Sometimes only an airplane of your own can make a trip possible. My wife Christine and I proved this a few summers ago when we took our Cardinal on a whirlwind tour of half the country.
It started out at the end of May. We left Massachusetts for Frederick, Maryland, home of AOPA. It was the last year that AOPA had its fly-in and open house the first weekend of June. We went down a couple days early to do some sightseeing before the show.
We had to file IFR to get out of our home base of Fitchburg, but the weather soon broke and we had decent weather for most of the flight. We kept our clearance, though, because the route they gave us meant going through the Washington SFRA. I don’t like flying through that area. I have too vivid an imagination and these days with visions of SAMs tracking the airplane, or choppers and fighters being vectored onto my six. There’s no good scheme without a few flaws, and the day the system breaks down is the day I will be in the air.
Being the Thursday before the show we got a tie down in the regular transient area and were soon on our way. In case you didn’t know, Frederick has a very picturesque downtown. There’s several historic sites, a beautiful river walk park, and lots of good restaurants. We had dinner at a tapas bar on the main street.
Friday morning we drove up to Gettysburg and toured the museum and battlefield. The name of one of my great-great-uncles is up on the monument dedicated to Pennsylvania regiments. Not surprising since my mother’s family goes back a lot farther than that in Pennsylvania.
Saturday was the Fly-in. I’m the AOPA Airport Support Network Volunteer for my home airport so we started off the morning at the ASN breakfast meeting. We went to some of the seminars, looked at the airplanes and checked out all the vendors under the big tent.
There was one interesting encounter during the Fly-in. I’d ordered all the charts for the trip from Sporty’s and they shipped an incorrect set of approach plates. I went all over the airport trying to find the one I needed, but nobody had it. Leaving the FBO building, we ran into Hal Shevers, the founder of Sporty’s. I said to myself, “Do not bring up the plates.” I introduced myself, said I was one of his customers, and he replied, “A happy one I hope”.
Look, he opened the can of worms, so I explained what had happened and where we’re going and that we couldn’t find the plates we needed and that fine gentleman said, “We can fix that.” He led us out to the company Citation sitting on the ramp, opened it up, and went to the storage area behind the pilots where charts and approach plates for the entire country are kept. He asked which one we needed, pulled it out of the rack and handed it me. That’s what I call service. I should have gotten it autographed.
After another nice evening in town, we saddled up for the next leg of the journey. Our final destination on Sunday was St. Louis, Missouri. Ernie Gann named his Cessna 310 “The Noon Balloon” because he and his wife so rarely managed to launch before midday. My wife isn’t a morning person, but we did manage to get going by ten or so Sunday morning.
Did I mention it was hot? The day before had been sweltering, now it was just plain hot. We filed IFR because P-40 was expanded. We wanted ATC’s help to make sure we stayed out of trouble. The controller kept asking us for a better climb rate and I had to tell him sorry, but it’s hot and we’re heavy. He was juggling a lot of airplanes leaving the area and trying to maintain spacing. I told him we’d cancel as soon as we hit Martinsburg VOR, and then a lot of people chimed in saying the same thing. That let him breathe easier. We had all filed for the same reason: insurance against a 90-day suspension (or worse–remember those SAMs) if we busted P-40.
Canceling at Martinsburg came back to bite us, however. About the Kentucky border, the weather started to close in again and I had to get a pop-up clearance. There were lots of mountain ridges out there (with wind turbines on top) and I did not want to tangle with any of that. We spent about half an hour in IMC before landing at Ashland, Kentucky, for fuel.
Ashland is a very nice airport. The terminal building is new, clean, and the people are friendly. The “lineman” was a young lady dressed in black and a lot of tattoos who very efficiently topped us off and pulled the airplane into a parking spot while we freshened up. It must be tough to be a Goth during a Kentucky summer.
The good ol’ boys hanging around the office greeted us and asked where we hailed from. I told him we’d just come from Frederick but home base was in Massachusetts. He said “You might have some trouble understanding us around here. We talk something we call rockabilly.” To that I replied I’d been born in Fairfax County, Virginia, at which point the whole atmosphere in the room thawed a couple degrees. “Oh, so you’re just dislocated!” was his response.
Up and away from Ashland with East St. Louis the next planned stop. No way: too much headwind. So we landed at French Lick, Indiana. It was essentially on our course line, so why push it? The gas was self-serve, but they pumped it for us anyway. Turns out there’s new casino at a historic, restored hotel in town. Chris heard all about that while I watched the fueling.
The weather was good at French Lick, so we departed VFR. At 4,500 feet it was still 85 degrees in the cabin. By now we started seeing some of the flooding plaguing that part of the country that summer. The last leg was only 1.7 hours, but it sure felt longer, staying low and slogging against the headwind. But thanks to crossing a time zone and gaining an hour, we made it in time to pick up our rental car. Getting to St. Louis was easy except for the fact some joker had turned all the street signs on the airport around. People get their jollies in strange ways.
