Thursday, May 26, 2016

Travels with NXXXXX

Old AFSarge likes airplane stories. While I can’t compete with OldNFO,  juvat, and Tuna in flying hours and sophisticated airplanes perhaps some will find my experience with a Cessna 170A amusing. Long blog - you have been warned.

There I was with a fresh Private ticket and the need to build flying hours, as a civilian (out of my pocket, you understand). So off I go to see Dirty Dick Nolan, the used airplane dealer in Greeley, CO. Dick bought and sold airplanes over the telephone (we are talking 1960’s). He would finance anyone with a good enough down payment. Since all of his paper was full recourse, he would repo that plane if you didn’t tote the note. How to staff his business?

Bring in time builders. Pay for the gas and oil and a bus ticket back. If you were a time builder that was way cheaper than renting airplanes.

He liked me for two reasons. I had enough in savings to commit full time. Second, I had far more conventional gear time than his average time builder. He kept me busy.

One day he assigned me a Cessna 182 to take to Newport News and pick up a C 170. Oh yeah, the buyer was on vacation in North Carolina. Go see him, get a check and keys, then take the 182 to Newport News. With a few glitches that went down and I parked his new plane next to the trade.

First thing I noticed were two nearly flat tires. Opening the oil check access revealed an engine compartment filled with bird nests. OK, lets drain a little fuel from the wing sumps. Oh, great, water and crud. Flip on the master. Surprise! Dead battery. The next few hours were spent taking off the cowl (always carried a few simple tools) and letting the sumps drain (here we see the shocked faces of Air Force ramp types aghast that raw gasoline is being dumped on the ground).

 The FBO sent the fuel truck over along with an air tank so the tires were inflated and the tanks filled. By the time I got the cowl back on it was getting dark. Dick Nolan had one inviolate rule – NO flying at night. As was the usual RON procedure, rolled out my down filled Army surplus fart sack in an empty hanger and went to sleep.

Next morning after tying down the tail wheel, propped the 170 to life. Off we went heading North. Funny, the damn road kept going under water then reappearing. Not an inviting forced landing site. What is this Chesapeake Bay everyone is talking about? Well, I’ve nearly enough altitude to glide to shore so onward. Approaching Dover, DE,   the weather is going sour fast. Sat down on a grass strip at Wyoming, DE to wait it out. Two days of sitting it out. The airport operator found some work for me to perform and actually paid me so it wasn’t a total loss. The clouds finally cleared but the wind was hellish. Took off but only made it to the very South end of New Jersey before setting down. Another night in a hanger with the wind howling and the hanger doors banging. Since the hanger was empty, parked the 170 in it and shut the doors.

Next morning with full tanks took off and promptly got lost. The wind was 40+ knots from the West.  Not to worry, to the West is a big river, to the East the Atlantic Ocean. Just keep heading North and someplace you can recognize will turn up. Radio navigation you say? Yep, if you have a OMNI receiver that works. Do you know there are places in New Jersey that are as barren as Wyoming? Eventually a mountain range started showing on the horizon. WTF? A few minutes later the New York City skyline became the mountains or the mountains became the skyline; take your pick.

 My instructions were to pick up two pilots at Roosevelt Field on Long Island. By this time I’d located my ground position and could see on my Sectional map I had a shit load of water to cross. Climbing to 4500 AGL I started across. The ATC people were quite cross with me but, due to an intermittent radio problem I couldn’t understand what they wanted so, being ever helpful, I kept them informed of my position. Seems the transmitter was fine but the receiver had issues. Soon I was able to talk to the Roosevelt Field tower and made my approach to land.

I believe I mentioned wind? 30 knots right down the runway. Over the threshold started reducing power only to see the runway numbers again appear. Needed somewhere around 1600 rpm just to keep from going backwards. Taxing to the tie down area was a challenge as was tying down the bird. Next problem, where are the passengers? Turns out they are in Connecticut. (Never let it be said Nolan Aviation was an organized business). Getting to the runway was again a challenge.

