By Greg Brown
Ever since cowboy pilot Baldy Ivy invited Jean and me to the Arizona Cowpunchers Reunion in the ranching town of Williams, we’d looked forward to attending. Unlike glitzy pro-circuit rodeos, the reunion is restricted to authentic working cowboys. What’s more, our son Austin was to join us for the flight to Williams, from Phoenix, along with my pilot buddy, Dan. You can imagine the letdown when weather worries arose on rodeo day.
Granted, we faced nothing worse than a high overcast that morning, but “moist and unstable air” foreboded difficulties to come.
“The forecast calls for only isolated thunderstorms this afternoon, but under similar conditions yesterday, they congregated atop Williams and Flagstaff,” said the briefer.
He reminded me that our destination lay in the storm-propagating “rim country” dividing Arizona’s southwestern deserts from the Colorado Plateau.
Baldy offered little encouragement when I phoned for advice.
“The rain began with yesterday’s rodeo, Greg, and continued all evening,” he said. “We expect more today, so if you come, bring rain gear and warm clothes. And be prepared to stay overnight.”
Concerned, I queried my companions.
“Can you afford to get stranded tonight?” I asked Dan.
“No,” he said, disappointed. “I can’t miss work tomorrow.”
He elected to stay home.
“I have work, too,” said Jean, “but I’m ready for some adventure. I say if we get stuck, so be it. But let’s go!”
Austin agreed, so packing ponchos, parkas and overnight bags, we took flight. Elated to be finally aloft, we sailed serenely northward from Phoenix. Rain showers appeared over Flagstaff, but flight watch confirmed that any thunderstorms lay east of our route.
Joining gliders in the traffic pattern at Williams’s Clark Field, we waited our turn to land. We were securing the cockpit rain cover when Baldy arrived.
“Howdy, ma’am,” he said to Jean, tipping his cowboy hat.
Baldy welcomed us into his aging auto and helped Austin close the passenger window by crossing two bare wires.
“Ranch people look so fit!” exclaimed Jean, upon reaching the rodeo grounds.
Competitors and spectators alike wore colorful western gear; even young children sported chaps and boots. Males of all ages twirled lariats, and we could tell it was from habit, not for show.
“These are my friends,” said Baldy of the audience, as we settled in. “See that family over there? They nursed me back to health when I broke my pelvis rounding up cattle. We take care of each other.”
Emphasizing that point, the rodeo announcer opened with good news.
“I’m happy to report that the toddler who fell from the bleachers yesterday will pull through just fine,” he said. “The family thanks everyone who donated toward medical expenses; we raised over $10,000. If Sonny Smith will report to the announcer’s stand, we’ll return the coat you loaned to cover the boy while waiting for the ambulance.”
With a cheer from the crowd and a peal of thunder, the rodeo began. A downpour soon followed, and elegantly dressed cowboys rolled uncomplaining in the mud. Along with traditional roping and bronc-busting, we watched family-oriented events like junior steer riding (children riding yearling calves), centennial team roping (combined ages of the two ropers must exceed 100), wild horse racing and wild cow milking. A particular crowd-pleaser was ribbon roping: each competing cowboy roped a calf, and then his daughter or spouse raced on foot to the finish line with a ribbon taken from the animal’s tail.
“See that woman in black?” said Baldy of one of the few female roping contestants. “That’s Nancy; she can cowboy with the best of ’em. Nancy is one tough lady. Knocked out two men in a bar one night after they made passes at her. Guess it’s no surprise, after spending seven years in the pen.”
Despite such characters, Baldy noted proudly that in 22 years of this rodeo, he’d never seen an animal injured. Not until late in the rodeo did skies partially clear. Baldy invited us to dine with him in Williams, but the aviation weather briefer said to get on our way.
“You have a clear shot home right now, but it might not last,” he said. “A few small cells are currently over Cottonwood; you can easily steer around them.”
With a pump of the hand and a tip of the hat, our host dropped us at the airport, and we rotated skyward. Sure enough, a short detour over Prescott circumnavigated the weather. We were dodging a final shower when Albuquerque center switched us to Phoenix approach.
“I’ve just talked to Falcon Field tower and there’s no way you’ll get in,” said the Phoenix controller. “A line of thunderstorms just hit there, with winds gusting to 37 knots.”
Having heard nothing of such weather, I was dumbfounded.
“How about Scottsdale Airport?” I asked, trying to gather my wits.
“The storm will beat you there,” he answered. “In fact, you’ll be lucky to make Deer Valley Airport.”
Sure enough, turning downwind to land at Deer Valley, we suddenly faced a wicked wall of dust and rain.
“Stopping here seems like a really bad idea,” I said to Jean and Austin, canceling our landing request.
I negotiated routing southwest to Goodyear Airport, farther from the storm’s main path. With no hangar available, we hurriedly tied down the Flying Carpet in the face of an approaching dust storm. Worried about the airplane and 50 miles from home, we scouted emergency accommodations before soothing our feathers at Raul & Theresa’s Mexican Restaurant. Fortunately, when we emerged an hour later, the fast-moving storm had zoomed mercifully away, leaving clear skies and our uninjured airplane behind.
Emotion engulfed me that evening as we glided homeward over sparkling city lights crowned by copper twilight—how thrilling that my family would willingly accompany me on such exploits. Moments later, a stiff night crosswind greeted us at Falcon Field.
“Was that adequate adventure for today?” I asked Jean as we taxied in.
“Yes,” she replied, grinning. “More than adequate.”
Author of numerous books and articles, Greg Brown is a columnist for AOPA Flight Training magazine. Read more of his tales in “Flying Carpet: The Soul of an Airplane,” available through your favorite bookstore, pilot shop, online catalog or visit [http://www.gregbrownflyingcarpet.com].