Journey to Springfield

June 2009

It started as a small glint. Like you're walking along and see a momentary flash or sparkle from the sun on piece of broken glass. But the thought began to grow that I might fly the RF5B roundtrip to Ohio - about 4,000 miles in a wood and cloth glider.

The thought percolated for months. More reasons not to go, than to go. But there were both personal and professional reasons to go.

I talked to a friend who had made an even longer trip in his twin engine Cessna. He noted that at our ages, we may not have many adventures left, so do it! Many years ago my mother, well into her 70's, trekked through Africa in her combat boots, so I wasn't ready to acknowledge end-of-life limitations just yet…but it was good encouragement.

I decided that I could at least plan and prepare for the trip. If conflicts arose, so what. It would have been good a good exercise to plan the trip and to make improvements to the glider.


Flight planning
Using flight-planning software I mapped a trip across Washington State, northern Idaho and Montana, South Dakota, diagonally across Iowa and on to Ohio. Many of the fuel stops suggested by the software had to be changed because the airport runways were too narrow for the glider. But after massaging the stops, I had a decent route.

Sportavia RF5B Sperber
Northern Route

The glider
The engine was in good shape. I worked on the Stromberg carburetor, installing a new butterfly shaft. The engine was strong (for 70 hp) and it was running fundamentally well.

I figured I'd likely run into rain. So, I spent time making sure the canopies wouldn't leak and touching up the paint. Anticipating higher temperatures, Mike Boatz worked with me to update the baffling around the engine.

I would be flying alone across some fairly remote areas. So, I bought a SPOT locator so my wife and friends could see my progress or lack of it. The glider had recently come out of annual inspection. Soon enough to be fresh, far enough in the past to identify any problems introduced by the inspection itself.

With a new communications radio, transponder, intercom & relatively new Garmin 396 with weather, I was set. I decided to bring an extra headset just in case…

The Trip

I had hoped to leave Saturday June 20th (2009). I packed and was ready to go, but a large band of storms from the Canadian border to Nevada settled in. I could have waited, keeping my Northern route, but a lot of weather seemed to be tracking that way.

I spent the next day planning a more southern route: across the Cascades and north eastern edge of Oregon, southern Idaho, central Wyoming, northern Nebraska - joining my old route at Iowa City, Iowa - and on to Ohio.

Sportavia RF5B Sperber
Southern Route

So, Monday June 22nd, I drove to the airport and started my preflight inspection. During the inspection, I found that the gasket on the fuel filter was leaking. A quick fabrication of a gasket using appropriate material and I could leave.

Day 1: Over the Cascades....or not
Still Monday morning. Two hours were now gone, but I was able to roll the airplane out for the trip.

Sportavia RF5B Sperber
Glider out, packed, ready to go

The clouds were low, but as I looked to the east, they were above the nearby hills of the Cascades. As I looked further east, the sky looked bright between the mountains - so it looked like I could get through the passes.

I took off, heading eastward into the Cascades.

The longer I flew down the valley toward the pass, the darker it got. Long tendrils of clouds reached from the clouds to the ground like giant claws determined to prevent any passage.

Sportavia RF5B Sperber
Low clouds over the Cascades got worse rather than better

There just wasn't any way to get through...and I was so close. I could even see glimpses of blue sky...but nothing large enough to fly through.

I saw a large gap in the clouds above me. I circled up, but it was just like a large cloud room or chamber, walled in on all sides by more clouds. I descended, tried another valley and found the same wall of clouds. Crap. There was no getting over the Cascades today in this glider.

Sportavia RF5B Sperber
Taking off from Aburn, there was no clear path over the Cascades, so I headed south

But, I could fly south through the Columbia River gorge. The ceilings were high enough, but the reported winds were higher than acceptable for the glider, so I'd have to fuel first.

Toledo, WA
Just north of Toledo, Washington, I landed at Ed Carlson Memorial Field (KTDO), then headed for the Gorge.

