The Slug Crawls Over the Rockies

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Many pilots hesitate to fly small single-engine airplanes on long trips or over high terrain. That's a shame, because they're missing some of the greatest joys of aviation. A 2,000 NM X-C across the Continental Divide in a light plane is no big deal when properly planned and approached with the right attitude. Case in point: the author's strictly-VFR trip from California to Wisconsin in his two-place Grumman Yankee.


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A few summers ago, I flew my 1978 Grumman Yankee (affectionately named The Banana Slug) from Watsonville, California, to an American Yankee Association (AYA) national convention in Cable, Wisconsin. I then flew to Oshkosh for the EAA fly-in which I had never seen before. The comments I received during the trip ranged between "you really flew all that way in that small airplane?" to "you must be out of out mind." The fact that some of these comments came from people who owned airplanes similar to mine convinced me that many owners of two place airplanes are unnecessarily restricting their range of travel and missing out on a great deal of fun.

The RouteIt is possible to fly long distances in a two place airplane without risking life and limb. It is possible to have a great deal of fun doing so. I have flown my plane through Baja California and had made a previous trip back to lowa. I thought that a detailed account of this year's trip might convince some other owners of smaller airplanes to drag out the maps and give it a try.

The trip this year took us up through Oregon where a right turn was made at Portland, and then easterly through Idaho, Montana, South Dakota, Minnesota and on to Wisconsin. This route was about 300 miles more than a more direct routing but some friends had used it two years before in a similar plane and said it was a pretty flight and wasn't as high as some alternatives. I say us because my wife flew out with me and, as prearranged, I flew back by myself. Having a passenger was an interesting situation since the extra weight obviously affects performance and requires even more careful flight planning. Perhaps even more important was the fact that my wife had never flown more than 200 miles in the Slug and reserved the right to get out at any major airport and ride one of United's oil burners the rest of the way! The return trip was through lowa, Kansas, New Mexico, Arizona and across the California desert to the welcome sight of the Monterey Bay. Total flight time was just over forty hours. I had a great deal of fun, no major troubles, and collected an AYA trophy for "Longest Distance Flown, 2-Place."

Picking the Route

The author & the SlugI always start a trip by dragging out an automotive road atlas. This helps me get a idea of where I'm going (this always seems a bit hard to gather from sectionals and WACs and may reflect the fact that I've only been flying five years) and points out major road systems. This has the advantage that many major roads though the mountains follow natural valleys. For instance, this year we were following Interstate 90 through Montana, This highway is fairly low and quite scenic in that you are above a wide valley but you have large mountains off each wing-tip.

Next I drag out my flight case planning map. This allows you to translate your planned route to standard aviation navigational aids such as VORs and NDBs. It also tells you what sectionals you will need. This is probably a good point for several map related digressions. I always use sectionals even though they cost a bit more than a WAC. Its tempting to just use a WAC when you're going quickly through a area and won't need the map again but I think its a false economy. I like the additional detail that a sectional provides and with a slower airplane, you feel that you are making good progress when you have to keep changing your position on the map. Plus a sectional gives you twice as many opportunities for that trivial act which is such a joy to the long distance flyer; the chance to toss a map you are not going to need any more into the back of the airplane! I also think it is a good idea to purchase sectionals that are close to your planned route of flight. It may seem stupid to buy a map that you are not planning to use. But weather can often cause a change in plans, and I don't want to limit my options to only those areas I have maps for or go flying off into an area where I don't have a map. The slight extra expense is well worth the added flexibility.

With sectionals in hand, it is now time for the fun part detailed route planning and figuring out each fuel stop. My plane holds 22 gallons usable and burns about six gallons per hour. This means that three hours is the outside amount of time I will ever fly and two hours and one half to two hours and forty five minutes is a more comfortable figure. I've flown for longer than three hours and one time put in 19.2 gallons but it's hard on the nerves and I've never had the determination to get into the habit of running one wing tank dry. I especially didn't want to do that on this trip as I knew my white knuckled wife wouldn't take kindly to motor stoppages or even a few seconds. It took her years to get used to the motor dropping off a bit when I leaned out even though I always told her if was about to happen!

What's Your Hurry?

