USA 2007

From sea to shining sea (and back again)


From the early days of flying training in Florida in 2005, an idea had been forming in my head. Given the ease of flying in the USA, why confine oneself to Florida? There was an entire country to explore, and it was no ordinary country; a trip from coast to cost would take you through everything from the steamy Florida Everglades, across vast agricultural plains, through the imposing Rocky Mountains into the western deserts, and finally to the temperate rainforests of the Pacific coasts. Of course, given the fact that aircraft rental does not operate like car rental, it would be necessary to then fly all the way back again to return to the FBO; but that would not exactly be a hardship.

There were two major challenges to overcome initially. The first was persuading my girlfriend, Hannah, that this was a really great plan. Given that her total flying experience with me to date was 40 minutes over Cambridgeshire in a battered Cessna 152 that stank of AVGAS, I was expecting this to be a difficult task; but she jumped at the idea! This was all the more remarkable given her later admission that for the whole of that flight, and indeed the first week of our eventual adventure, she'd been thoroughly scared of the little airplanes, thankfully settling down to enjoy it by the time we'd been going for a few days.

C172 SP

The second, rather more difficult, task was to find someone who'd rent an aircraft to a 150 hour Private Pilot who wanted to cross a continent in it - twice. Despite firing off a multitude of emails, the answers coming back were all the same; "We can't let a plane go for the 5 weeks you want it", or "You can have the aircraft, but we require a minimum of five flying hours per day". We wanted to make this a holiday, not a flying marathon! Thankfully, we eventually made contact with Palm Beach Flight Training. Located in, you guessed it, Palm Beach, this school has a very large fleet of C172s and a few other aircraft too. They were flexible on the daily minimum hours, and offered a very reasonable rate for a 3 year old C172; after the aircraft I had learnt in, and then flown back in the UK, this was the absolute lap of luxury! Having learnt on C172s, I was already confident in my handling of the aircraft; although the differences in the newer model such as a more powerful engine would prove very welcome once we started flying in higher country.

So, I now had a travelling companion and an aircraft. Great! This was, however, by no means the end of the preparations; there was still a lot to do. We had planned 3 weeks vacation in Florida in advance of setting out on our trip in order to do a little flying and get used to the US aviation system again, and also complete our planning; however, there were a few more tasks to complete before leaving the UK. The first of these was to obtain an FAA PPL on the back of my JAA PPL. This process was fairly straightforward, and is described here for those who would like to do it themselves. It does however require up to three months so make sure you do this well in advance of travelling!

I made the decision early on that I would not plan our itinerary in exhaustive detail. Too much planning results in deadlines to meet, and a temptation to push on when perhaps the weather isn't suitable. Anyway, this was supposed to be a relaxing holiday, so why not just set off and see what happened! The sum total of my pre-trip flight planning, then, was to estimate that the USA was about 3000 miles across, double it, and add a bit for luck. At 100 miles an hour, therefore, we'd fly about 70 hours in total. We also bought a large fold-out map of the USA to plot our route on as we went, as well as a USA guide book from Lonely Planet. Planning, done!

The Route

Clickable map of the USA 2007 Trip

Click on the Route Map to go directly to a section of the trip. The Northernmost track shows our outbound track, with our return leg further to the South.

Arrival in the USA

Percy the big black SUV

Surprisingly quickly, the day came for us to fly out to Orlando. We touched down mid-afternoon and went to collect our rental car. Fellow Brits might be tempted to try and collect a "hire" car; don't do this. The Americans will hear it as "higher", and give you an SUV instead! As it happened, the rental location were all out of the "super-cheap economy" class of car that we had reserved, and asked if we'd mind taking a plush mid-size SUV instead at the same price. We were happy to oblige, and set off for Sarasota in Percy the big black Saturn. By shopping around online, you can get some excellent deals on car rental. Despite the fact that I was only 23 years old, and hence would normally attract an "Under 25s" surcharge, Hannah managed to arrange three weeks of car rental for only $12 per day. Unless you're visiting a big city and nowhere else, you can forget trying to spend time in the USA without a car.

Our three weeks in Sarasota were to pass remarkably quickly. As well as relaxing and enjoying the local attractions, there was a lot still to get done before setting out on our trip. Hannah had located a fantastic outdoor pursuits shop near our local supermarket, and we made many visits there to amass our supplies. We eventually came away with a Mountain Hardware 2-man tent, sleeping bags by the same manufacturer, and a stove and cooking gear; not to mention an assortment of other odds and ends like a snake-bite kit and pocket knife. Another regular destination was the pilot shop at the local airport, where I obtained our first set of charts, and a handheld GPS (the Garmin GPSMAP 296) and radio.

Having completed the first part of the "Foreign Licence Verification", it was time for the second part; the interview. We made our way to the nearest FSDO, in Tampa, where an extremely friendly FAA official inspected my logbook, and then handed me my temporary licence; the original would arrive in the mail. The total cost for all this, from the FAA? $0. Europe has a lot to learn about running an accessible aviation system.

