EAA is a rite-of-passage for any true aviator. Where comic con is only a few days OSH is IN. YOUR. FACE. for a solid week straight, that’s right, Monday through Sunday including a night air show (as in, actually at night after the sun has set). A “Disney for Planes” you have an overload of aviatory-stimuli. Unlike March, or other traditional air shows EAA is a true general and experimental aviation pilgrimage. This year saw 640,000 people attend and over 17,000 aircraft, their largest event ever
But I didn’t come here to write about OSH (well maybe I did a little).. I came here to talk about what a true cross country feels like. My first few journeys I was pampered in a G1000 turbo Cirrus with known ice and O2. The “direct enter enter” joke is only partially false here. Sure, you’re IFR, but flying at 17,000 to 19,000 feet takes some of that “how do we cross the rockies stress” out of the equation when your glide range rings on Foreflight have a 50 mile diameter (wait, don’t Cirri have chutes??). So, for reasons, both aviation and broken hearts, I’ve closed the Cirrus chapter in my life and we’ll talk about flying this route in real airplanes
This year’s journey was in a ’66 Beech Debonair, but with the honking 520 Conti big bore in there. It’s a slant alpha.. that’s right. VORs! Prior years’ journeys included a trip in our club’s own 6RA, a handsomely equipped 182RG. While 6RA made flying IMC easier with all that pretty Garmin glass the general flying was largely the same, high density altitudes and active convective sigmets don’t really care if that’s a King or a Garmin in your panel; and to that point the Cirrus was only different in regards to its ability to go higher, and a bit faster
Far be it for me to claim any kind of real knowledge or tutelage on actual flying so I’ll simply share 3 things I’ve learned on these escapades
LESSON #1 A Change of Plans and the Luxury of ADSB WX
What do they say about the best laid plans? Our trip shot for a wheels up departure time of no later than 7am out of MYF. Thanks to astronomy we’re automatically losing 2 hrs the minute the wheels leave the ground. We had three general routes planned and agreed to plot our final plan the evening prior. Route (A) brought us north, Las Vegas, St George, Salt Lake City, and up out the valley northeast then direct. Route (B) brought towards New Mexico, Albuquerque, then out a small valley and again mostly direct. Route (C) had us far to the south, out past Jacumba and down into Texas before cranking north
Three days out each option had its pro’s and con’s. By Friday night the weather hadn’t made the decision for us, at least not convincingly, so we opted on Route B.. arguably the most direct all things considered.. ha!
I had left seat for the first leg, filed an IFR departure and after a short IMC stretch (hello marine layer) we were on top and cruising at 9K towards JLI. Weather already ominous.. our southern route closed and the northern route had activity building. Luckily, our passage to AEG seemed do-able if we took a detour towards St George. Cancelled IFR, but stayed on flight following, I didn’t plan to go IMC around this kind of weather and extricating ourselves from ATC’s hands made this kind of flying easier. Given the dynamic nature of the weather we flew that route in smaller 75 mile segments with lots of bail out points. This also helped the psychological fatigue. Eventually AEG hove into view and we were ready to refuel both plane and body and start leg 2.
Up until now arriving same day to Oshkosh was in the cards. MSP had weather building, as did the Kansas City area, but OSH was relatively clear, with a near perfect corridor stretching almost all the way to Appleton without even so much as a convective outlook! We were in business. At this point it looked like we could stay under a few of the bigger buildups and avoid them by at least 40 miles if we had to
Until we departed AEG. Just 40 minutes into leg two with strong bumps, ground temps between 102 and 108, weather continued to build and we watched with sadness on our Stratus and iPads as the clear route became a convective outlook, and witnessed the development of an aggressive squall line start heading straight across our route right into OSH. All the little green dots started turning blue, red, and magenta. Damn. Our ground speed of 185 knots was appreciated, but we wouldn’t be able to race this weather in. Things would turn to hell sometime between 4 and 6 this afternoon and we wouldn’t arrive realistically until around 7 or 8.
So.. time to start looking for airports.. what’s “close” to Oshkosh but gives us a good chance of remaining clear and has services? There weren’t many good options. Ground temps hovered around 105 and few airports had any real services. We eventually settled on Salinas, KS.. Not as close as we wanted but within one leg of our destination. We could have gone further with time and weather but nothing else promised an actual “town” with reliable services that wouldn’t involve some “racing” again with garbage TAFs by 7. No thanks! All things considered not a bad little town Salinas is, nice airport, great food, fun downtown, and incidentally the spot of Steve Fossett’s 22,936 mile 67 hour’s flight conclusion. Cool! It was excruciatingly hot though, humid, with a very tight dewpoint spread, that 104* on the ground was sweltering. For three men in a small GA plane that quickly exhausted us
Lesson learned – you could have everything figured out down to the second but be prepared to bail out. Don’t get tunnel vision, no “get-there-itis” and always have more than one out. Weather builds fast. The proverbial $h!t hit the fan at OSH around 5 that evening. We would not have made it. Doing this without ADSB WX would have been exponentially harder
LESSON #2 Sleep is for the Weak
Which brings me to point #2. This is true for our whole trip there and back, not just our sally into Salinas. No one wants to be that guy who’s going to have to answer nature’s call in a small plane or force an early landing. The solution? Just don’t drink anything! /s On this route all three of us (thankfully not all at once) eventually experienced some proper fatigue and dehydration symptoms. Waking up at 5 am, sitting in a hot plane, not drinking.. it eventually gets to you. Blinding headache, nausea, and all that fun stuff. For a trip like this having a pilot monitoring is a big relief, and I’ve learned I’d much rather be “that guy” vs the person who ends up feeling like they’re battling a raging hang over. So drink that water! Bring salty and sweet snacks, a Gatorade, and monitor your O2 (yep, we had an oximeter). Also bring a few extra empty bottles just in case
Lesson learned – don’t try to be a hero, stay hydrated!
LESSON #3 Navigation and Mountains
So the plane is slant Alpha.. in short you aren’t using your GPS to navigate. We had a stratus as well as iPads, but it’s a bit different when you’re flying across the country and tuning VOR’s and tracking those in. This plane is impeccably maintained and both VORs (as well as an ADF!) worked flawlessly. Truth be told, after the first hour you get used tracking the radial off a King HSI. I would go so far as to say visualizing the radial and your progress along it helps augment your spatial orientation better than strictly using a GPS
Our leg home brought us north up through Montana and the Cascades, finishing near the San Juan islands. What you “know” but often don’t fully appreciate is how much mountains wreak havoc on radar coverage and radio signals. Thanks to weather, again, our initial planned stop of Glacier Park (Kalispell) kept getting pushed further and further south until our only option (thanks to weather approaching from the south) was Missoula. We still had an out, Great Falls was behind us, never more than about 40 minutes away and severe clear VFR with a beautiful TAF. But approaching those mountains, giving the terrain a wide AGL clearance while also staying under building weather you really have to stay ahead of the plane. Don’t get boxed in, don’t end up somewhere you don’t want to be. ATC lost radar coverage from us so we gave radio position reports. I mentioned we had Stratus and foreflights, but you can’t actually use that to navigate. This brought me back to my pre-GPS PPL training days spotting power lines, fields, and ranches to orient. Looking at the sectional we stayed ahead of the plane, found the peaks and canyons and roadways, and managed to find the correct valley and follow that into Missoula.
Departing Missoula was not much different, flying into the sunset I still had half the mountain range to cross as well as the cascades ahead of us, but again with good planning I stayed within glide range of highways or suitable fields and lakes.
Lesson learned – keep those VOR skills up and remember to look out the window!