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Cross-country Adventure

Jan 26 - 29, '96

I was walking back after parking the Citabria and ran into Gordo.

``Gordo! What's up?''

``Hey, I'm going to be picking up another Grob and flying it back here. You want to go along?''

Zounds! What an offer. Could I afford to turn it down?

``We leave on Thursday, pick up the airplane Friday. We might get back late Sunday, or Monday.''

Gordo (Gordon Turner) is the west coast dealer for Grob airplanes. The Grob 115 is an aerobatic 2-seater, all fiberglass. They are assembled in Bluffton Ohio, and when he sells one, he gets to fly it back.

I figure out that it wouldn't cause too much of an upheaval if I skipped town for a few days, so what the hell. An opportunity like this comes just once in a lifetime. The opportunity to fly an actual cross-country flight, including actual IMC, icing, with the only expense to me being a one-way airline ticket? Unbelievable.

Ohio

About the flight to Ohio, the less said the better. We flew in to Columbus (where it was a bracing 28 degrees) and were picked up by Mike Shade, who's the North American head of Grob Aircraft. We piled into his Cessna 182 for the trip to Bluffton which was quite pleasant--at 1500' the whole way, at dusk. Even the midwest looked quite pretty! (And what would have been a couple of hours by road was 30 minutes in the 182.)

In the hangar there were five brand new 115s waiting to go--including 115AG, which would be taking us back to Palo Alto. Also looked at all the glass sailplanes and motorgliders--the Twin Astir, a G109, Jantars... heaven!

We checked in to the Holiday Inn (I think it was) which was right at the airport and then drove to Findlay, the local metropolis. It looked straight out of the 50's, with humungous mansions all built with gas money. The big industry in Findlay is natural gas, and (Shell?) owns everything. Gordo knew a restaurant that actually had fresh greens at the salad bar, so we went there for dinner.

One One Five Alpha Golf

The next day dawned not-so-clear and cold. After getting up at 5am and getting some breakfast we go over to the hangar and (after the weight of the paperwork approached the weight of the airplane) towed out Five Alpha Golf for a little warm-up flight. (The oil needed to be changed, and the engine has to be warm to do that. Twist my arm, I guess we have to take it out for a little flight!) After take-off climbed to a few thousand feet and did some mild aerobatics--wingovers, loops, rolls; then land.

We filed IFR to Alton in the St Louis area. Around 9 am--it was time! We donned our parachutes and away we go. Climbed to 6000. Visibility was excellent under a high but solid cirrus layer--the sign of an approaching front. The clouds grew heavier and lower until about half-way to St Louis we were in it. It had warmed up, though--outside temperature was around 1 Celsius so ice was not likely to be a problem. Occasional rain but generally smooth... which meant that there was no excuse for me to be wandering 100' from the assigned altitude! Oh well, I think it was because I was flying from the right seat. Got to Alton (ATN) and flew the VOR approach. The GPS moving map is just amazing for situational awareness! Broke out at 1000' and circled-to-land.

The frontal boundary was very close to St Louis by now. After we landed, planned the flight, got the weather and filed, it looked like we'd be hitting the front soon after departure. That's exactly what happened, of course. Soon after climb out we were on top at about 6000' and it was beautiful! But it didn't last; we were back in the soup. Outside temp had dropped a lot, though, and it looked like this was the front. Now we were starting to pick up some ice, and quite rapidly. We asked for higher and climbed to 8000'; still in IMC. Asked for higher; broke out at 10,000' and finally were in the clear. By this time we probably had about 1" of rime on the wings and had lost about 15kt of airspeed... but at least we weren't picking up any more. And the ride was smooth.

This was when I noticed the GPS groundspeed readout--30kt! What the hell? We asked Center, and they confirmed--he had us at 25kt. Then we heard from a Bonanza climbing through 14,000 who reported a headwind component of 150kt. Ye Gods! We'd been out of ATN almost an hour and we were still not out of the STL Class B airspace!

The clouds were lower now, so we asked for lower. At 8,000 we were getting a groundspeed of 40kt--better, but hardly good. Asked for lower yet, and at 6000' we showed 45kt. Getting better... got a block altitude from 4000 to 6000 and flew up and down trying to find the best spots but didn't find anything better than 50kt. But the undercast was thinning out now and we could see the ground; it looked like the celings were around 3000 which happened to be the MEA for the airway; so we asked for 3000. Sure enough, down there we were all the way back up to 80kt although the ride was pretty rough. Mostly clear in occasional snow showers.

