Oshkosh '89

Here is an account of my first trip to Oshkosh with the Fox Valley Flying Club in 1989 - I've flown in with them every year since. The last posting along with this one are my two most memorable cross-countrys. This cross country shows what can happen when pilots get a little too anxious to head home on schedule. Hopefully, everyone else will learn from our mistakes ...

The summer of '89 was an unusually hectic one for me. I was just about to graduate college, I just got engaged, I just got a job offer, AND I just bought an ultralight. To avoid complications at home, I won't rate these events on a scale of 1 to 4... Anyway, to top things off, I was due to begin my new career on the Monday following our scheduled weekend at Oshkosh. This was cutting things a bit close for me since it's not unusual to be held up somewhere due to adverse weather conditions. The solution? Another member of the club volunteered to fly my plane home for me if the weather turned sour - count me in. I had made the decision to go the night before we were scheduled to leave and I thought I was cutting it close. As it turns out, another member stayed up all night putting new sails on his plane, just finishing as we were leaving! For communications, we all had CB radios - the lead plane had a CB and an aircraft radio. For a ground crew, one of the members pulled a trailer with his motorhome. We brought two 50 gallon drums to mix gas and oil in so we could 'easily' refuel at each airport. It didn't turn out to be so easy since the containers weren't rated for fuel and began to leak. The plan was for the motorhome to meet us at each stop along the way, keeping in touch with us via CB radio.

We took off into the clear blue sky for our first stop, Galt airport - about 50 miles. We congested the CB airwaves with the FAA 'un'approved communication protocol, "YAHOOOO", "YEA, BABY" (one of the nice things about a CB). We heard one CB operator on the ground complain, "we've had to contend with all the truckers, now what?". But most ground based CB operators found it a novel idea to talk to us ultralights as we flew overhead, "Break 1 4 for the Sky-Buzzard". The biggest problem we had on the way was having to wait for the ground crew. They had to contend with traffic and finding the airports, while we just made a beeline for each airport. After a full 4 hours in the air, we arrived at Oshkosh. Since we arrived with such a large group (about 12 of us), we were allowed to tie down in what is now the staging area, right by the Ultralight barn. This was VIP treatment. The ground crew parked the motorhome right behind the barn, so everything was close by. This year, we had our own personal chef come along as part of the ground crew - he would make breakfast for the group on the grill. Everything was going along better than planned - the weather was perfect, the flight went well, and we got good tiedown spots. Then came Saturday. Saturdays' weather put a damper on everyones' plans, it rained all day. We spent this day in the motorhome discussing the virtues of such things as ballistic vs. rocket deployed chutes, trike vs. tail-dragger, etc. We also drove into town to dry out in a restaurant for a while. The forecast being what it was, I decided to ask the guy who volunteered, Rich, to fly my plane home on Sunday - or whenever they were able to leave. I took a ride home with one of the members that drove on Saturday night. Needless to say, I was continually occupied with the fate of my plane (oh yea, and the safety of the guy flying it back). I closely monitored the weather forecasts once I got home. Sundays forecast didn't look much better than Saturday, so the prospect of leaving on Sunday was not good. I woke up bright and early Sunday morning to check the weather - 500' ceilings, grey and breezy. The word was that Oshkosh was closed all morning due to weather conditions. I got word that the group was able to get a window to depart at about 3:00 in the afternoon - this concerned me since the conditions here in Illinois were less that VFR (still 500' ceilings). Based on the available information, I calculated that they would arrive at their first destination, Hartford, in about 40 minutes. Still concerned about my plane, I called Hartford airport to check for their arrival.

Needless to say, Rich was a bit surprised to receive a call at an airport in the middle of Wisconsin! He indicated that conditions were ok, and they had to keep going to make it back in time. As the afternoon drew on, I calculated their time of arrival back at the airport and drove out to wait for their arrival. I waited, and waited, and waited. I waited until it was almost dark and concluded that they must have stayed at one of the airports along the way, to return tomorrow. Just to be sure, I called their last stop, Galt airport, to see if they had arrived - no answer. I went home and waited for a call from the pilot of my plane to see how the trip had gone so far. At about 9:00 pm, now pitch black out, I got a call from another member of our club who lives next to our airfield - he said he just heard ultralights fly over his house! WHAT? Why those crazy $#*&#! Sure enough, a few minutes later I got a call from Rich telling me the story I wouldn't soon forget.

He said while they were at their last stop, they heard the phone ring in the locked airport office and joked that it was probably me (it was)!. They were questioning the wisdom of departing since it was already dusk, and the airfield was about a 40 minute flight. They decided to go for it. As they made their way home, it got darker, and darker, and darker - until it was pitch black. Anyone who's familiar with ultralight engines can fully appreciate the gravity of this situation - if the engine fails, where do you land? You may end up on someones' roof, in their back yard, etc. To compound the situation, nobody had lighted gauges, some didn't have strobes (so you didn't know where they were relative to your plane), and navigation was futile. At one point, one of them indicated that as his strobes fired, he saw another plane right below him! Since nobody knew where they were, they spotted a huge lighted parking lot which is actually a new car layover point for car dealers in the area. They did the appropriate pattern, (what is the appropriate pattern for a parking lot?) and landed in the lot! The guard indicated that he was told not to let anyone in through the fence, but was never told about people flying in... As it turned out, this lot is about 5 miles from our airfield, so they took off and headed to the field. The first guy to land drove his car around and aimed the headlights down the runway. Since you didn't know anyone elses position except by radio contact (and some didn't have radios), each pilot was in a precarious position. After landing, Rich said he breathed a sigh of relief - but then remembered that someone might be landing right behind him! He quickly pulled off the runway. Even Rich can't take the award for the most luck on this day - one of the guys ran out of gas over the end of the runway! If that's not enough, he had two flat tires when he landed! The last to land was one of our more conservative members. His eyes were bulging, his mouth wide open, and his hand was stuck around the parachute pull cord. After regaining their composure and changing their underwear, they all stuck around the airfield and celebrated their good fortune. Needless to say, NO ONE has made the mistake of pushing the limits of daylight since.

for a picture of the featured plane, see:

for an en-route picture, turn off your monitor...

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