runway numbers and markings are only partially visible. The black tire marks from thousands of landings are obscured.

I look at Robert as we gain altitude to come around for our final approach, “Did that flyby tell you anything?”

“There’s dirt on the runway,” he answers.


“It didn’t look deep, so we shouldn’t have any problems with it but maybe we should make a soft field landing anyway,” he says.

“Okay. Good idea. Another thing to keep in mind is that those small drifts are uneven making for a pretty rough landing and rollout,” I state.

“So I’ll keep the nose up as long as I can.”

“Yeah. What about the reverse thrust?”

He looks at me as we make a descending turn to a base leg, the runway to our right. He ponders a moment longer — his thoughts divided between my question and setting the aircraft up for landing.

“I don’t know,” he finally says.

“The blades are reversed. Which way is the thrust going?” I ask, reaching to set the gear lever in the down position upon his command.

I almost see the flash of light go off in his head. “It will blow the dirt out in front of us. That means the engines will suck in the dust.”

“So, what do you think you should do?”

“Not use reverse thrust which will make our landing roll longer,” he responds.

“Nothing that drastic, but you need to watch for how far ahead the dust is blowing. Use your thrust reversers to minimize that. The engines will be fine. The thrust will keep the dirt out but there’s a chance that if there’s enough dust, it could be swept out ahead and obstruct our visibility.”

“Okay, Dad.” His tone tells me that this little addition has increased his stress level. The movements on the stick become jerkier but we maintain our alignment with the runway — more or less.

“Do you want me to take this one?” I ask.

“No. I have it,” Robert replies.

“Okay then, easy on the controls. Nothing has changed. It’s only another landing but just watch how much reverse thrust you use.”

Our wheels touch the runway — touch being a relative term. As much as slamming your toe into a bed post can be called caressing against it. Okay, it isn’t that bad. In fact, it is a relatively soft landing considering that our runway isn’t exactly an even surface. Robert holds the nose of the 130 off the ground as long as he can as our main wheels bounce across the uneven drifts. The nose lowers and we transition to four-wheel drive plowing across a dry creek bed. I feel our wheels catch on the piles of sand causing us to lurch in one direction and then the other. Robert corrects and holds us steady across the once smooth, concrete runway. He applies reverse thrust and billows of sand are thrown out in front, accompanying the increased roar of the engines. Adjusting the reversers, he slows us to a taxi speed without completely blinding us.

“Nicely done,” I say as the momentum of the 130 carries us past the wall of dust that accompanied our landing rollout.

“Thanks. Where do you want to park?” he asks.

“Let’s pull over to the main ramp.”

We taxi in and leave the engines running. I want us ready to leave quickly in case someone unpleasant shows up and takes offense at our arrival. The dust from our landing hangs in the air over the runway and along our taxi route. Minutes tick by without a reception committee and we shut down. By the time I make my way to the cargo compartment, Greg already has the Stryker unlashed and the 130 ramp open. Even though it’s sunny out, there is a definite chill to the air that seeps in through the open door.

“What did you do? Land us on top of parked cars?” Greg asks amid the metallic clangs of the Stryker hatch opening.

“You know, you don’t have to ride with us. I’m sure there’s a train station somewhere nearby,” I respond.

“I’m sure of that. I think you landed on the tracks.”

“Enjoy the walk from South Dakota, my friend. I’ll send someone out to get you when I get home…if I remember,” I state.

The noise from the Stryker starting ends our conversation right where it should, with me having the last word. The vehicle lurches as it is put into gear and backed out of the aircraft –again managing to emerge without damaging our ride home.

Walking out of the aircraft into the chilly yet sunny day, I notice mare’s tails sweeping across the blue sky, indicative of a front moving in and a possible change in the weather. I long for the days when I had access to forecasts and long-range radar. At least at altitude I can see weather forming at a distance and adapt accordingly — provided I’m not actually in it. Fall is a tricky time of year and almost anything can form. It can change quickly and often. Although we can fly in any weather, we don’t have the navigation facilities necessary to fly in it and be able to shoot approaches with any degree of accuracy. We have been relegated to fair weather flying.

I watch as the team members, including Robert and Bri, begin to gather their gear. The manner with which they go about it shows that they are tired as we prepare to embark on yet another mission. This constantly being ‘on the road’ and moving about is beginning to take its toll. Although wanting to find each of their families, I am feeling much the same and am not overly eager to start another road march. This is only our third stop with seven more to go. We’ll have to take a day soon to rest up. I know when we get home it will be busy as we prepare for the coming winter. A day or two of rest will do us good.

“How do you want to handle this? Two teams or one?” Greg asks as we adjust our vests and check our equipment.

“I’d like to take both teams but I’m not sure about leaving the others here without some of us here. For one, we don’t really know them and two, will they be able to take care of themselves,” I reply.

“Are you worried about them taking your precious airplane?” Greg asks, facetiously.

“No. But we have a certain responsibility toward them and well, you never know.”

Carl, the leader of the survivor group we found in the town of Belt, apparently overheard our conversation. “You know, we’d be happy to keep a watch on things here,” he says. “We’ve managed to stay alive this long and we promise not to press any buttons.”

I feel a little embarrassed at being overhead making disparaging remarks which brings a chuckle from Greg. He then shrugs saying it’s up to me.

“Thanks, Carl, I appreciate that. It’s not a great feeling being out with only a few,” I say.

“Yeah, tell me about it,” he replies, thinking back to when his small group was cornered by a band of marauders.

We open a map of the area and begin to plot our route to Sturgis. The interstate goes through the north end of Rapid City and I mention that I’m not all that fond of heading through a city. None of us are really fans of proceeding through previously populated areas having had run-ins, in one fashion or another, within almost every one we’ve gone through. The soldier whose family we have come to find stands behind me, Greg, Robert, and Bri as we kneel around the map.

“Sir,” he says after a moment, “there are back roads that lead directly into Sturgis without passing through any towns.”

I ask him to show us the roads. He points to a few that twist and turn through the barren countryside, eventually leading into the town from the northeast. We mark the route, fold the map, finish readying our gear, and climb inside of the Stryker with the mare’s tails above slowly gaining headway across the sky.

Dead Lands

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