooting of Bryce Canyon, the Canyonlands, Moab, and the unnamed beauty in the expansive, alien landscape between these spectacular places. Richfield at dawn was so peaceful, so still. The surrounding mountains, capped in snow, sat in silent observation of our flight preparations.

We took off just as the sun rose over the horizon and flew Southeast, following a valley down to Bryce Canyon, an expansive, gnarled pit of red rocks. Beautiful in the morning light, I circled in lazy spirals overhead as Filip shot, following the twisting canyon maze. We then pressed on to Canyonland Airport, and along the way photographed some of the craziest landscapes we’d seen so far, including the Grand Staircase and Canyonlands National Park. The most notable thing on this flight was just South of the airport, and barely noted on the chart. I mentioned my new obsession with the salt lakes—these were similar, evaporation pools meant to extract minerals from the waters. They were brilliant blue and soft, buttery turquoise pools gridded out in the red rocks of Moab. Truly looked like someone had taken a paint brush and run it across the ground. Stunning and strange, I flew in varying altitudes above it, until fuel called and I landed at Canyonland.

We explored Moab for the afternoon, grabbed lunch and coffee, and marveled at how, though many of the popular parks were closed right now, the town was absolutely bustling with outdoor fans and tourists. It was probably the most “normal” any place has felt since this trip began (indeed since this pandemic began), which of course in itself felt a bit strange. So we kept our distance and observed, and then headed back to the airport to prep for a sunset flight.

Before going up, we grabbed our camping gear and the airport car graciously lent to us, and drove out into the desert, where we set up camp and noted the location so we could find it upon return. Utah is amazing in that you can basically camp anywhere; we weren’t the only ones wild camping on the desert that night.

We headed back to the airport to preflight, and as I was untying the plane, a pilot pulled up in his car and asked if we were taking the plane across America—he’d seen a post about it online and recognized Old Rusty! We all had a pretty good laugh about it, and then both fired up and took off into the brilliant afternoon light. We plugged 123.45 into our radios and talked to each other throughout the flight—so fun!

We landed and were extremely fatigued at this point, so we headed back to camp, lit a fire and were asleep under the stars by midnight.

Photo Gallery

Click on the image for full-screen viewing experience. All photographs © Filip Wolak.


Day 14 - Road to Zion

Thursday, May 23 2020

Day 14


You may ask why we have included no day 13 post here. It isn’t for superstitious reasons, though perhaps it should be. No, day 13 was spent at the FBO in Bountiful, completely rewriting our route to include a diversion to Utah’s incredible national parks to the South, and then looking at the weather and immediately realizing there was no way we could safely traverse the valley passes to our destination that day. Winds gusting 50 knots wouldn’t make for a great mountain crossing experience. We’d really hyped each other up planning this new route and were excited to get going, so being grounded felt extra agonizing. Nonetheless, we headed back to the hotel and prepared to wait out the storm. Day 13 was a wash but we were also grateful that in almost two weeks of flying cross country, we’d only been weathered out for one day. We hoped that luck would hold the rest of way.

The morning of day 14 began with temps below freezing and sheets of icy rain, but as the sun climbed over the Great Salt Lake, things quickly began to look up. We packed our things and headed to the airport to fuel and depart and get started on our delayed adventure. Today was extra exciting because we were headed to shoot Zion National Park at sunset. Of all the places suggested to us across the entire country, Zion might top the charts for most recommended.

We took off from Bountiful and traversed through Salt Lake’s Bravo airspace to the South. Giant, snow capped crests towered over us to our left—the Wasatch Mountain range. After the weather the night before, more snow sat atop the peaks. There was a distinct line of green and white—you could see where the temperature atop the mountains fell below freezing.

