February 8, 2005

THE INNOCENTS ALOFT

Can't talk long -- gotta run...

I have been very, very busy -- insanely busy. Much of the time I've been building things. First I made several million, individually crafted viruses. Yes, there's nothing like handing over your entire collection of cells to manufacture some rogue DNA for some unliving parasite that does absolutely zero good for anything, including the virus.

Work has been nuts -- it's Kudo season, plus I have to re-cut 26 shows for the International market in what used to be essay-writing time -- and with the various projects involved in getting and keeping the Velocity airworthy I have been getting home at midnight, 1:30 am, that sort of thing -- all full of calm rationality and a nice fat five hour block of uninterrupted time to crank out an new essay. That's assuming I don't sleep.

Mnnnnnn...sleep...

I'm up at six to go to Aspen for a taping -- five days stolen right there. Et Cetera. (Lileks does this so much better than I do)

So while I am away, I am going to do a one-time only guest writer, my dear friend: our very own Great Hairy Silverback, ladies and gentlemen!

Every student pilot has to do a cross country flight or two to get their rating. We did the cross country flight.


I'd write some commentary, but GHS doesn't need any help and I have to pack and clean up before the house sitter comes over in the morning.

Believe me, there is nothing I'd rather do than bang out a couple of these little ditties that have been orbiting my head for a long time. I am just. Out. Of. Time.

Hope to fix that in a week or so. So don't worry about hiatus or Blog Crib Death Syndrome or following the USS Clueless out past the galactic boundry energy field. I'll be back as soon as I can scrape together four uninterrupted, fully-concious hours. Until then, ladies and gentlemen, the melodious text stylings of Steve Stipp:





Day One: Sunday, December 19th, 2004

If I have to read anything that's closer than the length of my arm, it had better be in large bold-faced type. Anything less will be an indecipherable blur. But beyond arm's length, my vision is still the same 20/10 it had always been before the passage of my fourth decade on this Earth. And that, combined with my twelve years as an air traffic controller, means that I'm usually the first to spot and identify any aircraft in the sky.

Such was the case that Sunday morning.

My wife, who'd driven me to the field, was standing beside me on the deck of the flight school at Kissimmee-Gateway Airport when we first heard Bill's voice on the hand-held VHF radio we'd borrowed from the school. He was fourteen miles south of the field, inbound to land, and calling the tower for clearance.

My ride was here. The adventure was about to begin.

We grabbed my luggage and camera cases and trotted over to the fuel dock. The local maintenance and refuel guy joined us, pulling up in a golf cart, onto which we piled my traveling paraphernalia. Then I dragged out my video camera, and started scanning the skies for its target. Bill reported in again on the radio, this time eight miles out, and was cleared to land, all before I finally spotted him'well, his flying machine anyway'as he appeared from out of the haze.

At first little more than a hyphen against the pale blue'a hyphen with a dark blister in the middle of it'I started rolling tape just as the plane's twin vertical stabilizers materialized at its wingtips, giving its silhouette its distinctive longhorn skull shape: pointed nose, upturned horns, a sleek countenance of speed.

I videotaped it as it wobbled down final approach in the stiff winds. I zoomed in as Bill flattened out its descent and touched down light and level at the south end of the runway. And I panned right to follow him as he rolled out and turned off at the north end, just across from where I stood. But when the 'Follow Me' cart jerked into motion to lead him to the fuel pump, it spilled my luggage across the ramp, and the drama'and my videotaping'was cut short while the driver and my wife scrambled to get it all picked up again. Then the parade was back in motion, golf cart in front, plane in trail, with Bill and his Sky Queen Dana barely visible inside its darkly tinted cockpit. They reached the pumps, swung broadside, and chopped the power. And the only sound that was left was the snuffling of the twelve knot wind as it combed through the wings and the trees.

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Welcome to Kissimmee, Bill and Dana.

* * * * *

The day before, Dana and Bill had arrived at Orlando's International Airport, having dashed across the country, from coast to coast, in less than five hours on an American Airlines 757. I'd met them there, and driven them'by way of a pilot's shop at another airport'down to my father's house in Vero Beach, about an hour-and-a-half drive over to the east coast, then halfway down to West Palm Beach before setting out on our aerial quest the next morning.

We couldn't resist dropping in on the bird along the way though. It was already dark by then, so we drove through the secure gate, parked with my brights pointed at the hangar, then muscled the massive doors open to reveal' 'The Fox.'

Velocity, tail number N301EF'or, in aviation parlance, 'November Three-Zero-One Echo Foxtrot,' or 'One Echo Fox' for short'referred to by us as simply 'The Fox.'

It's a spin-off of Burt Rutan's renowned Long E-Z design, a twin-tailed, pusher-prop, forward-canard 'experimental,' except that the Velocity seats four instead of two, and this one had retractable landing gear and an extra powerful engine in the rear to boot.

Illuminated solely by my brights then, we walked around The Fox, popped its doors, sat inside, ran a few systems up to speed off the battery, patted its smooth seamless composite hide, and paid a little spiritual homage to the petulant gods of flight before calling it a night, sealing up the hangar, and finishing the drive to the Vero house.

The next morning''Day One' of our private little odyssey'we took a bit more time than planned gathering up our flying gear, along with the aircraft's headsets, its manuals and mandatory paperwork, then hit the road back to the Sebastian Airport.

I hung around there just long enough to help with the opening of the hangar doors and the push-back of The Fox, then I pitched out Bill and Dana's bags and hit the road again, leaving them with the plane. I had to get my car back to Orlando (in lieu of making complex arrangements for recovering it later), and Bill needed time to reacquaint himself with The Fox. We would meet again in another two hours or so up in Kissimmee, once I'd gotten home, packed a small bag, and been driven down to the airport, and once he'd prepped, pre-flighted, and flown the airplane up from the coast.

