February 1, 2020
One of the benefits of being a pilot is the ability to see and visit things for yourself. I've managed to visit every state in the U.S., every Canadian Province or Territory, and 83 countries around the world, plus Antarctica, all from the comparatively low altitude of a General Aviation aircraft.
In addition to being able to see the sights, I've been able to visit with the people at these sites-and not just the people in major metro areas, as pilots, we get to experience the land and the people far removed from the big airports. When I visited New York, nearly everybody thinks "Manhattan," very few people think of the wilderness of "Upstate" New York, where real people live. That's an important distinction-being able to mingle with real people-not an urban jungle, and not just tourist sites. Most people are surprised to find that across the country, life is not much different than the rural areas of the Upper Midwest (though it can be said that people in each region still "talk funny").
The ability of a corporate airplane to get out to where the business is, conduct that business, and get back home again to stay in your own bed is one of the reasons that people buy airplanes. As a corporate pilot, I often see the same old airports on these short trips, visit the same restaurants, and stay at the same hotels. Some corporate pilots sleep to kill the time, some exercise, some catch up on their reading and paperwork. I do too but often, while visiting a new location, I look to see what there is to do or see in the local area in the time allotted. Sometimes, I can even take advantage of multiple-day trips to enable visiting interesting sites. Here are some examples from a recent trip.
KENTUCKY AND TENNESSEE
I recently had a 4-day trip to East St. Louis in the King Air. Nothing against St. Louis, but I've spent enough time there, and looked for something else to do. My wife, Maryalice, was able to go with me. We rented a car, and drove to Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, where I had served in the Army 1967-68, and as a civilian in 1969. It was a pleasant Fall drive. Enroute, we went via the Land Between the Lakes in Kentucky, a 60-mile peninsula of land between two man-made lakes. It was an interesting drive. In creating the Park, the government had removed nearly every settler in the area but the sites of old towns, mills, and cemeteries were still to be found. Camping sites were frequent, lake/river views along hiking trails were abundant, and there were even wild buffalo herds along the way. There wasn't a lot of congestion on the route, a perfect place for camping. But we had no camping equipment with us. At the south end of the Park, we were able to tour the Civil War battlefield of Ft. Defiance, near Clarksville, TN. While not widely known, the site was important in that the Union effectively shut down the rivers in western Kentucky and Tennessee, splitting the Confederacy in the East from Texas.
We stayed the night outside of Ft. Campbell and the next day, visited the civilian airport at Clarksville, Tenn. (KCKV), where I spent much of my "military career" running the military flying club (it would become the largest in the Army by the time I left). I had a flight instructor certificate before I went in. It was a great way to build flight time and bolster my meager military pay while counting the days until my discharge. I added ratings, and also was able to help military pilots qualify for their flight pay in Army flying club aircraft. The 101st Airborne had shipped their aircraft to Vietnam, and the aviators were able to retain flight pay if working on a new rating. (Flying certainly beat my military specialty-Combat Medic!). Though the airfield layout was changed, it was fairly easy to pick out the site of the WW II buildings we occupied 50 years ago. I had a great time visiting with the airport manager. Our careers overlapped and he knew (or had heard about) some of the people that were there while I was there. We were able to get a permit to go "On Post," stopping at the gate to pick up the permit. We spent a few hours visiting the Main Post and the Army Airfield. The place has changed SO MUCH, but many places were familiar.
Where next? Fifty years ago, I ferried a Stearman from Hayti, Missouri (located in the "boot-heel." I had flown a Cub down from Albert Lea, and needed a checkout in the Stearman. The aircraft was an MCMD (Mid-Continent Maintenance Division) Custom Special, and the checkout pilot was none other than the owner, Dick Reade. The checkout consisted of three takeoffs and landings, with Reade taking the controls on the downwind leg, and performing loops and rolls before giving the aircraft back to me for the landing. THAT got my attention!
I had often looked down on that grass strip while flying overhead at 25,000 ft. on our regular King Air flights to Panama City, Florida. Before leaving on this trip, I called down to Mid-Continent, and asked about Mr. Reade-"Yes, he is 97 years old, and still comes to the office every day!" We HAD to include a visit there on our itinerary! Reade was a WW II P-38 pilot, flying unarmed recon flights in the Pacific. After the war, he set up converting Stearman's to ag aircraft, was an aerobatic champion, and used that knowledge to create the MCMD Custom Special Stearman. He was the first President of the Ag Aviation Assn., and a co-developer of the Grumman Ag Cat aircraft. I was ushered into his office, and he stood up to meet me. We talked for about 15 minutes about the P-38, his eye-opening checkout with me in the Stearman, the development of the Ag-Cat, and those beautiful Custom Special Stearman aircraft he turned out. He runs a small aviation empire: ag aircraft sales and repair, everything an ag operator needs for ground operations, and notably ag aircraft insurance, an industry leader. He is one of those industry icons that make you feel good just to be in his presence!
NEW MADRID, MO. EARTHQUAKE
We headed north to Sikeston, Missouri. As a corporate pilot, I have been able to travel extensively throughout the U.S. and have been able to indulge my penchant for history. Sikeston is sited on two historic sites, the New Madrid earthquake, and the Civil War river campaign.
In 1811-1812, the largest earthquake in the U.S. happened centering on what is now the "Boot Heel" of Missouri, near Hayti. The quakes were strong, measuring up to 8.0 on the Richter Scale. The quakes were so strong that they were felt as far away as Washington, D.C. At the center of the quake, it caused the Mississippi to not only alter the channel, but for the water to temporarily flow upstream wiping out the small river towns. The quakes continued for a year. As a pilot, you can see the old river channels, and great "oxbow lakes" where the river changed course. Scientists say that the chance of a 6.0 scale earthquake in the same area is about 25% in the next 50 years.
The changing terrain was also instrumental in the Civil War campaigns. Union General Pope wanted to split the Confederacy early in the war by controlling the Mississippi. Not only would it eliminate any men and supplies from joining the fight from west of the river, but Union control of the river would eliminate shipments and reinforcements to the river towns along the river by the Confederacy. The Union could, in turn, use the river for shipment of men and supplies for their battles. The Union built gunboats, smaller craft with guns, to lay siege to Confederate defenses. These gunboats were armored, but couldn't withstand a direct hit from any large-caliber guns. Passage on the river for the gunboats was held up near Sikeston, Missouri. There was a bend in the river, and the Confederates had installed guns on the bend. Any ship attempting to pass would fall under their guns. The Confederates effectively blocked the river.
General Pope came up with a plan. He would have his men cut a channel to cut off the site of the guns using the swampy former river bed cut off by the earthquake 50 years earlier. This required cutting a 12-mile channel, 50 ft. in width across the isthmus. Since there were live and dead trees growing in the marsh land, they would have to be cut off at least 4 1/2 feet below the water line. Pope's men came up with an innovative saw for cutting the trees below the water line, and dug the channel in 19 days. The Confederates knew the situation was hopeless, and abandoned their camp during a heavy night rainstorm. With the exception of Vicksburg (which would fall later), the Mississippi was now in Union hands. The accomplishment was one of the largest factors in the loss of the Confederacy and to my mind, one of the least mentioned.
A side note: Sikeston is also home of Lambert's Café, the site of the "Throwed Rolls." The cafe is near the airport, and is a popular place for pilots to eat as well as a tourist attraction in its own right. They bake millions of big 5 in. rolls every year, and a waiter comes out with a cart, asking "who wants rolls?" The waiter then throws the rolls across the dining rooms to outstretched hands. The place has an aviation motif-worth the visit if ever in the area.
