Ralph "Gilligan" Galetti
Originally published August 1995
Well, it started out innocently enough. By day, I'm a flight test engineer on the C-17 at Edwards Air Force Base. Every other waking hour I spend trying to answer one simple question: Where can I fly to this weekend?
"We need a flight test engineer to go back to Pope Air Force Base. Since you're the only one who has no kids, no pets, no spouse, and no life in general, you get first dibs. Oh, and if you want to you can fly your plane there."
"I'll go!" I have a pretty much standard "stock" LongEZ, with a Lycoming 0-235, male scoop, small rudders, and a basic IFR panel. I figured, why let the government give some airline money for a ticket when they could give me that money for doing something I really love to do anyway--fly my airplane!
I'm a Jeppesen junky, so the first thing I did was order a bunch of trip kits for all the places I optimistically thought I would fly to, and then use NOS charts for all the places in between where I pessimistically thought I might have to land, just in case. This is NOT an advertisement for Jeppesen, and I praise all of you who regularly fly with NOS charts, but every time I was in a new and strange place, my Jepps were like an old friend giving me a little added comfort amid the typical stresses and worries of flying IFR around summer thunderstorms without a storm scope.
While I was waiting for my trip kits to come in the mail, I plotted my route along my VFR sectionals just to make sure I didn't blow through any restricted areas or anything like that. For really long trips, I always use my handheld GPS in its simulator mode to plot my courses.
As the GPS flies along at 900 knots, I watch the latitudes and longitudes rattle by and keep my pencil tracing across the nation. Well, should I go direct, or like Bugs Bunny, should I take a left at Albuquerque? Looking at the direct line I had drawn, there was some seriously high and rugged terrain the whole way across Colorado. The low road looked much more forgiving. Well, Mr. GPS, how much farther is it if I go via Albuquerque than if I go direct? You wouldn't believe the answer: Seven nautical miles! Seven! That comes to less than three minutes of flying time, and in return I would avoid all of that hazardous tenain. I was sold. Bugs Bunny was right!
I needed to be in Fayetteville, NC by Saturday, so I left Mojave (MHV) airport around 10:00 am Thursday. I packed all of my luggage into the back seat and I could still see the fuel sight tubes, so I knew I didn't overpack. I wouldn't be the first person to admit that in a LongEZ, you can take a passenger, or you can fly by yourself and take a lot of luggage. I also got a chance to try out my new, compact, collapsible golf bag. It even fits in one of the fuel strakes!
First stop: California City, CA (L71). I buy my fuel there because the pumps are self-serve (always open), the fuel is cheaper, and they have 80 octane, which seems to agree with my airplane's engine.
Unfortunately, my intercom was on the fritz, so I couldn't enjoy my favorite music interspersed with regular radio chatter. My tape player was broken anyway, so the entertainment portion of our flight was not available. I blasted off (and I use the term "blasted" very loosely, with full fuel and lots of baggage) and got clearance through R-2515. I always use a very slow climb when I have full fuel because my fuel caps are not airtight, so if I have too high of a deck angle, fuel will leak out the tops of the caps. Someday I may get airtight caps which would not only stop the leaks, but also would increase the range of my airplane by about an hour, since I'd really be able to top off the tanks! But until that day, my long trip legs will have to begin with a slow climb.
My first problem arose when I noticed that the friction on my aileron trim wouldn't give me enough right wing down. I had just recently had some work done on the aileron control system, and the whole system was cleaned and lubricated all too well. Also, a very large bag in the back seat had worked its way down and settled on top of the rear seat stick "nub." The rear seat stick is just a metal pipe that is removable, but even after the stick is removed, there's still a little nub there, and it was rubbing against the bag making it a little more difficult than usual to move. A few hours into the flight, right around the Albuquerque area, my wrist was becoming pretty tired. I even tried flying with my left hand for a while, and in a LongEZ where the stick is a sidestick controller on the right side, lefthanded flying is awkward to say the least!
