Two kids by Champ
32 min read

It was just another lazy late summer day at Flightways, the flight school where I worked weekends as the line boy, which basically meant that I ran the show. The phone would ring, I would answer it and write down the message in the ubiquitous message pad booklet. If someone came in to buy a sectional chart, I rang them up. When a CFI and a student came back in from a flight, I wrote the Hobbs time in the ledger and put the completed slip in the cubby for Lou, the owner’s wife who did the books on Monday. As planes would come and go, I’d make sure there was no vomit to clean up, check the oil, and place the fuel order. If there was a ground session with one of the instructors and their student going on, I’d sit in the corner, like a fly on the wall, taking it all in.

This day in particular, the boss, Jug Shoaf, who had been out doing an airshow somewhere, came back mid-afternoon. I gave him a quick brief of the goings-on of the day, and handed him his stack of phone messages. As he looked through them, he stopped at one and smiled his kind of creepy, smirky smile. He walked back into his office, and I could hear him on the phone right away. Whoever it was he was talking to, it was important enough to call on the weekend. I remembered that the sales manager from the Champion factory in Wisconsin had called earlier and left a message for Jug to give him a call back. That’s who he was probably talking to—not an uncommon thing, since he seemed to be selling Citabrias like hotcakes those days. Every time he or Bob Short would go do an airshow, they usually came home with an order for a new 7KCAB or a 7ECA.

Flightways ramp

The ramp at Flightways usually had interesting airplanes on it—including a few Decathlons or Citabrias.

After a few minutes, Jug wandered back out to the office with with a big grin on his face. He told me he had just gotten off the phone with the sales manager, and there was a plane ready for delivery back to Oakland. He had checked the list for delivery pilots and saw that it was my slot. The problem, he said, was that I had only gotten my Private certificate one week earlier, and given my lack of experience, he wasn’t really comfortable with me flying all the way back from Wisconsin by myself.

My heart sank. The good news, he continued, was that he had just called my colleague and fellow line boy Bob Haberman to see if Bob would be interested in doing the trip with me. Kind of show me the ropes, so to speak, as we made our way back across the country. Bob was agreeable, he said. “So are you interested?”

HELL YES I WAS! Did I say that emphatically enough? I was all in.

“Good,” he said. “Lou will make the airline and ground transportation arrangements for you guys. You’ll fly to Minneapolis next Saturday morning, and get on the road back to Oakland on Sunday. You’ll take a company credit card for gas and lodging. And,” he said, “you’ll each get $10 a day for per diem. We’ve got your travel day out there, and I figure it’ll take you boys about five days to get back, so $60 bucks each ought to cover it. Lou will give it to you out of petty cash.”

Wait a sec… I thought to myself, five days back? It’s usually a three day trip, even in a 7ECA. What gives?

“Hey Jug,” I said, “What exactly are we flying back, a 7ECA?”

“Oh,” he said, “I didn’t tell you. You’re flying back the new Champ 7ACA. I ordered the first production unit off the line for the flight school, and as a demonstrator. It has a 60-hp Franklin engine, burns about 4 gph, no electrical system, no starter, no radios. Just basic VFR instruments. Top speed is about 80 mph. You boys are going to have a blast!”

I had a feeling I had just been played for a chump. I was anticipating ferrying a 7KCAB, or at least a 7ECA, but beggars can’t be choosers, I suppose. The thought of slogging our way across the country at 75 mph, give or take, wasn’t exactly making me jump out of my seat. I felt the need… the need for speed, long before some Hollywood hack typed that line up. When I got home that evening I called Bob, and he was excited. He had already ferried a couple planes back from the factory, so was familiar with the route possibilities, particularly through the Rocky Mountains. At that point I’d never been east of Pine Mountain Lake in the Sierra Nevada foothills. I was a Private Pilot, though, and I did have a clue about aircraft performance and density altitude. My gut said, we ain’t making it over the Rockies.

“So, what are we gonna do, Bob?”

“No worries,” said Bob, “We’ll do the southern route. We’ll beeline for El Paso, then work our way through the desert southwest and back to Oakland.”

He figured the highest terrain we’d have to cross was about 6700 ft. Even the little Champ could do that.

Now that we were both on board and had a preliminary plan as to a route I felt a bit more at ease, until I remembered one small detail… School started on Tuesday, the day after Labor Day. It was my senior year of high school, that make or break year.

