Bird’s Eye View of a Wildfowl State – Geography Mapped Out Below Us.

Having another geographer flying the glider meant we could focus on things which interested our geeky selves.  Gray described the layout of Brookings city, and the planes.  I tried to orientate myself; I could see a long line of wind turbines to the east. I wondered if they were just over the state line in Minnesota.  To the west there were no other features to determine.  South Dakota is known for the Black Hills and the famous carvings of US Presidents on a rock face, but they were nearly 350 miles to the west; well over the horizon even at this altitude. All I could discern were just fields.

But I noticed that within the regular grid iron pattern of fields and roads there were anomalies.  The river channels and creeks that have existed for millennia across the whole of the Plains have no respect for human regularity.  Either the rivers are still bending this way or the other, or where they have been covered of rerouted, the ghosts of former channels are still present in the shadows from the low fall sun, or changes in soil and vegetation colour in the fields.

The regularity of the fields is a common feature of so much of the US.  While it is monotonous or boring, it is the legacy of an amazing principle that was put in motion as early as the 1780’s, a few years after the declaration of independence.  The Public Land Survey System was a plan to subdivide the new territories west of the Appalachian Mountains for sale and planning purposes.  The result was you see the squares of the fields and plots, and the roads which have to obey the lines drawn up which makes so much of the central part of the US have such a regular land pattern.  If people wonder why the most advanced nation on the surface of the earth still insists on using the Imperial System of measurement, the PLSS is one of the largest reasons for this.  Plots were marked off in miles, and the distances between road junctions are multiples of miles.  Any use of kilometres would be nonsensical in this rigid framework.


PLSS in action


Bird’s Eye View of a Wildfowl State – Release!

Gray climbed into the back seat and closed up the windows – all but one which he used to signal to his ground crew.  He had a brief word to the control tower on his portable radio, then, all signals given, the tow plane started to move forward and the rope took up the slack.  All at once we were moving forward and the glider, which had been tilted to one side so a wing was touching the runway, levelled off and picked up some speed.  The aircraft rose gently in front of us and we followed a few seconds later.  Losing the noise of the wheels on the ground, all we had with us was the engine noise in the plane up front.  Our ascent was shallow and we circled several times over the runway to gain altitude.  I could start to appreciate the land below, both the tight urban landscape of Brookings itself, and then the never ending prospect of fields stretching out over the Great Plains.

Onwards and upwards we went for many minutes.  Eventually, Gray spoke to me through the headphones and asked me to get ready to detach the tow rope.  On his command I pulled the big wooden knob towards me, and we felt a sharp jolt as the glider was sent off on its own trajectory and the plane dropped away quickly, retracting its rope and heading for the runway.

We were there on our own and the only accompanying noise came from the roar of the wind and my quickened breathing.  It was spectacular.  For a geographer to have the opportunity to glide like a bird of prey over the country, and to help identify where to go next, was fantastic.  Yes, we can all look at Google Earth these days, but it does not give you that experience of being in the atmosphere above the areas you are observing.  Yes we can fly in planes, but they are on set routes, often above the clouds, and pushy stewardesses insist on you closing the blinds to allow others to watch fantasy films when the majesty of real life is passing below you.


Take off

Bird’s Eye View of a Wildfowl State – Preparing for take off

Having never worked in a hangar, I hung back while Gray cleaned his windscreens, tested the flaps, ensured all the wires and controls were operating, and then he released the cables that were holding the glider still in the hangar and asked me to help guide the vehicle out into the open.

I took hold on one wing while Gray steered from the middle.  I was amazed just how light and controllable the glider was.  We steered it gently through the doorway and out onto the road.   A friend of Gray’s turned up – he was a research assistant at the university and often helped Gray out as groundcrew.  Then  from an aircraft parked up behind us, another guy stepped out and as we shook hands, Gray explained that this was to be our pilot and he had just emerged from our tow plane.  We worked together to run the glider over to the main runway at Brookings.  At least it was the main runway (12) when we used it.  The usual main runway was being completely dug up, extended and resurfaced.

It took a while to sort out the tow plane so Gray decided the best place for me was in the cockpit.  He allowed me to sit in the front seat, strapped me in, closed the windows then returned to the tow plane to walk a rope back to the glider and attach it to the nose.  I took the opportunity to recce the instruments in front of me.  It all looked remarkably simple.  A basic altimeter on the left, some gauges to measure how quickly the glider is rising or falling, the variometer, the airspeed indicator,  and something to monitor the banking and rolling and tilting that the glider might do.  Taking centre stage in the middle of the dashboard was a large wooden knob.  I avoided touching anything and sat patiently but totally excited waiting for this new experience.