I flew down the gorge without turbulence or incident. Mt. Rainier looked great through the cloud layer. The strong tail winds spit me out on the other side and I headed toward Richland, Washington.

Sportavia RF5B Sperber
Flying down the river was the way to get around the Cascades that day

Richland, WA
Richland was the first fuel stop that was on my regular plan. It was somewhat windy, but the winds were right down one of the runways. Wide taxiways made getting from the runway to the pumps easy. Filled up. Took a moment for a protein bar and a diet coke, and headed onward. Now trying to make up time, I stopped for fuel in Baker City, ID; then Caldwell, ID; then headed toward Gooding, Idaho.

Sportavia RF5B Sperber
The terrain east of the mountains is certainly different from the west

By now the sun was setting. The glider isn't legal for flying at night, so I needed to stop. Over the radio, a local pilot suggested that Jerome, Idaho (just a few miles down the road) would be a better choice for the night. The GPS indicated it was wide enough, so I setup and landed there just as the sun was setting.

The airport was nice...but deserted. Too dark to do any post-flight maintenance, I found a tie-down, got my gear and headed to the pilot's lounge. No obvious courtesy car nor any hotels nearby. I eventually figured out that a Shilo Inn in Twin Falls would give me a ride and a decent price on a room. Sold!

Sportavia RF5B Sperber
Flying down the gorge to Richland, ultimately to Jerome, Idaho

Day 2: Climbing mountains
I checked the weather, it all looked good for the day. A shuttle to the glider and in short order I was on my way, but a good portion of the morning was gone. Today would be a day to get over some mountains.

Sportavia RF5B Sperber
Morning fillup at Jerome, Idaho

Flying eastward in the hot high air, the carburetor started running a little rich as the density altitude started to get beyond its limits for compensation. This made idling on the ground a little rougher and probably dropped a few horsepower in the air.

Despite the rich mixture, I was getting a pretty decent fuel burn. When I got to my next fuel stop I had enough fuel to pass it and continue to a further airport. So, I landed at Afton Municipal in Wyoming. Fueled up, had my standard protein bar and diet coke for lunch and thought about the next leg. At that point I realized that Afton was right at the base of 10,000' mountains that I needed to cross. Part of the reason for stopping earlier was that it would give me a running start at the mountains and more time to gain altitude.

Making things more interesting was that it was a hot day, the airport was at 6,200' and the engine was running rich. Great.

I took off. It was no surprise that the glider's climb performance was minimal. About 1,000' feet above the ground it was clear that the engine was not going to take me over those large rocks in front of me. I started looking for lift and found a little over some irrigated "crop circles" (#2 in image below).

A few miles back to the west were some bluffs with promising clouds. Beneath those clouds I found lift that got me up to about 8,500'. So I took a run at the peaks to see what altitude I could gain. I actually lost a few hundred feet.

Sportavia RF5B Sperber
Showing the GPS track data in Google Earth: Landed at Afton (1), backtracked for lift (3), tucked in close for ridge lift (4) and over (5)

But, I was on the windward side of the peaks and it was a hot day with a bright sun. If I tucked up close to the rocks, I should find upward moving air. Anyone watching me at the airport must have thought I was crazy, flying straight at the rock walls. But just next to the large rock face was the lift I was looking for. I rode that invisible escalator to 11,500' and over the peaks. It was the highest I had ever been in the glider.

Sportavia RF5B Sperber
The peaks just east of Afton

Sportavia RF5B Sperber
GPS showing 11,800'

Elated, I continued eastward. Scrolling forward on the GPS, I saw that my next fuel stop at Hunt, Wyoming was at 5,600'. So, from 11,500' I could do a long, gentle descent, getting good speed and using less fuel.

A nice afternoon. All seemed good. I saw the speck of the airport off in the distance. It would be a nice sled ride down to the airport, making good time and using little fuel.

