1988 Best Year Yet – Part 1

Flying the Mooney for a year and a half had given me just the remedial practice I needed. By this time I had logged more than 800 hours. Now, it was time to simply enjoy flying to the max. Getting in the plane had become as natural as getting in a car. If a destination was more than 100 miles, I wouldn’t even consider driving. 

Sometimes flying just doesn’t work

For 75 years, every January the craft and hobby industry1 hosted a trade show where suppliers and dealers met face to face and made commitments for the coming year. In 1988 it was in St. Louis – a very easy flight from our home in Chicago. 

Easy, that is, except in January. When the planned travel day arrived, the St. Louis airport was forecasting ice – something my Mooney simply could not handle. I had to face the music and buy a ticket. When I checked in at O’Hare, I discovered the flight had been canceled – even United AirLines can be impacted by bad weather. Hmmm… The next flight wasn’t for another several hours … and my brand new Honda Civic was right outside in the O’Hare lot. Five hours later I was checking in to my hotel in St. Louis.

But I sure do hate being grounded! 🙁

Alway keep Marie in the know

Mooney N1304W as seen by seven-year-old Jeff

My biggest fan as a pilot was our son, Jeff. He loved to go with me. And if he couldn’t fly with me, he would draw pictures of my plane.

This Chicago winter, like many others, was especially awful. Jeff and I headed south. In fair weather, flying is much like driving. Once we left Chicago, it was clear everywhere. Being careful to respect populated areas and airport traffic areas, there are few restrictions so we were free to go wherever the mood took us.

Our first stop was the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama – a great place to spend an afternoon. We learned about the Apollo moon missions and took turns on the simulator, docking the Command Service Module with the Lunar Module. (I was staggered by just how much patience it required. And I reminded myself, missing the dock was the last mistake an astronaut would ever make.) Then in the morning we were off to Sarasota for lunch with a dear friend and mentor, John Smith.

After lunch, Jeff and I headed south along the gulf coast. We were flying low, and so close to the beach I’d swear we could see smiles on the faces of the kids building sand castles. In unpopulated stretches – which is actually most of the coast – Jeff excitedly pointed out the fish jumping in the ocean. At the tip of the mainland we continued on, island-hopping down the keys to Marathon.

It was almost dark when we landed on Marathon Island, and the airport office was closed. So we tied the plane down, grabbed our bags and walked the short distance to a motel down the road. (I had called ahead to reserve a room and a deep sea fishing charter for the following morning.) I’d have bet the farm that the motel manager would rather have been on a surfboard or at an oyster bar than managing a motel. But he checked us in without a hitch, and, since there were no phones in the rooms2, he let us use the office phone to order a pizza.

Jeff catching his limit.

Jeff’s prior fishing experience amounted to sadly watching all his friends catch fish while he caught none. So when I met the captain at the dock, I quietly told him, “I’m not interested in trophies. Please just be sure my son catches lots of fish.” In a matter of minutes we were idling over a school of yellowtail snappers where, as fast as Jeff could throw a line over the side, he’d have another bite. At age seven, Jeff quickly reached his limit – we were back at the dock in less than an hour.

As we walked off the dock, the kid from the desk looked up from his poolside lounge and said, “Your wife called. She sounded pissed.” And reasonably so. I had taken our firstborn son across half the U.S. and we were now MIA for two days. She had no idea whatsoever where we were and her imagination was running wild. She finally found us on a remote island, in a backwater motel that didn’t even have phones in the rooms.

Then Jeff got on the phone, all excited. “Mom,” he said, “we broke all the rules. We had pizza in bed … in our underwear … and I caught a million fish this morning.” She was happy once again, but lesson learned: Moms may be willing to let dads go off on their own for a couple days, but they want to know where the kids are at all times. 

That day it became instantly clear that when Marie wants to find me, there’s no place to hide.

