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Thread: Barnstorming 2021

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    Jun 2015
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    Barnstorming 2021

    This creative prose was written by my son, Brandon. This is about a 3-4 scotch read. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did experiencing it first hand!


    Technically, this is a preface. I Googled it and they say you’re not supposed to write your own foreword unless you’re in the league of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry or Roald Dahl. Whatever. What follows is a **** ton of words in lieu of a **** ton of pictures- contrary again to modern societal norms. I started writing this story a couple weeks ago and got a little carried away. Coincidentally, I finished writing at around 3AM on Father’s Day, 2021 as this is a tale about an epic journey my Dad and I embarked on last month sharing our mutual passion of flight and adventure with each other. Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I love you.


    For years my Dad and I have talked about making this trip together. Every pilot dreams about making this journey. At least I have since I started flying as a teenager. A father and son team barnstorming across our grand country in a classic, tandem 2-seat, daytime VFR only airplane, at an altitude between a couple feet to 500 feet above the ground, all with the window open cruising at approximately 80 MPH indicated, and accepting whatever the winds will do to help or hurt our groundspeed.

    A few weeks ago during a routine weeknight phone call, we decided we finally had a window of opportunity. We would both take a couple days off from work on either end of Memorial Day Weekend. I immediately bought a one-way ticket from El Paso to New Hampshire that would arrive at midnight on the East Coast. We would start flying back west towards my family’s home in Southern New Mexico as soon as possible the next morning. As it was still a couple weeks out, we had no idea if the weather would permit the trip- we just hoped for the best. For weight and balance, not to mention the limited cargo space, we were only allocated one backpack and one survival vest each plus a few extra quarts of oil, a couple water bottles, a flask of whisky, and some basic tools and backpacking-style camping gear. With a full tank of gas, we were almost exactly at max gross takeoff weight for the old bird.

    I over-planned, out of habit. As soon as we hung up the phone, I spent hours after work each night plotting an optimal route that would keep us on grass strips the whole way with AVGAS, shelter, and libations available at appropriate intervals. Turns out, the best advice we received was from an older experienced aviator who has done this a few times before. He said simply, “Take off and start flying west. Land when you need gas, need to pee, or when the weather forces you to.”

    We could only fly VFR (visual flight rules: avoid the clouds as we had no instruments), and we didn’t have the necessary equipment to get within 30 nautical miles of a major Class B airport- nor were we interested in pursuing an FAA waiver to do so. Turns out this was perfect, as it kept us away from major cities and in rural America where we wanted to be and where we got to meet amazing people and see the pristine landscape of our grand country. Our goal was never to land at an airport with a control tower. At every stop we would switch seats, alternating front to back to share pilot and “co-pilot” time. The back-seat pilot had the critical responsibilities of monitoring the weather and airspace ahead, finding viable landing spots along the route, holding the coffee mugs/snacks and providing it to the front seat pilot upon request. He also had to take pictures, DJ for the music stream through the headsets, and critique the landings of the actual pilot of that sortie.

    We took off from Windsock Village, NH69 in central New Hampshire on May 27th, 2021, at exactly noon. It was a slightly delayed start after loading up the airplane. We also had to fly the Stearman around the lake together finally and burn a gallon of smoke oil, meet with some friends, go flying again in another plane that just so happened to be there, and drink coffee. All of this was great fun but ultimately didn’t help our trip departure time. It was seriously bumpy going in New England that afternoon, and the swirling winds below the tall pine trees were already nearing limits. The new headset I purchased for the trip sucked, so we immediately got a bonus closed pattern back to a gnarly full stop to retrieve a spare as I couldn’t fathom flying long days in the plane with my ears ringing. I felt like I was on a family road trip forcing the truck back to the house to get my kid’s hat that they forgot.

    It was extremely bumpy and uncomfortable for a few hours, and we were immediately questioning our sanity. But it was good enough to cross the beautiful Lakes Region of New Hampshire, the Green Mountains of Vermont, Western Massachusetts, and make the Hudson River Valley of New York on the first leg. Getting out of New Hampshire was half the battle, we figured. We were officially on our way!

    We were already off my planned route. Turns out, the weather across America is volatile this time of year. We not only had to look at the current conditions and forecast in the immediate vicinity of our flight path (cloud ceiling, winds aloft, surface winds, thunderstorm activity, mountain obscuration, etc.), but also the long-range convective forecast of the entire country to see if we might be able to land somewhere but not take off again for days. Ideally, this kind of journey would get a time budget of two or more weeks. That was simply not our reality based on our schedules. We had one or two days of slop built in if the weather or maintenance forced it, but we needed to fly every possible daylight hour of every day to make it.

    We quickly gassed up at sleepy 1B1 airport in Columbia County, NY and set off again. The outlook for severe storms in the upper Midwest was the topic of discussion for the rest of the day. For the remainder of the leg, we were unsure if our trip would end as an abort in Pennsylvania and a quick turnaround back east the next day. However, we were quickly distracted by the lush rolling hills of PA and the beautiful flying conditions we were now blessed with. The transition from bumpy to smooth was so insidious that a hundred miles later we both simultaneously had the revelation that it was now perfect flying, and the turbulence of the past few hours was quickly forgotten. I was up front on this sortie when my Dad chimed up over the intercom and suddenly gave me a new vector to an airport that was along our general direction of travel and only 20 miles away from where we were at the time.

    It was KLHV, William T. Piper Memorial Airfield in Lock Haven, PA. The birthplace of the Piper Cub. A fitting detour as we were flying our beautiful 1964 Piper PA-18-150 Super Cub. It was now about an hour and a half before sunset and I set up for a midfield crosswind to check out the field and conditions. Conditions were superb, with winds slightly favoring the west runway. The airport is nestled between the Susquehanna River to the north and lush green abruptly rising hills to the south. The grass strip parallel of the paved east-west runway was marked with cones and perfectly manicured and there wasn’t another airplane in sight as we admired the low sun visible on final approach casting a hue on the blue sky in the horizon. We had Piper’s grass strip to ourselves. We stopped and shut down for a few minutes to stretch and take a photo, but the fuel pump was closed. On the way back out, climbing into the gradually setting sun, I couldn’t resist doing a few patterns on the perfect grass to re-familiarize myself with the classic taildragger on 31” Alaskan Bushwheel tires. I promise they were all great, and I didn’t bounce once.