Then I thought of another small detail… Mom.

My mom, God bless her, had plenty of things on her plate at that time. She was a single mom of three. She was a school principal, and she was working on her doctorate of education. I was usually the least of her worries, being the middle child who always (at least up until that point) had colored inside the lines. In her understated way she was proud that I had achieved my Private Pilot certificate entirely of my own volition and on my own dime, though she certainly had no desire to go flying with me. I don’t remember what exactly I said to her at dinner that night to sell her on the idea of airlining out to Wisconsin and putt-putting our way back to the Bay Area, missing my first week of my senior year of high school in the process, but it must have been one hell of a sales pitch.

Route map

What could possibly go wrong?

What I do remember is the snarky smile and the raised eyebrows as she nodded her assent, with one last comment, “Two teenagers flying all the way across the country in a tiny airplane. What could possibly go wrong?” That’s my mom…

During the week before we left, I studied up on our noble mount. Not exactly breathtaking performance-wise, and no electrical system meant that every other leg I would get to hand-prop it to get her going. Bob and I assembled all our sectional charts and AFDs, and planned our route. We were very weight-limited, so we only packed the barest necessities, which all had to fit in a backpack. We also brought sleeping bags and pads.

As my mom dropped us off at SFO for our Northwest Orient flight to Minneapolis, along with all the usual exhortations to be careful and have a good time, she had one parting shot for me: I was to not fly over any snow under any circumstances! Where was she coming from with that?

“Mom,” I said, “It’s September! There won’t be any snow anywhere along the route.” She gave me the look I knew so well.

“Okay, mom…”

As Bob and I sat looking out the window of a branny-new Northwest Orient Boeing 747, I was struck by the irony. We were sipping a Coke in the pressurized comfort of the world’s most luxurious, fastest, and most technologically advanced aircraft in order to take delivery of arguably the most basic, rudimentary little airplane in production at the time, and fly it back the other direction. Three hours eastbound, five or six days westbound. Ouch!

A little history of the Champ 7ACA might be in order at this point. Bellanca, which had just bought Champion Aircraft in 1970, introduced the 7ACA Champ in 1971 as a more basic complement to their other designs. Based on the 7AC airframe, it was the least expensive and lowest-performance commercially produced light plane on the market at the time. The 7ACA was powered by the two-cylinder Franklin 2A4 engine, delivering 60 throbbing horsepower. It carried 13 gallons of fuel in a tank at the top of the firewall, burning 4 gph in cruise. The gross weight was 1,220 lbs. with an empty weight of 740 lbs., which meant that with full fuel and the two of us skinny teenagers aboard (I think between the two of us we weighed in at 320 lbs.), we had about a 70-lb allowance for baggage.

It was marketed as the airplane for the everyman. With a retail price of $4995, everyone could afford a plane, or so Bellanca hoped. Whatever… we were duty bound to deliver the first one of its type to the West Coast, and leave it in the boss’s capable hands to sell the little suckers to the masses.

We were met at Minneapolis/St.Paul International Airport and driven to the Champion factory, about an hour east in Osceola, Wisconsin. This was all terra incognita for me. I’d been to Chicago a few years earlier, but this was way different. It was so green and lush and humid and hot—and rural. Once out of Minneapolis, we drove through endless fields of something, probably soybeans. After about an hour, we arrived at the Champion factory at the Osceola Municipal Airport. I was a bit underwhelmed, as it was just a small complex of WWII-era hangars, with a bunch of planes in varying states of assembly strewn around. Each old hangar had a specific function, it seemed. This hangar was where all the tubes were welded into an airframe, that one was where the wings were fabricated, and so on, until the finished units were pushed out the back of the final assembly shop onto the ramp, awaiting test flights and delivery.

We found our plane on the delivery ramp amidst a bunch of sexy looking new 7KCABs and 7ECAs, sporting chrome spinners over their pristine Hartzell props, their main wheels covered with aerodynamic fairings,  painted and polished with the Champion starburst paint scheme, and looking poised to leap off the ground and tear up the sky. Our little unit had a wooden prop with no spinner, and no wheel fairings. It was painted white with a red stripe. On the underside of the wings was painted “The Champ” on the right, and “$4995” on the left. Hey! We’re a flying sandwich board! I thought it looked like a sad little burro in a paddock filled with thoroughbreds. But hey! Whatta ya expect for $4995?

