Formation Flight of the West Coasters by Davis/Parsons

Flight of the motley crew, or how 6 perfectly ordinary people (and one dog, who thinks she is a people) shared an extraordinary experience (and became lifelong friends in the process)

The Players:

Jeff and Kathie Davis of Florence, Oregon. Call sign: “Coyote and Roadrunner”

Jerry Adair, Texas native, based in Van Nuys, California.  Call sign: “Tex.”

Royson Parsons, overworked and underpaid editor of Cessna 150-152 Pilot Newsletter, of Atascadero, California .  Call sign: “Kojak.”

Gordon Ellis, Lifetime club member and chief booster, Based in Cheyenne, Wyoming.  Call sign: “Tinman.”

Joel Kiester and Fury , Senior member of the gaggle and trusty canine mascot, of Boulder Colorado. Call sign: “Old Timer.”

Honorable Mention: Ray Jackson of Salinas, California. Call sign: “Blue.”

Kojak: Though we had planned on a group trip to Clinton for several months, and calculated specifics in earnest for more than two weeks, Sunday July 15th, seemed to kind of sneak up on all of us. For me personally this meant a flurry of last minute “improvements” to 9YX. Though I now had two radios, I couldn’t transmit on the second while monitoring the first, and my attempts to construct a portable audio switcher from Radio Shack parts literally went up in smoke on Saturday. I was nervous about traveling in formation with 4-5 other equally inexperienced formation flyers, so I installed wingtip strobes, but it appeared they would interfere with my avionics. (more about this later). I knew that three of my traveling companion’s airplanes (both Coyote and Blue had 150 HP engines & Tex’s plane was a Taildragger) would out climb and outrun my stock 150 with its somewhat tired 1,500 hour engine. So I spent days carefully weighing everything from my sleeping bag to my shaving kit, trying to make up for the performance gap by lightening my load. As the hour of departure drew close I found my useful load shrinking by the minute as I added more and more cargo, including 14 ANR headsets for an enroute flight review. With all the last minute responsibilities of preparation for the Fly-In itself, I felt overwhelmed and under prepared, I was somewhat relieved to discover that both Coyote and Tex were also playing the last minute “Fix the airplane for the trip” game.

Coyote: On Saturday morning Kathie (Road-Runner) and I (Coyote) went to the airport prepared to depart, as there was reports that our coastal weather may deteriorate for our planned Sunday departure.  But, I still had to complete the installation of new brake linings and several other maintenance items to be ready.

Ready to go at about noon, and with blue sky’s beckoning, we departed for our first stop fuel stop at Redding, CA enroute to MHR in Sacramento.  At Redding we were greeted with our first exposure to the new “Exxon” service.  In this beautiful sunny California afternoon, the linemen greeted us with ice-cold bottle water and cleaned the windscreen while we refueled.  Now this was service.

I had never ventured this far before in our airplane, so was somewhat apprehensive about the trip as it was all new to me, but we arrived right on schedule at MHR and again were treated with the same service as the folks in the large biz-jets. 

Kojak: Sunday turned out to be a total panic. I knew I would be away from my kids and Club headquarters for at least two weeks, and went into overdrive trying to make sure everything would maintain and even strain in my absence. I worked from early morning straight through lunch, prepping the plane, changing my oil and filter, and loading up. I eventually had to abandon plans to return home to shower and retrieve my personal baggage, a quick phone call to Lori secured her promise to deliver my stuff and my kids to the airport in time for Tex’s arrival. I was pleased to hear that Coyote and Roadrunner had arrived safely in Sacramento, and a bit relieved to hear that Tex was wrapping up a last minute annual inspection and would be behind schedule.

Coyote: Kathie and I explored our surroundings on Sunday while waiting for Jerry (Tex) and Royson (Kojak) to appear.  Kathie and I walked the two miles from the motel to the airport just enjoying the warm weather.

Kojak: Tex arrived just a little sooner than I would have liked, as I was still packing the plane. Lori had taken on the packing assignment with a gusto and played it “rather safe than sorry” so my bags were even heavier and bulkier than anticipated, Items that had previously been on the “maybe, if there is room” category were now onboard. So much for my previous weighing and planning, my primary bag had swollen from 13lbs to over 40, but I was in no position to gripe, without her help I’d be leaving with just the clothes on my back and 14 ANR headsets. Tex seemed equally pressured, and more serious than his usual jovial nature. I gassed up the plane, made apologies to my family for the extra short goodbyes, and we were on my way, my plane waddling it’s way into the sky like an obese duck. About 15 minutes into the flight, I finally felt my blood pressure going down, after days of last minute preparations, I knew there was little I could change now, so I began to relax and look forward to the trip at last.

