My love of biplanes goes way back. My grandfather was a radio operator in the Navy in the 1930s, stationed on Point Loma. In 1935, the Japanese were using a new technique called dive-bombing, and the Navy though it might be a good idea to figure out how to do it. The Great Lakes Aircraft Company came up with an experimental biplane dive bomber for them to try out, and my grandfather was chosen to be in the test program, as radio operator and bombardier.
Initially, the plane was designated as the XBG-1, and was flown from North Island in San Diego. What is now the Del Mar racetrack was then just a mudflat, and the Navy quickly marked out concentric circles on the flats with chalk, to become a new bombing range. They were doing 90 degree dives, at first, swinging the bomb clear of the propeller on a hinged cradle you can see in the photo below. The photo is all over the net, illustrating the BG-1...my grandmother actually has a copy of the original, as my grandfather is in the back seat.
During WWII, my grandfather was shipped to Alaska, to fight the Japanese in the Aleutian campaign. My grandmother got lonely, and he got her on a boat to Alaska, and built her a cabin. Eventually, her parents, and my namesake uncle followed. My father was born in Sitka during the war, and my aunt in Ketchikan. My grandfather flew Grumman Ducks, and later Curtiss Seagulls...both biplane patrol aircraft. He once was called out to sink what was supposed to be a Japanese sub spotted off the coast of Juneau...sadly, he killed a whale.
They all moved back to Southern California after the war, to later regale me with tales of blackout curtains and "Put Out That Light!" My uncle worked as a flying patrolman for the City of Santa Ana, doing traffic duty in a black and white Cessna 170. He once took me up in the 170, my first flight, from Flabob Field, near Riverside. Later, I became an airport bum in Ramona, fueling and pumping Borate into the CDF bombers there during fire season, washing planes, pumping gas, and taking some instruction in a J-3 Cub as payment. As a fringe benefit, I got to ride around in the B-17, B-24, PBY, C-119, and B-25 that were used as fire bombers.
After graduating from High School, my parents moved to Colorado, and my mother introduced me to one of her co-workers, a former B-25 instructor pilot in WWII. His name was Verle Root. He had a Cub, as well as a WACO YKS-7.
My Air Force career was often punctuated with civilian flying...my Pilot Training instructor had a Stinson 108 that he used to expand my horizons a bit beyond the Air Force training syllabus, and one day we flew it to see his father in Taft, CA. His father climbed up into the attic, and found an old leather helmet from his days instructing WWII students in the Vickers Vindicator (commonly called the Vibrator). I still treasure it. I later got to fly with my Squadron mates in a Champ, another Cub, and a Piper Arrow. When 9/11 ended the "essential air service" route that I depended upon to get to work, I bought my first airplane, a Cessna 180. I did that for about four years, but it got prohibitively expensive, and I "traded down" for a little fabric biplane to play in, and a diesel New Beetle to get to work in.
The biplane is an Experimental, designed by John Hatz. He built the first three, from chalk marks he drew out on the floor of his garage. It was roughly scaled down from a WACO 10, a 1929 design. Here is a similar WACO 9, the first mail plane into Pittsburgh, now hanging in the lobby of the airport there:
The trip really started on the 19th of June, flying courtesy of the airlines from Tucson to Portland, and then back south to Eugene. Jerry and Barb, the sellers of the Hatz, and two of the most gracious hosts that anyone could meet, picked me up at the Eugene airport, and drove me to their home on the Creswell airport. Once there, I was fed a delicious meal, and got a much needed good nights sleep.
The next morning, we got up early, and after a hearty breakfast, I took the Hatz around the pattern a few times to reacquaint myself with the feel of the plane. I had flown it the month before, first from the front seat with local instructor Larry, then from the rear seat with Larry in front, and finally solo. I had read over and over that the Hatz flies like a Cub...well, it really does. It is simple, well balanced, and forgiving. Visibility is excellent, and ground handling is as easy as it gets in a taildragger. But, it's quite a bit different than the 737s I had been flying all month, so I wanted to get comfortable again before I took Barb for a farewell flight in "Snoopy".