First flights

During this pre-trip period, I decided some refresher flying in a C172 would be a good idea; I hadn't flown one for more than two years. The local FBO, Cirrus Aviation at Sarasota Airport, had a C172 SP; the same model that we'd be flying across the country. I had an hour's check flight with one of their instructors, who offered me a job teaching at his new flying school. The checkflight was fairly routine, with some general handling such as stalls and tight turns, and some circuit practice including a practice forced landing (PFL). Having been successfully signed off we made plans for an overnight trip down across the Florida Everglades to Key West.

The sparkling waters of Floridas' West Coast

The predictable Floridian weather did not let us down, and we set off down the West coast towards Key West Airport under a brilliant blue sky, dotted with slowly expanding cumulus clouds. The straight line distance between the two airports is 170nm, but this is all over water. We had decided, in the interests of safety and also better scenery, to fly along the coast and then along the chain of islands that extend between Key West and the mainland. This route was 250nm, or about a 2.5 hour flight.

A speedboat off the shore of the Everglades

Our route had us flying, for the most part, over the Everglades National Park. There's not a whole lot there, with the exception of swamp and alligators. We were flying fairly low, and for a while were out of radio contact with Miami Center, which was a little disconcerting; but we kept one radio tuned to the emergency frequency of 121.5 so at least if anything happened we could send out a message quickly to any other aircraft in the area. It was a relief to reach the bottom of the mainland and cut the corner across the shallow waters to pick up the chain of islands that would lead us down to Key West.

US Highway 1

The Keys are connected by US Highway 1, which begins in Key West and extends 2377 miles, all the way up the East Coast to the Canadian border. The first 127 miles run along the keys, with the longest span across water being nearly 7 miles. Towards the Key West end of the chain, one must pass by the Key West Naval Base. In my experience they have been helpful, on this occasion instructing us to "remain below 1,000 feet, multiple jet fighters incoming from your 12 o'clock. This call tends to focus the mind, and my altitude holding was superb as we watched the jets flash by overhead! A few minutes later we were turning finals for Key West, parking up, and heading into town.

Key West

Key West Aquarium

Key West is a fantastic destination for a pilot. There is enough to keep you busy for a few days, including historical tours of the town, the aquarium, and boat trips to the reef and also the Dry Tortugas. The home of Ernest Hemingway is worth a visit, and is still inhabited by his six-toed cats. There is even an annual Ernest Hemingway look-alike competition, which lends a surreal element to the town for a few days. However, on this occasion we were staying only one night, which we spent in the comfortable and inexpensive Angelina Guesthouse. We spent the afternoon exploring the town, and visiting the aquarium, before having a relaxed dinner. Most of the local restaurants offer outside dining, with insect repellant candles and large fans to keep the bugs and heat at bay!

Cumulus Clouds

We rose early the next morning to make a morning departure. In Floridian summers, you can count on thunderstorms forming every afternoon; although they normally stay inland and away from the coast we wanted to be back well before the worst of this activity began. This flight was the reverse route of the flight out, although instead of staying low most of the way, we climbed up to 8500 feet on the way back. This was to see how the aircraft performed up high, as we'd be needing to fly at 12,500ft later in the journey when we reached high ground in the West.

Destination: West Coast

Aircraft Loading

A few days after returning from Key West, it was time to set off on the main adventure. We packed up the house in Sarasota, and set off for Palm Beach County Park Airport which we had already visited a couple of days before to perform the rental checkout with a Palm Beach Flight Training instructor. We loaded up our C172 SP, N961MC (known from then on as Mike Charlie) with our gear, which I had weighed the night before to confirm that the weight and balance was ok. With just the two of us and a few bags, we were well within limits. After returning the rental car we were off, our first stop being just up the coast at Fort Pierce where I had completed my PPL two years before. The school owner was not there, so we left our regards with the receptionist (who was later to be jailed for massive embezzlement) and had an excellent lunch at the airport Tiki restaurant before continuing up the coast to Flagler Airport. Bad weather was coming in from the South (the fringes of a tropical storm) and we encountered low cloud and poor visibility as we approached the airport. We landed at Flagler for our first night stop; this turned out to be the glamorous Topaz Motel.

Bridge over Canal

To avoid being tempted to push on through bad weather I had decided not to make any accommodation bookings; we just turned up, and looked for accommodation on arrival. This method never once let us down. Our flight guides listed the nearest two or three hotels to each airport, and a number of these even advertised free collection from the airport. It helped that at smaller airports, we camped under the wing; the larger ones where this might have been more difficult tended to have accommodation more readily available.