I feel that this is the point where you must make your most important decision of the flight. If you are going to fly a small plane a long distance, you must decide why you are doing it. If you're in a big hurry, you'd probably be better off flying commercial or renting a larger plane. Same comment holds true if you absolutely, positively have to be somewhere by a fixed time. If you are going somewhere but believe that a major part of the trip is the getting there and you're willing to be flexible, then you'll probably have a great time in your plane. I always try to set a very conservative schedule and then leave one extra day. This gives me complete freedom and keeps my head out of the "I've got to get to ... by tonight" mode.

I also try not to discuss my plans with people who fly large planes as they invariably go on about how they can fly as far on one fuel stop as I will in a day or two. This kind of cruel torment gets me feeling inferior and definitely grumpy. I always snap back that I don't want to get there quickly; I enjoy flying and will still be up in the air having fun when they're sitting in some barren motel room.

Another mindset that can really help is to decide that you are going to take things as they come. If you're forced down earlier than you planned and there really is no safe alternative, then just accept it and make the best of where you are. No matter how desolate the town is, there are lots of worse places somewhere else in the world where people spend their whole lives. One night in Hell Hole Montana won't kill you. Trying to get out of there prematurely might.

We're Off!

We set off around noon on a Wednesday. We had planned on getting an early start the next day, but summer fog is a constant problem where we live (I'm a VFR pilot) We could get free that day so we decided a casual first day would get us a little way along and we'd just stop where it made sense. I'd checked the winds at six and nine thousand and had decided on 8500 feet even though it wasn't really necessary in California. But this gave us a tail wind and would allow me to see how the plane performed with two people and baggage. Incidentally, we tried to reduce our baggage as much as possible by shipping some things to friends in Wisconsin. We shipped everything we would individually need once we had separated. We took only what we would need for the first few days on the road. Variations on this trick can be used depending on your schedule; you might ship stuff to a hotel you know you will stay at and then mail your dirty clothes home to yourself. The important thing is to take as little as possible. If you have to, buy clean underwear and socks one the road (I did!).

As we climbed out, I kept careful track on our performance at each thousand foot level. I wanted to have a good idea of how we were going to perform in the mountains as the Yankee is not a great airplane in high, hot and heavy loaded conditions. If you respect its capabilities, its a great plane but you have to always remember its limitations, We had a good ride up to Redding, CA; everything in the back shook down to its lowest energy level and I had some idea of what our performance was going to be.

When we landed at Redding, the temperature was in the upper nineties so we made a quick dash into the FBO to refill our plastic container with ice and water. While relaxing in the air conditioning, I went over the next leg of the night and also calculated the density altitude. Redding is low enough that I knew we would have no problems getting off but I always calculate density altitude at each stop. This gives you a good idea of exactly what you are facing. A thousand foot airport can easily have a density altitude of above four thousand. A four thousand foot can easily be at 8000. At some point, it makes more sense to give it up for the day and go find a cold beer and a swimming pool. You're on vacation, remember!

Our climb out was sluggish but acceptable and I used a trick a sail plane pilot taught me several years ago in Reno. Faced with a high, hot "but I really want to get home" situation, I consulted several locals. The sail plane pilot pointed out several local hills that he would he would fly over because they always had good lift. I flew to them and used them just like a sail plane pilot; tight turns keep me in the ascending thermals and gave me the altitude I needed to get over the Sierras. Almost any hot area will have spots where the air is rising and spots where the air is sinking. You want to stay in the areas of lift for as long as possible (consistent with visibility and engine cooling constraints) and you want to get through areas of sink as quickly as possible. Using these techniques can often double the performance of a small airplane and help break the monotony of a long climb to altitude.

Our next two and one half hour leg took us for the first time into Oregon and provided some nice mountains and green hills for diversion. Eugene seemed to be a good spot to spend the night, so we landed, canceled our flight plan, made fueling arrangements and found a hotel that would pick us up a! the airport. While waiting for the car to arrive we checked with the locals about what we could expect for morning weather as weather reports during the day had indicated IFR conditions until about two hours before we arrived. The locals said that this was fairly typical for summer and, unfortunately, the next morning would prove them right.

