14 min read

1880 miles, 21 hours, $400 in fuel–priceless enjoyment

Light sport airplane

The author’s airplane would carry him over 1800 miles in 8 days.

My airplane for this adventure is an Aeroprakt A20 with 100hp Rotax 912S. Some performance stats to ponder are: cruise 95 mph at 5000 rpm and 4 gph fuel burn at that speed. Day One of this adventure started on Friday, April 5. I had been invited to talk about my airplane to students from Fayette Academy at the Somerville, Tennessee (KFYE) airport. Sometimes you forget about the inquiring nature of young people but to me this was a good reminder of how we all were back then.

When it is time to head south, I am planning on good weather and tailwinds. The weather forecast is for clear sky, tailwinds of 10-15+ mph and some clouds towards the end of the day. The first leg fuel stop was planned for Bessemer, Alabama, but with the tailwinds I continued on to Alexander City, Alabama, where the fuel was cheaper at $4.89. Fuel usage was 9.9 gallons for the first 2:45 of flying. So fuel burn should hit my planned target of 4 gph or less for this entire adventure.

The sky was clear, with smooth air above 3,000 feet and that nice tailwind had me moving along the ground sometimes at 120 mph. Very uneventful, just watching things go past and not another airplane in the sky as far as I could tell.

My first day, the second leg south, had small clouds at 2500 feet but there was great smooth air above them. As this leg went on, the tops of the clouds kept getting higher until at one point I was at 7500’ to stay my required 1000’ above clearance. I had a good view of the ground through the holes with passing lakes and rivers. Nearing the Florida line, the holes started getting smaller so I made a circling descent to fly under them and the benefit of that choice was the shade, warm air and still comfortably smooth flying. The ceiling was 3500’ with good visibility.

My planned second fuel stop had been Donaldsonville, Georgia, but I was way past that and decided Perry-Foley, Florida, should work. But the ground winds there had picked up and the runway I wanted to use was closed for repairs so I continued onwards to Cross City, Florida. Upon landing I was glad I did: fuel was $4.95 for travelers headed to Sun ‘n Fun. The cloud ceiling was now down to 1500’ but with good visibility below, so after refueling I headed to the coast where I could see the sky was clear and my planned overnight stay on the island of Cedar Key was obtainable.

Cedar Key airport

Cedar Key, a great fly-in destination for any pilot, and a good overnight stop on the way to Sun ‘n Fun.

Judy, the airport lady, answered the Unicom and provided me a tour of the city and located a room for me to stay. She is the keeper of the airport and the island’s only taxi service. Judy is well known to aviators and I was told to stop here to sight-see and be driven around in Judy’s old Checker Cab. This day, total moving time was 10 minutes more than 6 hours. Not bad for flying from Oakland, Tennessee to Cedar Key. Average moving speed was 112 mph and that includes climb out and descending, so you can get a good idea the tailwinds I actually had most of the way.

Day Two

After having breakfast and a free cab ride to the airport around 8 am, Judy and I visited and talked about the airport and those unfortunate times when airplanes have ended up wet. After takeoff I circled the town and airport, filming from above in a clear sun-filled sky. Then I turned east and followed the shoreline towards Tampa marveling in the Bull Redfish I could see tailing in singles and pairs throughout the shallow waters. Even from 500’ I could see they were trophies for any angler so inclined to stalk them. Much bigger than 60 pounds from my vantage point, and they looked larger than I had ever seen in pictures.

Flying into the sun that morning, the glare had me looking down into the water a lot. It was shallow for most of the way and the designs made by the water currents from tides were mesmerizing. As long as I stayed out over the water, the air was smooth as silk, always within gliding distance of shoreline which gave me the safety margin I wanted, or at least that is what I told myself. My plan today was to visit Florida Gators Flying field to visit friends.

Low pass over grass runway

Saying goodbye to Gator Field with a low pass.

On this beautiful Saturday morning they were having an airport club meeting so I got to meet all of them. This allowed me to express my gratefulness for the members that had welcomed me a few years ago as I was passing through. The entire group welcomed me to stay again this year but I had other plans for this day As I was departing, who can resist making a low pass–especially for friends like the Flying Gators.

