Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Cross Country

It's an enormous, wide spread land we Americans inhabit, and we seldom recognize that fact. We think little of flying from coast to coast in five or six hours, and many coastal denizens derisively refer to the massive expanse in between as "flyover country." In this country, a two or three hundred mile drive is practically local. Embarking on that cherished American tradition, the cross-country road trip, gives one some idea of the size of the continent - but even then, one can cover the 2800 miles from New York to LA in three or four long days on fast, smooth interstates. In 2010, I rode my old BMW motorcycle around the circumference of the Lower 48, much of it on slower byways, and it took 41 days of riding, several of them 500-1000 miles long. It was a great way to reconnect with my homeland and discover its beauty, variety, and sheer immensity anew.

The entire time I was riding, though, I was thinking "I wonder what this looks like from the air?". The funny thing is that I had already flown over nearly all the roads I was traveling, but from six or seven miles high while speeding along at nine or ten miles a minute. That lofty perspective shrinks the land, both literally and figuratively, beyond all recognition. What I really wanted to do was fly the breadth of the U.S. by small airplane. I do not, however, own a small airplane. Even after I started flying the club C170, $6 avgas put a big cross-country trip out of my budget.

And then Johnny G, who I taught to fly ten years ago, emailed me out of the blue, excited that he had finally secured hangar space for his beloved 1984 Piper Warrior in his hometown in Connecticut. The plane was currently hangared in California, where Johnny formerly lived and still visited often for business. He had flown it all of six hours in 2011, and thus was very excited to get it back to CT where he would use it more. Owing to his relative lack of currency, though, he didn't want to do the trip alone, and in any case would like to do some IFR training along the way. Would I be interested in coming along as his CFI, Johnny wanted to know.

Boy, would I! There were only two problems. The first was that my CFI certificate was lapsed. The second is that my airline doesn't allow me to do outside commercial flying, and even if I could get them to make an exception it is doubtful there would be any month where I could legally fit a 25 hour cross country into my monthly and weekly flight time limits. Johnny fixed the first problem by suggesting I use his airplane to get my CFI reinstated with one of the SoCal examiners I used to send students to. Done. I solved the second problem by agreeing to provide instruction, but not receive compensation for it, making it non-commercial flying. Johnny balked at that, so I suggested that if it was really that important to him, he could make a donation to EAA's scholarship fund instead of paying me.

Thus, a beautifully clear SoCal morning found us breaking ground from Brackett Field, just off old Route 66 near its western terminus, climbing southeast on the departure procedure to Paradise VOR. We had decided to do as much of the flying as possible under IFR. This was challenging at first due to high Minimum Enroute Altitudes (MEAs), warm temperatures, and a 160 hp Warrior with full fuel, two adults, and a bunch of cargo that put us about 100 lbs under max gross weight. The old girl made it up to V64's MEA of 11,000 feet though, and later that day to 10,000 feet at ISA+15 temps. At that altitude we enjoyed a hefty tailwind and miserly fuel burns.

The other challenge of doing it all IFR was that I hadn't had a chance to do any instrument instruction with Johnny prior to setting out, other than a string of emails, phone calls, and a two-hour crash course in IFR flight planning that morning. Usually a student has 20 or 25 hours of instrument instruction under their belt before starting IFR cross-countries. I warned Johnny that it would be intensive and not necessarily the best environment to learn the basics; best to view it as a real-world introduction to IFR flight, with the serious training to be done back in CT with a full-time instructor. Johnny agreed, saying that anything learned in the course of the trip would be a better use of the time than droning along VFR. Thus, our first few flights used a very unorthodox method of IFR instruction. Initially I navigated and communicated, telling Johnny which headings to turn to and altitudes to intercept and maintain. Then I put him under the hood and had him do the same. Then I turned over enroute communication, and later all communication including copying clearances on the ground and in the air. Meanwhile I (re)taught him how to intercept and track VOR radials, and then had him take over all navigation duties using the enroute chart. I occasionally covered up instruments to give him partial-panel practice. I talked him though a few VOR approaches, although I knew a long cross-country is suited very poorly to teaching approaches so I didn't take it much further than that. To maximize learning, minimize rushing, and make it an overall more enjoyable experience, I split the route into four days of about six hours apiece, generally two three-hour flights.

