Mr Shane's report in all it's unabridged glory. Behold, the plan...
We’re back on the road (and in the air) looking for a new route. This time, we’re searching for the most quintessential Icarus X-Series route for a late-summer Eastern Washington adventure race. The Palouse region in Eastern Washington is a special place. At any given time of year, the rolling wheat fields, streams, and deep canyons on the Snake River offer up some of the most unique scenery the north-west has to offer.
Palouse Falls is the “official waterfall” of the state, and thousands of tourists flock to see it each year. This region, and especially the falls themselves are an excellent place to fly - when the weather allows. It’s typically an arid, windswept landscape that is rather harsh and rugged. During the late summer months, temperatures are still high but winds die down and in a single tank of gas you can discover a huge range of different terrain in a short period of time. The Snake River gorge is often called the “Grand Canyon of Washington” and it doesn’t disappoint. For this reason, we knew that the X-series race had to happen here at some point, and all pilots in the region would likely want to come enjoy a weekend of flying in this area. Hence - The Icarus X-Series and Fly-In - Palouse Country.
We had a basic route in mind, covering about 175-mile trek going from Hooper, WA - Pasco, WA - Pendleton, OR - and returning to the airfield via the foothills of the Blue Mountains. We phoned up Tucker Gott to see if he would fancy some adventure flying while we test out the viability of the route, and he jumped at the chance. The plan was to spend 2-3 days touring the route and surrounding areas and use another 2 days to scout other areas in the region by land.
The flaw with the otherwise perfect plan is that it’s being done in the late spring, in one of the windiest regions of the state. The weather will be reasonable during the timeframe of the event, but time constraints forced us to pick a week that was a 50/50 shot of being horrible to do the recce.
Gear check day. The goal was to nail down one local flight and get footage of the ranch, Falls, Snake River, and wheat fields. All the stuff a pilot could expect to see if attending the Fly-In. All while making sure our gear is working and our systems are in place for carrying food, water, oil, camping gear, etc. The forecast was to be windy, so we got up super early. We launched from my parents’ property with just enough wind to reverse launch, and flew the area for an hour while the winds steadily increased to upwards of 20mph. We weren’t able to get low in the canyons like we wanted, but at least we knew our gear worked. After a 30-min fight to get back to the truck, we landed back on a high spot in a wheat field to avoid turbulence. The weather was total crap the rest of the day, so we drove out to a couple neighbouring towns to have a look at fuel options from the ground. We especially liked the town of Dayton, Washington - small town charm and gas stations on the outskirts. Perfect!
We were expecting a shipment of oil to come in that day, and USPS sadly failed at their one job, so we knew we needed to hunt for whatever we could get. This is a bummer because the oil we were expecting is capable of running our engines at a 60:1 mix, everything else requires 40:1, meaning we would have to carry 1/3 more oil in our kit.
Totally blown out in the first hours of the day. We used the time to go check out a few more towns to see how unsupported-paramotor-friendly they were while shopping for the best full-synthetic oil we could find. We scored some Stihl HP Ultra oil, a high-end synthetic used in quality chainsaws and lawn equipment. On the Icarus, you carry what you can and buy the rest. This means you can find yourself having to source oil, gas, food, repair parts, tools, etc. We figured running this mystery oil was a great rehearsal for the real race.
In the afternoon, the cumulus clouds started to slow down up high, and it looked like we might have a window where we wouldn’t be fighting a 20mph headwind. We had to depart the ranch to the south and cross the Snake River gorge, followed by a massive wind farm in order to get to safe ground. The stronger the headwind, the longer we would be exposed to a potential emergency landing in unfriendly terrain. We figured that if winds were below 10mph, it would be worth the risk of making the crossing.
