On a Wing and a Whim

Flying a scratch-built Sonex is good for the soul.

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On the morning of July 4th, I slipped from between cotton bedsheets and decided in that moment to fly. Anywhere.

To give my impromptu flight a light-hearted spin, I joke that I woke up in need of a shot glass with a ceramic jackalope glued to its bottom and flew 700 miles to Wall Drug, in South Dakota, to buy one. But in truth I was taking flight from 20 years of Fourth of July family tradition, an unwanted holiday weekend, and too much time to think. I was running from a present that seemed meaningless since divorce had extracted my kids from my life more efficiently than a team of Navy SEALs could have. Simply put, I was deciding in one moment what to do with the next.

Metal Illness, a Sonex I scratch-built in my garage, and I had taken trips together, but never like this. This trip began in my mind as I rolled from bed and developed even as we flew home the following day. To be honest, the seeds of this impromptu flight were planted days before with the observation that fair weather had settled on the Upper Midwest, bathing it in sunshine and humid warmth. I was fortunate to have just performed routine maintenance on my silver-winged Sonex, not in anticipation of a trip, but to pass the hours of the previous weekend. A dash of lucky timing that was, but my attention to routine maintenance is why it has never let me down in 500 hours of flying.

I knew I’d be gone overnight—even if I didn’t know where I’d be—and gathered the basics for a night away. While carrying my small bag to the car, I noticed my tent and, after evicting the spiders, brought that as well.

No Particular Place to Go

The drive through Oshkosh to the airport gave me time to think about a destination. West. I’ll go west. But where was west? South Dakota—specifically, the Badlands and Mount Rushmore. South Dakota had been a favorite family vacation, and it seemed a worthy and scenic destination by air. I stopped at the FBO to purchase a Cheyenne sectional, but none were available.

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Just west of the Mississippi River and La Crosse, Wisconsin, the landscape flattens quickly and roads carve the land into uniform squares.

I rolled Metal Illness into the mid-morning sun and programmed the GPS with some distant waypoints. By 11 a.m. I was 60 miles west of Oshkosh, in a clean, blue sky flying toward a soft horizon of low, scattered clouds. Beneath me passed Wisconsin’s green, summer pallet and abundance of lakes, still awaiting weekend boaters.

With my heading and altitude stabilized, I looked for landmarks. Volk Field was framed between clouds, just where it belonged. La Crosse, Wisconsin, and the Mississippi River were quick to follow. My eyes fell on a wayside on the bank of the Mississippi where my kids had fed chipmunks. I couldn’t allow my thoughts to linger there so, more from boredom than hunger, I ate a banana and tossed the limp peel on the passenger’s floor. It jumped and crawled on the vibrating floor like a yellow octopus, amusing me enough to take its photo. It was a distraction.

Fort McCoy’s Volk Field, east of La Crosse, Wisconsin, confirmed my position on the sectional.

West of the Mississippi River the land flattened and the cumulus clouds, which floated lazily above western Wisconsin, disappeared behind me, revealing a landscape partitioned by roads into uniform squares. The roads converged at the horizon, if not first fading into the increasing haze. Occasionally a road veered from its arrow-straight path to dodge a stream, trace the edge of a lake, or accommodate a landowner’s protests. Once, even a lake wasn’t enough to alter a road’s course, and the road appeared to have been built upon the lake’s surface.

Towns, scarce on the landscape of corn and wheat, crowded against the water’s edge. Farmsteads hid within protective clusters of trees. The flat horizon remained continuously distant.

The swollen Fox River in East Central Wisconsin.

Keeping Metal Illness on task required little effort. Thumb and index fingers lightly on the stick, an occasional nose-down trim correction to compensate for the decreasing fuel load, a habitual scan of the gauges. It was too easy to get lost in thought in the near silence of active noise-reduction headsets and the warmth of the sun; I welcomed the need to attend to my decreasing fuel supply. Of the few airports that lay near my hastily drawn course line, Pipestone (just shy of South Dakota’s eastern border) was positioned for an unhurried cruise descent.

The airport at Pipestone, Minnesota, was a necessary fuel stop. Despite the flatness of the landscape, the field elevation was already 1000 feet higher than Oshkosh, Wisconsin, as I traveled west, toward the Rockies.

