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Silver Argosy Part Two - Low And Slow Across America



Silver Argosy Part Two - Low And Slow Across America

By Tony Vallillo (6 April 2015)



By the time that everything was in place to make the purchase of N112T possible, it was well into October of 1996. Summer was over, and so was the summer weather across a direct route from Independence Oregon to Connecticut. As I began the process of flight planning for the Silver Argosy, my first decision revolved around whether to fly at all!


Weather conditions across the northern tier of the USA can be quite harsh even in late October. This year we have seen that illustrated rather starkly; indeed, the flight would not have been possible at all during parts of October and November of 2014! 1996, while perhaps a bit less chilly in October than 2014 has been, was by no means a benign year up north. As I contemplated crossing the Cascades and the Rockies in a two place single engine very light airplane with no heater (that's right - neither Dave's Skooter nor mine has a heater; Thorp lived in southern California, and heaters are apparently less of a necessity out there!), I was also face to face with the fact that the "baggage" area of the T-211, which is a small shelf like area behind the seat backs, could accommodate little in the way of emergency equipment beyond a whistle and a signal mirror. The prospect of crossing a thousand miles of snow covered semi-wilderness without much more than a book of matches was not enticing. Neither were the altitudes that I would have to maintain in order to avoid the terrain, nor the temperatures I might encounter at those altitudes.






A considerable amount of snow had already fallen by late October all along the western reaches of the most direct great circle route (above), which would have involved a whole day of flying over areas with as much as five feet of snow on the ground, particularly in the mountains. This was long before I had joined CAP, but although I did not know then how difficult it is to spot a small airplane down in snow I had enough sense to realize that for reasons of safety, to say nothing of comfort, the northern route would be a risk, even following the Interstate highway. In addition to crossing two mountain ranges, the northern great circle route would involve crossing Lake Michigan in much colder weather than had existed when I did it in the summer, and a portion of the route actually lay in Canada. Cutting the corner into the territory of our neighbor to the north is a routine event in jet flying, but in a small airplane it would probably involve landing somewhere in Canada, if for no other reason than to accommodate the fact that a heater is not all the SkySkooter lacks - it also has no lav!






A slight modification to the northern route (above) would avoid the lake crossing and keep the flight entirely within the good 'ol US of A, but it would still mean days of flying in weather colder than I was willing to accept. I therefore began to cast about for an alternative.


One possible alternative would have been to ship the airplane by surface transportation rather than to fly it. I actually entertained this notion, at least to the point of inquiring of the owner how difficult it would be to have 112T shorn of her wings, the better to fit onto or into some sort of truck or other conveyance. It was not until I was assured that this would be difficult and costly in the extreme that I put the notion aside.


Another notion that I briefly entertained was to buy the airplane right away but leave it out in Oregon until late spring, when the climate along the direct route would be more manageable. This might have been possible, since the owner had nothing else going into his attached hangar (he had the sort of living arrangement that every pilot would kill for - a house with an attached hangar on an airport!). But he indicated that he would have to charge me rent for the hangar, a reasonable proposition under the circumstances. Careful analysis of the cost led me to cast this alternative aside as well - there is no justification (then or now) for inflating the cost of airplane ownership one iota.


So I would fly, and I would fly soon. Now it would come down to just where would I fly? Of course I already knew where I wanted the airplane to end up. I had been warned by the owner that this polished-aluminum airplane absolutely needed a hangar. If it were to be left outside for even a week, it would look like an old lawn chair. So I investigated the local Connecticut airports to see if, by chance, there was any hangar space available.






Hangar space availability is the second dirty secret of general aviation (the first, you may recall, is how ridiculously expensive it is!). Most airports that even have hangars for small planes (not all do) have waiting lists that are decades long to actually obtain a rental on one. In this sort of lottery, it matters not whether you can afford it; and so, in perhaps the only such instance in aviation, the rich and the not-quite-so-rich are on equal footing - first come first served. In no other field of human endeavor would such costly assets be housed outside, at the full mercy of the elements. We're talking about airplanes costing over half a million dollars sitting tied down outside in the rain and snow! I certainly don't recall the last time I saw a Lamborghini parked outside for months at a time, but that's how things are in aviation, at least in many places.


Fortunately for me the farther you go from a major metropolitan area, the greater the chance you will find hangar space available. And so it was that I stumbled upon a hangar that was available at the airport at Meriden Connecticut, around 45 minutes from our house. In aviation terms, this is close by. I immediately secured a lease and the Skooter had a dry place to roost when the time came. Thus the ultimate terminus of my Silver Argosy would be KMMK.


Planning a flight as long as this could take quite a while back in the day. Of course things are much easier now, with all of the many and varied apps for tablets that can do everything in a matter of seconds, even picking the cheapest fuel along the way and routing you to take best advantage of the low prices. But in late 1996 none of that existed. In fact, the concept of computer flight planning at any level below airline or corporate just did not exist. Or if it did, I was not privy to it! So I set about acquiring a number of paper charts, the better to peruse the choices of routing that might be available.






The climate pretty much dictated the overall plan of attack - the southern route (above), which would involve getting from Oregon down to the latitudes of Southern California, and crossing the continent in those balmier climes. I was already a devotee of the other meaning of IFR - I Follow Roads, so my first cut at looking things over was to examine a Rand McNally road atlas of the USA. Following the Interstate highway system makes a lot of sense, especially when you are transiting sparsely populated areas, and/or areas where opportunities for a successful forced landing are minimal. The Interstates are little ribbons of civilization across the wastelands, to say nothing of handy runways in the event of trouble. Looking at the atlas, it was obvious that Interstate 5 would provide a dandy thoroughfare for much of the first portion of the trip - the flight south that would precede the turn east.


