9918L Goes on an Adventure

In 1997 9918L was owned by Tim Gaffney a reporter for the

Dayton Daily News who, with Daily News Photographer Ty

Greenlees, flew 18L around the country for a series

“The Spirit of Flight.”  The articles published in the

Dayton Daily News have been retrieved from the Daily News Archives

And can be read below.

 

 

 

 

DAY 1: FIRST FLIGHT


BYLINE:    Timothy R. Gaffney Dayton Daily News
DATE: July 21, 1997
PUBLICATION:
Dayton Daily News (OH)

 KILL DEVIL HILLS, N.C. - We had almost flown past First Flight Airport before I spotted it.

Ty Greenlees, my partner, saw it first. I had trouble recognizing the plain gray strip of asphalt on this heavily developed Outer Banks Island until I saw two small airplanes parked at the south end. Tired, sweaty and thirsty, we were ready to land. Ready to get out of a sky that had thrown up thunderstorms along our path, creating detours that almost kept us from reaching our first destination on a two-week trip across America. Keying the microphone, I called out our position to any other aircraft that might be nearby and banked my little orange Grumman AA-1B into the landing pattern. Angling into a crosswind, we thumped down onto the 3,000 foot runway and rolled to a stop. We had come from Dayton, Ohio, home of the Wright brothers and the place where they invented the airplane, to Kill Devil Hills, the place near Kitty Hawk where the brothers made their famous first flights.

 

Eight hours earlier, our flying day began with great fanfare at the United States Air and Trade Show. The sky was blue, the weather looked pleasant across our route, and we lined up with the regular air show performers for an heroic send-off.

N9918L -- One Eight Lima, I called it -- looked small and homely next to the big, brightly painted Red Baron Stearman Squadron. Air show pilot Sean D. Tucker, either taking pity on the plane's peeling paint or spotting an opportunity for a free plug, slapped one of his stickers on a wheel cover. We followed Bill Leff's shiny T-6 Texan Warbird, a World War II-era trainer, out to the starting position and waited to take off while a B-17 bomber led a parade of Warbirds right over our canopy. Then it was our turn. We taxied into position, and the voice of Air Show Control came through our headsets. `One Eight Lima, cleared for take off.'

We lumbered into the air, loaded to maximum gross weight, and the Dayton Air Traffic Control Center cleared us for our course heading. It was an ideal day for our part of the country: a little hazy, but surprisingly smooth, and with visibility better than 10 miles. Brown and green squares of farmland spread out like a flat quilt across the earth. We took turns flying.

As we crossed into West Virginia near Pomoroy, we saw plumes of yellowish smoke from the smokestacks of power plants rising up to our altitude of about 5,500 feet, then flattening into a smear that put a yellow stain across the sky. We flew through traces of the smoke and I smelled sulfur and felt an acid taste in my mouth.

We stopped for fuel and sandwiches at Greenbrier Valley Airport in Lewisburg, West Virginia, a small, busy airport with a control tower where people sit on benches along the front of the terminal building and watch business jets and small airliners come and go.

We had hoped to stop at Elizabeth City, North Carolina, to refuel one more time before reaching First Flight Airport. But the haze thickened and clouds began building up overhead. We decided to land at a small field with the important-sounding name of Emporia-Greensville Regional. On our chart, it boasted three runways. It turned out to be a sad, little field with two runways being overtaken by grass, tattered windsocks, a John Deere tractor -- and no airplanes in sight.

We hopped south to Tri-County Airport near Woodland, North Carolina. We got fuel, and sobering weather news: thunderstorms lay everywhere to the east, and where it wasn't storming, it was hazy. But an airport veteran suggested we try skirting the bad weather by going north, east, then down the coastline. A series of small airports lay that way, and he said several had motels close by in case we got stuck.

We headed north, and the sky did look lighter that way; we kept going, and the weather kept improving. Finally we reached the outer banks, and found the sky hazy, requiring a constant scan for the possibility of other air traffic, but otherwise benign.

Reaching First Flight was almost an anticlimax. We were too drained to feel any sense of wonder or awe that in just a day's flying we had made a trip that had taken Orville and Wilbur days by boat and train.



 HISTORIAN FOLLOWS WRIGHTS' PATH


* Visitors from around the world come to the
North Carolina site.


BYLINE:    Timothy R. Gaffney Dayton Daily News
DATE: July 22, 1997
PUBLICATION:
Dayton Daily News (OH)

KILL DEVIL HILLS, N.C. - Darryl Collins has been the historian too long at the Wright Brothers National Memorial.

It's gotten into his blood.

Born and raised in Manteo, across the sound from this Outer Banks community, Collins, 43, said he has worked at the National Park Service site for 18 years.

Less than a century old, the site is steeped in history and rich in symbolic importance for aviators and aviation enthusiasts. It's where people, after envying the birds for thousands of years, finally gave themselves wings.

Dominating the 431-acre site is a high, grass-covered hill where a 60 foot granite monument marks where Dayton brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright flew gliders to perfect their concept of a heavier-than-air flying machine. Nearby are a series of stones marking the path of the world's first powered flights, which the Wrights made on Dec. 17, 1903. A visitors' center contains replicas of the Wrights' 1902 glider and the 1903 Flyer it led to.

Collins speaks quietly in a soft North Carolina accent, but his pride in the Wrights is obvious.

`This is a true American dream, a dream these two men had, and they fulfilled the dream at this site,' he says.

Visitors come from around the world, up to 150,000 a month, he says.

Some are just families on vacation. Others have a more serious interest.

`They come to make the bond with the Wright brothers,' he says.

But Collins has made his own bond. Over the years, he has felt the desire to take wing himself, but time and money were always barriers.

Patiently, he's following their path into the sky.

`I just finished ground school,' he confides.


FOLLOWING A FLYING RULE OF THUMB, PILOTS WEATHER STORMS ON GROUND


* `It's better to be down here wishing you were up there than up there wishing
you were down here.'


