1700 miles to glory
1700 miles to glory
After years of dreaming about it, and months preparing for it,
the big day had finally arrived. I was ready to make the pilgrimage to
Sun-n-Fun in my own homebuilt aircraft. Accompanying me were two
of my flying buddies, Bill Hass and Kevin Green. Each flying his own
RANS S-6 Coyote II. My plane is a RANS S-7 Courier. The three
aircraft were fairly compatible with cruise speeds ranging from 90 to 95
my trip to Sun-n-Fun in a homebuilt
April 7-13, 1995
By: Mark Ambrose
Departing from our individual home fields in various parts of
Maryland and Virginia, the plan was to rendezvous at Shannon Airport
in north eastern Virginia at noon. We would then depart as a flight of
three from there. Our route of flight would take us from northeast
Virginia through eastern North and South Carolina, squeezing between
the Savannah Class B airspace (TCA to us old guys), and the Atlantic
coast in Georgia, then around a large restricted area in Florida and
direct to Lakeland. It was just shy of 1700 miles round trip.
Friday, April 7, 1995
Weather conditions were perfect for our trip. I'd been watching
nothing but the weather channel for two weeks. I couldn't believe our
luck when I found out we were forecast to have tailwinds. I'm as
nervous as a virgin on her wedding night. I think I got maybe four hours
sleep last night. Most of my concern is related to the possibility of
mechanical problems. Although I had never had any major problems
with my plane, on a trip like this anything can happen. Using my own
personal theory that if you pack a spare part, then that part will not fail,
I had enough junk to open a warehouse for Leading Edge Airfoils. I had
the usual stuff like tool kits and extra spark plugs and muffler springs,
but I also packed a spare fuel pump, fuel filters, a length of fuel line,
duct tape, clamps, safety wire, an entire inventory of AN hardware, a
survival kit, and at the last minute, fifty feet of nylon rope in case I
needed to get out of a tree. If you could name it I probably had at least
one of it with me.
The airport was deserted when I arrived around 8:30 AM and I
was glad. I had a million thoughts racing through my head as I went
about getting the airplane ready for flight. The last thing I wanted was
the distraction of well wishers.
I had just finished packing my gear into the airplane and was
about to top off the tanks when a couple of flying buddies showed up
(obviously green with envy). They stood around and asked me stupid
questions like "So you're getting ready to leave huh?" and "Well are you
all ready to go?" No guys, I'm not all ready to go. I'm standing here
answering your stupid questions, and probably forgetting to do
something important. I didn't actually say that. I just smiled and tried to
concentrate on what I was doing.
By 10:15 AM I was ready. The warm sun was expanding the
fuel in the overfilled tanks and was already pouring out of the left vent
as I taxied to the end of the runway. I punched the identifier for
Shannon into the GPS and blasted off into clear blue skies. Shannon was
only 39 miles away and the short trip allowed me to calm down a bit and
organize my thoughts, not to mention my cockpit. I love the S-7, but
the drawback that single seaters, or tandem seat aircraft have is not
having that empty seat next to you to put charts, cameras and what-
At 11:00 AM I entered downwind at Shannon and couldn't
believe it when I heard Kevin and Bill come on the unicom frequency.
They were two miles north of the airport and were having a heated
discussion about where the airport was supposed to be. As I pulled off
the runway they were calling final and we all landed within a couple
minutes of each other. Talk about timing.
Kevin topped off his tanks since he had flown about an hour
from his home base in Hagerstown, Maryland. Bill and I didn't bother.
Bill had 26 gallons usable between his wing tanks and a 15 gallon
fuselage tank. I had installed an auxiliary 9 gallon fuel tank on the rear
seat specifically for this flight. Between it and the wing tanks I had
about 25 gallons usable which gave Bill and I a five hour range. Which I
found out later in the flight was about two hours longer than the range
of my bladder. Kevin only had his 15 gallon wing tanks, but with his
Rotax 912 4-stroke he burned a lot less fuel than Bill and I with our
582's. In fact we were going to use this trip to get a good comparison of
the three engines. A standard Rotax 912, a standard 582 with Bing
carburetors and my 582 with the Ellison throttle body injector.
The excitement was apparent in each of us. We acted like a
group of school kids on a field day while waiting for the fuel truck. By
11:45 AM the three of us were airborne, 15 minutes ahead of schedule.
Our next stop was Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 184 miles away. The air
was a little choppy from the recent passage of a cold front. But the
promised tail winds were there. We formed up in a loose formation
about 500 to 1,000 feet apart. Easy enough to keep each other in sight,
but with enough separation so that you weren't constantly jockeying the
throttle. We amused ourselves by taking pictures and video of each
other and yakked over the radio like idiots until the excitement started
to wear off a little.
The tail winds drove our ground speed up to 98-100 mph. We
landed at Chapel Hill a little before 2:00 PM and refueled. The FBO
charged us $2.37 a gallon for 100LL avgas which we thought was
outrageous. Before we left everyone drew a large red "X" through the
airport on their charts vowing never to stop there again.
Thirty-three minutes later we were airborne again and climbing
through pretty choppy air to our next fuel stop and planned destination
for the night, Walterboro, South Carolina, some 197 miles distant. For
some reason my plane didn't seem to want to climb. Some times I'd get
only 400 fpm and other times I was just holding my own. I had just
about convinced myself to turn around and go back to investigate when
Kevin came on the radio and asked if anybody else was having trouble
climbing or did he just have a problem. Bill and I both jumped on the
frequency and complained of experiencing the same problem. We all
agreed we were experiencing the effects of the choppy air. You can't
imagine how relieved you feel when you find out that some one else is
experiencing the same phenomena and it's not just you. We eventually
struggled up to 3000 feet in the light chop and picked up the tail wind.
