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A Note From the Editor

Bring Lola Home

By Harold Cannon, Editor - Warbirds Briefing, EAA 466240

“All really great flying adventures begin at dawn,” or so says Stephen Coonts as he begins to recount his Stearman summer in The Cannibal Queen. This is my favorite book, and it explains what I’m doing climbing into a Stearman at seven in the morning in Palm Springs, California. Years ago I first read Coonts’ tale of flying to all the lower 48 in one summer’s time, all in an open biplane, and the idea has been bouncing around in the back of my mind ever since. Mr. Coonts, if you are reading, we only made it across three states and one pretty good stretch of rocks and desert, but it was all your fault. And I mean that in the best possible way.

I’m a neurosurgeon by trade, and it’s a wonderfully fulfilling profession. But very few of my friends are physicians. Of the few that practice in the medical field, all are pilots, as are the remainder of the “inner circle.” Hughand I have known each other 10 to 12 years, and he flies the Big Iron internationally for UPS. All jokes aside about the packages being unable to complain, he’s a fine pilot and a confirmed aviation nut. I’ve been trying for a while to get him to get out of that classic Cessna 195 and into a warbird, and I was thinking T-34 or T-6, not PT-17. In fact I thought I had him ready to join the ranks of T-34 formation drivers when the Stearman raised its yellow head. I must admit that I just didn’t get the attraction at first.

I think that at least some flying adventures start over adult beverages and a good steak. At dinner with our wives about a month ago, the conversation devolved into separate guy and girl talk, and I found myself listening to a plan to buy this great Stearman. Only problem was that it was in Washington state. Did I mention that we live in Kentucky? But according to reality via Hugh, this was no problem at all, but a wonderful opportunity. He would simply deadhead to Seattle, complete a pre-buy, and have a ferry pilot bring the aircraft down to northern California where they would do a bit of training. The plan was then for Hugh to fly down to Palm Springs where I would alight from a Boeing of a different sort, and we would head home. Simple. Right.

The view on the first leg to Blythe, California.

When confronted with the opportunity to live out a bit of my favorite book, I wasn’t prepared. It seemed that important things like family and not-so-important things like work suddenly became pretty big in the windscreen. The work thing was easy to rationalize. I’ve never had a dying patient wish that he had spent an extra four days of his life at work. The rest of the decision was made by my youngest daughter, who said simply, “Dad, you should really go, and will you please take pictures and come give my class a talk on field day?” You have to love a kid that tells you to do what you want and fulfills her own agenda at the same time.

The appointed day arrived, and it came at the end of a really hard week at work. A sleepy ride to California was topped off by a false hotel fire alarm at two in the morning. Nothing like oversleeping the start of the dawn patrol.

Prior to this trip I had no experience with a Stearman, and exactly one short ride in a biplane, but not open cockpit. Like some other pilots, I admit to a fear of heights and a bit of agoraphobia. Settling into the front cockpit I was thinking that this might have been one of my “seemed like a good idea before it happened” ideas. (I digress to tell you that I have an L-4. It’s slow, I can feel the wake turbulence of a South African swallow, and it’s of course a taildragger.

Fuel stop
First fuel stop in Blythe.

My first flight in it I hated it. By my third I was in love.) A Stearman is big and substantial. On the way to the activerunway I forgot about it being open. There’s just something about all that yellow wing above and below, and the general bearing of the thing that says tank. (It is, however, definitely a taildragger – more on that later.) But by the time we got to our first stop in Blythe, California, I gained a grin that has yet to go away.

After fueling at Blythe, it was IFR (I follow roads, I-10 in particular) to Chandler, Arizona, and lunch at the Hangar Cafe. Breakfast was still being served, and it was good. Walking back out to the plane, I was struck by how beautiful the thing really is. It comes from a different time, and it’s letting us turn back the clock, if just a bit, and get a peek of how aviation was. Hugh’s wife is Faye, but her real name is Lola Faye. Lola – that’s a name that belongs on a biplane. I immediately christened my friend’s new ride Lola. After another landing or two, I knew that what Lola wanted she pretty much got, but for now I was lost in a WWI dawn patrol moment.

Just as suddenly, a bit of reality set in. Our progress was about 80 mph indicated airspeed, and so far it was about our average ground speed as well. Let’s see, that’s a bit over 1,500 nautical miles from KPSP to KELP to KOWB in a dog legged but otherwise fairly straight line. Out of necessity, we were following I-10 for this part of the trip to stay over lower terrain; it’s not a straight line. Hmm…that’s about 20 hours of flying to get home, not counting fueling, food, etc. It’s Saturday now, and I should be back at work Wednesday. Interesting. But with no real time to ponder, we had to saddle back up and head for Cochise County, Arizona, and hopefully from there onto El Paso, Texas.

