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Slow ín Low to AirVenture 2009

By Cory Robin, EAA Lifetime Member 558743, Vintage 721000
Falk and Robin
Quinn Falk and his Skyraider II on the left and Cory Robin with his Mini-Max 1600R on the right

Last year for 10 days, my regular flying buddy, Quinn Falk, and I flew our little airplanes all the way to EAA AirVenture Oshkosh – the big awesome weeklong air show and convention. It’s 1,260 miles each way, and it took us about 54 hours to make the trip. Because Quinn’s Skyraider II only carries about 12 usable gallons of fuel, we had to stop about every 100 miles or so to fill up. It was quite the adventure.  

Day One:

We took off from South Valley Regional Airport (U42) in Salt Lake City, Utah, at about 6:30 a.m. The first goal of the flight was to cross the first high terrain, which required a climb up to 9,500 feet to traverse some of the canyons on the way to our first fuel stop at Fort Bridger, Wyoming (KFBR). This flight was absolutely beautiful! I was so excited to be on my way to AirVenture that I forgot to take a single picture of the leg, as was the case for much of the flying. We made our way under the Salt Lake City Class B airspace to Parley’s Canyon, east of Salt Lake City, and essentially followed I-80.

We flew the entire trip using GPS to maximize efficiency. The Fort Bridger airport is a special place. It seems right out of a classic aviation “Wild West” movie as the place appears abandoned due to the lack of activity. The hangars are beat up, and there’s an abandoned house on the field that we later used as a wind shelter on the return trip. The self-serve gas pump works great, though, and this was my second visit to this almost ghost airport.    

During my first visit to KFBR, Quinn and I were on our way back from a daytime scenic flying loop via Vernal, Utah, up to Flaming Gorge. The winds were howling at about 35 mph and at about a 75-degree angle of the runway. Quinn’s plane has large tires, and there’s an abandoned dirt runway, so he landed on that. His report was that it was very rough; I elected to land my Mini-Max 1600Ron the runway – right into the wind at that 75-degree angle! I waited for Quinn’s plane to be safely tied down, and then I set my plane down and had her stopped right at the edge. Quinn had to run over and help me hold down my plane to keep it from flying away! I was very thankful that so far on this trip the winds were absolutely calm.

We didn’t waste any time, and after fueling we immediately took to the air again on the way to our second planned stop at Rock Springs, Wyoming. Again the air was smooth and the wind was absolutely calm. Quinn and I arrived after a quick 50 minutes in the air from KFBR. We decided to take a quick break and grab a fast food breakfast in town. Quinn and I could see a Burger King from the airport, and the fixed base operator (FBO) offered us the courtesy car. As we were eating, we noticed the wind started just a bit and decided to head back to the airport because our planes were only chocked (not tied down). Have you ever read the “Never Again” stories in the AOPA Pilot magazine? Yep!

When we returned to the airport, both of our airplanes were gone!

A sinking feeling overtook me, and for several moments my hopes to attend AirVenture 2009 were all but lost. As we rushed into the FBO, the manager told me he saw Quinn’s plane jump the chocks, and he and his wife ran out, grabbed the planes, and put them in the hangar! Awesome! They said it looked like the plane went flying, but they didn’t see it hit anything. Mine stayed in the chocks.

Anytime I know or suspect that someone else (including God) touches my airplane, I get a bit more careful and nitpicky during preflights. Both of us very cautious, Quinn and I inspected our airplanes thoroughly. My plane was completely fine, Quinn’s not so much. His wingtip had made light contact with something, and it showed some scratching. We carefully reviewed any potential other damage and finally became very thankful for his fiberglass droop wingtips. We borrowed the airport car again. After a quick visit to a hardware store for some 5-minute epoxy and a quick field repair, we were back on our way to AirVenture! Always tie your airplane down!

By this time, a nice tailwind had developed for our next legs to Rawlins (KRWL) and then Douglas (KDGW) in Wyoming. The state is fairly barren following this route, so the next leg into South Dakota for Custer County Airport (KCUT) was a welcome one.
About 25 miles southwest of Custer County Airport (above some beautiful and rugged terrain), I began to smell smoke. The first thing that came to mind was to ask Quinn if he had seen any forest fires, as I feared we might be approaching a temporary flight restriction that usually surrounds a forest fire. Quinn said he didn’t smell or see any forest fires.

Then my cockpit began to quickly fill with smoke!  

The Mini-Max exhaust is set off to the side of the fuselage with a wooden spacer – not really the best idea on the planet. And I was at least 20 minutes away from the nearest airport!
  
My exhaust gas temperature (EGT) was reading about 1,040 degrees (normal), so I pushed the throttle up to full power to richen the mixture and decrease the EGT. The smoke had already and immediately decreased with the cooler EGT. So I decided to carefully open the canopy enough to exchange the air in the tiny cabin of my Mini-Max. Can I make the airport, or should I set it down in the wilderness? The lack of any new smoke made that decision easy – airport. 

Meanwhile Quinn had tucked himself in a tight formation to have a look at the damage outside the airplane. We fly formation a whole lot, but he got in really close under to have this look. I was thankful for very smooth air and a great deal of trust and formation experience with my flying buddy. He said everything looked good with the exception of the muffler riding right on the side of the fuselage. The rest of the flight was nerve wracking but otherwise uneventful. I found myself surrounded by the spectacular views of western South Dakota. Absolutely breathtaking!  

After landing, a quick assessment revealed the remains of a wooden spacer that was charred and almost gone, along with a nice 2-inch-by-5-inch burn hole in the side of the fuselage.

It was the very last time I ever flew the stock muffler standoff design on the Mini-Max. I’m a bit surprised that it’s part of the design of the aircraft, considering wood has such a low burn temp. After a long day of flying and a couple of random delays, it was time to get a nice meal and a hotel room and call it a night. I was confident that we’d find something at a local hardware store to keep our AirVenture dreams alive.

With day one complete, we were safe in the land of Mount Rushmore but not without adventure! Quite honestly, I was hoping for improved luck for the rest of the trip. (Stay tuned for the rest of the adventure!)

Cory Robin is tentatively planning to repeat his adventure by flying to AirVenture 2010. However, it is with much sadness we report that his flying partner, Quinn Falk, lost his life in a banner-towing accident on June 26 at the South Valley Regional Airport, Salt Lake City, Utah. Cory posted a message on Oshkosh365 about his plans for this year.

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