    With no gas available, the sun setting, and both of us getting increasingly hungry, we continued west on what would be our shortest leg of the trip. We decided to break our rule on day one and land at what ended up being our only towered airport of the journey: KUNV in State College, PA. We were given a long straight-in approach to the west runway by the controller. I landed, taxied in, gassed up, and we tied down as the daylight waned, and set about finding a place to rest for the night.
    That night over dinner and beers we deliberated our way forward. It was a bleak outlook. The severe weather was imminent and was forecast to hit PA by noon the next day and block our path to New Mexico in almost all vectors. In fact, we wouldn’t be able to fly in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, West Virginia, Kentucky, or Missouri for the next couple days. And if we didn’t leave Pennsylvania at sunrise, we might not be able to complete our trip at all. We sifted through forecasts, aviation prog charts, even called 1-800-WX-BRIEF and determined our only way forward was to go completely off script and fly due south to North Carolina and Georgia, and to do it as soon as possible.

    We woke up the next morning before the sun rose on May 28th. We needed to be wheels up as close to sunrise as possible if we had any chance. At 0615 EDT, we departed into a dramatic sky interspersed with few to scattered layered low to mid level clouds and the rising sun off our left wing casting a striking glow on them all. We ventured due south, racing the far away storm without a specific destination in mind.

    That morning flight was absolutely glorious. With my Dad at the controls, we flew low in the incredibly calm morning air through the stunning terrain of PA, Western Maryland, and Virginia. We chased rivers, valleys, and rolling farms. We spotted railroad tunnels and meandered our flight path to see where they exited on the other side of the ridge. I played Reggae music through our headsets. We didn’t talk much, but occasionally we couldn’t contain our grins and they turned into chuckles on the intercom. For a couple hours, we just admired the country, sipped coffee in the still early morning air, and took it all in.

    Selflessly, my Dad offered me the controls outside of a fuel stop since the flying was so damn good. So, when we suddenly spotted a pristine empty airfield on the south side of the 69th hill we crossed, we promptly entered a right base and dropped into 8W2 in New Market, VA. Five minutes later, I was airborne from the front seat for another glorious 120nm leg south.

    With Washington DC a comfortable 80 NM to our East, we crossed the Shenandoah National Park, waved to a majestic Bald Eagle soaring above us and decided we should probably top off the tanks. Fuel planning in the Super Cub is an exercise in calculating fuel burn over time from a known quantity, as the wing tank gauges perpetually slosh around from empty to full on the sight glass with every bump of air or manipulation of the flight controls. We knew our historical endurance, but we still did fuel burn calculations on every leg to make sure our math checked out.

    At 10AM, after a couple low level river run detours and truly brilliant flying conditions, we really did need to land for fuel. Thankfully, W78 in South Boston, VA was in range and offered the coveted grass and gas option. I was able to land on a pristine grass field and there was a self-service pump of 100LL waiting on the ramp to fill up. The Super Cub took 29.5 gallons out of our 36 gallon capacity. We had VFR reserves left, which we hoped to never dip into. Importantly, there was also a vacant pilot lounge with cold water and warm-enough pilot quality coffee to refill our mugs. We took the opportunity on the ground to view the weather picture. At that point, only a few hours after we departed, central PA where we left was already encompassed by a large thunderstorm that extended far to the West. Our bar-napkin planning the night before proved correct. The only choice we had was to deviate hundreds of miles south- to where we were presently standing in the increasingly humid air. With the plane refueled, our bladders relieved, and our caffeine situation remedied, we pressed on.

    We needed to start going west. With the storms developing to our northwest, we still had a window to fly, but we would soon have to start pointing towards the inclement weather. My Dad took off on this leg and I directed a vector towards Charlotte, NC. But not too close to Charlotte, as we strategically had to deviate away from not only the weather, but also major population centers. Soon, our tranquil morning flight down a quarter of the Eastern Seaboard seemed like a distant memory. We departed just 20 minutes after our fuel stop straight into turbulent, unstable air. After our nuggets began striking the exposed upper cross-bar metal framework of the Cub, we both cinched down the shoulder straps and braced ourselves for a rough flight.
    We skirted the Charlotte International class B mode C veil to the north and kept pressing west, the direction we really needed to start going, lest we have to fly northerly to get to NM. I started munching on some potato chips and a leftover sandwich with the headset off, admiring the view and enjoying the wind through the open left window. It didn’t take long to realize that I needed to do some work to monitor the building cumulonimbus in our vicinity, as well as help steer us clear of the numerous Class B, C, and D airports directly in our path not to mention the numerous cell towers that often rose well above our cruising altitude. The thunderstorms were building rapidly and started to flank our route to the north and south. Further west along our path showed the same. We needed to find a safe place to land soon, and get the airplane tied down before it was too late.

    I scouted ahead on Foreflight and found an airport about 50 NM away that would do the trick. Watching the rate of movement on the weather RADAR and comparing it to our groundspeed, we determined we would beat the storm in. We dialed up the AWOS for KSPA, Spartanburg Downtown Memorial Airport in South Carolina and thankfully the weather was still favorable, though the winds were starting to gust from nearby downdrafts. We weren’t the only ones diverting there, as the CTAF comms indicated there were a few other planes inbound from various directions for a full-stop. We laughed at some of the CTAF radio calls, with one guy changing the name of the airport on every position report he made, from “Spartanburg'' to “Downtown” to “Memorial.” To top it off, my Dad then keyed up and confidently stated, “Spartan-Borough Traffic, Super Cub left base…” Classic.

