Three RV's Travel From Alabama to
Arizona and Back
by Sam Buchanan
It is still hard to grasp the concept that a little airplane that was constructed in my backyard has just transported me and a companion from the flatlands of Alabama to the vastness of the southwestern United States and back. Not only did it safely carry us on this journey, but it did so in a speedy, comfortable, and reliable manner. In addition to my RV-6, the formation included an RV-6A, piloted by Bob Butler, and an RV-8, piloted by Robin Hunt.
The trip sprang from one of those hangar lyin' sessions when Bob and I were tossing around ideas for places to fly to lunch. "Hey, why don't we just fly out west this winter and bum around for a few days?" I suggested. February was a good month for me due to work scheduling, Bob could work the trip into his "busy" retirement regime, and Robin decided this was too good to miss in spite of his hectic CPA schedule. An added bonus was that we could avoid the nasty thermals, turbulence, and high density altitudes of summer. Besides, everyone knows that Arizona has great weather in the winter, and I hoped that I would see snow in the desert for the first time.
Well, the snow didn't materialize due to an unusually warm and dry La Nina winter, but the great weather made a grand appearance. Originally scheduled for a February 7, 2000, launch, several days of scanning The Weather Channel convinced us that an earlier departure on Saturday, the 5th, would more than likely put us in the middle of a nice weather window. Besides, we were ready to go!
How do you plan a trip of this nature when the weather six states away is unknown and two of the planes have accumulated only a total of 125 hours flying time? Our answer was.........don't plan the trip. We decided on a mode of flying that only designated the destination at the end of the upcoming leg. Once that leg was successfully negotiated, the "planning" process started all over again. We really wanted to avoid the stress of having to be somewhere at a particular time since, well, that's what we have to put up with every day at home! This was to be a chance to kick back, see the countryside, enjoy some great flying, and sit around in the evenings with friends convincing each other that we are the greatest pilots in aviation.
We needed some accomplices for this venture so the call went out for vict...., uh, volunteers to occupy the right seats (rear seat in the RV-8). I was able to suc....., er, convince David Ausley, aviation buff and long-time friend (and still friend!) to share the sightseeing duties. RV-6 QB builder David Stafford became Bob's autopilot, and Robin's dad, Bob, jumped at the chance to revisit scenes from his younger days when he ferried warplanes to the west coast. The planes received oil changes and last minute tweaking, and we carefully considered weight-and-balance calculations; We then tossed the calculations aside and decided if we could get off the 5000' runway at DCU we were ok, stuffed everything into the planes, fueled up the pilots and passengers at Waffle House, and launched. We were only a day from learning very real lessons about Density Altitude.
Last appearance for several days of the neat leather jackets for Dave Ausley and Sam Buchanan (N399SB).
Bob (Well, here we are...) Butler and David Stafford prepare to launch from Decatur, Alabama (N413BB).
Robin Hunt and his father Bob, who was wondering how he was going to keep the young whippersnappers in line for a week (N486RH).
I had never loaded 399SB for a long trip. Along with a couple of chunky clothing bags was a flight bag with various junk and a set of tools. Also along for the ride was a laptop computer and associated photo stuff. As soon as we cleared the runway at DCU I knew something was very different from usual. Considerably more nose-down trim than normal was necessary to trim for the climbout. But the real kick came when I tried to trim for cruise and found that the plane would not trim! Whoa Nellie! Not only was stable pitch trim unobtainable, the plane was displaying negative pitch stability. This means that instead of slowly damping pitch oscillations and returning to level flight, the plane would diverge from level flight all by itself and the pitch up or down would get progressively steeper. Yep, we were flying with the CG somewhere "way back there". On the second morning I transferred a bag to the forward hold of the RV-8, and shoved the heavy stuff as far forward as possible in our baggage area. The CG was still rather aft, but at least the RV-6 had improved to the point of having neutral pitch stability. After returning home I determined that we were flying close to 1750 lbs with full fuel, and 1600 was as high as I had figured when running the W/B calculations.
Moral of the story.....if you are going to be traveling with taildraggers like Dave or me, you better leave the big bags at home. I had planned on letting Dave do some of the enroute flying, but decided that a plane with negative pitch stability was not the place for a non-pilot to be rowing the control stick.
First day out included 2.5 hrs to Russellville, AR, then 2.2 hours to Clinton, OK, and finally 2.0 hrs to Tucumcari, NM. We had "sorta planned" to make it Albuquerque the first day, but a lengthy lunch stop in Oklahoma resulted in us running out of daylight in Tucumcari. Since this was the farthest any of us had taken our planes from home, we were amazed at how easily we had put 900 miles behind us. Of course the wind blew like the blazes in Oklahoma, but the third leg was the only segment of the trip when we had to buck a strong headwind.
Sunday morning was overcast and cold in Tucumcari. At dinner Saturday night we had all remarked at how long the landing roll was when we arrived at Tucumcari. What was going on here? Had we just gotten so accustomed to cruising at 170 mph that we had landed at 100? It was beginning to sink into our Flat-Lander skulls that we had just experienced one of the quirks of landing at an airport with a field elevation of 4064'. Brains were put into rewind as we began to search for tidbits of info from long ago written exams about the effects of density altitudes higher than the 2800' we see in the summer. Yep, this must be why the runway seemed to be rushing up at us even though the airspeed indicator was in familiar territory. The rarified air hastened our arrival to the runways of the great Southwest, and we quickly began to acclimate to loooong takeoff runs and waving at the FBO's flashing past as we rolled and rolled on landing.
