Tricycle to taildragger: a 2,000-mile cross country odyssey

My buddy Brian and I sold our warbird three years ago: a 285-hp, 9-cylinder radial warbird, the Nanchang CJ6A, the primary training aircraft of the Chinese Liberation Army Air Force. An award winner at Oshkosh 2008, the CJ was a blast to fly. Fully aerobatic, it gave us our first taste flying the ragged edge. But after six years of fun and amazing adventures we parted with the CJ. Over the next three years we’d been discussing our next airplane purchase. We wanted something completely different, something that would challenge us in a way that we hadn’t been challenged before.

Decathlon
Getting to know the new airplane.

We decided on a tandem-seat taildragger. Our requirements included a stick rather than a yoke, and after enjoying aerobatics in the Nanchang, aerobatic capabilities were on the wish list. With 30 hours of taildragger time in Brian’s logbook and 25 hours in mine, we focused in on an early model 150-hp Decathlon, and in January, found a promising 1975 example for sale.

Challenge number one: we live in Surrey and Langley British Columbia, Canada, and the Decathlon was located in Kitchener, Ontario (CYKF), some 2,000 miles as the crow flies. Over the next few months and after several calls and email exchanges to answer our many questions, we were satisfied this ride was the right one for us. Next step, a pre-purchase inspection. We hired an independent, third-party mechanic familiar with the type. With the owners agreeing to rectify all issues, the ball was in our court to take things to the next level and arrange a test flight.

With WestJet flying direct Vancouver to Kitchener, Brian flew out alone in March to view the Decathlon and take a test flight. She was definitely as advertised, so we committed to the purchase. Challenge number two: plan, plan some more, and wait for a weather window to bring her home. This is our story.

The journey started on Friday, April 22, 2016. After an uneventful commercial flight, we arrived at 6:15 pm local time and were driven to Tillsonburg airport, (CYTB), about an hour south, where our Decathlon had been hangared during the month since our purchase.

Day 1 – Tillonsburg, Ontario to Wasau, Wisconsin

Next morning, Saturday, Brian and I were up early and after a quick breakfast we jumped into a cab and headed to the airport. It was a clear morning with a few cumulus clouds and lots of blue sky indicating the onset of spring in southern Ontario. It was cool and windy, a precursor of things to come for the rest of our journey.

With enough taildragger experience to be current and competent, we loaded up the aircraft and pulled her out of the hangar, completed the pre-flight inspection and determined the fuel tanks were half full, perfect for our weight and balance requirements. Our plan was to fly the northern U.S. route back to Vancouver. This avoided the northern route across the Canadian Great Lakes region where weather is notoriously fickle and airports are sparse. Having flown to Oshkosh twice before, we knew the U.S. route is literally dotted with airports of all types, many in close proximity to one another. Also, as low time taildragger pilots, we chose airports with two runways to give us choices should wind become a factor. This gave us a greater level of comfort should anything go wrong, and, as our fortune cookie predicted, luck was about to land hard on us.

With a 1,800-pound gross weight, we had 22 gallons max fuel instead of the normal 40 for each leg given our gear and other items we were ferrying back. At a burn rate of 8.5 gallons/hour at 75% power, this gave us two hours from start up to shut down to allow for reserves.

Calling Customs
Critical step: call Customs.

We proceeded to the nearby airport restaurant where, over coffee, we completed our flight planning, including filing a cross-border flight plan, obtaining a weather briefing and completing our eAPIS paperwork to comply with customs regulations. With our paperwork and planning complete and with sweaty palms and elevated heart rates, we launched on the first leg of our journey and headed southwest to St. Clair International airport in Michigan (KPHN).

We had an enjoyable one-hour flight with the 10- to 12-knot tailwind as a welcome bonus. We arrived at customs just a few minutes past our planned arrival time. Customs was literally a breeze, although we did have some difficulty phoning through to the Flight Service Station to close our flight plan. However, after a few tries, we did manage to get through and close the flight plan.

After refuelling, we took off on our second leg and climbed leisurely to 4500 feet. Our next leg was a little longer, almost 200 nautical miles, based upon our planned fuel capacity of 22 gallons due to weight and balance considerations. This was to be a pattern we established for the rest of the trip.

Lake Michigan
Heading out over Lake Michigan.