Champ wings

That’s one way to advertise.

I hung out on the ground while Bob took a hop with one of the factory guys to get familiar with the plane. It was my first experience with hand-propping her to get the engine going. Getting her started cold was not fun. It took some time and I was exhausted by the time she decided for fire up. By the time Bob and the factory pilot got back, it was getting on late in the day, so my turn would have to wait until we got underway the next day.

The next morning we were delivered to our plane to get going, but the factory guys asked if we would do them a favor. Would we be willing to participate in a Champ formation fly-by for the airshow that was happening that morning? We were happy to oblige—how cool is that?! We loaded our gear up and took off. We formed up on maybe a dozen other Champs that were circling near the field. The formation did a couple low approaches over the the airport. We then broke off from the formation and headed southwest, skirting around the north side of Minneapolis/St.Paul. Our first fuel stop was Redwood Falls, MN, then again in Worthington, MN. Each time we landed, we would draw a few onlookers, since the plane was kinda unique, and it sounded like a lawnmower flying over with the little two cylinder engine.

Redwood Falls to Worthington was my first leg as PIC. It was warm and humid, and the takeoff roll seemed to go on forever. Once I got her up in the air, she flew fine, but the aileron pressure was way stiffer than the Citabria. Since we were at max gross weight on takeoff, I had to roll in a lot of nose down trim to get the tail off the ground. Otherwise the plane was pretty responsive in pitch and trimmed out nicely in cruise. The comment in my logbook is “Never worked so hard to land a plane in my life.” I remember there was a pretty good crosswind when we landed and it being my first in an unfamiliar, underpowered plane, I’m sure it was not one of my prettier landings.

It was my first time ever flying outside of Northern California. I was mildly bewildered by the sameness of the terrain. Fields, barns, silos, roads, railroad tracks, little towns, lakes, creeks. It was the same pattern endlessly in all directions. With nothing to range out on, and no radios or VORs to navigate by, I had to be very careful to follow a compass heading and mark our progress across the sectional,. To keep track of our fuel state was easy. We burned roughly one gallon every 15 minutes, so I was able to keep the fuel tally pretty accurate. Fortunately, there was an abundance of little airports along our route, so we usually had options.

One of the pleasant things that I discovered on that first leg was that we didn’t have to waste much time climbing. Terrain was not a factor, radio towers notwithstanding. A couple hundred feet AGL, and we were good to go. Onward we pressed to Graham Field in North Sioux City, SD (7K7), where we intended to stay the night, camping out under the wing. The weather had been agreeable for us all day, with the exception of some light rain showers near Minneapolis. As we neared Sioux City, late in the afternoon, we could see some cumulus buildups out to the west, but it was moderate to severe clear, and the wind had died completely.

We landed safely to end the first day, and as we were tying the plane down an older gentleman in an old pickup truck came rolling up. He was very affable and curious about the plane. He said he lived a couple miles to the north. We had flown right over his place on the way in, and he didn’t recognize the plane, so he figured he’d better come on down to check it out. He was so nice! He inquired as to our accommodations for the night, and when we told him we were planning on roughing it, he wouldn’t hear of it. He insisted it was no trouble if we stayed with him and his wife. He tossed our bags into the bed and off we rolled to his place. The missus was there to greet us, and she was even sweeter than he was. We had a delicious dinner, fried chicken according to my notes.

After dinner he said, “Well I expect you youngsters would like to go on into town and see what’s going on. All the young people will be at the town square tonight until about midnight.” I was intrigued. He gave us the keys to the truck and told us to head straight into town. Couldn’t miss it.

Two kids by Champ

Just a couple California kids flying an airplane across the country—seriously.

It was exactly as he described it. Every high school age kid in North Sioux City was out at the town square. All the guys were mostly in pickup trucks cruising around the square, so we blended right in. We made a couple laps, and I realized that the girls were in gaggles on the square itself, and that there didn’t seem to be much interaction between the two camps. I pulled over and parked. I hopped out and walked up to the first group of three or four young ladies I saw. I politely introduced myself and my friend Bob and told them we were a couple of pilots on our way to the San Francisco Bay Area, and we were just visiting for the evening, so we thought we’d stop and chat. At first they weren’t buying it, so I whipped out the old paper pilot’s license and showed it to them. We talked up a good game, and eventually they realized we weren’t kidding.