The plane is called Snoopy after the excellent paintings of Snoopy as the WWI Flying Ace painted on each side of the aft fuselage. The red fuselage with white insignia band, and white wings with black stripes give the open cockpit biplane a strong WWI flavor, and I spent much of the next three days fantasizing about lining up the Red Baron in my "sights" (the antenna for the ELT that was installed for the trip). But first I was concentrating on landings, and after a few tries I was convinced that I could take Barb aloft without embarrassment. I took off with Barb in the front seat, Jerry followed in Cessna 172 and took some photos. We spent about half an hour exploring the area to the southeast of Eugene, enjoying the open air, and waving at a few boats on the lake.
Fueled up, and dressed up (leather jacket, scarf, helmet, goggles), I fired Snoopy up and made another I-5 downwind departure and followed it eastward toward Medford. Clear of the Medford traffic pattern, I started the climb to clear Siskiyou Pass. I got a head start, but soon the freeway was climbing faster than I was, and I kept a close eye on the slowly climbing oil temperature. I topped out at 5000 feet, the truckers at 4310 feet, and Snoopy at 220 degrees. The freeway made a quick descent toward Weed, California, and the oil temperature gauge followed suit. It settled in around 200 degrees, normal according to Harold, and I flew without further concern past Mount Shasta to Redding, and landed at the Benton airport. The flight was 2.1 hours, pretty typical for the rest of the trip. Snoopy carries 18 useable gallons in the center section of the upper wing, and burns about 6 gallons an hour, so after about two hours I was always looking for a place to get some gas. Benton turned out to be a good one, as a local airshow was just ending, and many of the spectators had to come over and check out that pretty red biplane parked in front of the CHP hangar (well, it LOOKED like the FBO, especially since the fuel trucks were parked there.) Snoopy was treated to some AV Gas and some oil, and I got an ice cream bar, and off we went again.
The Central Valley flattened and widened south of Redding, and I quickly bored of I-5. Harold had mentioned that the Columbia airport had a campground, and was a nice place to spend the night. It wasn't as far as I had hoped to go this first day, but I ought to be able to make up some miles by getting an early start tomorrow. I decided to head for the Sierra foothills, but Snoopy has no transponder, and I needed to avoid the Class C airspace around Sacramento, and also at Beale AFB near Marysville. I left I-5, and followed the Sacramento River until I was south of Sutter's Butte, then passed between the two circles of more restrictive airspace, and over Folsom Dam. I was humming Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison Blues as the next search for a fuel stop began. I should have been able to make Columbia, but headwinds were really hampering my progress, so I stopped at what looked like a huge airport community called Cameron Park.
It was hot in the late afternoon, and the glue was coming loose again on the walkway, but I stomped it back into place, and fueled Snoopy while answering the questions of several interested airpark residents. I waited for a T-28 to land, then took off on the relatively short flight along the foothills to Columbia. I passed over the Calveras County airport and saw Columbia in the distance. I overflew the pattern, and was saddened to discover that there were barricades on the grass runway...it was closed as parking for yet another airshow, so I landed on the pavement behind a P-51 taking off. I turned off on the dirt taxiway that parallels the grass runway, and taxied up to a picnic table under an oak tree in the campground where I planned to spend the night. More interested questions, from a couple in a square tailed C-172 to my left. A grandfather and grandson were parked to my distant right with their Champ...from Grandpa I learned how to follow the nature trail into town for dinner, and also gained the valuable information that the Cafe at the Porterville airport was the place to go for breakfast in the morning. After dinner and a walk, I unpacked the duffel bag strapped into the front seat, spread out my sleeping bag, and settled in to watch the stars come out.