Flying blind is magical

That spring one of our ad reps needed to make a call on an advertiser in a town not readily accessible by airlines. I leaped at the opportunity, “In not time at all, Mary Ellen, I can fly you directly to your client’s town. You’ll save hours of connections and driving.” I neglected to mention my desire to show off and fly.

Although we could expect snow at the destination, the forecast included adequate visibility for a safe instrument approach and, if the forecast was too optimistic, a good alternate airport. The expectations were on target. For the last 20 minutes of the flight, all we could see looking up, down or sideways was the instrument panel, our wings … and snow.

A radio call to the airport revealed that the visibility was down to the bare minimum. An ILS approach was permissible, but we had to be prepared to “go missed” and head for our planned alternate if we didn’t see the runway in time. Instruments on the panel would provide precise information about altitude, speed and position as we slid down an imaginary zipline to the end of the runway.

All instruments needed
ILS indicator is in lower right

As we turned onto final approach, I began to descend. My eyes continuously scanned the instruments keeping the ILS needles centered. All the while my right hand was poised on the throttle, ready to climb if the runway didn’t appear. After what must have felt to Mary Ellen like a snow-filled eternity, the runway burst out right in front of us. Just like magic.

Mary Ellen returned home that day with a nice contract in her briefcase … and a new take on the reality of flying in small planes.

Give very clear instructions in The Big Apple

Even with dozens of daily airline flights from O’Hare to New York City, there are ample reasons to use general aviation. So much so that Teterboro is a favorite choice for corporate and other private flyers – including me in my Mooney.

NYC from above Teterboro Airport
Nighttime view from the air

Flying into NYC in a light plane is spectacular. TEB (Teterboro) is only a mile from Manhattan. While in the traffic pattern, it feels as if you can reach out and touch the Empire State Building. 

Upon arrival at the airport, you might think that the big city FBOs would ignore my little single engine gas burner in favor of the mega-fuel burning jet parked right next to me, but they didn’t. They gave me the same red carpet treatment as the CEOs climbing out of their Gulfstreams.

Well, almost. The CEOs go directly to an awaiting limousine and disappear off to their meetings. Before heading off to my meetings, I had to take care of all the tasks routinely performed by their crew: 

  • Transportation was simple: a car service to my destination in the city. 
  • Parking: Just leave the plane on the ramp. The weather was fair and I saw no reason to pay NYC hangar prices. 
  • Fuel: Fill both fuel tanks with 100 low lead aviation gas NOT jet fuel. 
  • Finally, check the oil: It should be between five and six quarts when I take off. My standard request is, “Add oil up to six quarts.”

After leaving the order, I was off to my meetings, knowing that my plane was in good hands.

When I returned at the end of the day, I paid the bill, did the requisite preflight planning, then headed out to the ramp for the flight home. But my plane was nowhere to be found. 

Back to the office.

Where is my plane? 

They moved it into a hangar.

What? I didn’t pay for hangar storage.

There was a little problem.

What “little problem”?!

Er … they attempted to add six quarts of oil and they’re cleaning it up.

Every once in a while I add a quart of oil. On rare occasions, I’ve added two quarts of oil. The only way six quarts would fit is if the engine had been turned upside down and drained. As I approached the plane, a crew was still trying to mop up oil from everywhere. At least they didn’t charge me for any of it.

Returning to Chicago at night

Finally, I was ready to depart. Departing NYC at night is as awesome as arriving during daylight. The buildings were no longer visible … only the lights. And OMG, what a magnificent display. Rivalled only by Chicago’s lights as I approached from across Lake Michigan a few hours later.

* * *

Total flying time to date: 867 hours

New types: None

New ratings: None


  1. Over the lifetime of the show, the sponsoring association had several names: Hobby Industry Association of America (HIAA); Hobby Industry Association (HIA); Craft and Hobby Association (CHA); and probably some I’ve missed.
  2. For readers under 40: In the 80s, motel phones were important. Only the very rich had mobile phones – and they were permanently attached to their cars.

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