In about an hour the chop disappeared and we were treated to
silky smooth air for the remainder of the trip. We were really making
good time. The refueling stop had taken about half the time I figured it
would. About halfway to Walterboro Bill suggested that rather than
spend the night there we press on further south if there was enough
daylight. Bill was never one to waste a second of daylight. Secretly I
think he just wanted an excuse to test his newly installed landing light.
While Kevin was off the frequency checking the weather or something,
Bill and I decided that if we could get refueled in time we'd press ahead
to Fernandina Beach, Florida. We informed Kevin of our decision when
he came back on frequency and he made it unanimous.
Fernandina Beach was another 187 miles south of Walterboro.
There was no other decent airport with hotels along our route of flight.
If we were going to leave Walterboro, we'd have to make it all the way
to Fernandina Beach before dark or risk sleeping under the planes in
sleeping bags, a prospect I was definitely not looking forward to. With
our first critical in-flight decision made it was now it was a race against
Walterboro, South Carolina was a beehive of activity. We
landed around 4:45 PM dodging parachutes and gliders. Walterboro is
the headquarters for the White Lightning Aircraft Corporation, makers
of the Lightning Bug and White Lightning. The White Lightning is
holder of several F.A.I. international world speed records. While we
were waiting for someone to operate the pumps the designer came over
to talk with us and said he was flying the Lightning Bug to Sun-n-Fun
the next day. The Lightning Bug is a small, single place, all composite
aircraft that cruises at 250 mph on a 90 hp AMW 2-stroke engine. The
entire kit, plus engine can be purchased for $19,500. The only problem
is the airplane stalls at 85 mph clean and a claimed 65 mph with flaps.
According to the designer, an engine failure in a Lightning Bug is an
immediate bail out situation. Personally I can't imagine writing off an
entire airplane because of an engine failure.
Naturally since we were in a hurry there was not a sole in sight
to run the gas pumps. We paced around the ramp nervously for several
minutes, watching the sun slide lower and lower. Finally we couldn't
stand it anymore and turned on the pumps ourselves and started fueling.
We looked like a pit crew at Indy, there were hoses and ladders and oil
bottles flying all over the place. I had just finished refueling and was at
the counter paying my bill when Kevin and Bill walked in. I told them I
was going back out to keep an eye on the planes. I was looking down
stuffing the change back into my wallet as I spun around and stepped
away from the counter towards the ramp... SPLAT! I slammed right
into a plate glass wall. There was a loud crash as I bounced off the
glass. I staggered back a few steps blinking and rubbing my forehead.
The entire lobby went quiet, except for the sound of the glass still
reverberating. I felt like a complete fool. "Damn!" I said rubbing my
nose, "it's a good thing I'm flying, 'cause I sure as hell can't walk." Nobody
laughed. Everyone knew I felt like a complete moron. I exited the FBO as
quickly as possible and crawled into my plane and sat there rubbing my nose.
When Bill and Kevin came out of the FBO they were both laughing hysterically.
As they approached the planes they straightened up and tried to hide their
snickering. We all checked in on frequency and taxied out for takeoff.
Several minutes of silence passed. Then Kevin came on the radio and
said that from now on he and Bill would make a low pass down any
field before I landed to make sure the FBO didn't have any glass doors. I
saw Bill doubled over in laughter and pounding his dash. It would've
been funny if my nose wasn't throbbing so bad.
We finally got airborne at 5:33 PM, dodging glider tows on the
way out. The sun was setting fast this time of the year. Nearing
Savanna, Georgia we hugged the coastline and flew over a seemingly
endless salt marsh with no place to land in an emergency. It was a tense
45 minutes. I had watched Bill drifting further and further right of
course so I called him to ask what was going on. He said he knew he
was right of course, but he could occasionally see solid ground under
him and he was staying right where he was for the time being. The
setting sun cast a golden glow off the water around Savannah. It was
breathtakingly beautiful. We passed over Hilton Head and Jekyll Island
with only 35 miles to go and fifteen minutes until official sunset. We
knew we had it made and everyone relaxed a bit. A few minutes later we
found ourselves flying parallel to a beautiful deserted beach about fifteen
miles north of our destination. I mentioned something about how neat it
would be to fly down the beach right on the deck. Suddenly Kevin was diving
for the beach, with Bill hot on his heels. Not to be left out I dove after
Bill. For the next 15 miles the three of us flew 20 feet off the beach at 95
mph. The radio was filled with howls of delight as we tore down the beach over
the breaking wave tops. Occasionally we'd see a small group of people so we'd
climb or swing wide to avoid them. I'd wave and they'd wave back. It was,
without a doubt, the coolest thing I'd ever done in an airplane.
We finally ran out of beach about the time the GPS said we
were five miles from the field so we popped up to pattern altitude and
entered the pattern. As I was turning base I heard Kevin remark "It sure
is crowded up here." I looked to the right and there he was tucked tight
on my right wing. I said I'd land on the left side of the runway. Kevin
said he's take the right. Bill told everybody to spread out and he would
take the middle. That's how we landed at Fernandina Beach, like a flight
of Blue Angles. It was a cool ending to the first day of flying. We taxied
in right on the edge of darkness and tied down. We had flown 8.1 hours
The FBO was about ready to close, but we talked them into
sending us a fuel truck. We refueled in the dark so we could get an early
start the next morning. I was really loving this Ellison. I was averaging
4.8 gph at 5800 rpm.
Because of a tennis tournament most of the hotels were
booked. The FBO called around and finally found us a room at a hotel
called Shoneys. A Canadian with a Cambodian wife, now living in
Hilton Head offered to drive us to the hotel and we gladly accepted.
Because of the tennis tournament the hotel really gouged us and
charged us $120 for the room. Since the only other option was a
sleeping bag on the floor of the FBO we took it. The hotel found us a
roll away bed so we were all set.