The following day we left Flagler without regret, and headed NorthWest at speed to try and get away from the tropical depression which had chased us into Flagler the night before. The moving map GPS in the aircraft made navigation effortless, although I kept track of our position on the chart as we went should the technology let us down. We threaded between a number of MOAs (Military Operation Areas) as we went. Technically, VFR traffic is permitted into these areas without any clearance needed; however, if they are active then it is better not to mix it up with the military traffic! Our destination was LaGrange Airport, in Georgia, where we hoped to camp for the first time. However, it turned out that a taxi to the nearest camping location would cost about the same as a night in the Super 8 Motel (a chain which was to serve us well over the next month), and given that the weather was still rather hot and humid we elected for one last night in air-conditioned comfort. We dined well in our room, having discovered that there was nothing within walking distance, and that pizza could be ordered online for delivery to our room!

Sunset Hannah Kayaking

From LaGrange we struck out West to Hot Springs, Arkansas. This town, as it is impossible to visit without finding out, is the birth place of former President Bill Clinton. We rented a car from the airport and drove up into the hills to Lake Ouachita State Park. After registering at the ranger station, we settled in for two nights of camping; our first stay in our new tent. The following day was a day off from flying, and we started off with a guided kayak trip around the lake. The weather was fantastic (as it was to end up being throughout the entire trip) and there was plenty of wildlife to watch; beavers, turtles, and deer amongst others. The weather was still hot, but bearable for camping, and we spent two very pleasant evenings chatting with locals who were there to camp in their RVs; they were all pleasant and very interested in us and our trip, a trend that continued everywhere we went!

The Great Plains


Travelling by air, even in a comparatively slow single engine aircraft, you cover ground surprisingly quickly. Just a few days after we set off, we were entering the Great Plains, America's agricultural heartland. We deliberately flew North of a direct route West in order to see these plains, and the sheer scale of them was certainly impressive! After the 5th or 6th hour of flying across them, though, the novelty began to wear off. We diverted from our planned destination in mid-flight on our leg out of Hot Springs, as Hannah had been thumbing through the airport guide and discovered a small airfield, well placed for our route, that advertised on-airport camping. This suited us perfectly, and indeed, there was a campsite right next to the field, which was named Concordia, Kansas. It was equipped for RVs more than tents, so we elected to set up our tent on the grass behind our aircraft; not technically part of the campsite, but the airport was unattended and no-body complained! A scenic walk across the 8-lane highway to Walmart enabled us to replenish our food stocks, and we had a great dinner before turning in as it got dark.


Leaving Concordia we headed for the Rockies. A fuel stop in McCook allowed us to add Nebraska to our "states visited" list, and we departed from there under a low overcast of strangely rippled cloud that had rolled in as we arrived. We were soon clear of the cloud and able to climb, which was good because the ground was slowly rising up beneath us. Canon City, Colorado, was our next destination and the runway elevation was over 5,000ft; higher than many pilots in the UK have ever flown, let alone landed at! The effect of the thinner air was noticeable in a higher groundspeed on landing, but the airports at these elevations tend to have longer runways to allow for this.

High Country

Mountain Camping

There's quite a lot to do around Canon City, and we spend three nights here. The first we camped by a lake up in the mountains, having rented a car from the FBO. The state park was provided with a laundry facility and hot showers, so we took advantage of these before leaving. That day we visited some other local state parks, such as the Florissant Fossil Beds. This was the site of an ancient fossilized forest which had been uncovered and opened to the public. That evening we drove into "Phantom Canyon" for another night in the tent. This canyon used to be the route of a narrow gauge railway servicing the mines, but the railway was long gone and had been replaced by a scenic dirt road. Camping is allowed down the majority of the canyon.

Royal Gorge

Leaving Phantom Canyon, we spent a day at the Royal Gorge State Park. Unsurprisingly this spans the Royal Gorge, with the two sides being connected by the world's highest suspension bridge. There's not a great deal on the other side of the bridge; the most significant installation being a petting zoo, which makes one suspect that the bridge was built purely for the sake of having the record. Having visited the top of the canyon, we returned to toen and took a trip on the Royal Gorge railroad. This track used to be a significant freight route through the mountains towards the West Coast but had stopped carrying freight several years before and was now used exclusively by the tourist train.

We spent another night in a Super 8 motel, and a return to the airport to see about crossing the Rockies. I had decided to avoid heading straight through the mountains; the highest you are allowed to fly without oxygen systems is 12,500ft, and this would put us well down in the canyons doing real mountain flying. I was not trained for this so we headed south to New Mexico and the beautiful city of Santa Fe. We refueled imediately after landing, and when starting the aircraft up again to taxi to parking, discovered that the starter motor would not engage. A local mechanic engaged it manually for us, with a deft flick of a screwdriver, and we parked up and headed for town.


A great deal from the FBO meant we swapped the Super 8 for the Hilton on this occasion, and we spent the afternoon in town window shopping and enjoying the excellent local food. Santa Fe is a beautiful city, and the adobe buildings mean it is impossible to forget what part of the country you're in! Before it became too late I telephoned the owners of Mike Charlie and told them about our starter problem; they could not have been more helpful and arranged for a new motor to be overnighted to our next stop where it could be fitted with no delay to our trip. After a great night in the Hilton, we returned to the airfield, loaded up the baggage, and struck out West (again!) into the vast red deserts of the SouthWest...

