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  • Martijn

March 31st: long and technical flying day to Boulder, Colorado

Updated: Apr 5




After the weekend in Detroit, we waited for the plane to be ready in Chicago where we got together with some of our friends, attended to administrative issues and were able to get our first dose of Covid vaccine! Our second appointment is in a few weeks and we are hoping that being vaccinated will help us with our European travels, it also makes us feel less vulnerable of course.


When Sweet aviation informed us we were ready to go, we hurried to Fort Wayne in our rental car and prepared everything for the challenge of the next morning: breaking in our engine. We had had quite some trouble finding the rental and had to return it to the main airport vs Smithfield airport where we were based. Luckily, we could borrow Sweet aviation’s courtesy car for a little while to transfer our luggage. Alex was very happy with this car which clearly had had an exciting previous life.


To break in the engine, the first step was to do a 2 hour flight at very high power and fuel settings in order for the cylinders and pistons to settle and stay lubricated over time. After that, until about 25 hours, we would need to keep flying at high power settings and “rich of peak”, i.e. with more fuel than we normally use, and use only “mineral oil” (regular oils have smoothing additives). Those 25 hours would also serve as a test phase, allowing us to feel comfortable with all the new parts and pieces before the big and cold Atlantic crossing.

During the break in, all kinds of things can happen, so Alex drew a very smart square route around Smithfield that would take exactly 2 hours. We were fortunate that Smithfield was a low airport (only about 800 feet above sea level) because the higher you fly, the lower the performance of the aircraft meaning high-power settings may not be achieved. No different by the way from us humans when we climb a mountain or go to a high city like La Paz in Bolivia for example where you can hardly breathe and the smallest effort feels like running a marathon.


The thing to monitor during the break in are the cylinder temperatures which should go down as they settle, so we flew our square at 3000 feet with about 80% power and took pictures of the cylinder temperatures every 5 minutes to have a full documentary about their evolution. After about 1 hour, the temperatures indeed came down, phew!, and Alex started varying the power from 75% to 65% every 15 minutes as recommended by the manufacturer.


Cylinder temperatures at 9.07 am

and at 10.05 am - cylinders were behaving as expected

The landscape around Smithfield is flat and quite empty so we didn’t miss much by not looking out the window, even though I did take a second for a picture of one of fort Wayne's three rivers and a windmill farm that made me feel a little bit at home :)


After we landed, Sweet aviation did a quick check and replaced the oil we had consumed, 3 liters in 2 hours! All was good so we could continue with the plan of the day which was to fly to Boulder Colorado (KBDU). We said goodbye to the great team, lead by Sean Barr, and left with a nice note in our pocket.


Boulder was the first stop in the trip we had planned through the Rocky Mountains. The city had been recommended to us as a good starting place by Bob Reynolds, a pilot friend of Alex’ from Chicago because of its cute center and relaxed, almost hippie, atmosphere. Personally, the only thing I associated with Boulder was Nanu nanu from Mork&Mindy and much more sadly the recent supermarket shooting that left 10 people dead.


We had to use more fuel and oil than usual, so we could not cover the 918 miles to Boulder without a pit-stop. Conscious of the break-in, Alex chose an airport that had a Cirrus center: Lincoln Nebraska (KLNK), 527 miles from Fort Wayne which we covered at high power settings but without any issues. Again, the landscape was not especially thrilling, so the fact that we had our eyes on the engine parameters rather than out the window was not a problem. The flight was a little longer than planned because of the headwinds -around 30 knots- which are almost always present when you go West (definitely not a myth!).


Because he saw we were a little nervous, Benjamin at the Silverhawk Cirrus center in Lincoln dropped what he was doing and did a quick check of the oil level and parameters for us, all was still good so we could keep going. We had flown 2 hours in the morning, 4 hours to Lincoln and still had 2 to 3 hours to go to Boulder. This was a long day for us. Unlike some earthrounders who do 12 to 14 hour legs thanks to extra fuel tanks, we tend to prefer 4 to 6 hour legs and couldn’t do much more even if we wanted because we chose not to install extra tanks.


