Freestyle Cross-Country by GA
Our son Matt recently moved from northern California to Austin, Texas. We hadn’t seen him since Christmas and we have both been vaccinated so we decided to take a trip in our Diamond Star DA40 for a visit. Neither Lori or I had ever flown this far via GA. We planned some stops along the way, but a lot of it was freestyle and spontaneous. It turned out to be quite the adventure.
My plane doesn’t have a lot of range and we don’t really like sitting for that long so we kept the legs fairly short, around 3-3.5 hours.
I knew we would be flying over a lot of mountainous terrain and I didn’t have a decent supplemental oxygen system so I ordered one from Mountain High, in Redmond, Oregon, located right on the airport (KRDM). That was our first stop. I met up with Eric, the salesperson I ordered it from over the phone. He was a really nice guy and showed me how to set it up and use it.
Next stop was Lincoln, California (KLHM), near Sacramento. Fuel was fairly inexpensive and we enjoyed lunch with my cousin Kathy that lives in nearby Roseville. It was one of the busiest non-towered airports I’ve ever experienced. At one point there were probably 10 planes in the pattern. My iPad display showed the clutter. I made a very long 45 degree entry, hoping that some of them would depart the area or land. My wish came true.
We were going to stop in Bakersfield for the night but it’s a pretty big commercial airport and the FBO wanted all kinds of fees, plus gas was pretty pricey. I did a little research and decided on Visalia which had no parking fee (unless a bill shows up in the mail later) and AVGAS was reasonable. Another plus was the Best Western hotel is a short walk away from the transient parking. I could see our plane out of the hotel room window. No taxi or rental car required.
The next morning we got up early and ate the free hotel breakfast, then departed for Sedona, Arizona.
The route was planned around the numerous MOA’s and Restricted areas, including Edwards AFB. I could easily see the 21,119 foot runway from quite a distance. We stopped in Lake Havasu (KHII), for fuel and lunch. There is a great airport restaurant there, the Hangar 24 Brewery and Grill. We spotted London Bridge shortly after departure.
Landing at Sedona was a bucket list item for me. It is described as an aircraft carrier type of runway, only way longer, at 5,132′. It is on a plateau about 500 feet above the town of Sedona. I was a bit nervous as the winds can be tricky, plus it is a high density altitude. Elevation is 4,831′. Luckily it was cool. I received a Certificate of Qualification from the Red Rock Aviation FBO. It stated “Having boldly faced tempestuous winds, a pitching and rolling deck, and then courageously landing on Sedona’s flat top airport in the Red Rocks, Greg Bell is now a certified Red Rock Carrier pilot”.
We stayed for three nights at the Skyranch Lodge which is a very short walk from the airport terminal. Some of the rooms have incredible views of the town and red rock cliffs. The airport restaurant, the Mesa Grill, is one of the best airport restaurants we’ve ever eaten at. Even though we had a rental car we ate most of our meals there since it was delicious and convenient. There is even a 10% pilot discount. With the pandemic winding down (hopefully), the restaurant was quite busy. If you didn’t have reservations the wait could be an hour or more. They had inside as well as outside seating with a great view of the runway. It wasn’t just pilots eating there as many of the tourists from town come up to see the view from above. There is even a viewpoint next to the hotel that has pay parking. We enjoyed our stay and did a bunch of hiking and played tourist. Things are getting back to normal and tourism is way up. We experienced traffic jams going into town.
After leaving Sedona we decided on Lubbock, Texas (KLBB), about 500 nm away for an overnight, since it was on the way and we didn’t want to fly all day. I noticed a small airport in Littlefield, TX (KLIU), close to Lubbock that had fuel for $3.30 a gallon. It didn’t have weather reporting. As we got close I realized there was a pretty substantial crosswind. We landed, taxied up to the fuel pumps and topped off. I went into the “FBO” and talked to a local crop duster pilot. We obtained the keys to the courtesy car so we could go have some lunch. I asked where to park the plane and he said I could just leave it at the pumps because nobody hardly ever comes here! He recommended a great, very authentic Mexican restaurant a few miles away. The food was good. The crosswind was just as strong on departure.
We landed a short time later in Lubbock and immediately toured the Silent Wings Museum, adjacent to the FBO. “It is dedicated to the Legacy of the World War II Glider Pilots and is located on the site of South Plains Army Air Field, where glider pilots were trained between 1942 and 1945, and after which time they were required also to command skills in powered flight. The giant “silent wing” gliders flew soldiers and supplies largely undetected behind enemy lines because they had no engine noise.” (quoted from Wikipedia)
We also toured the Buddy Holly Museum. He was born and raised in Lubbock. It was a great museum with all kinds of memorabilia and informative exhibits. He was tragically killed on February 3rd, 1959, in a chartered Bonanza, only 18 months after he signed a record contract and started touring. It was a VFR into IMC accident. Even though his career was short, he had a large impact on rock and roll and the music industry.
The FBO set us up in a nice high rise hotel (The Overton) in town with a special pilot rate. It had a free airport shuttle. No rental car necessary. Upon checking in, the front desk clerk gave us complimentary tickets to a Texas Tech baseball game which was taking place at Rip Griffin Stadium, a short walk away. We didn’t stay for the whole game since it was a bit cold and windy but had a great time. It’s been a while since we had been to any kind of sporting event.