Interstate 5, in that neck of the woods, runs south through Salem Oregon, just northeast of Independence, to Eugene and then through the mountains that separate Oregon and northern California, on into the great Central Valley. It winds through a pass in the mountains and pretty much defines the best route. Once through the mountains and into the Valley itself, other factors would come into play, and for that I turned to the aeronautical charts. I had initially bought three World Aeronautical Charts (WAC's) which, at 1 to 1,000,000 scale, cover twice as much ground as sectionals do. They are ideal for planning, and you can also actually use them for enroute navigation, provided the landmarks you will be looking for are really prominent - things like Interstate highways, or cities, or good sized lakes and the like. There was also the little matter of cost - three WAC's are cheaper then 7 or 8 sectionals.






Having chosen a general line of attack using the Rand McNally, I honed the route on the WAC's. Once south of the area of Mount Shasta there are many airspace issues, ranging from Class B's to Restricted Areas full of military pilots going Mach One plus with their hair on fire! Certainly I had no wish to mix it up with such as those, so lining up the actual route to be flown became much like planning to traverse a minefield of your own making. This aeronautical threading of needles was made more difficult by the fact that 112T did not have a transponder, nor would there be time (or money) to install one for the trip. Therefore, in addition to all of the military areas, I had to avoid Class B and Class C airspace as well.



The Garmin 95, an early aviation GPS unit with moving map that handled most of the navigation chores for the Silver Argosy



Fortunately, in addition to my eyeballs on the charts I would have a portable GPS aboard, an early model called the Garmin 95. This was one of the first units with a moving map; and although crude in the extreme by today's standards, it did show the airspaces as well as the airports and the course line. So the needle threading work would be done using the Garmin, leaving the charts to be used as general orientation and backup to the magic.


I planned to turn the corner at the Tehachapi Pass, at the southern end of the Central Valley. I had no desire to mix it up with the air traffic in the LA area, nor could I have legally done so without the transponder, so instead of crossing the mountains into the LA basin I would turn left and traverse the Tehachapi. There would be some needle threading after that to avoid the restricted areas at Edwards AFB, which would have to be done with the Garmin since there were no conveniently aligned Interstates, but past that area things would get a bit simpler. I could pick up the Interstates again east of Palm Springs and pretty much follow the concrete compass.






Once established in the more hospitable southern latitudes, the trip eastward would weave its way south of Phoenix, so as to avoid the class Bravo there, and head toward Tucson, where the class Charlie would be easier to dodge. From there it would be a matter of keeping Interstate 10 in sight all the way to El Paso. Further east, once I reached the vicinity of Midland Texas, I could dispense with keeping to the Interstates, since the level of civilization below would increase to the point that a possible forced landing would not be a survival situation! Thus, from that point eastward, pretty much all the way to Connecticut, I could utilize the GPS and fly direct, deviating only to avoid weather and airspace issues. There would still be DFW and Atlanta class B's to avoid, but that would be a simple matter of staying just south of DFW and north of Atlanta. Two additional fixed factors also dictated the route - I would plan to make overnight stops in Shreveport Louisiana and Winchester Virginia, where I had relatives. These overnight stops would be in addition to others which were planned every 500 or so miles. I figured that 5 hours a day spent in the tiny confines of the T-211 cockpit would be enough (I was used to the more spacious Airbus A-300 at this point!).






An airplane that cruises at 100 knots makes for fairly simple flight planning. In the roughly two and one half hours that my physiological system can endure, I would travel 250nm in no wind conditions. Since a great deal of the flight would be flown with the letter "E" under the lubber line, I could anticipate tailwinds much of the time. However because this flight was being planned several weeks ahead, it would be impossible to determine just how much tailwind would exist. Therefore, I decided to construct a very loose plan, one that would make for a good approximation but that would dispense with the fine details of what wind corrected course for what leg, and how much time and how much fuel exactly. The Skooter had a fuel gauge that was reported to be reasonably accurate, and I had no intention of going farther than 2.5 hours on any given leg, which was only a shade over half of the airplane's full fuel endurance, so there seemed to be little advantage in calculating everything down to the proverbial gnat's behind.


So it was that I prepared my charts in a manner that was of my own invention (although others, including Lindbergh, had developed similar methods over the years). Starting at Independence, I made marks on the chart perpendicular to my intended route of flight each 50nm. These marks I made long enough to accommodate a considerable left or right deviation from whatever the course line might be at the moment - Interstate 5 for the first portion of the flight. Thus I could keep a good track of my progress while being freed from a slavish captivity to a particular path across the ground. I had never tried this method before, but it worked very well on this flight.






Of course I had planned this argosy to be a solo endeavor, since there was at best but a single seat available for a "passenger". This was actually the one part of the upcoming flight that I was not eagerly anticipating - the overwhelming majority of my flying over the years has been done with other people in the cockpit, and I anticipated that the many hours (it was looking like it would be around 40 hours, give or take) of solo time might well be both boring and lonely. Just at this point, however, an opportunity arose to have a copilot for the trip! The daughter of one of our best friends had just finished college and acquired a private pilot license. When she heard about my planned argosy she offered to join me at her own expense, the better to acquire some extra cross country flight time. After first consulting with She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed as to Her attitude toward having an attractive young woman accompany me most of the way across the country (Melanie would disembark at Chapel Hill North Carolina, about three quarters of the way to Connecticut and, fortuitously, right on the planned route) and receiving her enthusiastic approval (so confident was She in the fidelity of her spouse!!) I gave my assent, and could now look forward to having a real crew for this epic flight.