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And so it was.

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And that's how we wound up meeting each other again at the fuel dock of the Kissimmee-Gateway Airport, with my luggage spilled across the ramp.

Somehow, despite the fact that it was just five days before Christmas, the national weather'from coast to coast'was forecast to be uncharacteristically clear and sunny for the next three days. That was the good news. In fact, it was downright astonishing news. The bad news, though, came when Bill returned from the briefing room (where he'd been while Dana and I oversaw the fueling of The Fox), having just received the latest update.

Our winds aloft were going to be out of the northwest, he said. At forty-five knots!

That's forty-five friggin' knots, by the way. We couldn't believe it.

We were flying to the northwest, up out of the Florida peninsula. And that meant 45-knot headwinds the whole way'which, in turn, meant much longer flying times each leg'which meant more power, and thereby more fuel burnt per leg just to come close to our original schedule, which called for us to be in Dallas around sunset.

There wasn't much we could do about it though. Scheduling arrangements aside, we were also racing an approaching Arctic front that was barreling southeast out of Canada, and was expected in Orlando by nightfall'which meant it would be scouring through northern Florida and Alabama even earlier. As in 'right about now.'

So, with a shoe-horn and a tamping rod, we tucked my 240-pound derriere into the one remaining backseat (the other being cluttered with accessible flight bags, purses, airport directories, and now my camera cases), hot-started the mighty Continental engine, closed the gull-wings, and taxied back out to the runway.

And at 12:14 in the early afternoon (almost two hours later than we'd originally hoped), we were cleared for take-off. Bill swung us onto runway 30, put the coals to the big old IO-550-N in the rear, and, with the help of that twelve-knot surface headwind, we leapt into the air and were flat gone.

I caught one last fleeting glimpse of my wife looking up at us from the parking lot, then she too disappeared beneath the wing strake. Disney World slipped by barely a minute later. Mere seconds after that, and we were at our initial cruise altitude of 6,500'. However, it didn't take long bobbling through the turbulence at that level before we opted for the next higher westbound altitude of 8,500' where it smoothed out quite nicely. Coincidentally, it was there we decided to remain for the rest of the first leg.

Bill had plotted a course that tracked northwestward over Ocala and Cross City, directly over the Tallahassee airport, then up to Marianna on the AL/FL border, before arcing up and through southern Alabama, across Mississippi, dipping slightly through northern Louisiana, and thence directly on to Addison Field in Dallas, Texas. He'd marked off and printed up layout and data sheets on every sizable airfield along the route, and bound them into impressive little booklets, the premise being that whenever we figured out where we'd need to land to refuel, we'd have all the information we needed right there at hand. And that became the job of the right-front-seater'the navigator.

In Star Trek parlance, that made Dana 'Number One.' And once again, I was 'Number Two.' I'm still not sure how literally to take that.

We were going to need a minimum of at least one refueling stop on the way to Dallas'two stops, more likely'and possibly even three, depending on just how much of a toll those headwinds were going to exact. And by the time we'd crept around the horn of Florida'its 'coastal armpit' anyway'and had Tallahassee in sight, it had become obvious that two refueling stops were being called for. And it had become equally obvious, now that we were battering our way through the leading edge winds and turbulence of that Arctic front, that any landings anywhere in Florida, Alabama, or even Mississippi, would be through the blustering turmoil of even stiffer surface winds.

And this did nothing to bolster either my comfort or confidence. We had fast, torrential winds at altitude, and stiff crosswinds on the ground, at every airfield along our route. Throw in the fact that we were loaded to near gross capacity, and the circumstances were just win-win all round.

My vote was for fewer landings.

It was decided'which is to say that Captain James T. Whittle decided'that Marianna, Florida, northeast of Pensacola on the Florida/Alabama border, would be our first stop. So we began our descent about twenty minutes after overflying the Tallahassee airport, and almost immediately dipped into the roils of lower altitude turbulence.

For nearly half an hour then, as we slalomed between the thickening clouds, The Fox was pummeled about the sky, swatted sideways here, gut-punched there, and generally hammered from all directions for the rest of the time in between. I tried to videotape the ride for posterity, but finally gave it up after my head was bounced off the ceiling a few times, despite my tightly cinched seatbelt (it is a very low ceiling, after all).

The runways at Marianna are in an upside-down 'L' configuration. And since it is an uncontrolled airport'as in 'no tower''we entered its pattern with a high overflight of the center of the field, looking for its windsock. We found it near the intersection of the two runways, standing out ramrod stiff, and pointing forty-five degrees away from both strips. In other words, no matter which runway we chose to land on, we were going to have a quartering crosswind. Yippee. Needless to say, I was none too terribly enthused about the prospects of this landing.

However, with just over a fourth of The Fox's fuel capacity remaining'damn those headwinds'we had to land soon, one way or another. And the next few upcoming airfields along our route were even smaller, with shorter, narrower runways, none of which were any better aligned with the prevailing winds than Marianna's, and with the possible necessity of making multiple landing attempts all the more curtailed because of the extra fuel we'd have to burn getting there.

So Marianna it was.

Bill swung The Fox back around through a bumpy circling descent, and set us up on a tight left downwind to runway 26. With repeated radio calls in the blind, apprising any other aircraft that might be in the area of his position'and there were none, not in that squirrelly weather'he then dropped the left wing, and wrestled his way down through the atmospheric rapids to a good, firm'albeit somewhat twitchy'two-point landing. We all breathed a sigh of relief then as we taxied off the runway at midfield, and puttered up to the little terminal to get some fuel.

