A Kiwi Flies to Oshkosh

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A New Zealand citizen who resides in Japan recounts his summer adventure flying a Super Decathalon three-quarters of the way across the United States from Southern California to attend his first EAA Fly-In in Oshkosh. A witty perspective on aviation's most populous pilgrimage.

I'd purchased a 1995 American Champion Super Decathalon, and before shipping it home to Japan it seemed almost sacrilegious not to fly it to Oshkosh. So I departed Chino, California (CNO) on July 26th at 1300 local, with my camping gear in the back and full tanks. After skirting the Las Vegas Class B and deviating around the north side of the Grand Canyon special-use airspace, my first fuel stop was Page, Arizona (PGA, elevation 4,310'). After topping off at Page, I headed for Grand Junction, Colorado (GJT, 4,860') where I fueled up again and stayed the night.

Crossing the Rockies

Route map (click for larger image)Bright and early on the 27th, I headed for the high pass along route I-70 (elevation 11,990'). But I ran into some serious precipitation and had to zoom down into the valley and land at Eagle County Regional, Colorado (EGE, 6,540') where I hung out for three hours hoping for a break in the rain. I talked to Flight Service and they reckoned it should be okay to the east towards Denver, so I saddled up and took a look. Sure enough, all the rain was on the mountains around Eagle and towards the west, so I skimmed along under a 14,000 foot ceiling and headed for the pass. I slipped over the pass, descended to 7,500 MSL to avoid the Denver Class B Airspace, and proceeded on to a little airport in Ogallala, Nebraska (OGA, 3,280').

While refueling at Ogallala, the man at the FBO told me that some fellows from a Cessna 180 parked on the ramp have been talking to the weather man, and there is a huge line of thunderstorms lined up between Sioux City and Oshkosh. These guys were talking about staying the night and then after another call to Flight Service decided to head north to Pierre, South Dakota and then over to Oshkosh in the morning. The radar showed the stuff heading east-southeast so — not being one for wasting miles in the wrong direction — I decided to head a little north and try to skirt around the stuff when I find it. This turns out to be a good plan: head on-course until the windscreen starts getting wet, then divert north until the rain stops. I flew halfway to Fairmont, Minnesota with on-and-off rain as I repeatedly zigzagged to the north and then back on course.

By the time I reached Fairmont, Minnesota (FRM, elevation 1,160'), it had gotten too late to hit Oshkosh, so I tied down the Decathalon and called for a nearby motel to come pick me up. I arranged with the local FBO to fuel me up at 0630 so I could try and beat the arrival rush into Mecca.

Oshkosh Arrival

Super Decathalon N33RY The 28th dawned clear and with some scattered cloud, and I headed off on the direct route to the Oshkosh initial approach point at Ripon. While cruising at 5,500 feet for a couple of hours, I kept reviewing the special Oshkosh arrival procedures that I had downloaded from the EAA home page. I had pre-loaded the lat/lon for Ripon and Fisk into my Garmin GPSMAP-195 so navigating the arrival was a piece of cake. Approaching Ripon, I descended to the prescribed 1,800 MSL and 90 knots IAS, and followed the railroad tracks (and GPS) to Fisk.

When I got to Fisk, the controller at "Oshkosh Approach" (a trailer in a field at Fisk) asked which runway I wanted (they weren't very busy), and since I was planning to camp I requested runway 27. Approaching downwind abeam, Oshkosh tower called me by color and type: "red Decathalon on downwind north of the airport, rock your wings." At this point, the tower normally tells you where they want you to touch down on the runway, short or long, left side or right, on colored spots painted on the runway for that purpose. But when I arrived there were only a couple of airplanes in the pattern, so I had the runway to myself.

On later days, though, the arrival and departure traffic was just amazing. There were frequently four or five airplanes lined up on final for hours on end, and a steady stream of departures from the same runway slotted in between the landings. The tower was using three runways simultaneously, and frequently clearing several aircraft to land at different points on each runway. The controllers handling departures stand on the side of the runway with flags and handheld radios, and when it is your turn and there is a gap in the arrivals you had better be ready to roll onto your side of the runway and firewall the throttle because they alternate departures from alternate sides of the runway and there is no time for messing around.

