Above the Mississippi River

An AirCam’s southward migration

November 5, 2012

aircam
AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Dave Hirschman braved the cold to ferry an open-cockpit AirCam from Minnesota to Florida late in the flying season. Photo by Phil Lockwood.

Winds are usually the most relevant item for pilots on any ATIS recording—but not on this trip.

When flying an open AirCam late in the flying season at Crystal Airport just north of Minneapolis/St. Paul Minnesota, temperatures are paramount. And the ATIS numbers on this autumn morning were daunting. Temperature: minus 4. Dew point: minus 9.

An AirCam exposes the pilot (and especially the passenger) to the elements like few other aircraft. And even though fellow traveler John Kounis and I were wearing more wool than a herd of sheep in winter, it didn’t seem like enough.

Walt Fricke, the owner of this magnificent new AirCam on amphibious floats, had allowed me to ferry it from the factory in Sebring, Fla., where it was built, to his home airport in Minnesota five months ago (and I wrote about what I assumed was a once-in-a-lifetime experience in "River Run" in the November issue of AOPA Pilot). Now Fricke, the busy founder and leader of the Veterans Airlift Command, wanted me to make the same trip in reverse, and I immediately said yes.

Kounis, a longtime friend and the co-founder of Pilot Getaways magazine, volunteered to come along, and I was glad to have him along for his intellect, optimism, and infectious laughter.

We launched into the frozen, late-October sky and flew southeast to the Mississippi River at St. Paul.

Level at 1,200 feet agl, the temperature under my winter flight suit, two sets of long underwear, and multiple fleeces seemed manageable. My seat already was as far forward and close to the windshield as I could get it for maximum wind protection. And my double set of gloves was doing an admirable job of keeping my hands from going numb. But then again, we'd only been airborne for a few minutes.

The longer the flight went on, the more the cold sank in.

"You ready to take over the flying, John?" I asked after about 30 minutes, hoping my eager backseater would take the bait, which he did. Kounis shook the stick indicating he was taking the controls, I sat on my hands to keep them warm.

Leave it to sub-freezing temperatures to convince a notorious stick hog like me to let the other guy fly.

We headed southeast over the river, following its many twists and turns, as the clear Upper Mississippi wove between countless forested islands. The river that defines the borders between Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa in this region isn't yet the mighty, muddy force it becomes hundreds of miles south. But from our AirCam perch a few hundred feet above the shallow water just beginning to ice over, the broad canyon the river has formed over millions of years is plain to see.

It's late October and the leaves at this latitude here have long since fallen so tree branches are totally barren. Flora here is already in hibernation—but fauna isn't.

Ducks, geese, swans, and other migratory birds are preparing to fly south, and their departure dates must surely be getting close.

aircam Photo by Phil Lockwood.

About 50 miles southeast of the Twin Cities, I spot an eagle. An adult baldy is circling at about 1,000 feet agl, (about 500 feet above us) and I point it out to Kounis. Actually, he says, there are two, and they're flying close together making lazy circles in the sky. It's an intricate and graceful ballet as the two birds fly almost as one.

As we proceed further, the eagle pairs become more frequent and plentiful. By the time we've finished our first three-hour leg and land at Prairie du Chien, we've flown by scores of bald eagles, almost all in pairs. Their oversized nests have been built and lined with feathers in the tall trees along the riverbanks, and these aerial improvisations must be some of the last pleasure flights these majestic birds will make before the onset of winter.

The AirCam's twin Rotax 912 ULS engines churn along at 4,800 rpm, and the geared, three-bladed pusher props send us forward at 75 mph IAS. The silver lining in this cold, northwest wind is that it accelerates our ground speed to 85 knots. Not bad by AirCam standards, where a stiff headwind can slow progress to a near standstill.

The only way to feel like you're going fast in such an airplane is to fly low—and the AirCam is made for this. Visibility above, below, and straight ahead is outstanding, and we're soon skimming along the canyon walls and dropping down a few feet above the Mississippi River's main shipping channel.

A few willows have turned flaming yellow near the banks and provide momentary splashes of color.

A couple tug boats are pushing what seem like impossibly large barges for this relatively narrow river section. Compared to them, we're moving like a comet.

The river widens near the Quad Cities and the Class C airspace requires making the first radio call since leaving Minneapolis/St. Paul. An agreeable controller allows us to keep following the river's winding path.

