FIVE DAYS IN A MITE
by V.S. Mitchell
Sam Mitchell writes: "I sold my Mite to Mal Gross in 1995, and was happy to place it in his capable hands. But I do still miss it! I've never flown another airplane that comes close to the way a Mite flies."
"Thanks for posting my article, "The Mite and I". I am sending you another article about an even longer flight in N4187; this one took place in 1993. It has never been published. I think your readers will enjoy it."It was time to move again. My work on the Boeing 777 in Renton, Washington, was finished; on April 12th, 1993 I was to begin work as an engineer on the F-22 program at Lockheed Fort Worth, the former General Dynamics. In the following days I began watching television weather forecasts, looking for good flying weather between Washington and Texas. It would take least four days to fly my 1956 Mooney Mite (Model M-18C-55, Serial Number 352, N4187) to its new home at Parker County Airport, Weatherford, Texas.
The southern route, chosen to avoid winter storms, would be the longest I'd ever flown, stretching 2460 miles. I would follow highways so as to stay near towns and airports; the Mite's engine hadn't been overhauled for 27 years.
On Thursday night, March 18th, clear weather was forecast for Friday morning, with rain moving in off the Pacific coast by afternoon. It was just the "window" of weather I needed. Feverishly I packed clothes, tools, and supplies into five small bags. Excitement and anxiety made sleep difficult.
On Friday morning I rose early and forced myself to eat a little breakfast. Emotions ran high, robbing me of appetite. I kissed my wife and drove off to Pierce County airport, where the Mite was hangared.
At 7:42 AM the Mite lifted eagerly into the cool morning air. A back-handed tug on the gear lever brought the wheels up, and a few small twists of the trim crank steadied us on a 90 MPH climb. For the last time I watched Mt. Rainier slide majestically past the left wingtip, silhouetted against the rising sun. At 5,500 feet the air was smooth. Steering through the canyons required only fingertip pressures on the stick and subtle touches on the rudder pedals. Many of the mountain peaks towered far above us as we sailed between them, giving a keen sense of three dimensions. I had chosen Eugene, Oregon for the first fuel stop. But as I approached Albany, 37 miles short of Eugene, I saw a low blanket of clouds ahead. Now what? I listened to the Eugene ATIS. The ceiling was 600 feet; I could not land there. I turned back and spiraled down for a landing at Albany.
As I filled the fuel tank and added oil to the engine, I kept wondering what to do about the clouds. If I can't see the ground, how will I navigate? We took off and climbed out over the cloud blanket. I'll follow a compass course for a while. Perhaps the clouds will play out after a few miles. I'll have the Cascades off to the left as rough reference. If I have to, I can cross over to the east side of the Cascades--the high desert should be clear. My fears were unfounded. Small holes appeared here and there through the clouds, allowing brief glimpses of I-5. I was still on course. After half an hour the clouds ended as suddenly as they had begun. I had won the first gamble.
The second fuel stop was to be at Siskiyou Airport at Montague, California. But with the early first stop at Albany, I opted to land at Grants Pass, Oregon. I began to wonder if I would ever land where I had planned to! With the fuel tank refilled, and another cup of oil in the engine, the Mite and I departed beneath a brilliant sun, following the canyons toward the Sacramento Valley.
The third stop was to be Woodland airport, west of Sacramento. But the early stop at Grants Pass precluded that; I had to change plans again and land for fuel at Red Bluff. I guess the lesson for this day was flexibility. Yes, it would be nice to follow plans to the letter. But sometimes it's safer to divert. I really didn't want to run low on fuel. It was 3:00 in the afternoon when the Mite's wheels touched the concrete at Red Bluff.
Woodland, 105 miles south, should be about an hour's flight, I figured. And it was. But when I arrived, the field was deserted. I wouldn't get fuel there! Oh, boy--yet another diversion! I searched the chart for a nearby airport. University Airport was a few miles southeast. I landed, parked and walked into the office. The girl in charge sent me back outside to look for a certain man. I spotted him as he was climbing into his pickup. Quickly I walked to him and asked about fuel. He said, with some irritation in his voice, "We're closed. It's been a long day." The pumps had been shut down for the night.