I botched my turn to final when I failed to take the strong crosswind into account, but I slipped to a reasonable touchdown and expedited off the runway following very explicit instructions from the tower. Once on the ground, flagmen guide you to parking depending on where you want to go, so it helps a lot if you have a sign in the window of your airplane saying "CAMP" or "SHOW" or "TRANSIENT". I had my "CAMP" sign displayed so after a bit of taxiing around on the grass I ended up in row #19 sandwiched between a Christen Husky (who turned out to be from EGE where I had landed in the rain) and a Cessna 172 from Vancouver, Canada.

I had covered 1,493 nautical miles and had put 15.4 hours on the tach.

Setting Up Camp

Camping under the wing of Decathalon 3RYI tied down, pitched my new tent, and inflated my air bed. Then it was off to the building by row #1 to register and pay for my camping space ($14/day). It was hard not to be impressed by how well organized everything was, and this impression grew as time went by.

I had arrived a day and a half before the official start of the EAA Fly-In deliberately because of the forewarning that the camp area would be full before opening day. Sure enough, the airport filled up quickly as the every-increasing procession of arrivals continued, including every imaginable kind of general aviation and warbird aircraft.

While walking around and talking to a few fellow campers, I came across some guys camped right next to the runway at about row #3. Their campsite included every thing but the kitchen sink. They even had an elaborate "living/dining room" set up in a mesh-sided stand-up tent. I asked them how they came about such a prime piece of real estate and they said when they got there on Saturday (4 days before official start date) the parking area was empty and they could take their pick. I guess it's like getting decent seats at a rock concert: the trick is to get there early.

I commented on their mesh lounge, and they replied that the state bird of Wisconsin is the mosquito! They went on to explain that the OSH mosquitoes were big and plentiful, whereupon I realized that I had no defenses to deal with these predators. My new acquaintances saw my fear, and kindly advised that I walk over to the Wal-Mart at the end of runway 27 and pick up some repellent spray. I didn't need any more convincing, and headed there and stocked up on mosquito coils and spray and a few other items which I didn't really need.

Airplanes and More Airplanes

Airplane camping area south of runway 27The EAA Fly-In was all it is made out to be. This year the attendance is posted as 840,000 and the number of planes at 12,000. They say that 10 percent of all the general aviation aircraft in the U.S. fly in at some point.

During the airshow time between 1500 and 1900 the airport is closed to traffic, and it is also closed at night between 2030 and 0530. The rest of the time it is just constant airplanes. The sightseeing helicopters fly a fixed route as does the Ford Trimotor and the Fuji blimp. The airplane noise is constant, with continual takeoffs and landings by everything from the WW2 bombers, and fighters to the J3 cubs and ultralights. Nearly every morning, I was awakened by the roar of P51s as they went for an early morning sortie. The day before show opening (the 29th) I counted twenty-one P51s lined up. I gave up trying to count the T6s and T28s. There was just so much to see that I never even made it to the Ultralight area. The fly-by of the B2 and the SR71 was a sight. A U2 spyplane was also on display, looking just like a huge motorglider.

The acrobatic flights were something else. For me, the pick of this year's crop was Sean Tucker in his Pitts — one crazy bloke for sure. The finale of his airshow performance is to cut three ribbons on the same pass, the first with the tail while inverted, the second with a wing in one knife-edge position, and the third with the other wing in the other knife-edge! My other airshow favorite was the Gee Bee replica. I had read all about the pilot and his plane and aerobatic routine, but to see the plane up close on the ground and then flying the routine was quite something.

Where's Are Those Guys?

