One pi­lot’s epic jour­ney to Air­ven­ture

Flying - - Front Page - BY CHAR­LIE GRE­GOIRE

II made my first trip to Oshkosh in 2007 to un­veil the Red­bird FMX sim­u­la­tor pro­to­type at Air­ven­ture. That was the start of what would be­come an an­nual tra­di­tion for me, a pil­grim­age north from Austin, Texas, along with 500,000 fel­low gen­eral avi­a­tion dis­ci­ples, to take part in the “World’s Great­est Avi­a­tion Cel­e­bra­tion.”

Last year, I trav­eled on the air­lines. The jour­ney be­came a 33-hour or­deal that would have made Odysseus feel bad for me. I won’t re­count the en­tire saga here, but suf­fice to say it was a two-day or­deal that calls into ques­tion the wis­dom of hand­ing our na­tion’s air traffic con­trol sys­tem over to the ma­jor air car­ri­ers. At the time, I made a very pub­lic res­o­lu­tion: “Next year, I’m fly­ing GA.”

My ini­tial plan wasn’t very am­bi­tious: Find a plane and a fly­ing buddy, and point the nose north. It be­came quite a bit more com­pli­cated once I dis­cussed the idea with John Mckenna, chair­man of the Recre­ational Avi­a­tion Foun­da­tion (RAF). A few beers and many laughs later, a straight­for­ward cross-coun­try flight turned into a two-day aerial hitch­hik­ing ad­ven­ture. The plan now was not to shorten the time en route but rather to find a much more en­joy­able way to spend 33 hours of my life. By the end of the night, we had con­cocted a plan that was ei­ther in­ge­nious or asi­nine.

Over the next few weeks, with the help of the RAF, the Com­mem­o­ra­tive Air Force and some close friends, plans firmed up. Spread­sheets were made and flight plans con­sid­ered. Al­ter­nates were cho­sen and bags were packed. The closer we got to depar­ture day, the more ex­cited, and anx­ious, I be­came. Was this trip go­ing to work out? Had we built in so much com­plex­ity that we all but guar­an­teed I would be “phon­ing a friend” from some­where in the mid­dle of Iowa? What if we got socked in by weather or had a me­chan­i­cal is­sue? Would I make it to Oshkosh in time for Air­ven­ture? Storms, me­chan­i­cal is­sues and hu­man fac­tors are all a part of gen­eral avi­a­tion, but so too is ad­ven­ture, and that’s what this was, an ad­ven­ture. So with a smile on my face,

c’est la

but­ter­flies in my stom­ach and a


at­ti­tude, I headed to the air­port for the first leg of my jour­ney.

Leg 1: 8 a.m. — San Mar­cos, Texas (KHYI) to Texarkana, Arkansas (KTXK) — 1943 North Amer­i­can B-25 Mitchell

In April 1942, Lt. Col. James “Jimmy” Doolit­tle led a raid on Tokyo as re­tal­i­a­tion for the at­tack on Pearl Har­bor. The mis­sion was to launch 16 B-25 bombers from the deck of the USS


, strike the Ja­panese cap­i­tal and then con­tinue to China in search of a suit­able place to land. The 75th an­niver­sary of the “Doolit­tle Raid” was be­ing commemorated at Air­ven­ture

Yel­low Rose

this year, and , op­er­ated by the Com­mem­o­ra­tive Air Force Cen­tral Texas Wing (CAF Cen­tex) was


sched­uled to fly in the show. The , helmed by Red­bird’s Roger Sharp and Jerry Gre­goire, was sched­uled to de­part at 8 a.m. from San Mar­cos, Texas, for its own jour­ney north, so I hitched a ride to the first fuel stop.

Yel­low Rose

rolled off the assem­bly line in Kansas City in 1944, around the same time the first vis­ual-au­ral ra­dio range ( VAR) ra­dio bea­con (pre­de­ces­sor to the VOR) was put into ser­vice. As you can imag­ine, for an air­plane born be­fore the age of mod­ern avion­ics, en­gine man­age­ment and other pi­lot du­ties can pose a chal­lenge. Start­ing the twin 14-cylin­der 1,700 hp ra­dial en­gines is a rit­ual that be­gins by spin­ning the props by hand to check for hy­draulic lock. To en­sure that all cylin­ders can move freely, the props on each en­gine must be turned three full ro­ta­tions. This is eas­i­est when you have a crew of six able-bod­ied adults. This be­ing my first time on a B-25, the flight crew thought it would be a lark to see if I could do it by my­self. As I hung from the pro­pel­ler by my fin­ger­tips, feet dan­gling freely in the air, try­ing des­per­ately to impress yet fail­ing to move the pro­pel­ler even an inch, I