Walking quickly to the Mite, I glanced around for a "starting hole"--a depression in the pavement that would act as a chock while I propped the engine. Finding one, I swung the plane about and dropped the nose wheel into the hole. With a single flip of the prop the engine started. The hole held. I climbed aboard and swiftly took off, heading for Franklin, a few more miles southeast. There was no fuel there, either, and dusk was coming. A friendly pilot doing touch-and-go's at Franklin recommended going north to Sacramento Executive or south to Lodi. I chose Executive, figuring that since it had a tower, it would probably have several FBO's, at least one of which might have fuel this time of night. It was almost dark as I approached Executive, and I switched on the battery-powered navigation lights. To my relief, Patterson Aviation was still open.
A lineboy appeared and cheerfully moved his big fuel truck in front of the Mite so he could sell me 10.5 gallons of 100LL. I asked about a hanger. He offered to scoot a helicopter to one side in a hanger to make room for the Mite. Soon the little bird was nestled cozily between the 'copter and a lawn tractor. There was no charge for the hanger.
I checked in to a small motel across the street. Two blocks away I found an Italian restaurant with the unlikely name of El Chicos. While waiting for my lasagna, I totaled up the day's flying statistics: In 7.3 hours the Mite and I had covered 650 miles while burning 30.5 gallons of fuel. Average speed was 89 MPH; mileage was 21.3 MPG. I must have had some headwinds.
Bright sunlight glowed around the edges of the curtains when I awoke, but by the time I had finished shaving and dressing, low clouds had moved in, and the field was IFR. I ate some dried apricots, a fig and a pepperoni meat stick for breakfast, then walked across the street to the airport.
The Mite was parked out on the concrete. (The lineboy had pulled it out, because he had to get the helicopter out.) I slid the canopy open, loaded my bags into the luggage compartment, and did a preflight inspection. Everything seemed in order. But the beacon high on the terminal building was still lighted and rotating--the field was IFR. I switched on the radio and listened to the ATIS. The ceiling was 400 feet, visibility a mile and a half. There was no choice but to wait. I locked the canopy and began to tour the airport on foot. As I walked along the fence near the terminal, an elderly gentleman approached and began to talk. I listened to his stories for awhile, then took him over to see the Mite. "Let me buy you a hot dog." he offered.
"Why, thank you, sir," I said, "That's very kind of you." When he wasn't looking, I glanced at my watch. It was almost 10:00, a weird time to be eating lunch. But I wasn't about to say "no" to a free hot dog and chance to talk about airplanes. Inside the terminal building we exchanged flying stories over hot dogs, then parted company with a shake of hands. Somehow a common interest in airplanes brings the most unlikely strangers together for enjoyable moments.
Finally the ceiling lifted to 1,200 feet, and visibility improved to four miles. The Mite and I were airborne at 10:42 AM, nearly three hours behind schedule. I had real doubts about making Phoenix, the day's goal, but we would go as far as possible. Threading our way between puffs of low-hanging scud, we rose into the sunshine. The cloud layer was similar to the one near Eugene. I decided to gamble again and head out over the blanket, hoping to find enough holes to permit navigation. It worked. Scattered voids in the clouds provided glimpses of the highway, and after about 40 minutes we passed over the far edge of the blanket. The first fuel stop was to be Lost Hills Airport.
I began to see why so much of the country's food comes from California. The rich green farmland of the Sacramento Valley stretched from horizon to horizon. But as we approached Lost Hills, visibility began to deteriorate, and cotton-puff clouds appeared, beginning at about 3,500 feet. We had been cruising at 3,500 feet and had to descend to stay beneath the clouds. Visibility grew worse until it was barely legal. I heeled the Mite over into a sweeping turn over Lost Hills. The field was deserted. We pressed on toward Shafter-Minter airport. It was a bigger field, more likely to have fuel. We landed, and for the first time I bought fuel from a credit-card self-service fuel pump. It worked fine.
