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Catching the travel bug: Midair malaise
It was 1989. In an effort to build flight time after earning my private pilot's license in college, I managed to convince my boss at the hobby shop where I worked that it might be a good investment for him to loan me the $5500 I needed to buy a two-seat 1946 airplane called a Luscombe.
After tiring of touring around the local airport, shooting 'touch-and-goes' well into the night and giving rides to share the fuel costs with everyone I knew or even the strangers I sat next to in my classes at W.S.U., I decided to venture out on a cross-country flight.
What better excuse than the annual Luscombe fly-in which was held at a beautiful airport near the mountains in Columbia, California. The event attracted over 100 of the durable little airplanes and their owners, allowing the pilots and spouses a chance to socialize about two things they were sure to have in common: a love of flight and an interest in a small part of aviation history.
I flew out to Seattle the day before so I could join up early in the morning with another Luscombe that was attending the event. Since my airplane didn't have a baggage compartment, I stuffed the full size suitcase, tent, portable VHF radio, Sony Walkman and a bag of groceries into the right seat of the airplane, strapped down so nothing interfered with the second control stick on the right.
We were to meet up at 6 a.m. on an early May morning before heading south toward San Francisco. Seattle isn't known for it's good weather in May, and this morning was no exception. A low layer of clouds hovered over Puget Sound, and if I weren't following an experienced Northwest captain out of the area, I'm not sure I would have been comfortable flying an airplane with virtually no navigational equipment that day.
I stuck close to the other airplane as we worked our way around the Tacoma area, listening on the pilot-to-pilot frequency while a half dozen Cessnas were reporting their locations to each other and patrolling up and down I-5 to report on the local Seattle traffic conditions.
We parted ways as we flew past Mount Shasta and I broke off to land at another airport for refueling. The airplane held 14 gallons of gas, enough for at least two hours of flying. I dug into some yogurt and a breakfast bar before leaving again.
The final stop before Columbia was a little residential airpark in Cameron, CA that sold fuel. I visited with one of the residents who told me that Columbia was just another two hours south.
Up to this point I had been either following another airplane or navigating from town to town using my map, since I had no navigational instruments and my compass had a rather persistent tendency to only point east regardless of my true heading.
But this leg would be over the western portion of the Sierra Nevada mountains, over Yosemite park. I soon discovered how difficult it was to match up the lakes and mountains depicted on my map with what was on the ground below me.
I'd pass over a lake and then try to find it on the map with little luck. There were so many lakes and mountains, it was hard to be sure just where I was. I elected to stay a bit further east, so I would know the airport would likely be off to my right side after two hours of flying.
I began to doubt the wisdom in my routing as time went on. To make matters worse, something was happening to my stomach. A sharp pain hit me above my seatbelt, as if I had just swallowed an ice-pick. It's funny how quickly the blame came together in my mind to identify the breakfast bar as the culprit. It might make more sense to blame the yogurt, but I knew that breakfast bar was bad news.
As the pain became debilitating and I was feeling nauseous, I discovered that not only was I completely lost, but the batteries in my handheld radio had died.
Fortunately I had come prepared, with an extra set of eight AA cells to pop into the radio. But doing that wasn't exactly easy. As I flew along, heading south, indicating east, I had to take apart 4 philips screws in my lap, looking down while bouncing over the afternoon bumps that naturally occur over the mountains. I had the Terra radio apart in my lap as I opened the new AA batteries that were packed in their theft-proof plastic.
And then it hit me. I was going to eject one breakfast bar and a cup of yogurt in the next ten seconds. The only question was, where?
I frantically looked around the cockpit. There was no plastic bag, only a duffel bag and my suitcase. I had no choice. I threw open the side window of the airplane and leaned my head out the tiny window, knowing that I would have to explain the mess that ran down the left side of my airplane when/if I made it to my destination. Perhaps it would blend in with the green strip running below the window on the otherwise white airplane.
After this traumatic event and still trying to fly an airplane that had an annoying habit of pulling to the right while I snapped the batteries in place and slipped a few screws into their holes, I began to assess my chances of finding the airport. I checked the time. Two hours exactly. I needed to turn west and hope for the best.
At this point, I was ready to land in whatever flat spot I could find. The "E" was visible on the fuel tank that was mounted above and behind my head and I knew I needed to be on the ground as soon as possible.
I tried to call out on my weak hand-held radio.
"Columbia traffic, Luscombe 71808, anyone in the pattern at Columbia?"
I'm not sure what I would have said if someone responded.
There was no reply.
As populated as the state of California is, the Sierra Nevada mountains looked like the Alaska range. There were no airports, roads or gravel bars below. And it was getting dark.
Maybe it was lucky that darkness had fallen. I scanned the horizon and then it hit. The brightest airport beacon I've ever seen. It was an old fashioned airway beacon that was used to navigate from point to point in the 1930's, back when airplanes were equipped about as well as mine. But was it located on an airport?
I grabbed the full sized pillow next to me and put it in front of my stomach while I leaned forward, trying anything to relieve the pain. I focused on that beacon, descending at 1000 feet per minute and traveling at an excruciatingly slow 95 miles an hour.
I wondered how the landing would be. I crossed over the airport at 1000 feet, looking for the windsock below. I was relieved to see the giant letters written down the runway.
I made an exceptionally abbreviated pattern. I can't remember how the landing was, but I do remember turning off the runway, and heading straight for the parking area. I spun the tail around, shut the engine off and plopped out onto the grass beside the fueling pit.
I laid flat on the ground, holding my stomach. This must be food poisoning I thought. Fortunately I was early enough to arrive – the first airplane, in fact – that there were no witnesses to the mess I made beside the fuselage.
I got up and placed a call on the nearby pay phone to my relatives who were my backup search and rescue team if I failed to check in. And then I set up my tent and collapsed inside for the night.
I felt fine the next morning, and as I cleaned off the side of the airplane, I vowed to keep this little incident to myself.
110 Luscombes showed up that year and I made a lot of friends, learned so much about my airplane and joined in some large formations of planes on missions to find the best pancakes in the area or to pass above the clearest lakes in the country.
I swapped planes with the guy parked next to me, a J-3 cub, and we chased each other around for the day while exploring the area. His compass worked fine, interestingly.
For four days, my secret was safe.
Then the Continental Luscombe Association would close up the event with an awards ceremony. I certainly wasn't expecting to win anything, unless they had the "rattiest Luscombe" trophy perhaps.
But they handed out awards for the oldest pilot and even the youngest pilot at the event. Since I was 19, I accepted that plaque with a big smile.
Finally, they announced something called the "hard luck trophy." An award given to the pilot who had the most difficulty getting to the fly-in.
Oh, boy. I knew I had to keep my mouth shut.
A pilot stood up and told about his experience flying through a bit of snow on the way there. Then he sat down.
There was silence.
I couldn't help myself. I had to confess.
I hadn't realized how amusing the experience was until I was describing the vomit-hiding characteristics of a wide green strip down my airplane.
The only thing I had to worry about for the flight home was how I would get the three foot tall "hard-luck" trophy into my already stuffed airplane.
Then it dawned on me. I could make a little more room by leaving the box of breakfast bars behind.
Photos by Russell Croman
Epilogue: read about the fate of that little Luscombe and where it is now.
Check out Kent's other flying stories in Gadling's Cockpit Chronicles feature.