(That was the second-toughest landing I have ever made. That one took all the skill I had in the box. But thanks to that experience, I now have a bigger box!
--BW)

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No problem. Just six or seven more landings like that, and we'd be in L.A.!

Climbing back up to cruise altitude again'following an exhilarating take-off, that was made all the more thrilling by the wind's earnest desire to see us do a barrel-roll the instant our wheels cleared the ground (a desire thankfully thwarted by Bill's readiness at the stick)'we found ourselves rising through slanted shadows, and skimming across the grain of the Arctic front's leading edge, skirting it in a mad dash to the west.

And hemming that leading edge like a fringe of cotton puffs was a deck of small clouds, crowding their way into Florida between about 7,000' and 8,000'. In other words, at exactly the wrong heights for our preferred cruise altitudes of either 6,500' or 8,500' (westbound VFR aircraft are required to fly at even altitudes plus five-hundred feet).

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At 6,500', we'd have the ragged and turbulent bellies of the clouds barely 500' over our heads, giving us a bumpy ride and putting us in a position for being rudely surprised by any other aircraft that might descend through the clouds. And at 8,500' we'd be surfing the cloud tops illegally close (VFR aircraft must remain at least 1,000' above any clouds), and forced to thread our way around any cloudy promontories that might rise into our flightpath. As it was, we were already having to thread our way upward on a gentle zig-zag, seeking the clearest openings between clouds. Now it appeared we were going to have to climb all the way to 10,500''not a big deal in and of itself, but with a likelihood of racier winds at altitude, not to mention colder temperatures. And as we were just then discovering, The Fox did not appear to have very good cabin heat. Hey, the engine was behind us. We pull all our heat off of the tiny, nose-mounted oil cooler.

On the first leg, Bill and Dana'the two front-seaters'had mentioned a cold draft blowing on their feet. I hadn't noticed it, sitting in the back, so I'd naturally presumed they were just a couple of whining wimps, kvetching over nothing. On a Velocity though, which has the engine mounted in the rear, the nose cone does little more than provide a place in which to stow the retractable nose wheel. As such, any air leaking in through its seams trickles into the passenger compartment unwarmed by the absent engine. And the higher the altitude, the colder that air is.

Now I was sitting up front'I was still Number Two, but at least I was no longer in the cheap seats'and I was able to confirm their diagnosis: my toes were frozen. Solid.

So we looked at the cloud tops rushing past, just below our nose, and judged that we were going to have to climb higher. And we curled and rubbed our toes, and wished that we didn't have to. Then we did.
And then the clouds clumped together, and turned into a solid undercast.

At 10,500' there was not a blemish on the radiant blue above us. All the clouds were below us. And the sun'which, by 3:00pm, Central Standard Time, was down about two-thirds of the way from its zenith to the horizon'was a white hot spotlight that defeated all of our sunglasses. The air was as smooth as glass (though the headwinds continued to hold our ground speed down to about 140 knots), and with the undercast cruising past barely 2,000' below our wings, it looked like we were clipping right along.

(Ten-five is higher than I'd like to be without oxygen. Although the legal limit was 12,500, I was concerned about the creeping effects of hypoxia -- lack of oxygen. Hypoxia makes you stupid -- often too stupid to realize you have hypoxia. So I made Steve quiz me on world capitols. The son of a bitch knows the name of every country, and it's capitol city -- on the entire planet! So as long as I could conjure up Damascus and Canberra and Pyongyang I knew we were all right, oxygen-wise -- BW)

But our legs were frozen stiff, in the front and back seats now.

So when the clouds began to break up somewhere over western Alabama, and their tops appeared to be receding further and further below us, we opted to descend back down to 8,500' and see how things were there.

Well, as it turned out, the difference between 30 and 33 degrees Fahrenheit (the official air temperatures at 10-5 and 8-5 respectively) was pretty much undetectable to our refrigerated lower extremities. But since all other aspects of the flight appeared unchanged by the descent'same clear blue sky, same ferocious sun, same smooth air'we opted to stay at that level the rest of the way to our next waypoint' which by then had been determined to be Natchez, Mississippi.

The descent into Natchez was, much like the one back at Marianna, a bumpy ride. Not quite as violently rugged, but a potholed traverse nonetheless. And, in another similarity, the airfield was equally difficult to spot from the air'until we actually spotted it, that is. Then it was obvious as hell.

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A light green 'X' carved out of the deep green nap of the landscape, it suddenly stood out like the classic X that marks the proverbial spot. Again, because it was another uncontrolled airport, we first overflew it at an altitude well above their advertised pattern, and turned all eyes out the windows to seek out its windsock. And once located, we were pleased to find that, while the sock still stood out just as rigidly as the one at Marianna, at least there at Natchez it was pointed the same direction as runway 31. So it wouldn't be a crosswind this time. We battered our way around a low-altitude pattern'with Dana videotaping everything from the back seat'and touched down at the pretty little airfield among long afternoon shadows and crisp winds.

Another fuel truck chugged out to meet us at our parking spot'with another driver curious about our strangely configured ship. And while Bill and Dana headed into the terminal building to arrange the next leg of the flight, I supervised the fueling of The Fox (by pacing around the wind-whipped ramp on numb feet and videotaping the quaint surroundings like a Florida tourist).

Checking the dipstick showed that we'd barely burned a little over a quart of oil since Kissimmee. We topped it off and climbed back aboard.

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Our take-off out of Natchez had us climbing into a blinding orange sunset'that, plus even colder air temperatures at our cruise altitude of 8,500'. Now that we were finally west of the southeastbound Arctic front, the sky was a cloudless, crystal blue, and we had our pick of optimum altitudes. We leveled off at 8,500' simply because the air didn't smooth out until we'd risen above 7,000', and 8,500' was the next legal westbound altitude above that.

