Have you ever had one of those moments where you felt like you were looking from the outside in on an experience you were having at that very moment? Like one of those times you can almost hear the soundtrack to your own movie being played in your head because the experience was so surreal? Or maybe you can just see the pages of your autobiography unfolding before you even though the book is decades away from being a complete story. Some may never experience this, some may never know or understand the passion that aviators thrive upon simply because we cannot get enough of wings, sky and the freedom and wonder of flight. Recently I experienced just that, and I can’t wait to experience it again.
I must start by stating the fact that although I have a long way to go in making any type of living at flying I am working hard to get there and loving every single minute of it. I must also say that every step that I take seems to be even more unbelievable than the last…a dream come true. So of course when Sean D. Tucker asked me if I’d be interested in training to be a ferry pilot in the Extra and that he wanted my first flight to be from Portland, Maine home to King City, California with Ben Freelove as my mentor you can only imagine my excitement. Now, I’ve done some cross countries, but the furthest I’ve flown in a small airplane was from Texas to California with Ben last year, and other than that all my long trips have been in King Airs or Citations. Flying from coast to coast in an Extra 300 was going to be a totally different experience. It would be one for the books.
So Ben and I piled onto a JetBlue A320 early Sunday morning and started the trip east. Monday morning started with phone calls to customs to update them on the Teams arrival (as they were flying in from Halifax, Nova Scotia) and heading to the FBO to wait for them. Eric Tucker was flying the Oracle Challenger, Brian Norris was flying the Extra 300 and Clyde Greene and Collin Davis were in the Seneca. Upon everyone’s arrival Clyde and Collin headed to the terminal to airline home, Brian hopped in the Seneca and Ben and I loaded up the Extra. Eric was already on his way while we were loading the turtle deck with the few things we brought with us. Of course this whole time my nerves were getting the best of me, not because I was concerned that I didn’t know what I was doing but because this was just different. This was new. This was exciting.
Once everyone was packed and gassed we were off. Brian was staying fairly close, within an hour or so of us as he had all the parts in case we needed any maintenance assistance along the way. We were all hoping to reach Piqua, Ohio, home of Hartzell Propellers, by sunset. I have to be honest when I say that although I was taking everything in visually I can’t really tell you a lot of what I saw within the first hour or two of flight…I think it was sensory overload. I spent most of the time figuring out exactly how to work everything, monitoring temperature and pressure gauges and constantly checking on our fuel supply.
Slowly, though, things started to become a little more second-nature for me in the plane and by the time we reached Piqua that evening I was feeling more comfortable. Of course I would have been more comfortable if I had thought about loosening the seatbelts a bit and breathing…but hey, live and learn. So after fueling the plane and getting her pushed into her hangar for the night we headed for the hotel. Brian was already tucked into his room and had briefed Daniel Jones, another of our crew members, about the next day. We grabbed some food and a beer or two at Z’s, a local sports bar, and then called it a night.
We all woke up bright and early the next morning as Brian wanted to be off the ground at sunrise. Of course we were all a little skeptical after the thunderstorm that had barreled through that night. Lo and behold it was still grey and drizzly when I peeked through the curtains the next morning. After Daniel took on the duty of “team weather briefer” I called Ben and we decided to both go back to sleep while I’m sure Brian was up working diligently, waiting for the ceilings to lift. And lift they did!
We blasted off for what was to be the longest of the days as far as flying was concerned. Ben grew up in Ohio so we made a slight detour to fly over some of his old stomping grounds…although those darn clouds made it impossible at times so soon we were back on our way. Brian was hoping that he and Daniel, who was now Brian’s chauffer in the Seneca, would make Ogden, Utah by that night. Ben and I were hoping for the same thing.
So fly we did. And get gas we did. The Extra likes its gas and gets thirsty every 2 hours or so. I think I was most excited to stop at KAAA. Where is KAAA (Logan County Airport) you might ask? It’s tucked into the sleepy little town of Lincoln, IL. And WHY was I excited about stopping here you might be wondering?? Well, if you’ve ever used a GPS in a plane you might figure it out. What is the very first airport that pops up as you start to input an identifier that starts with K (which most do)?? KAAA!!! I know I know, it’s just because it’s alphabetical but I’ve seen this identifier for years so the opportunity to stop and get gas there was just one more thing I couldn’t pass up.