A 1.2 hr flight across barren northern New Mexico brought us around the north side of the majestic Sandia Crest and down to Double Eagle airport just outside Albuquerque. The skies had cleared, the winds had died, and all was well with the world. Double Eagle II (elev. 5834') was the scene of a particular type of "landing" that I would experience a few more times at high elevation. Even though I was careful not to get too slow in the landing flare, poor ol' 399SB decided to chide her pilot for inflicting her with the aforementioned obesity. It seems the tail would decide to stop flying a little sooner than normal due to the excess weight, plop to the pavement and drag the mains down with it. However, the wing was still enjoying the flight, so the mains would gently lift off again with the ground-hugging tailwheel in tow. So here we are, floating down the runway with the mains six inches off the ground and the tailwheel firmly planted on the runway. Yes, the next joke on us was the resulting bounces as the mains finally decided to end the punishment and settle to the runway. Hopefully, it felt worse in the plane than it looked from the FBO......
The hangers-on at Double Eagle gave us a warm welcome as we peeled off the jackets and soaked up the warm sunshine. The beautiful Sandia Crest rises in the background.
Our remarkable day continued on to St. Johns, a charming little airport just across the Arizona border. Enroute to St. Johns, we flew along a large lava field which epitomized a place you would not want to land! Fortunately, a road bordered the field for several miles and we followed the road in the southwesterly direction toward St. Johns. The airport of SJN didn't look very high but we noticed the altimeters didn't unwind very much as we let down to the pattern. SJN has a deceptive field elevation of 5733'. No doubt the flat surroundings have fooled pilots in the past into ignoring density altitude considerations since there was a large sign over the FBO warning us to avoid intersection takeoffs. The very friendly fellow at the gas pump apologized for the recent price hikes and said that he would have to charge $1.65 for a gallon of 100LL. I kicked Bob Butler for letting me top the tanks in Albuquerque instead of arriving with empty tanks at St. Johns! We still attempted to squeeze every last drop of the cheap fuel into the tanks as we readied to launch to the northwest.
Our next leg covered some of the most remarkable scenery Arizona has to offer. From St. Johns we flew north over the wastelands of the Petrified Forest, then set our sights on the rim of the meteor crater. By now we were getting spoiled to 100 mile visibility, and Mt. Humphreys stood in the distance as a sentry overlooking Flagstaff.. The half-mile wide meteor crater was an obvious landmark on the broad high desert, and we made a couple of turns around the crater as the cameras clicked and the camcorders whirred. From there we headed to Flagstaff and flew close to the eastern flank of Mt. Humphreys with the painted desert on the eastern horizon and the volcanic Sunset Crater just ahead. Already the jagged Little Colorado River Canyon was visible over the glareshield, and in just a matter of minutes we were peering down into the abyss of the canyon.
There is very restrictive airspace in the vicinity of the Grand Canyon, and we had decided to just fly up the eastern side of the airspace and see what we could see. The north rim of the canyon was clearly visible, and even though we were looking into the late afternoon sun, we soon had a marvelous view down the canyon. The GPS moving maps were working overtime as we delicately edged over to the bold blue lines on the charts that marked the edge of the Grand Canyon airspace. I was thankful that we were making the trip in February as the afternoon sun was stirring the air enough to give us the biggest bumps we would experience on the entire trip. The summer afternoon thermals no doubt would be bone-jarring.
Pressing on toward Page we flew close to a remarkable geologic formation, Echo Cliffs, that reminded me of some sort of prehistoric backbone protruding from the colorful desert. By now the sun had settled enough to provide the golden light that all photographers live for, and I suggested that we maneuver near the cliffs for some air-to-air photography. Unfortunately, the right cameras were not in the right planes at the right time so none of the photos are magazine quality, but I enjoyed immensely the time spent flying up and down the rocky spine. Years before I had traveled U.S. 89 down in the valley paralleling the outcropping, and the RV was giving me a precious perspective that ground huggers just couldn't comprehend.
Shortly the azure waters of Lake Powell appeared on the horizon, and we knew that a remarkable day of leisure flying was nearing an end. The highway zig-zagged its way up the side of the backbone and headed straight toward Page, Arizona.
Lake Powell is the watery grave of exquisite Glen Canyon, and the maritime playground of countless boaters in this area of the country. The airport at Page is much larger than the airports we had visited thus far since it services a great deal of air tourism in the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley area. After another high altitude bouncing arrival, 399SB decided to surrender to the runway and we trundled to the tie-down area. The following morning we would learn that the 100LL at Page is apparently squeezed from fresh dinosaur carcasses since they insisted that we pay $3.00/gallon for having the privilege of carrying it with us in the fuel tanks. Rooms were secured at a local Best Western at great off-season rates and we retired to a steak house to expound on how the various maneuvers of the day were remarkable contributions to the expanding knowledge base of pilots worldwide.
Places We Harassed
Russellville, AR (M06) Nice airport and courteous service.
Clinton, OK (CLK)
Tucumcari, NM (TCC)
Double Eagle II, NM (AEG)
St. Johns, AZ (SJN)
Page, AZ (PGA)
Sedona, AZ (SEZ)
Payson, AZ (E69)
Eloy, AZ (E60)
Tucson, AZ (TUS)
West Texas, TX (TX04)
Big Spring, TX (21XS)
Graham, TX (E15)
Hope, AR (M18)