This is a blog containing the build history of an experimental home built airplane. The RV-7A is a two place, piston powered, low wing, tractor configuration, tricycle gear, aluminum and composite aircraft. The original purpose of this blog was to document the construction of my experimental category aircraft in order to satisfy the build log requirement for the FAA. Now it's just for the amusement of friends and family as I document some of our aviation experiences. For more information on the RV series of aircraft see www.vansaircraft.com.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

48 States part 1

I find that if enough time elapses after finishing one project, I'll just make up a new one without much regard to its sensibility.  And so, this particular adventure started about 6 months ago when I just happened to wonder how long it might take to fly around the country in our recently completed RV-7A.  Just to make it a little more interesting, I thought, would it be possible to fly to all of the lower 48 states in the span of a two week vacation?

My pedantic brethren will note that the state of Hawaii is "lower" in latitude than any of the states in North America.  A proper definition of the lower 48 would be the conterminous 48 states, meaning those 48 states sharing at least one common border.  OK, I'm glad we've got that out of the way.

This project would certainly be a challenge for my wife Carolina and I, given the time frame allowed and the other constraints that I was about to add.  For instance, I wanted to visit a friend in Colorado, see a Cleveland Indians game, fly by the New York and Chicago skylines, visit the birthplace of powered aviation near Kitty Hawk NC, and most importantly, fly into the Oshkosh air show.

So what does it mean to visit a state?  Must we spend the night there?  Or is it that you must pass through at least one gift shop? Perhaps it's all about eating at one McDonald's per state? Clearly, I needed an underlying rule to guide this adventure.  It would be this:  We will make a full stop landing in each state in order for it to count as visited.  Obviously, merely over flying a state just doesn't cut it.

Choosing A Route:

Devising a route is helped initially by having constraints because it gives one a place to start.  For example, I found it particularly advantageous to begin our trip at our home airport.  The route planning for this trip is similar to the well known "traveling salesman" problem in mathematics, where the issue is minimizing the salesman's route.  The bad news for me is that this problem has never been solved for nontrivial cases, as it becomes fiendishly difficult to prove that a good route is actually the very best one.  There are algorithmic methods available, but when I looked into this, I found that they operate on the classic traveling salesman problem, not the more useful Rainbolt vacation routing problem.  The difference being that the traveling salesman's destinations are fixed before the route is computed, whereas my case suffers increased difficulty stemming from the fact that I could choose any airport in a state. That opened up a lot a possibility for minimizing the route, but it also added trillions and trillions of possible routes. By comparison, a 48 stop traveling salesman need only consider a pawltry 2.6x1059 possible routes.  Win some, lose some.

In the end, and in this one very special case, I had the advantage of not being a computer -- for if I were, I might have had to compare a googolplex of possible routes.  Fortunately, it turns out that humans, unlike computers, are pretty good at visually assessing this kind of problem.

I first plotted our fixed destinations on a U.S. map, then I drew a line to include each of the states and the previously fixed locations.  I reasoned that the shortest route would pass near state borders and through places where several states come together in close proximity.   It didn't take long to get the route roughed in.  One question that I remember having at the time was if it would be better to include Iowa on the first half of the trip or pick it up on the way back. I answered that question and many others just like it in the route optimization phase.

Once I had a general idea of a route that would meet my constraints, I went to skyvector.com to copy the route there.  Skyvector is an aviation flight planning site that "knows" where the airports are.  At this point it was simply a matter of choosing airports that lie near my ideal route.  Once all of the dots (airports) were connected, I could see the route total in nautical miles.

I then began a period of route optimization where I exchanged one airport for another and tested various changes in the state's order to see their affect on the route total.  After a couple hours of this it became obvious that given my constraints, the route had become very resistant to further optimization.  In other words, it was about as good as I could make it.


The first step was to calculate the total number of miles that we would need to fly and divide that by the number of flying days in the schedule to arrive at about 650 nautical miles per flying day.  Getting to this number allowed us to have an idea on which cities we would be spending the night.  I felt like weather delays in the east might make it pointless to make hotel reservations there, but Carolina did make reservations in Kansas, Ohio, and Wisconsin.  Kansas, because it would be early in the trip and I felt confident that we could make it there before our plans changed very much.  We reserved a room in Ohio because we had Indians tickets for July 23, so that day was fixed in our schedule.  And finally, we had hotel reservations for our time at Oshkosh, but we had to stay in nearby Appleton to get the reservation.  For the remaining days we just took it on faith that there would be a hotel near the airport when we stopped flying for the day.

