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Q-talk 76 - FLIGHT ACROSS THE U.S.A. IN ONE DAY


I felt like I needed a special project this year, something that would be fun and present a personal challenge. Earlier this year, I was involved with an air show in El Salvador and met Eduardo Nixon, who was one of the first two men from Central America to fly around the world in a Bonanza. While I had no desire to take on an around the globe trip, I felt I could do something similar here.

I first flew my Quickie Q-200, N202SH in 1986. I cracked it up on the 15th flight, rebuilt it and have been more or less regularly flying since 1987. This spring I passed the thousand-hour mark. It is a fairly stock plane with a modest panel and a Spartan interior (no upholstery). It uses a Continental O-200 and has 22.5 gallons total fuel capacity which gives me about 3.5 hours at 160 mph.

I have done a fair amount of cross-country in my Q-200 but I seemed to stay within a one fuel tank range because most of my social connections and family are within that circle. I hand prop the engine and I thought it would be hard to go on a sustained long trip since it acts up when hot.

On New Year's Day, in 1998, I flew from Murphysboro, Illinois to West Palm Beach, Florida to visit my cousin. I had one fuel stop on the way down and two for the return trip. Though at this point I had more than 900 hours on the plane, I had never taken it that far and when I got home I thought, "That wasn't such a big deal!"

I participate in air shows with Rich Gibson and his company "Rich's Incredible Pyro". There was a show in Salinas, CA that year and rather than flying commercial I decided to take the Quickie. It was a leisurely two-week trip with overnight stops in Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Salinas, the San Francisco Bay area, and Utah. The plane and the engine performed well.

Reflecting on the two trips for the year, I realized that I had flown coast-to-coast but it had taken me nine months and 22 days to do it. After a brief, unscientific inquiry on the Internet, I claimed the coast-to-coast record for Q-200's. Maybe someone had done it faster, but I'd claim the record until proven otherwise. Bruce Crain, in the Quickie Builders Association (QBA) list server group, commented that I could have done faster in a covered wagon. As it turned out, there was a guy who later drove a lawn mower coast-to-coast in only two months.

So the seed was planted, I could shorten that nine months 22 days by a lot. So, let's make the trip in one day. An inquiry to the QBA didn't seem to turn up any others who already made the trip, so I started making plans.

The shortest coast-to-coast route looked like San Diego to somewhere in Georgia, but I didn't want to let myself off too easy and wanted to make it something special. I thought about going up to the New York area, but didn't really want to deal with all that big city congestion. But between New York and Georgia was Kill Devil Hills. It was on the Atlantic Ocean, it was the most historic site in aviation, and it was the right distance to be a suitable challenge.

The Wright Brothers' Memorial was on the Atlantic coast but the airport there is day VFR only and has absolutely no services. Dare Country Regional (MQI) in Manteo is very close so it fit the bill. Now I had a goal and it was time to start the plan. I wanted to get as much daylight as possible, so I scheduled my vacation to coincide to be close to the first day of summer and the longest period of daylight for the year.

One of the guys in the QBA Internet group mentioned EAA Chapter 14 at Brown Field (SDM) in San Diego. With 400 members they are the world's largest chapter and I figured I could get some help there before departure. I had just replaced a cylinder and would need to change the oil and take care of anything else that may come up. I contacted Dayton Smith, president of Chapter 14 and Tim Gaylord, airport manager of MQI, and they both offered support for my endeavor.

I was using the Internet for a lot of the planning. Cirrus DUATS helped me monitor typical flight times across the country and the web site, www.airnav.com, helped plan the fuel stops. This site will also give you a nifty graphic of the USA with the intended route of flight.

I had not spent much time flying at night in the 15 years since I sold my C-172 and the Quickie wasn't well rigged for it either. More cockpit lighting was installed and a rudimentary landing light from Wal-Mart was installed in the lower engine cowling. The light is a small halogen fog light which casts yellow light.

Saturday, June 19th I departed for Santa Fe. I wanted to take a fairly easy trip to the west and thought two days to get to San Diego would be about right. Just to remind me that Murphy is always lurking, my vacuum pump failed about one hour into the first leg. I took a paper towel and a bit of tape and covered up the dead horizon and directional gyros so I wouldn't use them.

There was a NOT AM for an air show at Santa Fe and since I was 90 minutes early for the airport reopening I landed in Las Vegas, NM. There I was greeted by an older couple, Dick and Sally, and was offered a snack. Showers were in the area and I wasn't anxious to take off in the rain, especially at the 6,877' altitude so I only took on 8 gallons of fuel to stay light for the takeoff.

