Ultralight Trip 5-24-2003 - 5-27-2003
Minnesota to Houston
[Note: This is a VERY long story about ferrying an ultralight from Minnesota to Houston
over a 3 ½ day period. My primary task was to safely get the plane to Houston, but I did take a few pictures
along the way. In retrospect, I wished I had taken more, but I think there's enough to keep you interested. I hope
you'll make a comment in the guestbook after you've finished reading it.]
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Rick, a friend of mine who is also a fellow cave-diver, recently got excited about ultralight flying, took lessons* from my instructor (John Wall), and was anxiously looking forward to his solo. But, like virtually everyone who takes lessons, he wondered what he'd do after he soloed. Having his own ultralight to fly is really the only long-term solution since it's rare to find anyone renting ultralights.
So, he embarked upon an abbreviated search for an ultralight to purchase... abbreviated mostly because he was only a few weeks away from soloing. At first, he seemed interested in the same plane that he trained in, the Challenger. This is a pretty natural interest, but he complained about how little room it had. He liked my plane, liked the idea of being able to land on water, but knew he didn't want to spend the money for an Aventura. To make a long story a bit shorter, he eventually decided on the Buccaneer, which is a hull-type amphibian, and was the precursor to the Aventura, both designed by Arnet Pereyra. The one he found was a single-seater and it was in his price range. The pictures seemed to indicate that it was in excellent condition, so the deal was done. The only real problem was: it was in Minnesota.
I had been fairly intimately involved in his process of finding a plane, so I suggested that I ferry the plane. His other option was to fly up there, rent a truck, take the wings off and truck it down to Houston. While cost was a factor, it seemed that ferrying it would not only be less expensive, but less complicated than the partical disassembly of the plane. He agreed, so it was all set.
I did some careful planning based on what little information I could squeeze out of the forecasts for the target weekend (Memorial Day weekend). But, as we all know, the weather is often fickle. At the last minute, I changed my flight plan to take me on a route that was considerably to the east of my original plan (straight north-to-south). About 60% of that decision was that I wanted to avoid flying over the tallest part of the Ozarks; the other 40% was because it looked likely that the north-south route would be covered by inclement weather for that weekend. My last minute decision turned out to be a fairly good one.
Also at the last minute, Rick decided to join me in my commercial flight up to Minnesota. That way, he could get a personal look at the plane and make that final decision about buying it.
Late Friday afternoon, we boarded a plane to Atlanta, and from there went on to Minneapolis. The lights of Minneapolis/St. Paul were stunning as the 737 approached the airport, a constellation swiftly passing under the plane. A rental car and one hour later, we were in Litchfield, Minnesota, bunking down for the night.
I wanted to get an early start, of course, but I needed *some* sleep. We arrived at 5:45am, about an hour after sunrise (an hour of the best ultralight flying there is!). The plane was already out of the hangar, its owner proudly fussing over it. We pulled up, got out and started inspecting the plane.
Despite a slew of obvious differences from my Aventura, the Buccaneer was remarkably similar in "look." The boat hull shape was very similar, if a bit narrower. The side profile was again quite similar, but used fabric for the turtle deck area, whereas my Aventura is all fiberglass. Sitting atop the plane was a water-cooled, 2-cycle Rotax 582 and 3-blade prop, and it looked to be in very good shape.
I spent about 30 minutes going over every nut and bolt, checking every seam, every connection, all the cables, the engine, and the hull. The owner then jumped in and quickly taxied out and took off. He was obviously enjoying the calm morning air, and made several passes down the runway before making his final landing in the Buccaneer. It was obviously very airworthy!
We spent another 30 minutes discussing flight characteristics, controls, engine details, and critical speeds. While talking, I quickly wired in my radio and push-to-talk switch, and my GPS. Both were plugged into the plane's power and I used a handful of tie-wraps to neatly keep the wires out of my way. I found a place for my tent, my backpack, my sectionals, and a few bottles of water and candy bars, and I was ready.
A quick picture of Rick (on the right) and the now previous owner, and I was ready for departure. Rick and I shook hands, and I said I'd see him in Houston. I paused so Rick could take a quick photo, then I battened down the doors and taxied off.
The single seat was actually fairly comfortable, with much more room than I had anticipated. Two aluminum tubes ran up each side of the seat and made for a very comfortable arm rest, for both arms. Taxiing the plane was easy because it was much lighter than my Aventura, and the tailwheel was smaller and has less resistance to turns. Also, this little jewel of a plane had differential braking, i.e., two brake levers, one for each wheel. That made turning the plane very easy, especially in tight spots. I just _had_ to have differential brakes on my plane!
My first takeoff was quite easy, and very similar to my plane. I simply kept the stick back until lift-off, then eased it forward to let the plane gain momentum, then slowly back again to gain some altitude. I eased the plane up and kept the RPMs down below 6000. All the gauges looked good, and the temps were nominal.
