The Mite and I

This flight report by Vernon S. ("Sam") Mitchell of Redmond, WA in 1990 was submitted to Tony Terrigno, who at the time was editor of the WAMM newsletter. It tells of Sam's flight from St. Louis to Seattle. We don't know where Sam is now, and we don't have his permission to publish this, but it's so well done we're going to take a chance that he won't mind.

* * *

For many years two dreams hovered in the back of my mind, often obscured by responsibilities or the stubborn fact that I could not afford either one. One was to own a Mooney Mite; the other, to go on a long cross-country flight, alone. Both were fulfilled this year, 1990. In January I bought N4187, a Mite built in 1956, serial number 352--sixth from the last Mite built before production ceased. It had the larger cockpit characteristic of the later Mites, and was powered by a 65 horsepower Continental A-65 engine.

In June I moved from St. Louis, Missouri to Seattle, Washington to accept a new engineering job at Boeing. How should I move the Mite to Washington? Fly it, of course! Because I had difficulty locating a hanger for the airplane, it was early August before I could make the trip.

The Narco Escort 110 radio that came with the Mite was desperately in need of an overhaul, and obsolete besides, so I called ahead and had Potosi Aviation, a maintenance and rebuild business on Creve Coeur Airport, where the Mite was based, install a new Terra TXN-960 digital navcom in the airplane.

Jim and Marijo Blair, friends from our St. Louis church, had graciously offered to provide lodging and transportation for me while I was preparing the Mite for the trip. Wonderful people! I spent a day and a half fixing a fuel tank leak, installing a new carburetor float and new spark plugs, pumping tires and lubricating the hinges and linkages. On Thursday night, August 9th, after a short test flight, I concluded that the Mite was ready to travel. I didn't sleep much that night--too excited!

* * *

The mechanic stood with legs braced, the side of his thigh touching the wing's leading edge to keep the tiny plane from rolling forward. I stood behind the engine, with my left hand on the canopy rail. With my right hand I swung the polished maple propeller blade quickly downward and was rewarded with a sharp bark from the Mite's exhaust, and. a blast of wind. I stepped up onto the wing and climbed, carefully into the Mite's only seat. I mouthed the words "Thank you!" to the mechanic, knowing he couldn't hear me over the noise of the little Continental. He nodded his acknowledgment and walked over to stand with Marijo, who had brought me to the airport.

Oil pressure was fine. I placed the radio headset over my ears, and the noise of the engine quieted to a muted rumble. I set the altimeter to field altitude and placed the WAC chart in my lap, folded to show the first leg of the trip. Guess I'm ready. This is it. I am actually going to do this!

I released the brakes, and the Mite moved easily across the ramp and. onto the taxiway. The windsock was limp. A Super Cub had Just taken off from runway one six, so I decided to do the same. We paused beside the runway, and I ran the engine up to 1400 RPM for a magneto check. The mag check should have been done at 1700, but the Mite's brakes were weak. I slid the canopy forward and locked the latches. We were alone.

I pushed the throttle to the stop and the Mite accelerated eagerly, lifting off after a roll of 400 feet. Marijo and the mechanic waved as we sped past, and I waved back. Then with my right palm turned outward in that strange way only Mite pilots understand, I pulled the gear lever back and latched it beside my right thigh. A slight acceleration confirmed that the wheels were up. Too much nose-up pitch! She's slowing through 70. Get the nose down! Ah, that's better. Trim out the stick force now. Good. Climbing at 80. The air is smooth. Engine's running strong. Glad for the new metal float in the carb. Glad for new spark plugs. Don't need a rough engine on a long trip like this.

At Troy I found the railroad track that would be my guide all the way across Missouri. The next stop would be Chillicothe, 162 miles northwest. Over Mexico, Missouri the rain started, a light drizzle. Visibility was still OK. Water crept between the windshield and the canopy, dripping onto my WAC chart, making dark damp spots in it. I switched to left hand on the stick and held my right hand cupped beneath the leak, catching the drips and wiping them on my pants. A dark area appeared ahead. Heavy rain. I groaned. Less than an hour out of St. Louis. Will the whole trip be this way? I flew on, hoping the shower would move aside so I wouldn't have to leave my railroad track. It did, almost. I skirted a couple of miles to the south, flying around the shower and the huge white cloud above it, feeling much like an gnat must as it flies past a deep freeze. I could see my railroad beyond. Good. At least I'm not lost.

