In late 2019 I became the caretaker/owner of a 1960 Comanche 180, but one with a slight problem: I was living in Seattle, and the airplane was in Southern California. Due to Covid complications, it wasn’t until the summer of 2020 that I had a chance to get familiar with the plane and bring it home to the Pacific Northwest.
The direct route from Apple Valley (APV) in the Southern California desert to Seattle is roughly 800 nm, but if you draw that line on a chart you’ll find it covers quite a bit of open space spiked with MOAs, restricted areas, and some pretty rugged and high terrain. It’s also quite lacking in GA airports. Coming into the Seattle area you basically split the main peaks of the Cascades, and for a good part of the way you are in prime position for catching mountain waves if the winds are from certain directions.
Stretching it to the west (passing south of the Sierras, north up the Central Valley, then basically up I-5 through the Siskiyous to Medford/Eugene/Portland) adds about 100 nm to the trip, but with few exceptions there are far more airports and lower, less rugged terrain to deal with. In book values it can easily be made in a Comanche 180 with a single fuel stop in under eight hours of flight time either way.
Knowing that I was embarking on my longest cross country to date in an airplane that hadn’t been regularly doing this type of flying, and for which I hadn’t accumulated enough data to do a detailed mission fuel burn analysis with actual numbers, I chose the conservative route and planned a two fuel stop multi-option trip for the next opportunity which promised good weather along the entire route. On the east side, fuel stops were at Carson City and Bend, and on the west side they were at Placerville and Eugene. I had routes planned from my starting airport to the first two stop options (Carson City and Placerville) and from each of these had routes to each of the second stops (Eugene and Bend), and finally had routes from both of these to the end point of Auburn (S50), with Yakima and Moses Lake as east route diversions in the event of the Seattle area not being VFR on arrival.
After that it was a wait for weather. Fortunately, a calm period set in and I had a day promising excellent VFR conditions all the way regardless of route and plenty of daylight, so the night before I headed over to the airport and packed my gear, fueled up, topped off the oil, reviewed the weight and balance, did a very detailed preflight, cleaned all the windows, and generally busied myself around the airplane getting ready for a trouble free departure. Then I went home and spent the rest of the night studying weather patterns and the routes, deciding on the western route as my primary.
Early the next morning I got an updated weather brief and a ride to the airport, configured my cabin, verified fluids, gave it a normal walkaround, pulled it out of the hangar and closed it behind me, then launched off into the perfectly calm and blue sky of a cool desert morning. Flying over the Victorville airport gave me one of the lasting views of the impacts of Covid-19 on the airline industry: parked airliners covering a closed runway and taxiway with yet more filling the ramp.
Once past VCV I climbed up to my cruise altitude of 10,500 ft and settled in for the ride. Next up were the windmills of Tehachapi, but shortly thereafter the idyllic morning was broken by an ATC request to keep an eye out for a missing airplane which they had lost radar and radio contact with and at last report was proceeding on a similar route to mine. After a fairly tense 15 minutes or so of scouring the ground for any sign of a distressed airplane I got a call that the missing airplane had reestablished contact, which came as quite a relief.
Entering the Central Valley, I generally followed the foothills of the Sierras up to my fueling stop at Placerville. Along the way I was treated to a fantastic vista of the crest of the Sierras and could easily pick out parts of Yosemite; the sweeping oblique views of mountains out one side window and flat fields on the other really brought out a different character of the area than seen from ground level or directly above.
Coming into Placerville (PVF) I found myself a couple of miles behind a 182 also headed there and decided to throttle back and let it lead me in. I need not have bothered; the airport fills a plateau over the town and was highly visible as we got closer, landing two and a half hours after takeoff. I had planned on just a quick fuel and leg stretch break, but it was a very comfortable temperature on the ground and it took a while for me to figure out the gas pump. Then I noticed that after a very early breakfast it was getting pretty close to lunch time by stomach if not by clock, so I taxied over to a parking spot for a wingside picnic. This was followed by a meander over to the airport office, where in addition to a nice restroom I found an aviation themed little library sponsored by the local EAA chapter.
Eventually it was time to head further north so I got an updated weather brief and decided to continue on to Eugene. After just over an hour on the ground in Placerville I lifted off and headed back up to 10,500 ft while enjoying the varied landscapes around me and keeping an eye out for promising looking airports that might make good stops on return flights over that area. Eventually I saw a conspicuous line of clouds stretching off to the east, seemingly anchored to a point on the horizon, which soon was identifiable as Mt. Shasta.
As I got closer it was clear they were condensing and forming downwind of the peak, so I wasn’t overly surprised to encounter a few bumps as I drew even of the line upwind of the mountain. Every time I’ve driven that section of I-5 I’ve stopped at the rest area next to the Weed airport, so I made it a waypoint on my route and enjoyed having a look at it from above as I started across the Siskiyous. Coming into Eugene (EUG), I could see some scattered cumulus below me ahead with bases at about 5000 ft and opted to go ahead and descend under it before I got into the approach area.
As expected, it was a bit bumpy under the clouds but overall it made for a far easier transition to the pattern. Unfortunately, when I tried to get the ATIS I found that my Narco MK 12D NAV/COM radio had experienced an issue (later identified as a failed diode and repaired), leaving me with the non-flip-flop, analog dial Narco COM 120/20 as my only functioning installed radio. I had brought a handheld along as a backup, but despite it being less than comfortable making the switch from center to tower plus grabbing ATIS on the 120/20 in the bumps, that seemed easier than trying to roll a handheld into the mix. Just under two and three quarters hours from liftoff, I shut down at the fuel pump in Eugene.
My stop in Eugene was a fuel, restroom, and weather update only stop, but somehow it still took me about 40 minutes on the ground before I was up again on the final leg into Auburn–including my first ever experience of coordinating taxi movements with an airliner, as the tower routed us around a closed section.
The clouds coming into Eugene proved to be a precursor of what was ahead as on the way to Portland more developed, first well above me and then lowering down. After takeoff ATC had requested I depart on a slightly easterly heading for inbound traffic and I had planned a 9500 foot cruise, but 7500 and then 8500 when I pointed west again were as high as I could reasonably get under the clouds. Just before crossing the Columbia, a broken layer appeared below me and started to close up, and though I could see what looked like clear skies in the distance over the Seattle area and ATIS at SEA was calling clear skies, I decided to use a break in that layer roughly abeam Mt. St. Helens to go below.
My preferred route of flight had some terrain rising uncomfortably up toward the cloud bases, so I diverted around that ridge and once beyond it the clouds quickly cleared up. By the time the Comanche touched down at its new home in Auburn an hour and three quarters after leaving Eugene it was a perfectly clear blue sky all around.
All together it took seven hours of flight time, roughly 67 gallons of fuel, and basically nine hours with stops to make the trip with relatively light winds. It was a great introduction to the cross-country cruising capabilities of a Comanche and, since the autopilot in this airplane had been removed several decades ago, all of it was very comfortably hand flown.