Preparing for take off

Bird’s Eye View of a Wildfowl State – The Glider

We also had a wander around the botanical gardens.  Although small, it was in full colour – the fall was probably in its finest week before the snow which had threatened earlier in the week finally took hold and made the leaves drop. It was getting close to lunch time by now and Gray had a surprise for me, but first we decided to eat and met up with his wife at the town library.  The strip we had spent most time on so far was in fact just the main road out of town and because it was close to the university campus, had a range of cafes and boutique shops.  The real down town was that one Main Street with the bank and hotel and all the other important buildings.  The library was tucked at the back of this.  When we emerged, Gray looked up at the sky; which was almost completely blue, and said “I think we are going to get a good view.”

We drove a mile or so past a small industrial estate south west of town and drew up at the entrance to Brookings Airfield.  No commercial flights come in and out but it had a bustle of industry which you do not see in small airfields in the UK.  Plenty of small two-seater planes, a helicopter or two, and many large hangers were scattered around.  Gray drove to one of these hangars and unlocked a small door, stepping inside to start up the mechanism to open the larger hangar doors, which rolled up into the roof.  Inside were a bunch of boys’ toys.  Several antique and vintage cars, another biplane and, taking up most of the central space, a fixed wing glider.  This was Gray’s pride and joy – he had been a pilot for many years.  In fact he had told me of a trip once to the UK where he had flown – turned out he had been at a gliding club on the North Downs less than 20 miles from my home.

We’d chatted to a couple of guys dressed up in old leathers who were looking at their own valued toy at the other end of the hangar.  It was an old fighter plane – I was never told whether it was an original refurbished one or a modern remake, but it looked the part.  It was apparently one of the US Marine Fighter Squadron, and it roared into life and was taxied out into the open air, round several hangars before taking off.   A second biplane went up in the air while Gray prepared his glider.


Gray’s pride and joy

Bird’s eye view of a wildfowl state – working out the city

For the next few days life became surprisingly routine.  For someone who either works from home or travels with a suitcase, the idea of commuting to an office every day is anathema.  But for a week it was a change for me, and while I took the same route up to EROS in the mornings, I tried to vary my route home and orientate myself around Sioux Falls a bit more.

It is not a massive city by American standards, the city itself has a population of about 150,000 but given the rural nature of South Dakota, the metropolitan area is about 1/3 of the entire population of the state.  And like all American cities, especially those set in the wide open spaces of the Great Plains, it sprawls.  The original settlement grew up around the falls, and the railroad had a large depot on the east bank from which several lines converged.  Warehouses and Main Street grew up on more on the west bank, but at the start of the 20th century the town was laid out in a typical grid iron section, thrown out only by the various rivers and railroads that curved unplanned.

Higher class suburbs were perched up on the bluffs above the Sioux River, and the grand Cathedral towers over the falls.  Although only 90 years old it looks like it has commanded the city since Medieval times.  Only the crispness and lack of wear of the masonry belies its 20th Century roots.  Many other grand houses cluster around the cathedral in tree lined streets, but those lovely avenues, mature and settled stretch many streets west of the small downtown area.  The downtown too has been through a regeneration and a couple of streets are now form the hub of nightlife in the city – at least for the young and/or groovy.  For the more suburban or small town amongst the population, the big boulevards and the junctions around the interstates provide all they need; those chain restaurants and fast food joints which I have little time for.  I was advised that there was the best place for me to eat near the hotel was a shopping mall, the Empire.  I did spend an evening or two wandering round and yes the food was cheap but the place was soulless.  The only one of the chains that offered me something a bit more special was the Olive Garden.  I got strange stares from the drivers who passed by as I walked to this restaurant; it was only about half a mile, just across the Sioux River where it started bending round towards the Falls and the downtown area.  Although the nights were freezing, I would pause on the bridge looking at the icy water barely discernible in the blackness, and think of its journey.  It came from the north into Sioux Falls, does a huge S bend which means in the downtown area it is heading north once more, then becomes the state boundary between South Dakota and Iowa down to Sioux City, where it joins with the Missouri and on to merge with the Mississippi just north of St Louis.  I’d seen the Mississippi when I had travelled to Mardi Gras, first crossing the massive iron bridge at Baton Rouge and then on the waterfront of New Orleans.  From there the waters head a further 100 miles in a “Crow’s Foot” Delta, so called because of the shape of all the tiny channels spreading like the toes of a bird into the Gulf of Mexico.  Looking down from the bridge I could not help to marvel at where all those little molecules of water had ahead of them.



