Updated: Aug 29
I'm a planner. Walt once remarked that I'm not one to be spontaneous. "I'm spontaneous...I can be spontaneous" I remember replying. "Yes" he responded "but it's well-planned spontaneity." And so the prelude to all my adventures are laced with subtle panic attacks.
Two weeks ago today, I started the morning early: 4am rise and a hot shower coupled with a cup of caffeinated coffee and a final weather check before launching off on a trip to California. For some thirty years, this would have been a typical work day; but since retiring, I've started doing something that had always been a dream: flying airplanes. Today, I was delivering a new airplane to its owner 1500 nautical miles away in the winter, across some very large mountains, through military training zones, avoiding restricted military airspace, and across the Mojave dessert in a 700 pound airplane.
The day I received the contract for the flight I started planning. The trip would take three days with good weather. Which route would be the best to avoid winds and mountain obscuration? The southern states had seen record snowfall and our regional airport was still closed; who'd been able to clear their runways so I could refuel? Do they have landing fees? Do they have room in the hangar for my plane for the night? Are there crew cars or shuttles available to local hotels? Do they give discounts? What's my backup plan? What should I pack for emergencies?
In the days and nights leading to the trip, I rehearsed the route and looked for points I could choose as alternates, should I run into bad weather. Although this all sounds like a made for TV drama, it's actually the same steps that every pilot takes before embarking on anything more than a Sunday drive around the patch.
After departure and checking on with Air Traffic Control, I began to settle in. The air was smooth and cool and the snow blanketing fields and roads reflected off the mirror white surface of my wings.
I log system trends 30 minutes into each flight and compare them along the journey both as baselines for the new owner and maintenance technicians and to alert me to any potential equipment failures. Oil pressures, fuel pressure and temperatures all looked good, and I had gas plus reserves to make my next destination: Double Eagle field, just north and west of Albuquerque. About 20 miles east of Tucumcari, New Mexico, the weather system I'd hoped would pass north of me took a detour south and lowered the visibility between me and the mountain range just east of Albuquerque. Some airplanes are equipped to fly in the clouds; this one was not. I landed in Tucumcari and called Flight Service, an FAA weather and flight planning service used by pilots, to double check my forecasts before pushing on. The ceilings lifted and I continued the flight.
That evening, I flipped through TV channels as I checked weather on my laptop. "Wagon Train" was playing on an oldies channel. It took my ancestors between 4 to 6 months to make the same journey I was making in 3 days. And they didn't have the Weather Channel.
I spent the better part of today reading about the Industrial Revolution and the history of passenger travel in America. On October 3, 1893, General Roy Stone was appointed Special Agent in charge of the new Office of Road Inquiry within the Department of Agriculture. With a budget of $10,000, ORI promoted new rural road development to serve the wagons, coaches, and bicycles on America's dirt roads. Congress passed the Federal-Aid Road Act of 1916, but the effort to build roadways was put on hold with the onset of WWI. The Federal Highway Act of 1921 saw the construction of two-lane interstate highways which continued through the 30s with jobs programs and then into the 40s to build more roadways to support the war effort.
In 1900, 8,000 Americans owned cars. By 1920, that number had grown to 8 million. In the cities, most people traveled by train or trolley; in rural areas, the horse and wagon ruled. Although regional airlines first launched in the 1920s, they were luxuries indulged by the wealthy and didn't become popular with the general public until 1960.
My great-grandfather had a surrey he drove into town a couple of times a week to deliver and pickup goods, and my mother. Although they only lived about 7 miles from town, it was too far to walk to the high school and so during the week, my mother lived with her aunt in town. Travel beyond the township took planning: weather preparations; care for animals, children and the household because the trip typically spanned days rather than hours.
As "Wagon Train" played in the background, I Googled transportation + stagecoach and found they too were good planners. This excerpted from the Omaha Herald, 1877 "Tips for Stagecoach Travelers."
The best seat inside a stage is the one next to the driver. Even if you have a tendency to seasickness when riding backwards -- you'll get over it and will get less jolts and jostling. Don't let "sly elph" trade you his mid-seat.
In cold weather, don't ride with tight-fitting shoes, or gloves. When the driver asks you to get off and walk, do so without grumbling, he won't request it unless absolutely necessary. If the team runs away -- sit still and take your chances. If you jump, nine out of ten times you will get hurt.
In very cold weather, abstain entirely from liquor when on the road, because you will freeze twice as quickly when under its influence.
Don't growl at the food received at the station -- stage companies generally provide the best they can get.
Don't keep the stage waiting. Don't smoke a strong pipe inside the coach. Spit on the leeward side. If you have anything to drink in a bottle, pass it around. Procure your stimulants before starting, as "ranch" (stage depot) whisky is not "nectar."
Don't lean or lop over neighbors when sleeping. Take small change to pay expenses. Never shoot on the road, as the noise might frighten the horses. Don't discuss politics or religion.
Don't point out where murders have been committed, especially if there are women passengers.
Don't lag at the wash basin. Don't grease your hair, because travel is dusty. Don't imagine for a moment that you are going on a picnic. Expect annoyances, discomfort, and some hardships.
We'll be bringing around complimentary beverages. As soon as the Captain extinguishes the fasten seatbelt light, you may grab a bowl of popcorn and enjoy our inflight movie.