Fly Wyoming

Sniffin: Flying above my Cowboy State is unique and cherished experience

in Bill Sniffin/Column

By Bill Sniffin, Cowboy State Daily

There is probably no better way to appreciate this land we call Wyoming than seeing it from the air.

And looking down right now is just about as good as it can possibly get. The green valleys are glistening with new growth while our purple mountains bask in the sunshine with still enough pearly white snow to sparkle in the distance.

Our lakes are as blue as our blue skies. And no skies in America are as blue as Wyoming’s.

Ah, what a sight.  Just love seeing Wyoming from the air. Nothing like it in the world.

I write these words as a person who piloted his own airplane for 30 years.

Legendary flight instructors Les Larson and Larry Hastings taught me to fly in 1976.  I bought an airplane with local accountant named J. Ross Stotts.  The plane we bought was an old Piper P-28 that had been owned by the late Mable Blakely. She was famous as one of the original “99s,” the name given to the first women pilots in the country.

That plane was heavy but fast — any landing felt like landing on an aircraft carrier. Later I flew Cessna 182s, which landed like a leaf falling from a tree. I loved flying. Every bit of it.

As a little boy, my first flight was in a two-seater.  I was jammed between my dad and my Uncle Dick Johnson, both big men. We took off and flew all over the hills and valleys of northeast Iowa. I can remember how my stomach felt as we turned and climbed and soared. I even remember the smell of the hot oil coming from the engine. 

When we landed on a grass strip I recall saying to myself, “Someday that is going to be me, flying my own airplane.”

It was 19 years later when I became a pilot.

I was part of a small newspaper company that had newspapers in Lander, Greybull, Cody, Green River, and Gillette.

Wyoming is so doggone big; there is just about no way to make it smaller. But flying an airplane instead of driving a car definitely works.  Flying from Lander to Greybull took a little over 30 minutes. It was a three-hour drive.

That view of flying over Boysen Reservoir and looking down on Wind River Canyon, well, it was spectacular. To the northwest, the Absaroka Mountains were high and rugged. The airport at Greybull was a piece of cake. The runway is wide and long because of all the old converted bombers being used as fire-fighting tankers that were based there. Plus Greybull gets very little wind.

Cody, on the other hand, always had a nasty crosswind that blew down from Rattlesnake Mountain right about the time you thought you had your landing in the bag.  “Oops” or words to that effect usually accompanied my landings at Cody.

Later on, we got involved with ownership of newspapers in Montana and South Dakota.  Thus, we flew over the entire state of Wyoming on these journeys. It was fun flying around the southern tip of the Big Horn Mountains.  Huge herds of domestic sheep could be seen. Outlaw Canyon near Buffalo was spectacular.

I fell in love with buttes during these flights.  The Pumpkin Buttes southwest of Gillette were probably my favorite although Pilot Butte near Rock Springs comes close. One of the Rawhide Buttes outside of Lusk is sure an odd piece of rock. Looks more like a pyramid.

The historic Oregon Buttes on South Pass were so significant in our history. When those 500,000 Oregon Trail emigrants reached these buttes, they knew they had crossed the Continental Divide and were more than halfway home.

Crowheart Butte southeast of Dubois is a landmark that you can see from a long ways off.

And flying over Devils Tower is unforgettable.  What a monolith!  I learned to love the Wyoming Black Hills from flying over them so many times.

I rarely flew directly over the top of mountains. But I could look out the window and see the jagged peaks of the Wind Rivers or the impressive canyons of the Big Horns.

Flying over Elk Mountain and Kennaday Peak between Rawlins and Laramie could be frightening.  Crazy odd winds along that route, known on the ground as the Interstate 80 Snow Chi Minh Trail.

Here is part of a wonderful poem that I love, which talks about the love of flying. It is called High Flight by John Gillespie McGee Jr. Its final lines go like this:

Up, up the long delirious burning blue,
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle, flew;
And, while silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space.
Put out my hand, and touched the Face of God.
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