Back Into The Wilder Blue Yonder, Part 5

As soon as we got back home, I sent copies of the pre-purchase agreements to the escrow agency and to our Bank of America loan officer along with instructions detailing how and when I wanted the deal to close.  Alan was to get the money deposited in his account on the Friday before I left to ensure the money was in his hands before I ever boarded an airplane to return.  Both agencies told me that carrying out my wishes would pose no problems, leaving me free to concentrate on putting together the trip home in the CTSW.  I wanted to make the trip solo because of my unfamiliarity with the airplane and wanting full fuel tanks to del with the uncertainties of weather and less weight to deal with the high density altitudes certain to be a factor.  Regardless, Connie was pressing me to let her go along.  She was half-owner of the airplane and was paying her half of everything, and she was certain she’d never get an opportunity to make a cross-country across the desert southwest in a small airplane again. I wasn’t sure of that, but I eventually caved in to her wishes, though I made it clear that if I felt I needed to continue solo for any reason, she would have to agree to go home via Southwest Airlines.  We would be passing close to Phoenix, Arizona and El Paso, Texas, and both were Southwest stops.   She agreed, but not until she made sure I wouldn’t be looking for an excuse to dump her out…

Our route home started at Columbia, California, took us south paralleling the Sierra Nevada until just northeast of Los Angeles where we would turn west to pop through a pass that emptied into the desert east of Palmdale.  We would stop at General Wm J Fox’s airfield (on the northwest side of Lancaster, California) where thirty years before on my student solo cross-country I had entered the pattern the wrong way because of low situational awareness and flaky radios.  After the more mature pilots had dodged me, I turned the airplane around and got it going the right way and managed to get the radio working again enough to get a “cleared to land” from the tower.  (On the ground, after I had an apologetic telephone conversation with the controller in the tower and assured him the radios were up, he let me proceed on my way with only a talking to.)  Our plan was to gas up again for another two plus hour leg, hit the restroom and the vending machines, and then take off for another leg across the desert and just north of the mountains containing Big Bear to land again at Blythe, California.  (“Nothing much there,” said a co-worker who had landed at Blythe while flying Air Force helicopters.)  The trick was to get through to Blythe before the daily winds at Palmdale picked up; the climatology consistently showed by about 1 p.m. local time they would often exceed the CTSW’s 25 knot maximum surface wind limit, keeping us trapped on the ground overnight.  Assuming that didn’t happen and we got off from Columbia early in the morning, we’d be leaving Blythe about high noon when high density altitudes would be the obstacle of the day.  From there, we were headed toward Casa Grande, Arizona, just to the south of Phoenix. The flight would require an immediate climb out of Blythe to enable us to cross mountains several thousand feet high and stay north of several restricted areas.  My plan was to spend the night there; six hours of actual flight time and two stops would easily make that an eight hour day.  Moreover, I wanted to tackle the next leg, which would require a climb to 9500 feet to cross mountains to the east, early in the morning when temperatures were still cool and density altitudes as low as they were going to be.

My plan on the second day of the trip was to leave Casa Grande heading almost due east to our first stop of Las Cruces, New Mexico.  Again, that would mean flying a two plus hour leg with reasonable winds but at the highest altitude, 9500 feet we intended to fly.  By law, since we were flying under light sport rules, we were limited to a 10,000 foot maximum, even though I knew a proposal was in the works to allow light sport pilots to fly at 10000 feet or 2500 feet AGL, whichever was higher and even though the airplane’s previous owner had flown the airplane close to its ultimate ceiling of 14,000.  We would eat lunch at Las Cruces since there was a restaurant on field before taking off again on a leg to Fort Stockton, Texas where we would take a bathroom, vendo, and gas-up break.  From there, we would press east northeast to Fredericksburg, Texas where we would stop and spend the night in the “famous” Hangar Hotel, a hotel built inside hangar replete with cherry wood finishes and a 1940 feel and right on the airport’s ramp.  We’d complete the trip into Houston the next morning with only a two plus hour leg that would put us home at mid-day.

