from Aeromancy ©, 2005, Paul Berge
Best FBO? Hard to say. I’m no fan of metropolitan airports with their Berlin Wall security and prefer, instead, the outback fields where crop dusters fly 200-foot traffic patterns and tick-pimpled dogs sleep beside a broken pop machine with a sign that reads: “Leave money in coffee can. Signed, Betty.”
Million Air at Van Nuys (VNY), California surprised me when I’d expected big-city snubs only to be treated like a fat-dollar celebrity. (Some say I’m easily mistaken for Robin Williams before liposuction, so maybe that was it.) Ramp fees were waived after I purchased a paltry ten gallons and swiped the last brownie off the counter.
Guymon (GUY, photo above right) located in the accusing finger of Oklahoma’s panhandle is an unsung bargain close to a great Mexican diner, and if you behave yourself at Frasca Field (C16) in Urbana, Illinois, you can tour Frasca’s simulator factory. Show a respectful blend of awe and gratitude, and you may get the VIP trip through Rudy Frasca’s private museum of war birds, old birds, and odd birds. Don’t touch anything. And don't talk--listen.
Flower Aviation in Salina, Kansas (SLN) makes any tramp pilot’s Top Ten list. And it’s not just because of the pretty girls in tight shorts who direct transients into tie-down spots and then cause middle-aged men to drop jaw-first from their airplanes watching them bend over to chock the tires.
Okay, that might be one of the reasons.
Kansas, parked midway between everything hip on the West Coast and urbane on the East, needs to do something to get noticed. Cookies alone won’t do it, so the state offers a bigger show as I relearned when wandering through on no particular route in something unsophisticated that taxis with its tail in the dirt and no lid over the cockpits. Four wings completed my barnstorming ensemble, so wherever I’d arrive someone usually remarked, “Nice biplane; think you’ll ever learn to land it?” At least in Salina they smile when they say that—giggle, actually.
For those unfamiliar with the Midwest, here’s a quick lesson: It’s not all flat. Iowa even has ski resorts, although, they are a bit silly; my favorite is located near the Boone (BNW) airport, where there’s a homebuilders’ workshop/co-op open to anyone having trouble riveting together a quick-build RV-8.
Kansas, however, is a flat billiard table stretching to all horizons covered in endless pastures and whatever it is growing below in waving green felt. In the cool morning sky a few hundred feet above all that waving, I could see as far as the earth’s curvature allowed. Beyond that I didn’t care, because the openness sucked my mind dry, removing all remnants of 1970s Rocky Mountain highs and filled the void with a 2-D vision that staggers most viewers but made me want to fly above it forever. Or at least until the afternoon sky warmed and all that green below sweated into the air currents rising to colder heights. Plus, I was hungry and almost out of gas, so taking a tip from a freight dog who knew where to find free cookies, I headed to Salina.
The tower controller wasn’t particularly friendly, and to punctuate my disdain for his indifference, I demonstrated a triple-bounce wheel landing on the 12,000-foot runway.
“If able, turn left at the end,” he said, “And taxi to the ramp.”
I was able and did, following a shorts-clad ramp rat waving parking batons like a KU cheerleader. I think his name was Daryl, and it was apparent that he handled the lesser customers while the biz jet behind me received the full Flower reception.
Still, like Odysseus on the Isle of Babes I lingered until the weather soured. Flight Service painted an optimistic picture of the route: “If you hurry and get real lucky, you may survive the line of Level Six thunderstorms forming between Salina and Topeka.” Once in Topeka (TOP) the forecast called for clear skies and blessed siren songs all the way to my final resting place, er, destination in Iowa. So, I departed and, like Odysseus, I must’ve irritated the weather gods, and because I didn’t understand that Kansas could morph into a mountain state I found myself weaving through canyons of vertical development the likes of which gives any sensible barnstormer pause. Unfortunately, every airport where I’d hoped to pause went down the weather toilet.
Smart pilots avoid anything made of water vapor the color of marshmallows growing to 70,000 feet. It was late afternoon, and Kansas having broiled all day in the sun now released its steamed energy skyward. The air was deceptively smooth at the feet of these towering thugs, but as I tuned nearby AWOS frequencies, reports deteriorated from rain, to wind, to blowing frogs.
I monitored Flight Watch (122.0) with the thought of climbing on top, but heard an anxious Bonanza driver several thousand feet above me trying to make the same mistakes only to report that the clouds grew around him so fast that he turned tail for Texas. I decided to do likewise back to Salina only to find my back door closed. Cut off, my plans shifted from reaching Topeka to considering a survivable side road landing.
The gods toy with the wayfarer who ignores evidence of his own stupidity. So as clouds boiled around me in unbelievable glory and terror, thumping their vaporous chests, I pressed eastward through a twisting alleyway of narrowing sanity above Kansas' greenery, and running just a little faster than the squall line, floated into Topeka. No cookies, no bargain-priced avgas, or Playmate staff, just a guy in a blue work shirt leaning into the wind to help me tie the biplane down shortly before the sky unloaded.
Best FBO? Tough to say, but as lightning chiseled the sky, I was damn glad this one was there.