Two Airline Pilots and a Skywagon

With the ability to carry four adults and ski gear, the 180 was right for the mission. Courtesy Les Abend

When the text blipped across my iPhone screen, I couldn’t help but grin. My friend—and JetBlue captain—Mike Strauss and his wife, Christa, were inviting my wife and I to his newly purchased home in Colorado. One of the attractive aspects of the invitation was that the trip out west would be flown in his Cessna 180 Skywagon, an adventure in itself.

The fact that our coronavirus exposure would not include airport-terminal crowds was an added bonus. We had been resigned to forgoing our annual ski trip because of the pandemic. But what about the dangers of two airline pilots—one current and one retired—flying more than halfway across the country in a single-engine airplane? Was it a recipe for disaster or a lesson in sound aeronautical decision-making? I’ll let you be the judge.

The first decisive challenge was the departure day. With a high-pressure system dominating a major portion of the country, and the possibility of instability sneaking into our Central Florida launch point, it seemed a Thursday departure would be the best option. But that option didn’t come without the consequence of encountering a 30-knot headwind. Mike had already divided the trip into a two-leg, two-day odyssey—mostly because of bladder-endurance capability, notwithstanding our wives’ tolerance of being crammed into not-exactly-business-class seating in the back of the airplane.

Though Mike indicated that the Skywagon had an “if it fits, it ships” capability, Carol and I did our best to minimize baggage weight, promising tongue-in-cheek not to pack five days of my usual ski apparel. I weighed our bags and reported the poundage. When I arrived at the airport a day prior for pre-loading, Mike’s eyes widened as he watched me drag a potpourri of bags from my truck. He chuckled and simply said, “Sure, we can make that work.”

Actually using an old-fashioned weight-and-balance graph, Mike reported that we were still under max gross by 119 pounds and within CG limits, even with four of us and full fuel. That said, we both agreed that runway takeoff and landing distances would be considerations, especially as we progressed toward higher-altitude airports. Unfortunately, Mike and Christa’s pooch would have to spend time with a babysitter at home, more because of the limited space than the weight. Bummer.

The 0730 departure time presented us with fog throughout most of Central and northern Florida, despite the VFR conditions at the airport. Our mutual decision was to delay until conditions improved, allowing us to safely divert elsewhere if we encountered a problem.

With a wipe of the condensation from the windscreen, the before-takeoff checklist complete, an IFR release given, and a takeoff roll that required slightly more forward pressure to lift the tailwheel off the ground, we departed Ormond Beach on an unusually cold January morning an hour later than planned. First stop would be Meridian, Mississippi—where Mike could satisfy his hot-dog and popcorn obsessions.

As forecast, the winds aloft forced us to remain lower in altitude, with 6,000 feet msl the best choice to avoid decreasing groundspeeds. Meanwhile, I took the opportunity to acquaint myself with the Garmin GTN 750, which, compared with my Arrow’s Garmin GNS 430, was a major step into the 21st century and far more intuitive than the flight-management system installed on the Boeing 777 of my previous life. Once Mike had confidence that I wouldn’t delete the entire database with a misdirected finger on the touchscreen, I was allowed the opportunity to change frequencies and talk on the radio.

Read More from Les Abend: Jumpseat

With a successful pit stop at Meridian Regional Airport complete, bladders emptied and hot dogs consumed, we began the second leg to our final stop of the day at Decatur, Texas, about 45 miles northwest of Dallas. Despite the relentless headwinds and the resulting longer flight time, we also treated our wives to the typical Cessna heating system, which allowed Mike and I to wear T-shirts and the women the opportunity to don hooded ski parkas and a DC-powered electric blanket. We reveled in the miracle of our fuel savings operating lean of peak—even with a carbureted O-470 engine because a Power Flow exhaust had just been installed—but that did not offer much solace to our passengers.

After a quick dinner, and a quicker night’s rest, in the quaint town square of Decatur, we resumed our journey westward with a new routing strategy. Because of the even-higher winds-aloft speeds and the possibility of a bumpy road over La Veta Pass in Colorado’s part of the Rockies, the decision to proceed via the southern route, up the valley just west of the ridge from Albuquerque, New Mexico, became the new plan. The new plan added another leg to the day, but the view was well worth the price, especially after experiencing 51-knot headwinds.

With my Alien space-heater tubes inserted like octopus tentacles into the front of the cowling, we tucked the faithful Skywagon into the hangar at our destination airport of Monte Vista, Colorado, and began a week of fun that included powder skiing.

Our escape from Colorado to Florida involved new challenges. The early morning departure presented us with severely reduced visibility in the form of freezing fog, a weather phenomenon I haven’t experienced since my trips to London. Not only is visibility an issue, but the possibility that the saturated air could freeze onto the airframe or prop is not especially inviting. Additionally, the decision was made earlier to exit the Rockies via the valley southbound because La Veta Pass had an inadequate ceiling for a VFR flight. So, we waited out the delay by treating ourselves to a second breakfast at a local restaurant.

When the fog disappeared almost like a magic trick, we departed posthaste, knowing our dream of making the trip a one-day affair had probably vanished. Though the weather in the valley claimed VFR conditions, an intermittent wall of snow flurries between our position and Santa Fe, New Mexico, had other ideas. The airline-pilot hairs on the back of our necks stood up. We diverted to Taos Regional Airport, only 6 miles away.

Waiting out the weather on terra firma, we evaluated the situation, realizing that an overnight in Taos wouldn’t be to our advantage considering the iffy forecast for the morning. Instead, we opted to take advantage of the blue sky to the north and return 30 minutes back to Monte Vista and free lodging. That decision gave La Veta Pass an opportunity to improve its weather. Blue sky was appearing on the other side of the ridge…but was the ceiling high enough? A peek and then a few bumps later, we had our answer. The Rockies passed behind us. Next stop, Oklahoma City.

More weather challenges in the form of lowering ceilings presented themselves. Fuel stops, lodging and night IFR all became part of the equation. Aeronautical decision-making with two airline pilots? Considering we arrived the next day in Florida a little weary—but without incident—I’d call us safe and successful. Despite my 25,000 hours of professional flight experience, I learned a lot more than anticipated aboard a Cessna Skywagon.

This story appeared in the April/May 2021 issue of Flying Magazine

Les Abend
Les AbendAuthor
Les Abend is a retired, 34-year veteran of American Airlines, attempting to readjust his passion for flying airplanes in the lower flight levels—without the assistance of a copilot.

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