I was, of course, a little nervous, as one should be the first time you fly a different aircraft. But it did fly rather nicely so I took a moment to look around. My first (intentional) hard turn to the left gave me this quick view of the airport I had just left. The countryside was a beautiful green and brown, with numerous lakes as far as the eye could see. Having been in Minnesota once before, I knew it's state motto of "The Land of 10,000 Lakes" was very apropos, but the view from 1000 feet AGL just reinforced that previous experience.
All sorts of things were going through my head: all the new controls, the new feel of the aircraft, the attitude as it flew, the question about what RPMs is best for cruising, was the airspeed indicator working, did I remember to start my timer on my watch, the new sounds, my first destination, the landscape, the sky and weather, the …. well, you get the idea. It was quite a while before I calmed down. That first leg seemed to go awfully fast, which was good, but all the other legs seemed kind of slow by comparison.
As I was settling down, I happened to look up and saw an interesting image... far above me was a contrail. Actually, it then seemed like there were two contrails. Then I noticed a "black" contrail, but I knew that couldn't be. I looked again and realized that there was a thin cloud layer between me and the top contrail, and that the top contrail was leaving a shadow on that thin layer of clouds. So the "black" contrail I was seeing was just a shadow. Pretty cool, I thought.
My first destination was Waseca, MN. The map showing the straight-line route to Waseca easily demonstrates the number of lakes that were around me as I flew. But flying in
an amphibian was comforting, knowing that a lake was just another landing strip for me. Many times on the trip,
I found myself over large areas of swamp and lakes, and being in the Buccaneer made me a little less uneasy about
taking the straightest route from airport to airport.
I don't remember much about Waseca: I just landed, refueled and took off again. About 45 miles later I was crossing the Minnesota/Iowa border and came across a windmill farm . It wasn't very windy, but they were all turning slowly. The first set of windmills was to my east, and the wind was from the east, so I quickly found out that they cause a bit of turbulence. Up until that point, the air had been smooth as ice. As I approached another group of windmills, I turned so I would pass on their left side, so I wouldn't again be bothered by their turbulence.
Just like in Texas, the farmers seem to go out of their way to make their fields look interesting, just for my benefit!
As I approached Iowa Falls, I saw a river (the Iowa River, I believe) and noticed a small dam across it. Almost too late, I realized that was probably the "Falls" part of Iowa Falls, so grabbed a quick - but blurry - shot of the dam. A few miles further on, I land at Iowa Falls airport. As you can see, not many obstructions to worry about!
By this time, it was noon and I was getting a little hungry. The airport had a courtesy car, so I took advantage of their hospitality, parked the plane, and drove into town for a Subway sandwich. I brought the meal back to the airport and ate while I studied the weather radar. It didn't look very good over Oklahoma/Kansas/Nebraska, but so far, my easterly route was looking okay. (If you look at the picture closely, you'll see the windsock standing almost straight out!)
After taking off, it became clear that the lakes were behind me. Iowa seemed to be an infinite series of plowed fields, punctuated by the occasional farmhouse. Many of the farms had very attractive architecture, something I could see even from my height. Field after field after field. Before I knew it, I was now in Knoxville, IA, and I was very tired. I hadn't had much rest the night before, and it had been an exciting day, with many new things learned and seen. Since they too offered a courtesy car, I decided to stay the night.
Part of the reason I packed it in so early (it was only about 3:30pm), was that when I had been in Iowa Falls, the weather radar had shown a line of thunderstorms between Iowa Falls and my next destination, Knoxville. But based on the direction and speed at which the storms were moving, I knew that as I flew toward Knoxville, they would no longer be in my path.
This turned out to be exactly what happened, and I didn't encounter anything other than a moist haze. Well, except, the thunderstorms may have gone, but the wind and turbulence they created had stayed behind. My trip to Knoxville was very bumpy and not very pleasant.
When I arrived at Knoxville, I again studied the weather radar, and the exact same situation presented itself to me. There was a line of thunderstorms between this airport and my next destination, Kirksville, MO, but it was moving fairly rapidly away from my planned route. But I was simply too tired to fight that turbulence for another hour and a half, so I simply decided to stay in Knoxville.
That first day I had traveled 291 miles and been in the air for 4 hours and 36 minutes. Not too bad for the first time in a new plane!
The city of Knoxville was the FBO for the airport, and when a police car was retired, they moved it out to the airport as the courtesy car. So a few minutes after I left, I called my wife on my cell phone to tell her I was riding around Knoxville, Iowa, in a police car. Hee hee! <g> It was a great opening line, so I called my brother, then Rick, and fed them that line, too. It was a pleasant joke to blow off a bit of the stress, and we all laughed about it when I explained I wasn't in trouble.
