13 min read

My flight to EAA AirVenture Oshkosh in 2016 was special in several ways. The Experimental Aircraft Association was honoring the 75th anniversary of my make of airplane, the Interstate Cadet, a tandem trainer manufactured in 1941-42 in Los Angeles.

About 30 or so Interstates are known to still be flying, which is nearly 10 percent of all that were built. Owners love them and enjoy pointing out features of the Interstate Cadet they believe to be superior to similar airplanes from the same era – view the ground over the nose, strong shock absorber-controlled landing gear, roomy cockpit, solo from front or back, 100 mph cruise.

Cadet on ramp

A trip to Oshkosh low and slow is a great way to see the country.

My plane is a 1942 model built near the end of the run, with all the improvements the factory made as it gained experience. Its total time is 6,493.5 hours as I write. It flew continuously from 1942 to 1967, first as a Civilian Pilot Training Program trainer, and later as a college flight school and then private FBO trainer. It ended up in Santa Paula, California, where it was eventually retired and stored hanging from the rafters of the owner’s hangar. In 1990 it received its second restoration and became the pride of a couple in central California. They replaced its 75 horsepower Continental in 1996 with a rebuilt Continental O-200 from a Cessna 150. I bought the plane from them in 2013.

I had flown to Oshkosh in 2001 in a Cherokee 140 I then owned. I was instrument-rated and current and flew solo, visiting relatives in Kansas and Arkansas along the way. Departing St. Joseph, Missouri, in rain and low overcast on an IFR clearance to Madison, Wisconsin, I overflew much of Iowa but never saw the ground. The reward was a spectacular arrival through showers and multiple cloud layers into Madison as the low sun played hide and seek with me.

Too late to get into OSH before the 8:00 p.m. curfew, I slept in the grass beside the Cherokee at Fond du Lac airport and departed early the next morning for a busy but easy arrival to 36 Right.

My flight into OSH last summer in the Interstate Cadet was entirely different. I was flying as a Sport Pilot in a legacy aircraft that qualified under the Light Sport rules. My IFR days were a memory of the past. But my antique plane was well equipped with situational awareness gadgets. An iPad, in a swing-out mount on my right, ran the FlyQ EFB app and received high-quality GPS, weather, traffic and AHRS from a SkyRadar DX unit mounted in the right wing recess above my head.

If you’ve never flown a plane with a stick and tandem seating, you would be amazed how much easier it is to fly from the center of the plane with no control wheel in your way.

We knew that at least a dozen or so owners would be flying in. With the longest distance to cover, I left first by a few hours and met another owner, from Central California, that evening at the Columbia airport in the Sierra gold country.

The second day flight had me in trail of the other Interstate, having my first experience flying in company with another plane. With two intermediate fuel stops, we flew above Interstate 5, past Mt. Shasta and then north into eastern Oregon to Bend, where his sister provided great hospitality. Rainstorms kept us grounded the next day and we continued our trip on our third day. The route was northeast across Oregon and east through Idaho, Montana, South Dakota, and Illinois.

We met a third Interstate pilot in Idaho and joined up with three more in western Montana late that day, landing on a windy private dirt strip in the mountains. That night we had our choice of floor space for our air mattresses on the floor inside the house or on the concrete slab of the hangar-workshop. I slept well in the hangar.

By the time we reached South Dakota, we were a group of eight from California, Oregon and Washington flying separately in pairs. One pair of Oregon pilots flew in close formation, the rest of us just remained in sight of our partner.

Arriving at Poplar Grove Airport in northeast Illinois on Friday afternoon, we were joined by other Interstate Cadet pilots from Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas, Ohio, North Carolina and South Carolina:

Although I still flew solo, I wasn’t alone. We were a flight of 15 taking off together Sunday afternoon. Group flying provides plenty of camaraderie and endless yarns, laughs, tips and all-around good times. But it also isolates you from the rest of the world. We ate together, stayed at the same motel, saw the same scenery, the same airports and the same weather. And we loved it.

We were not a formation flight. Instead, we flew about a quarter mile in trail of each other beneath low clouds and through a small rain shower. OSH had been IFR all that morning and now hundreds of planes were in the air trying to get in. With advance notice of our flight, we were clear in to land on runway 27 as we reached FISKE.

I left Oshkosh at midday on Sunday a week later. Weather was coming in from the southwest, ruining my plans to fly south through Iowa, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona.

