I tried flying myself from New Hampshire to Texas for my cousin’s wedding. I succeeded, in the sense that I made it to the wedding, and I made it back home. But the trip was a good deal more than I had bargained for.
Why fly myself you ask? Partly to reduce contact. And significantly to give myself flexibility. When I first RSVP’ed for the wedding, Texas was a covid mess. By flying myself down, I would only be out one hotel reservation if I decided to cancel the trip last minute. My parents also opted for flexibility. They did a bicycling and RV camping trip on the way to the wedding. Their trip sounded a lot more fun than mine.
Straight line from NH to Texas by RV-4 is ten hours. Split that into two five-hour days, and that seemed long but doable — that is until I reviewed flight logs from our Utah trip. While we had flown six hours a day, I had only been flying three of those. My next problems were Thanksgiving and covid. On that Utah trip we had stayed at people’s houses, gotten taxis, borrowed crew cars, eaten out, and stayed at hotels. On Thanksgiving day, I wasn’t sure what resources would be available, and the whole point of flying myself down was to minimize contact. The last problem is always weather. Without an instrument rating, I am dependent on good weather at lower altitudes.
I packed a good deal of the kitchen sink, just in case. I took out the back seat so I could fit a folding bike. That would guarantee me ground transportation. I brought a sleeping bag. I debated a tent, but that seemed excessive. Between the bike and the sleeping bag, I could get to a hotel, or lay out on a couch in a pilot’s lounge. On top of that, I had 6 days of clothes, fancy wedding clothes, and two jugs of maple syrup as gifts. I weighed everything and it fit within the weight and balance.
I made it to Texas in three days. The first day I stopped in West Virginia to visit my aunt and uncle. The flight was only 2.5 hours and then I really enjoyed the stay over with family. At that point I was still gung ho for the rest of my trip. In retrospect, I might have done just fine to enjoy Thanksgiving there and then come home. But I did have wedding to attend. There was a long cold front stuck on the western side of the Appalachians. It stretched from the great lakes to Georgia, so there was no getting through it. However, with clever timing, I could fly down the east coast Thanksgiving day, let the storm pass over Thanksgiving night while I was on the ground, and then fly west along the gulf coast Friday.
Route: NH16 – 14N – KMRB
The fun part of the trip was spotting landmarks. Wednesday I had seen the New York City sky line, the Hudson River, the Shawangunks, Beltzville PA, and Harrisburg PA. Then Thursday it was places I remember from my childhood: the backbone of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah valley and its meandering rivers, and Roanoke VA. I started feeling a bit green in the gills around Roanoke because of the air rolling over the mountains. I stopped in Elkin NC for lunch, and after that I stayed east over the Piedmont where the air was smoother.
Oddly, Thanksgiving day I passed two helium balloons. I can’t see a helium balloon until it is within one thousand feet. So for me to have seen two, just imagine how many kids must have lost their Thanksgiving parade balloons.
Elkin had a black cat who was supposed to stay inside and be a mouser, but who clearly pined to explore the great outside. A neighbor lady came by to see if I needed anything for Thanksgiving. From North Carolina south, I didn’t know the landmarks, but I think I spotted the Charlotte skyline. Thick clouds pooled on the west side of what might have been the Smoky Mountains. For some company, I opted to call air traffic control. There weren’t many planes out flying, but we all said Happy Thanksgiving to the controllers and they all wished us a Happy Thanksgiving back. That night I stopped in Columbus Georgia.
I know you all often want to know how I pick airports and do I have to call ahead to arrange arriving. Here’s how I did it. I drew a line 4 hours long from Martinsburg WV southward, staying east of the mountains, and out of Atlanta’s restrictive airspace. Then I looked on the chart for airports with fuel (square bumps outside the airport circle) and near an urban area (yellow splotch). Next I checked airnav to see if the fuel was self serve (necessary on Thanksgiving). Then I went to Google maps and looked for hotels and restaurants near by. I noted down a handful of viable airports. Columbus Georgia was as far as I got before sunset. The office at Columbus Georgia was closed, and the bathroom was behind a one way locked door. But I sorted it out and bicycled a half mile to the closest hotel. The front desk clerk wasn’t sure if any restaurants were open, so I made a dinner of food from my cooler and crashed in bed. Four and a half hours of flying that day, I was exhausted.
Route: KMRB – KZEF – KCSG
As I planned, the weather passed overnight and I had clear skies for my westward leg. I paid my tie down bill and was on my way. Alabama is flat. Mississippi is flat. Louisiana is flat. I stopped somewhere for lunch, but I don’t remember where. I passed the mighty Mississippi River. I flew over some smaller serpentine rivers. I was surprised to see how far those small rivers had wandered back and forth in the last hundred years. Maybe five miles wide I could see loops of different types of trees indicating either an old oxbow was still wet, or they were recolonized in one year by a dominant tree type. There was a good deal of smoke from people burning fields or woodlots. I spotted the Gulf of Mexico, which I am not sure if I have seen before or not (family reading this can correct my memory). Near the end of the day, I flew past a flock of Whooping Cranes. They were magnificent. This day was another four and a half hour day. By the time I reached my final destination, I was so tired the ground wouldn’t stay still when I stood up.