BYLINE:    Timothy R. Gaffney Dayton Daily News
DATE: July 23, 1997
PUBLICATION:
Dayton Daily News (OH)

 CORNELIA, Ga. - In this age of computers and satellites, pilots have an enormous amount of resources to help them judge the weather.

They can call down satellite pictures of cloud cover, conjure up radar images of rain showers, summon information from a nationwide network of both attended and automatic weather observation stations. But when it comes time to decide whether to launch into the wild blue yonder or check into a motel, the bottom line is a rule of thumb I learned years ago from Don Upp, one of my early flight instructors at Moraine Airpark.

`Just remember,' he said one day as we gazed wistfully at an overcast sky, `it's better to be down here wishing you were up there than up there wishing you were down here.'

Tuesday, my partner Ty Greenlees and I are down here wishing we were up there - and glad of it.

Up there is a huge, swirling mass of clouds, rain and thunderstorms that used to be Hurricane Danny. It moved north from the Gulf of Mexico at the beginning of the week and planted itself over Birmingham, Ala., blocking our way west.

We had hoped to make the third leg of our Spirit of Flight aerial odyssey from Greenville, S.C., to Dallas. Instead, our 850-mile voyage turned into a 75-mile hop to Cornelia.

While Ty has an instrument rating and my orange Grumman AA-1B is equipped to fly in clouds, our practice on this trip has been to fly strictly under visual conditions - after all, sightseeing is one of the pleasures of flying.

So we buttoned up the plane and went to a motel, where we watched Danny's stormy antics on The Weather Channel.

Wishing we were up there?

In a sequence of radar images, Danny churned counterclockwise as if it were still a hurricane, throwing off lines of thunderstorms. `Look at that,' Ty said. `That's ugly, nasty stuff.'

Yeah, we wishing we were up there - and wishing Danny was down here.

 

CAROLINA'S DENSE FOG PRODUCES A FRIENDLY FACE


* 2 neighborly retirees pursue their love of flying with a cropdusting
service.


BYLINE:    Timothy R. Gaffney Dayton Daily News
DATE: July 23, 1997
PUBLICATION:
Dayton Daily News (OH)
 

GREENVILLE, S.C. - Droning through thick haze, we were just three miles from Plymouth Airport in eastern North Carolina when we saw a small yellow plane dart onto the approach path in front of us.

There was no danger - the plane was about two miles ahead - but it annoyed us that someone would ignore our radio announcements that we were about to land. The yellow plane taxied quickly off the runway towards a hangar. `I might just give him a piece of my mind,' Ty said as we floated down to the runway. I was thinking the same thing.

It was a good thing we didn't, because the pilot, Wade Brabble, was about to become our best friend.

Plymouth, a small airport almost lost among a thick green carpet of trees just 65 west of Kitty Hawk, wasn't even on the schedule for our two-week flight around America. We landed there because the weather was getting too bad to fly.

We had taken off from First Flight Airport, a simple airstrip at the Wright Brothers National Memorial on the Outer Banks, filled up our fuel tanks at Dare County Regional Airport on Manteo Island, then lifted off again in hopes of finding better weather to the west.

We didn't. The haze closed in like a gray glove, and we were soon flirting with the minimum legal limits for visibility. We flew low and slow, watching for other air traffic and checking landmarks carefully. When we reached Plymouth, we didn't have to debate whether to land.

The yellow plane was a stubby monoplane built for agricultural use - a cropduster. It taxied to a hangar and stopped to load its spraying tank while the propeller kept turning, then taxied back to the runway. The pilot gave us a friendly wave as he passed.

We climbed out of my plane and walked across the sandy soil towards the hangar. Another man there walked up to meet us. `John Lilly,' he said in a friendly North Carolina drawl.

He explained that the pilot, Brabble, was testing the spraying system with a load of water. Brabble took off and flew a low, tight pattern around the field. We realized it was the same thing he'd been doing when we first saw him. `That's a rare plane,' Lilly said. It was a 1963 CallAir A-9, built by Imco Inc. in Afton, Wyoming. We knew a little about ag planes, but neither of us had heard of this one.

Brabble returned, parked his plane in front of a hangar and climbed out. A tall man with windblown gray hair, Brabble wore a short-sleeve, plaid shirt, blue jeans, and gold wireframe glasses. He smiled and shook our hands as if we were expected guests. Brabble went into his hangar to drag out a hose as we admired the well-kept CallAir. I heard him whistling `O Suzanna' as he worked. The thickening haze apparently didn't bother him a bit.

`This is just a hobby for us,' he explained later. Both men had retired from a nearby paper plant and ran a part-time cropdusting business, J&W Flying Service, as an excuse to fly.

`We've been spraying (crops) for what, about 30 years?' Lilly said.

`We've got 50 years between us,' said Brabble, who surprised us when he said he was 63. With a laugh he added, `We're going to stop at 70.'

We told them we were flying across the country and sending stories about aviation back to our readers in the birthplace of aviation, where the Wright brothers invented the airplane.

You don't have to tell many people who the Wright brothers were. We sure didn't have to tell Brabble and Lilly. `For a couple of bicycle makers, they were pretty good engineers,' Brabble observed.

Looking at the soupy North Carolina sky, we weren't sure how good they were as airport planners. Lilly had to leave, but Brabble stuck around. He led us to a plain office at the end of his hangar where we could call for aviation weather information.

A bulletin board in his office was covered with snapshots of various airplanes, some new, some old, some on floats, some on wheels.

`I like to be around airports. That's for sure. I like to be around airplanes,' he said.

Ty called for weather information while Brabble spun flying stories. He told of flying float planes far into northern Canada on fishing expeditions.

The weather news wasn't good. Thunderstorm cells were boiling up to the west of us. But we still weren't certain how threatening the situation really was.

