The Flight of the Ferries
It was an easy task. After a little hangar flying we had to find a good weekend. Fly to Hernando, Mississippi. Pick up an airplane. Fly back. It was in the 70's the week we decided to go to Hernando on the 12th of April. Spring was here and the thought of picking up an open cockpit Revolution II was just too thrilling. Made arrangements with a friend, we'll just call him “John” to protect the innocent, to fly the Citabria out there and back with me. We watched the weather daily to see what we should be prepared for. As the days went by the winds actually looked like they would be better during our trip than they had been in the last weeks. Unfortunately, the temperature was predicted to be colder everyday.
So, with enough clothes, we prepared for the trip. We left Waco, Texas on a beautiful Saturday morning. Little wind to contend with, temperature in the 50's and the smoothest flying you could ask for. As we approached Winnsboro, Texas, our first stop, we noticed the wind had picked up and was just about 70 degrees to the only runway. “John” was in the front seat flying and made a decent crosswind landing. We were met by Karl who heard us on the radio. Karl has to help with the self serve gas since their pumps don't go beyond $3.99. Karl also informed us that the radio wasn't broadcasting too well and after we explained that it was checked out by “professionals,” he also explained that he was a radio engineer of some sorts and he notices those things. We accepted the free high dollar advice and made a note to have the radio checked again with Karl's comments as to what may be the problem. We told Karl we would be back after lunch the next day and would see him then. “John” made a good crosswind take off and we headed for Malvern, Arkansas.
When airports are laid out in Arkansas wind direction is an important factor. All runways appear to be somewhere from 60 to 90 degrees to the wind. I'm not sure if anyone attended class on runway placement day. Anyway, those calm winds had turned into extreme turbulence at about 30 mph near 90 degrees to the runway. On the approach to Malvern the Citabria was sinking like a rock. Added power did little to help but did finally get us over the trees to the runway. “John” must have had more coffee that morning than usual as noted by the airplane jumping up and down and side to side as we tried to fly down the runway to land. We decided to find another runway. Saline was a few miles to the north so we headed that way, it had to be better than Malvern.
On the way “John” noted that he may not be feeling too well so I took the plane while he checked on the breakfast he had earlier in the day. A comment on intercoms. I have always liked a good voice activated intercom. They're easy to operate and much more natural than the old push to talk. Unfortunately again, from the back seat there is no control for the intercom. It works great though, every heave, every gag, and what ever else, comes through loud and clear. Even with the mike politely moved out of the way the phenomenal electronics catch even the most discrete sound. We have push to talk in the Stearman. So back to flying...we needed to be on the ground. Hot, bumpy flying wasn't setting well with the pilot or no, he's now the passenger. As we approached Saline, huge yellow X's could be seen down the runway, great. As we looked for another appropriate site, we saw another airport to the east a few miles away. We're going to land there regardless of what it is or who owns it. I fly across the runway to see where the wind is coming from, waste of time, its coming from about 80 degrees to the runway at about 35 miles an hour. Unknown to me what any of the instruments were reading or the radio was set on since the now passenger was blanketing the panel with his body and bag, we landed and survived. Saline is a beautiful airport about the size of McGregor, Texas but all brand new. Alcoa donated 1200 acres and the FAA matched it, all this in a town the size of Valley Mills, Texas your tax dollars at work. At least it was for an airport. Two gentlemen saw us land as we pulled up. He noted we could have landed on the taxiway, plenty long and parallel to the rigid wind sock bending the mast that held it. So after a bit of lunch and let's just say, an unorthodox take off, we headed to Hernando.
Tired of the events of the day, we were ready to get this last leg over with. We shoved the throttle forward and got the Citabria up to speed. We had put the wheel pants back on before we left to gain whatever advantage we could. Man that was a good move. The GPS showed 159 miles per hour. Try that in any other airplane. 159 miles per hour at 5 gallons per hour.
We flew looking for the Mississippi River, knowing that would be the marker to let us know we were near Memphis. The Mississippi River now covers most of Tennessee. Only seeing the barges could we tell where the river was supposed to be. Just south of Memphis, we found Hernando, a nice grass airport with one end in the river/swamp whatever. Planes that land long can conveniently dispose of themselves. We landed in winds 9 miles per hour gusting to 21 after a significant slip to the runway. We were greeted by Tom Mathis, the Revolution's builder.
