National Geographic : 1949 Jul
Skyway Below the Clouds BY CARL R. MARKWITH Illustrations by National Geographic Photographer Ernest J. Cottrell THE DEDICATION of Skyway 1 as the Wright Way, in honor of the Wright brothers, opened a door long closed to the average amateur flyer. Planned especially for the use of private planes, the new route, when completed, will so simplify navigation that any careful amateur can fly it with safety. As one of those amateur flyers, I saw in the Wright Way a chance to use my GI flight training. Six weeks after its dedication I started a round-trip flight over the route in a personal plane. With me went National Geographic Society staff photographer Ernest J. Cottrell, who was even more of an amateur than I. I had a Private Pilot Certificate and had flown 175 hours in small airplanes. Ernie got his Stu dent Pilot Certificate a few days before we took off, and did not fly solo until after we returned. Some of our flying friends implied that we were not amateurs but professionals-profes sional dodos. We couldn't blame them, for our transcontinental flight took off on a train to Wichita, Kansas. In Wichita I began to believe that I should have stayed a dodo, and at home. The man sized wind blowing down the runway at Cessna Aircraft Field was more than I had bargained for. The company pilots laughed about my eastern caution and insisted that in Kansas they just ignored it. Regional sales manager "Dutch" Dutton introduced me to Cessna 41692, the four-place airplane loaned by Cessna Aircraft Company for the trip. The 692 was a perfect lady. She forgave my clumsy efforts to take off and land, and in the air was a far better flyer than I. She and Dutch soon taught me to handle her and the wind safely, if not always gracefully. Stowing Baggage a Problem Stowing our 300 pounds of baggage looked like an easy job. Weight had to be distributed to keep the ship in trim in the air; but there was plenty of room and spare load capacity. Parachutes, cameras, film, emergency kit, brief case, and personal gear all had to be stowed to be available when needed. By the time they were all in place, Ernie was wondering aloud if I really had to have 13 pounds of maps; and I was sure he had at least twice as much film as he could use. We were still rearranging the load when we returned to Wichita seven weeks later. The airways weather forecaster assured us that the weather was VFR (visual flight rules, as distinguished from IFR, or instrument flight rules), and provided wind directions and velocities above the surface. We selected a cruising altitude where there would be a helping wind and took off for Tulsa, Okla homa. At that point we should come onto Skyway 1-N, the northern section of the Wright Way. No Route Signs Aloft The moment we cleared Wichita we were out on an unmarked highway. It was like driving a car on a secondary highway having no route, direction, or distance signs. The third dimension of altitude, changeable wind drift, and the lack of cloud-borne filling sta tions complicated matters. I'd allowed for altitude and wind drift in the flight plan and had studied the course laid out on my chart. Stopping for directions was out of the question; so every 10 minutes or so I had to identify on the ground a check point previously selected on the chart. Miss more than one of those check points and we'd be lost. If weather turned bad ahead and we wanted to land, we'd suddenly realize that we had no idea of the location of the nearest airport. Turning back would be equally hopeless; for unless we knew where we were, "back" could be anywhere. The squared-off section lines of the Kansas plains gave the country a checkerboard ap pearance, beautiful to look at but confusing to navigation. Until I learned to use the section lines on a diagonal course, I depended for check points on towns, rivers, and rail roads. Suddenly the checkerboard orderliness ended, and we knew we had crossed the State line into Oklahoma.* When Tulsa appeared on the horizon, we neglected the charts and compass to enjoy the scenery. The tower operator at Tulsa Municipal Air port didn't know it, but he started an argu ment when he reported a ground wind of 45 miles an hour, several miles faster than our *See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE: "Speaking of Kansas," August, 1937, and "So Okla homa Grew Up," March, 1941, both by Frederick Simpich.