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My Adventure Flight to Florida - in a Trike

By Krista Miller, for Light Plane World

Krista Miller

Tuesday, February 14, 2012. A certificated fixed wing pilot flying to Florida in January in a trike? Crazy, you say? Perhaps. Cold, you think? Indeed. Adventure, you wonder? Definitely! On Saturday afternoon, a very dear friend, John Williams, arrived at the York County Airport (KUZA) in Rock Hill, South Carolina, from his home airport in Williamsburg, Virginia. We were flying in his trike to Cedar Key, Florida.

Anyway, John flew from Williamsburg to Rock Hill on Saturday, a straight five-hour flight in his Airborne XT-912. John was John-happy to make the trip, energetic, and good-natured. That gave me a good dose of excitement about our journey on Sunday.

For you see, as much as I was really looking forward to the trip, I was wary of the cold. I mean, come on! Who flies in an open-air aircraft in January? John, of course, and we weren't about to wimp out because of not being toasty! But John's "positivity" is positively contagious. We had some barbeque, checked the next day's weather (expecting a tailwind!), and we turned in early.

Sunday morning: pancakes and bacon, then off to the airport! We gassed up the trike and bundled up. I wore jeans, two pairs of socks, sneakers, three shirts, a ski bib, a heavy coat, two pairs of gloves, and what would prove to be the best scarf ever. John had jeans, a few shirts, a fleece, a jacket, and heavy gloves, so I felt sure I'd be baking in my getup.

After gaining about 14 inches in padding all around, it was time to wedge into the backseat: no small feat. John had to buckle my seatbelt for me and help me into the headset and helmet. He got himself situated, cranked up, and gave me the rundown of the avionics and controls. He made it seem so easy. We taxied out in the near-freezing temps, did the run-up, and needed about 12 feet of runway to lift off. It was more than that, of course, but it's impressive, all the more so when you're sitting two feet off the pavement with very little between it and you. It's pretty fun, too.

John Williams
John Williams

John flew us about 40 nautical miles south down to KFDW (Fairfield County). It was cold indeed, and the sun still seemed pretty low in the sky. Imagine going 60 mph on a motorcycle in January and you'll get the idea. We didn't get much of the turbulence we were expecting, but it was still early in the day; the ground had yet to warm up. From the back, it seemed like a smooth ride. I tried to take in the countryside as it became less and less familiar while keeping an eye on what John was doing so that when my turn came up, I'd know what to expect.

John landed us as gently as a feather on a pillow, and we rolled onto the ramp to deplane. As planned, we switched pilots and I got my first crack at flying a trike! Yes, there are training bars attached to the main wing bar so that John can control it from the rear should I lose my grip on it, or on reality. We had another brief lesson on the ground, and I was ready to go!

Driving the trike on the ground is easy with the brakes and foot controls. For takeoff, it was pedal to the metal with the bar pushed all the way forward, and just after liftoff the bar came back slightly for a reasonable climb.

Flying the trike takes a little getting used to. It took me a lot longer than expected to get the hang of it, pun intended. It was a totally new experience; I was getting colder and was now feeling the turbulence and wondering how John could possibly have flown so smoothly that I didn't notice it before! There were a few jolts that made me instinctively become a vise on the bar.

"Oh, crap, in 10 minutes we'll be CAE airspace!"

John kept reminding me, helpfully, that it's easier to fly when you're relaxed physically and mentally. As we approached Columbia's airspace, going around the eastern side, I started to get comfortable. Then I noted on the GPS the corridor between KCAE (Columbia) and KSSC (Shaw Air Force Base), two airspaces I really didn't want to intrude upon. Can you imagine an F-22 intercept sent out for an ultralight? I could, and I didn't want it ever, period.

The GPS showed current position and a line that indicated our position in the future, ending with our position in 10 minutes. As I made corrections, I'd glance down and see that "Oh, no, in 10 minutes we'll be in the AFB." I'd hurriedly adjust to prevent that, then glance down to see that "Oh, crap, in 10 minutes we'll be CAE airspace! So I'd adjust the other way. Guess what I did for about 15 minutes straight? I added unpredictable course changes based on turbulence, and I was not having a good time.

You see, the margin between those two airspaces is gigantic. Like about 12 miles gigantic. Had I been the one to preflight the route, I would have known that the zoom level of the GPS was showing a very wide range, making our tremendously huge marker seem mere inches from the areas I was trying to avoid!

First part of my leg of the flight: Learn to fly the trike. Second part: Keep the trike where it should be. Third part: Relax and fly. Ah, that I could finally do. We were past those enemy zones, so now all I had to do was pick a spot on the horizon on the general heading the GPS was showing and try to keep it pointed there. This part was pretty good. Turned out that all those big nasty fires on the ground made really good references from the air; you can track those columns of smoke for ages. Occasionally I'd have to put in a major course correction because I let us wander while I was looking around, but nothing awful I think. John kept reassuring me that things were going well and that I was doing a good job for my first time up front. John co-flew the approach and landing (he flew it and I rested my hands on the bar) to our next planned stop, 88J, Allendale, South Carolina. We topped off with fuel and went inside for a bit to warm up.

I graciously declined John's offer to let me fly the upcoming leg. We had picked two more stops before reaching our destination of KCDK in Cedar Key, Florida. He gave me the option of whether to make that first stop or not, and I suggested blazing ahead to the second where we would need to refuel. With that as a plan, John took us up and we were off! It had gotten bumpy down low by now, so shortly into this leg John took us up to 4,500 feet where you can see for miles and miles. It was smooth as glass, but oh so cold. My warm coat was working perfectly, the ski bib was keeping me warm, but those sneakers-those damn mesh-topped sneakers-were giving all shreds of heat away from my feet! It wasn't long before the cold and numbness in my feet were distracting me from the views. A little bit later, the wind seemed to wick the feeling of warmth from my whole, and I was shivering all over. Eventually it was tough to think about much else; I asked John if we could land before we got to KAMG in Alma, Georgia, for some warmth.