Knoxville, I soon found out, is also the sprint car capital of the Midwest, or something like that. When I got to my motel, they only had one room left. It was, after all, a Saturday night, and that's when the sprint car races were. People came from miles and miles around to go to the races, and the ones I met were stunned I didn't know about it. I suppose it'd be like going to Houston and not knowing about the Astrodome. Well, golly gee… How's a guy to know?
If I wasn't planning on getting up at 4:30am, I probably would have gone to see the sprint cars, but I knew I needed to be in bed no later than about 9pm. Instead, I grabbed a quick bite to eat, walked around the town square, and then stepped into their tiny little theater to watch Matrix Reloaded. It was fun to be in a small town's theater. It brought back memories of being a teenager and going to the theater in Union, Mississippi, where my father was from. It's a pleasant variation in theater-going that every big city person should experience.
In bed around 9pm, awake by 4:00am, and at the airport 30 minutes later. The plane was already fueled; I only had to load my backpack, plug in the radio and GPS, climb in, and I was off even before the sun came up over the horizon. It was 4:45am in the morning!
The air was like silk… the ground fog was beautiful… the sun was a dull spot, eventually to dominate the sky, but now just seeming like an afterthought, something of little consequence over my left shoulder. Ahead was Lake Rathbun, with whiskers of fog tracing the waters. In the distance was simply more fog, from my angle it appeared to cover the ground.
I was very sensitive to the possibility that the fog might be persistent and solid, and my destination airport socked in. As I proceeded along my route, I kept a sharp eye on the landscape, making sure the fog didn't totally obscure. But my worrying was for nothing. The fog seemed to be pretty dense in areas 10 miles or so from me, but when I finally arrived in the Kirksville area, there wasn't any to be found.
Being a Sunday morning, and being only a little after 6am when I arrived in Kirksville, you'd think I would have thought a little bit more about who might, and who might not be around. In other words, there wasn't a soul there, and no way to get refueled. I paced around for a few minutes, vainly looking for a phone number. I reviewed the AFD (Airport Facilities Directory), but it didn't have a phone number. I finally got out my sectional and started to see what was close enough that I could get to given my fuel reserves.
I finally decided that I could put the 2 gallons of emergency fuel into my tank, and easily make it to Macon airport, about 25 miles away. It took me a bit of time to retrieve the 2 gallon can from the nose, dispense it, then return it to its squirrel hole, but I finally did all that then clambered into the Buccaneer. I was writing a note about what I had just done in my notebook, just moments before I was going to start the engine, when someone drives up.
He was obviously in no rush. He took his time getting out of his car, slowly walked over to the airport building and unlocked the door. I figured I'd better fuel up where I could, so I climbed out of the plane, went inside and asked for fuel. In his own sweet time he let me refuel and I was soon -- well, not soon enough -- on my way.
Just before I left, I called my brother-in-law, Bill, who lived in Columbia, Missouri. He knew that I might be in his part of the country and had asked that I call him if I thought I'd be landing at Fulton. And I was, so I called him and told him it would take me about an hour to fly to Fulton. Since he was about 1 hour away from Fulton by car, we agreed to meet there.
Back in the air, things were still calm and I made good time. But by the time I got to Fulton, the thermals had started and it was a bit rough coming in. It was the first time I skipped on landing. Lucky for me, Bill wasn't there yet, so I didn't have to swallow my pride too much (thought I did admit it to him). I landed, refueled and was noticing that the plane seemed to be using more oil than I had calculated. I also noticed that there was quite a bit of oil on the turtledeck.
Just as I was asking the airport manager about the proximity of a Wal-Mart, Bill pulled up in his truck. He wanted to take a good look at the plane, and I told him about my needing oil. He readily volunteered to drive me to the Wal-Mart, so we got the plane tied down and were soon tooling down the road in his truck. We didn't have to find the Wal-Mart as we found an AutoZone along the way. Thirty minutes later I was topping off my oil tank and preparing the plane for its next leg.
Bill was very gracious and had prepared some homemade bread and goat cheese for me, along with a couple of oranges. Later, it turned out to be a good thing he had done that! I thanked him, and mentioned that my route might take me over his farm. We spent a few minutes looking at the map, and figured out that, indeed, I would be going very close to it. I told him I would try to figure it out and take some pictures. We gave each other a big hug, and I climbed in and took off.
Soon after I got to cruising altitude, I saw the power plant on the Columbia River. Here is a telephoto shot of the power plant.
It wasn't long before I was over the area where his farm was. I took a lot of photos
and got lucky because later, after I sent him the photos, he said that I got a
great picture of it! He was being nice, though, because it was pretty hazy and there
was a scattering of clouds below me when I took the pictures, so they could have been better (not to mention the
reflections from the window!). But it was still kind of neat the way it turned out, that I flew directly over it
and managed to figure out its location and get a sorta-decent photo.