A bunch of friends were due to arrive from Chino in a Beech Queen Air on the 30th with a valuable bit of "cargo" of mine. They didn't make it by the 2030 cut off time, and I started getting worried. The history of this plane is that it was an aerial survey workhorse in Japan — it even has bubble side windows in the cockpit and a sliding hatch in the belly for cameras — and my Japanese instructor friend bought it for $10,000 because the engines were run out and the Japanese don't allow flying past TBO. He then put some very large ferry tanks in it and flew it across the Pacific via the Islands to Chino, California. That was three years ago. Two trips to Oshkosh and it still flies on the original engines which are a little past TBO now. It does use a fair amount of oil though!

Anyway, a quick phone call to California confirmed that the Queen Air was on the ground in Nebraska, delayed due to some of the same sort of weather I had seen in the Colorado mountains. Their departure had been delayed when a coin slipped off the glareshield when they were taxing out and fell into the empty cigarette lighter socket unobserved, and with dire consequences for the electrical system. Finding the reason for the electrical failure, getting the coin out of the socket, and locating the poppedcircuit breaker was apparently not as easy as one might have thought, even for a veteran of a transpacific flight.

ATIS...What ATIS?

Next morning the arrival ATIS was saying the camping areas were full and they were not accepting arrivals from twins. What the ATIS didn't know was that there had been a lot of departures and there was in fact a lot of vacant real estate in the aircraft camping area. I hoped my friends in the Queen Air would be as smart as the guys I talked to that rolled in a light twin and got a parking space. When I asked them if the ATIS was saying that all twin parking was full, they just mumbled something about how the ATIS didn't seem to be working when they arrived. So apparently the trick is not to pay attention to the ATIS — just land and look for a space.

About midday I was starting to give up on my friends in the Queen Air and was having a nap in my tent with the handheld on tower frequency when the phrase "...Air, rock your wings" woke me up. Sure enough, it was my friends and they had ignored the ATIS, so I headed for the runway and eventually guided them into a vacant twin slot just a couple of rows down from me that I had been watching all morning.

They stepped down with a chilly bin (that's Kiwi for "cooler") of beer, and there was a lot of "where the hell have you been" and excuses like "we were flying along at 10,500 feet and didn't realize we had got here until the VOR flipped from TO to FROM, and then we had to make a 180 and go back to Ripon, etc., etc." Apparently, no one had thought to bring a GPS because each thought someone else would bring one, and the Queen Air's DME doesn't work and only one VOR works, etc., etc. — more confirmation of my early fears about the safe arrival of my "cargo". Thank goodness the "cargo" was going back in the Decathlon. Even though I only have one engine, at least I have two GPSs and a VOR!

Shopper's Paradise

It would seem that all the manufacturers of all the equipment made for GA aircraft and homebuilders come to the show to peddle their wares. All the discount houses (like Aircraft Spruce) have booths set up making sales at special Oshkosh prices. I shopped around for a headset for the "cargo" and found price variations of 15+ percent for the same item. Another thing I picked up at a 20% show discount was a two-person Aerox oxygen system with oxygen-conserving cannulas. I decided for the trip back over the Colorado Rockies, I would go in style at 14,000 feet (level with the peaks) instead of staying legal at 12,500 without supplemental oxygen in the passes and valleys.

You can buy anything from an AN3 bolt to a business jet at Oshkosh. All the certified plane builders are there as are all the kit manufacturers. If you just want to look at planes they are all there: antiques, classics, amphibians, warbirds, ultralights, military iron from F16s to C17s, certificated "spam cans" of every description, mass quantities of LongEzes, Lancairs, Glasairs, and RVs, and every kitplane ever built.

I was at the G202 acro plane tent talking to one of the salespersons and was just starting to ask if he happened to know a fellow Kiwi who was supposed to be getting one of the neat little numbers, when who should walk up but Doug Brooker himself! It took a while to convince Doug that it was really me and it is really a small world. He spotted Kazuyo and came out with his standard "anata wa utsukushi desu" (you are very beautiful) which I'm sure that is the only Japanese phrase he ever learned from his trips to the orient. Still, it was great to see someone I knew from New Zealand.

