The distance from Paducah, Kentucky, to Seattle, Washington, is 1,845 statute miles as the crow flies. My recent journey in an American Champion Citabria 7GCBC totaled 2,123 statute miles due to weather deviations and fuel stops.
Though this particular leg started in Paducah, the journey really began about a year ago when I flew the Cirrus into Johnson Creek, Idaho, and got a glimpse of the backcountry. I was smitten by the challenge of flying a tailwheel aircraft and wanted to be part of that world.
I did a lot of shopping, and by shopping I mean not buying. After several months of listening to me talk about buying an airplane, a good friend said to me: “I have a new mantra. I want to die with memories, not dreams.”
That was the motivation I needed, and a few months later I narrowed down my airplane of choice to a Citabria, identified a plane, and became an aircraft owner. There was just one more step necessary to complete the journey: Bring the plane home to Seattle.
Anxious and excited, I arrived at the hangar in Paducah with an instructor to find my new-to-me Citabria looking even better than it had in the pictures. After completing the requisite paperwork, we pulled the plane out onto the ramp and I started to pre-flight
It was awkward at best as I stumbled through the pre-flight and start-up, and I felt out of place in this new machine. “Where is the checklist?” I asked. “CIGARS” replied my instructor. I had no idea what he was talking about. I had always had a paper or electronic checklist! How can we fly without a checklist? I was overwhelmed by the simplicity of an aircraft that did not have a set of checklists. We started to taxi and I called tower to let them know that the Cirrus, no Citabria, was ready for takeoff.
Our first stop was Fort Smith, Arkansas, where the wind was strong but closely aligned with the runway and it was the calmest wind around. The weather prevented a direct path towards Seattle as there was a line of storms that stretched from Oklahoma up to Minnesota, thus the southerly route. The instructor suggested I do a no-flap wheel landing based on the conditions, and though the landing was not pretty I felt relieved that we had completed leg one.
The takeoff from Fort Smith was just as ugly as the landing had been and I was starting to doubt my purchase decision. I couldn’t figure out why I was having such a hard time. I thought I would just “get it.”
The next leg to Canadian, Texas, ended with another ungraceful landing in a strong and gusty crosswind, saved by my instructor after my fumbled attempt. It left me rattled and frustrated.
We taxied up to the fuel pump where a Decathlon was parked, and we were welcomed by a friendly young pilot who excitedly mentioned that he had just gotten his tailwheel endorsement in the Decathlon. He was heading out to fly because the winds were so calm. Ugh. I tried to act cool, but my confidence continued to degrade. I expressed my frustration via email to a friend who is an experienced tailwheel and aerobatic pilot, and he encouraged me to be my scrappy self and don’t give up.
It had been a long day and we contemplated staying in Canadian, but decided it was better to do one more leg to get beyond the weather and shorten our day on Sunday. Another messy takeoff and we were airborne destined for Pueblo, Colorado, which made for a fitting flight plan: Direct To – PUB.
The arrival into Pueblo was uneventful with a decent landing, and as my instructor unloaded the plane I called a hotel to ask if they had a shuttle and availability. No dice, they were full as were the next four hotels I called. The closest hotel I could find was about 40 miles away.
It was now dark, we had become dinner for a swarm of mosquitos, the terminal building was locked, the FBO was closed, as were the car rental places in town, we had not eaten all day, and we were exhausted. I was disheartened, frustrated and certainly not fit to fly the airplane elsewhere.
“We could sleep in the plane,” suggested the instructor as I looked at the tiny two-seater and tried to imagine the two of us twisting ourselves into pretzel-like shapes searching for a position comfortable enough to catch some Z’s. As a last ditch effort, I called the FBO call-out number and spoke with the on-call manager who offered a couch in a corporate hangar on the field.
I was on the verge of tears. If I was going to have a fighting chance of figuring out how to fly this thing, I was going to need some food and a decent night’s sleep. Perfectly timed and at the brink of my impending breakdown, my husband texted to ask how my day went. I unleashed a fury of texts in response, explaining my frustration with the flying and the predicament we were in. He aptly responded with a two-word reply: “Pure Adventure.”
Though I composed more than one nasty reply in my head, I didn’t respond, as I knew he was right. We were safely on the ground, we had a place to sleep, and all we needed to do was call a cab to bring us into town for some food. Challenges always seem less daunting on a full stomach!
While the taxi service was neither prompt nor particularly friendly, we did manage to find a pub with delicious burgers and cold beer. On the return trip to the airport, the driver told us that there was a big car show in town and the hotels had been booked up for weeks. Note to self: In the future, call the destination prior to takeoff to verify hotel availability.
