My Great Biplane Adventure
In a moment of temporary insanity, the author bought a vintage Fleet 16B open-cockpit biplane. The Fleet was on Long Island, New York, and the author lives in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Here's the story of his tortured ferry flight home.
Two thousand miles in an open-cockpit biplane. Richard Bach did it. Steven Coonts did it. Clearly nothing that I can't handle!
Never mind that Bach and Coonts did their biplane treks in the summertime and carefully picked their weather. My journey would be in November...the only time I could find four free days in a row to make the trip. That ought to be enough time if I don't run into any significant delays.
My plans began unravelling almost immediately upon my arrival at the Bayport Aerodrome on Long Island to inspect the aircraft. It seems that the seller thought when I made my offer for "cash," that I meant in greenbacks. Out in Wyoming, "cash" means no loans or terms. In New York, it meant no sale until I obtained a certified check. I guess a man's word went with the way of biplanes of the vintage I was buying.
After wasting a good flying morning with wire transfers, a crosswind came up on the grass strip and the seller did not feel confident about checking me out in the aircraft. There went what would turn out to be the best flying weather day of that November weekend.
The next morning, I was able to get an early checkout from the seller, and by mid-morning was ready to head west. I planned the first leg to be about 150 miles, a comfortable range for this aircraft with reserves. But by the time I cleared LaGuardia airspace, I was looking for a landing spot. In spite of mild 50F weather, I was freezing my petunias off and had to stop to put on more layers.
Now don't get me wrong. I was prepared for cold weather. After all, I live in Jackson Hole where a night of minus 65F is not all that unusual. But I guess I underestimated the wind-chill factor in an open cockpit, and took off on this first leg without enough layers of clothing.
Crossing into Pennsylvania, I finally found a small paved airstrip where I could land and warm up. I approached this landing with some trepidation, because the last thing the seller told me before I departed from his grass strip was that the aircraft landed differently on pavement. "Sort of bounces," he said. He was right, too. My approach was near-perfect but I got credit for three landings by the time I finally turned off the runway. I was also warm by then. I asked the lineboy to top off the Fleet's tanks, grabbed two layers of clothes from my backpack secured in the front hole, and added them to my attire.
Warm but lost
Onward! I figured the outskirts of Pittsburgh would be a good spot to head for the next fill-up. After takeoff, I could see the weather starting to cloud up, but at least I was warm. Pilotage was the navaid of choice, because the Fleet had no radios. I had a handheld but I couldn't hear it over the noise of the engine and wind, even wearing a headset. I also packed a Garmin 100 portable GPS, but I was determined not to use it.
Rain began, and the wisps of low clouds started to obscure the ground. Pilotage, I learned, was a lot harder when you can't fly where you want because of clouds. Before long, all I knew was that I was somewhere over the United States and headed westbound.
I decided weather was getting the best of me. It was time to find a field. Was this serious enough to get the GPS out and cheat? Unfortunately, my Garmin is an old non-database unit, so it was pretty useless. Trying to plot lat/lon fixes on a sectional in an open cockpit proved to be a fruitless exercise; the rain was trying to soak the chart while the wind was trying to whip it out of my hands.
I decided to go back to basics. Look for a town, then look for an airstrip. If all else failed, look for a field.
The first airstrip I found was a great-looking grass strip. The only problem was a 90-degree cross wind of about 25 knots...a challenge I didn't feel quite ready to meet. On to the next town.
Anxiety was mounting. I knew I was getting low on gas, but exactly how low I didn't know since the fuel burn given to me was an estimate. The seller only flew about 30 minutes around the patch at any one time and wasn't quite sure about burn in cruise.
Finally, I found a town. No airport, mind you, just a town big enough to need an airport. Couldn't find anything that looked like an airport. Then I flew over a low ridge and saw a huge airport. But not one aircraft was on the field. Something must be wrong. (Later I found out it was a new municipal airport which had yet to open.)
At last I found the "old" municipal airport. I landed and found a proverbial friendly farmer offered to give me a ride to a local motel. Before departing, we opened up one of the old hangars (looked about the same vintage as the Fleet) and pushed the biplane inside just as the rain started coming down hard. On the ride to the motel, I asked the farmer "What towns does this airport serve?" He looked at me kind of funny and said "Beford, Pennsylvania...there's no other town nearby."
Stuck in Podunk
Once at the motel, I flipped on the television and turned to The Weather Channel. I watched TWC for about two hours straight until I decided that if I heard "your local forecast, accurate and dependable" one more time I was going to throw up. There was a huge slow-moving front over the midwest, and it didn't look like the weather was going to improve for days.