Western Deserts


The dramatic change in landscape below us really made us feel like we'd entered a new phase of the trip. The pictures describe the landscape far better than words can. We chose to refuel at a small airport known as Cal Black Memorial Aiport, in Utah. The airport was deserted, and in the middle of nowhere; but still had a newly tarmacced runway and a full time employee, who drove us around on a golf cart. By refueling at these smaller airports, we tended to get much better fuel prices than we would at larger ones. To check prices in advance, and plan our routes, we used a website called, which lists fuel prices at almost all US airports. After taking off from Cal Black Memorial (luckily without any starter trouble on this occasion) we crossed Lake Powell (created when the Glen Canyon dam was built at the upper end of the Grand Canyon) and approached the Grand Canyon from the North. Flying VFR over the Grand Canyon is subject to a number of restrictions, as a result of a number of accidents in the past and also to minimise the noise impact on those enjoying the canyon from ground level. You should not approach the canyon without the Grand Canyon VFR chart, and ensure that you stay within the designated VFR corridors above the fairly high minimum altitudes. These restrictions do not detract in any way from the majesty of the canyon, and the extra height is very desirable given the lack of available emergency landing spots!


After crossing the canyon, we spotted Grand Canyon Airport. This airport is one of the busiest GA airports in the US, due to the concentration of sight-seeing traffic. To add to the fun, on the day we arrived the forest service were having a controlled forest fire directly underneath the downwind leg, making it tricky to avoid IMC conditions in the circuit! We landed without fuss, and taxied Mike-Charlie to the maintenance facility; leaving the keys with them, we caught the shuttle bus to the canyon for two nights of camping. The state park facilities on the South Rim are excellent, with several good visitors centres and regular free of charge talks and guided tours given by the rangers. Having lectured Hannah throughout the trip so far about the importance of travelling light to keep the aircraft weight down, I earnt myself a telling off by purchasing about 10 kilograms of books at the visitor centre, including one listing every accidental death in the Canyon since it was discovered. The aviation chapter was best not read until we'd flown a good distance away. That evening we attended a night-time talk by a ranger in the amphitheather, and then walked out to look over the canyon in the moonlight. We could easily have spent another day there, but all too soon it was time to return to the airport where we found Mike-Charlie with a brand new starter motor fitted, ready to go! We set off along the canyon towards Las Vegas.

Grand Canyon

After two weeks of camping on deserted airports and in state parks, Las Vegas was rather a shock. Arriving on a Friday night did not help, either. We landed at Henderson Airport, where the very friendly FBO gave us a free lift into town in their shuttle bus. We stayed in a fairly forgettable motel which cost us nearly double what we had paid for the Hilton in Santa Fe a few nights before. The visit was saved by the evening show, the topless Cirque du Soleil (done tastefully, I assure you), but we were not at all upset the next morning to return to the airport and flee NorthWest again. The controller was busier than I have ever known before, and we were told to head West, stay low, and shut up; I gladly complied. We left the madness far behind us and proceeded up the Nevada/California border towards Mono Lake - at an elevation of 6,802 feet this was the highest airport we would land at!

Mono Lake

Mono Lake is one of the best locations that I have flown into. There's basically nothing there, and that's what made it such a welcome destination after Las Vegas. At nearly 7,000 feet and surrounded by mountains you feel like you are almost alone in the world! The lake is surrounded by unusual geological formations, too. After landing we spent the afternoon walking down to the lake and back, followed by dinner and, as usual, bed as it got dark. I'm usually a late riser, but this kind of travelling tends to align you with the sun, and you go to bed and wake up in line with sunset and sunrise. We had a peaceful nights sleep, interrupted only by a small animal digging a burrow underneath our tent.

The Pacific

L-39 Jet Ammunition Storage

The following day we packed up our site, and slowly lumbered into the air. Takeoff performance at 7,000 feet is poor; due to the thinner air your engine is developing less power, your propellor is developing less thrust, and your wings are producing less lift. However, we were lightly loaded and the runway was long and downhill, so we climbed out over the lake without any trouble, and set course North for the evocatively named Hawthorne Industrial Airport. While it might not have a pretty name, Hawthorne Industrial did at least have cheap fuel - or so we thought. It turned out that we were flying right in the middle of the area that the adventurer Steve Fossett had disappeared in merely weeks before. The AVGAS tanks at Hawthorne had been sucked dry by the Civil Air Patrol and other searchers, but there was plenty of AVGAS at Yerington, not too far away and along our planned route.

Mt Shasta Pacific

A 30 minute flight took us to Yerington, and plenty of AVGAS, although the restaurant was closed. Less lucky than us was the privately owned L-39 Albatross Jet which had arrived just before us, only to find that the airport did not stock jet fuel any more and that he did not have enough fuel left to fly anywhere else. While feeling secretly pleased that it was him and not us, we discovered we'd left our mobile phone in Hawthorne, and back we went to pick it up. Detours completed, we set off for Arcata on the Pacific Coast! The flight was high altitude (for a Cessna 172), and over rugged terrain. Approaching the final mountain range before the coast, we determined from "FlightWatch", the flight information service available via radio, that the weather would not allow us to reach the coast and we made our very first weather diversion of the trip to land in Redding, California.