Escape From The Coast

We arose to find a heavy layer of status at about 1200 feet. We ate a leisurely breakfast and took our time getting to the airport but things had improved only slightly by ten thirty. Thus began several hours of fidgeting, calling FSS, looking at the sky, mutual discussions about should we go or not. You know! Every VFR pilot faces this on extended trips and its always hard to decide whether you are exercising proper caution and have just become an old poop who is afraid to fly in anything other than perfect conditions.

It is inevitable that you will have to fly in other than perfect conditions but I always set up rules with myself before I go anywhere. The first rule is that I make my own go/no-go decision. Even if others are going, I try to decide if the conditions are right for my skill level. I'm a better pilot than some; worse than a whole lot of others, In addition, I don't know how strongly others want to keep on living; I do know how my mind works. There are times I'm not sure about others. My second rule is that if I go, I always want at least one escape route. I want one airport that I know is good and will remain good. My escape airport may change but I always want one or I won't go. My third rule is that I won't break the regs. I know others fly in clouds but that's not for me.

Escaping the coastal stratusWith those thoughts in mind, we finally headed north below a solid layer of stratus. I knew that if we could reach Portland and the Columbia River, the weather improved rapidly as we would head east. The status was a local condition caused by marine air blowing in from the coast. The next hour of flying required both of us actively looking out the windows for traffic and several calls to control towers for permission to Transit their traffic areas. Finally we reached the beautiful Columbia River gorge and, as predicted, the weather quickly went clear. Afterward, we were glad we waited as long as we did but were also happy that we had finally left as the weather had forced us to stay low over the Willamette valley and the flight had been very beautiful if a bit hazy.

We had planned to fly up near Mt. St. Helens but the weather had made that impossible. Unfortunately, I didn't really consider that we were taking a shorter route and went ahead and set up for the planned fuel slop at The Dalles in Oregon. This town has two attributes; a strange name and the fact that it is the wind surfer headquarters or the U.S.

Nice little cuI knew that we were in for an interesting time when I saw the whitecaps buffeting the wind surfers on the river and unicom said the wind was 22 gusting to thirty six. I set up a cautious approach and was read to abort the whole thing if the wind got too weird. Unfortunately, it wasn't until I was climbing out that I finally realized that I had enough fuel to have continued on to a slightly less windy stop! Oh well, a little cross wind practice helps keep the skill level up. And I've found I can use it as a bragging point with more rational pilots who give the place a wide berth to say "Oh yes, I've landed there with the wind gusting to 36 and didn't even have a problem in that 'tiny little' airplane."

From The Dalles eastward, we quickly learned that it's only the western parts of Oregon that are green. The Eastern parts of Oregon and Washington are desolate. So we bounced along for the rest of our fuel load and were quite happy to call it a day at Lewiston, Idaho. The scenery around Lewiston gave hope of a attractive flight tomorrow although I was a bit nervous as I knew it held the highest and most dangerous territory we would have to cross in the trip.

Across The Divide

We were up the next morning well before the crack of dawn as I wanted to be well on my way by the time it got hot. We hitched a ride out to the airport in the hotel van with the early morning crew of a commuter airline. They looked more like uniformed escapees from Sesame Street than something out of an Ernie Gann novel but I guess that's the curse of growing older!

On topA quick check with Walla Walla FSS and we were on our way. It was a beautiful morning but I was full of apprehension (which I tried to keep to myself) as I had never gone over any serious mountain terrain before and I hoped I was doing the right thing. The cool air gave us a good climb and we were soon leaning out at 9500 feet as the terrain below us got more and more rugged. I was nervously checking both the loran and the VOR as I expected that the loran might go out on me somewhere on the way to Missoula due to the dreaded mid-continent gap. (This was before they closed the loran gap, and long before we had handheld GPS!)

Sure enough, about 45 minutes later, in the midst of the roughest possible terrain, the warning light started blinking and it was obvious that if we found our way to Missoula, it was going to be via the VOR and not the loran. The terrain below us was beautiful, rugged mountains but I must admit I wasn't enjoying it as much as I hoped because I used to work in an automobile factory and every time I looked down I hoped that Lycoming employees were more highly motivated than my friends at The Buick used to be. Good places to land just didn't exist within eyesight let alone gliding distance.