Immediately after departing from Shafter I contacted Bakersfield Approach for permission to transition through their area and into Tehachapi Pass. They kindly complied, asking only that I remain west of the highway. South of the Bakersfield airport the interstate took a turn that didn't seem to match the chart. I checked the compass, and the road didn't seem to take the heading I had written down on my flight log. I began to doubt that I had the right highway. I diverted south, hoping to find the right road. It was foolish mistake! Within a couple of minutes I was lost, trying to navigate in unfamiliar territory, imprisoned within a fuzzy yellow bowl of 3-mile visibility. Finally I called Bakersfield again, told them I was disoriented (a dignified way of saying "lost"), and asked for directions to the highway leading to Tehachapi Pass. They soon had me back on track--over the very highway I'd left some minutes before! Having lost some time, I was eager to get on up the road. The Mite and I blasted along the highway at 1,500 feet, until the road began climbing and twisting into the pass. I pushed the throttle full forward, and we began to climb. Gentle turns kept us over the road. Visibility was still poor, and we were nearing 3,500 feet, where the clouds began. I worried about the clouds--I had planned to go through the pass at 5,500 feet.
We eased over a ridge and banked right to follow the road. The road? A couple of miles ahead the road climbed up into the clouds and disappeared! Cars heading west were emerging from the clouds with headlights on. To them, the clouds were fog--a nuisance. To me they were a barrier as impenetrable as stone. No amount of urgency to reach a destination would tempt me to head into that mess! Frustrated and disappointed, I rolled the Mite into a steep left turn, and we snaked our way low and fast along the highway, back down toward Bakersfield.
I faced a dilemma. Should I travel farther south, hoping to find a pass not obscured by clouds? But the visibility would likely get worse, not better. Should I backtrack north into clearer air and find a different pass? But if I do that, how will I ever get back on schedule? I was mentally exhausted, emotionally drained. The cockpit of a Mooney Mite, bumping downhill through afternoon thermals at 125 MPH is no place for making careful decisions. I needed to stop, get the charts spread out on a table and think things through. I landed at Bakersfield and carried my charts and flight computer into the Mercury Air office.
In the end, visibility won out. I just couldn't bring myself to try blundering though the murk of the Bakersfield area again. I would go north to Fresno and stop for the night. In the morning I would fly northeast to the Pine Flat reservoir, then follow the canyon through the Monarch Wilderness area. Using the Mite's excellent climbing ability, I would head toward Independence, crossing the Sierras at 14,500 feet, just a few miles north of Mount Whitney.
I folded the charts, climbed back into the Mite and enjoyed an uneventful one-hour flight to Fresno. The folks at Chandler Downtown Airport kindly allowed me to charge the Mite's battery overnight in their office. (N4187 has no generator.) Holiday Inn sent a courtesy car, and I spent a pleasant evening at one of the nicest (and most expensive) hotels I've ever seen. At the hotel restaurant I computed the day's accomplishments: We had logged 4.7 hours and covered 450 miles while burning 17 gallons of fuel. Average speed was 96 MPH; mileage was 26.5 MPG.
By the time the courtesy car dropped me off at Chandler, the sun was shining brightly through a low layer of scattered scud. Once airborne, I discovered that poor visibility had followed me northward; I could see barely three miles. I had to fly low to see landmarks, but that put me on about the same level as the scud. I kept a careful eye ahead, maneuvering left or right to skirt the clouds, sometimes diving below them and climbing again on the other side. How I longed for clear air!
