The Aventura’s Last Trip

September 5, 2005

If you’ve read my other stories, particularly the ones at the beginning of my ultralight flying adventures, you’ll remember that my initial dream was to be able to “take it with me”… to trailer my aircraft with me when I travel around in my car. This idea tried to manifest itself as a trike, but I never was comfortable flying my trike. So, I sold it and had the immediate opportunity of owning a RANS S-12XL drop in my lap. Well, that was fun, but it was stuck in a hangar and not easily trailer-able.

Then I saw the Aventura and fell in love with it, so again I was diverted from my original goal, but I sure was having fun along the way! Flying off water is a blast!

But I finally realized when the family took a much needed vacation to Garner State Park that, if I had my wings in a trailer, I could have enjoyed flying during that vacation. To fly around that area in my Aventura, I would have first had to fly 250 miles. Then, it would be 250 miles back, and I’d have to worry about the weather grounding me.

With my original idea percolating up to the top of my mind, I realized that I needed to sell the Aventura and get a Kolb!

Selling the Aventura turned out to be easier than I thought… had it sold within 30 days. I offered to ferry the plane to the buyer and, frankly, was a little surprised when he accepted. But, that was okay because it had been a while since my last long cross-country.

As they say, timing is everything and just as I was about to execute my ferrying trip, a little nasty gal by the name of Katrina started churning into the Gulf of Mexico.

Originally, we thought she’d turn north right after it cleared the Florida peninsula, and that would blow out Georgia for a while. You probably know, though, that she continued west then eventually turned north and wiped out New Orleans and most of the Mississippi coast.

The devastating results of Katrina made my delay look truly trivial, and yet I had an obligation to fulfill. My plans changed several times as I started to learn more about where Katrina had affected the infrastructure that I depended upon. Fueling pumps need electricity, even those in self-serve airports. The irony was, the 2-4 days after the storm passed, the weather was stunning: calm winds and clear, all across the South.

Eventually, I made plans that would give me the most flexibility while ensuring a high likelihood of success at finding fuel. One element of this plan was to carry a 6-gallon can of gas, something I don’t like to do normally. But it came in handy… twice!

This long-distance ferry trip would be different from my first two in two significant ways: 1) my experience level was much higher and, 2) I had a killer GPS — the Garmin 196 — to help. (I probably never would have bought the 196 myself, but it was a thank-you gift from Rick, for ferrying his Buccaneer from Minnesota to Houston.) But lest ye think I was dependent upon the GPS, I also had detailed sectionals marked up, and I kept a constant vigil on my position, heading, landmarks, etc., as I flew along. The GPS simply made it easier and it gave me a much higher confidence level of exactly where I was.

To fully prepare for the trip, not only did I map everything out on the sectionals, but I updated the Garmin with the latest aviation data, and I loaded in the latest obstruction database. And, as another precaution, I took along my trusty Lowrance AirMap 100 as a backup GPS.

With the preparations complete, and a last check at the weather, I committed to the flight for Monday, September 5th: Labor Day. I was careful to make sure that each airport where I intended to refuel was self-serve, so that not having anyone around on the holiday would not present a problem.

The day before I left, I packed up the plane and did an extremely thorough pre-flight, washed the plane, and made sure I could just hop in and go the next morning. Monday morning, 5am, I’m up and heading for the airport. After a brief pre-flight, I take one last photo of the Aventura sitting under its T-cover.

Sunrise was officially at 7:02am; I had wheels up 8 minutes before that.

There was no wind to speak of, it was smooth as silk, and I took a quick (and blurry) look back at West Houston Airport… not enough light for the camera to focus well.

Right out of the pattern I turn East, and a moment later see on my right the football stadium for the high school my son attends.

I’m heading through “the corridor”, the narrow east-west route cut into the Class B airspaces of Houstons two largest airports.

The sun is now rising above the horizon. I usually hate to take photos out the front of the Aventura, but this sight deserved a quick shot.

It’s a rare event for me to fly through the corridor because I like to stay away from congested areas. But going around Houston would add an hour to my first leg. The nicest part of flying the corridor is the close-up look you get at the Galleria area and downtown Houston. The twisted freeways are almost clear of cars, mostly because it’s a holiday. On a normal workday, even at this time, the freeways would be busy.

Eventually I work my way through the corridor, hugging the northern edge in order to avoid the stadium TFR around Minute Maid Park. I start my gradual turn to the north. Off to the right is a sea of trains in the more industrial east side of Houston.

