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Most Recent
June 19, 2009

Dear readers,

In selling airplanes all over the US and sometimes all over the world, I’ve been involved in many deliveries. Some of them I do myself and some of them I have done by experienced ferry pilots. There are many good, professional pilots to choose from, but each time I use pilot extraordinaire and long-time best friend David Board, I usually get a bonus. He gets the airplane where it’s going safely, then like as not, he also brings back a cracking good flying yarn. This is his latest, from this spring when I asked him to deliver an old 172 to Central America. I think you’ll enjoy it.

It took over 7 months of struggling with giants to get that 52 year old airplane through the FAA export certification process. And to be fair to all concerned, the old crate did have a few hidden paperwork problems that I failed to catch initially, the major one being the wrong engine model for this particular aircraft hanging on the engine mount and married to what was then, by default, the wrong propeller. However, in my own defense, my initial inspection of the aircraft took place in a barn somewhere in central Florida one Sunday morning, so I was almost 1000 miles from home and my technical data resources were slightly limited. This meant having to rely on the information contained in 50+ years of spidery scrawl scratched in the yellowing pages of the aircraft's old maintenance log books. But actually there were no serious issues of personal or public safety at stake here, and as proof positive of my unlikely contention, I submit to you, my reader, that all of these technical discrepancies ended up being reduced to simple paperwork issues… Issues that were eventually solved by the process of FAA STC's and 337 forms and the exchange of that other ubiquitous form of government paperwork... U. S. Dollars!

And so, while this paper-chase was tirelessly stumbling along its course, and as all the fees and unconstitutional taxes were being dutifully paid, I spent what little free time I had donating more blood, sweat and tears, in an effort to get this ancient but noble aluminum flying machine to the point that I felt I could really trust it to fly me safely over the 2200 miles... through as many as 5 different countries..., sometimes over mountains and jungles and very desolate inhospitable swamps... and maybe even a few hours flying over the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico... in order to be able to deliver this prestigious prize to it's new and rightful owner who happened to live in the Republic of Honduras, (and who by the way, despite being a very intelligent and savvy individual, had little or no understanding of what he was in for when he paid, what for him was a small fortune, for this classic Cessna 172).

Eventually then, just two weeks before Easter 2009, and after those 7 grueling and frustrating months, my herculean labors finally bore fruit and I was handed a pristine certificate of export which meant that, from the point of view of the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), this old Cessna 172 met all the airworthiness requirements of both the FAA and the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) of the country it was being exported to. Two days after that, this old bird was fuelled, fully loaded with bags and maps and tools and documents, and she was ready to take off on what for me was to be another exciting flying adventure. All that was left for me to do, it seemed, was pluck up the courage to put my butt in the left seat, yell "clear prop" and "Viva Zapata" maybe, and then coax and cajole this venerable old bucket of bolts and rivets up into the sky and off on this 'magic carpet ride' south from Wheeling, West Virginia all the way to San Pedro Sula, Honduras, in Central America. It was a tough and sometimes dangerous job, but someone had to be fool enough to do it! I thought that it was only fair that this fool was none other than me!

San Pedro, Honduras from Wheeling , West Virginia would be a flight of just over 1530 nautical miles if a person could fly there the way the Mexican Crow might do it! But the impact of the largest asteroid ever to hit the planet millions of years ago, the vagaries of the weather in the tropics and the combined efforts of the Mexican and U.S. governments, had all conspired to foil any serious hopes or aspirations I may have had of being able to make this flight with anything like the grace and elegance of the sacred 'Corvis Mexicanus.' For one thing, that would mean departing U.S. soil somewhere close to New Orleans and flying due south for hours and hours over the storm-ridden and shark-infested waters of the Gulf of Mexico until, if I was very lucky, I would arrive somewhere on Mexico 's Yucatan Peninsula . And even if I made a clandestine stop at Wal-Mart's secret aviation fuel tank department and extended the range of that Cessna 172, common sense dictated that such a long flight over open water was just not a good idea. Not in this creaky Old Cessna with its antique 0300 Continental engine marred as it was with a dubious maintenance history. Sacred Crows, you see, don't have to stop at airports to refuel, nor do they have to pass through customs and immigration offices and fill out visa applications or flight plans or pay fees and fines and so on. And anyway, from what I saw of them on this adventure, the sacrosanct and spirited Crows of Mexico were a tough bunch of highly intelligent birds that were more likely to peck your eyes out with their boney beaks than cooperate with the hum-drum process of border bureaucracy, despite the brightest of badges and uniforms. However, as a brow-beaten, two-legged, wingless human pilot - I didn't even come close to enjoying all the rights and privileges universally afforded the magnificent Crow - not when it comes to migrating south anyway! So I was forced to choose a much more circuitous route!

