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The Aborted Transcontinental Journey

This article was written on 31 July, 1997.

The Saga Begins

It all began last Thursday, as I flew (or, more correctly, was flown) from San Francisco to Boston using the return ticket from my move to California. Uneventful, as most airline flights are wont to be. I got to Boston around 7:00 PM and had dinner with friends. That pretty much sums up the first day.

Friday, was the day I hoped to pick up my plane. However, the paint job wasn't quite done (just a couple of stripes to go), and final assembly before I could get it. Also, the weather (the remnants of Hurricane Danny) made it difficult for Bob (the mechanic) to perform the flight test. So, we decided that I would come out to the airport (early) Saturday morning to pick up my plane.

A Late Start

Saturday dawned all too early. A quick call to Flight Service told me that there were some weather issues in Western New York and Pennsylvania. Well, I'd call back later. Rick and I left Framingham at 7:00 AM bound for Tanner-Hiller Airport in Barre, MA. We arrived at the airport shortly before 8:00. Bob was just getting up (not a good sign). I looked in the hangar and saw my plane, apparently complete except for the final installation of the cowling. The paint job looked great. We rousted Bob, and he explained how he was up until all hours working on the paperwork (the FAA demands a real stack of it). Needless to say, as has been the case throughout much of the repair process, I ended up waiting. And waiting. A few touchups here. Some weather-stripping there. More paperwork. At around 11:00, Bob told me he'd be heading out to Fitchburg for an air filter and some fuel (Tanner-Hiller was out of fuel!), so Rick and I headed into town for breakfast/lunch. By this time, the en-route weather is starting to look good for my planned stop in Ann Arbor.

When we got back to Tanner-Hiller, we were surprised to see the plane still exactly where it had been before we left! Bob was still working on the paperwork, and couldn't take the plane up until it was done. Rick had things to do (I never expected him to stick around as long as he did), and headed out. I stuck around. While Bob worked on paperwork, the paint shop touched up a couple of rough spots, and I checked the weather (again). I re-filed my flight plan (for the fourth time) and continued waiting.

Finally, around 1:30 (if I remember correctly - time was starting to have no meaning), the paperwork was done, and Bob took off for the test and fueling flight. He was supposed to be back in around 45 minutes. That time came and went. 1 hour came and went. Finally, around 3:00, I hear the drone of my engine returning to the roost. It seems (or so Bob told me) that the mechanic at Fitchburg was out to lunch, so he had to wait. They had just sold their last air filter that morning. However, Bob did pick up a couple of spark plugs because he noticed a roughness on the test flight. (It turned out to be lead fouling.) After some time fiddling with spark plugs to get the right ones replaced (there are 8, after all), the plane was finally mine! So, around 4:30, I finally got off the ground and headed West.

Good People are Not So Hard to Find

On my first day, I planned to fly through Ontario to Ann Arbor with a refueling stop in Akron, NY (near Buffalo). By the time I got to Akron, however, it was late (8:15 EDT) and very hazy (visibility around 3 to 4 miles), and I was exhausted. So, I decided to stay overnight. If you ever have the opportunity to fly in the area, drop in. The FBO (fixed base operator) stayed open for me to fuel up. Then John, the airport manager, told me he usually puts transient pilots up for the night in his house, but he had company that evening. However, another local pilot offered to drive me into town to find a hotel, and also to pick me up Sunday morning to bring me back. For some reason, it's really hard to find a hotel in Akron on Friday or Saturday night in the summer! We eventually did find a hotel (not in the main hotel area), and I was pleasantly surprised by the room and the price. I grabbed a sandwich at a local restaurant, and went to sleep.

Sunday morning was another early morning. Paul wanted to get to the airport early because he was going to fly his plane (a nice 1946 Ercoupe) back home to Georgia. The weather, however, had other ideas for both of us. There was no way to get out of the Buffalo area VFR, so we sat around and waited (not too long) for the weather to improve. My luck was better than his was, as the weather was moving to the Southeast, putting the front in his way while clearing out the area for his flight. It looked good for my revised plan of having lunch in Ann Arbor and dinner in Chicago. I could get back on schedule! I was ready to leave around 10:00. I preflighted the plane, pulled it out of the hangar, hopped in, and hit the starter. It started to catch, then abruptly stopped. Further attempts to start it were futile. It appeared I had a dead starter. On Sunday. The mechanic wouldn't be in until Monday. So, it was time to sit around and wait. Again.

Aviation is not for the impatient.

Since John's guests had left, he offered to put me up for the night. I gladly accepted. But, I had to wait the day out until he returned. I sat around the airport, reading, talking, sleeping, until John and Nancy (his wife) finally showed up around 5:30. They took me home, where we talked aviation and watched a travelogue of Newfoundland (which was really quite interesting) and an installment of Michael Palin's "Pole to Pole". Nancy also fixed up a nice, light dinner for us.