Time to Go Home

After six days of hiking all over Wittman Field, I still hadn't seen everything. But the Fly-In was over and it was time to tear down the tent, join the departure queue, and "head for the hills" — literally.

I loaded all my excess gear into the Queen Air in exchange for you-know-who and headed to the weather briefing tent. The night before, we had had a decent thunderstorm and plenty of rain just to keep things interesting and mess up the going-home party. The radar and satellites showed more out there strategically placed between where we were and where we wanted to go. Just to make things interesting there was a front there, too. The people going in our direction were debating on going north or south to avoid it, but I figured I would go back to my proven strategy of heading straight down the rhumbline and going around whatever I found (or make a 180 and come back if I couldn't).

Good plan again! I went straight through a "gap in the crap" and escaped to the sunny side with just a few 20-degree avoidance maneuvers, and just enough light rain to wash the windows.

We flew over mile after mile of flat green American countryside interspersed with rivers, lakes and interstate highways, and subdivided by the very neatly arranged grid of north-south and east-west roads (you would have to be pretty dumb to get disorientated out here). Three hours and three hundred miles later and it was time for a pit stop and I chose a little airport called Storm Lake, Iowa (SLB, 1,490') because it was right on my track and the GPS database said it had avgas.

Earlier, I had planned on a little airport called Pocahontas (also right on-track) because the name was reminiscent of my childhood cowboy-and-indian comics and movies, but it turned out to be 30 miles too soon. A lot of the names in this area such as Sioux City, Sioux Falls, etc., had me thinking of the history of the area, how hard it must have been to travel all that way by horse and covered wagon, how rail travel must have changed everything, followed by automobiles and then air travel. As you move further west and get to the mountains, then the deserts and canyonlands, and finally California, the whole expanse and variety of the landscape is awe-inspiring, especially for a bloke like me from a small island nation.

FBO Repartee

Another good reason to land at Storm Lake was that the windscreen was getting opaque from the encrustation of splattered of bugs. It was as if someone had loaded a shotgun full of insects and fired it at the plane from about ten feet. So Storm Lake it was. Final approach was over endless expanses of green Iowa cornfields. We touched town and taxied up to the fuel pump. "Fill er up please, mate," I said to the fellow from the FBO, which elicited the usual "Long way from Australia aren't you?" which led to the usual "No, New Zealand," which led to the usual "Yep always wanted to visit Noo Zealand, they say it's real nice down there," which evoked the usual "And where is the men's room?" I still have a lot of trouble figuring out why every American I meet wants to go to New Zealand when they have it all and a lot more in their own country — it must be the people.

After the men's room, we realize hunger is setting in and the next stop will be another three hours. I ask if there is food nearby and the man says a couple of miles down the road which certainly is discouraging as the temperature is around 38C (100F). "Any taxis?" No. "Any chance of a lift?" Sure. An old bloke appears out of the back and says "come on" so we jump into his old bomb and off we go. On the way I ask him why the place is called Storm Lake and he says the lake is shallow and the winter northerly kicks up some big waves not to mention the snow that hits the town from across the lake. Hard to imagine in the sweltering heat with the air conditioner going full tilt trying to catch up. We grab some food and head back to the airport. The bloke won't take any money for the trip.

While we are eating our lunch in the airconditioned FBO office I notice some tee-shirts in a glass case with a picture of an ag biplane with "Barts Flying Service, Storm Lake, Iowa." I decide this has got to be a fairly unique tee-shirt — not too many floating around and the perfect conversation piece for the bar at Waitemata. It turns out Bart is the old bloke that ran us into town and has three ag planes and does pretty much all the spraying in the area. I mentioned Pocahontas and he tells me there is no gas or FBO there any longer — just goes to prove you can't believe everything the GPS tells you. Bart tells me his middle son is away at Oshkosh — wanted to borrow a plane but Bart says he didn't like the idea of his plane getting bent by a thunderstorm so he made him drive over — hmm, food for thought.

