A few years ago (it was 1957) I was flying training missions in the back end of a T-29. We flew out of Denver and my fellow cadets and I were learning to be Air Force navigators. GPS was far in the future so we were learning to find our position by shooting the stars with a sextant much as mariners since before the time of Columbus did. For us modern was World War II era radar and loran. First came learning the basic D R (ded reckoning) basics which involved finding one's speed over the ground, determining the direction the airplane was proceeding and noting the time. If you start here, fly this direction at 200 miles per hour for one hour, you should be here. Then comparing what you think your position is, to what you actually see out the window and identify on your map (in aviation we call it a chart) one can figure where your airplane actually traveled over the past hour and make a prediction for where it will be the next hour. The problem would be pretty simple if it weren't for wind but as we all know the air over the surface of the earth is constantly moving.
Several of the missions that we flew to learn DR aided by map reading took us over the vast reaches of the Nebraska Sand Hills. You should have heard the complaining from my fellow cadets! "There is nothing out there, no people, no roads, no rivers, no towns, nothing! There are just sand dunes and little lakes. It is just like flying over the ocean." Those declarations hurt my pride a little having grown up proud to be a Nebraskan. Besides that I knew better. The Sand Hills of Nebraska are to be treasured; not a subject for ridicule by the willfully ignorant.
I think that my love of the Sand Hills was born in 1954 when I was in high school. That summer my dad took me in his J-3, Piper Cub, and we flew from McCook to Rapid City, S.D. My brother-in-law, McCook native, Dale Nielsen was stationed there at Ellsworth AFB flying the B-36. Newly married to my sister Margaret (older and wiser than me) who taught grade school in Rapid. The summer weather promised to be good so it was time for a visit.
Now a Piper Cub cruises flat out at 80 miles per hour so the trip had to have taken about five hours of flying time not including our fuel stop at Hyannis. A good portion involved flying over the trackless sea of grass, our natural treasure, which we know as the Sand Hills. And yes there are a few towns and rivers and roads along the way. On the northern edge of the Sand Hills one also encounters the Bad Lands, steep canyons, little grass and just bad erosion as far as the eye, that is some tough country. Somewhere south of Rapid City we noticed a big circular pattern of white painted rocks that looked exactly like a big bull's eye laid out on a rare level part of the Bad Lands. Intrigued dad circled at low altitude (every flight is at low altitude in a Cub!) to try to see what that "bull's eye" was all about. After landing at Rapid City Dale told us that the "bull's eye" was actually a target laid out on the ground for bombardiers to practice their art in the huge bombers that he was flying. We were two happy guys to realize that we had been lucky to not be over the target when they had been actually been dropping practice bombs.
The company for which I fly recently purchased a manufacturing plant in Rapid City. Now I have the privilege of retracing that same route I first flew in the old J-3 Cub. The past several trips have been flown from 8,000 feet to 26,000 feet above sea level. The higher we fly the farther we can see and the lower gives more detail. Flying time varies from one hour to just shy of two hours depending on the wind and the aircraft we choose to fly.
No matter how many times that I've made the trip I am always impressed with the geology and present use of the land. Departing McCook we look down on well cared for dry land square fields punctuated with a few round circles from center pivots. Flat farm ground is divided by grass covered canyons running to the Republican River and then over the divide flowing north into the Platte River. South of the Platte the flat land gives way to a vista of undulating sand dunes all grass covered Then crossing the river the prairie blends into the low grass covered dunes that we recognize as the sand hills of Nebraska. South of Gordon the land flattens again into cultivated fields. From the air Gordon appears to be just like tens of other western Nebraska towns, blocks and blocks of well tended homes. A few miles north we are over the Sioux Indian Reservation and pass by just east of Pine Ridge, S.D.. Now Pine Ridge looks different as the majority of homes are of the trailer house variety. The junk car business also appears to be thriving.
It is obvious how the Pine Ridge country got its name with its dark green swaths of Ponderosa Pine tree forest. A few houses and those mainly of the manufactured mobile variety are scattered willy-nilly through the pine ridges. Then arise the badlands. There the water in the small farm ponds and even the White River runs a light buff color from suspended silt in the water. Next we again fly over tidy squares of active farm ground and start our approach into Rapid City Regional.
Each trip covers the same route but the geology that formed it never ceases to amaze. We departed real early one morning and the golden sun was just peeping over the horizon as we glided silently over the Sand Hills. The low angle of brilliant sunlight just illuminated the tops of the little hills with the valleys still in total darkness. Then as the sun inched upward the valleys began to boast their coverings of grass and standing hay. The canyons of the badlands were still in deep shadow as we passed which made that country appear even more rugged.
Thank you Lord for creating this beautiful country in which to abide. Thank You too for giving me wings from which to enjoy the beauty of your creation.
That is the way I saw it.