Taking Wing: Big Sky Country

Taking on the great American air trip.

It was a gorgeous morning on the Florida Panhandle: The cold-front storms of the previous night had scoured out the scud and haze, and the Gulf of Mexico sparkled brilliantly under my left wing. I banked a little to the right, easing inland from the hotel-lined beach, as I eyed the Pensacola airport a few miles to the northwest. The radio crackled, “Pacer 23A, traffic to follow is a Delta MD-80 on right base. Caution wake turbulence; cleared to land Runway 35.” I repeated the clearance and spotted the gleaming airliner wing-up to final; my wife, Dawn, was on board, standby from Minneapolis. I landed and taxied to the FBO, where a few minutes later she pulled up in a taxi. Together, we walked out to our little yellow tube-and-fabric taildragger, its nose pointed expectantly skyward. Over the next three days, we were crossing America by air together, and my heart beat gladly in anticipation. I’m always happiest on the move; I guess I have a restless soul.

At least I came by it honestly, as the eldest of six children born to an ex-hippie, born-again preacher who never quite lost his wandering ways. I grew up listening to woolly tales of down-and-out longhairs in ancient jalopies setting out across the great wide West with little more than the clothes on their backs. Dad would pile his young brood into a sky-blue Ford Econoline of indeterminate mileage and hit the open road—for camping weekends, for the Black Hills, for the Florida Keys or the Colorado Rockies. We regularly wandered off interstates onto two-lane highways, where Dad would spot an interesting-looking dirt road and head down it just to see what there was to see. We nicknamed our 15-passenger van “the Blue Whale,” and in Weigel-family lore, these back-road adventures became known as “Blue Whaling.” When we went on missionary trips to Mexico, it was on decrepit ex-Greyhound buses with the seats ripped out and couches and mattresses strewn in their place—a sort of Holy Roller version of “Furthur,” minus the acid and free love. Thus I grew up traveling the wide-open spaces of America, and a terminal case of wanderlust took root in my own young heart.

Every pilot’s wild, magical and nearly unfettered freedom to explore as far as their imagination, their machine and their budget will take them was one of the main things that attracted me to aviation at an early age. While learning to fly in my teens, it was the cross-country lessons I looked forward to the most. I’ll never forget the excitement of my first solo voyage—all the way from Cambridge, Minnesota, to Eau Claire, Wisconsin—at age 16. When I climbed out of that Cessna 150, having successfully strung together a hundred miles of roads, lakes, rivers and water towers, I was as proud as Lindbergh alighting at Le Bourget in France. In the airport diner, I spread my sectional chart for all to see as I planned my next intrepid leg over far horizons. (Strangely, the pretty young waitress wasn’t nearly as impressed as I thought she should be.) My enthusiasm was slightly dampened at the next airport, where I blithely taxied onto the runway for takeoff and was very nearly flattened by a landing Aeronca Champ sans radio.

At the University of North Dakota, cross-country flights were closely monitored and subject to approval by the Supervisor of Flight, who immediately quashed my scheme to go on a six-state walkabout while building time toward my commercial license, until I proposed taking an older, GPS-lacking Piper Cadet languishing on the back lot. I flew all the way to Grand Rapids, Michigan, in one epic day to meet a girl I’d hitherto only known online. Eighteen years old and lacking a credit card, no motel would rent me a room, so she took me home at 2 a.m.—where we were met at the door by her rifle-toting father. Rainy weather moved in, and I lingered for three days of missed classes, making for a long final push around the south side of Lake Michigan and across Wisconsin and Minnesota, dodging thunderstorms much of the way. That was my first really tough day of long-distance flying, and the arrival to Grand Forks, North Dakota, in fading sunlight was supremely satisfying.

