Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Visiting America Airport By Airport

A journey through the Midwest in a Pitts Special

My flight student Matt Rickman and I departed Southern California for Illinois at the end of June, just as summer thunderstorms began to pummel the Midwest. Our destination was the Landings, a private field in gentrified farm country about 20 miles northwest of Chicago; our goal—a Pitts Special biplane awaiting pickup and transport to the West Coast. Rickman had spent his youth in the South Pacific dreaming unexpectedly of biplanes, open cockpits and flying wires; the Pitts purchase was a step toward life as the Red Baron.

Aviat's factory is rumored to have a collection of clippings about pilots who have crashed these peculiar little biplanes on their very first ferry flights, and I heard concern in seller Jim Powell's tone that we might be similarly inexperienced. I did my best to ask the right questions at the right time to reassure him. Powell's Pitts was immaculate, but it still took two hours for buyer and seller to satisfy themselves that they had the right airplane (Rickman's concern) and the right purchaser (Powell's concern). Finally, we shook hands, packed up our meager belongings in the even more meager "baggage compartment," stuffed Rickman into the front cockpit and got going. His adventure had started.

Day One
Takeoff was unremarkable, and at about 2,000 feet, I felt out the controls energetically, and was delighted to find the plane was nicely rigged and standardly Pitts. From that point on, Rickman and I settled into a routine: He flew from the front seat while I navigated and monitored the engine in the back. Our average leg length, limited severely by fuel consumption in the air and services available on the ground, was 200 miles. The Pitts has a large engine and small fuel tanks, never a comfortable combination.

Rickman clearly got the short end of the stick. I would set the heading, and then hand off to him. With no compass to consult, he would choose a distant cloud or horizon detail, and then try to keep everything from moving. As the Pitts has no straight-ahead visibility, the heading reference had to be slightly off the nose, left or right, a relationship that would steadily change as we progressed. Rickman must have gotten tired of hearing "a little right" or "five degrees left" over and over as we flew.

The flying was low level to escape headwinds, and airport-to-airport to enhance safety, a combination that gave the passing scenery a personal feel. For the kid from Fiji, it was an eye-opener: endless prairie, two fabled rivers—the Missouri and the Mississippi—miles upon miles of Interstates and railroad tracks, grain elevators, crop circles and dozens of airports.

Our first stop was a gem: Ottumwa, Iowa, a World War II Naval Training Station settled in the midst of emerald-green cornfields. It was hard to picture a location farther from any ocean; why train naval aviators there? The answer is lost in the archives of the war, probably connected to Congressional influence. I formed the goal of introducing America to Rickman along our trip.

Next came Falls City, early in Nebraska. We were delayed by the threat of more thunderstorms, so Rickman got a good taste of the Midwest: a generous FBO manager named Phil and the airport loaner, a Crown Vic gently retired from police duty. After a two-hour delay, we prepared to leave under a heavy overcast. We were taxiing when a flash of light at the corner of my vision got my attention.


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