My next problems weren't really problems, just poor planning on my part. I didn't bring anything to drink. I distinctly remembered buying bottled water at California City in the past, but for some reason they didn't have any that day. Ah, but then I would have to go to the bathroom as bad, would I? WRONG! I had to go three times--I did remember my empty bathroom bottle. I always dreamed of owning an airplane with a bathroom, but this is not exactly what I had in mind.
To take advantage of the light 10 knot tail wind I had, I was cruising at around 13,500 feet MSL. This would also allow me to clear well above Albuquerque's Class C airspace and get over the Sandia Mountains without any worries about national forests or turbulence. Right around Grants, NM, about 50 miles west of Albuquerque, my oxygen ran out. This was partially my fault, well no, actually it was totally my fault, but for two reasons: First, I didn't have time to get my cylinder recharged before the trip, so I had to use what was left. Next, I was using the oxygen saving cannula, and I read the flow meter wrong. The 13,500 foot mark I was using was for an oxygen mask, resulting in depleting my oxygen about twice as fast as I would have if I had simply read the stupid thing correctly! Well, at least I know it was just a stupid mistake on my part. With all that extra oxygen, I'm sure it wasn't a mistake due to hypoxia! Anyway, after the oxygen ran out, I figured I had 30 minutes more flying time where I was allowed to stay below 14,000 feet MSL without oxygen, according to FARs anyway. So, about 30 minutes later, and well east of the Sandia Mountains, I came down to 11,500 and lost that wonderful tail wind.
A little turbulence over eastern New Mexico, slipping between a couple blobs of weather just like I saw on the Weather Channel. Nothing to worry about, just being bounced around a bit--what the heck was that? My directional gyro was moving a bit too fast to be for real. Reset it--ah there. No, it's still screwed up. Here's a piece of aviation trivia for you: When does the directional gyro act like an attitude indicator? When it's screwed up! Mine was screwed up--more on that later...
About 50 miles west of Oklahoma City, it was about time to feed the Long-EZ. She was almost as thirsty as I was. I found a little airport called Clinton (CLK), and the map said they had fuel. Who knows, maybe they even did have fuel, but not by the looks of things when I landed. It looked like a big farm machinery storage yard. I didn't see any pumps or trucks, just a 55 gallon drum beside what looked like an abandoned hangar. Forget this! I'm not shutting down here just to find out there's no fuel, and then kill myself trying to restart a piping hot engine. My airplane doesn't have a starter, by the way, which can be embarrassing when you're on a date and you say, "don't worry, the engine's just ornery sometimes when it's hot. Once it gets going, I assure you, it won't quit. Ok, now when it starts, pull the throttle back and push the mixture up..." So, I continued eastward, and I found a little airport in the town of Weatherford (F91). Fuel trucks! A building that looks like it's sometimes open! Maybe even a bathroom, or at least some bushes on the side of the building! Oh my aching head, I hope they have a water fountain. I shut down here so I consider this point the end of the first leg of my journey. Time: 7.2 hours (Hobbs time) from California City. Distance: 946 nautical miles.
Eventually, someone came over and refueled my airplane. This airport actually turned out to be an EAA haven. There were a few people came up to the plane and told me about their birds and how they would be at Oshkosh this year. I saw two Seawinds in a hangar as I taxied out. Of all the unlikely places--central Oklahoma! The people here were very friendly and helpful. I asked about food, and they let me borrow a courtesy car to go downtown and get some badly needed nourishment for the rest of the trip. Yes, of course, I put gas in the courtesy car. After a good dose of fluids and some munchies, my headache was gone. I emptied my bathroom bottle and was underway again, right around sunset.
The weather was supposed to be pretty bad around west North Carolina and east Tennessee, so I thought I'd try to make it to central Tennessee and get some sleep. I really wasn't in the mood to shoot an actual approach down to minimums at night in a place I'd never been before--with no directional gyro. After it got dark, I noticed a lot of what looked like controlled field burning or something. It was kind of eerie.