It’s go­ing to be a long day

thought, . Af­ter laugh­ing them­selves silly, the crew fi­nally stepped in to as­sist. We spun the props and climbed aboard; ev­ery­one, that is, ex­cept Jim Liles, the en­gi­neer. His job was to stand out­side, hold­ing a fire ex­tin­guisher large enough to douse Mount Ve­su­vius, just in case dis­as­ter struck dur­ing en­gine start. Luck­ily, it would not be needed to­day, but I did have a fleet­ing mo­ment of worry as each en­gine roared to life. Jim climbed on board, sealed the hatch and we were on our way.

Cruis­ing at 5,000 feet and 200 knots, we made short work of the 300 nm leg to Texarkana Re­gional. It’s amaz­ing how fast time flies when you’re watch­ing the world whip by from the nose gun­ner’s po­si­tion. We ap­proached our des­ti­na­tion, greased the land­ing and were parked at the FBO by 10:15 a.m. Hap­pily, this trip ended bet­ter for

Yel­low Rose

than the B-25s in­volved in the Doolit­tle Raid.

An in­ter­est­ing phe­nom­e­non hap­pens when you ar­rive in a B-25, one that you don’t reg­u­larly ex­pe­ri­ence when you tool around in a Cessna 172. Peo­ple with cam­eras come out of the wood­work and start snap­ping away like pa­parazzi near the red car­pet of a movie premiere. De­scend­ing the lad­der, sun on your face and the smell of av­gas in your nos­trils, you feel as if you’ve grown 3 feet taller. The shut­ter­bugs start wav­ing, and you wave back. Only then do you re­al­ize they aren’t, in fact, wav­ing at you, but wav­ing you out

of the way so they can get a glam­our shot of the real hero with­out your ugly mug mess­ing it up. Oh well, I didn’t have time to pose for pho­tos any­way. I had an­other plane to catch — one that I didn’t see on the ramp. Leg 2: 11:15 a.m. — Texarkana to Ber­ryville, Arkansas (4M1) — 2000 Piper Mal­ibu Mi­rage

We had ar­rived in Texarkana a lit­tle early, so I wasn’t im­me­di­ately con­cerned that the Piper Mi­rage that was to carry me for the next leg had not yet ar­rived. I headed into the FBO, dropped my bags and en­joyed an ice­cream cone, gen­er­ously pro­vided by the friendly TAC Air crew. Ap­par­ently, it was Na­tional Ice Cream Day. Sweet! I’ve never re­ceived free ice cream when fly­ing com­mer­cial. Just sayin’.

Brian Bald­win, my Mi­rage pi­lot, ar­rived shortly af­ter. We topped the tanks, climbed aboard, tax­ied back to the run­way and headed east­bound. Cruis­ing at 7,500 feet, we set­tled in for our one-hour flight to Car­roll County Air­port (4M1) — a small non­tow­ered air­port in Ber­ryville, nes­tled in the hills of north­west Arkansas.

Brian is typ­i­cal of many gen­eral avi­a­tion pi­lots. At­tracted to fly­ing at a young age, he has since logged thou­sands of hours in a never-end­ing pur­suit of the free­doms that avi­a­tion pro­vides. Nowa­days, he pre­dom­i­nantly uses his Mi­rage to shrink the world, car­ry­ing his fam­ily and friends, and now the oc­ca­sional aerial hitch­hiker, to des­ti­na­tions around the coun­try. Re­cently, he joined the RAF, which he said has re­minded him of why he fell in love with avi­a­tion in the first place. Shed­ding the Mi­rage and climb­ing aboard a tail­drag­ger has re­minded him of how

much fun fly­ing can be when it’s done just for the sake of fly­ing, an epiphany I re­mem­ber well from my time pur­su­ing a sea­plane rat­ing.