We postured ourselves at the takeoff spot on the ranch and got our gear ready. At around 18:40 it was go-time, and we departed into a nice breeze as the clouds were clearing and the evening sun cast long shadows on the Snake River gorge and green hills of the Palouse area. We had enough daylight to only make it to Dayton - which was only 25 miles away as the paramotor flies. Shameful. We climbed up high, accelerated and navigated the wind farm making our way to the small town. As we dropped into the valley to the SW side of Dayton, we noticed a jovial cowboy mural carved into one of the hills. It was huge. Tucker and I joked about doing a covert operation to make the mural more anatomically correct but figured it had probably been done by locals before. Later, we learned that the mural was originally the Jolly Green Giant food company mascot, but after the company’s packing plant left town the locals turned him into a cowboy figure.
We made an easy approach to an Artisan Food Center that was closed for Mother’s Day. After an uneventful landing, we folded up our wings on the side of the road and started walking back towards town in search of food, gas, and a place to camp. We lucked out when a local scooped us up in his truck and took us to the town centre. We opted for the Best Western, checked in, and grabbed the luggage carts to move our paramotors to the nearest gas station. After gassing up, we stored our kits in the room and headed to Woody’s Bar and Grill - which had a damn good BLT with jalapenos and onions. Tucker had a burger, which I soon learned is all he eats.
Sunrise in this part of the country on this particular day was 05:20. That’s an early wake-up. Tucker found a field on Google maps the night prior that looked much closer to the hotel and suitable for takeoff. We woke up at 04:45 and started packing our gear out to the field. When we got there, we realised the field was actually more of a hill, and it had 2’ wheat crop as far as the eye could see. No matter, we could actually pull up under the power lines and run down the side of the road - easy as pie. I took off first, and Tucker noted that my glider actually dragged the tip on the power lines as I was inflating and running out from under them. As I was orbiting, Tucker made a launch attempt but the power lines fouled him up. He got off eventually, and we started to move south against the foothills of the Blue Mountains to the East side of Walla Walla. With the headwind we had, we figured the farthest we could make would be Milton-Freewater - only 30 miles away to the south and just over the Oregon border. We had to navigate the outskirts of the class D airspace in Walla Walla as we crossed over the multiple small canyons climbing up the foothills of the Blues.
I can’t explain why, but for some reason about an hour into the flight, I found that I was burning fuel like crazy. Granted I was aloft for a little while waiting for Tucker to launch, but it appeared I was burning more than 2 gallons per hour! My theory is that the fuel stabiliser in the Stihl oil made me ravage through the fuel. At any rate, I was feeling stupid because I only took off with 2.5 gallons instead of topping off to 3 the night prior. We were fighting a pretty big headwind, and we had only made it 18 miles. There was nowhere to land with fuel nearby, as we had to stay out of the invisible Class D boundary.
As my tank approached empty, I looked for a place with an easy re-launch. I found a small patch of dry ground on the edge of a wheat field, right up against some power lines. The approach was committing, as I was heading directly into the wires as a backstop. Don’t fuck it up Shane.
Easy landing in a 7-10mph wind, and I didn’t land in crops that would piss the locals off. Tucker made an approach and landed, and we folded up our wings waiting for something to happen. Tucker still had a gallon of fuel, if we had packed a syphon hose this would be an easy ordeal, but we didn’t think about this scenario.
I went and knocked on neighbouring doors, but no one was home. After some time, a farmer pulled up in his truck towing a spray vehicle. He was about to spray the field, but the wind had gotten too strong. After explaining our ordeal, he gave us his jerry can which had 2 gallons in it - perfect! We only needed to make it another 10 miles to get to a more convenient stop, so we grabbed a splash of gas and set up to takeoff. Once again, inflating under power lines and taxiing down the side of the road for takeoff. The winds had picked up quite a bit. We decided Tucker should go first since he burns less fuel, and he took off narrowly avoiding a road sign on one side and power lines on the other with a burly crosswind pushing him toward the wires. Piece of cake. I took off, and we proceeded to the south-west around the class D airspace and class-E extension.
It was only 09:30, but winds were strong, fields were brown, and thermals were already feeling sharp. We burned down to Milton-Freewater and landed on a dirt road between two newly-cultivated fields. Plenty of dump-truck traffic was going by as we folded up, and I jet-boiled us a lasagna lunch compliments of Mountain House. We knew we didn’t want to fly again until later in the day, so there was really no rush in getting to the gas station.
