Thank you, Steve Wittman, Harold Passow, and Troy Petteway. N11018 has a new owner and soon a new home on the other side of the country.
For those of you not aware, Steve Wittman was the designer of the Wittman W-8 Tailwind which first flew in 1953. Harold Passow of Milwaukee, Wisconsin bought a set of Wittman Tailwind plans from Steve Wittman and built N11018 at his home, completing it in 1965. It changed owners several times throughout the years, eventually making its way to Troy Petteway who sold it to me. :D
After flying this Tailwind a few times around the pattern at Russellville-Logan County Airport (4M7) I knew that I wanted this airplane and was ready to sign the papers and start my cross-country journey.
… YES! SWEET! AWESOME! RAD! ¡DIOS MIO! (In case you couldn’t tell, I signed the papers and I now own an airplane. This 1965 Wittman W-8 Tailwind is mine. Let the travels begin!)
Some random photo of the Mississippi River. Not sure why I took it. Maybe because it was brown.
Here’s a satellite view from Google Maps.
First checkpoint ST CLAIR RGNL K39 and the current local time is 1:30 PM which means I’m 30 minutes ahead of schedule. Woo hoo! Up until now I had been flying at 8,500 feet MSL, but the cumulous was starting to build so I descended to 6,500 feet MSL.
Some random photo of the Missouri River. Not sure why I took it. Maybe because it was brown. At this point, the cloud layer had forced me down to 3,500 feet MSL, but that was fine because the visibility ahead was well over three miles.
Here’s a satellite view from Google Maps.
Continuing on, I was ever so slightly being forced lower and lower to stay at least 500 feet below the clouds. I could see that forward visibility was beginning to diminish and it was quickly becoming evident that the fuel stop in my flight plan (KMBY) was going to be diverted. No worries. The GPS was showing an airport in Mexico, Missouri which I was going to pass on the way to KMBY so it would be no hassle to fly there instead. (Kinda like being at the grocery store and walking over to the produce section to get some fruit for the girlfriend when your initial plan was simply to get some beer for yourself and go home.) And according to the GPS, Mexico is only 17 minutes away. Just gotta hope this weather doesn’t get any worse in the next 17 minutes.
Only 13 minutes away from Mexico. The visibility in front of me is getting foggier, the clouds above me are getting lower, and out in the distance I see occasional flashes. NOOOOOOO! I’m headed right into one of those midwest afternoon thunderstorms that TWO guys warned me about yesterday!
10 minutes to Mexico. Come on…
But then my luck ran out. Seven minutes away from Mexico Memorial Airport and I flew into the edge of a solid cloud that was so dense I couldn’t see the ground ahead of me. Rain pounded the windscreen as I made a 180 back out of the cloud. Not good.
The only good news is that the trusty Garmin GPS III that I was navigating with has a “Nearest” button. It’s basically the same thing as the Staples “Easy” button, except it’s for pilots who are on the verge of some profuse swearing.
