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Cross-Country at Record-Setting Speed

Steve Watson's world record flight

My world record Put yourself in aviation history By Alton K. Marsh Bruce Bohannon, the guy who won 30 world records aboard his Exxon Flyin' Tiger, once told me he had seriously considered breaking my world speed record.

My world record

Put yourself in aviation history

By Alton K. Marsh

Bruce Bohannon, the guy who won 30 world records aboard his Exxon Flyin' Tiger, once told me he had seriously considered breaking my world speed record. No one takes my world record from me. No one.

It began in 1998 when I proposed setting an amusing world record with the AOPA Timeless TriPacer Sweepstakes Piper TriPacer as I flew it from Maryland to California to display the airplane at AOPA Expo. I would file for a record over the entire distance, but not rush the overnight stops. Travel time accumulates whether you are in the air or in a hotel bed, so I had calculated the record would be 22 mph. What fun. When the NAA official in charge of records heard my plan, he suggested I would try for "a serious record" or none at all.

OK, I can live with that. Plans were changed to set a blistering speed record from Phoenix to Palm Springs, California. After handing a form to the Chandler, Arizona, tower controllers that they would use to certify my takeoff time, I departed with a shallow climb angle, built the speed, and sensed (OK, imagined) the steel tubular frame expanding, just like the Mach 3.2 Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird.

Palm Springs controllers were contacted 30 miles out and asked to note my landing time and to give me a straight-in approach. "I'm on a record run," I told them. In my opinion I sounded just like John Wayne. I descended gradually, keeping the throttle in, the speed high, pulling the throttle to idle on short final to get the wheels on the pavement and stop the clock.

It was a new national and world record: 106.309 mph; Mach 0.139658454. Not really a surprise since I had chosen a city pair where no record existed before.

At the awards presentation a few months later at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, the first pilot honored was an airline pilot who flew from Hong Kong to Tahiti. OK, that beats Phoenix to Palm Springs by a lot. I sank in my seat a little, unsure that I should really be there. Then the guy who fought fires on the International Space Station got up to receive his record for either winning over the fires or spending a really long time up there—I forget which. That answered the question of whether I should be there.

When it was our turn—I should mention that co-pilot David Weigelt shared in the record even though this is all about me—I discovered Weigelt had used his artistic talents to draw cartoons of the two of us with enlarged heads leaning out the TriPacer window. Two or three drawings had been shown on a screen I could not see behind me before I realized the crowd was laughing with us, rather than at us. Weigelt got the national record plaque while I kept the world record—the one that had to be approved in Paris.

Afterward, a little boy who was maybe five years old asked for an autograph. Now comes the fame, I thought, followed by a product endorsement—but only if I truly feel the product is good. As I handed his program back to him—I think my writing looked just like John Wayne's—he paused and asked, in the nicest, most polite way he could, "Ummm, what did you do?"

Pop quiz: Who is the first person to set the U.S. east-to-west transcontinental and world speed records in the most common size of piston-powered general aviation airplanes, in which model, and in what year?

The answer: Steve Watson, of Natick, Massachusetts, in an open cockpit, radial-engine Waco Classic F-5 biplane, on September 29, 2006. The average speed was 55.3 knots, or 63.6 mph, over a 2,241-nm course from Boston to San Diego.

You're not alone if you're surprised, because Watson himself was amazed that the unset record for GA airplanes weighing between 2,200 and 3,850 pounds had been hiding in plain sight for 100 years. And he surprised himself by transforming what originally was going to be a relaxing summer of flying to celebrate retirement and his sixty-fifth birthday into a demanding 40-hour, 31-minute, and 19-second journey made possible only by putting business demands on hold.

But the trip may come as no surprise to any GA pilot who has an eye toward the next challenge in their flying. Because just when we think it's all been done before, there are still new frontiers.

Record surprise

Watson had just retired in early 2006 as a successful technology industry executive and investor. The classic beauty of the Waco had captivated him since he first saw one in Oshkosh 20 years earlier. Owning one and setting a world record seemed like it would be a nice complement to his more than 45 years of GA flying. From his first lesson in an Aeronca Champ in 1960, Watson had compiled more than 1,000 hours in a mix of Cessna singles, a Piper Arrow, a Cessna 303 twin, and even a Bell 206 JetRanger.

"I guess I was driven by an internal sense of accomplishment and the challenge of the planning and execution," he says.

Watson applied to the National Aeronautic Association (NAA) for a sanction that would expire in July for a transcontinental course from Jacksonville, Florida, to San Diego. At about 1,850 nm, the Jacksonville-to-San Diego route is the shortest transcontinental route. It would entail one very long day of flying without an overnight stop. He planned a departure during the long days and mild temperatures of June 2006.

Best-laid plans

At the same time, a suburban Boston medical company with a promising technology for early detection of cervical cancer sought Watson's management expertise. Becoming an interim chief executive officer looked like a good challenge. But it meant the flying would have to wait.

