Over the past two weeks, Ashley and I have been on an epic adventure that took us from Houston to Billings, Montana via Memphis and Denver. The trip began about a month ago when a friend asked me to ferry his Super Cub from Memphis, Tenn. to Billings, Montana. For my non-pilot readers, ferry flying is done quite often to get an airplane from one location to another for its owner. In this case, the owner wanted to fly his airplane around Idaho for a few weeks, but he did not want to waste his time off getting it up there, so he asked if I could fly it up there for him.
Being that I am based in Houston, I needed to find a ride to Memphis to pick up his airplane, and, eventually, I would need a ride back from Billings to Houston in the end. As circumstances would work, Ashley was able to get the time off to fly me to Memphis and bring me home from Billings in her 1946 J3 Piper Cub. In addition, we thought it would be a blast flying as a flight of two from Memphis to Billings.
We headed out on Thursday, June 5 from Houston enroute to Memphis. The weather in Conroe at the very beginning would foreshadow the weather for the rest of the trip. We had to file Special VFR to leave (that just means we had to get special permission from the tower to leave since the weather was worse than the rules allow us to fly). Once we were far enough north the dew point spread separated enough and the clouds lifted. It would take us four stops to get to Memphis. One stop away from Memphis, a squall line moved through western Tennessee and brought 30 minutes of 50+ mph winds and heavy rain, stranding us in southeast Arkansas for the afternoon. Late Thursday, we finally made it to the airport where I was picking up the Super Cub.
The next morning the owner and I headed to the airport to fly the Super Cub around a bit, so I could get a feel for the new airplane. After my checkout in the airplane, Ashley and I departed and headed north toward Billings that afternoon. As luck would have it, we only made it to Kansas City that night due to more weather. We also hit Lee’s Summit on a particular busy night and the only hotel in town that was not full was the Unity Movement’s hotel for pilgrim’s seeking enlightenment… needless to say it was an interesting evening!
The next day we did not get in the air until after noon due to more weather moving through Kansas City. Once airborne we were treated with gorgeous flying weather all the way to central Nebraska. We spent the night in O’Neill, Nebraska. It turned out to be a beautiful little town with extremely nice people.
Sunday morning we woke up to a fast moving low that brought drizzly weather and rain to a four state region. We could only make it 50 miles to the next airport where we would be stuck the next 24 hours. This airport was 40 miles from the nearest town! The only facility on the airport was a small hanger with a small room and bathroom. We were stuck in that tiny little room for 24 hours with no were to go and no one to call (no cell service)! [The photo of our jail cell is in the iPhone gallery.] Our first big lesson of the trip: Do not leave an airport with great facilities if there is a chance you’ll get stuck at the next airport with NO facilities!
It finally cleared up enough late Monday morning that we were able to fly out. I have never been happier to leave an airport in my life! As usual, once the weather cleared, we had perfect flying weather. Since we were a flight of two, we flew in loose formation the entire trip but the calm air on this leg afforded us the ability to have some fun flying close formation. To me, formation flying is one of the coolest things a pilot can learn. It is a completely different type of flying when you are 10 feet off another airplanes wing. Along our route that afternoon, we came upon an airport that had a few recently destroyed hangars. We asked the airport attendant what happened and he said a microburst had come through the night before and destroyed three out of eight hangars. The weird thing was the other hangars were completely undamaged. A microburst is a very localized column of sinking air caused by a small and intense downdraft (the air does not spin as it does in the case of a tornado) within a thunderstorm with wind speeds of up to 120mph. In aviation training, we learn a lot about microbursts (because usually they are invisible to a pilot) but this was the first time I had seen the damage one caused in real life. There were a few airplanes destroyed in the hangar and there was a Piper Meridian on the ramp that a piece of hangar door sliced the wing completely in half. Microbursts are a real threat to planes; enough so, that even big commercial jets avoid them.
Later that afternoon we flew into South Dakota and over Badlands National Park on our way to the Black Hills. On our way through the Black Hills, we flew right by Mount Rushmore – a cool sight out the open window of a Piper Super Cub at 1000ft above ground level. After filling up for gas in eastern Wyoming we headed to Gillette, WY and flew right passed Devil’s Tower National Monument – another neat sight from the air!
The last leg of the day’s journey, from Sheridan, WY to Billings, MT was a flight I will remember for the rest of my life. It is a rare circumstance when everything lines up perfectly and the conditions for a flight are as good as they were this flight. The sun was setting, the air was calm, the temperature was perfect, the airplanes were running great, and the scenery was phenomenal. There was a slight broken layer of clouds way up in the stratosphere that was causing the setting sun to poke through, creating beautiful sun drenched patches and beautiful sunrays illuminating the mountains below. Occasionally, Ashley would fly through a sunny patch, which would light up that beautiful Yellow J3 against the contrasting shadow on the ground. The entire flight I kept thinking to myself, “How did I end up here? How many things in my life had to line up for this moment to happen? This is perfection.” Pictures cannot come close to doing this flight justice. It was a once in a lifetime flight and I will remember it for the rest of my life.