Tom is a great airplane builder. This was his last plane. After flying the FAA time off, with 50 hours on the plane, he had a heart attack and no longer has a medical. He loves to build and is going to build an Air Bike as his next project. Tom gave us the low down on the plane and we exchanged the usual flying tales. We agreed to meet back the next morning at 8am and go from there.
When we arrived at the airport the next morning it was 43 degrees and Tom had just taxied the plane to the gas pump and filled it up. I asked if he wanted to fly with me for my sake or his. He said it was way too cold for him to fly and I wouldn't have any problems flying the plane. We got in the planes, cranked up the radios and nothing. No matter what we did the new plane would not receive a transmission. It would transmit but not receive. So “John” would go first, he had the radio and GPS and I would follow, no problem.
“John” took off first. I followed behind, bundled in three shirts, a sweater, a leather jacket, an insulated flying suit, gloves, a painter's sock over my head and face, leather gloves, a flying helmet and goggles. I decided that I had to do a pass for Tom to see his beautiful airplane one more time. I noted that “John” must have understood that because he turned to circle the airport. My pass was made and off to our first stop.
After a few minutes in the air my flyin' buddy was no where to be found. With no radio I couldn't talk with him and I just assumed he was directly behind me and I couldn't see him. 10 more minutes and he was still no where to be found. Maybe he had engine trouble and went back and landed, who knows. I broadcast that I was landing at Tunica, the airport in front of me and hopefully “John” would hear me. Got out of the plane and the Citabria was in the pattern.
We decided that since I had the slower plane, pretty sure I couldn't get 159 mph out of it, I would go first and follow the GPS in the Revolution. We took off, “John” in tow and headed for Pine Bluff. I looked down at the GPS and had no tracking, great. There was some error with the GPS. I later realized it was Operator Error. So now, “John” is following me, I don't know where I'm going and I have no radio to tell him. Its an open cockpit so I'll just use some hand signals and let him know he needs to lead. My arm grew tired in the 80 mph wind after 15 minutes of “communicating.” I decided I would do some S turns to make my intentions clear. I then decided I would slow down to some incredibly slow speed and he would have to pass me. 20 more minutes later, the Citabria moved out in front.
We had selected new airports to land at so we would have more favorable runway to wind conditions. I forgot to remember we were in Arkansas. Pine Bluff had about 25 mile per hour winds at about 75 degrees to the runway. We landed, taxied past a painting on the side of a hanger of a PT-19 and had the plane refueled. I assume it is also a requirement to run gas all over the front cockpit in Arkansas, seemed to be the norm. This time I took the hand held GPS since I knew it worked and we would use the same plan. We took off headed to Hope, Arkansas. Two minutes into the flight the batteries went dead in the hand held. So here we were again. I made a few useless motions and then flew the compass heading knowing that eventually we would get close enough for the waypoint to appear in the GPS. After playing with the panel mount GPS long enough, I finally got it to work and we made it to Hope, Arkansas.
Hope was selected because it has multiple runways, one is bound to be the right direction to the wind. As we approached the field we noticed trailers parked on the west side of the runway. Hope is the trailer capital of the world. As far as the eye can see there are trailers, FEMA trailers. And of course, two of the three runways are closed because of that. And of course the one that is left is about 80 degrees to the wind. We landed, ate a bite, checked the weather. Winds about 80 degrees to the runway at 31 mph with gusts of more than I was interested in. The runway at Hope is an old military runway and is nearly as wide as it is long. Take off diagonally across the runway afforded us a slightly better position and we were off to Winnsboro,... Texas, thank heavens.
Winnsboro was only 108 miles away. So at the ground speed of 62 mile per hour we might make it today. We got to Winnsboro and no Karl. He has his phone number posted but my cohort informed me that the phone in the office didn't work, he didn't have any change for the pay phone and wasn't sure how we were going to contact Karl. I reminded him it was the year 2008 and we have these new fangled things called cell phones and we should use one of those. He pulled his out of his pocket and called Karl to have him help us with some gas. We filled up, cranked up and made another marvelous crosswind take off. You do enough of these and you can actually learn to do them pretty well. It was already after 4 pm so we were ready to get home.
Luckily, the last leg gave us more favorable winds. At 95 mile per hour we made good time and landed around 7pm and in Texas the runways point toward the wind, amazing! I crawled out of the open cockpit, not as exhausted as I could have been, reflected on the incredible journey and finally came out of 15 layers of clothes. We put the Revolution in its new home and called it a day. My motto is “Life is an adventure or its nothing at all” and we can truly say that we got all of the adventure life had to offer this time around.
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