    Whatever the airport name, he greased the gusty crosswind landing on the long runway touching down just prior to the taxiway we needed to exit at to get to the ramp. The skies in all directions were growing more ominous by the minute, but it wasn’t storming yet, so we quickly taxied to the self-serve pump and topped off the wing tanks. The FBO did not have any more hangar space available, as there were too many expensive jets and turboprops already tucked away for the night. So, we would have to tie the fabric airplane down on the ramp as tight as possible and pray the impending hail and wind wouldn’t destroy it. We parked into the increasing wind, tied down the wings and tail, secured the ailerons with a seatbelt gust lock, grabbed our gear and walked inside. A few minutes later, it began downpouring with wind gusts easily exceeding a variable 40 knots.

    We watched nervously while waiting an hour for the only Uber in town to pick us up and take us from Spartanburg Downtown airport to the downtown area of Spartanburg. Thankfully, the plane didn’t start flying away by itself, and our tie downs held. The Uber cancelled twice and the local cab company wanted $100 to drive the 4 miles because of some “VIP” surcharge for a pickup at the municipal airport. They couldn’t comprehend that we were in fact not important people, didn’t fly in on a private jet, and already looked like hobos wearing the same pants for the third consecutive day. To make matters worse, my only pair of pants now sported a giant hole on the knee that I suppose resulted from contorting into the backseat at a previous stop.
    Nevertheless, we eventually made it downtown and it turned out to be a great place to divert into. The rain stopped and we strolled from one end of main street to the other stopping at outdoor beer gardens and local breweries, eating and drinking along the way while enjoying live music performances. We met some fantastic people, debriefed the glorious flying of the day, and discussed our ambitious plans for the next day.

    We were now well south of our intended route. Despite that, there was one place we both truly wanted to explore and spend the night at based on our initial planning: camping under the wing in the Arkansas Ozarks at a grass strip and adventure playground called Byrd’s Backcountry. We did the math on another bar napkin for the remaining distance to New Mexico. If we didn’t make it to Byrd’s before sunset the next day, we had no chance. It was an ambitious plan, requiring nearly 650 NM in the day. But we would gain an hour on the clock going west and the sunset was around 8:30 PM, so it was still feasible. The meteogram suggested we would wake up to low clouds in the morning which would eventually improve to an MVFR overcast along our route but without any thunderstorms in the region. We peeked at the extended aviation outlook of convective activity in the Southwest which declared: “The forecast is complex and made with low certainty due to a severe, slow moving weather pattern developing….” Whatever, that was our problem later. More imminently, it looked like we could escape South Carolina and potentially make Arkansas the next day.

    We missed our 6AM alarms the next morning. It had nothing to do with Spartanburg’s best craft IPAs the night before. The Flying Gods knew this though, and it was low IFR anyway. So, we snoozed the alarms, woke up a couple hours later and wandered out for some coffee and breakfast. It was still broken at 600’ when we packed up and made it to the airport, but the nearby terminal area forecast promised it would improve any minute. The plane was fully fueled and loaded up and so we set up our portable lawn chairs on the ramp, drank our iced coffee, and watched as the sun made brief appearances through small sucker holes of the thin broken ceiling. Any minute turned into a couple hours as we continually spun the AWOS and stared at the sky. Finally, the clouds lifted to 1,000’ and we had our window to leave.

    The delayed takeoff was not helping our cause. We needed a tailwind, or at the very least no significant headwind, and we needed to fly for the remaining daylight hours with very short fuel stops if we were to make it to the Ozarks. But there was still a chance, so our goal remained the same. Right after takeoff, we had to skirt southwest under the Greenville Airport Class C outer ring. This was not a problem at our normal cruising altitude, and the scattered-broken layer of clouds kept us well below the 2200’ restriction anyway. Our next major obstacle of the day lay directly in our path and less than an hour away: The Great Smoky Mountains.

    On a clear day, it would have been no problem for us. We both love mountain flying and the Super Cub excels at it, so long as you give them the respect they deserve. And we would be flying over much higher mountains soon in the Western US. Our problem today however was the low clouds causing widespread mountain obscuration, where the mountain peaks and higher terrain disappear into the weather. Of course we had to stay out of the clouds, but “scud” running in mountainous terrain where you can quickly lose an out to turn around and maneuver away from them is not where we wanted to be.

    We monitored the ceiling heights of any airport ahead that was reporting weather through the ADSB-in feed into our iPads. They were consistent, but below the rising terrain and minimum safe altitude of the area. Diverting south towards Atlanta and lower terrain was an option, but it would cost hours we didn’t have. We scouted the topographical map of the Smoky’s to look for wider valleys that were passable (roads and rivers are often the first indication).

    I was flying this morning and after a good amount of teamwork and discussion we elected to press forward, agreeing that it was sufficiently safe to cross the Smoky’s cranium on. The blue sky was visible through the breaks in the ceiling, and we knew the clouds were consistently only about 500 to 1,000 feet thick. Getting trapped above an overcast ceiling was also not a place we wanted to be, but it was scattered enough in places to climb above, scout and maintain sight of the ground with the ability to descend safely clear of the terrain if needed. So, I throttled forward gradually, pitched for climb speed, aimed for a break in the weather and took us up to our highest altitude ever in the Cub: 8,500’ MSL. It was a beautiful and dynamic sight, the sun above, blue sky in all directions, and a patchy blanket of sun-soaked clouds below intertwined with lush dense green forest. Our vector took us south of the National Park, and pristine Wilderness areas flanked us off both wings.

    Once safely clear of the highest terrain, and with a wide valley and airport below, we spiraled back down through a convenient clearing in the weather and took inventory of the route to the west below the cloud layer. Satisfied with what we saw, we picked up the highway westbound and carried on in the valley paralleling a river. The Great Mountains were behind us, and the terrain became much more manageable as it gradually gave way to rolling hills and small towns. Past Chattanooga to the south, we aimed for the outskirts of Huntsville, and the weather remained incredibly consistent for hundreds of miles- brilliant flying.

