Flying at 140 knots or less. . .
In a posting about the future and the relationship between present and past costs (see “Brighter Days Ahead?”), I referred to transportation airplanes as those cruising at 140 knots or more. At least one reader questioned this and noted the value of slower airplanes for transportation, at least over shorter distances.
I tend to base opinions on personal experience and am certainly no stranger to using slower airplanes, even for relatively long distance transportation. When I was really young, in my twenties, I flew my 125 horsepower Piper Pacer 800 hours, virtually all for personal transportation. Twenty years later I gave the subject another go in a new 1974 Skyhawk that I fitted with a custom panel and top-of-the-line King avionics. In fact, I think my Skyhawk was the first customer airplane to fly with the then brand-new KCS-55 compass system and HSI.
Most of my Skyhawk trips were 300-400 nautical miles but I did fly it all over the eastern U. S. and as far west as Albuquerque. I was working out of Little Rock at the time, for FLYING, and flew the Skyhawk for just about 1,000 hours.
I’ll tell you about using the Pacer first.
My father bought it new in 1951 and flew it until 1955 when he got a new Cessna 180 for his business transportation at the original AIR FACTS, the one that used paper and postage and all that.
The Pacer was IFR-equipped when I got it and less than a month later I earned an instrument rating so I could use all that finery. I won’t bore you with all the details but the avionics included a Narco Omnigator, which was the first general aviation ILS/VOR receiver that achieved the accuracy necessary for IFR flying. There was also a Lear ADF-12, which was the gold standard in ADFs, and a Javelin wing-leveler.
The airplane had a vacuum system, rare in light airplanes at the time, and what we then referred to as a “full gyro panel.” The arrangement of the instruments was a little convoluted with the artificial horizon mounted in a bracket atop the instrument panel, in the middle.
One thing my Pacer didn’t have was a static system. Airplanes didn’t have to pass a static system check (or anything else) to be operated IFR at the time and I wonder how the FAA would now deal with an airplane that lacks a static system. In the Pacer the instruments were vented to the cockpit, much as is done now with an alternate static source.
The Pacer held enough fuel to go about five hours at a speed of 100 knots on a good day.
Piper said in ads that you could fly a Pacer for bus fare. That was fortunate for me because about six months into my ownership, friends and neighbors drafted me and I became a Private E-1 in the United States Army. My pay was well under $100 a month, paid in cash, and rations and quarters were provided.
That wouldn’t cover much bus fare, or flying, but I had an ace in the hole, an inheritance of about $4,000. After basic training I was assigned to the Army Aviation School at Fort Rucker, Alabama, and decided to use that four grand to enhance my Army lifestyle, mainly by running around most of the southeast in my Pacer plus trips home to Little Rock, Arkansas. It was also used as a shield against too much mess hall chow. It came out even and was worth every penny.
It was always possible to find a buddy or two who wanted to go along and would share the fuel costs. Those costs weren’t much. The average fill, when it needed it, would leave enough change from a ten to buy lunch for two or maybe three. In a liberal interpretation of the FAA (then CAA) rule about sharing expenses, my passengers would sometimes pick up my hotel bill and meals at the destination which was sometimes New Orleans. That was a fine city for soldiers to visit.
My Pacer would fly fine with three average troops but any more was out of the question.
The Army had a rule about how far away you could go on a weekend or three-day pass but I could rationalize greater distances by considering the distance as being applicable to cars. I never failed to get back on time so didn’t have to plead that case.
My IFR flying was limited to times when that was the only way to go so I didn’t build up a lot of actual instrument time in the airplane but I was never hesitant to fly it in clouds when needed. I found one two-leg flight in my logbook where I flew five hours and 30 minutes of actual in the Pacer in one day. I think I remember feeling like I had been pulled through a keyhole at the end of that day.
At that time we didn’t make log entries of instrument approaches so I have no idea of how many actual instrument approaches I flew in the Pacer but it was a good number.
When the weather was bad over a large area a careful plan was required and it had to be changed at the drop of a hat. There were relatively few airports with instrument approaches in the southeast and you had to always be sure to have the fuel to make it to an airport with minimums for an approach. That could give new meaning to the term “sniffing for asphalt.” No light airplanes had glideslope receivers at the time so the lowest minimums were for the localizer approach at ILS-equipped fields and 400 & one was about as good as that got. Alternates were based mainly on wishful thinking.
After I got out of the Army, I moved back to Little Rock, where I had a job, but the girl I left behind in Alabama (Ann, who became my wife for 55 years), had to be revisited frequently so the Pacer got a workout there. One night IFR trip through a rare snowstorm is still fresh in mind. Then we were wed and a bit after that moved to New York for me to start my long career in aviation publishing at the old AIR FACTS.