As this leg wore on, I soon started realizing that I was flying into an increasingly strong headwind. There were scattered clouds below me, and an overcast layer above me. I felt like I was flying through a very short, but very wide tunnel. Although the air was relatively smooth at this altitude, it didn't feel very safe. The weather was changing around me and I had to make some decisions. After about 45 minutes in the air, it was obvious from looking at my GPS's estimate of remaining time enroute to my next destination, and the timer on my wristwatch: there was no way I was going to make it to my original destination for this leg.
After a quick consultation with the sectional, I decided to head for Sullivan Regional airport. Since the cloud layer was getting lower and lower, I had to duck back under the bottom layer where it was breezy, hazy, and turbulent. Getting to Sullivan wasn't much fun because I had to fly so low. I was definitely getting my money's worth with the obstruction database in my GPS, as I was using it to alert me to towers. There wasn't really any way I'd run into one, as I'd see a tower several minutes before I got to it, but it's never a bad thing to have that information even a few minutes before you saw it.
Soon enough, Sullivan was in sight. I landed and got the plane refueled, but tied it down and went inside. The windsock was standing straight out, with a brisk breeze from the east. They had a nice lounge, but a few other people were there. There was a bunch of skydivers hanging around a hangar at the edge of the airport, waiting for the weather to clear, so it was a bit busy. Luckily, the bread and cheese and oranges made for a nice lunch, while I watched the radar, the wind, and studied the sectionals.
Sullivan was going to be the beginning of a critical part of my route… ahead of me lay the Ozarks.
Originally, I was going to start from a little further into the foothills, at Washington County (MO) airport, but as it turned out, it wouldn't have changed things much. The difference was, I couldn't quite make the next planned airport (Corning), and had to find something closer. The sectional seemed to indicate a small airport just on the other side of the midpoint of the Ozarks, called Piedmont. So, that, I decided, was to be my destination. Now I only had to wait for the wind to calm down a bit. Piedmont was 79 miles away, so even if my ground speed was only 45 mph, I could easily make it. IF all went according to plan. Sometimes the plan has to change.
Even this 3-D topo map doesn't make this part of the Ozarks look very menacing, but considering I'm a flatlander from the salt grass plains of Texas, these 2,000 foot "hills" were mountainous to me! Though the weather down the midsection of the country was a factor, I had intentionally directed my trip east so that I wouldn't have to worry about the taller part of the Ozarks.
Finally, about 1:30pm, I decided to press on. The weather looked generally okay, but there were quite a few clouds around. Rain wasn't predicted, but mountains often have their own weather. I was cautious.
Only about 5 minutes or so after I took off, the Buccaneer was grabbed by an invisible hand and twisted around in the sky. It wasn't so much the turbulence, it was the way it twisted the plane, almost like you'd spin a top, but this was to the left, then to the right, back and forth. I slowed to "maneuvering speed" and decided that I would not fight this wind and just let it take me where it wanted. At that moment, I was about 1500 feet above the ground, and although I had slowed down and was losing some altitude, I had a long time before I had to worry. After about two minutes of this twisting motion, it went away. "Only" two minutes… it felt like an eternity.
If an airport had been right in front of me, I would have landed, but my only two choices
were to turn back to Sullivan, or press on to Piedmont. When the twisting wind subsided, it was still very turbulent
and windy, but I was determined to press on. I set the trim so that plane was in a constant ascent attitude, I
put the RPMs at 5900, and more or less sat back and enjoyed the ride. Ok, ok, so it wasn't that enjoyable for a
while, but I knew I could get above the clouds if I was patient and determined. And I knew if I did, the air would
And it did. After quite some time, I found myself at about 6,600 feet. The tops of the clouds were almost 2,000 feet below me, and it was clear, and smooth, and cold! This was the highest I'd been in an ultralight, my previous record having been in my RANS at 5,500 feet above the beaches on the Gulf of Mexico.
Before me were more clouds, but they seemed to be separated fairly well, so I wasn't worried about getting "caught on top." I also knew from the maps, that the tallest peak in this part of the Ozarks was only around 2,000 feet, so I was quite a ways above that. Things were finally going well. The wind was just slightly behind me now, and my average ground speed during this leg was just over 78mph, so I was cooking.
But not everything was peachy. My struggle with the twisting wind, my being blown off-course, then my very long climb had definitely cut into my fuel reserves. While I couldn't tell exactly how much fuel I had left in the tank, I did all my calculations based on 6 gallons per hour (gph), and I had lost most of the reserve I usually keep for my segments between airports. It wasn't dire, but it was something to watch very closely.
Flying along I could see that the Ozarks was just about all mountains, valleys (which looked like gorges to me!), and it was all covered by trees. Not many places for an emergency landing, that's for sure. The clouds continued to present themselves before me, but I was almost 2/3rd of the way to Piedmont airport when I noticed a cloud ahead of me. It was taller than all the others, and was very wide. It was also darker than all the others. Hmmmm.