Sportavia RF5B Sperber
Looking backward toward the peaks

Sportavia RF5B Sperber
Looking forward over a friendlier landscape

As I approached the airport I started searching for the runway, but didn't quite see it. I took a closer look at my GPS and realized that I wasn't seeing the airport at all. The airport was on the other side of another row of 10,000' mountains right in front of me.

I had wasted my altitude and I was now in the same pickle I had been before. I had previously planned to fly around this range. But since I thought I saw the airport, I changed the plan to fly directly to the airport. I now didn't have enough fuel to fly around...I had to go over.

The ridge lift wasn't as strong this time. I had to work a lot harder to gain altitude without wasting fuel. Working my way up the cliffs, I found a promising gap between some peaks. Further up, it was clear that the gap became tight enough that there was no escape. If I encountered a strong downdraft, especially with my engine, I'd just be fragments on the ground.

I chose the more promising rock face for my climb. The winds weren't strong. The winds that were there should produce lift and the rock face had good exposure to the sun, so the rocks should be hot. I tucked in close, trying not to watch the boulders passing by the canopy, focusing on the task. The lift wasn't strong, but it was steady. While I rode it upward, I kept checking (while I still had a good escape) to make sure I was getting predictable lift. The lift continued up to the gap where I had to commit. It seemed like a reasonable bet. So, I gave the engine full throttle for a little insurance and squirted through the gap between the peaks. What a great feeling! And what a change in the landscape. Green pastures, small streams and lakes. A beautiful area.

Sportavia RF5B Sperber
Interesting landscape after the second set of peaks heading to Hunt

Sportavia RF5B Sperber
High mountain lakes near Hunt

On the east side of the slope, I could now, in fact, start my real descent to Hunt, Wyoming. At Hunt, I topped up. It was getting late in the afternoon. I checked my course and felt I could make it to Gordon, Nebraska.

Sportavia RF5B Sperber
Filling up at Hunt

I headed off to Gordon. But in fact, not so.

I arrived at Converse (and earlier stop) as the sun was setting. The airport office was closed, so I had to tie the glider out for the night. (not my preference). I caught a cab to a Best Western. An oddly constructed place.

I can't remember the last time I continually got lost in a motel, but the next morning, I couldn't find my way from my room to the front counter. I ended up walking around the outside of the building to find the front, then caught a cab to the airport.

Sportavia RF5B Sperber
From Jerome to Douglas

Day 3: Escape from Douglas
I had hoped to start early and make a run for Iowa. That was foiled by storms at the Nebraska-Iowa border. But the sky was clear to Gordon, Wyoming. I could at least get that far. They had a hangar, courtesy car and local motels. I could do some work on the glider while I waited for the storms to clear. That sounded like a decent plan.

The flight to Gordon was great. Blue skies. Bright morning sun. I put my sunshade on the canopy above me, had a cool morning breeze coming in the open windows, beautiful music through the headset. I flew along over the grassy landscape at 500' - 750' - thinking that this was a pretty darn fine moment. Who knows what was ahead, but for the moment, this was good.

Today would only be an hour and a half flight. I could throttle back the engine, fly low and just fly for fun.

Interesting rock formations came up through the grass. A gaggle of Harley riders came down the highway...I flew a tight 360 up the road in front of them to say hi. Flew over cattle and farms.

The glider is so slow and quiet, it never startles folks. A deer and its young were running along through the open grassland. I followed them for a bit. Once they looked at me, instead of panicking, they stopped to see what it was.

Flew over some cowboys herding cattle on horseback. Circled and waved. Wing waggled to farmers on tractors. Flew along beside an eastbound freight train, pacing myself with the engine for a while, then moving on. Just a great morning.

I had no previous experience with Wyoming. I found it to be unexpectedly beautiful.

Landed at Gordon and taxied to the tie down area. Jim came out to the airport. A genuinely nice guy. Opened a hangar for me. Gave me the keys to the courtesy car (an old cop car with the interior falling out)...and directions to the preferred motel.

