Oshkosh Odyssey – a 950 mile pilgrimage via seaplane

Throughout the yearlong building of my two-place, 100 hp SeaRey amphibian kitplane, I thought about flying it to the 2013 EAA Oshkosh event and landing at its Seaplane Base on nearby Lake Winnebago. This would be something of a pilgrimage.

Wife Suzanne thought that flying her Cessna 172 there would be an adventure. After eight years as a pilot, her longest solo cross-country had been only about 300 nm. Besides she could carry luggage, which is almost impossible in a SeaRey with two persons on board.

We live in a large residential airpark, Leeward Air Ranch, in central Florida. The straight line distance to Oshkosh is 950 nm.

Trip to OSH
A 950 mile trip from central Florida to Wisconsin.

Checking for rooms in September, 2012, I found that none would be available in Fond du Lac, the closest town to the Seaplane Base, during the event. Appleton hotels had rooms, at triple standard rates. Eventually I settled on Manitowoc, a small city on Lake Michigan. Apparently due to the 1.5 hour drive time on two-lane roads, room availability and prices were not affected by Oshkosh.

Our plan called for flying both airplanes to the Manitowoc airport and then using the SeaRey to fly 31 nm to the Seaplane Base. A frequent shuttle bus takes 15 minutes to drive to the main Oshkosh grounds. (BTW, after 40+ years involvement in aviation, I have trouble calling the event AirVenture.)

Our flight consisted of a VFR pilot flying an IFR airplane and an IFR pilot flying a VFR airplane. As the latter cruises about 70 kts, the trip would take time due both to distance and weather. I allowed three days to reach Manitowoc.

Suzanne flight plans for 110 kts, meaning that we would play leapfrog. I estimated that I could endure the sling seats and 100 db cockpit noise in the SeaRey for three hours or about 200 nm at a time. I would depart first as I usually take less time for preflight and EFIS programming. Yes, the SeaRey does have a combined PFD (with synthetic vision), MFD and Engine Management System thanks to Dynon’s Skyview. That system was more cost-effective compared to steam gauges when I designed the panel.

Suzanne would follow, pass me mid-leg and land first, taking about two hours. Arriving at new airports, choosing parking, arranging fuel and later rental cars and hotel rooms would give her learning opportunities. We sought uncontrolled fields with low traffic and self-service fuel.

Day one looked good with high pressure over the eastern U.S. I managed to be wheels up by 0630. Ten minutes later, Leeward was fogged in, delaying Suzanne for an hour. I arrived at Dublin, Georgia, refueled and departed as she entered the pattern.

As we flew northwest of Atlanta, she caught up to me and sailed by to the little airport at Monroe, Tennessee. When I got there, she had refueled and was enjoying a lunch of homemade chili, fries and salad. Yep, small airport people, such as the four workers there, shared their lunch with us!

As much as we wanted to stay and chat, I pointed out that the day’s continuing high overcast, 20-mile visibility, negative turbulence and only 5 kt headwind constituted exceptional weather. We should push on and take advantage of it.

We did so with the SeaRey making a four-hour leg to Indianapolis. When I landed around 1800, Suzanne had made all the arrangements for our overnight. That was a good day with 10.5 hrs SeaRey time and about two-thirds of the distance covered.

Finishing the trip on day two seemed doable. A couple of phone calls later, the destination hotel and car reservations were changed.

Weather on the next day was a low pressure system northwest of us. Flying north to Gary, Indiana, and along the west side of Lake Michigan promised no worse than midlevel ceilings and light showers. That worked with a bonus 10 kt tailwind, allowing the SeaRey to make Manitowoc nonstop in 4 hours.

Two sights from that leg remain in my mind. The huge steel mill complexes at Gary are as ugly and grimy as those I remember from my childhood days near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At that time, one grandfather and two uncles made a good living in the mills, but steel’s better days are long past.

Meigs Field lakefront
Passing the old Meigs Field, a sad sight on an otherwise beautiful flight up the Chicago lakefront.

The other sight was the Chicago skyline. That striking image belied the tragic view of the former lakefront airport, Meigs Field. In 2003, after Mayor Daly bulldozed the runway at 1 AM, his new park for the people never happened. Today the land is a vacant, unimproved weed patch.