`If you need a picture of the weather, I have a friend who can get you one,' Brabble said. We piled into his pickup truck and he drove us to the office of a friend who had a fancy computer terminal tapped into an aviation weather service. It showed satellite pictures, radar images, surface observation maps and forecasts for all regions of the nation.

Basically, the local weather was lousy but slowly improving. The remains of Hurricane Danny were churning up the sky to the southwest, but conditions seemed fair directly west. If only we could get there.

Brabble drove us back to the airport. The sky over the airport was darkening, and we heard thunder rumbling overhead. Soon rain lashed the field. One Eight Lima, my little orange Grumman AA-1B, looked forlorn on the parking apron under a driving rain.

Ty and I knew we weren't going anywhere soon. We were hungry, and we didn't know when we would get a chance to eat.

`Can we buy you lunch?' Ty asked Brabble.

Brabble smiled. He understood our predicament. `Well, I don't usually eat much lunch,' he said, `but you boys might be here awhile.'  He drove us into town, and we ordered sub sandwiches at Mamma's Pizza. Brabble entertained us with more flying and sailing stories.  

Something changed. Wordlessly, Ty and I turned and looked out the restaurant's large front window. It was brighter outside. The sky had lightened. The thunderstorms had swept past and the clouds were lifting.

We paid the bill, and Brabble drove us quickly back to the airport. It was time to fly.

Brabble, the guy who had annoyed us that morning, had been a patient host and helper for hours, without a hint of annoyance himself.  `Give me a call if you come back,' he said. `I've got a place down by the river where I can put you up if you have to spend the night.'  We really didn't want to spend the night in Plymouth. We wanted to head south and west. We had a lot of flying ahead of us.

RAIN STOPS, FOR A BIT


* After hours of rain, an opening in the clouds only teased our intrepid
travelers.


BYLINE:    Timothy R. Gaffney Dayton Daily News
DATE: July 24, 1997
PUBLICATION:
Dayton Daily News (OH)
 

JASPER, Ga. - All day Wednesday, we waited hour by hour at Habersham County Airport for the remains of Hurricane Danny to drift past and finally leave us a clear path towards Dallas. It rained so much we joked about giving lessons in an air boat that sat on a trailer in front of the airport office.

The ceiling lifted, and about 5 p.m. the sky parted to the west. Tall piles of white cumulous clouds shined in the sun. It looked more than flyable; it looked glorious.

We checked my orange Grumman AA-1B, loaded our bags and took off. The hills spread out before us. Wisps of fog rose from a few valleys, but the visibility was the best we'd seen since leaving Dayton.

We headed west along a track that would keep us near airports in case the weather got bad. Pickens County Airport, near the tiny town of Jasper, was about 40 miles west.

A little to the left of our course, the horizon disappeared in a blue-black wall of rain. The high, flat edge of a thundercloud spread out high overhead, 10 miles above us. We steered away, towards the north, then turned west as we got around it. The weather ahead still looked good.

Ahead, a ridge rose to 3,800 feet above sea level. We climbed to 5,500 feet to clear it with room to spare. But just as we crossed it, we hit a wall of thickening haze and a horizon swelling with thunderstorm clouds. We would learn later that their tops were reaching 55,000 feet.

This was much worse than the weather briefing we had received before takeoff.

`We're landing at Jasper,' I said.

`You won't hear me arguing,' said Ty.

The haze threatened to blind us, but the terrain was lower past the ridge. I pushed the nose over into a 500-foot-per-minute descent to keep the ground in sight. By this time we were just five miles from Pickens County Airport, and we spotted it ahead of us. Ahead of loomed the towering, black mass of a thunderstorm. We flew a fast, tight landing pattern, landed and tied down at Pickens County Airport.

We weren't happy. But we had avoided a close encounter of the worst kind, the last blast of Danny rotating back across our path. We knew we weren't flying anywhere again this night.

The airport was closed, but we found a pay phone outside and called a motel for a room. We found some men in a hangar, working on a Cessna 182. One was ready to quit for the day, and he gave us a ride into town.

We had hoped to be eating Mexican food in El Paso tonight. Instead, we're going to walk across the street from our room at the Budget Inn to a saloon-looking place called the Blue Rodeo Cafe.

We hope we won't be wishing we were back among the thunderstorms.

AN AIRPORT THAT FEELS LIKE A COUNTRY STORE


* Where can a stranger fly in and borrow the flight instructor's car without
showing an ID?


BYLINE:    Timothy R. Gaffney Dayton Daily News
DATE: July 25, 1997
PUBLICATION:
Dayton Daily News (OH)
 

CORNELIA, Ga. - Four men sat on a porch in front of the Habersham County Airport office, feeding a black dog.  The dog had wandered in from somewhere, homeless and shy. It had hung around, keeping its distance, and people had started leaving food for it. Now it seemed to be the official airport dog, dividing its time between patrolling the line of small planes parked on the ramp and bumming food from the men on the porch.  Ty Greenlees and I felt a lot like that dog when we landed at Habersham Tuesday morning in my little orange Grumman AA-1B. We had wandered in from the cloudy sky, knowing nothing about this airport, what the people would be like or how long bad weather might force us to depend on their hospitality.

Showing my city habits, I closed the canopy and locked it when we got out. The office was a wood-paneled room with wide windows, linoleum floor tiles and Spartan furniture with chrome frames and red or blue vinyl cushions. A white-haired woman in her 60s worked on a word finder puzzle. Near her, a man of similar age with a two-day beard and a battered Georgia Tech baseball cap busied himself with a Reader's Digest. The only sounds were the tick of a clock set to international time and the occasional voice of a pilot crackling over the radio speaker.

