12 min read

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

– Theodore Roosevelt, Citizenship in the Republic, April 23, 1910


With high school sophomore year complete, it was time to start thinking about college visits. Maybe that’s a little early for some, but because I knew where my son first wanted to visit I thought the timing was perfect. High school has been academically challenging and emotionally draining at times, and this trip was an opportunity to see, in person, what the “triumph of high achievement” and “daring greatly” are all about.

Like most children, my son’s fascination with paleontology began at a young age. But, while other kids got tired of dinosaurs, Jack’s interest only grew. He’s read everything he can get his hands on about paleontology and the Earth Sciences related to the area of study. So, what college should we visit?

Montana State University

Montana State University, the ultimate destination, looks pretty good to a flatlander

Montana State University, of course: home of the Museum of the Rockies and Jack Horner, paleontologist extraordinaire and inspiration for Alan Grant of Jurassic Park fame. And, the best part about Montana State for this flat-lander from Kentucky is… amazingly… it’s in Montana! Montana, home of clean air, majestic mountains, crystal-clear rivers, and bears! Perfect!

We could drive for 24 hours, pay Delta $800 a piece to fly us out there with at least one layover, or, since we are both pilots and have an airplane, we could fly ourselves. After an incredibly arduous debate about the best option lasting at least 10 seconds, we decided: Fly ourselves!

Non-stop with no winds the flight from Bowman Field (KLOU) to Bozeman (KBZN) would be about 1,221 nm, or approximately eight hours in our Beechcraft Duchess. We needed at least one fuel stop, though, and, just to break things up a bit, we decided we’d actually plan for two. And, because my son is a student pilot working on his cross country requirements and I am his instructor, we would try to conduct the whole flight VFR and only file IFR if absolutely required.

The plan was to fly from Louisville to Des Moines for fuel, and then on to Rapid City on the first day. We’d stop in Rapid City, get a car, tour the Badlands, Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills, and then rest for the night. The next day we would fly from Rapid City on into Bozeman through “the Pass.” Once there, we would grab a car, tour the City and Montana State, and then spend the rest of the week exploring Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park, and Jackson Hole.

Leaving Louisville by Duchess

Ready to depart Louisville, father and son are all smiles.

We had planned for the trip to take six days and five nights. But, with general aviation, you have to remain flexible and with a large weather system moving into Louisville on the planned day of our departure, we decided to leave a day early. What a bummer! We’d be forced to endure another day and night in the mountains! Shucks!

Being the good Eagle Scout that he is, Jack was well-organized for an early departure. So, with our luggage, food, bear spray, and trip mascot Sven (a reindeer figurine from the movie Frozen provided by my oldest sister), we packed up the plane.

The departure from Louisville was uneventful, but we soon had to weave our way around some building storms as we crossed cold and stationary fronts along our path. Having a Stormscope, XM Weather on a Garmin, and ADS-B weather displayed through a Stratus 2 onto our iPad’s ForeFlight app, we weren’t lacking for information. The more weather information from diverse sources you can get, the better, as no one source tells the whole story.

As we were entering the Des Moines area, our planned fuel stop at Winterset Municipal (3Y3) was just on the edge of a rather large thunderstorm. The (relatively) inexpensive fuel at Winterset was tempting, but we chose to divert to Ankeny Regional (KIKV) because it was well-clear of the storm. While the fuel was definitely more, the people at Exec 1 Aviation were nice and the service was outstanding, and that went a long way to easing the pain my wallet felt. In fact, all the service folks and pilots we met on this trip were generous with their time and insights — we truly got the feeling that General Aviation is still a family spread across our vast country.

After refueling our plane and bodies, we headed on toward Rapid City (KRAP). Despite the unfortunate identifier, the weather was anything but that and the sights were amazing. We flew over the Badlands as we approached the airport, and we couldn’t wait to get on the ground to see the sites up close. The contrast and perspective of the Badlands from the air versus the ground, and the Badlands themselves to the surrounding landscape, was indescribable.


Badlands National Park is “other-worldly.”

Once on the ground at Rapid City, the folks at Westjet Air Center had our new Volvo SUV rental waiting for us. We secured the plane, threw on her cover, and headed to the Badlands.

If you haven’t been to Badlands National Park, add it to your bucket list. The sights are other-worldly. The temperature was 102, but the humidity was low and a breeze was blowing, so it was actually pleasant. But, drink lots of water and use lots of sunscreen!

After driving the Loop Road, we headed toward Mount Rushmore. We arrived as the sun was getting low on the horizon, and the monument was spectacular. We walked all around the area, ate dinner at the on-site cafe, and then headed to our hotel for the evening. We paused long enough to comment on the unique opportunities general aviation gives us. Waking in the morning in Kentucky, and ending the day with the Badlands and Mount Rushmore — a privilege we should not take lightly.

The next morning we made our way to the airport and fired up the engines. We had a short flight over the Black Hills with just some light rain, and then had a “close encounter” with Devils Tower (sorry, I couldn’t resist). The morning light kissing Devils Tower was awesome! The site has spiritual significance to local tribes, and I can understand why, so you need to give it a reasonably wide berth. We flew over the Little Bighorn where Lt. Col. Custer made his last stand, and then we headed through the Bozeman Pass after transiting south of Billings.

Duchess on ramp at Bozeman

The trusty Duchess, tied down in Bozeman after nine hours of flying.

It was still early as we touched down at Bozeman, and the weather was perfect. The folks at Arlin’s Aircraft Service had our new Subaru Outback rental all ready for us, and, after buttoning up the plane, we headed into town. We did, though, stop and turn to say one last “thank you” to the Duchess for transporting us safely all this way. With the fuel stops, obligatory head winds, and granite dodging, it took just over nine hours to make it to our destination.