I figured I had better stop by the motel first and assure my spot for the evening. Wow. What a motel. It may have been personally built by the owners, with that rare plastic and wall board mobile home feeling to it. The room was $49 for the night. My room was in a back corner, next to the city electric distribution transformers. My cell phone didn't work in the room. The motel's Wi-Fi didn't work in the room. I just hoped I didn't spark at night and set my pajamas on fire.

I drove back to the airport and did a little maintenance on the glider, including adjusting the carb floats to see if I could lean the mixture a little.

Day 4: Oh grass!
The storms of the previous day had dissolved from the Nebraska-Iowa border. There were some limited visibility conditions further east, but I flew so slowly that they would likely clear out before got there. That gave the FAA weather briefer a good laugh.

I drove to the airport, preflighted the airplane and took off, heading for O'Neill, Nebraska. As I reached the end of the departure runway, the engine started to stumble. This was the first time it had ever stumbled since I had owned it. I must have set the mixture too lean.

There wasn't any wind. I was the only one at the airport. So, I just did a gentle 180 and landed back on the same runway, taxied over to the tie downs, removed the cowling and waited for the engine to cool.

I had guessed the right float position, but now I wanted a more precise way to set the floats at 19mm. But where to get a metric rule in the middle of farm country? It was early morning. No hardware store would be open...even if they had one. Would the office have one? Not likely.

I have a background in communication research and have preached for years that the language we use to describe our problems, affects our abilities to solve them. I realized that I was stuck in looking for a metric rule. So I rephrased my problem, what can I find that is 19mm?

You idiot. You brought tools with you. Among those tools are 17mm and 19mm crescent wrenches - extremely accurate metric measures! I dug out a 19mm wrench (which would be my original 17mm setting + 2mm leaner....a conservative adjustment). It worked great. Got the carb back together (I was getting pretty good at getting it apart and back together)...and took off toward O'Neill. The engine ran great. Maybe still a little rich, but better...and not too lean. (Sounds a little like Goldilocks.)

The soup thickens
It was a nice flight toward O'Neill. The sun seemed a bit warmer this morning than it had in the past. In fact the cockpit seemed really warm compared to what I expected. I looked down to find that the boot around the main control stick had opened and was coursing hot engine compartment air into the passenger compartment. I closed the opening. Much better.

About 20 miles outside of O'Neill, my portable carbon monoxide warning meter started chirping. Maybe it was a low battery warning. I thought I smelled the faint smell of exhaust fumes - but I could be imagining that.

Regardless, I was 15 minutes away from my stop; all the windows were open...I saw no immediate danger.

I landed at O'Neill...and the meter stopped chirping. This almost assuredly indicated an exhaust leak or that something was burning.

I pulled up to the pumps, removed the top engine cowling and started searching for the problem.

On the port side, the weld on an exhaust flange was cracked and showed signs of exhaust blow by. Hey, the CO meter actually worked!

Had I caused it by the leaner mixture and possibly higher temps? Probably not. More likely it was just age and vibration.

But now it seemed like I was in the middle of nowhere and needed someone who knew what they were doing. I called my friend Collin, explained the problem and asked how you go about finding someone who could weld something like this. Collin said that since it was a stainless exhaust, it should be TIG welded. Any competent TIG welder could do a good job. That information was a genuine help. Now I knew what to look for. Surely in Nebraska, there had to be welders.

Just as we were talking, a crop duster started to taxi nearby. As rough as crop dusting is on the equipment, this guy should know about local welders. I waved my arms. He waved back and continued to taxi - figuring I was some stupid tourist. Whether I was or not, I wasn't going let him get away that easily. I tried calling him on the radio but he didn't seem to be on frequency.

So, I started jogging toward him, waving both arms. He got that I wasn't just being social and taxied over to me. I was grateful, as I knew the guy was trying to make a living and every minute his giant radial engine ran, it was slurping relatively expensive aviation fuel.

