Flight to Montgomery

May 15, 2003 Mel Aden

Flying across America in a light plane is one of the flying adventures I’ve wanted to do every since I bought an airplane, and finally unemployment added the missing element: plenty of free time.   But with re-employment looming, I was down to the last two weeks in which to do this, so it was time-to-go with no more procrastination.  The idea was to fly, with my brother, in a straight line east, from Oakland to Virginia, where my mother lives, taking two days and flying only during daylight hours.  The computer showed less than 13 hours of flying time each way, so two legs per day, each under four hours, would do it.  Wichita, Kansas seemed like a handy overnight point.  The forecast weather hinted of trouble ahead, but nothing too drastic that could not be solved by sitting in a hotel for a day somewhere.


Flying over the Rocky Mountains is troublesome for most small planes which can’t reach the 15,000 foot altitudes needed for instrument flight, so most have to skirt the range by taking the southern route, almost reaching Los Angeles before turning east, but my 1978 Piper Turbo-Arrow III easily handles this, thanks to its turbocharger and the oxygen system, so the course was straight.  The first stop Monday was Grand Junction, Colorado, an extended leg thanks to a brisk tailwind, and offering fabulous peek-a-boo views, in and out of clouds, seeing Bryce Canyon and the rugged western mesas.  We had a late departure, so the next leg was short, an hour and one-half to overnight in Pueblo, ducking between the ice-filled clouds and the high terrain, flying visually for safety.   Pueblo at dusk was overcast with virga cells (raining clouds where the rain does not reach the ground, associated with severe turbulence), and we slowed down below maneuvering speed to protect the airframe from stress, and this turned out to be a very wise thing; we were bouncing happily along, deviating around the cells which were both visible and reported by the tower radar, when suddenly in clear air we hit an intense downdraft which smashed my head on the ceiling.  I let out a yell, and all the cellphones, pencils, glasses, and papers fell out of our shirt pockets, hit the ceiling, and scattered.  After collecting all the pieces and refilling our pockets, it happened again, just as strong, and once again everything hit the ceiling and scattered. This time we were yelling with an open microphone… I wonder what the controllers thought?  There was plenty of white showing in our eyes after that, but the remaining five minutes of the flight was smooth.  The hotel seemed particularly inviting.


The next morning the weather channel showed many tornados covering Kansas, our intended first overnight stop!  Had we gone to Kansas, we’d have been stuck for days!  It took about 30 seconds to determine that Virginia was unreachable, and even Colorado was in for it.  We decided to bailout to Abilene, Texas, and then scurry along the Gulf coast and overnight at New Orleans.  What a climate change!  Gloves, jacket, and freezing in clouds at Pueblo, and a heat wave in Abilene, but otherwise it was an uneventful flight over the vast empty flat lands.  The radar transponder broke on the way, and after it was fixed by creative mechanics, the next leg was shortened to an instrument flight to Austin, Texas.  But alas!  The engine run-up showed that the alternator was not charging, so it was time for a Texas steak and hotel in Abilene

The alternator was working by 7:30AM Wednesday, about $400 later, so an early start and three hour flight brought us to Baton Rouge, past President George Bush’s magical expanding prohibited airspace which grows to more than 500 square miles when he’s in residence.  A shorter hop through warm puffy clouds brought us to Montgomery, AL, visiting relatives only 50 miles south of the tornados that pounded BirminghamAbilene had a tornado watch on Wednesday night, so it felt like the darn things were chasing us!  All hopes for Virginia were abandoned, so Thursday we began a slow return, first an instrument flight to Mobile, AL on the Gulf Coast, where we borrowed a courtesy car and visited the battleship Alabama and toured the restored elegant old manors downtown.  We ended the day in Luftkin, Texas, where the space shuttle pieces fell to earth, after flying over a cloud layer for three hours.  Luftkin is in a dry county, so to get a margarita you have to join a “club” for five dollars, on the spot.  One of the benefits of the club is that the first two drinks are, “free”.