The AirCam's got a good radio, but wind noise makes it difficult to accomplish normally straightforward ATC tasks. Almost every transmission has to be repeated, and my numb lips make my pronunciation more garbled than usual.

"Say again your airplane type," the controllers ask.

We stop for fuel at Galesburg, Ill., home of the annual Stearman fly-in, and then make a beeline toward St. Louis to get there by dark. The AirCam has lights and is legal to fly at night, but the chill has worn us down and the idea of continuing on into darkness is totally unappealing.

Instead of following the Mississippi River and its wandering course, we fly south over the flat farm fields of northern Illinois, eventually catching up with the Illinois River where it leads to its confluence with the Mississippi.

We also catch up with fall in this hilly area where the trees retain an orange glow. They may be a week or two past their peak, but they're still vibrant and colorful in the evening twilight.

We reach the Missouri River's intersection with the Mississippi just north of St. Louis and its famous Gateway Arch, and then steer well east and land at Spirit of St. Louis Airport where the occupants of corporate jets eye us with what looks like pity.

The pilot of a Cessna Citation asks our cruise speed, and when I tell him, he gleefully informs me that that paltry number is lower than his airplane's rotation speed. The Citation pilot asks where we're going, and when we say we're flying to Florida, he shrugs.

"Well at least you're going the right direction," he says. "It's got to be warmer there than it is here. But at the rate you're going, it'll take forever to get there."

Not forever.

Just a couple days—and glorious ones at that.

A big push

Day Two begins with an Egg McMuffin, the gut bomb that's probably started more airplane trips than all the auxiliary power units in the country combined.

We are cleared by the tower to jump into the air on Runway 26 Left and turn left on course for Memphis, Tenn., 210 nm to the south.

The AirCam starts, as it always does, with tremendous enthusiasm. The acceleration is breathtaking and we climb steeply skyward at 65 mph. We're 1,000 feet agl before we even reach the mid-point of the 7,485-foot runway and turn south.

Unfortunately, the AirCam's acceleration doesn't last long, and we're soon at our normal, plodding pace of 75 mph IAS. This time, however, a gathering tailwind pushes us along at a ground speed of nearly 90 knots. We scoot over the Missouri hill country, the flat delta farmland of the boot heel, and then enter northeastern Arkansas.

Most of the crops have been harvested and some of the fields have been burned. But the last of the cotton crop makes brilliant white circles and rectangles, and the harvesters are busy at work, even on this Sunday morning.

Green shoots of winter wheat sprout elsewhere.

We don't see any more eagles, but hawks are plentiful.

Soon the Mississippi River comes back into view. And now that it's joined forces with the other major Midwestern waterways, the Mississippi is a colossal force. We drop down to treetop height where the swirling currents and eddies are only a few feet below us. A tug shoving a group of barges churns its way upriver, gamely fighting both the current and a snappy 20-knot breeze.

Aircam John Kounis dressed for the sub-freezing temperatures the two would encounter along the flight. Photo by Dave Hirschman.

The Memphis skyline comes into view all at once as we round one of the river's innumerable bends. Parts of the river are modern and industrial—but much of it would seem unchanged to Mark Twain, a former riverboat pilot—or Hernando DeSoto, the first European to reach it.

We climb to enter the traffic pattern at Gen. DeWitt Spain Airport in downtown Memphis and set down on Runway 35. This strip of pavement and the surrounding sights are thoroughly familiar to me as I learned to fly here in the late-1980s, and I'm fortunate to still have friends here.

We gather in David Peeler's hangar for a Memphis tradition: pork barbeque sandwiches. I'd like to stay for a week—but we can't afford to remain on the ground while the sky is clear and a tailwind is available.

We catch another following breeze, this time to Tuscaloosa, Ala. Even though we've only flown two three-hour legs this day, we call it quits in Tuscaloosa. There's just 90 minutes of daylight remaining, the air is choppy, and we're tired. With less than 500 miles to fly to our destination at the AirCam factory in Sebring, Fla., we can make it in one full day of flying—and the weather forecast looks promising.

The northeast is about to be shellacked by Hurricane Sandy. But our path ahead to Florida is wide open, and the swirling low pressure system will give us a big push.

Tantalizing offer

Even in the heart of Dixie there’s a light dusting of frost on the AirCam when Kounis and I show up at daybreak. The air temperature is 30 degrees. I'd anticipated shedding my winter flight suit somewhere near the Mason/Dixon Line, but that won’t happen this morning.