I went inside the restaurant and sat down. Soon the waitress brought me a menu, but she seemed rather startled when she looked at me. I ordered breakfast, and went to the restroom. There in the mirror, I discovered the source of her shock. My hair was sticking up at crazy angles from the leather helmet, but I rather expected that. My nose and lower face were beet red. There was even a red stripe across my forehead where the goggles and helmet had left a gap. I hadn't thought of sunburn, but I had spent the entire day in the sun yesterday, and today I would cross the desert. I went back to the table, and when Sarah the waitress arrived with my food, I asked if she might have some sunscreen. She thought she might, since she had just taken her daughter to the pool the day before. She went out to her car to look, as I ate my delicious breakfast. She came back disappointed though, since she didn't have any sunscreen. Neither had the cook..she had asked as she came through the kitchen. I thanked her anyway for trying, paid my bill, and headed back out to the plane. As I was strapping in, Sarah came running up to the plane with a bottle of sunscreen! Another waitress had come in to work, and had it in her purse. I thanked her profusely, wished I had left a bigger tip, and covered my face with the lotion. If you are ever near Porterville, stop at the airport to eat. The Cafe is comfortable, the food is good, the prices are reasonable, and the service is over the top. The 80/87 Avgas is no more, though..only 100LL, like everywhere else.
I took off on the next leg of the journey, rejoining the railroad tracks, and heading for Tehachepi Pass. I started climbing early, and so did the oil temperature. It stayed within limits, though, and I crested the pass just out of reach of the giant swirling arms of a forest of windmills. I passed near to Mojave Airport, but had no idea that Bert Rutan was making his first space shot that day. I was well out of his way anyway, at a much lower altitude. I flew past Rosamond and General Fox airports, and stayed south of Edwards but north of Palmdale. The desert was much bumpier, tossing the little Hatz around pretty severely. I had to decide whether to go north of the San Bernardinos and across the open desert, or down through Cajon Pass and pick one of the many San Bernardino area airports for a gas stop. Others had recommended the northern route, and Hesperia airport, but the turbulence was beating me up, and I wanted to get out of the desert for a while, so I headed for the pass. Then I had to do one of the trickiest tasks of the whole trip...I had to flip over my map...the LA Sectional...from the north half to the south. Not just flip it over, but refold it to the segment I needed to fly through the LA Basin...in an open cockpit airplane. I couldn't just open it up and refold it, the wind would rip it away from me. I could hardly use both hands, since I was being tossed to some pretty wild angles by the bumps, so I needed to keep righting myself with the stick. I did manage to get the map turned over, and wadded back into a shape I could use, but it was torn in several places and crumpled in many more. I strapped it back to my leg, and dropped down into Cajon Pass.
The pass was instant relief. Cool coastal air pushed up from the basin, and the oil temperature quickly dropped below 200. My groundspeed dropped, too, due to the strong headwinds. And then the visibility dropped, as well. At first it was about five miles, and then more like three. I could follow I-15 easily, and I could see the mountains to each side, but the headwinds were really slowing me down, and I wondered if it might be better above the murk. I climbed back on top, but quickly realized that even though I could still see the freeway below me, if I continued I might get trapped above the clouds just when I needed fuel. I dove back into a thin spot in the haze, and continued down I-15, turning east on I-10. San Bernardino was calling the visibility a mile and three quarters...yuck!...still looked like better than three miles where I was. I followed I-10 eastbound, hoping to make Banning, but the headwinds had cost me too much fuel for comfort, so I made a quick turn back and landed at Redlands for gas.
I fueled up at the self serve pumps...there was no one around. The FBO was open, though, so I made a quick bathroom stop. When I came back out, there was a man looking at the plane, and he asked me what it was. "It's a Hatz", I told him. "Hotz?" "No, Hatz, like you put on your head." "Headz?" "yeah, okay...headz" , Putz. The fog/haze had thinned some more, so I took off again. There was a Cessna inbound from the south, so we verbally dodged each other, and I got back on to I-10 eastbound, and headed up Banning Pass. As I passed north of the airport there, I was surprised to see a highrise being built, appearing out of the murk, in the center of the pass and not far east of the airport. Crazy place for it. Beyond the building, another forest of windmills, and I tried to stay over the few clear lanes between them...they looked like pretty effective Hatz-grinders if I should have any sort of problem. Then I came upon the Palm Springs TRSA. I didn't think there were any TRSA's any more, that they had all gone the way of the dinosaur with the big airspace restructuring of a couple decades ago. But there it was on my sectional...my current sectional...a big black outline around Palm Springs. I treated it like another Class C, and avoided it. The wind pushed me out of Banning pass at well over 100 mph, and then the desert bumps started up again, so the ride was miserable. Once I passed Bermuda Dunes and was clear of the TRSA, I started climbing, looking for cooler air. I took advantage of the thermals to gain altitude, and before long I was at 7500 feet. I don't think Snoopy had ever been that high before. I wouldn't think twice about going up to 11,500 or so in a Cessna, but 7500 in the tiny open cockpit biplane looked a whole lot like 35,000! It was higher than I wanted to be, but the engine was running cool, so I stayed. There weren't bumps up there; there were huge currents of air, taking me up and down two and three hundred feet at a time. It was surprisingly cold, too, and eventually my legs were shaking. I hung on for the ride, and followed I-10 to Blythe, where I could stop and get warm.
