In order to clear customs in the US, we had to make a stop in Great Falls, MT before continuing on to Denver, CO.
Leg 1: Calgary, AB to Great Falls, MT
Fortunately Wednesday’s heavy rain showers had blown through when we woke on Thursday for our early morning departure. We needed to clear customs in Great Falls. It would be about 1.5 hours to Great Falls, then about 3.7 hours from there to Jeffco. We had quite a bit of flying ahead of us. It would have been ideal to arrive at Great Falls right when the customs office opened at 8am. That way we could get into Denver right around noon to avoid the turbulence and thunderstorms that typically build each Summer afternoon.
Next Time I’ll Plan Better
Unfortunately, it was well after 4pm (closing time for the Great Falls customs office) on Wednesday when I thought about the implications of the requirement to give one hour notice to U.S. Customs prior to our arrival at Great Falls on Thursday morning. I should have called on Wednesday to tell them we would arrive at 8am on Thursday, but it was too late to do that now. This meant the earliest we could depart Calgary would be 8am, putting us into Great Falls just before 10am then arriving in Denver at the hottest part of the day. It was not an ideal situation. Higher temperatures meant more turbulence and reduced airplane performance due to higher density altitude.
My weather check on Wednesday revealed a cold front stretching across the middle of Wyoming, but it wasn’t causing any adverse conditions yet. The rains that drenched us at the zoo earlier this day were forecast to clear for our Thursday morning departure. Nancy and I discussed our options given the cold front we would have to contend with, and the late afternoon arrival into Denver. The Mooney Mountain Flying Course was scheduled to begin on Friday morning at 8am. We decided to clear customs in Great Falls and then check the weather again. If the cold front across Wyoming started creating adverse weather we would overnight somewhere along the way. If we got a very early morning start on Friday, we could still make the 8am ground portion of the Mountain Flying Course.
We enjoyed a nice dinner on Wednesday evening, and got to bed early so we could be up with the Sun on Thursday morning. I was still upset with myself for not thinking about contacting customs, but I was glad that we talked through our options in case tomorrow’s weather wasn’t good.
Our hotel in Calgary included free high-speed internet access, so as soon as I got up on Thursday morning I fired up the computer and checked the weather for our proposed route. The updated forecast was basically unchanged from yesterday: the cold front still stretched across Wyoming, but it wasn’t causing any problems yet. The weather looked great for the less than two-hour flight from Calgary to Great Falls. The only hint of bad weather was right at Great Falls where the wind was forecast to be gusting to over 30 knots at our arrival time (the current conditions at 7:30am showed only 11 knots).
We decided to grab a quick breakfast at the hotel restaurant to save time. When we tried the back door entrance for hotel guests, we were surprised to find a chain on the door. A voice from inside the restaurant called out to explain they were looking for the keys to unlock it, but they would come around to let us in. After a quick shortcut through the kitchen, Dave (the chef/kitchen manager) explained that the server (with the keys) had not yet arrived for the early morning shift, but he would do his best to take care of us. He was very attentive and conscientious. I think he was worried about neglecting us, but our only concern was staying on schedule. Dave is the man! He brought the coffee, took our order, and made breakfast too. Nice job on the coconut banana pancakes! Then he had a confession … without a server, he didn’t have access to the till and he couldn’t charge us for breakfast. We were thrilled and eager to tip him for the great service and gesture. He wouldn’t accept, but we did get his business card and promised to write a letter to the restaurant manager raving about Dave’s service. What a great way to start the day!
Nancy settled up with the nice folks at the Shell Aerocentre (she had to turn in the keys to the Mustang — I couldn’t bring myself to do that), while I did one last weather check from their flight planning room. I phoned the Edmonton Flight Service Station to file our IFR flight plan and get a weather briefing for the flight to Great Falls. The briefer agreed with the computerized weather I had already seen – we’d definitely be fine getting to Great Falls.
It was just before 8am when we had the plane all loaded, pre-flighted and ready to go. I called the Great Falls customs office to tell them to expect us there at 10am. The procedure was similar to what I had to do when I called Canadian customs. The agent asked if I could fax over our Customs 178 form (Private Aircraft Enforcement System Arrival Report), but I told him I didn’t have access to a fax machine. Actually I’m sure I could have run back in and asked the FBO to send the fax for us, but I figured it would be faster and less hassle to just give him the same information over the phone.
We started the engine and listened to Calgary ATIS Delta which advertised light winds, 40 miles visibility, few clouds at 4,000 and a broken layer at 7,500. The temperature was 9C (about 40F), quite a bit cooler than it would be in Denver later that day (if the weather would allow us to get that far). After letting the engine warm up, and completing our pre-takeoff checks our wheels were up at 8:30am as we headed to Great Falls. We got several heading assignments as we climbed out, but eventually we got turned on course and the tailwind at 9,000 feet kicked in as forecast.
Shortly after crossing back into the United States, Edmonton Centre told us to contact Salt Lake Center. We had a wonderful time in Canada, but it was nice to be back in the good old U.S. Before we knew it we were talking to Great Falls Approach Control. The Great Falls weather was as forecast: winds were 200@24G30 (from heading 200 at 24 knots, gusting to 30 knots) but the visibility was excellent and there were no clouds.
This is the part where Nancy usually writes something nice about my landing. With the winds as gusty as they were, our landing on runway 21 was more of an “arrival”. I carried a little extra airspeed (3 knots, which was half the gust factor) on final to compensate for the gusts and I really had to work the controls to keep the nose aligned with the runway and to stay on the centerline. We didn’t land hard, but it was a far cry from “feathers on marshmallows.” Actually, the approach was interesting, but not scary. This type of landing makes me appreciate the soft ones even more. The old saying holds true, “a good landing is one you can walk away from; a great landing is when you can still use the plane afterwards.” In conditions like this it’s safer to make a firm arrival on the runway, rather than trying to gently touchdown.