As we ap­proached Ber­ryville, the land­scape be­gan to change. Flat farm­land gave way to rolling green hills stretch­ing out on the hori­zon as far as the eye could see. I was anx­ious to ex­plore the area more; the next two legs would al­low me to do just that. We ar­rived at Car­roll County Air­port a lit­tle af­ter 12:30 p.m., right on time to meet my next ride, a gor­geous Cessna 180 that was await­ing our ar­rival. Leg 3: 12:45 p.m. — Ber­ryville to Trig­ger Gap — 1954 Cessna 180 Sky­wagon

The next leg — a 4.5 nm hop from Ber­ryville to a land­ing strip just out­side Eureka Springs in Harper Good­win’s Sky­wagon — took only about six min­utes. We touched down on a small pri­vate grass strip called Sil­ver Wings Field (55AR), shut down and hopped into Harper’s truck to drive to a nearby restaurant for lunch. Af­ter­ward, we climbed back into the 180 and spent 45 min­utes ex­plor­ing the Ozark Moun­tains rather than go­ing di­rect for the 8 nm dis­tance to Trig­ger Gap.

If you’re try­ing to find Trig­ger Gap on your VFR sec­tional, you can stop now. You won’t find it (at least not yet). It’s a brand-new 3,000-foot grass airstrip, located 3.2 nm south of Car­roll County Air­port on a hill­top over­look­ing the Kings River. It’s the re­sult of a project funded by pri­vate do­na­tions, con­structed and main­tained by RAF vol­un­teers and made pos­si­ble through co­op­er­a­tion with the Na­ture Con­ser­vancy, which co­in­ci­den­tally owns this tract of land. Trig­ger Gap marks the first time the Na­ture Con­ser­vancy has em­braced avi­a­tion to pro­vide recre­ational ac­cess to its nat­u­ral ar­eas in a low-im­pact way. Hope­fully, it’s just the first of many to come. Leg 4: 3:15 p.m. — Trig­ger Gap to Ben­tonville, Arkansas (KVBT) — 1965 Bell 47

We ar­rived at Trig­ger Gap right on time, and we sat at a pic­nic ta­ble in the shade of a large oak tree, with Harper’s 180 in the field be­side the run­way. My next ride had not yet ar­rived, and we were get­ting close to our sched­uled depar­ture time. Just as I be­gan to worry, I heard the un­mis­tak­able thrum­ming of he­li­copter blades ap­proach­ing from the dis­tance. We turned and watched as the iconic shape of a Bell 47 closed the dis­tance and de­scended to a gen­tle land­ing in the grass. I tried not to hum

MASH the theme song to my­self as I watched. I tried and failed.

As I got a closer look at the he­li­copter, I was im­pressed by how pris­tine and metic­u­lously main­tained it was. There wasn’t a scratch, ding, dent or splat­tered bug any­where to be found. It looked as though it had rolled out of the fac­tory in 1965 di­rectly into a cli­mate-con­trolled clean room, where it had been parked for 52 years and only this morn­ing taken out for its maiden flight.

For­tu­nately, I had packed lightly, be­cause the Bell 47 is some­what lack­ing in the “over­head bin” depart­ment. We strapped my bags into the mid­dle seat, climbed in and spun the ro­tors. We lifted off and left Trig­ger Gap, bound for Ben­tonville, which is 30 nm due west. We weren’t headed there in a straight line though. Shortly af­ter clear­ing the western edge of the field, we de­scended into a valley and turned south. At the bot­tom of the valley flows the crys­tal-clear wa­ter of the Kings River. As we fol­lowed the wind­ing river south, Chad Cox, my pi­lot turned tour guide, en­light­ened me on the work that the Na­ture Con­ser­vancy has done in co­op­er­a­tion with the Wal­ton Fam­ily Foun­da­tion (of Wal­mart fame) to pre­serve the nat­u­ral beauty of the area while pro­mot­ing ac­cess for recre­ational ac­tiv­i­ties.

Climb­ing out of the valley and leav­ing the river be­hind, we headed west. The aerial tour con­tin­ued for the

next 30 min­utes over tree-capped hills, farm­houses, the stun­ningly beau­ti­ful Beaver Lake and more grass airstrips than I’ve ever seen clus­tered in one area. As we got closer to our des­ti­na­tion, the Ozark Moun­tains gave way to the city of Ben­tonville. We closed in on Louise M. Thaden Field (KVBT) and set­tled to the ground in front of a man clad in a yel­low shirt and a black hat that matched the bi­plane be­hind him. That air­plane was go­ing to carry me to my next des­ti­na­tion.

Leg 5: 5 p.m. — Ben­tonville (KVBT) to Wal­dron, Mis­souri (06MO) — 2014 Waco Clas­sic YMF

In the past four hours, I had only cov­ered about 30 miles of ground on my way to Wis­con­sin. It was im­mensely en­joy­able, but if I was go­ing to have any hope of mak­ing it to Oshkosh by the next day I needed to make bet­ter progress. It was time to bid farewell to north­west Arkansas and head north, cour­tesy of Dan Shew­maker and his yel­low Waco.