We knew we needed to fuel up, and we wanted to get a different type of oil that would get us a better fuel burn. It was about a 1.5 mile walk, so we procrastinated a bit while eating our delicious, authentic freeze-dried Italian bounty. As we were finishing up lunch, a truck driver stopped to inquire what the deal was. He called up a friend (Robin) and asked him to bring us some gas. We were pretty stoked, we were just about to take off walking but now had someone coming to deliver fuel.
Robin and his friend pulled up about 20 minutes later, and we asked if they could give us a ride into town. Turns out he had a nice spread on the other side of town that would make a great takeoff, so we ditched our motors at his place while we went to lunch with them. It was a typical bar and grill of the region, Tucker had a burger and I had a taco salad. Tucker noted that it was a risky move, seeing as we weren’t packing any TP. He’s getting the hang of it. We also went to the Honda shop to get some HP-2 synthetic oil, all the while watching the forecast to plot our next move.
The next day was looking bad, rainy all day and high winds. We didn’t want to be stuck in Pendleton, so we knew we needed to adjust our plan to maximise the trip. We finally decided that the best move was to take off in the afternoon and head back home. At least that way, we would have a vehicle to go explore the following day and look at other potential sites.
We got back to Robin’s place around 14:00. The gusts were strong, approaching 20mph and the temps were high. It was only 47 miles back to the ranch, so we knew we could make it given that we would pretty much have a direct tailwind. We rested in the shade and took a quick nap waiting for the winds to die down. Robin’s property had some high barriers and power lines on the departure end, and he suggested we pack up and head to his friend’s house who had a more suitable launch spot.
We loaded up in the truck around 17:00 and headed that way, and his buddy’s place was the perfect PPG launch as Robin described. Wide-open field with a downhill facing directly into the wind. We both departed and climbed up to about 1000’ directly above the field. The guys asked for a bit of an airshow, so we did a quick throw-down and waved as we departed the Milton-Freewater area.
Winds aloft were pushing us along pretty good. We were now tracking on the west side of the Walla Walla Class D airspace, averaging about 42kts with just trims out. At that rate, it would take us a little over an hour to get back home. I was diligent about my fuel check this time, once we got to cruise I actually started a clock to calculate the burn. When I got to the 20 minute mark, the burn seemed a lot more average and I still had well over two gallons so I wasn’t sweating this leg.
The topography was similar to the flight to Dayton, but this route was slightly further West toward the Tri-Cities area. Tri-Cities is a small metropolis where the Snake River dumps into the Columbia River, which forms the southern border of Washington. The area is much brown and desert-like, the evening sunlight made for a very scenic pre-frontal sky filled with oranges and blues. We converged with our outbound route as we crossed the Snake river again, and we had the airport in sight. As we got to within 2 miles of the tiny ranch airfield, we could see a pair of crop dusters working the area. They use the private airstrip as a refuelling/rearming base when dusting the wheat fields, so we made sure to sneak in while they were both well away from the strip. Tucker and I landed right near the road at the entrance to the airstrip, so as not to surprise the pilots if they came in for a quick refuel. Mom met us at the field with my truck, and as we were folding up wings one of the crop dusters gave us a super low flyby on his way out of the area. It actually knocked my paramotor over it was so low. Still, pretty cool though. Dick.
It wasn’t the 175 mile three-day adventure we wanted, but it’s still a feeling of accomplishment to fly out with a loose plan and not enough oil, with nothing but your wits to keep you going. We rely heavily on the curiosity and good nature of strangers when doing this type of flying. Luckily people always seem pretty excited about what we’re doing. We headed back home for the evening planning out the next two days.
Spoiler alert - no flying today. Raining all day, super windy, and low ceilings made it impossible. We opted for a ground recon of the towns of St. John, Rosalia, and Steptoe Butte. The route we had flown was beautiful, but to the south, there wasn’t quite as much available fuel and that could be a problem flying into a headwind. The road to St. John (to the northeast of the ranch about 30 miles) was somewhat repetitive. Rolling hills and sagebrush, not quite the “Palouse country" but not really desert either. We headed East to Rosalia, which is a nice little town situated near a historic railroad bridge crossing a river. They’ve also installed a wind farm since I last visited - so that was pretty neat to see the proximity. We had coffee in a sleepy little coffee/antique shop on Main St.
