In mid-October, I left Texas in the single-seat Pitts S-1S, N8078, and flew west to compete in my second and third contests, respectively. I knew where I was going, but didn’t really know what I was getting into yet. Other than that I loved to be around aviation and loved to fly aerobatics, all I knew was that this was the moment I had been waiting for my entire life. I had the airplane, the time and the freedom, so I was going for it. After great flying experiences at the Avra Valley and the Borrego Springs contests, it was now time to fly the little airplane back to its home base in Granite Falls, Minnesota. Then I would return home to Alaska for the winter.
It was almost November, and the weather wasn’t getting warmer or the days any longer.
I had 1200 nautical miles to go, but because of the wide swath of mountain ranges and restricted areas stretching north of my route, I couldn’t fly direct from California to Minnesota. Airports were few and far between, and with rugged terrain and only 19 gallons of fuel, I had to stop almost every hour, so I stayed on I-10 and retraced my steps from California through Arizona and New Mexico, back to KSYI, Sherman, Texas, where I had started this trip.
The Pitts is one of the greatest aerobatic airplanes of all time. Small, light and maneuverable, it’s better outfitted these days with radios, but at the time I didn’t have or need one. Nor did I have any navigational aids like GPS or LORAN; the compass always read north, and I certainly didn’t have a heater. I had room for my flight bag, charts and clothes, and after all, what else does a pilot need other than an airspeed, altimeter and oil pressure gauge? I cruised at 120 mph and, most importantly, I had the freedom to go anywhere with an airplane that could take me places. It was exciting. It still is. Now I have a faster airplane, more fuel, a GPS and a lot more experience, and a 1200 nm trip is a piece of cake, an easy day. This is how I, and other airshow pilots, still get around from show to show. But, faster and better equipped or not, when I’m flying cross country today, I still have that same feeling of freedom that I’ve always had.
After I left Sherman, Texas, it took me three more days to fly the 665 nautical miles to KGDB, Minnesota, with many fuel stops and weather in between. My ability to “read” weather wasn’t as good as it is now and neither was the available weather forecasting. There wasn’t even a “Weather Channel.” I had flown most of my hours in Alaska where the ceilings are often low, but the visibility is good. In the Midwest, it can be the opposite, with high or low ceilings and bad visibility, so when I could, I stopped into a Flight Service Station, but they were few and far between and, of course, today, they’re completely gone. These days, weather forecasting has gotten a lot more accurate, but a computer lacks the personality of a Flight Service weather forecaster and a cup of coffee.
My logbooks from 1984 are straightforward—departure to destination with an occasional “bad weather” or a small note that says, “Scuddy,” but I know how to read between those lines. Long flights are never just A to B, they’re always eventful whether from sheer awesome beauty of the sky to wondering how I made a 90 degree wrong turn on a road that I thought would take me north; how the section lines start angling off 45 degrees; figuring out which lake is represented on the sectional when they all looked the same, or following a railroad track and discovering it probably wasn’t going to the same place I was. I read a lot of small town water towers to check my position, and at times, even read highway signs just to be sure.
Sitting in the Pitts for hours is where I really learned to be alone with my thoughts. Moving forward, but sitting inside a bubble canopy must be akin to being suspended in space.
Mostly, I was fascinated. I grew up overseas and the Midwest was exotic to me, with its giant vein-like rivers and neat farms, the way the country was laid out. A big part of the allure of cross-country flying was learning things about aviation I didn’t know (which was a lot…), and when I saw arrows with numbers pointing to something, I intuitively knew they had something to do with airplanes. I followed a few of them and they took me to an airport—I was following the routes of the Air Mail pilots! Roger Mola wrote in Air and Space Magazine, “By 1941, some 13,000 marks had been painted on barns, hangars, skyscrapers, oil tanks and train stations.” It’s a huge part of aviation history. Read more about here: www.airspacemag.com/daily-planet/pilots-look-down-84508393/?no-ist
Of course, no long cross country would be complete without those moments when you make promises you can’t keep, like “I promise to be good forever, if you just show me where the next airport is.” People sometimes mistakenly think pilots do this kind of thing—flying low or cross country—for the “adrenaline rush,” but to me, adrenaline tastes like fear, and I hate fear. I’ve scared myself plenty of times, but I’ve always been a conservative pilot and don’t like taking chances without leaving myself an out—a way to turn around, somewhere to land, enough fuel to give me options. So while I wondered where I was, on occasion, I always knew how to read my charts or the small town water tower, and I never really got lost. I was afraid to.
Sitting in the Pitts for hours is where I really learned to be alone with my thoughts. Moving forward, but sitting inside a bubble canopy must be akin to being suspended in space. It’s a paradox, an irony, to be so mindful and silent, with the million distractions of being aware of place, time and machine melding into one focus. I love the mental silence inside my world of noise and collusion of parts. There’s peace inside the chaos.
I’m an introvert (a lot of performers are), so I love the moments to myself, the calm before the storm of landing and dealing with the public or maybe just the fuel pump. I also have the attention span of a flea, so while I’m able to feast on the visual magnificence unfolding before me, my brain scans the details—oil pressure, distance, location. Perfect.
I was also really cold. We were on the verge of winter. Staying warm depends on circulation and dressing warm, but when you’re strapped into a little biplane with a five-point aerobatic harness, it doesn’t matter how warm your clothes are, you can’t move to get any circulation. Your feet and hands start freezing first, and once you start losing body heat, you start shivering and it gets harder to fly. As I got closer to my destination and an impending landing, I learned to do the “switcheroo method.” As I got closer to the airport, I would time how long I would have to warm each hand in my pocket. Then I would switch every five minutes or so and time it so that when I had to land my right hand would be warmest and I could land without balling the airplane up.
I was excited about parking the airplane, ending the season, and going home to Alaska, and even more excited about starting a new season the following year. Now that I had a competitive airplane and couple of contests under my belt, I had decided on my short-terms goals. There was an open spot on the U.S. Aerobatic Team and I was going to spend the next year flying contests in the hope that I could qualify for it. It was an ambitious goal and there was a chance I wouldn’t be able to do it, but something big and ambitious was just what I needed to focus my abundant energy. Of course, if I had known all of the details that would go into it, it might have been more daunting, but I loved what I was doing and decided to just take things a step at a time.
At home in Alaska that winter, I continued to work on my ratings, taught in taildraggers, took lessons and learned more aerobatics in our Super Decathlon, and flew a couple of local airshows, dressed in a snowsuit, of course. And, every month I read the monthly IAC magazine, “Sport Aerobatics,” from cover to cover. And, I thought about the road ahead. I didn’t analyze it or overthink it; I just knew I had to follow my intuition When you find what you love to do, nothing is difficult or impossible; it’s all just a part of the process. The challenges in life are what bring out the best (and sometimes the worst) in us and teach us most about ourselves, forging our character and personality.
I didn’t want to coast through life, and I certainly got what I asked for.