It’s hard not to be fas­ci­nated by the clas­sic look of an open-cock­pit bi­plane. A 1930s de­sign mixed with mod­ern­day avion­ics, power plant and safety fea­tures, the Waco’s very na­ture is anachro­nis­tic — and therein lies its true beauty. It is an air­plane that em­bod­ies the idea that some­times the true joy of avi­a­tion is found not in the places it can take you, but in the ma­chines that make it pos­si­ble.

The shad­ows were get­ting long and we had 175 nm to cover be­fore sun­set, so it was time to get back in the sky, this time with the wind on my cheeks. We crossed the bor­der into Mis­souri and fol­lowed In­ter­state 49 north past Neosho, Jo­plin, Carthage and Ne­vada. Be­fore I knew it, we had cir­cled the west side of Kansas City and were ap­proach­ing a small pri­vate airstrip that holds par­tic­u­lar per­sonal sig­nif­i­cance for me. We lined up and landed in the grass to the left of the gravel run­way, tax­ied to park­ing and climbed out. It was now 7 p.m., 12 hours af­ter I’d left my house that morn­ing. I had made it to Noah’s Ark (06MO) in Wal­dron.

In my ear­li­est avi­a­tion mem­ory, I’m stand­ing in the grass next to a row of ram­shackle hangars, star­ing up at a clear blue sky, watch­ing an ul­tra­light cir­cle high over­head. I’m 5, and the man fly­ing the ul­tra­light is my fa­ther. He and my grand­fa­ther had built it them­selves, and it was the coolest thing I had ever seen. The only prob­lem was, my mom wouldn’t let me ride. So there I was, on the ground at Noah’s Ark Air­port, star­ing up at my fa­ther stretch­ing his wings. I never did get to leave the ground from that field, but the seeds were firmly planted. As I was plan­ning this trip, a re­turn to the birth­place of my avi­a­tion in­fat­u­a­tion was a must. Three decades later, I stood in the same spot, next to the same ram­shackle hangars. Not much had changed.

To­day, Noah’s Ark is owned and op­er­ated by Ron and Char­lotte Sharp of Fal­con Sky­div­ing, the premier demon­stra­tion sky­div­ing team in Kansas City. I’ve never jumped out of a per­fectly good air­plane be­fore, but you can’t very well show up at a place like this, on a quest for ad­ven­ture, and not join in the fun. So, I headed to the reg­is­tra­tion desk and in­tro­duced my­self. I’m sure my mom wouldn’t have ap­proved (which is why I didn’t tell her), but this time I wasn’t stay­ing on the ground.

I geared up, climbed in the back of a King Air and off we went. My in­struc­tor and I stepped to the edge, and al­most with­out hes­i­ta­tion, we jumped (or, more ac­cu­rately, the guy I was strapped to jumped). We flipped once, grant­ing us an unforgettable view of the King Air fly­ing on with­out us be­fore

we set­tled in, fac­ing down to­ward the earth, which was com­ing to meet us at 120 mph. Free fall lasted 60 ex­hil­a­rat­ing sec­onds be­fore we de­ployed the chute and set­tled com­fort­ably to earth.

I was back on the ground safely, and my fly­ing ad­ven­tures were done for the day. A quick overnight in Kansas City and I would be back in the air to com­plete my quest. Leg 6: 7:30 a.m. — Kansas City, Mis­souri (KMKC) to St. Paul, Min­nesota (KSGS) — 2014 Da­her TBM 900

The plan this morn­ing was quite a bit less com­pli­cated: Hitch a ride with Joe Brown, pres­i­dent of Hartzell Pro­pel­ler, to Iowa, where I would hop in a Stin­son as old as the United Na­tions to take me to St. Paul, Min­nesota. Great plan, ex­cept for the 350-mile-long line of tow­er­ing thun­der­storms brack­et­ing the en­tirety of the Iowa-min­nesota bor­der. We needed a Plan B.

The fore­cast called for build­ing storms through­out the day, which made wait­ing it out less than de­sir­able. The 320 knot cruise speed, 1,500 nm range and every in-cock­pit weather ser­vice avail­able on Joe’s TBM gave us a plethora of op­tions. Af­ter weigh­ing them all, we de­cided that our best bet would be to scratch the Iowa stop and swing west over South Dakota to get around the back side of the storm sys­tem. If the fore­casts were ac­cu­rate, we would be able to make it into St. Paul with only a few rain­drops on the wind­screen. At 8:45 a.m., we de­parted Kansas City head­ing west to get north, our eyes vig­i­lantly trained on the storms ahead.