Over the Pine Flat reservoir, I opened the throttle and trimmed for a 90 MPH climb. At 2,500 feet we emerged from the layer of clouds and haze. Ahead rose the peaks of the Sierra Nevada's, brilliant white against a deep blue sky. I knew then I had made the right choice. Good visibility is priceless! We climbed steadily for half an hour, reaching 14,500 feet easily. This was one of the most dangerous points in the trip. An engine failure 500 to 1000 feet above a snow-capped ridge would probably mean being forced to land in the snow above 13,000 feet--not a happy prospect. I prayed that the little Continental would keep running. It ran beautifully. It was cold up there! Outside, the air temperature was 16 degrees. The Mite is drafty--in flight a strong breeze constantly blows forward from beneath the seat. I pulled on leather gloves. What a tremendous relief it was to float past the last ridge and out over the pock-marked brown of the eastern California desert. Visibility was awesome--more than 100 miles.
With the town of Independence in sight, I turned right and flew parallel to highway 395, staying close to the mountains to lessen the chances of an encounter with military aircraft. It was easy to see why the military uses this area for training--it is incredibly desolate, virtually uninhabited. The rest of the flight to the day's first fuel stop, California City, went well. Stepping out of the Mite into 85-degree heat, I felt self-conscious about wearing a jacket. I explained about it to the fuel attendant. He understood, because there was a lot of skydiving going on there, and the jumpers wore heavy clothing for their plunges from high altitude.
Soon we were off, lurching through afternoon turbulence toward Twenty-nine Palms. Passing high over Mohave, we took a slanting course southeast between Edwards Air Force Base and Plant 42 at Lancaster (where the B-2 bombers were assembled) so as to remain clear of military traffic. We landed for fuel at Twenty-nine Palms.
From the city of Twenty-nine Palms I turned the little ship south and followed a meandering 2-lane road south and east over the mountain wilderness toward Desert Center, where we would meet I-10. The third and final fuel stop for the day was to be at Buckeye, Arizona, just west of Phoenix. Even at 9,500 feet the air was bumpy. The power of the desert thermals surprised me; I had expected less turbulence in the springtime. I was glad I had not waited until later in the year to make this trip.
When we touched down at Buckeye, no one was around to sell fuel. The sun was a huge, pink-orange fireball sliding rapidly below a black horizon. I looked at the map and saw that Gila Bend was 34 miles south. The airport looked close to town. I decided to race the darkness. By the time we taxied out and took off, the sun had gone down. We blasted off and stayed low, cruising at nearly full throttle, banking gently to follow the bends in a two-lane highway. The river beside the highway must have been a breeding place for insects. Dozens of them peppered the Mite's windshield and wings. We touched down only moments before twilight trailed off into darkness.
No one was there. A small sign on the office door gave the business hours. They had been closed for over an hour. Uh Oh! How do I get a place to stay? Walk two miles into town? I decided to try the door. It was unlocked. Inside I groped around, feeling for a light switch. I found one, and it worked. The light revealed a pay phone on the opposite wall. Beside the phone was the name and number of a motel that offered rides. I called and asked for a car. Then I went outside into the darkness to wait. Alone beneath the stars, with my bags in the dust at my feet, I felt small and vulnerable. After nearly half an hour of waiting, I called again to make sure the motel lady knew I was at the municipal airport, not the Air Force base. She apologized for the delay, saying that her husband, who usually made the airport trips, was out on business. She would try to find someone else to make the trip. Twenty minutes later a car pulled off the highway. A friendly gentleman invited me to ride to the motel with him, explaining that he was a friend of the proprietor and stayed often at the motel. I was impressed at his kindness. He refused the tip I offered.
Dropping my baggage onto the motel bed, I went off in search of something to eat. A couple blocks west was a Dairy Queen. A crowd of perhaps 50 were enjoying a their ice cream desserts under a large open pavilion. I began to understand that in this land of almost never-ending clear weather, things are done outside. I got a butterscotch sundae. They sent me next door for hot food. I ordered fish and chips. Back at the motel I totaled up the day's progress while munching fish: We had logged 6.5 hours and covered 662 miles, burning 25.4 gallons of fuel. Average speed was 102 MPH; mileage was 26 MPG.