It's Kounis’s turn to fly up front, but he volunteers to take the back seat—and he doesn’t have to ask twice. A better person than me would turn down his selfless offer, but I accept right away.

The forecast tailwind materializes just as advertised, and our ground speed at 2,500 feet tops 90 knots. That's outstanding by AirCam standards, but we know we can do better at a higher altitude, so we climb to 3,500 feet and the ground speed reaches 100 knots near Birmingham, and then 105 knots over Dothan. We’re screaming.

Three hours later we touch down in Florida.

Sebring is less than 200 nm away, and easily reachable nonstop with the remarkable tailwind. But Kounis has a pressing family matter that requires getting back to California as soon as possible, and there’s a nonstop flight leaving Tampa for Los Angeles that evening. Peter O. Knight Airport near downtown Tampa (host of the 2009 AOPA Aviation Summit) is an easy place to get ground transportation to the big airport and getting there at low level via Florida’s west coast provides the most spectacular two hours of our entire southbound odyssey.

We head southwest to the gulf, skim the shallow marshes teeming with sea birds, and sweep by the many islands along Florida's "nature coast."

A 20-knot breeze from the northwest pushes our ground speed (now water speed?) to 90 knots, and the ride is smooth at low altitude as long as we stay over the ocean.

Passing Cedar Key, we climb to 500 feet agl and traverse the broad bay toward Crystal River, and then follow the coastline toward Tampa. We rise to 1,500 feet and cross the coastline and get an ATC clearance to enter the Class B airspace.

Peter O. Knight Airport is visible 10 miles away, and we descend toward the harbor bustling with cruise ships and giant freighters in dry dock before touching down on Runway 36. Taxiing in to the ramp, I feel warmth! It’s finally time to shed some layers.

Kounis arranges ground transportation to get to his airline flight. I thank him for sharing this adventure, take a few final photos of him by the AirCam, and say goodbye.

Flying the AirCam solo on the 65-nm final leg to Sebring feels odd, and not just because it climbs so spectacularly at light weight. The strangeness comes from the fact that all my previous AirCam flying time—both instructional and on a previous long cross-country flight—had been with an instructor, examiner, or fellow traveler aboard. This is the first time I’ve ever flown an AirCam by myself.

The same brisk wind that had pushed us along so quickly on the way to Florida carries me on the final leg to Sebring. Unlimited visibility with a razor-sharp horizon reveals the absolute flatness of central Florida as I fly east at 1,000 feet.

Aircam Only after the AirCam touched down in Florida was it warm enough for Hirschman to shed the winter flight suit. Photo by Dave Hirschman.

Lake Jackson comes into view about 30 miles from Sebring and I steer directly toward it. Whitecaps and foamy wind lines show the surface winds are blowing here, too, but the direction is well aligned with Runway 32. It’s been more than 20 hours flying time since beginning this journey, but I throttle back to savor the final few minutes.

After landing, I taxi the short distance to Lockwood Aviation and shut down. The AirCam has performed flawlessly all the way from Minnesota to Florida, and it will get some TLC from the people who designed and built it. Then it will be reunited with its owner, Fricke, for more adventures in its winter home.

I unload my gear from the stowage lockers in the amphibious floats, and remove the video camera I had attached to the nose to record some of the sights and sounds along the way.

I look forward to watching those video images, yet nothing can compare with the actual experience of seeing this magnificent country from the AirCam's singular perspective.

It's an elegantly simple airplane that allows pilots to fly the way a child dreams of flight. Not at speeds so rapid that the background becomes a blur, but hopping over hedges, and skimming rivers, lakes, and bays. You see with clarity the full richness of your surroundings.

I send Fricke a quick email telling him his airplane has arrived squawk-free and wishing him a terrific season of winter flying in Florida. He replies right away with thanks, as well as the hint of another tantalizing offer:

“Now I just KNOW i'd be pressing my luck to ask…” he says. “Nah... I'll wait till spring to ask... : - )”

Dave Hirschman

Dave Hirschman | AOPA Pilot Senior Editor, AOPA

AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Dave Hirschman joined AOPA in 2008. He has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates. Dave flies vintage, historical, and Experimental airplanes and specializes in tailwheel and aerobatic instruction.