Following My Dream

Piper CubWhen I lived in Colorado I bought a nice J-3 Cub, not a show quality restoration but no dog. I attempted to set a world altitude record for a 3 liter normally aspirated gasoline engine but missed it by about 400 feet. Got to 31,800 which actually beat the old record but not by the 3% that the FAI required for a new record.

Then I got the idea that a flight with a landing in all 48 contiguous states with camping most of the way would be a neat way to gather photos and stories for a book. It would be done strictly VFR and no electronic navigation. Even though I'd take along a 720 channel hand held, I wouldn't land at any controlled airports. I'd owned it for the better part of a year and flown it some 50 hours without a hint of trouble.

It was coming up on time for an annual and with less than 100 hours on the engine since major, there was nothing needed on it. However I did overhaul the mags and carburetor plus new wires and plugs. Also a new set of tires.

I kissed my wife goodbye and set out on my odyssey shortly after noon on May 1, 1985. My first planned stop was the highest airport in the US; Leadville, Colorado, elevation 9927 feet. The listed service ceiling on the Cub is 11,500, but the balmy 60 day shoved the density altitude to over 12,500 feet. By working thermals and some ridge lift, I finally squeaked in with perhaps a hundred feet to spare.

Good judgment would have dictated that I get to a lower altitude but fun and prudence don't always go together so I pitched my tent in the trees behind the office, had a good dinner at the Golden Burro in town and was in bed as soon as it was dark. Altitude is also highly conducive to sleeping I was soon snuggled in my sleeping bag.

I was awakened at a few minutes past midnight by the sound of rain falling on the tent and the realization that the 20 rating on my sleeping bag was a bit optimistic. I put my clothes on but what body heat there might have been inside the bag had escaped and I shivered in misery the rest of the night. When I finally heard car door slam at the office, I was out of there in search of hot coffee.

The right wing of the Cub drooped, the right tire was flat. I borrowed a car to go into town while the sun had a chance to work on the layer of ice coating everything. I used their air tank to inflate the tire but could hear the air leaking out so it had to come off. One of the beauties of the fat, donut tires on a Cub is they can be serviced without pulling the wheels. All one really needs is a screw driver, knife blade or even a nail to flip the lock ring off so the tire and tube can be pulled as a unit.

A casual inspection of the tubes had indicated that they were in good shape when I put them in the new tires but a closer looks showed age cracks around the valve stem, about the only place where one of those tubes can't be patched.

Now one doesn't walk into a Western Auto Store and ask for a pair of 8.00 x 4 tubes, they never heard of that size and the fact that they haven't been used on any production airplane in about 20 years made them even harder to find. Half a dozen phone calls later and two of them were on their way from California to the tune of nearly fifty bucks each plus a hefty shipping fee to get them there in two days.

Based on my experience in the tent the night before, I decided that a hotel room was in order. One day in Leadville can be sort of fun but the next one gets to be a drag. Two days turned into three before the brown truck dropped the box off for me. In the meantime, my sinuses had plugged up like a toilet in a Pemex station in Mexico. With the new tubes installed, I bought a miserly four gallons of gas to keep the weight down and put the ship in a hangar so it would be ice-free the next morning.

The outside thermometer stood at 24 when I got there the next morning, which happens to be standard temperature at that altitude. At least I had no density altitude to contend with. I thought the oil temperature would never come off the peg and then I used nearly all the mile of runway to get it in the air.

With all the problems I had getting it to 10,000 feet, there was no way I was about to head north where some of the passes were well over 11,000 feet. I followed the road down the valley to Buena Vista and turned east, retracing the route I'd flown to get there. I'd have to get east of the front range before turning north.

The mountains slid behind me as the Front Range of the Rockies fell away with Castle Rock standing like a fortress below me. To the north was the Denver TCA and to the south was Black Forest and the home I'd left four days before.

My sinuses were plugged to where I could barely breathe and my head pounded like a drum. It was decision time, left to follow my dream to right to my home. I thought about it for a few minutes and concluded that I couldn't give up after only five days so I swung the nose to the left after I'd passed the Centennial Airport Control Zone and dropped down to get under the 30 mile outer ring of the TSA inverted wedding cake. At 500 feet AGL, I could slip under the TSA and get into the Aurora Airport. The coat hanger fuel gauge was bumping bottom as I turned final at Aurora. True to the fuel gauge, I had 30 minutes left as put in 10.5 gallons.
Flew east a few miles from Aurora to where I could turn north and past the east end of the runways of the new Front Range Airport. Acres and acres of concrete but no airplanes, just construction machinery.

