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Cross country flight

On Friday June 2nd, 2010 I took off from Whiteman Airport in Burbank, CA in my experimental RV-6 to fly across the country and visit my father, who was sick at the time, in Tennessee. My first stop was to pick up an oxygen system at Reid Hill View airport near San Jose, CA in anticipation of the high altitudes I would need to fly over the Rocky mountains. Then, I flew up to Davis, CA to stay the night and pick up my girlfriend, Emma, who would join me on the trip.
Emma and I took off from Davis before the break of dawn the next day, with the goal of crossing the Rocky mountains and staying the night with a friend in Ft Collins, CO. The first three hours of flight were smooth because of the still, early morning air. We cruised at 11,500ft (an eastbound VFR altitude) and looked down on the mountains below. The turbulence picked up as we approached Salt Lake city to land and refuel. This is where Emma first learned how busy it can be to be a copilot/navigator. She had never used an aeronautical chart, so most of the symbols and codes were obscure and meaningless. Being in unfamiliar territory, I needed her help to guide me to the airport through the busy airspace, and the turbulence was not helping. The airport we landed at had a bunch of helicopter traffic doing training, and it was nearly impossible to keep track of all them. We made it to the ground in gusty winds, glad to stretch our legs after 3.5h in the cramped cockpit of the RV-6.
We were about an hour behind schedule because of the inherent difficulty in making a go/no go decision at 0400h, so we fueled up, guzzled down a cup of cheap coffee, and took off. We planned to fly more or less a direct route to Ft. Collins, albeit north of the major mountain ridges to maximize our altitude above ground level. This route did not follow any major roads, so navigation was more difficult. In addition, this route took us over mountains that required us to fly at altitudes of 15,500ft to maintain a safe ground clearance. Over 12,500ft, the FAA requires pilots and crew to breath concentrated oxygen to prevent hypoxia. The system I bought was a bottle of compressed aviators oxygen, two flow regulators, and two oxygen-saving nasal cannula. I also brought along a fingertip pulse oximeter. I asked Emma (who was in her fourth year of medical school) to monitor my oxygen saturation, and regulate our flows to keep our saturation over 85%. It became obvious as we climbed in altitude that I was not very resistant to altitude, and my saturation dropped to unsafe levels if I turned off the oxygen. I could feel myself getting euphoric if I did not breathe the oxygen for only a minute or so.
The airports in the mountains were few and far between, and the steep terrain would not be forgiving should we need to make an emergency landing. To top all these problems, the late morning turbulence had become severe. Severe turbulence is when you lose control of the aircraft because the controls are not ‘powerful’ enough to overcome the forces imposed by the winds. I have only experienced severe turbulence a few times before, and the only thing you can do is try to maintain a safe speed, keep the plane level, and pointed in the right direction. The turbulence also reduced the performance of the plane, and I was struggling to climb, so I resorted to cruise at 13,500ft instead of the planned 15,500ft. This only left a couple thousand feet clearance above ground level, which is about the minimum altitude you would ever cruise. I like I was felt stuck in a corner, with no options, and was thrilled when I landed safely at Ft Collins municipal airport after the 3.5h flight. We borrowed a crew car and drove to my friend’s house for the night, and planned to leave bright and early the next morning.
Colorado was mostly overcast on Sunday, but the ceiling was high enough to fly safely, but I wasn’t sure how far we would make it. I wanted to make eastbound progress before possibly getting stuck in bad weather in CO, but as I soon found out, I was actually catching up to bad weather. As the cloud ceiling dropped, I had to fly lower and lower, but luckily the eastern Colorado and Kansas terrain has plenty of good emergency landing spots. Just to be extra safe, I flew over major roads to help with navigation, and ensure a good landing spot should one be required. We flew from crop duster airport to crop duster airport, knowing that eventually the weather would force us to land somewhere and wait. The storms formed a long line that stretched from Iowa to Texas, and there didn’t appear to be any ‘holes’ to fly through. Eventually the clouds dropped too low, and we landed in Smith Center, Kansas. It became pretty obvious that we would need to stay the night there, so Emma called up and found us a place to stay in ‘town’.