The rain stopped, and my pants leg dried. At Chillicothe I pumped 8.2 gallons of unleaded auto gas into the Mite's tank. I called Flight Service. The briefer said I should expect showers and thunderstorms as I approached my next stop, Harlan, Iowa. I groaned again. This is crazy for this time of year. It should be clear. It has to be clear. I can't afford to take extra days off work. Lord, I need some clear weather.

At Harlan the Mite needed 6.3 gallons of autogas and a quart of oil. I needed lunch. In the back of the FBO office a homemade sign on the refrigerator door advertised hoagy sandwiches (ham and cheese) for a buck and a half. The sandwiches were homemade, too, with lots of ham and cheese on an oblong sesame bun. I heated one in the microwave for a minute, then sat down to eat at a nearby table. It was fun listening to other pilots talking airplane talk while I ate. Harlan was a friendly place.

Ten minutes out of Harlan I got lost. How could I get lost with a map on my lap? Some things are easier to see on a map than on the ground. And there was more rain, blocking my pre-planned path. Where do I go now? With the Mite scooting along at better than a hundred miles an hour, I was quickly getting into unfamiliar territory. Nothing on the ground looked like anything on the chart. I swung the plane to a heading that I thought should take us back to Harlan. Rolling out level, I waited for the magnetic compass to settle, and then the fear came. The numbers didn't make sense. Was the compass messed up? The sun was hidden behind the overcast. There was nothing to provide a sense of direction. Trust the compass. Compasses don't just suddenly go nuts. Fly east, even if it doesn't feel like east. Get out of the rain. Keep looking for something on the ground that you can recognize. Hey! I spotted a river, slanting across the roads and fields, with a railroad running beside it--yes, there it was on the map, and the town a few miles up the river looked like it might be Dunlop.

We flew along the river. Yes: There's the race track. It's Dunlop all right. Whew! What a relief to know where I am. Head north and west along the roads now, past Ute and Mapleton. The Missouri River is out west there somewhere. If I just keep going west I have to see it. The sky is lighter now. Sunlight ahead. I've gotten around the rain. Over the dark green bluffs and out into the flat prairie we flew, and flying began to be fun again as my racing heart slowed to normal.

The next fuel stop was to be Great Planes Airport, southwest of Sioux Fails, South Dakota. The route was easy to follow. The river and Interstate 29 would run together to Vermilion, and then we could follow the highway straight north to Sioux Falls. In a short while we were descending to pattern altitude for the approach into Great Planes. I called on the Unicorn frequency for an airport advisory. No answer. I called again. Still no answer. The airport drew closer. What? Looks like the runway's torn up! Big yellow X's at each end. Construction machinery. Great. No airport here any more. Now what? Can I make it to Mitchell on this tank? I twisted around and looked at the fuel gage behind my head. I decided we could make it to Mitchell. We climbed to 4500 feet, where I throttled back to 2100 RPM. I pulled out carefully on the mixture knob until the engine started to miss, then quickly pushed it forward just enough to keep the engine running smoothly. Got to get good mileage here. It would be dumb to run out of gas.

The folks at Wright Brothers Aviation in Mitchell were friendly and helpful. They offered to keep the Mite in the hanger overnight for $15.00. They called the Anthony Motel for me and requested a courtesy car. When we arrived at the motel, I offered the driver--who was also the manager--a tip. He would not accept it. For him, a courtesy car was just that--a courtesy. I ate supper at the Highway 40 Cafe, half a minute's walk from the Anthony. It was a family business, with home style cooking, not the microwave stuff. I stuffed myself for less than six dollars. After supper I phoned my wife, Sharon. I gave her a progress report, then talked to each of our three daughters. It was good to hear their voices, and to be reassured that they were praying for me.

The Anthony man dropped me off at the airport at 7:30 the next morning--Saturday, August 11th. The airport was deserted. I stepped through the service door and impatiently held the "up" switch for what seemed like five minutes while the huge hanger door creaked and squeaked slowly upward. I pulled the Mite out and pushed it to the edge of the ramp, letting the main wheels drop off the edge of the apron and into the grass. The edge of the pavement would keep the ship from rolling while I started it.

The little A-65 barked to life on the first flip of the prop, and I clambered into the cockpit, pleased that the chock idea had worked: the airplane kept still until I was ready to taxi. Thin patches of high cirrus suggested smooth air, and it was indeed utterly calm as we climbed away into the cool morning. I-90 soon slid into position just left of the Mite's nose, and we were on our way west.