Another group of girls wandered by and joined in the conversation. I guess the word got out around the square that there were some guys from California here, and pretty soon we had attracted a small crowd of teenage girls peppering us with questions about California: did we know any movie stars, do we spend all day at the beach, and the like. It was fun schmoozing the girls up for a while, but we were dog-tired and by then some of the guys were giving us the side-eye, so we made our apologies and boogied back to the farm. I slept like the dead.

The next morning we were treated to an enormous breakfast and driven back to the airport. We topped off the tank and said adios to our host, and we were on our way south. Our first fuel stop was Beatrice, Nebraska (BIE). It was my leg and I took her up to about 300 ft. AGL so we could at least be entertained with something to look at up close, even if it was just cornfields, barns, and silos. We followed roads and railroad tracks, staying west of Omaha and east of Lincoln. The morning was absolutely beautiful without a breath of wind, so we were making good time, even at a breathtaking 75 mph. My notes say we slid under a low overcast layer near Lincoln. We made Beatrice and topped off, then back right back in the air. We had an ambitious itinerary for the day, hoping to make Tucumcari, New Mexico (TCC), by the afternoon.

The next leg was Bob’s, and our planned fuel stop was Russell Muni in Russell, Kansas (RSL). Shortly after takeoff, a headwind started to kick in directly on the nose. Since Bob was flying, the navigation duties were up to me. I had the sectional out, and the plotter and E6B were tucked into the seat pocket in front of me. Our intended leg was about 135 nm. In zero wind, we were looking at about two hours straight up. After about 10 minutes of headwind, Bob and I sensed that it was increasing as we forged ahead. This was a concern, for sure. I busied myself with getting an accurate groundspeed check, the old school way. We were following a railroad track, and I started timing as we went over a tiny town along the track, then stopped time where another railroad line crossed ours, a distance of about seven miles. It took eight minutes. That meant we were south of 55 mph ground speed. By my calculation, we were going to come up short by about a gallon.

It was Bob’s call, and he decided to press on as we had other options along the way. I kept on doing groundspeed checks and running the numbers. As we slid past Beloit, the numbers looked better, but we had agreed we would not go below three gallons, ostensibly a 45-minute reserve. As we neared the tiny town of Lucas, Kansas, the fuel gauge, which was a cork bobber with a stiff wire protruding through the gas cap directly ahead of the center of the windshield—well, it stopped bobbing. That was enough for me. I leaned forward and told Bob to land, NOW! Lucas was dead ahead, about ten miles. We floated on in and landed safely. The only problem was, there was no gas at the field. Ah, but there was a gas station nearby. After consulting some nice folks on the field, we cadged a ride and some gas cans, and got ’er fueled up.

Flying in Champ

A 25 mph headwind is a big deal in a 75 mph airplane.

Given that the wind aloft was still 20+ knots, we decided to make the next leg a short one. Our next planned fuel stop was Dodge City, Kansas, only 100 nautical miles away. That was definitely good aeronautical decision-making on our part. The wind really jacked up as we neared Dodge. For the last 30 miles or so, I was flying right alongside US Highway 50, and it was just humiliating. We were getting passed by every vehicle on the highway. The ultimate humiliation was when we got passed by a VW bus. At one point, I got down right alongside the cab of a huge double tractor-trailer and we gave the driver the old “Honk the horn signal” like I had done so many times as a kid on road trips. Of course, he obliged us with a big blast. If you’re dealt lemons, you make lemonade.

During our stop at Dodge, I telephoned Flight Service to get some notion what to expect for the rest of our route. Finally some good news: Liberal, Kansas, was reporting calm winds, and Dalhart, Texas, had surface winds from the north at 15-20 kts. The northerly winds would continue all the way to Tucumcari and beyond. We wasted no time getting back in the air, stopping in Dalhart for fuel. The surface wind reports proved to be accurate. We were seeing groundspeed of over 100 mph on the leg to TCC. Between Dalhart and Tucumcari, the terrain started climbing slowly, a series of stepped plateaus, and we could finally see mountains, a welcome sight after two days of nothing but flatness.