Off to the left we could see an airport, and an airplane climbing out. It was a twin, looked like a King-Air. He climbed rapidly and disappeared into the clouds. We heard him on the frequency:

``Hey Center, I saw a small white airplane under the clouds there--you guys talking to him?''

``Affirmative.''

``Well, you might want to tell them that it's nice and smooth up here, the tops are around 6000'.''

Gordo got on the mike and said ``Yeah, we tried it, but with a speed of 120 kt we can't accept a 90kt headwind.''

``So where are you guys headed?''

``California.''

He starts laughing. ``Well, you guys should make it there in the next couple of weeks or so!''

It didn't look like we would make Wichita Falls (ICT)--the headwinds had cost us too much fuel. So we picked Joplin Missouri and headed there. Gordo had a prospective customer and he could show off the airplane. When we got there it was almost dark; we landed, and rushed in to the terminal since the temperature now was around 22 degrees.

The FBO was like an FBO anywhere else, yet not quite like anything else. There were the usual bunch of hangers on and I had a lovely time talking about airplanes and California (!) and Idaho and teaching... and one of the guys was a high school teacher. This chap went on for a bit about how the kids were undisciplined and evil and I felt I had to do the softshell thing so I went into my rant of how if students were inattentive and disrespectful it wasn't their fault and all that... oh well.

The big thing in Joplin seemed to be the cost of living. That is, the cost of living was so low that flying was absurdly expensive; and the FBO had a campaign in full swing about the cost of flying lessons. About how it was cheaper than a golf lesson, and fishing, and... very depressing.

So we filed for Wichita Falls and departed. Soon after reaching crusing altitude the controller says ``Can you accept direct ICT?''

You betcha! ``Affirmative.''

``Are you receiving ICT VOR?''

``No, but we have GPS.''

It was lovely, just flying along... it was a beautiful night by now, clear, visibility unlimited, bright stars and a half moon. We cruised along in a Zen-like meditative state until we got to ICT. It was after we got there that we realised that it was too close, and we couldn't make Boulder in one leg! We should have gone on a little further. Oh well... we called ahead to Garden City to make sure that we could get fuel, and set off. Of course got ``direct GCK''--excellent. Quick refuelling stop in GCK and onward to Boulder.

Still a beautiful night but unfortunately we couldn't see the Rockies standing astride the plains! I decided that I'd have to do this sort of thing again, in daylight. Again we got ``cleared direct Boulder airport'' and flew on over the city (including a close look at Denver Intl. Airport)... we were crusing along at 9000' and decided to stay up there so that we could do some akro over Boulder to lose the height. It was also getting on to 2 am by now, and we decided that since we both had friends in Boulder, why don't we stay there Saturday and leave Sunday morning.

We arrived over Boulder and did the aerobatics promised. A wonderful thing, aerobatics at night! Finally landed at Boulder to find the place completely deserted, with a foot of snow on the ground and no hint on where to park. After a long time walking around on the snow and ice we found a spot. By this time Gordo's friend arrived, and he helped us push the airplane through the snow into the spot. I finally got to Ed's at 3am. It'd been 24 hours since I got up that morning!

Boulder

After that late night that both Ed and I had, we didn't wake up till almost noon. After paying tribute to all four felines and a quick shower we set off to tour the sights. What a lovely sight, actual snow on the ground! And the temperature--just right. The weather reminded me of Pocatello but the population wasn't anything like it, of course.

We went to a little restaurant for breakfast (some place that Ed like but Jane doesn't, so I suspect Ed takes all his out-of-town friends there since that's the only chance gets!) and then a little wandering around. After looking at all the incredibly young whippersnappers that pass for college students these days (and getting some espresso) we set out in search of Neptune Mountaineering. This was the place that Mike Soo had visited and said they had lots of telemark stuff.

After a little false start (your basic North vs. South confusion) we found it. It turned out to be absurdly close to where Ed lives, the lucky dog! And it was well worth the trip. The store was evenly divided between climbing, hiking and telemark stuff. I finally got to see the skis everyone talks about... and the plastic boots and all. And shovels and transceivers and... Dammit, I need more money.