Beach Camping Sunset over the Pacific

The next day dawned bright and clear, and we set off for Arcata Airport in high excitement for our first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean. A couple of hours later, and there it was! We landed, refueled, and parked up before renting a car and heading North to see the giant redwoods of the Pacific coast. Our first night's camping was on a beach in a state park, nestled amongst the dunes overlooking the Pacific; it doesn't get much better than that. Here we met a young couple who were doing a similar tour of the US to us, but by camper van, so we sat and chatted with them until the fire died down and it was time to turn in. The following day, predictably, involved a great many large trees; they are well worth a visit! We spent our second night camping in another state park, surrounded by redwoods, before taking to the air once again and flying South along the coast to another absolutely superb airport; Shelter Cove.

California Travels

Shelter Cove

Shelter Cove airport is perched on a promontory of rock that juts into the Pacific halfway along what is known as the "Lost Coast". For miles and miles in both directions along the coast, steep cliffs plunge straight into the sea. The town is huddled around the airport, which itself shares its land (and sometimes its runway) with the golf course, the local deer, and most of the local dog-walkers. The "Pilot's Lounge" was located in the closest real-estate office (of which Shelter Cove has an unfeasibly large number), which shared its own small building with a surf shop and tea room. Across the grass sits the golf club, which was also the local bar and community centre. They are very keen on multi-purpose facilities in Shelter Cove. We had lunch at the campsite deli, located adjacent to the runway (almost everything in Shelter Cove is located adjacent to the runway) before spending the afternoon exploring the town on foot.

Shelter Cove

We had been told that Wednesday night was "Steak Night" at the golf club/bar/community centre, and it was our lucky day; we'd arrived on a Wednesday. The place was packed full, with plenty of fighting dogs to add atmosphere. We spent most of the evening talking to a couple of local men, one of whom had never been in an aircraft before and was very interested to hear all about it! They were very friendly and offered us an illicit "smoke of the Humbolt" which we politely declined.

Half Moon Bay

Our route out of Shelter Cove took us South along the coast towards San Francisco. We took the decision en route to stop off at Santa Rosa Airport - also known as Charles M. Schulz Airport after the creator of Snoopy. We coudn't resist the chance to visit somewhere named after the creator of the canine aviation legend, and were not disapointed, the airport being well decorated with Snoopy figures and boasting an excellent restaurant. From here we contined South past the Golden Gate Bridge. We had to remain well clear of the bridge as the Blue Angels were performing in the area, and soon found ourselves stopping for the night in Half Moon Bay, a beautiful ocean-front town next to San Francisco.

Yosemite National Park

We phoned a local Motel on arrival, and the owner came out himself to collect us from the airport. After settling in we went out to explore the town. The harbour was within easy walking distance of the motel, and we found a restaurant to return to for dinner before making our way up the hills along the coast. We spent a few hours walking, enjoying fantastic views of the coastline and also back over the airport where we could see Mike-Charlie parked far below us. We made our way back into town as the sun began to set and enjoyed an excellent meal at the Half Moon Bay Brewing Company on the waterfront. We walked back to the motel, and watched a documentary on man-eating mountain lions before bed; encouraging, considering the amount of camping we were doing.

Prize at Yosemite

We ate breakfast at the motel, and then the owner gave us a lift back to the airport. Having refueled we set off inland to Mariposa-Yosemite Airport, to spend a night camping in the famous Yosemite National Park. The FBO at the airport phoned the local bus who made a detour to pick us up, and took us back into town to catch the shuttle-bus up to the park. Despite being October, the campsites were all fully booked, but we were given a pitch in the hikers campground for a night as we had a tent and not an RV. We spent the afternoon walking around the valley floor, watching the deer and the incredible scenery, before cooking dinner over our camping stove and turning in. We ensured, before we did, that all our food was well secured in the steel "bear-box" as directed by signs all over the camp ground. That night a light frosting of snow settled over the tent; a far cry from the tropical humidity of Florida!

The beach at Oceano

Waking up to a frosty morning, we packed up and made our way back to the shuttle-bus. We arrived back in town to discover that another shuttle-bus was running services to the airport that day; it turned out that the airport was celebrating its 70th anniversary with a fly-in. There were hundreds of people there, with 50 or 60 aircraft having flown in from all over the country. We were asked where we had flown in from, and told them Florida; an hour or so later we were approached by a member of the organising committee and presented with a prize for having flown the furthest to attend!

