I made my first trip to Oshkosh in 2007 to unveil the Redbird FMX simulator prototype at AirVenture. That was the start of what would become an annual tradition for me, a pilgrimage north from Austin, Texas, along with 500,000 fellow general aviation disciples, to take part in the “World’s Greatest Aviation Celebration.”
Last year, I traveled on the airlines. The journey became a 33-hour ordeal that would have made Odysseus feel bad for me. I won’t recount the entire saga here, but suffice to say it was a two-day ordeal that calls into question the wisdom of handing our nation’s air traffic control system over to the major air carriers. At the time, I made a very public resolution: “Next year, I’m flying GA.”
My initial plan wasn’t very ambitious: Find a plane and a flying buddy, and point the nose north. It became quite a bit more complicated once I discussed the idea with John McKenna, chairman of the Recreational Aviation Foundation (RAF). A few beers and many laughs later, a straightforward cross-country flight turned into a two-day aerial hitchhiking adventure. The plan now was not to shorten the time en route but rather to find a much more enjoyable way to spend 33 hours of my life. By the end of the night, we had concocted a plan that was either ingenious or asinine.
Over the next few weeks, with the help of the RAF, the Commemorative Air Force and some close friends, plans firmed up. Spreadsheets were made and flight plans considered. Alternates were chosen and bags were packed. The closer we got to departure day, the more excited, and anxious, I became. Was this trip going to work out? Had we built in so much complexity that we all but guaranteed I would be “phoning a friend” from somewhere in the middle of Iowa? What if we got socked in by weather or had a mechanical issue? Would I make it to Oshkosh in time for AirVenture? Storms, mechanical issues and human factors are all a part of general aviation, but so too is adventure, and that’s what this was, an adventure. So with a smile on my face, butterflies in my stomach and a c’est la vie attitude, I headed to the airport for the first leg of my journey.
Leg 1: 8 a.m. — San Marcos, Texas (KHYI) to Texarkana, Arkansas (KTXK) — 1943 North American B-25 Mitchell
In April 1942, Lt. Col. James “Jimmy” Doolittle led a raid on Tokyo as retaliation for the attack on Pearl Harbor. The mission was to launch 16 B-25 bombers from the deck of the USS Hornet, strike the Japanese capital and then continue to China in search of a suitable place to land. The 75th anniversary of the “Doolittle Raid” was being commemorated at AirVenture this year, and Yellow Rose, operated by the Commemorative Air Force Central Texas Wing (CAF Centex) was scheduled to fly in the show. The Rose, helmed by Redbird’s Roger Sharp and Jerry Gregoire, was scheduled to depart at 8 a.m. from San Marcos, Texas, for its own journey north, so I hitched a ride to the first fuel stop.
Yellow Rose rolled off the assembly line in Kansas City in 1944, around the same time the first visual-aural radio range (VAR) radio beacon (predecessor to the VOR) was put into service. As you can imagine, for an airplane born before the age of modern avionics, engine management and other pilot duties can pose a challenge. Starting the twin 14-cylinder 1,700 hp radial engines is a ritual that begins by spinning the props by hand to check for hydraulic lock. To ensure that all cylinders can move freely, the props on each engine must be turned three full rotations. This is easiest when you have a crew of six able-bodied adults. This being my first time on a B-25, the flight crew thought it would be a lark to see if I could do it by myself. As I hung from the propeller by my fingertips, feet dangling freely in the air, trying desperately to impress yet failing to move the propeller even an inch, I thought, It’s going to be a long day. After laughing themselves silly, the crew finally stepped in to assist. We spun the props and climbed aboard; everyone, that is, except Jim Liles, the engineer. His job was to stand outside, holding a fire extinguisher large enough to douse Mount Vesuvius, just in case disaster struck during engine start. Luckily, it would not be needed today, but I did have a fleeting moment of worry as each engine roared to life. Jim climbed on board, sealed the hatch and we were on our way.
Cruising at 5,000 feet and 200 knots, we made short work of the 300 nm leg to Texarkana Regional. It’s amazing how fast time flies when you’re watching the world whip by from the nose gunner’s position. We approached our destination, greased the landing and were parked at the FBO by 10:15 a.m. Happily, this trip ended better for Yellow Rose than the B-25s involved in the Doolittle Raid.