From leaving Houston until my return, mission work and leave available dictated that I finish the whole thing in one week.  Leaving Columbia on Thursday morning as I planned to do meant I only had one spare day to deal with weather.  While I wanted more than that for this long a trip, it would have to do or I would have to leave the airplane at a convenient point and return later to finish the trip.  A “convenient” point would mean one where we could hop an airline home, and on our route that meant Bakersfield, Phoenix, El Paso, and perhaps San Antonio, though I had no plans to fly directly to San Antonio at all.  So, studying the climatology along the way and watching the weather along the entire route in the weeks before my trip became my pastime as did using Microsoft Flight Simulator and a CTSW model I found on the Web to fly simulated legs of the trip.  I only got to make two of them, though, before running out of time.  I covered the legs from Columbia to Palmdale and Palmdale to Blythe on one Sunday.  And it showed me something I just hadn’t thought of.  On the latter leg, the simulator grabbed real world weather and plugged it in.  My thirty or forty miles of visibility suddenly dropped to five and it took me a minute to adjust to the fact that though I was technically VFR I was practically IFR because of the lack of a definitive horizon. I flew attitude based on my little airplane’s attitude indicator and navigated by GPS, both tools I would have in my “new” CTSW.  I became very aware of how vulnerable I could be to the real thing happening in flight and it made me think through how I intended to handle it if it really occurred.

The main navigational unit in the CTSW was and is a Garmin 496.  It’s a great unit and has XM weather and radio capability, something the airplane’s owner had said he would leave intact until I got the airplane home.  Still, you never know when a particular piece of electronics is going to fail, so I’ve always flown with a full set of sectionals even when I had such a capable GPS unit.  I used AOPA’s web-based flight planner to lie out the original courses, fine-tune them, and print out the no-wind navigational logs which I used to plot the courses on the sectionals.  I used’s airport information to gather the “fine” data (communications frequencies, airport runway layout and data, FBO related data, etc.) which I then prioritized and wrote on the navigational logs.  All that left to do was to get and evaluate weather and then calculate and plug in wind data and recalculate speed and fuel remaining. I packed all that material up and held it ready-to-go.

The STS-127 shuttle mission took my attention away from the trip with the CT for a few weeks.  It landed on July 31, just days before Connie and I were to leave to get the airplane.  When the shuttle wheels stopped rolling on the runway, it meant the wheels on the CTSW were now free to go.

Back Into the Wilder Blue Yonder, Part 4

I was quite a bit disgusted, not with the airplane itself but how the buy was going.  Getting the training the insurance required before I flew the airplane home was a show-stopper.  Alan’s reversal and refusal to fly the airplane to the LSA school meant my only option for taking the deal forward was to work something out with Doug.  I was ready to cancel the deal if I couldn’t get my training scheduled that afternoon.  And that’s what I told Connie as we walked across the ramp toward Doug’s flight school.    So, everything hinged on whether we could get this to work out…today.

The flight school consisted of two offices, a larger one that housed a glass counter and chairs and one table with a computer and another that had desks and chairs but could be closed off by a door.  Nobody was home.  Hoping they had just stepped out, we sat down in the chairs to wait.  We could give it an hour or two before calling it quits, but we only waited about twenty minutes when a gent stepped through the door.  He had been out with a student in a Cessna 172.  I asked the tall and grey-haired man if he was Doug and he said “no”.  Doug was out with a student flying the Stearman but would be in before too much longer.  We could hear and see the Stearman bouncing down the runway as we spoke; the crosswinds, which had increased by a good ten knots since Connie and I flew, were doing a good job of kicking the airplane around.

The big bi-winged radial engine airplane lugged up outside about ten minutes later.  Doug was six feet tall with black hair, of medium build, in his thirties or forties (jard to tell) and was wearing a dark blue shirt and shorts and white tennis shoes.

“Hey, Doug,” the other instructor said as he walked in, “these people have been waiting to see you.”

“Hi!” he said, shaking my hand.  “Let me finish up with my student and I’ll be right with you.”

I nodded and sat back down as Doug and his student, a thirty-something year old Stearman owner from Texas wearing an Aggie hat and jeans, sat down and talked about the crosswind landings they had done.  Stearman flying was one of the school’s specialties.  I was hoping that CTSW flying was going to be another.

