By Pat Fagan
It’s interesting how one’s attitude can change over time. I suppose we shouldn’t fault politicians for flip-flopping, provided their change is sincere. But this isn’t about politics. This is about my change in attitude on what at first seemed to be a silly idea.
A couple of years ago, I was involved in a Utah Back Country Pilots work party at Mexican Mountain, UT. After the work was done, we were all sitting in the shade doing what pilots do, telling stories. There was a gal flying a short-wing Piper that had to be the most manic pilot I have ever encountered. She regaled us with tales of all the places she had been with her plane and shared all the places she intended to fly in the upcoming year. She practically lived in that airplane.
She told about how she had landed at every airport in several states, and how some of those states actually had programs that rewarded people for doing so. At the time, I felt like she must have some kind of OCD, but I enjoyed the hangar flying nonetheless.
Fast forward to early this year, I was reading an issue of Sport Aviation and there was an article profiling a gal named Wendy who flies the heck out of a short-wing Piper. As I read, I remembered that hangar flying session and realized the article was about the very same person. In the article she mentioned that one of the states where she landed at every airport was North Dakota. She also said that for doing so she received “the nicest leather jacket I’ve ever bought”.
After reading this article, my change of attitude occurred. My wife, Carol, and I moved from crazy California to saner Arizona almost four years ago. In that time, I have been constantly busy developing the property and putting up buildings. It just so happened that my reading the Sport Aviation article coincided with me completing my last building project and feeling the deep-seated need for an adventure. Suddenly, flying to North Dakota and landing at every airport just to get a leather jacket seemed like the sanest thing in the world to do.
I mentioned this idea to Carol, who has tolerated many of my past crazy aviation ideas and she had the expected response, “Why not just buy a jacket?” But she humored me and agreed to let me go. Then one day I was flying with fellow Bearhawker Scott Williamson and told him about what I was going to do and he went from “that’s crazy” to “I’d like to go too” faster than I expected. Scott then mentioned it to Kevin Deutscher, another Bearhawk builder, who was suddenly teleworking from home due to COVID-19, and he eagerly agreed to go as well.
North Dakota’s program involves filling in a passport book with airport identifier stamps located at all 89 public use airports in the state. You are also required to visit their two aviation museums and take three courses through the FAA’s FAAST/Wings program. We requested and received in the mail our passports and I figured out a course on a North Dakota-only sectional they provided. So we were all set, just needing two things before we could depart. One was for the museums to reopen from Coronavirus, and another was for winter to loosen its grip. The museums finally reopened the second week of May, but there was an endless stream of bad weather blocking our path across South Dakota.
We finally had a weather window that allowed us to depart on May 16th. That day, we flew all the way to Custer, SD, where we caught up to the bad weather. The next morning we were up at dawn, looking at beautiful blue skies, excited to get our first stamp. But then we had to wait two hours for the sun to melt the frost off our wings.
We camped out in airport pilot lounges almost every night. Some were nothing more than an office and bathroom, while others had freezers, microwaves and showers. The most luxurious one we visited was at Williston, with a sleeping room, recliner sofas, showers, and the works. Unfortunately, Williston is a real airport so we weren’t allowed to overnight there, but the staff was tremendously helpful and helped us bide our time until the rain moved on.
The coolest airport we went to had to be Wahpeton. Kevin was taking a nap on the grass at Milnor Airport, as we landed at multiple grass strips, when he noticed a crack forming in the tail post spring perch on Scott’s plane. The FBO operator at Milnor suggested Wahpeton as a place to get it fixed. Boy was he right. In Wahpeton, they build fuselages for P-51 Mustangs. The whole fuselage. They can fabricate every part on a Mustang.
Scott uses a massive shock absorber tail wheel and not only did they fix the crack, they reengineered how it attaches to the tail post. While they did that, they gave us free range to explore the machine shop and the boneyard of projects.
Everywhere we went in North Dakota, the people we met were so helpful and sincerely happy to see us, especially upon learning that we had come all the way from Arizona just to do this. We got local pilot knowledge about the conditions at certain airports and warnings about conditions at others. Gackle Airport was the most pleasant surprise. We were warned by the gentleman who maintains the airport that he couldn’t vouch for its current condition, as it is surrounded by water and the entrance road was currently under water. He hadn’t been able to get to it to mow it or otherwise check on its condition, but we found it to be in wonderful shape and an absolutely beautiful spot.
I had no idea how much fun it would be doing this trip, but it far exceeded all my expectations. The sheer joy of airport hopping, sightseeing, never having to climb above pattern altitude, and all those grass strips made the trip memorable. All the wonderful people we met, so enthusiastic to see us, offering us cars and hangars and whatever else they could provide, made the trip memorable. We even air toured the Enchanted Highway, another special treat. I look forward to proudly wearing my jacket, but the simple passport book with all its stamps is an equally valuable souvenir.
Our last airport was Bowman and we took the courtesy car to town for a wonderful breakfast. Were it not for lingering Covid-19 concerns, I believe Scott would have hugged every person in the restaurant, he was so happy. We chose to fly to Mexican Mountain in southern Utah to spend our last night. It didn’t occur to me until late that night that adding that to our trip was the perfect topper; it was there that I first learned about North Dakota’s passport program from Wendy. The next morning we split up to head for our separate homes. Kevin made a statement that brought tears to my eyes: “Thanks for letting me come along and fulfill a dream I never knew I had.”
About the Author
Pat Fagan has been flying since he was 16 years old, paying for his flight instruction with money he earned working at Tastee Freeze. Over the years, he gained a wide range of piloting experience, from towing gliders and hauling skydivers to fire bombing. Pat found a career as an air traffic controller and spent 28 years working airplanes at Los Angeles Air Route Traffic Control Center. He built his Bearhawk aircraft from plans, before any kits were started. Completed in 2003, it was the eighth Bearhawk to fly. To honor Pat’s history flying tankers, it was painted like an air tanker and christened “Smokey Bearhawk”.