Denver 2015                                       

10/15/2015 -

A glance at the calendar upon returning from Rough River revealed that it was only 3 weeks until Ella's fall break from school.  There is an educators conference held every October in MN and when I was a kid, it was just a Thursday-Friday thing.  It has grown a bit though with many schools taking the following Monday off as well.  Last year we used this as an opportunity to head out to the west coast.  One of Ella's favorite activities from that trip was a hike we did in the foothills overlooking the SF Bay area.  When asked where she wanted to go this year, she said "Somewhere we can go hiking."

We had been discussing a flying/hiking trip with our good friend Bob for a couple months.  A lot of ideas had been tossed out ranging from the Cascades to the Tetons, to the Rockies.  One possibility Bob suggested was Taos, NM.  The thing about traveling by small plane is that you are at mother nature's mercy a lot more, and for this trip we were looking for a destination that had cooperative weather, and NM usually has a fair bit of that in the fall.

In the week or so before the trip the weather forecast for Taos was looking good, mostly sunny and temps in the upper 70s.  As we got down to the day before, things started looking worse, mostly cloudy and temps in the upper 50s.  Not fun hiking weather, so we started looking elsewhere.

Jackson, WY had been a good backup so far, but that too was looking a little iffy for our planned departure home on Monday.  Denver, however, was looking great for the whole time.  Sunshine and 70s were the forecast for Thursday though Monday.  So we changed plans and headed for Denver.

The new plan was to rendezvous with Bob at Norfolk, NE, which is approximately half way there.  We had learned there was a good restaurant on field.  And they had good fuel prices.  It was about an hour or so further for Bob than it was for us, so while Bob had to be wheels up by about 8:30am to get there by our planned Noon lunch time, we didn't need to get going 'till about 10am.  The flight was uneventful and smooth for both of us, and we found the on field restaurant to be every bit as cool as it was described, especially the bi-plane bar.

After lunch we fueled up and set out as a flight of 2 for Metro Rocky Mountain Airport on the NW side of Denver.  A short smooth 2 hour flight later we were enjoying the breathtaking view of the Rocky Mountains from the air as we approached the Denver area and our destination.

Another mutual friend and Cozy builder happens to be based at KBJC, and as luck would have it was planning to be at the airport working on his latest project, a SkyBolt, when we were due to arrive.  Upon landing we taxied over to the ramp and were greeted by Doug, and his college aged daughter, Ella.  We all chatted for a bit and then went to his hangar for some beers and to check out his SkyBolt.  The older Ella, was a wonderful friend for our younger Ella, showing her how they were fabricating pieces of the SkyBolt, and even showing her how to TIG Weld!  Our Ella is now anxious to get out to the garage and play with the welder, though she will need help for a few years at least.  As we were enjoying good beer and great company, the sun was beginning to set, and we headed back out to the ramp to take some great pics of the plane before heading to dinner.

After dinner we realized that while we had planned to wait until we actually got to Denver to find a hotel (there were plenty open when we looked the day prior) we had neglected to do so when we arrived.  Doug graciously offered up his place for us to stay.  The next morning we awoke to find Doug has one REMARKABLE view out his living room windows.  Simply breathtaking.  On tap for the day was to procure a rental car and then do some hiking.  We weren't having much luck with the rental car places, unless you wanted to pick up from the Denver airport (which is a good distance further than where we had landed).  So in the middle of trying to sort that out Doug offered to take us hiking at a location he thought we might enjoy, Guanella Pass.  He was right, it was awesome.

The trailhead for the Guanella Pass trail starts at an elevation of 11,600'.  We followed it for approximately 4-5 miles, not quite reaching the peak of where it lead, but we did manage to get to the ridgeline leading to the peak.  At 12,800', it was the highest elevation both Bob and I had been at on foot.  The views of the lakes nestled into the side of the mountain at that elevation were awesome.

After descending back down the mountain side, we went to dinner and then to a bon fire at one of Doug's friend's place.  We met more fun folks, and had a couple beers.  We had learned the night prior though, that alcohol has a more pronounced effect a mile up than it doe sin the flatlands of MN or WI  We had joked during the hike earlier that one really only needed to bring a single beer, or a thimble full of Jag for all of us to enjoy on the side of the mountain.  2 beers that night was plenty to ensure we would sleep well, which is when we realized we had again let the day get away from us and hadn't sorted out our car and lodging.  Again, Doug so kindly offered up his place.  We were planning to go on a day trip (by plane) to Leadville in the morning, and I was not keen on having passengers for the flight (more on that later), so Christine was given the task of procuring our rental car and starting the hotel search.