The next destination is Wauchula for the Benson Days Rotorcraft Annual fly-in. I arrived there to an active pattern with many aircraft flying. They were in the middle of the egg drop contest but suspended operations for me to land. With the cross winds kicking up and the mid-day thermals popping, it was fun to watch them flying around so organized and looking so smooth.

I again was surprised at the low fuel price of $4.95 and filled it up. I then parked in the shade of an old oak tree and browsed the area filled with factory-built and homebuilt gyros.

After spending the afternoon at Wauchula, I headed west to an airport under the Tampa Class “C” airspace, Manatee (48X), a nice grass strip, home to another Aeroprakt A20 owner, Phil Stewart.

Phil’s A20 is the 38’ wing model with a Rotax 503 50hp engine. Cruises 80 and stalls 25. I will be staying with Phil for a few days and going into the show on Monday.

Day Three

Today is visiting with Phil, talking airplanes and flying around to visit some of his friends. The strong Florida thermals were kicking hard, but these airplanes handle it very well. He guided me on a low level flight along the Manatee River and then on to visit a friend of his who is building an airplane. The rest of the day was resting and getting to know Phil and his wife, and more talking airplanes.

Day Four

Since I am so close to Lockwood Aviation, I will have them service my gearbox today because a friend of mine sent me a text message that there is a serious Service Bulletin on some Rotax 912 engines and it should not be flown until checked. You can be sure that had me imagining new noises when flying. Every vibration was being felt like never before. I decided to have them replace the plugs and change the oil at the same time.

The flight to Sebring included a stop at a small lakeside turf airstrip to visit more of Phil’s friends, one of whom is quite an artist when it comes to fiberglass. Exquisite art to behold. I put a bug in his ear to make wheel pants for the Carlisle tires that are on a lot of experimental airplanes like mine, or a half-pant style. Maybe he will take me up on it. I’m tired of the mud being slung onto the bottom of the wing.

I was back in the air with just enough time to get into the show before the turf runway closed for the night. Here is my first good view of the Lakeland airport. It was early in the week so many vendors in the Paradise city area had not arrived yet, but it looks familiar just the same.

SNF final

Day Five

Today things were a little slow in the morning with winds too strong for the Paraglider and Powered Parachutes so I flew around the pattern a few times. Just like me right, with all of the flying to get there and then return home I just can’t keep from flying some.

The rest of today is just wandering around the Ultralight and Light Sport turf strip area called Paradise City. Taking pictures, visiting with old friends and making new friends. It seemed like there is increased activity in this area since 2010 but it was hard to tell. This year they moved the Light Sport Mall back to Paradise City so a lot more vendors were in attendance. Some of the usual were missing but all in all it was fun. Good weather through Thursday was forecast with some rain on the weekend and a cold front passing through the center of the country.

KLAL aerial shot

Lakeland Linder Regional Airport becomes Sun ‘n Fun for one week each year.

I have been watching the weather and I will be leaving tomorrow, Thursday morning. With the weekend forecast here for intermittent rain and thunderstorms, and the cold front sweeping across the country, I think it best that I get moving. My thoughts are to get part way home Thursday and hole up overnight while the storms work past me and continue home Friday. As of now I should have good tailwinds Thursday most of the way.

But there were some people who wanted to see my airplane fly today so I went around the pattern a few times. If these airplanes were still being imported all indications are they could sell very well if priced right.

Today was also shopping day! I have one more project to accomplish on this airplane and that is wing tip navigation lights. The new LED style is what I have in mind and no better way to compare them than here at the exhibit hangars. I did finally decide on the Whelen since they are bright, reasonably priced and made in the USA. Now finding a way to load everything back in the airplane for tomorrow’s early start might be interesting.

One last testy evening with severe storms in the area about 10 miles south. Lightning is visible and thunder is rumbling, with PA system warnings around the grounds advising flyers to secure everything down with extra ropes because the severe storm path could come right over us. One of the fly-in campers next to me is pathetically secured but there is nothing I can do about it. The sleeping was difficult until the storms cleared the area around 10 pm.