At 7:30 AM the motel lady's husband politely dropped me off at the airport. Fuel service wouldn't be available until 8:00; I used the time to preflight the Mite and clean off the previous night's deposit of bugs. 8:00 came and went, 8:15, 8:20. I went back inside the office to read the sign more carefully. So that's it! You have to call! I dropped a quarter into the pay phone and called. A lady from the city offices answered and promised to send someone out right away. In about 15 minutes a large orange pickup, laden with tools, stopped in front of the office. The man sold me 10.5 gallons. I doubt that the city made any money on such a small fuel sale. But the Mite's tank holds only 13.5 gallons, and I don't fill it beyond 12.5, because fuel sometimes spurts out of the vent tube. By 8:49 we were climbing away from Gila Bend and heading toward Willcox.
Tucson came first, though, and Tucson has a big civilian airport and an air base. I called approach. As usual, they asked me to squawk a transponder code. And, as usual, I called back and said, "Mooney 4817 is a non-electric aircraft--negative transponder." They asked me to make some turns for radar identification. Mooney Mites make pretty good stealth airplanes, especially when approaching radar head-on. When the plane is turned sideways relative to the radar, the aluminum cowl and cockpit side panels give a better echo. Finally they had me on radar and gave permission to pass overhead at 7,500 feet. F-16's were doing touch-and-goes below, but there were no problems. After 20 minutes over brown and lifeless desert we landed at Cochise County Airport, Willcox, Arizona.
The folks at Willcox immediately gathered around the Mite. A lady snapped several pictures of it. Later I found out that every time an unusual airplane lands there, they take pictures of it and put the pictures in notebooks. They brought the notebooks out, and I spent several minutes looking through them. (If you land there some day, ask to see the picture books. You'll find a picture of N4187 in there somewhere.)
The next fuel stop was at Las Cruces International Airport, Las Cruces, New Mexico. Arizona, though desert, had been quite green in places, especially near Phoenix. Not so New Mexico. This was dry and brown, with less interesting vegetation. Towns were far apart, with only desolation between them.
We made Las Cruces in good time, but the landing was the hairiest of the whole trip. Just after touchdown a sudden blast of crosswind threw the Mite back into the air, right on the edge of a stall. I added power, quickly trying to line up with the runway, and wrestled the bird to a second touchdown. It happened again! Suddenly we were 10 feet high, crabbing crazily--at an even lower airspeed! Terrible visions of splintered propeller blades raced through my mind. Once more I added power and fought to keep the Mite headed straight down the runway. The tires screeched their protest at being slid sideways, but this time she stayed down. Whew!
While I sat in the office, devouring cheese crackers and 7-Up, an elderly fellow sat down next to me and began a conversation. I listened. He was a World War II fighter jock, and had some very interesting tales to share. Later an old friend of his--a former bomber pilot--joined us and added a few stories of his own. When I explained that I was flying a Mooney Mite from Seattle to Fort Worth, they were immediately interested, and when I rose to go, they followed. They walked all around the little plane while I did my preflight, asking questions and making comments. Everywhere a Mite goes, people are fascinated by them. And that's a great part of the fun of such long trips. Mites make quick friends. I asked the men to stand in front of the wings to keep the Mite from rolling while I propped it, and they were delighted to help. Inside the cockpit, I nodded my thanks, and the two of them walked off grinning.
To make better time, I climbed out of Las Cruces at 100 MPH, heading for 7,500 feet. Turbulence was violent. We climbed to 9,500 for smoother air. I called approach as we neared El Paso, Texas. As I had discovered at Tucson, the controllers had difficulty picking up the Mite on radar. But here it was worse--small mountains between the plane and the airport blocked the radar signals. They couldn't get an echo, and flatly refused me permission to enter the radar service area. Uh oh. Where do I go now? I finally had to make a huge loop around the north and east sides of El Paso. Occasionally approach said they had a signal, but it kept dropping off their scope. The detour cost me a few extra miles, but I safely skirted the city without getting lost, and soon found my way back to the interstate.