We collected our clothes, tools, tie down stakes and hammer, 5 quarts of oil, canopy and bug cleaning supplies, cameras, a lap top w/mobile hot spot, a small ice chest, some survival gear, and one umbrella. Then we held a weigh in at our hangar.  I was horrified to learn that I would be toting 96 lbs of crap across America.  Since our limit is 100 lbs in the baggage compartment we were still legal, but just barely.

It's laughable to think that at one point we naively thought that we might camp when we got to Oshkosh.  Lots of people do camp and it is without a doubt the least expensive way to enjoy the air show.  I know that many people enjoy the campground comradery and the camping experience. Perhaps I will get to enjoy it too someday, if I can find a complete set of camping gear for two weighing only 4 pounds. In the future, I'm sure that with great effort we can pare down our baggage to just the essentials. Next time, for example, I think I can leave my drill press at home.

Finally, we took the plane up fully loaded on a quick test flight so I could reacquaint myself with its flying qualities while fully loaded.  I had flown our airplane loaded like this once before while it was still in its phase 1 test period, but I just wanted to have one last look at it before we left.

We added this U.S. map decal to track our progress.  This was the smallest one I could find. It was designed to go on a motorcycle.

Day 1, 15 July 2017

KGOO to KTPH 1.4 hours, Departing at 6:58 am PDT

We arrived at the Grass Valley airport at about 6:30 am.  The plane was already fueled and mostly loaded.  The preflight followed and then I pulled the plane out of the hangar.  There really wasn't much left to do except get in and start flying.

As soon as I closed the canopy I could see that I had failed to close the oil filler door out on the cowl. So much for my thorough preflight.  OK, no problem, I unstrapped, climbed out and closed the door. It's a little bit of a struggle to unstrap and climb out, but, no worries, it was early in the morning and I was still fresh. Back in the cockpit, I refastened my seat belts while Carol waited patiently.  The canopy comes down and then I realize that I didn't start the GoPro camera I had placed out on the wing.  OK, one more time...  Soon, I'm out of the plane and starting the camera with only a little less spring in my step.  I planned on taking a time-lapse video of the entire trip and it wouldn't do to miss our inaugural take-off.   I hoist myself back into the left seat.  "Third time is the charm", I say to Carol.  She just smiled and didn't say a word.

We lift off into clear blue skies at about 7:00 am, with the sun just above the horizon to our left.

  We were on a south easterly heading that would take us past Lake Tahoe.  Sunrise over the lake.

We were treated to nice early morning views of the still snow covered Sierras.

There is a solar power plant in the Nevada desert about 20 miles outside of Tonopah.  It's listed as an "Occular Glare" hazzard for aircraft on the sectional.

Our first stop.  Tonopah Nevada.  There were gliders and campers parked on the ramp when we arrived.  One gentleman came over to check out our aircraft.  He was a home builder himself and mentioned that he had previously constructed an RV-6.  We talked for a bit and then we were off on the next leg.

Tonopah, Nevada

KTPH to KSGU 1.3 hours, Departing at 8:54 am PDT

Over Nevada, it's desert terrain and scattered scrub brush all along our route.  The occasional rocky outcropping breaks the muted brown and tan topography.  Approaching St. George Utah, the ground below becomes a bit more vivid with reddish hues added.  Landing behind a Lear jet, we take on fuel at the Above View Jet Center and enjoy their cool lobby for a few minutes before braving the heat once again.  It still seems early for us, but it's already in the 90's.

St. George, Utah

KSGU to KPGA .7 hours, Departing at 12:04 pm MDT

On we go. Soon we are descending into Page Arizona.  Although it was noon local time it was still only 11:00 am for us.  Either way, it was already HOT!  Here is Lake Powell at left and the city of Page to the right.  The airport was just on the other side of Page.

When we were entering the Page area there were a few aircraft buzzing about he area, talking on their radios trying to make their positions known.  The trouble is, they were all using local place names rather than directions and distances from the airport.  Using place names is more accurate I'll admit, but it only works if every aircraft listening already knows where these landmarks are.  A few pilots mentioned that they were over the dam.  Once I happened to cross over a dam, I knew where they were a few minutes ago, but I still didn't really know where they are now.  Another pilot mentioned that he was over the horseshoe -- I still don't know where that is. 

Page had a very nice terminal building and some Jets and other large aircraft parked in front.  We didn't need fuel so we didn't park, opting instead to move on to Aztec New Mexico before lunch.