I'd been in the air for a little over an hour by the time I came to Greeley, where I'd top the tank for the two hour jump to my next destination of Scottsbluff, Nebraska. It's also a 120 miles with few checkpoints. One hour to the first checkpoint at Pine Bluffs on I-80 which I hit right on the nose and another hour to Scottsbluff. I now had three states in my logbook and after five hours in the air, I felt like crap and was ready to call it quits for the day. I had them put the Cub in a hangar and caught a ride into town.

As I checked into a hotel, I asked if there was a doctor around. The guy at the desk suggested my best bet would be the emergency room at the hospital so I caught a cab there. The lady doc looked down my throat, took my temperature, wrote me a prescription for some antibiotics and told me to get a good night's rest and take all the pills.

I felt quite a bit better the next morning and was off on the two hour flight to Hot Springs, South Dakota where I'd check off another state. As I touched down, there was a loud scraping sound coming from the rear and I had no steering on the tailwheel. The flat spring had snapped off right where the bolt holding the tailwheel to it went through and the wheel was flopping around secured only by the two springs. A closer inspection showed that it had been broken on one side for some time. The crack was hidden under the tailwheel bracket and couldn't be seen unless the tailwheel was removed.

There was no mechanic at the field but the guy running the gas pump said he knew someone who might be able to fix it. I took the spring off and used the courtesy car to drive into the small town where I found the guy in a barn full of all sorts of machinery and junk. A partially restored Fort Model T sat on sawhorses just inside the door. He looked at the broken spring for a bit then began to dig through piles of what appeared to be junk. He'd pick up something, look at it and toss it aside. Finally he dragged out the seat off a buggy or buckboard with the double springs under each end of it. They happened to be the same width and thickness as the broken tailwheel spring so after a bit of pounding with a big hammer and chisel, he had one of them free.

He fired up an old fashioned forge like you see in blacksmith shops in western movies. He said my job was to crank the blower when he told me to. After heating the spring to a glowing red color, followed by a lot of beating and banging on an anvil, he had a section cut out of the spring matching the broken one. He drilled the necessary hole in each end then heated it to a cheery red again before plunging it into a barrel of water where it sent up a cloud of steam.
"You gotta soften spring steel to where you can work it and then anneal it so it will be a spring again," he explained to me.

"What do I owe you?" I asked when he handed me the spring.

"How does five bucks sound?" he asked.

"Sounds like a bargain at twice the price," I replied.

The day was shot by the time I got the tailwheel back on using tools borrowed from the cropduster/airport manager. I tied the Cub down and since I didn't feel like a night in a tent, I caught a ride to a hotel in town. Following dinner, I soaked for a while in the mineral hot springs from which the place got its name. That seemed to improve my disposition if not my sore throat.

From Hot Springs it was an hour to Newcastle, Wyoming where I'd need to top the tank for the long hop to Sheridan, Wyoming. By the time I landed at Sheridan, my throat was afire and I could barely talk. To add to my woes, as I applied the brakes when turning off the runway, the right brake pedal sagged to the stop. I talked with the mechanic who said he'd put it in the shop and look at it later. I caught a cab straight to the VA hospital where I figured that since I had no insurance and was a veteran, I could get treated at no cost.

I discovered that while getting into a VA Hospital is difficult, getting out can be a bigger problem. After endless forms to fill out and telephone calls to verify that I was both who I claimed and that I was indeed a veteran, they finally sent me to be examined. It was no quick look down my throat, take my temperature which they said was 102, but poke and prod me from end to end, draw blood and had me pee in a cup. Then they trundled me off to a room where a nurse woke me up every hour to bother me some more. The next morning the doctor told me I had a serious case of Strep Throat caused by a virus and since I wasn't contagious they were moving me to a ward. I asked him how long I would be there. He said it would take a week with no treatment or seven days with it but they could make me a lot more comfortable while I was there. He added that I shouldn't be driving and when he learned that I was flying, he said that I definitely shouldn't be doing any of that.

I called my wife to tell her where I was and not to worry because I was in no danger and in good hands. Four days and a bunch of pills later I was feeling much better but having trouble sleeping in the ward with nurses coming in to check me every hour and all the people snoring, coughing and gagging. They signed me out the next day at noon so I checked with the mechanic. He said the expansion tube in the right brake was leaking and he hadn't ordered any parts. I told him to put the wheel back on and I'd fly it that way.

Then I got a hotel room, had a good dinner and slept like a log all night. Since I was two grand and two weeks into the flight, camped only one night and visited only three states, the trip wasn't turning out anything like I had envisioned, I pointed the nose south the next morning and was home that night. Should I ever decide to pursue that dream again, I have only 44 states left.

This proves that following your dream can turn into a nightmare.

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Copyright 2008 by Jim Foreman