Instead I flew northwest, into southern Minnesota and stopped as weather continued to build ahead of me. I was alone. I could fly anywhere I wanted. I could head toward something on the horizon and then alter my course again.

At Owattona, Minnesota, the ceiling dropped to 1,000 feet after I arrived, and didn’t lift until early the second afternoon. I took off as soon as I could and as I leveled out at 2500 feet AGL, my rpms dropped instead of increasing. I made a 180-degree turn, adjusted the mixture, scanned my oil pressure and oil temp gauges and saw nothing amiss. Under reduced power, I was quickly back on the ground at KOWA and taxied to the FBO who had lent me his courtesy car the night before.

He stopped working on a customer’s Cessna 182 and quickly determined that I had a stuck exhaust valve. Five hours and $250 later he had removed and cleaned the carbon from all four exhaust valve stems and given me a service sticker for my engine log book. One valve was stuck. Another was sticking. And the other two were fine. With several hours of summer sun remaining, I departed, happy to find my engine back to its old, reliable self.

Weather in MN

Sometimes the weather dictates the day’s schedule.

It was gusty when I landed for the night at Watertown, South Dakota. I wasn’t sure I could handle the plane as I taxied to a tie-down, but I got it turned onto the marked spot, shut down the engine and then a gust turned my plane 90 degrees. I was now pointed straight at the fuselage of the Cessna I had parked beside and pressing the pedals of my cable-operated brakes with all the strength I could muster.

No one else was on the ramp. I pushed open my side window and yelled as loud as I could at someone I could see in a hangar 50 yards away. Eventually he heard and came out to help. Together we straightened the Interstate Cadet and got it securely tied down.

Later that night from my motel room, I watched the red and orange radar image on my weather app as a slow-moving thunderstorm hovered over the airport.

And so it went. It was just me and my airplane making our way west and south with new adventures and new people as I slowly worked my way home. Storms along the Colorado front range mountains jinxed my plan to stop off in Boulder to visit my son and family. Instead I continued west in South Dakota and then southwest into Wyoming.

The gas gauge on my plane is a wire sticking up from a cork float through a hole in the gas cap on the nose fuel tank. As I neared Wheatland, Wyoming,, the wire was very low, indicating I had only several gallons left in the 15-gallon tank. Assuming I must be losing fuel, I headed to Wheatland, marked by tall power plant stacks on the horizon, and focused on the dwindling fuel level, without bothering to look up any information about the airport on my iPad.

The single runway ran at a right angle to the wind. And the wind sock was straight out, so straight out it didn’t collapse in lulls. There were no lulls. With the right wing down as far as it would go and the nose oscillating more or less pointed down the runway, I managed to hold the right tire on the tarmac the third time the plane hit the pavement and then gradually got the left main planted as I slowed.

Then I made a mistake. There was no taxiway. I turned left to make a U-turn to taxi back up the runway. Left, just like I always turn off the runway at home. My muscles do “left” really well without my mind engaged. Straight downwind. I jammed on the brakes, stopped the plane in the middle of the 65-foot-wide runway and managed to make a power turn to the right and get the plane aimed back up the runway to the tiedown area and fuel.

Then I discovered there was no public fuel at the airport. However, I saw a couple who were working on their Piper Pacer in an open hangar nearby. We talked. I offered to take them to lunch if they’d drive. Later they took me home. They fed me dinner. They gave me their guest room for the night and we traded stories the whole time. The next morning I paid him to fill my tank from his private avgas supply and he gave me a detailed description of the best route to Rawlins.

At Rawlins, Wyoming, three antelope grazed in a field next to the motel at dusk. I studied the airspace ahead at Salt Lake City and decided it was not a place for me or my plane. So I headed south the next day to Craig, Colorado.

Reminder: not all airports have fuel and mechanics.

I discovered there also is no public fuel there. But a local pilot unlocked the pump and filled my tanks. I gave him cash to cover his cost. As afternoon thunderstorms kept me grounded, an air ambulance pilot on standby and I became good friends.

The next morning I learned a lesson about leaning at high altitude. I didn’t lean the mixture enough and well down the runway on takeoff, a plug fouled. I was too close to the end for my cable brakes to stop the plane, so I kept going and gained enough airspeed to get several feet off the ground by the time the runway ended. Eventually I gained the height to clear the trees along the stream beside me and made a very gradual turn back and landed.