Behind a wooden counter in a corner of the room stood a potbellied man with a ring of gray hair around his head. Wrinkles creased his face in cheerful patterns. The counter was piled high with the black logbooks of student pilots, and a wall facing it was covered with the shirt tails of student pilots who had made their first solo flights. On every shirt tail, thick black letters noted the student's name, the date of the solo and the name of the instructor, James Tatum.  Tatum was the man behind the counter. He was Habersham's flight instructor, charter pilot, aircraft mechanic and airport manager. The white-haired woman turned out to be his wife, Marene.  We exchanged some friendly comments about the sky, which was growing thick with clouds and haze. Without asking us who we were, where we were from or even whether we were going to buy fuel, Tatum laid a set of car keys on the counter.  `You might want to go get some breakfast,' he said in a gravelly voice. `I got a Buick you can take. The transmission slips sometimes, but it usually gets you there.' In an age of gated neighborhoods, car alarms and bank machines that scan your retina for identification, flying into small airports like Habersham is like flying back through decades of time.

This feeling is partly evoked by the airplanes you find. Near us on the ramp stood a half-century-old Luscombe, its aluminum skin stripped for repainting. Cessnas dating from the 1950s and '60s were tied down around the airport. Even my own Grumman is an artifact from 1973.  But the country-store feeling of small airports comes mainly from the people who work, fly or just hang around there. Mechanics and airplane owners tinker with their machines in the hangars. Pilots and students sit in the office or on the porch, hoping for flyable weather or just passing time by swapping tales. And managers like Tatum oversee it all, knowing that pilots - private pilots, anyway - spend more time at airports than in the air.

Transient pilots usually fit right into the picture. Most people involved in aviation share a common bond, the love of flight, and an appreciation for the hardships fliers endure to pursue their passion.

So it didn't seem to matter to Tatum who we were or why we had arrived. A pilot himself, he could guess that we were on a cross-country flight to somewhere, had skipped breakfast to get an early start, and had sought out his airport as a refuge from deteriorating weather.  And, now that we were there, he knew we had no way to go anywhere or do anything without help.

We borrowed Tatum's car. The man in the Georgia Tech cap, Richard Wallace, came along to help us find a restaurant.

Wallace wore a blue button-down shirt, blue jeans, and a silver belt buckle with a Pratt and Whitney aircraft engine emblem on it. Over greasy omelettes and hash browns, Wallace told us he was a retired aircraft mechanic from the giant Delta Airlines hub at Atlanta's Hartsfield International. The airport was a lot smaller and Delta was still flying Douglas DC-3s when he started there, he said.

`I've got a small airplane I built myself,' he said. Back at the airport, he led us to his hangar and slid back the wide steel door, exposing a pretty white Kelly biplane with red stripes and tandem cockpits.

Wallace showed us the plane the way a mechanic would, opening inspection planes and cowling panels.

He smiled as we admired his work. `Yeah, I'm sort of getting attached to the old bird,' he said.

The weather kept getting worse. We unloaded my plane, and Richard drove us to a motel in his pickup truck.

We were back Wednesday morning in a cab. Tatum was in the airport hangar, changing the oil on the twin engines of a Cessna 340. It was raining, and the forecast called for rain most of the day, but Tatum wasn't surprised to see us; he knew pilots with nothing better to do hang out at airports.

And he knew that to pilots, few things are better.


STORMS MAKE AIRPORT BEAUTIFUL


* The late hour and grim weather make landing at
Lordburg, N.M., essential


BYLINE:    Timothy R. Gaffney DAYTON DAILY NEWS
DATE: July 27, 1997
PUBLICATION:
Dayton Daily News (OH)
 

Lordsburg's runway was just three miles west of us Friday evening when we entered the gray edge of the rain shower.

The raindrops hit the Plexiglas windshield with a loud sizzle. The wind blast from the propeller smeared the rain across the bug-spattered windshield until we could hardly see ahead. But off our left nose, Lordsburg Airport was clear of rain. In the evening over the high desert, in a darkening sky laced with rain showers all around and lightning flashes to the west and south, that simple, mile-long stretch of pavement was a beautiful sight.

I'm not used to flying in rain, and I worried about all that water being sucked into the engine. But my little Grumman AA-1B chugged merrily along, and soon we were turning out of the rain to line up with the runway.

A strong wind was blowing as we parked, and rain started pelting us as we tied down the plane and closed up the canopy. We had left Dallas in the morning in hopes of reaching Tucson, Ariz., but we knew it was getting too late to continue weaving around thunderstorms, as we had been doing all afternoon.

But my partner, Ty Greenlees, and I were finally making progress on our two-week flight around the United States. Back in Georgia, we had been nearly stalled for two days by the remains of Hurricane Danny.

We waited all of Thursday morning for the fog to lift at Pickens County Airport, a cheerless little airfield in northeastern Georgia that smelled of a nearby chicken farm.

When the clouds finally parted, we roared off for Texas, two days behind schedule. We flew steadily, refueling every couple of hours and watching the landscape change as it slid under our wings.

The low mountains and rolling hills of Georgia gave way to flat, forested land in Alabama and swampy farmland in Mississippi. The Mississippi River was a sprawling tangle of green channels where we passed over it. We saw a barge threading its way up the river; it looked like a toy.

We made a brief fuel stop at Hope, Ark., a big, old airfield which, the manager told us, had been a training base for B-17 bomber crews during World War II. We were slow to realize this was also President Clinton's old neighborhood.

We entered Texas just south of Texarkana. The Red River looked golden to us in the late afternoon sun.

As we approached Dallas, we stayed low and veered south to avoid Dallas-Fort Worth International and its teeming airline traffic.

The sun turned pink, then red, as we headed for Grand Prairie Airport south of Dallas. We touched down just as the sun sank below the horizon.

For once, we didn't have to worry about finding a motel and a ride into town. Katie Braun is a flight instructor and former corporate pilot we met a couple of years ago. We barely knew her, but when we contacted her to tell her we'd be in her area, she immediately offered to help.