    We found Moontown airfield (3M5) ahead, a magenta “unfilled” circle on the VFR Sectional with 4 tick marks indicating services available, no control tower, and an “other than paved surface.” The perfect gas stop. I didn’t like my first approach to the 2,000 feet of grass. High and fast, still not completely warmed back up to the slow approach speed of the STOL airplane- free pattern. The second attempt was better, and I taxied up to the old self service fuel pump at midfield. We were greeted by a nice kid who helped us fill up the self-serve and some friendly locals came out to chat and check out the plane. We were apparently only the second transient aircraft to stop for gas in weeks. I wish we could stop more often, because these are the small American airfields you would happily spend money at for AVGAS to keep open.

    The 3.7 hour sortie took a lot of effort and I happily relinquished the front seat to my Dad to take a rest and relax in the rear cockpit. We paid for the gas, thanked the locals, topped off with some more lukewarm pilot coffee, and 20 minutes later continued our journey. As was now tradition, we took off without a specific destination in mind. In all my years of flying professionally I’d never done it before on a cross-country, but it is refreshing and adds additional excitement. Thankfully at 80 MPH you can figure it out on the fly. Our route was ultimately dictated by our end goal and where we couldn’t fly to get there. So, take off in the general direction and adjust course to avoid Huntsville and Memphis. We would bias just north of their respective airspaces.

    It was a relaxing 250NM leg, the ceiling lifted to about 3,000 feet and the obstacles were routine and avoidable: small towns, cell towers, and birds. After a couple hours in the air, I identified our next fuel stop: Newport Regional, M19, in Jackson County Arkansas. It retains two of its four original long concrete runways from World War II flanked on all sides by farmland. There was even an original, functional old tetrahedron wind vane, which we had never seen before. The runways were excessively long for a Piper Cub, but there was gas and we needed some. It was late afternoon on Saturday, May 29th now and we were the only small plane in the sky for miles. We landed and were officially in Arkansas. There was nobody to talk to on the ground this time; the airfield was completely deserted. But the self-serve gas machine took our credit card and we quickly huddled to scope out the remaining distance ahead. It was good news: the weather was permissive, and we had enough sunlight to continue. We would make the Ozarks.

    We switched seats again, I yelled “Clear Prop!” out the window and cranked the trusty 160 horsepower Lycoming for what would be some of my greatest 2 hours ever in an airplane. 15 minutes after takeoff, the flatlands of Eastern Arkansas quickly gave way to endless majestic green rolling hills. Seemingly across every stunning hilltop there was a winding river valley begging to be explored. For the next 125 miles, I never climbed above 300’ AGL. The sparse population made it easy to laterally see and avoid directly overflying people or property. For the friendly people we did see waving up to us from their front porches, I returned the greeting by rocking the wings with exaggerated left-right movements of the ailerons.

    With Byrd’s set as the final destination, our direct arrival time was now comfortably over an hour before sunset. With a full tank of gas, our flight path began to follow the terrain in a general westerly direction. After nearly 8 hours in the sky flying with a purpose on the day, I was now meandering in a Cub with my father over stunning countryside we’ve never experienced together. Conversation was minimal, the quiet music in the headsets and the steady hum of the air-cooled engine was interrupted occasionally by our spontaneous laughter and responses to “left or right” when we got to another fork in a river valley. For most of the flight, the green hills rose above us on both sides of the wings as I followed the valleys that the freshwater rapids have carved out over time. Occasionally, we spotted something worth spinning a tight 360 degree turn for: a remote waterfall or a suspected bear sighting that certainly required further investigating.

    I glanced at the sectional. From our direction, I knew I could pick up the Mulberry River and it would funnel us all the way to 51AR for the last 15NM. For most of the day, the clouds hid the sun as we flew below them. However, looking ahead there was the unmistakable sight of a clearing line. Even from low altitude, it was apparent the overcast that had persisted for nearly 600 nautical miles was about to end abruptly, with clear blue skies as far as the eyes could see and a low sun in the distance illuminating the terrain and sparkling off the endless running streams and rivers.

    These moments in manned flight are impossible to capture in a photo or video or attempt to describe in words. It is the sortie you replay over and over and dream about for years and decades to follow. But it must be experienced to fully comprehend; flying with the birds and below the trees without another person in sight in any direction while the wind rushes through the open window and you can clearly see every swirling current of the white rivers below. It is the ultimate freedom and transcends anything you can experience on the ground.

    Byrd’s Backcountry was now just a few miles away. We were both looking closely and didn’t see the runway until we were nearly on top of the field. The manicured grass did not appear to be a landing strip compared to the surrounding fields that were scattered among the rolling terrain. Thankfully, a gentleman who seemed to know the area well was doing patterns at the field in a Kitfox and talked me through the layout over the radio. I overflew the longer primary strip adjacent to the river to scout the conditions and look for hazards. The windsock was light and variable: I would land to the west based on the terrain. I turned base over the river and followed the rising terrain down to a short final. I rolled it out to taxi clear through a defined cut in the field and shut down by the river rapids along the tree line. We both hopped out of the plane, high fived, and hugged. We didn’t need to say anything more.

    The place was right up our alley and bustling with activity at the beginning of the long weekend. We fit it with our hiking boots, worn out khaki pants and motorcycle t-shirts. I could have walked around all night talking to the awesome crowd camping with ATVs, UTVs, and 4x4s ripping around in every direction. There were old converted school busses in the vast campground parked alongside expensive fifth-wheel toy haulers and pimped out Jeeps. Another group walked up from the river with white water rafts. I immediately thought that I needed to take my family back for an extended stay. We waved to a couple limping past slowly in a muddy and wobbly Toyota pickup with a badly smoking 22R. They waved backed, smiled, and exclaimed, “Whoops!”

