Old Navigators Never Die, But They Do Fade Away

One of my favorite flying memories happened while I was a part-time single-engine Part 135 charter pilot for the FBO at Laramie, Wyoming. My occasional charter flights were a welcome respite from my law office, allowing me to meet people who weren’t in legal trouble and to take them places I might not have gone otherwise. I’d been doing it for several years for two successive FBOs when this flight took place in 1986.

One day I was asked if I could take a flight to Jackson, Wyoming, the next day. Every time I go there, I very much enjoy Jackson, and the flight there is beautiful. Popping over the ridge into Jackson Hole from the east is a treat, one of those sights that every pilot should have at least once in a lifetime. The beautiful valley, Mt. Moran and the Tetons in the background—every time, wow! So I gladly rearranged my schedule, and the next morning I arrived at the airport to meet my passenger, Pete Simpson, the brother of then US Senator Alan Simpson.

Pete Simpson
Pete Simpson was a navigator in the Navy before he ran for governor.

He was a very tall, affable man, and I looked forward to a pleasant flight. But even before we taxied out in the 182, he said that he had a lot of work to do on the flight, so he asked that I leave him alone to do his work. Oh heck—one of the perks of charter piloting in a small airplane is getting to chat with the passengers during the otherwise quiet parts of the flight. I still enjoyed the flight up to Jackson, the day was excellent VFR with surprisingly little wind, and the scenery was beautiful, as always. Our route took us over Riverton, Wyoming, and the little town of Dubois. Just a few minutes after passing Dubois, a 30 degree left turn pointed us toward a very distinct saddle in the ridge ahead.

Pete stopped doing his work as we came over the saddle, which marks the top of the Gros Ventre River drainage, which ultimately flows into the Snake River that meanders through Jackson Hole from its headwaters in Yellowstone Park, past the town of Jackson, and on toward Idaho Falls and beyond. As we came down the wide Gros Ventre canyon, he exclaimed (as almost everyone does) that he’d never realized how gorgeous the Hole is, seen from the perspective of a small airplane.

The Jackson Hole airport is located within Grand Teton National Park, the only public use airport wholly within a National Park. It is located on the valley floor at 6450 feet MSL, surrounded in all directions by high mountains (that’s why it’s called Jackson “Hole”). MEAs for IFR flights vary from 13,000 feet to more than 15,000 feet depending on arrival direction; VFR flights, such as we were doing, can be conducted safely at lower altitudes in good weather, and we came over that saddle at about 11,000 feet. Today the airport has a control tower; at the time of our flight, it was non-towered. The town of Jackson is about seven miles south of the airport, and I was looking forward to seeing it again.

But after we landed, he asked me to stay at the airport. He had no idea how long he would be in Jackson, and he didn’t want to have to hunt me down. Oh heck, again—one of the major perks of going to Jackson Hole is to go to Jackson! It’s a delightful tourist-oriented town, with a charm all its own. It has shops galore, of outdoor equipment, clothing, jewelry, all sorts of things. It has excellent restaurants, good hotels, fishing in the summer, skiing in the winter—a terrific place to visit. But not this trip, for me.

So although the airplane really didn’t need refueling after the two-hour flight, I had the airplane refueled and spent the next several hours, reading every magazine in the FBO, watching airplanes come in and go out, and basically being bored. I regularly checked the weather by calling the Casper FSS every hour or so, but other than very high clouds forming over the valley, it remained pretty benign.

Finally, Pete showed up, and although he looked like the same man, he didn’t act like it. He was more than merely affable; now he was positively jovial. He explained that he had decided to run for governor of Wyoming, and the purpose of the trip was to meet with potential financial backers. He had been successful, and the expenses of his candidacy had been assured.

Jackson Hole
Jackson Hole is beautiful, but not always easy to navigate.

As we taxied out, he said, “Cary, I used to be a navigator in the Navy. Would you allow me to navigate us back to Laramie?” So I handed him the sectional and my whiz wheel, saying “Have at it—try not to get us lost.” We both laughed, and I told him that once we’d climbed high enough to clear the ridges to the east, I’d follow whatever headings he gave me.

I don’t know what kind of a navigator he had been, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that he’d forgotten much of what he had known. The headings he gave me had us flying all over the place, and we weren’t making a lot of progress. It was a good thing that I’d had the airplane refueled!

Finally, he said, “Cary, I have a confession. I think I’ve gotten us hopelessly lost.” I replied, “No you haven’t—that’s Pinedale right down there, and it’s an easy flight home from here.” I’d been keeping track of where we were, since I knew the territory pretty well without a chart. But he handed me the sectional and my whiz wheel, and we headed home.

The rest of the flight was uneventful, but it was very pleasant, as we chatted about this and that. What is usually less than a two-hour flight by 182 had become a three-hour flight, but we became friends during it. Later during his campaign, I flew Pete’s wife, Lynne, to all of his campaign stops, flying a Mooney 231 which a supporter had donated for use in the campaign. She was as delightful as he was, and we, too, became friends. She was quite a thespian, which was also one of my hobbies, and some time later, I had the pleasure of having a bit part in a play that she directed.

For the several years that I did Part 135 charter work, I had other trips with memorable passengers. But this trip was definitely among the more unforgettable. I ran into Pete a few years ago, and although 29 years had passed, we relived the flight together—he remembered it as well as I do.

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