Sold! I hand over the check



Melanie and I made our separate ways to Oregon on 30 October 1996, and met up at the Portland airport for the drive down to Independence. The following day, Halloween appropriately enough, I got my final checkout in the Skooter from the owner - takeoffs and landings, stalls and slow flight, and a full briefing on the workings of the simple machine, which included a late model LORAN (with which I was completely unfamiliar, but which I intended to use as a backup to the GPS). That having been done, I handed over a certified check for the amount we had agreed upon, arranged for insurance coverage, and mailed the bill of sale and change of registration form to the FAA. The airplane was now mine.


Bright and early the following day, 1 November, Melanie and I prepared to depart. A thorough weather briefing disclosed that the overall weather was superb all along the route, with the single exception of the valley that Independence sits in, which was afflicted with fog. This, however, would soon burn off and so we loaded up and gassed up, the better to be prepared to launch the moment that things improved It was around noon when the weather cleared up, and after saying goodbye to the now-previous owner and running the simple checklists we launched off into the blue. We made one pass over the airport in salute and took up our southerly course to intercept Interstate 5.



The Skooter in flight. It still amazes me how far we travelled in this tiny airplane!



The Skooter is a delight to fly, with excellent control response and reasonably light control forces. It is certainly no Pitts, but it is also certainly not a Cherokee regardless of its parentage of that line - the control forces in Cherokees are much heavier and the response less lively than the little Thorp. The controls are all operated by push rods instead of cables, resulting in a more precise and crisp feel than the typically loose and somewhat sloppy feel of the small Pipers and Cessna's. The bubble canopy gives the bird a jet fighter-like ambience, and the visibility is outstanding, just the thing for a long trek across America down low.


We took in the marvelous scenery of Oregon's central valley, with the small coast range on our right and the marine layer of fog still lingering along the coast. I once had a layover in Eugene Oregon, and rented a car on a bright sunny day to visit the beach, but an hour's drive away. Lo and behold, when I got past the coast range, the visibility dropped to zero as I encountered that marine layer, and the beach was a dreary place indeed; cool, clammy and uninviting.


Soon we approached the Eugene area. I had decided to cruise at 6500 feet, so we were well above the Class D airspace at the airport. But as we headed south toward the city we noticed a sudden shadow overtake us - an aluminum overcast above, composed of a United Boeing 737 also headed toward Eugene. I was thus reminded of the importance of watching for traffic in all quadrants, not just ahead; the more so since without a transponder we were essentially invisible to ATC.



Just north of Siskiyou airport CA




Mount Ashland ski resort, Ashland OR



South of Eugene the valley peters out into foothills and then real mountains. We followed Interstate 5 through the mountains, past Cottage Grove, Sutnerlin, Roseburg and Canyonville, Grant's Pass, Gold Hill and Medford. About every 30 miles or so there was a decent airport along the Interstate, and had we flown somewhat higher, perhaps around 10,000 feet we would rarely have been beyond reach of one or another of them, with or without the services of the little Continental O-200A chugging along up front! The scenery was spectacular. I had seen all of this from much higher aloft, of course, but the vistas we took in were everything I had imagined they would be in the days when I had gazed down from on high and dreamed of making the trip down low.






The surviving markings on the chart I used back then appear to indicate that we had planned to make our first stop at Rogue Valley Airport in Medford. I don't recall today why we overflew it, but I imagine that we had picked up a bit of a tailwind and were thus in no immediate need of either fuel or a pit stop. In any event, my logbook shows that we pressed on another 50 miles or so to the Montague Yreka airport, just south of the California border. Once south of Medford, the view was dominated by the incredible massif of Mount Shasta, and it was in the shadow of this great volcano that we made our first stop. Such was our satisfaction at having completed the first and most mountainous stretch of the route that we posed for a self congratulatory picture after the airplane had been topped off.



Montague Yreka airport CA, first stop




Mount Shasta



We launched again into the clear mountain air, and within minutes were passing abeam of the enormous cone of Mount Shasta. These Pacific Rim volcanoes are beautiful to admire, at least until one of them corks off! Fortunately, Shasta refrained from any untoward exhibitions as we passed abeam. Shortly thereafter we ambled down from the heights as the mountains tapered off into foothills and then the northern reaches of the great Central Valley. This valley runs from Red Bluff all the way to Bakersfield, and is one of the most fertile places on earth. A staggering amount of fruit and vegetables pours forth from this place every day, filling trucks and trains, and probably more than a few cargo jumbo jets as well! It is also said to be one of the flattest places on earth, and it certainly looks the part as we descend to lower altitudes, the better to keep the landmarks in sight in the slight haze that exists in the now mid-afternoon.



Castle Crags SW of Dunsmuir CA




Shasta Lake CA




Sutter Butte just west of Yuba city CA



We continued to follow Interstate 5, at least roughly. It keeps us clear of various airspaces over father east that we would rather avoid, among which is Beale AFB, the home of the U-2 and, earlier, the SR-71. Approximately abeam of Beale, just east of Colusa, sits the highest point in the valley - Sutter's Butte, which is a long extinct volcanic cone eroded to a mere 2300 or so feet elevation. I was able to snap a quick picture as we flew by.






