I got back yesterday from my first very long cross-country (four days) flight with a friend who is also a pilot. A great experience, and very much like a auto road trip from my younger years. He and I rented a 1963 c-182 from a friend of his that leases the plane to a flight-school in the area.
We left Paine field around 9:30am on Thursday morning and headed out towards Astoria, and then flew down the coast until we reached Crescent City, CA. That leg of the trip took just over three hours and we were both surprised how quickly we were going through the sectionals. We dropped to about 500′ above the water and stayed about 100 yards off the beach, and raced down the coast doing 120 kts ground speed. Awesome, even when we saw the piper cub whiz off to our right going the other way and neither of us had seen him until he has already passed us.
We had planned to stop for gas and lunch at crescent city then make the next 3.5 hour leg into Oakland Intl, but Crescent city has nothing, zip, zero, zilch to offer other than gas. We noticed that there was a layer of fog rolling in from the south, floor being about 400 feet and about 100 – 150′ tall. Thick white clouds really moving. Matt took over flying and we taxied out to the end of the runway. We both looked at each other and with a little fear. He held the brakes and gunned the throttle. The far end of the runway was already covered in the fog and it was just moving faster and closer to us. He took off and at about 500 feet banked the plane hard to the left to run parallel to the fog bank. We just barely missed the layer and then climbed on out above it. It was a thrill to say the least. It was a quick 35 minute flight to Arcata, CA where we got lunch before departing for Oakland.
The fuel gauges in this plane were less then trustworthy. The left one always showed 100% and the right one seemed accurate, but by association with the left neither of us wanted to believe it. As we were flying over the low mountains of northern California and over the redwoods (looked pretty green to me!) we both got suspicious. that we might have a fuel leak because the right fuel gauge was looking a little too low. We decided to do a cautionary stop at Boonsville, CA to visually inspect the fuel and everything looked fine for our next 1 or so hours to Oakland. So, we got back in the plane to start the motor and NOTHING. We had a dead battery – in the middle of nowhere – ok Boonsville, CA, whatever that is.
It turns out that Boonsville is an residential airport with about 10 houses lining the runway. Just as we were about to call on the radio to see if anyone was listening an airplane entered the pattern to land. We gave him a radio call to say we needed help and he said he would be right there. When the airplane came stopped Matt and I met Joe and Frieda Fox. A couple in the late sixties or early seventies who had lived in Boonsville for the past 15 years. Still quite unsure what the problem with the plane was, we pushed the plane up the hill (ugh!) into Joe’s barn / hanger so we could apply a charger to the battery and see if we could get the plane started.
In the meantime, Frieda invited us to the Senior Center for a Spaghetti Feed. It was 6:00pm now, the time we had expected to be landing in Oakland. We were hungry and the price was right ($4.00) so we hopped into the back of the car and went to the Boonsville Senior Center for food. During the announcements, but before Grace was said, we were introduced to the group as the two young boys having plane troubles. The food was great, the lemonade and ice-tea were great, and the people were funny. Joe and Frieda knew we were in a hurry to see if the plane would start so they whisked us back to the hanger. Matt and I had brought a tent and sleeping bags in case we decided to (read: needed to) camp somewhere, and when we got back I was looking for the most comfortable place to pitch tent. Low and behold, though, the plane started up.
We threw everything that we had taken out of the plane back in, pushed it out of the hanger, did our checks, and pointed the nose toward Oakland. Full of food and relieved to not be spending the night in Boonsville, we flew. The trip to Oakland should take close to an hour depending on the winds and we estimated it was going to take just a little more than 1 hour. As we got closer to the Bay area, we started to get ready for what was going to be a very busy portion of the flight. Since the bay area is very crowded with airports, it has complicated airspace and you have to contact Oakland Approach well before reaching their airspace. As we got our maps ready, our radios set, our pre-landing information written down from the automated service, we thought we were all set. It was about 8:00pm now and the sun was near to setting to the west.
When I made the first call to Oakland approach, I heard nothing in return. Double check the frequencies, and try again. Nothing. Try again. Nothing.
Then the lights on the radio start to blink on and off, on and off. We had run our battery down near dead in 1 hour of flying and were about to lose battery power right before hitting Oakland. Even without batteries, the plane will fly because the engine doesn’t require or use the battery, but everything else does! Radios, lights, flaps, GPS. We turned off everything that we thought we could and pulled out the hand-held radio. We were smart enough to get that all setup before arrival. But, without being able to use the intercom system in the plane things were going to get compacted. I tried to raise Oakland approach on the hand-held but it wasn’t working. Closer and closer we get to their airspace.
It was decided that without an intercom system, the pilot should make the radio calls and fly the plane instead of sharing the load so we transferred Matt’s headset into the hand-held radio and he tried to raise them. Nothing. The tension in the plane is at an all-time high. We have to scream to be heard by each other over the noise of the plane and the headsets we are still wearing. As I look over my right shoulder I see the very last bit of sun drop behind the hills and I take a moment to think about what we are about to do. “Let’s see, we are using a hand-held radio and still don’t have contact with Oakland, we can’t communicate to each other over the noise and headsets, we are about to be sequenced to land at a major airport with major airplanes, and we may not have enough battery power to even use are navigation lights on the sides of the wings, never mind using the big bright landing lights. This is not good.”
