If one wishes to make sense out of the present series of flights, then it becomes necessary to dial things back to 2010. My father had recently passed away, and despite taking ownership of the PA-11 that I now fly, I found it necessary to express my emotions by taking up the ancestral mantle of buying Cub and Super Cub insurance wrecks. I purchased a J-3 that had what I deemed to be minor damage (in light of the carnage that regularly rolled in to my grandfather’s shop) and set my mind to get it flying again. I did, except it took years and was a money losing operation, though I became something of an intriguing individual, being the only person in the neighborhood to have a 1940s airplane literally in his garage.

Apparently, I am incapable of learning from past mistakes. The Super Cub that I flew for my “Sentimental Journey” blog post last fall was another yellow, Ceconite-covered Piper taildragger, continuing this model of processing the evolution of life and death with airplane purchases, as my grandfather had died two months prior. In this case, the airplane was substantially perfect, which offered an illusion that it was in no way a repeat of the process earlier in the decade.

When I made the purchase of the Super Cub last year, it was a 2-hour flight to the region where I grew up, and the weather happened to be ideal in that direction, which virtually never happens in that time of year. I tried to rationalize that it was the luck of the draw that I put the Super Cub at the airport where I took my checkride, which happened to be the same airport that, at age eight, my grandfather let me take control of his [bright yellow Ceconite-covered] Super Cub for the first time, telling me to fly home via a road that I was familiar with. I think it’s less likely that I was following the weather and more likely that the obvious is true: there was a processing of a lifelong history of aviation with my grandfather, and this was a way of working through some of it.

Now that winter had come and gone, and a pile of life-altering events unrelated to aviation had changed many of the original plans as to how I was going to use the plane in the USA, I had a need to visit clients in various locations while also making my mind up about the Super Cub. I hatched a plan to use the Super Cub to traverse the country, enjoying myself while figuring out what to do next.

Weather cooperated for my incoming flight from Europe, so I was off from Perry-Warsaw, NY late in the evening heading south, with Charlotte, NC in mind. Since it was 7:10PM at takeoff, I wasn’t going to get far, though I still hadn’t formulated where I’d end up exactly. My wife usually plays the role of travel agent by text, finding hotels, and in this case, it was past midnight for her, so I was on my own. I initially in my mind set out for Williamsport PA, though as I was in flight, I got the sensation that University Park Airport in State College PA would have more hotels. Given that school was out and it’s a big college town, there would likely be tons of hungry hoteliers.

Crossing the Pennsylvania Wilds again, this time at dusk, I was struck how utterly desolate the place is, and few seem to know of it, even having grown up 100 miles north. Anyhow, the sun set and the night lights went on, something I do not have on the PA-11. I was a little nervous with the haze and the fact that the Wilds have zero inhabitants, though I got some civilization to make out a horizon before twilight ended, then came in for a landing at State College, my first at night in over 5 years. Of all of my flight experience, less than one percent is at night.

Silver Lake, NY – not long after departing Perry-Warsaw.

Southern Tier of NY, east of Wellsville.

Pennsylvania Wilds. Indeed one can choose between a tree, rock, or river as a forced landing location.

I pulled up to a very nice FBO, which had a hotel arrangement, a hotel shuttle, and they tied down the plane for me with no landing fees. I had to resist yelling “I LOVE AMERICA!” at the top of my lungs. In the matter of a 90 minute flight, I was deep into another state, changed destination (while getting NOTAMS and AF/D data in flight on my iPad), and landed at a place next to jets where they clearly want to do business and make things as easy as possible. It is hard to describe, though suffice it to say that diversion to a different destination in Europe is only done out of flight urgency and not some illusion that one place is better than another based on in-flight mental musings.

The next day, ceilings would be an issue in the morning and angry warm front thunderstorms in the afternoon. The heavens parted like the Red Sea as soon as I arrived at the airport, and I was off heading straight south in hot and humid air, pretty much certain I would pass the frontal boundary in northern VA before anything got going.

Thirty minutes into the flight, the oil pressure gauge started acting up. While I had only owned the airplane now for 6 flying hours, it had consistently stayed at a PSI setting and moved only slightly and slowly. Now she was bouncing in 6 psi increments, though staying in the green. Curious. Instead of flying VFR on top over a cloud-covered ridge, I turned to follow one of those ubiquitous Pennsylvania valleys that goes for 100 miles, just in case.

“Ridge and Valley” geographic province, south of Pennsylvania. This feature goes on from New York to Tennessee. 