None of us had eaten since breakfast and we were all starving.
The hotel staff recommended a place called "Sliders" that was within
walking distance. We dumped our bags in the room and walked out into
the warm Florida evening. It was a far cry from Maryland which was
still trying to shake off winter.
Sliders looked like a throw back to the beatnik coffee shops of
the 50's. Dinner looked like it would cost us more than we were willing
to spend, and nobody was too keen on all the cigarette smoke and the
weak excuse for live entertainment they offered. We slid out of sliders
and walked over to a Captain D's which is kind of like a Long John
Silvers. We had a pretty good dinner for just a couple of bucks and
walked back to the hotel feeling like a million dollars. We left a wake up
call at the front desk for 5:30 AM and jabbered like school kids until
well after midnight.
Saturday, April 8, 1995
The next morning came too early for me. We took a rip off $12
taxi ride to the airport and spent half an hour wiping dew off the
airplanes. There was a beautiful paper thin fog layer about 100 feet over
the airport. To our disappointment it dissipated just as we took off.
The next stop was Lakeland airport and the Sun-n-Fun fly-in,
189 miles away. There wasn't the usual chatter between us this morning.
We climbed in silence to our cruising altitude of 3,500 feet. We were
paralleling the coastline for a few miles and I think everyone was just
soaking up the beauty of the early morning flying. Our course eventually
took us away from the coast and over the open countryside of northern
I had talked my wife into a Garmin 95XL for Christmas, and so
far it had functioned flawlessly. Before I left I had programmed in the
entire route of flight. Now all I had to do was turn it on and it
automatically sequenced itself for the next leg. I never had to touch
anything but the on button. A GPS does for navigation chores what an
autopilot does for flying. Don't leave home without it.
About an hour later, while flying over Lake George, Kevin
started a climb to 8,000 feet to get some video on top of a cloud deck.
Bill and I stayed at 3,000. While over the cloud deck Kevin's Loran
suddenly and without warning, quit. He had lost sight of us during the
climb and was now, for all intents and purposes, dead lost. Our first
indication that something was amiss came when we heard Kevin over
"Uhhh, say guys, are you anywhere near the end of this big lake?"
"We're on the west edge of it Kevin, about half way across."
"Where are you?"
"Well I'm not exactly sure."
Kevin finally fessed up and told us that his $2,500 panel mount
Loran wasn't working. Bill and I spent 20 minutes describing landmarks
and circling the southwest corner of the lake until Kevin finally spotted
Nearing Lakeland we all decided that we couldn't get this close
to Disney World without getting pictures and video of it. We altered
course a little to the east and to my utter amazement actually found the
place. We circled Disney World once snapping pictures and Kevin took
some video of it. Having dragged my daughter through the place on
more than one occasion I can tell you It sure looks a lot bigger when
you're walking through it with a tired six year old on your back.
The Disney mission completed, Bill and I punched direct
Lakeland into our nine hundred dollar GPS's for the final few miles to
the Mecca of sport aviation. Meanwhile Kevin was still punching and
slapping his two thousand dollar, panel mounted Loran trying to get it
Both the official air to air frequency, 122.75 and the unofficial
one, 123.45 was absolutely filled with the chatter as pilots formed up on
each other and jockeyed for landing position. It was kind of weird
because you could hear all these guys reporting their position all around
you but you couldn't see them. The big sky theory in action. The traffic
didn't really bother us because we weren't going into the general
aviation side anyway. Being able to mix it up with the low and slows we
were going to slip into the ultralight side of the airport. As we got to
within five miles of the field we dropped down to five hundred feet per
the ultralight arrival procedures and came up from the south. Since Bill
had been here before he was our new leader. We slipped into the
ultralight pattern and except for dodging a little light rain landed at
11:00 AM without a problem.
The dream was now complete. I had made it.
We all had grins from ear to ear as we tied down the planes.
We slapped each other on the back and made phone calls home to our
wives on Kevin's mobile phone. I was in a daze. I didn't believe I had
actually done it.
Sun-n-Fun didn't officially start until tomorrow so the
exhibitors were still setting up. We went over to the RANS booth and
said hi to Randy Schlitter and the rest of the RANS gang. Randy and
John Schlitter were happy to see that we had made the trip and spent
quite a while talking to us. Kevin mentioned the problem he had with his
Loran during the trip. Randy happened to have the same kind of Loran
mounted in his S-6 so he agreed to have a look. It appeared that Kevin
had his Loran set up to receive the GRI's in Canada or the Great Lakes
or some place half way around the world. Once he set it to the proper
station it worked fine. $2,500 for a loran and you have to tell it where to
look for nav signals. Boy was I spoiled by GPS.
I drooled all over the new S-7 with the super slick Superflite
paint job while Kevin and Bill crawled all over the S-6. All you could
hear from everyone was..."Wow look at this!" and "I'm going to do this
We ran into the Capital Area Light Flyers crowd. They had a
nice place set up with an awning, some chairs and several coolers of
drinks. They invited us to take a load off and we had to tell everyone
about the beach run the day before. We looked at all the new stuff and
visited until around 4:00 PM. We were starting to get some intermittent
light rain showers and some towering CU were building towards the
direction of Winter Haven airport where our hotel was. We decided we
had better get while the getting was good.
We got to Winter Haven in about 25 minutes and had to fight
our way into the pattern. The place was an absolute madhouse as pilots
were arriving in a steady stream. The only parking spaces available were
way in the back in the grass. We finally tied down at 5:00 PM and
ordered a fuel truck. Everyone was hot and tired. I wanted a cold beer
so bad I couldn't stand it.
