By Paul D. Fiebich, EAA 577724
Pedestrians view the winter-to-spring landscape change from a common perspective – the ground. Pilots can fly far above the terrain, some so high that the ability to experience seasonal change is lost. However, there’s an alternative perspective, one available to a select group of pilots: the low and slow aircraft (light sports, ultralights, and powered parachutes [PPCs]). These pilots view what is happening in the environment below from an altitude of only a few hundred feet.
We will make a single flight in an open cockpit plane, one that will magically take us from February through April. Imagine ourselves in a seasonal time travel machine, if you will. This trip will dramatically showcase a Kansas landscape in transition. Come fly with me and enjoy the experience.
On a cold (35-degree Fahrenheit) February afternoon, I start the plane’s engine, you hop aboard, and soon we’re gaining speed down the bumpy frozen grass runway. Our plane quickly separates from its shadow, signaling that we’re airborne. Leaving the airfield and looking back, we realize the hangar, runway, and reflecting pond are similar to a still-life photograph caught in winter’s final grip. Remember this view and compare it with the one at the end of our flight.
Peering ahead through the plane’s windscreen, we see a snow-covered winter landscape beginning its transition toward spring. The takeoff temperature seems mild compared to the 17 degrees we feel now when our 60-mile-per-hour airspeed is taken into account.
Flying above the serpentine Arkansas River flowing through the flat land south of Wichita, Kansas, we see evidence of rushing water eroding one sandy riverbank turn and making a sandbar at the next one. In the surrounding fields, last November’s sprouted red winter wheat will soon poke through the snow. In other fields, brome hay is dormant, but in the summer months this annual grass crop is harvested to feed livestock. The winter sun thaws snow from the hay fields faster than from those hosting wheat. Therefore, some fields are brown with grass stubble while others remain white.
Below us, the landscape appears locked in winter. Squirrel nests and hunters’ deer stands are clearly visible through barren trees. We see deer paths winding through the woods and underbrush that lead to feeding areas. Soon the snow-laden wheat fields will display their iridescent chartreuse color as the late evening sun highlights the crowded slender stalks. Tree branches with delicate new leaves appear to have frothy green veils, and the river sandbars disclose the presence of visiting wildlife.
Flying further into the changing season, winter continues its hold on the land while our flight travels into March. The green shoots of wheat blanket the fields, becoming the first crop to show life. The landscape is awakening!
For a closer look, we fly lower – one hundred feet above the river sand bars where animal, human, and off-road vehicle tracks are embedded in the sand like fossilized prints. The cockpit view of the three-dimensional advancing panorama is more awe inspiring than any omni-theater movie. The plane’s engine noise, vibration, and cold buffeting wind heighten our senses. In stark contrast, a faint aroma of redbud tree blossoms lining the riverbank can be detected. Occasionally, the odor of weed-clearing range fires creates an invisible rising warm air mass felt only while flying through and receiving lift from it. During low-level evening flights, another aromatic burning odor becomes evident, that from food cooking on outdoor grills!
Suddenly, below us, we see a fellow pilot, Brent Boggs, flying his PPC – a tubular metal cage hanging from a closed-cell parachute and powered by its pusher engine’s propeller.
This wonderfully maneuverable aircraft allows its pilot to slowly skim a few feet above the greening wheat fields. We watch as his shadow startles a grazing deer herd into frenzied evasive action, their white tails bouncing like freshly popped corn escaping the cooker.
We find the expansive view from our own small plane, so close to the ground, exhilarating. We see terraces following the field’s contour, adding to the landscape artistry. Flying his Mini-Max airplane, Chris Duncan enhances our depth perception by flying below and then passing in front of us. The fields are clearly defined by Osage-orange trees, which serve as a soil erosion prevention measure. The trees provide habitat for birds, insects, and squirrels. What wonderful patterns the trees, crops, and cultivated fields display!
We’ve arrived in April, and the temperature is a blissful 70 degrees! Finally, the area boasts full foliage displaying various shades of green while the river collects the sky’s color. Seeing the airfield upon our return, although viewed from a different angle, we notice its dramatic change, far different than the start of our flight. The reflecting pond is full, ducks paddle about, and the grass runway is green and forgiving of a skewed landing. What a marvelous transition that has taken place, made even more dramatic when viewed from the air!
I hope you enjoyed our ride.
- Chris Duncan – Snow-covered airfield and river
- Paul D. Fiebich – All the remaining photos