Last year, I took a long cross-country flight in a rented Piper Warrior, from Seattle to Mono Lake in California, just east of Yosemite National Park, about as far south as San Francisco. It was a cool trip, but it was breathtakingly expensive at $130 per hour plus tax.
So this year, when I found myself the owner of a 1956 Champion 7EC (known affectionately as Norbert, after the dragon hatched by Hagrid in the first Harry Potter story), it occurred to me that I should look at another long cross-country. I fixed my sights on Los Angeles, so that I could visit my brother: we rarely get to spend any time together, and when we do, it's always in the context of a family gathering like Thanksgiving or Christmas.
I just returned from the flight (like, this evening -- I should be taking a shower and going to bed, instead I'm sitting here writing), and wanted to relay some of the more interesting parts.
I planned to take a week to make the trip: I'd fly down on Saturday and Sunday, hopefully stopping in Placerville to visit a friend who has a Marquart Charger biplane. David (my brother) and I would hang out for a couple of days, go flying, etc., and I'd return later in the week, again taking two days. I'd take a week off from work to accomplish all this, and hopefully have a few days at the end to recuperate.
As the time was running out to my week's scheduled vacation, Seattle welcomed (if that's the right term) a choking haze of forest fire smoke from nearly 100 fires burning in the interior of British Columbia to the north. I tried going flying the weekend before I was to leave, and basically had to turn around and land after half an hour -- the smoke just kept getting thicker, until I didn't feel I could safely fly through it any more. I just couldn't see well enough.
So there was some anxiety about my ability to leave on Saturday morning as planned. Fortunately, the weather seemed to be on my side, and late Friday night, a westerly wind came in and started clearing the smoke. Of course, in its place, it left a low overcast, so my start on Saturday was still delayed for three hours, waiting for the clouds to lift a bit.
I was eventually able to take off on Saturday, the plane packed relatively to the gills with Stuff: I was planning to pitch a tent next to the plane on my overnight stops rather than finding a hotel and doing all the phoning and taxicab riding necessary for that eventuality. I'd realized when I got to the detailed planning that there was no way I'd make it to LA in two days if I was going to stop and hang out to talk biplanes for half a day, so the plan was now to stop the first day in Ashland, near the Oregon-California border, and again somewhere in the valley, between Fresno and Bakersfield.
Norbert, being a Champ 7EC, is not what you would call a speed demon. In perfect conditions, it cruises at about 85 MPH. If you're trying to burn all the gas as fast as possible, it'll cruise up to 105 MPH, but the plane is perceptibly unhappy at that speed. So I banked on about 85, forgetting about (or, perhaps, imagining improbably favorable) wind.
So, I launched in the early afternoon of Saturday. The smoke was still a distinct presence as I left, and it would become a running theme of the trip.
I ended up recording time-lapse video of the entire trip, which will be posted later, once I've had a chance to catch my breath a bit.
The first leg would take me from Snohomish, north of Seattle, to Stark's Twin Oaks Airpark (7S3; every airport has a code, like SEA for SeaTac, or PDX for Portland International), in Hillsboro, OR. I had planned on about two and a half hours, and it ended up taking almost three. I planned to fly the route at 9500 feet to save fuel (the plane is more efficient the higher it flies) without giving sufficient thought to the wind at different altitudes. I averaged 70 MPH on that leg. The only reason it went any faster than driving a car is that I could fly in a straight line, and didn't have traffic to deal with.
Once at Twin Oaks, I fueled up and ate half the sandwich I'd brought. After too much dithering, I bought a quart of oil after I used the quart I'd brought with me, then I was off again, bound for Roseburg (RBG).
The flight down to Roseburg was unremarkable, except for the continued presence of the smoke. There were particular altitudes where it was concentrated the strongest, and flying through them smelled like someone had turned campfire smoke into a candy, and I was smelling the result. It was pleasant and nostalgic and vaguely disturbing all at the same time.
Roseburg was a cool little airport, just off I-5, and tucked neatly between all the hills. As I flew the traffic pattern to come in for a landing, I was very nearly level with some rich-looking houses on a hill west of the field. I found myself wondering if those rich people had expected to have ratty small plane pilots looking in their windows all day, when they bought their fancy house on the hill. Refuelling at Roseburg was bizarre, as the fuel pump looked like something designed by a Windows 95 screensaver, and it took me almost ten minutes to figure out how to actually ground the plane, turn on the pump, and pump my gas. The only reason I made it under ten minutes is there was an airport geezer (this is a term of affection for people who hang out at airports watching the planes come and go) who came over and offered his insights into the industrial-looking system. I regret not taking a picture, but I was in a hurry. (Update: found a shot of it in the time-lapse footage!)
Norbert is an odd plane in one way: it has navigation lights and a landing light, but it doesn't have a rotating beacon or strobe light. You need at least nav and either beacon or strobe to be legal to fly at night, so Norbert is not technically night-legal. There's no one around who would bust me for it, but I make every effort to not fly in the dark.
The reason I was in a hurry leaving Roseburg was that by my calculations, I could just barely reach Ashland (S03) by sunset, which is the legal limit for this plane. I'd previously called the airport, and gotten permission to pitch a tent there (other airports I called all gave me a very CYA "no camping allowed" response, with various poorly-reasoned excuses offered along with the official policy).
So I poured on the meager coal (Norbert is not a powerhouse), and shaved a corner off my flight from Roseburg to Ashland: I'd planned to follow I-5 (giving me a convenient if highly dangerous emergency landing strip -- I plan every flight for the contingency of the engine giving out, since I've only got one), which would have meant flying to Grants Pass (3S8), then onward to Medford (MFR) and Ashland. I decided instead to go up to 9500 feet, giving me extra clearance over the mountain peaks, and fly directly from Roseburg to Medford. I lost the safety net of having the freeway nearby, but it meant I would make it to Ashland before sunset.
Once I was committed to my path, I started to question my own judgement. The smoke was pretty thick, and the sun angling through it from near the horizon made it completely opaque to the west. I could still see to the south, in my direction of travel, but when I looked west to spot the comforting ribbon of I-5, the smoke shook its proverbial head and said, DENIED! I pressed onward.
It was with some relief that I spotted Medford's Rogue Valley International Airport (MFR). The mountains I crossed to get there were particularly forbidding-looking in the smoke. I told Air Traffic Control that I was going to descend to below the smoke deck, since the remaining distance to Ashland would pass quickly. I kept glancing behind me and at the clock, and managed to get wheels down in Ashland just as the sun dipped below the horizon. I was within a minute of arriving too late. After having left Seattle three hours late, I was astounded the timing had worked out so well.
I gassed up the plane and pitched my tent behind a hangar, trying to get myself away from all the sodium-vapor lights around the airport, and the rotating beacon (a green and white rotating light that advertises a land airport to the night flyer, but also sweeps the airport grounds every few seconds). The Ashland layout was pretty nice: there was a bathroom available, and the tiedown fee was a mere $7 per night. There was even a picnic table, at which I had the other half of my sandwich for a late dinner.
It was with contentment at my accomplishment that I lay my weary head down to sleep, and listened to the crickets going mad in the dark around me.