Day 1, April 18 - St. Joseph to Brinkley, Arkansas
I had read too many flying books. First it was Richard Bach, then Rinker Buck, then Mariana Gosnell, and Henry Kisor - each taking off and flying into the sunset. The freedom of flight, the ability to get away from it all in a big way. That is what I wanted in a vacation. This year I decided to build such a vacation around Sun'n'Fun, the annual Experimental Aircraft Association's Florida answer to Oshkosh. I would take off on a Saturday morning in my TriPacer and arrive at Lakeland Florida whenever it happened.
I was already somewhat frustrated that my departure was 3 days after tax day had depleted our cash, forcing me to plan my stops around airports that take our brand of fuel card, a restraint I did not want. But I was determined to be as footloose and fancy-free as possible.
I had been piling up supplies for several days. It took several trips to the car to load it all. Sleeping bag, two clothing bags, tent bag, flight bag, computer bag - ten items in all. At the airport it filled the baggage compartment and the back seat of the airplane, and I was ready to fly. Sneaking under the Kansas City class B airspace, rather than be controlled by air traffic control, I was soon on my way to Springfield.
An hour later I noticed a speck in the sky, a fellow sky traveler. He remained there in the center of my windshield. I turned to try to determine the other aircraft's direction of flight. Soon it was apparent he was going the same direction as I. I was faster and soon passing a half mile off his right wing. For 20 or 30 minutes we flew, side by side, each in our own world. Then a cloud passed between us and I never saw him again.
After refueling in Springfield, I was over a different landscape - tree-topped hills separated by valleys and lakes. I listened to conversations between two aircraft flying in formation for picture taking along a lake shoreline. I heard someone calling for "Captain Larry", with no results. This was the world I would be spending the next week in.
My plans, plans made to be changed, were soon changed. My target was in Mississippi, but 60 miles short of that target I came upon a massive cloud bank. My flight level took me over the top, but I soon realized it was a solid layer that I did not want to be trapped on top of. I did a 180 and descended to take a peek under the layer. Visibility underneath was non-existent. This was where the excitement of being a vagabond kicked in. I was now going to have to stop in an unplanned, unknown place - Brinkley, Arkansas.
I called for an airport advisory, but got no response. Perhaps everyone was busy. I did a left pattern for this single runway on the outskirts of town. I taxied to the front of the office. The satellite dish on the roof indicated modern weather monitoring equipment, yet the airport appeared abandoned. I tried the door and found it locked - at 4:15pm. Finding the tiedown area, I tied down my aircraft, using my ropes instead of the rotted stings lying on the ground. I gathered up a change of clothes and my computer and began walking in the direction of town.
The first business I came to was a bar. I opened the door and looked in. It was dark and with my eyes adjusted to outdoors, I could see nothing. I walked in and found the bartender and four friendly customers. I asked if there was a motel in town and they were ready with answers - and questions about me, the stranger out of the gray sky. The man at the bar offered to take me to the motel, after he finished his beer. I thought about it - there was very little traffic in this tiny town and he could probably get me there in one piece. I waited, he ordered another. A rice farmer came in and sat at a table. He offered me a ride. He told me about the Piper Cub he used to ride in - until the fabric was so rotten the mechanic punched holes in it with his fist to try to stop the pilot from flying it. The pilot taped it up with duct tape and continued to fly, but he wouldn't go up anymore. The man at the bar ordered another. Another rice farmer came in. I listened to the two discussing their farming. Another guy, a shirt cutter, was looking for someone to play pool and I played a game for fun. Of course I lost! The man at the bar had another and began calling me "flyboy". Soon the second rice farmer, the one drinking Diet Cokes, offered a ride to the motel and we left.
Already the setting sun was coming from clear western skies. As I checked in to the Super 8, I asked about the possibility of a ride to the airport tomorrow morning. The lady behind the desk said I could call the police station and they would probably take me. Come morning, I'll be off into the clear blue, leaving this quaint place but taking memories. So ends my first day as a vagabond. Tomorrow is a new day.
Day 2, April 19 - Brinkley, Arkansas to Mobile, Alabama
Morning came under a clear blue sky, as expected. I made the call to the police station. The dispatcher checked and said "Wait in the lobby, an officer will be right out." I had a free donut and orange juice and picked up a flyer for
JIMMY'S DUCK PROCESSING
All Birds picked, cleaned, wrapped and ready for the freezer
Snow, Blue & Specklebelly Geese $3.50
Canadian Geese $5.00
Soon the officer appeared and we were off to the airport. We met another squad car. My driver waved, picked up the radio microphone and asked, "Have you found Tiny yet?" They had not. Turning east towards the airport, my host said, "You're from out of town - let me show you something", as he pulled into a parking lot and passed slowly by a collection of restored classic cars. "The '49 Ford pickup isn't here today," he continued, "It's outstanding." I was happy to play the part of the impressed tourist, in return for transportation.