While I was flight instructing in Southern California for a summer, one of the flight school’s Piper Archers got stranded in Minneapolis when the guy who was flying it around the country turned out to be wanted by the FBI for passing bad checks. In possession of standby airline passes from a recent internship, I shrewdly proposed that my instrument student and I retrieve the wayward Archer, training along the way. Paul probably would have been better off flying practice approaches for those 18 hours but gamely agreed, and it was a grand adventure crossing the Rockies in summer by way of Southern Wyoming to Provo, Utah. Suffice it to say that takeoffs made at 12,000 feet density altitude are best reserved for 2-mile runways with lots of clear space for a very lethargic climb. Eight months later, back at UND for my senior year and yearning for a break from dreary Grand Forks, I took a more southerly route back to SoCal in a Beech 58 Baron, which made for a considerably more capable and comfortable cross-country platform.

Read More from Sam Weigel: Taking Wing

I was already a regional airline captain when I had my first chance to fly a GA aircraft from coast to coast. My former student, Johnny Gioeli, had moved from Los Angeles to New England, needed to reposition his pristine Piper Warrior, and wanted to do some instrument instruction along the way. Over four days and 2,200 miles, we managed to experience the full range of weather conditions, maintenance bugaboos, decrepit airport loaner cars and “local color”—such as the angry rattlesnakes kept as pets in a Greenwood, Mississippi, hangar. Passing over Connecticut’s crenelated shoreline, gazing down on stony islets embedded in the deep impassive blue of Long Island Sound, I reflected on the vast distance and the wildly diverse geography we had traversed, and wondered at the feats and accidents of history and the motley cast of personalities that turned an entire continent into the homeland of a young republic and her eternally restless people.

When Dawn and I bought our 1953 Piper Pacer, there was no question we’d use it for a lot of cross-country travel, and we did. It was perhaps an unlikely choice, a 105-knot taildragger with strictly VFR instrumentation and a single radio, but I didn’t want to tempt myself into challenging airliner-grade weather conditions in a light airplane—a classic airline-pilot blunder. Of the 220 hours we put on the Pacer during our ownership, a good 180 of them were cross-country. I bought it in Montana and brought it back to Minnesota, we raced it in the AirVenture Cup, we ferried nephews and nieces around the Upper Midwest, and we explored the remote Out Islands of the Bahamas with that plucky old bird.

And when we decided to sell everything, buy a boat and go sail the Caribbean for a few years, we took the Pacer on one final grand tour over winter in late 2015 to early 2016: from Minnesota to Connecticut, down the Eastern Seaboard to Key West, across the breadth of the country to California, down Mexico’s Baja peninsula, and up the spectacular Pacific coast to Portland, Oregon. We spent hours and hours gazing upon snowy plains, patchwork fields, dark trackless forests, ochre-and-velvet deserts, verdant rolling hills, torturously jumbled mountains, sandy curves of shoreline inhabited only by wild horses, ironbound spume-flecked coasts, ebullient tumbling salmon streams, lazy backwaters the color of burnt tobacco, brutally efficient interstates cleaving the landscape, meandering two-lane roads peeking through treetops, dusty gravel lanes leading to nowhere, gleaming rails of steel forging through the wilderness, sprawling cities choked with smog, abandoned ghost towns, industrious burghs, and sleepy villages stuck in yesteryear. We landed on dirt bush strips, manicured grass runways, anonymous municipal airports, and in Phoenix, one giant Class B megaplex crawling with giant airliners and shrouded in jet-A fumes. We met doctors, truckers, bankers, farmers, cops, fishermen, clerks, roughnecks, and lawyers; country bumpkins and city slickers; red hats and blue hats and the great hatless purple. We stayed in fleabag motels, kitschy bed-and-breakfasts, and the couches and guest rooms of friends scattered across the country. We saw America. It was a mess. We loved it.

In a few years’ time, when the season is right, Dawn and I will sell Windbird, move back to land, and buy another airplane. When we do, the purchase will be made with my wandering soul—and that of my adventurous soul mate—foremost in mind. It’s a big, beautiful country we inhabit, and there’s a big, beautiful world just outside it. There are few things I love more in life than setting off on a new adventure, exploring new places, meeting new friends, and heading down those interesting-looking dirt roads just to see what there is to see.


This story originally published in the December 2019 issue of Flying Magazine

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