Cross Country in the Tecnam Sierra
We awake early to drive to SeaTac airport where I was to meet John, fly to Orlando, drive to Vero Beach, and meet, Sam, the owner of the aircraft early the next morning. After finishing the purchase transaction, we would start the long flight home, with plans to arrive back at our home airport of Arlington, WA (KAWO) five days later.
Of course, a coast-to-coast flight in a two-seater aircraft in March is never as simple as that . . . .
Enroute to SeaTac, an automated phone message informs me our flight has been cancelled and I need to reschedule which means we’ll now be arriving in Orlando closer to midnight. I call Sam and arrange to meet him later the next morning. This will postpone our departure to mid-day or, if the volatile spring weather in the southeast continues, perhaps later.
After putting up in a HoJo with squishy carpet and dank sheets, we make it to the airport to meet Sam. As happens when people “meet” via phone, I’ve developed a mental image – I know him to be 77, nasally voiced, fond of martinis, and wealthy - undoubtedly a Woody Allen looking character. The Sam who waves to us has a full head of white hair, a cherubic face and smile, and looks strong and hale – younger than the years and martinis and “I can’t fly anymore” story had suggested. We visually check out the aircraft – it is now too windy to fly it – and, as all looks well, we sign the papers and N107TU is mine! Sam insists we return our rental car and use his hangar truck to get around town. We are happy to comply. We decide to forego the dank sheet experience of the previous night and go to find another hotel. The Jet Center recommends Holiday Inn Suites at Vero Beach and we happily find they have nice clean rooms and are directly on the beach. We book ourselves for one night, well worth the extra twenty dollars.
After lunch, we check weather again. It looks like Mother Nature may hamper our plans for tomorrow as well. All we can do is wait and watch. The extra time will give us an opportunity to study the POH and avionics manuals so we’ll know the aircraft systems a bit better. We decide to ship the logbooks and other gear to save weight. A trip to the post office and Radio Shack for a cable attachment for XM radio is our activity for the afternoon and then we both retire for a much needed nap. If weather cooperates tomorrow, we’ll be ready to go.
Friday morning we arise at 5 am, and I am showered and at John’s room by 5:30. He just shakes his head no. As we’re both up now, we decide to go to I-Hop for breakfast. We wait outside until opening hour at 6. It’s dark and our waitress, a meth-looking “Ginger,” is frighteningly cheerful. The excess in joviality is equaled by the colossal food quantities. Huge piles of eggs, hash browns, pancakes. It is too much, too early. Fortunately the cheap price makes it easy to walk away from the mounds of untouched food. Back in our rooms, back to bed, weather check in two hours. Again, no joy on the weather.
We are half way down the east side of the Florida peninsula. A line of thunderstorms stretches jagged red radar returns from west of New Orleans diagonally across to the Carolinas. It is a severe weather watch, with embedded thunderstorms and tornadoes ripping apart Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. The system is reported to be moving northeast but it keeps rebuilding in place and effectively blocks our exit route from Florida. Perhaps tomorrow will be better. A trip to the local bookstore replenishes our reading material (“Straight on ‘til Morning” about pilot Beryl Markham’s adventures!) This will add to our gross weight as I can never bring myself to part with books I’ve loved.
We try “Lobster Friday” at the hotel restaurant that night. The “special” is more butter than lobster, but the few sweet buttery bites are delicious and we return for one last weather check before we retire to our respective rooms for the night.
Despite the ferocious storms to the north of us, the skies have been blue here, and I have enjoyed sunning at the poolside and a drink in the Adirondack chairs that line the beach. After sharing a second breakfast at the invitation of Sam (only a bowl of fruit after that I-Hop overload), I whiled away the morning with a little shopping and found myself a bright new swimsuit. The strong winds out of the southeast (rushing toward the low of course) kept the poolside a bit too cool for an extended visit, but the sunshine felt good. After a long northwest winter, a little vitamin D was in order.
Saturday dawns clear and windy again, but the weather gods to our north are still raging battle. It is no place for a small aircraft to venture and we renew our hotel rooms for another night. We visit the Saturday market and I buy a pint of strawberries that, in penance for I-Hop, will be my breakfast tomorrow. I hole up in my room and read, with a lovely martini break by the sea in the afternoon. Alone in the Adirondack chairs under the wild palms as the sun fades, the wind whips my hair into my mouth with each sip and flips my skirt into my lap. Final weather check of the evening gives hope to starting our long trip west midday tomorrow.