Once at the lonely airport I preflighted the airplane and took off as the officer watched from his police cruiser, as if presiding over a special event in his kingdom. Turning southeast we had a smooth ride over the rice fields with their winding dikes that I had heard about the night before. The rolling Mississippi River came into view, reflecting the morning sun in a flash of brilliance. Several barges were negotiating its snake-like curves. We were nearing Clarksdale, Mississippi, the destination we had failed to reach on Saturday. I hoped the FBO would be open on this Sunday morning. There were no lights visible, but the door was open. I went in and found a man in the dimly lit office. I noticed 2 of the 3 sets of fluorescent lights were out. Perhaps they faded gradually, hardly noticed by those working there. I asked for fuel and oil. He silently dug around in a closet, looking for something, then went out to the plane with hardly a word. As he fueled the TriPacer, I added brake fluid, thinking how I expected people in Mississippi to be more friendly. I paid with my fuel credit card, and turned to leave. He came from behind the counter and told me he flew a Colt once. Didn't really remember if he had ever flown a TriPacer - wasn't one in his logbook. He had flown an Aeronca and a Cub though. Mississippians were friendly after all! We talked of flying for several minutes and I was off.
Deeper into Mississippi, scattered clouds began to appear below me. All precipitation had moved out of Mississippi, but morning conditions were low ceilings across the state, forecast to rise as the day went on. The clouds became more and more dense and soon only a few holes were visible. From my vantage point the space under the clouds looked very tiny, but I could not take a chance getting stuck on top. I dived into the next large hole to take a look. To my surprise, conditions underneath were very different from last night. This was scud running at its best - a low cloud deck, but great visibility, a smooth ride and even a tailwind. My GPS kept my position pin-pointed and soon I was comfortably skimming the hilltops. I flew over country churches filled with worshippers and joined them in spirit. I imagined fiery southern sermons being preached and wondered if my buzzing low overhead was a distraction.
Reaching the center of the state, the clouds thickened and pushed me lower. My GPS helped keep me away from tall towers. I decided GPS should stand for Great Pal for Scud running, or some other such thing. Approaching the Meridian area, I tuned in the ASOS on the radio and found the ceiling up to 1700 feet. Before long bright spots appeared on the lush green landscape as the sun broke through the cloud canopy. At 11:21 I was touching down on good old runway three-two at Mobile Regional. It had been another great flight.
The afternoon treat was a trip to Pensacola, Florida to visit the National Museum of Naval Aviation and home of the Blue Angels with my hosts, Wesley and Tracey. We wandered among historic aircraft representing every era from the invention of the airplane to Harriers, helicopters and jets. We looked at World War II displays, including a trainer flown by President George Bush as a young airman. On the ride home, I realized I was ready for good nights rest before zipping off to Sun'n'Fun to make my home in a tent under a wing for 48 hours. I think I'll choose the right wing.....
Day 3, April 20 - Mobile, Alabama to Sun'n'Fun, Lakeland, Florida
I sit here in the cool evening breeze, on the folding chair thoughtfully provided for me by my wife. Behind me, under the right wing of the TriPacer is the already assembled tent that will be my home for the next two nights. Among the row upon row of airplanes, our vantage point is beside the approach end of runways niner-left and niner-right, third row from the back. From behind, I hear a group of men having a friendly conversation. Ahead and to the right there is the rustling of a tent being set up, while directly ahead a pilot opens and closes his baggage compartment door. Every few seconds a different sound builds behind us as another arriving aircraft appears over our heads on its final approach. Some are smooth Cessnas and Pipers, some putt-putting Luscombes, some buzzing homebuilts and some are bellowing warbirds. There is a lull and I hear tent stakes being pounded. A bi-plane giving rides lands and a fuel truck drives by, each on their appointed rounds. Another lull and a flock of geese crosses the airport, honking as if to warn their larger sky mates to beware. A LearJet streaks over. This is Sun'n'Fun - well not quite - the sun hasn't shown itself all day.
