August 6th and 7th, 2010
This summer little N971RD flew 6,800 nautical miles, helping us traverse the continent, bringing me up to visit Nell while she was on set in Toronto (watch Warehouse 13!), and showing us, again, parts of the country we would never otherwise see. I thought of that as I stared down from the top of the St. Louis arch.
Our two crossings (eastbound and westbound) need to be written up properly, but they have been added to the Crossing the Country page at the bottom, so you can at least check the route. We keep saying that we are going to zig zag across sometime and see a lot more, but then when we are in the plane closing the distance to our destination is very addicting and we all keep the nose pointed straight ahead.
I struggled to spend the entire summer on the East coast, but Nell’s work brought her back to Los Angeles so I hopped a Virgin America flight at JFK to join her (after visiting Dexter for Parents’ Day at Amherst). Five days later, we needed to return to the East coast to collect the boys, and this is how we did it (mileage is in nautical miles, 15% longer than the statute miles non-pilots are used to):
Our nephew, Max, picked us up at home and dropped us at LAX. When I first visited Nell in Los Angeles, Max was two and a half, an aficionado of Ernie and Bert. Here he was weeks away from heading off to college in Vermont. When I considered it, I was a little disoriented because it seemed too fantastic. (12 miles total)
I had a long journey ahead of me. Virgin has a minor toehold at LAX (just two gates at the end of a mongrel terminal). I tried to relax after the hell of going through security (there was a shift change right as we put our bags on the belt). Nell roamed the gate area a little, disappointed in the offerings. (I agreed, but had already seen how dismal it was when I arrived on Monday.) As soon as they announced the pre-boarding I swallowed the trusty Lunesta and continued reading my lovely David Mitchell book (The Ten Thousand Autumns of Jakob Zoet). The brilliance of Lunesta is that if you are actively engaged in something it doesn’t affect you, but the moment you are ready for sleep, there it is. Nell and I both wanted window seats, so we are near the back. I am tucked in moments after I sit down and I am asleep before the door is closed on the plane.
Two thousand miles later, I wake up. Most of the passengers, including Nell, are fast asleep. I look out over western New Jersey as the sky turns pale for sunrise. After watching the winking lights of waking towns below me, a layer of clouds slides between me and them. I hope that the layer is high up, so that we are not departing our little airport IFR. I remembered I had Nell’s new 3g iPad with me, so I used it to check the METAR at N07 (Lincoln Park). They were reporting a 9,000 foot ceiling. That would be fine. I sat back in my seat and drifted off a little more until we circled to land.
Being at the back of the plane, we had an additional twenty minutes to wait to get off. But the terminal was nearly empty, so we zoomed through it, dragging our bag and planning our escape to the AirTrain. Virgin cross the continent for us in less than six hours, 2,144 miles. (2,156 total)
The AirTrain dropped us right into Hertz’ lot. The woman at the desk was annoyed that I showed her my license and credit card, “You’re on the board already, since you’re a Gold Club member.” So we wandered to the board and found our little sedan parked in the numbered slot. We had a GPS unit with us, but it still thought we were in Santa Monica. Nell did better with her iPad, and we rocketed across the Cross Bronx Expressway to the George Washington Bridge and out into the Garden State. It was strange driving onto the little field right after being at the forbidden tarmac of JFK. At Lincoln Park you can drive from the road onto the ramp (the parking area for planes), and then right out onto the runway itself. You can do that at our home field, too, but it’s a two thousand dollar fine if you drive onto the runway. At Lincoln Park you have to drive across the runway to get to the hangars, where N971RD was parked. It was a forty mile drive that ended with a LOT of looking back and forth to make sure the car wasn’t going to meet a plane. (2,196 total)
Fly, Drive, Fly, Drive, Fly
Getting the plane out of the hangar isn’t difficult, but it’s involved. We swapped the plane for the car, and I fired it up. We taxied to the fuel pumps, shut down and topped it off. I sent an email to my Uncle Jeo letting him know we were about to depart NJ. It wasn’t yet eight o’clock and the airport and surrounding town were still weekend-quiet. The runway is short (2,700 feet), and narrow. I knew that I was operating on a little less sleep than usual, so I was taking everything very carefully and slowly. I performed a short field takeoff, holding the brakes for a moment while the engine wound up to full power.
We roared off the runway and out over the greenhouses of the adjacent nursery. It was a great morning to be in the sky, not yet hot and the moisture in the air pulled up into the clouds thousands of feet above. We had a wonderful view of the rolling countryside of Morris County. Nell promptly went back to sleep. I turned on my iPod and listened to Coldplay, Springsteen and Mark Knopfler, dulcet tunes for a peaceful morning flight. Northampton Airport, where I had dropped Dexter back in mid-July, is not as small as Lincoln Park, but it’s not very generous in runway length either. I came in low, made sure I wasn’t too fast, and put the wheels down right on the threshold. Less than an hour spinning the propellor for 113 miles. (2,309 total)
My Uncle Jeo (my mother’s older brother, but not the oldest brother) was already waiting in the parking lot. Northampton is informal, no TSA fences, so he was able to wander right out to the plane as we climbed out. Nell finally got to meet him, after being married to me for sixteen years, and I took Jeo up in the plane so we could circle the town, his current home and his old house. (Everybody, including Nell asks what sort of name Jeo is. My uncle’s name is John, but growing up he was called Giovanni in his family. John is so plain and he was more exciting than that. Giovanni is a little long, so it was shortened. It should really be spelled Gio, but the J from John snuck on there. He told Nell, “I always know when someone calls me Jeo that they know me from way back, or they got some old information about me.”)