Coyote: At just the appointed hour (which in ‘Royson speak’ means the last possible minute before the end of eternity) they appeared, greetings were exchanged and we arranged for a ride to the motel.

Kojak: Though exhausted and frayed around the edges, I began to immediately feel better in the company of my friends. We all seemed light of heart and anxious for the journey. Our plan was to leave early in the morning and rendezvous with Blue in the vicinity of Reno.

Coyote: BIG MEMORY….This was my first experience flying with a group.  We were apparently cleared for departure, but dummy me ….last in line…asked the tower if I was cleared for takeoff AS I ROLLED onto the runway.  Got a quick chewing out by the tower for runway incursion, but to date, no notice from the FAA. 

Kojak: Used to flying of airports that are either hubbubs of activity, or unattended ones with little traffic, I found the tower controller at Mather to be an enigma, he kept instructions to a bare minimum, even though we were the only airplanes active at the moment. I found myself wondering if we were really cleared to depart, and was surprised and chagrined when I led my group onto the active runway without clearance for a group departure. Tex, being the most experienced among us, did it right, I felt lucky to escape without a reprimand, which Coyote accepted for the both of us.

Coyote: As we departed, another realization occurred that remained the standing joke for the rest of the trip.  Even heavily loaded, the 150HP conversion REALLY DOES out perform a stock 150.  I wasn’t exactly prepared for the amount of anticipation required to try and stay with the other aircraft.  It is against any pilot’s natural response to pull the throttle back when entering that initial climb to altitude and this was very difficult for me.  When I started this trip, I only had about 150 hours, only 60 of which had been accrued in the last couple years.  Now the standing joke is my constant complaints of “I can’t keep it in the green, I am on carb heat….etc”.  The funny part is, initially I was genuinely looking for advice on how to best deal with this from my more experienced counterparts, but their wisecracks back made this one of the great standing jokes of the trip.

Kojak: Now we were really on our way. I was thrilled by the unexpected good performance of my plane in the thick morning air, a solid 500ft a minute climb, and plenty of ribbing from Coyote who could easily have doubled that, but was forced to play rear guard. We were all in great spirits, Tex handing out equal amounts of good CFI formation advice and humor, Coyote and Roadrunner pulling up alongside for a photo op with the beautiful Sierras in the background, and yours truly happy to be alive and in the sky in my trusty bird.

Coyote: The flight into Reno brought about another great moment of the trip….the patented “Am I late for dinner, Ma?” Kojak 300 fpm decent.  Tex has been very accurate in reflecting this procedure, but it generally goes like this:

Kojak:  “Okay guys, lets start a 300 fpm decent to pattern altitude”

Roadrunner:  “Beep Beep”

During the first 5 minutes, we watch this full throttle 300 fpm descent accelerate to about 1000 fpm, , until we arrive at the pattern altitude.  The way I see it…we started our 300fpm AVERAGE decent rate about 30 minutes out…in the first 25 minutes 5 fpm then power dive in the last 5 minutes.  The tower cleared us as if we were a flight of F-14’s (sorry Gordon…Navy man here).

Kojak: No doubt about it, the “Am I late for dinner Ma” patented descent to pattern altitude was the only time on the trip where I didn’t feel like the underdog slowing the others up. It’s a beautiful thing to watch that air speed needle flirting into the yellow range, and in my case something that only happens when I’m descending with the throttle firewalled.

At Reno, we were introduced to the other “California” side of Kojak…..The Cezzna 150 low-rider mon….Royson had his nose strut serviced and for the rest of the trip, the aircraft sat at an angle akin more to the space shuttle on the launch pad, than a 150.  It would also bounce up and down if coaxed like a 66 Impala on hydraulics.

Kojak: I’d had this strange problem with my nose strut for a couple of months, It would hold air pressure for weeks at a time, and then for no apparent reason go totally flat . (I learned later that one of the O-Rings had split, and whenever the internal pressure was sufficiently higher than the outside air pressure (like at Reno) all the air would escape. To be on the safe side, I pumped the strut up with extra pressure, giving N9YX a jaunty “low rider” nose high stance on the ramp. To my chagrin, it cost $50 for the 6 pounds of nitrogen at Reno (Only $28 for fuel) expensive stop, but worth the apparent amusement it provided my traveling companions.

