The Joy of Flight: The experience of a lifetime

March 25, 2013

The Joy of Flight: The experience of a lifetime

By Scott Ryan

The purchase of a 1948 Bellanca Cruisair in 1993 spawned a dream — to fly that wood-and-fabric taildragger to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, for EAA AirVenture. It only took 12 annuals, a major overhaul, being de-activated from the Air Force, and getting furloughed from the airlines for that dream to become a reality. Little did I know that the trip to Oshkosh would be more fun than AirVenture itself.

My pregnant wife snubbed her opportunity to spend 14 hours crossing the country from Seattle to Oshkosh in my tiny airplane and sleep in a tent for three nights, but my 83-year-old dad jumped at the adventure. This one-time pilot turned full-time passenger was about to become my copilot.

I eagerly tackled the flight plan, laying out the sectionals down the hallway. The first priority — safely crossing the Cascades and Rockies — was followed closely by selecting airports with cheap fuel and nearby hotels. Although the Bellanca can easily fly 4.5 hours, I strove for 3-hour or 330-nautical-mile bladder-friendly legs.

I prefer staying near inhabited areas when crossing mountains, which in the Pacific Northwest means following I-90. I planned to fly from my home base of Auburn Municipal (S50) to Snoqualmie Pass, then south of Spokane, and over Mullan Pass en route to our first fuel stop at Ronan, Montana. After Ronan, there are more large mountains to cross, so I decided to continue following I-90 even though it added 50 miles to our flight. After Laurel, Montana, the flight plan became easier — direct routing over flat terrain all the way to Oshkosh.

Airnav.com allowed me to find fixed-base operations (FBOs) with cheaper fuel. First I came up with a list of potential stops, then used AirNav's database and AOPA Online to find more information about FBOs and nearby hotels. Since we planned a two-day flight, I wanted hotel options at each stop to allow us to play it by ear. We chose Mott, North Dakota, and Litchfield, Minnesota. From the EAA AirVenture Web site, I printed 20 pages of arrival and departure notams, along with some visual aids and parking signs.

With the research complete, I invited Dad for "dinner and mission planning." I walked him through the route and described the stops. When he asked where we would stop for the night, I answered with a smile, "It depends on how we feel." Part of the joy of general aviation is the flexibility of flying your own schedule.

Despite a forecast morning marine layer, our departure day (Sunday) dawned crystal clear. Airborne by 7 a.m., we headed into the rising sun. As we leveled off at 9,500 feet msl, I watched incredulously as the GPS groundspeed ticked above 125 knots, then 130 kt, and finally settled on my all-time highest groundspeed record of 139 kt. There's nothing like a swift tailwind to get a trip started. I looked at Dad and said, "Don't get too excited. We'll pay for this later." And we did.

After a quick review of how to properly fold a sectional, Dad followed along on the charts and updated me as we passed landmarks. He also kept us on altitude and course if I took a break. I had to remind him to look outside and even had to resort to covering the heading and vertical speed indicators with my hands.

At Ronan (7S0), where we filled up, a friendly local pilot offered advice on a safe mountain route that shaved 40 nm off the next 365-nm leg. Turbulence started on our decent into Laurel Municipal (6S8), and I knew the third leg would be worse. While enjoying our sack lunches in the Northern Skies Aviation air-conditioned lounge, we learned of scattered thunderstorms predicted for North Dakota; visibility was unlimited between cells, so we pressed on.

Storm clouds gathered ahead while we were still 100 nm short of Mott Municipal (3P3). I could hear a Bonanza's side of a conversation with Flight Watch; when he finished, I called him, and we switched to an air-to-air frequency. He gladly passed on the information about scattered cells in the area, and we arranged to share the lone courtesy car at Mott. Rain started just after we touched down and turned to hail soon after, but not until Rex — the friendly owner, operator, crop duster, mechanic — had fueled the Cruisair, rolled it into the hangar, and was driving us to our motel. We were lucky to be in such capable hands.

From the clean, affordable Mott Motel, we watched the rain and wind continue through the night and extend into the morning. With our airplane tucked snugly in a hangar, it was an easy choice to stay another day in North Dakota and bond with our "courtesy car partners," also from Seattle. Together we visited all four restaurants in Mott.

