He is charming, kind, almost courtly in his dealings with others. He is slower than molasses—“Gimme jest a minute”—and rarely on time. He is also, in a word, loquacious. “Can I tell you a story? Gimme jest a minute.”
I think David Tulis is just great, as do most people who meet him.
But there is another word that describes him, and is important to this tale I am about to share with you: tenacious. “Dave T,” as he refers to himself in the third person, is not a man who gives up or in—ever.
He came to AOPA after a storied career in photojournalism, having covered sporting events and more for such media giants as The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Associated Press, UPI, NASCAR, the PGA, and the NFL, as well as producing a Pulitzer-nominated photo. He learned to fly, and owned first an Ercoupe then a couple Mooneys. When the economic downturn and changes in the media landscape plummeted his newspaper career and an accident destroyed his beloved Mooney, Tulis had to restart. Considering his love of aviation and his burgeoning writing skills, he turned to an opportunity with AOPA as an associate writer, stepping away from photos and into a role that would challenge him financially, professionally, and personally. He uprooted his family and moved to AOPA headquarters in Frederick, Maryland. Here he has become an integral part of the media department and a colleague everyone knows they can count on for any assignment or chore.
Tulis earned his right to return to what he does best—photography—and he was named an AOPA senior photographer in 2021. His family has settled comfortably here with wife Lisa a key administrator at a local college and his daughter, Lauren, starting college in the South. That’s where this tale begins: Dave T wanted an airplane to visit “the daughter.”
While on assignment in Hood River, Oregon, Tulis joined me and Chris Rose, AOPA director of photography, to cover a local flight school and FBO (see “TacAero: Off the Grid,” January 2023 AOPA Pilot). As often happens on assignment, we discovered a hidden jewel: the Western Antique Aeroplane and Automobile Museum (WAAAM), adjacent to the Ken Jernstedt Memorial Airport. Touring the massive museum, we ended up in the renovation facility where several aircraft were in restoration, and a few of them had “For Sale” signs hanging from their propellers. I snapped a photo of a sleek Rotec Panther ultralight and sent it to colleague Dave Hirschman, who like many in our association, buys airplanes like I buy wine (often and a lot). There was a beautiful de Havilland Beaver, a Cessna 206, and a Travel Air, and we asked museum founder Terry Brandt why these gorgeous aircraft were for sale. I mean, when you have 315 assorted vehicles and more than 130 flying antique aircraft, what’s a couple more? Well, you need to house them, and he’s building a new hangar, so he handpicked a couple that had to go to raise money for the build.
What I’ve learned in 25 years of aviation is little compared to the expansive knowledge of my colleagues, but I know a gem when I see one. There, amid the luxurious and dynamic and expensive aircraft was a little cream puff. Shiny red wings, cream belly, sleek wheel pants and—truly—a smile on its face. “Here’s your next airplane,” I said to Tulis, pointing to the 1953 Piper Tri-Pacer PA–22, which was sporting a For Sale sign that said $40,000.
It wasn’t the fast, sleek Mooney he’d once had, nor was it the long hauler he’d been thinking about, but it did have four seats and its restoration was cherry—just picture perfect. We all stood around it and smiled. Brandt said it was for sale for not a penny more, not a penny less.
For the next few days, that little Tri-Pacer became all we talked about. Of course, Tulis checked its Vref value, called back to headquarters and talked about it with our experts, and called his brother to discuss financing. At one point Rose said, “I’m not a pilot, but if you don’t buy it, I will,” hammering home the idea that this was a great deal and would probably fetch more outside of a museum shop in sleepy Hood River. By the end of the week, Tulis was shaking hands with Brandt, sealing the deal.
Into the wind
The one person Tulis left out of his deliberations was his wife, Lisa. I kept saying I thought that was a problem, but Dave T was staying mum. From October until March Tulis planned how he was going to get this 135-horsepower, 110-mph flier home from across the country. Honestly, you really cannot imagine a place farther away from our central Maryland home, and Tulis with his grand ideas thought he’d first fly west and touch down on the Pacific and then fly home to pass Frederick and touch down on the Atlantic. That idea eventually died when he was finally able to get out to Hood River to get checked out in and fly home his new airplane.
