California, here we come

October 23, 2008

Two pilots in the Carolinas—Chris Hildreth of Durham, N.C., and Dan Douglas of Columbia, S.C., hatched a plan to fly a long cross-country: from First Flight Airport in Kill Devil Hills, N.C., to Catalina Island off the California coast. “When we were trying to earn our private [certificates], we joked that we were going to have to do these ‘cross-countries’ of 50 nm,” Hildreth said. “We wanted to do a real cross-country. We thought flying from Kitty Hawk to Catalina would be the penultimate cross-country.”

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But a strong weather system off the North Carolina coast kept them from visiting the airport where, in 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright conducted the first powered flights. So on Sunday, September 28, they took off from Person County Airport in Roxboro, N.C., and headed west. “Dan was a little skeptical—he didn’t think we’d get to California,” Hildreth recalled. “He didn’t think we’d get over the Rockies. I told him, let’s at least point the airplane west and see how far we get. Even if we only get to Knoxville, Tennessee, at least we got out and went somewhere.” The pair made decisions each day based on weather, the winds aloft, and their desired destination.

Except for the low-pressure system that prevented the excursion to the North Carolina coast, however, the weather was cooperative all the way across the country for the VFR flight. “It couldn’t have been better,” Hildreth said. “We had a slight tailwind while we were flying west the whole time—and we had a slight push coming back, too.” They averaged three legs per day, with most between 2.5 and 3 hours; the total trip was 45.8 hours.

Most pilots have—or will—engage in the aviation tradition of the “$100 hamburger,” flying to another airport for something to eat. The hamburger may only cost $5, but the aircraft expense pushes the cost of the meal to $100 or so. Hildreth and Douglas, who spent a total of about $3,000 on their 4,361-nm odyssey, said the trip could be characterized as “a $1,500 T-shirt.”

“When we got to Catalina, the first phone calls we made were to our [flight] instructors. After all, they were the guys who made the trip possible—the only reason we were able to do it was because of our instructors.”

Hildreth, who mentored Douglas during his flight training, had taken him on a trip to Key West, Fla., shortly before Douglas’ checkride. “I told Dan that if you go out and do these trips, you won’t believe what you’ll get out of it. At one point on the trip, he leaned over to me and he said, ‘I was thinking about giving this up.’ I could see in his eyes that that thought was gone.” Hildreth said Douglas is already planning for a flight to the Bahamas.

Another memorable moment was when they traversed the Rocky Mountains at Dos Cabezas, flying at 9,500 feet. “We were struck by the realization that wow, we’re doing what we had talked about.” The Spanish name translates to “two heads” in English. “That was funny, because it was our two heads in the cockpit that got us there,” Hildreth said, explaining that they had settled into a comfortable cockpit resource management routine.

Douglas and Hildreth enjoyed the camaraderie they experienced with aviators and airport personnel throughout the trip. Controllers, and especially flight service briefers, were especially helpful when they found out what the two pilots were doing, Hildreth said. They also heard some interesting radio calls. “It's amazing what you hear when you do 40 hours of flight following,” he commented. Turning base at Tucson International they were told, “‘Cessna 21078, you are cleared to land 11 Left, caution wake turbulence, and you have a coyote on the runway.’ I can't say I've heard that before.”

As they were unloading the airplane in North Carolina at the end of their trip, a local pilot who flies a twin heard about their six-day trip to Catalina and back. “He popped his head into the cockpit and was looking around and immediately asked where the autopilot was,” Hildreth recalled. “We replied that there isn't one. His response was, ‘Holy cow, you guys hand-flew this plane all the way out and back?’”

Hildreth, a photographer, and Douglas have created a Web site to share their stories and experiences from the trip.