Blue skies met us the next morning. We headed out to Loyd’s and Meadows Field in the rental car at 6:30 a.m. and got to the airport, parking behind the FBO, before the receptionist was at her desk. I left the keys for the car next to the cash register on her counter and then asked one of the linemen for a lift out to our airplane. He went to fetch a cart and when he returned, we loaded up ourselves and our bags on it and had him drive us to our airplane. As we rode through the cool morning air, I asked him to make sure the receptionist knew the keys on her desk were for our rental. He said he would.
After unlocking our airplane, we loaded our bags aboard and configured the cockpit for flight. With charts, kneeboards, and headsets in place, I performed my walkaround, checking the fuel amount and cleanliness, as well as control continuity and general aircraft condition to make sure we were ready to go. When I was convinced we were, I pulled the chocks out from behind the nosewheel and pulled the little airplane by hand out of its parking spot, spinning it into position by pushing down on its tail and pivoting it on the main wheels, and then locking the parking brake once the nosewheel was back on the ground.
I let Connie get in first so I could help her get situated; and once she was in place, then I plopped my rear in my seat, spin my legs into place while pulling the stick back so my knee went over it, and put my feet on the steel rod rudder pedals. I strapped in, laced my kneeboard into place, put my headset over my head, and then got out my checklist. We were ready to go.
The little airplane started right up, and I taxied her down until we were just past the FBO and stopped to get the ATIS. Our Garmin 496 had the taxi chart for the airport up, but I found it easier to look over a printed copy of the airport layer, 8.5 x 11 inches in size. Clear of any other airplanes, I ran through most of the takeoff checklist including the engine checks before I called Ground and asked for taxi clearance. Ground cleared us to taxi via taxiway Charlie to runway three zero right, right in front of us. With only maybe eight thousand feet of runway left from that point and a ground roll for takeoff of maybe three hundred feet, I deemed the runway margins acceptable, even for me.
Popping the flaps down to fifteen degrees and making sure the transponder was squawking our altitude, I called for takeoff clearance as we rolled up on the Charlie hold-short line. The Tower cleared us on three zero right and then for a left turn out. I rogered the call as I goosed the throttle and turned us onto the runway, pushing the throttle full open as I did. Our Rotax engine answered with more of a buzz than a roar but we shot down the runway nevertheless and leaped into the air at my first pull back on the stick. We did the elevator-climb trick till we hit three hundred feet above the ground, and then, I shoved the nose down a little to force the airplane to accelerate, retracting the flaps as it did. There was a slight settle until they were at zero degrees, and then I pulled the nose up a little to intercept seventy-eight knots and continue the climb. We were on our way!
“Tower, Five-Four-Seven-Alpha Whiskey for a left turn out,” I radioed.
“Five-Four-Seven-Alpha-Whiskey, left turn out approved. Would you like Flight Following?”
I rolled the airplane into a climbing left turn, and we watched the checkered pattern of the city spin below us. Rolling out on our on-course southeasterly heading pointed us toward a low spot in the distant mountains; we were flying toward the Gorman VOR and Teflon Pass, a point offering lower terrain to cross to leap over the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains. From there, we would turn eastward, marking off more longitude than we had been and making better time directly toward home.
Tower called traffic behind us; a Beechcraft had launched out of Meadows after we had and was now somewhat paralleling us as it climbed out. I spotted the airplane at our eight o’clock on a diverging trajectory; and he said he had us in sight so I stopped worrying too much about him.
Tower switched us off to Bakersfield Approach and we continued outbound. As we climbed out of the valley, though, I noticed a layer of clouds beginning to thicken up below us. I couldn’t see how far to the east it ran and I hadn’t seen it in the forecast so I started wondering if I had missed something. Our next checkpoint was General Fox Field at Lancaster and I wasn’t sure if we were high enough to pick up the airfield’s ATIS, but I dialed it in and we got it and they were reporting clear. So, I relaxed and pressed ahead, and we leveled off at 7500 feet just short of the VOR which I could see as we passed over it. We turned east, heading toward the southern California desert.
Slowly, the mountains fell away and the Mojave desert opened up underneath us. The black asphalt of Fox’s runway was very easy to see as we pressed toward it. Though we were going to overfly the airport in a effort to get home, I had intended to land there originally to correct an original sin. On my student cross-country some thirty years earlier, flying in a Cessna 152 with flaky radios, I had misunderstood tower’s directions and entered the pattern the wrong way. It didn’t take me or the tower long to figure it out and I spit out and turned around, landed, and then had a conversation with the tower. They were nice about it and there had been no harm done. As if somehow doing it correctly would undo the mistake made long ago, I had planned to land there and do it right. But my true objective now was to get home hopefully with some margin on the clock, so doing it anyway fell out of my list of priorities.
The skies were clear and visibilities good, and we could look to the north and see the paved runways, including the temporary one, of Edwards Air Force Base. A twelve thousand foot runway had been constructed for both Air Force and NASA usage while the major fifteen thousand foot long runway was being refurbished. In my day job at Johnson Space Center, I had been involved in the reviews and approvals of shuttle use of the shorter runway, so I felt I had a personal connection with it. But those were not my only connections with Edwards. I had flown in the Shuttle Training Aircraft as an observer while astronauts shot approaches to the Edwards dirt runways; I had participated some twenty years earlier in test flights conducted with a NASA F-14A as a RIO in the backseat of a Navy F-14A acting as a target as they flew against us and the NASA F-14 evaluated changes to the aircraft’s aileron-rudder interconnect system; and even earlier in my life, as an enlisted man stationed at NAS China Lake and a student pilot, I had landed a Cessna 150 on the big, main runway to take a tour with my instructor of the NASA facility.
I waved and said “so long” as we passed by.
Flying just north of Palmdale, we slowly made our way across the desert to the airport at Victorville. Once there, we nudged our course gently southward to graze the foot of the mountains surrounding Big Bear and steer clear of the large Restricted Areas to the immediate east. We crossed the brown desert and over the top of Williams with its single runway, nosing toward Desert Center, while imagining what it was like south of us where rich people inhabited Palm Springs, a place I had never been. We flew over Desert Center ahead of schedule; we had some nice tailwinds and the GPS displayed 138 knots ground speed, almost thirty above what I had planned. Not bad for a little 100HP plastic airplane!
The planned end of this leg of the trip was the airport at Blythe, California, and that was our next stop.