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Hummel UltraCruiser to AirVenture 2011

By Kirk Mills, for Light Plane World

Kirk Mills

I’ve always had a passion for aviation and dreamed of flying to EAA AirVenture Oshkosh. Everyone around the airport always talked about flying to AirVenture, so this year when the conversation came up in the spring, I decided I was going, with or without fellow pilots. I’ve been flying only about a year and had around 100 hours flight time in my UltraCruiser which is Morry Hummel’s original prototype.

My plan was to fly out with another friend from our local airport in Marcellus, New York. I felt very comfortable flying with someone else. We had it planned to have a ground crew follow us for support, but soon after the planning started our crew members decided they really didn’t want to follow us. Then a few weeks later, I found out if I was to go I would be flying alone with no other planes or a ground support.

I was using this trip as a family vacation, and my girlfriend and two daughters were very excited to attend AirVenture. I could have driven out with them, but I felt the best part of going to AirVenture would be flying there, then camping with the family under the wing after we met up. So I decided I would plan the flight myself and make the trip alone.

I had a lot of help from some good friends with planning my route and fuel stops. I started doing little things ahead of time to get ready for the trip. Two weeks before I was to leave, I flew to a friend’s location to give the plane a good washing, but on the way there the motor developed a small oil leak. When I got back to my home airport, I found that the engine case was cracked and needed to be replaced. I took the engine out and sent the crank and camshaft out to be fitted in a new case.

My plan was to leave early on the morning of Friday, July 22, thinking if the weather was good I would have no problem arriving Saturday night. I received the new case with the crank and cam installed on Wednesday, July 20. Still, I needed to put the piston and jugs on the engine and try to get it together so I could put a few hours on it before I left. I called a couple friends to help. We got the engine together and in the plane Thursday evening, giving me an hour to fly before I started my trip to Oshkosh. I can’t carry much in my plane, so I had my GPS, handheld radio, one change of clothes, and a few tools.

Departing

I left my airport in Marcellus at 6:30 a.m. on Friday. My family was riding with another family member, and they were leaving late Friday night. The plan was for us all to be in Oshkosh by 4 p.m. Saturday. My first planned stop was in Gowanda, New York. The weather was perfect. I noticed a fluctuation in my oil pressure. I landed in Gowanda, got fuel, and called the company that built the case for my motor. The company helped me find the problem. There was a burr in the oil galley that the relief valve was sticking on. I removed the relief valve, cleaned it, and put it back together.

My next stop was Hermitage, Pennsylvania. By the time I got close to Hermitage it was getting very hot, and the cumulus clouds were building, making for a rough ride. I’ve never gotten sick flying, but from the rough air and the sun beating through my glass canopy I was becoming very nauseous; I couldn’t wait to land. I landed at Hermitage Airport which is a private grass strip. The owner of the airport came out and got me some gas and a cold drink. I still didn’t feel very good, so I lay under the shade of a tree and waited for the midday heat to calm down.

First Unplanned Landing
I left Hermitage with my next stop in mind being Dusting, Ohio. I had planned on staying there for the night. I had no way of checking the weather, but it seemed okay. As I started to climb out of Hermitage, I noticed the sky was darkening to the west but looked clear to the south. I climbed out to around 2,800 feet and headed south toward New Castle, Pennsylvania. I didn’t get too far when I realized the weather was getting really bad really fast. I needed to land and tie down. New Castle Airport was 8 miles to my west, but with a very strong wind out of the west and my plane only cruising at 60 mph I would be in the storm before I made it. There really wasn’t anywhere to go according to my chart. I saw a horse farm to the east with a long grass strip marked with orange balls. I slipped it down as fast as I could, lining me up for a nice downwind approach. I couldn’t have been luckier. Once on the ground, I taxied over near a hangar and tied down using the hangar to block the wind. The rain and wind came down so hard that I was afraid my little plane was going to blow away.

