Flying the Oregon Trail 2006

Ever since I read Steve Coonts's great book Cannibal Queen in the early 90's, I've wanted to fly across America.  At the time, I had a private pilotís license but was not flying.  I got back into flying in the early 00ís.  About the same time I read "The Oregon, California, and Mormon Trails by AirĒ by William White, and learned that, from the air, you can still see wagon ruts along the Oregon trail made back in 1840-60.  I knew I just had to fly the Oregon Trail someday. In 2003, when my brother-in-law, Bruce Barrett, and I finished restoring a 1970 Citabria 7GCBC, I had the plane to fly the trip.  For the last three years, I had wanted to do the flight but couldnít for various reasons.  Looking back, it was probably for the best.  I now know I really wasnít experienced enough at that time to make the trip safely.  But during those three years,  Iíve made long cross-countries to Oshkosh, Lakeland, and Maine.  I've really gotten to know the Citabria, have learned to fly long cross-country flights, and have become a complete pilot.  This year, however, I was determined to make the flight, or at least try. 

In previous years, I thought I would start the trip sometime in August when the weather "looked good".  But Iíve come to understand a couple of things about the weather and cross-countries.  First, east coast weather in July and August is usually terrible for flying: hot, hazy with frequent thunderstorms.  Second, I realized that a couple of weeks of perfect flying weather across the entire country is just not going to happen.  They canít forecast reliably beyond a week -- and that's the local weather.  The weather varies so much across the entire continent that thereís bound to be bad weather somewhere.  Finally, not having a specific departure date made it hard to plan anything.

This year I would try a different strategy.  There was an annual fly-in at Gaston's White River Resort in Arkansas on June 10-11.  Iíd start my trip off in June with the Gastons Fly-In.  Weather permitting, I'd fly the Citabria to Arkansas, attend the fly-in, then angle northwest to Independence, Missouri where the Oregon Trail begins.  I'd follow the trail -- red line below -- through Nebraska, Wyoming and Idaho, stop in Boise to visit an old high-school buddy, then continue on through Oregon.  At the Pacific Ocean, I'd fly north to visit another old buddy at Whidby Island, Washington, just north of Seattle.  Then I'd fly down the coast to Sacramento and visit my parents and my sister and her family.  Iíd fly back along the most direct route, by following Interstate 80, which just happens to be along the first transcontinental railroad.

The below map hung in my basement workshop.  I looked at it many times while working on the RV-7.  I marked with a grease pencil my long cross-countries and the Oregon Trail flight.  I wanted to do the flight in the Citabria rather than the RV-7 because the Citabria, although much slower, has better ground visibility with its high-wing.  The whole point was to look out the window at the scenery, not get there fast.   

The Trip
I left on June ninth as planned and the trip went pretty much as planned.  I was very lucky with weather.  The Citabria performed perfectly -- not a single malfunction.  And it is true that you can still see the wagon ruts from the 1840-1860s in many spots.  Here's my adventure!

Final Stats:

Total flight time, including giving rides and some site-seeing, was 90 hours. The entire trip took 19 days but over a week of that was the fly-in, visiting friends and family, and site-seeing. I did not have a single mechanical problem the entire flight: airframe, engine, radios, GPS all worked perfectly.

Total Flight Time: 90 hours
Most Flying in One Day: 10.8 hrs (Baltimore to Gastons, Arkansas)
Highest Altitude: 11,500 ft (and I needed it to get over the Sierra
Nevada near Lake Tahoe)
Lowest Altitude (above ground) 10 feet (Lots of flat, empty areas)
Highest Oil Temp: 235
Lowest ground speed: 40 mph (Near South Pass, WY)
Highest groundspeed: 125 (tailwind on last days flight)
Avg groundspeed heading west (85mph)
Avg groundspeed heading east (105 mph)
Lowest Avgas price ($3.15 at Guernsey, Wyoming)
Most challenging landing: Kemmerer, WY - 30 mph wind, 7200 ft
People given rides: 11
Rivers: Ohio, Mississippi, Missouri, N. Platte, Sweetwater,Snake,
Best overnight stop: Wendover, Nevada. (Montego Bay hotel $50,
great room, pool, $15 for unbelieveable dinner buffet.)

Museums/Places visited:
Gastons White River Resort
Scotts Bluff, Nebraska
Fort Laramie, Nebraska
Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, Baker City, Oregon
Evergreen Aviation Museum, Mcminnville, Oregon (Spruce Goose)
Tillamook Air Museum, Oregon
Seattle Museum of Aviation
Boeing Factory
Jonesy's Famous Steakhouse at Napa Valley, CA airport
Overflew USS Iowa battleship in Suison Bay
Bonneville Salt Flats

For Navigation, I had two primary tools:  charts and the Garmin 295 GPS.  Sectionals are hard to manipulate in the Citabria, so I used the Air Chart Systems spiral bound VFR Atlases.  There was one book for the East US and one of the West.  They are basically all  of the sectionals in book format.  Referencing the William White book, I plotted the Oregon Trail route into the Atlases.  I pretty much just kept the Atlas on my lap while I was flying.  The Atlasís worked well on this trip.

As good as the GPS is, it does not replace the aviation sectional chart.  That said, the GPS was indispensable to the flight as well.  I needed both.  I used it for flight planning, avoiding controlled airspace, getting runway, elevation, and communication information on airports and navigating. 

Emergency Supplies:  I knew I would be flying over desolate areas, so I brought ample emergency equipment.  I had a cold weather sleeping bag, a tent, a heavy coat, an air mattress, first-aid kit, compass, knife, food, water, butane lighters, hand-held radio, spare GPS, and cell phone.  In addition, I had a bunch of tools to do some light maintenance on the Citabria including a tire-patch kit and air pump. 

The Airplane.  The Citabria has been flown without incident for over two years.  We had it annualled a week before I left on the trip. 

Oil.  I ended up using about a quart of oil a day. 

Lesson learned:  If you know where you will be stopping for the night, make reservations at a motel ahead of time!  Also arrange transportation.  If there is a problem Ė like there are no rooms available in the town that night, or no transportation between the airport and motel exists Ė you can adjust your flight plan to go to some other town.  

Summary:  Everything worked perfectly the entire trip:  the engine, airframe, GPS, radio and headset.  I was also extremely lucky with the weather.  The only part of my flight plan that I could not execute due to weather was flying into St. Louis.  I was able to fly everyday and incredibly, stick to my timetable, which really surprised me.  I had fully expected to spend a couple of days sitting in a motel room due to bad weather.  To sum it up, it was a great trip and I am grateful to have the opportunity to do something so wonderful.