The situation didn't improve as I got closer. It wasn't a thundercloud, and it wasn't growing very fast, but it was considerably higher than I wanted to go (given my fuel situation). I flew right up to it before I decided that I had no choice: I couldn't fly over or around it, so I had to fly under it. I turned the plane around, heading back the way I had come, and after about a minute, I was able to do a 90-degree turn to the right, descend at about 1500 fpm, and before long I was back down among the haze, the bumps, the mountains and the trees.
This tactic took me about 5 minutes and I hadn't made any headway toward Piedmont during that time. And when I got a good look at the surrounding area, I decided to fly alongside a small river rather than directly across the peaks. This, too, slowed me down, took me longer. I was starting to get worried.
I won't keep you in suspense. I made it to the airport with plenty of fuel, but at the time I ducked under that cloud, it certainly felt like I was about to run out of gas. And that cloud was dark for a reason… it had lots of rain in it. I was lucky because it only dropped a few sprinkles on me before I managed to get out from under it. I outraced it to the airport, but knew I couldn't dawdle. I had to refuel and get moving before it planted itself on top of me and unloaded it's damp package.
The river I followed toward Piedmont was filled with weekenders, tubing and camping and canoeing. I suppose seeing a small plane flying around in the mountains was a novelty to them. (I use that expression when I'm pretty sure they'd say I was plum crazy!) It was a pretty area, and I wished that the weather situation were different so I could enjoy it more.
Landing at Piedmont was a hoot. First of all, you can't see the durn airport until you're within a mile, so you'd better have good navigation equipment or you'd never find it. It's situated between two tree-covered hills, and it was pretty windy. After setting down, I taxied over to the fuel pump and was greeted by a older couple. They told me the airport was closed, but that they happened to be driving by when they saw me landing. Boy was I lucky! I refueled, apologized that I couldn't stay longer and chat because I had to beat this big ol' cloud, waved, and was on my way.
The landscape changed soon enough and on my left were fields and flatlands, and on my right were the foothills of the Ozarks. My next leg would take me, for the first time, back toward the west, even if it was just a little bit. I felt like I had turned the corner, and was heading home. Not to mention the terrific tail wind I was now getting the benefit of! My groundspeeds were in the 90's for a lot of this leg of the trip. Ahead of me was Newport, Arkansas.
Newport was an interesting airport. Apparently, it was at one time an Air Force base, so it was very large. Even the shortest of its three runways is long enough for me to takeoff and land on about three or four times. But the oddest feature is, on the approach to runway 04, there is a prison. I don't mean it's close by, I mean it's on the approach! I decided not to fly over it directly, but that means I'm approaching my touch-down spot at a 45-degree angle, so I had to make a fairly sharp turn to line up with the runway once I was clear of the prison. No big deal, really, especially since I had almost one mile of runway in front of me, but it was still a bit odd.
Being so large, it took me a while to taxi to the fuel pump. I thought I'd get lost and have to take off again to get my bearings! Ha! But I finally found it and stopped in front of the pump. Now it was around 5pm on a Sunday afternoon of a holiday weekend. And I was expecting someone to be waiting for me? No. And they weren't. But they did have the phone numbers on the door, and I made a call. Shortly after my call, someone showed up and let me refuel. It was obvious that I had taken him away from his supper, so he was definitely going above and beyond the call of duty. But then it got better.
He told me to lock up when I left, tossed me the keys to the courtesy car, and then he left! Pretty nice! I stayed around a while and used their computer to study the weather, and even got on the Internet and sent a couple of emails. I was trying to decide if I should press on for one more leg, or just call it a day.
Well, the problem with people being so nice is, you tend to want to stay rather than keep going. But it had been a long day. I had covered a lot of ground, and there wasn't any sense in pushing it. I was a little behind my original plan, but I had had a good, long day.
I took advantage of the car, tied down the plane, then drove into town and found a nice motel. A quick dinner in my room while watching the weather channel, then a long slumber until my 4:00am wake-up call.
On Sunday, I had covered about 466 miles, and had 6 hours and 7 minutes in the air. And I had crossed my first mountain range! Whew!
Monday morning, Memorial Day.
Again, by 4:45am, I was in the air. Since I was now traveling in a southwesterly direction, the sun was coming up just behind my left wing. The air was very moist and hazy, but it was again very calm and smooth sailing. Very soon after takeoff, I encountered the White River, flowing lazily in the same direction. Before long I noticed that the land was very marshy. It appeared they had had a good rain the day before and the fields were overflowing with water. Tempted as I was to follow a main road, I faithfully followed my "direct GPS" route across the marshes and rivers. I couldn't get over how wet everything was… I felt like I was in Southern Louisiana, not the middle of Arkansas!