Westward Ho

It's time to get back in the saddle and head west again. Next stop was to be the closest airport with avgas on the rhumbline at about 350 miles or so. Many miles of green fields later, the ground starts to rise and get a bit browner, and the appropriate place turns out to be Sterling, Colorado (STK, 4,040') and the gas turns out to be the cheapest of the trip so far: $1.75 per gallon.

(The most expensive was $2.20 but there, this guy rushed up to the side of the plane and threw down a piece of red carpet. Only trouble was he was on the wrong side of the plane and when I opened the door and started to get out on the other side he picked up the carpet and rushed around to the door side. He was obviously embarrased so I just said "fill er up, mate" which lead to "long way from Australia, eh" which lead to...)

Crossing the rockiesAfter Sterling, we have to skirt around and under the Denver Class B at 7,500 feet and then make the big climb to 14,000 while turning on the new O2 system. This works for the first few miles of mountains while we aim for Grand Junction. Further into the hills and we have to start coming down bit by bit to stay out of the clouds and a little further we are back to valley soaring in the rain. We manage to get past Eagle where I'd parked in the rain on the way eastbound, and we push on another forty miles before calling it quits at Garfield County Regional Airport in Rifle, Colorado (RIL, 5,540').

The rain had washed all the bugs off the windscreen, and the bloke I had been talking to on UNICOM off and on for the last 20 miles (to make sure the viz was still okay) drove out in the now light rain (funny how it eases off as you land) started describing how to get to the town and motel. I replied that it looked a bit far, and he said "no, you go in this van I have brought out for you, and what time do you want your airplane fueled in the morning?" Now this was fairly typical of everything outside of the cities. Here we are, no intros, no nothing and he tells me to take his wagon for the night. Sure, the Decathlon is worth a heap more than his van, but even so.

The girl at the motel in Rifle told us where the best food in town was, so we headed straight there in our borrowed wagon and ate too much. This must have been a knee-jerk reaction, since we had been on a diet of freeze-dried cup noodles and beer at Oshkosh.

More Weather Problems

The morning in the mountains turned out to be not much better than last night, but our friendly FBO man reckoned we should be able to at least get down Interstate 70 to Grand Junction. The weather service was pretty pessimistic and there was supposed to be a lot of junk moving northeast right in the area we want to traverse. We flew right over the top of Grand Junction, but sure enough ran into a wall of water twenty miles beyond. Okay, Plan B was to skirt to the south because the stuff is supposed to be going northeast. This seems to work for awhile, but eventually we found ourselves heading south up a valley with Option C looming rapidly (land or go back).

Knowing there was an airport ten miles up the highway we were following made the "land" option an obvious choice. Having been tuned to UNICOM for this airport for a while, I picked up another plane landing and asked him what is in store. He said there was rain at the field but the visibility was okay, so I told him we would be there in a few minutes. We landed at Monticello, Utah (U43, 7,000') in worsening rain. The UNICOM operator came out and told me he had already spoken to Flight Service, that the weather was expected to be lousy all day, and that he had a pick up from a nearby motel coming and do we want a lift in?

It sounded pretty convincing that we would have to hang out here maybe till tomorrow, so we hitched a ride with him and his wife and kid in the motel van. It turned out he was headed northwest as opposed to our southwest route, and the likelihood of bad weather in his direction was much greater than in ours. I immediately regretted my hasty decision because it was still only 10 am, but checked into the same motel anyway. I sat down on the bed and looked at the charts, and decided that my latest decision time was 1400 to be in the air and on the way by 1500 to get into the L.A. area at a reasonable hour.

Rain came and went for the next couple of hours, but by 1330 the sky in our direction of flight was looking much better. I called FSS and the weatherman looked at his radar and confirmed my suspicions. The goo had moved off, but when I suggested going south to avoid anything that might be still around he said no — there is now a line of thunderstorms to the south over the Grand Canyon so don't go south — go west first until close to Las Vegas and then head for L.A. That was enough for me so it was down to the front desk, check out and get a lift back to the airport. The motel said they would pick us up again and give the room back if we had to come back.