Monday, I got to sleep in until 8:00 since the mechanic wasn't going to be in until 9:00 anyway. John came by and picked me up (he gets to the airport at 7:00 AM). Around 9:30, the mechanic started looking at my plane. I showed him what it was doing, and he initially thought it was a low battery. After he tested it, though, he found it to be fully charged, and suspected the starter. He took the starter off and disassembled it. We found lots of wear, but nothing to explain the problem I was having. So, he cleaned up the starter and tried it again. It still failed. He tried another starter. It also failed. Figuring the odds that both starters would be bad in exactly the same way were fairly low, attention turned back to the battery. Apparently, my battery had an internal short, and a new battery fixed the problem. I got off the ground at 2:30 PM.

A Slow Day

My schedule called for me to reach my destination of Lake in the Hills, IL (NW of Chicago) sometime between 7:00 and 8:00 CDT. The flight was slow. In a Citabria, which has a true airspeed of around 95 knots (109 MPH), speed is relative. On Monday, however, there were absolutely no relativistic effects to be seen. With the headwind, my ground speed averaged around 80 knots (92 MPH). I got to my refueling point (Sturgis, MI) at around 6:30 PM. I was still close to my schedule. I departed Sturgis just before 7:00 EDT for my 1:30 flight to Lake in the Hills.

One of the other "events" I had planned was a touch-and-go at Miegs Field, an airport practically in downtown Chicago on an island in Lake Michigan. This airport is famous for two reasons. First, it's the home base for Microsoft Flight Simulator. Second, Mayor Daly has been trying his best to violate federal and state laws by shutting it down to build a park (probably to be called "Daly Park"). I wanted to at least make one landing there while I still could. For some reason, though, they wouldn't let me perform a touch-and-go, but they did allow a "low approach" - much more dangerous in my mind because of the higher speeds involved. So, I came in at 95 knots, 5 feet above the ground, "buzzed" the field, and zoomed away to the North. I flew just outside of O'Hare's airspace at 500 feet above the water for a while - it was an impressive sight with downtown Chicago just off my left wing.

After clearing downtown Chicago, I continued to skirt around O'Hare's airspace until I arrived at my destination, around 7:30 PM. I gave "Johnson" a call to pick me up and parked my plane. "Johnson" arrived with his video camera rolling and proceeded to document my unloading operation and 30 second tour of my plane (there's just not that much to see!) We headed to his house, talked, had dinner, played with yo-yos for a while, and crashed. At this point, I was only 1 day behind.

Enter the Tailwind

Tuesday looked good. Clear weather, and a pilot's best friend - a tailwind! I had originally planned on stopping for fuel in Harlan, IA, but now I figured I could make it to Denver with only a single stop in Wahoo, NE (Letterman's home office). The flight was a bit bumpy, but when you're making 110-115 knots (126-132 MPH) over the ground, you can accept a bit of that. After getting vectored around Omaha (actually, I got vectored directly OVER Omaha), I got into Wahoo ahead of schedule. It was just before noon, and I was getting hungry. The mechanic and lineboy were just about to head into town for lunch, so I tagged along. It was basic, Midwest lunch food, but it hit the spot.

A call to Flight Service came with mixed news. There was a possibility of thunderstorms in Denver, but they didn't really know when they would hit. I figured that if worst came to worst, I could stop short and wait them out. Also, since I really needed to be back by Thursday (to prepare for Siggraph), I was going to do my best to be at an airport that had scheduled airline service. I launched around 2:00, and the tailwinds were still there. With the ground speed I was seeing (again, 110-115 knots), I expected to make Denver shortly before 5:00 MDT. Because of the forecasts, I stayed in contact with Flight Service, contacting them every half-hour or so. At 2:30, they said it looked good. 3:00 and all's well. As 3:30 rolled around, I flew some light rain, but Flight Service was still hopeful. Then, at 4:00, just past the halfway point between Wahoo and Denver, my call was met with "VFR not recommended", a center weather advisory, and a convective SIGMET (basically a severe thunderstorm warning). Luckily, I was ten miles from what appeared to be a good airport (McCook, NE), so I made a quick U-turn to land there.

After fueling up, I checked the radar. Level 5 and level 6 thunderstorms were pelting Denver (the most severe thunderstorms are level 6). And, it didn't look like it was going to clear up. So, I arranged to hangar my plane (fabric planes and heavy rain don't mix) and took the courtesy car into town to get a hotel for the night. And, since I was in the heartland, I figured it would be a good chance for some really good beef (which I haven't yet found in California).

Stuck in McCook

Wednesday dawned. Or at least I think it did - the sun was nowhere to be seen. Flight Service said the clouds would hang around for a while, and then lift just in time for the afternoon heating to start the thunderstorm development. I decided to hedge my bets by making reservations on the United Express evening commuter flight to Denver and a morning flight from Denver to San Francisco. I had lunch while I was waiting for more weather news, then headed to the airport. To make a long story short (if you call this short), I stuck around and took the airlines home. It's too bad I gave up so early, as there was a pilot flying his Cessna 414 (a cabin-lass twin with good weather-topping capabilities) to Denver, and I could have hopped a ride with him. Oh well.

That's how I ended up home in California, with my plane stuck back in Nebraska. Since I had to be at a conference the following week (Siggraph 97), I had a couple of friends fly to Nebraska to pick it up. One of these days, I will make it all the way across the country (when I don't have time pressures to deal with).

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Thursday, 06 January 2000 at 21:45 PST.