After Colusa, Interstate 5 bends southeastward toward Sacramento. It is here that we had to thread our first needle, navigation-wise. The Sacramento Class B rubs up close to an imposing looking area surrounding Travis AFB. On today's charts this area is merely an alert area, but on the charts of 1996 it looked more like a restricted area. There is a gap of a few miles between the two, and the town of Davis lies squarely in the gap. We used the GPS to thread the needle between the two, and it worked like a charm. Of course the town provided a good landmark as well. Once through the needle's eye, we set course directly to our first planned overnight stop - Stockton California.


It was nearly dark by the time we landed at KSCK, and completely so by the time we clambered stiffly into a taxi at the FBO, bound for the Holiday Inn. The Skooter's somewhat cramped confines had confirmed the wisdom of my decision to keep the flying down to around 500 miles per day. But the first day's flying was done, and the arguably most challenging legs were now in the logbook. My copilot and I enjoyed a great meal in one of Stockton's better eateries and we called an early halt to the night's activities, the better to prepare for tomorrow's journey. Just before heading off to the land of Nod I called Flight Service for an outlook briefing. The reports and forecasts were good - in fact, it looked like we would be able to make the entire trip home without any real opposition from the weather.


The next morning, a glance outside the motel window caused me to doubt the ability of the western weather gurus. Fog, luminous but opaque, had crept in on its little cat feet overnight and squatted lethargically over what appeared to be the entire Central Valley. A quick call to Flight Service confirmed what I saw, but also offered some comfort - the fog was typical in the early morning there, and would likely burn off completely by mid-morning.



Foothills of the Sierras, somewhere between Fresno and Modesto



We arrived at the airport around 9 and got the preflight completed shortly thereafter. That's the nice thing about a simple airplane like the Sky Skooter - the preflight is not the lengthy affair that it is on a Boeing! Once that was done we returned to the lounge to await the return of VFR conditions. All we needed was three miles visibility, since the fog layer was scarcely more than a few hundred feet thick and once above it we would be in clear skies. Around 10 the rotating beacon on the tower stopped spinning, the sure signal that visual conditions prevailed. And off we went, rapidly climbing above the residual layer of now diaphanous mist into the clear-and-a-million skies above. Navigation now was the province of the Garmin 95, which had so far worked to perfection and continued to do so. We set a direct course for Bakersfield, at the southern end of the valley, close to the Tehachapi pass. This would be our next refueling point. As we droned southward, the Sierra Nevada Mountains provided a visual spectacle off to our left. This front row seat to the grandeurs of nature continued for nearly two hours, until KBFL hove into view ahead, and we contacted the tower for landing clearance.



Aqueduct emerges from the mountains just west of Neenach CA








Just south of Edison CA looking up toward Tehachapi Pass



After a refueling and a quick lunch, we were off once again, now bound for a little airport in the desert northeast of the LA basin called, curiously enough, Apple Valley. It may well be that I decided to make APV our next refueling stop just to see how it got that name, sited as it is in the desert and probably not at all conducive to apple growing! The route to APV lay across the southernmost ramparts of what is left of the Sierra Nevada, and it was initially my intention to traverse this area by following the iron compass through Tehachapi Pass, one of railroading's most famous grades. As we climbed out of Bakersfield I could see that it would take some time to achieve the 9500 feet that I had planned to safely surmount the pass, and, from an aerial vantage point, it seemed that there was another low area in the range a bit farther south. So we continued our climb and headed for the southern end of the Central Valley. As we did so, we could see the entry into Tehachapi off to our left, and I took note of the windmill farms that even back then dotted the terrain through the pass. If there was enough wind going through there to make it attractive for wind farms, there might just be a good bit of turbulence as well, so I became convinced that the more southerly crossing might be the best. Another attraction of bypassing Tehachapi was that the route through the pass would take us quite close to Edwards AFB, and I had no desire to mix it up with whatever they were testing over there!



Just across the pass north of Neenach CA




Looking back north across the mountains toward the central valley - just north of Neenach CA



Around twenty minutes after takeoff we leveled off at 9500 feet and turned left over what appeared to be the lowest part of the mountains at this point. We could not yet set our GPS to direct to APV, though, since there is a considerable array of restricted airspace surrounding Edwards, so we used the Garmin to steer a course just to the south of the forbidden areas. Once across the mountains, we were flying over the southern reaches of the Mohave Desert, with the San Gabriel Mountains off to our right and beyond those the LA basin. We were not high enough to observe the smog beyond the mountains, as I would be nearly a decade later when I passed this way at 35000 feet on the way from ORD to HNL. And of course we were going one heck of a lot slower! But with this kind of scenery around, the old saw about "if flying is so much fun then why are we in such a hurry to get it over with..." takes on real meaning!


Just as soon as we cut the corner on the Edwards airspaces I set the Garmin for direct to APV. There are no conveniently aligned major highways to follow, so we used the GPS for all actual navigation, while keeping track of our position on the sectional chart that I bought at Bakersfield for just that purpose. It had already been clear on the way down that although the WAC charts were great for planning, and for following Interstate highways, Sectionals are better for keeping track of position, especially in areas like this that are complex and intensive. In other circumstances I would call ATC and get flight following, just to have someone to talk to, if for no other reason. But without a transponder that would be pretty much impossible in this area. So Melanie and I had to be content with each other's company.



