We had been grounded by the weather. Our original plan was to leave Yellowstone on Thursday, but we figured it wise to extend our stay until Saturday when there was a predicted improvement. However, if you were to be stuck somewhere I could not think of a better place than Yellowstone.
Back in Oroville an old man came up to me while I was refueling Matilda. He was a pilot and we started talking about my trip. When he heard we were planning to go to Yellowstone he warned me of the dangers of this airport. He explained to me his experience taking off there one hot summer’s day. He gave a detailed account of his airplane missing the trees at the end of the runway by only inches. He explained that the airport is not only at altitude, but it can also get very hot there in summer. Hot air is less dense and air at altitude is also thin. Put these two things together and it makes for very poor aircraft performance. He had made it out of Yellowstone Airport to tell the tale, but the experience had never left him.
Our departure day was sunny and cloudless. It was perfect to negotiate the high mountains surrounding Yellowstone. We were sad to leave, but now we had the weather to depart, we had to continue our adventure. We left in the early morning to ensure we could use the colder morning air to our advantage. The colder the air the denser it is. The denser the air the more lift Matilda’s wings can generate. I had filed flight plans, programmed the GPS, and we were ready to attempt the risky takeoff. West Yellowstone Airport is at almost 7,000 feet above sea level. Keep in mind that Matilda gets sluggish in her climb above 8,000 feet, and given the story from the old pilot I was very concerned. At liftoff you are close to the ground and if you cannot climb, it can put you in a tricky situation. Julia had prepared for the flight by taking one of her sedatives, and I could see she was feeling no pain. I did not want to add to her anxiety, so I did not share my concerns with her.
I pushed Matilda’s throttle full forward and held her on her brakes. When she had full power I released her and let her tear down the long runway. At 80 knots of airspeed I gently pulled back on the control yoke and Matilda bumped off the ground into the air. We cleared the trees at the end of the runway with plenty of room. I was a little more relaxed. I switched off the electric fuel pump, used to backup the mechanical one during takeoff, and watched the fuel flow gauge show no change. I felt more relaxed. I removed ten degrees of flaps, used to give Matilda more lift at lower speeds for takeoff, and she continued to climb. I became even calmer. Finally, I engaged the autopilot and we were soon flying off into the bright blue sky. It seems I was worried about nothing as Matilda made a textbook takeoff with no fuss or bother.
Billings’ downtown area was very quiet, although it seemed to be calling out for a lively populace to arrive. There were sidewalks and two or three restaurants to choose from. The crowds just had not got there yet. It felt lonely in Billings and I started to worry about my future life; the empty flat streets made me consider if I had made a mistake by quitting my job and flying off with David. What if I became destitute and had to move to a place like Billings to work as a faded waitress in a Best Western Motel. Later, my mood lifted as we ate tapas in an incongruously trendy restaurant called Walkers. It was good food and we were joyful not to be eating the usual burger, fries and coleslaw dinner.
Continue the adventure, in my next excerpt from Flying the Edge of America.