High Sierra Fly In 2014

It’s taken me a few weeks to actually write about my flying camping trip in Nevada.  There are several reasons which will become apparent.

I was originally scheduled to depart on Monday but decided I needed an extra day to get ready and that gave me one more day with Cristy anyway. Smile  So after loading the plane up on Monday afternoon I was ready for a Tuesday morning departure.  The plan was to fly up to Owyhee Reservoir in eastern Oregon and camp a couple of nights there, then head down to the High Sierra Fly In near Yerington, NV.  That WAS the plan.

It was a beautiful clear Autumn morning.  I flew direct from Oakdale, via Georgetown, then on to Susanville.  I like this route because it is a lower route over the Sierras.  The only downside is, you’re over them that much longer.  But since I was heading north anyway, this seemed the best way to go.  I landed in Susanville for fuel but was delayed an hour there.  One fuel truck was out of fuel and the other one wouldn’t start up.  And the motor needs to run for it to pump fuel.  So I had to wait while the line gal drove the empty fuel truck out to their fuel depot to fill it back up.

After finally fueling up in Susanville I departed again to the north.  It was getting pretty late in the morning and the bumps were already starting.  I still had 5 hours to go to get to Owyhee and I decided that I didn’t want to spend 5 hours in the bumps.  I elected to divert to Solider Meadows instead.  Soldier Meadows is a working cattle ranch that is also a bed and breakfast in.  They also allow camping.  They also have an air strip!  However, I figured (wrongly) that I would not have enough fuel to reach Solder Meadows and have enough fuel to get to the next airport.  So as it happened when I came to that realization (again, wrongly) I was flying over the Black Rock Desert.  Now they have the Burning Man festival there every year and I know they land airplanes down there.  I thought it might be fun to camp on a huge dry lakebed.

So I flew around and looked for a likely landing spot.  I found an area that seemed okay.  I set up for my landing.  As the wheels touched down everything felt fine so I allowed the plane to slow… and then my wheels broke through the surface crust!   I felt the sudden deceleration and instantly knew what was happening.  I put in full throttle but the plane wouldn’t accelerate!  I looked down at my main wheels and they were rolling but were up to the axles in hard crust and mud underneath!  My tailwheel was acting like a plow blade, just dragging along below the surface crust.  I was able to jockey my tail up into the air but then the mains sunk even deeper and I felt the airplane starting to nose over!  Bad.  I relaxed the stick and the tailwheel went back to being stuck in the mud below the surface.

I finally slammed the stick back and forth a few times and that was enough to keep the tail up and the mains finally climbed atop the crust.  It only took a few seconds of that and the airplane was airborne again!  I climbed out and pointed myself straight for Winnemucca!  I decided at this point I would much rather stay in a hotel, get a hot shower, and sleep the rest of the day!

I landed in Winnemucca.  I fueled up at the self-service fuel pump.  The VERY pretty line girl came out to help anyway and told me all about the airplane she had just bought and how she wanted to fix it up.  I asked her if she was married (not for me), I told her I couldn’t believe that.  She was a young pilot’s dream.  I also noticed some water under my plane.  Dang.  It turned out that one of the guys in the main hangar was a light sport mechanic.  He offered to take a look.  He found several loose hose connections and tightened them up for me.  He refused to take any money!  After that the line girl offered me their courtesy car.  I drove into town, got a hotel, took that hot shower, and then rested the remainder of the day.

day1

The next day was much better.  I drove back out to the airport, returned the keys to the car, hopped in my airplane, took off and started following I-80 southwest.  Once I got to Lovelock I skirted the restricted airspace to my east and then continued on towards Yerington.  The actual destination was 11 nm northwest of Yerington in a dry lakebed that we call “Three Shotgun Shells.”  It’s called that because that’s what the guy who landed there first found.   As I approached I saw a camper and an airplane already on the ground.  I tuned to our pre-arranged radio frequency for the lakebed and called my intentions to land to the east.  I heard our event organizer Kevin welcome me and told me the lakebed was in great shape.  I was a little nervous given the previous day’s events.  Especially when  turned final; the lakebed was shiny, like it was wet.  I was assured it was hard as concrete and when I touched down and rolled out, it was indeed harder and smoother than my home airport.

I turned and taxied to the south side of the lakebed, being directed to miss some debris that had not yet been cleaned up.  I picked a good spot to camp and then shut the airplane down.  I spent the next hour or so setting up my tent, putting in the ground anchors to tie my airplane down, and then just relaxing under the wing of the plane.  Soon another early arrival showed up.  A super nice guy by the name of Wally who does REALLY interesting things in the Middle East when he isn’t flying in the desert.  I mostly just relaxed the rest of the day, watched the sun set, ate my MRE for dinner, then relaxed around a fire with Kevin and Wally.  This was as peaceful as the event would be.

day2

The next day we flew to Minden to meet some of the guys that were flying in early. (Ha!).  We had a great breakfast at the Taildragger Café.  I did some local site seeing by air, flew to Yerrington to get fuel and call Cristy (there was only spotty cell coverage at the lakebed) and then back up to Three Shotgun Shells to relax and watch the arrivals for the rest of the day.