Near Van Horn we came upon a formation of huge clouds with dark, flat bottoms. Beneath one of them a column of rain slanted down to the ground. A detour three miles south of the highway kept us clear of the rain, but took us into the dark shadow beneath another towering cloud, where the Mite bucked and trembled through turbulent air. It made me feel pretty small to think that those unseen forces could toss several hundred pounds of airplane as if it were a scrap of paper. More clouds appeared, lower this time. Happily, spaces between them offered views of the highway often enough to prevent our getting lost. The clouds played out a few miles west of Pecos, Texas, last stop for the day.
Over Pecos I checked the position of the wind sock, and saw that it was pretty straight, indicating a stiff breeze. As I got down to short final and checked the sock again, it appeared to indicate a strong crosswind. Either I had read the wind direction wrong, or the wind had shifted. I firewalled the throttle and pulled the Mite into a climbing turn, entering downwind for a better runway. The landing went fine.
I parked in front of the office and went inside. The lights were on, the TV blaring. It was a well-equipped place, boasting ping-pong and pool tables, and it was totally deserted. I walked around outside looking for people. Not a soul was in sight. Then I spotted a blue mobile home behind the office. I knocked. A lady with a delightful English accent answered. She pleasantly agreed to sell me some fuel, explaining that she had to hurry, because she was in the midst of feeding her child. I offered to wait, but she insisted on helping me with the fuel. She also had an empty hanger available for a nightly rental of seven dollars--pretty reasonable. Then she told me I was free to use the car parked out by the fence--the key was in the seat. She asked only that in the morning I should park it in the same place and leave the key in the seat for the next customer. After offering some advice about motels and restaurants, she returned to her child. She was friendly, efficient, professional. I was impressed.
The car was old and worn, and the brake pedal went nearly to the floor before slowing the car down, but the vehicle met my need for transportation. I put a few bucks worth of gas into it before taking it back in the morning. It was the least I could do for the lady's generosity. At Motel 6 I went over the day's progress. We had logged 6.4 hours, covered about 600 miles while burning 23.0 gallons of fuel. Average speed was 93 MPH; mileage was 26 MPG.
My schedule permitted no leeway now. My one extra day had been used up in California. I wondered, as I prepared to leave the motel, whether I would fall victim to the spring rains that come to west Texas. But as the Mite and I raced down the runway and lifted off, the sun was shining in a cloudless sky, and the air was clean and clear. The first stop for this day was to be at Sweetwater. With the interstate below, navigation was simple. There was no turbulence, and I enjoyed experimenting with shifting my weight to maintain altitude and to make the gentle turns needed to follow the road. It brought home more clearly than ever the truth that level flight in an airplane involves a balance of forces. Any imbalance, however slight, changes the flight path.
The radar problem surfaced again at the Odessa/Midland area. Midland approach could not pick up the Mite on their scope, and they denied access to the radar service area. As at El Paso, I had to detour around the area, adding perhaps 20 miles to the route of flight. Once we were abeam the field, with the side of the airplane presented to the radar, they got a good signal. But still they routed me well south, outside the service area. Such is the fate of those who fly wooden airplanes without transponders, I guess. But I counted my blessings. I didn't get lost. The airplane was running well. The sky was immense and clear of clouds, visibility unlimited. Below, the double ribbon of interstate was infallibly guiding me on to Sweetwater. I thanked God for the great gift of clear skies; weather would not be a problem today. The stop at Sweetwater was accomplished quickly, and we climbed away on the final leg to Weatherford.
It was about noon when we descended into the choppy thermals near Weatherford. "Well," I said to the Mite. "this is your new home. Hope you like it." Despite the uneven air, our first landing on Weatherford's runway 17 was smooth. As the Mite rolled toward the big hanger at the far end of the field, I slid back the canopy and sighed with satisfaction as the swirling propwash cooled my damp forehead. We had made it! And I whispered a prayer of thanks.
26 June, 2002