During the next half hour, we flew past an awesome thing; not awesome as in "Cool, dude!" but awesome as in impressive. There was a huge fire down below. This was somewhere in mid-to-lower Georgia. The dense and intense smoke was rising in a vast column. When you have a campfire, you may have a pile of burning stuff three feet in diameter, and the smoke quickly narrows and thins out as it rises. Not this. If it was two acres burning down below, the column of opaque smoke covered two horizontal acres going straight up. It could have been a gigantic glass of milk sitting there. What was neat was that it topped out near our altitude of 4,500 feet. It just stopped ascending here, and ever so lightly was getting dragged out to the east. There might have been a temperature inversion layer trapping it, like a ceiling traps smoke and gives it a surface to roll along.

The next stop was KBHC in Baxley, Georgia. We landed and rolled up to the self-serve pump, and as we disengaged ourselves from the ultralight, two gentlemen came out of the FBO grinning ear to ear. We must have been an unusual sight. One man said he was coming to collect the landing fee, but they charge by weight so it wouldn't be worth it (ha ha ha). These guys were super helpful. John, knowing my proclivity for food and eating, asked them for recommendations nearby for a quick bite, and they offered the keys to their van and a map to get the five miles into town. We didn't take them up on that, but instead munched on a granola bar from inside.

The weather check was all good, but despite my bouncing and moving around for 15 minutes, my feet had still not regained any feeling; the rest of me was toasty, and John, bless him, may even have started sweating. We were going to have to book it straight to Cedar Key to land before sunset, so I was using every metaphysical and psychosomatic power I have to send hot blood into those extremities. Much to my disappointment, I found that I have none of those powers yet.

"Oh, for the love of all that is good in the universe, keep me warm!"

Okay, go time. What to do? Engineer some foot warmers, of course! The FBO guys grabbed some plastic shopping bags and Gorilla tape, and we got to work sealing my shoes. Two layers of plastic, a few rounds of tape, and I was ready for the catwalk in Milan. They also found two chemical heat hand warmers and started the reaction in one to heat it up, so I slipped that into my glove and felt guilty for not sharing it with John. Not that he would have taken it had I been thoughtful enough to offer.

Back to the story, and more on hand warmers later. We clambered back into the trike, and as we taxied out we realized that John could talk to me but couldn't hear me. Perhaps my headset's batteries were strong enough to receive but not transmit. Whatever the reason, John got a remission from me for the last leg. He asked whether I wanted to stay low where it was warmer but bumpy or go up where it would be colder but smooth. My communications failed; I tried to indicate that either was fine with me, but he should make that decision based on optimizing speed. The message that went through was "Oh, for the love of all that is good in the universe, keep me warm!" We stayed down around 1,000 feet. My feet stayed warm, even a little overly so, and I was quite comfortable for the rest of the trip.

At this low altitude, we got a neat intermediate view of the tree farms. Up higher, we could plainly see the patterns and patches of row-planted timber. The row patterns changed periodically, presumably to accommodate terrain or obstacles, but it all seemed very mechanical and unnatural. Down lower, we could also make out more detail. (This patch had younger trees and that one was all older.) There were lots of pecan groves as well, often with a home plunked down in the middle. Another advantage of staying down low was the opportunity for John to fly us down low for a few minutes over the Suwanee River as it twisted back and forth. We waved to some boaters and they waved back. That was cool.

John cranked up our speed along this last leg, and we topped out at 84 knots. That's 96 mph on a "motorcycle in the sky." I could definitely tell we were going fast from the wind sounds, and I must admit that I liked it.

As the coast approached, we saw lots more birds circling and riding thermals, and before long we were out over the Gulf of Mexico, following the one road with lots of bridges that connect Cedar Key to the mainland. John circled around the island a few times and pointed out Ms. Melinda's house. Ms. Melinda is John's wife Maxine's 94-year-old mother-in-law.

Landing was uneventful but special as we glided near the ocean on approach with the sun getting low in the sky and the smell of saltwater rising to meet us. We could see Melinda's daughter Dale and her friend Nancy waiting for us. So John landed and we back-taxied to park and dismount. They gave us a tour of the island on our way to the condo. We dropped our items, freshened up for a moment, and headed out to see Ms. Melinda, who is a warm and welcoming woman. We had just a few minutes to chat before it was time to get some dinner-John hadn't eaten since breakfast.

We made it to the Island Hotel bar for the purported best hamburgers anywhere. With a glass of wine for me and a beer for John, we reminisced about our busy day of adventure and made friends with the locals, one of whom was the proprietor of Annie's Cafe, where we'd dine for breakfast and lunch on Monday. My husband, Jason (who is also a pilot), was coming to pick me up, and he needed a fix of soft shell crab. John was well into his acquaintance with Mr. Annie and convinced him the importance of having at least one soft shell crab in the restaurant, lest Jason decide not to come after all. He said he'd go and check personally. Leave it to John to get special treatment from new best friends within moments of setting foot in a place.

Krista Miller is a fixed wing pilot. She and her husband, Jason, work at ForeFlight, a pilot-oriented app for iPhones and iPads. John Williams is IFR certificated and flies his Airborne Trike and a Cirrus SR-22.

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