"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

An epic journey to Kitty Hawk in a very small plane

Wayne Ball and Ladybug take a break at Pangborn Memorial Airport.

By Wayne Ball

Shortly after beginning flying lessons in 1956 at the age of 16, it occurred to me that landing at Kitty Hawk — the site of the Wright Brothers first flight in 1903 — would be a fun thing to do.

In the early ’80s, with a growing family and with the increased cost of flying, it became necessary to discontinue flying so the dream vanished. I figured my flying days were over.

Then, just a few years ago, with the kids almost out of school and nearing my retirement, I figured it was now or never if I were ever to resume this old hobby. We acquired Ladybug, our little Kitfox 3 aircraft, in 2013 and it wasn’t long before the dream of flying to Kitty Hawk awakened again.

After five days of delays and two aborted starts, the journey finally began early Sunday morning, June 5, 2016.

Over the next 25 days I flew solo about 5,700 miles, landing 40 times at 38 different airports and flew over at least some part of 22 different states with about 10 days of those 25 days spent visiting family members in four different locations in Texas.

The first day went very well with stops in LaGrande, Oregon and Nampa, Idaho for fuel and a stop for the night and more fuel at the beautiful little town of American Falls, Idaho.

The mountains are always spectacular and on this day, there was a time when I could see Mount Baker to the north, Mount Rainier, Mount Adams, Mount St. Helens and Mount Hood.

Crossing the Columbia is a special event too and she was beautiful. There was mainly just farmland between La Grande and Boise, which offered its own panorama of color and texture.

Just south of Boise I saw what I thought were three, square ponds but when I arrived it turned out they were actually large solar farms. Each appeared to be about 50 acres in size.

After some 30 or 40 minutes of moderate turbulence this flight became very routine except for the scenery. Notable were several huge feedlots, one perfectly round hole in the ground maybe twice as wide across as a football field is long and a lot of lava. At first vegetation covered the lava and it wasn’t apparent what it was, just looking unusual, but then it changed to an apparently more recent “flow” where no vegetation grew at all, looking like it had just flowed out that day.

The second day presented thunderstorms that had to be avoided and waited out and then a very scary trip through a narrow canyon just east of Ogden, Utah that proved to be a very turbulent wind tunnel. Head winds were so strong that ground speed was almost suspended and so violent that one of the windows was blown out of the aircraft.

Heber City, southeast of Salt Lake City, was both beautiful and a very welcome sight.

One might wonder how one gets around on the ground when flying cross-country like this. In almost every case, there is a courtesy car available for itinerant pilots to use free of charge. I used these to acquire the car gas Ladybug prefers, the injector oil she requires, and to get to motels and cafes.

Folks at Heber City were very accommodating, loaning me a spanking new jeep and a gas can which I used to make three trips to the gas station.

The next morning, Tuesday, I left at dawn. No one was around.

During the next couple of days, I flew over the extreme southwest tip of Colorado and crossed mountains and then rolling plains of New Mexico, landing just before noon at Fort Sumner, NM, site of the NASA weather balloon launching and tracking research center.

Fort Sumner is also the site where Pat Garrett, local sheriff, is alleged to have shot the outlaw Billy the Kid.

It is a very small town with only one or two gas stations, a bank, a restaurant, a few churches, two motels and the Billy the Kid museum. Thunderstorms were active so I rested after spending a couple of hours at the museum before walking to the same place for dinner as I had lunch. It was Thursday afternoon and it rained both then and during the night.

I walked the mile to the airport the next morning. Ladybug had gotten a good washing in the rain and was ready to go.

It was a beautiful clear morning and I got an early start to Midland, Texas, and the end of this first segment of the journey.

Nine days were spent visiting family in four different locations in Texas then the trip was resumed on the 20th. The day ended at Columbia, Mississippi where I spent the night with a friend, then on to Cherokee County airport just north of Atlanta the next day and then on to Plymouth, North Carolina, just a few miles west of Kitty Hawk from where I could launch the next morning and easily reach First Flight Airport at Kitty Hawk.

The trip over the water to the outer banks went very quickly as there was a strong following wind and I wondered how getting back was going to go in this 75 mile per hour airplane.

I wasn’t prepared for the dense urbanization I found all around the National Monument. Though tastefully laid out, it was very urbanized. The airport was virtually at sea level but the fairly short landing strip was hidden partially by forest along the west side.

The Monument was very impressive and the grounds around the area were beautifully kept and depicted the first flights graphically. There is a nice museum as well and the locals were very friendly.

Realizing a storm was coming, I tried to get out ahead of it but it met me about halfway across the bay and with such force turning back was necessary. I landed at Dare County Airport, Manteo, North Carolina some 8 miles south of Kitty Hawk in gusting winds of 27 miles per hour.

Needless to say, that was a stressful landing.

Most of the trip back home was fairly uneventful, with the exception of getting to land at Evansville, Indiana where my older son was doing an airshow.

Weather forced deviations and delays here and there of short periods of time but no serious problems were encountered.

I had taken along camping gear in case I got stuck somewhere with bad weather or mechanical problems but only camped out one night during the entire trip.

The final inconvenience was the Maple Valley weather. Flying from Missoula, Montana and anxious to get home, what should greet me as I crossed the last of the Cascades but a total cover of snow-white puffy clouds.

Homecoming would just have to wait. Fortunately, Ranger Creek near Mount Rainier was clear and provided a nice place to sit down and wait until Enumclaw/Maple Valley was ready to welcome this weary traveler back home.

But just as I crossed the last trees on the south end of the lengthy runway, I encountered the strongest wind shear of my life.

As I fought to control the aircraft I thought how ironic. After all these miles, all these mountains, all these thunderstorms — am I going to crash this plane right in my own back yard?

With full power and full rear stick and teeth clenched I hit the pavement hard but it was over and I was down safe. I was also a little shaken but very thankful.

After a wait of three hours, a friend called and said I could make it into Enumclaw.

With the recent scary landing at Ranger Creek and the cloud problems trying to get into Enumclaw, I took off, heading for my 41st landing of the trip.

It was a terrible landing or as my friends who saw it said “series of landings,” but I was down, I was home, and I was thrilled to have had the great pleasure of the trip, the sights, the people and the safe arrival… finally!

J. Wayne Ball, MSW, LCSW, P.S., provided counseling services in Wenatchee from September 2000 until he retired in 2015.  He has four grown children and he and his wife live in Maple Valley.

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