Retrospective – Antique Roadtrip

Way back in 1993, when the web was brand new and Usenet was still king, I posted what amounts to a proto-blog (ulog?), a chronicle of my 13-day trip ferrying our newly-acquired antique Commonwealth Skyranger across the country from Seattle to Boston. Each night when I had access to a phone line (we dialed in our connections back then), I’d write up the day’s adventures, upload them, and mail them out to rec.aviation.

This was a time when the net was much smaller, when it was a community. When I posted a query out to the blue about cross-country routes and got not only useful advice, but offers to come on by and stay if I happened to be in the neighborhood.

In the interests of posterity, I’m copying over the old Usenet travelogue below as one big post:

Flying Oregon to Boston (shakedown leg)
From: David Cohn – view profile
Date: Sat, May 15 1993 3:27 pm
Groups: rec.aviation.piloting

Well, the shakedown leg of the “big cross-country” trip, from Seattle down to Eugene, was pretty straightforward. Loaded up with survival gear, full tanks, and a friend who asked for a ride, I wanted to try the ‘ranger out out near gross weight (its one reputed weakness is that, being underpowered, it’s doggy when near gross or on hot days). We asked for the full length of BFI’s 2 mile runway. Turns out, we didn’t need much more than usual. With outside temps around 68, climb was around 400 fpm at 70 mph. Nonetheless, it’s going to be nice to be quite a bit lighter going over the rockies.

Feeling all cocky and proud of my (somewhat) rare, (somewhat) old, and (*I* think) pretty plane, I got my comeuppance arriving at Creswell, just south of Eugene. This is the home of Delmar Benjamin’s Gee Bee R-2, Steve Wolfe’s Goliath, and Walter Beech’s personal Staggerwing just finishing restoration at Wolfe’s hands).

I taxiied up and explained to the curious that this was a Commonwealth Skyranger, made in ’46 by a consolidation of Rearwin and LeBlond, etc. etc. I then realized that I didn’t recognize the stunningly beautiful plane taxiiing in with an Aeronca decal on the tail. Hmmm… Turns out I was followed in by an Aeronca TL-65 “Dual Trainer”, vintage 1937, if I recall. Restored exactly to original condition, to the extent that the cable fittings were spliced and wrapped by hand, rather than attached with crimp-ons. Now *I* was the one asking “Gosh, what is it, when was it made…?” Friendly folks, all.

In any case, it looks like the weather is amenable to starting the next leg tomorrow: The plan is to follow the I-84 corridor through southern Utah and Northern Idaho. I may be across the rockies in two days, but then again…. My next posting will be from Denver.

Flying Oregon->Boston, the mid-continent update
From: David Cohn – view profile
Date: Thurs, May 20 1993 11:59 am
Groups: rec.aviation.piloting

As promised, the mid-continent post. Haven’t had a chance to read news since the last posting, so this is going out in the blind. The love affair between NC33395 and me is growing by the tach hour. We’ve made it to Denver over desert and mountain, and have many a long tale to tell. Unfortunately, these tired fingers aren’t going to be able to tell them all this evening; the friendly rec.aviators who met me at Ft. Collins heard a few of them.

A quick summary: First day out of Eugene with Caldwell, ID as the target. Lots of stops along the way to wring the bugs out: McKenzie Bridge to make sure that that roughness really *was* carb ice, up over the Sisters wilderness as high as I could get it on that hot day, then over into Redmond to shake my legs out and call Devon (mush, mush), then on eastward. Over the Oregon high desert at Burns I figured the tailwinds could carry me into Idaho with plenty of daylight to spare. A call to Flight Service, however, confirmed that the shining wall of white on the horizon was indeed a wall of thunderstorms, and there’d been a pirep of “unable VFR at Caldwell.” No second thoughts: “Hmmm. Never been into Burns. Wonder what it’s like…”

I guess I was the first plane in there in a week. Looked deserted, but the old grizzled unicom operator came out to greet me. Best I can tell, he was stone deaf. Seemd fine on the radio, but he had to watch my lips to understand me. Wanted to know everything about the ‘ranger. I asked where I could pitch my tent and he insisted that I occupy the airport office. Brewed up fresh coffee and told me to make myself at home.

Next morning, up at 5:00 (when the cropdusters came through) and on into Caldwell in CAVU. Visited the Avid factory — quite an impressive setup, although all of the sales droids were occupied. I got to poke around the Magnum, though. I was amused to see it alongside the ‘ranger: one was an ancient fabric taildragger with a side-by-side stick. The other was the hottest new thing on the market: a fabric taildragger with a side-by-side stick. I know which one *I’d* take, but the Magnum looked like a bucket of fun.