The limitations of a Pacer for long distance travel, especially in the wintertime, were underlined the first Christmas we were in New York. We flew the Pacer for visits in Little Rock and in southeast Alabama. There seemed to be a headwind for every leg and when I made one log entry for the whole trip it was for 32 hours of flying, two hours 30 of which was actual instrument and five hours 30 was night.
The night flying was for the trip from Linden, New Jersey, in the New York area, to Little Rock. It accounted for close to half the flying time on the trip. I had never actually figured it before but that was an average groundspeed of 54 knots. It kind of took all day and half the night. I mentioned in another post that my wife Ann was a perfect copilot. She never complained that day and when I offered to stop for the night in Bowling Green, Kentucky, she said to carry on. She was five months pregnant to boot.
AIR FACTS had faster airplanes to fly, a Skylane to start and later a 210 and 250 Comanches and Twin Comanches (all on short term leases) so I sold my beloved Pacer and moved up in speed. The proceeds also helped on the one-third down payment (required then) on our first house.
The increase in speed did wonders for my traveling. More about that in another post.
I stayed with AIR FACTS for over ten years before moving on to FLYING. There, I negotiated a deal where I could buy an airplane and got first a Skylane and next a Cherokee Six. Those airplanes were not as fast as the AIR FACTS retractables but they were mine and that makes a big difference to me. I always considered airplanes to be personal possessions. I could talk with mine but could never strike up a conversation with a leased airplane.
By that time we had moved back to Little Rock, which was at about the geographic center of the places I most often visited on business. I thought I would try a basic airplane once again and figured the twenty knots the Skyhawk had over the Pacer would make a difference. So I put all those fancy avionics in, got the N-number I used until I retired my P210 in 2007, and N40RC started charging around, mostly to places within 300 to 400 miles of Little Rock. (I also had N40RG reserved so when I sold the Skyhawk it was easy to change the “C” to a “G” and save 40RC for a future airplane.)
I flew a lot of no-autopilot IFR in this airplane and it gave good reliability except for two occasions when the Lycoming reverted to three-cylinder operation because of 100 octane lead fouling of the plugs. Three out of four is not bad on some things but it was disconcerting in this context.
I owned and flew that Skyhawk for just over two years and 1,000 hours and had only six weather-related cancellations in an area of the country not known for its excellent weather. One trip was not flown because of extreme surface winds, one was canceled for ice and four for thunderstorms. I flew 52 instrument approaches in conditions of less than 1,000 and three in the airplane.
I dealt with weather exactly the same way that I did in faster airplanes and some thought this was a little foolhardy but there was really no difference in the relationship between clouds and a Skyhawk or Comanche or whatever.
I do remember one day when a characteristic of the Skyhawk was limiting. I can’t recall the exact passage in the POH but there was word there that in very heavy rain, carburetor heat might be required to help manage the water ingestion. I learned that the effective ceiling of a Skyhawk in those conditions is about 4,000 feet. That only happened one time and fortunately it was over nice flat terrain.
I did some weather research flying and photography in that Skyhawk. Russell Munson and I came up with the idea of shooting a VFR entry into IFR conditions and showing the reader what it looked like when you pushed weather beyond the point of no return.
A good friend, Hank Newman, was head of the FAA Southwest Region and he told his folks to accommodate us in whatever we wanted to do. So, they would block the MEA over where we were poking around and we would press on into instrument conditions, snapping shots all the while. When we were actually in the soup, we would climb up to the MEA, call the controller, and he would clear us to go somewhere and fly an instrument approach.
In doing this series I was out poking around snapping pictures of some particularly mean thunderstorms and got the beginning of a tornado that later ripped a small town to shreds.
In retrospect, IFR flying in the Skyhawk was fun, interesting and educational. The airplane was so simple and easy to fly that I could concentrate on learning the characteristics of the clouds that I was flying in. I was completely comfortable with and in it and when we parted ways there were only a few really memorable slow trips. None of them came close to trips in the Pacer where I would look down at the cars going faster and wonder about an airplane/auto trade.
So, yes, I agree that an under-140 knot cruiser can be quite useful over distances of from 250 to 400 nautical miles. I did a lot of one-day out and back trips between Little Rock and Wichita, Oklahoma City and places in central Texas and other than a requirement for some night flying when the days were short, things worked about the same as in faster airplanes.
I would be telling a fib, though, if I said I didn’t fly along wishing mightily that I could be going at least 140 knots.
In a couple of additional posts, I’ll regale you with tales of using 140-plus cruisers and a pressurized single for transportation. For now, do you think I was nuts to be out flying IFR in a Cessna Skyhawk and especially in a Piper Pacer, and especially in a Piper Pacer at night in a snowstorm?