    Safely on the ground at our destination, there was evidently now one additional order of business before finding some cold beer and grub. I had landed on the “main” runway, as it was within my current tailwheel experience level. However, after hiking up the hill, we discovered all the cool kids were parking their STOL tailwheel planes on the short “restaurant” runway which was under 1,000 feet and flanked by obstacles on either end. That is where we needed to park and camp for the night. My Dad would get a bonus flight at Byrd’s Backcountry. I hung out and chatted with some great people. I discovered the Kitfox pilot I talked to on the radio 30 minutes prior was actually Zen, the man who owns and operates the entire place with his wife. It’s been a family property for over a century, and now one of the coolest adventure destinations in the country. He immediately gave us the lay of the land, offered us the keys to his old 4Runner and was incredibly gracious. He is also a badass pilot, because I personally witnessed some epic flying out of that Kitfox, with Zen landing on nearly all of the 40 small fields he mowed for the purpose of aviating.

    My Dad hitchhiked back down to the lower field where the Cub was parked. Soon after, I heard the unmistakable sound of the O-360 in the distance. His first pass was a low approach from the south to get familiarized. It was a hell of an approach. Due to the rapidly rising hills to the north, there was essentially only one way in, from the south. Standing on the runway threshold, I lost him behind the terrain as he flew upwind and only picked him back up on a tight left downwind. He turned final a second time: it looked good from my Earthly vantage point. Massive right slip required to lose the altitude while holding 50 MPH and make the orange cones marking the approach end of the designated runway. He smoothly straightened out, flared, and touched down on three wheels. At midfield, I saw the splash as the bush wheels went through a depression in the runway and sprayed standing mud and water all over the wings. After the back taxi, I marshalled him next to the tree I wanted to hang my hammock on, and the engine was shut down for the night. Beer light on.

    Zen gave us the gouge. Thankfully, their river side restaurant was still open. The small cabin next to it was the general store where we could buy beer and then “discreetly” carry our new 12-pack of PBR to the table with us- brilliant. We ordered all the fried fish items on the menu and feasted. Nearing the end of civil twilight, we took a walk along the river and around the campground to digest before going back to set up camp near the plane. If you looked in a certain direction, you could only see the plane, the silhouettes of the rising hills in the background, and the bright stars appearing overhead. Turn around, and you could see LED light bars of UTVs rising the nearby trails and hear the mixed roar of 2 and 4 stroke engines in every direction. We loved it.

    Setting up basic camp was simple and took less than five minutes using our headlamps. I strung one end of my hammock off the right strut of the Cub and attached the other end to the nearby tree 15 feet away. My Dad set up his tent under the opposite wing and our work was done for the day. We set up the portable lawn chairs and I brought out the two nips of Glenmorangie Scotch I was saving for this moment. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky now and we watched as the aliens flew by (maybe, probably a Starlink satellite formation), finished our whisky and called it a night.

    We both fell asleep promptly and comfortably. That whisky blanket and slumber lasted until exactly 3AM when the temperatures dropped enough to wake us both up on opposite sides of the plane. I couldn’t bring my sleeping bag as my commercial flight carry-on capacity was maxed out and my Dad didn’t pack his in solidarity. Lesson learned; next time, we find a way to bring them. We both apparently not only got up at the same time, but we then both had the same groggy strategy and grabbed our spare T-shirts to use as makeshift hats, put our boots on and fumbled around to layer whatever used clothes we weren’t currently wearing as extra insulation. It was a damn cold 4 hours, and I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

    We didn’t talk much at 7AM when we emerged from our respective beds. It took a bit of wandering around to get the blood flowing and restore feeling in our extremities. Camp teardown was equally simple and done in silence. Thankfully, we knew the restaurant was due to open at 8AM that Sunday morning and we would be the first in line. After a couple mugs of delicious hot diner coffee and a breakfast burrito each, we were back in business. The waitress graciously honored our request of filling our travel mugs with to-go coffee and we were back at the plane. There was no weather reporting station nearby, but we quickly checked the iPads on the WIFI for the region and it confirmed what we saw looking up at the sky. The low morning cloud ceiling was rapidly burning off and by the time we had the plane warmed up we had the weather to blast.

    We would takeoff opposite the direction my Dad landed the night before due to the terrain, and thankfully the morning winds favored it. Although we were now at half fuel capacity, there was a discussion about takeoff performance with both of us on board to clear the trailers and trees at the departure end of the STOL runway. Considering the low density altitude, the headwind, and the climb performance of the airplane, we were comfortable with me getting in the backseat instead of walking down to the longer runway to get picked up. My Dad would do a short field takeoff, and we discussed abort criteria if we didn’t make certain takeoff gates, identified by tree clusters along the runway edge.

    We were idling at the far edge of the runway by the massive trees on the north end in an aggressive three-point attitude with the noise pointed skyward on the big tires. My Dad advanced the power to full on the 57-year-old airplane while holding the heel brakes. A moment later we could feel the tail getting light as the wind rushed across the elevators. Brake release plus a couple potatoes later and we were in a two point attitude rolling down the grass that glistened with morning dew. Momentary forward stick pressure, pump the flaps and pull back. The plane bounced lightly on the tailwheel and we were airborne. Hold it down in ground effect for a few more potatoes and watch the airspeed increase. We had this, no problem. 55 MPH IAS and pitch for climb to clear the obstacles. I instinctually gave him a pat on the back from the rear seat and we climbed out safely. This is not a place you can depart straight out of. We made a swooping 180 and moments later made a low pass in the opposite direction of the field we just departed from. Waving to the campers and Zen and his family, we peeled off left and carried on to the west.

    The convection in the Western US that we postponed being concerned about would imminently be our problem for the next couple of days. We were more than halfway now and had relatively flat, though increasingly higher, countryside to cross to get to New Mexico. Before we got to the Great Plains however, my Dad got to enjoy some of the West Arkansas hills on the way out that I experienced from the front seat the evening prior. It was, once again, a stunningly beautiful morning flight. Since there was no gas at Byrd’s, and we had flown 2 hours already on this tank, we had to make a stop sooner than later- an hour and a half to be safe. I began looking on the sectional chart for a viable option.