Day three, Wednesday, started foggy with rain forecast from a weak cold front moving through. We decided to stay in Manitowoc and tour its excellent maritime museum. The City had a large shipyard for decades that built ore boats and lake passenger ships. During WWII, the yard constructed 28 fleet submarines, one of which was floating at an adjacent dock. The museum visit included a tour through that boat.

Thursday brought post-frontal northwest winds of 12 gusting to 17 knots. Given that I have only a year’s experience in seaplanes and taildraggers, that was too much for me. On water 10 knots is the most that I have experienced. Upon returning to Manitowoc, I would have had those winds directly across the runway. We drove to Oshkosh instead. The three-hour round trip was enhanced by back road travel through picturesque farm country.

Taking the shuttle bus to the Seaplane Base allowed me to assess the layout and procedures for the next day’s flight over. Only two SeaReys were there, a factory demonstrator giving rides and another builder’s. A point of land provided a lee shore for takeoffs and landings. I could have operated there, but the landing at Manitowoc still would have been a problem.

The next day, more of the same winds and the same decisions. I realized that I really was not prepared for sustained winds. Florida is part of the reason. Our state and Mississippi have the least winds of the entire country! There are no wind turbine farms in Florida, yet one is on the east shore of Lake Winnebago!

The other factor is flying a sport airplane locally from a home airport. When the winds are up, I simply stay on the ground. That is not an option for cross-country flying. Clearly I need to upgrade my skills.

However, this weather was ideal for the Oshkosh event. The sunny days had temps around 80F made even more pleasant with the breeze.

Saturday came with light winds and a forecast of more of the same for the entire day. We fired up the SeaRey and landed on the Lake at the Seaplane Base, where volunteers towed it to a mooring buoy in a protected lagoon. Pilgrimage now complete!

SeaRey on lake
The SeaRey on the lake at Oshkosh–pilgrimage complete!

Despite NOAA’s promise, the winds did come up in the afternoon and shifted to the north. When we returned to the Seaplane Base, the fellows running the operation politely hinted that a takeoff in anything less than a Beaver on floats would be foolish.

To prove their point they offered a ride in a tow boat from the lagoon into the Lake where I would take off. There the problem was immediately apparent: swells! The waves were tolerable, but widely spaced two-foot high swells looked like miniature ramps just waiting to bash a SeaRey hull. The north wind had a long “fetch,” the length of this good-sized lake. Inland swells are rarely seen in Florida due to lack of sustained winds and relatively small lakes.

The volunteers offered to find us a place to sleep that night, but fortunately resources from home were nearby. One of our neighbors had his motorhome at Oshkosh with a car in tow. We borrowed it for the drive back to the hotel and the return Sunday morning. The water takeoff and land landing were uneventful.

Our original itinerary called for a flight to the east end of Georgian Bay in Ontario, Canada for a local SeaRey fly-in after Oshkosh. Given my new apprehension about winds and a preponderance of single-runway airports along the routes, I decided against that plan. Too many uncertainties loomed while facing the need for timely arrivals for customs going and returning.

Instead we decided to fulfill a long wish to visit the U.S. Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio. Monday’s flight started with yet another low pressure system west of us, but moving east. Skirting the leading showers at 2500 AGL, we reversed our course south along the Lake Michigan shore past Chicago and over Gary. In improving skies we turned southeast and arrived, after I made one fuel stop, at Dayton-Wright Brothers airport.

Air Force Museum
The incredible Air Force Museum made for a memorable stop on the way home from Oshkosh.

The Museum is fabulous! The exhibits started with the Wrights and chronologically went through Afghanistan. The airplanes included at least one of almost every U.S. warbird and several British, German, Japanese and Russian ones too. Those included all the stealth weapons: F-117, B-2 and F-22. The only significant missing airplane was a C-5A, but one will be included in a planned expansion.

One particularly moving exhibit covered the 1942 Doolittle Raid. A B-25 was in a diorama depicting a tropical forward airport with figures of Doolittle and some of his pilots briefing by the airplane. Among the surrounding exhibits is an open case with eighty silver cups representing each of the brave volunteer airmen who participated.