Flight Service at Burley was, as they all are, confounded by the lack of an official FAA designation for the ‘ranger. The Caldwell folks said that they’d be the ones to give me a route over the Rockies, so I decided that I might as well see them in person. We got talking airplanes, and by the time I was done with the briefing, they asked if I’d give them a call before departing so that they could come out and take a photo. Yes, I’ll admit it, I love the attention. By the time I *did* get set for departure, it was midafternoon, but the thunderbumpers that inhabit Idaho around that time hadn’t developed. What had developed was some pretty serious density altitude — around 8200 ft. I did my calculations and figured I should be able to get off with asphalt to spare, so did my full power runup and headed on down the runway. I got *up*, but with very sluggish climb performance (as expected). No obstacles beyond the airport boundary (yes, I had checked before), but I just didn’t seem to be climbing, and I started getting a bit worried. Vy, max power lean, carb heat off, but we’re not getting anywhere. My glider training kicked in: I looked down and realized I was flying over a wet dirt gully that paralleled the highway. Ah, sink! Moved over the highway about 30 feet away and the VSI shot up past 500 fpm. Ah, lift! Between the highway thermals and ridge lift coming off of the buttes, I made it into Utah at max cruise speed with the throttle way back.

Utah. Decided on Tremonton, as it was the only nearby spot with 80 octane. I *did* just get the autogas STC, but I figured that the Rockies weren’t the time to start experimenting with new fuels. The airfield is run by a few cropdusters, best as I can tell. Wayne, Bill and Lorraine. Very friendly, very helpful. Bill owns a J-3 Cub he flies in the Utah mountains, and was eager to help me plan the “big hop”. They found me a cheap place to stay, gave me a ride into town, told me what diner to avoid and where to eat. Offered to pick me up the next morning on their way in (at 5 a.m!) so I could get a good start while the air was cool.

And cool it was. With surface temps of 45 degrees, the ‘ranger hopped up to 11.5K — more than enough margin over the Wasatch range. Over Bear Lake, Kemmerer, and on into Wyoming. A stop for fuel at Rock Springs, and into Ft. Collins by noon.

I got quite a welcome at Ft. Collins. Jer/ Eberhard, Bill Arnold, and Joel Larner all came out to greet me at the airport, and we spent the better part of an hour poking around the ‘ranger, talking flying, and posing for pictures. The net is an amazing tool, eh folks? Jer/ had to head off for a student, and Joel was busy getting married, so Bill and I got to spend the afternoon and evening talking airplanes and computers. Bill and his accomplice Dave are rebuilding a ’68/’72 Bellanca Viking which is a long story in and of itself. Many deep and heartfelt thanks to Bill and the Ft. Collins gang for the boundless hospitality — they’re what rec.aviation is all about!

Tomorrow morning, it’s off through the Great Plains. My next posting will likely be from Boston, once I’ve snugged the ‘ranger in its new out east.

More news as it happens!

The mid-continent update update (Great Lakes edition)
From: David Cohn – view profile
Date: Sat, May 22 1993 4:06 pm
Groups: rec.aviation.piloting

When I last left the keyboard, NC33395 and yours truly were snug in Denver and pondering the Great Plains. Saturday evening, May 22nd has found us in Aurora, Illinois, ostensible home of “Wayne’s World,” that icon of America in the 90’s. It’s been an interesting transition.

We set out from Denver (Jeffco, actually) following typical IFR (I Follow Roads, that is), in this case taking I-76 up for Nebraska. In the mountains, planning a route that follows the roads is good strategy: the highway dept. *usually* puts them through the lowest passes and most direct routes. (DISCLAIMER: Don’t just follow a road blindly; make sure you talk to the locals.)(RULE 17a: *Always* talk to the locals about your trip/route. They know the area and the places to avoid, and hey, they might just buy you dinner!)

Anyhow. In the mountains, following roads can keep you out of trouble. In the plains, it helps cut the sheer monotony. In the ‘ranger, in any sort of headwind, it makes for a good game of “How many cars do I pass, and how many pass me?” First stop set me done at Kearney, Nebraska for some 80 octane. The wind was down the runway at 25 knots, gusting 32. Elevator, going down! By the time I was in the flare, I felt like I was close to going backwards. Lineman said I should’ve been here the day before, when it was windy. Whew!