As we approached Tucumcari, we saw some really cool looking Indian ruins a couple miles northeast of the airport. While we were fueling up, Bob asked me if I wouldn’t mind going back up and checking them out before we bagged it for the day. I agreed, since I was still so elated by the tailwind we had gotten on the last couple legs. It was crystal clear, nice and warm with a good breeze running. Another ten minutes of farting around wouldn’t hurt my feelings. I hit the head and came back out. Bob was in the front seat and ready to go. I propped the plane and we taxied out and did an intersection takeoff on runway 3.

We climbed up about 500 ft. and just as we we coming up on the railroad tracks near the ruins, the windshield started to turn gray. We were losing oil! Bob, ever the cool cucumber, went to full power and started a climbing turn back towards the runway. We climbed until the oil pressure was well into yellow arc, then he pulled the mixture to idle cutoff. At that point, we became a very bad glider. I have to give major props to Bob—he was a really good stick. He got us back to the airport and lined up for runway 21. I couldn’t see anything out the front and only got glimpses of the runway whenever Bob put her into a slip so he could see forward. By that point the oil slick had migrated aft to cover the front side windows. I just held on, hoping for the best. We touched down maybe a hundred feet shy of the threshold and rolled onto the runway, coming to a stop right on top of the numbers. We got out and rolled the plane off the runway into the run-up/turn-around area.

We both knew what had happened, and poor Bob was mortified. This was his deal. We had an agreement that the pilot flying the next leg did a proper walk-around before engine start. Bob had the line guy put a quart of oil in the engine while he was fueling. Bob had then excused himself for a head call, and when he returned the little oil door was closed. He had assumed that the filler cap was secure, and neglected to check it. When I came back out from the restroom and saw Bob was ready to go, we fired up. The results were inevitable.

I congratulated Bob on a damn fine job of getting us back onto the airport property in one piece, and the fact that we were actually on a runway was bonus points. Right about then the cavalry showed up. Yet another older gentleman in a pickup truck came rolling out to see what was going on. He looked at our sad little oil-soaked plane and said something to the effect of, “You boys look like you could use a little help.” He dropped the tailgate and we lifted the tail of the plane up onto it. Bob and I both sat on the tailgate and held on to the plane as he slowly dragged us back to the hangar area. He stopped and opened up the door to his hangar. We wheeled the little Champ in and he shut the hangar door. It turned out that he was an A&P mechanic and this was his shop.

New Mexico airport

The long runway makes an inviting target when the engine stops.

He gave us tools and we de-cowled the plane. We found the filler cap wedged between the cylinder and the baffling. He removed the oil filter, opened it up and checked for metal, which thankfully there was none. He told Bob that shutting down the engine while there was still oil pressure had saved it. No harm, no foul. He spun another oil filter on, safety-wired it for us, pointed us at a box of rags and some solvent, and told us that he would grab us some burgers before going home for the evening. We got busy cleaning up the plane. It must have taken us four or five hours before we got the plane sufficiently clean. We pulled her out of the hangar and gave the engine a short test run. It looked good—no oil gushing out from anywhere—so we got the cowl back on her, wrote out a thank you note, and left it on his desk along with some cash for the oil and filter.

We found some comfy old couches to sleep on in what appeared to be the old terminal building. I can’t say I slept well. There was just too much to process in my head, and I was just too exhausted. I guess I must have gotten a little sleep, because I woke up when I became aware of somebody else in the room. I opened my eyes and saw that the sun was coming up and it was getting lighter in the room. My eye caught some motion on the far side of the room, and I saw a little girl, maybe 8 or 9 years old. She was slowly kind of creeping along the wall opposite me, obviously very intent on doing something. It was still dark and she was obscured by some furniture, but she was paying absolutely no attention to me and Bob, who was still asleep a few feet away. I sat up and said hello. She looked in my direction and shushed me. She was kind of crouching down and crept forward a little bit. Then she let out a squeal of delight. I stood up and I could see what she was doing. She had a huge tarantula on a horse hair leash, and she was taking it hunting for cockroaches. I heard the sound of a vacuum cleaner in another room and I guessed that she belonged to whoever was doing the vacuuming. After a couple minutes of letting the tarantula have its way with the cockroach, she wandered off towards the sound of the vacuum cleaner, tarantula in tow. I think Bob slept through the whole thing. No, I had not taken any mescaline.

We got our act together, and launched just after sunrise. Our destination for the day was Deming, New Mexico, with fuel stops in Roswell, Carlsbad, and El Paso.