Fred's farm
UltraCruiser tied down at Fred’s Farm near Newcastle, Pennsylvania. (photo taken by cell phone)

Still trying to figure out where I was, I couldn’t find this beautiful strip in my GPS or on my chart. I was worried I was lost but very glad to be on the ground. As the storm was getting extremely bad, a couple drove in the driveway. A gentleman jumped out of the car and yelled for me to bring my plane in the hangar as he ran inside to open the hangar door. I untied and brought it inside.

After I explained who I was and where I was going, he told me where I was and that he had just built the runway, so it’s not on the chart yet. The very nice couple took me to their house on their horse farm where I changed into dry clothes. Next they took me to dinner and demanded I stay in their spare room. Fred and Jane turned out to be two of the nicest people I’ve ever met. Fred asked me if I was using flight service for weather. I wasn’t because I flew an ultralight and was very intimidated by the thought of calling. Fred spent many hours that night talking to me about using a sectional the right way, and he made me call flight service. I can’t thank him enough for what he taught me in those few hours that night.

I woke early Saturday morning to find that Jane had cooked a huge breakfast for me. I couldn’t stop thinking how lucky I was to find this grass runway that wasn’t even on the sectional. I had plans of leaving early that morning, but one look at the rain and fog outside changed that thought. I was stuck here and my family was almost at Oshkosh. I called my girlfriend, Deb, and learned they were in Great Bend, Indiana. I didn’t know how long I would be stuck. Flight service was predicting a 1,500-foot ceiling until noon. I had Deb instruct a family member who she was riding with to take her and my two children to an airport to rent a car and head back this direction. I’ve had two heart attacks, and my heart medicine would only last till Sunday. I also only had one change of clothes and no sleeping bag, so I really needed them to come back and follow me from airport to airport. They rented a car; I told them to meet me at the Dusting Airport in Ohio.

Around 11 a.m. Saturday, the weather started to clear. Fred took me up in his Warrior just to check out the visibility. It looked good to the west, so I decided I better get flying. He buckled me in my plane that morning; meeting such nice people was a very nice feeling. Talking to him gave me a lot of needed confidence.

Fred had convinced me to land at Carroll County Airport because it has a black-top runway—I had never landed on black top. He also convinced me my trip would be easier if I landed at some bigger airports; they would have fuel and food for sure. I flew to Carroll County and landed on the black top, no problem. What a great feeling that was. Looking back I don’t know why I was so nervous about it.

Second Unplanned Landing
I was very excited leaving Carroll County and heading to Dusting, Ohio. Since my family was meeting me there, I knew I would at least have someone on the ground if I needed anything. The weather was calm but very hazy. Being a low-time pilot, I was having a hard time telling if it was just haze, rain, or a storm ahead of me. I was almost over Mansfield, Ohio, when I realized it was another thunderstorm. I didn’t want to fly in that, so I checked my GPS for an airport. The closest one was ten miles away; I decided I would have to land in a field. I found a very nice long-harvested wheat field, landed there, tied down, and called flight service. They were calling for thunderstorms and heavy rain for the rest of the day. I secured my plane, called my family, and had them come get me. We went to a local motel for the night. This was supposed to be a family vacation, so I felt better that we were together.

Wheat field
Wheat field somewhere near Mansfield, Ohio.

Waking Sunday morning to rain again was a little disappointing. But it cleared up by 10 a.m. and I flew to Dusting, Ohio. The feeling of having ground support was a great sensation. Landing at Dusting and having them there with a cold drink for me was terrific. I fueled up and headed for my next stop, Plew Airport near Columbia City, Indiana. Weather was good, but there’s no gas there. Luckily my family took me next door to a farmer’s house where some very nice people hooked me up with some gas. I changed my original route at this point, wanting to stay with the larger airports in hope of finding gas. I don’t mind running auto fuel in my plane, but I would rather run 100LL avgas in my half VW engine.

I decided my next stop would be Valparaiso, Indiana, by far the biggest airport I’ve ever landed at and a very nice place. The local EAA chapter had a booth set up selling hamburgers and hot dogs. Again my family was right there behind me. It was around 5 p.m. and the weather was perfect for flying. I told my family I didn’t really know where my next stop would be, so they should just head toward Oshkosh; I would call the next time I land. I headed for Joliet to stay out of Chicago airspace.  

