Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Visiting America Airport By Airport

A journey through the Midwest in a Pitts Special

Then I made an even better find: A tourist map posted on the airport bulletin board showed that Tucumcari is on Route 66, as are Chicago, Albuquerque, Winslow and Needles. The significance began to sink in as I studied the map: We were inadvertently shadowing the Main Street of America, visiting five of the towns scattered along its length. It made sense: originally called The Great Diagonal Way, Route 66 connected the Midwest to Southern California, avoided the highest terrain and offered kicks—goals precisely aligned with our own. I had collected another piece of Americana to feed Rickman's growing database. Once airborne, he declined my offer to sing the song.

From Winslow to Needles, our flying routine was near perfect. We continued to hug the surface, stretching fuel by staying below the worst of the headwinds. Rickman had honed the art of heading control to a remarkable degree, and I could predictably control minute changes in airspeed, oil temperature and pressure by making small tweaks in the cowl flap and mixture settings.

The leg also turned out to be the most scenic of the entire trip. While the Grand Canyon is well to the north, Arizona has dozens of smaller contenders, all with beautiful walls of red and brown, and startling flashes of emerald green at the very bottom. Rickman was wowed. By the time we approached spectacular Sedona, he was a convert: "This is beautiful. I didn't think I'd like Arizona—no beachfront."

We had enough fuel to skip Sedona, and it might have been just as well—the airport is on a tabletop notorious for turbulence. I remembered another Pitts ferry flight when a friend made a different decision. His plane—identical to ours—didn't pass Go: It was returned in pieces to the Pitts factory for a total rebuild.

We crossed the Colorado River; finally, California. We found Needles and June make a brutal combination. Superior life forms were out on the river enjoying water sports; those less intelligent were on the black tar airport ramp, leaving footprints on its molten surface. Refueling quickly, we fled to higher altitudes.

On the final leg, we had time to reflect: We had been to nine airports and moved through seven states. Along the way we left unvisited dozens of other runways—a very generous resource. But Rickman commented on a worrisome detail: There had been lots of paved runways, plenty of fuel, but almost no pilots taking advantage. At every stop, we spoke with men and women paid to operate the airports and pump the fuel, but had not encountered a single other pilot—transient or local. How long will communities continue to support all these wonderful places if no one uses them?

Passing Palm Springs, the Los Angeles Basin opened up in front of us: lots of restrictions and no shortage of planes and pilots. We started a climb to hop over the first ring of defenses. Rickman's heading references were now the familiar landmarks of home, and soon, he no longer needed my nagging course corrections.

At the end, our accomplishment was really quite ordinary, the sort of flight that's made hundreds of times each year by pilots indulging passions for flight and travel. It was reassuring to find the basic structure remains in place: It's still possible to move around the country without high-tech panels and the kind permission of a transportation czar. I found I had fallen in love again with the joy of visiting America airport by airport.

Beyond that, the trip had provided an exceptional learning opportunity for a student pilot— 2,000 miles of basic navigation and gallon-by-gallon fuel management. And we had dealt with enough weather, I hoped, to make the basic VFR lesson clear: If there's a cloud, don't fly in it; if there are lots of clouds, don't fly at all.


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