Oceano sunset

We departed Mariposa and flew back towards the coast, to land at the airport of Oceano. A badly managed barbecue had set fire to a large area of scrub next to the beach, and water-bombers were operating in the area to try and extinguish it; as a result we were directed well offshore by air traffic control before being turned back towards the coast and coming in to land. Oceano Airport offers on-field camping, and is situated right on the outskirts of town; the beach is only a few minutes walk away. It is one of the few beaches in the USA where vehicles are allowed to be driven, and as a result is as busy as a freeway and rather scary to try and walk on! We headed back towards the airport instead, stocking up with food en-route. On our return we discovered that some other fly-in campers had set up their tents. These were Ben and Alejandra, who had flown up the coast for a weekend away. Their aircraft was packed with enough food for a banquet, and once they saw us cooking canned pasta on our camping stove they insisted we join them for a three course dinner, with a selection of wines! We spent a pleasant evening chatting with them, and finally turned in.

Ben and Alejandra

That night we were camping inside the airport boundary, surrounded by a chain-link fence, in town, so wild animals were not high on our mind. We indulged in marshmallows in bed, and left them wrapped up under the tent flap. Later that night we were awoken by the sound of a large animal prowling outside. Memories of our previous two night stops came flooding back; a TV show about mountain lions followed by Yosemite, bear country. Convinced that we were about to be eaten, we were relieved when the airport beacon swung round and silhouetted a raccoon against the tent flap. He stuck his face under the flap and looked at us for a moment, before poking in a paw and grasping for the marshmallows. We saved them and locked them away before returning to sleep!

Los Angeles International Airport

Ben and Alejandra gave us some tips about destinations. We first flew down the coast, overhead Los Angeles International Airport. It is possible to fly overhead this airport at a few thousand feet, perpendicular to the runways, without talking to air traffic control; one merely monitors a frequency and gives occasional position reports for the benefit of other traffic. It was fun to watch airliners landing and taking off below us, and we continued South before turning West and heading offshore towards Catalina Island, and the Airport in the Sky.


The aptly named Airport in the Sky is situated on the flattened top of two mountains, bulldozed together to form a runway. Catalina Island is privately owned, and this was the only airport of the trip where we had to pay a landing fee. However, it was well worth it for the beautiful flight out and back, and we paused there for a lunch of buffalo burgers; a herd of the animals were brought to the island by Walt Disney for a film, and then allowed to run wild. Early in the afternoon we took off from Santa Catalina, crossed the water once more, and headed to a night of airport camping at Borrego Springs.

Homeward Bound

Crashed aircraft

We arrived at Borrego Springs after the airport office had closed. We pitched the tent on a small patch of grass, the only irrigated area of the airport, and did a little exploring; the flight guide mentioned that there were no facilities within walking distance of the airport. One building on the perimeter fence had a door ajar, so I took a look inside and found myself behind the bar of an upmarket Chinese-run Italian restaurant. They were surprised to see me appear behind their bar, but friendly, and we returned later that evening to eat. We sat at a bar next to a local couple, one of whom had already had a few drinks and insisted that we must know her next door neighbours, as they were English too. They were both very friendly and told us that if they'd known we were coming, that have brought their caravan for us to stay in; a generous offer given that we had known them barely an hour!

Hannah in a red telephone box

The Salton Sea lies just NorthEast of Borrego, and was on our route the next morning. This inland sea lies around 200 feet below global sea level. Our next stop was Lake Havasu City, a planned city on a lakeshore in Arizona. The town excavated a channel from the lake, around a peninsular, to create an island; across which they placed London Bridge, purchased from the UK and shipped, brick by brick, to the USA. We toured the "English Village", which was a rather twee and embarrassing affair, and spent some time watching the preparations for a large jet-ski competition taking place the following week.The attractions of Lake Havasau City were soon exhausted, so after one night we flew onwards towards St John's Industrial, where on-field camping was offered together with cheap fuel. Unfortunately, while setting up our tent, one of the poles snapped. We determined to pack up and fly on to somewhere with accomodation, but the airport manager saw our difficulties and put us up for the night in a 50ft RV which he had parked out the back; he even left us the keys to his truck! We enjoyed a very comfortable night, and took off the next day to fly to Albuquerque Double Eagle II and meet my father who was joining us for a week of flying. We borrowed the airport crew car, and found a hotel before going to meet our new passenger from his flight. En-route, we stopped off at Grants-Milan Municipal Airport, to practice some takeoffs and landings at high density altitudes.

The Passenger

Laptop on tailplane Hot air balloons

We had planned to meet my father at Santa Fe, but internal flights there were not available when he landed in Atlanta. We were therefore carrying slightly more fuel than I had intended, and at risk of being overweight, so we mailed home a 30kg parcel of camping equipment, books, and other unneeded equipment. We returned to the aircraft at Double Eagle II early the following morning and loaded up; with another pasenger and bags, there was rather less space inside. The takeoff run seemed to last forever, particularly given the high altitude and warm air, but we eventually climbed away and enjoyed the views of the Albuquerque International Hot Air Balloon Festival which was starting that day. We set course to the SouthWest, and obtained flight following from a very friendly military controller who had been stationed in England; he was keen to hear where we were from and swap stories of places we all knew. We approached Cavern City Airport, and were on final approach when the radio operator decided to inform us that the runway had just been closed. A hasty go-around repositioned us for another runway; given that there were 5 runways, we were spoilt for choice. We rented an SUV and headed for the Carlsbad Caverns.

