I like to think there are a handful of driving forces in my life. Family and flying are two of those and, thanks to a supportive family, I sometimes get to combine those. My jack-of-all-trades FBO/mechanic/pilot/instructor career choice often means that flying takes me away from the family, but during a special couple of days I got to share an airplane delivery trip with my nine-year old.
The trip was simple. A long-time customer called to request my services for two trips. He needed me to fly him to Florida in his TBM 850 for a week’s stay. Also he was wondering if I would be willing to deliver his Carbon Cub from Florida to Iowa. He, of course, had me at Carbon Cub and the tentative dates were set. I let my wife know that I had a few more overnights in my future. We briefly discussed that our oldest son Sullivan might enjoy the trip, but I kinda felt it might be too much for a nine-year old and I certainly didn’t want to burn this little aviation nut out.
The night before the trip, the boys helped me get the TBM ready and I thought the plan was firm. It was… until Sullivan overheard us talking about how long it would take me to get home in the Carbon Cub. His response was, “You’re flying a Carbon Cub home from Florida? Can I go?” Megan and I looked at each other: I’m thinking his weight won’t be much of an issue, and Megan’s thinking it’s the end of the summer and the boys have been fighting a lot.
The last thing I need on a long trip is a distraction, but Sullivan has been a great little flying buddy from nearly day one. He’s literally flown hundreds of hours with me and he is a great stick holder, traffic spotter, and chart/NOTAM reader. So here we go: 2000 miles, two airplanes, and two days with my son. I could hardly wait until morning!
The trip, like so many adventures in my life, starts and ends at PEA (Pella Municipal Airport.) This is our home airport, five minutes from our home, where I soloed, where my dad instructed in the 70s, 90s and after, and where we have run a little FBO for nearly 20 years.
The first leg was PEA-DSM – 12 minutes in the air with Sullivan in the right seat. He has ridden in the TBM before and even tried his hand at the controls. But in typical Sullivan fashion, each flight brings a new level of appreciation and a new series of questions. Today’s fascination was the feather check, which he immediately connected to the angle of the blades he saw on the preflight. I was sure he would bring it up again.
We landed in Des Moines and picked up the owner and his family. Sullivan happily moved to the back so the owner could join me up front. The trip down was three hours and 15 minutes and as perfect as it could be. Sullivan joined in playing cards in the back and even learned a couple of games he planned to teach us. He occasionally put on a headset to talk to us up front, including additional propeller feathering questions. Once he learned where the ETA is on the MFD, we heard him periodically tell the other passengers how far we were out (to the second).
We landed at Leesburg, Florida, and were greeted by the excellent FBO there and a couple of corporate pilot friends from Pella who were there for the day. I knew they would be there, but forgot to tell Sullivan – which made it a good surprise for him and a good reinforcement that aviation is a very small world.
As we descended, the typical midday Florida CB clouds were appearing and as we took the short ride to the grass strip to get the Cub, they were growing. I was not hungry and thinking about the forecast thunderstorms so I forget to get lunch for Sullivan. Possibly good risk management but bad parenting. Sullivan’s subtle hint was, “Dad I can’t remember where we had lunch.” I made sure he was ok for a while and promised him a cheeseburger at the first stop.
We picked up the Cub at a beautiful grass strip, appropriately named “Grassroots.” The hangar door was opened, and the airplane looked as good as the last time I saw it, and I had a strong desire to fly it. Scattered thunderstorms would be developing soon and the goal was simple: get as far as we could that day, with low risk. If that was 30 miles, no problem. We were traveling by light airplane now and we would go with the flow.
Like the businessman stranded in Mayberry, we were about to see the beauty of a slow-paced life. The battery was weak on the start and life experience told me it was a sign of things to come. Sullivan rode in this Carbon Cub a few years ago, but he got refreshed on its performance in a hurry.
As we climbed to pattern altitude before the end of the runway, he was doing pilot talk (“This baby really climbs;” “We wouldn’t be near this high in the Champ, she’s got a ton of power.”) in an excited kid’s voice. I was thankful for a good intercom and headsets because I couldn’t get enough of that.
