Driggs, Idaho is nestled against the Grand Tetons right on the border with Wyoming. The better known city of Jackson Hole is just on the other side of the Tetons from Driggs. Our Angel Flight mission was to transport two 10-year-old girls to Camp Magical Moments — a camp just for kids with cancer. We’d be crossing the entire width of Idaho, which is a 7 hour car ride, but only 1.5 hours by air. Making the trip by air gives a much better view of the scenery and mountains of Idaho, including a great view of the Grand Tetons.
We originally signed up to fly just one camper to Driggs. Then we thought, why not two? We had room for one more and the mission request list showed that several more kids were attending the same camp. The plan was to meet both families at the Nampa Terminal at 9:30. Karena was the first to arrive, and she was very excited to hear that her friend, Yesenia, would be joining us. I was thrilled to learn that the girls already knew each other and even more excited when Karena told me that today was her birthday.
After Yesenia arrived, we loaded up the bags and started briefing the girls on what to expect regarding sights, radio transmissions, airsickness and the lack of restrooms. They were both very attentive and seemed more excited than nervous about their upcoming flight. The girls grabbed one more hug from their families and then we climbed into the cozy cabin. We all yelled, “CLEAR!” together and Phil turned the key.
After pulling into the run-up area for runway 29, I began running through the before take-off checks. Our JPI engine analyzer showed normal temperatures in cylinders 1, 3, and 4 but cylinder number 2 was cold. When I tried to increase the RPMs the engine ran extremely rough. It didn’t take long to hear the engine running rough, and Phil’s expression told me that we definitely had an issue on our hands. I don’t think we’ve ever canceled a Mooney flight because of a mechanical problem and I really didn’t want today to be our first. I’d seen this problem once before: both spark plugs in cylinder number 2 were fouled with oil. I didn’t have the right tools to fix this, and we’d need a mechanic to help us. Unfortunately today was a Sunday, and Father’s Day at that, so it would be challenging to find a mechanic. We taxied back to parking and unloaded the girls. Phil quickly went to work on finding a mechanic while I explained our situation to the waiting families.
Karena had a wonderful attitude and said that if she didn’t get to go to camp, she would still enjoy celebrating her birthday with her family in Boise. Yesenia enjoyed the delay by squeezing in some extra playtime with her little brother. Both girls seemed worry free. Phil and I must have been worrying enough for both of them. After 30 minutes of trying to locate a mechanic or another airplane, we still didn’t have a solution to avoid canceling. Yesenia came to check on our progress. Without asking any questions, she confidently stated, “I think it’s going to work. I think it’s going to be fixed.” Then she turned and skipped away. I wanted to believe as strongly as she did, but the rational side of my brain was blocking my enthusiasm.
This is where John Blakely comes into the story. John is the owner of Avcenter, the new FBO at the Nampa airport providing charter flights, airplane rental, and flight instruction. John also tried to help us find a mechanic, and in fact his mechanic was scheduled to start work the next day but was out of town for the weekend. Without a plane, our only option was to cancel the flight which would also prevent the girls from attending camp.
Realizing that the girls would miss out on this special camp, John offered to fly all of us (me, Nancy, and the two girls) to Driggs in one of Avcenter’s Cessna 210 airplanes. He refused to accept any payment for this wonderful donation of a very nice airplane ride, not to mention his own time. Both of the girls were a little nervous about flying; neither had been in a small airplane before and it was the very first airplane ride for Yesenia. John did a wonderful job of helping to put them at ease and within a few minutes after take off, both the girls were giggling away as they enjoyed a beautiful flight over scenic Idaho.
The Cessna 210 intercom had jacks for four headsets and we had five people. John and Phil obviously needed their headsets to communicate with ATC and the other pilots. We three girls would share the remaining two jacks so that no one would feel left out. After some juggling, Karena discovered that it was easier have a conversation without the headsets, so we didn’t wear them most of the time. Yesenia would occasionally check in with the pilots up front to make sure they were doing a good job and I would get an updated ETA.