It was already dark by the time we got to the hotel. We had a
mediocre pizza and cold beer in the hotel restaurant because everyone
was too tired to go anywhere else. We all wanted to watch the video of
the beach run that Kevin had taken and decided to ask at the front desk
if they rented VCR's. Kevin had been complaining for the last three
hundred miles of the trip about how bad his hemorrhoids were acting up
and wanted to know where he could buy some Vaseline to help ease the
friction. The exchange went something like this:
Me: "Excuse me ma'am do you rent VCR's?
Lady at the desk: "Why yes we do."
Kevin: "And do know where I can get some Vaseline"?
The lady at the front desk took a step back and eyed us
suspiciously. Bill was the first to figure out how we must've sounded
and reached over and smacked Kevin over the head. We tried to assured
her that we were not funny boys. She rented us the VCR and pointed
out a drug store across the street. To this day she probably tells all her
friends about the night the three weirdo's stayed in her hotel.
We had to watch the video of the beach run about three
hundred times, but finally fatigue caught up with us. We left a wake up
call with the front desk for 5:00 AM. Outside a steady rain was falling
and there were occasional flashes of lightning. By 9:30 we were doing a
pretty decent imitation of three dead people.
Sunday, April 9, 1995
The next morning we were up at 5:00 AM. The plan was to fly
into Lakeland to see the hot air balloon launch which was planned for
opening day. We walked in total darkness about three blocks to a
Denny's for breakfast. Once we had finished and went back outside we
saw the bad news. We were completely socked in by fog. I mean it was
a heavy fog. Just walking through the air little beads of water collected
on the hairs of your legs and arms and your shirt and pants would be
soaked. Fish could live for days in this stuff. It reminded me of the two
years I spent in southeast Asia. We took a taxi to the airport anyhow
and arrived to find the FBO closed. We sat around until 8:30 wishing
the fog away. The forecast was for the fog to lift by 9-10:00 AM, but
there was a chance it would linger until noon. Do we stick around the
airport and hope it lifts so we can fly the planes in, or do we find a ride
to Lakeland and leave the planes here? We struck up a conversation
with a guy who called himself Sonny. Sonny was driving to Lakeland and offered
to drive us there and back. We hemmed and hawed a bit then finally decided to
accept his offer.
We weren't at the airshow for 30 minutes when in the blink of
an eye the fog was gone and we had beautiful blue sky. I'd never seen
anything like it. Kevin started jumping up and down like a maniac and
yelling "We gotta go get our planes! We gotta go get our planes!
Jeepers we flew 800 miles and now they're sitting just 15 miles away!"
Kevin came from a very religious family and he never cussed.
Whenever he got excited he would say things like "jeepers" or "golly" or
"gosh-darn-it". Listening to him talk was like watching Leave it to
Beaver re-runs. He reminded me of Wally Cleaver. The whole trip I
kept wishing he would use some kind of manly swear word just once.
But he never did.
Since Kevin seemed on the verge of having a heart attack
Sonny graciously offered to drive us back to Winter Haven to pick up
the planes. We in turn offered to fly him to and from the airshow in one
of our planes. As it turned out it was his first ride in a homebuilt light
plane. Considering Sonny had just met us I thought it was quite an act
of faith. Kevin ended up flying him to Lakeland and back to Winter
Haven that day.
We arrived at Sun-n-Fun right in the middle of the
manufactures showcase. This is where the company pilots fly the
airplanes around the pattern while the manufacturer gets up on the
announcers stand and lies about his performance specs. When we
arrived the amphibians were tearing the place up. I got cut out of the
pattern three times before I slipped into a hole and landed. Once on the
ground John Schlitter came running up and said that he had three
parking spaces in front of the RANS booth. That meant we were tying
our planes inside the fence where all the non-pilots could crawl all over
it. I was not comfortable about that at all. All day long I had people
setting up chairs, coolers and umbrellas all around my airplane. It made
me a nervous wreck.
We wandered around aimlessly looking at all the neat stuff and
Kevin bought a handheld ICOM A-22. I ran into a friend of mine, Tom
Bayne over at the warbird side of the field. Tom had painted my S-7 for
me and had flown down in his PT-26 Cornell. And true to form he was
decked out head to toe in a period, WWII, long sleeve khaki uniform. I
was just about ready to melt in shorts and a T-shirt. I don't know how
Tom does it.
We all got back to the ultralight side of the field around a
quarter to seven. The airshow was over and the green flag was up
signaling it was OK for general flying. We wanted to leave and get back
to Winter Haven, but had to wait in a line of 15-20 ultralights for our
turn to take off. The ground controllers would clear one guy for takeoff
and then five or six would land and taxi to the end of the line. Then one
or two more would be cleared for takeoff and five or six more would
land. I sat there sweltering in 85 degree heat for so long my engine
started to load up from oil fouling. They finally released Bill, and Kevin
then put me into position and hold while they tried to get a powered
backpack parachute airborne. This poor guy was trying to take off with
another person strapped to his chest. Strapped together like that they
looked like some kind of grotesque Siamese twins. They were hopping
all over the field with some little 2-stroke screaming its guts out on their
back. It was really too windy for powered parachutes but they were very
determined. They'd hop a few steps and the parachute would collapse and fall
all over them, then it would inflate in the wind and drag the poor guys down
the runway kicking and screaming. Finally the ground crew would tackled them
and drag the whole mess off the runway to try again. Sure made me want to go
out and buy one.