Smith Center is a town of about 1,500 people and it’s declining. There are two police officers, that also help the occasional flyer-through like us fuel up at the airport. About 15 minutes after we landed, one of the police officers (a middle-aged lady) showed up and fueled up the plane, all while smoking her cigarette. Her partner, and apparently the only other officer in town, was a younger man in training. She took this rare opportunity to teach him how to operate the credit card machine at the airport fuel pump. The officers kindly gave us a ride a mile up the road, and dropped us off at the bed and breakfast. This was my first time in the back of a police car, and I learned that the doors do not open from the inside....
The lady running the bed and breakfast was shocked to see us show up in a police car, she said: “I will have some explaining to do to the neighbors!” The bed and breakfast was an old Victorian house, and since we were the only visitors in town, we got it all to ourselves for the total cost of 67 bucks!
By this time it was late afternoon, so we walked to the only place in town that looked like it served food. There, I learned how lucky I have been to live in California, where the food is so good.
Next stop was the fireworks stand across the street. It was the fourth of July after all, and Emma (being a Berkeley girl) had never set off fireworks before. We heard rumor that there would be fireworks at the high school after sunset, but I have always set off my own fireworks, so I bought a few of the basics to show to Emma. We walked across town and found the high school just as it was getting dark, and right in time for the finale. I think everyone in that town was there sitting on their truck  to watch as the local fire department put on a (rather meager) fireworks show. When it was over, everyone left, causing a traffic jam that for a few seconds resembled Los Angeles traffic hour.
The weather the next morning was not much better, but the ceiling had lifted, and I was hopeful that we could make more progress towards Tennessee. I carefully studied the weather and decided there may be a ‘hole’ in the weather front if we head further south. The flying was low to the ground, and we flew under some light rain showers in our search for clearer weather. When we got around Wichita, the front was clearly visible. There was heavy rain to our north and south, but a lighter patch just east of our position. I headed for what might be a hole, then decided that we should take a break for lunch and refuel. After a good club sandwich (my favorite) we were off, ready to tackle the weather.
I have never really flown around clouds, most of the time you are below them, and occasionally above a few scattered cumulus. On this flight, we were between them. Huge thunderclouds (cumulonimbus) went from a thick rain shaft at about 2000ft above ground level, to 40,000ft and higher. They were all around us, but I made sure there was always a clear path to an airport. To prevent from flying into a cloud, I had to constantly change my altitude, sometimes flying at 12,000ft to get through a hole, and then immediately descending to 1000ft to fly under a wall. It was like a fluffy maze we were navigating through. Surprisingly, there was not much turbulence, and the flying was comfortable, but the dangers of any bad decision was lurking.  I later came to know this as ‘Canyon Flying’. This severe weather only lasted for about an hour or two of our flight, and then we made it into the clear before the weather front. We hit one more thunderstorm that forced us to land in Missouri, but it was a welcome opportunity to refuel, so we could make the last leg of the flight to Tennessee. Surprisingly, we had just navigated through a huge, cross country weather system.
The remainder of the flight was pretty monotonous, flying over farmland can get kind of boring, especially when you are over 10,000ft. It was nice to cross over the Mississippi river, because it started to feel like home. The only concern for the rest of the flight over Tennessee was that the state is mostly covered by trees, again making emergency landing opportunities rare. The final decent into Dickson municipal airport felt like a commercial airliner. I nosed over when we were still many miles away, and sped in at over 200mph without reducing throttle until we got to the airport. After tying up the plane at that familiar airport, I don’t think anybody understood my feeling of satisfaction for having just accomplished that flight.
The total flight covered about 2200 miles in 15.3 hours of flight time.