The Flight Begins
1957 Cessna 172
The very first leg of this journey took me from Wheeling , West Virginia , 140 miles to an airport close to Huntington , West Virginia . I had actually planned on going much farther than that at the time I took off, but from the outset, this flight was plagued and beset by all manner of tedious problems and discomforts that began with, or perhaps I should say were dominated by, very strong winds, and some seriously turbulent, cold and lumpy air. So this relatively short 140 mile leg, that should have taken me no more than 90 minutes on a good day, ended up taking me almost 4 long and laborious stress-filled hours. And of course, as anyone who has flown one knows, 4 hours of flying is perilously close to a full load of fuel in a 1957 Cessna 172.

There had been thunderstorms ahead of a cold front the day before I set off, so I was trying to sneak out close behind the last of them. This was a strategy that had worked for me hundreds of times before. Behind this particular cold front however, there was a wide band of some significantly strong and gusty winds as well as a solid overcast of fairly low and frigid clouds. On my departure from the Wheeling airport for example, the bases of the overcast were only about 1600 feet above the hill tops, therefore, flying at about 2300 feet above mean sea level put me 500 feet below the cloud bases and only 700 feet of clearance above the tree tops. The thing that I didn't like about these conditions was that in the event of an engine failure I would have had less than 90 seconds of glide time to figure out what I was going to do before the trees began to impede my progress! Those 90 seconds of course equate to 'no time at all in the real world.' On the bight side... visibility was fairly good at about 10 miles or better. But the idiotic and malevolent wind this day was blowing right smack on my nose at more than double the speed that was forecast and this reduced my 100 mph speed through the air to a disgusting, depressing and disappointing 45 to 50 mph of forward progress over the ground below me. So at this avian snail's pace, I bounced and bumped and battled my way south-west, and every time I looked down below me I saw old folks out for a Sunday drive and the occasional convoy of old West Virginia coal trucks, who were all passing me up on the crooked winding West Virginia roads below. After an hour or so of this kind of insult I began to feel as if I were piloting an aluminum rickshaw rather than a U.S. certified airplane. I remember thinking to myself "Thank goodness Lance Armstrong isn't down there practicing for next year's Tour de France... because if he were, he would have doubtless passed me up and left me in the dust on his bicycle too!" and that might have proved too much for me to bear.

Not that I am claiming that this was the roughest flight I have ever had the misfortune to have flown - far from it. I was actually knocked unconscious by turbulence once descending into Martinsburg , West Virginia . I was the only pilot at the controls of a Cessna 172 XP at the time and I still have the scar on my forehead that serves as a bleak reminder of that event. My two non-aviator passengers were quite shook up about that incident at the time! But that, as they say, is another story. This flight, however, had to be right up there in the top ten most uncomfortable flights I had ever made. In fact it was so rough and so ridiculously uncomfortable, that I am sure that I will never ever be able to completely erase it from my memory and I will doubtless occasionally re-live it from time to time in the form of a recurring nightmare. A nightmare that I will probably wake up from, having thrown myself out of bed, all tangled in my parachute of bed sheets! And if this level of discomfort wasn't enough grief for one flight, about an hour and a half later I began to experience that other bone-chilling pilot's nightmare: a prolonged attack of Carburetor Icing Syndrome! This flight, it seemed, was going south in more ways than one!

This Carburetor Ice problem began to happen very slowly at first and at about the same time as I began to fly into what I can only describe as 'cascading veils of frozen and falling precipitation that seemed to hang like huge eerie drapes below the battleship grey clouds around and above me. When you find yourself in this kind of situation you basically have two choices: you can either try to fly around these ghostly apparitions, attempting vainly to avoid them, and in doing so, risk getting lost or disoriented in the process; or you can chance it and fly straight through them and risk getting yourself lost and disoriented that way instead. My progress on this day had been so slow and difficult that I didn't feel I had the fuel reserves to take the scenic, meandering route, especially as there was no way to know how long that route would end up being. I didn't want to be caught out low on fuel with only 90 seconds of glide time to oblivion, so I elected to maintain my course, turn on the pitot heat and plough right on through the veils of virga. And so, it was just about this time that I began to notice the engine had mysteriously begun to slow down and increasing throttle position didn't seem to correct the problem.

When this began to happen, I did what any pilot would do in a Cessna 172, and with some trepidation I gingerly applied full carb heat. Straight away after pulling the carb heat control things got a lot worse, not better, and the engine now coughed and sputtered and lost even more RPMs. This for me, however, was music to my ears, because then I was sure that the problem was almost certainly going to be carb ice. Carburetor icing after all, was something that I could fix right there in the cockpit and the least of all possible evils I could be facing at a time like this. After all the ice cleared from the throat of the carb, that old Continental smoothed right out and began to pick up the pace again. The only problem now was that as soon as I took the carb heat off again the carb ice syndrome would gradually begin again.