Finally, as I got close to my next stop - Sheridan - the land started drying up a bit. Just 20 minutes prior to landing, I crossed the Arkansas River, just south of Little Rock. The air was still very hazy, so I stayed quite a bit lower than most of my legs. Still, there were so many trees, I didn't feel comfortable that low. Before long, though, the sleepy little Sheridan airport came into view.
Okay, maybe "sleepy" was an exaggeration. It was more like "comatose." There was simply no one around, and it didn't seem like there ever would be. I ventured around the place and found a trailer home. With a car out front and toys in the yard, it seemed likely someone would be home… but, no. I knocked, but no one answered.
I wandered back to the plane and saw that there was access to a restroom using the first three numbers in the Little Rock ASOS, so that gave me a little relief! Just about when I was starting to think it'd be a looooong wait, a fellow pulled up and asked if I needed some fuel. "YES!" I practically yelled. The bad news was, the pump could only be activated by a "local credit card." He had one, so I offered to pay him cash for whatever the total came to on the pump. The transaction complete, I could tell he really wanted to talk. I, on the other hand, was trying to make tracks.
After a few minutes, he was merciful and acknowledged that I should be on my way. As it always seems to happen, though, another fellow pulled up and wanted to chat, too. But I just sort of waved and jumped in the plane and started it up. Soon, I was urging the little plane up to clear the tall pines surrounding the runway, and I was again flying into a hazy southwestern sky.
I stayed at about 2500 feet for most of this next leg, and soon enough found myself landing at Springhill, Louisiana, just a few miles south of the Arkansas border. Again, I found no one around, but this time it didn't take long for someone to just suddenly appear. (I never did figure out where he came from.) The fellow - a Strother Martin look-alike - wanted to chat before I was allowed to fuel up. So, I took advantage of that time to top off my oil tank. Soon enough, I was refueled and back in the cockpit, starting the engine. But the engine wouldn't start!
I tried and tried, using many different combinations of throttle, pumped in gas, and even the choke, but nothing worked. "Time to change the spark plugs, " I thought. And that's what I did. Twenty minutes later - chatting with "Strother" the whole time - I was again ready to go.
One thing I noticed was that the oil that was covering the turtle deck was very fresh. I looked and, sure enough, I had been filling the oil tank too high, so the fresh oil had been venting out to the engine support block, and from there the prop was distributing it across the turtle deck. So that was one mystery solved!
Taking off over pine trees again, I headed southwest toward Rusk County airport, my next stop… I thought. As I was passing over the Red River, I noticed the weather was definitely turning for the worse. I checked the ASOS at Marshall, Texas, and they reported only 3 miles visibility. At my last two stops - Springhill and Sheridan - I had not be able to check weather radar, so I was feeling a bit uninformed and exposed. The Shreveport weather frequency said rain and thunder. I briefly picked up another weather station, and it talked about lightning.
My trusty GPS showed I was approaching Caddo Lake, and, sure enough, there in the hazy distance was a large body of water. My GPS also said there were two very, very tall towers just south of the lake. Consequently, I decided I was much better off by turning directly west, then skirting the north-side of the lake. About half-way across, I then shifted back toward the southwest.
It was at this point - with the growing haze, and deteriorating weather -- I knew I probably couldn't make Rusk County, so I took a quick look at the map and decided on the airport at Marshall: Harrison County airport. It seemed like a fairly large-sized airport, and I hoped they would be open on Memorial Day. I was wrong.
I wasn't wrong about it being a large-sized airport, at least by comparison with the airports I had been frequenting for the past two days. Heck, it even had a large control tower, but it wasn't in use. But I was wrong about them being open. They had a sign out: "Closed for Memorial Day." Great.
After tying down my plane, I watched a twin-engine plane land. It stopped about 100 yards away in front of a very nicely appointed hangar. When I walked over there, I saw how truly nice it was: it had a façade of a two-story house on the back wall of the hangar! The fellow getting out of the plane greeted me and I asked him about the airport. He seemed pretty self-sufficient with his hangar and home, so I wasn't surprised when he said he wasn't up on what the airport FBO was doing today. But he did offer to let me look at his weather radar. Just a few steps into his "house" he had a small room with a computer, so we stared at the radar, which showed rain all around the area. I thanked him and then wandered back to the plane. I had enough fuel to make it to Carthage or Rusk County, but there was no way of knowing if they would be open, either.
Just then, three ultralights landed and taxied over to a, uh, less well-appointed hangar. Actually, they looked like the kind of hangars I hung around, so I felt at home walking up to them. Introductions were made all around and I listened as they animatedly discussed their flight. I really felt at home! This was the kind of fun and activity I was used to, so I enjoyed pausing to listen in. After a while I was able to ask a few questions. They suggested I fly down to Carthage as it had a self-service pump. The way they talked, the weather was bad, but not too bad.