It was almost 9 p.m. when we called her from the airport, but she and her boyfriend, Dale McCombs, drove out to pick us up.

We had run out of clean clothes days ago. We were groggy from hours in 90-degree heat, parched from sitting in a blast of dry wind blowing through our partially opened canopy, and we smelled from days of sweat.

But they didn't flinch. They drove us to Dale's house, handed us towels and a laundry basket and pointed us to showers. While we cleaned up, they grilled steaks and made salad and mashed potatoes. We all ate dinner at midnight.

Friday morning, I asked Katie if it's common for her to get called out of the blue from people who say they're coming to town and want to be taken care of.

`Occasionally, but more often I do that to other people,' she said.

Dale also understood what it's like to be a pilot at the mercy of others. His father was an Air Force pilot and Dale flew Phantoms for the Marine Corps. Now he flies Boeing 727 airliners. But he also owns a little Piper Cub for pleasure flying.

They drove us back to Grand Prairie. We made a short hop to Arlington Airport, where we looked at Dale's Cub.

But it was time to be on our way. For the first time on our trip, we had a clear sky. We took off to the south and turned west along Interstate 20.

The landscape quickly changed. Tree cover gave way to sparse prairie. We climbed steadily with the terrain. Soon, we saw the white gridwork of oil fields, white lines connecting white squares like modern geoglyphs. In the center of each square, the long, black arm of an oil well pump slowly dipped and rose.

We passed to the south of Abilene and Dyess Air Force Base, steering clear of their controlled airspace. We could see a dark row of B-1B Lancer bombers parked at Dyess, and we heard Dyess Tower clear a pair of the big bombers for takeoff. But we were well out of their path by then.

We were getting into Big Sky country. The land seemed to widen, the sky to grow. Instead of peering through dense haze, we could see for dozens of miles. Rocky buttes and low mountain ridges added texture to the landscape. Isolated thunderstorm clouds fanned into the sky on the horizons.

But the distances between airports were also growing. We couldn't count on having an airport in sight every five minutes. We had to pay attention to our fuel consumption, the distance we were covering and our time in flight.

Our flight guide listed Culberson Airport at Van Horn, west of Midland, as being attended 24 hours per day. When we got there, the place was deserted. We walked into the silent, stuffy office. We found a pay phone and a list of phone numbers to call for gas.

At the third number, we reached Larry Simpson at a Radio Shack and office supply store. He showed up a few minutes later to fill our tanks.

Simpson, it turned out, was Van Horn's airport manager, office supply store magnate and weekly newspaper publisher. He flew helicopters in Vietnam and seemed to be trying to keep the airport open as a public service.

The old field didn't see a lot of business these days. One runway was closed and overgrown by short grass and bushes. `You're the first airplane that's come in here since Wednesday night,' Simpson said.

We took off for El Paso. Afternoon thunderstorms were boiling up all along the Texas-Mexico border. We veered around one just west of Van Horn, climbing first to get over a line of jagged ridges.

The storm cloud was a tall pillar of ivory cumulus clouds, but underneath its dark shadow, a black shaft of rain drenched the desert. Lightning flashed through the rain, and we could hear the electrical discharges crackle in our headsets.

From El Paso we headed toward Tucson, but we planned our route airport by airport, eyeing the thunderstorms and estimating the daylight we had left.

Thunderstorms are dangerous to small planes, and we weaved carefully among widely scattered cloudbursts. The black rain shafts with the lightning stabbing down through the darkness was sobering, but we still saw these thunderstorms as things of astonishing beauty. They were all around us, but none was close enough to be a threat. We flew as if floating through a great room filled with columns. Above us, ivory clouds spread across a deep blue sky. Below, bands of rain deluged the parched earth.

Passing over Deming, N.M., we saw more thunderstorms to the south and west. One just to our south was particularly dark, fat, and full of lightning. Worse, we could see the clouds around us churning up fresh storms.

We closed up the plane and got inside the airport office just as a storm broke. Wind and rain swept over the airport for half an hour, while lightning flashed in a sky suddenly turned dark.

We knew we were done flying for the day.



ALTITUDE PUT BRIEF CHILL ON TRIP


BYLINE:    Timothy R. Gaffney DAYTON DAILY NEWS
DATE: July 29, 1997
PUBLICATION:
Dayton Daily News (OH)
 

Mother Nature gave us a startling physics lesson Saturday. We were less than 100 miles from Tucson, climbing to 7,000 feet to clear a jagged mountain ridge, when the engine of my Grumman AA-1B suddenly started coughing. My partner, Ty Greenlees, was flying the plane. He tried several remedies but nothing seemed to help. Fortunately, we had just passed Cochise Airport near the town of Willcox, so we turned around and landed. The culprit, it turned out, was ice. In many small airplane engines, cold air rushing through an air inlet can turn to ice. * FLYING DOGS: Every airport seems to have its own airport dog. At Lordsburg Airport in New Mexico, the airport dog was named Heidi. Heidi had suspiciously short ears. Her owner, John Heemsbergen, explained that Heidi tried to run under an airplane propeller, and it took 150 stitches to sew her up.

* JETS FOR SALE: Gadsden Municipal Airport in Alabama is a civilian field, but when we landed there Thursday it looked as if the air forces of Eastern Europe had arrived. It turned out to be the home of a major broker of jet fighters and trainers that are available for private ownership since the breakup of the Soviet Union. There was even a Russian MiG-21 on the ramp.

* GETTING IT WRIGHT: Aviation hasn't forgotten its roots. Somewhere in any airport you will find a picture of the plane the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk, N.C. One exception seemed to be in Pickens County, Ga. We didn't see a picture of it anywhere. Until we went to the bathroom.

 

TRACTORS OF THE SKY


* 'Cropdusting' is a throwback to earlier days, and the industry has been
modernized.