Sunday morning we pace and wait and check and finally our break arrives. We check out and head to the airport. I call Sam to let him know we are finally leaving and invite him to join us for lunch before we depart. The airport restaurant is packed – families with little girls in new dresses and flowers and Easter eggs everywhere. For a moment I panic that I am missing Easter Sunday with my family. But no, it is still two weeks away. Apparently they celebrate early and long here at Vero Beach. We load the airplane, wave goodbye to Sam who snaps our picture, perhaps to go into his photo book of planes he’s owned, which apparently are numerous. Over lunch, he’d told stories of the Cirrus, Baron, Pacer, Chieftain, and other aircraft of his life. I didn’t sense any sorrow at the thought of this being his last aircraft. A full life leaves no room for regret.
We take off into ominous skies. The radar showed that the thunderstorms had diminished and if we can weave our way through the low lying remnants, we will be into clear weather ahead, albeit with strong headwinds (now rushing into the low behind us). The turbulence jostles us and we are both on edge a bit as we see how much this little bird can take and if, as Sam promised, the engine does indeed "run great.” After a bounce that knocks me against the canopy, I tighten my seatbelt and it falls apart. The next half hour I spend trying to piece together the bits, one-handed and backward. We finally clear the black and gray ceiling and make our first landing at Perry. A quick re-fueling, a bit of seat belt repair, a visit to the restrooms, and we’re off again.
Takeoff is with 15 degrees flaps and I forget to raise the flaps before we’re out of the white range. A checklist would be nice. I’ll work on that tomorrow. As we approach Tallahassee I call in to get clearance and suddenly the radio is not working. It is our second flight in this aircraft. We’re flying without a checklist. Did we do something wrong, forget to flip some switch, or is the darn thing malfunctioning? Has anyone been hearing us along the way? We recall that the tower at Vero Beach heard us, so we know the radio did indeed work. I try. John tries. We both try again. We fiddle, adjust knobs, try again. The controller hears our attempted transmission, but no voice. Finally John says, “You know I wonder if we have the wrong headsets on?” We both use Zulu headsets and they plug in side-by-side between the seats. Sure enough, after switching headsets, my PTT works a lot better with my microphone, and the controller can hear us!
We’re racing against night now, and we land at Hattiesburg, Mississippi with the sun. I’m watching the runway, but John assures me I beat the sun down. By seconds. By the time we’ve refueled and tied down, it is dark and there is no one in sight. A large hangar stands open with an airlift helicopter inside. I knock “Hello?”, but it is deserted. I open a door nearby and am looking into someone’s bedroom. Oops, sorry, “Anyone there?” I call out. A big guy appears, one of the airlift nurses, and welcomes us in a Deep South drawl. He looks up a taxi number for us and invites us in for water and a friendly chat. We’re waiting for the taxi in the dark deserted middle of nowhere with our bags at our feet when a car drives by. I wave (who knows how long a southern taxi might take?) and the driver stops.
“Hi y’all, ya need a ride somewhere?” As our new friend Julian drives us into town, he tells stories of being a military pilot and recently selling his Swift because, ever since the grandkids came along, his wife no longer likes to fly, but he now teaches at the University of Southern Mississippi and flies the King Air for the president of “Little Miss” which he insists on (de)touring with us so we can view the beautiful campus buildings. It is clear he loves this town and his life.
It is now pushing 9 pm and we’re tired and hungry, yet Julian’s enthusiasm for his life is a pleasure. We eventually end up at a Fairmont hotel and a walk to Appleby’s provides food and some Mississippi mud between my toes. The city planners of Hattiesburg apparently decided that sidewalks were an unnecessary luxury and so we tramp down medians and under bushes and across muddy fields to get to the restaurant. As we listen to the Rick & Bubba show on the way to the airport the next morning, the taxi driver explains that to keep college students from wandering around drunk at night, the sidewalks are rolled up every evening at dusk. Like Julian and the airlift nurse, our gregarious driver loves living in Mississippi.