    We could cross another state off our list. Tenkiller Lake Airpark in Eastern Oklahoma was within reach. 44M was the identifier, and it supposedly offered good quality grass with 100LL fuel available. Anytime we plan to land at a small grass strip with gas, we also plan a divert with our remaining reserves in case there isn’t any gas left in their pumps, which has happened to us before. Thankfully, the airpark lived up to our expectations and we were greeted with a pristine 2,600’ grass strip on the east shores of Tenkiller Lake and some terrific locals that were out in a golf cart driving down the edge of the field on that beautiful Sunday morning.

    A small aviation community on a public use airport, we were happy to chat with the crew that greeted our arrival. One of them was Sandra from the Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission, who happened to be there to take photos for an upcoming article highlighting some of their hidden general aviation gems. I went to Air Force pilot training in Oklahoma, and it was good to finally be back there in an airplane for the first time since. Thankfully, their fuel pump did still have gas, and though it was cash or check only, we were happy to get fuel from these great Americans.

    Keeping with our promise, we switched seats again and I took off opposite direction towards the lake in the negligible winds. Low westbound departure over the lake, we waved to the boaters who were enjoying their morning on the water. The water that was so abundant during our first few days would become much sparser throughout Oklahoma and points southwest. The terrain quickly flattened and reminded me of my training sorties near Enid, though we were still 150 NM ESE of it. The winds “aloft” were not significant, and we planned for a solid 200 NM leg.

    It was a nice cruise across Oklahoma: proper barnstorming. We flew from farm to farm, passing the occasional lake with our routine of scanning and calling out towers and birds, “Tower, unlit, 2 o’clock, 3 miles, co-altitude…” “Contact.” Now however, flying low over the open fields we also had to clear more aggressively for power lines and crop dusters working their fields. We saw a few, which after spraying a row and pirouetting to turn back around would show planform on the nearby fields until they dropped back down to crop level. It was easy going with our favorite flying music playing in the background but we both knew that wouldn’t be the case later in the day.

    We crossed all of Oklahoma in the peak of Tornado season with light winds and a few benign clouds. West Texas was next, and we needed to consider landing options that we could spend the night at. This was not the night to get stuck out in the middle of nowhere, even though we could land virtually anywhere. There was now a vast, widespread area of severe thunderstorm warnings in our path, with an associated risk of golf-ball sized hail and torrential winds and rain, as well as isolated tornadoes possible. Neither our fabric airplane nor our fabric tent would withstand these conditions.

    We needed to gas up and assess our options. Wichita Valley on the west side of Wichita, TX was in our flight path and offered multiple grass runways and self-serve gas. The identifier was F14, so we nicknamed the field Tomcat. The winds were already starting to gust. I flew over midfield and surveyed the windsock. It favored runway 16, so I set up for a pattern and announced my base on CTAF, even though nobody was listening. On short final a couple minutes after the midfield survey, the windsock had spun nearly 180 degrees: now a gusty quartering tailwind. I continued, there was still plenty of time to decide if the winds would shift again and the landing would work on the longer field, or if a go-around would be necessary.

    It would be a no-flap wheel landing either way; keep the speed up a little bit for the gust component. Feet always dancing on the rudder pedals; it is imperative the nose point straight down the runway in the taildragger more than any other airplane. The grass landing surface was slightly more forgiving, but if you didn’t fly the plane all the way to parking, the results could be disastrous. I floated a bit passing the threshold, kept some power on to overcome a strong gust and the plane settled down. We rolled out; a very gentle application of the upgraded brakes was needed only when the plane was slowed sufficiently to taxi speed by the drag of the large tires to turn 90 degrees onto the taxiway. We had the quick-refueling routine down by now. Whoever was up to pay would bust out the credit card and attempt to beat the annoying prompts on the fuel pump machine. The other grabbed the grounding cable and attached it to the plane, set up whatever fashion of ladder was available under one of the wings and rolled out the hose. Whoever wasn’t pumping on that wing tank would read out the gallons on the pump and eye the float to warn when you were approaching the top. Frustratingly, most of the pumps don’t have an auto shutoff, so you had to reduce the flow nearing the top of the tank or else the equivalent value of a tall draft beer in 100LL would be left dripping off the wings.

    With the impending severe weather, we had to aim for one of three population centers in West Texas that could offer us hangar space: Amarillo, Lubbock, or Midland. Because pilots are generally better weathermen than those who get paid to act on the local news, we again compiled all sources of information and aimed for Lubbock. We knew we could make it before the storm hit, and it gave us a small chance to leave the next day if we could find a small respite in the stormy forecast, which presently called for an 80-100% chance of persistent thunderstorms from sunrise to sunset.

    When you are cruising at legal highway speeds across the ground in nice weather, these problems seem far off. However, it does not take long for the sky to change dramatically. Despite our impending weather trouble, we enjoyed another 2-3 hours of easy flying, now with an increasing tailwind. Flying a small plane low over the uneven heating terrain allows you to feel all of the invisible thermal waves. It’s a sensation much like surfing the ocean. Suddenly, you feel the subtle rise of the tail. It requires an instinctual input of slight nose down pressure on the stick to maintain level flight, and you ride the wave and enjoy the associated boost in groundspeed. We were doing 130 MPH at times, all with the airspeed indicator holding steady at 85 and only 500’ above the ground.
    The live, pixelated weather RADAR display on our iPads was growing increasingly ominous. Thankfully, the front was slow moving, but it was getting closer to Lubbock as it moved west to east and spanned hundreds of miles north to south. There was no avoiding this storm, the only option was to land and hunker down before the convective downdrafts picked up, which can happen when a cell breaks up dozens of miles away. My Dad steamed ahead, the familiar cadence of the engine at 2,350 RPM whirring dull in our headsets and evident even by the seat of our pants. Without looking at any gauges, you can perceive even subtle changes in engine performance.