It was also barely 30 degrees outside, with that damned draft swirling all over my feet and ankles'because I was once again 'up front' with Bill again.

Within half an hour of crossing the Mississippi River, we were all buried under improvised leg-warmers, Bill with sweatshirts and jackets pulled from his luggage and laid over his legs, and Dana with The Fox's protective tarp dragged out of its bag and wrapped repeatedly around her, from her waist to her feet. Me'I relied on my general imperviousness to cold, and tried to tough it out for the remaining two hours to Dallas.

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Then night fell as we cruised across the Texas border'after a long, lingering Louisiana twilight'and, as reported by the digital read-out, the outside air temperature dropped to 26 degrees.

Twenty-six friggin' degrees! Outside, and now inside the cabin, and coursing over my feet like ice water.

Everyone's legs were cold. But mine'my legs were ice sculptures. And as Dallas slowly crept over the horizon, that benumbing slowly crept up over my knees, engulfed my upper thighs, and was seeping into my groin before the galaxy of city lights finally slipped under the nose and we began our descent.

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I was pounding on my legs and rubbing them furiously even as we talked our way down through the checklists and the air traffic hand-offs.

And thank God for that glorious GPS and Moving Map Display, right there in the center of the control panel. Because Dallas, at night, at Christmas, is a solid sheet of multi-colored lights from horizon to horizon'street lights, billboard lights, front porch lights, car headlights, the full bustling miasma of a major metropolis just five nights before Yuletide'and I'm here to tell ya', a small single-strip airport just vanishes against that kind of a backdrop.

While we tracked the Moving Map to a point just north of Addison's north-south runway, all of us were ferociously scanning the cityscape ahead and to the left of us, searching hard for the straight rows of blue and white lights that outlined the taxiways and runways respectively. And none of us could find any. We were at barely 2,000', coasting through the rippled night air and over the millions of lights at about 120 knots, closing rapidly on the field, and still unable to pick it out of the clutter, even at five miles, four miles, three miles out. When Addison Tower cleared another aircraft to land ahead of us, I tried to find that aircraft in the air just so that I could follow its track to the field. But it was already so low and close to the runway, I guess, that it was below the horizon, and any light below the horizon, moving or otherwise, was simply swallowed up and smothered by the riot of city lights beneath us.

Then Bill finally spotted it'two strands of dim white pinpoints lost in that sea of far brighter sparks'practically under our left canard and mere seconds before we blew right across final.

(Usually airports are brighter than surrounding dark fields. Addison was a dark, narrow patch in an ocean of brighter lights -- BW)

And we swooped in tight and steep for our third and final wind-blown landing of the day.

We turned off at midfield, and Ground Control guided us over to the Million-Air ramp, where Bill had already arranged for our Dallas hosts to meet us. And there we shut down, unwrapped ourselves from our impromptu 'cold weather gear,' dragged out our luggage, secured our valuables, locked up the cabin (using the key again, against our better judgment), chained The Fox to the ground, and walked through the brisk wind over to the terminal'where we found heat!Blessed heat!

Bill called Kim du Toit'our host'from there, to let him know we were finally down, and I called my wife to assure her that I had survived the day. Then we scarfed down several cups of the facility's coffee and hot chocolate, and schmoozed with the sweet lady behind the counter until Kim arrived in his SUV.

Handshakes and howdies all round'great to finally put a face to the printed voice'then we heaved our luggage into the back of his car, drove out onto the flightline for a quick perusal of The Fox under his headlights (he just kept repeating, 'Oo, I want one, I want one, I want one.'), and we were off to his house.

We found Kim's house'a stately brick two-story at the intersection of two streets that were crowded with other stately brick two-stories, all bedecked in Christmas lights and wireframe reindeers'the streets besieged by cars and trucks for a full block in every direction. The du Toits appeared to have some company.

Inside, it was an all-out bloggers convention, and everyone seemed to know Bill, whether by previous experience, his writings, or his picture. Some even recognized me, for Criminy's sake, and that was a surprising (and very flattering) rush all by itself. I got to meet Emperor Misha I, and a host of others whose screen names had become almost a second family to me. Indeed, a grand time was had by all. And Connie du Toit had laid out a generous spread of cookies, cakes, chips, drinks and a monster pot of chili, all of which I attacked quite shamelessly, since I hadn't eaten anything all day'my heart and mind might love to fly, but my stomach has never shared that enthusiasm.

And no sooner had I scraped my last plate clean than the exhaustion dropped over me like a collapsed tent. Suddenly I couldn't even hold my head up. The weight of my eyelids was snapping every toothpick I jammed in there to keep them open. And after my third nod-off in the middle of all those fine people, I opted to head upstairs, splash a little water on my face, and stick my head out the window.

I made it as far as the bed that the du Toit's had reserved for me.

The next thing I knew, it was almost twelve, and I was coming to, hanging half off the bed, and still fully dressed.

Bill apparently lasted well past midnight at the center of the social whirlwind downstairs, however.
Me'I just shucked my flyin' duds, and surrendered to the darkness again.

Day Two: Monday, December 20th, 2004

We'd had big plans to be back in the air by 9:00am'we wanted to reach Prescott, Arizona before sunset (just long enough to show the airplane off to my brother), and then press on into Los Angeles that night. And that meant a reasonably early departure out of Dallas in the morning.

Then we were off to the outdoorsman's store.

Shopping there was an experience'not the sort of stock us coastal city slickers often encountered'but in the end, we walked out of there with gloves, silk long-johns, and a variety of thermal socks. Bill and Dana actually bought electric socks (batteries not included). I, on the other hand, settled for the more conventional thick woolies, with silk inserts. And again, we were off.

