During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021, I took advantage of the downtime to study and gain flight proficiency in the maneuvers required to add-on another Flight Instructor rating, specifically to teach grandsons Alex and Nathaniel for their private pilot rating. Since I already had my CFI ratings in Multi-Engine aircraft, Instruments and Gliders, the requirements for a Single-Engine add-on were a subset of the full requirement list. I was able to reserve an FAA DPE (Designated Pilot Examiner), allowing me to take and pass my CFI-SE add-on in February 2021 with DPE Rick Luke out of Bellingham.
As COVID restrictions eased in early 2022, it was time to fly to California to start some flight training for Alex and Nathaniel. Ma and I planned to head south from Renton in early April, choosing our departure around the excessively rainy early Spring weather. With an open weather window, we departed south, starting VFR but with backup IFR options if conditions worsened. The first day’s weather was glorious, giving us great views of the Cascades as we cruised to Scappoose for their cheap gas, then continued on to Grants Pass for lunch at the sunny 70º picnic area outside the FBO office. 3DC was purring, and climbing very well, even with the two of us, full gas, a mini-piano, guitar and other goodies for the So Cal family. Ma and I spent the night in Santa Rosa, after taking the coastal route over Crescent City and Arcata/Eureka, then over Ukiah for a straight-in to Santa Rosa.
The next day also provided sunny, but breezy weather out of Santa Rosa, with Nor Cal approach providing a smooth Class Bravo transition along the coastal route just west of San Francisco, for great views of the Golden Gate and Bay Area. The heat started to increase as we descended for lunch into a breezy San Luis Obispo, then rose to 93º as we crossed over LAX for a smooth entry into the Long Beach runway 26L pattern, as David, Katie, Alex and Nathaniel waved from their yard as we passed overhead on downwind.
Long Beach creeped up to an unseasonable 100º for the next two days, then mellowed to the glorious mid-70s for Alex’s first left seat ‘dual-received’ loggable flight in 3DC. Ross Aviation, the local FBO, provided great service and VIP treatment as we arrived, then for our training day. Alex, Nathaniel and I conducted a thorough pre-flight, under David’s watchful eye. Our first training flight was focused on turns and coordination, with Alex conducting all the checklists for start, taxi and takeoff. The four of us took off from a breezy runway 26L, then Alex cruised to the south for air work over the busy skies south of the Long Beach harbor, with everyone using their eyes and ADS-B to search for traffic. This was Alex’s first flight where he could comfortably reach the rudder pedals, and he worked well on coordination for all of his many turns, while looking outside very well. We cruised over the Queen Mary, and got an overhead view of the Long Beach Grand Prix race car lineup. Alex was very smooth, and cruised us back to a 45º entry into the Long Beach runway 26L pattern, where I took over on short final to demonstrate a crosswind landing. Nathaniel didn’t get a front seat flight this trip, but was very helpful with traffic spotting from the backseat with his Dad.
THE BOYS ARE BACK - in the air!
Our return from Long Beach to Renton started the real ‘adventurous’ part of our excursion. A large low pressure area had been stalled over the north California and Oregon border, extending cool, and even snowy weather all along the Siskiyous and Cascades. We delayed our departure a day due to forecast gale force winds, and departed Long Beach into 25-knot winds, conveniently right down the larger runway 30. Although the skies were generally clear, we encountered light to moderate turbulence from Santa Monica, over Camarillo and past Santa Barbara, getting a break in the gusts as we cruised down final to runway 29 into San Luis Obispo for fuel.
The turbulence continued past Paso Robles, then subsided as we climbed to smooth air at 8500 feet. We again took the coastal route west of San Francisco, and were able to cruise right over our daughter Theresa at work in San Rafael, while descending in to Santa Rosa. The ground crew there told us we made a good choice to delay a day, since they had their hands full the day before with 45 knot winds on the field.
The next morning, Flight Service discouraged any route past Redding into the Siskiyous, due to rain, snow and high winds. We tried cruising low to the recommended coastal route, but got boxed in north of Ukiah due to low clouds. We climbed in a blue gap to 8500’, cruised VFR on top to Arcata, and found a good gap to descend for landing and fuel in light rain. We continued low right along the coast, past Crescent City and along the beautiful rocky Oregon coast, where the weather finally cleared to sunny VFR into Tillamook for a final fuel top off.