    We aimed for Lubbock Executive (F82), an uncontrolled field south of the main class C airport and the city. We called ahead from Wichita and the FBO said they could offer us hangar space for a couple days if needed. Again, my Dad greased the sporty landing on the first try. The windsock was now parallel to the ground, its tail wagging around with the slightly variable gusts. The airport had a perpendicular grass strip available, which we preferred but that would have induced a 25+ knot crosswind. 5,000 feet of pavement into the strong wind it was. The line guys were great and refueling could wait as the storm was nearly upon us. We taxied in front of the hangar they directed us to, accepted the cold water bottles and chugged them (you can only do that on the ground with restrooms nearby). Minutes later, the plane was safely inside the large hangar and the door closed. It seemed like we might have to wait nearly 48 hours to attempt to fly again.

    We found a nearby hotel, and I hailed the Uber. The hotel shower was necessary, and we took advantage of the luxury. We both had exactly one change of clothes left, and it felt good to put on sandals and take off the hiking boots. Thankfully, there was a bustling bar across the street offering draft beer, delicious street food, and arcade games. It was hopping on the stormy Sunday evening. It was a cold, tall Miller Lite kind of night for us, refreshing and rehydrating and the waitress kept them full. After replenishing plenty of calories, and storing some extra ones, we found the arcade section and to our great delight they had hoops. $20 of quarters later and some seriously intense competition and it was time to call it a night. I played the best arcade basketball of my life that night, but my Dad still beat me. Respect.

    Soon after we were back in the hotel room. We jumped in bed and turned the TV on, cycled through the shitty cable offerings a couple times and ended up on the Weather Channel. I opened the window shades from our fourth floor room and watched the storm. Intense downpours, bright lightning, and loud thunder was right over us. Thank God the plane was safely in the hangar and we were resting comfortably. It could have been a much longer night.

    No need to set an alarm that night, as there was 100% chance of the exact same weather 12 hours later. We woke up well rested and checked outside. The forecast was correct and the storm was still widespread and lingering overhead. We walked across the street to the nearest breakfast diner, drank coffee and assessed the situation over omelets. Our destination was now very close, only 200 nautical miles as the Cub flies. We didn’t need more than about 4-5 good hours of flying, so if we could sneak out of Texas, even by mid-afternoon, we could make it home.

    The outlook called for the unstable weather to continue across the region, but it looked like there could be a small window of opportunity to get airborne and stay on timeline. We decided we might as well try, as we had nothing better to do and sitting around in the hotel room wasn’t an appealing option. We packed up (very easy when you travel by Super Cub) and returned to the airport.

    Back at the quiet FBO given the present IFR conditions, we grabbed some chairs on the deck and once again watched the sky. The clouds were low and the winds were howling, but the rain had subsided. The meteogram and TAF now both suggested we might get a small window to depart due west away from the convection where we would quickly gain more options. After a few hours at the FBO, we were granted our opportunity. We plotted an escape route with viable airports every 15-20 miles to drop into in the event the weather changed for the worst.

    Classic hurry up and wait turned hurry up and go scenario. We pushed the plane out of the hangar and straight to the self-serve pump. We quickly topped off the wing tanks, paid for hangar and gas, and thanked the young linemen. The winds were strong and gusty out of the north, with only a slight right crosswind. I was up front and let the plane warm up while holding short of runway 35 and peered out to the west to make sure the path was still clear. Mags checked. Carb heat checked at idle. Green oil pressure and temp, it was go time!

    I applied full power and quickly flew the tail off the ground. The wind was trying to push us left of centerline- right rudder and right aileron were input to compensate and keep the upwind wing low and the nose tracking straight. The left main flew off the ground first and I kept the right bushwheel on the ground for just another few potatoes as the airspeed built up. Away we were on the home stretch, the time was exactly 1600 CDT.

    Once again, our countertop planning checked out and we escaped the grips of the massive storm system. The direct route would be ideal, but it would take us over our highest general aviation terrain ever, my current hometown mountains: the Lincoln National Forest in the Sacramento Range of Southern New Mexico with Sierra Blanca peak rising to a cool 11,973’ MSL. Those mountains also had late day convection in the forecast, so we had to adjust on the fly. The planning on this leg therefore turned out to be straightforward. If we couldn’t go directly over the mountains with the extremely high late afternoon density altitudes and dangerously unpredictable downdrafts, we had to divert north or south around them. The weather was worse north of us, so south it was. We were further bound by an international border and restricted military airspace, so there was only one way to go: we aimed for Carlsbad, New Mexico where we could then skirt around El Paso and Mexico before flying due north through the 2-mile-wide VFR corridor between restricted airspace on both sides of the wings towards Alamogordo; an ambitious plan that would get us home very close to sunset without of lot of contingency options.

    Thankfully, we had one more time change from Central to Mountain which would roll our clocks back and flying west on May 30th meant we had very late sunset times. With 4 long uncontrolled runways, 3 of which point in varying directions of the compass, you have 6 headings to land into. This means that you never have to accept more than about a 30-degree crosswind component, which is convenient. I tuned up the AWOS and it was clear I wanted runway 08. There was a private jet on the radio doing an RNAV approach to 03. No problem: based on our position reports and relative speed, I figured he would beat us to the ground while I was on a left downwind to the other runway. This proved true, as he touched down and held short for a moment as we landed on the intersecting runway. He needed to cross so once we were sufficiently slow, I offered him to taxi to the ramp ahead of us: his idle time was worth a lot more than ours.

    I parked right next to the Citation jet on the wide-open ramp and we shut down simultaneously. Their VIP passengers jumped into the waiting black SUV and sped off, and the pilots ordered some JET-A from the lone lineman running the FBO during the holiday weekend. My Dad and I hobbled out of the Cub, threw a pair of chocks under the big tires and went VFR direct to take a leak and find the pilot lounge to grab a Diet Coke. Quite the contrast of airplanes and people in them. We chuckled at our style versus the jet set type and agreed ours was much more fun.