Oil pressures slid about 7 PSI (still well into the green), though temps came up and stabilized at a new high, given it was the hottest OATs yet. If they kept rising, the conclusion would have been obvious, though they sat proportionally at a temp consistent with how hot it was outside, so I kept going, until I could see that the average of the gauge wobbling was going down. Still in the green, I had to choose between Potomac, MD or Hagerstown, MD. Potomac looked to be a continuation of a valley with cloud cover, and I couldn’t get a METAR or AWOS to determine ceilings. Hagerstown, a towered field, had AWOS and I could get a broadcast at 23nm. Sky clear. I diverted direct and by the time I was in the pattern, oil pressure was heading toward the top of the yellow.

After landing, it became evident 4 of the 7 quarts I had at takeoff had decided to go overboard via a leak. Sigh. After extensive phone calls and what not, I left it at a repair station for review the next day and drove to Charlotte, NC in a rental car. Yet again, America is the Promised Land of aviation, as the FBO had a deal with a local car rental agency, so life was easy, absent the ill-timed lack of oil.

The trip took a setback with a bad case of the flu, so a week later, I was back to resume the flight, not sure if I’d make it to California as I had planned. As I am very neurotic about post-maintenance safety (I find that maintenance puts other equilibriums at risk under the cowling), I did a few landings to confirm no leaks, tied down for the night, and left the next morning.

It was a beautiful flight down the Shenandoah Valley, from Hagerstown, MD, all the way to Virginia Highlands Airport near Abingdon, VA on the border with Tennessee. From there, the flight called for following the Tennessee River Valley southwest in East Tennessee, except it was hot as blazes and quite hazy. There is a bit of terrain to the west that tops out just below 4000’ north of Oak Ridge, long on my list that I didn’t ever see from the PA-11 when I lived in North Carolina, so I flew over the windmills on the ridges, then kept going to 8,000’ above the puffy clouds to cool off a bit.

Outside of Front Royal, Virginia.


North of Roanoke, Virginia. Old habits die hard. Even with a transponder and radio, I wasn’t in the mood to talk to Roanoke Approach.

“Mountain Empire” area of Virginia not far from I-77. This area is a famous weather boundary in winter, with IFR to the right and illustrious sun to the left. This was one of the ranges my grandfather long viewed as nothing short of an airplane graveyard. I see it as a knoll.

Cherokee Reservoir, Tennessee.


At this point, I departed the Great Appalachian Valley (which runs from Quebec to Alabama), having flown about half of it, and continued southwest while the Valley turns more southerly. Landing at Tullahoma, TN, I realized something profound: despite the fact that this thing is a 135hp Super Cub with all of the glories a PA-11 doesn’t have, I am so hot its nauseating, sunburn is a problem as I slathered with lotion while flying into the sun for hours, my rear end hurt, my knees hurt due to lack of mobility in the cockpit, and the thermals are just brutal. This has become a test of endurance just like every time I crossed the country in the PA-11, enduring the same discomforts, just at a slower speed in that aircraft.

Employing a trick I figured out flying to Colorado in 2013, with 105F ground temps in western Kansas, I soaked my shirt with water to cool down, and sure enough, 95F wind in the cockpit left me dry within 30 minutes, yet much happier.

Just north of Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee, the terrain that tempted me staring at maps while in Charlotte, NC.

Up to 8,000 feet to cool off. 

Normandy Lake, Tullahoma, Tennessee, while doing a 360 to give somebody else room for a long final.

One more impromptu stop at Muscle Shoals, Alabama in the evening, as my tolerance for anything like a full bladder had waned, and then it was an hour into Tupelo, Mississippi after sunset, making another landing at a towered field with the lights on. The FBO tossed me the keys to the courtesy car for the night, and it was off to a hotel. God bless America and the glories of her general aviation.

Wilson Lake/Tennessee River, Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

My initial plans were to fly to Los Angeles then either return to Texas to show the plane to an internet friend who had expressed interest in purchasing it or fly it back east to North Carolina to sell it on the open market or take it to Europe from there. An opportunity emerged that would have allowed its importation into Europe without tariff or tax, so the result could have gone three ways. This flight was a last hurrah in America, at least for me with regard to this airplane, so the outcome was open ended.

It took a long day of flying to let a few things sink in: the same discomforts of a PA-11 exist in a PA-18, and while the PA-18 is faster and has a few other features, the PA-11 is inadvertently a downright amazing aerial photography ship, a reality I encountered really by pure coincidence, as my grandfather had restored it and basically told me I would be taking lessons in it, and not his Super Cub, which was his “pride and joy” and he didn’t want me or anyone else touching it. One can now understand my inclination toward the superiority of a PA-18 and the philosophical conundrum that I did not have the chance in life to research and choose the make and model of plane I wanted to fly; I have been carrying on a family legacy, at times wondering what I would have done had it been incumbent on me to carry the full load of getting involved in aviation without any help. Would I have found Cubs on my own? Probably.