I awoke this morning in Mobile, long before the alarm. I thought about the four hour trip to Lakeland. Leaving at 8 am should get me there two hours before the airport closes for the afternoon airshows. But then I realized Florida was in another time zone. Gone was an hour. The weather check revealed a tailwind - a half hour gained back. Wesley arrived and we scooted off to the airport. On the ramp were two warbirds and a homebuilt, all being cared for by their pilots and headed for our destination. By 8:10 I was rolling again on runway three-two. Turning out to the right in a climb I reached my cruising altitude of 5500 feet by the time I crossed the shore of Mobile Bay. I kept in touch with air traffic control, and requested flight following, knowing I would be flying among many military restricted areas along the Gulf Coast. My GPS would be taking me directly to the Navarre Bridge, the gateway to a corridor along the shoreline, established for traffic like us. I cruised along, fascinated by the vacation homes and beaches on the left and awed by the vast Gulf of Mexico on the right.
Our airspace was filled with aircraft and air traffic control was calling out traffic. I keep my eyes peeled, but felt confident that I would be warned if anyone came near. Scanning the beach out my left window, I was shocked to suddenly see a large twin engine aircraft below me, climbing. I watched, prepared to take evasive action. As expected, he was faster than I and I watched him levitate right up through my windshield. So much for depending on air traffic control!
I continued my eastbound trek, watching for traffic and digging into my food supplies for the first time. The sealed top on the potato chip can was bowed upwards, an unwitting barometer indicating the lowered air pressure at our altitude. Approaching Cross City for our fuel stop, aircraft were converging from the north and west. An Aeronca followed me into the pattern for landing. The ramp was full of planes and spectators, but we were escorted directly to the fuel pumps. Talk inside was that the weather was "crumby" in the direction of Lakeland. A few short minutes later, we taxied out behind a Mooney and an experimental. I guess if everyone else jumped off a cliff, I would too.
The weather was not great, about like Mississippi had been yesterday, but more hazy. I reviewed the landing procedures again and again on the final one hour flight. Arriving at Lakeland there was a gap in arriving traffic. We were sent from the staging area toward the airport, with a line of aircraft forming behind us, making us the leader of the pack. Anxious to keep the flow going, the tower asked me to make a tight pattern - a dive to the runway. I was not sure whether to use runway 9 right or left, and they asked for a last minute sidestep to the other one. My trusty TriPacer made all the right moves and we had arrived - but the sun had not.
Throughout the afternoon, I wandered among the indoor displays as an abbreviated airshow was performed between wave after wave of rain which pelted the field. On the way back to the camping area, I dived into a food tent to escape the rain and grab a hot dog, running into Scott and Bob, the two Michiganders I had seen with their homebuilt in Mobile. They had landed in northern Florida and rented a car, rather than try to beat the weather. We exchanged flying stories about adventures and crashes until the rain let up and went our separate ways.
Day 4, April 21 - Sun'n'Fun
Airplanes, airplanes, airplanes. Big ones, small ones. New ones, old ones. Factory built ones, homebuilt ones. Fast ones, slow ones. Fat ones, skinny ones - and pilots too. I was awakened at precisely 7 am by an aircraft engine starting up just outside my tent. What a way to come alive! I walked towards the flightline, checking out examples of creative camping, from the old "tarp over a high wing", to the lantern hanging from the ADF antenna wire, to the water jug hanging from the wing strut, to the clever clothesline stretched between the wing and tailboom of a Skymaster.
I drifted by the Women's Pavilion and noticed they were fixin' to have one whale of a Tupperware party. I continued to commercial building #3 and bought the TriPacer cabin light fixture I had spotted yesterday, attended a forum and worked my way to the flightline for the afternoon airshow. The sun had now overcome the clouds and was clearly in charge. Sun'n'Fun was now complete. The sky exploded with aircraft and aerobats - ranging from powerful biplanes, to graceful gliders, to synchronized pairs and trios of airplanes. From parachutists, to gyroplanes, to the final earth shaking, afterburner powered F16 - giving the eager crowd a show to remember.
I spent another evening in the cool breeze under the familiar TriPacer wing. The wind had shifted and tonight's display consisted of dozens of aircraft of every description now departing for diverse destinations, streaming over our overstimulated heads. I tried to read. Paragraphs and sentences were broken into a jumble of words by the roar of radial engines and the whistle of flying wires. A man nearby was speculating how the tower would respond to a request for a ballistic take off in his Piper. Then he mused, "Of course the only way I could fly ballistic is straight down." A Bonanza parked next to us, flown by a former TriPacer owner and his friend. He had been to Costa Rica - sounds like fun, but I was suspicious.
I drifted off to sleep early, having experienced everything Sun'n'Fun has to offer. Later I was awakened by voices. The neighbors had returned from the evening movie and were settling into the tent a few feet from mine. They talked of flying and instrument approaches. Then one man mentioned that "Joe" shouldn't talk about drug deals so much around the FBI guys. They talked about how it's just not so easy to make the big money anymore with the AWACS planes now used in locating drug planes. My suspicions had been correct - flying has its dark side, too, and again I was off to sleep.