Feeling slightly more relaxed, I then checked the outside air temperature and it looked to be about 38 degrees Fahrenheit or just 6 degrees above the freezing level. This also made a kind of reassuring sense to me. I knew the induced low pressure in the throat of the up-draft carburetor and the accompanying drop in air temperature that always accompany a drop in pressure was making the intake air just cold enough to bring down to where the dew point and the freezing point coincided: 32 degrees Fahrenheit or 0 degrees Celsius. Now the problem for me this day was that when conditions like this are ripe for it, the hazard of carb icing will persist unless something in the equation changes. It made no sense for me to keep pulling the heat on and pushing it off again. What if the cable broke while I was doing this? Flying with the heat on isn't recommended practice either! With the heat on the engine is sucking down a much richer mixture and I was already worried about the fuel situation. Normally when I find myself flying in carb icing conditions, I can simply change altitude and escape the very exacting conditions that are necessary for this ice formation. Going up in altitude is always my preference. As soon as the outside air temperature gets a degree or two lower there is usually less moisture content in the air and the conditions for carb icing dissipate completely. But on this day I had a solid overcast 500 feet above me and trees and hill tops 700 feet below me. So I was stuck there at this 'ice critical' altitude and there was nothing that I could really do about it.

The Flight Ends

By now this first leg of my journey to Honduras had turned into such a monumental struggle that when I got close to Huntington , I decided to simply give up flying for the day and see if tomorrow would be any better. So I landed at the little satellite airport of Chesapeake just across the Ohio River from Huntington in the state of Ohio . I was getting critically low on fuel by then anyway, and because of the late start the light was beginning to fade and I didn't want to make any part of this flight by night if I could help it. To my surprise the first person I met on landing was an ex-student of mine who had come to me for her instrument ratings maybe 10 years before. Now she was a flight instructor herself and working this day at this very airport. This stop turned out to be quite a wonderful and unexpected reunion for both of us. When she learned that I was on my way to Honduras with this old bird, she insisted that we go out to dinner that night as she wanted to hear all about this adventure and she had stories of her own she wanted to share with me. And after dinner she was kind enough to make sure I was comfortable camping out in the lounge of the FBO right there at the airport.

Now I had everything I needed for a good night's rest and I was poised to make an early start in the morning. My ex-student even left me the keys to the airport courtesy car. This is a car that the FBO has to loan out to stray or stranded pilots like me. I fell asleep listening to the tin on the hangars rattle in the wind all night. At daybreak the following day I was able to drive myself a mile or two to get breakfast at the local Bob Evans restaurant. And an hour after first light I was cranking the engine with the old pull start control wire and ready to go again but now in much nicer conditions. It struck me as I was leaving that I have been flying airplanes for almost 40 years, and in that time I had witnessed and been a part of many changes in the wild and wonderful world of general aviation. There was a time not so long ago when the hospitality I received at the Chesapeake airport was common place in America . In fact the airport that I ran for over 20 years was just such an airport. But those courtesies and that type of kindness have been rapidly vanishing of late. It was to the point now that they are the exception rather than the rule. My arrival 'out of the blue' at Chesapeake turned out to be a reminder of a bygone era. It was sure good to meet up with that young flight instructor, Dola, and to meet her kind and generous boss Nelson who was valiantly trying to keep up the great American tradition of airport hospitality. And now refreshed, I was heading south again although I still had maybe 2000 more miles to go on this journey before I, too, became something less that a footnote in the history of what feel sure is destined to soon be an extinct and mostly forgotten way of life!

They tell me that millions of years ago a huge asteroid or meteorite caused a gigantic crater that filled with sea water and created what we now call the Gulf of Mexico . And there are those that claim that this cosmic collision was also responsible for the extinction of the Dinosaur era. As I now left the Chesapeake airport and headed directly for that great meteor crater I was feeling a bit like a dinosaur myself! Now as I look back over the last 40 years, perhaps strangely in a way, all of the changes that I see coming along just make me glad rather than sad to be something of a dinosaur. Glad to think that I got to experience so much of the history of aviation since the Wright Brothers took to the air about 100 years ago. And old, yes, I may be that today, and yet, as old as I am, I am still young enough at heart to enjoy this adventure we call flight - and I have enjoyed it here in the land of Piper and Cessna and Beechcraft where it all began. And I am healthy enough to even revel in this freedom to fly - fly almost whenever and where ever I choose. And I am thankful and so glad to have lived in what was surely the only country in the world where for a while at least, aviation was the domain of the common man. A country where even a humble and hard working middle class man like myself could still enjoy being part of the great American aviation dream and enjoy a truly wonderful way of life!

Steve Weaver Aircraft Sales - Route 3 Box 696 - Phillipi, West Virginia - Phone 304-457-4523 - Fax 304-457-4799 For a restorative vacation for both your body and your soul, consider a week on the banks of the unforgettable Tygart River, in the heart of West Virginia. Click for more.

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