As we continued South, right around Provo, we hit some clouds that ranged from broken to overcast right at our altitude. After attempting to climb above them, and realizing they were too high, we descended below them, after checking to make sure the altitude of the terrain along our route and the cloud ceilings wouldn’t pose a problem for us. All clear, we pressed on to Bryce Canyon Airport, where we had plans to land and fuel and prepare for our sunset flying. Once we arrived there, however, we discovered the density altitude was close to 9,500 feet, and decided against such a precarious landing. After circling for some photos of red rocks, we back tracked to Richfield, a lovely little empty field with a couple crew cars, the keys casually tossed in a drawer at the FBO.

I chose the Ford, and took it for a bit of a joyride, then headed into town to grab lunch from a little local Richfield cafe, “Little Wonder.” After enjoying some of Utah’s finest, we headed back to the airport to wait for the light, then hopped in the plane to head to Zion.

It was absolutely incredible descending into Zion, the red rock cavernous formations bursting out of the Earth with a stoic ferocity. The sun was sinking lower into the sky, casting a golden hue over the land and making flying above such a place feel magical and sacred.

After about 45 min circling above, we wrapped up shooting, and with freezing hands climbed to altitude to head home. We landed just as the sun sank below the horizon. Another solid, beautiful day.

Photo Gallery

Click on the image for full-screen viewing experience. All photographs © Filip Wolak.


Day 12 - Salt of the Earth

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Day 12


The night in the tent with a half inflated air mattress, soaked clothes from a karmically inspired, semi evil sprinkler system, and a train that passed by every hour on the hour wasn’t exactly restful, so when our alarms went off pre 5 am, there was a moment of pure dread. But we remembered where we were and what we were doing and got up, packed up, and took off into the rising sun.

We had plotted a route through high peaks that took us through winding mountain passes and restricted flying areas and led us directly to the venerable Death Valley, in the northern Mojave Desert. The expansive desolate stretch of land was vast and intimidating and I descended into it with a sense of respect bordering on awe. The ground below us was actually below sea level. It is one of the least inhabitable places on Earth (I had insisted we pack more water for this stretch of the trip, just in case). I had some indescribable fun doing slow descending steep turns into the desert as Filip shot out the open window. Besides flying through Glen Canyon above Lake Powell, this flying took the cake for the most extreme and visually exciting to date. We even saw a crazy drone flying across the valley. We flew the valley northbound and then cut across the Spring Mountains, talking to Nellis approach, bypassing some military training flights, and landed at Northern Las Vegas for some fuel—both for us and the airplane.

We had lunch at the airport restaurant Tailwinds and Sunshine, which was filled with old flyers catching up with friends. Servers wore masks, but beyond that, very normal; the atmosphere was friendly and had a small town airport feeling, someone was celebrating a birthday, and they gave us all a slice of their cake to celebrate.

We finished lunch and some photo work, and went out, fueled up, and headed up for our next leg, a long, desolate, high altitude one with no possible fuel stops and lots of peaks and valleys to weave our way through. This kind of flying is still new to us in the Skyhawk, and it’s been an interesting challenge learning limitations, running performance numbers, and gauging energy based on wind, terrain, altitude, temperature, and weight. For example, getting out of Vegas required us to do a climbing 360 degree turn to gain altitude before pressing on to our routing, we simply weren’t climbing fast enough to get to our cruising altitude before steep terrain rose to meet us.
It was a beautiful leg winding our way North to Wendover, an old air force base with a lot of interesting old airplanes and a little museum. After we fueled there, we were stoked to see four military trainers barreling in—they taxied over and parked right in front of us in a line. Such formidable looking machines, they seemed extremely fun to fly.

We taxied our mighty Skyhawk away from their impressive lineup to runway 26 and I took off to do some of my favorite flying of the trip—low and slow over the Boneville Salt Flats. This place has always fascinated me in photos I’ve seen, the color that the waters take on in the salt lakes are a turquoise blue like that of the Bahamas, and this paired with the white, salty earth—is there anything better? I had some fun staying super low over the pools and flats; circling as Filip took photos from the window. It was a Utopian alien tundra of a place, and getting to fly over it as we pleased was spectacular. We saw people out enjoying the day on the expansive white salt pan, they looked so small and isolated when placed in such an environment, we circled over them, observing them observing us.

