A memorable cross country
Carl Tetzloff of Eden Prairie submitted this story of a very memorable cross country flight
May 1, 2019
To paraphrase the title of a long-standing monthly feature in Flying Magazine: From this I learned more about flying.
It was May 1990. My instrument ticket, gained in a concentrated 2-week effort at Lunken field, Cincinnati, was 5 months old. I had logged fewer than 200 hours. Anxious to build time and experience, some serious cross-country work seemed appropriate.
Our son lives in Albuquerque, NM. Why not plan a cross-country to visit him? That’s what airplanes are for-to cover long distances in comfort and faster than possible in a car. Sounds logical, doesn’t it? Except, this trip would be flown in a Cessna 150-F. It did have long range tanks, though, 36 gallons, 33 gallons usable
With full fuel and a healthy pilot, there was very little margin left, in the weight and balance category, for anything extra except bare necessities
The little blue and white Cessna had spent most of its life in the Arizona desert climate without benefit of a hangar and being submitting to student pilot foibles. Its plastic interior was faded, cracked, and brittle. The spinner was missing and the broken wheel pants were stored in its new hangar-home in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.
The Arizona sun had faded the paint into near extinction. This was the aircraft I used to get my private pilot’s license, so its idiosyncrasies were familiar to me.
Oh, this long cross-country trip was planned and re-planned, mapped and remapped with check points and lines on sectionals. The route was plotted on a WAC chart for added perspective and confidence. Fuel consumption was calculated, checked, and rechecked. Weather was expected to be severe clear so a VFR flight plan would suffice.
The first leg
May 5, 1990 dawned with favorable weather throughout the intended route of flight. Flight service verified my weather observation. A VFR flight plan was filed and the little Cessna and I lifted off 27L at Flying Cloud just after daybreak.
Oakley, Kansas (474 miles) was the first and only planned fuel stop. Arrival time and fuel used-with careful leaning-were as expected. Flight-time for that first leg was 5 hours, a long time to analyze imaginary changes in engine sound and to ponder all the things that could go wrong One of my concerns was possible failure of the ancient avionics-they were still powered with vacuum tubes. But, I had a hand-held radio, with VOR capability, along for back up.
The second leg was planned to be shorter than the first leg to compensate for expected slower ground speed as the planned route took a westerly heading from the Anton-Chico VOR. This shorter leg would thus result in about the same fuel reserve as on the longer first leg.
The second leg
After refueling the little Cessna at Oakley, Kansas, checking Flight Service for a weather up-date and filing another VFR flight plan, the little Cessna and I were airborne again. This leg would take me to Anton-Chico and Otto VORs, through the pass and on to Coronado airport, Albuquerque.
Confidence on the successful outcome for the trip was growing. Confidence was further enhanced as I passed directly over the “cattle pens” about 50 miles Northwest of Garden City, Kansas, named and denoted on the Wichita sectional by a small black rectangle. The course line I had drawn on the sectional passed right over the “cattle pens.”
I had been flying at 6,500 feet. Soon it would be time to start a leisurely climb (is there another kind of climb in a Cessna 150?) to 10,500 (optimistic?) feet. I had read about mountain flying and was concerned about expected turbulence and windy conditions in the mountain pass. I thought 10,500 feet would provide a comfortable margin above terrain through the pass and into Albuquerque’s Coronado airport.
About 100 miles out of Albuquerque, 24 miles Northeast of Anton Chico VOR, I noticed some Virgo ahead, nothing serious, however. I was slowly climbing and adjusting carburetor heat and mixture. As I pulled back on the mixture control there was little or no resistance. The mixture control cable came right on out of the panel!
As some indication of the number of times the mixture cable had been moved during the life of the little Cessna: the wire that had been inside the housing was polished flat and worn so thin at a gentle bend in the housing that it finally was too weak to function and it broke.
At that point I should have paused to think and consider options since the engine was still running smoothly and probably leaned a bit. But, what did I do? I immediately fed the cable back into the panel and pushed it in What did that do? The mixture was now full rich (about 1/3 of the wire was still in the housing so pushing the broken piece back in shoved everything forward) and I was trying to gain altitude to clear the mountain pass ahead. The engine continued to run without undue signs of an over-rich mixture, but there must have been black smoke coming out the exhaust.
Needless to say, my fuel burn calculations were no longer useful. Still, not thinking too clearly, I forged ahead but was cognizant enough to keep an eye on the fuel gages (remember, I had trained in this aircraft and was familiar with the fuel level in the tanks vs. gauge readings).
The fuel gage needles almost visibly marched toward empty. My thinking was as long as the needles are wiggling there must be fuel in the tanks.
The third leg
By the time I cleared the pass and with Albuquerque now in view, I breathed a sigh of relief because now I was within gliding distance of several airports even though the needles were hovering around empty but still wiggling. Coronado airfield was a welcome sight when cleared to land with no traffic in the area.
As I taxied to the parking area I expected the engine to quit for lack of fuel. It didn’t.
Our son was waiting for me at the FBO. I requested N8887S be topped off, and we left the airport.
Now the mixture control had to be repaired. It was already late afternoon on Friday and the next day, May 6, 1990, was a Saturday. FBO mechanics would not be working.