I checked the weather along the way, and sure enough, things were still bad and getting worse the farther east I went. I noticed an airport about thirty miles ahead that was right in my path. I figured if I could see the airport from that far away, it must be VFR. Tune in the AWOS: "...Indefinite ceiling, fog, visibility 1/4 to 1/2 mile.." What? You've got to be kidding me! I can see it. It's right there! Well, I figured AWOS must get confused sometimes. Should I continue to press farther east, or no? Oh boy, look at that city just east of the airport, or actually, look at that blob of light beneath that blanket of fog just east of the airport. Yeah, ok weather, you win, and I'm really tired. I told center of my intentions to land at a little airport in Warren County, TN (RNC). I noticed right around the touchdown flare that there was a little patch of fog on the end of the runway. I could still see the runway, but just barely. Wow, that was strange! I guess AWOS was right, in a way. For once, my timing was good, because within the next 30 minutes, the whole airport was swamped in fog. Total time on this leg: 5.2 hours. Distance: 625 nautical miles.
I was so tired. The couch in the FBO looked so comfortable and inviting, but everything was locked up. I tried sleeping in the airplane for about 15 seconds, and realized that it just wasn't going to work. I contemplated calling the local hotel, but it was already about 3:00 am, and I wanted to leave pretty early, so I thought it would be silly to get a hotel room for just a few hours of sleep. I ended up sleeping in the FBO's courtesy car. It was actually pretty comfortable. Maybe all of that survival training was finally paying off. Maybe I was just really tired!
I woke up the next morning and the FBO was open. I wasn't sure if anyone had noticed me, but if they had I was thankful that they didn't wake me up. I felt pretty good considering I had slept in the back seat of a smelly car. First things first: Tighten up that aileron trim! Boy was I glad I had brought along my vicegrips! I almost left them behind. Let's see, as long as I'm in a fixing-up kind of mood, I wonder if I could fix that gyro? What the hell was I thinking? There was a screw loose that held the rotating card to the gyro, and I thought if I replaced and tightened the screw. Well, those of you who know anything about vacuum instruments know that once you break the seal on a vacuum instrument, forget it! I wasn't that smart. Let that be a lesson if you're thinking about making repairs like this "on the fly," so to speak. Let that be a lesson? What am I saying? I know I'm the only one who could possibly be that stupid to try something that ridiculous! In any case, once I broke the seal, my vacuum pump was working futilely and now I had no vacuum. At least before I had my attitude indicator. Fortunately, Fayetteville was VFR and I made it there without mishap. Before I left, though, there was a fellow there with a warbird, and he was looking over my airplane. He noticed I was missing a cowl screw--foreshadowing of things to come! He had a replacement screw and Tinnerman washer which he gave me. I was very thankful and once again impressed by the experimental aviation community as a whole.
The next leg to Fayetteville went without a hitch. Time: 3.0 hours. Distance: 343 nautical miles.
First things first. Is there anybody here who could sell me a new gyro? No, no, no, no, NO ! I am not going to get that thing overhauled again ! The last time I had a problem with it, an A&P talked me into getting it overhauled. I told him that the overhaul cost almost as much as a new gyro. "Yeah, but you'll never have another problem with it." "Well, ok, then, overhaul it." I had the gyro overhauled twice, and at this point, I wanted to smash it with a sledgehammer just for the satisfaction it would give me as revenge for all the grief the gyro had caused. Well, as far as getting a new gyro, it was my lucky day...sort of. A fellow there by the name of Scotty Rogers who ran Rogers Aircraft Service in Fayetteville was able to get me a brand new gyro overnight, and at a pretty reasonable price too. Of course I had to give him the old gyro--good riddance! Scotty was quite a character, actually, and had a really good attitude about experimental aircraft. There was a Lancair at the back of his shop that some people were working on, and I guess he had done his share of work on experimentals in the past. He was actually pretty tickled with my airplane, and likewise pretty impressed with the workmanship. I can't take credit for any of that, since I didn't build her, but I did appreciate his opinion.