Rogers Dry Lake




Palmdale AF plant nr 42



Palmdale passed off to the right, and I wondered about the subtitle in its name: Air Force Plant number 42. Just for starters, where are the other 41 plants; for in all of my travels I have never encountered another airport with an Air Force Plant number appended to its name. Nowadays, we can just whip out the iPhone and Google it, but back then all of that magic was still but a gleam in Steve Jobs' eye, and the questions went unanswered!



Burt Rutan and an old Air Force acquaintance about to take to the sky in a Long EZ at Mohave



Off in the distance to the left, we could see the Mother Lode of the Right Stuff, Edwards AFB, and the large dry lakes that surround it and form a part of the landing area for, among other things, the Space Shuttle when it was first being tested. I once, on a layover, went to Mohave airport, which is fairly close to Edwards, and happened to meet Burt Rutan there, along with on old acquaintance from my original Air Force days who was building a Long EZ. It was fascinating to talk to Rutan in those days before he really got into the aviation spotlight. Big ideas were his forte, even then, and the future was already in his head, taking shape; as we could tell from the conversational gems he dropped here and there. Mohave, then as now, was also a graveyard for old jet transports, including the entire fleet of TWA Convair 880's. Today it is probably sinking under the weight of all of the 747's, DC-10's and other retired flagships of the airline fleets, including an ex-AA DC-10 and 767-200.



Looking north to Rogers Dry Lake and Edwards AFB




San Gabriel Mountains south of Palmdale looking toward LA



Approaching APV, we descended just to the south of what was once George AFB, now called the Southern California Logistics Center. George AFB was the F-4 Phantom training unit during the Vietnam era, transitioning all of the pilots and navigators into what was, at that time, the latest and greatest fighter in the inventory. Today it is a cargo port and, more recently, another boneyard for surplus airliners. We gave a quick shout-out to the tower as we passed by, for clearance into the class D from above.



Right Base leg for Apple Valley airport CA




Apple Valley airport CA



A few miles east of VCV we spotted Apple Valley. And no, it certainly didn't look like anyone was growing apples out there. But apparently at one time apples were a big crop, and thus the name. Since the next leg, to Blythe California, wasn't too long we contented ourselves with a few vending machine snacks and a fuel top-off, and were back in the sky with minimal delay.







Just east of Twenty Nine Palms




Enroute to Blythe




Enroute to Blythe




Between Desert Center and Blythe CA




Blythe airport CA, our second overnight stop



The flight to BLH called for a dogleg to avoid Restricted Area R-2501, which sits astride the direct route. This airspace runs from the surface to unlimited, so there is no getting over or under it. Staying to the south of it had us hugging the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains, just to the north of Big Bear Lake; which, I noted with amusement, was higher than we were. We turned the corner on the restricted area at Joshua Tree, and took up a southeasterly course direct to Blythe. Now we were flying over some true desert, and I was glad that we checked the batteries on the ELT as part of the pre-buy inspection. There were plenty of places to put it down, perhaps in one piece perhaps not, but the walk to the nearest phone might have been a long one indeed. The Skooter, fortunately, was purring like the kitten it could barely outrun, and any pessimistic speculation was lost in the incredible beauty of the place.


As the sun began to sink toward the Pacific, now many miles behind us, we picked up Interstate 10 for the last few miles into BLH. I let Melanie have a try at landing the Skooter, and she nailed it perfectly. We tied 112T down as the sun set, and headed into town for another great Mexican dinner and a good night's sleep. Two days journey in the logbook, with six days more to go. Tomorrow we would have a good bit of distance to cover, for I intended to make it to the vicinity of El Paso before we bedded down again.



Departing Blythe on day 3



Up again at the crack of dawn, we checked the weather with FSS, to find that things were going to be perfect yet again, and looked to remain so for much of the remainder of the journey. We ate a quick breakfast and got a taxi out to the airport again for our third day of the journey. Fuel topped off, and the preflight inspection completed, we were off into the sun and the Arizona desert. We had the navigational certainty of Interstate 10 again as we headed east, but before too long we were forced to part company with the concrete compass and head out into the true wilderness. The Phoenix class B, and in particular the 30nm mode C veil, precluded us from following I-10 all the way into town, where it turns south and heads for Tucson. To avoid the Mode C area we had to cut the corner and start heading southeast across the desert nearly 90nm from PHX, roughly paralleling V-94 to Gila Bend. There were (and still are) restricted areas galore off to the south and west, and we had to clear R-2308 before we could make our turn toward TUS. At Gila Bend, there was R-2304 on the right side and the PHX Mode C veil on the left. The restricted areas showed up on the Garmin 95, as did the Class B, but not the Mode C veil; so I set the GPS to take us directly to the GBN VOR, and then direct to our first destination, Ryan Airport just west of the Tucson class C.



Crossing the Colorado River east of Blythe




Desert southwest of Phoenix



This was the first time in the trip that we were flying on a leg with just about zero civilization below. There were no towns, no settlements of any kind on the chart, and only a single rail line that we would cross on the way to Gila Bend. But the Continental engine was still running perfectly, so the pucker factor was comfortably low. In fact, so absorbed were we in the harsh beauty of the desert scenery that we didn't give a single thought to the potential usefulness of our survival mirror and whistle!


I was not completely unfamiliar with the Tucson area, having had many a layover there nearly 20 years previously in my Boeing 707 engineer days. In addition to the various aircraft graveyards, civilian and military, the area is pitted with great mines - huge holes that resemble man made versions of the famous Meteor Crater. Most of these are copper mines, and indeed Arizona is known as the Copper State. Tucson is also well known for its outstanding Mexican cuisine, although we did not tarry to sample it, for this was but a fuel stop for us.



