I was sitting in my 1946 Aeronca Champ at the edge of the runway at Chambers County-Winnie Stowell Airport, just outside the town of Winnie, Texas. I was only about 40 miles from my home airport at La Porte, Texas, on the final leg of a nearly 1800-mile round trip from Texas to Kentucky. I’d planned to have the Champ safely tucked into its hangar already, but a line of nasty weather between here and La Porte caused me to divert to Winnie and wait it out. Now it was getting close to sunset, and unless I took off soon I would be spending the night in beautiful downtown Winnie.
Six days before I set out from La Porte, bound for my hometown of Lexington, Kentucky. I planned on a leisurely flight time of about 12 hours in each direction. The Champ cruises at about 75 mph, burns about 4 gallons of fuel an hour, and the seat of my pants has a limit of about an hour and a half. So I planned a lot of stops along the way.
I departed La Porte precisely at 7:00 on the morning of May 3rd, bound for a first stop at Angelina County airport in Lufkin. It was a beautiful clear day, and the east Texas countryside seemed especially green that morning. It had been a cool spring in southeastern Texas, and the cool morning air blowing into the open window was invigorating.
But despite the perfect weather conditions, I was more than a little skeptical that I could pull this whole thing off. The farthest I’ve flown the little Champ since I bought her three years ago was on short cross-country hops to such exotic places as Palacios, Wharton, Beaumont and Galveston, all of them less than 100 miles away. This would be a quantum leap for both the Champ and me – a total round trip distance of almost 1800 miles.
After stops in Lufkin and Marshall, I crossed over into Arkansas bound for a landing at Hope Municipal Airport. I had expected a busy airport, but instead found it totally empty. The FBO lobby was open though, so I grabbed a Coke and some crackers out of the machines and commenced reading the wall displays about the history of the airport. When it was completed just prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, it had the third longest runway in the United States! Hope was the first of many ex-military fields I would land on during this trip. On the return trip, when the winds were howling at 25-30 mph, I appreciated the multiple – and long – runways that graced all these fields.
After departing Hope, I detoured just south of Little Rock to avoid its controlled airspace. After passing over some impressive fish farms near the town of England, and a brief stop at Brinkley, Arkansas, I crossed the Mississippi River and landed at General DeWitt Spain airport in Memphis, Tennessee. Crossing the Mississippi River was one of the things I’d most looked forward to on this flight. I’d always wanted to get a bird’s-eye view of the Mississippi River. Not from an airliner at 35,000 feet, but from a low and slow airplane at 500 feet.
After a quick hop to Tops Bar-B-Q for dinner (courtesy of a friendly flight instructor who offered me a ride there and back), I was on the way to Jackson, Tennessee where I’d stop for the night. I arrived at McKellar-Sipes airport just a couple of minutes after 7 pm, the official closing time of the control tower there. I announced my arrival on the Unicom even though the only traffic I saw anywhere near the field was a cropduster lazily spraying some fields a few miles away. The air was cooler and smoother now and the sky had a warm, rosy tint. I was almost sorry for the day to end, but it had been a long one so I reluctantly decided to stop for the night. Besides, the Champ doesn’t have nav lights, so I didn’t have a choice.
After landing and topping off the fuel, some helpful mechanics rolled the Champ into a hangar for the night and then one of them drove me to a nearby motel. The next morning dawned cool, clear and sunny, and I called the airport to see if I could get a ride back from the motel. They obliged, and a half hour later I was rolling the Champ out of its hangar and doing a quick preflight. I climbed in and departed for Lexington. The tower was open for business, and the controllers were friendly and talkative. After commenting on what a pretty little Champ I have, they wished me a good flight and cleared me for takeoff.
The flight from Jackson to Lexington took me over the beautiful rolling hills of western Tennessee, just west of Nashville. I could see the Music City off in the distance as I crossed the Cumberland River. This is some of the most beautiful country on the planet, and the view from 1000 feet above ground level is stunning. The heavily forested green hills bisected by the gently flowing river presented a scene that’s almost too beautiful to be real, and I was reminded of what Charles Lindbergh once said: “Sometimes the world from above seems too beautiful, too wonderful, too distant for human eyes to see.” Now I know what he meant.