We took the J3 Cub to Laurel that evening to tie it down while I delivered the Super Cub to Billings International. As Ashley was filling up with gas, a friendly man named Drew stopped to ask her about the Cub. A few minutes later, he was offering us a hangar for the night. Just because of a little yellow Cub, we made a new, lifelong, friend. (Thanks Drew for your hospitality!) After chatting with Drew a bit longer, we packed the Super Cub and headed to Billings. Billings’ airport is in class C airspace, which tends to be busy and the controllers are usually not very friendly – this was not the case in Billings. As soon as I called approach control, I was cleared into the airspace, cleared to land, and subsequently was having a conversation about our long journey from the south. Once I switched over to Billings Tower control, the same thing happened! These are by far the friendliest controllers I have ever spoken with. Upon landing in Billings, I taxied to the hangar the Super Cub was sleeping in and there was another welcoming committee for us. Brandy, Tyler and a few other folks were there to greet us and help us get the Super Cub into the hangar. They drove us, put us up in a great hotel down the road, and even drove us 20 miles to Laurel the next morning. All this from people we just met! I have to admit, the friendly people in Billings put southern hospitality to shame. These are some of the nicest and friendliest individuals Ashley or I have ever encountered. Their friendliness made that incredible flight even more unforgettable.
As noted, Tyler, our new friend, kindly drove us back to Laurel to Ashley’s Cub the next morning. Upon arriving, he noticed that our eyebrow cowling on the Cub had a crack in it (something we already knew and was not that big of an issue). Small issue or not, Tyler wanted to fix it for us (he is a local airplane mechanic). Before we could protest, he was shaping the aluminum and counting out the rivets. 15 minutes later, our cracked cowling had a professionally installed patch. I am telling you, these Montana folks have to be the friendliest people in the world! Shortly after patching our cowling, we packed the airplane and were airborne back to Houston. We made it as far as Casper, WY before afternoon thunderstorms got bad enough we had to park the airplane for the evening. We had actually tried to leave Casper after fueling up but about 4 miles from the airport Ashley and I noticed a bunch of smoke a few miles ahead. After close inspection, what we thought was smoke turned out to be dust from a field below. We soon realized what was kicking the dust up was a small microburst under some virga. (Virga is rain that evaporates before it reaches the ground). It is common to have microbursts under virga since the rain cools the surrounding air creating a perfect column for air to rush downwards. After seeing that, and knowing what happened in Nebraska, we turned that Cub around as fast as we could and got her on the ground. Good thing we did because later that day a King Air (a much bigger and faster airplane than the Cub) had to go around twice due to windshear and a microburst over the airport.
It was our intention to leave at sunrise this day, however, a thick layer of fog rolled in and grounded us for most of the morning. I asked around the airport, Fog is, apparently, rare for Casper, and this was the worst they had seen in years! At this point Ashley and I could only laugh at our horrid luck with weather this entire trip. Once the fog rolled out, we packed the airplane and were ready to go… except the Cub had other plans. It had gotten so cold the night before that the engine did not want to start. We have to hand prop the airplane and the FBO’s engine heater was broken so it took us TWO HOURS to get the plane started! My arms are still sore from that morning! It was noon before we ever got off the ground, so much for an early start. In the mountains, winds tend to pick up throughout the day so flying mid-afternoon is not always ideal. Was that ever the case on this day! The whole trip south we were getting beat around by the rotors created by high winds coming over the mountains. To top off the afternoon I had to land at Cheyanne, WY in a DIRECT 28kt crosswind. For most big airplanes, the max crosswind component is 15-20 knots (meaning it is not advisable to land if it is blowing harder than that). The Cub’s max crosswind is well below that, plus it is a taildragger, which is inherently hard to land in a crosswind. Since Cheyanne’s crosswind runway was closed, I had no choice but to land with a 28kt x-wind. Even the tower told me I had the airspace to myself if I needed to go-around a couple of times (or to subtly inform me if I crashed I wouldn’t have an airplane landing right after me)! Long story short, I got the plane down and kept her straight. After landing, the controller complimented me and told me where to taxi – not a common occurrence. (The photo of me in front of the Cub was taken just after that landing – if you look close, on the left side, behind the airplane wing, you can see the windsock sticking straight out).
After that excitement, we needed to calm down so we went to lunch in Cheyanne at a great burger joint called, Two Doors Down. I highly recommend it. Later that evening we loaded back in the airplane and had an uneventful flight down to Parkland airport in Denver. Parkland is where we would spend the evening with our good friends, and great hosts, Mike and Charmian.
We packed up, left Denver at 10am, and headed further south toward Texas. This day was rather uneventful except at our lunch stop in Lamar, CO. Most airports have “crew cars” that pilots can borrow to go to town and get lunch. Lamar’s crew car is an old Pontiac van from the 90’s. On our way into town we were informed the main road to get back to the airport was about to close. The only way to get back to our airplane would be to take the Canal Road. No problem we thought… On our way, back to the airport we found out the “canal road” was hardly a dirt road that winded through private farms. Between each farm were a berm and a cattle guard on top of each berm. Every time our van went up and over a cattle guard, the engine would quit. This made for a long, but funny, 10-mile trip back to the airport!
We began day 9 in Canadian, TX (which I recently discovered was where the final scene in Cast Away was filmed). We woke up to perfect weather, finally! Our first flight of the day was another one of those, “everything lined up”, flights and we enjoyed a beautiful sunrise along with smooth, calm conditions. Six stops and 9 hours later we, finally, made it back to Texas. What a trip!!
STATS for the J3 Cub
To me, the most powerful statistic from the whole trip is this: We flew 3491 statute miles OR the same as flying from Los Angles to New York City to Miami, Florida. WOW!