Clouds south of Phoenix




The Venture LLC hangar at Ryan airport AZ. It was closed when we got there.



I had chosen Ryan field for a specific reason, aside from its being just outside of the Class C. RYN was the home of Venture Light Aircraft Resources, which happened to be the current holder of the type certificate and tooling for the Sky Skooter. Larry Rebling, the owner of Venture, was just getting started selling T-211 kits made up from some of the 100 ship-sets of parts built in 1966 when 112T was built. I was hoping to meet and talk to him during our stop, since it would be a good idea to get acquainted with a potential supplier of parts. I actually entertained the notion of buying one of the kits - not to build it, but to have a permanent supply of spare parts; and in fact Dave's widow did just that some years later after he went west. But as it turned out, Larry was out to lunch when we passed through Ryan, and we weren't able to wait around for him to return. Back over our shoulder, you see, a weather system was moving onshore from the Pacific, and this had the potential of catching up to us if we dallied an extra day this far west. So after another fuel top off and a quick snack, we launched yet again into the wild blue.


From Ryan, we had to skirt the TUS Class C, and that took us to a convenient landmark, the giant open pit of the ASARCO Mission Mine, just north of Green Valley. Apparently a goodly bit of the copper that plays such an important role in all things electrical originates in this hole. We turned the corner at the mine and joined I-10 again east of Tucson at Benson. The terrain was just as stark over here as it had been northwest of Gila Bend, but the Interstate linked a number of small towns every 10 or 20 miles, so civilization was close at hand. We didn't follow every turn and bend in the highway, but rather set a straight course toward Deming and just kept the road in sight.



ASARCO Mission mine, Open Pit mine near Green Valley AZ south of Tucson




Wilcox Playa dry lake AZ




Just north of Wilcox AZ



Ever since we turned the corner at Tehachapi we had been the beneficiaries of tailwinds. These are always welcome, and they got stronger as we went further east. By the time we were east of Tucson, we had a boost of roughly 20 knots working for us, with groundspeeds in the giddy range of 130 knots or so. This may not sound like much, but in an airplane that usually true's out around 100 knots this is a significant boost indeed, and we welcomed it with open arms. It looked like we might be able to make it beyond the area of El Paso today.



Las Cruces NM enroute stop




Northeast of El Paso TX




Approaching Guadaloupe peak TX




Oil field near Hobbs NM




Guadaloupe peak TX




Sunset Hobbs NM



Originally it looked like Deming NM would be a good place to set down, but those tailwinds gave us just enough push that we were able to press on farther. Our second stop, for fuel and lunch, turned out to be Las Cruces New Mexico, just up the road from El Paso. Beyond that point, we had to turn south, because there was both high terrain and restricted airspace on a direct course eastward. So after takeoff we followed Interstate 10 south toward the West Texas town of El Paso, as Marty Robbins described it. Much as I would have wanted to stop there and pay a visit to Rosa's Cantina, there was still plenty of daylight and our eastward course beckoned. We again had to thread a needle navigationally; because there were several big Restricted Areas north of the Class C, and the path between the two was only around 3-4 miles wide. I was by now acutely aware of the handicap that resulted from our lack of a transponder, and this trip pretty much made up my mind to install one immediately after arrival in Connecticut.


We had one more corner to turn, at the southern end of what are called, further north, the Rocky Mountains. This is Guadeloupe Peak, which lies a bit east of El Paso. When we passed by, it was catching the late afternoon sun and looked quite spectacular. This would mark the end of the mountainous terrain portion of our trip. Once we put Guadeloupe behind us it was pretty much flat and, until we crossed the Mississippi river, all downhill! The winds kept up their steady push and we found that we could press on beyond Carlsbad. I had briefly entertained the notion of putting up there and actually going to see the caverns, but there really wasn't time for sightseeing on the ground (we were getting plenty of it in the air to compensate!). Hobbs New Mexico was the next outpost of civilization ahead, and it was there that we headed, landing just around sunset. This had been the most productive day yet, in terms of mileage, and we were quite satisfied with ourselves as we sat down to yet another Mexican dinner.



Glad to be parking the bird for the night at Hobbs NM




Red Sky at night, sailor's delight. Pilots' too, for that matter.



Thus far in the journey we had employed mostly pilotage navigation - that is, looking for landmarks and roads and the like, and following them. In those situations where there were no convenient roads or other features to define a course, we used the GPS rather than rely on dead reckoning. Use of dead reckoning would have required the preparation of some sort of flight plan, using the old E-6B, which would give us a wind corrected heading to fly. We were already far enough into the GPS era that that sort of effort was unappealing! GPS did all of that for us, whenever we needed it and on the fly. The other typical navigation method of that era, VOR, was unavailable to us (except that the GPS could take us to any VOR) since 112T was completely devoid of VOR equipment.






We did have the LORAN, which I used more or less as a backup. It had no moving map, but could do a direct course between any waypoints and it had a navigation database in it which, although not up to date, was at least up-to-decade! If dealing with VOR's NDB's or airports it could take us directly to them. It could also take us to lat/lon fixes, but I was not going to get involved with that sort of thing on this trip. The LORAN worked fine throughout the trip, but I already had it in mind to pull it out when we got home, since I would need the panel space it occupied for the transponder which I was now determined to install.