Day Six

There was no alarm clock needed on this morning. I was up early to pack, fold the tent, and I was thankful that everything was not wet. As the sun made its way up, the clouds prevented me from getting the “crack of dawn” start that I had anticipated. Within an hour though, the clouds and fog were lifting and holes appearing. The weather north was forecast to be good with moderate tail winds and light clouds. Going out of Lakeland towards the south, I had to clear the “D” airspace.

I circled to climb above the clouds and get a look north. Everything was a go so I worked around Tampa and headed towards the coast. I would just wander the water’s edge at low level and have another look at the Gulf. Light scattered clouds at 1000 to 2000 feet for the first 100 miles kept me higher than I wanted to fly but the air was smooth, haze free and the wind was behind me.

Map of flight path

Heading home from Sun ‘n Fun.

As I traveled north and around the bend in the Gulf, my plan was to turn west and fly until I could not continue because of the approaching storms, then turn north along the front and land for fuel where I could. I was flying above the clouds at near 5000’ over Tallahassee in the company of a Tri Pacer that had pulled up alongside. He was not having much difficulty slowing down to my airspeed and it was nice having company.

As it turned out we both were stopping for fuel at Marianna, Florida, having to descend through the cloud openings. Wow, watching him descend ahead of me I could see him hit the turbulence. It was rough down there. The last 2000’ was the worst but the wind was right down the runway at 15 knots so my landing was almost a hover at touchdown.

It looked like he had his hands full though. Fuel price here was the highest of the trip at $6.29, but I did not want to chance there not being enough in the tanks to fly my plan so I filled her up. The two men in the Tri-Pacer were headed west towards New Orleans so he was stopping for the radar image as much as for fuel, just like me. We both studied the radar in the FBO and grabbed a snack.

The weather west was closing down and he decided to stay there for the night. My track northwest from here looks fair on the radar so my plan was to go back up above the clouds for smooth air and get a look. Once on top at altitude, I did not see enough holes ahead to feel safe, or to descend through the cloud layer farther north, so I just dropped down now and lived in the turbulence below. If this airplane was any less capable, I would have turned back and stayed where I was. I was able to travel mostly north northwest with the storms at a safe distance to the west.

But I was getting tired flying in that turbulence after another 1.5 hours and the cloud ceiling was getting uncomfortably low. Alexander City, Alabama, was going to be my stop for the night. The airport manager there was a light flyer himself (Ercoupe) and more than accommodated me. I filled up with $4.89 fuel, (as I had on the first day headed south). When fueling behind a Bonanza that was at the pump when I arrived, the passengers told me I was making the correct move as they had just endured some heavy rain and bumps just 50 miles west. The pilot had picked his way through with the help of radar at 9000’ and I assure you they had at least one mess they were trying to clean up before they continued eastward.

I borrowed one of the airport crew cars, drove around town just relaxing and waiting for some place that seemed appetizing for supper. The forecast for the storms to hit was at 5 pm so I had several hours to decide on a hotel. This is one of those times where the forecast was correct and exactly at 5 pm it started to rain.

Final for runway

Almost home after seven days and 1900 miles.

Day Seven

By morning the sky was clear, very few clouds and strong headwind from the northwest. Smooth air at less than 1000’ but ground speeds in the 60s with airspeed of 100. This was looking to be a long day. GPS calculation was over 4.5 hours at that speed. So I commenced climbing, hoping to get a more favorable wind. I was at almost 9000’ and decided it was no use. There had been a shallow seam around 5000’ that had me near the 80s so I went back down to find it. That worked out well, as I flew the rest of the day in a 200’ slot that had me averaging “almost” 80. I used the clouds as a guide to stay in the seam. Twenty-plus mph difference in airspeed to ground speed. But this was the best I could do today.

Kept fuel burn to less than 4 gallons per hour by dropping back on the RPM some, and this leg was almost four hours in flight time. Once I got close to home I started wandering off course so some of that was my fault.

I landed back at McNabb airstrip after over 1880 miles, and 21.02 hours of flying time. It has been a great adventure and I hope it prompts you to take some adventures of your own.

Editor’s note: As Dennis’ story shows, pilots can find adventure no matter what they fly. If you have a story to share about a memorable trip, email us: [email protected]

Dennis Long
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