With the aid of the fan­tas­tic on­board weather tech­nol­ogy and Joe’s en route de­ci­sion-mak­ing, we stayed dry all the way to Richard E. Flem­ing Field (KSGS) in South St. Paul in time to meet my next ride.

— St. Paul to Oshkosh, Wis­con­sin (KOSH) — 1955 de Hav­il­land DHC-2 Beaver

All of the fly­ing ma­chines I had climbed into thus far had two things in com­mon: First, they were all ca­pa­ble of land­ing on wa­ter. Sec­ond, if you did land them on the wa­ter, you weren’t go­ing to be tak­ing off again. It was time for a dif­fer­ent type of fly­ing ma­chine. That’s what had brought me to South St. Paul Mu­nic­i­pal Air­port, home of Wi­paire, a fa­cil­ity fa­mous for its abil­ity to con­vert an air­plane into a boat.

We had ar­rived just in time to watch a rather con­spic­u­ous float­plane emerge from its hangar. It was a highly cus­tom­ized de Hav­il­land Beaver,

Kinky Lucy in­trigu­ingly nick­named . In ad­di­tion to the am­phibi­ous floats

mounted in place of the land­ing gear, Lucy

was given a 650 hp tur­bo­prop en­gine and a liv­ery that pays homage to its dual her­itage. The air­craft had been split length­wise, with one side painted to mimic the Cana­dian flag and the other side the Amer­i­can flag. It cer­tainly made a state­ment.

Climb­ing out of the TBM, I was wel­comed by Chuck Wi­plinger, pres­i­dent of Wi­paire and my pi­lot for the fi­nal leg of this odyssey. Hop­ing to make it to Oshkosh be­fore the thun­der­storms en­gulfed our flight path, we wasted no time. The orig­i­nal plan was to splash down on Lake Win­nebago and dock at the Oshkosh Sea­plane Base. Un­for­tu­nately, the in­com­ing weather forced us to head for the air­port in­stead. The un­der­stand­able yet dis­ap­point­ing de­ci­sion meant we would be com­plet­ing our jour­ney in a sea­plane that both de­parted and ar­rived on pave­ment. It seemed we were some­how miss­ing the point. We couldn’t de­prive our­selves en­tirely of


the op­por­tu­nity to uti­lize ’s floats, so shortly af­ter depar­ture, we iden­ti­fied a suit­able stretch of the Mis­sis­sippi River, lined up and splashed down.

Af­ter a few min­utes float­ing on the river, feel­ing a bit like Mark Twain (with a more pow­er­ful steam­boat), we pushed power and took to the sky. Cruis­ing over 200 miles of Wis­con­sin dairy farms at 3,500 feet, we closed the gap to Oshkosh in no time. As we got closer to our des­ti­na­tion, ra­dio chatter in­ten­si­fied. It seemed we weren’t the only ones look­ing to ar­rive at Oshkosh to­day. Like a well-re­hearsed bal­let, the con­trollers flaw­lessly han­dled the glut of air­planes bound for Air­ven­ture. As in­structed, we merged with traffic over Ripon, fol­lowed the rail­road tracks to Fisk, then con­tin­ued to Wittman Re­gional Air­port and greased the land­ing on Run­way 27.


Stand­ing on ’s float, smil­ing broadly, I looked out over the field. I had ar­rived. I made it from Austin to Oshkosh two hours quicker than last year. And rather than the night­mare trip on the air­lines, I ex­pe­ri­enced an in­cred­i­ble ad­ven­ture in which I left the ground in eight com­pletely dif­fer­ent air­craft and landed in seven. I’m un­be­liev­ably grate­ful to the RAF, CAF Cen­tex and all the amaz­ing pi­lots who made this jour­ney pos­si­ble. Top­ping this next year is go­ing to be a chal­lenge — a chal­lenge I’m will­ing to ac­cept. What do you think, Austin to Oshkosh over both poles?

Of the eight air­craft I climbed aboard for my jour­ney to Oshkosh, the open-cock­pit Waco was the windi­est. The last leg of the trip was made in a tur­bine Beaver on floats that we landed on the Mis­sis­sippi River.

Af­ter 31 hours criss­cross­ing a wide ex­panse of the coun­try, I fi­nally ar­rived in time for the start of Air­ven­ture.

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