Not only was it a long day, but we also knew that at the end of it we would literally “hit the wall”. Between Lincoln and Boulder, the terrain would rise below us from 1200 feet to 5200 feet and Boulder airport was just before the wall of the Rocky’s. If we needed to land towards the East, would we even have enough space to turn the airplane??


In case it didn’t feel safe, we had already programmed an alternative airport (KBJC), a little further away from the Rocky wall.


The closer we got to Boulder which elevation was 5200 feet, the more the terrain crept up under the airplane. We never ever needed to descend to land, the terrain did all the work: a strange but efficient experience.


The closer we got to Boulder, the more little airports there were and we found out that many flight schools operated in the area with students doing “pattern work”, i.e. circling the runway practicing “touch-and-go’s”. All of a sudden we were surrounded by little airplanes flying at the same altitude as us (we were at Boulder pattern altitude) which we needed to avoid. Most of them were communicating their position and intentions very clearly, and we also have an ADS-B traffic system on the plane, so we could stay out of their way, even without seeing them. Indeed, it is much more difficult than you would think, at least for me, to spot a small airplane in the big sky, even if you know where to look (eg. 11 o’clock, 5 miles distance, 500 feet below you). It would be easier to spot large Boeings but we almost never need to because they fly 30,000 feet above us and don’t even appear on our screen because they are “no factor”. In addition, to the South was Denver airport (KDEN) whose airspace we needed to stay out of, meaning that we needed to stay under 8000 feet under the blue circles, so basically we were stuck between an airspace, pilot students doing pattern work and a huge red mountain in front.


After having successfully avoided Denver and the traffic at the small airports (KGXY and KFNL), we spotted Boulder runway and saw that the mountain facade was not as close as we had imagined. Despite all the previous stress, Alex turned easily to land on runway 8 and with that ended our longest flying day ever (8.5 hours) without hitting the wall that was now behind us.


We parked the plane on the apron of Boulder Municipal airport, tied it down with the ropes that were provided, and since there was no one there we just put our name on the paper list in the office. So easy!


The Uber driver who took us to the town was a great tourist guide and drove us around before dropping us off. He had moved there a few years ago from New York because his daughters studied at the university of Colorado Boulder campus, he loved hiking so could easily recommend a few itineraries for the next day. We ended up picking the hike to Mount Sanitas which according to the Alltrails app was “hard” but short -only 2 hours- and enjoyed its views the next morning. It was indeed quite challenging, relatively steep and full of rocks to climb, but a lot of fun. And of course, as usual, there are always people around to make you feel old, such as the outdoorsy types who pass you running while calling “on your left” because of their high speed…


Alex in front of a green mountain (a grönberg?)

View of the snow on the real mountains

and also some real snow! I hadn't touched that in years!

And finally, the highlight of the hike: the runway seen from the top of the mountain wall


Boulder downtown is indeed very cute and has a historic pedestrian area along Pearl street with restaurants and shops, many of which were open despite Covid. It has a young student atmosphere thanks to the University campus. We saw lots of posters saying “Boulder Strong” and/or pictures of the victims to commemorate the shooting on March 22nd. The Uber driver had told us that the town was very sad, and that showed.


The first night in Boulder we had dinner in an old train depot, Roadhouse Boulder Depot, very close to the hotel which was also close to the large Google offices that were being built. Apparently Boulder is home to the largest Google site outside of California. The second night we ate on the terrace of an Italian restaurant in the historic center.


In both cases, our choice was limited because many places close at 8 pm and we often did not get to dinner before that time (we seem to still be on Latin hours…), despite the fact that we had planned to get up at 6 am the next morning, April 2nd, for a very scenic flight to Santa Few, New Mexico.

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