In any case, the PA-18 poses some technical issues with photography as thermals are tougher to manage, photo subjects go whizzing by many times faster than I can orient the camera, wind is so much stronger that it pushes the camera lens to undesirable zoom positions, and wind coming in the entry door, if opened, is an unholy fury which requires quite some work to coax the door shut, if anything weighing less than 5lbs hasn’t blown out in the process. All of this would require some thought, though it did formulate the decision to aim for Texas instead of Los Angeles. The flight was taking much longer than expected, my endurance was waning, and I had lost a week to illness.

I took off the next morning in heat and humidity that puts the Deep South in a realm of its own. Ten years in North Carolina cannot prepare someone for what one encounters in Mississippi….and it was still late May. Thankfully, I encountered a few rain showers, products of morning IFR clouds that had lifted to VFR, which was enough to cool things down and also keep the temps from rising.

I crossed the Mississippi River in full flood stage, now my fourth crossing, where three of four times the river is nearly bursting its banks. After departing the river delta in Arkansas, I entered a thicket of a forest that I would not escape until Texas with the exception of a brief respite in northwest Louisiana.

Mississippi River Delta, Mississippi.

Mississippi River.

Google Maps does not prepare one for the mass of foliage that covers this part of Arkansas, Louisiana, and eastern Texas. It is practically nothing but trees, with swamps and bayous, something I discovered as I was using an infrared camera, and water showed up black between the trees. If the engine quit, I’d be gator food and nobody would ever have found the wreckage! At first I flew direct, thinking that some of these swamps and forests were errantly thick and things would become human again. I then realized it was nonstop and began following roads.

Ouachita River, Arkansas with Louisiana in the background. Great places to land. 

The not-so-ironically Red River north of Shreveport, Louisiana.

I finally made my destination for the day in the rurals of Texas southeast of Dallas, an airpark with a grass strip. In talking with some local pilots, many of whom have taken long trips, I heard a few times that this flight of mine was something quite ambitious and quite a distance in a Super Cub. The odd thing is that I seem not to see things that way. If a plane can be flown a certain distance in a day, then why should it not be? My longest flying day was 13 hours in the PA-11 (Nebraska to North Carolina), and I only begin to understand that this could be excessive when every single body part hurts and I am nearly worn to the bone. An irony is that I have no clue where this mentality came from. I often point to my grandfather as an influence for many things, yet the man didn’t like flying near hills in excess of 500 feet, and his longest Cub or Super Cub flight was from Wisconsin to New York, taken in the 1960s. Since I began flying with him, he didn’t leave New York State in his Super Cub in a 20 year period, yet I got this Indiana Jones idea about Cubs and Super Cubs from somewhere, and its only when I am fed up with 12 hours of angry thermals do I step back and reconsider the plan (only to do it again later).

Texas, south of Tyler.

I came to a conclusion that I did not need two airplanes in Europe. If I was living in America, I’d probably have kept it, as most everything is easier. Really for many reasons, I came to the conclusion that the PA-11 is just fine, and that my Super Cub infatuation probably had to do with the fact that my grandfather had an apparently superior airplane the entire time I had been flying, so it was something I thought I should aspire to. I missed the memo when he said quite clearly, after half a century flying every fabric Piper product from an E-2 to a PA-22, that a “PA-11 is the best one.” The deal was done in Texas and the plane was sold to someone who had his own specific history with the Super Cub Special (of which this airplane was, with only 300 or so made), so it was a nice feeling that it was going to the kind of place where it would be appreciated. I must also mention that the Super Cub Special was initially used in Air Force affiliated training, and it felt wrong to take the airplane out of America for its historical value. It belonged home and it sits now a few hundred miles from the Air Force base that it first was used as a trainer in 1952.

I completed my activities in the USA by commercial airline and returned to Spain. The day after getting here, I hopped in the PA-11. As soon as I sat in the seat, it felt right. I love this airplane. When I started it up, I noticed how quiet the O-200 is compared to the O-290-D2. On takeoff, it was so quiet that I wondered if someone replaced the engine with a desk fan. When I was very young, roughly 5 years of age, my grandfather had a yellow J-3 and a blue and white PA-18, and he would often ask which one I wanted a ride in. It was always the J-3, and my rationale was that it was “quieter.” It’s funny, decades later, the same holds true. Throttling back to 2000RPM cruise, the engine purred like a kitten and I said to myself, “I like it quiet.” She’s slow…and that’s just fine.

Back in Spain, flying slow with an airplane powered by a hair dryer.

 

 

Garrett Fisher is an aerial adventure photographer, having photographed some of the most rugged and wild terrain in America from his 1949 Piper PA-11. After living in Germany with the Cub, he recently moved to the Spanish Pyrenees to continue the flying adventure. He has published six aerial photography books covering the Colorado Rockies, Wyoming, high terrain in the Southeast, and the Outer Banks, with more US and European books in the pipeline. He blogs regularly about his flights at www.garrettfisher.me.