Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Beechcraft Musketeer

We had planned a 23 day (3 weeks plus weekend) round trip to California, but now had to consider forgetting it, or going by airline (which would mean not much of interest enroute).  The unexpected solution came two days before our planned departure.  The Weisbergers, a local couple, had decided to stop flying and sell their  Beechcraft Musketeer,  registered as N3512R.  The Augusta FBO suggested we rent it for our trip.   The Weisbergers figured they could use the rental income, that we might be induced to buy it, or other prospects would be impressed that this was a plane capable of easy transcontinental flight.   So the evening before our departure on April 18, 1970 I was given 70 minutes of dual instruction in this plane that was quite different from anything I had flown:
**  The third landing wheel was on the "wrong" (for me) end: the front.
**  It had a radio.  I'd never used one, and was worried about the fast transmissions required.
**  The fuel was delivered to the engine by pump, not gravity. 
**  It was a low winger, not a high winger.
**   The flaps were controlled by a hydraulic pump, not by lever action.
**  The panel and controls were different. 

 I took a small mountain of charts and how-to manuals.   We hurriedly packed, realizing that our gear would weigh as much, and take as much space as, a fourth passenger.   Nevertheless we have a picture of Marge, Phil and I standing by the plane beside the few things we planned to take, including those things we had to leave behind anyway.  That first Saturday we reached Dunkirk, New York, where we were grounded by 3 days of rain.  We intended to make lemonade out of lemons, so found interesting things to do in that wet drab city with warning signs on its polluted Lake Ontario beaches.   At that rate we'd never reach California.

We used the entire runway and then some at an Ohio airport.   That's the end of our landing run.

But the weather improved, and so did our adventure.   In Arkansas one of us suddenly required a pit stop.   I made a quick map search and calculation, and we landed on the grass strip at Gaston's, a fishing Mecca.  As the wheels touched we abruptly discovered that the 6" grass concealed a 2" deep mixture of water and recent grass clippings, which created giant twin green sprays until we slowed down.  I wasn't sure we could safely take off in those conditions and get over the high cliff over which we had just descended.   So Marge and Phil stayed behind while I made a test takeoff.  That worked fine, so I returned to retrieve them, and we 3 flew onward.

At Oklahoma City we chose the smaller airport, as always, but found too late that it was the busiest, because of its Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.  After we entered the airport pattern in the usual counter-clockwise direction, the controller in the tower told us something that is oft repeated in our family: "One Two Romeo, you are in the pattern backwards - turn right".   The great majority of airports have a rectangular  pattern that pilots are supposed to follow with left turns, counterclockwise, until they land approximately into the wind.   Obviously this airport had a right-turn clockwise pattern.  So we left (sic) it as instructed, the controller forgot us, we reminded him, and at last we were on final for landing, under his control.  He warned us perhaps 3 times about another plane also somewhere on final, and so warned the other plane.   Quite close to landing we found the tower had made and was making a mistake that was almost disastrous.  Ours was a low wing plane so we couldn't see directly below, and the other plane had high wings so its pilot couldn't see directly above.   Apparently the controller suddenly looked out his tower window instead of at his radar screen, saw the other plane was directly below us, converging vertically at the same forward speed, and ordered its pilot to turn left immediately.   Then we saw the other plane, and landed without it.

Eastern Texas has few bodies of water or railroads or other landmarks.  That, combined with the unannounced shutdown of a radio station we needed for a navigation fix, and a strong unpredicted cross wind, made our position uncertain as we were flying in Texas.   When I climbed 2000' higher so we could receive another station, Phil was as pleased as I when he got us a fix showing exactly where we were.   There was bad weather ahead, with possible tornadoes, but we were able to divert directly to a little emergency strip at McLain, Texas.   It was getting very dark, except for brilliant lights in a big arrangement of pipes nearby that we learned was a natural gas  processing facility.   We walked toward and around it, wary of heat-seeking rattlesnakes.   Beyond and below it were a few houses we hadn't seen from our tiedown.  Here was another example of the generosity we've found when traveling away from cities, by plane or boat or car.  The owner drove us 6 miles to the "best motel in town" in his Cadillac, waited while we registered, took us to a restaurant, and took us back to the motel after supper.   In the morning he and friends arrived for breakfast and drove us to the airport.

