The flight from Santa Maria to El Paso had gone well, or so I thought. I’d picked up a new Aerostar 601P from Roy Tucker at the company’s delivery center early in the morning and pointed the nose east toward Florida. It was one of those chamber of commerce days that the Southeast seems to experience more than most other places.
Flying super-light, probably 400 pounds under gross, I’d leveled at 17,500 feet, reveling in clear skies and tailwinds that pushed me along at 250 knots. If the world had been flat, I could have seen my final destination of Tampa.
This was my seventh of what would be 10 Aerostar deliveries to Florida, all scheduled to go on to discriminating buyers in Europe. I’d rapidly come to love the airplane. It was fast, comfortable and fun to fly, with quick control response, excellent visibility, even a pair of eyebrow windows overhead. For me, walking up to an Aerostar is a little like approaching a Ferrari Berlinetta. They’re both justifiably arrogant. It’s almost as if the mid-wing Aerostar knows it’s the world’s fastest production machine with pistons for propulsion.
Somehow, I gotta get me one of these.
If everything went well, I could depart Santa Maria at the crack of dawn, and make it to Tampa barely in time to catch the last nonstop flight of the day back to LAX. Not bad. Coast-to-coast-to coast in one day.
After tanking and installation of an HF radio at Globe Aero in Florida, this particular Aerostar was destined for Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, where an Arabian prince planned to fly it around the world. Princes have all the fun.
I dodged all the restricted areas around Edwards AFB and 29 Palms Marine Corps Base north of Palm Springs, then settled in for the quick traverse across Arizona and New Mexico to the western tip of Texas.
Predictably, the Aerostar was running perfectly, clocking off the nautical miles at four a minute. Somewhere over Tucson, I happened to look left and saw an F-4 Phantom go drifting by in the same direction. He made a hard left out in front of me and curved back around behind me.
Hmm, I thought. I checked the chart, and I was nowhere near any restricted areas. The Aerostar was happy, snoring along in the high sky over the desert Southwest. Probably just a hot dog fighter pilot using me for rendezvous practice, I mused. Far from being offended, I envied him his Mach II ride.
I started downhill at the New Mexico/Arizona border with the Franklin Mountains north of the city in sight, landed at El Paso International and taxied in to the FBO.
Before I’d even shut down, I spotted a gray Chevy sedan coming across the ramp toward me. He stopped behind my left wing, waited until I shut down, then casually opened his door and stepped out. The sign on the door of the Chevy read “U.S. Government.” Uh, oh.
As I popped open the double clamshell door and stepped down onto the ramp, the driver walked up and said, “Hello, I’m George Henley with the FAA. Do you have a few minutes?”
My heart sank, as I did a super-speed, mental replay of my short flight from Santa Maria. Had I clipped a restricted area somewhere along the route? Had there been a conflict between me and an airliner that I never saw. Unlikely, as the airlines never fly at 17,500 feet.
In the lobby of the FBO, the FAA inspector first asked me several questions about my licenses and medical, then went on to ask about the new airplane that had only been signed off a few days before. Finally, he asked, “Do you know what your altitude was on your trip to El Paso?”
“Yes,” I said. “I was at 17,500 feet the whole way.”
He leaned back in his chair, smiled and said, “Well, we showed you at 19,000 feet after you passed Gila Bend, Arizona, and the Air Force verified it.” Gulp.
I assured him I’d been looking at 17,500 the whole trip, and yes, I did know that everything above 18,000 feet was Positive Control Airspace. The inspector suggested we walk back out to the airplane and “take a look.”
When we arrived at the open door, he looked inside and said, “Boy, this thing sure is a beauty. You say it’s brand new?” I told him it had only 2.2 hours of flight test on the Hobbs when I departed Santa Maria.
He asked if I’d flown this route before, and I mentioned that I’d done a few previous Aerostar trips eastbound plus several dozen Pipers from Vero Beach in the opposite direction.
He asked a few more questions, then, suggested I close the airplane up. As we walked back into the FBO, he asked if I was going on to Tampa the same day. When I said “Yes,” he commented, “Okay, I think we’re done here.”
We had a friendly conversation in the lounge as the truck refueled the Aerostar, then he shook hands and told me I should probably have the altimeter checked in Florida. His final words were, “Fly safe.” Nice guy.
My wife and I were on our way to Florida again in my Mooney for installation of a new LoPresti cowling and a Power Flow-tuned exhaust, and I’d landed at Lampasas, Texas, to wait out a Presidential TFR. President Bush was visiting wounded servicemen at the nearby Ft. Hood hospital. Lampasas was well outside the TFR, and I had a copy of the notice in my flight bag that specified an end time of 3:00 p.m. We’d landed at 2:30, so we borrowed a loaner car and went into town for a late lunch.
We came back to the airport an hour later, and I checked with the airport manager who verified there was no new NOTAM and the TFR had indeed expired.
I started the Mooney at around 3:45 and we departed eastbound for New Orleans. Level at 9,500 feet in light haze, we passed well south of Ft. Hood at about 4:15, only to have an F-16 Falcon shoot by on our left side.
I switched to 121.5, just in time to have the Falcon pull up and cross our nose 500 yards away, releasing a string of flares. My wife commented, “Wow, that’s really spectacular.”
“It’s not good,” I shot back.
Then I punched the mic button. “Falcon, this is Mooney. What’s the problem?”
Before the F-16 pilot could answer, Ft. Hood tower came on the frequency, asked for my N-number and advised that I’d just busted a Presidential TFR. I told them, no, I hadn’t, and I’d even checked in Lampasas to guarantee the TFR had expired.
Ft. Hood tower didn’t argue the point, but directed me to land at a nearby airport and wait for further instructions. He gave me a frequency change, and I dialed it up just in time to hear, “Ft. Hood, Air Force One is out of 8,000 for 22,000,” and then the answer, “Roger, Air Force One, contact Houston Center on 132.25. Have a nice day.” But not for me.
I did as the controller instructed, and sure enough, there was another of those cursed, gray, government sedans waiting on the ramp. Two men got out and walked over to the Mooney.
One was from the FAA and the second was a very stern looking Secret Service agent. I climbed down off the wing walk with all the necessary paperwork in hand and also handed the FAA inspector a copy of the TFR advisory. They were both very courteous, but it seemed obvious I was in trouble. The FAA inspector took a quick look at the TFR advisory, then turned away and punched up his cell phone.
After a short conversation that seemed centered around who should have updated the advisory, he put his phone away, shook his head and said, “Sorry for the inconvenience, but President Bush decided to spend an extra hour with the troops in the hospital, and no one bothered to amend the TFR expiration notice.”
We all shook hands and went our separate ways. I hope I never see another gray Chevy sedan coming my way.
As of January 1, 2016, Senior Editor Bill Cox has logged 15,100 flight hours in 321 types of aircraft. He also holds 28 world city-to-city speed records, has made 211 international delivery flights, and owns and flies a LoPresti Mooney. You can email Bill at [email protected].