We were off and heading north and it’s hard to explain how good things felt. Father and son and sun and a great airplane to boot. Sun and puffy clouds turned to more gray and rain shafts as we continued. We had ADS-B to the iPad and XM Weather to a Garmin handheld, but the eyeball is the best way to work around this stuff. Sullivan was interested in the weather; he watched snakes of lightning in the distance and commented about the cool air coming in the vents as we got close to rain showers. The ride was not completely smooth, but Sullivan is a seasoned pro and he didn’t seem to even notice.
The first fuel stop in an airplane you’ve never flown cross-country should be deliberately short of where it could be and ours was. We targeted Valdosta or Albany, Georgia, as the furthest we intended to go. As we approached Valdosta, the showers were filling in to the north and it looked like time to stop. We landed, taxied to the FBO and the first noise we heard after the headsets came off was thunder in the distance.
Our timing was good – the storms were building – so now it was to work on getting the light Cub (which suddenly seemed very fragile) into a hangar. When we attempted to start the airplane to take it to the hangar, it was evident that the battery was a problem. The generous FBO staff helped us get the airplane in a hangar and we borrowed the crew car to shop for a replacement battery. Fortunately, since we were dealing with an experimental aircraft, an exact replacement battery was found at a nearby NAPA and it was quickly installed.
With the battery installed, it was evident that the rain was staying and Valdosta was our overnight stop. As someone who averages one night a week in a hotel by myself flying for customers, I can’t begin to explain how cool it is to sneak my son along for a night.
After forgetting lunch, I promised Sullivan he could order anything he wanted for dinner. He took me up on my offer and skipped the kids’ menu and went for the steak and ribs combo. He ordered a flavored tea like me and took note of the waiter’s offer of unlimited refills and flavor options. Like any flight crew on an overnight, we reminisced about the day’s flying and chatted about what might be going on at home. I was not used to monitoring my copilot’s caffeine intake and Sullivan got our money’s worth on the tea refills. On the short walk back to the hotel, it became evident that Sullivan won’t be falling asleep anytime soon.
It rained nearly non-stop all evening and into the night. Sullivan now thinks that Valdosta is just about the rainiest place on earth. It’s fun to pull up ForeFlight radar sometimes and say, “Sullivan, guess where it’s raining today?” Like any pilot he gets that “been there, done that” tone in his voice when he says “Valdosta!”
We stayed up late like kings in our two hotel beds watching many episodes of “American Pickers.” Somehow I hadn’t watched it with Sullivan, who is an old soul himself and he remains hooked on it to this day. The alarm came early in the morning and the weather looked as if it might be a good day to finish the rest of the trip.
We ate a hotel breakfast together (another special father-son chat) and caught an Uber ride to the airport. Although the forecast was good, fog started to develop as we headed to the airport. We were taking no chances on this trip and we were happy to wait together on the FBO couch as long as needed (although we both knew we could have slept in a little longer). The fog delay eliminated a small surprise stop in Tullahoma at the Beechcraft Heritage Museum for my little Staggerwing fan. It wouldn’t be too far out of the way, but I knew if we stopped it would eliminate any chance to get home before an approaching weather system.
The fog cleared and we were off above green trees and scattered low clouds. The first leg was picture perfect. I don’t know what my pilot-dad sees from heaven, but I remember thinking he’d love to see Sullivan and I gliding over those scattered clouds in a shiny Cub. The whole trip became a geography lesson for Sullivan. We talked about what we had seen from high in the TBM on the way down and now we were experiencing the change in sights and smells from Central Florida to Southern Georgia. We saw logging below, which triggered a lot of discussion about the when’s and how’s of logging.
As we started passing over fields, Sullivan asked what kind of fields they were. I noticed we passed by Jimmy Carter Regional Airport so I said with Dad-like confidence, “Those are peanut fields, son.” Whether I was right or not, Sullivan was happy with the answer, and he said he could almost smell the peanuts through the open window.
Our first fuel stop of the day put us just west of the Atlanta Class B at an airport with more than 5,000 feet of runway, lots of hangars, and self-serve fuel. Sullivan was excited to show off the Carbon Cub as we pulled up to the self-serve pump. After all, a nine-year old doesn’t have to spend much time on YouTube to know that Carbon Cubs and other fat-tired taildraggers ooze coolness.
