An epic coast-to-coast flight across the USA, with a stop off at Burt Rutan’s birthday party
By Bill AllenBack in 1980 I saw a magazine article showing a picture of an unknown young designer called Burt Rutan, standing next to his latest creation the ‘Long EZ’. It was a design which captivated me the moment I saw it. I had to find out more, which in those pre-Google days involved lots of letter writing.
Eventually I found my way to the Rutan Aircraft Factory in Mojave, California and my name was pulled from a hat for a Saturday morning demo flight with Mike Melvill. That was it. I had to have one of my own and the only way was to build it myself. I ended up buying a set of plans in 1981, building it mostly in my garage and first flying it in 1984.I flew my Long EZ over the North Atlantic to the USA in 2005 and made the pilgrimage to Oshkosh. I then decided to keep it over there in the friendlier (cheaper) skies of Florida and placed it on the US register (was registered G-WILY now N99BA). My daring adventure through the jungle of international bureaucracy to register a British homebuilt in the US is another story though… The whole Canard-Pusher revolution was inspired by the creative genius of Burt Rutan. He is not a one-hit-wonder, having designed over 60 widely (and wildly) different types. Key his name into Wikipedia for a full breakdown. He has also supported the many builders and flyers of his designs; although somewhat tacitly in latter years since the litigious nature of American society makes it difficult to do so without being blamed and sued.When I heard in March 2008 that there was a ‘surprise’ hangar party being planned for Burt’s 65th birthday on 21 June, I booked my ticket stateside and made a reservation at the only motel near Mojave airport. Actually, since the successful space flight of Rutan’s ‘SpaceShip One’, Mojave is authorised by the FAA to call itself a Spaceport. The plan was to fly the Long EZ there are back again.LANTANA TO MONTGOMERY, 533NMFlorida is a great state to fly in. No high terrain, clear blue skies, good landmarks, lots of airfields and no landing fees. A great place to fly apart from in the summer, when the CBs kick off each afternoon. I had to make numerous detours around storms that the Garmin 496 displayed which I also confirmed with the Mk1 eyeball. I ended up routing north to Alabama for fuel. Another 2.1hrs and 280nm flight from Montgomery and I called the Unicom (122.7) at Covington (M04).Covington is a quiet municipal strip just north of Memphis and in the US it is normal to announce landing intentions a few miles out and ask if anyone is in the pattern and what the active runway is. Hearing “nuthin’ frum no-wun”, I flew overhead to check the windsock and announced a crosswind join for runway 34. I turned finals and made the radio call and with about a mile out and 300ft to go, I saw something odd. Was it a car on the runway? This had my attention as it was getting bigger, but in the same relative position to me on approach. I realised it was another aircraft taking off, downwind, towards me. As it got closer I saw it was a yellow Pawnee crop sprayer. I made an orbit to the left, rejoining the approach, noting the deaf mute scurrying away at about 200ft. Later my hosts revealed, “Oh yeah, them dusters jus’ take off whenever and however, y’gotta wachem!”I stayed overnight with Rob and Valerie Harris. Rob is an FAA DAR (Designated Airworthiness Representative) and an A&P (airframes and powerplant licences). He built a Long EZ and a VariEze many years ago. His wife Val is also an A&P and an IA. The IA status is the ‘paperwork’ compliance qualification. Their business is ‘The EZ Hangar’ and ‘The EZ Jets’. They install the GE TE58 jet engine in heavily evolved Long EZ airframes. I had a great time talking to them about jet-powered projects but that’s another story…COVINGTON TO DODGE CITY TO MEADOW LAKE, 517NM