I’m less than 25 minutes into my flight and I see Lake Houston off my port side. The only time I’ve seen it from the air before is the one time my brother and I circumnavigated Houston, and when I’m on a commercial jet, doing a landing at Hobby Airport.

As I approach the lake, I realize that I’ve never really seen the dam. But since I’m almost directly over it, I get a good look. Below me is Eisenhower Park, and the outflow from the lake forms the San Jacinto River, winding away to the south.

You probably noticed in the previous 3 or 4 images that the air was very hazy. Actually, since I’ve done a little computer magic to clarify the images, you don’t see how truly hazy it was. Visibility was probably 5 miles or more, but looking straight ahead, especially when flying into the sun, looked like “white soup.”

I knew that the majority of my first leg would be over trees, and photos of trees and more trees is fairly boring. I took this shot below because of the pattern of trees. I’m assuming they were planted by a lumber company. But, to re-emphasize the horizon-to-horizon green carpet of trees I was flying over, I felt compelled to take another shot. Very few fields for emergency landings! Gulp!

The haze was bad enough, but it irked me to see someone burning trash… it certainly didn’t help.

An hour and a half into the first leg, I spot B.A. Steinhagen Lake, on the Neches River, one of our better catfishing lakes… Catches of flathead catfish over 50 pounds are common in the Neches River, just above this reservoir.

Right after Steinhagen Lake, I see the Jasper County airport off to my right.

Then, through the haze, in the distance to my left, is Toledo Bend Reservoir, created out of the Sabine River.

This is a very large lake, and I’m passing over it near the southern end.

I’ve exchanged emails with a fellow pilot who owns an Aventura and flies off this lake, but I don’t have time to stop and visit. A quick look down and I see that the long, gradually sloping beaches would make it easy to drive our amphibious craft out of the water.

I’ve now crossed over into Louisiana. With the lake still visible in the distance behind me, I spot my first fuel stop: Hart Airport, near Many, Louisiana.

It looks deserted, and it is, but the self-serve pump works well. After a quick rest room break, I’m off again, taking a last look at the airport. Total time on the ground, about 30 minutes.

Right up to the point where I entered the downwind for Hart, the air had remained as smooth as ice. But as I departed for the 2nd leg of the trip, a light turbulence began. I climb a bit higher and the air became smooth again. More trees, and not many landmarks. So, other than trees, all I have to look at are my instruments and my charts.

Breaking the monotony of trees, I spot the Cane River.

Only a few minutes later, I see the much wider Red River. I always associate the Red River with Texas — it forms the Texas/Oklahoma border — so to find it in Louisiana is a little odd. Down near the “crook” of the L-shape of Louisiana, the Red River is connected to the Mississippi River via a channel, and then it’s name is changed to the Atchafalaya River.

Less than an hour later, I finally come across the mighty Mississippi River, just south of Interstate 20.

As I cross over into Mississippi, I note the barges plying the river.

The continuing haze is very noticeable in these shots. Just north of the Natchez Trace is this very large, circular irrigated field.

My next refueling stop — Williams Airport, which is just west of Jackson, MS — is now in sight, bigger than I thought it would be.

It will be nice to take a break; the turbulence has been increasing over the last 2 hours. Again, the airport looks deserted as I pull up next to the self-serve pump.

Hmmm, the pump display is blank, so I walk over to the white FBO building. The electronic door lock is not latched, the air is stuffy inside the building, and the computer terminal is off. I guess I was too numb from the flight to think it through, so I took a quick break then looked around a bit more. I eventually found a business card with a phone number, so I called it. The very nice — and apologetic — lady says they can’t pump fuel because the power is out. Oh.

I asked her where the nearest airport is that has power and can refuel me, and she tells me “Madison.” I thank her then pull out the sectionals to look for Madison. Well, there isn’t a Madison airport, but there is Campbell Airport next to a town called Madison. The sectional confirms that airport has fuel, so I decide to press on. But before I do, I want to make sure I’ll make it, so I dump my 6-gallons of emergency gas into the tank.

This map — showing my track in red —

— will show you that I wasn’t too far from Campbell, but I did want to make sure I’d get there. It was 25 minutes away, so I’d need a minimum of about 3 gallons of fuel. Without a fuel gauge, I didn’t know exactly how much I had left, but I knew my fuel burn rate, and I was keeping good track of my time. So, I knew I probably had 3 gallons left, but there was no sense in pushing it so close when I had a ready reserve of fuel.

