Tractor Parts and Humble Pie
by: Lawrence V. Drake
“I want you to take the Super Cub and deliver some tractor parts to a farm down by Burlington.” Bill pulled aviation sectional and topographical charts from the rack of narrow shelves hanging on the wall behind the counter.
Super Cub? I love flying the Cub! Any day I can fly that airplane is a good day. With its oversized balloon tires, seaplane propeller, and one hundred and eighty horses up front, the Super Cub is the ultimate back-country flier.
“They had a tractor break down in the field. It would take a full day for them to drive up here and back. You can be down there in twenty minutes.” Bill’s slender frame bent over his desk as he spread out the maps. In his early thirties, he had flown tankers for the firebombing outfit, Hawkins and Powers, until he was assigned to manage their fixed-base operation here. With a strong finger, he drew a line extending south of the airport, over the town of Powell, across a long stretch of Wyoming desolation, to the Greybull River Valley.
“I see what you mean,” I agreed as I studied the chart. No direct route existed across the barren landscape between the two patches of green. Parts of Wyoming are like that—miles and miles of ragged sunburnt hills, brown grass, grey dirt and sagebrush. Everywhere, sagebrush. Occasional rivers and streams of muddy brown water struggle their way through the parched earth, often to be absorbed into a trickle or a ghost-like river of dust. What a great place for an airplane that can sail over the rugged terrain and land almost anywhere.
“The parts should be here soon. Get the plane ready.”
“How will I know the place? Where should I land?”
Bill focused in on the topo map. “See this reservoir here along the river?” His finger traced the blue line to the east of the ragged body of water that served to capture snow runoff and spring rains. “The farm sits on this bend. It’s the only farm on the south side of the river in that area. Take up a heading of a hundred and fifty degrees when you leave. That should put you pretty close to the farm.”
“The guy said you could land on the road in front of the house or in the field across the road. You shouldn’t have a problem.”
I folded up the topo and sectional charts, and headed out to the Super Cub tied down on the flight line, a fine example of the quintessential classic airplane. Born from the Piper J-3 that trained thousands of pilots during World War II, the airframe design had been beefed up over the years, more power added, and improvements made, resulting in the ultimate bush plane used from Alaska to Africa. The “Piper Cub” name became to aircraft what “Kleenex” is to tissue paper.
All white except for the thin red stripe down its side and Nike swoosh style emblem on its tail, the bird looked proud sitting in the morning sun. It reminded me of the sure-footed mountain goat ram I spotted standing on a rocky outcropping the other day while flying a Fish and Game warden in search of an elk herd. With the Rocky Mountains a thirty-minute flight to the west, the Pryor Mountains to the north, and the Big Horn Mountains to the east, the planned flight across a rough and barren no-man’s land to the south exemplified the stark contrasts of Wyoming’s geography.
As I finished my pre-flight inspection, a pickup truck pulled in. The driver emerged dressed in a blue work shirt bearing the emblem of the tractor supply house. He handed me a small cardboard box with a label addressed to the farmer.
“Is that all of the parts?” I asked, taking the box that couldn’t have weighed over a pound. “I figured I would be hauling something big and heavy.”
“Yep, that’s all, but the tractor won’t run without it.”
I put the package in the baggage compartment behind the rear seat and untied the plane. There is an art to entering a Super Cub, letting people know the pilot is a pro. I backed up to the door, reached over my head, grabbed the cross bars, and lifted myself onto the lower doorframe. One more heft on the bars and I swung my legs into the cockpit followed by my rear into the seat.
Takeoff in the Cub evokes an excitement in me every time. As I fed in the power it seemed to simply levitate into the air as though it couldn’t wait to fly. As many times as I left the earth in this manner, the experience never got old.
Dry bluffs of Polecat Bench gave way to green fertile farmland squeezed into the Shoshone River valley, bordered on all sides by rough brown hills. The small town of Powell slipped under my wings. To the south, the dry rugged hills with draws and gullies cut deep into their slopes look like they are trying to hold back the parched earth beyond.
Water, turned dirty brown from the escaping earth, filled the crooked river below as it meandered its way through the valley, providing lifeblood to green fields that look out of place. A few minutes into the flight the green abruptly ended in stark contrast to the walled fortress of the sagebrush empire.
The next twenty miles I flew only a couple hundred feet above the ground where I spotted a coyote scampering for cover. A small band of antelope scattered, frightened by my noisy bird. This is their country. It belongs to the rattlesnakes, jackrabbits and the other dry land critters. Man has no desire to claim it, although I love it, viewed from my aerial throne. Looking down, I watch my shadow twin race effortlessly over the ground, climbing hills, charging down washes, and up vertical bluffs.
Just as abruptly as they started, the desert hills dropped into the narrow Greybull River Valley. My compass has guided me faithfully. I can see the reservoir off to my right with its liquid-mud fingers extending into the barren hills on the south side of the valley. My eyes follow the river eastward to the bend that matches the blue line on the map on my lap. That’s gotta be the place. I scan the map and then the valley below, looking for confirming landmarks. Yep, that’s it.
There was, indeed, a stretch of straight gravel road in front of the farmhouse. No one mentioned the telephone poles, power poles, and fence posts on either side. I lined the Cub up to make a low pass over the road. Hmm, the road is about thirty feet wide with about ten feet on each side before the fence and poles. My wingspan is thirty-five wide. Sure doesn’t leave much room for error. The spacing might have been greater, but from my vantage point I could imagine clipping a wing and finding myself in an intimate relationship with an oil-impregnated post.
