DAY ONE: Dispatch from north of Monument Valley: 7,200 feet MSL, speed 55 mph…
It’s too hot. My plan is shot to hell. Race 53 is hanging on her prop and she can’t climb any higher. Damn! It’s all I can do to stay in the air above the rugged desert. Below, in hues of red, pink, yellow, and cream the world is stone. Smooth stone, sharp stone, broken stone. Hills of stone. Crevasses of stone. Plains of stone. Rivers of stone.
It’s stunning. But there’s nowhere to land and I’m not high enough to cross the southern Rockies at Salina as planned.
Off course to my west, I spy a narrow V-shaped canyon between two lumbering peaks. It looks inviting, but it could be the terrestrial equivalent of a “sucker hole” in the clouds.
Fighting the bumpy air, I zoom out the view on my iPad and study the geography of the canyon. It goes nearly straight west for about 30 miles, then turns sharply north, the valley floor rising higher and higher all the way. I don’t have the altitude to shoot it. Not yet.
But I know there will be mechanical uplift on the north side of the canyon from the south wind and its sun-soaked slope will be radiating thermals. If I hug the mountain’s flanks — sailplane style — I can ride the updrafts and clear the canyon floor.
It’s my best option. I turn toward the canyon. Fly in. I sidle up to the 11,306-foot Thousand Lake Mountain and Frank starts crooning in my ear.
That would be Frank Sinatra. When I updated my iPhone at 4 this morning, I somehow deleted my Rock the Skies play list, replacing it with my wife’s mix of Sinatra, Classic Country, Spanish, and 50s Oldies.
It’s going to be a long trip.
Both figuratively and literally. I’m on a 1,247-mile cross country trip to fly the 115-mile-long Great Northwest Air Race in Ephrata, Washington, for the Sport Air Racing League.
And then, after the race, I’ll need to fly back home again.
I come in tight to the mountain. I can see the trees clearly, game trails running among them. I weave left and right, following the contours of the slope. Closer. Closer still. Every branch on every tree is visible now. Closer…
The plane’s nose jerks. The vertical speed indictor ticks upwards. 100 feet per minute up. 200 feet per minute up. 300 feet per minute. Beautiful. Four hundred. Five hundred.
The wide shoulder of the mountain drops below me. A few miles to the left, the crest of Blue Bell Knoll is now off my wing. Hah! Some knoll. Its wide, flat top is 11,360 feet above sea level. It’s massive, more wide than tall, crouching low, like a lioness ready to pounce. I sail between the two mountains, well above the canyon floor but still far below their peaks, which tower over me. In a flash they fall behind my tails, one mountain over each rudder.
And just like that, I’ve crossed the Rocky Mountains. In a plane with a 85-horsepower engine.
The first breakdown
Logbook: Fuel stop at U14, Nephi, Utah. Their CTAF changed two days ago. Gotta watch those NOTAMs! The Soaring Society of America’s 2016 Nationals competition starts tomorrow and the sail planes are lining up. Dust devil on takeoff nearly ends the trip. Through the Salt Lake City Class Bravo via the northbound VRF transition route. Right-hand pattern to Skypark. Approach over the oil refinery….
Down, down, down, I come. Over the expanse of flat-roofed industrial buildings, over the road, and across a low fence festooned with “low-flying aircraft” signs.
I flare. Nose up, up, up… the wheels kiss the runway as she settles to earth. Ah hell. I’m gonna miss the taxiway. I stomp on the brakes.
Baruuuuuuuup! What the f….? It sounds like a stuck fan belt on an old Chevy station wagon on a cold winter morning. But there are no fan belts on my plane’s engine. I quickly taxi off the runway.
Silence. Well, not silence. My bird is a noisy little thing. But the strange noise is gone. I start to taxi. Baruuuuuuuup! I stomp on the brake and the sound stops.
Stopping and starting, I lurch to parking and shut down. I pull myself from the cockpit, drop to the ground, and make my way around to the front of the plane. The landing gear is fine. I squat down and look under the nose. Ah ha! The bottom cowl has come loose. It must be flapping in the slip stream from the prop. I’m missing two screws. This will be an easy fix.
Or it would be an easy fix if I had that bag of stainless steel Ecroupe screws that lives in my hangar. Memo to self: Create a first aid kit for the plane.
I go into the FBO in search of water, place my fuel order, and try to scrounge up some screws. An A&P actually loans me a jar, but they don’t fit. It’s off to the local hardware store.
Half an hour later, cowl secure, I fire up the engine. Baruuuuuuuup! Much louder. Much worse. Hastily I pull the mixture and shut down the mags.