Once past Astoria, the rotating low all around the approaches to the Puget Sound set up a curtain of clouds, blocking any further northward progress. We heard an arriving Citation make an approach into Chehelis, which had gone from solid IFR to marginal VFR. We diverted into Chehalis, and waited on the ramp for the low to continue its rotation, hopefully clearing a path back home. We launched northbound an hour later, first trying a low route, but the clouds hugged the rising terrain. Looking at our ADS-B weather, it depicted a gap if we cruised NW to Shelton, so we climbed high and considered an IFR route into the Puget Sound, but the ice in the clouds and 17º outside air temperature made us reconsider and return to Chehalis, where Ma spied a nearby hotel just as we turned final. After a relaxing evening, we cruised low the next morning in clearing skies back home to Renton, for a smooth conclusion to what Ma considers 'another adventure'.
I recently had my propellor overhauled and re-pitched on my Piper Warrior, to get to spec static RPM performance with my new 161 HP O-320 engine, and also for a bit better climb performance. My normal references at Renton - passing abeam tower on climbout and altitude at the end of the runway - were both improved while climbing out near Vx, the best angle-of-climb speed. Abeam tower with the new prop, I was at about 400 feet AGL, and climbed to around 700 feet AGL by the end of the runway. Not bad for a family cruiser.
I next had a fun demonstration of climb performance in my friend Eric's Super Cub with STOL (Short Take Off and Landing) mods and a 180HP O-360 engine, in other words a more powerful engine than my family model, combined with a lighter weight airframe and a wing optimized for climbing over cruising. Eric suggested around 60 MPH for the climbout, which is probably closer to Vy, the best rate-of-climb speed. Vy is slightly faster than Vx, but gives better cooling in many engine configurations. Since I had just flown my Warrior the day before, I used the same tower and end of runway points for comparison. Wow, it felt like I levitated off the ground after takeoff in the Super Cub, attaining about 800 feet AGL when abeam the tower, and nearly 1500 feet by the end of the runway. Very nice!
In any complete discussion of climbing performance, my previous experience flying the F-15 Eagle needs to be included. A fine example of impressive climb performance occurred while picking up an F-15 from Robbins AFB in Warner-Robbins, GA, after depot-level maintenance. The F-15 was in a rare configuration - completely clean of external fuel tanks, with both wing and centerline pylons removed. I took off on a cool February morning, with temperatures in the mid-40s - perfect for robust engine thrust and good climb performance. The local crew chiefs had mentioned that the local Eagle maintenance check pilots rarely flew full afterburner takeoffs, and since I only had a short flight back to Eglin AFB in Florida, I requested and was cleared by tower for an unrestricted climb to Flight Level 410.
My recollection of comm with ATC gives a pretty good assessment of the climb performance:
"Robins tower, Steely 11 is number 1 for runway 33, unrestricted takeoff."
--"Steely 11, you are cleared for takeoff on runway 33, unrestricted to Flight Level 410".
"Steely 11 copies, cleared for takeoff runway 33, unrestricted to Flight Level 410."
We rarely used or needed afterburner with our normal centerline tank configuration, so this totally clean Eagle accelerated quite well when I plugged in full burners and started rolling down runway 33, getting airborne very quickly. I leveled off at 100 feet to accelerate...300 knots...400 knots, approaching 500 knots I started a smooth pull to the vertical...
--"Steely 11, contact Atlanta Departure on 279.6...standby...say altitude passing".
"Steely 11 is passing 17,000."
--"Wow...ah...Steely 11, now contact Atlanta on...say again altitude passing...".
"Steely 11 is passing Flight Level 300."
--"Roger, Steely 11...ah...just go to Atlanta Center High now on 360.5".
"Atlanta Center, Steely 11 is with you, leveling at Flight Level 410".
--"Steely 11, roger, our radar is still catching up with your climb rate, pretty impressive."
Impressive indeed, as I looked down while rolling out on course to Eglin at FL 410...and I hadn't even reached the end of the Robins AFB runway 33 yet! Now that's climb performance!