So where does the GPS tell me to go? A little airport called Montgomery-Wehrman (4MO) which is only 8 minutes away. They have fuel so I change course and head that way. I announce myself on the CTAF, but nobody answers. The GPS says they have full-service fuel so maybe the person on duty is out fueling someone up. No worries. Closer and closer I’m approaching this place, but I can’t see it. Not for poor visibility reasons, I just can’t spot it. The GPS says I’m close. Two miles. 1.9, 1.8, 1.7… Where is this place? I look for some hangars. 1.6, 1.5, 1.4… If this place has fuel, then they’ve gotta have some planes sitting outside. I look for planes and hangars… 1.0, 0.9, 0.8, 0.7… This is insane. All I see are cows, fields, and trees… 0.6, 0.5, 0.4, 0.3… Wait, is that it? A farm? Garmin sent me to a farm! They’re not gonna have 100LL for sale at some farm in the middle of nowhere, I’m thinking to myself. I circle overhead twice hoping the sound of my engine will get someone outside. Otherwise, the only life I see at this place are the 50 cows grazing in the field adjacent to an overgrown grass airstrip that has what appear to be a deep set of truck tire ruts running across it which have rendered the first 1/3 of this 2400 foot runway unusable. I circle over again, this time passing directly over the small house and then flying over the barns that are nearby. I call out on the CTAF again, this time asking for a landing advisory, but really I just wanted to get a voice on the radio which would confirm that somebody was here. Nothing but silence filled the frequency. I buzz the house one more time and this time I give the engine full throttle so if anyone was inside they would certainly hear me. I also get a look at the fuel pump next to the fuel tanks. This thing looks pre-war and my common sense told me that in all likelihood there wasn’t a credit card swipe attached to it, so even if I did land and nobody was here, I still couldn’t get any fuel. I circled one last time, desperately hoping to see someone walk outside… and… nothing. :(
The storm was still moving in my direction so my only choice was to use the Easy button again. This time it pointed me toward Elton Hensley Memorial KFTT, 18 minutes away. As (bad) luck would have it, the storm cut me off again when I was seven minutes away. Back to the Easy button. At this point, the four nearest airports to me with fuel were inside of the storm. My only choice was to do some serious back-tracking to Washington Regional Airport FYG which was 25 minutes away. I looked at my flight timer. I had been in the air for 3 hours 5 minutes. During my flight planning phase I had calculated fuel burn to be 5 gallons per hour which means I should have burned about 15 gallons so far. The fuel tank holds 27 gallons and some rapid arithmetic tells me I’ve got about 12 gallons left in the tank. WRONG! A quick glance at the fuel sight gauge showed the fuel level bobbing between 2 and 5 gallons. Another session of rapid arithmetic tells me there’s 3.5 gallons in the tank. WHAT THE…! This means my little, economical Continental O-200 has been burning about 7 gallons per hour at about 60% power. My Super Cub friends burn that much in their engines which are almost twice as big and weigh significantly more. I couldn’t believe this was happening. It’s my first airplane and I’m not even going to make it to the first fuel stop. This can’t be happening. Washington Regional was now 21 minutes away. I think I can make it. Here’s how: I’ll pull the power back and fly a little slower to save fuel. Ah, gees. Now the GPS says Washington Regional is once again 25 minutes away! I may be quick when it comes to simple arithmetic, but for some reason it didn’t dawn on me that when you fly slower, it takes longer to get to where you’re going.
Right about now is when my head went into best-case-scenario/decision-time mode. 1) I could land on a road. 2) I could land in a field. There were lots of them everywhere. 3) I could continue onward to Washington Regional and hope that I don’t run out of fuel. 4) I could fly back to Montgomery-Wehrman and land on the grass strip and hope to get some fuel.
Not wanting to take a chance being on the evening news, I chose to fly back to Montgomery-Wehrman. It was 10 minutes away, but at this point, I just wanted to be able to land with fuel in the tank.
As I was on short final for runway 03, the storm that I had been eluding finally caught up with me. Rain began to sprinkle on the windscreen which fogged my visibility through it. Then it began to hit and the visibility and distance to the runway was nearly impossible as the water blurred my view. Gee, what else can go wrong? Well, I’ll tell you.
Up until now, I had only done two landings in this Tailwind. Both of them were in perfect VFR conditions on a 4,000 foot paved runway with nothing at either end of it, so even if I had a low approach or landed long, there were no trees or houses for me to crash in to. Since the Tailwind has a short wing, it needs to land fast (or at least faster than the Luscombe and Super Cub I had become accustomed to). The seller told me to shoot all my approaches at 90 MPH until I got used to flying it. Needless to say, I highly doubt he was anticipating I’d be landing on any unimproved strips any time soon.
So I’m trying to land this thing at 90 MPH, on the second 2/3 of a 2,400 foot grass strip (that means I’ve got only 1,600 feet to land in) with horrible visibility. A go-around is not an option (because this storm will only get worse) so I go for it.
The wheels touch turf and bounce me back in the air. Coming down, they bounce again and then a third partial bounce before it stays down. I apply the brakes and nothing happens. I push as hard on the pedals as I can, but there’s no slowing down. Then it occurs to me. The brakes are locked, but the tires are sliding across this 8-inch tall wet grass like a hockey puck on ice. The trees at the end of the runway are fast approaching and there’s nothing I can do to miss them. I quickly consider performing an intentional ground loop rather than careen headlong into them, so I push full right rudder and nothing happens. Full left rudder and nothing. Time stopped in my head as thoughts of head-on impact went racing through it. I couldn’t believe what I had been through so far and I actually got this thing on the ground only to crash it by sliding into the trees! I could already see what the news headlines were gonna say.
