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 thesummertime and carefully picked their weather. My journey wouldbe in November…the only time I could find four free days ina row to make the trip. That ought to be enough time if I don’trun into any significant delays.
My plans began unravelling almost immediately upon my arrival atthe 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 untilI obtained a certified check. I guess a man’s word went withthe way of biplanes of the vintage I was buying.
After wasting a good flying morning with wire transfers, a crosswindcame up on the grass strip and the seller did not feel confidentabout checking me out in the aircraft. There went what wouldturn out to be the best flying weather day of that November weekend.
The next morning, I was able to get an early checkout from theseller, and by mid-morning was ready to head west. I plannedthe first leg to be about 150 miles, a comfortable range for thisaircraft 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 morelayers.
Now don’t get me wrong. I was prepared for cold weather. Afterall, I live in Jackson Hole where a night of minus 65F is notall that unusual. But I guess I underestimated the wind-chillfactor in an open cockpit, and took off on this first leg withoutenough layers of clothing.
Crossing into Pennsylvania, I finally found a small paved airstripwhere I could land and warm up. I approached this landing withsome trepidation, because the last thing the seller told me beforeI departed from his grass strip was that the aircraft landed differentlyon pavement. "Sort of bounces," he said. He was right,too. My approach was near-perfect but I got credit for three landingsby the time I finally turned off the runway. I was also warmby then. I asked the lineboy to top off the Fleet’s tanks, grabbedtwo 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 goodspot to head for the next fill-up. After takeoff, I could seethe weather starting to cloud up, but at least I was warm. Pilotagewas the navaid of choice, because the Fleet had no radios. I hada handheld but I couldn’t hear it over the noise of the engineand wind, even wearing a headset. I also packed a Garmin 100 portableGPS, but I was determined not to use it.
Rain began, and the wisps of low clouds started to obscure theground. Pilotage, I learned, was a lot harder when you can’tfly where you want because of clouds. Before long, all I knewwas that I was somewhere over the United States and headed westbound.
I decided weather was getting the best of me. It was time tofind a field. Was this serious enough to get the GPS out andcheat? Unfortunately, my Garmin is an old non-database unit,so it was pretty useless. Trying to plot lat/lon fixes on a sectionalin an open cockpit proved to be a fruitless exercise; the rainwas trying to soak the chart while the wind was trying to whipit out of my hands.
I decided to go back to basics. Look for a town, then look foran airstrip. If all else failed, look for a field.
The first airstrip I found was a great-looking grass strip. Theonly problem was a 90-degree cross wind of about 25 knots…achallenge 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 exactlyhow 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 anyone time and wasn’t quite sure about burn in cruise.
Finally, I found a town. No airport, mind you, just a town bigenough to need an airport. Couldn’t find anything that lookedlike 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 yetto open.)
At last I found the "old" municipal airport. I landedand found a proverbial friendly farmer offered to give me a rideto a local motel. Before departing, we opened up one of the oldhangars (looked about the same vintage as the Fleet) and pushedthe biplane inside just as the rain started coming down hard.On the ride to the motel, I asked the farmer "What townsdoes this airport serve?" He looked at me kind of funnyand said "Beford, Pennsylvania…there’s no other town nearby."
Stuck in Podunk
Once at the motel, I flipped on the television and turned to TheWeather Channel. I watched TWC for about two hours straight untilI decided that if I heard "your local forecast, accurateand dependable" one more time I was going to throw up. Therewas a huge slow-moving front over the midwest, and it didn’t looklike the weather was going to improve for days.
It became painfully obvious that I wasn’t going to make it backto 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 bothlogical and prudent to leave the airplane there, fly home commercially,and come back to retrieve the biplane later. I’d left my Cessna340 in Denver, so I’d catch a commercial flight to Denver andfly 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 returnedit to Beford. Bedford has no commercial flights. I couldn’teven find an IFR-rated pilot at the airport that I could try totalk into giving me a ride to Pittsburgh to catch a commercialflight. It seemed as if the only choice was to get up early inthe morning, fly the Fleet from Bedford to one of the outlyingairports 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 biplaneswere made for flying…at least until the ceiling dropped. Flyinglow and slow over the hills of Pennsylvania, I felt like I wasliving Richard Bach’s poetic writing. I flew around LaTrobe Pennsylvanialow enough to look for Arnold Palmer on his Valvoline tractor.I landed at Monongahela with two hours to spare for my Deltareservation. Plenty of time if I don’t dawdle.
I arranged to hangar the Fleet, then went to call a cab. "Youwant to get a cab to go where? We only have one cab out here onSunday morning. I can get him there in a couple of hours."
I was getting tight for time. I managed to talk a local CFI onthe field into putting me in his Cherokee with his student andflying 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, a727, a 757, and a Cessna 340.
I was back in Jackson. Dejected, yes, but only because it meantI couldn’t work on the Fleet during the winter. I would justpick 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 theweather might hold. We had just had a week of spring-like weatherand I was hoping it would continue. I arrived early in the morningat Monongahela but was held up due to fog. But this time I’dscheduled 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 startedright up and purred like a elephant in heat. As I taxied outto the runway, I felt this was going to be a true adventure, atrue Bachian and Coontsian experience. I took off above the remainingwisps of fog, delighted to be resuming my journey.
My delight was interrupted when I noticed that the center of myback was getting cold. Then my feet started getting cold. ThenI noticed my hands were getting clumsy. The weather started goingto 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 radioand was getting damn cold. I circled southeast of the controltower until my brain seemed numb. Still no green light from thetower. I decided I might get too cold to physically land the aircraftif I waited any longer. I shouted "emergency" overthe 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-670and start warming up. My feet were completely numb when I gotout of cockpit. It felt like both were asleep, and I stumbledto the FSS on the field. I waited in the lobby before going inbecause I was too cold to talk. After warming up a bit, I triedto look invincible as I chatted with the FSS personal learningthe weather ahead was worse and colder. I finally understood whythe 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 theunscrewing and holding. The mighty biplane came apart.
I backed up the U-Haul to the hangar and we loaded the craft inthe 24 foot box. Did it all in six hours! Got everything insideexcept 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. AsI began to drive, the snow started and I drove through a snowstorm that would make any Wyoming cowboy take notice. I calledmy home to let my family know where I was. Nobody was home, soI left a message on the answering machine saying that I was atmilepost 186 of I-80.
When my fiancée listened to the message, a house guestoverheard it and asked "Gee, he must be flying kinda low,isn’t he?"