After we went back to their place, we found that Jane was busy with school stuff--she's taking a computer graphics course. We made plans to meet up for dinner and then Ed and I headed for the microbreweries. The recommended place was called ``The Oasis''--done up in a kind of Egyptian motif. It looked sort of goofy but Ed assured me that the beer was good. And so it was! The oatmeal stout was pretty good, but the bitter was excellent. I should have taken Ed's advice and ordered that at the start but live and learn.

It was good to to talk to Ed again. The last time I'd seen him was a few months ago when he was in the Bay Area but so much had happened in the mean time! I complained and whined (as usual), about women (as usual).

Soon it was time to pick up Jane and head for dinner... the place they had selected was an Ethiopean restaurant (whose name has slipped my mind). This was a tiny place with a tiny waiting room--with the result that we had to wait outside. Ordinarily this wouldn't have been a big deal but it was about 28 degrees with the wind howling and blowing snow around. Very pretty but not the most comfortable.

After about an hour's wait we were seated. The food was delightful, and well worth the wait. They had quite a few local brews, and the owner is this friendly woman who went around the table with recommendations, jokes etc. All in all a very pleasant evening, and an excellent end to an excellent day.

The West

Leaving Boulder we couldn't file since all the MEA's were up at 14,000 and up. We abandoned our plans for Aspen since there was a new storn moving in; we headed due south to try and skirt south of the storm. The forecast was for moderate turbulence off the front range, but we didn't really see any of it. We climbed up to 14000 to try and get above any turbulence that might exist. The winds weren't too bad, and the storm didn't reach too far south so we didn't actually have to go to El Paso (which was a possibility); we headed for Albuquerque. We arrived just in time for lunch. Surface winds were still stiff, so Gordo landed.

It would be so excellent to just drop in unannounced on someone in Albuquerque! I called Tyson but damn! They weren't at home. Oh well... Albuquerque really is a lot like Tucson, just like Tyson had said. Even the little cluster of high rises (``downtown'') looked identical. Of course the terrain was quite similar too. After a quick lunch, and off we go again; headed for Flagstaff.

The southwest is just wonderful. Northern New Mexico is mostly large mountain ranges separated by large basins. As we got close to Arizona the mountains and valleys changed to canyons and mesas in wonderful colours. At the border lies the little town of Zuni. Some more aerobatics? Oh, why not! Again it was just wonderful. At one point we were heading straight down and I noticed, framed in the windscreen, a little ruin of a pueblo on top of an isolated mesa. What a find! Something we never would have seen had we just been driving along on the surface.

A little further to the west lies, Meteor Crater. Again, a little aerobatics were called for. The views of the crater were made especially sweet, not just because I was looking at it from unnatural angles but also gratis . I positively abhor paying to see natural phenomena.

We were going to be arriving in Flagstaff with plenty of daylight to spare so we went sightseeing over Mt Humphreys. At 12,100' it's the highest peak in Arizona and is one of the remnants of a volcano. Looking at it eye-toeye, so to speak was wonderful again. It's amazing how you can really get the lie of the land when you look at the terrain from a few thousand feet and 100kt. We had a very nice time just playing around the top of the volcano and then flying over the Painted Desert.

Flagstaff

Flag is a nice little town. Hard to believe that it had been almost two years since I'd been there last, it had changed so little. The Flamingo had closed down, but other than that it was much the same. At least the Cafe Espress was still in business, and still had much the same feel. It was a little too cold to sit at the patio but it was nice inside. And the view was nice too--the whole town was just filled with young women. Probably NAU students with time on their hands, since it was the Super Bowl weekend. Our waitress was also a nice charming young thing wo chatted a bit.

After dinner we walked around the old part of town and then went to the Beaver Street brew pub. This place used to be an old Food Town grocery store which went out of business; the infusion of yuppie money then resurrected it as a pub. They still had a lot of the old Food Town signs, and the beer was ok. Not great, but ok. The pub itself was nicely done. The ceiling was done with glass panels, an unusual looking effect.

And then back to the motel for an early departure the next day.

California

Our plan was to depart Flag at 7 am but the FBO didn't open that earyl so it had to be 8. On walkingout to the plane we received a nasty shock--deep frost! And the scumbags hadn't said a word. We rousted them out and had it de-iced, which delayed usa little more. But that was ok, we had plenty of time...

We flew generally westward. The plan was to head for the LA area, probably Van Nuys; refuel, and then to PAO. It was a beautiful day, clear with a high thin layer, and visibility in the hundreds of miles. We flew over Prescott and Mingus mountain, then Baghdad; basin and range country again. Some of those little ranges are spectacular, like dark brown islands rising up from a light brown sea--that's how striking they really are. Especially towards the California border.