Then I was startled by  a Harley Davison, felt how cold it was and hurried back to my centrally heated suite.

Bird’s eye view of a wildfowl state – Approaching EROS

I saw the sign off for the EROS data centre for the next turning up ahead, and even in the gloom I could tell I was in the right place.  I could see the huge water tower of the complex that had the letters E.R.O.S written across it.  I turned up this road for about a mile and then turned into the complex itself.  Gray had warned me that I was going to get the third degree of security.  I had my passport ready.  I was asked to open the bonnet and trunk and step outside the vehicle, so I hurriedly put on my fleece and stood out in the biting wind.  I tried to stand behind the booth out of this gale but it swirled round me nevertheless.  I was handed a pass to get in the car park and kindly directed down to the reception.  I parked up and hurried over to the entrance and found myself in a huge space that looked like an underused airport.  I was given a pass and asked to wait for Gray to arrive.  I was a bit surprised it was my other colleague Matt who came up the corridor to find me.

The building was huge and mainly on two levels above ground.  The central corridor contained an amazing array of spacecraft, all shiny metal and foil just like in the movies, and the walls were adorned with the most colourful and patterned satellite imagery of every sort from around the world.  We passed by the canteen at the far end of this gallery and Matt led me off to one side to his office.  He did have his own office, it was not particularly open plan in this part, but it was in the central part of the building so he had no window.  He just sat there with huge computer resources, a window on to the rest of the world, as it were.  It was useful to start my work with him as he was running searches for all the imagery I might need for the job in Sierra Leone.  Whereas I had some access to free imagery from outside, he could access the whole archive and because I was working for the US government, hand it over for free.

Gray walked in and we greeted each other like old friends.  The previous times I had met the both of them had been out in Freetown, and it was so nice to find them in their own habitat.  We chatted about the times we had had, started to work out my schedule for the week and what Gray had to show me to get me up to speed. Gray also said he didn’t want to tax me too much on my first day, especially with the jetlag, but was arranging a tour of the EROS centre.


Main Hallway

Bird’s eye view of a wildfowl state – Cold start

Gray had suggested not to rush in on the first day, so I planned to head to the EROS data centre around nine.  One of the reasons I had my car was the centre is in the middle of nowhere, about 10 miles north of Sioux Falls city.  Gray lived in another town altogether, and Matt lived out the opposite side of Sioux Falls so I could not rely on lifts.

The hotel had a certain culture.  It was another one of these universal brands that once you had decided you could stay in it you had the system worked out wherever you travelled.   There was no dining room, no breakfast service, you were in a motel and the “suites” element was less it was a number or rooms, but more you could cook for yourself.  Having arrived near midnight the night before, I had not managed to get anything, so had a few cups of filter coffee from the complimentary drinks selection in my room and hoped that lunch was not too far away.  I saw there were machines and a small shop to buy things from the hotel but they looked horribly overpriced and I decided I would wait to do a supermarket shop when I got back from work.

I stepped out of the hotel to icy blasts.  The snow was lying but thin on the ground but the roads had been well gritted.  I carefully drove up I29 to its junction with one of the great routes of the US, the I90 which goes from Seattle to Boston and at over 3000 miles is the longest Interstate in the US.  I followed this for just a few miles before coming off at my junction.  There is very little else down this road so I was not too surprised to see the turning signed to the EROS data centre itself.

I now headed north on this ordinary tarmacced road, it rose steeply from the Interstate.  I was a little surprised to see how undulating the country was.  My impression was the plains were flatter than this.  Gray would of course explain this to me later.

The road bounced over several hillocks and although it was still snowing I could make out just how rural this landscape was.  There were just a handful of farms, a couple of other homesteads or houses along the route.  Every mile I came to a junction where a road would go off at right angles; sometimes I stopped at the junction, sometimes the incoming road gave way.  I saw a few cars coming towards me, there seemed to be a few more heading my direction.  The sky was grey and still full of snow and I wondered whether I had arrived on the first day of winter and my trip to Sioux Falls was to be completely snow bound.  I looked down this straight road with the snow starting to gather on each verge, a long wire fence reaching off into the distance, and I could not help thinking of Fargo.  This was the film not the place, but the city from which the film took its title was only about 200 miles north of where I was driving.


Just that hint of “Fargo”