When the runway was finally clear they released me then the
fun began. The ultralight pattern is only 400 feet. This is because the
general aviation pattern starts at 500 feet and there is fast glass
screaming across the field at over 200 mph. As soon as I broke ground I
had to rack it around to the right to avoid the Pepsi plant (per the
briefing I had). I needed a hundred feet or so to clear the trees, but had
to stay below 300 feet because of the ultralights and powered
parachutes tearing around the pattern at 400 feet doing laps. The
departure procedures called for flying south below 500 feet for five
miles before turning on course. Any further south than five miles and
you found yourself right in the middle of the South Lakeland Airport
traffic pattern. There were so many radio towers it was like a scene
from Star Wars where they flew those motorcycle things through the
forest. With procedures like these your odds of survival were roughly
the equivalent of a B-17 waist gunner on the first daylight bombing raid over
Germany. We finally cleared the area and made a bee line for Winter Haven. We
once again fought our way into the very crowded pattern and landed then weaved
our way through the packed parking area to the tiedown spot and shut down. I
just sat there for a second listening to the ticking sound of my hot engine
cooling down. I figured this is how it must have felt after returning from a
raid over Baghdad during Desert Storm.
We ate dinner at Denny's because the first place we walked to
was closed, it being Sunday evening. We crashed around midnight after
a very tiring day.
Monday, April 10, 1995
On a trip like this the subject of weather is always the main
topic of conversation. We'd been discussing the weather for the return
trip since the moment we landed. The plan was to hit the air show today
then leave right after the field opened around 5:30 - 6:00 PM. We'd get
as far north as we could before dark and hopefully finish the trip on
Tuesday before a wicked cold front was forecast to hit us. Kevin's
parents and cousins and aunts and uncles and I guess everyone else in
his clan were driving down to Lakeland just to see him. These were the
same family members who saw him off in Hagerstown just a few days
ago. Boy talk about a tight family. The only thing I got from my wife
was..."Don't kill yourself, the yard needs mowed."
There was no fog this morning so we didn't even eat breakfast,
just grabbed a coffee and a stale donut from the front desk as we ran for
the taxi to the airport. We untied, dried about thirty pounds of water off
the airplanes and made a bee line for Lakeland. We were hoping to
arrive before the morning flying began. Fat chance. The ultralighters,
powered parachutes and glider tows were going hot and heavy. Sheeze,
these guys must sleep in their airplanes. Bill had a hard time finding a
slot. He got cut off at least twice by someone in a Kolb. I was lucky and
slipped right into the pattern and made the best landing I had ever made
in my life. It was one of those landings where you can't feel your tires
touch and usually occur when there is no one looking. Only this time
there was a capacity crowd. I slowly got out of the airplane, adjusted
my Ray Ban's and swaggered around a bit and acted like I made
landings like that all the time. Kevin landed right after me and Bill finally
made it in a few minutes later.
Kevin's family arrived around noon so he was happy he would
get to see them before he left. While Kevin and Bill played host I went
into the Flight Service for a weather briefing. The place looked like the
betting windows at a horse track. Two or three briefers were talking
non-stop while the pilots were lined up in four columns, five or six deep.
My turn finally came and my briefer assured me that the only weather I
would encounter tomorrow was 30-50 scattered all the way north. The
east coast, she said, is where you want to be tomorrow.
Since we wanted to get going right after the air show I
coordinated with air operations to move the planes to the end of the
runway. I didn't want to sit behind thirty or forty ultralights who were
just going to fly laps. I asked them if they could get us out first and they
assured us they would. They told us we could leave as soon as the air
show terminated at 5:45 PM.
At 5:30 the airshow ended a little ahead of schedule and we
were several hundred yards from our planes. We saw the green flag go
up and suddenly everybody was running for their airplanes like madmen.
You'd have thought we were under attack and were scrambling after
Migs or something. We ran like hell for the planes, yanked out the
tiedowns and threw them in the planes dirt and all. We fired up and all
checked in on frequency. The Tactical Air Command could've taken
lessons from us that day. One Kolb got out ahead of us. The same old
guy who lived in his plane. Once he was gone we were released. We
dodged radio towers at 400 feet for five miles as the P-51's and
Glassair's burned up the sky overhead. Everyone was busy setting up
their cockpit, folding maps and programming their GPS's and Lorans.
Once clear of the area we began a slow climb to 2,000 feet. We couldn't
go any higher for the moment because of an overcast deck. We were 20
miles north before anybody relaxed.
For some reason my plane didn't seem to be performing quite
as well as it had been. I attributed that to the 85 degree heat and the
possibility of plug fouling because of all the leaded avgas I had put
through it. I cranked up the RPM's a little to keep up with everyone else
and figured I'd change plugs at Fernandina Beach.
We made it into Fernandina Beach right on the edge of
darkness. I rolled onto base leg and reached down for my first notch of
flaps and found to my surprise that they were already deployed! In all
the rush and confusion I apparently didn't get the flap handle all the way
down after takeoff and had flown the entire leg with one notch of flaps
deployed. That explained the speed loss. I mentally kicked myself for
We refueled by flashlight and shared a taxi with two pilots that
had just landed in a Gulfstream III. While we were laughing and cutting
up these two just sat there like mannequins. Our attempts to engage
them in conversation failed miserably. I guess the jet jockeys thought
they were too good to talk to homebuilders. The G-3 jocks were
dropped off at the rip-off hotel. Money being a little tight we told the
taxi driver to take us to another, less expensive place for the night. We
drove another couple of blocks to the obviously low rent district. When
the taxi driver stopped Kevin told him to hang around because he
wanted to check the place out before we decided. When the manager
opened the door to one of the rooms, two cockroaches the size of small
dogs came running out. Kevin looked at us with eyes the size of saucers.
Without saying a word we grabbed our bags, hopped a stone fence and
hoofed it back to the rip-off hotel.
Since the tennis tournament was over the price was only $72.
Kevin complained about getting gouged the other day so the lady didn't
charge us for the roll away. Kevin was unbelievable that way. He was so
polite he could gripe and complain in such a way that he could get
anything he wanted.
We had dinner at the hotel restaurant and ran into the 26 year
old co-pilot of the G-3 we had shared a taxi with. He was waiting for his
captain to come down for dinner. When the captain didn't show we
convinced the kid to join us at our table. We told him we all thought his
captain was a real stuffed shirt, although that's not the word we used.