We are in the air by 7:30, westbound with the sun. We know it is going to be a long day with the turbulence and headwinds. Although our IAS is 120, our groundspeed shows 78 KPH. We are not getting anywhere fast today. We climb above a layer of clouds, hoping for less bounces. Another stratus layer is above us and both layers deepen as we proceed west. We decide to descend through one of the last holes just as the two layers close in on us in a solid wall of white.
We stop for lunch in Brownwood, Texas. The nice folks at the FBO lend us their courtesy car, an old white Bronco with “City of Brownwood” on the door. I figure it looks like we’re on official business, so we won’t get a traffic stop no matter how many erratic turns and lane changes we make in our attempt to navigate a new town. John drives over the curb on the way out, and assures me he knows where he’s going as he splashes through a large puddle, thoroughly dousing my seat through the open window. Fortunately, I was leaning forward to avoid my back burning on the hot upholstery. At least the splash cools the seat, and I lean back and reach for my seatbelt but notice that the push button to release the clasp is missing. As I don’t wish to slowly bake to death strapped to the plastic upholstery, I decide to forego the safety feature and put my faith in John’s fearless driving. We lunch at Humphrey Petes and guess our way back to the airport for another leg of flying.
Winds are getting stronger and the route ahead is dry desert. The weather reports state unlimited visibility that is belied by the brown haze. We try to climb above it, but at 10,500 feet there is still no relief and the sandy haze thickens into near IMC conditions. We decide to wait out the sandstorm and descend for an approach to Midlands Regional. We are nearly over the threshold before we finally see the runway. John handles this landing. With 40-50 knot surface winds and low level wind shear, it is a challenge, but he plants it firmly on the ground and we taxi to safety on the leeward side of a big hangar. I walk over to chat with a local pilot who is just hangaring his Cessna 172, having wisely decided to forego today’s flight. “Wayne” shows us a T-hangar we can tie down in for the night and drives us over to the FBO. This FBO also lends us a courtesy vehicle, a white pickup, and we’re off to find another hotel. We spot an Outback Steakhouse and agree that a steak sounds great after that last trying flight.
The next day dawns clear and we’re ready to go before 7. Preflight reveals a large chip out of the trailing edge of our propeller. After consulting several mechanics, who determine that the weight of the missing wood would be insignificant to the balance of the prop, we verify a normal run-up and take off. An uneventful flight takes us along the Mexican border past El Paso to Las Cruces, NM for lunch and we’re off again to Marana, AZ. John does Russian acro training here and he is happy to see old friends – Elena the stern Russian lady, and Dan and Jeff the sociable A&Ps. We rest in the sun for a moment, making necessary phone calls while we have reception. John walks to the airplane, ready to go, and I follow while still on the phone. An hour into our flight I realize I left my purse behind on the picnic table. Our phones don’t work at this altitude so I bother Flight Service to contact the FBO. After a short delay, they kindly confirm that they have located my purse at Marana and are holding it for me. I now become a passenger without a pilot’s license and John is PIC, as well as temporary financier of this journey.
We land in Apple Valley, CA for the night, again descending with the sun. The winds are ripping coldly across the tarmac so we control lock the stick with the seatbelt. A taxi takes us into Victorville to a cheap hotel and Taco Bell dinner. I admit to being beat with 15 hours of aviating behind me. We buy Redbull for tomorrow and chocolate for tonight and retire to our beds.
The next morning it is foodmart donuts and auto-latte breakfast in the dark then taxi to the airport. We are off before 7 am, north across California. By 10:30 we are ready for a real breakfast in Visalia. Weather to the north of us is deteriorating rapidly and we are forced to stop in Redding. With 50-70 knot headwinds across the Siskiyou Mountains and low ceilings we realize we’ll not get further today. We take up residence in the Oxford Suites for the night and hope for clearing tomorrow.
One night turns into three, with each day’s highlight being meeting to check weather and updated TAFs. There is no way we can get over the mountains and stay under the overcast and the cloud tops are too high for our little bird. The continued strong headwinds are not something either of us wants to mess with, so we amuse ourselves as best we can and it is not until Saturday that we turn our prop toward home. Once we cross the Siskiyous and get into Oregon the tailwinds are with us for once and we scoot home at 130-140 knots groundspeed – the best time we’ve made so far. I take the final landing into Arlington, a glorious spring day with friends all about to welcome us home victorious. It has been a grand adventure, with new sights, new challenges, and new friends.