Before he left, he did sit down on a pretty, cool evening with his wife on their patio-in-progress with a glass of wine and broached the subject of buying an airplane. His younger brother Martin had helped him with the purchase, and he’d told daughter Lauren about his buy, so she was relieved that her mother finally knew. Sanguine, Lisa accepted the idea but with the stipulation that he finish their patio (it’s still not done).
TacAero CFI Lars Ljungqvist put Tulis and N3328A through the wringer before allowing them to begin their journey. Winds howling at 24 knots, Tulis thought his orientation would be grounded but Ljungqvist said “No, we’re going.” The veteran flight instructor knew Tulis would be facing rougher mountain and wind challenges on his way over the Rockies, so he wasn’t going to give him a pass. Three intense hours later, Ljungqvist said Dave T was ready.
Tulis had mapped out a route home from deliberations with colleagues such as Hirschman and AOPA Content Producer Alicia Herron who knew the area. There’d been a lot of “go this way” and “no, go this way” but Tulis thought he’d settled on a path home. Within the first several hours, the “best-laid plans” went south. First, he was a day late starting out because of some last-minute repairs, then Hirschman’s initial two 250-mile legs became Herron’s one 300-mile leg (“She was right, I couldn’t have physically gone any farther that first day,” Tulis said). And the winds just would not abate (see “Travels with Dave T” below).
“I’d thought about getting someone to ferry it home but that wouldn’t be much fun,” Tulis said. “But I did not realize what a significant challenge this would be.”
It takes a village
Back home, we were rooting for him. On the road, the kindness of strangers and the helpfulness of the aviation community benefited our intrepid traveler. He was feeling optimistic bouncing in the air out of Hood River—it is called the Windsurfing Capital for a reason—but was both awestruck and scared when he faced the cold, the snow, the mountains, and the desolate area below him, flying at 9,000 to 11,500 feet msl.
Taking off from Hood River, the terrain steadily climbed to 9,000 feet and he says he looked out his left window to see “mountains, Christmas trees, and snow as far as the eye could see.” Then he looked right, thinking there must be civilization somewhere. “But, no, there were mountains, and evergreens, and snow as far as the eye could see; no sign of civilization anywhere, and I thought to myself, What have I gotten myself into?”
But, in the back of his mind he reminded himself that he had good coaching, expert instruction, and safety items on board so people could track him. “Now it was just up to me to fly the airplane and do what I know how to do and just be a pilot,” he said. He was doing what Dave T is guilty of doing—too much at one time—trying to take photos and shoot video, fiddle with his instruments, and slowly getting overwhelmed (I cannot drive in a car with him for this reason). So, he finally told himself, “Dave T, stop trying to do so much and just fly the airplane.”
Landing at Mountain Home Airport (U76), he had to chain down the Tri-Pacer because the winds were still so strong. Airport Manager Tom Hoegg suggested a change to his route to take him through Medicine Bow and on into Cheyenne, Wyoming. Mountains loomed but he was feeling confident. “I had good advice from my colleagues, from people I met, and people at home cheering me on, and I knew I’d be OK,” he said.
Then ATC contacted him and asked if he realized the minimum safe altitude was 14,000 feet; he was at 11,500 feet. “What is your intention?” ATC asked. The mountain right in front of him, Tulis responded he was planning to fly to the left or right of that mountain. “I was almost out of the hard part; I could see the valley on the other side. I stayed high and that big mountain went by on the right.”
Along the way he met other pilots, a young pilot about to take his checkride (he passed), and helpful FBO personnel. He had a flat tire in Indiana, lost a fuel cap, and learned the quirky attributes of his Tri-Pacer. Arriving at FDK, he approached the busy airport and turned on all his lights to announce his arrival and called the tower. Because the airplane relies on a generator, powering all that at once shut down the electrical system upon landing. He’d been warned of that possibility at his last stop and knew to turn it all off. Laughing to himself that the pilot who’d warned him had been right, Tulis told the tower now he’d be taxiing to the AOPA ramp. Friends and colleagues awaited him, but he said, “Hold on a second; and I knelt down and kissed the ground,” he recalled.
He had thought this aircraft would be something he’d keep for a bit and then sell. “But it has become a keeper,” he said. “And I have come to be fascinated with it. It’s a little quirky but it has a deeper meaning because I shared this with friends who believed in me, and I would like to keep that connection. It’s a fine flying airplane. It’s not the fastest, but it’s economical. And it’s got four seats.”