By Andrew Vogeney
Taking a real cross-country trip has been an aviation goal of mine for years, and 2019 finally brought me the chance to do it… twice. After semi-relocating to Chicago and leaving our 182 in Phoenix for several months, I just couldn’t bear it anymore. I was starting my instrument training (again) and decided it didn’t make sense to do it in a rental when real-life flying would happen 99% of the time in the plane I owned.
My dad agreed to take the adventure with me, so we met in Phoenix and embarked on a two-day trip to Chicago last July. We had a great weather window and pushed a long first day to avoid some impending thunderstorms. Day 2 was a little more relaxed, affording us the chance to land on a grass runway (an aviation first for me), chase cheap fuel, and take a nice aerial tour of the Chicago skyline. The trip was uneventful, and we got to enjoy a few days together in Chicago before he had to leave… the buffer time in case anything went wrong was instead spent exploring the city together.
All good things come to an end (yes, I’m talking about Chicago summers), so it made sense to bring the plane home to Phoenix for its annual and some winter hibernation. Much to my surprise, my partner – who is very afraid of flying, especially in small planes – agreed to take the trip with me. The only caveats were that we flew exclusively on “perfect” weather days, we limit each day to a few hours in the air, and we spend a few nights in Santa Fe for a pre-holiday vacation. Works for me!
Since we were restricted to severe clear, we ended up leaving a few days earlier than planned, when the forecasts were most promising. We packed up Tuesday night and headed out as soon as we were done with our meetings on Wednesday. My instrument ticket was still hot off the press, and it turned out we would need it. To say it was bumpy coming out of Chicago would be putting it lightly, and as we crossed into Indiana, we had two choices – pick up a clearance to get on top, or skirt uncomfortably low under the un-forecasted layer for who knows how long. So, I picked up my first 0.1 of post-training instrument time and it was smooth sailing all the way to Nashville. Jonathan had packed us a really nice lunch which we enjoyed on our way to Music City.
After a single beer, some fantastic music and a plate of disappointing BBQ, we called it an early night. The flexibility to work remotely showed its graces the following morning as we worked from a nice local coffee shop. After the work was done, we headed back to John Tune Airport (KJWN) for a quick flight to Memphis. We enjoyed some nice new scenery, particularly at both airports which are surrounded by rivers.
The folks at Gen. Dewitt Spain Airport (M01) in Memphis couldn’t be a more friendly bunch, and we excitedly topped off the tanks and jumped into an uber for a 5-minute ride into town. We checked into our hotel just in time for an amazing sunset, a cocktail and a nice night out. We planned two nights in Memphis so we could work, unwind, and enjoy the new city. The BBQ here redeemed itself (don’t miss Charlie Vergos Rendezvous if you’re in town) and we were happy to be settled. We did a ton of walking (in Memphis), checked out the Bass Pro Shop (inside one of the world’s largest pyramids – complete with a hotel, indoor swamp and bowling alley), enjoyed some great music, and left thankful we’d gotten to see two new places already this early on our trip.
It was time to cover some ground, and we planned the next leg by ear. Our ultimate goal was Santa Fe, but that would have been a 7-plus hour flying day, so we figured we’d see where the day took us and stop when it felt right. Memphis promised to be perfect VFR, but when we woke up it looked like someone had covered our hotel windows in copy paper. We could barely see the buildings next to us. What happened to our perfect flying day? We decided we should get to the airport as quickly as possible so we could get in the air as soon as the fog burned off. Fortunately, by the time we packed the plane and grabbed a cup of coffee it was safe enough to depart. Thank you, instrument rating, for getting us going again. After logging another 0.1 we were off, above the clouds, and again it was smooth sailing.
I knew this trip would teach me a few lessons, and I learned my first one during our stop at 7M5, Ozark-Franklin County airport in Arkansas, where the allure of cheap fuel (the cheapest of the trip) called me in. I had enough to comfortably get us well past our next stop, so I ignored a few of the comments in ForeFlight suggesting the credit card reader was less than reliable. It was, and it took us 5 attempts and 3 different cards to get it to work. That wasn’t the lesson… Now heavy with full tanks and luggage, I took off in the opposite direction I had intended based on what I thought the winds should have been. Why? The windsock told me to. It wasn’t until days later that Jonathan mentioned he saw the windsock was ripped. He wanted to tell me, but we were already halfway through our very long takeoff roll and he didn’t want to interrupt me. I guess we both learned a lesson that day!