The day dawned clear and bright, but further distractions delayed my departure from the EZ Hangar. I was tempted to have them start working on my own jet installation, but fortunately my doctor gave me a supply of sensible tablets and I took a large dose that morning. I finally departed after refuelling ($4.70/gal) at 11:30 for Colorado Springs, Utah. I picked a halfway stop as Dodge City (KDDC) and after 3.9hrs landed for fuel (at$5.71/gallon) so I could say that I really had, “got the hell out of Dodge”. It was the quietest airport I’d landed at. I fuelled up and left, setting course again for Colorado. It’s spooky how the terrain gradually creeps up to meet you when you leave the central plains and move towards the Rockies, but I wasn’t quite prepared for what I heard on arrival at Meadow Lake after a 2.4hr flight. It’s another ‘Unicom’ airport, like most in the USA, where you make calls and ‘see and avoid’. Having heard no other traffic (nor seen) in the pattern, I flew overhead at 8000ft to check the windsock and opted for runway 33. As I made the downwind call, the automatic ATIS came back with, “Wind 320 at 8 knots. Density altitude ten thousand five hundred feet.” This made me wide awake. My left brain said, “What? You’re going to try a landing in the thin air of 10,500ft for the first time. Madness!” My right brain said, “The aircraft doesn’t care, indicated airspeed is what counts and there’s 6,000ft of runway.” My middle brain said, “Just get on with it, you’re not the first to land one of these here…” So I landed it, and could see why they needed to build 6,000ft of runway at this altitude!I overnighted with Burrel Sanders who has a hangar-home there. He specialises in canards and always has interesting projects in his workshop. Next day, Thursday 19, was a maintenance day. With all those mountains nearby (Pikes Peak was the first 13,500 obstacle on climb out) I wanted everything right. I’d also be departing with three other Long EZ’s who had met up here for the trip to Mojave and Burt’s birthday party.MEADOW LAKE TO ST GEORGE TO MOJAVE, 769NMFor some reason I was elected to go first and lead the flight of four around the north of Pikes Peak. I was amazed at the amount of runway an aircraft can gobble up at this altitude on takeoff. We fell into a loose formation and levelled off at 13,500ft setting course for St.George, New Mexico with oxygen ‘ON’ as required by FAR91.211. St.George came into view after 2.2hrs on top of a flattened hump called a ‘Mesa’. I led the pack and made calls on Unicom. Landing on the ‘Mesa’ at St.George felt like landing on a roof. There we met up with some other folk who were also heading to Mojave and we enjoyed a good breakfast with them. On the next leg, I volunteered to take up the rear of the gaggle and let one of the others negotiate the group’s flight through the busy Las Vegas airspace. That plan worked out well for me and after 2.2hrs, Mojave came into view, with the windmills of the Tehachapi Mountains as a backdrop. Landing on runway 26 we shut down right outside Hangar 61 in pole position, being among the first arrivals. Outside XCOR’s hangar, I noticed a rocket powered Long EZ. We strolled over for a look, certain that we would be turned away for security reasons – the Americans having become keen on such things in recent years, earning them a new moniker, ‘The Excited States of America’. However we were warmly received and invited in to see their current project. Dick Rutan flew a twin 400lb thrust Long EZ in 2002 and now XCOR is developing a rocket powered ‘Velocity’ airframe. This is a prototype for the ‘Rocket Racing League’. Their rocket powered Velocity climbs at over 8,000ft per minute with an 80-degree climb angle to prevent speed-exceeding VNE. The Rutan birthday bash was in the big Hangar 79, so in we went. It was good to meet lots of Long EZ owners who were only previously known to me by email. The majority looked like geeks and then it occurred to me that I fitted in well with them! Burt Rutan and Dick Rutan came on stage and talked about their life as kids growing up in California and all the risky things they did in their youth. Dick Rutan is five years older and he joined the USAF while Burt was still in College. Dick was flying Phantoms in Vietnam, while Burt was a flight test engineer working with the same aircraft at Edwards Airforce base, just 20 miles from Mojave. Their lives seemed to be like two vessels flowing down the same river, sometimes bumping together, sometimes drifting apart. The Voyager project in 1986 brought them together when Burt designed the first aircraft to fly around the globe nonstop without re-fuelling, while Dick flew it (with his co-pilot Jeanna Yeager). Burt Rutan designed six types