The Trip Mooney Mites were Designed For

by Dan McKinnon, San Diego, CA


Dan owned N485M from 1979 until he sold it to Joe Freeman probably in the late 80’s. There was no date on the original article when it was submitted to Tony Terrigno for the WAMM Newsletter. At the time of this publishing, N485M is registered to Ray Sansoucy of Worcester, MA. Photo courtesy of Ted Hazlewood, Southern California Aircraft Repair, Gillespie Field.


One of the great things about a Mooney Mite is the ability to strip away all the sophistication of flying and enjoy the basics of the old days.

We (Ken Shea and myself) did just that by making a long weekend trip—August 8-11—a Friday through Monday.

We knew we were going north from San Diego and left without any real itinerary except we knew we’d make stops at Big Bear Lake and somewhere near Oakhurst, California near the entrance of Yosemite where I had two kids working at a summer Christian church camp.

My Mite [N485M] had just finished having all the AD notes completed and a variety of other repairs and a complete paint job patterned after a P-51 Mustang, including invasion stripes. The friendly folks at Southern California Aircraft Repair at Gillespie Field just east of San Diego did a terrific job. Of course, they ought to, they maintain the four Mites located there.

Friday morning we were up at the crack of dawn—only to greet fog and low clouds—but it burned off by 10 a.m. We loaded our Mites with sleeping bags, spare clothes, survival kits and some food and were off.

We climbed out of Gillespie to avoid the TCA and then let down to enjoy the back country of San Diego weaving around mountains to spot all the dirt airstrips and little ranches as we wound our way up north towards Hemet. Then we started a climb in order to have enough altitude to land at Big Bear.

A big forest fire in the foothills of the San Bernardino Mountains darkened the skies and caused us to fly west to avoid the dense choking smoke.

Then we flew up ridges to gain additional altitude. Ken Shea (N4071) led the way and started us using soaring techniques which (we're both glider pilots) helped us gain altitude that our 65 horsepower engines wouldn't give us fast enough.

Then a landing at Big Bear for a quick lunch and refuel.

Then off again and over Lake Arrowhead for a low pass where Roger Shea (a Mite owner and Ken's brother who was supposed to go on the trip with us but had to work) was working. We rocked our wings and headed northwestward. Roger even saw us.

Ken and I had radio contact with each other and we flew with our canopies open most of the time. An old flying helmet and goggles added to the feel and safety.

Near George Air Force Base we avoided some dust devils and the turbulence picked up. Then we spotted a dry lake bed in the vicinity of El Mirage glider port. We dropped down for a closer look and landing — each of us landing in different directions.

It was a real sensation—no runways but ever bit as smooth and thousands of feet of room. We got out, took a couple of pictures and climbed in to head towards Mojave airport.

As we lifted off, we looked down at the far end of the dry lake and saw some sail lake boats on wheels speeding along on the dry lake. We circled for a closer look, waved back to the greetings from the ground.

Then skirting R 2515 protecting Edwards Air Force Base we headed to Mojave. We refueled in 110 degree heat. Had an interesting chat with the airport manager Dan Sabovich and he shared his office walls of unique airplane pictures and then we took off towards Inyokern.

We met a Citabria pilot who was returning home so we all flew in formation with a little chatter on the radio about the sights. After Inyokern, we headed for Lone Pine at the foot of Mt. Whitney—the highest point in the 48 States at 14,495 feet and a peak I had climbed as a youth.

Ken and I refueled and talked about our Mites with admiring tourists. Everywhere we went on the trip our planes were instant attraction and conversation pieces.

We couldn't decide whether to continue to Bishop or spend the night Lone Pine. After everyone gave us their thinking, we decide to spend the night at Lone Pine because there was more grass for sleeping bags and the town was closer to the airport. The airport manager couldn't do enough to be helpful.

We walked into town and had a good dinner and walked back out to the airport for our first night under the stars.

Such a night gives you a greater appreciation of the freedoms in our country. We watched shooting stars crisscross the heavens on a clear night unclouded with city lights and small talked about flying until we fell asleep.

Dawn came and we awoke but when the sun spotlighted us after rising over the mountains to the east we hopped out of the sack, loaded up and took off for some smooth early morning flying.

I wanted my picture with Mt. Whitney and Ken tried. But after getting the pictures back, it was too far in the background. Next time we'll spend a morning climbing up to nearly 14,000 feet near the top and get close-up shots.

We climbed up to a thousand feet or so and circled around town heading north to Independence. After clearing the populated areas we dropped back down to the ground of the Owens River and a close-up look at some of the most beautiful and scenic valleys in California.

We kept a close lookout for two rows of high-tension lines.

We passed over Tinemaha Lake and Ken spotted them.

He called over the radio, "Look at those elk—there's herds of them.”

We circled taking pictures. Later, in the photos we could see the huge racks of the bull elk as nearly as clearly as we saw them in person. Then we spotted several herds of doe elk with just a few bulls. It was exciting—especially for hunters. However, the elk were in a protected game preserve.

We joined up again and continued formation and zigzagging our way up to Bishop—enjoying the patch work vegetation scenery all along the way.

Bishop airport was full of soaring talk. And the weather was perfect for soaring. We refueled and decide to head for Mammoth Lakes airport. I wanted to check it out for skiing trips in the winter. It was a bumpy ride and turbulent at Mammoth but a relatively short hop.

We refueled again and tried a section takeoff. We had full power but at 7128 feet those 65 horses don't seem too powerful.

We kept grinding down the runway together and I began to wonder if we would ever get airborne. The runway sorta peaks in the center and it looked short. I instantly vowed that was the last formation takeoff at altitude. Finally we pulled back and we both struggled into the air and fought rough turbulence.

