Fun to Fly Sweepstakes: The longest cross-country

Sport Pilot Michael Combs - at an airport near you, with a message from the heart

March 1, 2010

Sport Pilot Michael Combs

Michael Combs is a plugged-in pilot. After each flight, he posts an update on Twitter and his blog. While in flight, he uses a satellite-tracking device to let his followers know where he is at all times. In most respects, Combs is no different than many of today’s high-tech aviators. In one respect, however, he stands out.

Quiet, please

The Rotax 919 ULS engine used in many light sport aircraft is popular in Europe because it’s quiet. The cockpit of your Fun to Fly Remos just got a little quieter, thanks to the addition of two new Sennheiser headsets.

Sennheiser USA has provided two of its HMEC 460 NoiseGard headsets for the winner of the Fun to Fly Remos. The 460s provide up to 25 dB passive and 16 dB active noise reduction in a 13.4-ounce package. Each headset has audio and cell phone inputs. An especially nice feature is that you won’t need to tote a bunch of extra batteries in your flight bag, because the Remos has an XLR-3 connector for the ANR power pack.

For more information about Sennheiser products, see the Web site. —JWT

In April, Combs will launch on an ambitious 50-state tour of the United States in a Remos GX light sport aircraft. He’s calling it The Flight for the Human Spirit, and for Combs, it is the ultimate expression of a personal philosophy: to live life with no regrets.

A new airplane and a dream

Combs, a 50-something personal coach who lives in Denton, Texas, flew a brand-new Remos GX from his home to Tampa, Florida, for AOPA’s Aviation Summit. At Summit, AOPA unveiled its 2010 Fun to Fly Sweepstakes airplane—which is the same model of Remos. It was November 2009; just a few weeks earlier, he’d passed his sport pilot checkride. The nine-hour cross-country was the longest he’d made. He had about 60 hours in his logbook and wasn’t sure he’d reach triple digits by April 4, 2010.

That’s the day Combs will take off from Salina, Kansas, with the goal of flying to or in each of the 50 states.

The route, wildly abbreviated for the purpose of this article, goes from Kansas to Missouri to Virginia, zigzags up north to New England, then moves in a more or less direct line from Michigan and Ohio to points west (see map, above). He’ll then travel south to Florida before heading west to Texas, Nevada, and California. The final portion is reserved for Hawaii (he’s thinking of shipping the airplane to Honolulu) and Alaska. To get the airplane to Juneau, Alaska, Combs will fold the Remos’s wings and trailer it through Canada.

The mission is projected to take 40 days, not accounting for weather delays, and will rack up 18,400 miles. (We haven’t even done the Hobbs math.) Not only that, but Combs has scheduled numerous stops in each state—as many as five per day—where he expects not only to fuel the airplane and grab a bite to eat, but also to meet the public and talk about what he’s doing and why he’s doing it.

“Our entire mission is to inspire people that it’s never too late to follow your dreams,” he said.

Why LSA?

At Peter O. Knight airport in Tampa, Combs proudly showed off the Remos GX, named Hope One and adorned with labels and signs from sponsors. He says he chose the Remos after carefully reviewing the various LSAs out there flying around. “I loved the reports coming back from consumers,” he said. “We had to know it could go the distance.” He hadn’t flown one until he went to US Aviation in Houston to get his sport pilot training.

Pointing out the ballistic parachute system, the Dynon multifunction display, and the autopilot, Combs noted that the airplane is already very capable for long-distance flying. However, his plan is “to make this the most technologically advanced LSA in the industry.” He’ll use Spidertracks, an integrated GPS/satellite system manufactured by a company in New Zealand that overlays real-time information on Google Maps. He’ll enhance his navigation with a netbook computer that plugs into the panel and will hold all his charts.

“Since I’m flying VFR, I really wanted to show people what you can do with these airplanes,” Combs said. “A lot of people think if they buy an LSA it’s only valid for 200 miles around your home base. We’re opening up a whole new dimension for people.”

He’s received support from the aviation community; EAA chapters and flying clubs in every state are committed to fly a leg with Hope One, said his wife, Michelle Combs, who is a partner in the mission and will fly right seat on some of the legs.

“We expect to set six new world records” for distance between points, Michael Combs said, adding with a laugh, “People have told us they’re going to break them as soon as we set them.”

One of Combs’ first stops will be Frederick Municipal Airport in Frederick, Maryland, the headquarters of AOPA. And yes, Combs has completed his online Baltimore-Washington Special Flight Rules Area course—one of a zillion details he’s attending to in the weeks and days counting down to April 4.

A new pilot, Combs readily admitted that he’ll be facing conditions he’s never encountered in flat-as-a-pancake North Texas. His training at US Aviation was conducted with this project in mind, and so his cross-countries were longer than they had to be. He has conducted climb tests in the Remos and flown to Colorado to get some mountain training. He is allowing a lot of leeway in his schedule, and has said that if he can’t fly at least half of a day’s planned legs, he won’t fly that day at all. “The last thing we want is for this to become a scud-running exercise,” he said.

Why sport pilot?

A heart ailment diagnosed in 2003 caused Combs to reassess his priorities. Up to that point, he’d been an active husband and father with a slew of interests, including music and public speaking. Learning to fly had been a back-burner goal that he’d assumed would be there for him when he was ready for it. He spent years treating the condition with oxygen therapy, which included moving from Colorado to lower-altitude North Texas, and today feels healthier than ever.

Combs had all but given up the idea of learning to fly and was thinking that perhaps he could convince his wife to take it up so that he could go with her—when he came across an article on the sport pilot certificate in Popular Mechanics. When he realized he could indeed achieve his dream of flying, the wheels began turning and the idea for the Flight for the Human Spirit was born.

A message to the nation

Combs hopes to reach 20 million people with the message that “it’s never ever too late.” Media interviews during the trip itself, blogging, podcasting, video blogs, RSS feeds, and other forms of social media are all part of his strategy (see “Where is Michael Combs?” below). Speaking tours and a book are also planned.

“This is to witness history,” he said. “It’s never been done in a light sport aircraft. I would hate to be an aviation enthusiast in Des Moines, Iowa, finding out at 10 p.m. on the news that this flight was here and that I missed it.”

E-mail the author at jill.tallman@aopa.org.

Where is Michael Combs?

You can follow Michael Combs and The Flight for the Human Spirit via any of the following:

Look for updates of The Flight for the Human Spirit on AOPA Online.

Jill W. Tallman

Jill W. Tallman | AOPA Technical Editor, AOPA

AOPA Technical Editor Jill W. Tallman is an instrument-rated private pilot who owns a Piper Cherokee 140.