This was the best flying I had my whole trip. I was lucky if I was seeing 55 mph ground speed until that moment. Now I was seeing 65 to 70 mph ground speed. As I got over Joliet, though, my GPS went out. Flight service kept saying there was a satellite out, so I always made sure I knew where I was on my sectional. It was definitely a little nerve racking not having a GPS. It’s a lot different flying somewhere you’ve never been. I just kept marking any town, railroad track, or power lines I saw. I continued to fly west until I flew over the power lines on my sectional. Turning north, I knew I was clear of Chicago airspace, and I knew it was due north to Dacy Airport in Harvard, Illinois. I was hoping to make Dacy for the night.

It was getting late and I knew now I wasn’t going to make Dacy. I looked on my sectional; I was really close to DeKalb Taylor. The flying was so smooth and just a beautiful evening for it. I decided to go to Aero Lakes which is 20 miles further north. As I got closer to Aero Lakes, I could see probably the nicest black-top runway with white dashes down the center that I’d ever seen. I lined up for the runway wishing I had more daylight. Getting closer to it, I could see in huge white writing at each end of the runway the word PRIVATE. Oh, no. I thought now it’s too dark to go anywhere else, and the owner of this place doesn’t want any one here. Too late, I was out of daylight and committed. Once on the ground I taxied off the runway and out of the way. Looking around I could see this is a very nice housing community with a runway down the middle, and I just landed here with my little ultralight. I decided I better go knock on some doors and see what kind of trouble I was in. To my amazement the people there were great. They put my plane in a beautiful hangar. Definitely the nicest hangar my little plane would ever stay in. They offered me and my family a place to stay, but I felt that was too much to ask of anyone. So we told the wonderful people there good night and that I would be back at 6 a.m. We went and got a room.

Getting up Monday morning, I knew that if everything goes as planned I would be at Oshkosh in a few hours. I didn’t sleep much that night due to excitement. Looking outside in the morning to blue skies was wonderful. One more stop for fuel in Harvard, Illinois, and I would be on my last leg. Leaving Harvard just knowing I would likely be landing in Oshkosh soon was a feeling I’ll never forget. Nervous and excited is the only way I could explain it.

I Couldn’t Find the Runway
Air traffic was getting heavy. With so many people flying to the same place, it was definitely thrilling to look at all the planes in the sky. I had studied the Oshkosh NOTAM for at least four months, so I was pretty confident I knew exactly how to land at Oshkosh. I had my NOTAM on my kneeboard. I entered the pattern; there were six other ultralights flying it that morning. I followed them around the pattern four times, but I just couldn’t find the runway even though I knew it was on the southwest corner of the main runway. I don’t know if nerves or fear was messing me up. The pattern was much smaller than it looked on the NOTAM, or in the video everything just looked so different. I told myself to calm down and just follow everyone because eventually someone will land. That’s exactly what I did. I waited for the pilot in front of me to land and I landed behind him.

Oshkosh arrival
Arrival at the AirVenture ultralight landing strip.

Landing at Oshkosh has to be the best feeling for any pilot. To my surprise a bunch of my friends from our local EAA Chapter 1017 were tipped off as to what time I would be landing, thanks to a friend who I kept in contact with as he helped me with weather by looking on the Internet from home. So they were standing by the fence when I landed. What a nice welcome to Oshkosh.

We had a great time at AirVenture. Great people, great show, just an all-around great time. Unfortunately, I knew Deb was flying from Wisconsin to California, and my children were riding back home with another family member; I would be alone for the trip home. My father and my group of friends from EAA 1017 were all planning on leaving Saturday to drive home. They all told me if I had any problems they would come help. I knew that was good for Saturday, but I also knew I would never make it all the way home in one day.