Rapid City, South Dakota was busy. Really busy. There was so much chatter on the approach frequency I could hardly get a word in. Finally I got through, and we landed for fuel.

It was raining when we took off from Rapid City. And in less than ten minutes I was lost again. This time, since I was close to two large airports, I figured it wouldn't be wise to wander about through big-city traffic trying to get my bearings. So I called approach control and told them I was disoriented and needed some help getting onto I-90 west. It was embarrassing, of course. But the fellows on the radio didn't make fun of me. They steered me for awhile and then handed me off to Rapid City Flight Service. Flight Service had me turn this way and that for radar-identification (the Mite has no transponder) and then suggested a heading that would take me over the highway. Within 10 minutes I was back on track and headed west. "Thanks very much for your help," I radioed to Flight Service. And I meant it.

The rain stopped a few miles west of Rapid City, and I took time to enjoy the scenery. The terrain became more rugged. I-90 was crawling with tiny black bugs--actually hundreds of motor-cycles on their way to and from Sturgis, for the 50th annual motorcycle festival there.

As we flew past Spearfish, South Dakota I became concerned about a dark mass directly ahead. More rain! I decided to go on as far as possible, then land if necessary. We were just passing over Beulah, Wyoming when it became obvious that going on was impossible; ten miles ahead a wall of heavy rain obscured the road, the mountains, everything. There was no choice but to turn back. We landed at Spearfish's Black Hills Airport, and I was allowed to push the Mite into a hanger until the rain passed. In a few minutes Spearfish was enveloped in a downpour; the decision to stop had been a good one.

I was pretty discouraged about the weather. It looked almost certain that I'd never make it to Seattle by Sunday night. The thought of losing another day's pay was depressing. I called Sharon and told her what was happening. She encouraged me not to take chances with the weather--getting home safely was of more value than saving a day's pay. She was right, of course.

After two hours the rain stopped, but the runway was still wet. Mites are made of wood, and soaking the wing structure with water thrown from spinning tires did not seem wise. While waiting for the runway to dry off, I enjoyed watching skydivers jump from an ancient Cessna 182, plunge down in free fall and then pirouette in circles and swoops until the last few seconds before a stand-up landing in a field south of the hangers.

Finally the runway was dry. With the sky becoming lighter to the west, the Mite and I climbed out through a saddle-back between two low hills off the north end of the runway and banked gently to the west. On to Gillette!

The flight to Gillette, Wyoming was easy and enjoyable. Navigation was not a worry: 1-90 was an unmistakable guide. Twenty miles out of Gillette a band of cumulus clouds appeared ahead, looking rather- formidable. But as we drew closer the clouds proved to be scattered widely enough to permit passage with only minor weaving. What a fascinating sensation it was to thread my way among those giant white puffs. I could not resist the temptation to occasionally clip the edge of a cloud. Such close encounters gave me a new appreciation for the airplane's speed.

After a brief fuel stop in Gillette, we continued west toward Billings, Montana. The weather was perfect for the first hour, but a dark area ahead and to the left brought new anxiety. A huge pile of clouds rose above the low hills, and beneath it fell a dark column of rain. I watched intently for several seconds, looking for lightning. Yes! A crooked orange spark flashed within the dark rain. A thunderstorm! I flew on, hoping we could pass the storm before it came too close to the highway.

A row of dark clouds extended several miles downwind of the storm, all the way across the highway, with a thin curtain of rain drifting downward beneath it. I could see through the rain, and concluded that we should be able to fly through it. For a couple minutes tiny rain drops pelted the windshield, and the Mite trembled and bucked in the choppy air. But beyond the clouds the air was clear and smooth. The sun emerged from behind the thunderhead, touching the earth below with the warm gold light of evening.

At Billings, Montana, our next stop, I could not find the airport. I studied the chart frantically, comparing the airport's position to that of the town. My eyes swept the valley. It just wasn't there. Finally with some guidance from approach control, I spotted it. It wasn't in the valley at all, but high on the fiat-topped bluff north of town. I was glad the people in the tower had been patient.

Corporate Air reduced their normal $35.00 hanger fee to $15.00 for the Mite, because the airplane was so small. The Sheraton sent a van right to the Corporate Air office to pick me up, without charge. Again I called Sharon from the motel room. I was glad to be able to tell her I might reach Seattle by Sunday night after- all, if the weather would cooperate.