By the way, it’s interesting to see exactly how accurate the Garmin 196 GPS can be… look at this track (in yellow)…

…as I landed at Williams [KJVW] (Raymond, MS). You can see the track as I flew over mid-field and entered the downwind, and you can even see me pull up to the self-serve pump! Pretty incredible!

You’ll notice — back on the map showing my track between the two airports — that I didn’t make a bee-line for Campbell… that’s because I was avoiding the Class C airspace around Jackson. To complicate matters, there was also a Class D airspace to avoid. It was easier to go around than deal with the controllers who could route me anywhere they wanted.

Right after I departed Williams, I got this shot out my right side of the east-west Interstate highway — I-20 — that goes into Jackson.

Then, as I approached Campbell, I took this shot out my left side, of the north-south Interstate highway — I-55.

This second photo was taken primarily because of the white monument, looking like it’s at least 60 feet high, standing by the highway. I haven’t yet been able to figure out what it is, though.

Campbell field was busy by my standards.

(Google Maps photo)

The FBO brought a fuel truck over to me for refueling and I got to chat with the fellow. He said that when Katrina passed, the winds were 70mph sustained, with gusts to 100mph! That’s a harder hit than I would have thought, this far inland. He figured they were lucky, though, since their power was only out for about 3 hours, and there were only some tree limbs to deal with.

I was thankful to get fuel — got my reserve 6-gallon can filled, too — and they offered a crew car to me so I could go get some lunch. (I can highly recommend these fellows!) After a hearty Subway sandwich, I headed back to the airport. Since the wind had picked up, and since I knew there was no way I could make the entire trip in one day, I decided to rest a bit. I found a nice spot on the sofa in the FBO and tried unsuccessfully to nap.

Eventually, I mounted my steed and was off again. It was about 4pm as I departed Campbell and flew over Barnett Reservoir. I looked back the way I came, with the yacht club in the foreground.

The air was still turbulent and on the reservoir below me were plenty of sailboats taking advantage of that northeast wind.

My family’s ancestral home is near Union, Mississippi, about 60 miles in front of me. It was pure coincidence that I was going to pass over that area. I decided to make a very minor detour (only a mile or two) to see if I could spot the Laird Cemetary where my great- and great- great- grandfathers lie. The location is very obscure and I didn’t have exact GPS coordinates but I was going to take a shot at finding it anyway.

The land immediately east of Jackson consisted of large fields among the forests.

It’s been a while since I’ve taken a “tractor shot” but since most of this trip has been over forest, and it’s on a holiday, tractors were hard to come by. But, finally, I saw one… enjoy!

At the last stop, I called my wife — as usual — and she asked if I could see much evidence of the hurricane as I passed over Mississippi. Oddly enough, I hadn’t. I noticed many trees that were knocked over, but from my altitude, it was impossible to tell the true cause. I did finally notice a couple of chicken houses, with their roofs messed up, most likely from the high winds of Katrina.

Nearing the spot where I hoped to see the Laird Cemetery from the air, I only saw this plot of land where my guess said it would be.

But, I don’t see it there. Fudge. With a quick glance to the north, where a red dirt road would take you to the town of Union, MS…

…I continued my trek toward Alabama. The headwind is getting worse all the time, as demonstrated by the smoke from this trash fire.

If you’ve look at the map and wondered about the little “jog” just west of Meridian…

…here’s why: A few minutes after my unsuccessful search for the cemetery, I noticed on my GPS, that with the increasing headwind, it was going to be uncomfortably close to my 3 hour time limit by the time I arrived at Clanton (Gragg-Wade Field), Alabama. (Please note: my “3 hour limit” does not include my 30 minute reserve… I play things very conservatively!)

Directly in my way to Clanton was the Meridian Naval Air Station airspace (the blue dashed circle in the map below). I consulted my sectional and saw that if I went around the airspace to the north and then did a bee-line for Clanton, there would be no other airports (not even small private ones) along my path. But, if I went around the south of the airspace, and then did a bee-line, there would be at least two airports almost directly under my track.

Again, being the conservative flyer I am, I decided that a slightly longer detour to the south would be safer. Shortly after my turn to the south I also decided that I didn’t want to cut it that close and so would stop and dump my 6-gallon can into the tank. A few more minutes of assessment, watching the GPS, and doing some mental calculations, I soon realized that I was now also racing the sun. So my stop would have to be fast, and the sooner the better.

