The spring of 1992 my boss flew me to Raleigh North Carolina to pick up an M-18 Dromader and bring it to Rosalia Washington. No big deal for the most part but it was without radios for communication or navigation. Ask these young pilots of today if they would do that and I’m referring to anyone under 45 or 50 and they would think you are nuts, and quite honestly that’s a possibility. As Bert Landon, a good friend of mine use to say, ‘being a little crazy is what kept me from going insane’; couldn’t agree with him more.
Pilotage was a common form of navigation before the advent of GPS. I like technology and flying or driving using today’s navigation systems simplifies travel a bunch, but March of 1992 I was a few years away from that technology.
I did not have one hour of flight time in a Radial Engine Dromader but I had flown Del’s, my boss, Lycoming Turbine conversion Dromader. The balance and trim would be different but the same basic aircraft as far as weight and overall dimensions, wing span, length, height.
It was sometime in March and I had been helping Del with his spring work at Rosalia Washington. Their season started earlier than ours here in Southwest Idaho.
Del’s wife Connie and her mom drove me to Seattle and I caught the ‘Red Eye’ from Seattle to Raleigh Durham Airport, North Carolina. When I got to the distributor for the M-18 I was a bit shy on sleep. No matter that I sat down with the operators manual and studied it from cover to cover. I’m not sure that any pilot had ever done that before because the salesman acted like it was an odd occurrence. I had no desire to head out of there not knowing the systems of the aircraft. Normal flight conditions I likely would have been fine but in an emergency things can end up bad by simple ignorance of the smallest detail.
After a complete review of the aircraft manual I loaded up and headed west. I flew as far as Hickory North Carolina and spent the night there. It was plenty late in the day so that was about all the time I had. The next day I was weathered in so spent the day resting and relaxing as I was exhausted; a common occurrence for a Crop Duster but a bit early in the season to be that tired.
The next morning the weather was clear enough for me to find a route through the Appalachians into Tennessee and on westward.
Del had me swing down through Arkansas and pick up a fertilizer spreader and bring it home attached to the aircraft. It made sense in some ways as it was an expense to ship it to Washington from Arkansas but it cost me 10 mph true airspeed. At cruise power settings which was 1700 RPM’s and 24 inches of manifold pressure I was running 100 MPH; with the spreader attached and the same power settings I was only getting 90 MPH.
I picked the spreader up at Newport Arkansas and headed Northwest from there.
Kansas and Nebraska are relatively void of great visual navigation references, IE such as the Grande Tetons, the Grande Canyon, the Snake River or the Statue of Liberty. You soon learn that the blue line on a Sectional or WAC, world air chart, can be the Mississippi or a dry wash; most often a dry wash in either of those two states. You get it figure out soon enough though.
This wasn’t my first experience at cross country flying as I had flow back and forth to Texas and New Mexico from Idaho and form Davenport Washington to Aberdeen South Dakota in the early to mid 80’s; same method, Pilotage.
So what on Earth is Pilotage? Well its like planning a road trip using a Rand McNally Road Atlas only you ain’t driving; you’re flying.
Each night in your Motel room you lay out your map or maps of the intended route for the next day, including fuel stops and flight legs and destination for the day. As you depart each fuel stop or overnight stay you pick up a magnetic or compass heading and fly along at an appropriate flight level above ground picking up your visual way points, which might be a dry wash, the Mississippi, towns, monuments or freeways, anything to verify your location.
VOR’s were a commonly used form of navigation when I received my private pilots license in 1973; they could be used for VFR or IFR flight. You would identify the VOR you wanted to use, tune into its radio frequency, verify the VOR by Morse code and navigate to or from the VOR’s. I did not have that option in an M-18 with no navigation equipment.
At cruise power settings I had 3 hours of fuel, leaving me with 45 minutes to find an alternate airport and another 45 minutes to find a road or smooth place to land before running out of fuel. Landing an aircraft while it is still running is a great idea; dead sticking it after the engine coughs on the last ounce of fuel is not such a good idea. I’ve known pilots that were too casual about that and many of them are pushing up daisies. I never ran one out of fuel but I did dead stick a couple for other reasons.
Towards the end of my adventure one of my scheduled fuel stops was Deer Lodge Montana. When I landed there it didn’t take long to realize that the information in my Airport Directory was not up to date. The only fuel on the airport was private, I had to find an alternate. North or south of me was fuel within 30 minutes. Northwest, my intended route it was 45 minutes plus to Missoula; I opted for Missoula.
It was going to put me at risk as to my math and fuel consumption and one thing that I had learned early in my Aviation career was to never trust fuel gauges. Actually that is not something that you should have to worry about but trust me when it comes to flying worry about everything; you’ll live longer. Don’t second guess yourself but factor in everything and make the best decision you can based on the information at hand and go. Don’t look back and like I said, don’t second guess yourself.
I made it to Missoula in good order with my fuel situation and crossed over the Airport form the Northeast to the Southwest at 1500 feet AGL above ground level, and circled down wind for a left base to their Northwest runway; it was the proper procedure for an aircraft without radios to enter an Airport with a control tower. I circled counter clockwise waiting for a signal light and after the 3rd circle I decided to enter left base and a keep looking for a green light and then short final.
On short final with no green light yet I looked at the tower to see a flashing red light, I looked up the valley to the Northwest to see a 727 with black smoke coming out of all 3 engines as they executed a go around. Knee jerk reaction I executed a tight 360 and as I came around on short final I figured at this point the best thing I could do was land and get the hell out of the way. I did exactly that and was off of the active runway at the first taxi way.
It wasn’t the first time my ass hand been in a sling but I was pretty sure I’d catch hell over this; at least I was on the ground and had not run out of fuel piling the Aircraft up in a ball some where.
I called the Tower to explain my actions and was shocked about how cool they were over everything. The guy I was talking to in the tower told me it was not a big deal, shock, the 727 had radios and I didn’t. That was pretty much the extent of the conversation. He did add the crew in the 727 actually got a kick out of it because it was something out of the ordinary; he didn’t speak for the passengers though.
I had quite the audience as I cranked the radial engine up on the M-18 and headed out on the last leg of my trip.
When I was far enough through Mullan Pass along I90 in Northern Idaho that I started to recognize land marks to lead me to my final destination I cut to Southwest and landed at Rosalia. My adventure was over and it had been a fun one.
The feature photo was taken at Ogalalla Nebraska on one of my fuel stops.