Not only did the Craig airport not have public fuel, it also had no mechanic. Or shop. But it had a fire spotter helicopter with pilot and mechanic. The mechanic only knew turbines, but he had a friend who knew piston engines. He called the friend on his cell phone and together they diagnosed my problem and how to solve it. There were no tools available to remove and clean my plugs, but the consensus was that with care and patience I could get them clean by extensive leaning. Yes! It was true and I continued my flight, spending the night in Vernal, Utah.

To get from Vernal toward Los Angeles, I had to cross four Utah mountain ranges with peaks above 12,000 feet.

The first attempt, northwest from Roosevelt Field, was beyond my willingness to endure constant turbulence while imagining what lie ahead when I would be in a narrow pass. I returned to Roosevelt and hung around to see if conditions would calm. They didn’t, but one of the local pilots told me there was a much better route to the south. The next morning I learned how right he was.

That day I ended up in Richfield, Utah with afternoon storms starting to build. A local pilot had just finished his day about the same time. He was a contract pilot for Utah’s coyote control program. Utah has many sheep ranchers and coyotes love to eat their lambs. Therefore, so his story went, the state has a fleet of Super Cubs, each manned by a pilot and a shooter.

Departing before dawn, they track and kill coyotes. “Everything happens between 20 and 100 feet above the ground,” he said. “Once I see a coyote, I lock my eyes on it and I maneuver the plane by feel to get the right range and angle for the shooter to make the kill. Then we land wherever we can to cut off the scalp as proof of the kill.”

“Yeah, it’s a risky job all right,” he said. “But it sure does pay well.”

Two days later I was in Mesquite, Nevada, having crossed the remaining Utah mountain ranges and overflown the spectacular Virgin River Gorge on I-15 at the Utah-Nevada border. I flew only in the morning, before the thunderstorms started.

Dick O'Reilly in airplane

After 57 hours together, you get to know an airplane pretty well.

Ahead lay the Las Vegas Class B airspace, blocking any easy path into Southern California. I am quite familiar with the Los Angeles Class B airspace, which poses little problem for light plane pilots because there is a lot of room beneath it to fly to many airports without needing a clearance, or even saying a word on the radio if you are going to one of the non-towered airports in the basin.

On the chart at least, the Las Vegas airspace is complicated by several mountain ranges and a major Air Force base in addition to McCarran International’s traffic. I decided the best route was under the Class B veil on the east and then fly the length of Lake Mead to Boulder Airport. What the chart didn’t reveal was that Boulder Airport is the home of fleets of sightseeing flights to the Grand Canyon and a constant stream of parachute flights that drop their adventurers just east of the airport. I kept a sharp lookout, announced my position in the blind several times and even did a 360 over the lake to stay clear of a jump plane.

It was only two more legs to get home. Boulder to Daggett and then home to Whiteman. Hot and high and I-15 as an endless emergency runway below.

At Daggett, I inquired about yesterday’s weather. I had stayed in Mesquite because Flight Service said there were thunderstorms building from east of Boulder City.

“What was it like out to the east yesterday afternoon?, I asked.

“Oh, you wouldn’t have made it here yesterday. It was just a wall of thunderstorms out there all afternoon, 40-50,000 feet high.”

Arriving home at Whiteman, I had been gone nearly a month, flown about 5,500 miles and logged 57.2 hours.

Dick O'Reilly
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4 replies
  1. Joe Gutierrez
    Joe Gutierrez says:

    Great story Dick, It sounds like you really enjoyed yourself, an experience you will never forget. I also knew a person that flew a Thunder Gull, His name was Wess Griffen, he flew out of Eagle Airfield in Mohave Arizona (A09). I helped him rig and set up the flaps on his airplane. It was a very fast airplane. If I remember correctly it would do 150 mph. Thanks Dick for a very interesting story..good luck to you and safe flying..

  2. Michael T Sawicki
    Michael T Sawicki says:

    Wow! Great story. My wife and I, along with our 2 teenagers, just got back from a 6500 mile camping trip from MI to WA and back. As we passed countless airports, I longed to be in the sky rather than on the road. For now, I’ll live vicariously through your story. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Eric Ziegler
    Eric Ziegler says:

    With so few Cadets left, and most of them OSH-bound in your terrific story, I’m pretty sure I know the Kansas pilot. His aircraft is made even more unique by its nose art, depicting Mighty Mouse.

  4. Barry
    Barry says:

    Wow, what a great story, I am green with envy LOL ; ) I too someday hope on a flying adventure low, and slow across this country. Visiting small out of the way airports, meeting new people, and seeing beautiful scenery like you did. What a great adventure you had, thanks for sharing it with all of us.

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