The reason for visiting St. Louis was to spend some time with my nephew, Ian. We hadn’t seen him for some years and when he showed up at our hotel room Chris and I were both a little surprised. Ian could be my son instead of nephew. It was down-right spooky but a great catch-up session.
Three days after arriving in St. Louis we headed down to Pine Bluff, Arkansas. We again filed IFR to deal with the Cu that I knew would be building later in the day. For the first time in my flying career I got “cleared as filed” from the tower. I mentioned that to the tower controller and he asked where we were from. When I told him he responded, “You gotta be kidding. I used to work at Worcester and New Bedford!” It’s a small world.
It was three hours to Pine Bluff and waiting for us when we got there were two old friends, one totally unexpected. The first thing I noticed when we pulled into our parking spot was a Cessna 150 next to us, N66707. I couldn’t believe my eyes! I used to fly that very airplane while I was a college student in Tulsa back in the seventies. The paint job was different, but I can honestly tell you that the airplane appears to have held up better than me. Unfortunately the owner wasn’t around to talk to.
The other person waiting for us was one of my old college roommates. Actually, it was he and his wife and their four boys. Glenn’s last name is Wolf so you can probably guess why they go by the moniker of the Arkansas Wolf Pack.
After a very nice visit, it was time for the next leg to us to Knoxville, Tennessee. Finally, tailwind time. We got about a 20 kt boost on the way to Knoxville and made it non-stop. TAC Air took care of us on arrival and we got to park under the big canopy to unload. We picked up the rental car and off we went.
And stopped. The airport is bordered by a road called Rt. 129. It’s a divided highway but not limited access, and there are no stop lights along its entire length as far as we could tell. Trying to get across the highway to the hotel took us 10 minutes at least, then we had to go past it and circle back, each crossing of the road taking another 10-15 minutes. Crazy drivers.
After finally checking in to the hotel, we went to visit my Aunt Florence. Aunt Flo is my mother’s sister and I hadn’t seen her for about 50 years. She lives in the scenic foothills of the Smoky Mountains, bordering on the TVA reservation. We spent a few very pleasant hours catching up and learning a lot of family history before leaving about sunset, escorted on our way by swarms of fireflies, more than I have seen in decades.
The weather finally turned against us next day. Rather than slog towards home through a fairly active front, we spent a down-day in Tennessee.
We departed IFR from Knoxville and climbed on top. Again, we got a decent tailwind and made good time to HGR. Hagerstown was the one stop of the trip I made because of fuel prices. Self-serve there was more than a dollar less than gas at either Frederick or Martinsburg. I was hoping that MRB would work out because I haven’t landed in West Virginia and want to add it to my map of states I’ve landed in.
I was checking the Fitchburg, Massachusetts, weather regularly on the flight to HGR and during our stop. That front that had come through the night before was stalling out right around central Mass. FIT was not going above minimums and even Worcester, Massachusetts, was low IFR. I made sure the tanks were topped and filed for Gardner, Massachusetts, west of our home base. Why Gardner? Because that way I was pretty sure they wouldn’t send us back down to BWI and the TEC route along the shore. That would have put us on the wrong side of the front and in bad weather much of the way. No thanks. If the weather at FIT improved, I would have requested a change. I got the route I expected, the one I originally filed for on the trip down but didn’t get. It goes up through Pennsylvania, cuts the corner in New York, then into Connecticut.
But the weather didn’t improve much. Worcester, the nearest airport with an ILS, was a little better, but I was getting tired and didn’t feel like shooting an approach to near-minimums there then having to deal with transportation. Or worse, missing and having to backtrack to an alternate which would have made fuel a bit close.
So in retrospect I probably made the best decision and landed short of goal at Barnes Municipal at Westfield. We ended up driving a rental car home.
The weather finally cooperated a couple days later. I drove back to Westfield, returned the car, loaded up the plane and off I went. When I checked in with Bradley approach for flight following, I told the controller that this was the end of a 2,700 statute mile trip and got a “God bless you” from him. It sure did feel good to have the airplane safe at home with no dings or major problems on the trip.
Chris was amazed when I gave her the final numbers. We had flown enough to make it from Fitchburg to San Francisco. The same trip by road would have been at least 500 miles more and have taken almost four times as many hours on the highway as we spent in the air.
We absolutely lucked out when it came to weather. My instrument rating saved the trip without a doubt, but we were fortunate that no major frontal systems screwed things up while we trying to keep a schedule.
This is the kind of trip that you just could not make any other way with the time restraints we were under. We could have, just barely, driven the route if we’d done nothing but drive. Doing it via the airlines would have been very expensive since it would have meant all one-way tickets and more rental cars. It would have meant hours and hours in security lines instead of being catered to by friendly and helpful FBO personnel.
It was also a trip that reforged personal relationships in a way that just wouldn’t have been possible without the airplane. When people ask why I fly, this is one of the stories I tell them.