Over the wind and roar of his engine, I asked him about a welder. He knew a excellent welder who had just done some welding for him. The pilot tried to call "AJ" on the phone, no answer. AJ had a shop at Atkinson, an airport about 20 miles to the west that I had just over-flown on the way to O'Neil. I wrote down AJ's phone number, thanked the pilot and jogged back to the pumps. The young attendant at the office turned out to also know AJ. Said he was a great guy...but probably just didn't have his cell phone on.

AJ's shop would be adjacent to the airport, not actually on the airport. But there would be a worn path you could use to get there. Just look for the green pickup truck.

Sportavia RF5B Sperber
Douglas to O'Neill and back to Atkinson

So, I refueled, took off and started for Atkinson. Enroute, I checked Atkinson's stats on the GPS. The runway was 60' wide - about the same width as my wings. Not promising. When I got there, it was clear there was a fairly stiff crosswind and there were landing lights along the edges of the runway. This was not a good combination. Just a couple feet off the centerline and I'd catch a wing tip, ground loop and bad things would happen.

But, exactly into the wind was a turf runway. It showed on my GPS as an official runway, merely turf. Over-flying the field, I could see clear orange side-markers, no all looked ok. So, I set up to land on the turf runway. The glider was designed to fly off grass - so this should not be a problem.

As I landed, things just seemed odd. The orange markers seemed to disappear from my peripheral vision and the glider seemed to settle lower than I expected. As it settled down, it slowed rapidly and I realized that they had not mowed the runway in at least a month.

I was in prairie grass that was taller than my wings! Not the big wide blade grass of the Northwest, but a tighter base and long thin stems with large seed clusters at the top. My prop was acting like a lawn mower - grass and seeds flying everywhere. It had rained in the area the night before so the ground might be soft.

I was in real danger of getting stuck in tall grass a Very Long way from the paved runway. So, I kept my rpm's up and tried to taxi toward the paved runway and tie down area. But the tall grass concealed the runway markers that had been so clear from the air. I knew I was going the right direction, but couldn't be exactly sure where I was.

A flash of orange appeared in my peripheral vision as a runway marker passed under a wing and I felt a big thud. That would not be good. I could only try to get onto the paved runway without hitting anything else and see what had happened.

Whew. A lot in just a few minutes.

I got out and looked under the port wing. No damage. Fantastic! was probably the other wing. I looked under the other side to see a large tear in the wing fabric. Not what I wanted to see. Even a good portion of the paint on the prop tips was worn off as it was never intended to be a lawn mower.

Slightly shaken by it all, I set the brakes and tried to figure out where AJ's shop was.

There was no green pickup at the airport. None of the buildings looked like what the guys had described. But in the distance, was a group a buildings, including one that looked like an old WWII Quonset hut. I started walking toward those buildings. Sure enough, there was an old path, leading from the airport property to the buildings. Getting closer, I saw old cars and trucks abandoned out back. Good grief....what was I getting into?

Coming around the front, it was better maintained. Also out front were a set of aircraft wings, newly covered in fabric. And they were beautiful. I stopped for a minute to look at them. The workmanship wasn't just good, these had been done by a perfectionist. I felt a surge of hope.

The hangar door was open. Inside was a variety of tools and airplane parts. Couldn't see much yet. I called out for the guy. He had been out in the garden and came around the front; a fellow probably in his 40's. And so I met AJ Smith.

Sportavia RF5B Sperber
Google Earth Image: Atkinson's runways and AJ's shop lower right

AJ turned out to be an aeronautical engineer who had worked at Cessna. This had been his dad's business (an aircraft mechanic). When his dad passed away, apparently AJ said screw the corporate world and took over the business, working on and building aircraft.

We walked over to the glider to take a look at what needed to be done. First the welding. Not a problem. Assuming we could get access to the piece that needed to be welded, I could be out of there in an hour or so at $30 - $50. But now to the wing.

You know it's bad when a skilled person looks at some damage and says, "Oh No!....Oh, that's not good."

