An eclipse air­port party to re­mem­ber

Flying - - Contents - By Martha King

This nor­mally non-tow­ered air­port was prob­a­bly the busiest it had ever been. The air­port needed to land an air­plane about every minute and a half to ac­com­mo­date the ar­rivals in the time avail­able be­tween sun­rise and 10:30 a.m., when ev­ery­one wanted to be on the ground. The trick was get­ting ev­ery­one off the run­way and into park­ing to clear the way for those be­hind.

The big show was sup­posed to be at 11:50 a.m., but John and I had a great time watch­ing all the air­planes long be­fore then. Every kind of air­plane you could imag­ine was join­ing the party, from home­builts to jets. And a great party it would be.

Na­ture would be pro­vid­ing us a rare show — a to­tal so­lar eclipse. Over any given spot on Earth, a to­tal so­lar eclipse oc­curs about once every 375 years. If John and I are ever to see an­other one, there will likely be an air­plane in­volved — like there was this time.

We had read es­ti­mates that as many as 7.4 mil­lion peo­ple would com­pete with one an­other on the roads to get to the path of to­tal­ity. We un­der­stood there would be traffic jams ev­ery­where. No prob­lem, we said. That’s where gen­eral avi­a­tion shines — we will fly.

Our plan was to wait and see what the weather looked like the day be­fore the eclipse, then fly to wher­ever looked most likely to guar­an­tee clear skies. And if the weather turned un­ex­pect­edly cloudy on eclipse day, we could fly some­where else.

This sounded great in the­ory, but when we started in­ves­ti­gat­ing good lo­ca­tions for eclipse viewing we dis­cov­ered that some air­ports had been tak­ing air­craft park­ing reser­va­tions for the eclipse for years — and all ex­pected to have to turn away air­planes. It be­came ob­vi­ous that we needed to pick a des­ti­na­tion air­port and set­tle in.

The hard part was what air­port to choose. A gen­er­ally good weather fore­cast for this time of year would be key. Plus, we wouldn’t want to be caught in traffic jams on the ground on the big day. So, we would need to pick an air­port away from any ma­jor metropoli­tan ar­eas. There were a lot of places in the great Amer­i­can West that would fit the bill.

We chose Al­liance, Ne­braska (AIA) — and we hit the jack­pot. The sole FBO, Heart­land Avi­a­tion, is a won­der­ful mom-and-pop op­er­a­tion. (As you can imag­ine, John and I are im­pressed by mom-and-pop op­er­a­tions.) Gay­lene and Jeff Jensen have owned and op­er­ated Heart­land Avi­a­tion for over 27 years, but their con­nec­tion goes even fur­ther back; Jeff had been work­ing there since he was in high school. Their en­thu­si­asm for avi­a­tion, and peo­ple who fly, brims over in every con­ver­sa­tion.

When we made our air­craft park­ing reser­va­tion with Heart­land some months be­fore the so­lar eclipse, Gay­lene told us they al­ready had more than 200 sin­gle-en­gine piston air­craft and 25 twins and jets sched­uled to fly in that morn­ing. Like every other air­port in the path of the eclipse, they fully ex­pected to have to turn away air­planes.

Their big­gest prob­lem, though, was not go­ing to be room to park air­planes. It would be get­ting the ar­riv­ing air­craft parked in the time avail­able on the morn­ing of the eclipse. Den­ver Cen­ter had told Jeff and Gay­lene that care­ful plan­ning would be re­quired to get air­planes clear of the run­ways and to park­ing fast

enough to keep the traffic flow up. That’s when they re­al­ized the need to land an air­plane about every minute and a half. And that didn’t al­low for any in­stru­ment ap­proaches, or wake­tur­bu­lence sep­a­ra­tion.

When we heard that, we re­al­ized we wanted to get there ahead of the crowd. We didn’t want to join the conga line of air­planes into that air­port on the same day as the event. Now we had a real prob­lem. If we were go­ing to come early, we needed a place to stay. As we got into it, we re­al­ized that with our orig­i­nal plan to fly in and out on the same day we had wasted pre­cious time while ev­ery­one else was ar­rang­ing ac­com­mo­da­tions.

This is where an FBO in a small com­mu­nity is so valu­able. Gay­lene had a friend who knew a woman who had just put her house up for rent that week­end. I jumped at the deal, and ar­ranged for us to ar­rive on Satur­day at noon in­stead of Mon­day morn­ing.

One of the things that John and I have sa­vored the most about gen­eral avi­a­tion is the way that small air­ports in­tro­duce you to com­mu­ni­ties you would never have known oth­er­wise. In Al­liance, ev­ery­one we met wel­comed us with great warmth, and with cu­rios­ity about where we were from and how we flew our own plane to get there.

Our early ar­rival gave us the op­por­tu­nity to set­tle in and revel in the grand party the city was throw­ing for its vis­i­tors. We en­joyed lots of free mu­si­cal en­ter­tain­ment, snacked from food trucks, at­tended a Na­tive Amer­i­can pow­wow and thor­oughly en­joyed a por­ta­ble plan­e­tar­ium show de­signed to ex­plain the eclipse to grade-school­ers.

On the day of the event, we headed out to the air­port early to watch some­thing very spe­cial — FAA con­trollers, op­er­at­ing from a tem­po­rary con­trol tower perched atop a city dump truck, skill­fully keep­ing air­planes sep­a­rated. The con­trollers had ar­rived on very short no­tice when the ex­pected num­ber of air­planes es­ca­lated. It is a life-sav­ing ser­vice that the U.S. air traffic con­trol sys­tem pro­vides to gen­eral avi­a­tion when it sees the need.

Mean­while, be­gin­ning at 5 a.m., Jeff and Gay­lene’s crew of 30-plus vol­un­teers guided air­craft to park­ing, fu­eled them and moved pi­lots and their pas­sen­gers to the ramp in trams. Plus, Jeff and Gay­lene threw a party wor­thy of the event, com­plete with cus­tom-de­signed eclipse T-shirts and eclipse glasses. For break­fast, they served bis­cuits and gravy or break­fast bur­ri­tos, and for lunch, burg­ers, hot dogs or chicken breasts — all at un­be­liev­ably rea­son­able prices.

The air­port was open only to peo­ple who had ar­rived in an air­plane, and as the day pro­gressed, the mood re­flected the ca­ma­raderie of 400 or so fel­low avi­a­tors talk­ing with one an­other about where they came from and how they had fallen in love with fly­ing. We re­al­ized we were shar­ing an event that each of us would re­mem­ber for the rest of our lives.

The eclipse, of course, did not dis­ap­point. We were pow­er­fully moved by the phe­nom­ena that have mes­mer­ized hu­mankind since the be­gin­ning of time — a dark­en­ing sky and sud­den chill ac­com­pa­nied by sun­set col­ors cir­cling the hori­zon, a corona ring around the sun and stars ap­pear­ing dur­ing the day.

But what was truly spe­cial to those of us who flew in to Al­liance was gen­eral avi­a­tion at its very best. It was a won­der­ful day, brought to us by a cou­ple who had worked for months to make it hap­pen. Gay­lene and Jeff created an op­por­tu­nity for hun­dreds of avi­a­tion en­thu­si­asts to share a very spe­cial event in what for all of us was the most fun way imag­in­able.

Their big­gest prob­lem, though, was not go­ing to be room to park air­planes. It would be get­ting the ar­riv­ing air­craft parked in the time avail­able on the morn­ing of the eclipse.

Lots of plan­ning went into fly­ing and stay­ing at an air­port that was in the eclipse's path of to­tal­ity.

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