The weather held beautiful the next morning, and FSS told us that it would stay that way all day, all the way to Shreveport. SHV was our next planned stop, and would indeed be our final destination today no matter what the winds did, for I have relatives there and we were in for a home cooked meal and the opportunity to wash some clothes. No matter what the tailwinds might choose to do, SHV was as far as we were going.


I must have had too much coffee that morning at Hobbs, because we had not been airborne an hour when I began to feel "the need", and not the one for speed (in the Skooter one always feels the need for speed, anyway!). Although we had planned on going a bit farther, I decided to put in at Sweetwater Texas, which was conveniently located a few miles directly ahead. The name on the chart - Avenger Field - hinted that it might have had some military connection at one time, and indeed that proved to be the case, but in a special way - one that appealed particularly to Melanie. Avenger Field was the location where most of the women were trained to fly during WWII; the ones who turned in such an outstanding performance as the WASP's. These women went on to fly just about every airplane that the Arsenal of Democracy turned out during the war years, and some of them gave their lives in the process of testing and ferrying airplanes. What they got for their pioneering efforts was a handshake and an apron, as they were steered back to the nation's kitchens after the war. Although a few managed to actually earn a living in aviation, almost 30 years would pass before Emily Howell became the first female airline pilot in the U.S. in the early 1970's.



The Oil Patch - West Texas Tea



This part of the country is what is called, in Texas, the "Oil Patch", and wells dot the landscape as far as the eye can see. Nowadays, a bit further to the south, wind farms dot the landscape too, the result of Mr. Pickens' efforts to free us from the dependence on oil. Beyond macerating a number of birds, I'm not sure just what these wind farms are contributing to energy production, but if it depends upon the prevailing winds, as indeed it must, then the omens are good, because this area always seems to be windy. Fortunately for us, the winds were out of the west so we continued to benefit from some free speed, and on this leg we saw groundspeeds as high as 140 knots.



Lamesa TX, nw of Big Spring



After takeoff from Sweetwater, we detoured a bit south to avoid the Class C at Abilene. After that it was GPS direct all the way to Tyler in east Texas. Our course put us south of the Class B at DFW, but we could see the steady stream of inbounds high overhead as we droned east, most of them decked out in polished aluminum, just like 112T! Pretty much since Hobbs we no longer needed pilotage or the charts - GPS direct would do the trick, with just a bit of Kentucky windage to bend around the various airspaces we could not enter. No longer did we need to keep to the Interstates - civilization abounded in every direction. But the landscape became a bit less fascinating with the mountains far behind us. It would be nothing but farmland and woods until we got to Connecticut.


After a quick stop at Tyler for fuel and a bite to eat, we were off again headed for Shreveport. It was here, for the first time, that we actually entered a Class C, since we really had no choice. Shreveport Downtown airport was our destination, and it lay within the Class C, with no other airports available. Now in actual fact, it is occasionally possible to enter a Class C without a transponder provided that ATC can approve it, and fortunately for us they did (I had not tried this before in the trip since there was no real necessity for it). They cleared us to the airport and turned us over to tower for landing clearance. When we arrived at the FBO ramp, my relatives were there to meet us, expressing surprise bordering on shock that we had travelled so far in such a tiny machine! Truthfully, that exact same thought had crossed my mind on several occasions since we left Oregon.



Jasper GA, where the weather finally put a temporary stop to the Silver Argosy



The next day, having sated ourselves on home cooking and done some laundry, we set off, intending to make it all the way to Chapel Hill North Carolina, Melanie's stepping-off point. But today, for the first time, the weather gave us the back of its hand. Not at first, to be sure, since the day dawned beautifully and we flew through fine weather and enjoyed our by-now-typical tailwinds to our first stop, Bryan Field at Starkville Mississippi, just west of Columbus. We chatted with crop dusters while we topped off the Skooter, and then were off again heading northeast. We needed to sidestep the huge Class B at Atlanta, and this led us to aim toward a small airport at Jasper Georgia - Pickens County Airport, a bit north of ATL. We flew on under skies that were becoming progressively cloudy, but they were high clouds and represented no particular threat. We arrived at Jasper for our obligatory top off and snack, but a quick check of the weather stopped us in our tracks - over on the other side of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where we were headed, the weather was IFR, with low ceilings and poor visibilities. I was in no mood to tackle marginal weather in what, for me, was a brand new and somewhat unfamiliar airplane, so we waited all afternoon for some sign that things might be clearing up over yonder. Alas, it was not to be, so Melanie and I decided to call it quits and spend the night in Jasper. We found a quaint hotel in town, and for the first time since Stockton dined on something other than Mexican food!


Come the morn, the weather appeared to be no better over yonder; and for that matter not all that great over here! The skies were overcast, although like yesterday the clouds were high enough to permit VFR flight below them. To fly straight to Chapel Hill, however, was out of the question since there was the higher terrain of the southern end of the Blue Ridge off to the northeast of Jasper. We would have to fly east and do an end run around the mountains in order to stay below the overcast. FSS indicated that the forecasts did call for improvement to VFR with a mid level overcast on the east side of the mountains by early afternoon, and so we waited. And waited.


Finally we got confirmation of improvement from both FSS and a recently arriving airplane so we launched and picked our way around the southern end of the Blue Ridge. The overcast above held us down to around 3500 feet, but that was plenty and things did indeed improve as we started heading northeast along the eastern flank of the mountains. Even so, it was still a big change from the clear-and-a-million that we had enjoyed ever since we took off from Stockton.