Once Doug came to us, we sat down and discussed what I needed.  He indeed did have the qualifications I needed, i.e., he had gone with Alan to pick up the CT when he had bought it and he had gotten his instruction from a factory rep, and he had then used that knowledge to train Alan.  What a smart way to go!  Not only had it solved Alan’s problem with getting some time, it had solved my as well…probably.

When we started talking about scheduling some training, I knew from my previous discussions with Doug he was not going to give up his Mondays off, so we talked about trying to get the time my insurance required in two days.  I had confirmed with the insurance company that we could combine the BFR with the required five hours of training, so we picked a Tuesday and Wednesday three weeks away I could return on to close the deal on the CTSW and get the training I needed.  That was just the shot in the arm I needed to continue, so we said good-bye and Connie and I headed back to Alan’s hangar to close the deal.

Back at the hangar, we told Alan we were ready to press ahead, so we signed pre-purchase agreements and discussed what the timeline for pickup of the aircraft would be.  I still had to go back and finish working my shuttle mission; and until that was done, I couldn’t come back.   Still, after I figured out  what the end of mission had to be, we scheduled two training days on Tuesday and Wednesday, August 4th and 5th. I would return to California on August 3rd to pick up the keys and the aircraft in preparation for my training start the next morning.

We finished up everything we needed to do by noon.  Connie and I drove back to our little cabin where we paid for out little stay, and then we spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the little town of Twain Harte, checking out the local ice cream and restaurants, and picking a Mexican place for dinner.  Because of all the activity and the jet lag, we called it an early night and drove back to our little cottage where we watched TV for a while before going to sleep.

I was surprised we could sleep at all; we had just committed to spending almost eighty-thousand dollars…just to stay in the air!

Back Into The Wild Blue Yonder, Part3

The next morning was a bright, blue-sky day, with not a cloud in the sky.  Connie and I manned up the car at around 8 a.m. and headed out toward Columbia, following maps through Sonora on the small mountain roads that led to the airport outside Columbia.  Columbia itself was more state park than town, a living museum of the California Gold Rush.  All of it was nestled inside a canopy of trees and mountainsides that largely hide the ruggedness of the country.

We turned onto the road into the airport at the behest of a small sign.  The small two-lane road slides downhill before reversing upward again, coming to a seeming stop as it hit the fences that separate the airport property from the mountains.  The road actually turned right at the foot of a hangar with a sign above a door that said “Springfield Flying Service” and after moving past another hangar, turned into a small circle of a parking lot next to the terminal building and its FBO.  I pulled our rental car into an empty spot next to a fence to park it.  We were a few minutes early.  We got out and walked through the glass doors of the airport’s FBO.  A small table surrounded by four chairs stood just to the right of the door; the table served as a briefing or an eating table or both, depending on the pilots’ desires.  To the right, a computer and an inkjet printer sat unattended and off; to the left, a rectangular freezer containing ice cream beckoned the hungry and the hot.  Past them and on the right was a window selling candy, chips, and avgas and separating the FBO office from the small lounge.  Directly ahead, another glass door led to the ramp outside.  Even though the building was unlocked, nobody was in the place but us.   Not sure what Alan looked like or whether he might already be out at the field, we stepped outside the FBO and sat down at a picnic table facing the ramp.  A few minutes later, a double cab pickup truck stopped in front of us, the driver got out and asked if we’re “Andy and Connie”.  I affirmed we were as we shook hands and he offered us a ride to his hangar.  It turned out to be only about a hundred feet away, just past the fuel pumps.  He pulled up to a small door at the hangar’s rear and we got out and went through.