Our next landing was Mason County airport in Michigan (KLDM), on the east shore of Lake Michigan; once again the wind was a challenge. After a quick refuelling we completed our pre-flight inspection, donned our life jackets and departed for the 118-mile Lake Michigan crossing. This crossing of course came with an element of risk but knowing the excellent maintenance history and feeling confident the engine was running smooth and strong, we headed out for Wausau, Wisconsin (KAUW), our next planned stop.

It was after 4:00 pm by the time we arrived in Wausau and as we were both tired, we decide to stop for the night. Little did we know; one night would turn into four!

Day 2-3-4 – Guests of Wausau, Wisconsin

Next morning we awoke early to IFR ceilings of 800 feet and low visibility with winds blowing 20 plus knots. This pattern of weather persisted for the next few days with ceilings as low as 300 feet at times. Not only was the weather bad in Wausau, but a line of precipitation with high winds and storms stretched across our route. This system was feeding from the Gulf of Mexico and was delivering massive thunderstorms and tornadoes to the south. So we became temporary, and reluctant, residents of Wausau and spent most of the time it seems watching the weather channel. At least we were safe and sheltered, as the saying goes: better on the ground wishing we were in the air, rather than in the air wishing we were on the ground.

Day 5 – Wausau, Wisconsin to Brainerd, Minnesota

Tied down
Tied down against the 34-knot winds.

Finally the weather relented by Wednesday morning and so, after four nights holed up in the motel, we departed for the airport to continue on. We established a pattern of refuelling on arrival at each airport so we were all ready to go the next morning. It was with great relief when we lifted off and continued our journey west bound.

This next leg found us arriving at Brainerd, Minnesota (KBRD) almost two hours later, pushed along by 25-knot tailwinds. Here we faced 20-knot gusty winds 20 degrees off the runway. An attention getter! The landing was exciting but uneventful; the challenge was taxiing the taildragger to the airport FBO in the strong winds.

Again we fuelled up, checked the weather and grabbed a bite to eat from our provisions. Within the hour the wind increased to 28 knots so we waited for the wind to change, and change it did – it got stronger. Wind was now a steady 30, gusting 34 knots. So an hour later we called it a day and made a hotel reservation with help from the FBO. We were frustrated and disappointed that after a three-day and four-night delay in Wausau; here we were, a mere 200 miles closer to home, grounded once more. As an alternative, we planned to head north into Canada the following morning, where the longer range weather looked more favourable.

Day 6

Decathlon cockpit
Cruising along over North Dakota and Montana.

Next morning the weather looked more promising and although still windy, it was now within our limits. We also reassessed our plan to fly north as the weather along our northern route through the States was improving. This was preferable as we had more airport options, important due to our limited range. Again an early start was in order and after breakfast we were shuttled to the airport courtesy of our hotel.

Thursday’s flights were pushed along by 20 – 25 knot tailwinds, very unusual with our northwest track. Finally our luck was changing. We made good progress with fuel stops at Jamestown (KJMS), Dickinson (KDIK), North Dakota, (an inflight diversion due to winds) and Glasgow, Montana (KGGW). We noticed the left tire pressure was low at Glasgow, and we also had to source a new wheel fairing bolt as the original had departed en route. After inflating both tires and replacing the missing bolt, we departed for Havre, Montana (KHVR).

So far on our trip, spring was still nowhere in sight. In fact, the day before our arrival at Havre it snowed. Windrows were visible down each side of the runway where the plough had done its work. However the snow was melting fast so it didn’t slow us down. The tire did though.

Wheel off
A little unplanned maintenance.

After Havre we hoped to continue on to Cut Bank, Montana (KCTB), for the last leg of the day. After refuelling we noticed the tire was low again, in fact virtually flat. Fortunately, with help from the local FBO, we tracked down the airport mechanic who was still on site just after 5:00 pm. If you’ve ever been to Havre, you know this little airport is in the middle of nowhere, with a few vintage hangars from another era, and the sound of cows and crickets in the air. Peaceful, but very remote.

We pushed the plane what seemed like a mile uphill both ways, (ok, a couple hundred yards), before reaching his hangar. Darrold got right to work. Once the tire was off the verdict was a pin hole in the inner tube. Upon inspection of the tire, the inner wall also showed wear. Serviceable and safe, but we decided to err on the side of caution and have both replaced. By 9:00 pm we had a new tube and tire installed and borrowed the FBO’s courtesy car to drive into town where we checked into a hotel for the night and had dinner. A long day but with help from great people!

