Our Trip to Redlands (not quite) by Mike Toews
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A few months ago some aviation students and their instructor from a local college decided they would like to embark on a long cross country trip to build time and experience. The final destination would be Redlands, CA, Mission Aviation Fellowships (MAF) flight training base. I knew I would love to go along but my RV-4 had never ventured more than an hours flight away from my home base near Winnipeg, Canada. With a little more than 200 hours on the airplane it was high time to leave the roost.
Trying to keep my flying on a budget (ok, I'm a tight wad) I asked if anyone wanted to share some of the expenses and come with me. I immediately had an offer to cover all my fuel expenses. After all, the options were rented Cessna, Piper or an RV. By the end of the trip I suspected his "dari -air" may have regretted the accommodations.
Initial flight planning had the Cessna / Piper gang taking the long away around; heading south through Wichita with tours of the Cessna and Beech factories and then west to Redlands (just inside Los Angeles VTA) across lower terrain than the direct route. In addition to being on a monetary budget, we also wanted to be home before the Cessna / Piper gang. Something to do with being the only two married guys out of the eleven of the group. The plan evolved to having the Cessna / Piper gang leave a day before us, and us taking the more direct route through Salt Lake City (SLC) and some higher terrain (12,100 on the SLC VTA). The terrain through the Denver area appeared too ominous (peaks at or near 14,500 ft) for us prairie boys. Ok, actually the terrain at 12,100 was ominous too, but some answered queries (thanks guys!!!) on Doug Reeves Q and A page (RV World Wide Web - See link from Vansaircraft.com) convinced me the route was doable without going above 9500 ft. At this point we hadn't considered that additional Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFR) may be imposed by the Olympic Games.
The departure date was now planned for 1 March 02 for the Cessna / Piper Gang and 2 March 02 for the lone RV - only a few days after the TFR's through SLC were scheduled to be canceled. We watched the Olympics with great interest. Not only for the sports (our condolences to the U.S. mens and womens hockey team - did I mention we're from Canada?), but for occasional glimpses of SLC's weather, views of the local terrain (yikes, those really are mountains) and hoped and prayed no significant breaches of security would occur. If the TFR's were not canceled as scheduled, we planned to cross the mountains a little further south or even follow the Cessna / Piper gang way south through Wichita. Fortunately, the TFR cancellations went as planned.
As the departure date grew closer, serious attention was given to weight and balance. By our best estimate we thought we could make Provo, UT (PVU), just south of SLC by the first night, and slightly warmer climes. By our worst estimate we would be spending the night somewhere colder, perhaps Casper, or Rock Springs, Wy. These factors necessitated being relatively self sufficient for tie downs and engine preheating, not to mention tools, survival gear, first aid and a back up VHF radio. I think our charts and airport directories alone weighed nearly 2 lbs.
We had little idea what would really be available along the way as far as overnight storage / parking. In retrospect we could have taken less stuff (heaters, blankets, tie downs, etc) with very little problem. Everyone along the way was extremely friendly and helpful. Not that people in Canada are not generally friendly and helpful but very few of our little airports have the services or the traffic of the (relatively) smaller U.S. airports. Ie. I'd never heard of B737's coming into unicom airports prior to this (our small airport runways aren't long enough to start with). By the time all the necessities for the airplane were packed we had 6 lb each left for personal gear.
During the final days before departure, the forecasts, although good for flying, were also promising rather cold temperatures. The overnight low (read: temperature at departure) was supposed to -25C (about -5F). I had only flown the RV in temperatures as low as -20C prior to this and it was virtually desperation flying due to the airplanes lack of insulation. In addition, sunshine would be required to have everything in our favor for warmth. The high for the day was supposed to be -18 C (about 0 F). As it turned out, it was around -18 C at takeoff. The cold forecast made me dress appropriately but also meant some other things (back up GPS, warmer weather clothing, etc) were left behind. Unfortunately, the altitudes (8500 ft plus) required after our second stop kept the outside air temperature (OAT) at a steady -18 to -20C until we reached Provo south of SLC almost 7 flying hours later.
The planned route shown on Aeroplaner
By the way, initial flight planning was done on the internet using Aeroplanner which is available (unfortunately) only through a subscription. The good news is, the EAA has a subscription and EAA members (I think its members only) can access Aeroplanner through EAA's website. Aeroplanner has a lot of great features. I'd recommend checking it out and/or buying a subscription if you do a lot of cross country flying.