The next morning, Sunday, August 12th, dawned cool and clear. I took the first Sheraton van to the airport, arriving about 7:00 A.M. On the previous evening approach control had complained that my radio was weak. The plane's battery, mounted in the baggage compartment, needed a charge. (The Mite has no generator.) The folks at Corporate Air allowed me to hook up the battery to their quick charger--for free. After charging at 20 amps for half an hour, the battery was ready.

Off we went, out over the wilderness northwest of Billings. Talk about desolation! There was almost nothing out there, all the way to Great Falls. The two-lane road leading through Judith Gap was easy to follow, the sun shone from a cloudless sky, and the Mite was flying happily along at 8500 feet. What could be better? I did miss going to church with my wife and kids, though.

At Great Falls I bought 80 octane from Rocky Mountain Air. While, there I asked for advice from a pilot who had just flown in from the west. Missoula was fogged in, he said, and the valleys nearby were obscured in fog. He suggested I stop at Lincoln for fuel. I did, but. there was no fuel at Lincoln. No pumps, even. A friendly airplane-watcher sitting in a. pickup readily agreed, to stand by the wing while I restarted the engine. After takeoff I eased the Mite over into shallow bank, and we climbed in a wide circle, gaining altitude before tackling the next pass. I waggled the wings as a parting gesture of thanks to the man in the pickup, and headed southwest along the road to Missoula. I never did see any fog. It must have burned off by then.

Now we were in the mountains. The road followed a curving, switchback path through dark canyons. Peaks lowered on both sides, but steadily receded as the Mite cruise-climbed, at 90 miles per hour. At 8500 feet we were above most of the turbulence and able to see the highway far enough ahead to average out its wanderings without fear of losing the way. At last we broke out of the canyons and into the huge valley where Missoula resides. It was like emerging from a long tunnel into brilliant sunlight. The sun had shone brightly all morning, but somehow the darkness of the forested slopes seemed to suck in the light and make the way dark.

It was lunch time, but I was not hungry. Too excited, I suppose. I filled the Mite's fuel tank, and we took off, bugging the mountains north of 1-90, at departure control's request, to provide clear passage for an incoming Sabreliner. In a few minutes the Sabre flashed past a mile off the left wing. We crossed the valley to the south and continued along the highway.

Rapid City had seemed busy, but Spokane was insanely so. We were uncomfortably close to the airport before I could break through to Spokane approach control. Again I had trouble finding the airport. Felts Field. But with some help from approach control I spotted it and landed for fuel. For lunch I drank a can of Mountain Dew. It seemed appropriate, considering the terrain we'd been flying over.

When we departed Felts Field, the temperature was 98 degrees, and the Mite bucked violently in the thermals. We climbed higher, heading southeast for a few miles. I had intended to skirt the other two large airports in Spokane, and then fly a southern route past Mount Adams, to Spanaway, southwest of Tacoma, where a hanger- awaited the Mite.

Again the symbols on the map did not match what I saw on the ground., and within 20 minutes I was completely disoriented. The new radio came to the rescue again. This time I took two VOR readings and determined where I was by intersecting the radials. I turned to a heading of 300 degrees, knowing that we must eventually come upon the interstate again. And in 20 minutes we did. So much for following railroad tracks across eastern Washington! I decided to abandon my plan for the southern route and stick to 1-90.

I grunted from the shocks of turbulence. It was hot! Even at 6500 feet it was bumpy! I began to perspire. My fingertips began to buzz and feel prickly. My stomach became nauseated. I was getting airsick. What now? If I go lower and try to land, the turbulence will only get worse. I may not make it to the airport before I get really sick. The only way out is up. I shoved the throttle all the way in and cranked in some nose-up trim. The Mite climbed lazily. At 11,000 feet the air became smooth, and at 11,500 we leveled off. The outside air temperature gage read 42 degrees, but the brilliant sunlight kept the cockpit comfortably warm. Within half an hour the nausea had worn away, and I knew we'd make it.

At 5:30 P.M. the Mite's little tires touched down with a slight bump on Spanaway's narrow asphalt runway. I slid the canopy back, welcoming the refreshing shock of cool wind that washed through the cockpit. As we taxied to the Mite's new home, thoughts of the trip flooded my mind--the fear, the embarrassment, the beauty, the enjoyment of flying. It was all a great privilege, and I sent up a silent prayer of thanks as the Mite and I rolled to a stop in front of the hanger.

Sam Mitchell, 13 Oct 90

09 June 2001

Note: Sam has made contact with us since this story was published. Here is his other contribution to the Mite Site.