At the airport, we took over the small Million-Air terminal's restrooms while we broke out our new under-duds, and redressed with them underneath. Then, while Bill stayed behind to file his flight plan and get his weather briefing, the rest of us walked out onto the wind-whipped parking apron and down to The Fox.
Dana and I pulled the plugs, pins, and tie-down chains, and worked our way through the plane's external checklist, while a couple of local maintenance folks topped off our fuel and oil and helped wipe down the stains and dribbles from yesterday's flying. There was one minor hiccup in this otherwise smooth operation though, when the gentleman pouring the oil, well' he poured it in the wrong place.

For some reason, on this aircraft, the top of the dipstick'the part you grab with your fingers anyway'looks like a small coffee can, about three inches deep, and about two inches in diameter. I don't know why, and I'd seen nothing in the manual to explain it either. And without knowing any better, that was what the maintenance guy had poured the oil into. Needless to say, it didn't take much to fill that up. And it was only when he called me over to ask me if the oil always took that long to run down the tube, that I was able to explain it to him, and the delicate clean-up operation began.

In the meantime, Bill at last came out of the office and marched up to us looking somewhat stunned'because he'd just been informed that starting at 4,000' and going up, the winds were out of the west-southwest (the same way we were going), at 87 knots!

A one-hundred mile an hour headwind! With turbulence reported at all altitudes!

We needed assistance collecting our jaws up off the pavement.

After a brief discussion however, it was decided that we would take-off anyway, futile as it might be, and head west for one hour. If we hadn't even cleared the Dallas city limits by then, we would turn back around and return to Addison Field (probably about a thirty-second return flight), and enjoy another night of du Toit hospitality. But if we could battle our way to Prescott by nightfall, we might just push on through.

Heads nodded in agreement, hands were shaken in thanks and farewells, and Connie handed over a paper bag of snacking foods'apples, cookies, sodas (that we dared not open at altitude), and some tiny bite-size candy bars'and I once again stuffed myself, and the goody bag, in among the clutter of The Fox's back seats.

It would become my preferred seat for the rest of the trip, not only because of the broader shoulder room in the back, but also because, as the resident 'ballast,' my greater contribution to the payload weight was better situated back near the center of gravity.

That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

Forth Worth Approach had to direct us through DFW's crowded Class B airspace (as opposed to merely 'tracking' us as we made our own way through). And to float us across the grain of all those approach and departure corridors going in and out of Dallas/Fort Worth, they chose to vector us straight over the center of the airport at 4,000'. A hell of a view of one of the busiest air traffic facilities in the world.

As usual, The Fox had bounded into the sky as if from a catapult launch. We'd reached our assigned 4,000' altitude almost before we'd even crossed the departure end of Addison's runway. But the crosswinds had blown us so far east by then that, when the controllers turned us on course'westerly, toward DFW'it took us almost a full minute just to recross the Addison departure corridor, the airport we'd just taken off from.

Fortunately, despite the pessimistic forecast of hurricane-force headwinds and perpetual turbulence, the air smoothed out beautifully as soon as we leveled off at 4,000'. And though our forward progress was definitely held back by the westerly air currents, we were actually fairly pleased with the headway we were making'an indicated airspeed of 190 knots, a ground speed of barely 120'sluggish and laboring, to be sure, but better than we'd expected. So, as Dallas slowly backed away from us, and West Texas loomed eternal up ahead, we made the unanimous decision to go for it. It would probably require three interim fuel stops just to reach Prescott, considering the head-on battle we were going to have with the wind, but, hell' it was only fuel, right? Only money.

Our first stop along the way then was Hale County Airport in fabulous Plainview, Texas. We had fuel enough to go further, but, having resigned ourselves to three landings on the way to Prescott, we'd then opted to space those landings out evenly, breaking the long haul up into even fourths. And Plainview was the first quarter of the way there.

Its automated weather recording reported 25 knot surface winds, gusting to 30, and coming out of the west-southwest'which meant -- surprise! -- a crosswind landing. Then halfway through our descent, we hit the turbulence layer again, and the picture was complete. Watching Plainview bounce and pitch and veer outside the window as we thrashed our way down final approach, I determined that we had no business landing there at that moment.

Such was the extent of my heroism riding in the back seat of that plane.

As the video I shot attests however, Bill somehow managed to pull off one of his best landings of the entire odyssey there at Hale County Municipal.

(That is because 1.) I am a steeley-eyed missile man, and 2.) A good landing is half luck; two in a row is nothing but luck and three in a row means someone is lying -- BW)

Somehow, despite an exaggerated crabbing approach and an all-out wrestling match with the roiling winds'flying half-sideways through the aerial rapids that boiled over the buildings and hurdled the highways over which we passed'he straightened and flared at the last possible second, and set it down gently, with two quiet little chirps, right on the runway centerline.

On the video, you can hear the congratulations'and the gratitude'even over the roaring engine noise.

It was decided then that, despite my natural reluctance to put food in my stomach while flying (and thereby eventually having to transfer it from gullet to plastic baggy in-flight), we would spend an extra half-hour or so on the ground there'grab a little lunch, and give the oil a chance to cool off before the next big westerly push.

So, in the stiff, ruffling Texas wind, we refueled The Fox, then restarted and taxied it through the tumbling (more like hurtling) tumbleweeds over to another part of the apron where we could chain it down while we were gone. The local folks very generously offered us the use of their courtesy car'an old but sweet running Cadillac'and we drove up the road a mite to partake of some fine Burger King fare. I entered the place cautiously, but managed to leave it stuffed. Call me a slow learner, I guess.

We topped off the oil again before buttoning ourselves up inside the plane, and taxied through the stiffening winds to the runway, rocking in the buffeting breeze the whole way. And I gotta' tell ya', I didn't want to take-off from Hale County Municipal any more than I'd wanted to land there an hour before. Of course we took off anyway.