Day 7

border flight
Heading for the border, and Lethbridge.

Up early next morning and after breakfast we filed our cross-border flight plan and called Canadian customs to give our required notice of arrival in Lethbridge, Alberta (CYQL). We drove the courtesy car back to the airport and all looked good with the new tire. However on checking the fuel levels we found that we had three gallons more than our maximum pre-set limit – how did that happen?

So, once again, we sought help from the FBO. Battling cool and blustery winds (notice a theme?), and with fuel containers in hand, for the first time in my flying experience, we drained three gallons of fuel and donated it to the FBO. After the pre-flight checks we taxied out and lifted off for Canada.

Lethbridge was yes, you guessed, windy, and like the rest of the towns we had visited, was still waiting for the arrival of spring. Customs were called and were a no show. We called for our confirmation number and we were free to go. Once again we refuelled – for the first time in Canada (it’s how much?) and then departed for Cranbrook, BC (CYXC). Due to lower ceilings, we planned and followed the VFR route which worked very well.

During the trip we carried a GPS in the front seat and an iPad in the back loaded with ForeFlight. This was our first trip using this programme and I was very impressed with its capability and highly recommend it for a long trip such as this. The ability to download updated weather and winds at each stop using local WiFi was a great feature and time saver. In addition, we also carried a SPOT Personal Tracker for safety, allowing both our spouses and friends to monitor our progress.

It was nice to be back in Canada and finally see green grass and trees in leaf as we entered BC. Cranbrook was our next fuel stop for the Decathlon and for us, as we grabbed a quick lunch in the airport café.

Castlegar
Castlegar, somewhere below those clouds.

Next stop was Castlegar (CYCG), but weather was a challenge. As we approached Nelson, the ceilings lowered. Still within VFR minimums and more importantly within our personal minimums for comfort, we pressed on. We had Nelson as our alternate, but continued on to Castlegar where the weather opened up and we made a safe landing.

Again we refuelled and with minimum delay, headed off our next to last leg of the day, Penticton (CYYF), or so we thought. After starting, the engine started to miss. After assessing the mags to be within tolerance for left/right drop, we self-diagnosed the problem to be fouled plugs. After leaning to try to clear the plugs, the engine seemed to run well. We taxied out to the active runway, but once again the engine started to miss. We called it a day and taxied back to the ramp where, with the help of the friendly Flight Service specialist, we located a number for a local mechanic.

Al, the mechanic, came to our rescue. He drove out to the airport after hours, removed the cowling, did a compression check and then removed all the plugs. He then drove us into town where we checked into a hotel while he headed out to clean and re-gap all the plugs. Once done, he collected us from the hotel and drove us back to the airport where he re-installed the plugs and we ran up the engine. Thankfully all was well now, and finally after another long day we headed back to the hotel with Al just after 9:00 pm. Next morning, he drove us to the airport and together we installed the cowling. Al was gracious enough to make sure we started up, taxied out and completed our run up, before setting off on our last leg and home. Many thanks to all those great people involved in aviation that helped us in our time of need.

Day 8 – home at last

Saturday was the final day and Day Eight of our three-day trip since leaving southwestern Ontario 2,000 miles ago!

mountains
Over the top for the final leg!

We planned on the VFR route through the mountains to Penticton but finally luck was on our side. The weather turned to CAVOK so we climbed to 8500 feet and flew direct over the rugged and majestic Rocky Mountains. At Penticton we refuelled and grabbed a quick lunch at the airport café, eating as we flight planned. After a final weather check, we headed out on the last leg to Boundary Bay (CZBB) where we were stopping for our annual inspection.

This was the end of the trip; it was good to be home. The trip was enjoyable but not without its frustrations, both weather and mechanical. We are waiting now for the final few tasks to be completed on the annual inspection; once done, we can finally fly home to Langley where we’ve rented a hangar.

The trip started Saturday the 23rd and ended Saturday the 30th of April. We flew a total of 1,822 nautical miles, 14 stops and 19.9 hours in the air. The cost of the trip was priceless; well that’s what we told our wives! We now look forward to many more hours of flying as summer approaches – but one hour at a time – and some of those preferably inverted.

Epilogue

Pre-purchase inspection vs. pre-purchase annual and lessons learned.

Home with airplane
Home at last.

