3 X 13 = 36

If boring holes in neighborhood skies is fun, flying a 1929 biplane from coast to coast qualifies an adventure by any standard.

Committed to starting a barnstorming business near Philadelphia as an escape from the corporate rat-race, my new love and I had searched until we found an affordable biplane.

It was waaaay over there on the left coast, but after a recent coast-to-coast cross-country experience in her ’58 Bonanza, we’d learned the way you do it is one leg at a time. Somehow that makes it more manageable psychologically. A lot of the “what ifs” go away when you only have to think in 250 mile hunks, the case when you’re flying an 80 mph biplane.

With a mere 5 hours on the newly overhauled (and therefore questionable) engine, no radios, a wobbly ‘whiskey’ compass, and an antique altimeter, flight planning had as much to do with AAA as it did FAA. The former provided the road maps and the latter provided what we needed to know about elevation and no-fly areas. Help from a portable GPS wasn’t available, they hadn’t been invented yet.

After a couple of glorious hours of over Sonoma wine country on aircraft fam hops and some landing practice, my darlin’ and I set out with real trepidation on the first leg toward Monterey. Spectacular beyond belief because of surf, rocks, and mountains the coast was an unforgettable sightseeing route. However, the pucker factor was often off the scale given the complete lack of emergency landing options along much of the route.

Nevertheless, we arrived at our first stop without any problems, only to be accosted by a madman wanting to know what the hell we were doing flying his plane. After a few heated moments all around we figured out why he was carrying on. The only other blue and orange Continental powered 1929 Travel Air with a wood prop anywhere around, maybe in the world, belonged to him and was based at Watsonville where we’d landed.

After a good laugh at the coincidence, and lunch together, we set off on the next leg inland to Mojave, an aviation equivalent of Mecca, right up there with Oshkosh in my book of places you have to visit at least once in your life. It was 241 miles, and at 80 mph that made it about a three hour leg.

There is no pilot operating handbook for a 1929 aircraft, but those that know say a Continental 220 burns about 12.5 gallons an hour at 1700 rpm. Just what we burned on the first leg. So figuring 13 gph to be safe, I calculated at 3 x 13, we’d burn 36 gallons. With a 42 gallon tank we’d have 6 gallons and a legal 30 minutes reserve, more or less.

So off we went fat, dumb and happy. A late lunch made us fat (and a bit sleepy), lots of flat fields to land on if we needed to made us happy, but the dumb part was poor flight planning. Seemed like the sun was starting to get awfully low as we passed half way. Wonder what time sunset is anyway? Nice time to be thinking about that. Wonder what all those windmills in this canyon are for? Anyway, we’re getting close so better start calling on the handheld radio to see if we can raise someone, this being the first attempt with the contraption.

Hmmm, no answer. Nice to time to find out the radio doesn’t work. Start to circle to stay outside the airport traffic area. As we turn we damn near stop. Into the wind we’re virtually hovering over one spot at cruise speed. Look at the windsock, it’s just hanging here. Weird, blowing like crazy up here but calm down there? Gonna be some major wind shear on final.

Call the tower again. Again, no answer. Talk about crab angle! Getting kinda dark. Be nice if we had some lights in this crate. Geees, 3+15 since engine start. Be nice if we had a fuel gauge that worked too. This one’s been stuck on 3/4s full for the last 2 hours. Oh well, can’t see it any more in the dark cockpit anyway.

Make a pass downwind parallel to the longest runway (man, we’re zippin’ along). Waggle the wings while still calling on the radio. My darlin’, a student pilot, in front turns around and gives me this, “What the hell?” look, and points at her watch. I nod and return a, “Yeah, no shit!” look, and go back to hawking the runway and looking for a signal light from the tower cab. Nothing. And the rotating beacon just came on. With no lights we’re now officially illegal.

Screw it, we’re going to land. Worry about the consequences later.

There’s pavement everywhere. The windsock still looks droopy, but I learned a long time ago flying gliders that what the wind sock sez and what the wind does where you are often two entirely different things. Another attempt at radio contact, a careful look around for other aircraft. With this maybe my 10th landing in the bird it really bothers me that we’re crabbed 45 degrees off runway heading as we start down final. We’re committed.

Same crab angle all the way to short final. I allow us to drift off to the downwind side then turn directly into the wind and land diagonally across the runway. Shortest landing roll I ever made, even on an aircraft carrier. The tires might have turned 3 times, and we were stopped. Nary a bump in the air all the way down because it’s just as windy down here as it was up there. Another look at the windsock, and it wafts slightly in whistling breeze. What the…? Is that thing made of iron?

Regardless, the problem is how to taxi with the aircraft still flying, for all practical purposes. I could actually lift a tire off the ground with the big elephant ear ailerons, the lower wing tip almost touching the ground. First time was wind gust, second time was a test. Withering looks from the front cockpit both times.

Well, let’s taxi off the active runway at least; then we’ll decide what to do. So we fly/taxi to the ramp, and discover there are tiedown chains everywhere. Works for me. Let’s get this bird shut down. Wonder how much gas we have left? Sweat drips from my leather helmet as I pull it off.

The tiedown chains looked like they were designed to moor the Queen Mary, and would secure a 747 in a hurricane. No way we could wrap them around our fragile wood and fabric wings. Ah, wait here’s a solution. Brought along some tiedown ropes and big sod screws in case we had to spend the night out in the boonies somewhere.

So we used nylon rope to tie the N-struts to the huge tiedown chains, wrapping shop towels around the rope to prevent chafe on the leading edge. Walking away, in desperate search of a toilet, we listened to the ol’ girl creaking and whistling in the wind. Of such experiences are friendships made—at least between pilot and airplane—but not necessarily between pilot and passenger.

In the line shack the gas boy answered two questions. Tower closed an hour earlier, and they have a “30 mph windsock” designed for wind not breeze. They’d talked about just hanging some anchor chain out there, it gets so windy. Next morning he answered another question. We put 41 gallons in that 42 gallon tank. After some quick calculating we discovered, sure ’nuff, she’d burned the predicted 12.5 gallons an hour.

What goes on here, how’s come we almost ran out of gas then? Oh, wait. Three times thirteen is thirty-nine, dummy, not thirty-six. Duh.

Lessons learned? One, learn how to multiply. Two, do a better preflight–read the facilities directory and know what’s what at your destination. But the most important lesson was that the FARs, while the law, are not the best rules to stake your life on. The VFR rule that you must have 30 minutes of fuel on board is not necessarily sufficient or sane margin.

Le Cirque Volant, July 2008 (South Africa)