It was discovered last September that my open-cockpit biplane, a Starduster Too, needed an engine overhaul. The old engine was shipped off to Western Skyways, but this prevented my flying in October to Southern California where it lives every winter. The overhauled engine arrived in November, and the installation process went into December.
It wasn’t until Monday, December 28, the dead of winter, that the flight took place. Dressed in an old Air Force cold-weather flight suit and thermal underwear, I took off from Stark’s Twin Oaks Airpark in Hillsboro, Ore., at 9 a.m. Outside air temp was 28 degrees F with ice on the runway. My intended route was to stay close to Interstate 5, since I was running an engine with just three hours on it, and to refuel in Medford, Ore. But the I-5 corridor was socked in with fog, and I had to make a decision: Stay close to the highway despite the fog, in which case if I had to land, I wouldn’t be able to see where I was going, or fly over the mountains—hostile territory—but at least I could see the ground. I chose the mountains. Pilots have a saying about engines: “Over water or mountains, they go into automatic rough.” This seemed true for what felt like an eternity.
Since refueling at Medford was no longer an option due to fog, I chose Weed, Calif., at the base of Mount Shasta. When I arrived, 2.5 hours after departing Hillsboro, visibility became limited due to freezing mist, and the peak of Shasta was in clouds. I was able to get the airplane down, though my feet felt like blocks of ice. There was no one at the little airport—no one. Outside temp was 30 degrees F, but there was no place open to warm up. I used the self-serve fuel pump and added a quart of oil using very cold hands.
The next leg would be a little over two hours to Calaveras, Calif. I was able to get out of the mountains after passing Redding and descended to 3,000 feet where it was a little warmer—42 degrees F—and I could see the ground. My stop was quick, as I was now racing against the sun. My biplane has limited cockpit lighting and no landing lights, so I didn’t want to be flying after sunset. Landing at night after flying more than seven hours with numb feet wasn’t an attractive idea. Nor did I want to get stuck for the night somewhere. The sun would set in less than 2.5 hours. The race was on.
The final leg was the most challenging. I ran into rain and encountered an overcast and an undercast so that I could see neither the sky nor the ground. At least the visibility was good, and there were openings at the horizons, so I did have some reference. When approaching Fresno, I contacted Center to get permission and tracking through the Class C airspace. The controller asked me twice to verify what I was flying. I think I heard a laugh.
The engine seemed to be running okay, albeit at one point, the oil temp climbed to 208 degrees F. This is within safe limits, especially for a newly overhauled engine, but it’s a temp I had not seen before, and it was accompanied by a drop in oil pressure. I pressed on.
By the time I got to the “Grapevine” south of Bakersfield, my fuel gauge seemed to not be reading as high as it should. This caused a little pucker because I had to climb to 5,500 feet to clear the last mountain hurdle, using more fuel and more time—neither of which I wanted to spare. But once over these mountains, it would be downhill to Whiteman Airport, only about 45 more nm in the San Fernando Valley. Sunset was at 4:53 p.m., and I entered the traffic pattern at Whiteman at 4:59 p.m. for a 5 p.m. landing in the twilight.
After 7.2 hours of flying, with the total trip of eight hours, I was one happy pilot to be on the ground. My only remaining problem was getting out of the airplane unassisted, arms and legs numb from the cold. At cocktail hour, my friends teased me about why a 74-year-old guy would do such a flight. I could only reply that it was a wonderful experience.
Jim Furlong is a commercial pilot with 6,700 hours of flying time, including air shows with the Condor Squadron in an SNJ-4 and racing a T-6 at the National Air Races in Mojave, Calif.