"The company was a total commitment," he says. "Because of the pressures at the job the original sanction had expired. I was nervous somebody else would jump in and take the record away before I'd even had a chance."

He applied for a new sanction that would expire in early October 2006. To make the departure date more flexible, he changed the transcontinental starting point to Boston.

The departure change lengthened the trip by almost 400 nm. That dictated an overnight rest stop for safety, even though the trip clock would keep running while he was on the ground. To qualify as a world record, the trip had to be completed in less than 43 hours and 43 minutes based on an average speed faster than the clean stall speed of the Waco of 59 mph, or 51 knots.

All ready, except for the when

Watson planned the trip in detail using AOPA's Real-Time Flight Planner. He also bought emergency supplies, a datalink-capable handheld GPS, and winter clothing to keep him warm in an open cockpit. But business demands grew and weeks passed without a departure date. Finally, near the end of September, the weather patterns looked favorable across the country. On Tuesday, September 26, he decided to launch the next morning."When I left the office on Tuesday night nobody knew that I was going to be gone. I made an excuse about some personal time and that I would see them on Monday," he says.

World records

The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI) sanctions and certifies world aviation records dating back to 1906. It was located in Paris, France until 1999 when it moved to Lausanne, Switzerland. About 300 records for speed, time-to-climb, distance, and duration cover 17 categories of aircraft ranging from free balloons to unmanned aerial vehicles.

The FAI certifies records for land, sea, and amphibian aircraft based on 22 classes of maximum take off weight (MTOW). Watson's Waco falls into FAI's Sub-Class C-1c for landplanes with a MTOW of 1,000 to 1,750 kilograms, or between 2,200 and 3,850 pounds. That's the weight of most single-engine piston-powered GA airplanes including everything from Cessna 172s to Beechcraft Bonanzas.

A record seeker must apply and pay for a sanction to the National Aeronautic Association (NAA), the official record-keeper in the United States. The sanction defines in detail the terms of the record attempt and is valid for 90 days.

Both Web sites list past, current, and pending records. The NAA Web site also has links to downloadable documents used to apply for and certify record attempts.— RN

A little cross-country flight

Watson departed his home base of Norwood, Massachusetts, just outside Boston, at 7:48:50 a.m. local time on Wednesday, September 27. He planned an overnight stop in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, after about 15 hours of flying. His brother-in-law from Indianapolis joined up at midday and flew ahead in an Aviat Husky as the advance man for Nascar-fast fuel stops. Stops in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania; Parkersburg, West Virginia; and Jeffersonville, Indiana, were each less than 20 minutes. But on the final leg, a line of thunderstorms forced a diversion to Paducah, Kentucky. After just 9.7 hours of flying he had to call it a day.

The following morning the weather lifted and Watson departed at dawn with fuel stops at Siloam Springs, Arkansas; Pampa, Texas; Albuquer-que/Double Eagle, New Mexico; and Chandler, Arizona. Watson was aware of the beautiful scenery as it transitioned from the green Midwestern plains to the brown west Texas hills to the rough, red southwestern deserts. But he was focused instead on managing the airplane, his speed, and the fuel supply.

"By the end of the flight I was probably getting five knots more airspeed than I was at the beginning," he says, having learned the Waco's best combination of throttle, mixture, and attitude. "If you give it ever-so-slight forward pressure on the stick it just nudges it into a better angle of attack," he says.

The home stretch, and the record set

The night flight from Arizona was mostly over dark, uninhabited desert. Watson had to remain especially alert to thread a narrow corridor between restricted areas, MOAs, and the Mexican border in southernmost California.

He landed in San Diego on Thursday, September 28, at 9:20:09 p.m. local time, more than 15 hours after leaving Kentucky, and with a few hours to spare. There was no fanfare or celebration aside from a cold beer downed while completing the NAA paperwork, and a few requests for photos from the local FBO employees and a curious San Diego police officer.

Friday was spent finding a local aviation medical examiner so he could renew his medical certificate before it expired the next day. With the time pressure of the world record trip over, Watson prepared to embark on a leisurely flight back east to his parents' home near Sioux City, Iowa.

The view from above

In retrospect, Watson was deeply struck by the opportunity for a GA pilot to be able to hop in a small airplane and fly all the way across the country when and how he or she chooses.

"The freedom that we have in this country to be able to do that is huge. Sure, there are the rules to follow. But the fact that I could take off when I wanted to and fly entirely across the country totally unfettered, virtually no restrictions—that was a big deal."

And although he fully expects the record to be broken, he knows that first it had to be set.

"It felt like a tremendous accomplishment," he says. "But ego and the record were not at the root of it. It was more about a personal sense of achievement, the need to explore and what it really means to be 'retired.' I still have a long list of things to do."

Rich Nagle, AOPA 1419663, of Lawrence, Massachusetts, is a public-relations professional. He owns a Piper Saratoga II TC.

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