The next day was a Saturday and Scottie said he wouldn't be in until relatively late. That was fine by me, since I was still on Pacific Time anyway. I was suffering from a serious case of prop lag. Because of fog in the local area, the shipping companies were running behind in the day, and so my gyro didn't arrive until around 11:00 am. I replaced the old gyro, and everything worked beautifully, except now my vacuum was way too high, so a little adjustment to get it around 5.0 inches of Mercury, and I was back in business! I was so happy! The new gyro worked great, and I was even getting really good vacuum from my vacuum pump. I suspect the old gyro had a case leak somewhere, among other problems. To top things off (no pun intended), I even had my oxygen bottle refilled. My airplane was happy again.
Sunday gave me the opportunity to do a little IFR flying in the Carolinas. I took a little trip to visit a friend and racked up another three hours. It was time for an oil change already! I had anticipated that I would need to do an oil change on the trip, so I brought seven quarts of my favorite engine oil with me. My engine doesn't have a filter, just a screen, so I change my oil every 25 hours. As someone once told me, it's cheap insurance.
Later that week, I was done with all my TDY work, and it was time to take some leave enroute. My dad is an airline pilot and he had an overnight in Tampa, FL, so IFR to Tampa (TPA) involved dodging storms and buildups the whole way. It was typical summer weather in the southeast, I guess, but a lot different than flying in the high desert. Total time: 4.0 hours. Straight line distance would have been 461 nautical miles, but of course, flying IFR rarely allows for straight line flying.
After a great time in Tampa, the next morning I waited for my dad to taxi, and he and I took off at the same time from parallel runways. What fun! As he was switched over to departure control, he said, "See you later, Long-EZ!" I replied, "See you later, Dad!" I always wanted to do that!
I then flew to Orlando (MCO), which turned out to be an hour flight, but I spent almost half of that hour on the ground in Tampa waiting for my dad to taxi, so it wasn't really that long. After visiting a couple of friends in Orlando, it was time to fly home to see the rest of my family in Pennsylvania.
The next flight from Orlando to Latrobe, PA (LBE) was quite an experience as far as weather was concerned. A pretty heavy line of thunderstorms stretched across Virginia and West Virginia. I decided to fly high, and stay out of the stratus layers, and hopefully be able to see and avoid most of the really high buildups. I asked for 15,000, but center said they could only give me 13,000 or 17,000. The headwinds were bad enough at 13,000, so I took the low road. Things went pretty well and I was able to avoid everything, including clouds, until I got about 100 miles south of Ronoake, VA. The controllers here were extremely busy, and everyone was asking for deviations to avoid weather. Finally, the controller I was with said "Everybody, just be patient, do not call me, I'll get to you eventually." I had to deviate, and so I figured I wouldn't bother him and work my way around the clouds. If I was going to be a problem, I'd hear about it. Besides, the previous controller gave me permission to "deviate as necessary, direct Elkins when able." Things worked out, and eventually I made my way around the "big stuff."
On my descent into the Latrobe area, though, something strange happened. I simultaneously saw a flash of light, heard a soft pop in my headsets, and felt a mild shock on the pitch trim knob. The shock didn't hurt, but it did scare the daylights out of me. I guess it could have been lightning, or maybe just some static discharge. I always feel more comfortable flying through moisture when the airplane has recently been waxed with an antistatic wax. This was not one of those times.
I landed without needing an approach, and once again my timing was really good. Not even 10 minutes after I landed, a huge storm rolled in and I just barely got my airplane covered in time! It turned out to be a pretty decent sized thunderstorm too. Total time from Orlando to Latrobe: 6.0 hours.
I did about nine hours of flying around Pennsylvania and New Jersey, most of it IFR. You really need an instrument rating to "fly at will" back east.
