As time goes on, most memories of the past take on a glow that wasn’t experienced in real time. A flight full of frustrations becomes a triumph of perseverance and skill when viewed in hindsight. I’m beginning to think that my early flight training is so sepia-colored by now that I have a hard time remembering the many moments of near catastrophe. Because my initial flight training took place long ago and far away, I don’t get to see, smell and hear the environment from which a lifetime of fun, fear and satisfaction was launched.
Who really cares that a 21-year-old boy from New York found himself in California for a summer job? So what if he drove to the Oakland International Airport (KOAK) every day after work to learn to fly?
It wasn’t until 46 years went by that I saw Oakland’s Runway 28R again. After all the dents I put on its surface, I left without apology and didn’t come back for a very long time. I flew constantly while living in New York; St. Louis; Fort Knox, Kentucky; Chicago and Tampa, Florida, but I never got back to the West Coast under my own power. Then, in 2013, I got a job flying for JetSuite, a Part 135 charter company, flying Cessna Citation CJ3s. I remember flying into KOAK one afternoon while I was still undergoing initial operating experience.
All I could think was: “I’m back.”
On an overnight, I sought to find the flight school where I had started out. I wanted to see where the hook got set—but no luck. I could find the buildings but not the school, not the office, certainly not the Cessna 150s (not the “newer” 152s). Over time, I got to know the Hilton hotel near the runway, but I never could quite find the beginning.
My trips to Oakland were for the purpose of transporting clients—rich ones—to their destinations, not mine. The timing of these flights was to fit their schedule. I once flew a Citation CJ3 from Oakland to Charlottesville, Virginia, almost coast to coast and a straight-line distance of 2,058 nautical miles. For comparison (back then): My first solo cross-country in a Cessna 150 was KOAK to Salinas (KSNS), California, a distance of 70 nautical miles and 1.2 hours.
For years, I glamorized coast-to-coast flying. Imagine setting the power in a Boeing 787 at New York’s KJFK with the intent and reasonable expectation of landing in KOAK less than six hours later. Better yet, imagine doing the same in your own Gulfstream or Embraer Praetor.
Recently, I came close. After years of dreaming about flying coast to coast in my own airplane, it all came together. It was a flight from my flying origins at Oakland to my home in Tampa. I acknowledge that this description of a lifelong goal might sound tone deaf—I know not many of us will ever get to do this—but I wanted to let you know how it felt.
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As we pulled up to our Citation CJ1 parked at KaiserAir, the moon was exiting stage west while the sun was rising stage east. I wondered, “How many landings, how many approaches, how many low approaches have I made in the ensuing 50-plus years and 6,000-plus hours? “
From the controller: “Taxi to Runway 30 via Charlie, Bravo, hold short of 28 Right.” Then: “Cross 28 Right and Left and taxi via Bravo, hold short of Bravo 1, and contact ground on 121.75.” Then: “Taxi Runway 30 via Bravo, Whiskey.”
At 8:03 a.m. PST, we were airborne on the Oakland Five departure, cleared to Flight Level 190. With an anticipated tailwind of 39 knots ‘at flight level 390,’ we expected to land at Lubbock (KLBB), Texas, in just under three hours. Fltplan.com estimated that we would land with 900 pounds of jet-A; ForeFlight predicted 931.
There’s a whole lot of not much to see once you’re established at altitude heading eastbound, and what there is to see was all brown. But this was a fantasy trip. Like a Little Leaguer coming to bat in the bottom of the ninth, two on, two out and trailing by two, setting out to cross the country in my own airplane was the ultimate.
Adding to the sweetness was the company of my good friends Rob and Kathy Haynes. With Rob up front and Kathy and my wife (also Cathy) sitting in back, a sense of serenity folded over me like the comfort of sleeping next to your old and trusted dog while he chases rabbits in his dreams.
Rob is rocking No. 2 on Southwest Airlines’ seniority list, comes from West Texas, and knows a thing or two about flying. It is always like having my own personal instructor with me when we fly together. We landed on time with 1,060 pounds of fuel remaining (more than predicted) and refueled at Lubbock Aero. One of the great privileges that comes with flying such distances is to bear witness to the many different places and cultures in our own country.
We were off 39 minutes later, climbing to Flight Level 390, hoping for the predicted 63-knot tailwind. The weather was our friend, and there was little turbulence. Soon, we asked for direct HEVVN, on the FOOXX Five arrival into Tampa. On reflection, that fix captured the feeling. I was tracking direct to “heaven.”
Six hours and 30 minutes after leaving Oakland, California, we were taking photos outside the airplane on a spectacular fall day in Florida. Home. Coast to coast. Nationwide. Bottom of the ninth.
This story appeared in the March 2021 issue of Flying Magazine