It was admittedly a rocky one, with the winds trying their damnedest to flip us over the instant our wheels broke free of the ground. But again, Bill fought through it, and only a minute or two later, we were climbing through smooth air up to our cruise altitude of 10,500'. And though the headwinds continued to blunt our ground speed'holding us down to the low 130s'the ride was at least stable and glassy. And boring.

West Texas ambled past, and New Mexico moseyed by after it, with no detectable visual difference between the two. Great green disks of irrigated crops, strange little circuit-board layouts of dirt roads and dead-end derricks among the oil fields. Dry gullies, eroded hills, and endless railroad tracks laden with mile-long freight trains going both directions, only slightly more interesting when viewed from the air than the ground'until the first of the mountains finally rolled over the horizon, heralding the approach of our next stop.

Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Still some fifteen miles east of the rugged, dark green escarpment, we hit the first of the mountain-effect turbulence coursing over the ridgeline. And that, combined with the ridge's eye-level height and the close proximity of our destination airport on the other side, convinced us to detour a little to the south where the saw-toothed crests petered out into a low saddle. So we aimed left and started our descent early, battering our way downhill, swooping through the burbling currents in the gap, and arcing back northwest across the broad wash south of Albuquerque. And resting there atop the plateau on the far side was the tiny Belen Airport, a single-strip uncontrolled beehive with a surprisingly busy little traffic pattern, despite the winds.

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We checked in with the traffic as we approached, and were pleased to hear one pilot report surface winds over the runway of barely five knots!

What a refreshing change.

We sequenced ourselves into the flow, and settled in for the first 'easy' landing of the entire trip.

While the local fueler refilled our tanks, the usual small crowd of The Curious gathered around The Fox. One particularly studly ace, with just the right amount of five o'clock shadow and the obligatory aviator shades, seemed smugly inquisitive about our progress in the teeth of such stiff westerly winds. And once I'd told him, he seemed to think that our embattled 130 knot ground speed was 'cute,' because the Learjet he was flying wasn't quite so adversely impacted. Of course, his little pocket-rocket was broke at the moment'partially dismantled in the weathered old hangar behind him, while he waited for the locals to fix it'whereas we were able to take off again as soon as our tanks were full.

At least he got to watch our 'cute' little Jetson-mobile leap into the sky and turn toward the setting sun, all from his grandstand position on the cracked asphalt of the Belen Airport parking ramp.

All in all, I preferred my situation over his.

We were at 10,500' almost instantly this time, thanks to the 5,200' field elevation that we started with'half our climb was done before we'd even cranked the engine. Better still, once we'd leveled off at altitude and our power could be directed entirely to forward thrust again, we were thrilled to see our ground speed rise into the mid-160-knot range for the very first time. The headwinds were still there, but they'd relinquished over 30 knots of their obstinacy. That mountain range on the east side of Albuquerque was the magical dividing line apparently, and that was just fine with us. Finally'finally'we were making some appreciable headway. We could ease off the power now, save some fuel, and still make better time than we'd been able to anywhere else across the country.

We watched the numbers quiver and vacillate for a while, just to make sure the sudden jump in performance wasn't a happy fluke, then we started the calculations. And the more we multiplied and divided, the more it became apparent that we weren't going to need a third refueling stop after all'we could make the second half of the day's flying, at least as far as Prescott, in a single leg.

Woo-HOO! Now this was the kind of mileage we'd dreamed about when we'd first considered making this trip.

New problem though'we hadn't called ahead to Prescott to advise my brother (who lived there) of our ETA, since we'd been expecting to land again somewhere around the AZ/NM border, and would have had a more certain arrival time once we'd done that. From there we'd intended to call him. But now that it was looking like we could make Prescott non-stop'and with half a tank of fuel to spare when we got there, if you could believe that'that meant we weren't going to be landing again, and we had no way to contact my lesser sibling before our arrival.

Oh well! We'd just have to call him when we got there.


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(Mmmmnnnnnnn...Dana...[gargling drool sound])

The sun was dropping like a white hot stone, and the plane was getting cold again. Meteor Crater slid by to the north of us, barely a dark smudge in the twilight. And without the sun to ignite its orange stone, Sedona was reduced to little more than a marginally scenic ravine as we flew overhead. By the time we coasted down past Cottonwood then, Prescott, on the other side of the ridgeline, was in total darkness.

Lit up all pretty, though.

The approach was actually smooth for once, the turbulence gone the way of the headwinds apparently. And with Prescott's 'Love Field' perched on the far side of the broad grassy Chino Valley plain, its tidy little symmetrical layout of blue and white lights stood out like a neon sign''Joe's Eats! Land here!'
We slid down the glideslope like we were on rails, flattened out into a textbook flare, then' we floated a little long, with a porpoising final flare and a shall we say "firm" lowering of the nosewheel onto the pavement. On the other hand, I was just glad to see that Bill was at least capable of an occasional less-than-perfect landing. I had begun to doubt.

We taxied off the runway near the departure end and pulled into the parking space indicated by the ground marshaler (who had driven up in a Crown Victoria with flashing yellow lights on the roof, as opposed to the luggage-spilling golf cart at Kissimmee). We shut down, tied down, arranged for fuel, and started calling people.

My wife appreciated hearing that we hadn't splattered ourselves across the desert somewhere. And my Dad (who was called by Bill) was pleased to know that the airplane was performing more up to par, although he ruined the festive mood when he mentioned that he wouldn't be flying out to Arizona the next day after all'in fact, he was likely to miss the Christmas Reunion Out West (C.R.O.W., for short) altogether'more pressing cautionary medical priorities back in Atlanta, or some such drivel.