The hangar was as much showroom as it was utility space.  The CTSW we came to see was at the front of it, lit by sunlight through the open hangar door and track lighting above.  It and a yellow RV-8 sat on grey carpeting that covered most but not all of the hangar floor.  A golf cart sat beside the CTSW, and over them all, an American flag hung downward vertically.  Alan and Connie hung back behind the CTSW as I walked around it, inspecting it and taking photos of it.  The airplane looked just like the pictures of it on Barnstormer except for one prominent thing; Alan had added a green cartoon dinosaur to the tail along with the words “CT-REX” on one side and “REX” on the other.  I asked him about it, and he replied it was to differentiate the airplane from all the others at a fly-in. I hated it.  I talked to Connie about it later and she didn’t care for it either.  If we pressed ahead with buying this airplane, the dino was going to go!

Alan and I discussed the airplane’s cockpit features and instrumentation and he showed me the baggage compartment behind the pilot’s seat. Pulling a little knob behind the pilot and on his upper left popped off a triangular door behind the cockpit that revealed it.  I looked inside to see that the Ballistic Recovery System parachute split the compartment into two functional halves, forcing most of the baggage space to be in the vertical.  Alan had two embroidered bags made to assist with packing the space, and he let us know they would go with the airplane if we bought it.  He then asked if I was ready to go for a ride, and I was.  After Alan pulled the airplane out of the hangar and spun it around, I entered the cockpit as he coached me.  I got in by grabbing the round, structural bar that cut across the cockpit in front of the crew and used it to hoist my butt sideways and back into the airplane’s seats.  From my sidesaddle position, I then pushed the sticks forward to pull my legs in over them and twist to sit myself looking straight ahead.  Alan plugged in my headset because I couldn’t easily reach the plugs; they were in between our seats, almost behind mine; this was really something to do before one got in.  Once I’m situated, Alan hauled himself in and we both finished strapping in by using the four point harnesses the airplane provided.  Alan pointed out a small additional strap across our chests he added to keep the straps from too-easily sliding off one’s shoulders.  It’s nothing new to me; all my backpacks have just such a strap.  There was no denying it does its job.

Alan flipped a few switches, set the choke and throttle, and called “Clear!” as he twisted the key in the starter switch.  There was no mixture to manage; the carburetors handled it automatically.  The little engine roared to life with a low-pitched rumble.  Our small three-blade propeller had morphed into an almost invisible disk in front of the airplane, and we started moving slowly forward as it pulls us along.  We’re on the intercom now; Alan was using a Telex Digital Stratus 50 active noise-reducing headset while I was using my David Clark passive H10-30.  He demonstrated the airplane’s features as he called them into play one by one, readying for takeoff, as we taxied to the airport’s single, paved runway’s north end past a resting S-2 Tracker, a tanker for the California Forestry Service.

Alan cleared the area for traffic, put the flaps down to 15 degrees, and called our departure over the radios as we taxied onto the runway south. He quickly pushed the throttle up to full, and the little airplane accelerated forward for only a few seconds before it leaped into the air, going more up than forward.  At least, that’s what it felt like, and the airplane’s helicopter-like canopy only reinforced the feeling.    We were quickly a three hundred feet as he retracted the flaps to zero.  Then we climbed out at best rate of climb speed, 78 knots.  The little airplane climbed out at a steady six hundred feet per minute, pretty good for carrying lots of gas and a big guy like me.

We turned right away from the mountains.  Alan climbed us up to four thousand feet or so, only two thousand AGL out here, but high enough.  He gave me the airplane.  I started out by flying some Dutch rolls to get the feel of the thing; control response was smooth and good.  Alan talked to me about how the airplane was a rudder airplane, and I could see that it was, as the slip-and-skid ball jogged all other the place at my inexpert touch.  I noticed most of all how power changes affected the required rudder; the effects were as large as they were in any airplane I had flown.  I did some gentle climbs and descents, a little too timidly actually; after all, it was still his airplane and I didn’t want to do anything to hurt it while it was still his.  After a few minutes of turns and climbs and dives, I gave the airplane back to him.  I knew he wasn’t about to let me take it back into the pattern or shoot a landing; and he confirmed that impression by never offering it.

When I gave it back, Alan cranked the airplane in a hard diving turn just to show what it would do.  That really didn’t do anything for me; the big question I had about the airplane was how hard it was to land; so, after we landed and I met up with my wife and she asked my how I liked the flight, my response was “It was okay”.  Alan was awaiting her to take her flying and I wanted her opinion, so she shuffled off somewhat mystified at my reaction.  She was a bit uncomfortable crawling into an airplane with a pilot she didn’t know, but she went anyway.  Turned out she loved it, even though Alan landed it a bit hard.

