Gary Middleton ferries N4149E out to the Concrete, WA
This article and accompanying photos were sent to us by Gary Middleton of Centerville, Ohio.
I started flying 31 years ago, the spending the last 29 years doing it for a living. Like most pilots who have been at it for a while I have had the opportunity to fly some unusual airplanes. Some have been a pleasure, others just unusual. Most of the time those flights are just local jaunts for fun or just to get to fly the airplane, but not usually for any significant amount of time.
This past June I got a call that provided the exception to that rule. Mr. Harold Hanson from Concrete, WA called me and asked me if I would be interested in flying a Mooney Mite he had just purchased from its base in Decorah, IA to its new home in Concrete, just north of Seattle, WA. I had flown a Mite briefly a long time ago, so I was familiar with the airplane type and that kind of flight was an adventure that comes around rarely, so I readily agreed to do it.
That was one of the best phone calls I have ever received. It seemed the airplane I was to fly was the Workman Mite, restored by the Workman’s of Zanesville, OH and an Oshkosh award winner. It had been purchased from the Workman’s by a gentleman in Iowa who had passed on. His wife had the airplane for sale and Harold bought it.
A brief word about Harold Hanson. Harold has collected a wonderful variety of airplanes and based them at Concrete airport, about 60 miles north of Seattle. He has started to create what I can only describe as a “Pilot Paradise”. That’s what I like to call it. It’s the kind of place that could cause anyone interested in antique and classic airplanes to get divorced over from spending too much time there. Harold is one of the nicest and most pilot-friendly people I have ever met. Anyone is welcome at Concrete and he is working hard to develop it into the type of flying development we all dream of being involved with. If you are ever in the Seattle area you have to take the time to stop by.
Back to the Mite. I “googled” Mooney Mite, found www.mooneymite.com and followed the link to N4149E. My jaw dropped when I saw the article about it and the cover picture on Vintage Aircraft magazine. The old juices really got flowing! This was one nice airplane!
I flew into LaCrosse, WI the night before I planned to leave and was picked up by Mike Connell. He and his wife, Ava, operate the FBO at Decorah, IA, and are typical of the fine people that keep the small FBO’s around the country going. Just good people providing great service. They have a small operation, live on the airport and love what they do. If anyone is flying through NE Iowa, please stop by Decorah.
My first view of the Mite was of a very small airplane sitting by itself in a big hangar. My first thought of the Mite was “What a beautiful airplane, but will I fit?”. I had thoughts of looking for a big shoehorn to use to help squeeze me in that thing! When I flew a Mite years ago I was . . . . . . thinner. Or maybe they built Mites bigger back then. Whatever the case, I managed to get in the Mite without hurting either the airplane or myself. I tried to imagine sitting here for the next two days and panic set in. I decided to ignore the initial onset of claustrophobia and go flying.
Having flown lots of Continental A-65 powered airplanes, the starting procedure was not new to me, but standing between the wing and the prop to do it was. I had tried that once on a T-Craft I owned, and, after hanging on the strut with the airplane moving in circles as I struggled to reach in and shut the mags off without becoming chopped liver (picture that with a 6’2” 210 lb guy), I swore I’d never do it again. The Mite was much easier to deal with. It started on the first pull, making me feel real good about flying it 1500 miles.
Other than not being able to move at all and my head being 6 inches higher that the top of the canopy, the airplane was not too uncomfortable for me. I just had to make sure anything I needed in flight was on my lap. If it fell on the floor, I couldn’t get it. If it was in my pocket, I couldn’t get it. If it was behind me, I couldn’t get it. If it was – you get the idea.
I took the airplane out for a spin to reacquaint myself. Before I even got off the ground I rediscovered a long-forgotten Mite trait. The airplane has no turn radius, or actually too much of a turn radius. I totally misjudged that one and had to get out at the end of the runway and manually turn the airplane in the direction I wanted to go. Lesson one learned. I took off and spent the next 10 minutes figuring out how many extra hours it would take me to make the flight with the gear down. There was no way I could reach under there and move that gear handle! And if I did get the gear up, could I then get it back down? Being a gambling type guy, I managed to move the Johnson bar, get the gear up, and rediscovered how much fun a Mite is to fly. Once I got the canopy closed it wasn’t even too uncomfortable. All right – just a little – but fun. The gear came down easier than it came up and I landed, fueled up and went to the hotel for the night.
