As great a race as the Heck of the North was, even more great and memorable was getting to the race. Being a wholly unworthy but lucky son of a gun, I had the chance to fly – like, in an airplane! – up to the race, thanks to my friend Michael, whom I met a few years ago through the Northfield cycling scene.
In addition, see, to being a great gravel rider, a fatbiker, and an IT entrepreneur (and the parent of a kid the same age as my oldest), Michael is a private pilot. I’ve enjoyed learning from him about this avocation: his desire and efforts to learn to fly, his membership in a flying club based at an airfield near Northfield, his adventures flying to places near (the big Oshkosh air show) and far (the Black Hills in South Dakota).
We’d chatted casually a few times about going up together sometime, but never actually made time for it – until Michael discovered, last week, that the forecast for Heck weekend included perfect flying weather. I was more than game for flying to the race – what a great story, right? – so we made the requisite arrangements, planning to head up on Friday afternoon from tiny little Airlake Airport in Lakeville (a.k.a. KLVN, a half hour or less from Northfield) to big ol’ Duluth International (a.k.a. KDLH).
Interested though I was to go up in a little propeller plane, I was surprised to find myself pretty nervous about the flight. Not because I doubted that Michael was a perfectly capable pilot, but because, you know, scary news stories like this one or major tragedies like this one. My unconscious even served up a vivid nightmare about being in an airplane crash, just to make sure I was cognizant of my
unfounded terror reasonable concern.
Friday morning, I literally and figuratively gritted my teeth and said to myself, “Self, nothing bad is going happen. Face your fear. The flights will be fine.” And not only was that very much the case, but both of the flights – Friday afternoon up to Duluth, Sunday morning back home – were marvelous, astounding, indelible experiences.
Michael selected his club’s Piper Archer as the best plane for our trip: roomy enough for our bikes, bags, and selves, and more than capable of the 90-minute flights between KLVN and KDLH.
Michael did a great job with the pre-flight prep, from doing the mandatory checklists and offering basic facts about the airplane to briefing me on in-air etiquette and answering my questions about being aloft in “Archer 8414 November,” which looked amazingly (and a little disturbingly) like a station wagon. Getting set to go dampened my lingering worries, and participating in some of the pre-flight activities was engaging: turns out, one person can roll the plane out of the hangar – just give it a yank and it follows you like a dog!
Once packed into Archer 8414 November’s front seats, I put on headphones/microphone that muffled the rather incredible engine noise, let me communicate with Michael in the air, and looked, frankly, a little bit cool. I wished I had a long red scarf like Snoopy.
We taxied over to the runway, did a few final checks of the airplane’s systems, and then started down the tarmac. I expected the abrupt upward sensation of a jetliner on liftoff, but nope: Archer 814 was just suddenly six, then sixty, then 600 feet off the ground, soaring over Lakeville and points east. I was literally slack jawed – and we weren’t even really flying yet.
We headed mostly east first, then turned north and followed the beautiful blue St. Croix River for a ways.
An easterly wind meant that we could not just head straight north to Duluth, but had to fly over a beautiful swath of western Wisconsin, which was first a patchwork of fields and small cities.
About halfway into the flight, though, the farms and towns disappeared and the forests and bogs asserted themselves. Gorgeous.
Michael saw Duluth in the distance far before I did, but when I finally did pick out the white-gray smudge of civilization against the green-brown of hills and, behind, the deep blue of the lake, I enjoyed watching the Zenith City approach. Going far slower and far lower than a jet heightened my impression that I was immobile and the ground was moving under me – an exhilarating and fascinating sensation.
A swing to the west brought us around to the runway at Duluth, where Michael touched down without any problem.
On the ground at KDLH, I was amazed to learn of the existence of a whole industry that serves private pilots: guiding their planes to their parking spots, tying the planes down, fueling the planes up, handling baggage (even our bikes – cargo I don’t think our guy had ever seen come out of a tiny little plane), even driving us over to the car-rental counter… This is somewhat how the 1% lives, I suspect.
An hour later, we had finished the first part of our trip with a quick drive up Highway 61 to Two Harbors. I would be lying if I said that I was then anticipating the race on Saturday more than the return flight on Sunday.
Sunday morning, we got our heavy legs to KDLH relatively early. In getting us to the terminal where Archer 8414 November had been waiting, I got to drive our rental car on the tarmac – yet another strange feeling, and impossible to separate from about a hundred action-movie scenes. Reality was far quieter: Michael took care of the pre-flight checks while I loaded the plane and returned the car.
As on Friday, takeoff was seemingly effortless, but Michael had the brilliant idea of flying further east, over Duluth and above the lake, before turning south toward home. The views were incredible. I’ve spent hundreds of hours on the shores of Lake Superior, and some dozens of hours on the water, but I don’t think I’d ever been above the Big Lake. It was worth the wait – especially with the bonus of seeing Duluth from the air.
Heading back south, we retraced some of Friday’s flight path, flying over the St. Louis River south of Duluth, the massive forests and bogs on both sides of the state line, and finally the St. Croix again.
At one point somewhere over Wisconsin, Michael let me operate Archer 8414 November’s controls, which I did very, very, very gingerly. Again: astounding. Turn the yoke to the right, and the plane turns right! To the left, it goes left. Pull back on the yoke and the goddamn plane goes up. Push the yoke in, and ohmygod there’s the ground in front of us! I didn’t have the stomach to do much more of this “flying” and happily let Michael take the plane back.
As we approached home, Michael asked for permission to fly through the restricted “Class Bravo” airspace over Minneapolis. Since it was a quiet Sunday morning in the sky, ground control granted this request, and we flew right over Minneapolis, just to the east of downtown – you know, for the views. Which were amazing.
Just a few minutes later, we were back over Airlake, and then back on the ground, and then back in the car, headed home. I think I’m still a little high from the incredible experiences of those flights – and very grateful to have a generous and skilled friend like Michael. Should I even mention that I can’t wait for next time?