The co-pilot told us he thought so too. He turned out to be a pretty nice
kid. Just a little intimidated by his captain. We all took great pleasure in
trashing the captain in his absence.
Tuesday, April 11, 1995
We staggered awake at 5:30 feeling the effect of not enough
sleep and the stress of constant flying. We had a quick breakfast and
took a taxi to the airport. We couldn't believe our luck when we found
out we were forecast to have tailwinds! We took off into a stiff breeze
and headed for the beach for one more run. We made our last beach run
this time with Bill doing the filming. It was great. We were flying so low
I actually had to climb to clear a volleyball net. When the beach ran out
we climbed up to 3,000 feet and picked up the promised tailwinds. Our
groundspeed was between 100-103 mph and it was perfectly smooth. I
must've checked my flaps five or six times the first half-hour alone just
to make sure they were fully up.
After skirting the Savanna TCA we set course for our first
refueling stop, Santee Cooper Regional (MNI), which was about 55
miles northeast of Walterboro, where we had refueled coming down.
Passing abeam Beaufort we started picking up a low scattered cumulus
deck. The clouds looked pretty in the morning sun so we jockeyed
around and took pictures of each other. Soon the scattered layer turned
broken and further ahead it appeared to be a very ugly, dark overcast. I
didn't like what I was seeing, and it sure as wasn't forecast so I voiced
my concerns to the others. Kevin said he thought the overcast ended a
little further ahead and thought we should stay on top. Kevin had a turn
and bank in his airplane. Neither Bill nor I did. If we got caught on top
it would be bad news. We flew on for several more minutes, watching
the clouds ahead. The edge of the overcast was now only about five
miles ahead of us. Decision time. I called Walterboro unicom and asked
what their sky conditions looked like. The lady said that they had a solid
overcast but she could see two miles. Walterboro was about 15 miles north of
our position. I got back on 122.75 and told the others that the overcast
appeared continuous and we should land and asses the situation before going
further. Kevin still thought that we should stay on top. Bill hadn't said
anything so far. By now the edge of the overcast layer was behind us and it
was solid as far north as I could see. We were right over a large hole with
thick clouds closing it up rapidly. I announced I was going under. The others
could do what they wanted. Bill announced that he was following me. Kevin
stayed on top. Bill and I circled down through the hole trying to keep each
other in sight. On our way down we could see a radio tower sticking up through
the overcast so I knew the bases would be low. We didn't get under the
overcast until 400 feet. Visibility was a good three miles so I announced
to Bill that I was going direct to Walterboro. Bill said he would watch
for towers on the right and I said I would watch on the left. The GPS showed
the airport 13 miles ahead. About this time Kevin decided he was coming down
through the overcast. He was in the soup passing 700 feet and wanted to know
where the base was. We told him to climb back up, fly south where it
was clear and come in underneath because of the radio towers. Just
about then Kevin announced he had broken out at 500 feet and was
following us to Walterboro. The GPS had already paid for itself as far as
I was concerned. I stayed glued on course and was boring holes through
the sky with my eyeballs looking for radio towers. The GPS took me
right over the airport and we all landed without incident. At that
moment if someone had asked me to choose between my manhood and
my GPS I'd be squatting to take a leak right now.
I checked the weather on a DUATS terminal and it was five
hundred overcast a mile and a half with light drizzle and fog pretty much
all along our intended route of flight. If we had stayed on top of the
overcast and pressed on north we'd have eventually reached the point of
no return where we wouldn't have had the fuel to fly to an airport where
we could get down safely. That thought had a chilling effect.
We sat around for awhile and waited for the next hourly
surface observation. It was the same. Bill was very agitated. He and
Kevin had to get back to work. They discussed the possibility of taking
a bus or renting a car. Then they pulled out the maps and started
plotting a course back by hopping from airport to airport. The problem
was unless we could get out today, we'd be stuck until Thursday
because we'd get caught up in that cold front heading our way. The
terminal forecasts said there was no way we were getting any further
north today. Outside there was a steady stream of aircraft sneaking in
under the overcast. Soon the lobby was filled with pilots all complaining
about the unforecast ceilings and visibility. I had already decided I was
staying put and could see where this was heading so I quickly grabbed
the phone and made hotel reservations before all the rooms were
I tried my best to talk Bill and Kevin out of flying home. I read
them the latest hourly surface observations and the terminal forecasts.
The look on Bill's face told me the discussion was over. He was leaving.
Once it was obvious to me that he was going no matter what, I switched
to pulling up surface obs and terminal forecasts trying to find a route
home around the weather. Someone noticed that I was operating a
DUATS terminal and before I knew it I was giving weather briefings.
When I finally got off the terminal Bill and Kevin had completed their
flight planning. They would hop from one airport to another. If the
weather looked crappy ahead they'd turn around and land at the closest
airport. I wished them good luck and told them that I had no desire to
scud run for 400+ miles at 500 feet dodging radio towers. They said
they understood. By noon Bill and Kevin were airborne. It was a
crummy feeling breaking up the trio, but everyone had to make their
own decision. Before I even left for this trip I had planned for at least a
two day weather delay by packing extra socks, underwear and money. Also I was
on leave from work until the end of the week so the weather delay was no big
deal to me.
I hung around the airport until 4:00 PM to see if I could get my
plane into an empty hangar before the storm hit. When it was apparent
there were none available I put double ropes on all the tie downs. I tied
the plane so tight the wings had about a 10 degree droop. If the storm
blew through here it might rip the fuselage loose, but the wings were
still going to be here in the morning.