Eastern New Mexico is the the definition of the “middle of nowhere.” It was a stunningly beautiful morning as we climbed out of Tucumcari. We had the sun coming up on our left, bathing the backside of the Sandia Mountains off to our right in brilliant golden sunlight. Below us was nothing but the most desolate, inhospitable desert terrain. It was endless mesas covered in huge boulders and dense bush, and the occasional stands of cactus. The mesas were interspersed with steep canyons. There was absolutely nowhere to make an emergency landing.

I was hunkered down in the back seat in a state of mild panic, keenly aware that we had just potentially abused our engine, and going apoplectic at the slightest hiccup in the engine sound. I was utterly convinced that the whole thing was going to go sideways right then and there. My eyes were glued to the oil pressure gage. Whenever I looked at the terrain outside, what I saw just scared the bejeezus out of me. If our engine bonked, we were done. They would never find us. There weren’t even any dirt roads out there. We crossed one railroad track near Ft. Sumner, then nothing through the entire Pecos MOA complex until we reached Roswell, which looked like the size of JFK Airport to me with a 13,000 ft runway. I felt a lot more confident in the engine after that leg.

After some coffee and breakfast at Roswell, I took the next leg to Carlsbad and felt quite a bit relieved, my faith in the engine having been restored, and having a huge highway to follow.

Bob took the hop to El Paso. This was going to be the highest leg of the whole trip. We had to do some slope-soaring over Carlsbad Canyon National Park, taking advantage of the gentle southerly wind and working our way along the south-facing slope of the Guadalupe Mountains, the highest terrain we would have to traverse. We were looking for any lift we could find to gain enough altitude to clear the Guadalupe Ridge and head over the broad valley north of the Salt Flat VOR. As we gained sufficient altitude to clear the ridge, Bob kept us maybe a hundred feet (sometimes less) over the terrain as we ran the razorback ridge for miles, over Pine Springs and Bush Mountain, the highest point in the Guadalupe Mountains. It was so fun hugging the terrain with lift and airspeed to spare, and scaring the crap out of buzzards and coyotes.

Once we cleared Bush Peak, the terrain dropped away precipitously, but we stayed up high, enjoying the amazing desert scenery as we headed towards El Paso. We could see White Sands off in the distance to the northwest clear as a bell. We refueled at a little airport somewhere in north El Paso that doesn’t even exist any more. I took us into Deming, New Mexico, where we ended the day. My notes about that stop say that we treated ourselves to a Motel 6 and a nice dinner. We hadn’t had a shower in three days. I recall scrubbing myself until I almost bled to get all the oil off my arms. Once again, I slept the sleep of the dead.

Uncle Don

Catching up with Uncle Don, also a pilot.

The next day, our destination was Prescott, Arizona, where we would hook up with my legendary Uncle Don. Back in the late ’50s, when I was just a toddler, my Uncle Don had lived with us for an extended period of time after he showed up completely unannounced, having lived in China from 1946 to 1956. He disappeared down to Prescott, where my grandparents were living, when I was about four years old, but I remembered having a good feeling about the guy when he lived with us. He and my Dad had a bit of a falling out over my grandparents’ estate when they passed away, about ten years earlier. It seemed that they were now on speaking terms, so my dad had given him the heads up that I would be laying over in Prescott, and would he kindly extend some hospitality to his nephew? He said he was looking forward to it.

We got an early jump out of Deming, it being the desert, and it’s always advisable to get the flying out of the way early. We knew Phoenix was going to be hot, like 120 degrees hot. We wound our way through the mountains and broad valleys of southern New Mexico and Arizona, with fuel stops at Willcox and Deer Valley, just north of Phoenix, where we took a lunch break. It was so insanely hot in Phoenix that the poor little Champ could barely climb out of Deer Valley and climb her way up over the mountains to Prescott. We made it to Prescott, and there he was, my Uncle Don. It turns out he was also a pilot, having trained while he was working for a local guy who bought warbirds and restored them. We decided to go up on a little air-to-air photo shoot. Bob flew the Champ, and I flew with my uncle in a Cherokee and snapped some pics. It was wonderful spending the afternoon and evening with him. He sported us kids a great steak dinner at the Mingus Mountain Inn.

