Jimmie's and Dale’s
Oshkosh AirVenture 2009
I had made it to the Oshkosh AirVenture seven out of the last nine years with my friend Ed Harrison. Doug Hudgin (my partner in the J3 Cub) and I had been working on Metal Feather’s experimental RV7 for over two years. I really wanted to take it to Oshkosh, but we were expecting a call from the paint shop any day to bring it in. If we got the call I could not be sure it would be ready in time for the trip. My friend Jimmie Key, whom I work with at Simuflite, wanted to take the Piper Cub to Oshkosh. Jimmie is a good friend and a great member of our flying club, Metal Feathers. I figured, "What the heck! No one should experience that kind of trip alone!" Ed Harrison, Darrel Carver and Chuck Maze were planning a trip to Oshkosh in Ed’s Bonanza. Ed had made arrangements for a hotel room close to Wittman Field. He said there were only two beds but we were welcome to join them on the floor in sleeping bags and share the cost of the room. Things were coming together nicely.
I had planned my vacation time off from work for almost a year for the trip to Oshkosh, not knowing exactly how I would get there. Then I was notified of the 5 day mandatory furlough which saved me a good portion of my vacation. I had four choices: Ed’s Bonanza, the Cherokee 140, the J3 Cub and, of course, the RV7, recently completed. I had committed to Jimmie that I would go with him in the Cub. It was not long after that that the RV7 moved up on the paint shop list and she got an early start. The RV7 came out of the paint shop looking glorious with all of her red, white and blue stars and stripes. It was so tempting to say, “Jimmie, I think I will take Charlie Brown!” (That was the nickname of Experimental 706CB. One of the controllers in the Dallas Exec Tower had given her that name “6 Charlie Brown”.) Jimmie is a great friend and I knew I would miss out on the fellowship if I flaked out on my commitment. So, I stuck to the original plan.
A lot of planning has to be done for a trip in an aircraft of this type. We are slow and low on fuel as soon as we get airborne. The J3C-65 only has 12 gallons of gas and its fuel burn is about 4.5 gallons per hour. When flying above a freeway, your shadow frequently gets passed up like a Granny driving in the right lane. There were other complicating issues to contend with like the distance between available fuel stops. The shortest distance between Dallas Executive and Wittman Field is a straight line, but trying to find fuel stops along that line within the range of a 12 gallon tank is quite the challenge. We thought we would plan fuel stops every 60-80 miles. Once we got to that planned stop we could evaluate the fuel remaining and possibly continue to the next planned stop. So how do you think that worked out for us? Right! Not once out of the 22 fuel stops, 31.4 hours of flying over the 4 travel days, did we pass up an opportunity to fuel the tank and relieve the two biological bladders on board. We choose to stop at every planned stop. Head winds, rain showers and our desire not to have you read about this trip on the FAA accident report website had us flying a very conservatively executed trip. We found we had to repress our King Air pilot foundations and think more like a 1920-30’s barnstormer to make it safely to our next stop.
The Piper Cub we took to Oshkosh is a 1946 J3C-65. Its production date is November 21, 1946. That would be one day older than me and this November I will turn 63. This is the same J3 Piper Cub that was on the William T. Piper 40 cent US airmail stamp. We felt like a flying museum. But we were not short of modern navigation equipment. We were loaded up with Sky Sectionals for space saving. We had a nice Garmin 195 GPS backed up by a Garmin GPS III. The GPS 195 was powered with the ship’s power electrical system which consists of a small motorcycle battery and a wind driven Evenrude outboard motor generator. Doug Hudgin had added that STC back before I was involved in the ownership of the Cub. Our radios consisted of a transponder, which Doug and I added right after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centers in order to get out of the Fort Worth/Dallas airspace. The COM radio was a Mitchell MK11 radio just like the one in our Cherokee 140. Doug had designed a power plug in the panel located at the left wing root rib. So, we only had to hassle with batteries in the Garmin GPS III. The old whiskey compass was also available although at times it was as much as thirty degrees off. But, the GPSs were right on. The problem was keeping the “King Air” pilots who were extremely challenged during the 1.2 – 1.5 hour legs to stay focused on the course and altitude without an auto pilot when there was so much of America to see at the hot summer density altitudes. In the afternoon we were often limited to altitudes of 2000 feet MSL which is about 1200 feet AGL along the route. Frequently we would have to remind each other that we were off course after pointing out such sights as the Arkansas River, Red River or Mississippi River. As turboprop pilots it had been a while since we had seen such sights. We were always too high and too fast to notice the town squares and the names on the city water towers. We took numerous pictures from the air in order to show the Bonanza crew (Ed, Darrel, and Chuck) how much of America they had missed. Of course, they teased right back about our day and a half trek that they had made in less time than a short day’s work. I knew from experience that the Cub seats would create a great deal of discomfort on a two or three hour trip not to mention 2 days in the cockpit. I remembered from one of the other trips to AirVenture seeing a demonstration about a three layer seat cushion. I found it on the web and ordered the product. After cutting it to size and getting my wife, Donna, to sew some covers made from fake sheepskin, we had a plan that would be easy on the posterior. Now that I look back on the trip, the $100.00 cushions were well worth the investment.