Carlsbad caverns Loading the aircraft

Carlsbad Caverns are an enormous underground cave system, only discovered in the 1890s. It contains the 7th largest underground cavern in the world. The second largest room in the caverns was only discovered in 1966, long after the caves had been opened to the public as a national park! The caves are open to visitors, and you can walk from the surface down to the lowest caverns where, in true American style, they have installed a restaurant, gift shop, and elevators back to the surface! Guided tours are available of some of the lowest, and most dramatic, caves and are well worth taking. We stayed that night at a Motel in Carlsbad, and the next day made our arrival in the grand state of Texas! We stopped first at a small airport called Andrews in order to stock up on cheaper fuel. To welcome us to Texas, an angry prairie dog chattered away at us while we refueled; at least, until it was drowned out by a rude arriving helicopter that hovered right up to us forcing me to dive into the aircraft and stop the control surfaces being blown around. We took off after a short stop, and headed for Mesquite Airport, Dallas, where we planned a visit to the Texas State Fair.

Polluted Lake Texas State Fair

The Texas State Fair is an annual event that carries on for an entire month. It seems to be centred around livestock and automobiles, with both present in abundance. We attended the judging of the goats, and the finals of some kind of "best bull" competition, as well as a visit to the poultry building to view some of the USAs finest turkeys. The Texans certainly know how to put on a fair!

Cockpit View

From Dallas we flew SouthEast, stopping at a small unattended airfield called Center Municipal to refuel. At small airfields like this in the USA there is no control tower; instead, airports are assigned a CTAF, or "Common Traffic Advisory Frequency". Aircraft in the area tune into this frequency and announce their position and intentions, so that everybody knows what's going on. Because there are only a few frequencies, shared across hundreds of airports, many share each frequency; to avoid confusion, one begins and ends each call with the name of the airport that you are at. Approaching Center, another aircraft was giving approximately the same position reports as me; but despite my best efforts, I could not see him. When we both called final approach at about the same time without being in sight of each other, I declared that I'd go around; and still could not see any aircraft on finals. I queried him again, and after a moment's pause, he came back and admitted that he'd been absent mindedly copying the name of the airport I was calling, rather than the name of the one he was at, which was about 50 miles away and happened to have runways with the same number designator! We landed quickly, refuelled, and set off again for Baton Rouge.

Baton Rouge Architecture The Mississippi River in Baton Rouge

Baton Rouge is an industrial city located on the Mississippi, and one of the top ten busiest ports in the USA. It has a strong French history, and a beautiful central district with a number of colonial buildings. On a Sunday, it turns out, it also has absolutely nobody around. Hannah rested at the hotel while my father and I went for a walk, and we hardly saw another person until coming to the State Capitol building which we decided to visit. There was security at the entrance with a metal detector, and I remembered suddenly that I had my Leatherman tool with me, which I'd had on me ever since setting off. I hid it under a traffic cone and, happily, it was still there on my return! The view from the State Capitol's tower across the city was excellent, although of course not comparable with the view out of a Cessna.

Galliano Fuel Pumps Mississippi Delta

From Baton Rouge I had the bright idea of flying out to the end of the Mississippi delta, thinking that it would be an interesting thing to do. There was an airport on the way known as Galliano which had cheap fuel, so that would be a good stop as well. The flight down the Mississippi to Galliano was fantastic, enjoying the views of the mighty river and all the human activity that surrounds it, and around an hour after takeoff we were touching down for our fuel stop. Unfortunately, there was someone in front of us in the fuel queue; and given that he was a tanker refilling the pumps, it looked like he was going to be there a while. We wandered around inspecting some of the helicopters used to service the oil industry out in the Gulf of Mexico before taking refuge in the small but air-conditioned FBO. Finally the fuel truck finished disgorging itself into the ground, and we filled up. Unlike at Hawthorne, we could at least be fairly sure the pumps wouldn't run dry on us!

Mustang fighter aircraft Battleship USS Alabama

Soon after takeoff from Galliano, it became clear that we would not reach the end of the delta. Mainly because it all looks exactly the same, and crushing boredom was setting in, and partly becase the idea of an engine failure over the delta was unappealing, the only likely ending that I could see being ending up as somethings lunch. So, we turned West along the coast to the city of Mobile, Alabama. Mobile is a large city, and the only part of Alabama to enjoy a coastline. After checking into our hotel, we set out for the City park, which houses a museum of ships and aircraft. A B52, SR-71 Blackbird, and various other aircraft were on display; some outside, and some inside a purpose-built hangar. Moored alongside were a submarine, which visitors could explore unsupervised, and also the USS Alabama, a South-Dakota class battleship which served in WWII. We spent the rest of the day exploring the exhibits, and watched the sunset from the bow of the USS Alabama before going out for dinner and finally turning in for bed.

