The 172 touched down at I69, just another Cessna making a landing at this busy flight training airport. But this flight was different, and this Cessna hadn’t come from the practice area. In fact, as I taxied N51766 to the ramp, I felt a sense of accomplishment I had never experienced before. This was the end of a 1600 mile journey from California to Cincinnati–and I really felt like a pilot. Ten years later, this is still a memorable trip, one that taught me more about flying than 100 hours of dual.
The mission was simple: fly the Sporty’s Sweepstakes airplane (a new Cessna 172) from the AOPA Expo trade show in Palm Springs, CA back to Sporty’s headquarters in Batavia, OH. As a relatively new employee at Sporty’s, I was told to get the airplane back in one piece and have some fun. The rest was up to me (and my co-pilot Jerry). So with a bag full of charts–this was way back in the dark ages before the iPad–we loaded up and blasted off.
The first leg took us from Palm Springs to Scottsdale, AZ, and provided some of the most spectacular scenery of the entire trip. Departing to the southeast from Palm Springs, we could simultaneously see the below-sea level airport at Bermuda Dunes and the towering 11,000 ft. mountain peaks to the west of Palm Springs. This was my first introduction to mountain flying, and it was quite a place to start.
As we followed I-10 east towards Arizona, the mountain flying lesson began in earnest, as we encountered a healthy dose of mountain wave. It wasn’t particularly rough air, just alternating updrafts that required almost idle power and downdrafts that called for full power. The 172 was maintaining altitude, so we pressed on and soon flew out of the worst. I had never flown an airplane west of the Mississippi, and it was obvious.
First lesson for the logbook: read the winds aloft forecast closely, even if you’re VFR and the skies are clear.
Before long we were on the ground at Scottsdale getting a top off and planning our next leg. The big decision was whether to head southeast towards El Paso and fly the southerly route, or save some time and head northeast towards Albuquerque. The weather looked fairly benign, so we decided to go high (we needed to make it to 11,500) and head for ABQ.
Leaving the Phoenix sprawl behind, we quickly entered a landscape that can only be described as moon-like. There was simply nothing to look at for hundreds of miles but desert and rocks. It was a wonder anyone could live in this environment, but occasionally we caught sight of a lonely cabin in the desert. A hardy soul, no doubt.
The little Lycoming engine was working as hard as it could, and we eventually did make it to 11,500. This was the highest I had ever been in a 172, but somehow it felt strangely low. While the altimeter said we were over two miles above sea level, the ground was less than 2,000 ft. below us. It felt a little like the piston pilot’s version of the “coffin corner,” with rocks below and no ability to climb any higher. Not many options if things went south.
Lesson: that red mixture knob really does work!
After a quick stop for fuel and food in Albuquerque, we took off for Amarillo, hoping to make Texas by nightfall. And what a takeoff it was. We were right at max gross weight with two pilots, full fuel and a plenty of bags, and the combination of Albuquerque’s 5,300 ft. elevation and the high temperature made for some density altitude numbers I had never seen before. We rolled and rolled down runway 8 for thousands of feet (or so it seemed). We did finally lift off, and with a sharp focus on flying exactly Vy, the 172 made it over the mountains east of the airport. It was going to be another slow climb to altitude.
Except Mother Nature had other plans. What looked like very scattered clouds and the occasional rain shower had developed into a more organized front. While we were IFR equipped and rated, it was clear that icing was a real threat in the clouds. So we made the decision to stay VFR and stay low (relatively speaking). We dodged snow showers as we wove our way over the high desert and into Texas.
It was exciting flying, but it was also very lonely. We were out of radar coverage, with no airports or even highways in sight. We certainly couldn’t complain about our well-equipped airplane, but for the first time in my flying career, I really did feel like it was me against Mother Nature.
An hour later, the weather was behind us and we were back in ATC’s loving care. It was nice to have a friend again, but I almost missed the freedom and independence of our last hour. It was cross-country flying, pure and simple.
The reward for our long day of flying was The Big Texan Steak Ranch and Motel in Amarillo, home of the 72 oz. steak (eat the whole steak in one hour and it’s free). Our appetites weren’t quite up for 72 oz. of steak, but we did want to try a local specialty, so we opted for the delicately-named “cattle fries.” What are those, exactly? You can probably guess, and as the menu says, “if you think it’s seafood, go with the shrimp.” Much like ground school, it was worth doing once, but not worth repeating.
Lesson: there’s no point in flying to exotic locations just to eat at Applebee’s, so soak up the local color.
The next day’s goal was to get home, hopefully in two long legs. Drawing a line from Amarillo to Cincinnati went right over Springfield, MO, which instantly made it a great fuel stop. Reading the weather reports made it sound even better–low ceilings and fog throughout Kansas and Missouri suggested an ILS was a must-have this morning, and Springfield has two.
We lifted off into perfectly blue skies and enjoyed a weather-free start to the day. With nothing to do but watch the ground pass by, it soon became clear that all those jokes about the size of Texas were true. We seemed to stay over the state forever, and we were just skimming across the panhandle. Finally some green started to appear on the ground below, and Jerry and I began to feel like we were getting closer to home.
The green didn’t last long, though, as a solid undercast emerged. We converted our flight plan to IFR and started briefing the ILS 14 into SGF. Conditions were just above minimums and didn’t seem to be improving much. The strong wind at the surface, unusual for such low conditions, didn’t make things any easier. I had done plenty of instrument flying, but there’s always something about a brand new airport that makes you sit up straight and pay attention. So I was intently focused as we turned onto the localizer, and I asked my co-pilot to watch for runway lights. They appeared 100 ft. above minimums, just as advertised, and we touched down right on centerline. It was absolutely exhilarating, as any instrument approach is.
Lesson: stay current on instruments–you never know when you’ll need it.
The last leg was, as expected, the least exciting. The terrain was flat and familiar and we were both ready to get home. After climbing back through the overcast layer in Missouri, the clouds began to break and we arrived home in beautiful VFR conditions. All in all, Jerry and I had logged 14.2 hours on the trip, with 1.4 hours of actual IFR. The airplane performed flawlessly, from hot and high mountain flying to hard IFR, without a squawk (I thought the pilots had done OK too).
What was different?
I had 631.2 hours when I made this flight and had passed my Commercial Pilot checkride two months before. I had flown a Cessna 210 to many different places and had a lot of fun in airplanes. But this was the trip that really made me feel like a pilot, one who could use a small airplane for serious transportation.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a short flight on a pretty weekend, and I make those flights often. But I got into flying to go places, and this was really going places–we didn’t even need a fast airplane to do it. We may not have beat the airlines, but we had gone where we wanted, when we wanted, across almost the entire country. The variety of terrain, airports and weather conditions was fascinating, beautiful and educational. It’s a flight that every pilot should have on his bucket list.
I’ve since done the same flight again in a 172, plus a few more California flights in other airplanes. Each one has been memorable, but none more so than this first one.
Have you ever had a flight like that? When did you really feel like a pilot for the first time?