A beer and a burger made the prospect of sleeping in a random hangar seem tolerable, but as we walked by the ramp side of the FBO I decided I would check to see if the door was unlocked, just in case. I pulled the door open and felt like I had won the lottery. Behind the unlocked door, we found an oasis complete with a pilot lounge, leather couches, a fridge full of bottled beverages, and a freezer full of ice cream!
“We should have tried that earlier – we could have just ordered pizza and hung out here.” We both burst out laughing at our crazy day. Pure Adventure indeed.
My first takeoff on Sunday left a lot to be desired. “Push the stick forward,” encouraged my instructor. “That’s as far forward as it will go,” I lamented. Day two was not going any better than day one, and another lackluster landing in gusty crosswinds at Canyonlands Field in Moab, Utah, left me bewildered and discouraged.
We rolled up to the fuel pump, and the gentleman standing there looked familiar, but I couldn’t place him. After a few minutes of the do-you-know game, I figured out that he was the son of the instructor in McCall, Idaho, from whom I earned my tailwheel endorsement. He gave me some words of encouragement as my frustration was obvious, and told me not to worry —all of a sudden, he promised, it will click!
As the landscape of southern Idaho came into view, the smoke from the various fires in the area was streaming from West to East and was a prominent indicator of the strong winds. We turned off the runway to taxi to the fuel pump and I learned my next lesson in tailwheel flying: Taxiing in high wind is just as exciting as landing. We taxied up and down the ramp, past the closed FBO, and discovered that there was no self-serve fuel. I was reminded of my husband’s text from yesterday: Pure Adventure.
After finding fuel in Jerome, Idaho, we continued on to our final destination for the day in Caldwell, Idaho, where the winds were calm and my landing was not embarrassing. I did not feel ready to depart for Seattle solo, and my instructor agreed to do some additional flight training with me in the morning. The combination of a good night’s sleep, a great dinner, and the relief of having the plane back on home turf was like magic! Suddenly, it started to click. Landing after landing, takeoff after takeoff, I was starting to feel like a tailwheel pilot.
The last thing left to address was a tailwheel shimmy that had started small but had become more pronounced since leaving Paducah. We taxied the plane over to the mechanic where there was another Citabria parked just outside the hangar door. The pilot was there getting bigger tires installed and mentioned that he had just had a very long flight from the Southwest. I replied that I too had just completed a long flight from Kentucky. He looked at me, looked at my plane, looked back at me and said “you cured my sore butt, Ivy.” After a chat with my fellow Citabria pilot and a quick change of the leaf spring, it was time to head for home.
It had been a long time since my first student solo flight, but as I climbed into the Citabria alone and closed the door, all of the feelings of excitement and trepidation about a first solo came rushing back. I proudly fired up the engine and taxied to the active runway. I advanced the throttle, danced on the rudders and in a matter of seconds I was airborne. It was the first time I had ever solo-flown a taildragger and I was grinning so hard that my face hurt.
I had one more stop to make in Yakima, Washington, before my final leg to Seattle. I called a mechanic friend to ask if he could secure a new tailwheel tire for me and he agreed to meet me to install the tire late that afternoon. When I landed and taxied to his hangar, he met me with a cold iced tea and some snacks. “I figured you hadn’t eaten all day,” which was exactly true.
With the plane fueled and the new tailwheel tire installed, I was ready for my flight to Seattle. Cleared for takeoff, I eased the plane skyward and felt like I was the one flying the plane, not the plane flying me. The Puget Sound and Seattle skyline came into view and it started to sink in that I was not just a pilot, but an aircraft owner. The colors of the landscape seemed brighter, the mountains seemed more majestic, and the world just looked more beautiful through the window of my own airplane.
Since tucking the Citabria into the hangar in Seattle for the first time, I have had the opportunity to fly to Idaho for some backcountry flying and additional tailwheel and spin training. I have also enjoyed short hops around the Seattle area for $100 hamburgers.
At Oshkosh AirVenture this year, I had lunch with the Decathlon pilot from Canadian, Texas, and met up with the Citabria pilot I met in Caldwell, Idaho — we even brokered a deal for his old wheels and tires. Most recently, I ran into another experienced pilot who had purchased a plane in which he was not yet feeling comfortable. He mentioned that he was having a tougher time than he expected getting everything dialed in — it sounded all too familiar.
As we admired each other’s aircraft, I was reminded of the definition of perseverance: Steadfastness in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success.