Our takeoff checklist was complete, and everything had checked out as expected.
“Casa Grande traffic, Flight Design Five-Four-Seven-Alpha-Whiskey departing runway two-six, doubling back eastbound,” I called over the radios.
I goosed the throttle enough to taxi us out onto the runway, kicking left rudder to turn us onto the runway centerline, and pushing the throttle forward to reach full as the nose aligned with it. The little Rotax engine buzzed to life, and three seconds or so later, I was pulling back on the stick, and the little airplane jumped off the runway. I climbed us straight ahead until I got the flaps up to zero, and then rolled us into a climbing left turn as I called over the radios again that we were departing eastbound.
As we rolled past the town of Casa Grande to the south, ahead of us laid nothing but desert and mountains. The sun was in our faces, already beating down on us with its heat, and it worked to send the daily temps up toward one hundred degrees. Our little airplane clawed its way upward, trying to defeat the sun by finding cooler air. I watched as the oil temps, even this early in the day, kept slowly increasing and heading into the yellow. The airplane was giving me close to 500 feet per minute as a rate of climb, not bad considering we were flying at maximum gross weight.
Slowly, we edged closer to the mountains as we made our way higher. Our first checkpoint was the small airport near San Manuel, Arizona sitting in the valley between the mountains that separated us from Tucson and our first big ridgeline to the east. We could see Interstate Ten as it rolled toward Tucson and that city’s outer edges, but mountains blocked us from a view of the city itself or Davis Monathan AFB beyond. For a moment, I thought about my “bail out” plan which was to fly down a valley east of Tucson and pick up the lower lands surrounding I-10 if my airplane could not make it all the way to our target altitude of 9500 feet. It looked like that would be unnecessary; the airplane was finding its way into cooler air and that was not only keeping the oil temps from climbing faster but also was helping the climb rate increase a bit. Still, as we approached seventy-five hundred feet, I decided to level off there for a bit to get the oil temps down and give us more speed that our eighty-something knot groundspeed.
As soon as the oil temps were back to normal, I pushed the throttle up to full and continued the climb up to ninety-five hundred feet. Our GPS and our sectionals led us straight to San Manuel, and I called us as overflying the airport at 95 west to east as we went by. The first of two mountain ranges the altitude was designed to get us over laid just ahead, and at a distance where the ridgelines appeared to be almost level with the nose. Connie asked if I was sure we had enough altitude so I showed her the sectional and told her we would have about two thousand feet between the mountain tops and us when we got there; what she was seeing was an optical illusion because of the distance.
The air was both cool and smooth as we penetrated the airspace over the mountains. With about twenty knots of tailwind, we were seeing in excess of a hundred and thirty-two knots over the ground. I had thought we would see some kind of turbulence with that kind of set-up, but there was only a very light occasional bump. So, it was a really enjoyable ride for me. I engaged the autopilot to let it fly for a while. Connie, unbeknownst to me, was not so relaxed; it was the first time she had been this high in a little airplane or over any mountains this tall. And she hated the autopilot, and I had just engaged it.
I relaxed a bit too much and let my feet down off the rudder pedals, forgetting that the autopilot didn’t handle the yaw axis. While I did have it fairly well trimmed up, the yaw trim wasn’t perfectly centered, and for the CT, that means that the fuel feed from the wings was not going to be even. In my CTSW, the fuel feed is very sensitive to any yawing moment exerted on the airplane, and anything other than a perfectly centered ball will cause it to feed preferentially from one side. The airplane is very active in yaw and needs more attention paid to it than even most taildraggers I had flown, and my butt has never been the most sensitive when it came to slipping or skidding anyway. Keeping the ball in my scan is a constant part of me flying the CTSW.
About an hour and a half into the flight (with about a little less than hour to go), as we were crossing the second mountain range north-northeast of Cochise, Arizona, I noticed the fuel level on my left side was down more than on the right. To force more fuel to feed from the right side in an attempt to even it out, I kicked left rudder to displace the ball so it was touching the right line, meaning we were flying with the right wing just slightly high. This is also had the side effect of flowing fuel on the left wing away from the sight gauge, so the left side looks artificially low. This brought immediate questions from Connie about our fuel state, which I answered by saying we were okay and by telling her what I was doing. That answer held her for only a few minutes before she was asking me again about it and wanting some reassurance. I kicked the airplane level to show her where the fuel states really were, and then kicked it back into my left side-slip to keep balancing the fuel. When she came at me a third time within the same five minutes with the same concern, I lost my patience and told her to get a grip or I’d have no choice but to put her on Southwest Airlines in El Paso so she could finish the trip home. That abruptness quieted her down, but not before she told me how much she hated this “feature” of our airplane. I didn’t like it either but had learned from other owners it was a quirk of the design and there was nothing mechanically to be done to fix it. The management laid in pilot technique, and I would prove that out even on this leg of the trip.