Page, Arizona

KPGA to N19 1.2 hours, Departing at 12:10 pm MDT

Between Page and Aztec we cross Monument Valley off to our left.  Monument Valley may look familiar as it has been the location for many TV and movie westerns.

Ship rock, New Mexico near the four corners area.

In a short time, we arrive at Aztec, NM (N19).  The airport is located on the top of a mesa giving it an aircraft carrier like appearance.  There are steep drop offs at either end of the runway and a bit of a slope up from the 08 end of the runway.  We landed on 08 and taxied to the terminal. There wasn't anyone around when we arrived.  I topped off the fuel because the next leg would have us crossing the Rockies.  We ate a quiet lunch that Carol had packed for us in the cool comfort of the N19 lobby. 

The airport itself was pleasant enough, if a bit empty.  There was a courtesy car parked in front.  It was nice to know that there was a car available should we have needed it. Once we had finished our sandwiches it was time to push on towards Denver -- Centennial Colorado actually,  a southern suburb of Denver. When it was time to depart, there are no taxiways so you must taxi the runway.  I elected to depart runway 26 because it was a little downhill and that usually trumps whatever wind might be blowing.

Aztec, New Mexico

N19 to KAPA 1.6 hours, Departing at 2:15 pm MDT

I sped through the departure checks in the building summer heat.  Then, applying full power, the ground fell away beneath us and little by little the cabin began to cool.  A right turn to the north east had us on a diagonal path through the southern Rockies toward Centennial.

There was rising terrain along our route but our RV had no trouble staying ahead of it.  What we couldn't stay ahead of were the dark skies on the horizon.  The closer to the mountains we got the worse the weather was looking.  We have the NexRad weather radar that comes in through the ADS-B receiver and that helped us to sort out the intensity of the weather.  The challenge for us was to find a path through the mountains that split the difference between the lowering cloud bottoms and the rising peaks.

Some rain developed along our route and it was heavier to the north.  So we deviated a bit south which avoided the worst of the weather and had the added advantage of lower mountains.

We still had some rain to fly through, but we had plenty of fuel so turning around and going back was always an option.

Along the way we had beautiful views of the Rockies, although the 13,000+ peaks that were nearby were in the clouds.  Fortunately, we didn't need to go quite that high to get through.

Once we had passed just south of the Colorado town of Salida, I could begin to see lowering terrain and it was a big relief.  We pressed on and soon Denver came into view.  It soon became apparent that yet another weather threat waits for us ahead.  A dark line of thunder storms were moving toward the our destination, Centennial airport which is actually located in the neighboring town of Englewood. On the radio, several pilots were attempting to change their routing to avoid the weather. Denver approach was very busy, to say the least.  I think we were the last to land at Centennial airport (KAPA) before the Storm hit.  There were fairly high winds on landing, but they were aligned with the runway and did not present too big of a problem.  Just after touch down though, the winds shifted and we were knocked around a bit on the roll out.  Then the really high winds kicked in.  The ground controller advised of 50Kt gusts. We waited briefly on a taxi way while 3 F-18 Jets taxied by.  The winds didn't seem to affect them much, but we were really rocking and rolling. Luckily, by the time we rolled up to the FBO, the winds were already starting to die back down.  It was sometime after 4:00 pm local time and I was tired enough to be glad my flying day was finished.

We tied down at Signature, one of several FBOs on the field.  We didn't have any prior dealings with Signature, so they were selected by virtue of having the lowest tie down fees.  We were delighted to find that they were really great to work with.  When the wind was blowing really hard, they actually moved a big truck in front of our little plane to block the wind.  That made unloading a lot easier with our tip-up canopy sticking up in the breeze.  And then the rain came and they sent a van over to shuttle us to their building.  These guys were really awesome.  Here is a picture of Signature we took before departing on Monday.  Needless to say, the skies were not blue when we arrived on Saturday.

Centennial, Colorado

We took the remainder of the weekend off to visit with my friend Melanie.  She took us to a great brew pub for dinner on Saturday and then on Sunday, we toured the Red Rocks amphitheater.

In addition to the beautiful rock formations there is also a museum there that explains the geology of the rocks and the history of the amphitheater.  I was surprised to learn that this was the only U.S. location were the Beatles failed to sell out a concert. 

I think this is the only picture on the entire trip with Carol and I in the same frame.

After Red Rocks we toured the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum. What a great day!

In the next posting, we'll be right back at it, heading east across the great prairie. 

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