Chapel hill NC, Melanie's point of embarkation. Here she is gathering her gear after we parked



As we droned northeast along the foothills, there were towns and airports every few miles. We did have to rubber-band the route a bit to get around the big Class B at Charlotte. It was dealer's choice - either east or west, but consideration of the winds (we had, since leaving Jasper, lost our tailwinds and were dealing mostly with a crosswind of no large magnitude) and distance led me to believe that west was best, and so we stayed to the west of the CLT area until we could strike a direct course for the Williams airport at Chapel Hill North Carolina. At 3 hours exactly this was the longest single leg of the entire trip, in terms of time. I was beginning to see just how lucky we had been with the winds over the previous few days. We pried ourselves from the tiny cockpit and staggered over to greet Melanie's father, who had come out to pick us up. With the bird tied down for the night, we departed for another home cooked meal.


I bade Melanie farewell the following morning, and launched off into the not-so-blue skies solo. The weather reports had indicated VFR conditions under scattered mid level clouds all the way north to Winchester Virginia, my next overnight stop. The forecasts also indicated that, while I would have no difficulty getting to Winchester, the following day or two would be miserable, with a front coming through featuring IMC and a lot of rain, so Winchester would be as far as I could go. I did briefly consider skipping Winchester and going up the coast all the way to Connecticut in one day, but decided against that. So off to the north I flew, below clouds that were, at first scattered, then by the time I got abeam Richmond broken, and shortly thereafter overcast and getting lower by the minute.


It was clear that the forecasts had been at least a bit skewed (This just in...!!!), and I descended lower and lower to stay beneath the clouds. Getting closer to Front Royal it was clear that I was not going to be able to get through to Winchester under the clouds unless I was willing to do some serious scud running, a prospect that I have never considered cheerfully since it has a tendency to lower the life expectancy considerably. But I was close enough to listen to the Winchester ATIS and they were calling clear skies. Aha! Reversing course, I retraced my path back to where the clouds above were broken and climbed up through the generous breaks until I got on top. Then I set the Garmin to Direct OKV and off I went. I had enough fuel to go a considerable distance and still turn around to get down again if I had to, but I didn't have to. After 30 miles or so the clouds below vanished and Winchester came into view ahead. It took awhile to descend from those giddy heights, but in due course I landed and taxied over to the FBO. My first order of business, after fueling was to arrange for a hangar for 112T for the next two nights, since I had no desire to leave her out in the rain lest I have to polish her the minute I got home. Space was available, as it happened, and we backed the bird in and locked her up.


There then ensued an entire day of rain and miserable weather, made enjoyable only by the companionship of my brother and sister in law. On the third day the skies were still overcast, but high overcast and the weather was VFR with strong winds out of the west, which would translate into tailwinds once again. After an hour spent in an almost comic attempt to get into the hangar to get the airplane out (the line boy did not have the key this morning, and had to get into the hangar next door and climb over the partition into the hangar where the Skooter was!) I was up and away on the last leg home. The course was not direct, since both the Philly and New York Class B's stood astride a direct route, but only a little shading to the west put me clear.


It was on this leg that I appreciated the value of a finger on the chart; something that, at that point in my career, I still did, wary as I was of the reliability of GPS. While I was edging past the Philly Class C, the GPS went stupid for what turned out to be only 4 or 5 minutes but seemed longer as it was happening. Fortunately, the sectional was already on my lap and my finger was on the chart, so I was able to transition to a mixture of dead reckoning and pilotage for the short time until the Garmin woke up again.


Coming up on the Hudson River, the last major checkpoint before home



When the mighty Hudson River hove into view I knew that I was home, since these skies had been my stomping grounds in small planes for several decades. As I approached Meriden, I was a bit concerned about the winds, which were reported out of the west at 20 or so knots. The Skooter has an official demonstrated crosswind component of 13 knots, and I was loath to exceed that by very much this early in my career with her. There was always Danbury, 20 or so miles back to the west, where there was an east-west runway if it turned out that the bird could not handle things at MMK. But as it turned out, the trees off to the west side of the north-south runway at MMK served to blank out the wind in the last few feet, and by the time I started the flare the crosswind pretty much disappeared.



Approaching 112T's new home at Meriden CT, KMMK




The spreadsheet I kept for the expenses for the Silver Argosy



Welcome home to the airplane! Her hangar was ready and waiting and I got her tucked in shortly after I topped her off. The total flying time for this Silver Argosy was around 40 hours, over a span of eight days of flying. The fuel bill was just over $400 for 188 gallons, an average price of a bit over $2.00 per gallon. Oh for the good old days! Counting meals and lodging the total cost of the adventure was around $1000; but really, like the commercial says, priceless!







My plane and Dave's at an airshow at Simsbury CT. Mine won the prize for "special interest"!



At this point, 112T and I have shared 439 hours together in the skies, over a period of 18 years. I have added a transponder, strobe lights, portable GPS, and a battery charger to her, and have had the bottom and some of the control surfaces painted since I could not really do a good job of keeping them polished. I have flown her to all three of the Atlantic islands (Nantucket, Block and Martha's Vineyard), up and down the Hudson Corridor many times, throughout Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, southern New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Long Island. Nothing, perhaps, compared to the Silver Argosy, but the lady still gets around! Aside from some maintenance work this year to replace some components that were in need of it, she has been as "low maintenance" as has She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, whose name she shares (121T bears the name Flagship Virginia). I have, as it happens, had wonderful luck with both a woman and an airplane in this life, and any man who can make that claim has no cause for complaint whatsoever.


Happy Landings!


Tony Vallillo

Read Silver Argosy Part One






























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