We taxied up to the Customs building right at 10am. A Cessna was there and the occupants were just loading up after clearing customs. We shut down and waited inside the airplane for a minute until two Customs agents came out and instructed us to come on out. U.S. Customs is a little more strict than their Canadian counterparts — they don’t want you exiting the aircraft until the Customs agent arrives. The wind was blowing so hard that we had to be really careful that our paperwork didn’t fly away as we followed the agents into the building. They asked us to bring in our aircraft registration, pilot certificate, medical certificate, identification and one bag each. The agents were courteous and professional which was a big relief. We had heard a few horror stories of obnoxious Customs agents flexing their authority, but we have yet to encounter one of them. After reviewing our paperwork and searching through our bags we were cleared back into the U.S. The whole process took less than 15 minutes. It wasn’t quite as quick as getting handed a post-it note, but we had no complaints whatsoever.
Leg 2: Great Falls, MT to Denver, CO
After fueling up and grabbing a quick snack in Great Falls, I called for a weather briefing for our next leg to Denver. The same cold front was still stretching across central Wyoming with a low pressure area in southern Wyoming, and a high pressure area near Billings, Montana. The forecast was for good weather for the first 2.5 hours of our trip, deteriorating conditions around Casper, Wyoming and clear skies with some gusty winds and turbulence for our arrival into Denver (at the Jeffco airport). The total flight time would be about 3.5 hours. The good weather forecast meant we had a good chance of making it to Denver today. We still had an option of stopping in Casper or anywhere north of there if the cold front started stirring up thunderstorms. The winds at Jeffco would be only 10 knots at our arrival time, but they were forecast to be 30 gusting to 45 knots between 5pm and 9pm. Nancy called Denver Air in Jeffco and arranged a hangar spot for the night. We didn’t want our plane tied out on the ramp with high winds like that. Also any thunderstorm that’s producing winds like that could also cause hail.
Great Falls Ground Control gave us our IFR clearance, “Cleared to the Jeffco airport as filed, climb and maintain 11,000, departure frequency 128.6, squawk 6023.” Getting cleared “as filed” is always a good thing, but I was kind of hoping the controller would need to say something that involved one the points along our filed route: the Crazy Woman VOR. I’m sure there’s a good story behind that name, but I didn’t get a chance to find out what it is.
Once we climbed above 9,000 we were above the gusty winds and turbulence below. Settling in at 11,000 feet we hooked up the oxygen and watched the GPS show the groundspeed creep up as we caught a little tailwind. The weather was just as forecast — there wasn’t a cloud in the sky until we were near Billings, MT. We could see some cloud buildups to the south, which were probably along the cold front we would be crossing near Casper. I called a weather specialist on the Flight Watch frequency to see if he showed anything on the weather radar. If there was heavy precipitation or building thunderstorms near Casper, we’d stop somewhere around Billings and continue the journey early the next morning. The specialist said there was nothing on radar along our planned route, which meant the clouds were not causing any rain yet and we should be fine to continue.
We flew through the scattered clouds near Casper. They looked much less menacing up close than they did when we first spotted them and called Flight Watch. The air was quite turbulent as we crossed the cold front, and then it gradually smoothed out and our tailwind changed to more of a crosswind from the west.
How About a Shortcut?
Well south of the cold front the skies were mostly clear. We were losing some groundspeed since we had to crab to the west to counteract the crosswind. I checked our filed route and saw that if we could get a clearance direct WISER that would make our course a little more west than south and we could take advantage of the wind in addition to shaving a few miles off the route. Denver Center cleared us direct WISER as soon as I asked for it.
On Second Thought
We turned left, picked up more of a tailwind component and carried on. After travelling about 20 miles on our new direct course we saw a series of dark stormy clouds building up in front of us.
We were on an IFR clearance, so we would be legal to fly through those clouds but what is legal is not always safe. Those clouds were building into a thunderstorm, and we could see wisps of virga dangling from the bases. I asked the controller if I could deviate about 10 degrees to the east to avoid the buildups, which was approved. I thought we would be in the clear going that way, but then we saw another series of dark clouds further ahead.
The controller called us and told us we were heading towards an area of moderate precipitation. The skies ahead were pretty dark, but we saw bright clear skies to the west — back along our original flight plan route. I told the controller that it looked like we’d be better off cancelling the shortcut and going back to the original plan. She agreed with that assessment and added that her radar didn’t show any precipitation along our filed route.
We happily turned west, and I didn’t even grumble about fighting a headwind as we did so. Within a few minutes it was clear that this was the right course to take. The buildups passed off our left wing and as we rejoined the original routing we could see that we’d end up west of all the bad weather.
The turbulence really picked up as Denver Approach Control had us descend out of the fairly smooth air at 11,000. We were also enjoying the cold air aloft (around 40° F) which was keeping us nice and cool. Things quickly warmed up as we descended, and the air coming from the vents was pretty warm. We were cleared direct to the Jeffco VOR and given lower altitudes as we got closer. The controller didn’t seem too busy during our Thursday afternoon arrival. After landing on Jeffco’s runway 11L we immediately spotted all the Mooney airplanes parked in front of Denver Air. The nice folks there towed us to the hangar, and got us set up with a shuttle to our hotel.
After our detour around the weather, our total flying time ended up at almost 4 hours. Neither of us felt too tired since we were using oxygen almost the whole time. The regulations don’t require us to use oxygen until we’re above 12,500 feet. However we’ve found that we’re much more alert after a long flight if we use it whenever we’re above 10,000 feet.