Along the way Johnny got nearly two hours of actual IMC, experienced flying instruments during moderate turbulence, encountered some mountain wave, and flew into a wide variety of airports from sleepy Big Spring TX to bustling El Paso Int'l, Dallas Executive, and Knoxville. The third day we planned our way around and behind a large line of severe thunderstorms, and the fourth day dealt with widespread fog in the morning. We never encountered airframe icing but got a little in the carb, and had a good discussion on how to avoid and exit icing conditions in a single-engine airplane. We called flightwatch several times, and used it to make an airborne continue-or-land decision. All in all, it was exactly the sort of experience I sorely wished I had before I first got my instrument ticket.

The first day we departed late to Chandler, Arizona, arrived just after the on-field restaurant closed at 2pm, and borrowed a hilariously dilapidated Mercury Grand Marquis very much like my old Buick LeSabre "Grandpamobile" to drive to lunch. After departure, the wrinkled topography of eastern Arizona and western New Mexico was beautifully rendered in late afternoon light, and then the sky faded to velvet as we paralleled lonely NM Highway 9 on our way into El Paso.

The next morning we called a mechanic to lube what we thought was a binding trim wheel, which turned out to be a huge, five-hour ordeal to disable a sticking electric trim servo. It was a five-minute job; most of the extra time was spent removing almost all of Johnny's beautiful, custom leather interior which failed to retain the factory access to the tailcone! It was 2pm by the time the little Warrior clawed its way into the hot, thin air. Fortunately this was our shortest day. It was about two and a half hours to Big Spring TX, a quiet uncontrolled oil-country field with an enormous runway (ex-AFB), and then another two hours plus to Dallas Executive Airport. We scarfed vending machine "food" before taking off from El Paso, didn't get lunch in Big Spring, and were both tired and ravenous by the time we landed in Dallas at nearly 8pm. The field was one of the darkest I've ever seen - we could barely see the runway lights even when one mile away - and it was amazingly deserted. Nobody answered the radio at Ambassador Jet Center, and it took a while to find anyone after we shut down. They redeemed themselves with fairly cheap gas, free hangar storage for the night, and giving us a ride to a nearby Holiday Inn Express that night and picking us up in the morning. The pizza and beer went down easy that night.

We finally got an early start the next morning, launching into a 900' overcast and breaking out into bright sunlight around 3000 feet. We were hoping to get to Ashville, NC for the night, but thunderstorms were forecast and indeed already raging over western and central Tennessee. We initially considered going around them to the west and north, but thunderstorms were forecast up north later that day, and in fact spawned several tornadoes near Detroit. We stayed south, initially aiming for Greenwood, MS. We landed there just before noon and were met at Cotton Belt Aviation by a friendly but amusingly slow-talking and moving old southern gentleman who lent us his Chrysler minivan and directed us to Crystal Diner, "the best cooking in the Mississippi Delta."

We were hurried for time due to the festering thunderstorms and decided to skip Crystal for something quicker, until we took a wrong turn into the bad part of town, accidentally wandered up an unmarked one-way street, and unexpectedly found ourselves smack-dab in front of Crystal despite ourselves. We decided to sample the best cooking in the Delta after all, because nothing else in Greenwood looked remotely appealing. In my previous foray across Mississippi on the BMW, I somehow managed to only visit nice-looking towns with little of Mississippi's noted poverty on display. If I'd been looking for that, turns out I only needed to visit Greenwood. The food was indeed fantastic at Crystal, but we didn't linger in town afterwards. Mississippi looked beautiful from 5000 feet, though. Everything was extremely green from the early spring.

Ashville looked increasingly improbable due to thunderstorms, and also because any weather could easily trap us in the deep valley the next morning. Both Knoxville and Atlanta had weather popping up and passing through. We decided to go as far east as we dared, refuel and regroup, and then decide on our final destination for the night, based on what the storms were doing. We took off for Gadsden, AL, an easy two-hour flight away. It seemed like much longer than that, given that we were battered by moderate turbulence the whole way. We went up to 9000' and weren't even close to topping out the towering cumulus, so went back down and rode it out. I was actually feeling a little green when we landed in Gadsden, where the tarmac was still wet from recently passing thunderstorms. We had called flightwatch to inquire about the advisability of continuing to Knoxville, but it sounded like another line was closing in on them. At Gadsden we refueled, called the wives, refreshed ourselves with sodas, watched a C130 land to pick up a company of national guardsmen, and looked at the radar. There was indeed a line of heavy weather about to thrash Knoxville, but it was moving off of our route pretty quickly, and there was a sizable gap of four or five hours before the next line of dissipating storms would arrive. Knoxville would make a good destination for the night.