Route: KCSG – 0R0 – KCLL
For the return trip, no matter how much I wanted to get home in two days, I was going to have to break it up into three shorter days. Furthermore, I needed to take a different approach to planning my flight legs than we had for Utah. Then we had climbed to high altitude to take advantage of tail winds, and we had stayed aloft for three hours to minimize the time wasted going up and down. Flying by myself without help, company, room to wiggle, or a pee bottle, even two hours seemed to be exhausting me. So, for my flight back, I decided to do 1.5 hour legs or 200 nautical miles. I also resupplied my food stocks at the grocery store. I got more lunch options and a bunch of salty snacks including a bag of potato chips. If I got going promptly in the morning, I could fit in three legs, two lunches, and still make 4.5 hours of progress. The weather didn’t cooperate with this plan.
I arrived at the airport at 8AM. I had the airplane packed and checked over by 8:20. 600 feet up there was a solid layer of clouds, and below that mist obscured the hills. An hour to the west the weather was perfect, I just had to wait for it to get here. 9AM no improvement. 10 AM no improvement. I started calling the airport’s automated weather station. 10:30 the clouds were now 600-900 feet variable and visibility was up from 3 miles to 4 miles. I decided my personal limit was I needed to see the hills crisply with no trace of mist. The terrain was flat to the west, so I could easily scoot out to clear skies and then head north. 11AM clouds were up to 900 feet and the mist was all gone. For my own records, I did request a SVFR clearance, but by the time I was in the plane and ready to take off, the clouds had lifted farther and I got a regular VFR clearance. Once in the air, it wasn’t long before I was clear of the clouds in blue sky.
My carefully planned stops for the day weren’t going to work because I was now on a more northerly route, and I had gotten a late start. I stopped at Clarksville Texas at 1.5 hours. Somehow I messed up and they didn’t have fuel. However they had a nice sunny deck and three friendly pilots who came to chat while I ate lunch. Or, at least I think the first two were friendly. They couldn’t get a word in edgewise once the third one started talking. I flew to neighboring Idabel to get gas and enough peace and quiet to plan my last stop for the day. Between Idabel and Paragould Arkansas, I was too far from home to identify any landmarks. I saw more birds and smoke from more fields being burned. In fact, on the ground at Paragould, it smelled awful from all the smoke.
The following morning I found the airplane covered in thick frost. I rotated the plane around until each side melted in the sun. Then I wiped the frigid sopping mess off.
Route: KCLL – KLBR – 4O4 – KPGR
The bump up at the beginning was me seeing if the winds were more favorable up high. As you can see from the speed profile, they weren’t.
Return day 2, Monday
Monday went much better. I crossed the Mississippi and its giant irrigation canals. East of the Mississippi, the farmers flood their fields rather than burning, so it smelled better. I flew over the giant Kentucky Lake which is one of the Tennessee Valley Authority projects. Then south of Lexington, the Kentucky River has dug an impressive canyon. Farther east came the Appalachians. I am used to the long ridges of the eastern Appalachians. These western Appalachians are just a wide area of bumps. Between the bumps are steep walled valleys. The farther I flew into West Virginia, the deeper the valleys got. Most of the valleys weren’t even wide enough for a road. A few had houses strung along single file attempting to be a village. To build Logan county airport, they had flattened the top of several mountains and filled in the valley between. Proceeding farther north, I saw the New River Gorge and its bridge for the first time. Then I was back into familiar terrain, passing Mount Porte Crayon which we hiked, Seneca Rocks, Mount Storm, and finishing the day back at Martinsburg WV with my family again.
My potato chip bag gave me a moment of entertainment. Many small airplanes have carburators, mine included. Some of you people reading this have dealt with carburetors in old cars or in simple tractors. But for the rest of you a quick explanation. It mixes the fuel and air before sending the mix into the engine. As you go up in altitude, the air gets thinner, so you need a different mixture. Carburetors are entirely mechanical, so I as the pilot have to pull a knob until I get the mix right. After leveling off at 7,500′, I had just gotten the engine running smoothly when I heard a loud bang and felt a pressure wave. I had a moment of concern for my engine before realizing the bang and pressure wave had come from behind me, and the cockpit now smelled like potato chips. The thing I want to know is, stores in Laramie presumably sell potato chips at 7,100′ without the bags exploding. Are the bags near exploding, or do they come from a factory that is higher than my Texas chips came from?
It was an uneventful day, added to an uneventful previous afternoon. I was covering miles, and by stopping often, I wasn’t too tired. But it sure was boring. One more day and hopefully I would be home and done.
Route: KPGR – KJQD – 6L4 – KMRB
Return trip day 3, Tuesday
Tuesday was no fun at all. The rain/snow from the Great Lakes that should have come later in the day, came in the morning. It reached, not to central Pennsylvania as forecast, but all the way to the New Jersey coast. If I could have flown straight through DC’s restricted airspace, I might have beaten the clouds to the coast, but by the time I got to New Jersey, the storm was already there. The day turned into a series of attempts and aborts. I could not get past the trailing end of the storm. In the end, sunset forced me to give up. I tied down in Middletown New York and earned myself a 2.5 mile bike ride to a hotel. I was thoroughly frustrated.
The only good parts of the day were that I successfully got a clearance through a class B airspace, and two military jets flew 500 feet overhead of me as I was crossing the Chesapeake. They didn’t show up on ADSB.
Route: KMRB – KXSA – 33N – 39N – KSMQ – KFWN – 06N
Final day home
I didn’t get an early start on Wednesday. Partly on purpose because I needed the frost to thaw off the plane. I waited for the cars in the parking lot to show signs of thawing before I left the hotel. And partly I was just fed up and didn’t have the motivation to face other day alone by myself droning through the sky.
I landed back at home at 11AM Wednesday – a week and two hours after I left.