Montana big sky
7 min read

My wife’s family owns a cabin in Silvergate, Montana. It isn’t near an airport, but coming from Minnesota, flying close beats a 17-hour drive. I was in the midst of my instrument training, so I was getting in quite a bit of flying anyway. I took the family (my wife and two teenage kids) for the trip and rented a Beech Sierra from the FBO where I was taking my training.

The flight out to Livingston (KLVM) was interesting. We stopped in Billings, Montana, for gas and a late lunch. An unforecast rain started about the time we wanted to leave. Silvergate is about a three-hour drive from Billings or Livingston, so we thought we’d rent a car and drive down. There was a teacher convention in Billings this week, and no cars. No hotels either. The line guy said it’ll rain like this in the summer, and the rain will clear up after an hour or so.

Montana big sky

Waiting for those big skies to clear.

We waited impatiently for that hour, and it cleared up just like the line guy said. We climbed in the plane, and headed west. The landing at Livingston was uneventful. The tiedowns at Livingston are chains, which I thought was overkill. Later I learned the winds regularly tip over 18-wheelers on the highway, so the chains do a good job of keeping airplanes in their parking spot.

At the end of the week it was time to go. Saturday we packed up everything and headed back to Livingston for the flight home. When I looked at the weather, I found that everything east of the Dakotas would be all IFR, low clouds and rain. I talked to my wife, and said we should try to fly halfway, maybe stopping in Bismarck, or Fargo, North Dakota. She was up for the adventure.

We took off from Livingston, heading east. Again we stopped in Billings for fuel and lunch. While we were eating, my wife asked if we could stop in Glendive, Montana, to visit her cousins. We had nothing better to do, so we stopped at the Glendive airport and called the cousins. The whole family was out at the airport in about ten minutes, including her uncle Len. It turned out Len was a pilot as well, and rented from the local FBO in Glendive.

Everyone visited for about an hour, and then we said we needed to go. I thought we should shoot for Bismarck, since that would get us a good place for dinner, and if the weather looked good we could go on to Fargo. Len said the airport in Bismarck treated their customers well, so we made the plan there, and off we went.

It was hot on this day, and a little bumpy crossing the Badlands. I tried several altitudes, and it didn’t seem to matter. No one complained, but I wanted this trip to be pleasant for everyone. I stayed around 7500 feet to keep the temperature mostly pleasant.

About 4:30 in the afternoon, I was about 10 miles out from Bismarck, so I got ATIS and called the tower. We were number one for runway 31. There is an 8000-foot runway in Bismarck, and I landed using about 1000 feet of it. As I turned off the runway, tower asked if I wanted to go the GA terminal. Having never been to a “terminal,” I didn’t know, but I said yes anyway. Tower told me to turn right and taxi to the end (a mile and a half to the other end of the runway).

As I got to the terminal, there was a gentleman in a jumpsuit with the marshaling wands telling us to keep coming forward. As I got closer and he was sure I could see him he walked backwards a little and eventually told me where to turn, and another gentleman in a jumpsuit with wands guided us to a parking place. The parking place was on the ramp in front of the GA terminal, and there was a sign on the roof I could see now.

After I shut down, there was someone on each side ready to help us step off the wing, get our bags, and anything else we needed. They asked if I needed gas, and said they would put it in. They asked if we were spending the night, and at this time I wasn’t sure, but I’d let them know. It was the best service I had ever had.

Once we got in the terminal, my wife said, “We are spending the night here.” I said fine, and didn’t worry about the weather. I went back to get the overnight bags, and the gentlemen in the jumpsuits said they would get them out, and have them ready for the hotel van – we could go in and call the hotel from the lobby. He said he would tie the airplane down and it will be ready to go in the morning.

We all relaxed at the hotel, had a nice meal, and got a good night’s sleep ready to go home the next morning.

Cumulus clouds

Flying home over a layer of “popcorn” clouds is a wonderful feeling.

When we got to the airport in the morning, the airplane was tied down in the front row ready for us. I went to the counter to pay the bill and the person at the counter got on the radio and had them pull our plane out, right up front. When he put the tug away, he was inside to grab our bags and put them next to the plane.

Once everything was loaded, everyone strapped in, and the engine started, the gentleman in the jumpsuits were out there again with the marshaling wands leading us to the taxiway. I called ground letting them know I was at the GA terminal; ready for an eastbound departure. Ground offered us either runway, the wind was calm.

Not wanting to taxi two miles, I chose to take off on runway 13, the closest runway. After the runup, I called tower and told them I was ready to take off on runway 13. Tower cleared me for takeoff. A second later, a Continental 737 called and asked tower about our clearance, since they had just been cleared to land on runway 31. I stopped immediately, since I didn’t want to go head to head with a 737.

Tower paused and asked my on course heading. With my flight plan on my lap, I said “095,” quite authoritatively. Tower said, “Cleared for takeoff runway 13, turn on course as soon as possible.” As soon as I turned on the runway, I could see the 737 as just a spec in the sky, but I wanted to pay attention to it. After breaking ground, I sucked the gear up and made a gentle left turn to 095 and continued the climb. I passed the 737 about a half mile from the end of the runway.

The sky was full of popcorn clouds that morning. The bases were about 4500 feet and the tops sometimes were at 7000 feet. I climbed between them to about 7500 feet to get good visibility. It was probably the first time I had flown over a broken layer like that, and remembered my instrument training. I had flown over an overcast layer. There was comfort seeing the ground most of the time. As we went farther east, the clouds went away, and the ride was smooth.

The rest of the trip was uneventful, and we were at our home by 4 pm that afternoon. The airplane gave us a lot of freedom. Having the day to just play, this was the opposite of get-home-it is. We had opportunities to just go places without a plan. I met people who I might never have met, and found there are pilots in my family. The airplane truly is a magic carpet.

Tom Brusehaver
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4 replies
  1. Hunter Heath
    Hunter Heath says:

    Wonderful story! Too often, aviation is all about “getting there” rather than enjoying the journey. You remind us that airplanes can much more than get us from A to B.

  2. Chris
    Chris says:

    Great story! Your conclusions about the joys of the journey (rather than flight simply as a means to reach a destination) bring back fond memories of my VFR-only days of multi-state cross countries. When I started flying most trips on IFR flight plans, I think I lost a lot of those “ah…let’s go to THAT airport” moments that so often led to interesting discoveries. I did not consciously realize it until I read your story. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Steven Wood
    Steven Wood says:

    When traveling long family trips I try to build in an extra option day on each end of the trip. For example I’ll book a place Sunday through Saturday using the weekends to fly when it’s ideal. If it’s a weekend trip, to make sure I have my Monday cleared of any important meetings, and set the expectation that we may not be in that day. This takes off a lot of stress worrying about the weather leading up to and during the Vacation, plus time gives you lots of options if you need it. Every time I read accident articles or Never Agains about continued flight into deteriorating or suspect conditions, the common theme is that if that pilot just waited a few hours conditions improved. Time is our best resource when traveling long trips, use it to your advantage!

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