Weathered out most of the day. Clouds and rain. How long does it take for 150 people to each tell all the lies they know to everybody else that will listen? At 4:00 in the afternoon the nice people from the airport fire station next door come over to tell us that a tornado is on the ground about 30 miles away. A mad scramble ensues as we pack all the airplanes into the massive WWII era hangars and close the big doors. Then it REALLY rains. By 5:30 the sun is out and we are flying again. Never a dull moment.
Well, today is going to be the day. It's finally going to be my turn in the barrel, I mean box. The Unlimited pilots started flying first thing this morning, but then some low clouds blew in and shut us down until after noon. By the time they finished up and a new team of judges were in place for Sportsman, it is late afternoon. I am to fly third out of the 18 power contestants and 8 glider pilots. This is a pretty good spot. The first pilot in any category is known as the ‘wind dummy'. When trying to fly within an area only 3300 feet square, the wind can make a big difference. The wind today is very strong and it can be a big advantage to be able to watch the other pilots and see how they are affected and how they deal with it. My first problem turns out to be the remaining clouds. The first figure of my sequence is a vertical line. This starts by entering the box at full speed and pulling up in a 1/4 loop. I then try to draw a line as close to straight up as possible, and then push over through 1/4 of an outside loop back to horizontal flight. When I climb up to enter the box, I find that the clouds appear to be between 4000 and 4500 feet above the ground. Knowing this, I adjust my entry altitude from my normal 3500 down to 3000. When I pull up I'm looking at the cloud bases and expecting to level off just below them, but Murphy's Law prevails and there is a thin lower cloud inside the box. I get the vertical line set, and poof, I'm inside the cloud. I am very careful not to move anything and after a very long second, poof again and I'm out the top and still on a good vertical. The bad news is that the judges can't see me so they can't give a score to the figure. The Chief Judge calls on the radio and asks me to fly that figure over again. This time I start at 2500 and get the whole thing in below the cloud. Half way through the sequence I have to take a break and climb back up so that the last figures don't violate the floor of the box at 1500 feet. The wind also blows me out the north end of the box twice and I overcompensate and go out the south end once. The scores on my figures are better than I had expected, but the penalties for going outside the box cost me at least one position in the standings. At the end of the day I'm in 7th place, better than I had hoped and a very happy camper.
Good weather and a very full day of flying. The big problem is wind. It is reported to be blowing at 50 mph at only 2000 feet. This is right in the middle of the box. All day it is fun to watch how some pilots deal very skillfully with the wind and others find the box has been blown out from under them. I am asked to assist Marylinn Holland, one of the National Judges for the Unlimited Unknown category. This is where the pilots are given a sequence to fly that they have not been able to practice beforehand. It is a real challenge and being on the judge's line gives me a front row seat. The bad news is that this takes four hours in the middle of the day and the sun and wind leave me toasted. At this point I hear that it has been decided that there is enough time for Sportsman to fly again before dark. After a quick check, I find I'm to fly 13th. With the time to change judges, this gives me about an hour and a half. My ‘teammate' Hilton drives me back to the hotel. We pick up a couple of milkshakes along the way. I drink my shake, take a shower and quick catnap and head back to the airport feeling much better. This time I manage to fly the whole sequence uninterrupted, below the clouds, and with only two forays outside the box. I move up one spot to 6th and get to go home with a grin that is going to last a long time!
Hilton has been talking about what route to take home for the last week and a half. The low clouds are back but the visibility underneath is good. The wind is still with us and now it's our friend as it's going the same direction that we are. We check out of the hotel and go through the McDonald's drive-thru in the dark. The FBO has promised to open the hangar for us to get our planes out at 6:30. By 8:00 we are in the air headed Northeast with a tailwind that gives us groundspeeds of almost 200 mph! My Pitts goes about 150 mph and can cruise for an hour and a half with reserves. This means that I normally plan on fuel stops every 200 miles. With this wind we can go 300 miles in the same time, so we keep talking to each other on the radio and updating our fuel stops as we go. The first leg turns out to be the worst weather. As Hilton points out, we get to fly all of the points on the compass this leg in order to get around all the clouds. After about an hour we are in the clear at 7500 feet and above the broken layer of low clouds. The air is smooth and clear, the sun is bright, and with the wind behind us we are making much better progress than expected. We drop down to a little county airport in Arkansas, gas up and are on our way again, angling across northern Arkansas and southern Missouri. About 50 miles southwest of Cape Girardeau the air gets a little bumpy for a few miles, then turns suddenly much cooler. This is an intimate first-hand look at the cold front that shows up as the jagged blue line on the television. We can see the last of the big thunderstorms that this front has spawned, dissipating off to the east of us near Evansville, IN. The airport at Cape Girardeau has a control tower, so in the interest of expediency, and because it's fun, we go in as ‘a flight of two'. We both have our radios tuned to the tower frequency, but I do all the talking and Hilton flies just off to my right and a little behind. This way we get to land and taxi in together saving us time and the tower having to talk to two airplanes that are going to the same place at the same time. When we shut down on the ramp, Hilton opens his canopy and hollers "Where the %$&@# are we?" It seems that with this tailwind and higher than usual groundspeed, we've flown off the edge of his chart. Cape Girardeau is the town in Missouri where the Ohio River flows into the Mississippi and Indiana, Kentucky, and Missouri come together. We each wolf down a banana and a granola bar that I had scooped off the breakfast bar back at the hotel. This is only our second stop and we have crossed a lot of the country. We are both starting to think seriously about making it all the way home today and, having been on the road for two weeks, are like a couple of old fire horses headed for the barn. Our fuel stops start to look like NASCAR pit stops with urgent coordination between pumping fuel, paying the bills, and visiting the mens' rooms. Neither of our planes are equipped for night flying and it becomes clear that the limiting factor is going to be running out of daylight. A quick stop in Richmond, IN, just west across the state line from Dayton, OH, and then all the way across the state of Ohio in a single bound. ( note to Nate Clinton: We looked down on the Wooster campus as we went by. ) By 6:00 we are landing in Franklin, PA, north of Pittsburgh. Two couples who were having dinner in the airport restaurant come down to look at the airplanes and ask about our trip. Hope is running out for Hilton. His home is in Saratoga, NY, about an hour's flight further northeast from Ithaca. There just isn't going to be quite enough fuel or daylight for him to make it all the way there from here. Oh, well! At least in Ithaca, I can offer him a place to stay and a hangar for his plane. We cross the state line into New York near Wellsville. At our cruising altitude of 7500 feet, the air is now downright cold! This sure isn't Texas anymore. We arrive in Ithaca with a comfortable margin of fuel and daylight and again land as ‘a flight of two'. We hangar both planes, and Connie shows up to pick up two stiff, tired, and very happy pilots. Over 1200 miles in one day in a couple of little areal hockey pucks. Amazing! It has been a terrific trip. Two weeks of total immersion in airplanes, flying, and some of the most wonderful people imaginable. A truly excellent adventure!
Regards to all,
"Ailerons make the world go 'round!"
"Young man, success comes in can, failure comes in can't."
Adm Grace Hopper