When I did leave, there was still a drizzle, but since there was plenty of runway (8,200' and sloping downward) I figured I would be OK. I was very glad I had put on new tires before the flight because the wheels were really spinning. The runway was narrow and demanded concentration so I didn't look at the airspeed indicator, but I must have had a groundspeed of 110 before I lifted off. That combination of moisture on the wings and high altitude really has an effect.

I stayed with artist friends, Ed and Bonnie Larson, in Santa Fe that evening then took off for San Diego on Sunday morning. The flight was largely uneventful, save for a fuel stop at Blythe, California. I had been cruising around 8,500' and was comfortable but as I descended into Blythe's the temperature went up and up. Once on the ground it was downright hot! The fuel nozzle was so hot I had to borrow gloves and when I went inside to pay the bill I saw the thermometer read 109 degrees! I probably pumped 140 degree fuel into my tank.

I arrived at Brown Field and the tower directed me to the EAA Chapter 14 compound. This is quite a setup. They have three hangars and seem very active. They put on a lunch every Saturday and give Young Eagle rides every other week. Dayton Smith, the president of Chapter 14, came out and saw that I was properly tied down. I needed to change the oil and do the other maintenance but we would leave that for the next day, Monday.

The following day, Dayton drove me up to El Cajon to find a new vacuum pump, but there were a couple of problems. It was going to be quite pricey, plus the parts dealer informed me that my VISA card was no good! We left so I could call the credit card bank and they issued me a new account number, but, of course, I did not have the plastic card so I could not use self-serve pumps. I also made a call to Aircraft Spruce and they had the exact replacement pump that I needed, and it was not quite so costly.

We went back to Brown Field where I changed the oil and filter, then flew up to Corona Airport, near Los Angeles, home of Aircraft Spruce. The Spruce company van brought me over so I could pick up the pump. I then left Corona Airport and flew over to French Valley Airport (F70) in Murrieta.

By the time I fueled up it was getting close to 5:00 and I still had to replace my vacuum pump. I explained the idea of my trip to the FBO operator and asked him if I might be able to stay on the couch for a few hours until departure time. He said no, so I went outside to replace the pump out on the ramp.

After the repair was complete, I wanted to test fly the aircraft but by this time everybody had left and I would not be able to top off the fuel and I just made due with a ground run-up. French Valley is a nice airport. I had finished the repair by 6:00 P.M. and didn't intend to depart until 1:00 A.M., so I had some time on my hands and thought I should try and rest. I read a Clancy book until the sun set and I hoped I might be able to sleep a bit.

Fortunately, I had thought to bring a sleeping bag and air mattress along. I pulled some pieces of cardboard out of a nearby dumpster and laid the air mattress on it so it wouldn't be punctured by the sharp rocks. To tell you the truth I felt a bit like a homeless person. There was quite a bit of aviation so there was not even a chance of sleeping until 9:00 P.M. or so.

I thought I was just about to drift off to sleep when I was jolted by the sound of two barking and snarling dogs. For some reason, a guy was out walking his dogs at the airport. My shout must have scared him as much as the dogs scared me. So I just lay there, resigning myself to rest but not sleep. I was happy that the sky was clear as a bell and my departure should be uneventful.

At midnight the sky was clear but at 12:05 it was cloudy!!! I could not believe it. After all I had been through, the fog had come in and I was afraid I was not going to be able to depart!

At about 12:30 I rolled up my bed, stuffed it into the plane and walked out to the darkened runway. I had listened to the AWOS and it was saying in its robotic voice "Visibility 4 miles, ceiling unavailable". I looked up and could see one or two stars shining through the mist above and decided that was good enough. The plane started fine and I took off to the south and began my climb. It was about 1:00 A.M. Tuesday.

I had always planned this trip to be a true coast-to-coast flight so I had preprogrammed the coastline on my GPS as a checkpoint and flew west. It was quite beautiful. The fog was lying in scattered areas, interrupted by mountaintops and by cities. The line marking the coast was apparent by a jagged line in the fog undercast and by the abrupt cessation of the glow of the city lights. As soon as I reached my checkpoint I did a 180 degree turn and headed toward Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina.

I climbed to 9,500 feet to clear the mountains and the night was beautiful. The Milky Way was this terrific band above me, accented by the widely placed cities spread across the deserts. The first fuel stop was at St. John's Industrial Park Airport in St. Johns, Arizona. My timing was good and I touched down at first light, as I had planned. I knew this airport would work for me since I had called before the trip and found out the attendant lived in the terminal and would be available for fuel at 5:30 in the morning. He was rather a good sport about it and helped me make a quick turnaround.