Before long, I crossed into Kentucky and saw the serpentine waterways of Barren River Lake, and a few minutes later I spotted the lone runway at Glasgow Airport. I announced on the Unicom frequency that I was inbound for landing on runway 26. After landing I called the Bluegrass Field tower to tell them I’ll be flying in without a transponder just to make sure they’re not surprised. The controller I spoke with was friendly, but he told me they were very busy with all the post-Derby traffic and it was going to be hard to work me in. Just when I started mentally making plans to divert to Georgetown or Frankfort, he said, “Well, OK, come on up and we’ll squeeze you in.”
After stretching my legs a little I propped the engine, jumped back into the Champ and started winging my way to Lexington. Soon I was crossing over the “Knobs,” a crescent-shaped region that cuts across central Kentucky. It’s spotted with small, isolated hills that geologists call “monadnocks.” The hills are interspersed with small farms and villages; like the hills of Tennessee, the scene seems almost too beautiful, too tranquil, to be real.
By noon I was approaching Lexington. The tower routed me out to the west over the horse farms of Versailles, then cleared me to enter a right base and proceed to a landing on runway 22. Rolling onto final, I passed directly over the spectacular Keeneland race track. A minute later I was on the ground and taxiing by a DC-9 and an assortment of expensive bizjets. The Champ seemed a little out of her element, but as we taxied up to the TAC Air FBO, we were waved into a parking spot and treated as if we were one of those bizjets. The TAC Air folks put the Champ in a hangar, gave me a rental car, and offered me warm cookies. I can understand why they have such a great reputation — it’s well deserved.
Three days later I was back at Bluegrass Field waiting for the sun to rise so I could depart for Texas. I cut my visit short so that I could beat an approaching front that packed some powerful storms. I also changed my return route. Instead of backtracking the way I came – which would put me right into the path of the approaching front, I planned a route that would take me back to Memphis and then to Helena, Arkansas, where I would stop for the night. On the way out of Lexington the tower asked me to report when I cleared their airspace. That took a while since my groundspeed was 45 mph! I would be fighting 25 to 30 mph headwinds the entire way home.
The next day I headed down the Mississippi River to Greenville, Mississippi, then over to Monroe, Louisiana. I had hoped to be home by the end of the day but thunderstorms were popping up ahead of the front so I stopped at Alexandria International for the night. Finally, on Friday, May 9, it looked like I might be able to make it home.
After a stop for fuel at Chennault International in Lake Charles, Louisiana, I headed west along I-10 bound for La Porte. By the time I got to Winnie, Texas, the weather was threatening enough that I stopped to wait it out. After an hour or so at Winnie, and after checking the local area weather, it looked like I would be able to make it to La Porte before dark. So I set off for the 40-mile hop at around 6:00.
All went well until I reached the Houston ship channel, just a short six or seven miles from the field. A couple of thunderstorms erupted on either side of me. They seemed to explode out of nowhere, and I found myself in a narrow tunnel, surrounded by torrential rain with cloud-to-ground lightning getting uncomfortably close to my flight path. By this time I was crabbing into the wind, and I could barely see the field out of my open port side window. I couldn’t see anything out my windshield. I briefly considered setting down on one of the sandbars below, but I was only a couple of minutes away from the field so I pressed on.
Finally, I was at the threshold of runway 23, with a crosswind of almost 90 degrees. I vaguely remembered seeing the windsock fully extended, pointing into the wind coming straight down runway 30. But I gave no thought to swinging around and landing into the wind. I just wanted to get on the ground. Somehow, even with the blinding rain and the strong crosswind, the little Champ settled gently down, and I taxied quickly to my hanger and shut down the engine. By the time I got her safely tucked into the hangar I was soaked. I unloaded my equipment and baggage, and slid the hangar doors closed.
Before I left, I patted the Champ on her cowling. She certainly lived up to her name on this trip! I locked the hangar, climbed into my truck, and headed for home.