It became painfully obvious that I wasn't going to make it back to Jackson Hole before I was due to be in the office on Tuesday. Since I had a hangar for the Fleet at Bedford, it seemed both logical and prudent to leave the airplane there, fly home commercially, and come back to retrieve the biplane later. I'd left my Cessna 340 in Denver, so I'd catch a commercial flight to Denver and fly the 340 home to Jackson.
Getting out of Bedford turned out to be easier said than done. I found that I couldn't rent a car in Bedford unless I returned it to Beford. Bedford has no commercial flights. I couldn't even find an IFR-rated pilot at the airport that I could try to talk into giving me a ride to Pittsburgh to catch a commercial flight. It seemed as if the only choice was to get up early in the morning, fly the Fleet from Bedford to one of the outlying airports near Pittsburgh, and catch an airliner out.
The morning was nice. Wisps of fog on the ground, a high overcast, a beautiful morning to fly. It was one of those days biplanes were made for flying...at least until the ceiling dropped. Flying low and slow over the hills of Pennsylvania, I felt like I was living Richard Bach's poetic writing. I flew around LaTrobe Pennsylvania low enough to look for Arnold Palmer on his Valvoline tractor. I landed at Monongahela with two hours to spare for my Delta reservation. Plenty of time if I don't dawdle.
I arranged to hangar the Fleet, then went to call a cab. "You want to get a cab to go where? We only have one cab out here on Sunday morning. I can get him there in a couple of hours."
I was getting tight for time. I managed to talk a local CFI on the field into putting me in his Cherokee with his student and flying the 25 nautical miles to PIT to catch my commercial leg. By the end of the day, I had flown in a Fleet, a Cherokee, a 727, a 757, and a Cessna 340.
I was back in Jackson. Dejected, yes, but only because it meant I couldn't work on the Fleet during the winter. I would just pick out the next available date to get my Fleet to its new home. Unfortunately, the next available date was in late February.
When I flew back to Pittsburgh in February, it seemed like the weather might hold. We had just had a week of spring-like weather and I was hoping it would continue. I arrived early in the morning at Monongahela but was held up due to fog. But this time I'd scheduled a full week for the trip, so I wasn't particularly concerned .
We got the red biplane out of the hangar, pulled that prop through, primed her the required 17 times, and the radial engine started right up and purred like a elephant in heat. As I taxied out to the runway, I felt this was going to be a true adventure, a true Bachian and Coontsian experience. I took off above the remaining wisps of fog, delighted to be resuming my journey.
My delight was interrupted when I noticed that the center of my back was getting cold. Then my feet started getting cold. Then I noticed my hands were getting clumsy. The weather started going to hell and my hypothermic mind said "Land...land NOW!"
I was just coming up on Mansfield Ohio and had to make a decision. Mansfield has a tower and is is Class C airspace. I had no radio and was getting damn cold. I circled southeast of the control tower until my brain seemed numb. Still no green light from the tower. I decided I might get too cold to physically land the aircraft if I waited any longer. I shouted "emergency" over the noise of the engine and wind, and entered base to final.
After landing, I received a green light to taxi (thanks a lot!) and went to the closest place I could find to shut down the W-670 and start warming up. My feet were completely numb when I got out of cockpit. It felt like both were asleep, and I stumbled to the FSS on the field. I waited in the lobby before going in because I was too cold to talk. After warming up a bit, I tried to look invincible as I chatted with the FSS personal learning the weather ahead was worse and colder. I finally understood why the old open-cockpit airmail pilots drank so much!
The better part of valor
I gave up. Off to the FBO I went, where I cornered the local A&P. "Take the wings this beast, I'm getting a U-Haul." I went to the U-Haul depot and and rented a 24-foot moving van, while the A&P gathered a group of fellows to help with the unscrewing and holding. The mighty biplane came apart.
I backed up the U-Haul to the hangar and we loaded the craft in the 24 foot box. Did it all in six hours! Got everything inside except the upper wing which stuck out the back about eight feet, giving the truck a mighty strange look.
Interstate 80 was the road and Jackson Hole was the goal. As I began to drive, the snow started and I drove through a snow storm that would make any Wyoming cowboy take notice. I called my home to let my family know where I was. Nobody was home, so I left a message on the answering machine saying that I was at milepost 186 of I-80.
When my fiancée listened to the message, a house guest overheard it and asked "Gee, he must be flying kinda low, isn't he?"