Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Flying "Air Geoff" - Cross Country with the Piper Lance


Salt Lake City to Jacksonville, Florida in a Piper Lance


I had a marvelous experience with my son recently. He purchased a larger private plane, based in Salt Lake City, and invited me to fly cross-country with him to deliver the plane to his home in Florida.

I was so excited, and a bit apprehensive, since the longest flight I had ever had in a private plane was 1.5 hours! This flight would take approximately 12 hours and would be divided in to two legs with an overnight. Originally the overnight was planned for Texas. I soon found out that pilots plan their trips according to the weather. So, before we left Salt Lake City, our interim destination was changed to Kansas City.

First Meeting with "De Plane"

I arrived in Salt Lake City a couple of days in advance of our big trip. Geoff met me and we headed for Red Robin, a family favorite, and had juicy hamburgers. On the wall, behind Geoff, was a Babar poster showing the storybook elephant flying a plane. How appropriate, I thought. And then I drifted off in thought to the days when I read books to my little boy, many of them about flying.

After checking in to the Embassy Suites, we headed for the airport to meet the new plane's former pilot. Needless to say, we were both very excited.

We went through the gate and eagerly headed for the open hangar. There was the new, much larger, plane that Geoff had purchased over the Internet. It was a blue and grey Piper Lance but somewhat dulled by hangar dust. That was a bit disappointing. Geoff's first plane had been presented to him in tip top condition, complete with polishing kit for the windows. As Geoff went over the plane, I thought about how I could help clean her up for the big flight.

Fortunately a bit of dust has nothing to do with the mechanical condition of a plane so Geoff planned to meet the pilot the text day for test flights and I e-mailed a Salt Lake City friend who I volunteer with at the Adopt a Native Elder Program. She gladly agreed to meet me for a personal Temple Square tour and lunch.

Early in the morning, Geoff was off to spend time in his new plane. I met my friend Sarah, a documentary film maker, and we walked to Temple Square to see the sights. I learned much from her and enjoyed her company during the warm day.

That evening we visited the plane and gave her a bit of a sponge bath... well, Geoff cleaned up the windows, especially the photographer's window (mine). The plane looked much better already!

Planning for the Flight
By now Geoff was noticeably more relaxed. He'd flown the plane, everything checked out and he was complimented by the pilot, an IP for high performance aircraft. Geoff is a great pilot and I have tremendous confidence in him.

We found a place to have pizza and talked about details for the next day's flight. It was going to be an early departure as the morning weather would be better. Our big hurdle, literally, was going to be climbing over the Wasatch Mountains. Geoff chose a great route... follow I-80 through the pass. Geoff intuitively knew that sharing all these details with me would help me with any apprehensive feelings I would have. He was spot on and this helped me immensely.

Geoff checked the weather again and confirmed his route. He selected an airport in Wyoming for a gas stop. Pilots often choose these airports because of low gas prices.

Day 1

It was dawn and we were headed to the airport. I had a bit of trouble quieting my stomach. The plane was tied down at Million Air. What service they provided! A great terminal, help with checking in Geoff's rental car, and they filled the oxygen tank for us. Everything was ready.

As soon as Geoff completed his pre-flight, he showed me how to get in to the plane and buckled me in the comfortable seat. I began to relax. The journey was about to begin. I readied my camera for the glorious mountain photos I expected to take.

Geoff contacted the tower. We thought we'd have to wait until all the "big boys" had taken off, but no... we were second in line. We taxied out to the runway, did the usual engine "run ups," and took off. It was quick. Soon we were gaining altitude and Salt Lake City was getting rather small. The green mountains loomed in the distance. Geoff was busy talking with the tower and I was busy snapping photos.

Over the Mountains

I was pleased with how smooth the flying was. We gained altitude and leveled off just over 11,000 feet.. a great altitude for going through the pass.

The mountain was green and the views reminded me of Hawaii. As we flew, a mountain town came in to sight - Park City. I could see the remnants of the Olympic games construction and, in the distance, two beautiful hot air balloons flying way below us. We quipped about slingshots, and continued on. The green ended and a drier, desert-like look took over the landscape.

Geoff kept me informed about where we were in our flight and which state we were in. It was going fast. Soon we were in Wyoming and desert landscape gave way to agricultural lands.

First Stop - Pine Bluffs, Wyoming

There was no tower at Pine Bluffs but Geoff could get the weather from an automated weather station. We flew over beautiful patch-work fields and over the actual bluffs. Geoff circled and announced to the airspace that he was to land. There was no response. All was clear.

I've heard that take-off and landing are the most dangerous parts of flying. So, of course, I just love take offs and landings. This was our first landing and I was thrilled. Geoff did a great job. We looked for the aviation gas and taxied over. While Geoff gassed up the plane, I learned about the process... affix a ground to the plane, then swipe your credit card, roll out the huge hose and pump gas into both wing tanks. Replace the hose and wince at the credit card receipt.

At the tank was a sign directing us to a metal building for a bathroom break. In front of the building was a retired police cruiser. Geoff pointed out that many small muni airports used police cruisers as courtesy cars. Sure enough, we found the key sitting on the bathroom sink. If we had wanted, we could have driven into town for an ice cream.

