Bill Sniffin: Bird’s-Eye View Of Wyoming – There Is Nothing Quite Like It

Columnist Bill Sniffin writes, "One of my most extraordinary flying experiences ever was floating in a helicopter near the face of Wyoming’s highest mountain - Gannett Peak."

Bill Sniffin

September 30, 20236 min read

Sniffin mug shot 10 3 22 v2
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

One of my most extraordinary flying experiences ever was floating in a helicopter near the face of Wyoming’s highest mountain - Gannett Peak.

Because we owned the Wind River News, a weekly newspaper I founded in the 1980s for the Wind River Indian Reservation, one of my reporters and myself were invited to fly with their fire repression team based at Fort Washakie. It was probably about 1988.

We flew over some of the most amazing country ever. Famed mountaineer Paul Petzoldt always said the view from Horse Ridge was the best in the state. We saw that while flying toward Gannett.

And Gannett is a big mountain, folks, at 13,804 feet high. It dominates the northern Wind River Range. As we flew around the face of it, I asked the pilot if he could hover, so I could get a better photo? Nope, our altitude was too high.

We also flew right up to Wind River Peak (13,192 feet), which dominates the southern Wind River Range. Another of the most impressive parts of the flight was flying around the Cirque of the Towers, perhaps the most beautiful area in the Wind River range.

It was a memorable experience that I will never forget.

Two weeks after our flight, that helicopter crashed hurting a couple of people. That was sobering. But it did not dampen my enthusiasm for the whole idea of being airborne over Wyoming.

Bird’s Eye View of Wyoming

Man has always wanted to fly. And seeing Wyoming from a bird’s eye view is just about the best way possible to appreciate this beautiful state.

And looking down right now is just about as good as it can possibly get. The leaves are turning golden while our purple mountains bask in the sunshine with enough early, 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 interest in an airplane with a 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 – bringing it in was like landing on an aircraft carrier. Later I flew Cessna 182s, which landed like a leaf falling from a tree. 

  • Bill Sniffin with Cessna 182 and grandkids
    Bill Sniffin with Cessna 182 and grandkids (Bill Sniffin)
  • Wind River Peak dominates southern mountain range
    Wind River Peak dominates southern mountain range (Bill Sniffin)
  • Flying with helicopter crew
    Flying with helicopter crew (Bill Sniffin)
  • Cirque of Towers in Wind River Range
    Cirque of Towers in Wind River Range (Bill Sniffin)
  • Close up of a big peak in Wind River Range
    Close up of a big peak in Wind River Range (Bill Sniffin)
  • Aerial view of Devils Tower
    Aerial view of Devils Tower (Getty Images)

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 a part-owner 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 saves time. For example, flying from Lander to Greybull takes a little over 30 minutes. It is a three-hour drive.

During a typical flight to Greybull, the view flying over Boysen Reservoir and then looking down on Wind River Canyon was spectacular. To the northwest, the Absaroka Mountains were high and rugged. Landing at 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, We Flew The Region

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 interstate journeys. It was fun flying around the southern tip of the Big Horn Mountains. Huge herds of domestic sheep could be seen. Crazy Woman Canyon near Buffalo was spectacular.

I fell in love with Wyoming’s 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 450,000 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 on the reservation is a famous 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. There are crazy odd winds along that route, known on the ground as the Interstate 80 Snow Chi Minh Trail.

Two things ended my flying career. First was a detached retina, which can easily happen again with air pressure changes. The other was that I did not have a business excuse nor a business expense account to justify it. Flying is expensive. If you cannot write off most of your costs as business expenses, it can really make a dent in your personal bank account.

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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Bill Sniffin

Wyoming Life Columnist

Columnist, author, and journalist Bill Sniffin writes about Wyoming life on Cowboy State Daily -- the state's most-read news publication.