For a kid who didn’t travel much at a young age, I got bitten by wanderlust early on. Every summer, my dad’s parents loaded up their red Econoline van, turned right onto the westbound lanes of the highway, and disappeared for a month or so. Shortly after their return, we’d head over for dinner and flip through albums of 3x5 glossy pictures of all the sights they had captured on film and listen to colorful narration of the events that happened in between. I wanted to join them for one of these trips but never did. By the time I was of an age to go, I was already hanging around the airport, and flying was so addictive that I couldn’t bring myself to break away for that long.
Amy and I often take vacations where we airline somewhere, grab a rental car, and make a decent road trip out of it. We’ve done big laps around England, Ireland and Scotland. We’ve traipsed all around the Pacific Northwest and parts of the Arizona desert. But we always flew there on someone else’s machine while we sat in back.
“We can go places in the Mooney.” It was a simple observation on Amy’s part when we were weighing the merits of purchasing an airplane. Our trip to Europe in September quickly morphed into plans for a tour through the west by air. Amy did a lot of the destination planning, and I got to work on the Mooney’s squawk list. I had more than a little apprehension about taking a 54-year-old airplane over the rugged, isolated areas involved. After all, the Mooney had hardly left the tri-county area over the last decade. But as lines on the map took shape, so did my lines through items on the squawk list, and we did a few little weekend runs to the coast as much to warm up the airplane as ourselves for a different kind of air travel than either was accustomed to.
I kept Foreflight open on my iPad and discussed routes with captains I flew with who had flown out west. They all had suggestions, until a week before the trip when I flew with a guy who had flown Cessna 172s over the stretches I hoped to cover. He looked at the charts, then at me, and said, “You’ve done your homework. This is an epic trip.”
It felt like I had passed my private oral examination all over again.
On the night before we left, I was at the hangar until well past sundown, changing a tire that was a little thin—still legal and safe, but some of the airports we planned to visit might not have the amenities I had available at home.
We launched west with a slight tailwind to our first fuel stop in Natchitoches, Louisiana, picked both for fuel price and also for sentimental reasons. A decade earlier I had launched from there on memorable ferry flight in a Citabria back to Atlanta. Returning to the scene of the crime, one might say.
We put down in Georgetown, Texas, that evening to visit our friend, the plane’s previous owner, Heidi Smisson, who regaled us with tales of her adventures in our Mooney back when it belonged to her and Chris.
The next morning, we continued on to Santa Fe, New Mexico. This was our first encounter with the dynamics of mountain flying, and we got hammered by some of the roughest air I’d experienced in a small aircraft, a punishment for our late start. After landing, we hit a few museums downtown before meeting up with our friend Rob Finfrock for dinner.
That night at the hotel room, Amy made an observation about me I hadn’t given thought to in all my years of layovers. “We’re here for just a few hours, and there’s absolutely no way to take it all in, but still you have absolutely no fear of missing out.” She was right. Years of knowing I only had so much time in a city had erased any FOMO issues as I just lived with the fact that there were only so many hours in a layover.
In preparing for this trip, Amazon had decorated my doorstep with boxes of books by Sparky Imeson—textbooks for mountain and backcountry flying. While I didn’t plan to land our bird on the side of a mountain, the refresher on density altitude and the primer on mountain weather was great. A lucky five-dollar find at the Airliners International swap meet had netted me a later-model M20C Pilot’s Operating Handbook, which actually had a meaningful performance section.
We took off out of Santa Fe early the next morning with the ATIS advertising 9,000-foot density altitude. My calculations came up a little lower than that but still alarmingly high, but the book said we could go. The book, however, hardly prepared me for the first time I tucked the wheels into the wells, sucked the flaps up, had to stick the nose right down again to get enough air through the cowling to keep the cylinder head temperatures from blasting through redline. Engine cooling isn’t an old Mooney’s strong suit, and I quickly learned to make sure the cowl flaps were completely open and not to let the speed fall below 100 knots, lest the engine monitor put on a light show.