On 11 March 1949 two Naval Aviators took off at 10:05AM from the Sand Point Naval Air Station in Seattle, a location now called now Magnuson Park, for what should have been a two-hour flight in an SNJ trainer. Lt. (j.g.) Benjamin Vreeland and Ensign Gaston Mayes never returned. In the 1950s and early 1960s, after items were found in and around Black Lake, a few air miles from the town of Snoqualmie, WA, it was believed the plane disintegrated on impact, with the bulk of the plane resting from 2-10 feet in the muddy bottom. For over 70 years, the U.S. Navy never struck the plane from their missing list and never officially notified families of the plane potentially being in the lake. Finally, on 4 December 2020 the Navy Underwater History and Heritage Command sent letters out to family members stating they believe the SNJ-5 Texan remains rest in the silty bottom of the lake. In May 2021, American Legion Post 79 of Snoqualmie installed a permanent 3-ton Rock Memorial at the lake, but low clouds and fog precluded a memorial flyover.
In October 2021, after a long, hot dry summer in the Great Northwest, I received an e-mail from Shawn Murphy, who had been involved in the research on the SNJ crash, that family members of the lost pilots would again be visiting the area in the November timeframe, near the Veterans Day weekend. Since Shawn knew I was the Operations Officer for the Cascade Warbirds, he asked if any warbird pilots might be available for another attempt at a memorial veteran flyby. As November approached and our atmospheric rivers of rain and low clouds began returning, I was able to get two thumbs up from potential fliers, John 'Smokey' Johnson and Eric 'Beaker' Olson. Smokey's SNJ-5 would be a perfect candidate, since it was the same make and model as the lost aircraft in 1949.
The week before the planned flight, we experienced a solid stretch of rain, wind and low clouds, but held out hope for a break in the weather on Saturday. The morning initially dawned with generally VFR to marginally VFR conditions, but quickly degraded to low clouds and fog due to all the recent moisture. I drove instead of flying from Renton to Paine Field due to the fog, and met Beaker and his Navion, where we scoped out the weather as local observers to allow Smokey to sneak in from Diamond Point in his SNJ. Just as timing was getting critical, to allow an overflight with family members and observers still on the ground at Black Lake, the weather cleared sufficiently for Smokey to land at Paine Field in his SNJ for fuel and a briefing. Since I had flown over the hard-to-find small Black Lake in the past, I acted as the flight navigator in Smokey's SNJ back seat, while Dan Shoemaker joined Beaker in the Navion for photo opportunities.
We quickly blasted off as a two-ship from Paine Field's runway 16L, and headed directly to Fall City and Snoqualmie Falls to establish our run-in heading. The terrain rises quickly to the east into the Cascade foothills, and we threaded our way around hills and shark-finned ridges, followed the North Fork of the Snoqualmie River, then turned northwest for our passes over the lake. Our first pass led us too far to the west, but we quickly circled and found the lake using GPS coordinates. The weather held off for a number of low passes, then a close formation fan break/missing man to the west, then a final solo salute in the SNJ to the family on the ground and the memory of the lost aviators.
Once we returned for an overhead break to Paine Field's runway 16R, we received a call from the team on the ground at Black Lake, who expressed their appreciation and noted that the family 'felt chills' as we flew by. Mission accomplished!
Feliks Banel and the Seattle Channel posted a great summary of the history of the lost 1949 Sand Point SNJ and our November 2021 SNJ flyover.
Formation flying is one of those enjoyable skills that needs a few refresher flights at the beginning of each fair weather flying season, not only to 'get the rust out', but also to remember the fine motor skills and smooth handling required to optimize your formation flying. A new member of our Cascade Warbirds group, Bob Stoney, was looking to re-vitalize his formation skills in preparation for formation flying at Oshkosh 2021. Bob is a co-owner of a gorgeous restored O-1E/L-19 Bird Dog, and has lots of Navy/Naval Test Pilot School formation experience, but was looking to get current under civilian FAST Formation and Safety Team rules.
Bob was having issues finding a lead aircraft with comparable speed performance, and Cascade Warbirds member Tom 'TP' Jensen noted that his Cessna 180 might be a perfect aircraft to fly as lead while Bob honed his wingman skills. Although TP has some formation experience, I was requested to fly as lead, while Bob Stoney and Dave Desmon conducted training on my wing. Twist my arm!
We met and briefed our two planned formation flights at TP Jensen's home at the Evergreen Sky Ranch airport near Black Diamond, WA. Evergreen Sky Ranch is a private use airport community with a well maintained 2600' grass runway and gorgeous views of Mt. Rainier looming to the southeast.
