I Learned About Flying From That: The Longest Journey

** To see more of Barry Ross’ aviation art, go
to barryrossart.com.**

I purchased 3723V, a 1976 Cessna 150M, to help defray the cost of acquiring my instrument rating and to build time. After earning the rating, business took me to Phoenix, and due to the desert heat and the thermals, it soon became apparent that I needed a turbocharged airplane. So I sold 23V to a gentleman in southern Florida under the agreement that I would deliver the airplane to him.

Flight planning put the trip around 18 hours. I would depart Deer Valley heading southeast toward Tucson to remain west of the mountains and then fly almost due east to cross them while following Interstate 10 all the way to Florida before heading south to my final destination, Airport Manatee (48X) in Palmetto.

February turned into March before I finally saw a weather window. I took off from Deer Valley at 7 a.m. into clear skies and calm winds. Two hours later, I descended to Cochise County Airport in Arizona. After a short stop to refuel, I launched into my second leg, which would take me southeast past El Paso, Texas, to Culberson County Airport, where I landed about three hours after takeoff.

The next day, I awoke to a low cloud cover — 1,500 feet agl — with winds gusting to 35 knots. I waited for it to break, but it never did. The following day, I launched early and found myself in light to moderate turbulence. As I came closer to my fuel stop at Kimble, the turbulence increased along with a building layer of clouds below. Not wanting to fly into IMC, I routed myself more to the north where I could stay clear of clouds. As I approached, the Kimble ATIS reported 35 knots down the runway. With no alternative due to low fuel, I kept the power on to have better control and touched down after a 2.6-hour leg.

On the ground, I checked the weather to find the clouds were now clear along my flight path, and there was a pirep indicating smooth air at 5,200 feet msl. With a full tank of fuel, I contacted ground, and after an inquiry from the tower as to whether I was sure I wanted to take off in this wind, I taxied to the runway. Cleared for takeoff, I took a deep breath and advanced the throttle. The airplane lifted off quickly, and I continued my climb until I reached 5,200 feet. As reported, the air turned to glass. I made my turn and continued my climb to 7,500 feet on my way to Lone Star Executive near Houston. The turbulence returned and bounced me along for the remainder of the leg.

With a good night’s sleep, I launched and immediately flew into medium turbulence. At this point, I started to think that it’s true what they say: Everything is bigger in Texas, including turbulence! I pushed on to Hammond Northshore Regional in Louisiana, experiencing moderate turbulence all the way.

I was getting a little tired, but since I had only a few more hours for the day, I launched toward Marianna, Florida. Within 45 minutes, I was in moderate to severe turbulence, which caused the wings to lift as much as 20 degrees. But I had a good airplane that I knew well, and I was confident in my abilities to keep her flying.

After another hour, I sensed I was getting really tired, and the turbulence showed no sign of letting up. I decided it was time to call it a day. As I reached for the NRST knob on the GPS, a gust hit the airplane, causing the wing to lift 30 degrees. I instantly knew I had to keep both hands on the yoke to keep the plane right side up. I knew I was tired, but for the first time while flying, I was scared. I called ATC and explained that due to the turbulence I could not navigate and needed to land immediately. They advised me there was an airport 10 miles behind me. But making a 180-degree turn in this turbulence was not going to happen. With more urgency, I told them I needed vectors to an airport in front of me. They advised me to turn 20 degrees to the south and start my descent immediately. As I descended through 2,000 feet, they vectored me back to my original course and advised me the airport would be right in front of me. And there it was. What a beautiful sight!

As I passed through 1,000 feet msl, the air smoothed out. I made one of the best landings I have ever made. I taxied to the FBO at Defuniak Springs, Florida, a little more than two hours after takeoff. It was only then that I realized my hands were shaking.

With the end of the long journey in sight, I prepared for takeoff the following morning. But as I advanced the throttle to taxi to the active, the airplane didn’t move. I checked to make sure the parking brake was off and tried again. The airplane still wouldn’t budge. I shut the engine down, got out and looked around. It was then I noticed that I hadn’t removed the chocks. This simple mistake should have told me it was time to take a day off, but instead, I removed the chocks and started the engine. I launched into light turbulence, and it soon turned to moderate as I arrived at my final fuel stop, Cross City, Florida, a couple of hours later.

I went into the FBO to get something to drink and saw a crew room with a couple of nice, cushy La-Z-Boy chairs. I decided to just sit down and relax before I made the final leg to Manatee. I closed my eyes for what I thought would be just a few minutes, and when I woke up, two hours had passed. I walked out toward the airplane as two men headed toward the FBO. Since they had just come from Fort Lauderdale, I asked what the weather had been like, and they said there was some turbulence, but it wasn’t too bad. They asked where I was going and what I was flying. When I told them, they said I would be better off spending the night and leaving early in the morning. I learned my lesson and spent the night.

The last leg would be short. I could cut off some distance by flying direct, but that would take me offshore. I decided it would be better to stay over land. I would launch and climb to 3,500 feet. As I approached Tampa/St. Petersburg airspace, I would descend in stages to stay underneath the airspace and then fly direct to set up for a right base to land.

The flight went as planned, and as I approached 3,000 feet, I was advised to expedite my descent to 1,100 feet, proceed direct and report field in sight. The field was about 3 miles out and off to my right, and I reported in.

As I approached the field, it became clear this was not the airport but rather a tree-lined road. I looked around and then saw the hangars, but where was the field? After a quick look at the flight guide, I realized I had overlooked the fact that this was a grass strip! I had practiced soft-field landings but had never actually made a real one. Had I come this far to screw this up? I started adding flaps and reviewing the soft-field landing procedure. On final, I had 40 degrees of flaps, power on and was holding the nosewheel off the ground. The mains touched gently down, and I pulled back on the throttle, holding the nose gear off as long as I could until it gently touched down. Holding the yoke fully back, I taxied toward the hangars and shut the engine down. After seven legs and 18.7 hours, I finally delivered 23V.

Looking back on the trip, I did a lot of things right, including planning an efficient route that minimized my exposure while flying through the mountains and kept me clear of MOAs and restricted areas. My route took me over many airports, and for the most part, the route followed a major interstate in case of a mechanical failure. I also asked for help when I needed it.

Despite all the things I did right, though, I made a few major mistakes. I flew beyond my comfort level, putting myself at risk more than once. I failed to realize that due to the weather conditions, it was unrealistic to safely fly five to six hours a day. Flying so much without an autopilot caused more fatigue than I expected. Ultimately, I failed to see how my vigilance was becoming increasingly impaired due to fatigue, causing

errors in judgment.

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