After arriving home a thorough annual revealed several items that needed to be taken care of. Nothing serious, but we questioned our decision to conduct a pre-purchase inspection rather than a full annual. As luck would have it (remember the fortune cookie!), on our next oil change we discovered the IO320 with 560 hrs since last overhaul was making metal. No history of it in any of the maintenance log entries. A few flakes; something that we needed to keep an eye on, so shortened oil changes to 25 hrs. After two more oil changes, more metal. No denying reality, the problem was getting worse. We’ve learned the engine was speaking to us.

While the engine ran smoothly upon the first start of the day, it would run rough after a brief shut down and restart. While we believed the issue was dirty plugs, our mechanic and others familiar with the symptoms diagnosed the cam as the culprit. The cam lobes were shedding metal, causing the timing to be off. The result: a rough-running engine and reduced power on takeoff. Off to the engine shop for a tear-down and inspection. Ouch!

Biggest takeaway from our experience: if you think the ride you have your eye on is THE one, go the extra mile and do a complete pre-purchase annual. Most importantly, have the oil filter cut open and inspected for any metal or other contaminates. You’ll thank yourself.

4 Comments

  • I’ve been a pilot for over 40 years with thousands of hours logged. The first airplane I was part owner, after obtaining my Private License, was a Citabria. I love taildraggers, so I logged a lot of hours in Citabrias, J-3s and Super Cubs. I have traveled long distances in the Citabria. My question is, “What gear did you have that you could only limit your fuel to 22 gallons, 2 hours of flight time?” I have found that you could have two people, full tanks, and what ever you could fit inside the airplane, and you were good to go. I could never find (and I have told people this back then) anything to put in the plane that would get you to go over gross weight or limit your fuel capacity. I would never have taken the Citabria flying, even locally, if I started with just 2 hours worth of fuel, much less, cross country.

  • In 2013 I bought Maule in the Seattle, Washington area with plans to fly the plane across the country to Virginia. It had the O360 Lycoming engine. Although the plane was in beautiful condition, it had only been flown sporadically over the past 18 months. That is a bad move for Lycoming engines. Fortunately, a detailed pre-buy inspection found metal in the oil filter and I was able to renegotiate the purchase price to cover the needed repairs. It was the camshaft. While the engine was torn down I elected to have some additional work done at my expense to increase the life of the engine. With more than 700 additional hours on the engine, the compressions are still in the high 70s over 80 on all cylinders. It’s been a great plane for me. I hope you can say the same about your Decathlon after 4 years of flying fun.

  • Great story! I can almost feel the frustration of waiting out the weather…

    As the current owner of a 1965 7ECA (with both the “no-bounce” gear and the mighty Continental O-200), my experience differs significantly from William Ableman’s statement about being able to load up “two people, full tanks, and whatever would fit inside the airplane, and you were good to go.” I purchased this particular 7ECA because it had the largest useful load of any Citabria I could find: 614 lbs (1650 gross, 1036 empty). Most Citabrias I looked at were 60-70 lbs heavier, reducing the useful load accordingly. My plane has 39-gallons of usable fuel, resulting in a full-fuel payload of 391 lbs. Put two FAA-standard 200-lb people in there, and you’re already over gross with zero baggage…

    But given the fuel burn of around 5.5 gph at max cruise (O-200, remember?), 39 gallons gives you roughly 7 hours before tanks dry, which is far longer than most people care to sit in a plane… Like Pete, I typically keep the tanks filled about half-full (19-20 gallons), which is plenty for a solid 3 hours of flight time (with VFR reserves). In that configuration, I can do as William suggested – 2 people, and whatever baggage you can fit… I only top off the tanks when I’m flying solo cross-country, and/or want to tanker cheap fuel.

  • Thanks for the comments guys. It’s all about w & b, empty weight of our Decathlon is 1328 lbs max gross is 1800 lbs add 2 people (165 + 175lbs) add 22 gallons of fuel (132 lbs) we are by my calculations now at gross weight without baggage. Add to this that at the time we were not developing full performance due to the camshaft issue and it’s clear to see we could not safely load anything in and go. As far as not even flying locally with 22 gallons, this is a personal decision based on safety and legality issues. I often will fly locally to perform aerobatics with as little as 14 gallons onboard and land with 7 – 8 gallons in the tanks, perfectly safe and well within regs.

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