Final weather checks were made Friday night and despite the cold weather we decided to go. A U.S. customs advisory had to be made on our own since they had to drive out (short distance) to the airport and they needed a minimum of 1 hour notice prior to our arrival but our flight plan would only be opened approximately 20 minutes before we arrived at the Pembina, ND (PMB) airport. The flight plan was filed for an assumed opening at 7:30 am Saturday morning. I went over a few last minute things - like get both kids and their friends to bed - and went to sleep myself.
I got up early Saturday morning and went to the airport to preheat the engine and pack my personal gear into the airplane. Then I went to the airport lounge to catch a few more minutes of sleep while I waited for my co-pilot (or is it first officer) to show and the engine to warm up. Half an hour before I needed to wake up my mother walked in the airport lounge. Flight Services had called my wife (still in bed where everyone should have been at that time of day) because they had forgotten to give me the transponder code required to fly into the U.S. (no thanks to Mr. Laden). My wife asked Flight Services to call my mother since she only lived minutes away from the airport and was probably up anyway (she was). Mom left a few cookies for the trip and I went back to sleep. My copilot arrived a few minutes later with his wife. Fortunately his wife insisted on him taking a good pair of mitts along. He was very thankful later. We packed his stuff into the airplane, pulled it out of the hangar, got in and closed the canopy. I hit the starter and it barely turned over - a combination of a slightly weak battery and too short a warm up for the cold temperature. I was just threatening to hand bomb it when it when through one more compression stroke, fired and caught. We were in business.
Following a good warm up and final checks, we taxied out to runway 32 at Steinbach North (CJB3), made the probably unnecessary traffic (unicom) advisory call and headed for PMB about 20 minutes away.
The Cessna / Piper gang had gotten away Friday as planned but not without problems. Within 45 minutes of their departure two of the three airplanes experienced mechanical problems. One of the C172's broke a rocker arm and had to return and the Cherokee lost a magneto. The guys in the C172 were able to limp back to Steinbach (KK7) and exchanged their broken C172 for another one from the flight school and picked up a magneto for the Cherokee. They had expected to make Wichita, KS by Friday night but were only able to get into South Dakota. By Saturday things were going better and they were in Abilene, TX for the night.
We landed uneventfully in PMB and waited in the airplane (as required) for the customs official to show up. Customs processing was uncomplicated but slow. I had all the required documentation required for homebuilts entering the U.S. but I suspect the customs official was unaware of the paperwork and I didn't volunteer it. After an hours stop, with a new flight plan filed, a fresh weather briefing, MOA's checked inactive and more clothes on, we left PMB for Mandan (suburb of Bismarck?), ND (Y19).
After another relatively uneventful, although cold hour and a half we arrived at a nice little airport in Mandan. Again, we canceled the flight plan, rechecked weather, filed a new flight plan, fueled up, had a little snack and rethought our "keep warm" strategy. The next leg, although a little later in the day and hopefully a little warmer would be flown at a higher altitude.
We took off from Y19 and started our first climb for 8500 ft a little while later as we approached the Black Hills of South Dakota. We would have loved to have flown over Mount Rushmore, only 30 to 40 miles to our left (south) but time and cold prevailed. We took note of how close to home (via RV4) it really is and declared it a good destination for another trip, on a warmer day. Sturgis, SD, another famous (or is that infamous?) landmark is also nearby.
Almost immediately into the Black Hills, we came across some magnificent open pit mines and a ski hill. I'd always dreamed of being able to fly near a ski hill when I skied and now I was doing it. Of course today I was more concerned with the "hostile" territory I was flying over, should that propeller suddenly stop. Ironically, it occurred to me, a stopped propeller would be the only thing that would cause me to sweat on this cold day. We concentrated on following the only road through the area. The propeller kept turning and we remained cold. After approximately a half hour of flying over the "Hills", prairie appeared in front of us along with the Mondell / New Castle (ECS), Wy airport. The runway here is slopped significantly at the south end and I found it a little disconcerting being cold, not moving / reacting quite as one should and knowing I hadn't had a good landing the whole day. I turned the concentration up on short final and we were ok. We taxied up to the ramp where a Blackhawk helicopter was sitting. The helo crew was returning to Cheyenne from a medevac mission and gladly gave us a tour of their bird. It looked a lot roomier and warmer than the RV. Oh well. They didn't build their own (uninsulated) machine in the their own (unheated) garage with their own (cold) hands
Again, flight plans, fuel and food and little advice from the airport attendant and we were off. By the way Harrison Ford likes to stop at this airport and they have the pictures to prove it.