I called the Unicom at Blythe, asking for traffic advisories. A bored voice informed me that there was no traffic in the area, and that the active runway was 26. The weather broadcast said it was 106 degrees, and the winds were out of the south at 15 knots. I elected to ignore the active runway, and land on 17. Snoopy prefers to land into the wind, and I was in no mood to try to convince him otherwise. I dodged some circling buzzards, landed, and taxied clear of the runway, onto the huge, sweltering concrete ramp at Blythe. There across the ramp, I saw a mountain of a man standing next to the fuel tanks. I waved. No response. I taxied over and shut down, pulled off my helmet, and said Hi. No response. I climbed out, climbed up and opened the tank, and told Leonard...that was the name on his shirt...that I would fill it up. I couldn't imagine him hoisting his bulk up on the little refueling step on Snoopy's right side. I asked if he had a ground wire, and he meandered over to the tanks and reappeared with a tangled yellow mess, which I clipped to the exhaust stack. I filled up the tank, and Leonard wrote down the amount, and I followed him across the ramp into the office. I asked him for some oil, and he pulled a quart off the shelf behind him, and slid it across the counter to me. I turned to see if some Spaghetti Western gunman would burst through the swinging doors into the building from the blinding sun outside, but none appeared. I paid my bill, and asked if there was a restroom. Leonard jerked his thumb over his shoulder, down the hall. Then I bought a coke from the machine, and as I was leaving, I said, "Have a nice day", and he said "bye". (HE SPOKE!)
I went back onto the sweltering ramp, and put on my leather jacket, scarf, gloves, helmet, and goggles, and took off. I headed east again, leaving Leonard alone with the buzzards.
The oil temperature never really got a chance to cool down at Blythe, so Snoopy was running hot almost immediately. The thermals weren't as good over the irrigated fields around Blythe, so I couldn't climb as quickly, and by the time I got to 5500 feet, the oil temp was at the redline, and I leveled off to let it cool a bit. The heat had loosened up the glue on the walkway tape, and it started to peel back in the wind. I watched helplessly as a huge chunk of it tore off, missing the stabilizer as it flew away. It was bumpy, but lacked the huge swooping up and downdrafts I had experienced higher up, so I settled in to fly at that altitude for the rest of the leg to Gila Bend.
I had planned to make Gila Bend as my last gas stop, since I should be able to make it home to Bisbee from there in one leg. I still had unusual headwinds, though, cutting into my range, and slowing my progress, so it was going to be a race with the sun to get home before dark. It seemed to take forever to get to Gila Bend. I left I-10 and turned south along the Gila River until I could see the airport, and started a descent. I overflew the field to look for a windsock and the fuel pumps, and couldn't find any pumps. I looked at my chart, and there were no little tickmarks around the airport symbol...Gila Bend had no fuel! I was horrified. How could I have made such a mistake? I had assumed the airport had gas, and never bothered to check. I didn't have enough fuel to make it to Tucson. I had to turn back, and go to Buckeye, on the outskirts of Phoenix. Fortunately, I had a tailwind when I turned around. I flew up-river and found the airport, and landed after my longest leg of the trip, 2.4 hours. Still plenty of gas, but fuel stops were obviously few and far between around here.
