I’m looking out the window of Alaska Flight 1350, southbound to San Francisco, wishing I weren’t wishing I was sitting up front of a different plane. I could have been. But I’ve been trying to rein in my impulsiveness.
You’ll all be shocked to hear that I’m an impulsive person. I know, I know. I like to think that I’m able to keep it under control most of the time (I mean, except when dealing with ice cream, talking about airplanes, or interacting with any other conscious human). Because being impulsive isn’t something you cure, it’s something you treat, and it’s constantly lurking close under the surface.
I had another battle with it this morning.
A couple of weeks ago, Devon and I hatched a plan that I’d fly down from the farm to hop in her campervan (wait – Devon has a campervan?!? Yes, but more about that later) and spend a week together cruising around Joshua Tree, Anza Borrego and other places suitably south and deserty.
What was even cooler was that I could fly down to Palo Alto in my spiffy new ride, a 1966 Piper Turbo Twin Comanche (wait – Pablo has a new plane?!? Yes, I’ll be getting to that. In fact, let me do that now).
Way back in the beforetimes, you may recall that I was partner in a spiffy Beech Bonanza with two of the best flying partners one could ask for. But they seemed uninclined to uproot themselves when I moved north back in the beginning of 2020, so I had to unload my share in the partnership. Mind you, Devon and I still owned (and still own) the trusty Skyranger, which continues to delight. But a darling antique runabout that struggles to make highway speeds against a headwind isn’t exactly the best vehicle for quick, reliable commutes between California and the Pacific Northwest, especially not in winter, so I’ve long been looking for a new ride.
I had a few criteria – something that could get above the weather, something that could scoot pretty quickly, and something that had good reliability and backup. And – strangely in opposition to all of the above, something that was fun to fly.
You see, the problem is that the faster, higher performing (turbocharged, big engine) and more reliable (two engines) you get, the more you end up with something that flies like a truck. Those planes are designed more and more like a little airliner, whose job is to take off, climb high and fly fast in a straight line for as long as it takes to get to its destination, then land. These are not planes you take up just to toodle around the sky for fun, or make the 20 minute hop up to the islands for coffee and a muffin.
I know this because I spent about a year test flying all sorts of different planes – new ones, old ones, big ones. And I found that pretty much everything that fit my mission flew like a truck, and most sucked down an unconscionable amount of fuel.
Except there was this one… Back in 1956, Piper tried out new high performance design to get a share of Beech’s success with the early Bonanzas. Retractable gear, laminar flow wing. They called it the Comanche, and started it out with a 180 horsepower engine, which they quickly upped to 250 hp, then 260. They even built a few with a 400 hp up front. It was fast and capable and, pilots said, fun to fly. By 1961 they were trying to figure out what to do next with this little thoroughbred, and someone had the idea to take that big engine off the nose and put a couple of smaller engines on the wings. The idea was an instant success, and the Twin Comanche was born.
Anyhow, the plane inspires entirely fanatical devotion among its owners, so I figured I’d give one a test flight. And yup, I could see what the fuss was all about. It was fast, it was efficient, and it was an absolute hoot to fly. A bonus to the performance and handling is that those “couple of smaller engines” were Lycoming IO-320’s, one of the most bulletproof (and efficient!) piston aircraft engines ever made. So a well-rigged half-century-old Twinkie – yes, that’s what folks call them – will cruise as high, fast and far as almost any modern high performance single, with the reliability of two engines – and on just about the same amount of fuel. Bonus: it’s 56 years old and still looks as cool as all get-out.
So I was sold. I spent close to half a year learning to fly one and searching for the right one to buy. Talked to a bunch of owners, crawled around and in a bunch of planes. Paid for a few inspections and walked away from three of them before settling on one that its long-time owner Mark Sullivan was getting ready to hand off. Yes, we had some teething pain$ at the beginning, but I’ve now had N7902Y up by the farm since early December, and we’ve been having our share of little jaunts around the northwest.