 Once in the air, there was another largish body of water to cross. Damn it, I’m a mountain pilot. What is with all this wet stuff? On the ground in CN, passengers located, but we are running out of daylight. The wusses had already rented a motel room. Next morning we head West. First fuel stop, instructed to pickup another passenger in Jackson, MI. OK, but I’m not flying over any water to get there. On final at Jackson you fly over a prison.  What torture it must be for the inmates to be constantly reminded of other people’s freedom.

Now with four aboard we are aviagating to Colorado. By the by, the cabin heater is inoperable. No problem, extra clothes, wrap sleeping bags around you and keep on going.

Grand Island, NE had an FBO that literally rolled out a red carpet after you parked. They nearly rolled up back up when they saw the four scruffy ruffians climbing out of the 170. Next stop, Greeley.

Two weeks later I had just returned in an Aircoupe from Tennessee when Nolan calls me into his office.

    “Yeah, got that 170 you picked up in Virginia sold to a man        in Anchorage. Want you to deliver it”.

   “Dick, I’m in no way qualified to do that.”

   “Nah, you will be fine”.

   “What about customs”.

   “Fuck’em. You go to Oroville (WA). Take off at first light, stay low. Lots of mountains around there. We will plot you a route. Do not, I repeat, do not leave the highways even if it is a shorter distance. You should make it with two fuel stops”.

“Do our credit numbers work there?”

“For this trip we will give you some cash, both Canadian and American. And, we will pay for your meals and an airline ticket back from Alaska”.

   “Is the heater fixed?”

   “Hell yes, and the radio, and a new battery”.

The trip went just as he described it until I got to Northway. There I started asking questions about the route to Anchorage. The locals told me in no uncertain terms that there was only one way, it was hard to spot, and many a pilot hadn’t made it. I believed them. Called the customer in Anchorage (damn expensive phone call, by the by). He told me to stay put and he would come over the next day. So it was and I was quite content to be a passenger on that leg. Awesome geography and I had the luxury to enjoy it instead of sweating buckets.

Back to Seattle, a bus ride to Ellensburg where I picked up a TriPacer and brought it back to Greeley.

I built up enough time with Nolan to qualify for a Commercial ticket. Eventually he started paying me when I did repos. Got to fly a lot of single engine fixed gear. Dick was picky about who flew retractable but had me deliver a couple of Mooneys and reposses a Navion. Flew most of the high wing Pipers, a few of the Indians, Taylorcraft, Lucombe, Eurcoupe and Aircoupe, C120, 140, 170 172, 182, a couple of Stinsons, and probably others I’ve forgotten. One of the carefree moments in my workaholic life. Finally ran out of money and had to find a real job then start college.

Hope you weren’t too bored. By far the longest flying story I’ve put on this blog.

My favorite airplane of those I’ve flown? A simple two control Eurcoupe/Aircoupe on a warm spring or summer day. An airplane without any vices I ever found excepting one with bad maintenance. Had a rubber fuel line break in the cockpit and pour an eight gallon tank’s worth of avgas on my left leg. Shallow climb, let the fuel drain out the condensation holes in the tail and not touch anything electrical. Interesting hour that was. For something with 75-90 hp, it is an eager performer. You actually drive it off and back on the runway. If I ever get a ton of money (hey, it could happen) I will get one and go the LSA route, pacemaker be damned.


  1. Thanks, that was very interesting.

  2. Good story. And you are in part of the country that would be beautiful to fly over. My advice. Win the Lottery and then start plane shopping.

    1. Have in hand a winning Powerball ticket. $4 closer to my goal.

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  3. That is a fantastic story! You've gotten to do things few ever do, and I'd guarantee you had a lot more 'fun' than we did!!! ;-)

    1. Glad you liked the story. Flying did give me opportunities to grow as a man and overcome a lot of self inflicted limitations. The fact I lived........ Ah well, no need to go there. Don't know if the FAA has a statute of limitations.