Hand-Flying for 900 Miles

By Mark M. Stanfield, EAA 1499607

I was at work one day when a telephone call came my way requesting the delivery of a unique airplane from Wisconsin to New York. Being a less-than-part-time ferry pilot by choice, I never know who will call or what the aircraft will be. It’s almost always an entirely new destination for a unique client and an uncommon airframe. The more I heard about this airplane, the more interested I became. The Mooney M10 Cadet was made between 1969 and 1970, and with only a little more than 50 produced in total, they are a rare sight. For those not familiar, the Cadet is essentially three parts Ercoupe, one part Mooney — but two handfuls of flying, even with proper elevator trim application. Contemplating a 900-mile ferry flight, in an airplane from the early 1970s, without modern avionics (or autopilot), sometimes in busy airspace, and no ADS-B Out, is no small task. The lack of ADS-B Out alone required a bit of homework in terms of which areas along the route would require waivers, and then submitting the requests to fly through Class B and C airspace areas. Long before the day came to launch with these particular hurdles, I asked myself more than once, “Who flies an airplane that small, that far, and am I really the guy to do this?”

Two separate cross-country visits to the airplane were made before finally flying the long route. One was to look it over and hear the engine run, the other to actually fly it on a confidence flight and receive an hour of dual instruction in an uncommon airplane, with the insurance company’s blessing. From the first few moments of taxiing for that acceptance flight, let alone taking off and feeling the controls in my hand, I was in love with an airplane that wasn’t mine. It was tempered a bit by the presence of a loud howling, whistling noise coming from somewhere along the canopy seals, which were quite brittle from age. Just the same, the sense of classic style that comes from flying under a canopy is unavoidable, especially after landing and sliding it open. The joy of flying something like it and knowing that such a small engine seems not to limit its responsiveness is irresistible. It’s not a fighter, but the canopy and the shape and position of the cowl fairings evokes, at least in the wildest imagination, something like a vintage warbird. I couldn’t wait to make the long trek, though I knew I would need a bit of extra equipment to supplement what the airplane didn’t have. In an age where reliance on GPS is extensive, this airplane had a Garmin 150XL with a database no longer serviced and, combined with its propensity for power cycling every few minutes, was essentially inoperative.

Armed with marked VFR sectional charts, an iPad, a flight navigation app, a cell phone, two power packs, USB cables, a Stratus, a Garmin inReach, time-distance tables for various groundspeeds, deviation waivers, flight following, and even a lensatic compass, I felt that nothing could contribute to my feeling lost even for a moment. The only thing I needed for such a sunny pair of days was a baseball cap, which I forgot at home.

Within minutes of the first leg, I knew there would be challenges getting all the way to eastern Upstate New York. I was immediately aware of that same howl of air passage around the canopy. Some gaffer tape that was given to me made for a quick in-flight fix, but I made a mental note to carefully peel that away after each landing for fear of losing any style points at the stops along the route. I also intended to open the canopy as soon as I could after taxiing off runways, even if it was forecast to be cooler than 50 degrees during the trip! In those same initial minutes of the journey, air traffic control had reported issues with the Mode C portion of the transponder — adding to the already known lack of ADS-B Out — and there was also an intermittent short in the electrical system, causing the radio display to flicker. Engine vibrations didn’t help the situation. I worried instantly that I’d be sent to La Crosse, Wisconsin, to troubleshoot my electrical woes before continuing. However, transmitting and receiving radio calls went fine, for the most part, though there was one moment where ATC had been trying to reach me more than once. My guess is that those shorts were occasionally leaving me none the wiser. Thankfully it was just that first 15 minutes of the trip where I had missed the approach controller calling me and, other than the flickering, I didn’t miss any other attempts to reach me (as far as I know). Additionally, on that very first leg, though I had elevator trim, even the slightest reduction of direct input on the yoke, let alone letting go of the controls altogether, caused noticeable though fairly benign departures from straight-and-level flight. Despite having an enormous supply of food and snacks, I rarely let go of the controls, even to fold over the next portion of a sectional chart, for fear of veering off course. I reasoned that if Lindbergh ate less than two sandwiches on his 33-and-a-half hour Atlantic crossing, I’d be more than okay if I didn’t eat that day. I certainly managed in-flight, with sometimes abrupt course changes, and knew I could advance to a little past the halfway point, in Ohio, where a pre-planned lunch awaited.

With the first mid-morning brightness, I quickly realized my error in leaving a hat at home, which was just as quickly overcome by wearing one of the sectionals draped over my head and down my shoulders! Considering how many layers of navigational redundancy I had generated, I suppose my biggest risk the entire time under that canopy was solar radiation. This chart-wearing practice continued well beyond my first fuel stop in Illinois, which was by design a short leg to calculate the fuel burn rate as compared to the data in the owner’s handbook. As a maintenance check flight pilot, I wasn’t going anywhere near the 1970 published maximum range or endurance without an actual calculation at some distance well inside the reference figures. I was happy to see the engine performing very near specification.