As I walked around the plane, I discovered that the lens covering my tail light had apparently popped off on touchdown. Well, the bulb seemed to be intact so I just wrapped it in with a bit of duct tape and was on my way. Suddenly it was daylight and I could see the countryside again. The deserts are fascinating from the air and it was nice watching the sunrise ahead of me. This portion was fairly uneventful and I made good time with the good weather.

Next fuel stop was Pampa, Texas, in the panhandle, and I arrived about 9:50 A.M. CDT. The Quickies always bring out the onlookers but the older airport bums seem to have a certain routine. You can tell the little boy in them just wants to rush out and look it all over but the old buzzard in them holds them back. They'll wait a respectful minute or two, just to let the others know that they're not all that impressed, then they'll ask expertly "You got a Volkswagen engine in that?"

When I say it's a Continental they give a nod of approval. Then they'll start asking about my cruise speed, range and where I'm from. Satisfied, they'll go back inside and pass on their newfound expertise to the other airport bums. They will continue to sit inside as I go back to the plane, start it up and taxi off, almost pretending not to notice. They want to pass along that they're not too impressed. But I would say that 80% of the time when I'm at the departure end of the runway they are all outside to watch the takeoff. The old guys at Pampa were no different.

There were clouds and rain in Texas and Oklahoma and I had to use a variety of altitudes and headings to thread my way through. Fortunately my favorite frequency, 122.00, didn't have any news of thunderstorms and I was able to make it on through to Arkansas. The significant milestone on this leg was my passing the halfway point.

I had planned Mountain View airports as a fuels top, but I was doing pretty well on fuel so I pushed another 75 miles to Walnut Ridge. Touchdown at Walnut Ridge, Arkansas was about 2:00 P.M. CDT. They say the Indy 500 is won in the pits but if they had to make a pit stop in Walnut Ridge, they would lose. The folks there were pleasant enough, but it was just very s-l-o-o-o-w. Aggravating their country speed (or lack of it) was the fact my fatigue was starting to kick in. I had now been awake for 32 hours, had flown nine hours and was facing two more legs to go.

I finally got off the ground about 2:40 P.M. CDT and headed for Knoxville. Once back into the air I felt a little less tired and a bit more pumped up to complete the trip. A little moral boosting treat came just past Walnut Ridge. I was about 100 miles south of Carbondale, Illinois, my home base. Just to listen, I tuned in the tower frequency and heard the voice of my friend and Long-Eze driver, Jake Bach calling in. I tried calling him but he didn't pick me up. Oh well, it was just nice to hear him.

I looked at my watch and the size of this task again set in. It was 3:00 and I was just leaving the Midwest. Normally, if I were to plan a trip to the east coast I would have departed comfortably in the morning, fresh and ready to go. Now here I was, mid-afternoon and I was just starting for the East Coast and tired to boot.

I made Knoxville with plenty of fuel so I decided to continue on. Asheville, North Carolina seemed like a good place to go and it would put me in my destination state. I started across the Appalachian Mountains and didn't think they would be any big deal. After all, I had flown my Quickie through, across, and over the Rockies. Now THOSE were mountains.

I picked up the ATIS and contacted approach about 30 miles out. They gave me a squawk code and I continued in. When the clouds began to come into view I went below them. Then the visibility started coming down. Back in Tennessee it was clear and unlimited. Now all of a sudden the visibility was four miles or so and clouds all around. I told approach I needed to descent through a sufficient sized hole and get underneath it all. About this point Asheville approach informed me my transponder was not working.

As I spiraled down I became a bit disoriented and had to ask for help getting to the airport. This was definitely a bad situation. I found the airport, it was where they said it was, but the clouds were dark, it was getting late, I was tired and the visibility was low. They were still VFR there, but I was a flatlander and did not like it here. Those mountains no longer looked so benign.

I got fuel and dashed inside to call Flight Service. They told me the weather only got better the further east I went and there were no IFR conditions between my destination and me. I had a brief conversation with a local pilot and he briefed me about safe ways to depart the area. You know, go around that hill and follow that road - those kinds of directions. There were a couple of other guys on the ramp trying to talk me out of continuing. They were like the Sirens calling to me, offering me a warm place and soft bed to lie in. But no, I had come this far and would not be deterred.

I fired up the engine and was listening to the ATIS when I saw another man join the group watching me. He ran over and motioned for me to open the canopy. "I'm Jerry Marstall from the Quickie Builders Association. We've been following you on the Internet. Go for it, Sam!" or something to that effect. It was a complete coincidence that he was there. My intended fuel stop was Knoxville and no one knew I was going to Asheville. Seeing Jerry was a real charge. It made me feel like I was not quite so alone on this trip and I also felt like I was flying for my friends who were rooting me on. So, I took off.