Not possible. Next.
Easing the throttle forward I left the waiting spider web behind. A steep bank to the right gave me a look at the field beside the road. I hoped for a new growth of alfalfa or cut wheat, but the neat rows of green plants suggested otherwise. As I swung in over the field, sun reflected off rivulets of water between the rows as though narrow mirrors had been laid end-to-end separating the potato, sugar beet, or cabbage plants. I didn’t know what the little green monsters were, but they were conspiring with the water to grab my wheels and flip my steed on its nose if I dare touch down.
No road, no field to land on. The river hemmed in the farm on the north and the bleached brown hills rose sharply from the field to the south. There’s got to be some place I can put this puppy down. I can’t go back. The farmer would be upset and Bill would probably hit the ceiling—no doubt he would find a place if he were here.
With the door open for a better view below, I climbed up a few hundred feet to get a lay of the land. Things looked pretty bleak, but then I spotted a service trail on the far side of the field up against the steep bluffs. The two-track dirt road made by tractors and trucks skirted the edge of the field. It meandered over the base of the hills, through gullies and washes. There appeared to be one fairly straight flat stretch. That might do … if it’s long enough and not too rough.
I circled the field and dropped down to about fifty feet as I floated by the possible landing site, door open and head in the wind to get a good look. An old barbed wire fence with a wire gate sagged menacingly at one end of the straight section. The road had ruts and humps, being dirt tramped down by farm vehicles. About five hundred feet down the trail from the fence the road crossed a wash where occasional rain ate away at the bare soil. I’d have to set down just after the gate and be stopped before the wash … a heck of a challenge. It’s a long walk to the farmhouse too.
Every pilot secretly thinks he’s exceptional, particularly Cub pilots. I was a card-carrying member of that club. If I could stick this landing, think of the bragging rights. One more pass just to make sure. I pulled up for another circuit around the field and came in low and slow. I carefully studied the two-track trail. Yep, it looks doable.
Up and around again, this time I lined up with the road, extended the flaps, and pulled the engine back to idle. The airplane settled toward the sagging gate. Gotta clear it by only a couple of feet if I’m going to touch down soon enough. The gate sailed under my wheels as I flared for the landing. Too fast. I’m floating too far. I gunned the engine and aborted the landing. The gravel gully flashed by. I would’ve hit that for sure! Gotta be slower.
As I climbed for another circuit of the field, I spotted a young teen on a motor scooter leaving a trail of dust as he raced up the dirt road on the other side toward my landing spot. He waved as he rode. I waved back through my open door. At least I won’t have to walk to the farmhouse.
I lined up on the road once again. Slow it down … don’t stall this puppy … clear the gate … good … good. The timing and speed was right. The airplane plopped down onto the dirt on its huge cartoon sized tires. Like the mountain goat, the machine bounced along the rutted track as I pushed hard on the brakes, working the rudder pedals to keep the right end pointed forward. In seconds, the Cub skidded to a stop. Room to spare, I thought as I sat for a moment relishing in the pride of a great achievement.
After shutting down, I swung my legs out the door and dismounted with all the flair of a cavalry major who had just won a great battle. The teen motored toward me on his scooter. He’s gotta be impressed! That was a great landing. I flashed my biggest professional smile as the boy parked his motorbike and strolled over.
Dressed in farmer overalls, a ball cap covering his crew cut, and wide-eyed with awe he called out as he walked, “Boy, I sure didn’t think you would land that thing here.”
Yep, he’s impressed alright. “Yeah, it was a challenge,” I called out from my puffed up chest. “I can put this Cub down just about anyplace.”
“Just wondering why you didn’t land at the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) airstrip over there?” He pointed back over his shoulder toward the hilltop.
“I … the what?”
“Ya know, the dirt runway the rangers use up there. That’s were I was waiting for ya.”
My “major” status suddenly shrunk to “buck private.” A strip … up there? And I didn’t see it? “Uh … oh …” Think fast you idiot. “I just like the practice,” I lied. With a quick turn so the kid couldn’t see the red flush oozing into my face, I reached into the baggage compartment, grabbed the precious cargo, and handed him the box. “Here ya go, special delivery.”
“Thanks, Dad really needs this. I gotta get it out to him right away, but I wanna stay and see how you take off.”
“Right. Okay then.”
Back in the Cub, I fired up, swung the tail around and taxied back to the gate, wings rocking wildly in the ruts and dust clouds swirling behind the spinning prop. I pivoted around as close to the gate as I could to get all the takeoff room possible. Make this look good.Holding the brakes, I pushed the throttle full forward until the engine was wailing away. Brakes off, the Cub charged toward the gully wash, slowly picking up speed. The tail lifted as the plane hopped over the rough road like a jackrabbit trying to fly. One last hop just before reaching the washed out ravine and I was in the air. I returned the waving boy’s salute as I passed and headed north.
My takeoff didn’t have the desired affect on my deflated ego as I had hoped. I twisted around to look back over the tail and spotted the fifteen hundred foot grass landing strip on top of the hill. Dumb … really dumb.
The flight north passed quickly. The barren hills slipped by, barely noticed, as I slinked home. The landing back at Powell was uneventful. I tied the plane down and walked slowly to the small operations building where Bill was waiting.
“How’d it go?” he asked from his cluttered desk. “Any problems?”
“Piece of cake,” I muttered.
*** The End ***
Photo by: Baldur Sveinsson