Logan County Airport was quiet, as many of our gas stops were. But this airport looked like there were a lot of stories to be heard if one had the time to spend there. It is a small airport set among corn fields with an outdoor aviation museum on part of the ramp. Quonset hut hangars housed old yellow dusters and other planes. And apparently they had some of the cheapest gas in the area. How can one tell, by the duct tape of course! Before we left we decided to pop into the pilot’s lounge to use the restroom. This was like stepping back in time a few decades. Although it was very clean it looked as though no one had been inside for years.
Experiencing little airports, even for short periods, is becoming one of my favorite parts of cross country ferry flights.
Just as we were climbing in the cockpit and ratcheting our belts a gentleman pulled up and walked over. He said he knew the plane and raced over to see if we needed any help. He was very nice and gave us his card, offering to help out anytime we came through again, even to take us to lunch. Apparently he lives under the traffic pattern and said anytime he sees someone new fly in he has become the unofficial airport greeter. After our goodbyes we were off again.
Back in the air with three full tanks (wings and acro tank) of gas Ben was back manning the his Ipod and I soon decided upon Schenck Field Airport in Clarinda, IA (KICL) as our next fuel stop. Again, another airport in the middle of corn fields and we were in and out pretty quickly. Next fuel stop, North Platte Regional or Lee Bird Field in North Platte, NE. Again, fairly quick in and out and then it was time to switch over to XM radio for a while.
Ben and I had an on-going discussion about how rare it is to see traffic while flying long cross country flights. Of course this was other than the UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) that flew just next to us in the opposite direction the day before while over New York. A minute or so later Ben pointed out traffic way ahead of us at about our one o’clock. We were just trying to figure out if it was coming towards us or going away from us when Brian and Daniel piped up on the discreet radio frequency we use. After a quick discussion of current locations Ben said “I think we see you. We’re at about your seven o’clock.”
Of course I couldn’t pass up the opportunity for a Top Gun reference as I asked, “Any of you boys seen an aircraft carrier around here?”
“So much for the ‘Big Sky’ theory,” Brian said.
And with that Ben offered the idea to go pay them a visit. So I pushed the throttle forward and as we got a little closer I stepped on the right rudder and slid in on the 45 and pulled the power back as we closed on them. Soon we were off their left wing. After scaring Daniel with the information that it was me flying and not Ben we were off. They were on their last leg to Ogdon and we had at least one more fuel stop so we wanted to keep moving.
An hour or so later we landed at Laramie Airport in Laramie, WY (KLAR). Time to head into Cowboy Aviation for a fill up. This was a great little FBO which I was happy to see after discovering that landing even in pretty gusty conditions isn’t too bad in the Extra (especially when you’re landing on a HUGE runway). Even so, I was nervous at what the AWOS (automated weather that we listen to over the radio) reported for winds so I was quite happy to be down with a landing that wasn’t too ugly. By this point Ben and I were getting pretty cold. The Extra is anything but air-tight and even being inside the FBO, which wasn’t that warm I might add, we weren’t close to warm before we climbed back in to our moving office. Ben figured out a great way to keep the cold air out a little more in the front (which is the coldest seat in the plane and where he was). He would fold up the wing walk (the same squishy stuff you can line cupboards and drawers with) and hold it in place as I closed the canopy on it. Perfect!
I was slightly nervous about this next leg. Not only was it cold, but the mountains were fast approaching and although we had plenty of time before sunset, the sun was going down and of course there was some weather ahead. Now, it’s not that mountains are bad, but ferrying aerobatic airplanes is often some of the most dangerous flying you can do, and this was only my second long cross country in an Extra and my first over serious mountains. It is wonderful that we have a Garmin420 GPS as well as a Garmin496 on board. This means that we have 2 moving maps, along with terrain and current weather (all of which I learned to use and love along the way). We had to dodge some rain showers on the way in and went slightly north and then back into Ogden which is very close to busy Class B airspace as well as Hill Air Force Base. Tower was wonderful there; very friend and helpful. We followed the freeway all the way in for a straight in and then taxied to Kemp Air…quiet possibly the nicest FBO I’ve ever seen. As we got out F-16’s screamed across the darkening night sky, heading back to Hill. Even after 8.3 hours in an airplane and our 6th airport of the day and I was still looking up and smiling. I can’t get enough of this.
