CHAPTER ONE — DROUGHT STRICKEN
(A PREAMBLE to A HORSE ON THE RUNWAY)
Our land was drought stricken.
Recall the vision of agony in the prairie; browns, muds of all textures and colors, low water — mostly brackish brown, or no water, tracks in the pastures etched into hardness of prairie-turned-concrete over time and a lack of moisture. This kind of agony produces anxiety for the prairie community. The rancher doesn’t know if his land will support cattle. The farmer doesn’t know if his wheat will sprout, or if his hay will grow. The financial ecosystem ripples down current to bankers, suppliers, workers. Into Wichita, my town.
The prairie was bad — really bad — earlier this year. The local paper and the website for another reservoir, Cheney, showed the despondent condition of the water levels and the first time loss of hope for Wichita’s future water source. Looking westward to Cheney, it was at 58%, but looking eastward to the Flint Hills, the mood of the prairie hovered near zero. Pond after pond was empty. All colors were just variations of mud brown into mud black into hard pack brown ground.
In a flight which was celebrating the range and reliability of our aircraft’s powerplant, I had flown out to the flint hills to look at wild mustang horses, numbering in the thousands in the dry prairie.
I see yet another dry pond. Dozens / hundreds of them. Each one talks of starvation: their only food is water. There is no water.
I fly over the Flint Hills ecosystem with as much regularity as airplane ownership and opportunity allows: like the best memories, I can remember specific details with various flights and people who have joined me on these flights. With Larry K., with John M., with Gene S., all who found the flights and sights to be an experience with a unique perspective and unique benefits, even unique emotional benefits. Matrixed against different airplanes which I have used for this task: The big six seat Cessna T206, the little two place CTLS, and now the intimate single seat UltraCub. All equalized by allowing views of the Big Prairie and the Flint Hills. In fact, the superior view is provided the UltraCub.
I remember the view of the wild mustangs; they are my favorite in the flint hills, and I know where they live. In the drought, they require hay and water every day.
I had seen hundreds (thousands?) of them thundering around in piles of dust, on the hills, on the runs, in the notches, channels, chases, and dry watercourses of the flint hills.
The dry is now gone. It was time to see effects of the wet.
CHAPTER TWO — A SATURDAY MORNING IN AUGUST
After the non-stop rain of the last two months, and with Cheney reservoir beyond normal pool and at 60% above flood stage, it was time for a view of the flint hills via Beaumont, KS. I needed to see first hand the effects of rain on the flint hills, but I also had other motives.
I needed to see first hand the effects of eating great breakfast food from a great restaurant, located by a grass airstrip, in a historic hotel, on the very edge of the flint hills, with transportation provided by UltraCub. In other words, I was seeking the $100 hamburger, only it wasn’t a hamburger, it was an omelette. And the budget was closer to $25, including roundtrip airplane gas, food and tip.
I had just gotten out of bed, and Kathy announced that the tire on my truck was flat. She was leaving in a few minutes for a meeting. I had no way to get to the airport. I hated changing the spare on that truck: enormous work, dirt and general lack of fun. So I borrowed her car, shot to Walmart, picked up a small electric air pump, and returned him. She left for her meeting, and I proceeded to put air in the tire.
All this chewed up time, and by the time I ran by the gas station, getting gas for my truck and for the UltraCub, it was 9:30. Then to the airport; pulling out the airplane; chocking it; tying it down to hand-prop; saying hello to a grandpa and granddaughter who were just looking around the airport; saying hello to J. M., as he cleaned up some things at the airport; finally turning the engine over and it started.
Of course the engine sounds right. It has the low rumble of an opposed cylinder four stroke aircraft engine, because it is an opposed cylinder four stroke aircraft engine. The engine is smooth and the sound is correct. I pull away from the hangar, taxi down the runway, turn around, and am able to see the green-ness of the runway. It is about 10AM., and I am running very late.
I apply power to take off, and a few seconds later, I am airborne, heading to Beaumont.
A small amount of mud has flung unto the underside of the wings. Given all of the rain, that is just fine. I am underway, climbing, and soon my vista is nothing but the intense green. It flows underneath me. I am entranced by vegetation: corn, milo, beans, trees, weeds, hay, alfalfa… I see hay fields which have been laid down by rain. The odd conjunction of patches of upright stalks of hay combined with shattered hay makes for visual texture variations.
Leon, KS, rolls by to my left. This town of 700 people sits on the Little Walnut River, which curls through the bottomland and provides a nice woody counterpoint to the town and to the fields which surround it. I have driven through it many times.
Did you know Rhonda Aldrich is from Leon? She was in Star Trek: TNG.
I am not in Star Trek; but I am very close to Beaumont, KS. An abandoned railroad right of way provides a white rock path to the town. Cows wander around, one looks up and is startled, and runs off. Cows can’t run very fast. It’s more like a rapid waddle.