And that changed everything.

Without the incentive to fly back to Prescott the next day to see the Old Man, and with Dana more and more certain that she could make tomorrow a half day of work after all, it now seemed more frugal to end the day's flying there, in Prescott'take my brother up on his original offer to spend the night at his place, and finish the odyssey by flying into Los Angeles the next morning, rather than pressing all the way through that night.


Day Three: Tuesday, December 21st, 2004

Bill, Dana and I got up in time to shower, dress and pack before my sister arrived to take us to The Fox (her workplace was only a mile or two from the airport), and the Grand Finale Day was underway.

It was danged cold up there in the high desert, and a cape of high overcast clouds had us a tad concerned about how much altitude we were going to be able to muster when it came time to cross the Rockies. But by the time we'd finished our victuals, the sky outside the restaurant's windows had broken up into a bright, sparkly-blue, picture-perfect day. So Dana and I headed back to The Fox to prep and pre-flight it, while Bill once again immersed himself in flightplans and weather briefs.

Bill came out a few minutes later as I was outside videotaping the parked Fox, and proclaimed all systems go. The weather was fine'cold, smooth, and clearing on the Arizona side of the border, warmer, bumpier, and smoggier on the other side. Then we wadded ourselves into our little cocoon, strapped in, powered up, and readied for flight.

We cranked that puppy back up right quick-like, and wasted no time getting the hell out of Dodge.

The final leg of the odyssey then was magnificent, a truly grand Grand Finale.

The air was smooth and clear, the headwinds were light, the overcast layer gone, and the temperatures at altitude were warm (relatively speaking) and getting warmer the further west we got. The Fox's temperatures'oil, cylinder, and exhaust gas'were all behaving, and even our fuel consumption rates were way down, almost to within design specs even!

There's a first time for everything, I guess.

The view outside was incredible'rugged folds of granite, patches of high mountain snow, desert bowls and river cuts and dirt roads switching back and forth over every rocky face in sight'America stark and unadorned and rolling slowly past our wings as if on parade floats.

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Dana flew for a while after we crossed over Lake Havasu into California, and eventually'finally'Banning Pass (the cut in the Rockies through which I-10 passes) rose into view dead ahead. We crossed right through it, iced mountaintops off both wingtips, Palm Springs traffic spiraling in and out of its patterns on all sides of us, and one big jumbo jet paralleling our flightpath above the northern battlements on its long, slow descent into Los Angeles. And we were keeping pace with it.

Glorious. Thrilling.

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Pictures were snapped, video was rolled, and conversation was awed.

Now this was the kind of flying we'd envisioned for the entire journey, a smooth, inspirational cruise, as opposed to the voyage of the damned Kon Tiki. It was a welcome change, a life moment, and, as I mentioned above, a truly grand finale.

We stepped down our altitude, two-thousand feet at a time, each dip bumpier than the last, as the city of Riverside slid past and the low brown haze of the L.A. basin swelled before us. Then the valley broadened, and the white tile pattern of Ontario's warehouse district unfurled below. And The Sprawl began.

We were on the outskirts of town. At last.

So to speak.

It was around noon, west coast time, as we slid over the vast cityscape toward the gleaming Pacific Ocean. Things were going well, The Fox was performing like a champ, and Bill was busily preoccupied with working his way through the radio frequencies as we were handed off from one air traffic control facility to the next. We were still stepping our altitude down, aiming for a 1,500' pattern entry into Torrance Airport, when we were handed off again, this time to Long Beach Tower. We were overflying their field, descending to 2,000', in the final phase of our approach into Torrance, and we had to talk to their controllers as we transitioned through their airspace.

The controller sounded bored and preoccupied, and we were limiting our interactions to the bare minimums. I was videotaping the passing metropolis out the right side window at the time, biting back my natural tendency to be conversational even during critical phases of flight, when a glint of light caught my eye.

'Traffic!' I snapped, shrugging the cobwebs off some dusty old air traffic control habits. 'Descend immediately! You've got jet traffic turning into you at three o'clock!'

Sure enough'less than half a mile away off our right wing, a Cessna Citation exec jet, climbing out of some other airport down there, was standing on its left wing and arcing straight toward us. Thankfully, Bill knows when I'm kidding and when I'm not, and before I'd even finished my sentence, he had our nose down and diving below the Citation's crossing altitude. Bill never saw the traffic himself'three o'clock, nine o'clock, whatever'but his instantaneous response not only saved our lives, but probably ensured that the separation was sufficient to keep the proximity legal, and thereby kept the lackadaisical controller out of trouble as well. They handed us off to Torrance Tower without ever mentioning the crossing traffic.

Torrance was, as usual, crazy-busy, and Bill had some finessing to do to dump the last of his speed and altitude and slip into the crowded flow unimpeded. But he did it. The landing was smooth, the roll-out straight (and rapid'had to get out of the way of the next guy in line), and then' we were there.

Los Angeles. The West Coast. The end of the odyssey.

Tah-daahhh!

Torrance was not our final destination actually'that was Santa Monica. No, we were just there for a few minutes, said Bill, to show off The Fox to the guys at his and Dana's flight school. So we didn't really 'park' it, per se, so much as we just sorta' 'left' it in a corner for a sec while Bill ducked inside and said his howdy-dos. No refuel, no tie-down, no oil check. Just me standing around taking pictures and shooting more video until Bill came back out with an acquaintance in tow.

They circled the little ship, inspecting and pointing and patting and stroking, admiring and congratulating and catching up with each other's lives. But it surprised me when Bill's friend'who lived and worked right there in Southern California, the very epicenter of all things cutting-edge and generally weird'said that, in all his time at that airport, he'd never seen anything like The Fox before. Seemed unlikely, but, well' he sounded sincere anyway.

