Pittsburgh to Palo Alto, Day Two: Giant strides

“Well, I might take a plane, I might take a train,
But if I have to walk there, I’m goin’ just the same,
I’m going to Kansas City, Kansas City here I come…”

Well before dawn, Kristina helped me haul my now-better-packed bag of clothes and flight gear into the trusty Audi and drove me out to Heath Field under a starlit sky. She had to be in Kentucky for an early morning meeting, and I was happy for the chance at an early start. The sky was showing its colors by the time I’d finished preflighting by flashlight, and I was ready to go by 7 a.m.  The only question was Where?

I was going to try to get as far west as possible by sunset, but there were people and places to see on the way. Just one hour west in the outskirts of Dayton lived Zot Barrazotto, longtime Skyranger pilot and SPARS supporter. We’d exchanged some email, hoping to meet up, but he’d suggested an airfield I couldn’t find on the map, and due to a late night of work, didn’t expect to be up until 8 – by which time I was hoping to be winging westward. A phone call to the friend of the boss’s hangarmate’s copilot’s friend (or something like that) put me in touch with Doug Hoy, who seemed to recognize my name, and told me how to find New Carlisle. He also offered to “alert the gang,” so that I’d have a welcoming committee when I showed up.

It only required a bit of poking around east of Dayton to find I11, a.k.a. New Carlisle, a delightful little private airport tucked under the all sorts of alphabet soup airspace. My squeaky clean landing was witnessed only by Gary, the first of the New Carlisle gang to make it to the field. Zot showed up shortly after, and we began talking airplanes in earnest. Greg and Zot are restoring their Skyranger, and were eager to see a flying one.

Zot also revealed that Eric Bauer, another longtime SPARS member also lived nearby, and was in fact the airport manager. The resulting phone call was priceless: “Hey Eric, do have your pants on? No, I’m not kidding. Well, come on out to the field – Pablo just flew in. No, I’m not kidding.” Eric arrived a few minutes later, and we really got in thick on the Skyranger talk. Eric’s Skyranger is well on its way to flying again, and the restoration is immaculate.

Eventually, it was time to get going. After all, I had a date with the sunset out in the next time zone. Another round of pictures, and I climbed in, fired ‘395 up, and trundled off westbound again.

The sky, up to this point, had been a chilly broken overcast about 4000’ above me. As I rounded the corner above Dayton, the birthplace of aviation, the sun finally broke through, and for the first time, it felt like winter’s sway had been challenged. There were signs of life, of warmth in the landscape below, and it felt like a good omen.

Next stop was to be Creve Coeur (“Kreev Cur”), some 350 nm west. Normally, I can do that on one tankful, but the steady 10 knot headwind was going to eat my range for lunch. I dropped down to 1800’ to escape the worst of it – still a respectable 1000’ AGL, but low enough that I could make out the details of the day-to-day life below. A farmer leading his cows to pasture, a high school football game, a B-2 bomber pulling up for a sharp wingover… What!?!? No, the B-2 didn’t show up until much later, and we’ll get to that in due time.

Western Ohio and Indiana dissolved into a slow, timeless traverse as the sky again grew dark and damp above me. Plenty of ceiling and visibility, so no concerns there, but the weather practically drizzled melancholy, so I pulled out my ace: a shortwave radio and headset adapter. Mind you, there was noone I needed to talk to for the next 200 miles, so I plugged my headset in and spun the dial. Christian revival, college talk show (“Like, um, that was, y’know, sooooo with it!”), and finally NPR playing something that wasn’t quite Strauss. The Skyranger and I waltzed the miles away while trying to figure out which airport would be our next fuel stop (note shortwave radio tucked behind the airport guide in the accompanying picture).

I’ll omit a detailed description of the fuel stop and one thankfully unwitnessed crosswind landing – y’know, they ought to be thankful I didn’t charge them for mowing the grass on the airport median! Anyhow, a tank of gas later, I was on my way to try and tackle the St. Louis Class B airspace to get in to Creve Coeur.

Now, they don’t make it easy. You’ve got to hop over some class D airpsace, drop down to about 1700’, follow the north side of the Missouri River (having figured out which of the three merging rivers it is), and tuck around the back of Lambert Field avoiding all the other uncontrolled fields squeezed into that same stretch of dirt.

Anyhow, I made it. Across the mighty Mississippi, over the not-quite-so-mighty Missouri, and into the land of the blues. Creve Coeur really is an amazing little place. Wacos and Monocoupes and Cruiseairs and Robins and more Wacos. Unfortunately, it being a weekday, there were only a few dozen amazing planes to be seen. Mel McCollum showed me around a few of the open hangars and introduced me to some of the owners.

I stretched my legs a little, and tried to decide what to do next. It was now almost 4 p.m. and I’d been flying since about 7. But there was still daylight left, and an odd thought hit me. The Skyranger had been built in Kansas City. Kansas was only about 200 miles west, and I had almost three hours of daylight. I’d never been to Kansas City, and ‘395 hadn’t been back in over 50 years. Hey, sounds like a plan?