The next morning's cloud cover caused us to cruise at 1,500 feet agl and enjoy the surprisingly green landscape of North Dakota. This altitude was great for sightseeing, and we enjoyed our 336-nm leg across the Red River in South Dakota and into Litchfield Municipal (LJF), our last fuel stop. I thought I could sweet-talk the Minneapolis controllers into a clearance through their Class B, but no such luck. They vectored me 30 miles north around their airspace, but I still appreciated the VFR flight following.

I felt quite smug that here at AirVenture my Bellanca was not simply GA but also VA (vintage aircraft). As we descended to the entry altitude, a beautiful experimental Velocity came from behind and whizzed by. Soon we heard warbirds, bombers, and jets checking in, and I sensed the excitement on the frequency. We received clearance to turn right base over Lake Winnebago and land on a large dot about half way down Runway 27. Air traffic control asked us to keep up our speed because of following traffic, which led to a predictable bounce in my taildragger. It wasn't my best performance, but it was great to finally arrive. Since we landed only 30 minutes prior to the day's airshow, a packed line of spectators greeted our 2-mile taxi with waves. It was exhilarating!

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Twenty minutes later we arrived at our parking spot in the vintage aircraft camping area at the end of Row 150. For the next three days, we had the dubious distinction of being the farthest aircraft from anything: Row 151 was empty. At least we only had to share the two portable toilets with about 10 other campers stuck in what became termed as "Outer Mongolia."

Our weather delay in Mott turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because Oshkosh had experienced drenching rains that collapsed tents and drove some campers into Red Cross shelters. Luckily, we were treated to sunny skies and warm temperatures for wandering the show grounds. From ultralights to light jets, there was something for everyone at EAA AirVenture. The daily airshow with large formation flight demonstrations was spectacular. Never before had I seen 15 Mustangs in the air at once. My favorite part was the presentation about SpaceShipOne by Mike Melville. His live commentary during the video of this record-setting civilian space flight was insightful and humorous. My dad's favorite part was the ultralight field. After the daily airshow, ultralight pilots put on their own narrated show. Every conceivable type of ultralight took off and performed touch-and-goes. They're colorful, unique, and look like a lot of fun.

Thursday morning came too soon — time to head west. We followed the same route home, using the courtesy car in Litchfield to go into town for lunch. Dad marveled that there was a courtesy car for us at every airport we used. They were definitely worth the few dollars of gas we put in their tanks.

In Mott, we were disappointed to learn that Rex and his wife were putting the finishing touches on a self-serve pump. Convenience will replace friendly chatter when we stop for fuel. We covered one more leg to spend the night in Laurel. Although we had a surprising tailwind at low altitude, the heat and bumps necessitated climbing to a more comfortable altitude where we faced a headwind. Northern Skies Aviation left the courtesy car keys over the sun visor for us, along with directions to a nearby hotel.

The next morning, we were airborne before sunrise, wanting to get our two mountain crossings out of the way before noon. Sadly, the tailwind from the first day of our trip was now in our face. We rarely saw triple digit groundspeeds all day. After 29 hours of flying (round trip), we touched down in Auburn. The price for fuel eastbound was $311 and westbound $384. Sure, we could have bought two airline tickets for about $700, but I would never trade the left seat of my Bellanca for seat 23E, and Dad agreed that he would much rather be in his copilot seat than seat 23F. We would have missed the adventure — the wonderful people, the beauty of our country from 1,500 feet agl, the challenge of steering our small aircraft around nature's fury, and the thrill of landing at AirVenture. There is no price tag on such joy.

AirVenture was an amazing event. It demonstrated that the heart and soul of GA is alive and well all across America; but Dad and I agree that getting there was more than half the fun. When my wife asked my dad, "How was your trip?" he replied, "The experience of a lifetime."

Scott Ryan, AOPA 01175703, is an experienced airline transport pilot with a distinguished military career that includes an Air Force medal for the rescue of a downed F-117 pilot in Yugoslavia.

Posted Wednesday, February 1, 2006