My first trip across the Rockies


Road tripping in a plane

Sara, a close friend of Jeff’s, was hanging out at our home one evening and talking about the fun times her family had on road trips. Seeing her joy, Jeff, with a touch of envy, said we never did that. She immediately countered, “Of course you didn’t. You flew everywhere with your dad.”

The truth is that in many ways traveling in a light plane is like taking a road trip. With more than 20,000 public and private use airports, it’s an easy matter to travel just about anywhere – see the same sights – and never deal with road rage or bumper to bumper traffic.

The trip across the Rockies

Look in any direction for a similar view.

By mid 1988 I had flown to scores of places in the eastern two thirds of the U.S. but never across the Rocky Mountains. A TV shoot in Solvang, California posed the perfect opportunity to change that – and fly all the way to the west coast. I would see the mountains from the best seat available. Not a window seat on an airliner from where the scene may stretch for miles but be visible only through a tiny little porthole. And not from a car wending its way through the valleys with only the canyon walls in sight. From the front seat of my Mooney, I would see hundreds of miles in any direction and yet feel I could reach out and touch the nearby peaks. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Heading west, I flew a southerly route – pretty much following the Sante Fe Trail. The first day took me to Albuquerque with a fuel stop in Hutchinson, Kansas. I found it hard to believe that even at 170 mph, it took more than seven hours to cross the great plains – farmland so productive it could feed the world. 

Meteor Crater in Winslow, Arizona

Heading west from Albuquerque, every scene was new. Immediately after takeoff, I had to climb quickly to clear even the lowest ridges. Crossing into Arizona near Winslow I spotted the Meteor Crater, a hole made 50,000 years ago, more than 500 feet deep and nearly ¾ of a mile across. In one of my favorite movies, Starman, that crater is where Jeff Bridges rendezvoused with his alien friends for his escape from humanity.

Needles Airport on the eastern edge of the Mojave Desert

Not wanting to cross the Mojave Desert with fuel tanks less than topped off, I stopped in Needles, California. The weather was ideal – clear skies and moderate winds – but OMG, the temperature! Even though it was only May, I think “fry an egg on the pavement” aptly described the ground under my feet as I stepped out of the plane. Needless to say, I wasted no time getting back up to the cooler air at altitude. (Every thousand feet up the air is about five degrees cooler.)

In the next two hours, I crossed the Mojave Desert, the southern end  of California’s Central Valley (a major source of America’s produce), and the Transverse Mountains (the southern extremity of the Sierra Nevadas).

Hopscotching around the southwest

For the next day and a half, my plane earned its wings. Thursday afternoon I worked in Solvang. Friday morning down to San Diego for lunch with my brother Larry. Friday afternoon back up to Los Angeles for dinner and a play with Marie. Utterly impossible using any other mode of transportation.

Having crossed the desert, I arrived in Solvang in plenty of time to meet Marie and shoot segments for Aleene’s Creative Living. Aleene was a family friend in the craft industry for more than four decades, and she graciously hosted Marie and me on her show.

Aleene hosts Marie and Lyle Clapper of Pack-O-Fun Magazine

The flight past Los Angeles and down to San Diego was unlike anything I had yet experienced. I was delighted to be above the legendary freeways and never ending traffic. But even airplane traffic was challenging. Because smog and haze made it difficult to see other planes, I asked ATC for flight following. It seemed like every two minutes they would call out another plane, but I bet I only saw one in ten of them. Fortunately they were always several miles away. Even so I felt like I was flying through a swarm of mosquitos. 

While in San Diego, I had one task to complete: I needed a new dress shirt for my evening with Marie. Larry knew just the place, an upscale department store I’d never heard of called Nordstroms. In a matter of minutes, I picked out a shirt. While the associate was preparing to ring up the sale, I noticed a really cool pink sport coat. He had the perfect pair of slacks out before I could say, “Whoa. This is nice, but I’m leaving town right after lunch.” He didn’t waste a minute, “Will having it ready in an hour be satisfactory?” I was sunk. I added a belt, socks and even a pair of white bucks to complete the new ensemble.

After lunch I flew back to Los Angeles to meet Marie for dinner and a play. And to show off my new outfit! We saw a neighbor, Meg Bussert, from Park Ridge playing Marion the librarian opposite Dick Van Dyke in “The Music Man.”  I’m not sure which was harder to get my head around … a friend on stage with Rob Petrie … or someone other than Robert Preston playing Harold Hill.

Northerly route across the Rockies

Captain Lyle in full gear above the Rockies

Saturday morning, Marie headed home via airlines and I began the last part of this exciting trip across the Rockies. A swing north gave me the opportunity to visit Craig Zimmerman of Zim’s craft stores. That meant crossing Utah and Wyoming. Knowing I would be flying much higher on this trip I added supplemental oxygen equipment. By the time I donned sunglasses, pilot headset and oxygen mask, I looked like an over-the-hill astronaut wannabe.

Leaving Salt Lake City I began to feel get-home-itis. But I still had to cross the northern part of the Rockies. Other traffic is rarely an issue out in wide open spaces – VFR and IFR flights use different altitudes – and we’re all flying in a very large sky. Nonetheless, safety is paramount, and the controllers faithfully stay in touch with us all. 

In the Rockies, it’s not uncommon for a flight such as mine to be under the radar. While flying in Wyoming, that was the case and the controller, who sounded very young, advised me that he had lost radar coverage. Although the sky was perfectly clear and I could see a hundred miles or more, the poor fellow in a darkened room on the ground couldn’t see my echo on his screen. Every five minutes he’d call me to be sure I hadn’t been lost – maybe like moms when their kids are playing safely but out of sight.

All that remained was a trip back across the Great Plains with a fuel stop in Oneill, Nebraska. Five days, nine airports, thirty flying hours with time for work, family, fun and a view of the west I’ll treasure forever. I sure do love flying. 

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Total flying time to date: 954 hours

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