This can’t be good for the home team.
It takes three hours. First a young A&P helping out a local avionics shop takes a listen and decides it’s something to do with the starter. One call leads to another to another and at the very end of the day an old engine rebuilder is persuaded to come take a listen. His initial diagnosis is that my starter is “on the way out.”
“The starter is no big deal,” he tells me confidently. “Ercoupes are easy to hand-prop.”
I notice he’s missing the tips of three fingers on his left hand.
His advice is to fly on and not worry about it. Luckily, we chat some more and it’s clear that I haven’t been communicating clearly. He didn’t realize the sound was happening with the engine actually running. He’d thought it was only a startup noise.
He decides the starter is not disengaging once the engine starts running. Standing inches from the spinning prop, cowl open, hands deep inside the engine, he’s able to make the noise come and go at will.
In the end he declares the problem is a missing spring about 2 inches long. He has one at home.
He’ll meet me back at the plane at 9 in the morning.
DAY TWO: Dispatch from KBTF, Salt Lake City, Utah
9 a.m. No mechanic.
9:05. No mechanic.
9:10. No mechanic.
9:15. No mechanic.
I’m getting hot under the collar, but I’m not mad. I know that the sense of time — and what’s considered on-time— is highly variable from place to place.
No, I’m literally hot under the collar: The mercury is rising. Waves of heat drift up off the blacktop, making the distant planes tied down on the tarmac shimmer, mirage-like.
Last night, anticipating a dawn departure, I had the lineman fill Race 53’s wing tanks three-quarters full. Fine at dawn. But too much weight when the tarmac shimmers, mirage-like. I ask the FBO to drain off some of the fuel, but they have no way to dispose of the gas. They refuse.
Still no mechanic, but that’s moot now. The density altitude is too high for my weight.
My choices are down to two: Wait until tomorrow morning to depart, or find another way to lighten the load. If I wait until tomorrow, it’s likely I’ll miss the race. I’m still 602 miles from the starting line at Ephrata, Washington.
The only remaining weight is my luggage and my copilot. I race solo, as the extra weight of a crewmember slows me down, but various family members enjoy copiloting to and from the races with me. For us, racing is a family adventure.
On this flight, as I knew the mountain crossing would be dicey, I flew the first leg solo in a totally empty airplane. My wife dispatched our buddy Lisa “honorary Dubois” Bentson to meet me in Salt Lake City with my baggage, and to assist me with flying out to Washington and back to the base of the Rockies. Lisa is a student pilot, and according to my wife, has the advantage of not even weighing as much as three gallons of gas. Not quite true, but close.
Still, despite her light weight, I briefly toy with jettisoning Lisa, or sending her farther up the road until I can burn off some fuel, but instead we do a scorched-earth review of our luggage.
In the parking lot of the FBO we spread out our gear and consolidate it into a single bag. Nothing is sacred. We leave spare clothing and underwear behind. My camera. My logbook. Extra pens. Lisa’s lucky stuffed animal, Homer the Dog. The stainless steel traveling wine glasses from REI. We empty toiletries from their cases into a compartment of the flight bag. We’ll even share one tube of toothpaste. We ditch the cases that hold my various charging cables and throw the octopus of wires into the main compartment. We even partially gut the plane’s survival gear, abandoning the winter items and the fire-starting kit.
In the end, even though we’d thought we packed light, the weight savings is impressive. I run the math and assure myself that if we can start our takeoff roll before the temp hits 95, we’ll be fine.
OK, the problem is that near-antique planes don’t have the kind of performance charts modern pilots are used to. When my plane rolled off the assembly line in 1947, it had no manual of any kind whatsoever. Later, a single sheet POH was created to meet the changing federal mandate.
So lacking solid data, I’ll fly by rule of thumb. If I have 70% of my rotation speed by mid-field, I’ll be OK. If I don’t, I’ll have room to stop. Assuming that the mechanic comes and fixes the damn plane.
Back in businesses
The mechanic does come. And as promised, the fix is quick. And effective. It’s now 10:30 am. We taxi out with no Baruuuuuuuup!
We back-taxi to the numbers on the active runway. I want every foot I can get. As I turn, a FedEx truck speeds by. The runway threshold is separated from W1100N Street by a three-foot tall chain-link fence and a sidewalk. The one with the low-flying aircraft signs.
We turn sharply. I hold my foot down on the brake, the only pedal in the airplane, and run the throttle smoothly forward. Race 53 bucks and shakes. Ready to go. I release the brake and we start forward.