Puttered along through the sunny afternoon into the rolling hills of Iowa. Entirely by chance, right into the heart of antique aircraft heaven. After a quick visit to the Greenfield “Aircraft Preservation Society” (again, another story) settled in to Winterset for the evening (“Birthplace of John Wayne”). *I* chose it because the flight guide said “80 octane, camping on field.” “Camping on field” is a general indication that the airport owners are friendly folks. This one drew me a map, insisted that I borrow his car to drive in and see the town, and told me that I ought to camp in the airport office tonight, as it was going to rain. Turns out that Winterset was just yesterday featured on Oprah, as the site of the romance novel “The Bridges of Madison County.” By the way the town was decked out, it was the biggest thing that had happened here since John Wayne got his star on Hollywood Boulevard.

Back at the airport, I saw a fellow looking over the ‘ranger. I told him that my standard offer was a beer for anyone who could identify the plane. He told me I was lucky he didn’t drink, and proceeded to recite the history of Ken and Royce Rearwin, and the brief line of Commonwealths. I had encountered 73-year old “Ace” Cannon, an EAA Antiques judge, and the fellow who restored most of the planes in the Greenfield museum. We had a great talk, and I promised to have the details fixed before he saw it again at Oshkosh. He suggested I might want to stop by “Antique Airfield” on my next leg, with a bit of a twinkle in his eye, and roared off on his motorcycle.

Not one to pass on so auspicious a hint, I headed off in search of “Antique”. Had to circle a few times before I picked out the unmarked grass field with a few hangar to one side. Looked deserted, but I’m not one to resist the temptation of a grass field, so I went down for a look. Turns out that this is the home of the Antique Aircraft Association, and the site of some pretty remarkable old planes. The manager/president came on out and wanted to know everything about ‘395. He already knew all about Commonwealth. Hell, they had all of my plane’s ancestors, and the *factory tooling* for it sitting in one of the nearby hangars. This is not a place to be missed. Dozens of one-of-a-kind planes and prototypes, with even more waiting to be restored. Ever seen a lowwing Aeronca? How about a Monoprep, or an Anderson “Z”? Gave me the grand tour, and made me pose with the ‘ranger for the Commonwealth/Rearwin newsletter.

But the weather was following me, and I had to keep moving. I was a few hours ahead of the eastbound fronts now hitting the midwest, and I decided I’d better find a good spot for a RON. Hmmm, I have a sister in Illinois….

The whole museum/restoration staff came out to see me off and snap a few photos as I broke ground. I headed east yet again, blue skies in front of me, and dark menacing grey behind.

Next update from Boston, I promise!

Flying EUG->BOS, the final leg
From: David Cohn – view profile
Date: Wed, May 26 1993 5:53 pm
Groups: rec.aviation.piloting

5:30 p.m. on Wednesday and I’m sitting in our weekly lab meeting as though nothing had ever happened. Just sixty minutes ago, I was on short final for Hanscom Field, finishing off the longest cross country flight of my life. Was it all a dream? Nah, my head is still buzzing from the rattle of the engine and the jarring turbulence.

But that’s it. The big West Coast to East Coast trip is a done deal. I’m home. And in time for our weekly lab meeting, at that. Let me wrap up the last couple of days for you.

When I last posted, I was stranded in Chicago, with torrential winds and rain making life miserable. Ah, but I had email. I managed to get ahold of Rich Miller, who on short notice came out and gave me a tour of the neighborhood airfields. We headed up to DuPage, to check on the ‘ranger, and found a sorry sight: I had parked “downwind” of this storm. Folks from the Colorado front range had stressed the importance of being parked in the right direction, but I hadn’t put any thought into the fact that here, in Chicago, there was a right and wrong direction to tie down. My control lock had broken loose, and the ailerons were jammed into an awkward angle. Worse than that, the two wing tiedowns had come up from their mountings in the asphalt and were swinging in the wind. The only thing securing the plane was rope around the tailwheel. In retrospect, I guess it’s better that I parked downwind: facing the other way, lacking those two wing tiedowns, the ‘ranger could have done some real damage to itself, possibly even flipping over (Rocky’s first cousin?). Rich and I reattached the ropes to their mountings and cinched them down tight. Jury-rigged the control lock to try to minimize damage, and hoped for the best. In that strong a wind, there was no real way to even try to turn the plane around. Sigh. I can’t say I slept well that night.