All of the other pilots had gone to the hotel. The FBO operator
offered to drive me there and I graciously accepted. Courtesy such as
this was common throughout the trip. Jean dropped me off at a place
called the Thunderbird Hotel (no kidding). The Thunderbird hotel was
owned and operated by one Russ Kehl. Russ was an American. I say
this because he really advertised the fact. He had a big sign out front
that proudly proclaimed this establishment to be American owned. His
shirt was even a print of the American flag.
Russ was a very nice guy. A little weird perhaps. Probably still
carrying a little shrapnel in his brain from 'Nam. But his rooms were
really very nice, clean and cheap. I only paid $19.95 a night. There were
20 other pilots there by the time I checked in.
I figured I'd be in Walterboro for at least tonight and tomorrow
so I grabbed a six pack of beer from the local convenience store next
door, took a long soak in a hot tub of water and watched HBO the rest
of the night.
Later that evening I got a call from Bill Hass. He and Kevin
had actually gotten through the weather and made it home. Bill said the
weather was really terrible and the only way they made it around
Raleigh-Durham was to follow interstate 95 at about 400 feet. He said I
made the right decision to stay put. It was nice of him to say so, but I
didn't need to hear it to feel good about my decision to stay. Still, one
part of me felt a twinge of envy for not trying it. I couldn't believe those
two nuts had actually made it.
Wednesday, April 12, 1995
I didn't wake up until 8:00 AM. I really needed the sleep. I
bummed a ride to the airport with a couple of other pilots who had
rented a car. Mike was flying a Stinson home with his uncle, Frank.
Mike had just finished building a Challenger ultralight for Frank and
Frank was going to trailer it back home to Florida.
We left the hotel in a rental car for the five mile drive to the
airport and within three blocks were totally lost. Here were three pilots
who had just navigated 1,200 miles up and down the east coast and
were now totally lost in a town you could almost spit across. We
eventually found our way to the airport and spent the day being
shepherded around by a colorful old guy named Lloyd. Lloyd was one
of the airport fixtures. He was 76 years old and flew Wildcats and
Hellcats in the Pacific during WWII. He claimed to have seven kills to
his credit, although he said he got most of them in one day. Lloyd was
quite a character. He had millions of stories and no one to tell them to.
We were his captive audience and he was having a ball. It turned out
that Walterboro was an old military training base and covered over
8,000 acres. Lloyd made absolutely sure he showed us every square inch
of it too.
Later that afternoon I talked to a guy who had built a 5151
mustang and had it parked in one of the hangars. He had spent several
years building it and had equipped it with retracts. He powered it with a
tired looking Rotax 503 with a single carb, giving it only 47 hp. To get
the CG correct he had bolted a 126 pound block of lead to the nose!!!
The lead ballast weighed more than the whole engine. I asked him why
he didn't just install a larger, heavier engine? He said he had plenty of
performance with the 503 and could get almost 400 feet per minute
climb on a cool day. This poor fellow must have been used to flying
store bought airplanes because in the kitplane world anything much less
than 1000 fpm is considered pretty poor. Talking to one of the airport
locals later in the day, he said that whenever this guy flew everybody
just closed their eyes and crossed their fingers until he was back on the
ground. He said he had already had one engine failure. No doubt
because the poor little Rotax was working its guts out trying to haul this
overweight pile of sticks off the ground. The funny part of it was this guy
was driving around in a Mercedes 300. He wasn't short of money, just brains.
By 6:00 PM that afternoon I was getting pretty upset because
the lousy weather that was predicted never materialized. There were
low ceilings and high winds, but nothing like what had been forecast
(what else is new?). I would've felt a whole lot better about sitting on
the ground if the weather had been miserable. The weather was pretty
miserable at home and along my route of flight whenever I checked, but
at Walterboro there were just a few broken clouds. I didn't care if I only
went 10 miles tomorrow, I was leaving.
Thursday, April 13, 1995
I was anxious to get back into the air again. Mike and Frank
and I got to the airport at 7:45 AM and found it locked. It had rained
that night and I must've sponged another twenty pounds of water off the
airplane. Lloyd finally shuffled up around 8:00 AM and unlocked the
FBO. He was wearing the same clothes I saw him in the day before.
Come to think of it he was wearing the same clothes when we had
refueled there 6 days ago.
I got a weather briefing off the DUATS terminal and was
airborne by 8:15 AM. The first thing I noticed when leveling at 2,000
feet was not only was it smooth, but I actually had tailwinds again! I
was getting a 12 mph push for a ground speed of 103 mph. Nobody gets
tailwinds coming AND going. Headwinds yes, but tailwinds? Somebody
up there liked me.
After the first 140 miles the air started getting a little choppy,
probably because I was getting close to the front. Nearing Raleigh-
Durham the outside air temperature dropped 20 degrees and my ground
speed fell from 103 to 85 mph. Yep...I found the front all right.
I must not have gotten rid of all the coffee before I left because
I really had to go bad. The problem was my planned refueling stop
wasn't for another 50 miles. I didn't think I could last 50 more miles so
after a little quick flight planning I decided to put into Southern Pines. I
could fuel up there and easily make the 250 mile final leg to my home
field. I took on 10 gallons of gas and drained about 40 gallons of coffee
from my bladder and was airborne again in less than 20 minutes.
My new route of flight took me through the Raleigh-Durham
TCA. I didn't want to fly around it and was not equipped to fly through
it so I climbed to 4,500 to clear it. I picked up my tailwind again, but it
was bitterly cold at that altitude. Just a reminder that winter still had its
grip on the northeast. I watched in horror as my coolant temperature
dropped from 160 to 140oF in less than five minutes. 140oF was the
lower limit and it was still falling. I reached over to close the door to the
radiator and the handle came off in my hand. I just sat there staring at
this stupid chrome handle, shivering and watching the coolant
temperature. If it got below 135oF, TCA or no TCA I was going down
into warmer air. Fortunately the temperature stayed just a hair below
140o. Once clear of the TCA I dove to a lower altitude and it went back
up into the normal range, but it never did get above 145o.