Right off, I became disoriented again and found myself in a large valley with plenty of room to maneuver, but unsure of my position on direction. I had to think for a minute. The WAC charts don't have a lot of detail and it can be hard to interpret them while controlling the aircraft between mountains. On the chart I found an airport that I knew had to be near me then I hit the "NEAR" button on my GPS. I scrolled up until I found that airport, then hit the "TO" button. Relief. I had figured out where I was and now knew where I was going.

Since my transponder had apparently given up the ghost, I had to give a wide berth to the Charlotte Class B airspace, but the weather was getting better and it was still daylight so I was happy about that.

One thing I discovered on this trip is that North Carolina is a lo-o-ng state. Or at least it seemed long. About halfway across the sun went down and I found myself flying at night again. Twice in the same day.

At this point I was really beat. Fortunately, I no longer had to contend with weather, but now I had to make the transition to night flight at the same time that the towns were thinning out below. One of the best things about GPS is the constant update to your Estimated Time Enroute (ETE). Taking away the need to make that calculation simplified things greatly. And with the sight gauge in my header tank I knew exactly how much fuel and reserve I had. The only problem was, my alternate airports had been dropping by the wayside and Dare County Regional (MQI) was not yet in sight.

The illuminated city areas became thinner as the black fields and estuaries became bigger. Finally I could see a rotating beacon ahead! I kept looking at the beacon, my fuel gauge, the ETE and the near button for closer airports. I kept doing this over and over until I arrived over the town of Manteo and listened to the AWOS. Fortunately, the wind was right down the runway. Unfortunately, the runway lights were not on! I clicked the microphone and nothing happened.

I swore and strained to make out the runways and could just faintly see them. There had been a NOTAM that the crosswind runway lights were out of service, but not both! Well, if I had to, I would just land on the darkened runway. At this point I was not about to attempt going to an alternate airport. Once more I looked up the airport information in the AOPA directory that I was carrying. The Unicom frequency was 122.8, not the 123.0 frequency that I had dialed in!! Why the hell did I do that? Just tired, I guess. I clicked the mike five times and the airport lit up in a blaze of glory. It was beautiful. I flew a standard pattern and made my worst landing of the year. But did I care? No, I was just extremely happy to be on the ground. I taxied to the ramp, shut everything off, and just sat there. I was tired. Oh, I was tired.

The airport terminal was closed and I was informed by another pilot that the hotels were probably full. I called the airport manager; Tim Gaylord, at home and he told me how to get into the pilot's lounge in the terminal. Would I mind sleeping in an Easy Boy chair? There was a shower there too, which made it great. Hey, anything was better than trying to sleep on the rocks back in California.

So I departed French Valley, California at 1:00 A.M. and arrived at Dare County Regional at 9:50 P.M., 17 hours and 50 minutes later. My Hobbs meter said that included 16.1 hours of flight time. I had planned the flight at 14 hours of airtime. I don't really know where the extra two hours were used up. I had flown over 2,400 miles.

The next day I got up and wandered into the terminal itself and introduced myself to Tim. He is a great promoter of aviation in general and of his airport in particular. He will be facing the enormous task of handling thousands of aircraft for the upcoming 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers first flight, in 2003.

Tim had previously asked me if I minded being interviewed by the local media and he tipped the scale by offering me a hotel room if I stayed an additional day. Who could say no to that? Within minutes there were three newspaper reporters and one television cameraman on the scene. They were genuinely interested in the plane and the flight. Having received my allotted 15 Minutes of Fame, I decided to fly over to First Flight Airport (FFA), at the bottom of Kill Devil Hill, where the Wright Brothers changed history.

When I flew into Oshkosh for the first time, I really felt like my plane was truly complete. It kind of completed a rite of passage for me. But let me tell you, when I landed at First Flight Airport at Kill Devil Hill, the day after my big flight, I felt an incredible privilege to just be there. It was completely overwhelming and I was not prepared for the feeling that came over me. Maybe it was fatigue. To me, it was more significant than arriving at OSH. To fly the little plane that I built, to the site of the world's first flight was a very emotional experience. I freely admit that as I walked up the hill where the monument is located, I wept. This was where it all started. It's very hard to put into words, but the sense of history and of greatness at that site was enormous and quite overwhelming. The place is simple, unpretentious, and powerful. I urge all of you, if you ever can, make the pilgrimage to Kill Devil Hill.

This flight started out as a summer project. I know that it was not an official record and I really didn't care about that. But I did want to demonstrate to the rest of the guys in the Quickie Builders Association that this is a great little airplane and they should continue to see their projects fly.

But, I guess I mostly wanted to challenge myself. I wanted to set a big goal and see it through. Besides, I had to beat that guy on the lawn mower!

Sam Hoskins, Murphysboro, IL



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