It's not that the fabric had been torn, a wing rib had been broken. There was additional damage to some small wood pieces in the wing. But the main support pieces were untouched.

AJ frowned, "If it had just been the welding I could have gotten you out of here in an hour or so. While this isn't dangerous, it's serious. We could tape it up. You could fly back to Seattle. Only fly in the mornings and evenings when the air is quiet. Don't take any passengers. And you'd probably be ok."

I asked, "What about your fixing it? Are you comfortable with doing it?"

"Well, this is out of my league at the moment."

"I'm not sure what that means. Is the work a problem or is it a time issue?"

"Oh, I can do the work. I build entire airplanes. But I've got a client who wants to take his plane to Oshkosh. I just can't get this done in 2-3 days. 10-15 days, no problem."

He looked at the damage more closely.

"Well, it's not quite as bad as I first thought. This broken piece isn't structural. It just makes a box so your wing doesn't balloon out when you open your spoilers. And this broken material is metric plywood, I've got a stack of that from a recent project. I do fabric work all the time. In fact, my favorite work is rag, tube and wood. I think people get so worked up about new composites, that they forget that wood is God's original composite material. Great stuff."

It was reassuring that AJ seemed to understand the design, the materials and the purpose of what he was looking at. And immediately across from the tie down was an available hangar. He said he could work on the glider between sessions with his other aircraft. He could do the entire process from wood repair, to covering to painting. It would all done by one person, assuring compatible materials and consistent workmanship. This rang true with me. His price was reasonable, so I decided to leave the glider with AJ.

I wouldn't know what to do with myself in Nebraska for 10 days, so I called my wife who like a saint, worked with me long distance to come up with a set of flights that could get me home to Seattle and back in 10 days.

But getting from Atkinson to Sioux Falls for the flight was going to be another task. AJ to the rescue. He called a friend to give me a ride to O'Neill airport, where he was on the Board and gave me permission to use one of their courtesy cars. Fantastic.

Clearly, in a challenging situation, I was very fortunate.

I had some time to see AJ's shop more closely. It was excellent. Not so clean that he focused on show rather than substance. An extensive set of practical, fabrication equipment. Rear ends of Corvette's up on shelves. A large Russian radial engine in one corner, modern horizontal engines in other corners, an antique 1914 Curtis Wright OX (-5 - maybe) engine, a Pitts biplane under construction. An amazing cross-section of aviation in one spot.

I know what it's like to have more inspiration than time. The cluster of parts and pieces, probably many from AJ's dad, seemed to reflect people who appreciate interesting design and technology. I felt right at home.

Later that day, my ride came. At the O'Neill airport I picked up a courtesy car that was clearly intended for local, informal use...but it made it all the way to Sioux Falls. My street GPS was a big help getting me to the Sioux Falls regional airport...but didn't have a detailed map set for the area. So, many times when I was driving along a country road, it figured I was out in the middle of a field.

Arriving at the airport about 7pm, some of it was starting to close down for the evening. My flight wasn't until 5am the next morning. I sat outside for a few hours when the airport closed from 12am to 3:30am. But 5am arrived and I was on my way to Seattle. Clearly, I was going to miss my son's performance in Ohio. I was also going to have a conversation with the airport Board about their lack of proper maintenance of a federally listed runway.

This being written on June 28th, I haven't learned yet if there is hidden damage in the wing that we didn't see. I will also find out when I return if the Fates will allow me to continue. The office. The weather. Life. All could throw a monkey into the wrench-works. But I suspect the Fates have more of a trip in store for me.

Regardless, not only have I enjoyed the trip so far. It has pushed me to use skills that I don't normally use in daily flights. I have had to make more challenging decisions than I normally have to make in my flights - each with significant consequences. My minimally powered and fueled aircraft is more challenging to fly cross-country than many of the very capable (and more appropriate) aircraft.

Possibly as important as all the rest, quiet time in the cockpit, like a retreat, has helped provide insights into my work that may be extremely important in the coming year.

To be continued....