After that, we went on to explore Steptoe Butte (for the Brits, it’s pronounced like “flute”). This state park is the site of a large butte that gives a panoramic view of the whole region - you could say it’s butte-iful, or at least it would be if the ceiling wasn’t so low and there wasn’t so much rain. Steptoe was once a popular free-flying site, but after a few incidents and injuries from one particular self-trained pilot, the state parks shut it down and you can’t launch from it anymore (as I understand). Shouldn’t be a problem to fly to it though, so we figured we would consider using it as a checkpoint in the Icarus X-series.
We looked at the forecast for day five and were considering making a downwind run to Steptoe to soar it. But as the day went on the forecast kept changing, and rain was supposed to continue well into the last day. It looked as though the flying portion of this recce had been shut down by weather.
We slept in! Rains and shit-wind continued in the morning, but the skies still showed promise. The forecast looked like it would be flyable for the last couple hours, so we had our sights set on a repeat of the local flight, this time with more low flying and exploring the canyons.
At about 18:00, we knew it was time to go. We filled up and launched from my parents’ property again, and the air was buttery smooth as the wind was dying off for the evening. There was a low overcast which made for flat light, but we knew that closer to sunset the sun would peek out beneath the clouds. I took Tucker for the “ranch tour.” I know this ranch incredibly well, as I’ve spent a lot of time hunting and exploring it over the years. We dipped into a two-mile-long canyon that feeds into the Palouse River called Winn Lake Canyon. Flying a foot off the ground at 30mph, the canyon slowly got deeper and deeper as it fell into the Palouse River canyon below the falls. As the canyon dumped into the Palouse, we swung down to low-fly over the river - but it proved nearly impossible because there were so many bugs skimming the water. We were headed up-river now, toward the massive 190-foot waterfall in a 400-foot deep canyon.
As we got closer to the falls, we climbed up in favour of getting boxed-in near the roaring waterfall. We flew over the falls on the east side and dipped down into the small gorge above them. Tucker really wanted to fly it low- so he kept it on the private side of the river and flew over the waterfall at about 30 feet high. I’ve done the same at about 5 feet of altitude (calm weather and no spectators), and I gotta say your stomach drops out as you cross over the rushing water to reveal the deep canyon, it’s a crazy feeling. The state park seemed pretty busy with hikers, so we opted not to do it over and over again - fly friendly and all that.
From there we followed the upper Palouse river to the next two sets of falls, which were pretty adorable in comparison to the big waterfall. Still, pretty neat scenery. As we came out of that canyon, the river opened up into a wide valley near the town of Washtucna. We followed the river east where it came back around to the town of Hooper - the Northern border of the ranch. We cut back to the ranch to the south and B-lined it for my mom’s place, flying just a few feet off the ground. We stopped to try to wingtip drag some ponds, but it just wasn’t happening for me so I figured I better not push it. As we cut across two other small canyons on the ranch property, the sun finally revealed itself from below the clouds making the last 20 minutes of daylight a real treat to fly. We even sort of got to soar one of the long brown buttes in the centre of the cattle ranch. We got back to my Mom’s place just before sunset and climbed up high to hang onto the alpenglow light that makes the place look so orange around sunset. After landing at the truck we were pretty happy with what we considered to be the perfect Palouse-country flight.
We learned a lot about the region in terms of cross-country potential and got some eyes-on experience of what certain areas looked like from above. I think we’re scrapping the original route in favour of something that includes all the great features, so if you’re an Icarus hopeful - stay tuned as we hammer down the perfect route. If you’re a pilot that’s excited to fly the Palouse area later this summer - I hope we see you there!
Thank you Mr Shane. See some of the best photos from the trip here.
One of Tucker Gott's videos featuring this trip is here. Enjoy.
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