Flying 3500 miles in five days—and enjoying every minute of it

A bucket list of unique, challenging, and scenic flying destinations has been on my desk since I was inspired by the Pilot Getaways magazine created by John and George Kounis many years ago. More recently, AOPA Travel Pilot, FunPlacesToFly, and SocialFlight have carried on that legacy. My list never seems to get shorter, regardless of how many locations are checked off.

The addition of a Bearhawk Patrol and its capabilities to my hangar in 2017 increased the length of the list considerably. The arrival of my first “Beartracks” newsletter made me aware of an annual fall picnic hosted by Bob Barrows at his Fincastle, Virginia, airstrip. I pulled out my list and made another entry.

The Barrows picnic on October 19, 2019, was chosen as the goal and planning commenced. It quickly became apparent that there were two possible routes around the biggest obstacle—Lake Michigan. Planning for both gave options in the case of weather challenges as well as the benefit of being able to check more items off the list. The 1269-mile trip from Manitoba, Canada, to Fincastle around the bottom of Lake Michigan would include North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Virginia.

Chicago
South down the shoreline of Lake Michigan, or north around the top? Only one route has this view.

The 1390-mile route over the top through Michigan would bring the total up to 10 states. Using my dog-eared bucket list, along with talking to Bob on the phone, I drew up state-by-state lists of interesting waypoints and marked all those relatively close to our routes on the map. ForeFlight made developing a route easy, and it provided airstrip information including contact information for PPR (prior permission required) private airstrips. AirNav.com was my source for airstrip information for each planned stop that was printed and filed in a binder easily available in flight.

While my wife Beverly has been unwavering in her support of my aviation addiction and has accompanied me on many flights, she was not interested in another flight over the Appalachian Mountains, as our last two flights there had been in marginal weather. I was lucky enough to bring along Rick Hiebert, a friend who not only loves flying, but is a professional photographer as well. He set up four GoPro cameras and took along his digital SLR with a full set of lenses. We packed sleeping bags, freeze dried food, and survival gear that we had put together for a previous trip to Utah.

The eAPIS was filed for first thing on Wednesday, October 16. Unfortunately, fog delayed our departure until mid-afternoon, but the CBP agents were understanding and gave us no trouble at all. We made about 550 miles that first day, ending up at Waupaca (PCZ). Perfect weather allowed an early start the next morning, and we flew past the Chicago skyline using the Chicago FLY route (on the back of the Chicago VFR TAC or from the ForeFlight Documents tab). The view at 1500 ft. was unbelievable and the route was no hassle and not busy. Everybody should do it! I cannot recommend this too highly.

From there, we went southeast to overfly the unique Adams Mill and covered bridge on Wildcat Creek, then headed across Ohio and a corner of Kentucky. Our first stop in the Virginias was at I41 (Robert Newton), a scenic grass strip on the east shore of the Ohio River that is used as a parachute jumping base. Note: if you are ever there, check out the unique sign collection in the bathrooms 🙂

Grass strip
Grass strips in a Bearhawk? Yes please.

We then crossed back over the Ohio River to refuel at Huntington (HTW)—nice approach over the river—before having a lot of fun doing landings and takeoffs at WV08 (Scott’s Island) a grass strip cut through the trees on an island in the Kanawha River, about 10 miles from Charleston.

Finally, we flew to Merifield (VG34), an airpark with a beautiful grass strip on the shore of the John H. Kerr Reservoir, where we were graciously hosted by Rick and Lee Baldwin. Friday morning’s agenda started with a tour of the Luray Caverns (LUA). Next was a stop and go at the spectacular Sky Bryce (VG18) ski and golf resort, flying the amazing Gauley River Gorge, an overflight of SXL and the adjoining Summersville Lake, and then over to Rainelle (WV30), a private mountaintop grass strip with unbelievable views. The day ended with a flight over to VA04, where Bob and Diana Barrows graciously hosted us for the night.

We used the following morning checking out more of Virginia by air, leaving Fincastle with frost on the grass, lifting up into perfectly calm air. The target was Springwood (08VA) but as we cleared the hills east of Fincastle we saw solid fog covering the area, so we diverted towards the north and our next stop of Ingalls (HSP), when we encountered the utterly amazing, once-in-a-lifetime sight of a mountain top with a grass strip penetrating a few feet above the fog! Checking it out on ForeFlight, we found that this was Big Hill (44VA). A few circuits gave us some marvellous pictures and video before we continued on to Healing Springs and then back to the Barrows for the picnic at noon.

I cannot adequately express how much we enjoyed this day. The food was great (fortunately the Bearhawk aircraft can handle a big load) and both hosts and guests were wonderful. This event has my very highest recommendation! We would have loved to stay the entire day but due to weather that was forecast to deteriorate later that day, we left at mid-afternoon, with the first stop being for fuel at Greenbrier (LWB).

The next waypoint was New River Gorge (WV32), but rather than going there directly, we flew the canyon for a number of miles, starting at Gauley Bridge. Here, we had another serendipitous experience. As we approached the New River Gorge Bridge, we saw that it was crowded with people who were enjoying the annual Bridge Day festivities. For those of you that are not aware of this annual one day event, hundreds of people jump, rappel, catapult, and para-sail off the 876 ft. high bridge, before thousands of spectators.

When we came around the corner and saw the ropes and parachutes going down from the bridge from a couple of miles away, it took a little while to figure out what was happening, but we climbed up and watched the fun from above before turning to the northwest. This was another once-in-a-lifetime item we were privileged to experience on this trip.

Curtis by plane
A trip like this is how you really get to know an airplane.

Now truly heading home, we stopped at Cadillac (CAD) for the night. Next morning we flew across the top of Lake Michigan, stopping in at South Fox Island (3M12) and North Fox Island (6Y3) and then flying through the gorgeous Apostle Islands in Lake Superior. One last stop for fuel at Helgeson (TWM) followed by a no-hassle customs stop at Piney Pinecreek (48Y), a unique airstrip that straddles the US/Canada border, and then back home.

Flight stats: 3450 miles in 26.4 hours over five days with four stops for fuel.

Some lasting impressions:

  • The aviation community truly is warm and friendly. We had positive interactions with each one along the way. Every person I contacted for permission graciously granted it, and many went above and beyond by offering meals and/or accommodations.
  • Doing things outside our comfort zone allows us to experience and see things that simply would not be the case if we just stay with what we have always done.
  • Time spent planning and researching is well worth the effort. Knowing routes, elevations, dimensions, slopes, and frequencies in advance made the trip not only much safer but also a lot less stressful.
  • The extra hassle of documenting special events with pictures and video has many benefits. It allows us not only to relive the adventure ourselves but also to share the experience with others, rather than have it fade into our (increasingly) foggy memories.
  • The Bearhawk Patrol is an amazing aircraft. Not only does it allow safe operations at full gross into and out of small strips at higher altitudes, but it can also cover long distances efficiently. It functions really well as a photo platform with great visibility to both sides and open windows offering the possibility of high resolution photography. Fuel capacity at over five hours endurance is excellent for exploring remote areas and is more than sufficient to outlast most bladder endurance limits.

I hope that this story can serve to encourage other aviators to stretch their wings and horizons by expanding their comfort zones, to see and experience things that are unavailable to our earthbound neighbours, and to share these with others, whether they are other pilots, your friends and family, and anyone else that needs to see what general aviation has to offer.

If you would like to see a video of our trip, it is available on YouTube.

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