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 Air-Nav.com’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.