Once we had clawed our way to altitude, we were rewarded with a beautiful, smooth flight across to Gallup, New Mexico, then up and over the Glen Canyon Dam at Page, Arizona, and we put the wheels down in Kanab, Utah, for the first long stay of the trip. I heard another Mooney entering the pattern as we turned off the runway, and as I tried to figure out the self-serve pump, a gray and white near-twin of our bird chirped onto the asphalt and taxied up behind us.
Two guys flying 172s on the same ramp might not even say hello. Two guys flying Mooneys in the same zip code are going to have a visit. Amy retreated to the FBO’s air conditioning as we compared notes on mods, avionics and interiors on the ramp, and I snapped a couple pictures.
Kanab was our gateway to day hikes at Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks.
A few days later, we piled all the bags back into the gray bird, and once again I flew my climb with the CHT gauge as my primary reference as we circled overhead in the climb before heading east to Lake Powell, and up the lake to Moab, Utah. I’d been fearful of this trip for a few days, as I eyed my weather apps with dread as they predicted winds at our altitude of 20-30 knots. My turbulence fears were unfounded, though, as the breeze was straight up the canyon. Had it been blowing across the ridges at that speed, I would have probably parked the plane and come up with a plan B.
Those same winds, though, were howling across the runway and gusting to 26 knots as I tuned in the Canyonlands AWOS. We had a crazy crab angle coming down final, and the landing wasn’t beautiful as I hit the stops on aileron and rudder, but we stayed near the centerline and didn’t add any major flat spots to the tires.
As I struggled to chain our bird to the tiedowns, a CRJ-200 landed and rolled up to the FBO. As it taxied past, I recognized the registration number from the regional airline I had flown with for several years. She’s painted in the colors of a different mainline carrier now, and the “Operated By” line under the chin now reads a name some of my more bitter coworkers would pronounce as a cussword. I was just happy to see she had avoided the scrapper’s torch so far.
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Moab was our base for another few days of hikes, being nestled up against Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. We had planned Moab because Arches had been hyped by friends, and I’d noticed Canyonlands as the airport namesake and another blue-lined area to stay high above on the sectional. Our accidentally discovered national park became our favorite destination of the trip.
Alamosa, Colorado, was our next planned destination, but my flight planning had been weak on this route—there wasn’t a really good way to get there without some very high flying for a normally aspirated bird or some relatively aggressive mountain flying for this flatlander pilot from back East.
Besides, our draw in Alamosa was the Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve. After Amy and I had a less-than-successful hike on a trail that was loose sand, we just couldn’t work up enough desire to go. We planned another route to finish the trip by going north up the valley, up to Wyoming and a fuel stop in Torrington. “That’s a pretty Cub,” Amy said of the airplane next to us at the fuel pump.
“It should be. You could buy eight Mooneys for what it cost,” I said.
I walked into the FBO and made a beeline for the restroom and then to the bulletin board, as one does. Failing to find another airplane I couldn’t live without, I walked toward the couches, where the blue Cub’s pilot sat, staring out the window.
My pace halted abruptly in front of him, as my jaw dropped and I tried desperately for something humorous to say. The best I could do was, “…Scott?!”
His shock was as great as mine, as he sprung to his feet for a bear hug and an introduction to Amy.
We were 1,029 miles from home plate, and here was Scott Oglesby, one of my airshow family members, sitting at the same FBO, drawn like moths to the same candle by the lure of cheap fuel. He was ferrying the Cub to a new owner, and I had seen him posting online the day before as he crossed the heartland but hadn’t given a second thought to our paths colliding.
We soldiered on to Omaha, Nebraska, for a quick overnight and on through Sikeston, Missouri, to fuel our bird and ourselves. Sikeston is home to Lambert’s Café, “home of the throwed rolls.” They’ll pick you up at the airport, escort you through the back and straight to a table, bypassing a wait that can reach two hours or more. The driver asked if we had ever been, and I explained that I had not—but that my Paw Paw used to stop in for a meal on his summer road trips. “I guess you’re continuing the tradition,” he said.
I sure am, but I’ve got a winged time machine.