The next leg to Rock Springs, Wy (RKS) was definitely the most desolate. About the only significant landmark between RKS and ECS is Casper, Wy. OK, there are a few mountain peaks for reference as well. GPS sure is nice. We couldn't imagine how the early aviators, never mind the first explorers, navigated this land. Despite that, there are a significant amount of roads / trails we felt we could have used in the event of an engine failure. Fortunately, we never had a need to prove it.
On this leg we were able to contact Denver center and then Salt Lake City center for flight following (we had been with Minneapolis center previously). When RKS was within a few miles I asked SLC center to please close our flight plan (they acknowledged) and we descended, not much, into the highest airport (elev 6760 ft) of our trip. Listening to some aircraft identify themselves as American 1 , 2 ,3 (gee, I wonder which airline that is?) or whatever, I wondered if the controllers thought we were an airline since I always identified ourselves as "Canadian, Gulf, Fox, Echo, Whiskey. RKS is another very nice airport, but we were one leg away SLC and what we hoped would be warmer weather. We had a little time to spare, so we made a point of stretching out for a few minutes, relaxing and having a little more to eat.
Then Casper FSS phoned to see if a little yellow airplane arrived. The little yellow airplane had filed a flight plan but hadn't closed it and was currently presumed missing. Hang on a second, I had definitely requested SLC center close my flight plan and they had acknowledged. What happened? After a number of phone calls it was determined SLC center had misunderstood the request as a request to cancel flight following and had not closed the flight plan. They were a little "ticked" at us but it was good to know someone would have been looking for us pretty quick had we really had a problem. Note to self (and anyone else): When requesting a flight plan be closed, specifically request flight following be cancelled and flight plan be closed so there is no confusion.
With everything straightened out at RKS and the airplane refueled we climbed back in for the final and most likely the most challenging (read: mountainous) leg of the day. We taxied out, lined up with the runway and opened the throttle. Where was this things power? We're rolling and now we're lifting off the ground but it just doesn't sound quite right? It's flying but its really dogging it (relatively speaking of course). There is still runway ahead. Should I abort? We're about 500 ft off the ground now. I glance at the altimeter. Look at that; we're already passing through 7200 ft. OK, we're just high. The RV is starting to pick up speed and I'm bringing the mixture further back. The engine is sounding a lot better. Everything is fine.
For the first time in this trip we started serious IFR (I follow road!!!) flying. The guys at RKS had confirmed following I80 and 189 from Evanston to Provo (PVU) via Coalville and Heber city is the way to go. The chart shows terrain at 12,100 but we should have no trouble flying between the peaks. We climb to 10,500 and continue under blue sky. As it turns out, at 10,500 we are able to cut a lot of corners where the highway cannot and we are able to pick up SLC center for flight following again. Shortly after Evanston the radio seemed oddly quiet. With the volume at "full" we can faintly make out other exchanges. Or are they for us? We couldn't tell and when we broke out of the "mouth" into PVU, 50 miles south of SLC we still couldn't get SLC center on the radio. I had just installed the radio a week prior to the trip and had had some difficulties (mostly stupidity on my part) that a real avionics guy had to sort out for me.
We switched to the published tower frequency for PVU but are unable to make contact with them as well. By now we suspected a radio problem but then someone (thanks, who ever you were) states we are on the wrong frequency. We double check the info we have and find a unicom (122.8) frequency for PVU that is in use. Apparently PVU was controlled during the Olympics but is normally unicom. Being careful not to fly too far west into the Fairfield VOR area (turns out this is actually quite a ways away) iaw the NOTAMs we keep the circuit tight and find ourselves in the no. 2 slot for runway 32 (?). The landing is uneventful although we should have landed longer (closer to the off ramp) since we forced the no. 3 airplane to overshoot (once again, my apologies).
My co-pilot (Graeme Buys) w/CGFEW in Provo, UT. Looking NE with Wasatch Range in background. "Mouth" to Heber City just coming into view forming a 'V" with the hanger.
The reception at PVU was spectacular by our standards. We are directed to "valet" parking in front of the Million Air building. The attendants were ready to help us with our bags and they wanted to know if they could fuel the airplane and park it or if we'd simply like help taking care of it. I like to do these things myself so they directed me to free overnight tie down parking.