Final Days

Leaving Mobile Poor weather leaving Mobile

The weather forecast for the dawning day was poor, and while it should be possible to fly, it was impossible to know how far we'd get. As my father's flight home was from Atlanta in just one days time, he elected to rent a car and drive to Atlanta, so he waved us off as we took off and headed east through the low cloud and drizzle. The weather wasn't great, but over the low flat country it was possible to fly VFR and remain comfortably clear of cloud while remaining well above the tallest radio masts. As we flew further, the cloud closed in, and we elected to land at Enterprise, one of a chain of airfields that we had been flying over in case of this very eventuality. The airfield manager, as usual, was very friendly and offered to lend us the crew car to go into town for some food. We graciously declined, as by this point we had worked out that these cars were uninsured and the driver was obliged to have his own insurance, which we did not. On telling him as much, he was unphased; "Don't worry about that, none of us have insurance either!" Who were we to argue...

After lunch, the weather was improving, so we set out again toward Perry, Florida, to spend the night. When we landed the FBO was closed, but the lobby was open with a free phone for pilots to use. We called a local hotel who offered free pickup from the airport, and once we were comfotably settled into our room we headed down to the lobby; the hotel had only just opened and was offering free cocktails for all guests! More hotels should do this.

Cessna shadow on water Cedar Key Airport

On our return to the airport the following day, it became clear that the local sewage plant was adjacent to the airport, and that today we were downwind. We departed rapidly, flying down to the coast towards Cedar Key, a tiny airport shoe-horned onto one of a small group of Keys on Floridas West Coast. The airport itself was hidden from view behind trees until we were only a mile or so away, and as it came into view it became clear that this was one of the most interesting airports we'd have visited. The Key was barely big enough to contain it, with the runway thresholds only a few metres from the sea at both ends. Coming to the end of the runway, one must take care to look both ways before taxiing across the road and into the parking area; a large sign informs aircraft that the road is not, in fact, a taxiway.

Climbing away from Cedar Key The restaurant row at Cedar Key

Normally, when one arrives at Cedar Key the local taxi lady will be listening in on frequency and will come to pick you up. Today was not one of those days, but we'd only been walking for a few minutes before a passing pickup stopped and offered us a lift into town. Most of the towns few restaurants are situated on the pier, and we lunched upstairs in a small bar and grill. The owner tried to get hold of the taxi lady to take us back out to the aircraft, but with no luck; a couple at the next table overheard, however, and we got chatting. They lived on Floridas east coast and came to their holiday apartment in Cedar Key on a regular basis, and they took us back to see their place. Later on they gave us a lift out to the airfield and as a thank you I took the wife for a short flight over Cedar Key to see their place from the air. Dropping her off, and collecting Hannah, we took off again for our night stop.

The Keys off Crystal River

Climbing out over the Keys, we set course for Crystal River, where we were planning to spend two nights to relax before having to return the aircraft to Palm Beach. The flight was very short, and we flew in over the bay and our hotel before landing. Another aircraft was on final approach behind us, so I stood on the brakes to ensure that we could turn off the runway before he had to go around. He landed just as we had vacated, and quipped over the radio that he'd help pay for the new brakes. As we tied the aircraft down, I managed to trip over the steel tiedown wires and hurt my foot; it was good that we were staying here for a couple of days, as it would take me that long to stop limping! We called the resort we had booked the night before, and minutes later one of their staff showed up to collect us and take us to the hotel.

It felt strange to be so close to the end of our trip. We spent a day off at the resort, including a few hours renting a small motorboat and pottering around the bay attempting to find a manatee. We didn't see one up close, but spotted a few surface disturbances from a distance that certainly had all the hallmarks of the sea-cow!

Turtle in front of sign saying Ross with Mike Charlie

After 5 weeks, the final day dawned. The land was covered in a low mist which the early morning sun had yet to burn off. We were departing early because our first stop was Sarasota once again. My Aunt and Uncle were now staying in the Florida house and we were meeting them for breakfast, and to drop off a bag of gear that we no longer needed that they'd agreed to take back to the UK for us. We had brunch at a restaurant in Sarasota town centre; pancakes are always a good way to celebrate the end of an adventure! We took off again around mid-day, and picked our way around heavy rain showers that were beginning to build up inland. It was a short flight, and we arrived at Lantana Airport in the tail end of a rainshower and landed in drizzle. We shut down and waited for the rain to end before taking our gear to the rental car, and saying goodbye to Mike-Charlie.


From here, we spent a few days in Orlando. It was quite a culture shock to go from remote,small-town America to huge shopping Malls full of Mancunians wearing football shirts. We had been on the wing for 5 weeks, and had flown 70.1 hours. Not bad compared to my prediction of 70 before the trip began! From here we boarded a plane and flew to Los Angeles, covering the distance that had taken two weeks in Mike-Charlie in only a few hours. After a short stopever, it was time to fly again; to Auckland, and another two months of adventures; while there would be some flying, most of the trip this time would be overland!

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© Ross Edmondson 2011 - 2015