Pipestone, Minnesota

Pipestone’s airport was quiet. The hot, holiday weekend had most people occupied with summer recreation, parades, and family gatherings. While I quenched Metal Illness‘ thirst, a middle-aged man approached from a distant hangar. After the usual questions about my Sonex, where I was coming from, and where I was going, he told me he was restoring a Cessna and, as restorations often go, it had become a larger project than anticipated. He added that, because he was divorced, he had nothing else to do. I could sympathize—the combination of divorce and aviation delivered me to Pipestone that day as well. I politely acknowledged his comments, lowered myself into the cockpit, and continued running.

Lake Madison, 30 miles northwest of Sioux City, South Dakota, churned with holiday boaters. From high above, the lake’s dark surface looked like a night sky filled with comets. Boats were creating crisp, white wakes that spiraled in all directions. Some boats were chased by the smaller wake of water-skiers or inner tubes towed behind. The apparent chaos on the lake’s finite surface made me appreciate the vast, three-dimensional ocean through which I flew.

The finite surface of South Dakota’s Lake Madison churned with holiday boaters as I passed overhead, in a deep ocean of air.

West of Lake Madison something appeared on my GPS I had never seen: nothing. The screen, normally populated with towers, roads, towns, water features, and airports was white sans two thin, gray lines: Highway 34 parallel to my course, and an unidentified road which teed in from the south. It seemed that to get somewhere I must first pass through nowhere. A metaphor, maybe, for post-divorce life?

The sky I now occupied was far different from the one I enjoyed in Wisconsin. The sun was passing on my left. The smart blue sky and crisp cumulus clouds had been replaced by a haze my pinched eyes could not penetrate. I climbed to find the ceiling of the haze, but there was none, so I descended to bring the earth into better focus. At 6500 feet I scattered a flock of birds, their white wings tipped with black, their bodies tumbling from my path.

We droned on together, Metal Illness and I. We were not committed to continue west. We could turn back at any moment. We could turn left and go south, turn right and fly north, or land at the next airport and declare, “We made it!” But the Badlands and Mount Rushmore were my self-invented purpose, so we continued forward. Without purpose there is no forward, just as without gravity there is no up nor down. I urged each landmark to appear on the GPS and celebrated as each passed behind the wings.

South Dakota slowly rises toward the Rockies, but with the Rockies far beyond sight, and most of South Dakota flat, this is easily forgotten. My eyes—calibrated over Wisconsin and Minnesota to accept 6500 feet above sea level and 6500 feet above ground level as equals—needed a conscious assist to maintain the proper altitude. Though still flying at 6500 feet above sea level, the ground had crept 1700 feet closer to the resting wheels of my Sonex, and grew closer still with each passing mile.

Lake Sharpe, a lazy expansion of the Missouri River, drifted off the bottom of my GPS at 3:19 p.m. Soon I would fly off the edge of my Omaha sectional. I decided to continue to Wall using my GPS. I never rely fully on a GPS as batteries can die, fuses can blow, and software can crash. But if it were to fail my plan was to turn south, intersect Interstate 90, and fly the interstate directly to Wall. I had a printed copy of Wall’s airport diagram, so I had the necessary airport information even if I arrived blind.

Metal Illness posed next to the “Welcome to Wall” sign. The Sonex was a perfect travel companion.

Wall, South Dakota

Wall cannot be ignored. Driving within 500 miles of Wall, you see a Wall Drug billboard every two miles. On our family vacation we had no intention of stopping at Wall Drug; our trips favored natural attractions over tourist attractions. However, the barrage of billboards eliminated our ability to resist. The stop was thusly justified, “We’ve driven this far, we’re this close, why not?”

Dave Hahn, Wall’s mayor and airport manager.

I could not ignore Wall on this day either, even by air. I was nearing airspace that I wouldn’t fly without a sectional, I needed fuel, I needed a comfort stop, and I needed food. My descent to Wall allowed a brief glimpse of the Badlands, but the hot, turbulent winds brought my attention back to piloting Metal Illness through a successful landing.