Early the next morning we took the shuttle to Lubbock International for our flight to the Austin area. It was marginal VFR so I decided to file IFR for the flight. You don’t really want to scud run in this part of the country due to some humongous towers, some as tall as 1500′ or more. The freezing level was not an issue, and was sitting at about 12,000′. I decided on San Marcos Regional (KHYI), since both Austin-Bergstrom (KAUS), and Austin Executive (KEDC) had all sorts of fees and expensive fuel. San Marcos is about a 30 mile drive from Downtown Austin but the speed limit is 70 and everybody drives about 80. I had to dodge a couple of small thunderstorms on the way. We were IMC for almost the entire three hour flight! It was the only bad weather of the entire trip.
We had a wonderful time in Austin and got to see our son three evenings in a row after he was done with work. Lori and I took a guided bike tour of the city, ate some great barbecue and played tourist. One of the great tourist attractions is the Congress Avenue Bridge. During certain times of the year over 1.5 million bats congregate under the bridge and fly out around sunset in search of insects. It’s quite a sight to see and we weren’t disappointed. It is the largest urban bat colony in the world. One night we wanted to celebrate and took our son out to Perry’s Steakhouse, which is quite fancy and has a dress code. Apparently it isn’t enforced very well since the people at the next table were wearing hoodies and baseball caps! On one of the days we drove about an hour west to explore San Antonio and saw the Alamo, the Riverwalk and Tower of the Americas (their version of the Space Needle). Of course it’s actually taller than the Space Needle because “Everything’s bigger in Texas.” We also took a bus tour of the city.
We departed San Marcos for a short flight (40 minutes with a stiff headwind) to Gillespie County airport (T82), in Fredericksburg, Texas. It’s a German town and we stayed at a really cool place right on the airport called the Hangar Hotel. It was built purposely to look like a hangar and has 50 rooms. I’ve seen it mentioned by AOPA in their publications and also on YouTube. It has an aviation theme and I parked the plane right out in front. It also has a neat restaurant next door (The Airport Diner) where we ate breakfast after landing. It’s modeled after a train car.
While in Fredericksburg we climbed Enchanted Rock, a 450′ granite dome. It usually requires reservations well in advance but the rangers took pity on us and let us in. We also drove the Willow City Loop and got to see the Texas Bluebonnets in full bloom lining the roads, along with other types of wildflowers. It’s a big attraction but the roads are windy and narrow with random cattle roaming around, which kept things exciting. Historic downtown Fredericksburg is very charming and has many shops, restaurants, breweries, and wineries. We wished we could have stayed longer than one night.
After departing Fredericksburg, our next destination was Santa Fe for just one night. We had to get home in time for my nephew’s wedding. We made a fuel stop in Roswell, NM (KROW). While approaching to land at Roswell we were surprised to see a multitude of jets stored on the tarmac. According to the FBO there are about 800. It is a full time job keeping them all fueled for engine runs. The FBO treated us very nicely and offered free nachos!
Landing in Santa FE (KSAF), was my highest elevation airport so far at 6,349′. Again the FBO was very accommodating and setup a rental car and hotel for us. We stayed at the Drury, which was an old hospital which had been converted. It was right in the heart of town so we could explore many of the tourist attractions in the short amount of time we had there. The town is even higher than the airport at over 7,000′, which made breathing quite noticeable when walking around. We met up for dinner with friends from Seattle that live in Santa Fe part time. They also own a DA40. We ate at the historic La Fonda hotel, built in 1922. In1925, the building was acquired by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway. “The company leased the property to Fred Harvey, a gentleman renowned for his keen sense of hospitality. Harvey introduced his own personal touch and made the inn a Harvey House, a hotel chain noted for its high standards, fine dining and the signature “Harvey Girls,” a staff of exceptionally well-trained waitresses.”
Departing at 9AM the next morning, the wind was gusting to 37 knots, but at least it was right down the runway. A couple seconds after releasing the brakes my airspeed was up to 40 knots! It helped make up for the density altitude.
Next stop was Canyonlands (KCNY), in Moab, Utah, for fuel. The approach and landing into the airport had spectacular scenery and is adjacent to Arches National Park. It is close by Canyonlands National Park also. Shortly after exiting the runway an FBO employee in a follow-me golf cart called me on the radio and told me to follow him to park for fuel. He aggressively topped me off with the fuel truck not giving me the choice of using the self-serve which was nearby and $1.00 a gallon cheaper. I thought that was pretty low. Caveat emptor.
Next stop was Nampa, ID (KMAN). We were going to spend the night to keep the flight time down to a reasonable amount. We filled up with 100LL and borrowed the courtesy car to go into town and have a pizza at the highly recommended Idaho Pizza Company. It was a good call and we were refueled along with the airplane. The weather was great and we were getting a bit tired of living out of suitcases so we decided to push on and make the 2.5 hour flight to Paine, which made for about a nine hour day of flying. While taxiing for departure there was a blue Tesla racing around at high speed on the taxiway that we was using. He turned around at the end and started racing toward us. I wasn’t sure if he saw us. He slowed down at the last second and pulled onto the shoulder but it was still difficult to safely get by him since the Diamond has just under a 40′ wingspan.
We landed at Paine just before a beautiful sunset, unpacked the plane and drove home. Total Hobbs time was 33.6 hours. Distance traveled was 3,561 nautical miles. 14 takeoffs,14 landings. Approximately 260 gallons of fuel. It was a wonderful adventure. The cool weather was a plus. Check out the YouTube Video of the video at https://youtu.be/JCiSDc-XfY0. We can’t wait for the next trip.