Saturday morning dawns cool and overcast.
I stand at the Southwest gate at Midland International Airport. I am tired. My contact lenses smart and burn my eyes. Finally my flight instructor appears out of the metal detector.
Everything has come together. My instructor is available this weekend; I was able to line up an inspection of the plane; I was able to buy refundable tickets on Southwest for a palatable price.
Midland to Dallas to Houston to Panama City Beach on Southwest.
Going to look at a 1967 Cessna 150. And probably buy it, otherwise we get to buy one-ways back home again!
Inspection, look at the plane. It's a little more beat-up and hangar-rashed than I expected, but not by much. Overall it's pretty good. A few minor surprises. Josh and I get in and run the engine, see how it sounds. It misses a lot at first and that makes me nervous, Josh says it's normal.
This plane has flown only 10-15 hours a year for the last three years, and that's not enough. Planes like to be flown. 1940's technology push-rod engines like to be flown. Continental O-200, 200 cubic inches, 4-cylinders, somewhere around 100 hp.
Taxi out onto the single runway at Tri-County airport, 1J0, outside Bonifay, Florida. Run-up. All seems good. Make a radio call on the CTAF. Full power. With the STOL tips on this thing, we are flying at less than 35 knots. Keep the nose down! Build up speed, nose down! Nose down! Nose down! The nose pops up like a cork, it wants to point at the sky, it wants to be in the sky!
Ground falls away. Pine trees everywhere. It's dusk. The sun is setting. It's getting cold. A big wide rectangle around the airport, flying the pattern more or less. Climb, descend. Lower flaps, raise flaps. 65 knots (whoa, push the nose down), 110 knots (diving). 85 knots? Level cruising. One pinky on the yoke. Trim it out and it flies with the rudders only, with nothing. So smooth and easy. The door seals look all time-eaten but they keep the wind out. This 150 is quiet and not too drafty. I start to like it. The hangar rash and scratches in the paint don't seem so bad.
Dark, we come in for a landing. Lights on, landing lights on, headlights up on the wing. So much going through my head, new plane, Josh with a critical eye, I land better by myself, here we go, flare, whoa are we floating? Plop. Like nothing, the 150 lands and squats on the ground. The engine idles at 900 rpm, with the throttle pulled all the way back. I keep the back pressure on the yoke and the nose is still flying, so it feels. The 150 feels so planted once it's on the ground.
Taxi back, paperwork, money changes hands. Bill of sale. Cold, dark, silence.
Now I get scared. Dark, in an unfamiliar place, just spent a lot of money, 900 miles from home, clouds, dark. We're about to get into a 1967 plane with our little backpacks and set off into the night, cross the swamps and forests of Florida, Alabama, Lousiana, Texas, then diagonally cross all of Texas. At 100 mph.
The first hour or so, I feel sick to my stomach, waiting for a cylinder to blow up or a wing to fall off. It's my plane now, so any really expensive thing that breaks is now my expense. Gradually I relax. It's dark but the 150 is so easy to fly. The previous owner... caretaker... called her Juliet. Juliet, you are so steady and so easy to fly, no hands, just feet on the rudder pedals, trimmed out to stay level at 4000', above the swamps and the rivers and the bayous.
The air is smooth unlike any road. The plane vibrates with the little O-200 engine, but it's not an unpleasant vibration. The cabin is dark and I fly by feel, every minute switching on my flashlight to check altimeter, heading indicator and vertical speed indicator. But I know I'm not crashing into the swamp; I can feel we're level and I can see the lights of the cities and roads below.
Humming along for a while then we make a fuel stop in Mobile, Alabama. We're burning a little more than expected, about 7 gallons per hour when it should be 5 or 6. Aviation fuel (leaded) runs about $6.00 a gallon. When you own an airplane, everything else seems cheap. Filling up my truck now seems laughable inexpensive at $3.15 a gallon -- and only 15 gallons!
Take the FBO car to get some food, I need a break. Back in the 150, another two hours. Crossing Louisiana now; just north of Biloxi, Gulfport. Right across the north end of Lake Ponchatrain, the black, black waters looking so smooth below us. The lights of cars on the causeway stretching away to the south.
I've never been here before! But I'm here now, about all this dark wilderness. Above it just like looking at a map. We are here but we are not here -- we are floating by over it all! And we can see it all!
In the darkness, without knowing, we cross the Mississippi River. 11:30 PM. We touch down in Lafayette, Louisiana. Clouds tonight; more clouds ahead. Weather does not look good. We are tired. Taxi to hotel in Lafayette.
Lafayette seems a nice town; a college town and an oil town. But we dropped in here out of the sky; I have no context. We are just in Lafayette and then we are gone, over it, looking down at the college and all the neat houses and perfect streets and blue swimming pools. At each place we drop in for fuel, the transition from the sky to the ground is abrupt, like popping a bubble, POP, you're near the ground. When you're at 3,000' the ground isn't real.
Sunday morning. Josh wants to sleep in, we get a late start. FBO guy picks us up from the hotel and brings us to Lafayette Regional, a class D with commercial planes. POP, we're in the air and heading west. Low clouds; we start at 2500' then down to 2000' then 1000'. Not a comfortable altitude; not much room for error. Weather closes in. Texas is just ahead. Over Lake Charles, over Orange, now over Beaumont. Houston Approach is telling us we're not IFR, we can't continue, there is a wall of clouds...
The 150 sits now in Beaumont, TX, on the ramp. Just waiting. We could not get out of Beaumont on Sunday in the little 150. I had to be at work on Monday. We tried to fly out of Beaumont on a commercial flight, but couldn't get seats from Houston to Midland. Sundays are a popular time to fly that route. Relunctantly, I walk over to the Avis car rental booth... it's only an 11 hour drive back to Midland.
And we make it back by 2 am. Plenty of time to get a few hours of sleep and get to work.
To Be Continued...