Back at the hangar, once the CTSW was back inside, I went through the logs and we discussed the condition of the airplane.  Alan bragged about it, of course, though I couldn’t know at that point how much to believe.  He had balked at having a small service bulletin that had just come out performed before I bought the plane and I wasn’t sure a firewall mod that the factory wanted done had been performed.  Much to my surprise, when I brought up my need to get training done at the LSA school one hundred fifty miles north of him, he also balked at ferrying the airplane to the school.  He said that his son was working on his master’s degree and couldn’t break away, and that we also needed to talk about the expense of the ferry.  That pissed me off!  I countered by saying if we were going to quibble over a few dollars of gas, then we’d have to take into consideration the thousands of dollars it was taking to not only just look at the airplane but the costs of flying it home.   While that squelched any further complaints, Alan didn’t back down from his refusal to ferry the airplane to the school.  Doug Peffer, located there at Columbia, had become my only hope of getting the training I needed to insure the airplane done.  If I couldn’t work something out with him, this deal was going down the drain.

Back Into the Wilder Blue Yonder, Part 2

The airplane’s owner was named Alan, and we began conversing via e-mail and over the phone.  The logistics of putting a deal together was looking formidable, not only because the airplane was over 1300 miles away but because I was trying to work the whole deal in between shuttle flights.  My job in the Space Shuttle Safety division required me to be in the Mission Engineering Room during flights; and a shuttle mission always tended to take over your life whenever it was ongoing.  I had to sandwich all my airplane activities everything in-between missions; we had just completed STS-125 in May and I would be working STS-127 in the middle of July and STS-128 in late August. Moreover, Alan was leaving for a one week trip at the end of June. I started talking to Alan about his airplane in early June with all that in mind.

It was clear from the beginning that Alan was proud of his airplane and he would nor move any on the price.  That was okay by me since I thought we were getting a pretty good deal anyway.  The other logistics were more problematic; so I started discussion options with him for getting my required training done.  He knew an instructor there at Columbia that fit the bill and referred me to him. But when I first contacted Doug, I was trying to minimize the leave time off and to do so needed him to fly on a Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.  Doug always took Mondays off and he wasn’t willing to compromise on that.  Damn!  So I looked to a light sport school about 150 miles north after Alan said that flying the CTSW there was no problem since he could get his son to fly up and pick him up in their RV.

When I called the school to talk to them, I wound up in an immediate disagreement.  When I told the instructor I needed five hours and a BFR to satisfy my insurance, he replied he wasn’t sure I could get up to speed in the airplane that fast and that most students transitioning took eight hours or more. That really didn’t bother me much since I was willing to do what it took.  But where we hit a brick wall was when he started telling me my background in many different airplanes, including some really high performance ones, would work against me and me I had to “pass” the BFR!

“A Biennial Flight Review is not a pass/fail event,” I told him.  “It’s what the name says, i.e., a review.”

Even though I quickly pulled out a copy of the Federal Aviation Regulations and quoted to him what it said about a BFR over the phone, he continued to insist that the BFR was essentially a check ride and had to be passed.  To double check what I knew to be true, I e-mailed a buddy of mine who is an excellent CFI and an ailine pilot, asking him about the BFR.  He confirmed what I already knew.  That made what this guy was telling me was a show-stopper.  I was more than willing to do what it took to convince both me and my instructor I was safe but I wasn’t looking to be a Master of the CTSW by the time I left there nor was I willing to be held hostage to someone else’s business plan.  When I confronted the instructor with that, he backed down, finally he recognizing it was my airplane and they would not have any liability.  Still, the whole episode left me with a bad taste in my mouth.  I now didn’t want to work with those guys unless I absolutely had no other options.

I felt it was time to try for financing, so I applied to Bank of American through AOPA for the aircraft loan. The pre-approval came through fairly quickly, and though we got a good rate we also got a surprise $400 loan fee that HAD to be financed as part of the package, i.e., the bank would not let you pay that up front and insisted be financed as part of the loan.  While we didn’t like that, we decided to press ahead with them since we already had the approval.

