by Kevin Patrick
My journey across America in a Cessna 172 began with an idea to figure out a way to quickly build hours toward my commercial pilot certificate. I decided to plan a trip to build experience flying in various climates and terrain. My aunt lives in Seattle, and she isn’t doing so well, unfortunately. So I invited my dad, who is a retired airline pilot, to fly out there with me to see her. It would be the perfect combination of building time, gaining real world flying experience and getting the chance to visit with family all in one trip. Not to mention, a buddy of mine has some cool desert toys in Bullhead City, Arizona, so we had to add that airport to our itinerary.
There were two main routes we considered to cross the Rocky Mountains. One is a northern route through Montana, the other is a southern route through Texas, Arizona and eventually heading north through Nevada and Oregon. We came to the conclusion that we would face relatively the same challenges on either route, so we decided to fly one route on the way there, and the other on the return.
Timing Is Everything
I ended up passing my instrument check ride the day we departed on the trip, October 18. I passed the oral portion of the check ride two weeks earlier, but had to reschedule the flight portion due to poor weather. The only day the DPE had open was the day of our planned departure and it worked out perfectly. Thirty minutes after my flight with the DPE, with my instrument rating and a temporary certificate in hand, my dad and I packed the rest of our things in the plane, I filed an IFR flight plan, and we headed west.
The first leg was from Jacksonville (CRG) to Milton, Florida (2R4). We stayed the night and woke up the next morning to a 300-foot overcast ceiling so we decided to wait for things to improve. Eventually it cleared up to at least 1,000 feet (my personal minimums) and we filed IFR to Baton Rouge, Louisiana (BTR). We gassed up, ate lunch and departed for Jasper, Texas (JAS) where we would stay the night.
We didn’t know anything about Jasper, just that fuel was cheap! After the landing we discovered all of the tie down spots were taken. I was greeted by the local airport manager, a German shepherd/lab pup named Chief. His owner and his buddies directed us over to a grass area where I used stakes and rope that the Holladay’s let me borrow to tie down the plane. It worked out perfectly. We found a local hotel called The Belle-Jim Hotel. The guys at the airport told us that another pilot, who was flying across Texas in a Cub, chose that hotel earlier so it was only right we did too. The hotel was built in 1912 and Jim even picked us up from the airport himself! He also let us borrow his van to head over to the local barbecue joint for some good Texas ribs. You can’t beat small towns!
The next morning we found ourselves in another IFR situation with the ceiling at 200 feet and less than two miles of visibility, so we had to wait that out as well. Once it cleared up we got to witness a fleet of local Air Tractor AT-802s take off while we were in the run-up area. Awesome airplanes. We filed IFR to Brady, Texas (BBD). Going through the clouds in the middle of Texas was a good experience because they definitely packed a lot more energy than the same kind of cloud buildup in Florida.
We canceled IFR in the air as we approached Brady and the winds picked up from calm to light turbulence, with moderate chop descending from 7,000 feet to the surface. Coming into land the winds were 190 at 18 gusting to 27 — that was a fun no-flap landing. We shut the aircraft down and the airport manager came out to fuel the plane up; she was the only one there. While she was fueling up she told us about an exotic hunting ranch a few miles up the road, but we had to keep moving on. We departed VFR and flew to Midland, Texas (MDD), home of the TV show Friday Night Lights. Our Uber driver even went to Permian High School!
After spending the night in Midland we took off for El Paso, Texas (DNA). This was my first experience in the mountains. We had to fly over the Guadalupe Mountains, which peak at about 9,000 feet, so I decided to climb to 11,500 feet. Luckily had had plenty of options for a forced landing in case of engine failure and we were constantly reassessing as we were flying through the high terrain. We were expecting the wind to become a lot more active flying over the ridge line, but it turned out well. Flying into Dona Ana County Airport was cool because they have an aviation museum on the airfield right next to the FBO. Next stop was Arizona.