Once we had the airplane put away we called Daniel to come pick us up. While we waited Ben and I made phone calls to give your overnight location to some people who had been following us across the country online (as Bill Stein was nice enough to let us borrow his Spot which is a personal locator). By taking it with us it sent out periodic signals which then posted to his website so that anyone who knew about it could follow our track. We also had the ability to hit a button that sent a text message out to designated cell phones saying that we’re okay. It also allows you to hit a single button if you need help…a very cool piece of equipment. But, I digress.
Ben’s girlfriend had been watching as we flew along. She already knew we were in Ogden and had taken it upon herself to search for a good restaurant to go to. She rocks. Conveniently the restaurant she recommended was right at the airport, Rickenbacker’s Bistro and Restaurant, so Ben, Daniel and I headed inside for dinner. This place was great! Full bar, good beer and wine and outstanding food. We were also lucky enough to be seated in the warmest spot in the whole place which helped Ben and me to defrost. I would highly recommend this place to anyone who finds themselves in Ogden.
I’m pretty sure we all slept well that night. Ben and I had spent 8.3 flight hours in the airplane that day. It was the first time in quite a while that I fell asleep in a hotel without much effort and even had the air conditioner off.
The next morning was much more relaxed than the day before. It was our last day and it was going to be much shorter since we had pushed so far the day before. We got all packed up and taxied out for take-off. This portion of the flight took a little more work as we had to make sure to stay out of the Class B airspace and then followed I80 between the two Restricted Areas as we cruised over the salt flats on our way to Battle Mountain (KBAM). Again, thank goodness for the 420 and 496!!
Although there wasn’t anything super exciting about the Battle Mountain stop there is one thing that made my day. My landing! Now, mind you, I’m still figuring out how to land this plane which requires a lot less work than the Pitts which means I’m always over-flying it on landing. But, Ben is a great landing coach so it’s been good. But at KBAM Ben was silent on landing. And..lo and behold a beautiful (yet a still a bit fast) wheel landing. Woohoo! Here we filled up and then stretched our legs as we talked to a fellow pilot there with a huge Ag Tractor stationed there for the fire season. What a cool (and HUGE) plane!!
So we needed one more fuel stop before King City. We decided that we would try for Auburn, CA (KAUN) as that is where John and I both learned to fly and where we both work part time as flight instructors now. So that’s where we headed. As we flew high over Reno, NV we looked down at Stead Airport, home of the Reno Air Races, and could actually see time trials going on; it looked like the Unlimiteds. Soon we were over Truckee, and man was this portion of the flight stunning. We followed I80 along, as there are not always a lot of good outs over the Sierras if your engine decides to cough, and enjoyed the scenery as we went. It felt like time was flying, probably because I’ve made this drive so many times and the Extra is moving at warp-speed in relation to a car!
Again I was a little nervous about this, partially because it was home but also because it would be the shortest and narrowest (although not terrible by standards for either – 3700’ x 75’) runway I’d attempted thus far. And, because I was still landing with my hair on fire it was going to take flying much slower in the pattern to stick it. It wasn’t the most beautiful landing but it worked. Of course Ben did point out that the runway’s hill didn’t help much either as I had it and then the runway went down…and away from me…but hey…I’ll take what I got. My Mom were waiting there, camera in hand. We said hello, gassed up, hung out and then it was off to King City.
This time we were flying low enough to not have to bundle up which was nice. Upon arrival into King City Ken Erickson greeted us at the fuel island and it was great to be home. Seamus (Sean O’Leary) was there waiting, too and as always, King City felt like home (like it does every time I arrive there). We put the airplane away and tied up some loose ends. Ben and Seamus invited me to grab lunch but I was waiting for John and our friend, Gary, to arrive in Gary’s DA40 to take me home. About 30 minutes later I was sitting in the right seat of the Diamond already saying goodbye to the Tutima Academy. I was sad that my longest cross country to date was over and that I had gotten all the Extra 300 time I was going to get for awhile. Although it was a long trip I would have loved for it to go on a few more days…call me crazy, but I loved every single second of it. There is nothing better than flying an airplane and seeing America from the sky. There are novels written about this; stories of people flying across the country in a Piper Cub. Well, the Extra is no Cub, but it is still a very unique airplane that I love and am thrilled to have time in. I saw a chapter in my life’s story develop before my eyes this trip, a trip I will never forget.