Because we weren’t using flight following, we were listening to the traffic frequencies used by each airport. I was noticing that, unlike the airports in East and Central Texas and other well-populated area, the pilots out here used the frequencies to inform each other of location, altitude, and intent tens of miles away from their home fields. Out here, radar coverage at airport altitudes was sparse or non-existent, so the pilots extended the use of the radio to make up for the air traffic services they lacked. We called Lordsburg, New Mexico traffic some ten miles out from that airport and at ninety-five hundred feet, saying we were crossing west to east. We did the same approaching Deming, and got an answer back asking us to avoid direct overflight of the airport as they had a glider working right over the field. I acknowledged the call and swung us a bit north, informing them of what I was doing. We never did see the glider, however, even though we both spent some time looking for it.
The land near us was brown and flat for tens of miles, especially ahead of us where Las Cruces laid. I could see the sharp jagged edge of the Organ Mountains in the distance; I knew them well from my almost-year of living in Alamogordo, NM. The Las Cruces airport was on our side of them, though I couldn’t see it yet. Until I could, we busied ourselves by following the GPS and chart lines of our course through the desert and by watching the toy-like cars and trucks move past us on the straight-line grey ribbon of I-10 below that bisected the airplane.
As the Las Cruces airport crept into view, we could see runway 8/26 pointed right at us. The winds were out of the west, still, as they had been, for the last two days, making the approach into the airport easy. I simply throttled back a bit as we got close and descended to pattern altitude keeping runway 26 to my left, which put us just about over the Interstate. I called our downwind over the radio and I ran through the Landing Checklist, dropping the flaps to fifteen to decelerate us and help steepen our approach. I extended us out a little bit and then rolled onto base ad then final, picking up the two ball VASI on the left. It said I was high so I pulled the power all the way back and settled on the glideslope, catching it with power as we came down. Flying the VASI put me too far downfield to make the first turnoff after I touched down, so I let us roll down to the second before I turned in.
We taxied across the parallel taxiway to the ramp, as my eye caught sight of the Phillips 66 sign that belonged to Southwest Aviation, one of the two and the older of the FBO’s on the field. I arced us toward it and shut the airplane down just short of the place. We opened our gull wing doors and hopped out, and I chocked the plane down but decided to skip the tie-downs since the winds weren’t gusty. We walked into the FBO to cool off and see about getting gas. The attendant was very cordial and immediately departed for the fuel truck, which he had some trouble starting. But he did get it going on the fourth attempt, and we met at the airplane and got it fueled up. We seemed to be his only customer, though there were several single engine airplanes pulled up to the restaurant and FBO at the center of the field. The restaurant had to be killing him.
Connie and I took care of our bathroom needs and then walked across the ramp toward the restaurant, seeking lunch. Despite the heat of the noontime sun, a family was sitting at one of the restaurant’s outside tables as we approached. The man of the group asked what airplane we had flown in. I replied that we had flown the light sport behind us; and when he asked where we were headed, I answered “Houston”. He nodded and we went inside, stepping into the FBO’s cool, air conditioned air. We passed a desk where the FBO did its business, including flight paraphernalia, and the restrooms before encountering the restaurant itself. The Crosswind Grill itself was not very big, a small quarter of the building with some tables, a few booths, and the kitchen behind closed doors. Connie and I grabbed a table and waited for someone to show up to help us. Across from us sat a couple of EMT’s and an air ambulance driver and, from the talk, a couple of Civil Air patrol pilots.
When the waiter finally arrived, we both ordered a couple of grilled sandwiches and fries. As we waited, we talked about the flight in and what to expect on the next leg. We were headed to Fort Stockton, Texas next; I had never been to its airport though I had driven through the town many times on my way to Big Bend National Park or on my way back home from it or places further west. We hoped to do one more leg today after going there, and it would have us end the day at Fredericksburg, Texas and the Hangar Hotel.
The lunch was both good and welcome; we finished eating about an hour after we had arrived, paid up, and then headed back out to our airplane. The sun was high in the sky, pounding down on us with its heat and driving the density altitude higher. With the airport already at 4456 feet MSL, I knew the airplane would think we were taking off at something like six thousand, and I wasn’t sure what it would mean. We had many times more runway than I would need to make a safe decision, but I knew this would probably be the worst takeoff of the trip, at least from a performance standpoint.
Nevertheless, we did a quick walkaround, unchocked the airplane, and climbed in. As we started her up, I checked the ASOS to find the winds were still out of the west, even though they were blowing at only a few knots. I taxied us out to runway two-six, stopping at its hold short to perform our takeoff checks. With everything set and ready to go, I taxied us out onto the runway and readied for takeoff.