We crossed the Colorado over Parker dam. I felt like weeping at the enormity. You could see how spectacular the canyon was, and what a waste to drown it just for more alfalfa crops. Nothing short of a national disgrace.

We flew on over further stretches of basin and range country. This was the southern edge of the Mojave desert, which we could barely see. Up ahead we could see Banning Pass and Mt Gregonio. It seemed like we were just a few minutes away even though it must really have been a good hundred miles or so. It took us quite a while to get there.

We took the opportunity to fly up right next to the mountain and look at the views. Spectacular is the only word. The mountain on the right, and Palm Springs on the left. And ahead, the LA basin under an undercast marine layer.

The Van Nuys ATIS was calling VFR but it certainly looked solid. Besides there was the airspace to contend with, so we filed a pop-up to VNY. Sure enough, when it was time to be descending, we were solidly in the soup at 3000' under radar vectors for the visual. At 1500 we broke out into the marine haze with 3 mile visibility, right on left downwind behind a Pitts. I misjudged the approach badly and screwed it up totally. Damn! And after a really good day of holding course and altitude too! The airspeed was all over the place and the touchdown was none too smooth.

Lunch was at a Denny's or something just off the airport. The weather looked awful, haze and white skies. Would we have to file to depart? After lunch it was getting better so we just went VFR. The plan was to depart straight out and fly due south to the coast, then follow it all the way up. Once over the coast hills it turned out to be a pretty nice day, sunny and with nice visibilities. Once we were about 4 miless offshore we flew along doing some wingovers and rolls to entertain the natives.

As we overflew Mugu Gordo pointed out the quarters he used to be stationed at. Also the missle launch silos etc. Then on to Santa Barbara. The marine layer had thickened to a solid layer by now, so we climbed to about 3000' and ran some cloud canyons. We also took a little shortcut by going over Solvang to Pismo and Morro Bay. We took the opportunity to buzz some of the little ridges that are owned by the oil companies.

The entire coast is wonderful. So much nicer than driving on Route 1! You don't have to worry about staying on the road, but can concentrate on the views. And what views! You don't see one iota of the true beauty of the hills from the road. It is nothing short of wonderful!

We also went and overflew the Hearst Castle. And some akro to entertain the poor ground-locked sods, of course! The Castle itself is disgusting. To spend that sort of money on a house and swimming pool, when you could spend it on flying... amazing. People are just strange.

The coast area is the Sea Otter wildlife refuge, so we stayed above 2000'. The colours in the ocean we incredible. I took some pictures but I knew there was no hope of capturing it on film. No way to share it with my ground-bound friends other than through words. How can words do the scene justice? Not just the colours, but the feeling. For example, we were flying along, and then Gordo says:

``I think we just missed the whale migration season.''

``So this is the time they migrate?'' I looked down. ``Hey! There they are!''

Sure enough, directly below us, a huge pack of whales cruising along just under the surface with occasional white areas marking where they come up for air. Even from 2000' they are impressive animals.

All too soon, we rounded the corner and were at Monterey. One last look at the whales, and we set off directly across Montery Bay. (We stayed with Monterey Approach even after they bid us ``radar service terminated, squawk VFR, resume own navigation'' just in case we were ``goin' swimmin' '' as Gordo put it. And then we were over Santa Cruz, then over San Jose, and pretty soon PAO tower had cleared us to land on 30 behind another aircraft.

But the adventure wasn't over yet! The other guy took forever to taxi off the runway, so we had to go around. As we were doing so Gordo asked for a landing on 12--``Five Alpha Golf cleared to land 12.'' A quick 180 off the departure end was followed by an immediate touch down. We were home.

Epilogue

What a trip! Truly a life-affirming experience. For most people it would be a once in a lifetime opportunity to do something like this. To take in the look of the land not in little pieces from the freeway, but in sweeping vistas from 2000 feet. To see how the land changes, so subtly, but so strikingly. And most people would never be able to (or want to) do this sort of thing. Oh well, the loss is entirely theirs, the poor sods! As for me, I'm certainly going to do it again. And often. Perhaps the next time take the northern way, visit the NEWTs in Boston, then Michigan, Pocatello... And then southerly--Florida (see Mike), Texas, Tucson, San Diego...


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