BYLINE:    Timothy R. Gaffney DAYTON DAILY NEWS
DATE: July 29, 1997
PUBLICATION:
Dayton Daily News (OH)
 

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - With a throaty roar from its radial engine, a fat yellow biplane flew low over a corn field, trailing white mist from a row of nozzles under its wings.

The plane banked sharply, reversed course and came across the field again, laying another trail of mist. After a few passes it droned away across the wide, flat fields, flying just high enough to avoid power lines. This is farming, Sacramento style.

The Sacramento Valley is flat and lush, blessed with bright sunshine, flowing rivers and rich soil. Farming is a huge industry here, and airplanes are as essential as tractors. In the case of rice, a major crop in this area, airplanes are even more important - they seed the flooded fields where tractors can't go.

My partner, Ty Greenlees, and I made an overnight stop here Sunday on our two-week flight around the nation. We stayed with Ty's cousin, Tara Atkinson, who works for the California Farm Bureau. She drove us to Riego Field, a private airstrip and the home of Farm Air, an agricultural aviation business.

Bill Porter, a big, mustachioed man who co-owns Farm Air with John Warner, showed us their four-plane fleet of yellow cropdusters - and explained that `cropduster' is a misnomer for their work.

`Most people have no idea that ag aviation has anything to do with anything besides spreading chemicals,' Porter said. `Seventy-five percent of what we do is seeding.'

Farm Air seeds about 35,000 acres in the Sacramento area with rice, clover, alfalfa and a variety of grains. It uses liquid sprays to treat crops. Monday morning, we watched one of Farm Air's Grumman Ag Cats treat a cornfield for mites.

Porter said `cropdusting' is a throwback to the early days of aerial agriculture. `In those days, everything was done in dust form, so it went everywhere,' he said. `Most places in the country, cropdusters are sprayers,' he said.

Agricultural aviation is just one facet of the wide realm of flying known in the United States as general aviation. It encompass all forms of aviation besides scheduled airlines and military aviation.

Like many in general aviation, Porter feels the public doesn't appreciate the importance of ag aviation to the economy and to society. Simply put, a lot of the food we eat depends on cropdusters for seeding, fertilization and pest control.

`People don't think much about where their food comes from,' Porter said.

We found the same situation back in Lordsburg, N.M. Lordsburg Airport was literally a port in a storm for us Friday night. It was an attractive, well-lighted runway where the airport manager, John Heemsbergen, lives with his wife, Anna Lee. They gave us a friendly welcome and let us borrow a courtesy car overnight.

Heemsbergen said the airport is also an economic asset for Lordsburg, a town of 3,500 in the middle of nowhere. `Everybody who comes into town, whether they're building a motel or a truck stop or working on the gas pipes, comes through this door,' Heemsbergen said. `The people who come in here pour money into this town.'

But Heemsbergen complained that local officials see the airport not as an economic asset, but as a place where wealthy people fly for pleasure. As a result, he said, the town won't invest in projects such as new hangars that would stimulate more business at the airport.

Heemsbergen said he and his wife are leaving the airport this year after three years. `We basically make our living selling airplanes,' he said. `I think I'm going to buy 80 acres that's narrow and long and build my own strip."

 



FIGHTING FIRE WITH FLIGHT


BYLINE:    Timothy R. Gaffney DAYTON DAILY NEWS
DATE: July 31, 1997
PUBLICATION:
Dayton Daily News (OH)
 

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho - It's humbling to fly through the sky in a small airplane while the earth reaches up towards you and looms high overhead before you. My partner, Ty Greenlees, and I were appropriately awed Monday as we flew north from Sacramento, Calif., toward Yreka, a small, high-desert town at the foot of Mount Shasta. While my little orange Grumman AA-1B chugged along, straining for altitude, forested peaks and ridges rose steeply below us.

We followed Interstate 5, a railroad and the Sacramento River up steep, forested valleys as the land rose to peaks more than 6,000 feet high. Far ahead, its snowy slopes rising into a massive, wind-raked pile of clouds, Mount Shasta slowly filled our windshield.

Mount Shasta is a volcanic peak that arises to more than 14,000 feet above sea level. The United States has many fourteeners, but Mount Shasta stands by itself, rising majestically from land just a couple of thousand feet above sea level.

We landed at Montague-Yreka Airport, a small field with a 3,300-foot runway. Ty's mother-in-law, Sallye Hale, vacationing in the area, greeted us with two cold bottled beers and a slab of smoked salmon. The airport manager loaned us the airport courtesy car, a 1975 Cadillac Fleetwood two-door. It was a huge, white land yacht of a car. We iced down the beer and the salmon in a foam cooler. We could hardly open the Caddy's doors, they were so heavy. Ty drove and did a terrible Elvis impersonation.

Then we had a chance to see what real airplanes do for a living. A passing thunderstorm had touched off numerous wildfires in the hills west of Yreka. White smoke plumes rose high into the air. We saw a spotter plane circling high over one of the fires and guessed that fire attack planes were on the way. We staked out one of the fires at a pulloff along a state highway.

This was a sight we never see in Ohio. In the western states, state and federal agencies fight forest fires from the air as well as on the ground. Airplanes drop smoke jumpers into fire areas and attack fires directly by bombing them with water or fire retardant chemicals.

We had seen two four-engine planes, a gray C-130 Hercules cargo plane and a red and white P-3 Orion, circling a fire as we passed Mount Shasta. Now, we figured those planes would be back to fight the fires near Yreka.

We didn't have long to wait: The P-3 soon showed up. It made a low pass over the fire, circled behind a hill, then came around again. It was scant feet over the hill when it let loose a long plume of red fire retardant that fell over the fire like a blanket.

It was a serious situation, as fire crews on the ground battled fires that kept springing up and the Orion bombed the area again and again, swerving each time to avoid surrounding hills. But we couldn't help treating it like an air show: While I watched and Ty took pictures, we sipped our beer and chewed on succulent hunks of salmon.

