June 13, 2019
We were going to head to the airport at 5am to get flying before it started getting warm and to avoid any afternoon buildups, but we got to bed later than I had planned so I decided 6am was a better departure time. Even so, I woke up a little after 5am and just laid there, unable to go back to sleep. I think it was a combination of excitement and nerves. The prospect of departing on a trip of over 1,900 miles, one way, to places I had never flown before kept my mind racing from one thought to the next.
Last night I planned two possible fuel stops and this morning after looking at the weather for both locations decided on Plainview, TX near Lubbock. My requirements for fuel stops are inexpensive fuel and a courtesy car to go grab a bite to eat.
It was a beautiful morning, still cool outside, and the few clouds overhead made for a nice sunrise. They had topped off the fuel tanks, we completed pre-flight, loaded up, and started the engine. With both the University of North Dakota and Arizona State conducting flight training at Mesa-Gateway, it is busy in the morning. We joined a number of Cessna’s in the Hold Bay at the end of taxiway Yankee near the departure end of 12R to perform the run-up and go through the pre-takeoff checklist. As we were finishing our run-up one of them motioned to us to see if we were ready. I still needed to go through my pre-takeoff checklist so I waved at him to go ahead of us.
Review speeds, distances, altitudes – Flight controls free and clear – Flaps set – Trim set – etc… With everything done I called up the tower.
Me: “Gateway tower, Mooney 78878 holding short one-two right in the Hold Bin for a north-east deaprture.”
Tower: “Mooney 78878, number one, hold short one-two right at Golf.”
Me: “Number one, hold short one-two right at Golf, 878.”
As we maneuvered around the Cessna that I had waved in front of us he smiled and gave us a shrug. A different Cessna on final landed and we were instructed to line up and wait, so we taxied out to the centerline and held there until the Cessna exited the runway and tower cleared us to depart.
Our route took us over the Salt River Lakes, northeast towards Show Low, continuing on to the St Johns VOR, around the south end of Manzano Peak south of Albuquerque, and then a little further north to clear the restricted areas to the west of Cannon AFB before turning direct to Plainview.
It was a great flight, most of the way… The scenery was beautiful and we had a great tailwind at 9,500′, keeping our ground speeds in the 170-195mph range (most of the way). Just northwest of Cannon AFB we had been cruising above a thin, scattered layer of clouds for a bit when I could see that further ahead the clouds were higher, right at our altitude. I knew it was clear at our destination, so I had two choices, either I could climb to 11,500′ or drop down to 7,500′. We only had about 120 miles left on the leg so I decided to drop down to 7,500′.
Me: “Cannon Approach, Mooney 78878, we’re going to go down to seven thousand five hundred to get below a layer ahead.”
Approach: “Mooney 78878, roger, maintain VFR.”
Me: “Maintain VFR, 878.”
I left the power and prop set where they were and pushed the nose over, trimming it out for the descent. Unfortunately the 30mph tail wind we were enjoying at 9,500′ didn’t exist at 7,500′ when we leveled off under the clouds and the rest of the trip was at about 150-160 mph ground speed.
Winds at Plainview were 12 gusting 20 and a little from the left but not too much of a crosswind. We taxied up to the fuel pump and topped off the tanks before pushing the plane to parking and heading inside. The folks there at the FBO were great. They gave us a car to drive and told us where we could find some good BBQ. We had some brisket for lunch and headed back to the airport so I could get a briefing for the next leg to Pine Bluff, AR.
The winds were still blowing when we took off and turned east, calling up Lubbock Approach for flight following. While you can legally fly through an active MOA while flying VFR, it is not the best choice. There is some risk from the military traffic that is training in that airspace, but really you end up placing them on hold as they can’t continue their exercise if it is going to cause traffic conflicts. I’m just flying a little piston plane for fun, burning about 9.5 gallons an hour. Do I really need to delay the training that is taking place by jets that can burn that much in a few seconds?
The MOA’s west of Sheppard AFB in Wichita Falls were all active so we headed northeast toward Childress before turning to the southeast. We were about 40 miles northwest of Sheppard AFB talking to Sheppard Approach with quite a ways to go still to get around the MOA’s to the north-east of us before we could turn on course when Approach called us up.
Approach: “Mooney 878, got a question for you.”
Me: “Go ahead, 878.”
Approach: “What would your direct on course heading look like to your final destination of PBF?”
Me: “It would be… uh… (quickly tapping the flight plan on the tablet to see the other legs) looks like 081.”
Approach: “Roger, cleared direct on course Papa-Bravo-Foxtrot.”
Me: “Fantastic, cleared direct Papa-Bravo-Foxtrot, thanks.”
They must have been done in that part of the MOA for the time being.
That cut quite a bit off our trip and saved us a bunch of time, it did mean that for the next 400+ miles I was just holding altitude and heading, and longing for an autopilot…
Finding airports out west, and in western Texas is not too difficult. You can usually see them from many miles away. Finding a small airport in Arkansas, that’s a different story. I was going off the heading and distance on the tablet to find Pine Bluff (KPBF) and making my position calls. I think we were about 3 miles out when I finally figured out which clearing the airport was in and saw parts of the runway between the trees. We landed and pulled up to the fuel pump and got out to use the restroom and grab a picture in front of the abandoned control tower. Apparently there were a number of airports with towers (including Plainview that we just came from) that saw the towers close in 1981 when the controllers went on strike and they never reopened.
As I walked back to the plane to fuel it a guy in a truck pulled up to say hello. You meet some of the friendliest people at little airports.
“How are y’all doing?”
“Great, thanks. Do you know where transient parking is to tie down?”
“Sure, it’s way down there. (Pointing towards the other end of the field) I could drive down there and park if you need me to.”
“No, that’s okay.”
“Do you need a ride into town to get something to eat or where you’re staying?”
“I need to figure out where we’re going to stay first.”
“If you want I could make a phone call and probably get you the crew car to use for the night.”
“Really? That would be great!”
“Sure, let me see what I can do. I’m just heading over to sweep out my hangar and then I’ll be back.”
“Ok, thanks. I’m going to fill up and then taxi down to park. By the way, I’m Richard.”
“Hey, that’s easy to remember, I’m Richard too.”
He drove away and I went back to the plane to fill the tanks. By the time we pulled up to tie down he was meeting us there with the keys to the Chevy Malibu they have at the airport. We visited a bit more and after taking a picture of my driver’s license he handed me the keys and we were off to the hotel and to get a bite to eat.
1,170 miles flown in a little under 7 1/2 hours of flying time. We got to visit a couple new airports and land in two new states.