As I rounded the bottom part of the Meridian NAS airspace, directly in front of me on my track was Mallard Airport (interesting coincidence, since my final destination was Mallards Landing). And, as luck would have it, the runway (7/25) was almost directly on my bearing. Shortly after I pass over I-20…

…with the town of York, Alabama in front of me, I decide to do a straight-in approach. I made several radio calls for traffic, but heard nothing. The closer I got, the more I realized that Mallard is probably a rarely used airport.

The airport was completely surrounded on all sides by tall pine trees, so I felt like I was dropping into a rectangular pan. As I was landing, I noticed that the runway was not in very good shape. Off to my left were some beat-up looking and rusty t-covers and hangars. After I landed I circled back and positioned the plane to take off. I killed the engine, hopped out, and refueled as quickly as I could.

Although the airport certainly felt deserted, there was a small pickup truck over near the t-covers with a fellow doing something. I kept my eye on him, hoping that he didn’t want to come over and talk. I simply couldn’t spare the time. A couple of minutes later, I was buckling my seat-belt, and fired up the engine. The fellow in the pickup truck drove away. I sped down the runway, lifted up and out of my pine-tree-pan. The air was still turbulent, but the sharpness of it was decreasing by the minute. It was, after all, almost 5pm. The headwind was still there, though.

I settled back down to the routine of flying, concentrating on keeping my ground speed up. From every indication, I would be landing within minutes of official sunset, 7:11pm.

Although there were still a lot of trees around, slowly I started seeing open field and ponds again, including this odd shaped pond.

Off to my left was a coal-fired power plant on the Black Warrior River.


It occurred to me that I could take a photo of the screen on my GPS whenever I took a photo of some interesting landmark. It would make it easier to locate later on. Here’s what my GPS screen looked like as I passed by the power plant.

You can see that my ETA was 3 minutes after sunset, so I was still trying my best to increase my ground speed. Luckily, the air got smoother and smoother so I could transition to my fast cruise of 80 mph.

Now, technically, I was equipped for night flying… I had position lights and strobes, as required. But, I just didn’t like doing it. Besides, my wife had called ahead to a motel in Clanton and they were expecting me by 7:20pm. I had plenty of fuel for the remainder of the leg, I had good air, no weather, no traffic, no obstructions, so no reason to think I wouldn’t get there when my GPS said I would.

As I got closer to Clanton, I started seeing a large number of artificial, agricultural-looking ponds.

Later I discovered that this was the heart of Alabama aquaculture and its catfish pond industry.

Soon I was passing over the Talledega National Forest, a dark, tree-filled area just before Clanton. Although the sun hadn’t yet gone down, the haze that I had been fighting all day made the sky much darker. I could just barely make out the town of Clanton in the distance. Several tall antenna were flashing their red lights at me as I threaded between them.

The airport runway was again directly on my bearing, so I decided that a straight-in approach would be better for me. I heard on the radio that someone was doing touch-n-go’s on the runway there, so I called and said I wanted to do a straight-in. I didn’t get a response. I listened carefully to see if I could time it so that I would be on final as they were taking off, but a gap in their transmission made it hard from me to tell where they were.

Through the gloom, I could now just make out the runway, so I again announced my straight-in approach. Just as I was on a 2-mile final, the other aircraft announced it was on downwind. I finally got an acknowledgment that they could hear me, so I apologized for jumping in front. “Not a problem,” the other guy said. I appreciated his professionalism.

Even without a landing light, I greased the landing… best landing all day! Whew! I was happy to be on the ground. I quickly refueled and stuffed all my gear into a duffle bag, put the cover over the Aventura and tied her down. I called my wife; she called the motel and they were on their way. They were very nice to come get me, and exceedingly friendly. I can highly recommend the Shoney’s/ Guesthouse International motel in Clanton!

After a quick dinner in the convenient Shoney’s restaurant next door, I checked the weather on the TV, then hit the sack. The next morning, I had to wait until 8am before someone was available to take me to the airport, but, beggars can’t be choosers. (There were no taxis in Clanton.) I got a much later start than I wanted, but I took a moment to take a photo of my plane in front of the FBO. (You can see the price of gas… $3.79/gallon. That was the most expensive on my route.)