Bill's old Gold Bond flight instructor'and Dana's present taskmaster''Kaz,' walked out just as we were readying to leave, and was invited over to join in the show-and-tell. He circled the Velocity once, slowly, nodding and approving, but then had to be off, flight bag in hand. He had a student readying a Katana for the day's lesson just up the line a ways. So we said our goodbyes to everyone, and climbed back into our little flying egg for the home stretch.

We bounded off the ground again, and leapt up to pattern altitude before we'd even reached the end of the runway'one last little piece of showing off to do, I guess. We departed downwind, out over the docks and finally out over the ocean to the south. Catalina Island was a dark smudge through the haze across the water, as Bill rolled out to the west and tracked the scenic coastline for a while'until it was time to break out and head up to Santa Monica.

Los Angeles International Airport''LAX''and all its highly guarded airspace, sits squarely between Torrance and Santa Monica, a massive obstacle to north-south air traffic along the beach' except for the 'Special Flight Rules Corridor' above it, that is. And that was where we were headed.

The 'SFRC' is a slot of constantly protected altitudes that crosses directly over the center of LAX's four parallel runways like a bridge. It has its own assigned radio frequencies, so that aircraft using it can coordinate with each other and keep each other apprised of their respective positions'and stuff like that. And for northbound traffic such as us, 4,500' was the height du jour. We had to climb that high before we could head north, and Bill decided that right there over the Pacific shoreline was as good a place as any to see how quickly The Fox could do that three-thousand foot climb.

So, after a token warning to us about what he intended to do, he suddenly rolled The Fox onto its right wing and hauled back on the stick. And we just plum went up. I shot some video, but it was pretty uninteresting'all you can see out the left window is the white hot hazy glare of the L.A. sky, with the left vertical stabilizer in the foreground. Suffice it to say though, Bill had to shallow it out quickly, just to keep from shooting through 4,500' before we'd even completed a 180 degree turn.


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We all decided that that was fairly presentable.

Level at 4,500' then, we cruised over LAX'along with several aircraft headed the opposite direction at 3,500''before popping out the other side, practically on top of the Santa Monica Airport. Now we had to lose three-thousand feet in a hurry, as well as about fifty knots of airspeed, all while spiraling down into the pattern from directly above the runway. And Bill did it with a lazy, idling, left 270-degree descending turn, crossing over the Santa Monica Pier in the process, and sliding onto downwind a couple of minutes later as smoothly as if he'd just rolled down a freeway off-ramp.

The tower sequenced us to follow a Bonanza on short-final, with a Learjet'that had just checked in some ten miles out to the east'following right after us into the field. So we had to keep our speed up a bit (Learjets eat small, single-engine, propeller-driven aircraft on final approach for breakfast). But that was no problem. The Fox slid down the glideslope like a hawk swooping in on a mouse' with a falcon hurtling out of the sky after it. There was some buffet during our flare coming from the winds boiling eastward off the nearby ocean, but Bill countered it nicely. And then it was all over.

At 2:05 in the hazy California afternoon, The Fox touched down at its new home, delivering Bill and Dana back to theirs at the same time.

Me? I was in alien territory.

Bill would have The Fox for a while, to fly, and tweak, and master, but I would be flying commercially back to Orlando the next day. We stopped in front of a very narrow gap between two other parked aircraft, and shut down. Then we hopped out and pushed The Fox through that gap to a second row in the back, spun it around to face the runway again, and tied it down. I fished out the last of my junk, tidied up the interior a bit, then locked it up. We wanted to cover it up with the brand new bright red cover that Bill had bought, but opted to hold off until the dribbles of oil had been thoroughly cleaned up first.

And with that, I thanked The Fox for getting me there, told it what a good job it had done (despite my excess weight, and Bill's wretched flying skills, and Dana's' well, despite Bill and I anyway), patted its dependable wings, and said goodbye.

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And we left it there among its new (but far less cool) friends, conspicuous at that end of the apron.

In California, fer Pete's sake!

It was time to go eat. And I've got my priorities.

Dinner was a smash'great choice of restaurant, great company, and free, to everyone but me, of course. Bill drove us to the place, I drove us back. One of the joys of being a non-drinker is that I can always rely on being the designated driver. I said my heartfelt goodbyes to Dana'always a pleasure'then drove Bill and I back to his place.

I'd intended to download my digital pictures onto Bill's computer right then and there, but discovered, much to my disbelief, that my connector cable was not in my luggage. And believe me, I tore it apart looking for it. Nothing. I could have sworn I'd packed it though, and really wanted to download them there. Sometime after midnight then, after listening to me grouse for most of half an hour about that missing cable, Bill suggested that we go back out to the airport and thoroughly search the airplane for it.

What else did we have to do?

So, early that next morning, we drove back to the Santa Monica Airport.

Day Four: Wednesday, December 22nd, 2004

Santa Monica Airport, at nearly one in the morning, is a very different place from Santa Monica at two in the afternoon. Gone is the continuous river of airplanes streaming in from the east, silent is the speaker on the public viewing deck that normally broadcasts the terse dialogues between controllers and pilots, and peaceful is the flightline that normally rushes and roars and whines and flutters with all the overlapping engine noises. Instead there is only the ruffle of the coastal breeze and the distant thrum of the sleepless city cloaked in chilly darkness.

Oo, I like that. I ought to write that down.

Anyway, we took a last look at the airplane and decided to call it the trip of a lifetime.

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We didn't really have to say much. After three days in a flying fiberglass bathtub we pretty much knew what the other was thinking.

It was a helluva' thing, dude. A helluva' thing.

Posted by Proteus at 10:08 PM | Comments (49)