Wall Municipal Airport appeared to offer less than I expected but delivered far more. With no FBO or self-serve fuel island in sight, I taxied past a lone aircraft to the Welcome to Wall sign. Opening the canopy provided no relief from the shimmering heat. Wall Municipal had five buildings, if I count the phone booth. I shouted “Hello?” into an open hangar, and a friendly voice answered my call. The man asked how he could help, and I prioritized my needs: bathroom, fuel, Cheyenne sectional, food. While pointing the way to the bathroom, he assured me he could help with my other needs as well.

Dave Hahn is one of the gems you often find hiding at airports. After I emerged from the bathroom, he helped with fuel, offered me a Cheyenne sectional, and set about to know me. He was very interested in my name and took great care committing it to memory, “Fores, F-O-R-E-S, Fores. Interesting.” As we spoke and unhurriedly fueled my parched Sonex, I entertained the idea of spending the night in Wall, camped next to my airplane.

The famous Wall Drug in Wall, South Dakota. Wall’s popularity began in the hot summer of 1936, when the owners struck on the idea of giving free ice water to parched travelers. It now attracts up to 20,000 visitors a day. It has somehow attracted me three times, though I’ve never struck out for Wall Drug on purpose.

Wall Drug is unique—a sprawling complex of connected stores and each is a department: cowboy hats, western shirts, ice cream, jewelry (Black Hills gold and turquoise, of course), souvenirs, art. I had no specific reason to go there other than, “I’ve flown this far, I’m this close, why not?” I moved quickly from store to store, but felt the need to purchase something to commemorate the trip. After considering the purchase far too long, I settled on a shot glass with a jackalope glued to its bottom.

I had lost interest in touring the Badlands and Mount Rushmore by air. I started this journey on a whim, so why couldn’t I change it on a whim? Returning to the airport on foot, I smiled upon seeing an official sign that identified a gravel-covered rectangular area near the airport’s simple fence as “Short-Term Parking,” and pointed to the Main Gate, a 4-foot-tall chain-link gate swung open.

Dave offered me a soda, and we settled into lawn chairs placed in the shade of the open hangar door. Though I had decided I couldn’t stay, I was in no hurry to leave. The summer sunset comes late in the northern plains. My undeclared destination for the evening could be as close as 20 minutes, or as far as the sun’s fading rays and Metal Illness‘ navigation lights could take me. Dave and I picked up our conversation where we had left off earlier. Dave, I learned as I sipped my soda—discussing South Dakota’s weather, AirVenture, the source of the haze (wildfires) and the history of Wall Drug—was not only the airport’s manager, but also Wall’s mayor.

Heading East

Flying east that evening, the sun was again behind me, illuminating the way. My course could eventually deliver me to Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, where friends were vacationing on one of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes. They didn’t know I was coming, but neither did I. Maybe I’d make a beeline for home or maybe I’d…well, detailed planning was not my desire, so I continued to fly in the moment, studying the landscape below.

The smooth, green hills below were carved with deep, dry gullies that radiated down the slopes like lightning bolts or cracked glass. Steep dirt banks and grassy stream bottoms waited to usher the excess waters of the next summer storm to shallow potholes, to the Missouri River, and to destinations beyond. The water-filled potholes attracted black Angus to their edges like ants to a dropped Popsicle.

East of Pierre and the Missouri River, the landscape quickly flattened again. It was 8 in the evening and the shadows were growing long, racing me eastward. It was time to land and only two options existed: the towns of Highmore and Miller. Highmore required a deviation to the north and a rapid descent, but Miller fell near my flight path, allowing another cruise descent, just as Pipestone had earlier in the day.

Crossing the Missouri River, just south of Fort Thompson.

Miller, South Dakota

To my knowledge Norman Rockwell never painted an airscape, but if he had, it would have looked like Miller that evening. As I glided overhead, throttle near idle, Miller, bathed in the orange light of a hazy July Fourth sunset, oozed Americana. To my right the bright lights of a grandstand illuminated a dirt racetrack, and off my nose cars were already seated for a double feature at the drive-in theater. Miller seemed the perfect place to mark America’s birthday. I tightened my harness, tidied the cockpit, and finished my descent with a landing worthy of the fresh, black, asphalt runway. As I taxied to the parking ramp, I found the airport to be unpopulated and the visible aircraft to be in disrepair. I pulled Metal Illness into the grass next to an alfalfa field and set up my tent.