The next morning a college friend of Bob's met us at Doug's house and we went to breakfast in the cute little town of Evergreen, where Doug lives.  Leadville Colorado is home to the highest airport in North America, with a field elevation of 9,934'.  Landing and departing from such a high altitude is taxing for most single, piston engine airplanes.  The thin air means the engine produces dramatically less horsepower, and your ground speed will be substantially higher to produce the same required airspeed for flight.  Going in the morning before the temperature could get TOO warm was important for two reasons.  First warmer air is also less dense, so we didn't need anything else making performance suffer.  Second, as the sun warms the air it creates convective activity, turbulence, and wind (and thus downdrafts, updrafts, and mountain waves), all of which is not needed when trying to get above tall mountains.  I had good Phase 1 data for climb testing at high altitudes, but take off and landing roll distances were just extrapolated guesses, as I didn't have high altitude airports in my Phase 1 test area.  I had conducted operations at some moderately higher elevations in the past year or so (5k-7k feet) with good results, but 10K was a big number, and almost certain to be bigger unless the temp remained in the 40s, which was not likely.  It is for this reason that I wasn't comfortable taking any passengers on the flight to Leadville.  Even at that, for a moment on the ramp at KBJC I debated not going at all, as it was starting to get warm and I was very concerned about encountering a mountain wave or substantial downdrafts that I couldn't get out of.  Fortunately Bob was there to ease my nerves a bit and remind me of the capabilities of my plane.

I departed first, with Bob about 5 minutes in trail.  After clearing the Denver Class B, we switched over to our air to air frequency and discussed how amazing the scenery was.  Leadville was only about 30 minutes away, but it was a gorgeous 30 minutes.  Soon it was time for me to bring my focus to conducting the best landing I could at the continent's highest airport.  I came through the pass at nearly 15,000 feet and had a lot of altitude to loose in a short distance.  Unfortunately I didn't plan far enough ahead, and ended up high and fast on my first approach.  I opted to go around the pattern and by the time I was back on downwind, I was stabilized at much better speeds and altitude.  I made a very nice landing and was able to turn off in less than half the runway.  I shut down the plane and reflected for a minute at how glad I was that all went well.  Bob entering the pattern as I popped the canopy, so I quickly grabbed the camera and filmed his landing, which was also great.

We parked the planes and starting taking some pictures as two college aged kids who worked at the FBO came out with the golf cart to greet us.  One of them had recently bought plans for a Long-EZ, and was naturally excited to see a couple of canards landing!  We went inside for our obligatory (and much desirable) certificates stating we had landed there.  And bought T-shirts for additional bragging rights, then we promptly reminded each other these bragging rights were only valid if we managed to get OUT of Leadville in one piece!

Bob offered to take off first, assuring me, if he made it, I'd be fine.  I watched as he ate up about 2/3 the runway before the canard lifted and he was off.  I gave him another 10-15 seconds and then took the runway myself.  I pushed the throttle and prop controls full forward and leaned the mixture out till it attained MAX RPM.  Acceleration was a bit slow at first, but soon began to push nicely.  I let it accelerate to 80kts before pulling back on the stick.  She leapt off the runway nicely.  Review of the logs showed I used 2,427' of runway to get to 50' altitude.  I like it.

After departing Leadville, we flew down the valley to Buena Vista, where we stopped for lunch and fuel (at a much lower 7900' elevation).  After lunch we went back to KBJC and met up with the girls who had spent the day shopping.  We regaled our flying adventure in the mountains over dinner and then set about finding a hotel nearby.  We stopped at a liquor store on the way for a bottle of wine, and spent the rest of the evening reviewing the gorgeous pictures and the day's fun.

Sunday morning we met up with Bob's cousin who live in nearby Boulder, and set about a day trip to Cheyenne Wyoming just to see what was there.  One the way into Cheyenne we followed a C-130, to which we gave a lot of distance, and once landed set about a short walk to the Wyoming Capitol Building, and then had lunch at a very....UNIQUE little restaurant called Sanfords that had a bit of an identity crisis going on.  The food was great.  The decor was what I called A.D.D. paradise.  After lunch we went back to the planes and made the short 45 minute flight back into Denver.  When we got back to Denver, Bob took a look at weather and decided that things looked favorable for him to get back to Wisconsin yet that evening so that he could tend to some pressing matters at work in the morning.  We didn't need to be back until late Monday, so we stayed in Denver another night and went to a movie.

In the morning we returned the rental car, topped of the tanks on the plane, and started out for the 3.5 hour nonstop flight back to St. Cloud.  Unfortunately we started out with a headwind, my first thought being: COME ON, REALLY!?!  I'M GOING EAST!  But eventually it turned into a crosswind and later even a touch of a tailwind, which was a welcome change.  It was a pretty smooth flight, but it was too short a trip.  Denver is such a beautiful area, it's a nature lovers dream.  We hope to make it a regular trip.