Early the next morning, we said goodbye to the uncle and were back at it. We departed Prescott at sunrise to try to beat the heat of the Mojave Desert, but no such luck. At 6500 ft. we had 100 degree temps and bad headwinds yet again. Our fuel stops at Needles, Barstow, and Bakersfield were insufferably hot. We flew over a dust storm as we went around the Edwards AFB restricted area near William J. Fox Field in Lancaster, California. As we came over the Tehachapis and into Bakersfield, the smog was so thick we had a hell of a time finding Bakersfield Airport. But now we were in the home stretch. I took the leg up the west side of the San Joaquin Valley over I-5. We were looking to get to Los Banos and fuel up there for the last leg to Oakland, but no joy. As we got closer to Pacheco Pass, a notoriously windy area, the headwinds intensified once again and we could only make it as far as Mendota (M90). We fueled up one last time and pressed on, up the Central Valley. We made a quick stop at Tracy, where we called Oakland Tower on the phone and gave them our ETA. They told us to make straight in for Runway 27R and expect a light on 1/2 mile final. It was so nice to finally be back in familiar territory.

After we touched down and taxied to the Flightways line, the whole place emptied out to to ooh and aah over the little Champ. The final stats were in:

  • Days en route: 5
  • Total flight time: 41 hours
  • Distance flown: 2100 miles
  • Airports visited: 21.

No sooner had we unloaded our gear and called in the fuel order, than the boss hopped in the plane and went out joy-riding in her. Personally, I was done. All I wanted to do was get home, have dinner, and relax. My mom picked me up, and on the drive home from the airport she was mildly curious as to how the trip had gone. I gave her the appropriately sanitized version of events, of course omitting some of the sketchier details. I emphasized how nice people were all along the way, even to a couple scruffy teenage kids from California. I told her what an amazing educational experience it was (that was right in her wheelhouse), how much I had learned about aviation, navigation, and cross-country flying, and that I was now a safer, more experienced pilot. And of course, I assured her, we did not fly over any snow.

The next morning I dragged my sorry ass to school. The first stop was my counselor’s office to pick up my class schedule. My mom had informed her of my trip earlier that week. My counselor said she was happy to see I had made it home in one piece. She handed me a stack of papers and said, “By the way, here’s your assignments you need to catch up on. You had better get your butt in gear.”

After my morning classes, I grabbed some lunch and found my group of friends on the community theater steps, our usual hangout spot. I hadn’t really informed any of them that I was doing that trip, so there was a lot of speculation as to my whereabouts since I hadn’t shown up for school for the first three days. When they asked me where I had been, I just shrugged my shoulders and said, “Well, I was sitting around at work down at the airport a couple weekends ago…”

And what of N4995? The FAA registry shows she is still registered and lives out in Modesto, about a 45-minute hop from Oakland. I hope she’s in good shape and has led a good life. She was a tough little bird, and got us safely home. Maybe one day I’ll go visit her.

Drew Kemp
32 replies
  1. David Glasscock
    David Glasscock says:

    Nice experience. Check out the book “Flight of Passage”. Two brothers restore a ‘38 Piper Cub and fly from NJ to California in the summer of ‘66. They were 15 and 17 years old.

    Reply
  2. Robbie Culver
    Robbie Culver says:

    Fantastic story! We have a 1945 Aeronca Champ. Bare bones low & slow VFR flying with a minimal panel.

    Very well written – thanks for sharing!!

    Reply
  3. Richard Files
    Richard Files says:

    Thank you, Drew, what a great story. Leashed tarantulas, high school angst, and flying adventure. Doesn’t get any better than that and we were with you all the way.

    Reply
  4. Dennis Martz
    Dennis Martz says:

    Back 47 years ago (1975) I was a 19-year-old “kid” who was a boom operator on KC-135 tankers, stationed at Kincheloe AFB, Mi (20 miles from Sault Ste Marie) I finally got my Pilots License and the following week, my wife and I took a Cessna 172 to Mesa, Arizona for a two-week vacation. The trip was just as much of a “wild and crazy” learning experience for me as this trip was. I’ll see if I can put together a story and submit it, it was definitely a flight to remember!

    Reply
    • Drew Kemp
      Drew Kemp says:

      Dennis, I’m really looking forward to that story! The reason I write these stories is that after 53 years of flying, I’m running out of room in my poor little addled brain and I have to clear it out from time to time, to make room for more stories.