An interesting phenomenon happens when you arrive in a B-25, one that you don’t regularly experience when you tool around in a Cessna 172. People with cameras come out of the woodwork and start snapping away like paparazzi near the red carpet of a movie premiere. Descending the ladder, sun on your face and the smell of avgas in your nostrils, you feel as if you’ve grown 3 feet taller. The shutterbugs start waving, and you wave back. Only then do you realize they aren’t, in fact, waving at you, but waving you out of the way so they can get a glamour shot of the real hero without your ugly mug messing it up. Oh well, I didn’t have time to pose for photos anyway. I had another plane to catch — one that I didn’t see on the ramp.
Leg 2: 11:15 a.m. — Texarkana to Berryville, Arkansas (4M1) — 2000 Piper Malibu Mirage
We had arrived in Texarkana a little early, so I wasn’t immediately concerned that the Piper Mirage that was to carry me for the next leg had not yet arrived. I headed into the FBO, dropped my bags and enjoyed an ice-cream cone, generously provided by the friendly TAC Air crew. Apparently, it was National Ice Cream Day. Sweet! I’ve never received free ice cream when flying commercial. Just sayin’.
Brian Baldwin, my Mirage pilot, arrived shortly after. We topped the tanks, climbed aboard, taxied back to the runway and headed eastbound. Cruising at 7,500 feet, we settled in for our one-hour flight to Carroll County Airport (4M1) — a small nontowered airport in Berryville, nestled in the hills of northwest Arkansas.
Brian is typical of many general aviation pilots. Attracted to flying at a young age, he has since logged thousands of hours in a never-ending pursuit of the freedoms that aviation provides. Nowadays, he predominantly uses his Mirage to shrink the world, carrying his family and friends, and now the occasional aerial hitchhiker, to destinations around the country. Recently, he joined the RAF, which he said has reminded him of why he fell in love with aviation in the first place. Shedding the Mirage and climbing aboard a taildragger has reminded him of how much fun flying can be when it’s done just for the sake of flying, an epiphany I remember well from my time pursuing a seaplane rating.
As we approached Berryville, the landscape began to change. Flat farmland gave way to rolling green hills stretching out on the horizon as far as the eye could see. I was anxious to explore the area more; the next two legs would allow me to do just that. We arrived at Carroll County Airport a little after 12:30 p.m., right on time to meet my next ride, a gorgeous Cessna 180 that was awaiting our arrival.
Leg 3: 12:45 p.m. — Berryville to Trigger Gap — 1954 Cessna 180 Skywagon
The next leg — a 4.5 nm hop from Berryville to a landing strip just outside Eureka Springs in Harper Goodwin’s Skywagon — took only about six minutes. We touched down on a small private grass strip called Silver Wings Field (55AR), shut down and hopped into Harper’s truck to drive to a nearby restaurant for lunch. Afterward, we climbed back into the 180 and spent 45 minutes exploring the Ozark Mountains rather than going direct for the 8 nm distance to Trigger Gap.
If you’re trying to find Trigger Gap on your VFR sectional, you can stop now. You won’t find it (at least not yet). It’s a brand-new 3,000-foot grass airstrip, located 3.2 nm south of Carroll County Airport on a hilltop overlooking the Kings River. It’s the result of a project funded by private donations, constructed and maintained by RAF volunteers and made possible through cooperation with the Nature Conservancy, which coincidentally owns this tract of land. Trigger Gap marks the first time the Nature Conservancy has embraced aviation to provide recreational access to its natural areas in a low-impact way. Hopefully, it’s just the first of many to come.
Leg 4: 3:15 p.m. — Trigger Gap to Bentonville, Arkansas (KVBT) — 1965 Bell 47
We arrived at Trigger Gap right on time, and we sat at a picnic table in the shade of a large oak tree, with Harper’s 180 in the field beside the runway. My next ride had not yet arrived, and we were getting close to our scheduled departure time. Just as I began to worry, I heard the unmistakable thrumming of helicopter blades approaching from the distance. We turned and watched as the iconic shape of a Bell 47 closed the distance and descended to a gentle landing in the grass. I tried not to hum the MASH theme song to myself as I watched. I tried and failed.