I’m able to get some spectacular aerial photos of Beaumont and its historic hotel. In the first picture (below), you an also see the uphill grass airstrip on the edge of town.
There aren’t any other planes parked by the hotel. Then again, I am very late for breakfast. It is nearly 11 AM.
After taking a good look at the wind sock, I decide to land uphill on the grass strip.
And I taxi down the strip to the town street entry point. The greeting sign is there, and it says:
ABSOLUTELY NO NIGHT TAKEOFFS OF LANDINGS ON BEAUMONT HOTEL AIRSTRIP
PLEASE BE CAREFUL WITH PROP BLAST!
- TAXI DUE WEST 300 YARDS TO HOTEL
- AIRCRAFT PARKING SOUTH OF HOTEL AND NORTH OF FRISCO R.R. TRACKS
PLEASE OBSERVE TRAFFIC SIGNS
I turn onto the road and head into Beaumont.
I pull into the grass by the hotel, chock the wheels, and head into the restaurant.
CHAPTER THREE — THE BEAUMONT HOTEL
This is a place you’ve got to visit.
I had been thinking about my big breakfast opportunity and the Beaumont Hotel did not disappoint. My only scare was as I walked into the breakfast room: the waitress announced that the breakfast / lunch switch was happening and I’d fallen right on the edge. Did I want breakfast, or lunch?
Breakfast, of course. I was glad I hadn’t been delayed anymore. She handed me a menu before I’d even sat down and I pointed out the Butler County Omelette as my choice, so the cook could get one more breakfast done for me. Thank you, waitress. My omelette showed up and I posted a picture of it on my personal Facebook account.
And then the conversation with the waitress started. There was a twin engine Beech D18 sitting in the grass next to the hotel (on the NORTH side, away from the aircraft parking area) and I wanted to know how it had got there.
She told me that the plane had been purchased by the hotel’s owner, and flown into Beaumont from somewhere in Colorado. It had a ‘tawdry’ past. (Her words.) It had been ‘seized’ from a prior owner, presumably by our government. (Her words, again.) Now, kids could climb into it, as an alternative to touching the expensive planes that customers flew in. The more she talked about the D18, the more cheerful she got. Soon, we were talking about how I used to fly an expensive plane into Beaumont, but I was now there in the ultralight.
She looked at me with a slight funny curl, and asked me if I was comfortable doing that. I said I had a parachute. She broke into laughter. I thought it was funny too.
I paid my bill, left a nice tip, went outside, took pictures of the Beech D18. Then I moved my UltraCub from the grass to the auto parking immediately by the hotel.
Nice pictures happened:
In order to get moving, I had to get the propeller turning. I tied the rear of the plane to a sidewalk handrail, and also chocked the wheels. After priming the engine, I hand propped it and it purred to life.
It sounded exactly right, again.
A pair of motorcycle riders stopped to look.
And I think I forgot to mention that the plane attracted lookers as soon as I had moved it across the street. So let’s back up five minutes:
I taxied the plane back out of town. I taxied up to the top of the airstrip, thinking I was paying careful attention to everything. I didn’t notice anything unusual, but when I got to the far end of the airstrip and turned around, I finally noticed the horse on the runway.
CHAPTER FOUR — THE HORSE ON THE RUNWAY.
There was a horse grazing on the airstrip. I must have rolled right by him.
There he was. He didn’t seem to give a wit’s care that I’d just rolled by him without even stopping to say hello.
I wondered if he would graze onto the runway as I took off.
Ignoring the risk, I applied power and took off, to the south, to the downslope of the runway, to the big wind turbines. If I turned west, I’d be back to my home airport in about 40 minutes.
So I took off, flew around Beaumont for another last view, then turned east to the flint hills.
I had a desire to explore a valley in the flint hills. And I did just that.
CHAPTER FIVE — THE FLINT HILLS VALLEY
What the Google map shows is how the terrain falls off from Beaumont heading east. What it doesn’t show you is that the bottom of the valley is a green tree canopy, and that flying over it provides insights into nature and mankind undetectable from a casual drive by on the highway.
Finally heading towards home, the flint hills transitions to rolling green ground. I am reminded of Kentucky.
I landed at my home airport and went home.
EPILOGUE — WHY?
Because it’s what God made me to do. Look. Fly. Examine. Appreciate. Communicate. Spread. Create. Improve. Tell stories.
Because it’s what a lot of other people to do as well, but they don’t know it, yet. Hopefully this helps.
As for the Kansas drought, it is still out there (western Kansas), but not in Wichita, or at Cheney reservoir, or in the flint hills. See this drought report.
Isn’t the Belite Ultracub cool? You can read more about it here, at our website.
How much fuel did I use on this adventure? About 4 gallons of gasoline.