After takeoff we realized we had only used half the runway.

We climbed out to go on the longest leg of the trip. The mountains were high and it was rough air. It started to get cold. I closed my canopy for the first time on the trip.

Wow. My airspeed was on 60 mph. What had happened?

I still had 2200 RPM or so. Finally, I discovered my airspeed indicated about 20 mph slower with the canopy closed. And climbing through 10,500 felt like sitting on the head of a pin after being at ground level the whole trip.

Ken led and we moved to the eastern side of the mountain ranges and used soaring techniques again for lift. At times we could get our Mites to indicate 2000 feet-per-minute climb when we hit pockets of lift.

I checked out the rugged scenery from about 11,500 feet.

Ken, somewhat braver and more familiar with the area from glider competitions, checked it out from about 9,500 feet. We headed for Lake Tahoe and on over to Truckee Tahoe airport.

As we passed over the lake, I yearned to have enough fuel and time to fly at water level around the entire lake. But it wasn’t to be this trip.

We landed in gusty winds at Truckee Tahoe airport and eased off the strip to look over the gliders and then cranked up again and headed for the airport proper.

There we ran into F.C. Rechenmacher who had a beautifully maintained but out of license Mite. It was a 1955 Mite with a large cockpit and variable pitch prop. He was a friendly guy and even helped us polish up canopies and dust our planes. After checking out his Mite and refueling, we headed north for Gansner Airport at Quincy.

We wandered around in the valley on the way there. We even spotted a dirt strip amongst some trees with a man on the ground beckoning us down. We thought we could stop, but it wasn't long enough to get airborne again.

We made a full stop landing and take off from Beckworth and then cruised over to Gansne., It is a tight airport in a valley surrounded by high mountains. After carefully sizing it up we dropped in for the night.

As usual, everyone was cheerful and inquired about the Mites.

We plugged in our radio batteries for a recharge, and explored an adjacent park for a place to sleep. No luck. Signs posted all over the place—no camping.

Next, we walked along the freshly cut and baled field adjacent to the airport for a soft spot. No luck. We also checked out a creek next to the airport but not enough room and too many bugs. So we decided to camp out on the grass right along the airport building.

We heard everyone buzzing with excitement at the airport about the county fair and the big show for the evening—The West Coast Lumberjack Championships. It sounded different so the airport people gave us a lift in the back of a pickup to the fairgrounds about three miles away.

And what a show we enjoyed—axe tossing at targets, log sawing contest, tug of wars and the usual fun of a true county fair like fresh cooked fudge.

And then the long walk back in the pitch black of late night.

That was the night I learned always to bring a tarp to put under your sleeping bag to keep the moisture from seeping through and keeping you cold enough for your teeth to chatter most of the night. Boy, did morning feel good.

Peanut butter and honey sandwiches for breakfast along with fresh sweet Thompson seedless grapes. A swig of water and we were off on the next leg of adventure.

As we headed south to get on the west side of the High Sierras there was no place ---absolutely no place to land for an emergency. Just tall beautiful pines.

Ken's Lycoming and my Continental didn't miss a beat. But your imagination sure can play tricks with noises when you have no place to land.

Then occasionally we spotted lakes that were the only flat areas around. We might have lost our planes—but not our hides in an emergency.

Then we dropped in at Nevada City, and on down to Placerville. At Placerville, the gas man said there was another Mite—red and white. We tried to find the owner, but he wasn't on the field then.

Then it was down to get our first view of Columbia and a longing wish we could have arranged our personal schedules to be there on the Labor Day weekend to be with all the other Mite owners.

On a lark we wandered south and landed at Pine Mountain Lake. What a unique airport.

We soon discovered all the roads in this development are taxiways and all the garages in the homes are hangers. So we taxied through the trees to have a look and bumped into some friendly residents who shared some facts about the development with us. What a unique mountain hideaway for pilots. That's a fun trip for exploration.

Then we headed south to Mariposa Yosemite. It was bumpy but no problems.

While waiting for my kids to pick us up and take us into Oakhurst area and Camp Sugarpine, the big thrill was watching student pilots from the San Francisco area on solo cross-countrys try to land in the turbulent air.

Incidentally, on the counter at this airport they have this unusual horseshoe puzzle and ring. See if you can get the ring off the horseshoes on your next visit.

Then Monday about noon we made it back to the field in time to race the sun to get home in San Diego before dark. Ken had no lights and Gillespie controllers are strict.

At first we climbed for altitude and then decided the Mites were meant to provide ground level views in flat areas. So in this case we went IFR—I Follow Railroads all the way to Porterville. We identified towns from names on water tanks.

A refueling stop and some cold ice tea in Porterville and then south over the Tehachapi where a stunt aircraft was practicing an airshow at ground level over the runway—smoke and all. It looked more scary to watch from the air than a show does from the ground.

It was a day full of thermals and the glider pilots kidded us throttle jocks for ignoring the beauties of soaring as Ken and I chatted on glider frequencies.

The sun was setting fast. Up over the San Bernardino Mountains. It was 5:45 p.m. and we were anxious about one more fuel stop. We called on Unicom to Pomona. No answer. We called on Unicom to Corona. No answer. We called on Unicom to Cable. No answer.

We got a little panicky at the prospect of getting stuck overnight so close to home because we couldn’t find fuel. We decided to try for Cable. Touchdown and the fuel pits. They were open. The Unicom frequencies had just changed.

A tankful of the fuel that raised the total used for the trip to 54 gallons and then we just followed I 15 on down to Gillespie.

As we neared home, you think about the fun of flying, the freedom in this country to fly virtually anywhere, just the pleasant feeling of being airborne alone—yet together with a friend—and started thinking about the next adventure in the Mite.


2011-05-09