After watching the bright yellow crop dusters and military helicopters fly in the area, it was time to take off. Geoff completed his pre-flight and we were off... headed for Kansas City, Missouri.

Kansas City - Here We Come!

When we took off from Pine Bluffs, it was sunny and the winds were quiet. But in the distance we saw some clouds building... harbingers of what was to come.

Geoff, via GPS, worked hard to keep a reasonably direct route, while dodging any major storm activity. I had my first experience with weather in a small plane. Geoff handled everything perfectly, in my opinion.

After several hours Geoff began to communicate with the tower about landing at Wheeler Airport in downtown Kansas City. It was near the hotel... how convenient!

We moved through the patches of rainy weather and we saw the skyscrapers of downtown Kansas City in the distance. And, there, sure enough, was an airport. It was just across a bridge from downtown.

As Geoff banked the plane I got some fantastic pictures of the skyline. And, I experienced another perfect landing. Again, we taxied over to get gas before tying up at Hangar 10. We covered the plane with an eye on an approaching storm. We hoped it would not hail!

Hangar 10 provided a courtesy ride into town and to our hotel. We were both really tired, for different reasons, but agreed we should seek out a Kansas City steak for dinner. I was tired from being overly excited and alert during our flight and Geoff had been communicating with Air Traffic Control and the towers constantly, monitoring weather and acclimating to a new plane.

Fortunately we were in walking distance from the Country Club Plaza. We checked out a couple of restaurants and decided on a grill with excellent filet mignon. Neither of us were relaxed enough to eat a great deal and I soon dubbed our adventure, "Geoff's Airborne Weight-Loss Camp." As we ate, a thunderstorm passed through the area dumping what looked like great amounts of rain but no hail, thank goodness.

Day 2
Hangar 10 didn't open until 7am. I was surprised because I liked Geoff's idea of early flying while the air was calm. And, besides, sunrise is the most glorious part of the day. We ended up taking a taxi to Hangar 10 rather than wait for the shuttle driver.

After the pre-flight, we had an easy taxi on the small field and took off. The weather, we heard was fairly clear in Jacksonville even though there were still clouds in the KC area. I was excited. Today I would end my adventure with visiting my granddaughters and daughter-in-law.

What we thought might be a "partly cloudy" flight turned out to be a "storm trooper" type of flight. Geoff did some amazing flying that day. I was totally impressed. Clouds were building all around us. The area was full of storms. And we were in a, gulp, small plane!

Gas Stop - Savannah, Tennessee

It was getting to be time for a gas stop. Geoff switched during the flight from right tank to left tank to keep the plane balanced. He had planned a stop in Savannah, due to their gas prices. As we dipped beneath the clouds, I enjoyed the green trees, rivers and farmland views. Our destination was a small county airport, Savannah-Hardin County Airport.

It was humid out and there was evidence that a storm had just passed through. Surprisingly, we were greeted by the Airport Manager, who pumped the gas and regaled us with tales of Savannah, Georgia shipments that were mis-routed to her airport. The airport manager was so warm and friendly that we spent a bit more time there than we had planned.

The small terminal was decorated like a homey living room. It was ultra-clean and convenient. I rather liked it there. But, it was time to take off on the last leg of our journey.

Storms and Home

We took off into the clouds and from Savannah to Jacksonville, it was hard work for Geoff. By monitoring the GPS, looking at the Strike-Finder, and talking to Air Traffic Control, Geoff managed to dodge the "thunder bumpers" and get us through safely.

As we flew by immense clouds, I was alternately frightened and entranced. They were beautiful and they were unpredictable. If we saw a hole where we could pass through in the distance, it would be filled with billowy thunderclouds as soon as we got there. It was hours of dodging storms and constant work for Geoff. The plane was fairly stable and any bumps we felt were not all that bad. A good family plane, I thought.

Soon Geoff was talking to the tower at his home airport, Craig Municipal. He was very excited to be going home to his family.

We passed over the area where Geoff works as a pilot for the Navy. I saw a tugboat and thought it might be one of his but no, it was a commercial tug. By now we were under the clouds and I saw familiar territory. I was getting excited about seeing my family.

The plane, I believe, was also happy about being in her new home. She eagerly landed on a wet runway and taxied right over to her new house, a small hangar.

It was nice to be on land again after all the storm activity. But would she fit in the hangar. Geoff said yes, but I was unsure. We pushed the plane back into the hangar and she fit! Maybe with only inches to spare, but she did fit in the hangar.

Kristi Abby, and baby Mary arrived.... all excited to see their new plane and Daddy. Abby jumped in the cushy back seats and sat like a princess in her carriage. She then eagerly jumped into the right seat (she usually rides next to Dad) and tried out the controls. I have a suspicion that she will be a young pilot!

It's Over

The cross-country flight was over. We were all safely home in Jacksonville, Florida. That evening we went out to dinner and we all felt like eating. There would be no more flying for awhile. We would just be reminiscing about the adventure we had just experienced.

I will remember this trip for the rest of my life. It was an opportunity to spend time with my son and to learn more about him and his love of aviation. The trip also was an experience based on trust. I would have never taken this flight with anyone else except my son.

Further Reading:
The Pilot's Version of the Trip (and More Photos)
Geoff's Blog - Family Flying
Photo Album on Facebook