Heading for Home
I had my route all planned out for the trip back, and I was a lot more relaxed coming home. I planned to stop in DeKalb, Illinois, for fuel, then onto Valparaiso, and finally a stop to meet the boys of Hummel Aviation at Williams County Airport, Ohio. What a great bunch of guys—they were very helpful. It was so nice to see where Morry Hummel was from and see his original UltraCruiser at its home field. I think it was a little emotional for the guys there seeing Morry’s plane again. As I got ready to climb in, with all the guys from Hummel Aviation standing around, you could tell they were all thinking about Morry. One gentleman asked if he could hand-prop it. I never let anyone start my plane in fear of someone losing a hand. He said they used to help Morry get into that plane, strap him in, pull the prop through, and just watch Morry fly. I gave in and let him pull her through for the sake of old-time memories. I think it made their day to see that plane again.

Hummel engine
Engine slogan was placed on the prototype UltraCruiser by Morry Hummel.

By the time I left Hummel Aviation, it was getting late, and with no ground crew for a ride to a hotel, I needed to find somewhere I could walk to town. Looking at my sectional I found Willard, Ohio; I could tell the airport was really close to town. I got to Willard just before dark and thought the manager of that airport was great. He was there flying his remote-controlled planes. The manager filled me up with fuel and gave me a ride to a hotel in town.

I woke up early Sunday morning to another beautiful day to fly. Walking the half mile to my plane, I knew this was the last day of the best vacation I ever had. I got to my plane and called Fred at the horse farm to see if he and his wonderful wife would like to have breakfast at Carroll County Airport. They agreed and said we would see each other there in an hour and a half. Getting to Carroll County Airport and having breakfast with them was well worth the stop. I spent a lot more time talking to them and answering questions from other pilots about my plane and my trip than I wanted to, but I lost track of time.

I told Fred I would fly over his farm on my way home. His Warrior is a lot faster than my UltraCruiser, so he would be there long before I got there. I know right where his place is located because I’ve been there—it’s five miles east of New Castle. I flew over New Castle and headed east looking for that long grass strip, circling for a little while, but I just couldn’t find it. Very ironic to me that when I really needed it I just happened to see it, but when I wanted to find it I couldn’t. Maybe Morry helped me find it when I really needed it.

A little upset that I couldn’t fly over the farm, I headed northeast for Titusville Airport. The west wind was picking up a little over the hills of Pennsylvania; I knew it was strong. And I knew the Titusville runway was north-south, so I had a pretty good crosswind. It was a challenge, but I got it down on the runway. By this time it was getting hot out, and the air was getting rough with the wind. So I stayed there for a little while and talked with the nice people from that beautiful airport hidden in the woods.

One more stop at Gowanda, New York, and then I would be on my last leg home. The closer I got to Jamestown, the worse the weather got. It was really gusty from the west. The ground speed was great, but it made for a very rough ride. I decided to find a place to land and wait this out till it calmed down. Looking on my sectional I found Campbell Field just east of Jamestown. It was really gusting, so I was pretty nervous landing there. Glad to be on the ground. Mr. and Mrs. Campbell were wonderful; they came right out to welcome me, gave me a full tank of 100LL, and insisted I come in and have dinner till the weather calmed down. It’s just unbelievable how nice people are in the aviation community.

Departing Campbell Field
Departing Campbell Field

After one last check on the weather, I decided it looked good, so off again on the last leg of my journey. I climbed out from Campbell Field and went up to 4,000 feet to get some altitude over the wooded hills of southwestern New York. It was a great feeling to see the Finger Lakes—this meant I was almost home. My body was getting sore from sitting in that small plane for that long, and I couldn’t wait to get home. I landed back in Marcellus, New York, where I started. A good friend was there to shake my hand and congratulate me on my journey.

I learned so much on this trip. I feel it has made me a much better pilot, and I’ll remember the experiences on that trip forever. The friends I made along the way are friends for life. I still talk to them from time to time. Some of my legs of the trip were very long sitting in that small plane, but I never let myself think that I had 800 miles to go. I forced myself to think of the distance to the next stop and not the distance to Oshkosh or to home.

Kirk Mills

Thanks for the support I got from my friends at EAA Chapter 1017 and EAA Chapter 107. And thanks to my wonderful family for coming all the way back to help me when I really needed it.

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