But I still hadn’t had the occasion to take ’02Y on the mission I’d bought her for – a quick dash south, and this was the perfect opportunity. Except for the weather. Now, I’m instrument rated and the plane is fully IFR capable – that means it’s equipped to fly in bad weather, but ’02Y and I are still getting to know each other, and I’m not quite ready to launch into bad weather with such a high performance bird until we’ve spent a bit more time together. And bad weather was precisely what was forecast for the three day window I had to get down to California.
But the forecast of thick, ugly, cold clouds offered some clarity: there would always be another time to fly myself down; this time I’d just buy a ticket and let Alaska Airlines do the driving. Flying Alaska afforded some more flexibility, as well – I had a hard return date, and well, Alaska’s gonna fly north pretty much regardless of the weather.
You see where this is going: We fast forward this morning when I woke to scattered clouds against a calm and lovely blue.
My brain started spinning and calculating: I actually could fly down. There were low clouds further south, but it was clear above and CAVU (“ceiling and visibility unlimited) from central Oregon down. It was totally doable. I wanted to do it. I could already see myself at 17,000′, top of the world, blazing southbound at 190 knots.
My impulse, obviously, was Go, go go!
But. I would have had to…, no we would have had to completely rework the return part of our trip. Once I’d gone ahead and bought the ticket down, we’d set up our itinerary in the campervan (yes, I’ll get to that in another post, soon, I promise) to maximize our time on the road. And that only left enough time on our way back for me to ride Alaska Airlines back up. And even if we squeezed things, I’d be stuck if the weather turned dodgy when I had to come home. But then I could leave the plane in Palo Alto and…
No. No, no no. As I gazed up at that shimmering blue, hand perched above my flight bag, I knew that I had to let that impulse go. I was going to stick with the plan. I recall seeing a bumper sticker, or a poster somewhere stating, “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. And a woman’s usually gotta clean up after he does it.” I didn’t want to be that man who risked mucking up everyone else’s plans for his own impulsive satisfaction. At least not this time.
I’ve got to say, it was reaaaaally hard to drive by the airport on my way down to SeaTac. But there’ll be other times to fly, and soon. And we’ve already got enough adventure planned for the week. I’ll keep you posted on both, I promise.
That’s a nice-looking flying machine!
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Nice, Pablo. A nice post.
Very pretty Twinkie there Pablo. Glad to hear you’re twinning it.
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Well, glad to see that you could control that urge, but I understand that it must have been quite a battle. Also happy to note that you’ve worked out all the kinks I remember your talking about just after you bought the plane. Hope you and Devon had a great trip in her new vehicle.
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What an exciting new adventure awaits for you! Many new doors will open for all the places you can visit in this beauty! Gorgeous plane! Congratulations to you and your family!! Have fun!!😍
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When you were doing your research, how did you decide not to consider an Aztec (great rough field capability) or a C 310Q (big, fast, load hauling). I don’t know about the Aztec, but 310’s handle pretty slick… Or, if cost is not really an object, something kerosene burning?
I’ve loved the 310 since I was a kid, but both it and the Aztruck require care and feeding of a pair of thirsty big bore engines.
It’s beautiful Pablo. Thanks for sharing your story. I love reading your adventures and musings. The plane is beautiful! I’m very interested in hearing more about the camper van as well. I’ll try to find my way to that story. I still hope to take a ride with you some day.
Lovely bird. I’ve always liked the early Pipers, I soloed in a Cherokee. Even though the Comanche out performs it, I’m partial to the Apache myself. Perhaps it’s because I more resemble the “Fat Boy” than the “Twinkie”.
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Heh – I actually tried to buy Geronimo earlier last year – basically an Apache with oomph. Would have been great, but some flight school out east bought it out from under me.
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What a nice story! And I regret that I am just now reading it. But to me it is a story of exercising what I believe to be the most important skill of a pilot: to choose wisely among good alternatives. I believe that one of my finest hours as a pilot was one morning when I decided not to climb in my plane and take off.
Thanks, and well said! Indeed, I think those are among the finest moments for any pilot.
To punctuate your point, my first ever aviation publication was a story called “No Go” in Flight Training Magazine back in the previous century. I found a link to it here: https://studentpilot.com/2012/06/07/no-go-by-david-cohn/