The next six photos with text are about one long fascinating day.   We left Albuquerque, crossed the quite invisible continental divide, flew 3 times around Shiprock  (sacred to the Navajo and a landmark to the pioneers) for pictures and video, and flew over the  Four Corners point , where Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico meet.   Next on the flight was Monument Valley, where so many cowboy movies were made.   Perhaps the biggest thrill of the entire 23 day trip was flying over and between the iconic mesas there.

We landed at Page, Arizona and walked about 3 miles to  Glen Canyon Dam, on the Colorado River.

We enjoyed a tour of the big chamber with huge photogenic generators adjacent to the dam.

As we continued flying beside the great river downstream, its canyon deepened and widened.   For the first time in flight I experienced vertigo, as we crossed from one side of the widening canyon to the other.  We had intended that when we reached the village of Grand Canyon we would fly over the Canyon, but I couldn't do it, because of the sudden fear of height, the perception of all 3 dimensions.

We had planned to hike to the bottom of the Canyon and stay at Phantom Ranch, a simple hostel that is usually fully booked months ahead.  However, our Dunkirk NY delay meant we were too late for our reservations, and could only hope for 3 last-minute cancellations.  We waited while those ahead in line got their spots, until we finally got ours.   It was awesome (again that word, and that feeling), in spite of heat, and carrying only one hat, and my patting an innocuous-looking cactus.

That night it snowed up on the canyon rim.  In the morning we photographed the snowdrift that came in around the door.   The cabin was austere, but we thought it a better deal than expensive El Tovar, which had a mere curtain to separate the "rooms" (ours and Phil's), and plumbing that Teddy Roosevelt must have used when he visited.   We drove a rented car along the canyon rim, and ran out of gas, though we had been told the tank was nearly full.  We were privileged to meet and talk briefly with Emery Kolb , an almost legendary figure.  In 1903, 16 years before Grand Canyon was a National Park, he and his late brother started the photographic studio on the canyon rim that he was still running.  Ken Burns' recent TV series on our National Parks featured the brothers and their daring trip down the Colorado in 1911, recording the first motion pictures of the canyon.  Mr. Kolb autographed his book for us.

The following day we took flight in marginal weather, dodging snow showers to Prescott, Arizona.

 We passed over Hoover (Boulder) dam, and landed after dark at Bermuda Dunes, California.  The airport was deserted, but apparently used by the wealthy.  We phoned an upscale motel that advertised free transportation, apparently for those arriving in private jets.   A limousine arrived, driven by the owner, Lucille Ball's brother.   Although he stood by while we checked in, he and the super service vanished when I asked for something cheaper than the initial price.  We dressed for dinner, but the restaurant was closed and the transportation had vanished, so we ate crackers and candy from vending machines.  Our luxurious rooms had fully stocked bars and patios directly on the Bob Hope golf course.

The next morning we flew below sea level over Salton Sea, an unusual opportunity.

Then we flew up through  famously windy San Gorgonio Pass , and landed at Hemet.   That was close enough to our friends Dick and Phyllis Plummer in Perris, the congested airspace of Los Angeles, and the Pacific Ocean.

We  toured there for 3 days, then headed east along the Mexican border.   That cleared strip was clearly visible, as were the deep copper mines in Bisbee, Arizona.

We spent 2 nights in Nogales, from where we drove to a ghost town in the mountains, and to Mexico on their May 5 (Cinco de Mayo) holiday.  Near Tucson we were allowed in the mostly-outdoor Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum near closing, to see the iconic tall Saguaro cacti receding on a downward slope towards the horizon.   We toured spectacular Carlsbad Caverns, another National Park.

On the 21st day of our 23 we were still in Oklahoma, but woke up early and got aloft just after a dark turbulent cold front passed eastward, and with a strong tail wind made it to Ithaca, New York.

We landed at the Augusta airport on the 23rd day, Sunday.  We had logged 55.1 hours, for which we paid $18 an hour, with our gasoline costs reimbursed.  Two of those hours were night flights.