We had just flown over the Napa county airport about 4 minutes before so I lift Matt’s headset and scream in his ear, “Hey, the Sun just went down and I don’t want to try for Oakland. Turn around and we will land at Napa!” Not much argument from Matt at all as we tried 1) find the airport 2) figure out if we were in their airspace yet 3) what are the frequencies 4) what do the runways look like 5) what is this airport called? Matt reached the tower and got cleared to land. All we had to do now was find the airport! We found the right runway and landed. A big sigh of relief and nervous laughter erupted from both of us. It is about 8:15 PM now and it is almost dark outside.
We parked the plane and went into the executive terminal and told them we had lost the alternator on our plane and asked their mechanics to look at the plane the next day. They gave us the keys to a 1973 Chevy Malibu paneled station wagon and we went off to find beer and a place to sleep. After getting our fill of beer and being quite silly for a few hours we found our home away from home. A Travel Lodge in downtown Napa that, as our luck would have it, was in the middle of construction. It looked like a war zone with the parking lot almost entirely torn up and a good number of the rooms on the lower floors missing entire walls. You could see clear through the other side of the building. The guy at the desk ensured us that the building was safe and there would be no construction the next day, so we took a room and fell asleep before Leno had finished his monologue.
Friday Morning: It turns out that our plane was old enough that it didn’t have an alternator, but instead a generator (don’t ask me the difference, I have to look it up today). When we spoke to the mechanics they said that they didn’t yet know if the generator was bad but if it was, they would have to order the part and it wouldn’t be there until Monday. At this point we started to contemplate how we were going to get back to Seattle, because we were not going to wait around for three days for this piece of **** plane to be fixed. We rented a car and drove into San Francisco to spend our day and meet up with the people we were planning on seeing the night before. Late Friday afternoon we got word from the mechanics that the plane was fixed – it was the generator and they had one in stock. Good deal, we were a day behind our plans, but the trip was going to start again on Saturday.
On Saturday, after a $500 dollar repair bill, we flew from Napa into the Sacramento Valley and stopped to see my brother who met us at the Lodi airport. Very busy place with sky divers and ultralights everywhere. The first landing attempt resulted in a go-around because I had used almost half of the runway and still hadn’t touched down yet. (It must have been those power lines before the threshold of the runway that kept me high on final). On the second attempt a good landing and we popped the doors open immediately as it was near 90 degrees out and it was boiling in the plane. A quick lunch with my brother and we took off for Sun River Oregon. We had always planned on flying to Lake Tahoe but with one day of flying shot, we changed our plans.
To make it to Sun River we passed by Mt Shasta and some pretty rugged and tall terrain. When we were at 6,500 feet I noticed that we didn’t have a lot of available power to use. As we were starting to get into terrain about 1500 below us I climbed to 8,500 and hummed a little tune, “Altitude is your friend, yes indeed, altitude is your friend” While I really doubted we were having Carburetor icing, I couldn’t understand why we were using so much power to stay aloft, so I used the carburetor heat to see if we had ice. No change in the engine. Uh oh! Now what has happened. We tried to diagnose the problem from the air, but everything seemed stable so we kept flying on. Amazing scenery as we went over the hills and by Mt. Shasta. We let down at Klahamath Falls airport (the tower corrected me and said it was Kingsley Field – but that is not what any of the charts say!) and we fueled up. When we calculated density altitude, it turns out that even though the airport was at 4,100 feet, the plane was going to behave as if it was at 6,900 feet. We departed and arrived at Sun River, Or without incident.
For those that have never been to Sun River it is really pretty and the resort is way cool. The airport is in good condition and maintained year round. A golf destination in the summer and a ski resort in the winter, we even saw a Citation jet come in and land. The food was really good, even though the prices are what you would expect to pay at a resort. On Sunday morning we went out to the airport to diagnose what was wrong with the carburetor heat. It turns out that the sleeve around the cable had broken where it was secured to the carburetor heat armature so it was an easy field repair after removing the cowlings. The reason we didn’t have a lot of power flying through the mountains the day before? We were flying with the carburetor heat on the whole time! After making the repairs we unpacked our bikes and rode the miles and miles of bike trails around the resort. We even saw two foxes (one in the field, the other on the runway) in the middle of the day. Either they are really used to the noise and people, or they were rabid. we didn’t stay around to check.
An interesting note – on Saturday night Three airplanes were broken into and had their radios stolen at the Sun River airport. From what were heard it was the first time in 10+ years that this had happened.
We packed up our bikes and bags in the plane and set off for our final flight leg back to Seattle. We took a direct route that went by the three sisters mountains, we flew around the mouth of Mt St Helens (wow!) and about 30 miles west of Mt Rainer. Awesome!! Arrived in Seattle 2.6 hours after leaving Sun River and had a beer to celebrate.
I would say that we had a great trip, even with the problems and field repairs. We got a great spaghetti dinner for $4, met nice people, spent a good day in san Francisco, saw amazing scenery, and got back just when we said we would. I will be buying a hand-held and always packing the right tool set on any long x-country in the future.