I got to the airport at 5:15 the next morning and was met by Mike. He came out to see the Mite off. The Mite and its previous owner been local favorites. Everyone was sorry to see it leave. The weather briefing was showing clear skies all the way and I was off at 5:45 AM. My goal was too make Butte, Montana by dark. To do that I needed to get an early start. I have always loved flying at sun-up on a clear morning. Doing it in an airplane like this Mite made it almost perfect – just no room for coffee and a donut.
With 15 gallons of fuel onboard, I had planned for mostly 2-hour legs. At one point I would have to go 2 ½ hrs due to the distance between airports, but by that time I would be up to speed on the fuel burn so I wouldn’t need to be able to see the Mite’s fuel gauge, which is conveniently located directly behind my head. What were they thinking with that one? I can’t even get a pen out of my pocket in this thing and they expect me to turn my head around 180 degrees to see a fuel gauge? I made a major mental note to bring a small mirror with me next time I fly one of these any distance. Anyway, I always fly time on airplanes I’m not familiar with so not a big deal.
My first leg was a two hour flight to Worthington, NE. There wasn’t much of anyone there at 7:45 AM, but a young line guy insisted on fueling the airplane just so he could say he had done it. Like most people I met on the trip, he had never seen a Mite before and took a picture of me sitting in it. It was more like me sticking out of it. My next stop was at Chamberlain, NE, a 1:48 leg.
My debate for the next stop after Chamberlain was either a general aviation airport just south of Mt. Rushmore or the main airport at Rapid City, SD. The Mite had an external radio antenna and I had my handheld 2-way so I decided to stop at Rapid City just to land at a tower controlled field for fun. I don’t usually think of that as necessarily fun, but it would be in the Mite.
First of all, when I called the tower about 15 miles out, they had me repeat the type of airplane twice, and then ask me what it was. I told them they’d just have to wait and see it for themselves. They couldn’t imagine a Mooney that small, and with only one seat. When I reported on final they didn’t see me until I was about a mile out. I looked more like a lost pigeon out there than an airplane. Taxiing in to the ramp was a hoot! There were lots of corporate and charter airplanes around, with pilots and passengers moving around, and every single one of them was pointing and laughing! I did feel a little bit like maybe I had clown paint on or something, but what fun! It was the same everywhere I stopped. Not only were people curious about the Mite, but also impressed with the immaculate condition of the airplane.
I got my fuel and taxied out – right between two 737’s. Talk about feeling insignificant!!! The guy in front of me heard the guy in back of me ask what the airplane was (I needed a big sign on the airplane) and he wanted to let me go in front of him so that he could see the airplane. They wouldn’t let him do that. I took off after him with the canopy open, waving to the airplane behind me as I was rolling. I knew for a fact that I was having more fun than they were. I originally was going to fly by Mt. Rushmore on the way out, but I was a little behind schedule. I have flown by there a number of times before, so I opted to head straight over the Black Hills on a line to Sheridan, WY. That course would take me through Ellsworth AFB airspace, where a large unit of B-1 bombers is based. Departure cleared it with Ellsworth approach, turned me over to them and I sat in a Mite and watched a B-1 do a low approach. What a great job!
I use a Garmin 195 handheld GPS – I love that thing - so a direct line to my next stop in Sheridan, WY was just south of Devil’s Tower, WY. I saw “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” years ago, but had never seen the famous landmark. I could see it in the distance, so I swung 30 degrees north to get a better look. It was worth it. What a beautiful sight! I was thinking about how my family never gets to share any of the things I get to see, at least live, so I pulled my cell phone out of the small glove box, turned it on, and behold – it worked!! Must be towers out there for the tourists. I called my wife at work back in Ohio. She guessed I was in an airplane because of the noise, but was blown away by where I was. I described what I was seeing to her and took some pictures with my digital camera while I talked to her. Not quite like being there, but as close as we could get. Can you hear me now?
I flew past some gorgeous scenery, on to Butte and stopped for the night. The FBO towed the Mite to a hangar for the night and I took a picture of him towing the it. The tug was almost bigger than the airplane. It’s one of my favorite shots.
The next morning was clear and sunny. I got to the airport early again. If you haven’t done much mountain flying in small airplanes, the general idea is to start early and have in the back of your mind that if the winds aloft are above 25 to 35 knots, you might want to plan on being on the ground somewhere by noon. I was fortunate on this trip to have a good weather pattern to fly in, although I did wait to start the trip until I got a good weather window. I had an afternoon of very bumpy flying the first day, but lucked out on the second and had pretty much smooth flying all day. Flying low performance airplanes in the mountains requires a very conservative approach.
