My flight student Matt Rickman and I departed Southern California for Illinois at the end of June, just as summer thunderstorms began to pummel the Midwest. Our destination was the Landings, a private field in gentrified farm country about 20 miles northwest of Chicago; our goal—a Pitts Special biplane awaiting pickup and transport to the West Coast. Rickman had spent his youth in the South Pacific dreaming unexpectedly of biplanes, open cockpits and flying wires; the Pitts purchase was a step toward life as the Red Baron.
Aviat’s factory is rumored to have a collection of clippings about pilots who have crashed these peculiar little biplanes on their very first ferry flights, and I heard concern in seller Jim Powell’s tone that we might be similarly inexperienced. I did my best to ask the right questions at the right time to reassure him. Powell’s Pitts was immaculate, but it still took two hours for buyer and seller to satisfy themselves that they had the right airplane (Rickman’s concern) and the right purchaser (Powell’s concern). Finally, we shook hands, packed up our meager belongings in the even more meager “baggage compartment,” stuffed Rickman into the front cockpit and got going. His adventure had started.
Takeoff was unremarkable, and at about 2,000 feet, I felt out the controls energetically, and was delighted to find the plane was nicely rigged and standardly Pitts. From that point on, Rickman and I settled into a routine: He flew from the front seat while I navigated and monitored the engine in the back. Our average leg length, limited severely by fuel consumption in the air and services available on the ground, was 200 miles. The Pitts has a large engine and small fuel tanks, never a comfortable combination.
Rickman clearly got the short end of the stick. I would set the heading, and then hand off to him. With no compass to consult, he would choose a distant cloud or horizon detail, and then try to keep everything from moving. As the Pitts has no straight-ahead visibility, the heading reference had to be slightly off the nose, left or right, a relationship that would steadily change as we progressed. Rickman must have gotten tired of hearing “a little right” or “five degrees left” over and over as we flew.
The flying was low level to escape headwinds, and airport-to-airport to enhance safety, a combination that gave the passing scenery a personal feel. For the kid from Fiji, it was an eye-opener: endless prairie, two fabled rivers—the Missouri and the Mississippi—miles upon miles of Interstates and railroad tracks, grain elevators, crop circles and dozens of airports.
Our first stop was a gem: Ottumwa, Iowa, a World War II Naval Training Station settled in the midst of emerald-green cornfields. It was hard to picture a location farther from any ocean; why train naval aviators there? The answer is lost in the archives of the war, probably connected to Congressional influence. I formed the goal of introducing America to Rickman along our trip.
Next came Falls City, early in Nebraska. We were delayed by the threat of more thunderstorms, so Rickman got a good taste of the Midwest: a generous FBO manager named Phil and the airport loaner, a Crown Vic gently retired from police duty. After a two-hour delay, we prepared to leave under a heavy overcast. We were taxiing when a flash of light at the corner of my vision got my attention.
Matt Rickman’s flight in his just-purchased Pitts biplane from Chicago to Los Angeles was an eye-opener both in the air and on the ground.
“We’re not going,” I said. “Lightning.”
“Could it have been the flash from my camera?” asked Rickman. He demonstrated: Despite being wedged into the front cockpit, wrapped in parachute straps and tethered by seven seat belts, he could still manipulate his digital camera; it had been the same flash. I decided I didn’t have him strapped tightly enough. We continued, but within minutes, growing concerns about en route weather persuaded us to abort.
We breakfasted without incident. Passing a roadside marker during the drive to the airport, Rickman revealed just how much he had to learn about the U.S.: “Who were Lewis and Clark?” We gassed and returned the Crown Vic, left a note for Phil and retrieved the Pitts. Our weather checks indicated the lingering storm system would push our next two legs south: first, Hayes in Kansas, then out of the Great Plains into Oklahoma.
Guyman, Okla., had three twin Beeches baking in the sun—one a tri-gear. They looked like every other twin Beech I’ve seen—an indeterminate state somewhere between flyable and abandoned.
“Do they fly?” I asked the refueler.
“Two of them do. That one’s new,” he said proudly, pointing at the nosewheel model. It was perhaps 40 years new. Aside from gear placement, there was no visible difference from the others.
It was nearing lunchtime, but with nothing available, we moved on toward New Mexico and Tucumcari airport. The scenery completed its change from lush green to uninviting brown, and with that change came rising terrain. I soon was able to point out the faint loom of the Rockies to the northwest.
It had been a long time since breakfast, but the FBO offered no food, so we shared a banana appropriated the morning before in Chicago.
On our next leg to Albuquerque, the terrain kept rising, and so did we, seldom getting more than 2,000 feet above the ground, but climbing steadily until we reached 10,000 feet above sea level.
High in the mountains ahead, Albuquerque showed up. We shunned the big commercial airport in the middle of town and headed instead for Double Eagle several miles further west: two immense runways, and so far out of town there’s hardly a house or commercial building in sight. The tower lost sight of us after touchdown: “901Z, where are you?”
That was it for the day, and we looked for a hotel.
Home stretch: Winslow, Ariz., then Needles, Calif., then Orange County. The first hop was smooth. Winslow is at 5,000 feet, so temperatures on the ground were pleasant.
I had speculated the most interesting thing about Winslow would be a celebration of “Standing On The Corner Day,” an annual event staged in honor of an Eagles’ lyric from the 70s, but it turned out the town has an even more distinguished point of reference: the full airport name is Winslow/Lindbergh, and the field was conceived and designed in 1929 by Charles Lindbergh as part of a contract to lay out a coast-to-coast route for Transcontinental Air Transport (soon to be TWA). This was more like it: names Rickman couldn’t fail to recognize mixed with an interesting bit of history.
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.