The famous boneyard in Tucson, Airzona.

This leg started well, with vistas that those of us who grew up on flat Mississippi floodplain just don’t have anything to compare to. Maybe Lunar said it best. We followed I-10 again, and in due time we talked with Tucson Approach. They were very helpful and directed the Stearman right over Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and the famous boneyard. B-52s, tankers, and F-111s spread out below. All had met a fate from which N65352 had been spared. Today was going well, and I was having what we in the South call a large time. It was cold at altitude this morning when we launched; a flight suit was a welcome choice, but now things were heating up. Just about the time I was thinking about changing at the next stop, I noted that we appeared to be losing just a bit of altitude despite an increase deck angle and power setting. I-10 was at about 4,000 feet MSL here, and we were cruising along at 4,500.

Our upcoming stop at Cochise County was planned for 4,187, and suddenly getting there at pattern altitude was of great interest. I should point out that it’s warm, we were definitely not at sea level, and Lola wears a 220-hp Lycoming. That, coupled with the airframe’s drag and the heat, started to sound like a few accident reports long forgotten which suddenly were fresh in my head. A consult with the sectional showed Benson, Arizona, just off the right wing. Field elevation was 3,829 feet, and the 15-knot wind was right down the runway.

Hangar Cafe
The Hangar Cafe in Blythe.

Benson has one of those prefab buildings as its office, with another that appears to house the airport manager and his family right behind. The manager and a couple of locals were very friendly, and soon we were full of fuel and ready to go. I admit that I got as far as sorting out my belts when a brisk gust made me wonder just how well we would climb with fuel. Hmm…time to commit judgment rather than aviation, or maybe right now they were one in the same. The airport van at Benson had seen better days, but the people there were second to none. It was a short ride into town and good Mexican food, and a Best Western awaited. On the way to town I spotted a field of high-tech satellite dishes; this is the land of secret guvmint projects. Perhaps a bit of investigation was in order. However, a quick drive down the fence brought us to the gate at the DirecTV uplink facility. Or so it seemed…

The following morning dawned desert clear, relatively cool, and with surprisingly calm winds. We departed Benson in true dawn patrol fashion; there was an airport dog and no one else to see us off. I made my first really boneheaded move as the navigator when I thought we should turn north to pick up I-10. It is of course south of the field. You can argue about where the sun comes up with a 747 captain, but I wouldn’t. At least not for a little while.

Today Lola liked the air and it’s up to 7,500 feet. We found a bit of a wind pushand put Cochise under the nose in no time. Hugh happens to be a history major, and my cowboys and Indians education got up to speed. Seems the Indian Chief Cochise evaded capture in these parts for many years with a whole slew of army types looking high and low. We went north around the Dos Cabezas Peaks, then back on course toward El Paso. In a while we headed back to the northeast again for terrain, the Kathryn Playa dry lake sliding by to our left. At Lordsburg it’s back to the southeast for a few miles and then east to Deming.

On the ramp at Dona Ana (El Paso, New Mexico).

At Deming we made our next to last stop. Lola decided she wanted to tango right after the mains touched. I was careful not to interfere as she and Hugh shared a moment. He doesn’t usually offer up prayer, and my story is that he didn’t then, either. The attendant was friendly and helpful, and Deming had Lola’s taste in engine oil. Things were beginning to flatten out, and although the terrain is high by Kentucky standards, there are fewer ranges and passes to deal with. We stayed on the north side of the “Little Florida Mountains” and the smaller but directly-in-the-way West Potrillos. Soon we were off I-10 and followed the railroad to Dona Ana County, New Mexico (5T6).

At Dona Ana the winds were reported calm, and they were at the center of the field. However, the windsocks at each end of the field were pointing out a crosswind – in totally different directions. Lola decided that break dancing was in order, and Hugh really showed his stuff getting her settled down. No harm, no foul. We taxied clear of the impact zone, and all the parts came along with us.


The adventure ended here. Winds the following day in West Texas were predicted to top 40 mph, and Lola did not like! That four-letter word “work” beckoned the next day. The kind people at Dona Ana offered a hangar until Lola could be moved closer to home. Southwest Airlines did an efficient but sterile job of getting me home, after just a little taste of Mr. Coonts’ great adventure.

Postscript (5/22/11)
Hugh’s Stearman instructor and ferry pilot, Chris Miller of Springfield Flying Service, Columbia, California (LetsGoFly.com), arrived at Owensboro, Kentucky. He flew El Paso to Midland, Kentucky; Midland to Arkadelphia, Arkansas; and Arkadelphia to Owensboro all in three days. He may not be human. As a matter of fact, with over 4,500 hours in the Stearman alone, he definitely resides somewhere on Mount Olympus.


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