We enquired about expected overnight temperatures and they offered overnight indoor hangarage (small fee) or a morning warm up in the hangar (smaller fee) but the expected temperatures didn't scare us Canadians. We offered our condolences to the U.S. mens and womens hockey teams. What else could we do? The Million Air guys made arrangements for us at the local Holiday Inn and offered us the use of a vehicle or a chauffeured ride. We were tired and unfamiliar with the area, so we opted for the ride. Thanks Guys, you were great!!!
At the hotel, we made the necessary phone calls home to let everyone know we had survived the first day, the coldest weather and the highest mountains expected on our trip. We were informed the Cessna / Piper gang was in Abilene, TX for the night and relatively on schedule for being in Redlands, CA on Tuesday. We were now in position to be in Redlands by noon the next day (sunday). We had no intentions of attending morning services at the tabernacle. One wife is enough!
Over supper that evening we pondered the options for the next morning and the following days. We wondered if we should attempt to fly to Redlands and then come back to PVU for the night for a head start on the trip home. We had made it to SLC in one day but didn't think we could make it back home in one day from PVU. The more we pondered, we agreed our families would like a nice surprise of having us home early. By bedtime we decided we would check the weather both ways (home or on to Redlands) in the morning and make our final decision then.
The route between PVU and Redlands was forecast for near perfect for sunday, but deteriorating to IFR in snow within the next day or two. Just in time to be in our way on the way home. We could always take the longer easterly route home. The Cessna / Piper gang had already had some bad weather along that route. The route between PVU and home had two to three miles visibility in snow in the Casper, Wy. area but was expected to clear and move east during the day. We could easily make RKS on Sunday and from there we could definitely be home in one day of flying. The forecast near home for the next few days included some light snow so the earlier and closer we could get into the area now, the better. The decision was made. We wouldn't carry on to Redlands. We will definitely try this trip again, in warmer weather, with our wives along and in two (or more) RV's rather than one.
Back at PVU by about 7:45am (local) we found everything as we had left it except for the expected frost on the wings. I went about getting the airplane oriented into the sun for maximum frost relief and got the engine heater going and engine blanket secured while my co-pilot emailed our intentions home and to our contact in Redlands and filed our flight plans, etc.
By 9:30am we were rolling down the runway bound for RKS and home and of course leaving the closest thing to warm weather we would see for a while. The leg back to RKS, again under beautiful sunshine was magnificent, with the Wasatch Mountains to the north, we again passed the Sundance ski area, (owned by Robert Redford?), Park City, UT, ski area and the Olympic cross country ski trails. I took some pictures of the spectacular peaks above us as we entered the "mouth" but my camera (probably the operator) doesn't take good pictures under bright sunlight. None of them turned out. I'll just have to come back with a better camera (or operator).
The radio was quiet all the way to RKS and again I suspected radio problems. At RKS a Baron landed a few minutes after us and we could barely hear him on the radio. Our chances of being home today were getting smaller as we would not be able to get into Winnipeg International (CYWG) to clear customs if we were NORDO. I still had my backup handheld VHF if need be, but if I had to start using it now, the battery would be dead before we got to YWG.
At RKS we checked the weather at Casper and found it had cleared and headed south east, completely out of our way and the wind had shifted to the west. Two things in our favor. Maybe we could make it home before dark (I don't have lights on the RV - yet).
We decided to make all stops as short as possible and feed the engine a little more fuel for the remainder of the day. We ended up averaging around 190mph ground speed the whole day.
Departing RKS we planned to skirt Casper if the radio wasn't working, but approximately 50 miles out, we were able to receive ATIS loud and clear and shortly thereafter had Casper approach on the line clearing us through their space. The radio worked perfectly for the remainder of the trip. Must have been those mountains.
At ECS, the Blackhawk was gone, but my toque (hat, for you non Canadians. Did I mention we won the hockey?) was there. I had left it there and not even realized it. The attendant was surprised to see us back so soon, but was just as friendly and helpful as the day before. We went through the routine of food, fuel and flight plans as fast as we could and departed across the Black Hills for Y19.