As we got out of the Cub, a young line guy in the fuel truck pulled away with a nod. We fueled ourselves and headed inside for a restroom break and saw no one. No one asked about the airplane, our trip, or where we were from. Sullivan, who loves to talk to people at airports, was noticeably disappointed as we took off for our longest leg.
“What was that, a turtle airport?” Sullivan said, looking back as we departed. “Everyone put their head in their shell when we showed up.” Wow! I thought to myself, not only does he understand the problem with that experience, he’s put a name to it. Sullivan was sitting in the back in the sling seat with ForeFlight running on an iPad in his lap as we climbed into the smooth air.
His view was not as good as mine. He’s a great passenger but he’s a flyer too and loves to try his hands on the controls of anything we fly. I asked if he would like to fly and I felt his hand grasp the stick before he could say yes. After some swerving left and right, he developed a way to hold a heading using the iPad and he flew most of our longest leg to Murray, Kentucky.
Our experience at Murray was different, as we expected. Johnny Parker was working his last days before retirement as the airport manager. I’ve spent many days waiting for passengers at Murray and Sullivan has met Johnny at Oshkosh and Blakesburg. We got the full-service treatment from Johnny’s replacement while Johnny admired the Carbon Cub, with Sullivan pointing out all the cool features.
We grabbed the courtesy van and ran into town for some Culver’s cheeseburgers to go. As we were heading north again in some afternoon bumps, Sullivan declared, “These are the best cheeseburgers ever.” I smiled, knowing the kid eats Culver’s burgers weekly and he was enjoying eating with me in the airplane as much as I was enjoying it with him.
After the burgers were gone, we were over terrain that looked a little more like home. Sullivan asked the inevitable question, the elephant-in-the cockpit if you will, “Will we make it home tonight?”
“No guarantees, buddy, only if we can do it safely.” I didn’t want either one of us to have get-home-itis when we were flying. We took turns flying this leg.
A little diversion north and we were well clear of weather in the St. Louis area. We stopped at a small airport in Illinois for some self-serve fuel. As we pulled up to the pumps, there was a car at the terminal, but by the time we were done fueling no one was in sight. Sullivan missed out on another chance to show off the Cub and talk about our trip. We used the restroom and loaded up; we were in range of home now, there was plenty of daylight, and the weather looked as if it would hold off until after dark. As we climbed out, Sullivan said, “Another turtle airport, Dad.” He gets it.
I said, “That’s why we work hard to make sure our airport isn’t a turtle airport, buddy,” and he knew exactly what I meant by that.
A few minutes into the leg, Sullivan asked if it would be ok if he closed his eyes to rest a little while. He had been a trooper and, of course, I told him it was ok, but secretly I was sad that I wouldn’t hear his voice from the back for a while. I realized how much I had enjoyed spending every waking moment with him for the past two days. Fortunately, Sullivan got his second wind after about 45 seconds and father-son front seater/back seater chatter continued.
We crossed the Mississippi and discussed it a while. Our home state greeted us with 3000 overcast and scattered rain showers. Once in Iowa, Sullivan asked if we would make it home tonight: “No guarantees.”
When we dodged a rain shower by Ottumwa 33 miles from home, he asked again: “No guarantees.” And when Pella was in sight: “No guarantees.” Sullivan got my point and just before our mains touched runway 16 at Pella he asked again: “No guarantees, but it’s looking pretty good.” We both had big smiles as the wheels touched.
The trip was complete.
It was a highlight of our summer and we talk of it often. Times will change, and no doubt Sullivan and his little brother Meyer will take on other interests in addition to or in place of flying. But for a couple of days, Sullivan and I floated above God’s green earth together. We had a job to do, we got it done, we learned about what makes airports special, we smiled, we ate, and we enjoyed each other’s company.
It was a time I’ll always cherish and it was made possible by an enthusiastic nine-year old, an understanding customer, and a long-suffering supportive wife. I apparently didn’t burn Sullivan out. He’s asked if I think we could borrow the Carbon Cub to take to the High Sierra Fly-in and little Meyer is five now, so I have some time to look for a similar work to share an adventure with him.