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At the second refueling point in eastern Ohio, I managed to nail a nearly perfect time-on-target: landing within 10 minutes of my older brother, himself a student pilot, who had flown 143 miles south to the same location with his instructor. Regular position reports and access to modern flight tracking sites online helped us to make it safely and precisely to lunch. The three of us spent the better part of an hour eating, comparing navigation notes, laughing about my “sectional sombrero,” and figuring my arrival time for the end of the day, which was hopefully the very western part of New York, after following the Erie coast.

Up to this point, I had been fighting a small battle with slight headwinds, so my personal best was maybe 104 knots of groundspeed. That piece of data was the one thing the outdated Garmin 150XL could provide me, when it wasn’t restarting itself. Rounding the abeam point of Cleveland, and after very kindly being allowed to cut the corner and go straight through its Class B airspace at 5,500 feet MSL, a very much needed tailwind pushed me the rest of the way to Jamestown-Chautauqua, New York. In all, I managed to get from southwestern Wisconsin to Western New York and landed right at sunset, in a day.

The final morning of the mission, a crisp, calm Saturday, brought the best conditions imaginable. The prize of the whole trip was the view of the Adirondack Mountains and the Finger Lakes. I grew up knowing of the region but had never seen it. What better setup than on a crystal-clear fall morning? On the last leg, which was the longest, I had calculated that I’d be nowhere near minimum fuel, though I was watching the upper cowl-mounted wire float gauge like a hawk. It sits outside the canopy and looks rather like some sort of gunsight, especially with a little imagination. That particular piece of equipment is vital because it’s the only fuel indicator on board the airplane that can be referenced during flight, and its function is to remain at the top position of a sight gauge until the wing tanks are empty, and when only the center fuel tank is remaining, which approximates an hour or so of fuel left. If the red needle on the gauge ever started to dip, I knew it would be time to boogie. Even though I was well above VFR fuel minimum, I kept an eye on that red-tipped wire float like my life depended on it, particularly with the reality that I had a few final mountain ranges and densely wooded areas to clear before descending into Glens Falls, New York. For all the Midwest farm fields I’d overflown, I felt like an infinite rolling terrain of uninviting conifers, swamps, and mountain shoulders waited for me below. I must have listened to every cylinder fire for the last 100 miles to my destination. Additionally, I had already been utilizing a thorough scan of each engine instrument every 5 to 10 minutes the whole time, but my eyes were anchored to the oil pressure and temperature while I listened intently to the Continental’s hum. I learned during the first overnight that the Mooney’s new owner, Bob, was actually more on pins and needles the entire time than I was, and he wasn’t even flying it! In fact, on the final leg of the first day, the flight track for the aircraft, which coincidentally was a descent, appeared to end abruptly right over a lake. His horror, until I called shortly after landing, was fearing I’d made it all the way to New York just to crash in a small lake, and with only one small final hop remaining the next morning to his hangar.

Reflecting on preparing for, and then eventually embarking on, this trip I now feel like I’ve seen just a tiny glimpse of the challenges Charles Lindbergh faced (though I’m in no way comparing my far easier task to his feats). I primarily navigated with a VFR sectional chart, magnetic headings, time-distance calculations, and had a navigation app for a sanity check of my position every so often. Having selected visual checkpoints as frequently as once every 2 or 3 nautical miles and as distant as only 7 to 10 miles along the entire route, I never once felt lost. Between the wire sight fuel gauge and the two cowl fairings, it was easy to point the nose at the next checkpoint, rise in terrain, or unique ground feature until I reached my next landmarks. I’m not sure I would have had as much fun, or appreciated the challenge, if I had an autopilot and functioning GPS navigation. Elsewhere in my reflections, it was very meaningful to take this airplane on such a long journey and end in Glens Falls, New York, to an airport named for Floyd Bennett — another very famous aviator and early pioneer in some of the most impressive flying ever attempted. The fact that my name appears in the same article as these two men is about as close as I’ll ever come to being like them. Furthermore, I had a considerable support network before and during the mission. At any given time in the air, I had upwards of 20 people watching my progress online. Between borrowed equipment and quick debriefs via phone and text between legs, it was most certainly a team effort to get to the end successfully. I hope to fly a Mooney Cadet again someday. Then I can relive some of the adventure that comes from hand-flying and navigating in an otherwise more and more automated world.

Mark Stanfield is a military and airline pilot with 14 years of professional aviation experience. Mark enjoys writing articles and other pieces for publication in his spare time. He took his first flight with as part of EAA’s Young Eagles program when he was 8 years old.

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