Except for one brief interlude this leg was uneventful. The day before we had spotted a deep open pit mine near a ski hill (wish I knew which one) that we couldn't see the bottom of, from our position. We resolved to find the mine again and see just how deep it really was. Most people would never get to see a site like this, even if they knew the mine was there. The top of the mine (I'm guessing now) was approximately 1000 ft in diameter with a road (trail?) traversing deeper and deeper around the mines very steep walls. If the opening was a 1000 ft wide, it was probably close to a 1000 ft deep as well. We needed to be virtually overhead the mine in order to see the bottom. This will have to be "our" Grand Canyon for the trip since we didn't make it to the real one this time around.
At Y19 we needed to confirm a number of important items or we wouldn't make it back before night. The three MOA's north of us that we wanted to pass through had to be inactive. There needed to be enough daylight left for us to make YWG, clear Canadian (remember the hockey?) customs (big unknown), and get out of YWG in time to make it home to CJB3 prior to nightfall. I did have a backup plan if there were delays due to customs. I work for a regional airline at the Winnipeg airport and could probably leave the airplane in the hangar and have my wife come pick me up if we were stuck. When we left Y19, it looked as though everything except the unknown delays with customs was in our favor.
Somewhere between YWG and JB3. (15 Nov 01)
About 50 miles out of YWG it occurred to me that even if customs were quick, I would need to file "intentions" (similar to booking a slot into/out of a busy airport) in order to get out. FSS usually wanted at least half an hour notice with intentions prior to actual departure times. How was I going to do that and have enough daylight left? I decided I'd better call Winnipeg radio (FSS) now and file intentions and hope customs was expeditious.
We landed about 2 minutes after our declared arrival time of 6pm (local). That left us 15 minutes till sunset and 45 minutes of legal (flyable) daylight on a clear day. It was overcast now and city lights were already on. We taxied into the appropriate customs area at the general aviation ramp, shut down, and looked around for someone from customs to meet us. He was there waiting for us. The customs official was friendly, courteous and most importantly at this point, expeditious. We both had our photo ID handy without getting out of the airplane and he sent us on our way within minutes (Thankyou, if you ever read this).
My co-pilot lives in Winnipeg, and elected to remain in Winnipeg for his wife to pick him up. For the first time on the trip I was alone and had to navigate and work radio's and pay (closer) attention to the radio on my own. I missed him right until I was cleared on to runway 31 for an immediate right turn on course and opened the throttle. The RV leapt forward, off the ground and into the air the way I was used to. It was 6:15pm and I had a 15 minute flight remaining, but it was getting rather dark for my comfort level.
GFEW at home (JB3). (Sept 99)
I wanted to let my wife know I was home, so as soon as the tower cleared me off their frequency and airspace I diverted a few minutes out of my way to "buzz" (did I say "buzz"? I meant, execute a precautionary approach over my prospective runway in the field north of my house) our house. I approached the house from the front so I could tell if the lights were on and if anyone was home. Lights out. No one home. Typical!
As I approached the airport a few minutes later in increasing darkness, it occurred to me she could be at her parents or my parents. Her parents live just a 1/2 mile south of the airport and with a wide approach overhead the airport I would be able to see if her truck was there. No truck. Hoping I knew my wife as well I thought I did and by the process of elimination, she should be at my parents. I wasn't about to extend my flight into darkness any further. I joined LH downwind for runway 14, made the appropriate radio calls and landed. The runway lights were already on. I never did check the actual time down but there was obviously sufficient light for a safe landing. I was home.
At the time of this writing, the Cessna / Piper gang should be in Redlands. I haven't heard a progress report since Saturday evening.
GFEW panel. Handheld VHF was replaced with a King KY97A one week prior to the trip.
Airplane: RV-4 w/ fixed pitch O-320-A2B Lycoming
Instrumentation: Basic VFR with Mode C, VHF and GPS
Registration: C-GFEW (Plane Crazy)
Home Base: Steinbach North (CJB3), elev. 870 ft
Highest Airport Enroute: Rock Springs, Wy, (RKS), elev. 6760ft
Distance Traveled: 875 nm each way
Engine Time to: 6.6 hrs
Engine Time from: 6.8 hrs
Fuel Used: 62 u.s. gal (one way)
Fuel Cost: $143 u.s.d. (one way)
Fuel Burn: 9.4 gal/hr
Cheapest Fuel: Mandan (Y19) (Bismarck), S.D. ($1.99/gal)
Most Expensive Fuel: Mondell, WY. (ECS) ($2.50/ gal)
Average Speed to: 175mph (gnd)
Average Speed from: 190mph (gnd)
Average OAT to: -20C
Average OAT from: -11C
Cookies consumed: approx 20 (total)