We wanted to arrive Monday about 1:00 PM which was the IFR slot time for the Bonanza crew. So we planned a Sunday morning departure of about 6:00 AM. That worked out really well for Jimmie and my schedules at Simuflite. Saturday became a prep day. We gave the “Old Yellow Turtle” a bath like she had never had before. We made a trip to Dick’s Sporting Goods to purchase some backing packing bedding, not only for the floor of the cockroach motel we would be staying in, but just in case we needed to camp under the wing of the Cub on the overnight trip each way. It would be nearly impossible to know where we would be staying due to the previously mentioned obstacles of fuel availability, weather and winds. Our wives thought we were just being typical, irresponsible men who seldom plan anything in advance. They just did not seem to get it. This was an adventure, not a vacation or business trip. Maybe it is just a guy thing but they could not understand why we didn’t get a reservation at one of the planned stops along the way. You could tell the girls just thought we had lost our minds and did not understand why we wanted to torture ourselves by a total lack of planning. I don’t think they understood that you cannot plan an adventure to the last detail. You can just plan for the lack of ability to plan under these circumstances.
We showed up at 5:45 Sunday morning with bags in hand. Jimmie had his backpack bulging and I had my over the shoulder duffle bag packed tight. We stuffed bedding here and there and the rest on top of the baggage door. We were both excited about the trip. A quick trip to the head by the fuel pumps and we were ready. As the trip progressed, each time we packed, we became more efficient at it and we tried to keep the center of gravity as far forward as possible. We noticed on each leg that as the fuel burned off the CG would move aft and we could eke out another 1000 feet of altitude but then it was time to start down again. The sun was showing over the southeast Dallas horizon as we taxied out to meet the challenges of the morning sky and the long trip ahead. Our first planned fuel stop was Durant, OK. It was about 89 miles NNE of Dallas Executive Airport. As we leveled out at about 2000 feet the airspeed quickly accelerated to a 100 mph ground speed. We were really excited about skipping the stop at Durant and aiming for McAlester, OK. Not only did the 100 mph ground speed not last long, little rain showers started chasing us right and left of course. Quickly our hopes were dashed and we were looking for other optional airports along the route to Durant. Finally as the last rain shower along our course forced us to the north and east, we got a straight shot to Durant and landed with legal reserves. It was then we realized how difficult the trip could be and how valuable our planning would be. I can hardly imagine doing it with a whiskey compass, a map with a line on it, and timed legs with a few check points. I guess that is why they called it “dead reckoning”. I reckon you could be dead if your calculations were off by much. Throw in some un-forecast winds and it makes our modern navigation a piece of cake. We took on about 6.8 gallons of fuel and looked at the weather on the computer and saw at least an hour and a half delay. As we studied the situation and the options, we talked to the weather briefer. With his help we decided to go east about 20 miles and then head north to McAlester which gave us a wide berth to the slow moving rain showers developing to the west of our course. I love it when a plan comes together. We were back on our way with forecast clear skies north of McAlester. The rest of the day was a pleasure. Jimmie and I shared the flying every other leg and had a landing competition at the end of each leg. The winner of the landing competition is still in dispute and we had no judge or witnesses to settle it. I guess the outcome will remain in the eyes of the story teller. It was pretty much an uneventful day until we got to Tahlequah, Oklahoma, our lunch stop. You might call it lunch; we called it the cookie stop. The local airport bum gave us a telephone number for the airport manager and said he might have a loaner car for a drive into town for lunch. The manager informed us that the vehicle was in the shop for repairs. The airport bum was very helpful and showed us where the local flying club kept their stash of cookies and juice. After a couple of double handfuls and some OJ we were back in the air in route to Joplin, Missouri.
