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Thursday, 26 May 2011

Flying over the Nebraska Panhandle

We nearly didn’t make it, and I have to hold up my hands and say it was entirely our own fault.

My tinkering with cars never got much further than replacing brake-shoes, adjusting carburettors and fitting the odd replacement part from junkyards – and I gave all that up some time ago. I haven’t owned a car in eight years. Didn’t need to in places like York, where everything you needed was within a ten-minute walk of home, and you made swifter progress on foot than the traffic ever did. The Chainsaw claims more recent experience, but the fact is, neither of us is used to vehicles with automatic transmission. They simply aren’t very common in Europe. I did have one in about 1985, when I lived in Hull, a noted crime hot-spot. It was a BMC 1300 in British racing green. It had a walnut dashboard, leather seats, drop-down drinks tables in the back, and when you put it in drive and turned the key it went backwards. Think you’re smart? So try stealing this, you lowlife scum. But apart from that, I’ve only ever driven automatics in the U.S. of A.  And I may as well say it: I grew up around grizzled old motorists who liked to wear leather gloves at the wheel, and regarded a two-pedal car as… effeminate.

So there we were, outside Merriman post office, crawling around on our knees looking under Mercy’s wheel arches. It took two us – combined education three degrees, a pilot’s licence and a merchant seaman’s certificate of competence, or whatever they give them – to work out that we had no transmission fluid. And that explained why we were going slow, dragging our rear wheels and belching dark smoke from under the hood.

I’m finally getting too old to be embarrassed by my own ignorance, and the guy at the garage – already open at 0630h, thank goodness – resisted the temptation to pour scorn on two Tenderfeet as he explained that you take a level with the engine running, and poured in a couple of quarts.

After that it was plain sailing. We arrived at Miller field just a few minutes late, I sat and Googled while Phil did his pre-flight checks, and half an hour later I was squeezing myself into the little cockpit, camera in hand.



‘Right, you need to keep your feet off those pedals.’

I did as Phil instructed, shuffling back until my knees were under my chin. ‘And your knees off that.’ “That” was the rudder control (I think) – the sort of steering-wheel thing.

‘That Douglas Bader didn’t realise how lucky he was,’ I muttered. (Bader: the British World War II fighter ace who went into action despite having lost both legs in a previous plane crash.)



Take-off was surprisingly quick and easy, and were soon skimming the Valentine roof-tops (I exaggerate) and heading for open country at about 80 knots, climbing to around 1500 feet above ground.



One thing I never realised was that the altimeter gives you a reading from sea level, so it pays to know how high those hills are below you – and to be aware of the radio masts en route.

We were heading for Merriman, keeping Highway 20 to our right, the river away to the left. My first few pictures of the ground aren’t really worth showing: it was still grey, and it’s quite possible my hand was shaking. A couple of years ago a friend in Albuquerque persuaded me to take a ride in a microlight – arms and legs dangling in space, nothing between me and posthumous fame but a huge creaky wing and a small puttering engine; the only photo I have that’s worth a damn is of the runway as we came back in.



But here we are circling above Merriman. Opposite the silos you can see a tanker pulled up at the gas pumps outside the garage; the Sand café is to the right, the Sand bar to left.

We now headed south to cross the Niobrara in perfect light. The green circle you can see away in the distance, to the left of the river, is the one on ranch here.



And there indeed is the ranch, with the dusty trail leading away towards the red house, the cattle shed roof just visible above the brow of the hill.



Phil throttled back, lost a bit of height and circled low, giving some superb views of the red house.




I was clicking away like crazy, with mixed results, but have singled out these next two: they show just how serpentine the course of the river is – and highlight the contrast between the landscape above the river and what you find along its banks.




Finally, here we are looking back across the river from the western edge of Matt & Kitty’s land, towards their house.  The red house is just above that elongated shelter-belt in the foreground.



We flew home along the river, which leads you straight to Valentine, and made a perfect touch-down.



Flying isn’t cheap, but by my reckoning we had a great trip at a reasonable price. After tax (there’s always tax) we parted with $120 (£75) apiece for two hours in the air.

So hats off to Phil the Chainsaw. After he’d scaled the heights and fixed the toilet I figured the only way was down, but that’s the measure of the man. Tomorrow I’ll reveal how his Sat Nav came to the rescue on the Old Jules Trail.