Montecello was the highest field I had departed from so far, and the temperature had the density altitude at over 8,000 feet. I leaned the engine and stood on the brakes right at the start of the runway for a short field take off but we still only used half of the strip getting off.

We climbed out to 10,500 around the big hill in the way and out over the canyons and red rock mesas of southern Utah towards Kanab, which was to be the next stop for gas. There were nothing but nice fluffy white clouds around to weave around, and nothing but smooth picturesque flying for about an hour. Not many places to land in an emergency but I guess you have to grin and trust in your luck sometimes. Soon we were crossing the Colorado River north of where it is dammed to form Lake Powell before it goes through the Grand Canyon and comes out at the other end south of Las Vegas. Here the Hoover dam keeps the water back to form another big manmade lake, Lake Mead.

After the upper reaches of Lake Powell, we started to see the northern edges of the stuff the weatherman was seeing earlier on his radar. We encountered a bit of light rain here and there with lower clouds to cruise under and cumulonimbus distant south. About twenty miles out of Kanab, Utah (KNB, 4,860') just before the Arizona border, I made contact with UNICOM and was told the wind was favoring runway 01. Ten miles out, and now they were saying runway 19 was in use and there was a rain squall moving in. Here we go again! I lined up on final with the far end of the runway all wet and shiny and my end still relatively dry. A bit of a gust together with heavy rain messed up my planned grease-job landing, and I taxi to the gas pump and shut down. I radioed the man not to bother to come out until the squall eases off, and we sat for ten minutes with the rain pelting down. Kanab is in the desert, by the way.

Home Stretch

After a while we got filled up and the fueler told me that it had been like this off and on most of the day. The south and east still looked black, so I elect to hightail it out of there to the west and south before the next rainstorm arrived. The wind was back to favoring runway 01 now, so we made a climbing left turn and headed straight for Las Vegas weaving around a couple of fairly large soon-to-be-thundercloud formations.

There is a corridor of tourist plane traffic heading back and forth between Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon, and the chart warns you to announce yourself on a special frequency. I dutifully listened in as we approached the area but could make no sense of the abbreviated calls these local Grand Canyon tour operators are making. They were all calling in at "55" and "65". I made the assumption that this must altitude, and since I am cruising at 10,500 feet I figure they would be no factor. I looked around down below and sure enough there are twins trekking back and forth a few thousand feet below. I looked up again and suddenly a 727 (supposedly full of gamblers) went whistling by on approach to Las Vegas. It looked closer than it was, but just seeing a jet from my little cockpit always gives me a fright anyway.

Soon we are flying along over Interstate 15 that goes from Las Vegas to Los Angeles, and also the main trunk railway that goes all the way over those same mountains we have just crossed. You can see the trains and they seem to be a mile or two long.

The GPS was now saying one hour to go and suddenly my cargo came to life — having been quietly reading a book, sleeping or quietly gazing at half of the USA for the last 14 hours in the air. "How long to go?" was the question. "58 minutes and 40 seconds or thereabouts" was my reply. "Any airports around here?" "Well yeah, but why?" The last thing I wanted to do now was land for a pee stop, so I agreed to expedite the arrival. Previously, Plan A was to skirt around the various bits of nuisance airspace between us and Chino, but since a direct route is now of pressing concern I called SoCal Approach at 10,500 feet over the hills northeast of the Los Angeles basin. They gave me a squawk and clearance for a rapid descent straight to Chino. Four frequency changes and one "turn to a heading of 180" and then "resume own navigation" later, we were on a two-mile final for runway 26R at Chino. A final three-point landing finished off the 3,000 nautical mile adventure to Mecca and back. Tower greeded me with "Decathlon 3 Romeo Yankee, taxi to parking, monitor ground point 6." I replied "thanks mate, 3RomeoYankee," and taxied post haste for the nearest loo.

The next week was spent dismantling the Decathalon and packing it in a container, and she is now headed for Japan. Now I wonder what it would be like to fly it down to New Zealand … .