John is a very experienced pilot, having flown charter flights for many years, and he knew every mountain pass, river, and airport we passed. Idaho has many pilots who really know its mountains, rivers, lakes, and valleys, but John knows more about the terrain than most since he has a master’s degree in geology. In fact we flew right over the peak that he studied as part of his master’s thesis. John told me all about the various types of rock we were seeing, how the mountains were formed, and in general the history of how the spectacular views we were admiring were formed over millions of years. I think John was worried that he was boring me with all this geology talk, but I found it very interesting. I was especially fascinated by the story of the Yellowstone Hotspot. Yellowstone National park and its famous geysers are sitting on a hotspot where magma from deep within the Earth gets close to the surface. The really interesting part of the story is the fact that the hotspot has burned a trail in the Earth’s surface as the continent has moved above the hotspot. The trail of this hotspot actually formed the Snake River Plain which runs across the width of Idaho and leads right into where Yellowstone National Park is today. You can read more about the Yellowstone Caldera on Wikipedia.
The straight route to Driggs gave us an excellent view of the mountains from above. As the wind flowed over the rippling ridges, we could feel the light turbulence begin. I reminded the girls that turbulence doesn’t hurt the airplane; it just feels a little uncomfortable for us. I told them to think of it as a roller coaster. With only an exchange of glances, Karena and Yesenia both had their arms extended into the air as if they were preparing to crest a hill on the latest amusement park ride. Just then, we hit a good bump and their fingertips touched the roof followed by more giggles while my concerns of airsickness disappeared. In the midst of the turbulence, Yesenia looked straight at me and calmly said, “I’m having a really good time.” Her comment made my day. Remember this was Yesenia’s very first airplane ride, and she was a little nervous before actually getting in the airplane. I mentioned to the girls that flying is addicting and that someday they might be pilots carrying their own Angel Flight passengers. We’re always looking for new pilots.
Due to the proximity of the Grand Tetons, there’s quite a bit of glider activity at the Driggs airport. The gliders are able to get good lift by riding the air currents near the mountains. When we arrived, there were three gliders positioned near the running waiting their turn for a tow, and one glider that was going to land behind us. One of these days I want to earn my glider rating and Driggs may be the place to do it.
As we started our descent, Karena mentioned that her ears were starting to feel funny. I explained how the air pressure changes with altitude and then explained that yawning or swallowing would help her ears adapt. Swallowing didn’t seem to work, and she was having a hard time making a “real” yawn. Then we began talking about how contagious yawning is and soon all three of us were yawning up a storm (with giggles in between of course).
As we turned off the runway we saw a group of adults waving and holding a Camp Magical Moments sign. They were very glad to see us, and the camp counselors did a wonderful job of making the girls feel welcome even before we got the airplane parked.I had a lot of fun on today’s flight with Karena and Yesenia. Their rookie enthusiasm was truly contagious. I was grateful for John and Phil taking care of all the pilot responsibilities. Their team effort allowed me to totally focus on the girls and enjoy the 10-year-old mindset for a short while. My only regret would be returning home instead of staying for a week of camp. Oh well, maybe next year.
John, Nancy and I said our goodbyes to Karena and Yesenia. We enjoyed a terrific lunch at the Warbird Cafe while we watched the comings and goings of several airplanes and gliders. After relaxing for a while, we decided it was finally time to head back home.
We loaded up in Avcenter’s Cessna 210, and John offered to let me sit in the left seat and fly us home. I didn’t have any previous time in a 210, but John did a great job of walking me through what I needed to do. I am pretty familiar with the Cessna 182, which is a slightly smaller and non-turbocharged little brother to the 210. The biggest difference I noticed with the 210 was how sluggish the steering was on the ground. I got used to it fairly quickly though. The take off was pretty straight forward, and in just a few seconds we were climbing quickly and it was time to tuck the wheels up.
After another scenic tour through Idaho’s mountains on the way home, the familiar sights of the Boise came into view. I contacted Boise approach for clearance through their airspace and we started our descent for the Nampa airport.
The Kindness of Strangers
Our second Angel Flight turned out to be just as special as the first. When I shared the story of John’s generosity with another Angel Flight pilot, he remarked, “That’s great! Angel Flight really brings out the best in people.” It’s hard to put in words how grateful we are to John Blakely and Avcenter for making this flight possible. Thank you John.