We were already tired when we took off for Knoxville - we would be landing after sunset for the third night in a row, my best intentions notwithstanding - but ended up enjoying the flight immensely. The green rolling hills, horse farms, nearby foothills and mountains were all thrown into sharp relief by the setting sunlight slanting under the rainclouds. It was incredibly dramatic, and it made the 90 minute flight pass very quickly. As predicted, the thunderstorms had left Knoxville by the time we arrived, although they made an impressive light show on the eastern horizon. Exhausted by over seven hours of flying, we turned in soon after our late dinner.

We decided to start early the next morning in order to arrive in Connecticut by mid-afternoon, but our plans were foiled by dense fog in Knoxville and all along our first leg. The TAFs called for it all to burn off by mid-morning, but fog can be a tricky thing to forecast. We went to the airport a little later than planned and then tarried, keeping a close eye on the METARs to make sure things were progressing satisfactorily. The fog actually burned off in Knoxville quicker than planned, and our destination and alternate were shaping up nicely. We loaded up and launched. This flight, like the previous night's, was stunning. I couldn't bear to keep Johnny under the hood for very long at all. The mountains were silhouetted by the eastern sun, throwing long shadows across deep valleys still blanketed in fog. This was all country I'm fairly familiar with from airline flying and the motorcycle trip, but this flight gave me an entirely new perspective and appreciation for the beauty of eastern TN, western NC, WV, and western VA.

The beautiful little airport at Front Royal was teeming with glider activity when we landed from the steep circling VOR approach. We hoofed it a half-mile to a country store for lunch, then filled up at the self-service pumps, filed, and took off to retrieve our clearance from Potomac Approach in the air. The afternoon had turned hazy, so this flight wasn't nearly as pretty as the morning's. We were also venturing north of the green, back into the brown. Nevertheless we flew near some interesting spots, including Camp David, Gettysburg, and Johnny's original hometown of Lancaster, PA. Just north of there we were given a very extensive reroute. As I fumbled with enroute charts, trying to trace the improbable routing, Johnny flew on unpreturbed through rather lumpy cumulus clouds, "aviating, navigating, and communicating." I felt a flush of pride and remembered the part of flight instructing I always loved.

We ultimately ended up dropping below the clouds and cancelling IFR to avoid going far out of our way - welcome to the Northeast, eh? - and had a very nice VFR flight across New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut. It was only a bit after 4pm - daylight! - when we approached Johnny's hometown, circled over his house, waved to his wife and kids, and landed at nearby Chester Airport. It was a blustery, squirrely day at the surprisingly tiny but busy field, and our first approach resulted in a go-around. The next attempt was successful, and N43408 was finally home after 24.8 hours of flying. We opened Johnny's new hangar, restacked the Champ and 172 that are his PA28's new stablemates, and I patted the good old bird on the nose as we parted company. It's a big country, after all, and you have to appreciate a good machine that can take you the distance in safety and comfort.


Ed said...

Regarding the compensation/commercial flying, it is my understanding that with any consideration beyond cost sharing flight expenses (direct or indirect payment, charitable contribution, etc) you are exercising the privileges of commercial pilot. Although if you were not acting as PIC then maybe that does not apply.

Nice pictures, I'm sure it was a great time. I flew a Warrior a few years ago over 900nm, which by my experience was a pretty decent cross country. I look forward to some more long trips, low and slow to take it all in.

Paul said...

What an awesome trip! It is a dream of mine to fly across the country in a single engine airplane.

BTW, I fly gliders with the club at Front Royal (FRR). By strange coincidence, did you get there last Friday (23 March)? If so, I was there and we were set up at the approach end of runway 10 by afternoon. I remember someone flying the VOR approach.