Since we could not get to Virginia for Mother’s day, my mother flew to Dallas instead, and we flew in to Ft Worth, intimidated by the giant Dallas airport and the fact that you may have to taxi for an hour if they land you on a distant runway.   The Dallas-Ft Worth instrument chart is unlike any other, with only a couple “highways” actually reaching an airport.  Instead, the routes end in a 30 mile empty white circle, and the final approaches are all with approach procedures and radar vectors.  I was frantically twirling knobs on the GPS to keep up with the last minute routing changes, and landing at Ft Worth was a relief following a needed instrument approach.  We parked at an on-airport hotel that turned out to be closed for renovations, with a darkened lobby missing most of the lights for economy sake, one bored attendant, and we were the only customer for the day.  Next door was a modern jet center with full amenities that I longed for. 

Ft Worth was great, with many attractions downtown, and terrific all-you-can-eat ribs at the Stockyards next to the rodeo.  After Mother’s day Sunday brunch we flew through the clouds to Austin, TX, visiting relatives again for a couple nights.  During a capitol building tour, we crept into the gallery above the House of Representatives, since they were in session, and to my surprise, everyone was wandering around, talking on cell phones, or doing emails.  By chance, we had picked an historic moment to visit the house- the democrats had fled to Oklahoma to prevent a quorum!  Later, the representatives who had showed up were locked in to prevent them from leaving.  After dinner we checked-in again, and ended up on local TV from the gallery, at the moment that the republicans gave up for the night and gave everyone passes to go home, leaving congress in session with nobody there.


Tuesday we flew through solid low clouds for an hour and a half out of Austin, into the hottest and driest day of the year at Carlsbad, NM, where plants grow out of the runways.  After a one-half pound “best” hamburger, we walked the entire Carlsbad Caverns, reaching 750 feet under the surface, a wonderful natural phenomenon.  The airplane seemed weak and slow on the afternoon trip to Phoenix, against the strong headwinds, very high temperatures, and downdrafts, and I applied climb power occasionally in cruise, when the plane seemed to be “sagging” out of the sky, hanging from its propeller.


The next day unseasonably bad weather and thunderstorms were forecast for Phoenix and the Sierra, so we rushed out of the area, skipping the planned air tour of Sedona, Monument Valley, Hopi Indian reservations, and so on, and returned via the southern route, entering California near Edwards Air force Base, and stopping for lunch in sunny Bakersfield after a dive-bomber approach where air traffic control takes you over the mountains at 10,000’ and then immediately clears you for the approach.   A most interesting sight was the Ford Motor automobile proving grounds, and we were pleased to fly over a whistle-stop named, “Aden”, my last name.


After lunch, as usual for this trip, the weather took a sharp turn for the worse, with 20 knot gusting headwinds, a mean storm system moving in, thunderstorms over Fresno, and Oakland socked in.  We turned on the automatic direction finder, which pertly whipped around and pointed to every hidden lightning bolt, and this encouraged me to make a wide circle around the dark mysterious cloudy areas over the valley, and stay visual.  The trip ended with a typical bay area instrument approach, with the tower calling out traffic warnings while I’m still blind in the clouds.


The trip took around $200 of aviation charts, $1,200 of gas and 35 hours of flying, and no part of it involved taking any special chances.  Due to clouds everywhere I felt like I really did not see much of America beyond the far West, and not reaching Virginia was a disappointment.  It was ironic that we picked a week with 412 tornados, more than the previously recorded maximum of 170.  But each leg had the effect of tying two parts of the nation together in my mind, and I feel I know the how the country connects better than ever.  Pilot challenges like the Rockies are behind me, and I certainly feel much more comfortable with instrument flying!


The retractable landing gear 1978 Piper Turbo Arrow III uses 13 gallons of gas per hour while going about 172 miles per hour at altitudes up to 20,000 feet, getting about the same mileage as my Jeep Cherokee.  It has four seats, carries 72 gallons of gas and about 1,000 lbs of payload including the fuel.   The moving-map navigation and autopilot system can be engaged after take-off and programmed to deliver you to the end of your destination runway.