As I got a closer look at the helicopter, I was impressed by how pristine and meticulously maintained it was. There wasn’t a scratch, ding, dent or splattered bug anywhere to be found. It looked as though it had rolled out of the factory in 1965 directly into a climate-controlled clean room, where it had been parked for 52 years and only this morning taken out for its maiden flight.
Fortunately, I had packed lightly, because the Bell 47 is somewhat lacking in the “overhead bin” department. We strapped my bags into the middle seat, climbed in and spun the rotors. We lifted off and left Trigger Gap, bound for Bentonville, which is 30 nm due west. We weren’t headed there in a straight line though. Shortly after clearing the western edge of the field, we descended into a valley and turned south. At the bottom of the valley flows the crystal-clear water of the Kings River. As we followed the winding river south, Chad Cox, my pilot turned tour guide, enlightened me on the work that the Nature Conservancy has done in cooperation with the Walton Family Foundation (of Walmart fame) to preserve the natural beauty of the area while promoting access for recreational activities.
Climbing out of the valley and leaving the river behind, we headed west. The aerial tour continued for the next 30 minutes over tree-capped hills, farmhouses, the stunningly beautiful Beaver Lake and more grass airstrips than I’ve ever seen clustered in one area. As we got closer to our destination, the Ozark Mountains gave way to the city of Bentonville. We closed in on Louise M. Thaden Field (KVBT) and settled to the ground in front of a man clad in a yellow shirt and a black hat that matched the biplane behind him. That airplane was going to carry me to my next destination.
Leg 5: 5 p.m. — Bentonville (KVBT) to Waldron, Missouri (06MO) — 2014 Waco Classic YMF
In the past four hours, I had only covered about 30 miles of ground on my way to Wisconsin. It was immensely enjoyable, but if I was going to have any hope of making it to Oshkosh by the next day I needed to make better progress. It was time to bid farewell to northwest Arkansas and head north, courtesy of Dan Shewmaker and his yellow Waco.
It’s hard not to be fascinated by the classic look of an open-cockpit biplane. A 1930s design mixed with modern-day avionics, power plant and safety features, the Waco’s very nature is anachronistic — and therein lies its true beauty. It is an airplane that embodies the idea that sometimes the true joy of aviation is found not in the places it can take you, but in the machines that make it possible.
The shadows were getting long and we had 175 nm to cover before sunset, so it was time to get back in the sky, this time with the wind on my cheeks. We crossed the border into Missouri and followed Interstate 49 north past Neosho, Joplin, Carthage and Nevada. Before I knew it, we had circled the west side of Kansas City and were approaching a small private airstrip that holds particular personal significance for me. We lined up and landed in the grass to the left of the gravel runway, taxied to parking and climbed out. It was now 7 p.m., 12 hours after I’d left my house that morning. I had made it to Noah’s Ark (06MO) in Waldron.
In my earliest aviation memory, I’m standing in the grass next to a row of ramshackle hangars, staring up at a clear blue sky, watching an ultralight circle high overhead. I’m 5, and the man flying the ultralight is my father. He and my grandfather had built it themselves, and it was the coolest thing I had ever seen. The only problem was, my mom wouldn’t let me ride. So there I was, on the ground at Noah’s Ark Airport, staring up at my father stretching his wings. I never did get to leave the ground from that field, but the seeds were firmly planted. As I was planning this trip, a return to the birthplace of my aviation infatuation was a must. Three decades later, I stood in the same spot, next to the same ramshackle hangars. Not much had changed.
Today, Noah’s Ark is owned and operated by Ron and Charlotte Sharp of Falcon Skydiving, the premier demonstration skydiving team in Kansas City. I’ve never jumped out of a perfectly good airplane before, but you can’t very well show up at a place like this, on a quest for adventure, and not join in the fun. So, I headed to the registration desk and introduced myself. I’m sure my mom wouldn’t have approved (which is why I didn’t tell her), but this time I wasn’t staying on the ground.
I geared up, climbed in the back of a King Air and off we went. My instructor and I stepped to the edge, and almost without hesitation, we jumped (or, more accurately, the guy I was strapped to jumped). We flipped once, granting us an unforgettable view of the King Air flying on without us before we settled in, facing down toward the earth, which was coming to meet us at 120 mph. Free fall lasted 60 exhilarating seconds before we deployed the chute and settled comfortably to earth.