At a somewhat leisurely pace for an airplane.
250 feet. We are moving forward, the but the airspeed indictor hasn’t budged.
500 feet. The airspeed indictor awakes.
750 feet. 20miles per hour.
1,000 feet. 30 miles per hour.
1,250 feet. 35 miles per hour.
1,500 feet. 40 miles per hour.
1,750 feet. 45 miles per hour.
2,000 feet. 50 miles per hour.
The nose gear lifts off the runway at the halfway mark. I wait a few beats. I haul back on the yoke and Race 53 lumbers into the sky like an overweight cargo plane in the bush. I lower the nose and stay in ground effect, building speed. As I cross the far numbers, I pull back and up, up, up, we go.
We’re not going to break any time-to-altitude records today, but we’ll clear the high tension power lines off the end of the runway.
And we’re on our way the race.
Logbook: We eat lunch in the air. Duke’s smoked shorty sausages, mozzarella sticks, mixed nuts, a few peanut M&Ms, and lots of water. Fuel stop at KGNG, Gooding, Idaho.
On the Sectional Chart the mountains to the east of Boise, Idaho, don’t look like much. However, at 800 feet below the wing, they’re more impressive. More intimidating.
I crest one ridgeline, riding the mechanical uplift from the tailwind striking the terrain. Then, like water rolling over river rocks, as we pass the ragged crest, the air falls out from beneath us and we ride the downdraft into the valley beyond.
On the terrain-tracking split screen on my iPad Mini the next ridge line changes from green, to yellow, to red as our flight path falls below it. We approach the next ridgeline, rocks above our nose, distant horizon disappearing. But again the wind striking the terrain splashes upwards, and carries us high above the cliffs and boulders.
Like a cork bobbing on the tide, Race 53 rides the wind up each ridge, down the backside, and up the next. It’s not even difficult, but it takes a lot of mental bandwidth. Far off to the west I can see the table-flat plains of the farmland around Boise and resolve to take a different route on our return.
Logbook: Fuel stop at KBKE, Baker City, Oregon. The FBO has the coolest fridge. It looks like it’s made from an airplane’s skin. When you open the door, the position lights on the sides light up and hidden speakers at the top make airplane noises. Every hangar should have one of these. On the wall is a picture of Bobby Kennedy walking his dog Freckles, back in 1968, at this very airport, just 15 days before he was assassinated.
The final leg is bumpy. We’ve dropped down off the escarpment and are out over the flatlands. Lisa’s a damn fine cross country flier, and better than I when it comes to holding altitude and keeping sharply on course, but turbulence still gives her the jitters. I’m making her push her limits today, but I keep up a running stream of reassurances. “You’re doing just fine. Good, good. Nice correction. Super. You know, you’re doing so well I think I’ll just take a nap.”
“Don’t you dare,” snaps Lisa.
We’re almost to our destination. At 10 miles out I take the plane. The fuel is at 1/8 of a tank according to the float gauge that can’t be trusted, but the two hours, 12 minutes on the timer built into our com radio reassures me that there’s still enough gas in the wing tanks. Oil pressure and oil temp look good. RPM is fine. We double-check the frequencies for Ephrata, and set up an approach that takes us around the Class D airspace at Grant County International.
The wind is squirrely. My landing less than spectacular. We taxi to the fuel pump, beat. It’s been a long day. As I shut down the engine and slide the canopy down, John Smutny, the Race Director, comes up. We’ve never met before, but he knows who I am, as there is a huge “53” in a race gumball emblazoned on the fuselage on both sides of my cockpit.
“Hi, you must be William. Welcome to Washington! Your competition just got here, too.” He points down the ramp.
My eyes follow his gesture to a shiny red and white Grumman Cheetah. A shiny red and white Cheetah with checkered race markings.
Team Ely is here.
I can’t say I’m happy to see them. They hadn’t registered for the race at the Sport Air Racing League website and I’d hoped they’d decided it was too far to come, which it is.
My best chance to pull ahead of them has just dissolved. Instead, no matter how well I do, I will fall farther behind. The roster has them racing against four lesser planes and me against one closely-matched one.
In the best-case scenario, if we both place first in our classes, their 20-point lead on me will grow to 50 points.
In the worst-case scenario, if I lose my heat, they’ll be 80 points up on me — most likely far enough ahead that I’ll never be able to catch them. They’ll keep their title and I’ll be First Loser.
The race for the season championship could well be decided in the morning.
Next time: An unexpected twist in the Great Northwest Air Race, and then a long flight home.