      Reply
  5. Douglas Megenity
    Douglas Megenity says:

    Drew thank you for your wonderful story. I can totally relate to it because in 1975 my wife and I purchased a used 65 hp Aeronca Chief (N4128E). A two place side by side bare bones with only basic flight instruments. No electrical system or radio. I flew it to local airports VA, Md and West Virginia, and once crossed the Chesapeake Bay to Ocean City Maryland. Afraid if the engine quite, I flew across the bay at 5,000 feet. Yes I too paid the propeller respect every time I pulled the propeller thru to start her up! I learned a lot about flying with this gentle lightweight tail dragger. Loved when the air was dead calm. The controls where light and I could turn the airplane with the smallest amount of control input. Those moments I’ll never forget the beauty of flight. Loved landing it on grass fields and flying at 1,000 above ground and seeing the world below. Miss her! After a 25 year hiatus I returned to flying again and got checked on an Aeronca 7AC and did several hours of aerobatics. Loved that plane. Quit flying after that. I figured I wasn’t as sharp as I used to be so I took myself out of the cockpit and proud that I learned to fly as one of my life’s best accomplishments!

    Reply
  6. John Shaver
    John Shaver says:

    Drew,
    You captivated me for an hour on my Saturday morning Coffee read. What a great read!! In my late teens and early twenties I ferried new Cessnas from the mid west back to the east coast. Your story brought back a lot of memories. That trip sounded of pure joy. Thank You for sharing.

    Reply
    • Drew Kemp
      Drew Kemp says:

      John, thanks for the kind words! I figured this story would pair up nicely with a good cup of coffee. I lost count of how many I consumed while writing it…

      Reply
  7. Gene Woods
    Gene Woods says:

    Wonderful story, along the lines of the Buck boys and their Cub. Your mom apparently realized the educational value of an adventure like this. Props (pun intended) to her for not putting up a fight.

    Reply
    • Drew Kemp
      Drew Kemp says:

      Gene, I’m glad you enjoyed my story! My Mom always chose her battles wisely. I think she knew from the git go, she wasn’t going to prevail if she dug in her heels on this one.

      Reply
  8. Mike Sheetz
    Mike Sheetz says:

    A fun read! I know the flat lands of middle American aren’t the most exciting to some people, but some of the riches land on earth is there. So many great memories growing up on a Northern Indiana farm for me. Flying low and slow over much of it provides a look at much rural life in America. I love mountains, too, but much of America is of farm life producing the abundance we all need!

    Reply
    • Drew Kemp
      Drew Kemp says:

      Mike, in the ensuing 50 years since Bob and I made that trip, I’ve had the pleasure of flying over America’s Heartland for hundreds of hours. Last year I did two transcontinental trips. I always find it enchanting.

      Reply
  9. Rolf Grandstaff
    Rolf Grandstaff says:

    Hey Drew, at some point maybe you should consider a 5th career as a writer. This was one of the most enjoyable aviation stories I’ve ever read. What a treat. Thanks for sharing it with us.

    Reply
    • Drew Kemp
      Drew Kemp says:

      Rolf, one of my best friends, who’s also a pilot has described my writing style as “Ernest Gann meets Hunter Thompson”.
      I’m so glad you enjoyed it!

      Reply
  10. james e smiley
    james e smiley says:

    That is very lovely story, it reminded me of the trips to Oshkosh I made from Florida in my 1939 Luscombe 8-A with my wife and later with my son. They were great trips.

    Reply
  11. Curt Crosby
    Curt Crosby says:

    Very enjoyable! Reminiscent of round trip a buddy and I took from southern Illinois to Regina SK in a 42 Taylorcraft 65hp Franklin. We were kids. Keep writing, you have a storytelling gift.

    Reply
  12. John Opalko
    John Opalko says:

    What a wonderful story, Drew, and very well written. I imagine you have lots of tales to tell. If you ever decide to write your memoirs, I’ll buy a copy.

    Reply
  13. Robert Matteson
    Robert Matteson says:

    Worked for Franklin Engine as an experimental engineering technician when they were working on this engine. Ran some of the testing in the test cells and dyno and it was discovered that if the oil level got below 2.5 quarts the engine would run rough. Also the spark plugs would load up at idle after awhile if you didn’t lean during a long taxi. The Brazilian government contacted Franklin about using the engine in their military dune buggies and a Franklin powered buggy ran around town for awhile collecting speeding tickets and wringing off keys on the VW transmission from the engine torque. Franklin even worked on an airboat application just before they went bankrupt.

    Reply

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