Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Open-Cockpit Chills

Bitter temperatures and a race against time

It was discovered last September that my open-cockpit biplane, a Starduster Too, needed an engine overhaul. The old engine was shipped off to Western Skyways, but this prevented my flying in October to Southern California where it lives every winter. The overhauled engine arrived in November, and the installation process went into December.

It wasn’t until Monday, December 28, the dead of winter, that the flight took place. Dressed in an old Air Force cold-weather flight suit and thermal underwear, I took off from Stark’s Twin Oaks Airpark in Hillsboro, Ore., at 9 a.m. Outside air temp was 28 degrees F with ice on the runway. My intended route was to stay close to Interstate 5, since I was running an engine with just three hours on it, and to refuel in Medford, Ore. But the I-5 corridor was socked in with fog, and I had to make a decision: Stay close to the highway despite the fog, in which case if I had to land, I wouldn’t be able to see where I was going, or fly over the mountains—hostile territory—but at least I could see the ground. I chose the mountains. Pilots have a saying about engines: “Over water or mountains, they go into automatic rough.” This seemed true for what felt like an eternity.

Since refueling at Medford was no longer an option due to fog, I chose Weed, Calif., at the base of Mount Shasta. When I arrived, 2.5 hours after departing Hillsboro, visibility became limited due to freezing mist, and the peak of Shasta was in clouds. I was able to get the airplane down, though my feet felt like blocks of ice. There was no one at the little airport—no one. Outside temp was 30 degrees F, but there was no place open to warm up. I used the self-serve fuel pump and added a quart of oil using very cold hands.

The next leg would be a little over two hours to Calaveras, Calif. I was able to get out of the mountains after passing Redding and descended to 3,000 feet where it was a little warmer—42 degrees F—and I could see the ground. My stop was quick, as I was now racing against the sun. My biplane has limited cockpit lighting and no landing lights, so I didn’t want to be flying after sunset. Landing at night after flying more than seven hours with numb feet wasn’t an attractive idea. Nor did I want to get stuck for the night somewhere. The sun would set in less than 2.5 hours. The race was on.


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