The morning sky was flaming red as the sun began to rise over the East Coast on an early November morning—but the temperature was icy cold, and just a few degrees above freezing.
AOPA Staff Photographer Chris Rose and I were bundled in warm clothes from head to foot for the start of our “Long way to Long Beach,” a low-level, transcontinental biplane flight that would take us from AOPA headquarters in Frederick, Md., all the way to AOPA Aviation Summit in Southern California.
The rumbling biplane seemed anxious to get going as its sometimes cantankerous radial engine rumbled to life, and we taxied to Frederick’s Runway 23 for departure.
Moments later, we were on our way, climbing to 4,500 feet to top the craggy mountains and river valleys of West Virginia on our way to Clermont County Airport in Batavia, Ohio, home to Sporty’s Pilot Shop. The autumn colors were gorgeous in the mountains—but our main memory of the 3.5-hour flight was the bitter cold. The outside air temperature hovered around 25 degrees F, and despite wearing two pairs of gloves and two pairs of socks, my hands and feet were getting numb, and the neck gaiter I pulled over my face would have looked right on an old-time bank robber.
We quickly compiled a mental list of cold-weather flying gear to buy at Sporty’s when we arrived there.
Fortunately for us, the temperatures weren’t so bitter the rest of the way west. Day One brought us all the way to Wichita, Kan., more than 1,000 nm from home. And favorable winds and blue skies allowed us to easily get to northern New Mexico on Day Two. There, we parked the airplane overnight at the Mid-Valley Airpark along the Rio Grande in Las Lunas and ate Mexican food with backcountry flying enthusiasts who gave us some helpful hints about our mountainous route ahead.
The next morning, we flew northwest to Moab, Utah, and met up with John McKenna, president of the Recreational Aviation Foundation, for a day of flying among the mountains and canyons of this incomparable area of southern Utah. McKenna took the right door off his Skywagon to allow Rose and RAF videographer Jim Clark to get unobstructed views of the dramatic landscape outside. Our daybreak flight from Moab along the Colorado River to Lake Powell was breathtaking and inspiring and provided an absolutely unforgettable flying experience. The sights, sounds, and sensations were thrilling to the core—and sharing them with friends and fellow aviators was nothing short of amazing.
From there, Rose and I got back in the biplane and continued on by ourselves to Southern California and AOPA Aviation Summit. After covering so much remote territory, the Waco slid over the seaside mansions at Malibu, crossed Los Angeles International Airport, and made the left turn to Long Beach. It’s now back in the hands of its owners at Waco Classic Aircraft, and they intend to keep it on the West Coast for a time and show it to prospective customers and aviation enthusiasts in this area.
I’ve ferried a variety of airplanes on long trips—but this one was special. The first time I ever saw a Waco Classic biplane nearly 20 years ago, the mere sight of round-engine aircraft conjured up a fantasy of someday taking one on a long cross-country trip with an open itinerary. The recently concluded coast-to-coast trip surpassed all of my expectations—and the people Rose and I met along the way were gracious, friendly, and incredibly welcoming to a pair of warmly dressed strangers.
And it wasn’t our magnetic personalities that won them over. Simply showing up in a rumbling, nostalgic airplane like the Waco brings out the best in fellow aviators.
Our challenges were limited to predictable things such as numbing cold over the Appalachians, crosswinds and thunderstorms in the Plains, high density altitudes in the Southwest, and turbulence over the desert. But even at those uncomfortable moments, Rose and I were glad to be where we were. We’re incredibly fortunate to have had such an opportunity, and the deck always seemed stacked in our favor. The airplane ran perfectly from a mechanical standpoint during the entire 20-plus flying hours it took to cover 2,300 nautical miles; the weather was clear almost the entire trip and provided rare tailwinds going west on day one; and the technology (Garmin 430 and 696 with satellite weather, SPOT tracker, and IFR instrumentation) provided tremendous situational awareness and peace of mind.
Some low-tech gear also proved essential, namely wool socks, a neck gaiter, and foam earplugs.
For a flatland flier like me, the mountains provided the jaw-dropping highlights. The inspiring, exhausting, and completely unforgettable flying adventure is over now for us. But it’s just about to begin for the AOPA Foundation’s A Night for Flight auction winner who takes home a brand new Waco Classic on Saturday.
Let me be the first to wish them an incredible journey.—Dave Hirschman