Another quick preflight, a call to weather, and I was off again. It would be a straightforward flight – follow I-70 north and west; when you see big buildings, land. The only airspace restriction was at Whiteman(?) AFB, 20 miles south of my course, where the folks at Creve Coeur told me B-2 bombers were based. No problem.

Leaving St. Louis airspace, the sun came out in full force. High stratus turned to puffy cumulus, and the world turned to a cheery place. I plugged the shortwave in again for an obligatory dose of St. Louis blues on FM, and started thumbing through the airport guide for a destination. Kansas City has a lot of airports. ‘395 was built at the Fairfax Airport which has long since closed, but was just across the river from where the Downtown KC airport now stands. I weighed my choices. Downtown looked convenient, and symbolically close, but it also looked big and impersonal. Plenty of small, friendly-looking fields in the periphery – why risk being derogated as a “little plane” among the real (kerosene burning) customers? Still, I wanted to bring the Skyranger home, and geographically, only Downtown KC would do. Bite the bullet and dial it in on the GPS. Given the headwind and my now blistering 68 knots of groundspeed, it looked like I’d make MKC at 6:31 p.m. The almanac called for sunset to be at 6:32 in Kansas City, so that was going to be it for the day.

About halfway there, as the sun started to draw long shadows on the low Missouri hills, I happened to glance south as part of my usual traffic scan. Hey – what’s a kite doing way up here? That’s pretty far away – must be one helluva a kite. Wait – that’s not a kite, that’s a B-2! Halfway through a sharp pullup, hooking off to one side in a sort of a wingover. Quick – grab the camera, poke it out the window and shoot. No time to zoom, frame the shot or think about it, just point and click. And when it was done, the B-2 was invisible again. Wow.

Well, unless you really zoom the photo, it’s hard to tell that anything’s there. But it was a gorgeous sight.

As the sun crawled lower and lower in the sky, the outline of Kansas City, Oz-like appeared on the horizon. A few 2000’ foot towers to dodge, and then I should be able to see the field. Okay, here’s where I buckle up and do my “big plane” impression, eh?

“Um, Downtown tower, ‘395 is flying right into the sunset, and I can’t really see the field – can I have vectors?”

A cheerful, dare I say perky voice responds – “Suuuuure thing ‘395, we’ve got you in sight – just keep on coming at your present heading, and we’ll give you the downwind turn”

Hmmm, sounded friendly. Too friendly.

“Your choice of runways ‘395, wind’s 190 at 6” – gosh, really truly friendly, and helpful, too!

Once on the ground, she taxied me to Executive Beech for overnight parking. Uh oh – anything with “Executive” in the name usually bodes poorly. But the lineman came scrambling out, waving me away from the Cessnas and bizjets, leading me to a prized spot in front of the main hangar. Nice. I shut down, and he’s wearing a broad grin.

“Man, that’s a gorgeous plane – what is it?”

I start to tell him about the Rearwins, and Fairfax County. He’s young, but he knows the field – points to where it used to be, and offers to take my picture. Nice! He sets me up with fuel, tells me to come into the FBO when I’m ready, and heads in to attend to other customers. Shortly after he disappears, other folks come out to have a look – seems he’s told the folks inside that there’s a cool little taildragger out on the ramp. I feel good. I feel pampered.

After a couple of iterations of the Rearwin story, I grab my bag and head in. A distracted-looking woman is flipping pages, and doesn’t look up as I approach. Not a good sign.

“Um, excuse me…”

“Oh, dear – I’m so sorry – what can I do for you?” – she seems genuinely embarrassed at not having noticed me, and I’m ashamed of my snap judgement. I explain that I need to find a place to stay and a place to eat. She thinks for a moment.

“Hmmm, were you the pilot of the plane that just came in?”

“Yup”

“Oh, in that case, we can set you up with a crew car – it’s only a Ford Escort, but it’s in nice condition. And here’s a map of the place we recommend staying. Good, clean, inexpensive. And right across the street from a few restaurants. Make sure to tell them you’re with Beech Exec, so they’ll give you the discount…”

I’m overwhelmed. I try telling her that I don’t really rate a “crew car” – I flew in in a tiny four-banger and bought 15 gallons of fuel from them. But she won’t relent – I’m a Exec Beech customer, and I’m to be treated like one. Damned fine company – when I get to Palo Alto, I’m going to write as glowing a letter of commendation as I can for these folks. They really went out of their way to make me feel appreciated.

It’s late now, and I really need to go to bed. Tomorrow, if all goes well, I’ll end up in Colorado. I’m on the other side of Robert Frost’s little poem. I’m in Kansas City, birthplace of the Skyranger. I’ve gone miles and miles, and now I’ve got hours to sleep before I go any more.

-pablo

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