After some wonderful flying there, I pressed on to Salt Lake City where we would be spending the night in Bountiful, Utah. To my utter delight, though perhaps I could have guessed from the name, more salt lakes awaited for us there! I can feel an obsession growing. These shining colorful pools of water, gleaming and reflecting the sky, were incredible to fly over and photograph, every turn I made revealed more interesting beauty to see and shoot.

That rush of pure wonder really gave me the lift I needed to get me through the fatigue that had begun after a long day of nearly 9 hours of straight flying and a night with less than adequate sleep—the controllers at Salt Lake were super helpful in directing me through their I80 VFR transition to the field at Bountiful, and I landed softly on runway 35 as the sun set on another day.

Photo Gallery

Click on the image for full-screen viewing experience. All photographs © Filip Wolak.


Day 11 - Welcome to Mexico (well, almost)

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Day 11


Waking up in Rick’s camper was utterly fantastic, we slept so well, and woke up in Oceanside refreshed and happy to be on the water. We decided to spend the morning on the beach—despite the strange beach rules we’d overheard such as people were only allowed to walk on the wet sand, not the dry sand—and Kelly from One Stop graciously drove us over there. It was pretty empty, and so good hanging on the Pacific, meeting surfers, climbing on jetties, getting drenched in the waves, and seriously celebrating officially making it coast to coast. So damn good for the soul.

 

On our way out here, the return leg we’d planned was always through the south over El Paso, to photograph the desert and the border. However, some new inspiration came in the form of recommendations from pilots Greg Brown and Laurel Lippert, who inspired us to look to the central route home. This would take us further North and through the mountains again, passing over places like Death Valley, Vegas, Red Rocks, the Boneville Salt Flats, and more incredible geography we’d only dreamed of seeing.

 

After some thought, we decided this route was the way to go, and we headed back to the shop to do some new preliminary route planning. After deciding to camp on the field at Kern Valley that night, and determining a basic route for the next few days, we bid farewell to Keith, David, Kelly, Rick and the guys at the shop and headed to the airport. We had some exciting plans that afternoon. Before departing for the North, we were heading South, through San Diego’s Bravo airspace, to the border of the USA and Mexico. We’d called customs and the tower at Tijuana, and determined we couldn’t actually cross into Mexican airspace to photograph the border, but we could come damn near close. So we headed on down the coast through a surprisingly busy Bravo (the ATC controller was amazing, hope she sees this, she was a machine) and down below Brown airfield, where we alerted them to what we were doing. They gave us permission to circle south of their runways, and a couple stern warning to stay on the American side as I circled closer and closer to Mexico, my wingtips brushing up against the invisible line in the air. The border was pretty spectacular, there was a striking visual change immediately upon crossing into Tijuana, and a wall that stretched into the sea. Kind of crazy to see something that gets so much air time in person.

After we finished with this, we headed North to KVCV, an airport with another airplane storage and boneyard. It was lovely until another plane approached to do the same thing at the same altitude. I told the tower I was descending by 500 feet, but still felt slightly sketched out by this Cherokee who was clearly not holding their altitude, so we departed after we’d snagged the shots and pressed on to home at the base of the Sierra Nevadas.

 

The winds picked up pretty heftily, and after we landed at our last fuel stop for the night, Tehachapi, we realized that Kern Valley’s short runway without weather reporting in a valley with large mountains around it, was not the best plan. Happily, there was randomly airport camping on the field at Tehachapi. Sadly, it was shuttered due to Covid. The sun was sinking below the horizon and winds were building so we decided to chance it, and quietly and minimally set up our tent in the furthest campsite from the ramp to be inconspicuous. Immediate karma! The sprinklers came on an hour later. Drenched and screaming, we tried to cover up the worst of the sprays and save any non waterproof items around.

Only marginally successful at that, we passed out early, for a 4 am wake up to hit the sky for sunrise.

