Cross-Country Cub — A First-Hand Experience

By Luc Zipkin, EAA 1402742

There’s an old aviation saying that goes something like this: “Omni-Omni, VOR, before you weren’t, but now you are.” That expression was ringing in my ears on Christmas Eve 2020, my 16th birthday, as I flew my first solo in my family’s 1946 Piper J-3 Cub at Waterbury-Oxford Airport in Connecticut. After a few admittedly lousy touch-and-goes (Connecticut in December is hardly ideal Cub weather, so the cold drove me back to the ground), I taxied in, put the airplane away, and promptly started scheming, as I think any 16 year-old given the keys to a taildragger would. That first solo became a watershed moment for me, and before long, I had set the goal of flying our little Piper from my home airport, Goodspeed Airport in East Haddam, Connecticut, to historic Flabob Airport in Riverside, California, inspired in no small part by Flight of Passage, a book about two teenagers doing a similar flight in the 1960s. It seemed like the greatest flying experience a young person like me could ever have — flying thousands of miles, low and slow, stick and rudder, in a vintage taildragger in the summer — and it was that and so much more.

I got to work planning this adventure in January 2021, working out everything from scheduling to sponsorship. It wasn’t easy to convince my parents to let me take their airplane coast-to-coast, but the purchase of a personal locator beacon (PLB) and a promise to my mother to text her at every fuel stop greased the wheels. In September 2020, I had also founded a group called Young Pilots USA, which aims to build a community by and for young people in aviation, and the trip — soon dubbed the Coast-to-Coast Cub — fit perfectly within our mission. After conferring with the members of Young Pilots USA, we decided that this was also an excellent opportunity to give back to causes we care about. We did some detailed research into the best charitable groups to fundraise for each cause, and decided that AOPA’s “You Can Fly” flight training scholarship series (which benefits, among many others, high schoolers looking for help paying for their flight training), the Gary Sinise Foundation, which works to help wounded veterans and their families by building specially adapted homes for them free of charge, and, in line with the times, the Barstool Fund to benefit small businesses — mainly restaurants and bars — affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. With these greater goals in mind, I set about actually making the thing happen.

From the earliest public announcements, the response the project received from the aviation community was incredible. From major aviation publications to local flying clubs, support was coming from all directions. Thanks to this tremendous help, as well as the great financial generosity of many independent donors, the reality of the trip soon came into view. It is truly impossible to overstate the debt Young Pilots USA and I owe to our great community of pilots and aviation enthusiasts for their support.

I spent so long working through the architecture of the trip that when it came time to leave on June 8, 2021, the scale of the endeavor hit me like a freight train, but there was really no time to be nervous; in order to account for the possibility of mechanical issues or weather, I needed to keep moving without major stops for a week. On the day of, I hopped in the little Cub and flew from East Haddam, Connecticut, to Pottstown, Pennsylvania. The flight was uneventful, and fueling went smoothly, so I just kept going. Attention spans necessitate that I don’t summarize in detail every leg (since there were 21 stops, each with their own special challenges and character.) In any case, over more than 40 hours in the air, I flew all the way from Connecticut to California, sometimes at just a few hundred feet, and other times all the way up at 8,500 feet (this may seem fairly standard for pilots of aircraft other than the Cub — rest assured this is very, very high for a J-3).

Of course, for all the businesslike machinations and attention to detail required in the flight planning itself, it was still an incredible adventure, though not without its challenges, either. These challenges formed some of the best memories of the trip, from flying the last leg of the flight, from Imperial, California, to Riverside, with carb heat on, since the carb heat handle came off in my hand, to landing at a density altitude of over 8,000 feet (I quickly learned the differences between indicated and true airspeed.) I spent over nine hours in the seat for several days, making it a relatively quick six-day crossing. There were funny quirks along the way too, like when a Texas FBO manager (who I won’t embarrass by name) told me the main reason folks visit his town is to attend funerals. Likewise, the incredible, unique moments of the trip are seared into my mind. In Virginia, I got the chance to tour Dynamic Aviation’s ongoing restoration of Columbine II, a Lockheed Constellation that served as President Eisenhower’s executive transport and was the first-ever airplane officially referred to as “Air Force One.” Special airports like General DeWitt Spain Airport in Memphis, Tennessee, and Flabob Airport in Riverside, California, reminded me of the power of a well-established aviation community, and further inspired me in our mission to build one for the next generation.

In the end, this adventure wound up being everything I hoped it would be and so much more. I’m forever grateful for the support I got from my parents, friends, fellow members of Young Pilots USA, and the aviation community on the whole, and at least from a few weeks after the completion of the trip, it looks like our efforts have made an impact where we hoped. We’ve grown our community group substantially while also raising thousands of dollars for each of our three charitable causes. I hope this endeavor inspires other young people to take the leap and get involved in flying, and that when they do, it proves as challenging and rewarding a process as it’s been for me. Who knows? With some hard work, determination, and a little luck, maybe I’ll be a curmudgeonly old pilot running into a teen flying coast-to-coast in a tired old taildragger. I certainly hope so.

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