I was back on the ground safely, and my flying adventures were done for the day. A quick overnight in Kansas City and I would be back in the air to complete my quest.
Leg 6: 7:30 a.m. — Kansas City, Missouri (KMKC) to St. Paul, Minnesota (KSGS) — 2014 Daher TBM 900
The plan this morning was quite a bit less complicated: Hitch a ride with Joe Brown, president of Hartzell Propeller, to Iowa, where I would hop in a Stinson as old as the United Nations to take me to St. Paul, Minnesota. Great plan, except for the 350-mile-long line of towering thunderstorms bracketing the entirety of the Iowa-Minnesota border. We needed a Plan B.
The forecast called for building storms throughout the day, which made waiting it out less than desirable. The 320 knot cruise speed, 1,500 nm range and every in-cockpit weather service available on Joe’s TBM gave us a plethora of options. After weighing them all, we decided that our best bet would be to scratch the Iowa stop and swing west over South Dakota to get around the back side of the storm system. If the forecasts were accurate, we would be able to make it into St. Paul with only a few raindrops on the windscreen. At 8:45 a.m., we departed Kansas City heading west to get north, our eyes vigilantly trained on the storms ahead.
With the aid of the fantastic onboard weather technology and Joe’s en route decision-making, we stayed dry all the way to Richard E. Fleming Field (KSGS) in South St. Paul in time to meet my next ride.
Leg 7: 10 a.m. — St. Paul to Oshkosh, Wisconsin (KOSH) — 1955 de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver
All of the flying machines I had climbed into thus far had two things in common: First, they were all capable of landing on water. Second, if you did land them on the water, you weren’t going to be taking off again. It was time for a different type of flying machine. That’s what had brought me to South St. Paul Municipal Airport, home of Wipaire, a facility famous for its ability to convert an airplane into a boat.
We had arrived just in time to watch a rather conspicuous floatplane emerge from its hangar. It was a highly customized de Havilland Beaver, intriguingly nicknamed Kinky Lucy. In addition to the amphibious floats mounted in place of the landing gear, Lucy was given a 650 hp turboprop engine and a livery that pays homage to its dual heritage. The aircraft had been split lengthwise, with one side painted to mimic the Canadian flag and the other side the American flag. It certainly made a statement.
Climbing out of the TBM, I was welcomed by Chuck Wiplinger, president of Wipaire and my pilot for the final leg of this odyssey. Hoping to make it to Oshkosh before the thunderstorms engulfed our flight path, we wasted no time. The original plan was to splash down on Lake Winnebago and dock at the Oshkosh Seaplane Base. Unfortunately, the incoming weather forced us to head for the airport instead. The understandable yet disappointing decision meant we would be completing our journey in a seaplane that both departed and arrived on pavement. It seemed we were somehow missing the point. We couldn’t deprive ourselves entirely of the opportunity to utilize Lucy’s floats, so shortly after departure, we identified a suitable stretch of the Mississippi River, lined up and splashed down.
After a few minutes floating on the river, feeling a bit like Mark Twain (with a more powerful steamboat), we pushed power and took to the sky. Cruising over 200 miles of Wisconsin dairy farms at 3,500 feet, we closed the gap to Oshkosh in no time. As we got closer to our destination, radio chatter intensified. It seemed we weren’t the only ones looking to arrive at Oshkosh today. Like a well-rehearsed ballet, the controllers flawlessly handled the glut of airplanes bound for AirVenture. As instructed, we merged with traffic over Ripon, followed the railroad tracks to Fisk, then continued to Wittman Regional Airport and greased the landing on Runway 27.
Standing on Lucy’s float, smiling broadly, I looked out over the field. I had arrived. I made it from Austin to Oshkosh two hours quicker than last year. And rather than the nightmare trip on the airlines, I experienced an incredible adventure in which I left the ground in eight completely different aircraft and landed in seven. I’m unbelievably grateful to the RAF, CAF Centex and all the amazing pilots who made this journey possible. Topping this next year is going to be a challenge — a challenge I’m willing to accept. What do you think, Austin to Oshkosh over both poles?