At the end of the day we had logged 9.4 hours, made 7 fuel stops, purchased 44 gallons of fuel and had the most wonderful adventure two old geezers could have (without providing grounds for divorce). I don’t know what our wives were worried about. After three calls to the four motels in Kirksville, Missouri, we got Farmer Brown, the part time cab driver, to give us a ride the 6 miles to the Kirkville Holiday Inn Express for a mere $30.00. The next morning we got Jim Bob, the redneck cab driver, to make the same trek back for a mere 20 bucks. We both were glad the restaurant was within walking distance of the hotel. The $83.00 room seemed like chump change compared to the rip-a-ride cab company experience. We later came to appreciate the fact that we both had a bed to sleep in rather that the self inflating backpacker’s mattress we experienced the next few nights. Jim Bob, the cabbie, was punctual the next morning and we were airborne by 6:40am Monday.
We had planned the last stop close to Oshkosh for a short leg in case we had to do a turn of holding at Green Lake near Ripon or the Rush Lake hold at Fisk. What good planning that turned out to be! As we approached Ripon we found the rail road track leading into town. When we checked in with the observer on the ground he said “follow the tracks out of Ripon to Fisk and monitor his frequency”. Piece of cake right! As we followed the tracks out of Ripon I noticed the GPS was pointing to the right rear quadrant rather than the right forward quadrant. Then we noticed the tracks were grown over with trees and brush and as they came out on the other side the tracks had been removed and it was just an abandoned rail road bed. OOPS! Then the discussion came up between the two King Air Pilots -- should we fess up or just go back and relocate the proper tracks coming out or Ripon? We chose both which drew a bit of a chuckle out of the pink shirted FAA controller on the ground at Fisk. As we approached Ripon the second time it was comforting to see the long trail of other aircraft following the proper railroad track out of Ripon to the northeast and the huge florescent arrows painted along the track showing the way which we had somehow missed.
“Yellow cub, approaching Fisk, rock your wings”. “Good job, Yellow Cub”. “Follow the tracks to the downwind for runway 27. Keep it tight inside the gravel pits. Monitor the tower frequency: 118.5”. “Yellow Cub, start your right base, keep it tight, clear to land on the green dot.” “Cherokee follow the yellow cub. Clear to land on the white dot.” “Yellow Cub, clear the runway on the grass to the right, pick up your flagman. Enjoy the show.” No sooner than the tail wheel touched the grass, I could see the Cherokee rolling out and slowing for the grass. Now with fuel to spare we were ready for the 25 minute taxi to parking. Everyone loves a parade. It was like we were Charles Lindberg arriving in Paris. As we taxied by the crowds they would point, stand, and capture Cub N6233H on their digital cameras. We felt like real celebrities on the not so short taxi to the Vintage Parking. We did not have much time to think about it at the time, but there had been an unspoken competition between the Bonanza and the “Yellow Turtle” to see who could arrive at Oshkosh first. Just as we checked in at Fisk I had heard "N1632W check in on the VOR approach” right on their 1:00 PM slot time. I suspect they got in just moments before us. As we sat, all five of us later, at the Vintage Café, we compared departure times for the day. Day one for them; Day two for us. The departure times were within minutes of each other and we arrived moments apart.
What a spectacular event arrival at Oshkosh is. As we flew downwind we just had a moment to take in the acres and acres of aircraft all parked in groups of like kind. What a well orchestrated event as each aircraft turns into the grass and is directed without conversation to its area of like kind parking. We were parked after a 20+ minute taxi in the Vintage Parking in row W77. We drove our stakes into the ground and secured the aircraft with the ropes we had brought from home. Then we gave the old yellow cub a nice wipe down. We had done a good job of avoiding most of the rain showers until we arrived and tied down. We did not mind the rain. We waited the shower out under the wing. We were thankful we were not in the air wishing we were on the ground. We quickly hooked up with our Bonanza buddies at the Vintage Café. After a brief rest it seemed good to stretch our legs by surveying the vintage aircraft parked around us in just about any direction you wanted to walk. We caught the yellow tram to the bus park and then the yellow school bus to where the Bonanza was parked. Then it was a quick cab ride to the hotel. The accommodations were less than we had hoped for but were adequate for an adventure. Chuck and Darrel got the beds the first night and for the rest of us it was inflatable mats and sleeping bags on the floor. You could feel the floor shake as the other residents walked across the 2nd floor veranda. When Darrel and Chuck got up in the night, you could feel the inflatable mattresses jump as they could hardly help but step on the edges of our air mattresses in the crowded conditions. The toilet ran all night long for the lack of a water seal in the tank. It was not until the second night that I found out from Jimmie that the self inflating mattress worked better if you blew it up to make it thicker and more comfortable. All in all we did get some sleep and found a continental breakfast waiting for us in the small lobby on the first floor. The standing room only was not because there was such a crowd but because there were no tables or chairs. I stood and placed my cereal and coffee on the corner of the check in counter in an effort to give them a hint that chairs and tables would be nice. I don’t think they got the hint. That evening we found a Perkins across the street that did have tables and chairs and good food and good service. It was like Mom’s kitchen for the rest of the week.