Day 5, April 22 - Lakeland, Florida to West Palm Beach
At 6:15 am there was a commotion outside. Only later did I learn that the EMT's had been there for a man who had been having chest pains. He refused to go to the hospital, but instead flew home to Georgia - as a passenger. I spent the morning having final conversations with neighbors around me, some from Tennessee, some from Georgia, one from Ohio and a couple from Maine. Between visits I packed and organized two days worth of clutter and at high noon cranked the old TriPacer for our departure. We taxied across the field to runway two-six right and were sent on our way by red-shirted FAA controllers standing on the runway, much like flagmen at the Indy 500. We flew the requested 3 miles straight west and carefully checking for traffic around us made our southeasterly turn. It would be a short 1.3 hour flight skirting the southwestern corner of Restricted Area 2901, across the top of Lake Okeechobee and then on to North Palm Beach County Airport and the Atlantic Ocean.
Making a wide sweeping turn over West Palm Beach to get a closer look at the Atlantic coast, I approached the airport from the northeast. North County was a recently built airport quickly becoming a general aviation hub. The large Key West style terminal building gave an elegant, airy feeling. Once inside, I sat typing on my computer as outdoors a Lockheed Electra taxied up, adding to the early Florida atmosphere. Two sandhill cranes passed by the wood framed windows, their red-topped heads and long beaks adding to the scene. I finished a phone call just as Gary drove up. We had been friends years ago in Kansas, but not seen each other for seventeen years. There would be an evening of catching up to do.
Day 6, April 23 - West Palm Beach to Savannah, Georgia
Climbing out of North County Airport, the Florida coastline and vast Atlantic Ocean spread before me. Immediately I knew this was going to be a lovely flight. I turned north along the coast and watched as one town blended into the next, forming a string of civilization 2 miles wide and 400 miles long. Smoothly we flew as airport after airport, miles of sandy beaches and thousands of homes drifted below us. I watched an aircraft below me descend towards a lone runway, suddenly swerving toward the grass at the last minute. Fearing the worst, I watched, only to see him bounce back into the air with a banner in tow - and he was off to buzz up and down the coast, delivering his message to the beach people. Far in the distance, I could begin to see the Vertical Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center. Soon it was joined by the three mile long Shuttle landing strip. As I passed by the Cape, I was struck by its stark emptiness. Launching pads were scattered along the beach, separated by acres of open space. It was not the image I had for this beehive of activity.
Savannah was my final destination for the day. I was asked by the tower to clear the runway quickly. Looking out my left window I saw a string of F16's barreling in for a landing behind me. My getting out of their way saved countless tax dollars, I am sure. I went into the FBO. The lady behind the counter and a man were talking about the guy who flew into a pine tree. I found the restrooms and had to choose between the door marked "Amelia Earhart" and the door marked "Charles Lindbergh". Charles had a nice room. My cousin Karen soon arrived and we were off to tour old downtown Savannah and a shipyard, seeing yachts and minesweepers under construction. I spent another evening catching up on lost years. Tomorrow would begin my homeward flight.
Day 7, April 24 - Savannah, Georgia to St. Joseph, Mo.
Once again I was reminded that I had forgotten to bring a jacket, as a wet cool morning greeted us in this coastal town, but the sun was shining and the chill was soon gone. As we climbed over the Georgia countryside, I was amazed by the rivers meandering among forests. It was a jungle down there and I was always glad to have a road or highway somewhere within gliding distance. Approaching our first stop at Chattanooga, we skimmed across a brown lake with a floating "ink blot" of blue-black. I wondered what it could be, but my thoughts soon turned to the coming landing. The wind was calm and the tower gave me a last minute choice to fly straight in to runway three-one. I rented a car and made a quick trip to the top of beautiful Lookout Mountain, but quickly decided this was a great day to run for home.
As usual, Tennessee was a mass of mist and haze blending into the treed landscape. We began boring our way through the gray sky, knowing this was going to be a long day in the air. I had heard of storms building in the midwest, and perhaps this could be another vagabond experience. The shiny Mississippi waterway wound its way across our path signaling our entrance to the Show-Me state, the finish line. We found only puffy white clouds and eventually a jagged line of shredded cloud bits and pieces that had aspired to be a thunderstorm. Nearing home, the landscape began looking stangely familiar, yet foreign. It was no longer just our neighborhood, but part of a large and diverse patchwork of a nation. We pushed our way into the landing pattern between a Tomahawk's touch and go's and were reunited with good old home field. I could no longer be a vagabond, but now must behave like a responsible citizen.