Cups for those who have passed on are upside down. Only four remain standing. In front is a bottle of 1896 Cognac (the year Dolittle was born), which the last two survivors were to drink in remembrance. Recently, the remaining four decided to gather while they still able to travel (the oldest is 98). On November 9th, they will return to the Museum to share both the literal spirits and the lasting spirit of American heroes. Not an eye in the house will be dry.

We spent 2 1/2 days in the Museum and still did not see it all. One afternoon we took a break and visited several of the local Wright Brothers sites.

Then it was time to head home. Except the next morning brought persistent low ceilings and fog. Contrary to the forecasts, it did not dissipate. We gave up around 1100 and arranged to stay another day. That afternoon was dedicated to the Dayton Art Institute, a surprisingly good museum for a small city.

At last a clear morning appeared, but with marginal VFR south at Cincinnati and IFR further along at Lexington. We waited two hours for Lexington to improve and launched.

The conditions changed from clear to few to scattered to broken to undercast as we flew south. Finally I reversed and ducked under as our intermediate destination, Danville, Kentucky, was reporting overcast 1300′ with 10 mile visibility. Suzanne followed.

Now we were scud running, at the worst 800 AGL and 4 miles. Fortunately the EFIS panels in both airplanes marked our position and those of rising terrain and obstacles. After 20 minutes of this, we popped into better conditions near Danville and landed there.

The next issue was several lines of thunderstorms from the Southwest to the Northeast across Tennessee. The lines were not moving as in a front. Instead the cells moved from our right to our left along lines about 30-40 nm apart. This condition had been there for days. Line 1 completely blocked our route so we borrowed the crew car for a lunch break.

Line 1 then had an opening, which we crossed at 4500 MSL over some debris clouds. Suzanne reduced to 70 kts so we could make joint decisions about route variations as we worked south.

In Florida and on much of the trip, I used ForeFlight on my iPad 3 for weather depiction. More than 90% of the time I am able to receive cellular data at 1200 AGL where I usually fly the SeaRey. At 4500 MSL and over sparsely settled areas, no cell signal was available. Thus the Stratus 1 ADS-B receiver that Suzanne had lent me provided essential weather radar. Its signal was available continuously through this leg. Her airplane has XM Weather, but she likes gadgets.

The second line had widely scattered red cells connected by an overcast layer at 1800 AGL. Going under, we found dark bases with tendrils that could signal severe turbulence, requiring both hands on the controls and tight belts just in case. None occurred.

While passing four miles east of one cell, I noticed the rain was a solid wall, much like a waterfall. The NEXRAD image went from red to purple. Yikes, a supercell! Still, no turbulence happened and we flew out of that line.

Line 3 not only offered a break after a ten-mile detour to the east, but blue sky appeared ahead. The remainder of that leg was in good conditions. We stopped for the night at a small airport west of Atlanta.

The last legs home on Sunday saw clear skies and light winds, just as in the beginning of our expedition.

Suzanne and I both feel that we had a great two-week trip. She put 20+ hours on her Cessna 172 and now has firsthand knowledge of the realities (limitations) of long cross-country VFR flying. New experiences included marginal VFR flying and dodging thunderstorms.

I put 30+ hours on my SeaRey and for the first time in decades also experienced those realties of long VFR flights. Importantly I became more aware of the SeaRey’s limitations and those of my skills in it. Best of all I made it to Oshkosh in my homebuilt!

Would we do it again? Probably not as our goals were achieved. But I am so glad that we did it once!

5 Comments

  • Excellent story, Bruce. You and your wife will relive those moments for years. The only problem with successfully undertaking long cross-country trips is that it just whets the appetite for more!

    John

    • You got that right, John! Suzanne keeps asking where will we fly the two airplanes next. At this time of year, I am inclined to stay in our home state of Florida. Her C172 has a heater while my SeaRey does not!

  • Howdy! This article could not be written any better!
    Reading through this article reminds me of my previous roommate!
    He constantly kept talking about this. I am going to send this information to
    him. Pretty sure he will have a great read. Thanks for sharing!

  • Hello just wanted to give you a quick heads up.
    The text in your article seem to be running off the screen in Safari.
    I’m not sure if this is a formatting issue or something to do with internet browser compatibility but I figured I’d post to let you
    know. The design and style look great though! Hope you get the problem resolved soon.
    Many thanks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *