Minnesota Flyer - Serving Midwest Aviation Since 1960

A Trip Into Fall


October 1, 2020

Photo courtesy of Chad Armstrong

Aerial view of Little Falls

Many of my friends and family consider themselves to be "fall" people. However, as a self-admitted summer junkie that tends to think of the future instead of the present, I often describe myself as a fan of spring as I anticipate the warm days of summer just ahead. The temps are similar in both April and October, but October just feels colder, as evidenced by comparing the long pants and sweatshirts often found in autumn to the t-shirts and shorts often worn in spring.

That said, the fall season certainly has its perks. The cooler weather makes spending the day outside a much less sweaty event. Bonfires are in full swing, leaves are turning, and we celebrate a holiday that has become very near and dear to my heart: Halloween! While I am not a person that tends to watch much TV at all, I will admit to being a fan of movies designed to scare. Having amassed a substantial collection of film celebrating the horror genre, October is the only month of the year where I will readily plant myself in front of the tube at night to indulge on terrifying cinema.

And it was in October 2019 as a student pilot that I left the ground behind to embark on my solo cross country. While the flight itself from a technical perspective merely served to satisfy a training requirement in obtaining my PPL (albeit a significant one), as a budding pilot it was the perfect opportunity to witness just how beautiful Minnesota is from the air in one of her prime seasons of beauty.

I had planned the flight meticulously, as a student should. Departing Leaders Clear airfield (8Y6) in Clear Lake, I would first navigate to DAYLE to avoid the nearby Class D airspace surrounding St. Cloud Regional Airport. Turning left at DAYLE, I would use the airports at Little Falls, Staples, and Park Rapids as waypoints enroute to my destination - Bagley Municipal Airport (7Y4). The return trip would follow the same path in reverse, only it would include additional stops at Little Falls and St. Cloud to fulfill the landing requirements.

On the morning of October 19th I made my way to Leaders, which lies on the north side of Highway 10 a couple of miles east of the small town of Clear Lake. A grove of trees lines the left side of the road, and the tall stalks of corn on the right soon give way to the airport – for being so close to the highway, it is nearly invisible but for those that fly, Leaders is far from unknown.

Instantly reminiscent of the classic days of general aviation, complete with grass parking and outbuildings-turned-hangars, Leaders airfield possesses the quaint charm typically held by old farmsteads. In fact, Leaders Airport actually served as the inspiration for the home base for "Dusty," the main character in the Disney movie "Planes." Gravel taxiways lead you to and from a 3,000'x150' grass runway embedded in the middle of a cornfield surrounded by lush groves of trees, and on the left side of the runway is a small asphalt strip just long enough for ground roll on takeoff.

The airport itself was founded in 1969 by Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame inductee Bob Leaders, and is as functional as it is picturesque. For decades, it has served as a major repair shop performing everything from upgrades and annuals to full restoration and engine overhauls. Bob is still there on most days, although his sons Kurt and Chase now perform the daily task of keeping our precious birds in the air. They also own the Cessna 172 that I will be using for today's flight.

Preflight complete and tanks filled from the airport's fuel truck, I follow the gravel taxiway out to the runway and pull off into the grass to perform the runup. All systems go – it's time to point the nose into the wind, advance the throttle, and in a few seconds I handily clear the trees at the end of the grass strip. We are off on a solo journey!

If you should depart Leaders to the north and look to the left on climbout you will find yourself gazing down the centerline of Runway 31 at St. Cloud Regional, a mere seven nautical miles away. A slab of concrete spanning 7,500' in length and 150' wide, it's hard to miss. Turning a few degrees to the right towards DAYLE allows for clearance around St. Cloud's Delta airspace, and as I climb above Briggs Lake I call Princeton Flight Service and activate my flight plan.

Once established in cruise, I allow myself a few moments to take in my surroundings and am not disappointed. Having not flown since my teens (that's next month's story), it has been over 20 years since I have witnessed the changing of the seasons from above. Freshly harvested fields span much of the world below, but there is no shortage of what I'm looking for. The colors of fall are everywhere, and I start picking out trees by their leaves - the flame red maples, russet-colored oaks, and bright yellow leaves of the birch tree are my favorite.

The cool morning air feels like glass as I continue north and mile by mile the picturesque farmland slowly transforms into state forests, Itasca State Park, and the Mississippi Headwaters. The multitude of autumn shades and shimmering lakes weave themselves into a perfect tapestry of nature, each tree contributing to a patchwork quilt daring me to find fault in their beauty. I can't.

Approaching Bagley, I begin to descend into the bumps. The sun has been out for several hours now and has made its mark, the warm rising air extending its welcome in full force as I enter the traffic pattern for runway 14. On short final, I tell myself I can do better and push the throttle forward for a go-around, climbing back into the pattern for another shot. The second approach far better than the first, I guide the Cessna to the ground and taxi to the ramp.

For training purposes, the solo cross country only needs to be 150nm in length. However, I deliberately chose to fly farther today, not only because flying is fun but because of my attachment to the destination. Bagley is a small town of 1,400 people 30 miles east of Bemidji, and is named after a Minnesota lumberman, Sumner C. Bagley. A land of forest and lakes known as the "Gateway to Itasca." I have been a frequent visitor with hopes to move to this area in a few years. The airport sits just outside the east edge of town and I was pleased to see that while my average drive time to Bagley takes 3.5 hours, I made the trip today via airplane in 1 hour and 39 minutes!

Despite my love for the area, I have a solo cross-country to finish. After signing my name in the visitors' log, I grab the MN Passport stamp and add 7Y4 to my Fly MN Passport book as well as the comment section of my logbook and hop back into the airplane. A few short minutes after entering the return flight plan to Leaders into the Garmin 430, the Cessna once again climbs into the sky, this time navigating south.

After passing back over Park Rapids and Staples, I enter the pattern for a full stop at Little Falls Municipal and enter the A/D building for a fresh set of stamps. The childhood home of one famous Charles A. Lindbergh, the town has a museum dedicated to him and I plan on checking it out at some point in the near future.

Once again back in the air, St. Cloud Regional lies just a short distance away and is next on the list. A landing here will be necessary to check off the ATC requirement for the cross country. Having flown to STC several times over the course of my training, I would return to this airport again in a few short months to complete my checkride.

Photo courtesy of Chad Armstrong

Another great aerial shot.

Heading back to the GA ramp after stamping my logbook, I fire up, obtain clearance, and depart on the final short leg of today's journey, the mighty seven mile trek back to Leaders Clear Lake. This trip in total is 281 nautical miles, and three landings in the last 34nm has me feeling like a smiling yo-yo. This is fun!

Entering the pattern above the trees surrounding the grass runway at Leaders I somehow find a way to hold back the wave of emotion and excitement and focus on getting safely to the ground. This flight has been over 20 years in the making, and as the tires kiss the grass at Leaders after 4.1 hours of flight time it has finally been accomplished. I believe that for somebody to tackle such a goal after waiting so long for the opportunity helps in not taking it for granted, and I never will.

Marking the time down in my logbook, I can't help but think of all the places I'd like to go next. Maybe one day I'll decide to write about it...


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