Buckeye was plenty hot. I filled up again, and looking at the angle of the sun above the horizon, realized there was no way I could make it home today. But, I could make it to Tucson if I got going now. So I dressed again, and took off. Snoopy was hot immediately, redlined by about 3300 feet. I headed south along the river, leveling off to coax the temperature needle to drop a bit, even descending a little ways, and then trying to climb higher as the needle dropped. It went right back to the red. Try as I might, I could get no higher than 3500 feet. Gila Bend was now behind me, and hills over 4000 feet ahead of me. Reluctantly, I turned back. I landed, and taxied into the lengthening shadow of the FBO office, and shut down.
The FBO was abandoned. The door was locked, but ajar. Cobwebs and dust covered the two couches. The lights didn't work, but the Coke machine was running full blast. All the little red lights were on, indicating that there were no Coke's inside to cool, so it was really just heating up the room, which was several degrees hotter than outside. The toilets were almost completely blocked up with calcium deposits. It was two miles along the freeway into town, and over a hundred degrees in the shade. There was no shade along the freeway, and I've had bad experiences in Gila Bend before (food poisoning), so I decided it was better to stay put for the evening. I dragged three sofa cushions out of the office and beat the dust and cobwebs out of them, and laid them on the ramp under Snoopy's wing. I put my sleeping bag across the top of them. There was a water cooler in the office...not functioning...but the 5 gallon bottle still had some water inside it that ought to be drinkable. I pulled the bottle off the cooler and took a few swigs of hundred-plus degree water. Yuck! I laid down on my sleeping bag as it got dark, and the rotating beacon lit up and started to turn, throwing alternating green and white swirling shadows around the airfield. This was going to be fun! Somehow, I managed to drift off to sleep.
I awoke in the middle of the night, to discover that my right arm was cold, but my left arm was warm. The ramp had cooled off under the clear desert sky, but Snoopy had kept it warm under the wing. I rolled further under the wing and went back to sleep.
I was awakened again some hours later, by a stray dog sniffing to see what had gone to sleep out here under a biplane. When I lifted my head, he shuffled away, an old golden lab who really wasn't all that interested when I turned out to be just a fairly normal human. There was a faint glow to the eastern horizon. I drug the cushions back into the office, packed my bag, took a few swigs of the now tepid water, and suited up for flight. I took off as it got light, and made for the trucks passing along Interstate 8. At 80 mph, I could just barely close on them, but they all waved as I passed them. I stayed well to their side, low enough to wave, but high enough to clear the tops of the saguaros dotting the desert. Not very high, in other words. I made good progress, and the oil stayed cool. I passed Casa Grande, and Pinal County airport, and lined up over the cement plant to enter the pattern at Marana Northwest Regional...formerly known as Avra Valley airport. There were a few other planes buzzing around, a hopping place. I landed, and taxied to a fuel truck I had spotted. No one around. I got out and walked to what looked like an FBO, and got someone to start the truck and fill up the plane. Then I went inside to pay, but he asked if I would wait a few minutes until the secretary came in..she knew how to run the billing machine. I looked at the clock, and it was only a quarter to 7! I hadn't realized it was that early, so I made a cup of coffee, and waited. When she came in, I paid my bill, performed my dressing ritual, and took off for Bisbee.
I skirted Tucson's airspace, then rejoined I-10 toward Benson, and followed the San Pedro River south to avoid the restricted area at Fort Huachuca. Once south of Libby AAF, I climbed up above the pattern altitude for Bisbee, so I could overfly and check out the windsock. Winds were out of the south, so I landed on 17, downhill. It's hard for me to judge the flare when the runway is sloping away from me, and I can only see out to the sides. I didn't like the landing, never do seem to get decent landings on that runway, so I taxied back, took off, and did it again. Takeoff performance wasn't as peppy as it had been for the rest of the trip, density altitude was now around 6000 feet, but it was adequate. The second landing was not much better, and I decided to quit. I taxied to my hangar, and pushed Snoopy into his new place. The long, open cockpit journey was over. I wish now that I had wandered around a bit more, done some more sightseeing, instead of trying to make a beeline for home, but Snoopy and I have covered that same ground, and more, in the time since then. Mostly now, we just fly around the local area, go to the occasional airshow, and give rides to interested locals. That's how my partner and I met! Thanks, Snoop.