I didn't think it was such a crazy idea.
My boyfriend's 17-year-old son, Connor, had been expressing an interest in flying for the past couple of years. I'd promised him I'd take him up one day so he could get a better idea of what it was like, but Connor and his dad lived in New England, and I lived in California, so logistics had been a problem. I'd even gone so far as to check out the rental planes at an airport near where they lived, but I'd been so appalled at the condition of the scant available aircraft there that I'd told Connor we'd figure out a way to get him to California to fly in my plane instead. But between his school and my own travel schedule, the timing never seemed to work.
Finally, feeling a bit guilty about unfulfilled promises, I suggested to Ed (Connor's dad) that maybe I could take Connor somewhere in the Cheetah during his summer vacation this year — somewhere cool, so he could have a bit of an adventure in the bargain. We floated a couple of ideas before The Big Idea came to me. Why not bring Connor to California on a one-way ticket and fly back via Cheetah? Fly across the continent. It was a goal that made sense, was easy to explain in a single sentence and was big enough to hold appeal for a 17-year-old.
Yet, while flying across the continent was unquestionably a big undertaking in a plane as slow, underpowered and basically equipped as the Cheetah (without an autopilot and in VFR conditions only), I didn't think it was a crazy idea. After all, I'd done four similar trips in the Cheetah before. I just hadn't done one recently, because there hadn't been a reason. Connor provided a reason. We just had to allow six to 12 days and take it one leg at a time. (I set the six-day minimum after discovering, on my previous crossings, that I started to make stupid mistakes if I tried to fly more than two legs, or six hours, a day, since I have to hand-fly every minute. At an average flight-plan speed of 105 knots, that means 3,000 miles equates to at least five days of flying. Since something inevitably goes awry on a trip that long, I count on at least one day of delays.)
It wasn't until Connor and I were doing our last preflight planning in the Livermore airport terminal, the morning of our departure, that we got our first inkling that others might have another take on our little adventure. As I traced our first two legs for Connor on sectional charts, one of several pilots hanging out in the terminal called over to us.
"I saw you guys loading up out there," he said, "and I just have to ask: Where are you headed?"
"Well, Oregon today," I answered, "but eventually Boston."
"Boston!" he exclaimed, as he and his colleagues dropped their collective jaws. A jabbering of responses followed.
"Wow, wish I could do something like that!"
"In that plane?"
This, mind you, was from a bunch of pilots - people who, in theory, have more freedom to travel far and wide than their wingless brethren on the highways below. It was a reaction we would encounter at many of our stops across the country.
"Boston? In that thing? Whew!"
It wasn't like we were attempting the trip in something truly insane, like an ultralight trike, or even a light and fragile Piper Cub. A Cheetah may be a bit underpowered, but it is designed to go places. Yet, one of the truths that emerged for the two of us as we made our way across the country was that Americans, as a whole, remain remarkably close to home. The United States may be a huge country, just like Manhattan is a huge city, but even in massive territories or populations, it seems that people tend to live and circulate in smaller and more manageable-size neighborhoods. Including pilots.
It makes sense, of course — for many reasons. The same reasons that accounted for the nine-year lapse in between my own transcontinental adventures. I just hadn't really considered before that pilots, too, are primarily local and regional travelers. It gave me a new perspective on the makeup of the national pilot community and the usage of the national airspace system.
We may talk about the country, or even the community of pilots, as one big melting-pot family. But I think we're more like a collection of local bubbles bumping up against each other … or individual villages that are officially part of a bigger and more expansive tribe but that rarely interact with each other beyond the village level. Even in today's supposedly "global" world.
Connor and I weren't so much traveling across one big country as we were taking an aerial tour of some of the many different villages within its common borders. We just didn't realize that at the start.