Story by David Kujawa
Photos by Justin Stewart
Niagara Falls is roaring in my ears. My feet have been on the ground for over six hours, but three days of 100 mile per hour wind still swirls in my head. The desert sun has etched my eyes and face the same bright crimson as the Great Lakes I just brought home to roost from Texas.
I got a call from a guy who needed his airplane ferried from Houston’s David Wayne Hooks airport to Deer Valley in Phoenix. The parties involved quickly determined I was the right guy for the job. “How are you going to get it home?” they asked. “Got a GPS?” “GP what?” I replied, “No, it’ll be IFR, IFT, and uncontrolled fields.” I’m not a purist by any means, but the spirit of the thing dictated how it should be done. Open cockpit biplane says, “Look outside, there’s no nav aids in here.”
The biggest issue ferrying any airplane almost one-third of the way across the United States in February was weather. My approach to this was decidedly low tech—monitor forecasts for stations along the route for a period of time and determine where the holes were in the storms rolling off the Pacific that were drenching the Southwest. Nothing scientific. I wrote down a 10-day extended forecast and every day at 6 a.m., noon, and 8 p.m. I looked to see if it came true. I’ve never had much good to say about meteorologists, but the forecasts started to play out.
The next challenge was how to get to Houston when the weather said go. An airline buddy offered me a pass. I dropped an email to my friend Justin asking if he’d like to fly his Cirrus out and drop me off. He called me and said, “I’ll fly it back with you.” That was an even better idea.
It just so happened that my boss, Max, had a business meeting in Austin at the same time the weather looked good. Sunday night we made the decision to go. Monday morning, we packed up the Lancair Columbia 350 at 0-dark-thirty and were wheels up at sunrise. The three of us were fortunate to have understanding wives; it was Valentine’s Day.
The primary flight display showed 190 knots groundspeed at 11,500 feet. The number one Garmin 430 was programmed direct Newman VOR then direct Pecos. The multifunction display showed the route in living color. Natural light colored the high clouds ahead. We sat back with arms folded while the autopilot did its job like a pro.
Our conversation ranged from the much needed winter storms to Garmin tricks to recent mid-air encounters. Even with all the fancy equipment you still have to see and avoid. I mentioned to Max and Justin what a contrast this trip would be—outbound in a Lancair and home in an open cockpit biplane. Hitching a ride in fast glass with friends was hands down a better way to go than in a big aluminum tube.
We dropped into Pecos for some gas and a snack. A couple of old hound dogs greeted us as we deplaned. A lot of my West Coast acro buddies pass through here on their way to and from the U.S. Nationals as evidenced by the photos on the walls and in the guest books. Half an hour later we were airborne again for the next leg to Hooks.
It was a perfect day for flying. The air was smooth as glass and the sky over Texas clear. Jeez, it’s flat out there. The horizon ran monotonously from one side of the airplane to the other. No worries if the engine decided to quit. We’d have all day to pick a spot to land.
Our arrival into Hooks went smoothly but it took us a while to find the right hangar. One of the airport locals gave us a lift in his pickup as Max blasted off to Austin. As I walked into the hangar, I couldn’t help but smile when I saw our charge—bright red with cream stripes trimmed in gold. “Play with me” was written all over her.
Justin and I conducted independent preflight inspections and everything looked to be in order. We ate our lunch, fueled up, and cranked. After departure we pointed the Lakes west and started chasing the sun. Five hours of daylight remained and we hoped to make Fort Stockton after a fuel stop in Kerrville.
Once out of the Houston area we dropped down to a more reasonable red-biplane altitude. I was flying, but all of a sudden the airplane made a hard left turn. Justin asked calmly if I saw that tower. Ah, the joy of being wired, connected 24/7. You got your text messaging, your email, and your Internet all right there in the palm of your hand? I hope you like it. Those metal stalagmites are like a Ginsu knife to a tube and fabric biplane. Some are charted, some aren’t, and most aren’t lighted. Good thing for the second set of eyes in the front hole.
About an hour out I was messing with the mixture when Justin said, “Do you hear that?” I responded it was just me leaning things out a little more. “No!” he said, “The engine sounds different.” Between the airframe vibration and the wind boxing my head I didn’t hear any change. The oil pressure and temp looked good so we continued on towards the hill country.
We were staring directly into the sun for the second time that day, making Kerrville Airport a little hard to see. A Citation jet conveniently lifted off showing us exactly where we needed to go. After topping off the tank, Justin crawled underneath the cowl and checked the exhaust stacks. I pulled out my Leatherman and unscrewed the side cowlings. When I got the right side open I saw what he heard earlier—the right front exhaust pipe was completely broken off at the flange where it bolts to the head.