We took off as lead in TP’s Cessna 180 in the late afternoon, and I had to throttle back in the climb as we were running away from the Bird Dog, especially since they had two large pilots onboard, which Bob Stoney later equated to '500 feet per minute' of lost climb capability. I led the Bird Dog through a number of formation maneuvers, including station keeping, close and route formation, cross-unders, and a number of pitchouts and rejoins. Bob flew well in all the maneuvers, and the in-flight views of the Bird Dog over the greens of the Great Northwest looked impressive.
With willing support from the tower, we cruised to initial in two-ship close formation to the Tacoma Narrows airport and pitched out on runway 17. Debrief was included with dinner at The Hub restaurant on the field. I led a second formation flight in the 180 with Bob and Dave on the wing as we cruised to Lake Tapps, practiced more station keeping, turns, pitchouts and rejoins, and trail. We flew initial to runway 16 at Evergreen Sky, for two enjoyable formation training flights with lots of learning all around.
After the second debrief, as we helped the Bird Dog launch, the NW skies provided a glorious background of orange fair weather clouds as the Bird Dog departed to the north. Thanks, TP, for loaning your capable Cessna 180 to the cause, and to Bob Stoney for maintaining the Bird Dog as an impressive legacy aircraft.
As Spring warmed the chill air in the Great Northwest, thoughts of long cross-country flying danced in my head! My fall and winter flying had been mostly local jaunts throughout the Pacific Northwest, enjoying the many surprisingly nice weather days in between the mild seasonal rains. Out of the blue, my friend and fellow aviator, Doug 'Bee' Happe, texted and asked if I'd like to join him on a three-day trip from Auburn, WA to Northern California in his gorgeous RV-7. I've flown a number of flights with Doug in his RV-7, including a great formation photo flight that earned the RV-7 a slot in the Van's Aircraft 2018 calendar.
Doug was heading south for a three-day trip to check on painting progress on his roadster project in Yuba City, CA. I told Doug I'd gladly fly the RV-7 with him, especially as a chance to visit my daughter and son-in-law in nearby Oakland. We choose an early morning Tuesday departure, hoping for good weather and winds, possibly allowing a non-stop flight, and filing IFR to take advantage of high altitude winds. We pre-flighted and setup the RV-7 with a full oxygen tank and filed for 17,000 feet, with oxygen cannulas and Aithre's new Illyrian Smart Pulse Oximeter monitors.
We blasted out of Auburn (S50) before 8:00AM, through a shallow layer of low clouds to clear on top, and were cleared to climb directly to 17,000 feet by Seattle Center. Although the frequency sounded typically busy, we were both surprised when Center cleared us, when abeam Mt Rainier in the climb out, direct to Battleground, and then again direct to Red Bluff, CA, a straight line distance of 336 NM without a turn! Doug's RV-7 has an impressive Garmin G3X suite, and a Garmin auto-pilot, which was rock solid on altitude and course tracking. In addition to the direct routing, the winds in the high teens starting turning in our favor. The mostly clear skies through Washington, Oregon and into California gave us great views of the Cascade volcanic chain en route. We started picking up a good tailwind in Oregon, and ended up with a great 45 knot tailwind and a 203 knot ground speed, crossing right over the top of Mt Shasta, with awesome views from 17,000 feet. The Illyrian oximeters transmitted our oxygen levels right to our iPhones, providing proof that Doug's cannula setup was working perfectly-no headaches and clear senses at 17,000 feet. We started a descent just past Red Bluff, hit some turbulence near Travis AFB, but had light winds for our landing on runway 32R at Buchanan Field in Concord, CA after an excellent 3.7 hour flight, burning an average of 6.3 gal/hr for the journey! You've got to love Van's aircraft!
Doug continued on to Yuba City without refueling, and I spent two enjoyable days visiting my daughter and son-in-law. On Thursday morning, Doug returned to Concord, and we started flying north, with another pleasant surprise that the high pressure circulation that had given us such a great tailwind from the north had now shifted east, providing south winds for another tailwind scenario to head home. We decided to cruise at 10,000 feet for our return, again getting excellent routing from Oakland and Seattle Centers, with more great Shasta and Castle Crags views from 10,000. Instead of primarily auto-pilot use on the southbound flight, I hand flew most of the northbound legs. I talked Doug into stopping for lunch at the Flight Deck restaurant at the Salem, OR airport (KSLE), then continued north, still with helpful tailwinds, to arrive back home at Auburn with the RV-7 in perfect shape.
Thanks for the enjoyable opportunity to fly your RV-7 again, Doug, and exercise her in a fun, fast and efficient trip to California and back!