We got on much closer terms with lightning the next day.

Yreka was overcast Tuesday morning with scattered low clouds and patches of rain. We took off early, checking the chart closely while we climbed to clear the ridges and peaks on our route into southern Oregon.

The weather was threatening, and we called the Federal Aviation Administration's Flight Service Stations for weather briefings at each fuel stop.

In Idaho, a particularly nasty-looking thunderstorm was closing in on Mountain Home Municipal Airport as we left. Heading east, we steered to the left around a column-shaped shaft of rain and watched as the cloud spilling it out grew and darkened.

Lightning started flashing under the cloud, and we knew the rainstorm had developed into a full-blown thunderstorm. The winds in thunderstorms can throw a small airplane high into its midst, batter it with hail and dash it to the ground like a toy. We steered away, watching the lightning grow closer off our right wing.

When I saw a lightning bolt off my left wing, I thought my heart would stop. I looked up through the canopy and saw dark cloud spreading over us. I shouted a four-letter word and firewalled the throttle.

`I don't like it here,' I said.

It was our last close encounter with thunderstorms on Tuesday. We droned on across Idaho, passing over black, convoluted fields of lava along the Snake River Plains. Hungry and tired, we landed late in the afternoon at Idaho Falls and called it quits for the day.

After more than a week of flying, we were finally headed east again. Our flight Wednesday morning to Jackson Hole, Wyo., a ritzy resort town near Grand Teton National Park, brought none of the anxiety we had anticipated.

We followed the Snake River up a valley rimmed by snow-flecked peaks. Below, a carpet of low, cottony clouds slid by. Bright sunshine bathed us as we slowly descended into the valley, landed and looked forward to a relaxing morning in Jackson Hole.



FLIGHTS OFFBEAT, SCARY


* From Amazon jungle hops to critter chasing, these pilots push their skill
and luck


BYLINE:    Timothy R. Gaffney DAYTON DAILY NEWS
DATE: August 3, 1997
PUBLICATION:
Dayton Daily News (OH)
EDITION: CITY
SECTION: NEWS
PAGE: 15A

WAXHAW, N.C. - Townsend Field looks like a typical small airport, almost lost in the forested hills south of Charlotte, but the pilots here do flying that would make a fighter jock shudder. Don't expect to find them swaggering into the local bars, though; you're more likely to find them praying.

This is the home base of JAARS Inc., the Jungle Aviation and Radio Service. JAARS is the flying, computer and communications arm of Wycliffe Bible Translators, a Christian missionary organization that has been translating the Bible into every language of the world since the 1930s. Its missionaries live in the world's most remote villages - and JAARS pilots get them in and out. David Ramsdale, editor of JAARS' newsletter Beyond, talked to us about his 13 years of flying in Peru's Amazon jungle. The highest altitude we faced on our trip was 10,000 feet above sea level; Ramsdale, breathing oxygen from a bottle, used to fly single-engine Helio Couriers up to 22,000 feet to cross the Andes Mountains.

Helio Couriers are sturdy planes with big wings and engines that let JAARS pilots get in and out of seemingly impossible airstrips.

Ramsdale recalled one strip tucked far back in a valley. After flying over the strip to eyeball its location, he said, `You'd fly down the valley (and) suddenly you'd come around the bend, and you had to be in the right place, and you were committed to land. There was no going around. It was built into the side of a mountain.'

 

Sweat, sunscreen, tears

TUCSON, Ariz. - The morning we were to fly into Tucson, I slathered my face with SPF 25 sunscreen to protect me from the merciless desert sun. Big mistake.

It was warm, and by the time we reached Avra Valley Airport north of Tucson, we were perspiring freely. I was flying this leg, and just as I lined up on the runway, my eyes began to sting. Sweat was running into my eyes, and the sunscreen with it. I blinked fiercely, almost blinded by sweat, sunscreen and tears.

`Ty, stand by the airplane. You might have to take it,' I said. I can't remember what Ty said, and I doubt if I could repeat it here anyway. I made a safe landing, but that was the last time I used sunscreen.

 

Air-tracking animals

 

JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. - The small, yellow, fabric-covered plane parked at Jackson Hole Airport looked like a Piper Cub, but it wasn't. And it had a curious antenna that looked like a TV aerial mounted on its struts under each wing.

It was a rare plane called an Arctic Tern, and owners Claude Tyrrel and Jerry Hyatt of Worland, Wyo., fly it to track animals for the state's fish and game agency. The agency tags a wide variety of wild animals with radio transmitters to study animal populations and movements. Tyrrel and Hyatt use receivers in the Tern to locate them.

Just back from a morning of tracking grizzly bears, the bushy-bearded Tyrrel said he also tracks antelope, elk, mountain goats, bighorn sheep and wolves. `Pretty near any kind of critter that moves is tracked by aviation,' he said.

 

STRUGGLING OVER ROCKIES


* The mountains threaten to push the flying duo beyond their skill limit


BYLINE:    Timothy R. Gaffney DAYTON DAILY NEWS
DATE: August 3, 1997
PUBLICATION:
Dayton Daily News (OH)
 

Climb. Climb. Climb.

Jackson Hole, Wyo., is a flat, green valley just south of Yellowstone National Park. It embraces a long, blue lake that mirrors the stately, snow-streaked peaks of the Grand Tetons. High mountains rise all around it. That's why we must climb, and that's what I urge my little orange airplane to do as we start down the runway at Jackson Hole Airport to continue our two-week flight around the United States.

It's a lot to ask of my Grumman AA-1B. It has short wings and a small engine. It wasn't designed to fly much above 12,000 feet. The airport's runway is at 6,445 feet above sea level, and Ty and I make a full load with cameras, computers, clothes, and full fuel tanks.

The airplane starts sluggishly down the runway. The wheels rumble as it runs on and on, accelerating until the thin air flowing under the wings begins to push it up.