Continuing north, I wanted to visit Perryville, Missouri, just south of St. Louis. I had stopped there for fuel when ferrying the Stearman mentioned earlier back to Minnesota (in JANUARY!) 50 years ago. I was surprised to see a number of Sabreliner jets at the small airport. North American Aviation built the fuselages in California, shipped them to Perryville where the locally made wings were mated, engines, paint, interior, and avionics done, and the aircraft completed. The site has been dormant since Sabreliner shut down over a dozen years ago. I found two mechanics working in the nearly-deserted buildings and asked about the history. One of them had worked there for nearly 30 years, and filled me in. Hundreds of people formerly worked there building airplanes and hundreds more worked building sub-assemblies. It was a big shock to the community when Sabreliner shut down. The mechanic took us inside one of the hangars, where "Sabre 1," the very first Sabreliner was stored. It had been used as the Flagship for Sabreliner as a corporate airplane and noted North American pilot Bob Hoover had flown the test flights and FAA Certification flights in this very airplane. Hoover went on to do demonstration flights in it, and even performed aerobatics for airshows under the North American banner. (side note: Though Hoover had flown the aircraft single-pilot during these flights, AND the military could fly it single-pilot, the FAA required two pilots for civil aircraft. (Hoover's "thumb in the eye" to the FAA was to seek out the lowest-time multi-engine pilot to ride with him during the airshow demonstrations-"strap yourself in, and here is the bag in case you get sick.") See the video "Sabre Dance" online). Who would have known that 35 years after first visiting Perryville, I would be flying a Sabreliner myself. I subsequently owned and sold nine of them.
We needed to get back to East St. Louis for our afternoon flight, but I had one more stop to make, Cahokia, Illinois, site of the Cahokia Mounds, located not far from the St. Louis Downtown Airport. The Mounds consist of about 120 remaining raised Earthworks, the largest of which is larger in volume than the pyramids of Giza or the Great Temple of Teotehuacan, and took 167 years to build. Though the area was inhabited since about 1000 B.C., the population was estimated at only about 1000 up until approximately the time of the Medieval Warming Era, and its demise roughly coincides with the Little Ice Age. Estimates of the maximum population vary widely from 1600 to over 40,000 (including outlying villages).
Though the site has been known since Colonial times, the estimated population has risen over the years, as more outlying villages have been discovered. I first became aware of it in the late 1950s, when National Geographic featured the exploration of the digs. After all, at its peak, Cahokia was larger than London! The Cahokians were traders, especially alongside the Mississippi. Shells from the Gulf Coast have been found there as well as artifacts from Pennsylvania (probably carried on the Ohio River). Of local note, stone tools of Cahokian style have been identified as coming from the Silvernail Site near Red Wing, Minnesota. (Being a pilot, I couldn't help but to compare how long those tools must have taken to journey to the site from Red Wing, vs. the 1:15 flight in the King Air!)
The site was abandoned about 1300 A.D. The cause is not known. Initially, it was thought that it was due to enemy attack due to wooden palisades around the area, but there is no known settlement powerful enough to have attacked them, or evidence of attack. Some think it was due to the inability to feed the burgeoning population. Others point to evidence that the large population was felled by its inability to get rid of its own waste. In the last four years, soil borings have supported the theory that the area was flooded close to the date of abandonment.
Like the pyramids at Giza or the Aztec capital at Teotihuacan, Cahokia shows evidence of a great knowledge of astronomy, more advanced than the contemporaneous Europeans. At Cahokia, there is evidence of astronomical "clocks" as found in Stonehenge. Wooden posts, like the predecessor of Stonehenge, arrayed to match the equinoxes, 12 in a circle (one dedicated to each month) so the inhabitants could mark time by aligning the sun or celestial bodies. They are amazingly accurate.
The site is amazing. The museum is excellent, and the museum is kid-friendly. It's worth a trip to visit the site, show your kids and grandkids that life didn't start on their birthday, or even that of their grandparents! It will be "quality time" you've spent together, and your kids and grandkids will remember it for the rest of their lives.
This trip took only three overnights. All too often, as pilots, we keep making the same flights over and over. USE YOUR ABILITY TO FLY for a purpose-get out and discover the country!
Jim Hanson is the long-term airport manager from Albert Lea, MN. Jim has been flying for so long that he has become something of an historic relic HIMSELF! If YOU have an interesting or unusual destination you’ve visited, why not submit it to this magazine yourself—and let other pilots know about your discovery? Jim can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org