The high countryHappily, in a little over an hour the terrain smoothed out a bit and it was obvious that we were approaching Missoula. I finally started to breath again and think great philosophical thoughts about how marvelous it is to be a pilot; put yourself in a little bit of danger; scare yourself just a little bit; see the world in a way few others ever do; and to do it all before seven in the morning! Our plans called for us to quickly refuel and be on our way but I made a vow that the next time I passed this way, I would spend a few days as the area around Missoula was fantastic with mountain valleys radiating out from the central bowl holding the town. I had few worries about the rest of the day as I knew the hardest part was behind us and all I had to do for the next few hours was to follow Interstate 90 to Billings.

This was to be my undoing. The Interstate follows a natural valley that is several miles wide. This gives you a fantastic ride because you have this big, flat landing strip below you (concrete or grass, take your pick) with breathtaking mountain scenery off either wing tip. Unfortunately, I got so busy sightseeing that we wandered off the most direct route and I have to admit that for a few minutes we weren't even going in the right direction.

Spectacular mountainsThe bottom line of all this sloppy behavior was that I rapidly realized that I was going to either drag into Billings with minimal fuel or I was going to make a quick stop somewhere to top off. Since I figured my rider wouldn't understand the thrill that comes from running a tank dry to make sure you've gotten every single drop out of it, I decided that a quick stop in Livingston, MT was required. Unfortunately, the altitude and temperature riding in the nineties quickly made it obvious that the density altitude was at the limits for one person in the airplane and certainly wasn't safe for two pizza loving souls to attempt. I decided we would chat with the locals (FSS and FBO) for a few hours until the inevitable afternoon thunderstorm came along to cool things off and then we'd be on our way. Everything went hotly, boringly as planned until it became obvious that the 3 PM thunderstorm was a real doozy and while it was great fun to watch, it was very obvious that all flying was over for the day. We finally accepted a gracious offer of a ride into town and proved the wisdom of leaving plenty of time to get where you are going if you're going to do it in a small plane. The good news was that Livingston is a pretty town with lots of railroad history. Since I'm a fan of anything that has an engine, the stop was most enjoyable and I was almost able to convince my wife that I had planned the whole thing that way,

It's All Downhill From Here

Land of lakesThe next morning opened with a short ride to our goal from yesterday and it was obvious that while we had many miles to go, the terrain was now rapidly trending to flat and our beautiful clear skies were rapidly giving way to the haze that is typical of the Midwest.

After a most enjoyable overnight with friends in South Dakota, we bounced our way through the haze (we went through the Minneapolis Class B and never saw the city!) and eventually touched down in Wisconsin. It was a great feeling to know that we had made it safely to our destination, we had mainly enjoyed ourselves and we were still talking to each other. I dropped my wife off at friends and excitedly made my way to the AYA convention and then on to Oshkosh.

At Last, Oshkosh

Oshkosh!I had never been to Oshkosh before so I had very mixed concepts of what I was getting into. I knew that the air would be full of airplanes so I was very nervous about how the arrival at Ripon and subsequent tracking along the railroad tracks would work. I studied the arrival instructions so many times that I almost had them memorized. The bottom line was that the joint efforts of the FAA and the EAA produce a system that works marvelously. Following the strict dictum of not talking when you are spoken to by the controllers but merely rocking your wings to indicate you heard them produces a system which can handle an amazing amount of traffic in a very short time. I have been a lot more worried going into much smaller airshows in California than I was at Oshkosh.

The Oshkosh show itself is almost impossible to describe. All that I can say is that just as every Moslem believed that they must make at least one trip during their life to Mecca; I believe that you can't truly call yourself a pilot unless you have been to Oshkosh. There is always something to see or do and the interaction of all those who attend the show provides an interesting insight into how great a society can be when it has enlightened leaders who bring out the best in the population. The cleanliness of the grounds and the friendliness of the people will rapidly make a deep impression on you that you'll remember fondly many times in the future.

Four completely-filled days later, the Slug and I departed Oshkosh, pointed our nose in a Westerly direction and climbed slowly into the hazy Wisconsin skies. My head was reeling with all I had seen and done. My body had a warm happy glow and the back of the plane was filled with many brand new flying T shirts. Even though I knew that we had many miles to go before we'd again flirt with the Watsonville, CA fog, my thoughts were drifting forward in time to some future July when the Slug and I would again head East and spend a few happy days camped along the edge of OSH runway 9-27.