Flight service said that the weather the next day was to be excellent. They were wrong, but it was at least passable. Perhaps I was beginning to feel the deadly pangs of get-home-itis? A smooth three thousand foot ceiling across Indiana and light winds. Not great, but it’s safe, and it’s stable. A very thorough preflight (with special attention to the connectivity of the control surfaces), and I we’re off. The day, I must say, was uneventful. A couple of phone calls, and the destination for the day is Pittsburgh’s Allegheny County (AGC), home of Dave Touretzky’s “Beast”. Played “where are *you*?” with a Learjet in the pattern over Marion Ohio (MNN), and then “where’s the *airport*?” with AGC.

This morning, up early before the cumulus start building, and off to the airport. I’m loading my stuff in (amid the Gulfstreams and Citations), and grumbling to myself how the FBO’s here don’t appreciate antiques (really, I’d love to buy fuel, but you’re not sticking 100 octane in *my* baby!). An older fellow walks up and asks “Is this your Skyranger?” Well, I straighened out so fast I whacked my head on the doorframe. “How did you know it was a Skyranger?” I had been offering a beer to anyone who could identify the plane, and had only once been guessed, and that by a professional antiquer (see previous installment). Anyhow, this fellow was Lou McDonald, and he’d seen a few Skyrangers come and go. We stood there on the ramp for about an hour talking airplanes, figuring out how many people we know in common, and generally having a great time. After a while, another fellow walks up amiably and says…

“Hi. I’m Jeff Halliday (sp?). I’m with the FAA. Is this your plane?”

Now, *that’s* a way to stop a conversation cold, eh? I own up to owning it, and he tells me how he’s always wanted to own an antique. Compliments the restoration, and is impressed that I’m doing the cross country thing. Pretty soon, there’s the *three* of us standing out on the ramp talking airplanes, grass fields and old Continental 85’s. I just about wore myself out before getting in the plane. Finally, we all bid each other farewell and good luck, and I’m off.

Stopped for fuel in Bellafonte, just south of a sharp-ridged valley that the locals tell me give the best soaring conditions in the country. Gosh, pretty close to Elmira.. makes sense, I guess. One problem today was that the airport was just beyond the lee side of the valley, with a hefty 20-knot wind blowing. I’ve seen windsocks stand straight out before, but I’ve never seen them do it while slowly turning counter clockwise through all 360 degrees of the compass. Ah yes, this would be an interesting landing. Fortunately, I just happen to be tailwheel current :-) Set down uneventfully, stumped the locals (good friendly folks, there), and filled up with 80 octane for the final leg home.

Finally a tailwind. It’s hard to believe that I’m on my last sectional! Used to be a single chart would get me as far as I ever wanted to go. These days, a sectional lasts me a day, a WAC two. And now my destination, 395’s new home, is on the same page as I am. Up to 7.5K feet to clear jarring turbulence below the 5K scattered cumulus. Set up for cruise and >brap!< sputter, sputter… The rpm's drop to idle. I've seen this before. Carb heat full on, and after a second, the engine roars back to life. Carb heat off, and I get sputters after 10 seconds. Aw shucks. I hem and haw about and extended over the top with carb heat full on, and decide to go on down under the deck. The scattered layer is supposed to turn broken, then overcast as I continue east, so I might as well get below it now.

Bump, bump, bump, thump, bump, rattle. Three and a half hours in a rock tumbler. Nothing dangerous, or even scary. Just continuous moderate turbulence. Wilkes-Barre approach told me that I might want to check my mode-C; it kept jumping all over the place. Nope, sounds like it’s working just fine. Finally, Mount Watchusetts, the Boston skyline, and finally Hanscom itself creep over the horizon. It seems anticlimactic: “Hanscom tower, Commonwealth 33395, 10 west, landing with information Juliet”. “395, say type.” (I can almost do this in my sleep) “395 is a Commonwealth Skyranger. Antique. Looks like a Taylorcraft” “Roger. Left traffic runway 29, number two after the Beech Skipper on base.” Around pattern, one last greaser and off at the first taxiway.

I taxi to transient parking, shut down, and pull my headphones off. The lineman comes up, asks the usual interested questions about the plane, and then pops the one I’ve been waiting for: “Where are you coming from?” I take a slow breath, then savor the line one last time: “I just flew in from Seattle…” I smile. “And boy, are my arms tired!”

-David “Pablo” Cohn, and NC33395

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