Photo Gallery

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Dormant LAX

Day 10 - Rusty over LA

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Day 10


We slept in a bit in Ramona, and one of the guys from the airport was kind enough to swing by in his truck and give us a ride back to the plane. The day prior, we’d noticed a burning smell as we were navigating the low clouds on the coast and had discovered the landing light wire bracket had snapped and the wire was melting in the heat of the number 2 cylinder—so the days plans included fixing that.

We fueled minimally in Ramona and then made the short hop to Oceanside on the coast, a far less eventful flight the day before. There we met with some great guys from One Stop Aviation, who brought us over to their main workshop, where we got to meet Rick, the owner, who had overhauled Rusty’s engine a month prior! It was really fascinating to tour the shop with him and see all the work and gear it takes to work on these engines, he had Lycomings and Continentals from all across the world in various stages of repair. We told him a little about our trip and he offered to let us stay in his camper behind the shop—so kind. We accepted, and headed back to the airport to do some repairs and get flying.

After some work, the plane was good as new and we took to the sky. Today our plans included photographing LAX at 10,000 feet above the Bravo airspace, where we wouldn’t have to talk to ATC and could circle and shoot to our heart’s content. We also circled low over empty beaches and Disneyland, with bare empty parking lots as far as the eye could see. It was wild flying above places that were usually so populated, and it was surreal to be above LAX—besides seeing the ocean, that really hit home that we had officially made it coast to coast. The shooting was fantastic, circling high above that iconic field, and so, so cold—about 25 degrees Fahrenheit. There’s nothing like tossing open the windows at altitude to shoot in those temperatures like that to make you feel completely awake and alive.

After we circled for a bit shooting and freezing, we headed back south to land at Oceanside, descending out of the Bravo airspace. I was ecstatic to be flying low along the coast, over the ocean and palms. It’s my favorite thing in the world.

We were happy and tired when we landed and taxied behind our mechanics hangar to tie down before heading over with new friend Keith to the shop camper, grabbed some Mexican dinner, and passed out early. California suits us real well.

Photo Gallery

Click on the image for full-screen viewing experience. All photographs © Filip Wolak.


Day 9 - California Dreams

Monday, May 18, 2020

Day 9


Waking up on the airfield campground in Payson was magical. We awoke with the sun, light spilling over the plane and our campsite. It was immensely satisfying, knowing that California was on the horizon.

We got ready and returned the little airport car we had been given for the night. We took a little too much fuel and were heavy for the higher elevation, so we made sure to increase our takeoff roll in order to gain speed to climb out effectively. We got off the ground and climbed high over the mountains, navigating by the Blythe VOR—our friend Tracy in Stamford TX had suggested this—which would take us through the Banning Pass to the coast.

We had desired to fly direct to Oceanside Airport, where the mechanic shop One Stop Aviation was located, as they had overhauled the Skyhawk’s engine a month before and we wanted to “meet the parents.” However, strong headwinds at altitude foiled this plan, and we stopped to take a little extra fuel at Borrego, a dusty desert field just before the final mountain stretch that would get us to the ocean.

We fueled and departed quickly, and climbed to cross the mountains ahead. The ceiling was steadily getting lower and the weather was becoming more and more marginal at our destination airport. We crossed the mountains and coastal California greeted us with fog and low visibility. Hooray! We decided to try for Oceanside anyways, as the weather was just on the edge, and headed there direct. The cloud ceiling was steadily dropping and hills and unfamiliar terrain was rising around us in every direction. We kept Ramona Airport in our minds as a deviation, and pressed on to try for Oceanside. My pirate heart leapt with joy at the first sight of the Pacific Ocean in the distance, but the weather became too unfriendly to make it into Oceanside, so I turned for Ramona and landed there.

A happy accident, for one of my best friends Dominique just so happens to live in Ramona! So we all shared a glorious socially distanced dinner and evening with her catching up and sharing stories. Great for the soul. California! We made it coast to coast!