Even at the lower altitude I was still freezing. I couldn't reach
my coat because it was packed in the rear baggage compartment. It had
been 70 degrees when I left Walterboro that morning. To make matters
worse I must not have drained all the coffee at Southern Pines because I
really had to go again. I didn't want to make another unscheduled stop
and loose my tailwind. Suddenly I remembered I had packed a plastic
urinal just for such emergencies. I really felt like the clever one for
bringing this thing along. That feeling didn't last very long when I
realized that it wouldn't fit between...well... me and the joystick. I
figured I might be able to make it work with a little wiggling around.
But the air was still choppy and I could just see myself struggling to use
this bottle, hit some turbulence and drop the thing and pee all over my
dash and probably short out my GPS or something. The mental image
wasn't pretty. I would land.
There was an airport 15 miles away directly along my route of
flight so I headed for that. Now that I was dwelling on the subject the
bladder really started filling up fast. I got over the airport just in the nick
of time. When I looked for the windsock to determine the active runway
I almost died. It looked like it was starched stiff and pointing 90 degrees
to the runway. Jeeze, the last thing I needed was to ground loop 135
miles from home. I checked the chart and there was another airport 15
miles further north with a runway aligned more into the wind. I could
hold it for fifteen more miles. Right?
This was, absolutely and without a doubt, the longest fifteen
miles I had ever flown in my entire life. I kept watching the ETA on the
GPS count down the seconds until my arrival. I was really hurting. Half
way to the field I seriously considered just peeing in my pants. I called
entering downwind through clenched teeth, beads of cold sweat
breaking out on my forehead. I hit the runway like an F-18 hits a carrier
and took the first turnoff on one wheel. Once I cleared the runway I
spun the tail around, threw open the door, rolled out of the airplane and
hobbled over to the bushes in a low crouch. I thought I might have
actually lost consciousness for 30 or 40 seconds it felt so good.
That little emergency over I taxied up to the FBO. Since my
wing tanks were still full I didn't buy any gas. But I did spend a few
minutes talking to an older gentlemen named Dan, just to make sure my
bladder wasn't playing tricks on me. Dan had heard me call on unicom
and had driven from his home to unlock the FBO. Dan was very
interested in my plane and took me completely by surprise when he
asked if I wanted to sell it. I thought he was kidding so I brushed it
aside with a laugh, but he was serious. Since I had no desire to walk the
last 120 miles home I declined his offer. As I was getting ready to leave
Dan reminded me that if I ever wanted to sell to call him first. That's
what makes flying so much fun. Weird stuff like this happens to you
almost everywhere you go. I remembered to put on my coat and gloves
before I took off.
The turbulence had calmed down a bit the further away from
the front I got and I still had my tailwind. I rounded the northwest side
of the Richmond TCA and just happened to glance down at the right
time and could see the theme park, Kings Dominion. I could tell by the
replica Eiffel Tower. I snapped a quick picture as I flew over. Even
though it was a little cool the roller coasters were running.
Coming up on the Potomac River my route of flight would
have taken me directly through the 3 mile wide strip of restricted area at
Dalgrens Navel Surface Weapons Center. R6611-A went from the
surface to God and God only knew what kind of weird stuff they were
shooting down there. Pax River approach control said the restricted area
was hot. I thought briefly about just blasting right on through since at
my ground speed I'd only be in there for about 90 seconds. But I had
already given my call sign and it would be my luck the navy had some
kind of top secret camera that could photograph my "N" numbers or
something. So for the umpteenth time during this trip the GPS really
paid off. I simply called up the moving map and traced the outline of the
restricted airspace with my ground track. Minimum hassle and wasted
time. Man I really loved this little plastic box of Japanese electronics.
Too bad we invented the thing and maintained the satellites, but couldn't
make 'em cheap enough to sell.
My warm sun had disappeared behind a dirty looking stratus
deck that looked worse than it actually was. I picked up the landmarks
at my home field about 20 miles out and felt a twinge of disappointment
that the trip was over. I landed six days and 22.2 flight hours after
departing earlier on Friday.
We only encountered two mechanical problems during the
entire trip. Once Kevin's in-flight adjustable IVO prop got stuck in flat
pitch when a wire jiggled loose. He stuck it back on and crimped it and
had no further problem. And I lost a screw from an access door on top
of my cowling. After all the preparation I had gone to and all the aircraft
nuts and bolts and spare parts I brought along, I lost a screw that I got
from a lousy screen door. As far as I was concerned this completely
validated my theory that if you bring along a spare part, then that part
will not fail. The only part I didn't have a spare to was the screen door
screw, therefore that part fell off the airplane. You can't convince me
that this theory isn't true.
For the entire trip I averaged 4.8 gph fuel burn at 5800 rpm at
1100o-F EGT. Bill averaged a little over 5 gph at 5600 rpm at 1050o-F
EGT. I was running my 582 two hundred more RPM than Bill, but still
got a better fuel burn due to the Ellison. Kevin figured he had burned
around 4 gph average in his 912 running at 5200 rpm.
If any homebuilder is considering flying his own creation to
one of the EAA's premiere events, I whole heartedly recommend that
you avail yourself of this experience at the earliest opportunity. Even if
you repeat the trip many times, your first trip, like your first true love,
will burn a memory in your brain that will last a lifetime.
The author is a Commercial pilot with Instrument and CFII ratings. He
has worked as a flight instructor, part 135 air charter pilot and Air
Traffic Controller in Tower, Center, Approach Control and Flight
Service positions. He holds a bachelors degree in Professional
Aeronautics from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He owns and
fly's a RANS S-7 he built from a kit in 1992. He currently resides in
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