Guess we weren’t going to make Fort Stockton that day. No sweat, I had called over the weekend to inquire about fuel, hangar, and lodging availability at all of our planned stops. A shuttle from the Y-O Ranch picked us up. The Y-O looked like a hunting lodge complete with branding iron chandeliers, huge fireplace, and mounts all over the walls. Justin patiently explained to his non-hunting pal what all the heads were. The alligator I figured out for myself—the 15-footer still looked like it could kill.
The next morning after breakfast I called the mechanic at the field and explained our problem. I could tell by the speed of his voice that we were going nowhere fast. And this wasn’t someone I could get Yankee on. While the pipe was at the weld shop we passed the time cleaning the airplane. I looked at my watch about a hundred times. Noon rolled around and the locals told us to go get a burger at Vicky’s Burger Barn a few miles down the road from the airport. We took the FBO’s crew car and fed our faces. A big low off the Pacific churned farther east.
A couple hours later we settled the repair bill. It looked like Fort Stockton would be our overnight. Based on the fuel burn we decided to top off at Ozona. No point in hurrying now, we couldn’t make El Paso before sunset. Even though the Lakes had lights there was no way I would risk landing in the dark just to put a few more miles behind us.
The guy at Fort Stockton asked us if we were barnstorming America. We weren’t hawking rides but I guess in a sense we were barnstorming, flying from one point to the next with a sectional chart, following roads and railroad tracks. After hangaring the airplane, he gave us the keys to his Jeep and a hand drawn map of town with the location of the best Tex-Mex restaurant. The Dos Equis and enchilada plate really hit the spot. After dinner we stopped by Wal-Mart, bought seven-dollar pairs of swimming trunks, and took advantage of the pool and hot tub at the hotel.
We were back at the airport before sunup on Wednesday. As soon as there was enough light we were out of there. We caught a bit of a break with some wind on our tail that pushed our groundspeed to over 140 mph. El Paso here we come. The sun rose over our shoulders as we hunkered down in the cockpit trying to stay warm. Justin had his old, black Navy seaman’s cap pulled down over his headset helmet. I was glad I had remembered to bring my scarf.
As we approached the Davis Mountains the ceiling and visibility lowered. After poking our nose a ways into the clouds we bailed out and began a climb on top. Fog contoured the west side of the mountains like a draped blanket. Quickly we reached the top of a fluffy white cotton sea that extended north to the horizon. Fortunately that sea only rolled on a few more miles westward.
We arrived in good time at Horizon on the east side of El Paso. The FBO building was wide open but no one was around. A student and his instructor waved as they taxied by in a Cessna 150. The gas pump was locked so we pulled out some snacks and waited for someone to come along. A guy in a road grader pulled up alongside the Lakes and said he expected us last night. I told him we had run out of daylight.
I was standing on the ladder fueling the airplane as the 150 did touch and goes in the pattern. Nice morning to solo I thought to myself. I walked inside to pay the bill and someone said the instructor had gotten out of the Cessna. Justin and I were ready to go but I told him we had to stick around and watch a fellow pilot in the making. His first landing was a greaser, the second a little shaky. The third was picture perfect and he stopped before the FBO. We all clapped and offered our congratulations to the new pilot as his instructor clipped off his shirttail.
One of my goals for this flight was to return to Phoenix without talking to ATC. Sure, we self-announced at all the uncontrolled fields, but hey, when the old head at the airport tells you the easy way to cross El Paso was to call approach you do it. Then you pick up the tracks that run all the way to Deming. Simple as that. Justin and I took turns wing-wagging at trains.
At Deming I checked the weather again and knew we had it made. We still had a couple hundred miles to go but I began to relax a little because we wouldn’t get wet. I was more concerned about my head than the paint on the airplane. If you’ve ever flown topless in the rain you know what I mean.
As we headed east towards Willcox, Justin told me that was antelope country below. There was snow on the Chiricahua Mountains and I was glad we could go around them down low. A pipeline patrol Cessna Caravan passed a hundred feet under us. Justin said that guy was probably wondering why we were flying so high. We broke for lunch at Cochise County. Microwave bageldogs go good with mustard.
One more leg. We were on home turf now and I put away my chart. Flying past the east side of Mount Lemmon near Tucson, I looked down at terrain that few people had probably ever seen. Not a fun place in an emergency but the Lycoming up front was bulletproof and showed no sign of letting up. Arriving in the Phoenix area we circled over my wife’s office and Justin’s house then proceeded to Deer Valley.
We had been anxious to make El Paso the day before, but if we had, we wouldn’t have seen the things we saw today. This flight would have been fun by myself, but not half as much fun as it was with Justin along. There’s no better way to barnstorm America than with a friend. After flying all day I was ready to get out of the cockpit, but I wished it would never end.
David Kujawa was born and raised in Oshkosh, WI. He is a CFI and is the former editor of Sport Aerobatics and former associate editor of Northern Pilot.