Finally, it was time to come back to the beautiful southwest. While I was gone, I had missed some of the most beautiful weather Southern California had seen all year. My first planned stop was in Terre Haute, IN (HUF). The headwinds were horrible at the higher altitudes, around 30-40 knots, and they weren't too good down low, either. I stayed relatively low, only a couple thousand feet about the minimum enroute altitudes, but turbulence really beat me up bad. It took 3.7 hours to get from Latrobe to Terre Haute. It was an exhausting flight that ended up doing some serious damage. When I landed in Terre Haute, I noticed a funny sound from the prop as it changed angles in the surface winds. Yet another cowl screw came loose, but this time it went through the prop and took a big chunk out of it. A triangular piece of wood about 2" x 1/4" was missing from one of the blades !
The next day I tried to get in touch with the prop manufacturer, Bruce Tiff, to see what I should do. I called several people for advice, and I also hoped to get Bruce Tiff's phone number from someone. Unfortunately, as I found out from Clark Lydick of Performance Propellers, Bruce Tiff and his wife had died in their Long-EZ about three months earlier. It was turning out to be a bad day all around.
Clark advised me that I should try to blend the broken blade as best as I could, and then file down the good blade to match the broken blade. It really hurt to file that much wood off of a perfectly good propeller blade. I just needed the old propeller to get me home.
I had to test the new propeller, and besides, I had to warm up the engine oil anyway, because, you guessed it, it was already time for another oil change! A quick half-hour flight over the local area did the trick, and even though the prop sounded different, and spun a little faster, the vibration didn't seem any worse than normal, so I was comfortable with making the rest of the journey home.
Pulling off the bottom cowl I noticed that my oil pressure sender, which is flex mounted and then hard mounted to the dip stick tube, had broken loose from the hard mount. A new hose clamp secured it back into place. I changed the oil as I had done so many times before, but this time I had to buy all seven quarts of my favorite engine oil at a pretty exorbitant FBO price. That's life away from home, I suppose.
Finally, at around 6:00 pm I was on my way back west again. At least the weather was CAVU again. My IFR flying was over for this trip. What disaster would rear its ugly head next? Well, I'll tell you. For some reason I didn't use my landing light flying into Dalhart, TX. It seemed like a really nice airport, so I figured the runways would be in good shape, and I wanted to save my landing light. Big mistake! I should know better. Anytime I land at a strange field at night, I try to make it a rule to use my landing light. Why wasn't I thinking? I must have hit some rocks or something on the edge of the runway. Loud bumps and shakes rattled the nose gear. I thought maybe my nose tire had collapsed or shimmied loose or something. No, everything was ok, and the airplane taxied just fine after I cleared that rocky mess, or whatever it was on the runway. However, my left wheel pant got chewed up pretty good. It wasn't destroyed beyond airworthiness or anything, just ugly. I was not happy. I slept on a vinyl couch in the pilots' lounge and had the worst night's sleep of my life. By the way, in my opinion, Dalhart is not a very nice airport--at least the runways aren't very nice! Total time to Dalhart (DHT): 6.4 hours. Distance: 751 nautical miles.
The last leg lay ahead. Could I make it? No problem. One thing the Long-EZ does very well is convert fuel into distance. A little detour to the Las Vegas VOR in New Mexico, direct to the Daggett VOR in Califomia, and then hope Joshua Approach or SPORT MRU would clear me direct through R-2515 to Mojave. Headwinds weren't too bad, even at 10,500 feet MSL. Edwards Air Force Base must have been busy that day, though, because I had to go around R-2515, which cost me about an extra half hour of flying time. In any case, what should have been a straight line distance of 763 nautical miles took a little longer and I was finally home after 6.3 hours of flying--already halfway to another oil change!
My total flying time during the trip was 56.9 hours, including 6.1 hours of night flying and 8.1 hours of actual instument flying. The ironic thing about the instrument flying was that even though I needed to fly IFR to get around, I only logged one approach, and even that one approach wasn't really necessary. Quite an adventure, if I may say so. All I can say is, it sure beats driving!