October 25, 2023 at 7:00 a.m.
Great Expectations: Sellersburg, Indiana - June 1, 2004
By Mike Harding, Expedition Leader
Last night I couldn’t sleep. My wife, Carol, says that I need to just let it happen, that we’ve spent nearly two years in preparation for this expedition. Before she went to bed tonight, she reminded me that every one of our aircraft has a sticker on it that says: It’s the Journey not the Destination that’s Important. My inability to sleep is best explained by a quote from the book, "Scenes of Visionary Enchantment – Reflections on Lewis and Clark" (Autographed to me) by Dayton Duncan.
So, it is at the start of any adventure, in that exquisite moment when every hope and every plan have yet to collide with reality and therefore are incapable of failing; when every new horizon glistens with promise; when the gap between what you think you know and what you really know is at its widest...
My God: what have I set in motion. It’s too late, and well past the time to delay today’s events.
Early this morning the entire crew gathered at the Jefferson County Airport just north of the Falls of the Ohio in Sellersburg, Indiana. Each pilot fueled up and pre-flighted his aircraft; the ground crew inspected and did some last re-packing of our gear in the motor home, Ford Expedition, and trailer. In the open door of the Bell 206 helicopter Brian Forrest, our official photographer, took some aerial shots of the crew standing in front of Mike Mann’s Grand Caravan, each of us pointing to the west. Brian is Carol’s cousin, and I didn’t learn until this evening that he’s afraid of heights; way to go Brian!
Inside the FBO, I again repeated that we needed to enjoy the moment with each other and not dwell too much on what, in the future, might be considered a very historical undertaking. Then it was time for a few words of encouragement (as if this crew needed any). I had thought about what I might say, figuring that everyone expected some grand statement upon departure, but what I said was pretty simple, “Let’s follow the river and soar on the winds of history." We proceeded on.
I was allowed the honor to be the first one off. Lining up on the runway, pushing the throttles forward, beetling down the strip of concrete and lifting off with Louisville in my windscreen is probably going to be the most distinctive memory of this adventure. I was conscious that the moment marked an end to all the planning, the beginning of the adventure, and every open-ended possibility imagined or unknown. Aircraft don’t have rear-view mirrors, but from the radio calls when each pilot self-announced his or her departure, I had a mental picture of what was happening behind me. I was followed off the field by my son, Lee, in his Cessna 172, and by Carol in Chin’s Bell 206 helicopter. We all flew to the river and turned west to follow every bend of the rivers for the next four thousand miles.
I wish everyone could have the experience of following this big, muddy, debris-strewn Ohio River from Louisville to Henderson, Kentucky. We flew past George Rogers Clark’s cabin where Meriwether Lewis and William Clark met to begin their epic journey. Hoosier National Forest on the Indiana side; limestone quarries on either bank; coal loading docks, dams, and locks. The house Lee and I used to live in on Water Street in Newburgh, Indiana, Angel Mounds State Historical Site nearby.
Lots of excitement on the air-to-air frequency but can you blame us? Tonight, Leslie Scott and Brian posted a lot of photos on our website but in truth, it’s impossible for the senses to take it all in. Chin and Candise Tu, flying lower along the riverbanks in the Bell 206, reported evidence of the twisters that wracked Indiana last night and flooding was everywhere.
Just after the big bend in the river at Evansville, Roger and I caught site of the prettiest little airport we saw last fall during our initial survey flight along the Ohio River. Henderson Kentucky Airport (EHR) looks like it was painted on the landscape. EHR and Don Davis Aviation is like a good fishin’ hole; you should probably only share it with you closest friends, but this one’s too good to miss if you’re an aviator. Excellent service, a blues band line crew and a pretty spot to camp. Without too much fanfare, we announced our approach and landed with the first favorable winds since we left San Diego - but not for long. In great anticipation of a jovial evening, we set up camp under a sweet gum tree. To the west, two lines of Level II and III thunderstorms were headed in our direction.
Epic storm. The WACOs were sheltered in the hangers, but Chin Tu and Randy Bozarth decided to make an emergency dash with their helicopters towards a small patch of blue sky somewhere over Illinois. We cinched the tie downs tight and re-staked the tents. The team that had gone into town for provisions arrived just as the tornado sirens went off in the distance. Most of the crew hunkered down with stimulants in the motor home, while Wanda Elmore, Jeannette Egan, Julie Etra, Jill Baker, Rob and Andrew McGann concocted storm steak and chicken.
Roger Fraser and Kevin (the artist known as Pack) took up positions in folding chairs behind the flight line and shook hands with God. I walked out to the runway and tried to will the storm – with reported golf ball-sized hail - to stay south of the field. Fortunately, it did, but due in no part to my arrogance. Hail damage could’ve ended this expedition at its very start. Brian got some incredible photographs of the lightning storm. John and Jeanette Egan, Mike Mann and I kept watching the radar inside the FBO as the lines of storms passed. Just before dark, the helicopters returned from Illinois. Everyone had a late, wet supper - and there was much rejoicing.
The Ohio River near Newburgh, Ind., on the first day of the Expedition. June 1, 2004.
Photo credit: Submitted.