It didn’t take long to get our bearings in Bozeman, so we headed to Montana State University and the Museum of the Rockies. The Museum has the United States’ largest collection of dinosaur fossils, including the largest T-Rex skull measuring five feet in length and a femur that contains soft tissue remains. Even though it seems impossible, could some future discovery allow scientists to bring dinosaurs back to life some day? Jack answered that question best: “We now have two books and four movies showing us what a really bad idea that would be.” Ha! You could spend days in this museum, and the collection on display is a small fraction of the specimens owned.

We returned to town, grabbed a bite, visited the local shops on Main Street, and drove around the outlying area for a while. As the sun set for the evening, we headed back to our hotel and got some sleep.

The next morning we ate breakfast and hopped in the car for a full day of meetings and tours at Montana State University. Everyone was incredibly informative and pleasant, and Jack was very impressed by the facilities and the quality of the research that takes place at the University. As the admission counselor reviewed Jack’s challenging course-load, past grades and recent ACT scores, the lights started to brightly shine as talk of major scholarships, an honors program, and field research became real possibilities. I could see the wheels turning in Jack’s head: “Maybe all the hard work has been worth it and Dad isn’t so crazy… or at least maybe all the hard work has been worth it.”

Boiling River in Yellowstone

Yellowstone, including the Boiling River, really is as beautiful as they say.

Campus visit complete, we headed south toward the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone is America’s oldest national park, and the home to most of the world’s active geysers, including Old Faithful. Yellowstone has two loop roads that run through it. Our plan for the next three days was to tackle the eastern half of both Yellowstone loops on our way south to Grand Teton and Jackson Hole, and finally head back north through the western half of both Yellowstone loops ending in Bozeman.

Upon entering the park, we immediately saw wildlife and several signs warning of bears and mountain lions being active in the area. Throughout the trip, we’d encounter whitetail deer, mule deer, bison, elk, eagles, ospreys, pronghorns, geese, mallards, pelicans, grizzly, and lots of tourists — don’t worry, we kept our distance from the tourists!

To adequately describe all we saw would take the space of several articles. Some of the highlights included the Roosevelt Gate, the Boiling River, Mammoth Hot Springs, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, the Continental Divide, Yellowstone Lake, Grand Teton, Jackson Hole, Jenny Lake, Morning Glory Pool, and Old Faithful. The vastness and primordial might of what we saw is truly indescribable — take time to visit these wonders.

And, share them with someone you care about. The sights were more magnificent, the air was sweeter, the breeze was warmer, and the water was calmer just sitting with Jack talking about the beauty before us. We later joked that we were mildly hypoxic from the elevation because our inner philosophers came out. But, in the moment, being present with each other in the shadow of America’s wonders, we had some truly meaningful conversations.

After arriving back in Bozeman, we grabbed some dinner and bunked down for an early departure the next morning. We arrived at the airport just after 5:00 AM MT, and were wheels up just before the tower opened.

We stopped in Rapid City and Des Moines again for fuel, but this time we enjoyed nice tailwinds most of the way home. There were two areas of significant weather with more stationary and cold fronts, and for a while it looked like we might have to file IFR to get into Louisville. But, just as quickly as the weather turned sour it started to break up, and we were able to make it into Bowman Field after only seven hours in the air.

So, that’s all the technical aspects of the trip — the stuff I thought was at the heart of the fun. And it was fun. But, what I hadn’t planned on was what I can only describe as the contrast we experienced on this trip.

Flying home in Duchess

On the way home, and contemplating what a trip like this really means.

The contrast of indescribable scenery around every bend; the contrast of cool water running through barren landscape scorched by unseen heat; the contrast of perspectives — sights from the air versus the same sights on the ground; and, the contrast of time and weather across zones passed so quickly in our plane.

The purpose of the trip was to see the prize that waits at the end of a hard journey. To show my son how all the work and effort will pay off. At school. With flying. In life. And, to spend some time alone, just the two of us, before competing pressures and the passage of time naturally pull us physically apart.

The outcome of the trip was, as so often has happened in the past, the teacher becoming the student. For the final contrast revealed itself to me as I watched Jack put the plane back into its hangar while thinking about the conversations and experiences of the prior week — the contrast of the man my boy has become. A father’s love growing into genuine respect is as indescribable as the sights from our trip.

Maybe it’s not always all about the journey, but on this trip, with my son and our plane, it was. Could it have been done by car or airline? Maybe. Thankfully, I’ll never have to know.

Joseph Kirwan
6 replies
  1. Hunter Heath
    Hunter Heath says:

    Wonderful story! The experience will no doubt be warm in Jack’s memory the rest of his life. I often tell non-aviation people that a personal airplane is a magic carpet; you’ve experienced and beautifully described what I mean.

  2. Fernão Pedroso Mazzei
    Fernão Pedroso Mazzei says:

    What a beauty is inside this story. This kind of trip ties forever father and son´s souls. Many many thanks!

  3. Peter T
    Peter T says:

    You brought a tear to my eye Joseph! Memories of trips with my father, and visions of future trips with my son!
    Thank you!

  4. Mike
    Mike says:

    What a wonderful adventure. We lived in Great Falls,Mt for five years and I can honestly say it was wonderful. You are so right the scenery and contrast of that part of the country are indescribeable.
    For anyone who has not been out west put it on your list of things to do. I never made it to Yellowstone or Mount Rushmore and only got to drive by the badlands(at least four times) and I’m sorry I missed it but its on my bucket list to go back. The sunrises and sunsets are the most beautiful you’ll ever see.

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