Upon takeoff, I could easily see there were few places for an emergency landing, so I circled the airport…


…as I gained altitude. Now at about 2800 feet, I could get a good look at the surrounding countryside. I was stunned to look at the GPS and see that I had a 30 mph headwind! It was also very turbulent… not a day I’d typically like flying in. So, I started to climb to see if I could find some better air.

Ahead me were some high clouds with the sun shining through.

Again, I didn’t want to divert to get a good shot out of the side window, so this was a straight-ahead shot. The body of water to each side of me was Mitchell Lake, part of the Coosa River chain of lakes.

These lakes are impounded by the Alabama Power Company for the purpose of generating hydroelectric power.

At around 3500 feet, the air became very, very smooth and I was happy until I again looked at the GPS… I now had a 40mph headwind! Yikes! This would not do. That put me in the air for over 3.5 hours to get to Mallards Landing. I then climbed to about 5500 feet and managed to increase my ground speed to about 55 mph, but it was very, very bumpy. It took all my effort and concentration to keep it pointed in the right direction, and right-side up!

I was sorry to see the lakes fall behind me since the only thing in front of me was wilderness, tree covered wilderness.

Between me and the Georgia border, there were only three major roads. Here is an interchange on Highway 280, near Kellyton, Alabama.

And here is looking south down Hwy 280, toward Alexander City, the Tallapoosa River, and Lake Martin.


Here’s a shot of my instrument panel at about this time…’

…and my GPS.

My location is just north of the airport at Alexander City on the moving map display.

Just shy of the border, I see Roanoke Airport off to my left.

To my right is a rock pit, that makes it look like this might be karst country.

Finally, after crossing the Alabama/Georgia border, the landscape becomes a bit more tame. Here, just south of Peachtree City, is a very nice spread, complete with tree-lined roads leading up to the house.

A few minutes later I see some active irrigation on this large, circular field.

Off to my right, just west of Senoia, is an interesting pattern of some kind of orchard, or perhaps a future Christmas tree farm?

Because I was nearing the Atlanta airspace, I decided that 5500 feet wasn’t optimal, so I dropped down to 2500 feet. On the way down, I noticed that the layer of smooth air was still there, right around 3500 feet, but so was the 40mph headwind. At 2500 feet, the headwind was only about 25-30 mph, but it was very turbulent.

As the town of Senoia comes into view, I know I’m only about 30 minutes from my final destination.

I squint my eyes and look far ahead, but it’s just wishful thinking because it’s still too far to make out. Ten minutes later, I see Lake Horton Reservoir, and I guess that this is the lake that the new owner will be playing in with his new amphibious aircraft.

But I’m premature, for up ahead is what looks like another reservoir, but it doesn’t show up on any of my maps.

I think it’s the Towaliga River and Thomson Creek confluence. Later I’m told it’s used for drinking water and no motorboats are used on it, but the manager said a seaplane would be okay.

Finally, after over 12 hours in the air, I see my destination: Mallards Landing. I’m staring right down the runway, but I’ve forgotten which frequency they use (and it’s not on the sectional).

So, even though it’s a day when no one is likely to be flying, I do the safe and proper thing by banking off to the right…

…then doing a fly over at mid-field. As it turns out, I flew directly over his house, so he knew I had arrived!

The air was still as turbulent as ever, and even banking to turn to base and final had me nervous. I slowed to my approach speed but with the wind changing constantly, I decided to come in a little hot. With the houses near the runway, my approach was very hairy. I was all over the place, and I broke out in a sweat. Just when I thought I was going to be blown into a house, the wind eased, and I dived for the ground. A quick flare, constant adjustments to fight the rotors off the houses and trees, and I do a slight skip on the grass. I’m down… WHEW!

The buyer drove a golf cart out to meet me and I followed him to his house. His house was not directly on the runway, so I had to taxi back through at least two rows of houses. It felt very odd doing that, but it was also kind of cool. After I stopped the engine, he ran over to greet me and so do a couple of neighbors. The Aventura always draws a crowd!

I had one of the neighbors take our picture…

…and soon enough we’ve done the paperwork and we’re heading out to the airport in Atlanta. But not before I take one last picture of the hour meter: 265.3 … When I bought the plane, it was sitting right at 90, so I flew it for 175.3 hours.

Total miles covered on this trip: 809, with 12.3 hours in the air.

Am I sad that I no longer have the Aventura? Absolutely. But I’m looking forward to owning a Kolb, and the fun I’ll have trailering it around.


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