Lack of Planning Spoils an Epic Journey

How to get an airplane home, checking tasks off your list along the way? There was a plan, but reality intervened.

Immediately after purchasing your airplane, you’ll be presented with several new logistical challenges: 

  • Purchase insurance. 
  • Get the airplane home from the seller. 
  • Obtain some flight instruction. 
  • Familiarize yourself with the airplane. 
  • Log some flight time for insurance requirements. 

That sort of thing.

And then, faced with the complexity of those tasks and the reality of your full-time work schedule, you’ll contemplate quitting your job altogether and living out of your airplane like a Grateful Dead fan would with their Volkswagen van. You’ll reason that you can, after all, live in your airplane—but you cannot fly your house.

Someone has to pay the bills, though, and in my case as a first-time owner, it was more important than ever to work as much overtime as possible. Quitting my job would simply not be an option, and my work schedule would unfortunately remain a necessary obstacle with which to contend as I managed all the moving pieces of my airplane purchase.

A Possible Solution 

The post-purchase logistics were particularly challenging for me, as I lacked the currency and proficiency necessary to fly it safely.

The post-purchase logistics were particularly challenging for me, as I lacked the currency and proficiency necessary to fly it safely. Yes, I had my certificate and my instrument rating, but it had been many years since I’d flown regularly. Sure, I’d recently taken a handful of lessons in a nearby Cessna 140 and earned my tailwheel endorsement, but I was still quite new to tailwheels. So the idea of just up and flying a new-to-me, unfamiliar Cessna 170 from Seattle to Wisconsin by myself was ludicrous. There was no getting around it—I’d need to hire someone to ferry my new machine home for me. 

As I considered each item on my lengthy to-do list, it eventually dawned on me that with the right instructor, I might be able to knock out most of the logistical items in one shot. 

I reached out to a few CFIs I knew and explained my situation. I was in Wisconsin. The airplane was in Seattle. I had three-day weekends to work with. I needed a checkout in the airplane and some refresher training to get back into the swing of things, and it would be fantastic if we could accomplish all of these things during the flight home. We could explore and camp out in cool areas along the way. It would be an epic adventure.

A long trip home spanning multiple states is a prime opportunity to explore unique, out-of-the-way airfields. [Credit: Jason McDowell]

One of the CFIs was totally on board with the idea and leapt at the opportunity. We began zeroing in on a set of dates that would work for both of us. We discussed airline tickets and hotel reservations. We created a tentative list of supplies and gear we’d want to have for the trip. Before long, we had an initial plan in place. But later, as I was telling a corporate pilot friend about the upcoming adventure, he identified a serious flaw I hadn’t considered.

Enough Time?

Because I was constrained by my three-day weekends, he explained, the entire journey would be compressed into a very tight time frame. After accounting for the time required to take an airline flight to Seattle and then get to the airplane itself, we’d have no more than two and a half days to make the trip to Wisconsin. 

The resulting distance per day that we’d have to fly would be challenging all by itself. But if additional challenges in the form of weather, diversions, or mechanical problems were to crop up, our timeline would become extremely strained. The resulting situation would be a textbook scenario for a bad case of “get-home-itis”—the phenomenon in which sound aeronautical decision-making deteriorates in an attempt to make it to the destination by a certain deadline.

My friend had a very valid point. I was indeed attempting to squeeze a 1,600-nm trip into about two and a half days. If we were planning to fly a Bonanza or a Baron across the country, the additional speed and altitude capability might make it more realistic. But with only 145 horsepower on tap and a cruise speed of around 110 mph, everything would have to go perfectly to get the airplane home on time.

Back to Square One

In the interest of eliminating the very first link in a potentially bad chain of events, I opted to take my friend’s advice—I scrapped the entire plan and went back to the drawing board. Ultimately, I ended up having a couple of friends with significantly more experience and significantly more time bring the airplane to me; a story in and of itself.

The airplane was delivered safely, and for that, I was immensely thankful. But at the same time, I was regretful that I was unable to make the cross-country ferry flight training extravaganza work.

Looking at the map, we would have passed through some epic parts of the country. I would have been able to learn some mountain flying fundamentals as we passed through the Rockies. I’d also have had an introduction to high-altitude operations. As a Michigan/Wisconsin pilot, these would have been entirely new worlds, the likes of which I’ve never experienced as pilot in command.

Farther along the route, we could have explored unique airfields ranging from rugged strips in Montana to lush grass strips in Minnesota. We could have chosen any number of wide, smooth runways for crosswind work to build tailwheel proficiency along the way. 

A slight southward diversion would have taken us over the sweeping prairies of South Dakota and through the filming locations of one of my longtime favorite films, “Dances With Wolves.” Coincidentally, we would have overflown the location of another Kevin Costner film a few hours later, in the form of a certain rural baseball diamond in Iowa.

Watching lush farm fields unfold makes any cross country flight more enjoyable. [Credit: Jason McDowell]

I was happy and thankful to have had my airplane delivered safely to me in Wisconsin. But if I had it to do over again, I’d do things differently. I’d arrange for a flexible stretch of time off from work—a stretch longer than just three days. I’d connect with a CFI well ahead of time as I shopped for airplanes so we could jump on an opportunity on short notice. There would be no way to know ahead of time where I’d eventually locate an airplane, but I could consider and establish some training goals to accomplish on the flight home. 

Ultimately, more thorough advance planning would have enabled a particularly unique, educational, and memorable mini-vacation. With the right instructor, the trip to bring your airplane home can serve as an airplane check-out and familiarization, a flight review, a long cross-country, and an epic adventure all in one. I can’t think of a better introduction to your new airplane than that.

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