The day was saved upon reaching the end of the runway. For the last 100 feet, the grass was about a foot and a half tall which caused enough resistance to stop the plane before making contact with the arbors. As the plane came to rest, I sat there motionless and silent, staring through the windscreen like a deer in headlights in utter disbelief at what I just went through and the disaster I just avoided. A good pilot is always prepared for the unexpected, but come on, how can anyone prepare for this?
As I powered the throttle and floored the left brake to 180 myself out of that mess, the right wingtip was less than 20 feet from making contact with the trees. Perhaps that last 100 feet of grass is allowed to grow long for that reason, kind of like those gravel runaway truck off-ramps that are found on long, down hill mountain passes. Whatever the reason may be, I can say with a high degree of certainty that it prevented me from having a smash-up.
I back-taxi toward the house as rain hits the windscreen, find a place to park, and kill the engine. I step out into the stickiest humid weather I’ve ever experienced and begin to scout the place, beginning with the fuel pump. Yep, this thing’s old. It doesn’t have a credit card swipe and it does have a lock and chain to keep anyone from pumping their own fuel.
Walking toward the house, I see a sign that says “Office” and and peer through a sliding glass door to see stacks of papers on some desks and a block of wood wedged between the door handle and wall to keep anyone on the outside from opening it. It’s evident that someone is running this airport out of this small room in their house. I ring the doorbell and knock several times. Nobody answers. Around the other side of the small house, there is a front porch with some mail sitting by the front door. A tell-tale sign that nobody is home.
The rain is coming down harder with flashes of lightning and thunder in the near distance so I run back to the Tailwind and get inside to stay dry.
It was within the confines of this small craft that I got to experience what a midwest thunderstorm was like up close and personal. Out in Washington State, we have the occasional thunder and lightning, but it’s always in the form of… lightning flash followed by a delay of up to 10-12 seconds and then the rumble of the thunder. The storm taking place right now was so close that the sound of the thunder was happening WITH the flash of lighting. AND IT WAS LOUD! For fear of getting zapped, I took my cell phone out of my pocket and turned it off. Then I turned the GPS off and put both items as far away from me as I could (about three feet away) while I slouched lower and lower into the seat, hoping this storm wouldn’t see me and strike me dead.
Eventually a truck drove up and the driver made his way to me. I asked if he can pump some fuel and a look of confusion crossed his face. “There’s no fuel here,” he said “Howard died in February and this place has been closed ever since. Didn’t anybody tell you that?”
“No”, I reply, “but that’s probably because I live about a thousand miles that way” I say pointing over his shoulder.
Now he really looks confused. “Oh… Are you lost?” he asks. I explain the situation. He tells me the nearest airport with fuel is 20 minutes away in Mexico. I check the fuel sight which is now indicating between five and six gallons, and make the decision to fly to Mexico rather than hitchhike with a gas can.
So I fuel up and at $5.159 per gallon and I’m expecting a bill of $100 plus dollars ($120 to be exact). After all, a 27-gallon tank with only a few gallons remaining means it needs at least 20 gallons to top it off. Imagine my surprise when the tank tops off at 15.5 gallons. YES, 15.5 gallons! Here I was in a panic situation thinking I had but a few gallons left in the tank which forced me to land at Montgomery-Wehrman (in addition to second-guessing my flight-planning skills), when all along I had enough fuel on board that I could have flown back to St. Louis and landed in the Class C airspace and still had an hour’s worth of fuel in the tank. What does this mean? It means a previous owner of this airplane incorrectly marked the fuel sight gauge, but more importantly, it means that this Continental O-200 engine burns about 4.2 gallons per hour at 2,300 RPM. Having looked at my approximate flight route on a chart, the total distance flown so far is approximately 375nm (431 statute miles) which equates to a little better than 27 MPG. That’s what I call cheap flying!