From there we made our way to KHSD, Sundance, just north of Oklahoma City. Maybe the best FBO we’ve stopped at, they offered an amazing self-serve fuel system as well as Range Rover courtesy cars. We rolled up to Raising Cane’s in style, loaded up on some greasy food, and kept chugging toward Amarillo. The day was starting to stretch Jonathan’s flying limits and, armed with my iPad, he chose our next stopping point – T59 in Wheeler, TX. My lesson about reading the comments in ForeFlight was reinforced as we landed. Though the runway was listed in good condition, it had severe cracks several inches wide and deep, with weeds measured in feet instead of inches. This one-building airport in the middle of nowhere would not make my list of places to stop again, but I’m happy to say my crosswind landing skills and my tires both passed this test.
After a quick stretch and an open-air bio break, we made haste toward Amarillo where we would check in for a good night’s rest. 875 miles down! Our 182 called Tradewinds (KTDW) home for the night, and for us it was a Courtyard. Amarillo has a cute, small downtown, and Six Car Pub & Brewery, right across the street from our hotel, pulled us in. We deserved some fresh suds and a hearty brisket grilled cheese.
The weather gods were not good to us the following morning. In addition to thick fog, there was a low cloud layer that didn’t want to let up. With temperatures hovering just below freezing at the surface, the tail and wings were covered in frost and ice. A fellow pilot looked eager to depart, and I made a point to tell him about the ice on our plane. I’m glad I did, as he decided to stay on the ground for a few hours just like we did. Thankfully Tradewind had a courtesy car available, so we made use of our delay by finishing up some Christmas shopping, grabbing lunch, and making a visit to Cadillac Ranch. We spent another hour or so relaxing in the FBO, never in a rush, until I felt the weather was safe for our departure. Warming, recent PIREPs, and the availability of a nearby approach (should things go wrong) gave us the confidence to earn our last 0.1 IMC and head toward Santa Fe.
It was a smooth flight, but we both realized we had enjoyed too much coffee during our weather delay, so we made a quick diversion to get our Kicks on Santa Rosa Route 66 (airport, that is), KSXU. It was a quiet, windy airport with a fantastic little building that local pilots had stocked with water, coffee, snacks and even a flight simulator. They also had a big chart on the wall which gave us the opportunity to look back on just how many miles we’d flown over the past few days.
We only had a half hour to go, and boy was it a bumpy thirty minutes. My only job was to avoid the bumps, and I was doing terrible. I know it’s bad when Jonathan pulls the mic away from his mouth so I can’t hear what he’s saying (or screaming). I jinxed us when I said our ETA aloud – 15 minutes, not so bad. Call in the headwinds… 15 turned to 16, 17, 18… But all is well that ends well, and we landed in Santa Fe just as the sun was setting. No matter how bumpy the arrival, it’s hard to be upset with a postcard-perfect scene like that. The welcome was just as warm, with a fantastic tower controller, a follow-me truck, and a warm greeting in the FBO with a fresh cup of coffee and a fireplace. And at $6 a night, you can hardly beat that!
We spent three nights in Santa Fe, which really allowed us to unwind knowing the bulk of the journey was behind us. While there we enjoyed several margaritas, finished our Christmas shopping, got a lot of work done and just relaxed. I’d really love to come back when it isn’t so cold the fountains freeze!
After an obligatory fuel stop in St. Johns, it was time to come home. From the mountains to the smog to the familiar voices of our local controllers, we knew we had just about made it. My grandma was ready at the airport, excited to take us home for the holidays. I learned my final lesson at Deer Valley – if you buy someone an orchid for Christmas, don’t hide it from them in your hangar… it will die. But it’s the thought that counts!
Our trip tallied up to 7 states in 7 days, 11 airports and 16.8 flying hours including 0.3 IMC. I decided not to count the money spent or the beers consumed (except of course if I was flying the next day). It was headwinds 99% of the way, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I’m excited to take more true cross-country trips. It was a fantastic way to see and enjoy new parts of our country, and in fact, when all was said and done, much cheaper than doing it commercial. While traveling is my favorite thing to do, coming home is always the best part.