by Patrick J. McDonald, ATP, CFI-I
Published in Midwest Flyer Magazine February/March 2023 Digital Issue
The time is late summer of 2021, and for months, my only living brother and I had anticipated another carefree sightseeing flight to the great west. Our plan was to fly to Billings, Montana, then over Lemhi Pass of the Continental Divide into the Salmon River Valley. From there, we would enjoy another whitewater rafting trip down Idaho’s Salmon River, the River of No Return.
Stagnant air, flavored with the irritating smell of burning wood, haunted the Midwest for a solid week, but on the morning of August 5th, we departed Perry, Iowa, in my Piper Arrow. The first hundred miles were VFR, but with declining visibility. I remarked to my brother that this slight inconvenience is probably due to the stubborn wildfires in the far west, and that we’ll likely be in clear skies all the way to the mountains.
I support my comment with the data that every ASOS, AWOS, and ATIS from Perry to Salmon broadcasted clear skies with 10-mile visibilities.
An hour and a half later, we jointly squinted to penetrate the haze and spot the runway at Mitchell, South Dakota. Our landing was uneventful, but the temperature was approaching 100 degrees as we taxied to the gas pump.
“Foul today, but at least we’re still VFR,” said our lineman as he activated the 100LL fuel pump. “Not so the case the last three days….all IFR. No traffic. We had folks hung up here for three days on their trip back home from Oshkosh. No rooms were available in Mitchell.”
“Ya know that foul smell?” he asked as he pointed to his nose and looked skyward. “It really gets to me. I have to shower every night to get rid of that rotten bonfire stench. Even my food tastes like it’s burnt.”
His comments fostered the beginning of a slow energy drain that deepened as we departed Mitchell for Rapid City. The ground disappeared in the first thousand feet of our climb out. ATC guidance assisted us all the way to the active runway at Rapid City. The heavy smoke deprived us of the expansive beauty of the Black Hills. The AWOS informed us that the noonday ramp temperature was now 100 degrees-plus, and the visibility holds at 10 miles.
Airborne again in a deepening complexity of challenges, fresh ATC controllers helped us thread the needle between the multi-layered Powder River MOA and the Bighorn Mountains. I catch only a glimpse of the normally massive Bighorns, now wrapped in heavy smoke, and punctuated by developing thunderstorms. Sheridan is reporting erratic
50-knot surface winds.
The mix of opposing forced taunt us with heat, humidity, and complaints of moderate to severe turbulence from low to high altitudes. After two hours of hot and claustrophobic flight conditions, Billings approach control politely delivered our soggy and fatigued selves to the active runway. ATIS insisted on 10 miles visibility, but we didn’t spot the runway numbers until on a half-mile left base.
A cool motel room and cold beer brought back some enthusiasm for flying. We were reminded by torrential rains and rolling thunder that we are in control of very little, but we were safe. The anticipated morning flight across the Continental Divide and into Salmon didn’t seem promising. In good VFR, the route is expansive and enjoyable, since most of it meanders through a long network of scenic passes, with snow-capped peaks accenting the boundaries of clear running rivers and lush green valleys.
Even though sleep brings rest and renewed energy for pressing on to Salmon, the early morning weather reports brought with them serious safety concerns. Our familiar route now manifested five new fire zone TFRs. The mountain peaks all along our route became obscured in smoke. Hazardous warnings about three to six miles visibility were prominent. My personal limitations came alive. Going IFR into Salmon without a turbocharged aircraft is out of the question. Thus, we sadly decided to turn around and head back to the Midwest.
All the way home, through a new round of fires, smoke and haze, I cannot help but reflect on what is happening to our planet. I accepted, at an intellectual level, the now-universal assessment of the global warming phenomena. As I worked hard to stop my eyes from itching and to suppress a nuisance cough, my encountered with global warming move to the experiential level. We exited Montana and began to see the greening of central South Dakota. An hour later, we crossed the Missouri River to witness an emerald landscape and clear air. We’re home.
In the year since my adventure, a lot has happened to foster a conviction that personal safety rules yield eventual rewards. My brother and I enjoyed a return to the river of no return in the early summer of 2021, under widespread pleasant conditions.
Other news from the summer of 2021 in the Billings area was not so easily redeeming.
About a month after we returned to the Midwest, an experienced pilot and his spouse died in a small plane crash in Billings.
Their son survived, but with serious burns and the prospect of a long and painful rehabilitation without the love of his mom and dad to help him reclaim his health. From reading the NTSB preliminary reports, it seems that visual obscurity at dusk and poor judgment were factors in the accident.
In the late summer of 2021, in the many hours of casual debriefings at our home base, a friend who is a professional pilot regularly shared his take on our common experiences. He, too, had been smoked out of a backcountry camping trip. He experienced a serious and stubborn bout with vertigo, while living his dream of navigating the backcountry in his beautifully restored Cessna 180. His Dutch decisiveness invited him to return home before dangerous conditions destroyed his dreams. He was later redeemed as the flight conditions in the summer of 2022 allowed him to return to the backcountry for a week of carefree flying and camping.
In the hours of our casual debriefings, several lasting impressions have left their marks on us. The marks deepen our experiences of what it means to hold a pilot certificate and continue to fly a personal aircraft: once in a lifetime is enough for bad experiences; there is never enough in a lifetime of good experiences.
We mourn the loss of those who have not been so fortunate about their decisions. There is no room for arrogance that conveys, “it can’t happen to me.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Patrick J. McDonald has been a member of the aviation community for 53 years, and in that period of time, he has logged 8400 hours. He has helped many students obtain various flight certificates. He has done it all for pure enjoyment.
He is formally a licensed mental health practitioner and maintains an active practice in Des Moines, Iowa, in partnership with his wife of 48 years.