We rise slowly, barely flying, and the puffy remnants of morning fog lie just ahead. We bank gently into a left turn and begin the long, exacting task of climbing high enough to get over the mountains to the east.

We fly a racetrack pattern, climbing at 200 to 300 feet per minute. We fly toward a steep valley where the Gros Ventre River flows, then turn away. This valley is our best path through the mountains, but it winds among peaks higher than 10,000 feet to a pass 9,000 feet above sea level; we need more altitude.

Climb. Climb. Climb. We have 9,000 feet and begin heading up the valley. Carpets of fog hang over the valley floor below us. We are barely climbing now. I pull out the mixture control a notch, leaning the fuel flow. The engine's beat seems to quicken, and the needle on the rate-of-climb gauge inches upward.

I fly while Ty takes pictures of the snow-flecked peaks all around us. I try to keep the airplane trimmed to its best climb rate - too shallow and we stop climbing, too steep and we flirt with a stall, which would cause the wings to lose their lift and the plane to nose into a dive.

It's a delicate process: Flying slowly in the smooth air, every movement affects our balance. When Ty reaches behind our seats for a camera or a lens, the airplane's nose starts to come up and I nudge the control yoke forward to stop it. When he leans forward, the plane's nose dips and I pull back. When we turn to follow the valley, I bank ever so gently, and the nose turns dreamily to its new heading.

So far, so good. But neither Ty nor I have flown in high mountains before. We have read about the treacherous downdrafts and whirlwinds that mountains can make, but knowledge isn't the same as experience. I know my airplane is close to the limits of its performance; I worry that the mountains might push us beyond the limits of our skill.

We reach 10,000 feet and start slowly across the highest pass. We watch white patches of snow, green alpine meadows and gray outcrops of rock slide below us. Air coming up the mountain rocks us gently, but the winds stay asleep.

A sawtooth line of peaks appears in the distance to our right. It's the Wind River Range, and I reflect on the scene. Twenty-one years ago this week, I climbed among those mountains, higher then on foot than I am now in my airplane. Twenty-one years ago this week, I proposed to my wife in those mountains.

As the peaks around us begin to drop away, I am grateful they have let us go.

 

 

FUELED BY ROMANCE


* Although pilots often rationalize their flying, most are driven to it by
love and recreation.


BYLINE:    Timothy R. Gaffney Dayton Daily News
DATE: August 4, 1997
PUBLICATION:
Dayton Daily News (OH)
 

OSHKOSH, Wis. - When we cooked up this Spirit of Flight project last winter, Ty and I pitched it to our editors as a way to link the wide world of modern flight to Dayton's aviation heritage.

We contacted national aviation leaders for comments and downloaded megabytes of facts and figures from the Internet. But we weren't fooling anybody. And after two weeks of flying across deserts, over mountains and around thunderstorms, we conceded to ourselves that this highminded-sounding project was nothing but an old-fashioned romantic adventure.

Even Phil Boyer, president of the 300,000-member Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, had us figured out before we took off. We were flying for the romance of it, he told me in a telephone interview.

But that notion didn't put him off. In fact, he said AOPA surveyed pilots extensively a few years ago and found out that romance is why people fly.

`People do not learn to fly for transportation,' he said. `It's the recreation and romance that starts this thing off.'

And just as we tried to sell our project on journalistic grounds, Boyer said pilots try to rationalize their flying.

`We apologize for it all the time. We want people to know that we use our planes for business ... we don't want to admit that we own a plane to expand our horizons on the weekend,' he said.

Nobody apologizes here at Oshkosh. Since July 30, thousands of airplanes of every description have covered the ground and filled the air. This is the home of the Experimental Aircraft Association and the site of its annual fly-in convention, which runs through Tuesday.

It's part air show, part convention and part flea market. Hundreds of thousands of people who love aviation come to show off their planes or gawk at the planes of others. Homebuilders rub shoulders with legendary designers and astronauts. But, despite its vastness, it has the air of a small-town festival or a big family reunion.

Pat Wagner, a wingwalker from West Milton, has been coming to EAA fly-ins since the 1960s. `It's like coming home. I don't know why. You're only here one week.... You just kind of feel like family,' she said Sunday.

We got the same feeling as we closed in on the airport Saturday afternoon in my little orange Grumman AA-1B. When Ty radioed our position to Air Show Control, we heard air show performer Patty Wagstaff jump on the frequency.

`That sounds like Ty's voice,' she said.

We didn't answer - the frequency wasn't for chatter - but we grinned at each other, knowing we'd soon be seeing a lot of aviation friends.

Flying for romance is a notion Boyer said aviation manufacturers and organizations are trying to revive to stir up new interest in general aviation - the broad field of flight that includes everything besides airlines and the military.

They're trying to get people excited again because, despite the enthusiasm here at Oshkosh, general aviation is sagging.

Since 1979, Boyer said, the number of U.S. Licensed pilots has dropped by about 25 percent, from 827,000 to 622,000. Less than half as many new students sign up each year as in the 1970s. And airports are closing around the nation.

We saw what all those facts and figures meant during our flight. The average small airport office has a rundown look. Aging airport managers struggle to keep the airport open for aging pilots and their aging planes. Airports that once had two or three runways open have one, while weeds consume others.

It was a sobering aspect of our trip, because we also saw many of the ways that general aviation touches our lives - from seeding and treating crops to fighting forest fires and studying wildlife.

And we steeped ourselves in the romance of it, which is something that defies quantification. We couldn't find a way to put a value on the sense of wonder that comes from watching the colors and patterns of land and sky change as we crossed from one side of America to another and back again.

Romance is more than just sizzle to sell the product called general aviation. It's the root of it all. Call it a challenge. Call it excitement. Call it an affliction, as Wilbur Wright did nearly a century ago. It's why we all fly, and it's the best reason of all.