    Our last major flying decision was upon us. It was 100 NM in a straight line to Alamogordo. We still couldn’t do that, as the scattered thunderstorms in the mountainous parts of the desert Southwest were right in our way. So, the 150 NM option via El Paso was still the only way. The sky was dynamic, there was now a storm not too far away. We agreed to give it a try, but we elected to top the tanks off again for insurance. If we couldn’t make it past the Guadal mountains under the Talon MOA, then we would turn around and overnight in Carlsbad. If we got to the VFR corridor entrance by El Paso and we couldn’t make it through, we would overnight there or in Las Cruces. But we had to get moving now.

    My Dad jumped up front for what we hoped would be the final leg: honoring our tradition of switching seats at every single fuel stop. The Guadal ridgeline and Brokeoff Mountains were no joke either, and we had to cross them even on this path of “least resistance.” I’d flown them at 300’ AGL a hundred times before in the MOA in jets, but they looked far more daunting in the Super Cub. Not to mention, there was a pop-up thunderstorm cell building to our 4’oclock. We surveyed 360 degrees around us to ensure we had options to abort if needed. We had to skirt the overcast and get past the ridge. I was on the lookout for signs of dangerous mountain wave turbulence and making sure our outs were still available. I told my Dad to press forward, I was now on my home turf and knew the local mountains and weather well. The lightning was aft of us, but only about 6-9 miles away. I could see a definitive clearing line in the distance and I knew we could safely make it past the highest terrain and worst weather.

    Just like we experienced a couple days earlier nearing sunset in Arkansas over the rolling green hills and flying past the clearing line: we abruptly found ourselves in beautiful conditions, though the terrain was now mostly brown and arid and littered with majestic rock formations on the border of Southern New Mexico and Western Texas. A harsh environment, nonetheless, as temperatures on the ground were near 100* F and it was vast and desolate. I was grateful again for our survival vests and Garmin InReach subscriptions in the event we had an unplanned landing in the austere land, but preparedness and the skills and equipment to survive are the best forms of adventure insurance.

    It was glorious. Even the road from El Paso to the Guadalupe National Park and the Carlsbad Caverns National Park doesn’t have gas or cell phone coverage for nearly a 150-mile stretch. We were cruising across the wild west and I checked the RADAR again between El Paso and Alamogordo. It looked promising, as an isolated storm had just passed through our destination which should clear out by the time we arrived. I gave the green light to turn north and fly up the corridor.

    Suddenly, we were only 45 minutes out from our final destination. It snuck up on us, and at that moment the silence in the plane suggested we both weren’t quite ready for it to end. But I really wanted to hug my family and my dad could not wait to see his grandkids and daughter-in-law, who were all extremely excited for his visit. Six days prior as I got out of our truck at the El Paso International airport for my American Airlines flight east, I told my kids I had to go pick up Papa from his airport and that I would bring him back with me. Technically a true statement, but they were now understandably anxious, and we couldn’t blame them. We kept Highway 54 and the parallel train track off our right wing and the setting sun off our left wing in the narrow corridor and enjoyed the breeze through the open window at about 500’ AGL.

    There was some latency in the ADSB RADAR feed due to the lack of towers and our altitude- which showed a nasty storm still in the vicinity of Alamogordo, NM. There were still some towering cumulonimbus visible over the mountains, but it looked good for the next 50 miles to fly off our nose. I texted Christina and asked how the weather was overhead from our house in Alamogordo just a few miles from the municipal airport and to the south where we were inbound from and she sent back a couple pictures immediately that showed we were good to go. If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.

    I texted her again when we were 10 minutes out. We just beat the sunset and had time for a victory lap over the house to wave at the kids. Since I knew exactly how to find our house from the sky, I took the controls in the back seat and we circled overhead. We could see them all standing in the front yard. A couple passes, exaggerated wing rocks and waves from the ground and sky. It was finally time to land.

    We dialed up the AWOS at Alamogordo Municipal, KALM. To our surprise, the winds which were previously reporting 30 gusting 40 due to the cell that had passed through were now variable at 3 knots. We could land on the dirt! From our house, we were already on an extended right base to 35, the published pattern for the perpendicular unpaved runway. Our nose tracked through the majestic New Mexico sunset in that turn to final, and my Dad smoothly set the plane down in a textbook three-point landing. It was a short taxi to my hangar. The prop stopped with the mixture pulled out to full lean and it was suddenly silent. We got out of the plane and embraced; mission accomplished. It was 8PM local time on May 31st 2021.

    We are both extremely grateful we got to experience this adventure together. To do it during Memorial Day weekend made it even more special. On every leg of the trip, over some of the most beautiful parts of the USA while experiencing the ultimate form of freedom, I reflected on too many friends who slipped the surly bonds of earth to fly a sortie and who did not return while serving our great country.

    I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank Christina for embracing yet another crazy Sullivan family adventure and holding down the fort while I went off for nearly a week to fly a flight that wasn’t making us any money. We love you and this dream would have been grounded if you weren’t so understanding and awesome.

    In the end, we logged 32 flying hours over 5 days and burned about 250 gallons of 100LL. Despite all odds, we were able to fly every single day. We covered extra distance due to our weather diverts, totaling approximately 2,500 miles from NH69 to KALM. I’ll never forget it, and now I’m dreaming about doing this same trip again someday with my kids.

    Dear FAA, that story is mostly true except for anything that might be unintentionally incriminating. The flight was accomplished in strict compliance with all Federal Aviation Regulations, including 14 CFR 91.155 and 91.119. Cheers!

    Thanks marcusofcotton thanked for this post

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    JP's Avatar
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    Mar 2003
    The Big Woods of Maine
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    Now that just made my day. Fantastic!
    JP Russell--The Cub Therapist
    1947 PA-11 Cub Special
    Thanks daves123 thanked for this post

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