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Flying Aces Poker Run

By Ron Kilber

February 17, 2001

Just after sun-up I walk from my place to Ernie Wright's hangar to fly copilot in his Luscombe. I don't have far to hoof it as Wright lives only a quarter mile or so down the taxiway from me at Indian Hills Airpark. We're planning to enter the Flying Aces Poker Run, a first-ever event as part of the Annual Great Arizona Outback Chili Cook-off, which is sponsored by the McMullen Valley Chamber of Commerce in Salome, Arizona.

The object of the poker run is the same as in the card game -- to draw the highest hand. Only we won't be sitting at a saloon table. Instead, each entrant draws one card at each airport until s/he has five cards. That is, we'll draw one card here at Indian Hills, another at the Eagle Roost Airpark, then the Wickenburg Airport, again at the Outback Airport and finally the fifth card at this field again. The entire circuit is about 130 miles. Whoever gets the best hand in the end wins $200. Second prize is $50. Third prize is a Harrah's Casino Package, whatever or wherever that may be. There's even a prize for the contestant who gets the worst hand -- two Chili Cook-off T-shirts.

After drawing an Ace from the card deck, we strap ourselves into Wright's Luscombe. Just after Den and Tedi Peck's Champ lifts off from Runway 26, Wright pushes the throttle to the firewall. Within minutes we're airborne on a northeasterly heading towards Eagle Roost Airpark -- on our way to get our second poker card. Other pilots have already drawn cards and departed with their airplanes. More are waiting to do the same.

It isn't long after we level off that we're able to hook up with Peck's Champ. We've planned it this way so that we can exchange air-to-air photos over the McMullen Valley.

Den Peck's Champ

The outside air temperature is only 40 degrees (F). The air is smooth as silk as we prop along about 80 mph on the north side of the temporarily snow-capped Harquahala Mountains. We're only five-hundred feet above the desert floor under a high layer of clouds. The sun is trying hard to burn through to us. The lighting is so soft it's almost surreal as Peck flies close formation along side us. I have this feeling of video-arcade déjà vous. Flying really is miraculous -- the ultimate joy-stick game. Only we can't press the restart button if we have to force-land. This one's a play-for-keeps affair.

Wright's Luscombe (Photo by Den Peck)

As we approach Eagle Roost Airpark, Howard Smith's Mooney races by both Peck and our Luscombe like we're standing still. The maneuver puts the Mooney in number one position for landing on Runway 17. Peck is second -- we're third.

On the final leg to landing, Peck has to apply full power and go around the pattern because the Mooney is still on the runway. Funny how those fast airplanes that can get out of your way always seem to be in your way.

By the time our wheels hit the pavement, the Mooney is clear of the runway. Peck is on his final leg once more. Only he has to go around -- again. That's because one of our wheels has dropped into a pot hole just after we taxied onto the turf. The Luscombe now blocks the runway while Peck circles overhead waiting to land. It wasn't enough to have only one airplane in Peck's way.

With help from Smith and his copilot Jim Holmberg, we manage to free the Luscombe in a matter of minutes. Finally, Peck lands. He must be thinking "whew" and wiping his brow.

After all that and drawing another card (a "9"), we lift off from Eagle Roost at 9:05 en route to Wickenburg Airport. The sun still hasn't busted through the high clouds. We're approaching land where there are ranches -- both cattle and dude.

Wickenburg is famous for guest ranching. It's where well heeled tourists show up in garb worth many times the value of the horse they romp around upon.

The area is also known for cattle ranching. Only here -- unbelievably -- livestock feed on cacti, of all things. I've never been able to understand how any cow can chew on cholla (jumping cactus) without getting barbs caught all over its mouth and tongue. But the hundreds of cows below us eat and like it so much that they're oblivious to our low flying. Cows seem to be instantly adaptable. When in grass country, they eat grass. When in desert country, they eat cactus.

By 9:30 we land at Wickenburg Airport, and by 9:40 we're back in the air again with another card drawn ("5"). This leg takes us directly to the Outback Airport just three miles northwest of Indian Hills Airpark. As we approach some transmission power lines, we muse about whether we should fly over or under. Wright laughs when I suggest we should go under but careful to not loose the Luscombe's tail, a reference to his incredible 1948 survival story he told when we flew to Bouse last year.

The power lines below us are the same ones that run along side Hil-Pat Airfield some 40 miles farther northwest. It's where General Patton set up tank-training exercises during WWII.

As we fly southwesterly, the slope in the desert floor is perceptible enough to see how this 60-mile-long by 10-mile-wide valley channels all water to flow in the direction of our flight. The entire valley can only drain through Centennial Wash, which bottlenecks near Wenden and Salome on its way to the Gila River, then the Colorado River and finally the Sea of Cortez. If it rains enough here, the bottleneck is a disaster waiting to happen, such as the Wenden Flood last October.

Although farms don't dominate, they certainly are prevalent in this valley. The patch-work agricultural terrain appears out of place in the desert only because it doesn't dominate as it does, say, in the Midwest where every single undeveloped acre has been harnessed for production in some form.

At 10:15 we arrive at the Outback Airport where we are met with Lane Gould who holds the card deck that Wright draws a "3" from. So far our hand is so lousy we won't even qualify for the "low-ball award".

Seven minutes later we depart Outback, and in seven more minutes we land at the Indian Hills Airpark.

By now the 8th Annual Great Arizona Outback Chili Cook-off is in full swing. There are hundreds of people everywhere. Old-West gun fights are capturing the attention of everyone, chili cookers are busy in booths, attendees are eating everything from hot dogs and chili to donuts and cheese crisps. About a dozen classic cars brought in by the Parker based River Rods are on full display, complete with owners standing by to answer question.

Airpark members Sharon Tipton and Roger Crossman appear to be making something besides chili.

Two things are certain today. One: We most likely will not win the Flying Aces Poker Run. Two: If we enter again next year, it'll be proof that Wright and I have had one hell of a lot of fun flying his Luscombe chasing poker cards.

Flying Aces Poker Run Results

1st Place: Dick Brehm
2nd Place: Ron Skites
3rd Place: Larry Tipton
Low Ball: Dennis Peck


Copyright (C) 2001 Ron Kilber Non-commercial reproduction permitted in its entirety with this copyright notice intact.

9:55PM 2/18/01

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