I took off from Butte just in front of a regional Dash 8. The tower wasn’t open yet, so I was talking to him throughout the departure and, as he passed me on the right in his climb, he waggled his wings at me and wished me a good flight. That sort of thing happened almost every leg.
The leg from Butte would take me to Coeur d’Alene, ID. It would take 2 ½ hours flight time with 3:15 fuel. There were two airports between to stop at, but none were published as having fuel available, so everything had to be just right. And it was. The winds were light, the sky was clear and smooth and the scenery was, once again, beautiful. I had never been to Coeur d’Alene. It was stunning. That was a place my wife and I will definitely visit some day. While being fueled I noticed some Stearmans sitting in the hangar, and was surprised to find the Red Baron flying team’s airplanes in the hangar. Just when you feel you’re in the middle of nowhere you get surprised.
From Rapid City to Coeur d’Alene I was either near mountains, surrounded by them or over some small ones. But I also had a lifeline. It’s called the Interstate highway system. Most of my route through the northern Rocky Mountains was following a four lane highway. Although I’ve never had to use one, it would make a perfect emergency landing strip. It’s a comforting thought.
From Coeur d’Alene to Wenatchee, WA was 1:36. Although it is relatively flat in this area, it is some beautiful country. The terrain lines make for some really interesting views. Very different from what I just passed through, and a striking contrast.
Wenatchee sits on the river in a valley along the Columbia River. You have to see it from the air to fully appreciate the views. At this point I was only 1:30 flying time straight line to Concrete. Unfortunately the weather on the other side of the mountains was solid overcast with good visibility underneath and 2000’ ceilings, but no way to fly the Mite IFR to descend through the overcast. I talked to a local tour pilot at Wenatchee about the best way to get to Seattle area from there and he filled me in on what passes I could fly. He’d just been up that way and showed me a pass on the chart that was open. So I headed out to take a look. Bad move. The pass was open, but only part way. I was about 2 miles from being through the Cascades and into open territory east of Seattle when the ceilings dropped to the ground in the pass. I saw it coming in plenty of time to turn around and go back to where I came from. That was the first and last time I do that. No more overcast small passes for this pilot. I went south to Ellensburg, WA and made a fuel stop. That particular leg was 1:42 and got me exactly 25 miles from where I started and 20 miles farther away from Concrete. Welcome to small airplane VFR.
I checked the weather and headed south to the Columbia River Gorge to get under the overcast near Portland, OR. One more astounding leg to add to many. I flew down the gorge at 3000’ MSL, staying to the right to avoid oncoming traffic, flew under the clouds just north of Portland, OR, and turned north toward Seattle. There are two airports right along the river where you can stop if need be. After 2:30 I made a fuel stop at Chehalis/Centralia airport just south of Seattle. Again the airplane was ogled by numerous people, one of them being a guy who started with a Mite years ago and had worked up to a 201. We had fun talking about Mites for a while and I was off to Concrete. Even with the gray overcast and haze it was a nice flight. Lots of hills to the east and water to the west, but nice flat country to fly over. I was just cruising at this point.
Concrete airport sits back in a valley a couple of miles wide. As I turned down the valley I had this strange feeling of being in a Stephen King novel and being led to some ritualistic tribe of airplane aficionados waiting to have me for dinner. Not reality, just a vivid imagination. The country there is so different, so beautiful, that my imagination could come up with a lot of different scenarios. None were anything like what I found. I have said before that Harold Hanson is turning Concrete airport into a Pilot Paradise, and that’s the only way I can describe it. It’s a must-stop if you are up that way. I found the airport, did the obligatory fly-by and taxied into a place I’d like to spend more time at. After two days in the airplane I felt like I was leaving a good friend behind, but also felt good about leaving it in very good hands.
The Mite trip took a total of 19.8 hours flying through some stunning country. I flew 10.0 hours on day one and 9.8 hours the second. The airplane trued out at about 125 mph on average at altitudes as high as 12,500’ MSL. The tight little A-65 only used about a half quart of oil in nearly 20 hours of run time. Would I do it again? I’d leave tomorrow. The Mite performed flawlessly. The airplane is beautifully restored with great attention to detail. It started the first pull every time, never missed a beat, and flew like a Mite – responsive and very stable. I do have a few reminders of the Mite on my right hand – small scars from raising and lowering the gear. They’ll fade with time, but the fond memories of me and a Mite and the mountains won’t.
10 September, 2004