After parking (I am sure in a spot that wasn’t ideal) the plane, we hopped into Jeo’s car, trundled to Amhert’s campus and snuck Dexter out of the award ceremony (“Dad, I don’t want to sit through the award ceremony, so the earlier you get there, the better.”), and headed right back to the airport. It was probably only an hour visit with Jeo, but Dexter and I had made our way from Amherst to Northampton the previous weekend to have Sunday dinner with Jeo and family. The morning after getting home to Santa Monica the boys were asked what the highlight of their summer was and Dexter piped up with, “Meeting Jeo and his family.” Many thanks for the early morning ride to collect Dexter, twelve miles round trip. (2,321 total)
The flight to Portsmouth, New Hampshire was even shorter than the one up from New Jersey. Dexter was exhausted (they had a dance the last night of his summer program, and the music kept him awake). Fortunately, he had his pillow from his dorm room and went right to sleep on it. There was way too much luggage for one little fellow, but it just filled up the seat next to him, and was stuffed into the luggage area behind him. Let’s just say that the packing list for Amherst’s summer program was very conservative.
It was funny to take off from a short 3,000 foot strip and then land at Portsmouth, the former Pease Air Force base, which has an 11,000 foot runway. Right as we were landing the handles of Nell’s bag bumped the flap switch, moving us from landing flaps to no flaps. For a moment I wasn’t sure why we weren’t slowing down faster as we floated down the runway. If we were somewhere other than Pease I would have gone around. As it was, we just ate up a bunch of the runway before the wheels finally touched. (The rest of our flights had the handles for the bag tucked to the side, that was definitely an anomaly.) We taxied over to the FBO, which had the promised crew car ready for us. We threw all of Dexter’s non-clothing luggage into the trunk and headed to get Rudy. Only a 91 mile flight. (2,412 total)
I was glad that Dexter and I had come to visit Rudy on campus a few weeks before, because I knew my way from the airport to Exeter. We met Rudy by his dorm and loaded all his stuff into the trunk of the crew car. It was clearly way too much to fit into the plane, but we were all hungry, so I couldn’t worry about it. We lunch at an epic place called Epoch, and I snoozed while we waited for the food. I appreciated the sugar and caffeine in my beverage. Soon we rolled back northward, with a stop at a Mailboxes joint to ship a three foot cube of belongings home to California. We didn’t hit any traffic and I didn’t miss any turns. Not bad for a twenty mile round trip on the ground. (2,432 total)
Everyone was so happy to be together. Dexter and Rudy were chattering away about their games and occasionally stopping to hug Nell. I packed everything up into the plane, happy that it would all fit, loaded Nell in and then the boys (otherwise we are tail heavy and sit on the skid), and started my usual walk around. As I reached into to get the fuel tester Nell said, “Oh, I’m sure it’s fine, you don’t need to do that this time.” I was just tired enough for the joke to work and I laughed during the whole rest of my pre-flight. I think that means I was punchy. More very careful flight procedures and plane operation. We climbed out over the super-long runway and I pointed out to the boys that the air force base used to keep their munitions on the south side of the field, off near the river, in bunkers that you could look down and see. “What’s in them now?” asked Dexter. I had asked the same thing when we flew in before and the tower controller told me, “Bats. Lots of bats.”
Now it was hot. Now it was a sweltering summer day, and I was thankful for every cloud we were ducking under, since it was a little less direct sunlight into the cockpit. I put up as many of the little shade devices as I could find, but it was still hot until we were up above six thousand feet. Once we leveled out, Nell and the boys promptly fell asleep. It would have been nearly six hours to drive up to get Rudy from NYC (plus another six to get back) and I loved traversing a portion of the eastern seaboard in less than two hours to bring him back. Even sweaty, it was nicer to be in the plane than in traffic down below. And there was definitely a lot of weekend traffic down below, especially near the beaches.
The New York approach controllers didn’t really want to deal with me and they cut me loose as I crossed the Hudson, right over Croton-on-Hudson. That was fine, there was very little aircraft traffic ahead of me, and we were gliding in slow. I announced my position a lot on the Common Traffic Advisory Frequency on the way into Lincoln Park. My friend TW, who was letting us use his hangar, said that being based at N07 has made him a better pilot. I can believe that, since you have to really be in control of your airspeed and confident of your aircraft control as you are coming down into Lincoln Park. If you are wandering from the centerline you are going to be in the grass in short order (the runway is only ten feet wider than my wingspan), and if you come in too fast you’ll be off the end before you know it. I did a good job, ending our 201 mile trip with a slight bump and some firm braking action before taxiing to the hangar row. (2,633 total)
The boys helped hauling the bags out of the plane and packed up the rental car. I was a little beat and I think without their help pushing the plane into the hangar I might have called the FBO to send over the golf cart/small plane tug. But they each pushed mightily on a wing root on each side and the main landing gear bumped up over the concrete threshold into the space. The electric motor whined as the door closed, protecting N971RD from various thunderstorms that would sweep through in the next week, the harsh summer sun, and a few dive bombing birds. It was very nice to have a hangar for a few weeks.
Nell offered to drive into the city, but I’ve driven these roads into the Lincoln Tunnel so many times that I could probably do it asleep, blind-folded and steering from the back seat. We stopped for a Slushee (mmmm, cola-flavored, super-cooled liquid) which made the wait at the Lincoln Tunnel entrance a lot easier to take. There was only light traffic in the city, so we were in the Village in a few minutes. After dropping the boys, Nell and all of the luggage in front of 43 West, I circled the block back up to University and returned the Hertz car to their depot only a block east. I was pretty tired walking that last block home, but the drive in (23 miles) was a lot easier than I had hoped, and now we were finally all together again. (2,656 total)