September 27, 2023 at 6:30 a.m.

Introduction to Flight of Discovery 2004-2006

By Mike Harding, Expedition Leader

On the morning of June 13, 2004, 11 westward-bound aircraft left the mouth of the Columbia River and soared above the waves of the Pacific Ocean for a few moments before turning south to land at the Astoria, Oregon airport. Like Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, the pilots and scientists had traced the water and overland routes of a continent – although in a somewhat different means of transportation and in a far shorter time frame. Two weeks earlier on June 1st, the Flight of Discovery left The Falls of the Ohio near Clarksville, Indiana with the goal of completing the historic Lewis and Clark Trail in two weeks. We flew every bend of the Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri rivers; soared above the Great Plains; bridged the Continental Divide at Lemhi Pass and continued down the Lochsa, Clearwater, Snake and Columbia rivers before arriving at our final destination, Astoria, Oregon and the Pacific Ocean.

June 2004 constituted the first stage of a multi-year project. For the 2004 Flight of Discovery, crew members accomplishing this particular portion of our work was pretty dramatic, a life experience for each and everyone involved. But in the larger context of our goals and objectives, it was more of a beginning than an endpoint. Our long-range strategy extended well beyond the flying activities of the three expeditions that occurred during June 2004, September 2005 and August 2006.

Between 2004-2006 the objective of the Flight of Discovery was to use current technology, aviation and science to compare present-day cultural, environmental and anthropological resources to the 200-year-old historical record contained in journals, correspondence, notes and samples assembled from 1804-06 by Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery. 

Prior to 2004, our scientists and pilots spent two years researching their particular, route-specific interest areas.  We met formally once a month at Greg Pellar’s hangar at Gillespie Field in San Diego, California.  Over time, each individual developed an action plan of rediscovery.  For example, our botanist, Julie Etra, researched the location of various plant species identified by Meriwether Lewis and provided the group with “waypoints” where the expedition needed to stop, document and collect representative specimens during the flight. 

Our geologists, Bob Scott, Phyllis Steckel, Julian Granirer and his wife Kathleen Harrison provided the project with geographic waypoints where we might see the same rock formations or topographic features described in the Journals. Similar activities were carried out by every member of the group including those interested in anthropology, ecology, history, archaeology, geomorphology, environmental science, zoology, meteorology, soil science, photography and even food history.  Long before each of the expeditions took flight, everyone was involved in some aspect of the organizational activities, and I should say here that I enjoyed the anticipatory planning as much as the flights themselves. 

One of the major goals of the Flight of Discovery was to connect people – in particular, students in elementary through high school - with the environment in which they live. Inspired in 2002 by the Army Corps of Engineers Historic Traveling Trunk, Carol, my wife, and I decided to put together our own trunks to help us accomplish our educational objectives.  Beginning in 2003, the Flight of Discovery placed Trunks of Discovery (TODs) at public school districts, tribal schools, museums and interpretive centers along the Lewis and Clark Trail.  Each TOD was valued at over $1,000 and was a large footlocker containing four individually separate and complete learning modules addressing botany, zoology, geology and mathematics.  Plant, rock, and zoological data were compiled locally by students, and it is our hope that one day the results of this effort will become part of a national and route-specific collection.  Each Trunk contained a GPS unit.  By placing their name, location and date on each sample they collected, we told the kids that like Lewis and Clark, they were putting their thumbprint on history.  Today there are 26 Trunks being used by school kids across the country.  The material costs, shipping and maintenance of these trunks has been born by the Flight of Discovery crew and a handful of sponsors.

Amy Mossett, executive director of the Northern Plains Tribal Alliance, receives the Trunk of Discovery from Expedition Leader Mike Harding on June 12, 2004, at Edwin Loe Elementary School in New Town, North Dakota.
Photo credit: Kathleen Harrison.
Our aerial treks have left us in awe of the accomplishments of the Corps of Discovery. One only has to fly a few miles along any of the river sections or soar just a few minutes above the Lolo Trail to appreciate the physical effort that they expended on a daily basis. We are also deeply respectful of those organizations and individuals who have made the study of this historic expedition their life’s work. We hope to add a sentence or two to that conversation.

We will be providing monthly installments of the adventures of the Flight of Discovery, so keep reading HSJ Online and come along with us on the adventure of a lifetime.  As William Clark so often said in his own journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition:  We Proceed Onward…