Photo Gallery

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Day 8 - As Far as the Eye Can See

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Day 8


After a basically sleepless night in rather uncomfortable accommodations in Page, Arizona we awoke just before dawn and forced our sore, lifeless bodies to the plane. The world was awakening and the light was growing—it was time to take to the sky.

We fired up and taxied out to runway 33, which faces Glen Canyon and Lake Powell, and I took off and stayed low and level with the runway, picking up speed and not climbing, until we flew out and over the valley, the expansive vastness exploding around us, and I used the excess airspeed to rocket into the sky and follow the winding Colorado River down passed Horseshoe Bend to Marble Canyon, where we would eventually join up with the Grand Canyon. While Filip had been to this site before, it was my first time seeing it, and entering it from the sky was almost too profound to comprehend. The vastness was overwhelming and deeply moving. I flew down into the Dragon Corridor, the VFR corridor that took us down southbound through the canyon, at an altitude of 10,500’ (density altitude 13,500’) and reveled in the glorious beauty of it. Words somewhat fail me in accurately describing the feeling of flying over this landscape, of having the ability to maneuver through and over this land.

We monitored the radio frequency of the canyon–we did not hear or see anyone else flying. The tower at Grand Canyon airport was also closed. The virus has shutdown many places, and that includes this natural wonder of the world.

We finished shooting over the Grand Canyon and checked our fuel and ultimately decided we had more than enough to make it straight to Sedona, where we have tentative plans to fuel and grab breakfast. We’d been told by a lot of wonderful pilot friends that Sedona Airport was not to be missed and the sentiment was not wrong—the airport sits on top of a mesa with incredible red rock formations exploding around it. I audibly gasped as I approached the airfield to land, it was prehistoric, it grasped me firmly by the heart and soul and shook me to the core, even as I set up for landing in gusty mountain winds.

We had breakfast on the field and marveled in the beauty of the world around us. It has been quite the experience to witness the majesty of all these natural wonders, and almost psychedelic to witness it changing so rapidly.

We spent some time in Sedona, and then pressed onwards to our home for the night, Payson Arizona, an airfield with camping that promised firewood, a car, and views for days. It was rather intimidating getting out of Sedona, there was a direct crosswind and it was real gusty, topped off with high density altitude. We didn’t fuel fully to keep our weight as low as possible, and upon take off, stayed in ground effect as long as able, to gain airspeed and climb effectively into the mountain air.

Payson paid off, and we write currently beside a beautiful campfire next to our pitched tent and resting airplane. Filled with gratitude, we plan tomorrow’s route. A good hard day, in the books.

Sweet dreams, Arizona.

Photo Gallery

Click on the image for full-screen viewing experience. All photographs © Filip Wolak.


Day 7 - Welcome to Paradise

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Day 7


…..a disembodied voice shouted cheerfully over the radio. More on that in a moment!

Another glorious predawn airport wake up in Belen, New Mexico. We are getting great at waking up in the dark, packing up fast, and taking off just as the sun rises to catch the best light. The entire trip has been gorgeous but the flying we encountered today was nothing short of miraculous. En route to Gallup for a fuel stop, I circled overhead one of North America’s oldest continuously occupied communities, Acoma Pueblo, while Filip photographed it against the rising sun. It felt ancient and wild and we were amazed that people were living down there in such an untamed place. We pressed on—the terrain beneath us was eruptive, changing rapidly, and we were both ecstatic by the time we flew over Monument Valley. We threw open the windows for maximum visibility and enjoyment, to shoot the immense formations. It is some of my favorite kind of flying, circling tightly over the Earth, windows open, air screaming, engine pounding, attempting to capture it all.

After Gallup, we headed to a remote strip in Utah called Calblack. I called up on the radio announcing our position, and a voice called back from the ground, “welcome to paradise!” He was not wrong.

The field was quite remote, it stood out in striking black against the yellow scruffy desert ground of Utah. In the distance, Lake Powell and the Colorado River gleamed blue and sparkling in the sun.

