Latest monthly Waco winner: 'Wow, I can do this!'

May 16, 2003

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"When the mail carrier comes to the door with an unexpected certified letter, you worry. When I saw it was from AOPA, I was confused. When I opened it, I was ecstatic!

I'd won a trip to fly a Waco—how cool! I never win anything. After making all my flying friends jealous, I set up a trip to head down to Sedona, Ariz., to fly a Waco.

I had just moved from Scottsdale, Ariz., up to Salem/Independence, Ore., five months before and was looking forward to playing in that big biplane under the familiar skies of northern Arizona—it's just beautiful there. Sedona was one of our favorite $100 hamburger rides, in our Mooney when we lived in Arizona—can't beat the carrier landing feeling of the airport on a mesa surrounded by beautiful red rock.

Pat at AOPA was most accommodating and helpful in making my arrangements and accommodating my schedule. Mike Potts from Red Rock Biplanes had called me a few weeks before I left and was most helpful making sure I was coming prepared. The weather can be all over the place this time of year, so layers were a necessity. Off to Sedona it was.

Had the "joy" of a commercial flight. It was actually on time and comfortable, despite my constantly thinking, "Why didn't I fly my Mooney down?" Oh well. The ride was pretty bumpy up to Flagstaff and the weather was a little nasty, so it was probably best to be able to make the trip commercially.

Made the beautiful drive down from Flagstaff to Sedona though Oak Creek canyon—what a beautiful drive, especially in spring. After checking in at my hotel, I headed out to the airport to meet Mike Potts, my instructor/Waco pilot.

The folks at Red Rock Biplanes were most welcoming and helpful. Mike presented me with a custom leather jacket and hat that fit perfectly. After playing model in my new duds as they snapped some pictures of me with the Waco, Mike went over the Waco systems with me and answered my questions about the plane. I got to check out their other two Wacos and get a glimpse of the operation. It was apparent that Mike knew a whole lot about these machines and really loved flying them. Turns out he used to work for the factory as a salesman and demo pilot and now has over 6,000 hours in these beautiful machines.

I headed back to the hotel that night and got some good food in Sedona. Went to bed that night looking at the sectional and the cross-country trip Mike had planned for the next day, which was going to be by pilotage. So much for those newfangled GPSs!

I had set the alarm for 7 a.m. but awoke at 5:45 a.m., raring to go. Since I awoke rather early, I had a chance to go over to the restaurant on the field for breakfast and have a great morning meal.

After breakfast, I met Mike and we quickly headed out to the plane.

The weather from the previous day had blown through, and that big red Waco looked beautiful against the blue sky and red rocks of Sedona. We loaded up the plane and hopped in the cockpit. All I had in front of me was an airspeed gauge, and whisky compass and an inclinometer—a long way from my Mooney's IFR panel! Where's the direct-to button? This is going to be interesting.

Mike got the throaty radial engine going and talked through the checklist and the taxi out to the runway.

After a clean runup, we line up on the runway, and as the power comes up, the Waco jumps up on its big gear and soon enough, we're airborne. Next thing I hear: "Your plane." Duh! OK, big stick and big pedals. Some good pressure on the right rudder and that ball comes back over. I quickly fixate on that ball and airspeed gauge, but Mike reminds me that we're VFR and we have to be looking outside. That's a new trick, too, since you can't see over the cowling—look left, right—oops! there's that ball off center again—oops! airspeed rising—get the nose up.

It took a little while to get used to the new sensations of an open cockpit and flying ball and airspeed, but boy, it was fun! We cleared out of the pattern and did some turns getting used to the plane. The plane was fairly light on the ailerons, but the elevator needs some good pressure. We did steep turns and stalls—had that normal feeling of "should we be doing this?"—but the plane behaved beautifully and I got more comfortable.

We picked our heading toward our cross-country target—Bullhead City/Laughlin—and headed over the beautiful Arizona landscape. We had a wind that kept pushing us north that we had to adjust to. Mike was a great cross-country partner and instructor along the way. We had a good chance to talk airplanes and life stories along the route as we picked up the visual clues that confirmed we were headed toward our destination.

We passed Kingman, Ariz., off our right wing and knew that Laughlin was over the next ridge. Sure enough, as we passed of the ridge, the line of casinos was right along the river. Wow, this pilotage stuff still works!

Mike demonstrated a beautiful power-off landing after confirming with the tower a few times what kind of plane we were in. Guess they don't get Wacos in every day. Someone even asked if we were the AOPA Waco. After a downhill taxi to the FBO and a ride over to a casino, we partook in the Laughlin tradition of a big casino buffet lunch.

We headed back to airport and finished digesting the big lunch while they fueled up the plane. It was getting pretty warm by midday, and I was looking forward to getting back to altitude and the cool air.

We taxied back out for a departure and Mike talked me through the takeoff. Power up—push the stick forward to get the tail up—ease back and hold it—and let it fly off the runway—Wow, I can do this!

We made a crosswind departure and started climbing to get over those ridges we passed coming in. We picked a heading and began to see familiar sites as we began our trip back. On the way back, we made a leisurely trip, staying low and slow, stopping to check out the cows grazing at waterhole and to make a low pass over an abandoned grass strip. I had a great time enjoying the scenery, talking flying with Mike, and flying this big bird they way it was meant to fly.

After a few hours I was getting more comfortable with the plane, and we were almost back at Sedona. The red rocks came into view, and we headed over midfield for a landing on 21. Mike made another beautiful landing, and we parked the Waco to cap a wonderful day.

What a fantastic way to spend the day—flying a big classic biplane over the Wild West terrain. Thank you, AOPA! Thank you, Mike Potts and Red Rock Biplanes! Low-and-slow, stick-and-rudder flying is now ingrained in my head. I think that Mooney of mine needs a friend in the hangar with a tailwheel and a stick!

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