Off to the south was a dark area of the sky (which was very overcast by this point), and south was where I wanted to go. So I stood around a while longer, chatting with these three ultralight enthusiasts, hoping the dark area would move. But after being on the ground almost an hour, it hadn't moved. Finally, though, I decided to do the scud-run to Carthage.
I untied my plane and was up in the air in a minute. Again, the pine trees were everywhere, but now I found it uncomfortable to go past 1000 feet. As I turned south, there was that dark area again. I pushed on and soon found myself being pelted by some very light rain drops. After about 10 seconds of that, I just about turned around when the sky suddenly turned lighter, and the rain stopped.
That was the good news. The bad news was, the ceiling seemed to be dropping even more, so I soon found myself at about 700-800 feet. The tree tops were only 400 feet below me. I was very uncomfortable and kept zig-zagging a bit so I would be closer to open fields as they appeared. It was only a 22-minute flight, and soon enough, there was the Panola County airport.
I made a quick downwind, base and final, and made a very soft landing on the concrete runway. As soon as I could turn off the runway, I made a right-turn to the crossway, then another right-turn on to the taxiway, heading back toward the airport buildings. About 20 seconds after the last turn, there was a loud "POP!" It was immediately apparent that my left tire had blown, as the plane listed to the left and started to roll poorly on that side.
I quickly slowed to a halt (without brakes) and I killed the engine. I hopped out and took a look. Yep. No doubt about it. The tire and the tube were now worthless lumps of rubber. The wheel itself looked okay, as did everything else on the plane. I struggled with it for a moment to try to pull it off the taxiway as much as I could. Then I called Rick to find out what he wanted to do.
While I was talking to Rick, I saw two fellows walking up the taxiway toward me. I told Rick that maybe these guys could help and I'd call him back. When the two fellows approached, they asked if I were okay, and, what was that loud pop? Wow, I thought, they heard the pop from way down there! Turns out, though, they were only pilots who had gotten grounded here and were standing around waiting for the weather.
I introduced myself, as they did: B.J. and Darrell. They helped me pull the plane further into the grass so that it was well clear of the taxiway, and I then pulled out my tie-downs and tied it down in place. I retrieved my radio, GPS and backpack, and the three of us walked back down the taxiway to the airport buildings. As we walked, they told me their tale of flying to Arkansas, then trying to get back to Houston. This was as far as they got, thanks to the weather.
I contacted Rick again and told him that there wasn't much I could do (and that the two fellows weren't airport employees). He had talked to John Wall who had a spare tire and was willing to lend him his trailer. Rick said he'd bring the trailer just in case. Now it was time to wait.
Due to some hooligans causing trouble sometime in the past, the Panola County judge had said the lounge (with the weather radar) was not to be left open. But a side room with the restroom and a Coke machine was open, so we kind of set up camp. We didn't know how long we'd have to wait.
Occasionally, someone that hangered there would come by and let us into the lounge area for a while. We'd study the weather, rest on more comfortable chairs, then go back to the side room when they had to leave the airport. Overall, everyone that came out was extraordinarily nice. One fellow even drove us into town so we could get some lunch. He tried in vain to get hold of the airport manager, to see if it would be okay for us to stay in the lounge, but the manager was apparently moving that weekend and couldn't be reached.
B.J., Darrell and I sat around and exchanged war stories for several hours until Rick finally made it to Carthage. He arrived about 30 minutes before sundown, and that meant we could work on the plane without bothering with flashlights.
The tire he brought was already on a wheel, but it wasn't the right kind of wheel. So, we let the air out of the tire, removed the tire and tube from the wheel, then removed the blown tires from the plane's wheel, then put the new tire/tube on the plane's wheel. So, I guess you could say we changed three tires, all in about 30 minutes. It was a real chore but we got it done before the sun went down.
I removed the tiedowns and packed them away back in the plane, then I suggested Rick taxi the plane over to the hangar area. He had fun doing that - his first time in the plane under power. We found a hangar that didn't have any doors or sides, but it had a top… and we backed the plane into it. We then parked the trailer in front of the plane, thinking that would make it more secure. When we left, we locked the airport gate as we had promised to the fellow that had let us in. Then all four of us drove into town, had dinner at a great Mexican restaurant, found a motel and checked in.
On Monday, I had covered about 333 miles, and had about 4 hours in the air. Because of the terrific tailwind, my average ground speed was 83 mph for Monday!
We were all up by 6am, and at the airport by 6:30am, but no one else was there. We realized that the trailer was now locked into the airport and we'd have to wait for the manager to come along - in 90 minutes - to get the trailer out. It occurred to me that, just maybe, the trailer might fit under the gate arms… and it did! B.J. and Darrell sat on the end of the trailer to provide some counterbalance weight, and Rick and I pushed and shoved the trailer over to the gate, and then it slipped under the gate arms with about 1 inch of clearance. Whew! Dodged another bullet!