We fueled and decided to hang out and relax for a bit, unloaded our camping chairs and had coffee and avocados on the field under the wing. So wonderful, this trip has been filled with moments of extreme flying, planning, and nonstop moving countered with divine moments of peace and deep, humbling appreciation.

We then departed for Pace Arizona, and this is where it gets really fun. To navigate, we decided to follow the Colorado River and Powell Lake, two beautiful churning bodies of water surrounded by some of the most insane landscape I’ve ever seen in my life, let alone from the air. Flying down the canyons following the water was some of the most awe striking and pure fun flying I’ve ever done, and I was actively laughing the entire flight. I felt like we’d flown to a new planet, it was incredible, stimulating, almost incomprehensible, and truly, unbelievably delightful.

At Pace we fueled, and completely thrilled, decided to go up for another hour of shooting in the canyons.

We then returned to plan our next day of early morning flying and sleep, dreams filled with the spectacular wonders we’d witnessed. To the West!


Some scrap, some temporary

Day 6 - Goodbye Texas, hello New Mexico

Thursday, May 15, 2020

Day 6


We awoke in Lamesa TX before dawn, and prepped the plane for an early morning departure. The flight to Roswell at sunrise was smooth as silk, the fields and desert below us bathed in a soft, glowing blue. When we arrived, I circled the field overhead and Filip started shooting photos—Roswell is currently home to hundreds of parked airplanes, and the visual effect of all of them together is spectacular. We shot for awhile, and then came in to land. On the ground, we found their mechanic who agreed to change the oil for us, and we ventured out to explore Roswell for a bit. The town is filled with alien paraphernalia, it’s wild. 

Upon returning to the airport, we had a lengthy flight planning session. The flying is getting really exciting now, as we venture into the mountains. We had a call with pilot Greg Brown, who gave us some invaluable knowledge of flying this area and awesome route tips. We finished up with a solid plan for the next three days. 

After wrapping that up, we loaded up and pressed on to our home for the night, Belen, New Mexico. Incredibly, our route from Roswell passed over the Corona VOR. Ridiculous. 

Some really kind people on the field at Belen, we talked to a pilot who was about to take up a couple for a flight, and just before they departed, the guy proposed! Super cute, great to witness it. 

We spent about an hour before sunset reloading the aircraft and disposing any unneeded gear—the less weight we have in the plane in this area of the world the better.

All in all a solid day, with more exciting flying on the horizon. 

Photo Gallery

Click on the image for full-screen viewing experience. All photographs © Filip Wolak.

Flight Path (incomplete)


Day 3 - Crossing into Texas

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Day 3


If I had to define Day 3 with any kind of summary it would be just insane weather planning. We dodged storms from the moment we awoke and broke camp (was it raining you ask? Of course it was!) till we finally touched down, exhausted, in Texas. Another way would simply be never ending deviations. We changed our routing all day long to respond to updating storm conditions, starting with the night before when we realized we could actually get out in the morning if we rose early enough. So we did just that, waking at 5 am in the darkness and rain to hastily pack up and be in the air just before sunrise at 5:50, in order to break free of the incoming storm front by dipping beneath it to the south. We took off from Reelfoot into a grey glowing sky, with surprisingly fine visibility and rising cloud ceilings and booked it south, the storm incoming to our right. As soon as we had it cleared, we turned due west direct to KSUZ for fuel before hitting Hot Springs or KHOT, where we had originally planned to wait out the weather. We were about to call it a day when we took another look at the charts and realized that if we wanted to press on, we could make into KLNC Lancaster, a little airport to the south of Dallas, with some careful storm circumnavigation. It would also save us from being stuck on the ground for weather for a substantial amount of time, so we decided it was the right call, hastily fueled, and headed out for the great state of Texas.

Photo Gallery

Click on the image for full-screen viewing experience. All photographs © Filip Wolak.

Flight Path