I also engaged the services of an escrow company, and though I hadn’t done that before, I would later feel the deal would have collapsed without it.

With the money in place, I bought airline tickets for me and Connie to fly out to California to give the airplane a try. We initially had planned to fly out on July 4th and meet Alan after he returned from a cruise to Alaska, but Connie’s father fell ill and we postponed the trip.  We flew out on July 17th. Though the shuttle would be in the air, I had a few days off between shifts.  We would sandwich the airplane’s exam in between them, though leaving town during a mission was something I had never done before and made me just a little uncomfortable.

Once in the air on a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 headed for Oakland, I realized how long it had been since I had spent almost four hours sitting in an airliner.  Connie had plugged into her iPod shortly and disappeared into her music;though I had brought a copy of the CTSW’s pilot’s operating handbook to study, I found it hard, as I always did, not to spend all my time staring out at the ground and sky.   Still, by the time we were approaching the west coast, I was getting antsy and was more than ready to put my feet back on terra firma. I watched us cross the small mountains and desert spaces as we flew past the coast, angling toward Oakland’s runway that dangled out over the water.  “Water, water, water, steel, steel, steel!” I mumbled as we crossed the runway’s black asphalt threshold in homage to my “two hundred plus” landings aboard ship in the backseat of a Tomcat.

Once we deboarded and were in the Terminal, we made our way downstairs to the Baggage Claim.   A cousin of Connie’s had warned us that getting bags at Oakland would take half an hour and she didn’t miss it by much; we were lugging our bags off the conveyors and out the doors a grueling forty minutes later.  Outside the terminal, we hopped onboard a small bus that would take us to Hertz and our rental car.

After getting our car, we made our way out onto the Interstates fairly easily, hitting Friday traffic at two o’clock in their afternoon.  Down I-880 to 580 heading east we had few problems at first but didn’t get far before our movement ground to a near halt as everyone else in California also tried to escape east.  We crept through Dublin and hopped off at Livermore to visit a cousin of Connie’s who also graciously served us dinner a couple of hours later.  We hopped back on the highway to find it had cleared, and we headed toward our destination of Twain Harte with new instructions from our cousins about how to proceed.  I had rented a small cottage there for the weekend, and it was only a short distance away from the Columbia airport and the airplane we had come to see.

It had been twenty years since I had lived in California while stationed in San Diego with the US Navy.  Most of my time in the Bay Area had come a few years after that when I dated a woman living there;  it had been almost a decade since I had been in this country at all.  I felt out of place…foreign…but at the same time not so unfamiliar I couldn’t connect.  The mountains and oceans of the Bay quickly gave way to the small rolling mountains filled with wind turbines that, near Livermore,   descended into an ever-widening valley beyond.

We made our way east on I-280 to I-5 before abandoning it after only a few northern miles for the two lane California Highway 120.  We drove past farms and orchards, through the small towns of Simms and Escalon.  We stopped in Oakdale at a McDonald’s to get some diet cokes before continuing into country that was both ascending and turning green.  Soon, we were climbing into the Sierra Nevada but darkness was falling so fast we couldn’t see the peaks.  We just knew we were climbing and the air was growing cooler.

We noted the intersection of highways at Sonora; we would return there in the morning to find our way to the airport.  We drove up into the darkness checking sign after sign but still almost overshot Twain Harte Drive perched on our left at the top of a ridge.  Turning left onto it, we crept down the small, two-lane, dark mountain road until we saw the signs of Gables Cedar Creek Inn.  We turned down into a small gravel road leading to a row of cottages. I had rented the Love Nest, which was the first one we came upon.  It was a quaint, small, wood-framed cabin with a small fence on the front porch almost swallowed up by trees.  The owners of the place had told us where to find the keys and said that checking in the next day would be fine, and we were happy with that.  We had been traveling all day, and though the California clocks said it was two hours earlier, our bodies said they had had enough, and all we wanted to do was settle in for a good night’s sleep.