Sam said...

Paul-- No, Saturday 17 Mar, about noonish. Gorgeous little airport, looks like a great place to go soaring.

Ed-- I did a pretty thorough search of FAA ACs and letters of council on the subject. The general rule is you have to receive something in exchange for your services in order for it to be considered commercial flying. This may be monetary, or could be as simple as flight time in the case of a time-builder. Specifically, FAA counsel found that once you have your ATP, flight time has no "value" as far as they're concerned. Obviously, single-engine time does me no good for ratings or career-wise at this point. So then the main question is whether a charitable donation in lieu of compensation makes it commercial flying. It's an interesting question I wasn't able to find an answer to from FAA archives, however it's moot in this case as I didn't require the donation to fly. I would have happily gone along for free (as I effectively did). Johnny insisted on paying something, and I suggested a donation if it was that important to him.

I edited the section in question to make that a little more clear, in case the FAA or company should come across it and have questions...

Jamppa said...

Sounds like a great trip. Would love to do same someday.

But to me, 6 $/gallon sounds very cheap.

In Finland, where I live, avgas is about 16 usd/gallon...

(regular car fuel ~8 usd/gallon...)

Anonymous said...

Damn. Sounds like a great trip. I am soooooooooooo jealous. said...

Really enjoyed the post and the photos were incredible! Now you want to make me recreate your trip in FlightSim!

Kenneth Noisewater said...


Great couple of posts! Have a father/son trip w/ my dad planned in a mighty Archer for the East Coast in late May/early June and can't wait. It's posts like this that remind us all of the Americana still out there. Yeah, the gas prices are up and the patterns might be a little more quiet than they were ten years ago but you can still find the magic of X/C trips if you seek it out.

I flight instruct for the Air Force (T-6s) down in TX (you were just north of me when you transited Big Spring). I love it and hate it at the same time. Glad you could provide some help to your buddy to get his plane home and circumvent the airline rules at the same time.

Fly safely and thanks for writing!


Jeff in Del Rio, Tx (don't ever plan a trip looks like Tantooine and it's probably just as hot too)

sounddoc said...
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sounddoc said...

wow, chester, connecticut! I started my private there way back in 1996 when it was still 3B9. I understand Cessna N757ST is still teaching there.

Paul V said...

Loved that post (with unfettered jealousy). Thanks so much for sharing.

market research book said...
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Anonymous said...

What a great trip! As a Warrior owner myself I have fantasies of making the trip from NY to LA to visit relatives.

It's nice to see it's doable from a comfort perspective. Great pics!

WPICity said...

Super blog!

James David said...

That flight is amazing! I also want to try that trip. Cross country flights are really exciting. The pictures taken below looks great. Though your trip made you somehow exhausted with flying for a couple of hours, the flight experience you had is all worth it!

James David teaches people how to buy single engine airplanes & has a passion for the Cessna 177

James David said...

That flight is amazing! I also want to try that trip. Cross country flights are really exciting. The pictures taken below looks great. Though your trip made you somehow exhausted with flying for a couple of hours, the flight experience you had is all worth it!

James David teaches people how to buy single engine airplanes & has a passion for the Cessna 177

Siobhan said...


Great site! I'm trying to find an email address to contact you on to ask if you would please consider adding a link to my website. I'd really appreciate if you could email me back.

Thanks and have a great day!

Dave said...

As a previous owner of that aircraft I can tell you that it is one of the sweetest flying PA28's around! I have flown that plane all over Cal, Nv and Az. I miss her and happy to see her flying. Sounds like it was a great trip for you guys.

Sam said...

Dave - Way cool! Were you the guy that sold it to Johnny? It's a very clean plane, and he's done a great job of taking care of it.

Dave said...

No, I was partners in the plane and sold my half years ago. I flew many hours as a student in her and when she came up for sale we bought it. Had a VFR panel and we upgraded to full IFR with the intention of getting my rating in get but sold my half before getting rating. Great photos! Interior job looks great too. Would love to see that plane again. I made a few cross country trips from Vero to VNY ferrying planes for Piper, great times seeing the country that way.

Anonymous said...

Impressive trip and characteristically detailed post. Thanks, too, for the Thailand trip report.

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