for which he sold plans for; Vari-Viggen, VariEze, Long EZ, Solitaire, Quickie, Defiant. Most recently Burt designed White Knight and SpaceShip One in which Mike Melvill became the first privateer spaceship pilot in history. Mojave Airport (or Spaceport) is isolated with just one small caf�/restaurant and one hotel called the Mariah, a mile away but in temperatures of 110f/35c this feels more like five miles. Luckily we got a lift there, but on Saturday the small town quaintness became apparent. At 6pm, I went into reception and asked, “What time does the restaurant open?” The girl behind reception replied, “Oh no sir, the restaurant don’t open at wik-eynds, we cuddn’t get no one t’work.” Oh well, I thought, I’ve eaten too much anyway on this trip, so I asked, “What time does the bar open?” “No sir, the bar aint gonna be open coz we cudn’t get nobody t’cover on Saturday…” I replied, “Ok then, can we get a ride into town?” “No sir, we don’t have a courtesy car and the manager ain’t here, so I can’t leave even if we had one.”“Can I get a taxi?”“No sir, there ain’t no taxi service in Mojave… there’s a ride service, but y’havet’book it three hours ahead…” I asked in my best Deep South accent, “Well, if y’rall stuk heya fawah the naat, kan ah barrow yoar gun an go out back’n shoot some cayns?”She replied, “Sure!”I’m still not certain if she was serious, as just then a fellow Brit with a rental car came by and offered us a lift into ‘Mike’s Diner’ in Mojave.MOJAVE TO CALVADERO TO SANTA YNEZ, 490NMIt was a great flight up the Californian Valleys to Calvadero and after descending through a layer of smoke-flavoured mist, I landed at 8:45 and met Craig Catto, the maker of my propeller. I had fitted a prop produced by him about four years ago but there were some stone chips and blemishes that needed attention. We removed my prop for refinishing, fitted a spare one and I departed for the final, most westerly point in my Continental trek, Santa Ynez (KIZA), just north of Santa Barbara. I overflew the airport and the coastal ridge just so I could take a picture of the Pacific, completing my ‘Coast to Coast’ sojourn, then I stayed overnight with friends.SANTA YNEZ TO LOS CRUCES TO WACO, 1261NMNext day, after a $20 taxi ride at 5:30am, I arrived at Santa Ynez airfield to make the elusive early start and I was met by fog. Very British. It was obvious to me that this was one of those layers hanging around in the valley and after waiting around for a bit, glimpses of blue now and again showed through. I topped off the tanks at $5.28/gallon and took off at 8:00. After 4.6hrs and 714nm I landed at Los Cruces, New Mexico, (KLRU). The heat was incredible, 110F on the ground. I topped off the tanks and departed using about 4,000ft of the 6,000ft runway in the high density altitude of 7500ft.My aim was to get to Waco (pronounced Way-Ko, not Whacko – they get touchy about that) which I did 3.7hrs later. I landed at ‘Waco Executive’ (KPLG) which despite the upmarket name was deserted. I called a cab company recommended by the hotel.WACO TO TALLAHASSEE TO LANTANA (END POINT), 1084NM
Final day and I launched into the relative cool (about 85F) of the dawn with my goal of negotiating all the complicated airspace North of the Gulf of Mexico en route to Tallahassee. There are many Airforce and Navy bases there and flight following is a must to give some comfort that you’re not going to have a close encounter of the painful kind with a fast jet. After a 5.1hr flight I was on the ground at Tallahassee regional, enjoying the same service as the Citation drivers. The line-boys always crowd round the Long EZ with questions, usually, “Hell, I ain’t never seen wuna them b’faw – watha helizit?” Often I get the more simple, “Hell, yo maaad, man!”So with all done, my Coast to Coast trip was 5,276nm and took 36.6hrs of flying time.It could have been less but the northern detour up around Memphis and Colorado was well worth the extra mileage. Average speed was 144kt typically at between 8500ft and 13,500ft giving between 50% and 70% power. Fuel burn for the trip averaged at 7.8 US gph. Best cruise TAS of 176kt was obtained at 10,500ft. With transatlantic flights remaining great value, I will continue to enjoy cheap hangarage, no landing fees, half price fuel and no route charges by keeping my Long EZ there.