The deep gullies radiating throughout South Dakota’s western hills are proof that the forces that eroded these mountains into smooth hills are still at work.

The small pilot lounge provided an opportunity to wash up, but with no vending machines, dinner would have to be found elsewhere. I began walking toward town, but as I walked, the farther away town seemed to be. I considered turning back to preserve my remaining energy, rather than use it up on a potentially fruitless search for food, but a family on their porch assured me I’d find food and gave these directions, “Go straight to Broadway Street and then turn left.” I thanked them, and as I continued walking they jokingly added, “It’s closer by car.”

The Hi Lite Bar and Lounge was my second choice, having first discounted a bar that served hamburgers, but was hosting a class reunion. I didn’t care to pay the cover charge for the band, and I doubted I would bump into any former classmates, so I continued to the Hi Lite. A waitress seated me in a far corner of the empty dining room, facing the wall. I slowly slid the placemat and silverware to the other side of the booth and quietly told her I needed to see the door, there were people looking for me. The humor was lost, or perhaps my delivery was poor. I treated myself to a steak and cocktail, and trekked back to the airport under a dark sky punctuated by the sporadic flash and pop of fireworks.

Miller, South Dakota, volunteered itself as my host for the night.

As I lay in the tent, pitched in the grass next to Metal Illness, sleep came fitfully. The town’s fireworks began after I committed myself to bed, but they sounded spectacular. The airport’s rotating beacon flashed on the tent walls: White. Green. White. Green. White. Green. The wind remained calm long enough to lull me to sleep, then stirred the tent to wake me up. In the morning I emerged to find Metal Illness covered in dew, and the sky promising another nice day of flying. After circling the town of Miller once while I climbed, I pointed the polished spinner a little north of east, committing to the possibility of stopping in Detroit Lakes.

Metal Illness and I set up camp off the tarmac in Miller, South Dakota.

Detroit Lakes, Minnesota

The Detroit Lakes airport radio frequency was busy. I landed in front of a Cirrus, and we met at the fuel pump. I had an audience as I fueled and secured my Sonex, as it was Saturday morning and Detroit Lakes Aviation’s Duane Wething Coffee Club was in full session. Outside and in, aviators holding donuts and coffee-filled foam cups milled about individually or conversed in huddled groups. And, most unusual for an aviation gathering, the hangar’s lobby was filled with women quilting, knitting, and crocheting. Typical of small airports, I was offered a ride to get lunch.

Saturday mornings at the Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, airport are like so many others: pilots, coffee, and donuts.

I phoned my friend Cathy before taking off and surprised her with the declaration that I was nearby and wanted to make a pass by their cottage before turning for home. She gave me a heading to fly and said to look for Jim and the boys on the lake, circling their boat to mark their location. I felt like a fighter pilot answering a request for air support. After a few passes I rocked my wings and told Cathy I was departing for Oshkosh, but she insisted I spend the afternoon with them. I didn’t refuse.

Late that afternoon Jim drove me back to the airport. As I climbed eastward, to 9500 feet, I leaned the fuel mixture until Metal Illness was sipping fuel and home was within reach. The air was flawlessly smooth and, with Earth over a mile below, it didn’t seem like we were moving despite a 150 mph groundspeed.

This shot glass is a souvenir of a flight I took on a whim, on wings I built myself.

Flying occupies my mind and body while nourishing my soul and spirit. That flight was exactly what I needed to restore focus. Metal Illness assumed the role of mental therapist, and sport aviation became support aviation. Though it happened a few years ago, I still look back on the trip fondly. The jackelope shot glass is a souvenir not of Wall Drug, but of a flight I took on a whim, on wings I built myself.


Kerry Fores is a private pilot. He scratch-built his Sonex, Metal Illness, prior to going to work for Sonex Aircraft in 2003. Kerry provides tech support for owners and builders of the Sonex Aircraft product line, but his stated goal is to starve to death as a writer. His blog is at TheLifeOfDanger.com.

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