day3

The next day, Friday, was the first actual day of the fly in.  Kevin held an early morning safety briefing.  He talked about what frequencies we should use, what places were available for landings, etc.  Each landing zone was classified by skill level, did you need big tires, etc.  I elected to go to the wimpy landing spots for guys with little tires and little experience.  I could probably handle tougher spots but I don’t feel the need to do that.  The first place our group landed was a place called The Long Road. It was just a long dirt road.

stopsign

It was while here that we surprised an old guy that was camping just off the road.  I wonder what he thought seeing all these airplanes come taxiing over the hill?  It was also here that we heard a loud bang.  That bang was a tire being blown by a gentleman landing his plane at one of the tougher spots up the hill.  He hit a concrete block with his landing gear and pretty much totaled his airplane.  He spent the rest of the flyin driving back to southern California with his buddies to pick up a truck and trailer to haul his broken airplane home.  THIS is why I only land in the sissy spots.

The sissy group took off again and we landed at a couple more spots before heading back to Three Shotgun Shells.  I actually left a little early to gas up in Yerington, buy lunch, and call Cristy.

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A dry lakebed called “Far East”

That’s Wally leaning on me.  This was one of the many dry lakebeds we landed in on this trip.  This one was called “Split Second Decision”

The next day the fly in was in full force!  All in all by the end of Saturday we had 103 airplanes camping on the lakebed!

lakebed

Saturday morning consisted of more fly-outs and breakfast runs.  There were a lot of planes in the groups.  Too many for my comfort so I just went off on my own and filmed some video.  Here is what I came up with.  This is a video of me landing at Far East, and Three Shotgun Shells. Sorry no pretty music, just engine and wind noise.

Saturday night was the crown jewel of the event!  We had a free catered dinner provided by Men Wielding Fire.  We had fireworks, we had a flame thrower, we had a bonfire!  Lost of camaraderie and good times.

But almost like a foreshadowing of things to come, a gentle breeze started around 9pm. By 10pm it had picked up.  By 11pm when I was heading to bed, it started blowing harder.  By 1am, my tent was laying down on top of me.  I’d estimate it was blowing 40 kts gusting to 50.  This went on until about 4am when the wind finally died down enough that I could stand my tent back up.  I fell asleep for about two hours and then woke up at 6am and started breaking down my camp.  It was still a little breezy but not bad.  And the breeze was out of the east now rather than the north.  We were taking off to the east and the breeze would help all our heavy airplanes got off the ground that much earlier.

I could up with my buddy Joey Myers and asked him if he’d like to fly back as a flight of 2.  Always nice to have company over the mountains.  He readily agreed and we fired up and taxied out.  Joey got out to the run up area first.  I halted my taxi for another airplane; Tyler Adams in his Savannah.  His engine was running and I thought he wanted to taxi out as well.  He did not. He throttled up and took off to the north rather than to the east as others were doing.  He rolled maybe 150 feet and was climbing.  I waited for the dust to settle and then continued my taxi.  I got to the runup area and was just starting my pretakeoff checks when someone called on the radio “Guys, we have one down.”  I looked up to see a fireball trailing thick smoke coming down from the north side of the lakebed.  There was debris fluttering down all around the smoke.

It was Tyler.  I thought that his wings came off or something.  It was right where he would have been.  I came to find out that another airplane, a Cessna 170 piloted by Tom Weis that was on downwind struck him.  Both men died instantly.  Lots of people ran over the small rise to try to help.  I elected to just kneel beside my airplane and pray for the men and their families.  I knew both of them online at backcountrypilot.org where we all met and planned this fly in.  But I only met them in person at this event.  I still considered them good friends since I had known them for several years.  After praying for a while I got back in my airplane and took off.

The wind was still blowing pretty good up at altitude.  My airplane which only goes about 100 MPH was showing a ground speed of 137 MPH.  It was relatively smooth until I reached Lake Tahoe.  It started getting bumpy and then I had to swerve to avoid two airplanes coming from Lake Tahoe at the wrong altitude.  A near mid-air of my own.  The ride over the mountains was bumpy and unnerving.  I followed Hwy 50 all the way to the valley and then hung a left to head south.  20 minutes later I was making a lousy landing at Oakdale.  I didn’t care.  I was home safe.  I would see my family and take a hot shower and be able to hold my wife all night, unlike my two friends.

lastday

So would I go again?  You bet I would!  How do I feel about this trip?  Bittersweet.  I love the fun we had and the camaraderie.  It is so refreshing to spend time with a couple hundred people who really understand you.  It’s refreshing to spend time alone with your thoughts in the middle of nowhere.  Losing Tyler and Tom was a punch to the gut.  I have been blaming myself off and on… if only I had not stopped my taxi and made Tyler wait…  But I remind myself that it isn’t my fault.  It’s no one’s fault.  We had two able pilots in the pattern.  It was their responsibility to see and avoid.  Plus, sometimes accidents just happen. They are no one’s fault.  I take consolation that these men spent their last hours on earth doing something they loved with a bunch of kindred spirits.  I also take consolation that when it’s my turn… God will catch me.

God bless you both Tyler and Tom.  May God provide for your families.   You have seen the face of Christ and no longer worry about this life.  Hope to see you both again one day.

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