We rotated the beds for the next two nights so everyone but Jimmie got one good night’s sleep. Jimmie passed up his opportunity to sleep in the bed insisting he was comfortable on his air mattress. What a macho guy! I never heard Chuck complain about being forced to sleep in the bed an extra night. For the next few days it was airplane overdose. Walk the flight line every morning checking out vintage, ultra lights, home builts, war birds, and a variety of aircraft on the Aero Shell Square. Later we checked out the vendors in the four large exhibit hangars. There were many forums down in the forum plaza that we never made it down to see. We spent hours at the Pioneer Airport learning about the early years of aviation history. Then it was across the grass strip, past the model displays of R/C and the control line models to the AirVenture Museum. What an experience it was! From the flying car of the 50’s to the civilian prototype space ship. We had even seen the arrival of the launch vehicle earlier in the week that takes the spaceship to the edge of space for launch. Eight trips to Oshkosh and I am sure I have yet to see it all. This year we never made it out to Lake Winnebago to see the sea plane port. There is much more than one can see in a three day stay. On Thursday it all came to a close and it was time to start the trek back to Dallas. The Bonanza crew went their way. Jimmie and I went ours. As we taxied out, I heard Ed get cleared for takeoff. As we approached the hold short line for runway 36 left, the pink shirted controller on the platform by the runway saw our VFR paper sign and said, “Yellow Cub, 6233H, clear for takeoff, right turn prior to the control tower, fly heading 150 until clear of Delta airspace. Have a safe trip home.” It was light rain, calm winds and ceilings of 4-6,000. As we climbed out I sneaked another peek at the acres of airplanes and marveled at the coordinated effort it takes to put on such an event. I commented to Jimmie, “I wonder if the EAA could straighten out the mess the politicians have gotten our country into?” I think we both witnessed evidence that they probably could.
The two day trip home was great once we got southwest a few miles. There was just evidence of the now dissipating rain showers, and with the cool weather we experienced much better climb performance and topped out a couple of times at 4,500 feet and took advantage of the favoring winds. Wow! Ground speed was up to as much as 88 mph. We never resolved the smooth landing competition as we swapped legs and landings during the two day return trip to Dallas. Our overnight stay worked out to be Marshall, Missouri. After calls to three of the four motels in town, we found no transportation but plenty of room at the inns. Jimmie and I were convinced it was the providence of God when a crop duster pilot, named Rowan, offered us a ride to town. The young man behind the motel counter seemed to know him well. Rowan got us his frequent sleeper discount of one room and two real beds for $55.00. The restaurant was just next door and very accommodating. The food was tasty. Rowan said to meet him in the parking lot at "6:00, no, make that 6:15" for a ride back to the airport in the morning. We were standing by the Ford Bronco at 5:45 with bags in hand. He was very prompt and we were at the airport by 6:45. Even the manager arrived early and we were fueled and in the air by 7:15. Stops in Butler, Missouri, then Joplin, Missouri and by Tahlequah the apple pie Rowan had arranged for had worn off and the coffee needed to be drained. The good news was the loaner car I mentioned earlier was out of the shop, though we wondered why as we clunked and chugged down the road to the Taco Mayo Restaurant. We were grateful for the old retired cop car and it got us to the restaurant and back. The 100LL fuel pump was in about the same shape as the retired cop sedan. But the city employee knew just what to do to prime the pump 3-4 times and dispense the needed 6 gallons or so of gas we needed to make it to McAlester. By afternoon the temperatures were getting hot and the climbs and ground speeds were more like we were accustomed to earlier in the week. The last stop was Durant, OK. The trip would not have been normal if I had not bumped into a former client that I did not recognize. He said, “I know you. You did my multi-engine training back in 1999 at Clyde Fredrickson’s Multi Engine Training.” I had done over a thousand of them in five years as a part time instructor and the most I had ever run into on a single trip was three. Only one did I really remember. We landed at Dallas Executive and made it to the Metal Feathers Dinner Meeting by 6:30. Darrel, the one crew member from the Bonanza gang there, looked rested and refreshed as he had been home since 6:00 PM Thursday night and had 24 hours to rest up. We had a great time that week in Oshkosh but I must say I am glad to have that item checked off my “Bucket List.”