The leg from Dona Ana to Coolidge, Arizona (P08) was definitely a very active flight. The moderate turbulence and chop was continuous for about 3 hours. There were times the updrafts and downdrafts had me climbing and descending 1,000 feet per minute. I flew at maneuvering speed (Va) almost the entire time. We also had to deviate around terrain and a MOA that was actively firing so our 2.5 hour flight turned into 3 hours. As soon as we landed and shut down at P08 I fell asleep on the ramp area under the wing.
The airport was a ghost town. After looking at the weather in Seattle we came to the conclusion that it was too risky to continue with the timeframe we had. This time of year Seattle is overcast almost everyday, and with that came icing conditions. We decided to make one last flight to Chandler (CHD), which was my first time flying through a Class B airspace. We left the plane there and bought round-trip tickets on Southwest Airlines from Phoenix to Seattle to see my aunt.
A few days later, I filed IFR out of Chandler to Bullhead City (IFP), where we would visit my friend. The route they gave me was KCHD direct FLG direct EED direct KIFP. What an experience to fly over those mountains! As we came in to land at Bullhead City, the sun was setting behind the mountains and the scenery was incredible. The next day we woke up and took mountain bikes to the trails next to the Colorado River. After the trails we came back and took out a boat to the river to do some wake surfing until it was dark. We woke up the next morning and took two UTVs out through the hills in the desert — what a blast! An hour after we were done, we returned to the airport and departed VFR to the east to start our journey back to Florida.
After assessing the weather trends, we decided to fly a different route back to Texas that would take us through the mountains of New Mexico to Albuquerque. We followed Interstate 40 all the way to Winslow (INW), our fuel stop, and then on through Gallup to Belen, New Mexico (BRG) where we would stay for the night.
It turns out there are no Ubers or taxis in Belen, and someone had already taken the courtesy car for the night, so we hitched a ride from a guy at the airport to the local motel. The next morning we paid the front desk receptionist a couple bucks to drive us back out to the airport.
We departed Belen for Lubbock, Texas (LBB), our first fuel stop of the day. After grabbing a bite to eat we departed and flew over the rolling hills and lakes of Texas. More lakes than I could count. We arrived at Hillsborough, Texas (INJ) for the night. Considering I was flying VFR since we left Bullhead City, I decided to get a little IFR practice and shoot the RNAV 34 into KINJ for fun. The next day we fueled up and took off on our next leg to Alexandria, Louisiana (AEX).
Alexandria had an awesome FBO. I walked in to find out that pilots eat for a dollar at the restaurant inside the airport! It was also one of the best meals we had. We also had to walk around and check out the Cirrus Vision Jet that just shut down outside. We then fueled up and departed to our destination for the evening, Bogalusa, Louisiana (BXA). This is also an airport that was in the middle of nowhere. We learned our lesson in New Mexico, and decided to stay the night in the FBO. It had a shower and two separate rooms. We took the courtesy car out to get food and when we came back we were met by two more pilots who just landed there for the night and were also from Florida! What are the odds? One was a Jet Blue pilot who just bought a Husky on floats, and the other was a ferry pilot who he hired to help fly the plane back to Florida from Texas. All four of us decided to stay the night at the airport because there were no hotels in town. The next morning we departed for Florida!
We flew our last two legs home on November 3. We fueled up at Marianna, Florida before landing back at Craig. As I was flying the last leg it hit me how cool the entire experience was and all of the great people we had the privilege to meet along the way.
I logged 44 hours on the trip from Florida to Arizona and covered about 4,000 miles in two weeks. I didn’t want to stop flying. In fact, the next day I decided to fly 9ZW from Craig to Naples, Florida, to visit a buddy, which brought me just over my goal of 50 hours for the trip. I couldn’t have done this without the blessing from Dana and Meredith Holladay and I want to thank them for giving me the opportunity to fly one of their planes across the country! They worked with me at every level from scheduling maintenance, to going over different routes to take, to advice for flying through challenging terrain. This was a once in a lifetime experience.