We thought we might connect with Ray Jackson “Blue” in Reno but he had apparently already come and gone on ahead. With his 150HP engine it was probably for the best, as my 100HP bird was already causing one 150HP pilot ear strain from the nearly constant blaring of his stall horn as he struggled to avoid over running me.

At Tex’s recommendation we took off from Reno In formation!  Keep in mind that we (that is Jeff and I) had a grand total of 80 minutes of experience flying in formation, so this seemed quite a step forward. But Tex knew the ropes, and all went smoothly, prompting us to decide we would do all our future departures in this manner if practical.

Coyote: The formation takeoff at Reno was exhilarating.  As we rambled down the runway IN FORMATION, I had visions of sitting in a warplane heading off on a sortie.  Then another lesson.  Being at the end of the right echelon, in a high wing, making a left turn results in serious visibility deficiencies.  Lost them both, followed about slight panic due to closing terrain.  So I dropped low and wide, finally found the other two and rejoined.  Ain’t formation flying great (wiping sweat off of my face)?

Kojak: Enroute to Elko, Nevada I sampled a number of the ANR headsets. When I tried on one of the David Clark’s I began to notice an odd “pulsing” sound from my engine. I first assumed it was some anomaly in the headset circuitry, but even with one ear out of the headset the pulsing continued, and so I reluctantly informed the others that I may be having an engine problem. They too asked if it was the headset, and when I decided it wasn’t, we bantered remedies about, trying throttle and mixture changes, carb heat, and cycling mags, to no avail. I hadn’t noticed a reduction in power or performance though, so decided to continue onto the next airport about 10 miles ahead instead of making a precautionary landing.

Coyote: Another defining moment on the trip was reminiscent of space flight….

Kojak:  Guys (Houston)…we have a problem!

Kojak begin to experience a rhythmic surging in his engine.  We all turned grim as Royson…calmly and in true “right stuff” form, began to trouble shoot this dire problem.  Tex joined up on Royson, while I located a suitable landing site.  We had just passed over Derby and we at the ‘go/no-go’ decision.  The tension builds, as Royson sees no abnormal variation in engine performance and gauges, so we press on.  Pucker factor has risen to a full 9 on the 10 scale.  After about 15 more minutes the culprit is found….Royson can’t chew gum and fly at the same time.

Kojak: Yes, indeed, to my embarrassment, the culprit turned out to be chewing gum! Turns out the David Clark Headset’s ANR circuit couldn’t cope with the rhythmic flexing of my jaw as I chewed. .(this has never occurred with my regular Lightspeed headset) When I ran out of mint flavor, and discarded the gum, the crises was miraculously averted. I considered keeping my shameful little secret, but in the spirit of entertainment and self deprecation, revealed the truth to my friends, forever to be the butt of taunting legend.

It was darn good to get to Elko though, especially for Tex whom we discovered had the least endurance bladder wise, having asked for our ETE about every 5 minutes of the last half hour. This gave rise to a secondary call sign for Tex, that I won’t repeat in print. Unfortunately I made the verbal observation that I was sweat drenched posterior wise, (can you blame me after the chewing gum incident?) this gave rise to an unfortunate series of butt jokes also unfit for publication in a family publication. By this point, we were really starting to lighten up, and have some serious fun and camaraderie, a great thing for the first day of our trip. It was a hoot watching Tex try to nonchalantly saunter to the FBO rest room in a half run/half walk. There was a message waiting for us at the FBO from Ray Jackson too. He seemed to making much better time than us, having been there some 3 hours earlier. Didn’t look like we’d be seeing Ray anytime soon.

Off to Evanston, WY and the trip over the “Rocks” and SLC airspace.  Pretty much a non-event except for the communications snafu…not sure the Sierra’s weren’t more intimidating.  The landing at Evanston, though…that was a treat.  Gusting winds and the lesson of DON’T ENRICH YOUR MIXTURE FOR LANDING made the learning curve sharp here.  The heavy wind on approach to this 7200’ elevation airport took heavy leaning on the throttle just to get to the runway.  Initially when I advanced the throttle, the engine coughed and nearly died, choked by the thin air.  Jerry proved to be a “master of the tail-dragger” and these conditions tested his skill.  The FBO was great at Evanston and the Crew Car was a classic.  Bailing wire anyone?

To be continued...

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