The Airport That Wasn’t There

by John House

In January 1986 I was the sales manager for a full-line Cessna dealer. We sold both new and used Cessna’s as well as many other brands. It was a fun job that allowed me to fly scores of different aircraft models. Between demos, delivering and charter work I was racking up quite an impressive number of logbook entries.
We were also a Cessna Pilot Center and provided instruction including private, commercial, ATP, instrument, CFI/CFII, multiengine and seaplane. Of course, we also rented aircraft and it was common to have 20+ aircraft in the rental fleet from Cessna 152’s to 310’s and everything in between.

It was common practice to sell the rental aircraft when they reached about 1,000 hours. Such was the case of three 152’s I sold to a flight school in Greeley Colorado. As I remember, the flight school was a part of a community college and had a program much like Sacramento City College. They were anxious to get three new (to them) aircraft to replace a couple well-worn 150’s they were currently using.

We agreed to the price as a package, but they would not complete the purchase until one of their mechanics did an inspection of each aircraft at their facility in Colorado. We had just completed annual inspections and we always kept our aircraft in excellent condition so I felt confident the aircraft would pass with no issues. I talked a couple of stiffs, Greg (now retired B787 captain) and Mike (our service manager), into flying with me to deliver the three tiny aircraft across the Sierra’s and the Rockies in the dead of winter.

I don’t remember how long we waited for a weather window to open for the flight but when it finally did, off we went. The plan was to stop in Elko for fuel before continuing to Salt Lake City for the evening. The day dawned cold and beautiful with severe-clear conditions. We formed up about the time we reached Lake Tahoe. Somebody had the dumb idea, I think it was me, to do a little formation flying. What could go wrong? I’ll leave that for another day.

We arrived in Salt Lake City (SLC) after refueling both the aircraft and pilots in Elko (EKO). Our plan was to get in the air the next morning early so we could arrive in Greeley (GXY) early enough for the school’s mechanic to bless the aircraft. We had tickets to fly home from Denver’s Stapleton International (DEN) later that evening, so we didn’t want to delay too much.

We headed to the north-east out of SLC to avoid the cumulogranite between us and Greeley. We climbed to 11,500 and again enjoyed severe-clear conditions. We were about an hour into the flight when I heard, “My RPM is dropping and I can’t maintain altitude.” Uh-oh! If you look at the Salt Lake sectional, or Foreflight, the terrain 60 miles east of SLC is a bit desolate. As in, there’s no there there.

While Greg worked to determine the problem, Mike and I looked for an airport to set down. It was midwinter and there was nothing but high desert covered in snow. We were flying V32 with an MEA of 12,000 and were not talking to ATC. We were not too far from Evanston WY so we headed that direction. We looked for Evanston Municipal (EVW), but we could not find it. It just wasn’t there. It was on our sectional charts but not out the window. How could that be? Nothing but snow.

The entire area was about 7,000 msl and up. Not ideal for a winter off-field landing. Greg was losing altitude and I was getting worried. He later admitted that while he didn’t need a change of skivvies, it was a bit unnerving. We kept looking for the airport. The only thing around was a rather desolate stretch of Interstate 80 ahead of us. Nobody wanted that but better than the alternative. Before we started to debate that, I saw a black strip on a plateau about 10 miles away. I suggested we head that direction. As we got closer, I radioed, “… that sure looks like an airport but it’s not on the chart.” The other two agreed and we kept going.

Sure enough, that big, beautiful, long black strip was in fact an airport. It had numbers on it and everything! Since it was not on the chart, we didn’t know what airport it was or what frequency was being used. We didn’t care; we were landing. We dialed in the unicom frequency for Evanston Muni and alerted anyone in the area that a flight of three Cessnas were nearing the airport. We got a reply from someone that the winds were 010 at 20 knots gusting to 25 and suggested we use runway 05. Good idea. We couldn’t see the windsock from the air. There’s a saying in Wyoming, “It never snows in Wyoming. It blows in from Montana!”

After we landed, we found out they had just opened the airport and they were abandoning the old one. Because the airport was brand new, the runway itself was jet black. It really stood out in the vast snow-covered desert. The change had not yet been made to the sectional chart. The patron saint of pilots (Our Lady of Loreto) was watching over us. There had been a snowstorm a day or two prior to our arrival and they figured there was no need to plow the now closed runway.

As it was, we ended up staying in Evanston for a couple days and had the time of our lives. Tongue firmly planted in cheek. Oh, and it turned out to be a mag failure. Can’t understand why a 152 won’t stay at 11,500 feet on one mag.