On Saturday, my son took me to an auto parts store where I bought an auto carburetor choke cable assembly. We returned to Coronado airport, removed the aircraft engine cowling, located the mixture control at the carburetor and removed the remaining part of the broken cable. Then we removed the wire core of the new cable assembly, inserted it in the aircraft panel, reconnected the wire to the carburetor mixture control, clipped off the excess length, replaced the cowling and it was fixed.
We spent the rest of the day sightseeing in and around Albuquerque. Sunday, church and more sightseeing.
Monday dawned bright and clear as is often true in Albuquerque. I went to the airport early to check weather, file a flight plan, and preflight the aircraft.
When the FBO presented the fuel bill, the slip showed 33 gallons (remember, 36 gallons total, 33 gallons usable). I think I mumbled something like “It has long range tanks.”
Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise for the little Cessna might not have been able to reach 10,500 feet with more fuel on board. On the other hand, degraded engine performance from a rich mixture probably canceled out that advantage.
I checked weather with Flight Service, filed a flight plan and prepared to depart for Flying Cloud.
Learning experience No. 1:
When anything happens that may endanger flight safety (like possibly running out of fuel) make a precautionary landing.
The fourth leg
I wanted to get an early start for the return to FCM to take advantage of cool morning temperatures for added lift and engine performance. Coronado airport altitude IS 5,280 feet.
In preparation for the flight back to FCM I queried some locals at the FBO about preferred departure procedures. Clearly runway 17 would provide better terrain clearance because the terrain drops off beyond the runway.
However, wind direction favored runway 35 and I chose to depart runway 35 (after all, its in the direction toward home, too), contrary to what the locals had suggested. Oh, I didn’t mention there is an upslope on runway 35. The close-to-gross-weight little Cessna didn’t even come close to lift-off speed as it labored up the very slight incline.
As the end of the runway neared I chopped the throttle, which abruptly stopped the sound. As I exited the runway and started to taxi back to have a look at the terrain beyond runway 17, I noticed some gawkers in the window of the FBO. They must have known what was going to happen and probably expected to see the Cessna through the fence and in the trees at the end of the runway 35.
As I taxied back to look at the terrain beyond runway 17, I then noticed the slight up-slope on runway 35c Satisfied with the way the terrain dropped off at the end of runway 17, I taxied back to the wooded end of the runway, got as close to the end as possible, did a full power (I used the word power loosely (run-up and leaned the mixture (thanks to the newly installed cable) for peak RPM, released the brakes and even with a tail-wind was airborne after only 2/3 of the way down the runway.
Learning experience No. 2:
Uphill takeoffs should be carefully analyzed and, unless you actually try it at gross weight and high density altitude, you probably can’t appreciate the drastic reduction in performance you’ll experience. Conversely, going downhill-even with a tailwind, but with gravity helping-makes a tremendous difference in your favor.
Learning experience No. 3:
Talk to local flyers (and heed their advice) for suggestions when in suspected marginal situations.
After becoming airborne and turning to a Northeasterly direction, I began the slow climb to 9,500 feet to get over the mountains to the Northeast (another suggestion from the locals, the pass is lower to the Northeast). I had to make three wide, climbing 360° turns to get to only 9,300 feet and gained the final 200 feet when on course toward the pass.
With a dangerously low fuel situation fresh in my mind, I headed for Dalhart, Texas, only 2-1/2 hours away, to refuel. The wind was quite brisk, about 20 knots (and would increase in intensity on the next leg), but aligned with the runway. The landing was uneventful. After a candy bar, a cup of coffee, a call to Flight Service for weather, and a flight plan, I was soon underway again.
With a favorable tail wind (until time to land, that is), I went as far as Sheldon, Iowa, the longest leg of the return trip, before stopping for fuel.
I landed on runway 15 and on only the first 1/3 of the runway. The wind was southwesterly at 25 knots gusting to 35. Needless to say, it was a slow taxi to the gas pumps. There were two guys at the FBO. One of them commented “You’d better get that thing into a hangar.” They probably didn’t want their airport to be the site of an incident.
After refueling I hurried to get airborne again and opted for flight following instead of a flight plan. As I pushed the throttle forward for takeoff on runway 15 and with full upwind aileron the aircraft skipped sideways on the runway but it did lift off quickly in the strong wind and abruptly weather-vaned into the wind as expected. I presume the guys in the FBO were watching
Learning experience No. 4:
Take advantage of the full width of the runway in a strong crosswind by lining up at the downwind edge of the runway and point the aircraft more directly into the wind by pointing the nose of the aircraft toward the upwind side of the runway. I didn’t do that but should have; it should have helped but the danger would have been that if side-skipping occurred anyway, the aircraft would have been in the grass.
On the last leg of the trip, Sheldon, lA to Flying Cloud, the tailwind was about 60 knots at altitude. A Sioux City controller asked me my aircraft type. Presumably he noted an unheard of ground speed from an alleged Cessna 150. From Sheldon, IA, to Flying Cloud was one hour flying time for a distance of 141 nautical miles.
It was good to be back at the home field. These are the kinds of learning experiences one tends to not forget. Judgment is built upon an accumulation of life’s experiences.