Rick was off, driving the trailer back to Angelton, and B.J. and Darrell refueled their Piper Arrow and prepared for their flight to Houston. While they were refueling, I took off and headed southwest for Cherokee County airport. The countryside was getting pretty hilly by this point, and I passed directly over Striker Creek Reservoir. Cherokee County airport seemed to be on top of a hill, and it was pretty windy. I probably did my worst landing up to that point in the trip, but it wasn't all that bad… just one little bounce. Considering it was a 10-15 mph crosswind, that wasn't bad.
Refueling was quick and easy, and soon I was aloft again, heading almost directly south. Outside the plane, the sky was hazy but not too bad. To the east where the sun was at that moment, it was very difficult to see more than a mile, due to the glare of the sun and haze. Looking west, I could see about 10 miles, so no problem there. In front of me, it was in between, as you'd expect.
Inside the plane, I was studying my GPS. It said I could make it all the way to West Houston airport - my final destination, in case you'd forgotten! - but I'd have almost no reserve left. I had a slight tailwind and that was good, but it just wasn't enough. I kept watching it and hoping the tailwind would pick up, but it never got any better. Eventually, as Lake Livingston came into view (barely), I decided I'd redirect to Montgomery County airport, refuel, and then get to West Houston without having to worry about running out of fuel only a few miles from my destination.
Montgomery County airport, though, turned out to be a bad choice, at least in terms of expediency. It was large, busy and congested… not very ultralight friendly. As I was in the pattern, a jet took off. The runway the jet had just used at first seemed the likely "active" runway, but then I noticed that it wasn't the one the wind was going down. It then occurred to me that the jet was using the longest runway, even though the wind wasn't coming straight down it. Consequently, I selected the best one for me, and landed straight into the wind.
After landing, I taxied around, looking for a fuel pump, but couldn't find one. It was a zoo. There were planes all over the place, huge hangars, cars and trucks zooming here and there, so finally I just picked a spot that looked okay, and stopped the engine. I walked over to a couple of guys and asked where I could get fuel, and they pointed to an office in a hangar. A nice lady took my request, radioed a fuel truck which came over and helped me refuel. I paid the lady then took off again. I was very glad to get out of there… It was way too busy and too big for an ultralight.
At that point, I wanted to relax a bit because I knew I had plenty of fuel to get to West Houston. But, I also knew this was the most congested area I'd been in for the entire trip, and I couldn't let my guard down. I also had to fly around Hooks Class D airspace, which made quite a detour. On top of all that, the haze was just as bad, plus it was getting quite turbulent. So, there was no relaxing… I was practically on the edge of my seat!
Soon enough, I saw West Houston in the distance. There were several aircraft in the vicinity, so I called out my location and intention, then entered the pattern on the 45 for runway 33. I called my downwind and base, but just as I was turning final, some joker on the ground decided this was a good time to take off. He pulled out on the runway and floored it. Luckily, I had just turned final so there was plenty of separation, but it was pretty rude.
The air was turbulent and there was an almost direct crosswind from the east-northeast. That wind that had given me such a great tailwind for the last day and a half was now a problem. I then committed one of the great sins of piloting… I got in a rush because there were 3 planes behind me in the pattern. My landing was okay, with just a tiny bounce, but then I started rushing the process of getting off the runway.
Instead of slowing down to the fast walking speed normally used for tailwheel aircraft, I kept my speed up in order to get to the crossway. I was about 100 feet from the crossway when the wind caused my tailwheel to break loose, pushed the tail to the left, and the plane started to careening toward the grass on the right. In the space of about about three seconds, I went through the mental routine of: "hit the brakes! NO! Don't hit the brakes!"… "push the left rudder pedal… DANG! That doesn't do anything!" … "Keep the stick back, don't nose over." … "Oh YEAH! I have differential braking!". By the time I remembered the differential braking, I was in the grass. I applied the left brake fairly hard, while keeping the stick back, and goosing the engine just a bit.
That combination was just what it needed and it steered back to the left, back on to the runway, and I regained control over the tailwheel… By this time I was only about 10 feet from the crossway, so I nonchalantly turned right on to the crossway as if nothing had happened. (Of course, I knew about 3 or 4 people had probably just witnessed it.)
A short taxi later and I was safely in the T-cover spot that Rick had rented. The time: noon. I hopped out and gave him a call. He thought he might beat me to the airport, but it was close… he was only about 10 minutes away. (He would have beat me except he dropped the trailer off at his house.)
On Tuesday, I had covered about 230 miles, and had 2 hours and 54 minutes in the air.
After Rick pulled up, I had him take a photo of me, for posterity, disassembled all of the radio and GPS wires, put all my stuff into his van and he drove me home. A quick shower and one hour later, I was at work. Whew!
Total miles covered: 1321, with 17.6 hours in the air. (Summary.) Here is a page showing all the statistics... and some details.
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* Photo by Jim Laird