Sunday, September 19, 2004

The flight to Fort Deposit

The weather for the last weekend of September turns out to be just perfect. On Saturday, I take care of all the last minute planning for the 75 mile trip. This will be the longest one-way flight that I have ever taken in my MX, or any other aircraft with me at the controls for that matter. Surface winds are forcast to be 0-3 mph Sunday morning, increasing to 4-7 in early afternoon, then decreasing towards evening. Looks like I'll leave about eleven AM on Sunday morning, August 29th. I have a 2.5 gallon gas can that I'm going to strap to the rear of my seat for the trip. I'll have to stop at an airport about 30 miles away to refuel from the can to have enough fuel for the rest of the flight. Even with the extra fuel, I'll be cutting it close. I'll have to fly a straight-line path to the intermediate airport, then from there to the new hanger in Fort Deposit. I should have about a half gallon reserve when I land, which equates to less than 15 minutes from what I have observed from the new 503. Keep in mind that I only have accumulated 4 hours on this engine, so it's still pretty much unknown to me, but I don't want to pay another 100 dollars at my old hanger so I decide to go.

Sunday morning I arrive and preflight my airplane. I fill her up with fuel and strap a canvas bag (with a few items that I normally don't carry, but might need for the trip) on to the seat on top of my extra fuel. I take off right at 11:00 and head straight toward Franklin Field in Union Springs, Alabama. I climb to about 1500' MSL and I am pleasantly surprised to find that I have a 15-20MPH tailwind. My groundspeed is 55-60MPH, which helps my fuel situation. I have never flown to this airport before because the first part of the trip is very sparse on anyplace to land should anything go wrong. I'm in the air for 25 minutes trying to keep right on course. I keep a keen eye out for the airport, the GPS says it is 1.25 miles ahead. What do you know...I've flown straight to the field and the GPS takes me right over center field! Unbelievable! I love modern technology.

The winds at Franklin Field are directly across the runway at about 10MPH. I have to land, so I fly the pattern as usual and land without any problem. I taxi to a pad off the runway and kill the engine. I pour all of the 2.5 gallons from my extra can into the tank and it tops it off! Perfect! I secure all my gear and start the engine once more. I strap back into the seat and taxi out to the end of the runway I landed on. The winds have picked up a bit on the ground; no other option exists but to take off and continue my trip towards my new home. I push the throttle forward and as soon as I reach about 20MPH, the left wing and wheel come off the ground. The airplane is in a weird position, but I keep building speed as the wind pushes me toward the right edge of the runway. There are lights on this runway and I'm quickly headed toward them, but I know as soon as all the wheels are off the ground, she can be straightened out quite quickly. It doesn't happen any too quickly as I narrowly avoid a runway light that would have ruined my day. The breeze blows me around a bit, but I firmly point the nose into the wind and continue my climbout. I breathe a sigh of relief as this tricky takeoff was completed and I get back on my trip.

I keep gradually climbing as I maintain my straight-line course to Fort Deposit. For most of the trip my target altitude has been 1500' MSL. As I scan the hazy horizon, it appears that the terrain gradually rises, so I continue climbing to about 1700 feet. There was a bunch of thermal activity that day, and I found myself quickly rising on several occasions, only to force the plane back to the altitude that I had targeted. I was about 30 miles from my destination at Ft. Deposit, when a thermal gave me another 300 feet of altitude again. This time, I said to myself "I might as well take advantage of the free altitude that God has given me..." and I stopped rising at about 2000 feet MSL. I fly on a bit more, maybe two minutes, when I hear the engine "burp" a bit. I listened carefully for anything else and not hearing anything suspicious, I continued on, convincing myself that I had accidentally moved the throttle setting when resting my hand on the lever.

I'm starting to head into an area where there appears to be lots of forests and trees with no suitable landing sites. About 2 more minutes after the "burp", I'm flying along thinking that I've got about 25 more miles and I've got the trip licked! About that time, the engine RPM starts sagging and dropped from 5400 RPM to zero in about 20 seconds. Great. Time to land! There is a field to my left that I believe I can glide to. That extra altitude sure came in handy...thank you God! The approach to the field was pretty uneventful, and very quiet with no engine. I quickly look for fences, phone and power lines, and livestock. Seeing nothing but livestock, I pick my place to land, between the cows and the sheep. They seem to have formed the boundaries of a makeshift runway for me. As I turn base and final, I see that I'm a bit high. I do a few "S" turns before the chosen landing spot and then bring it in just over the trees. I touch down a bit farther into the field than I wanted, and stop about 50 feet short of a barbed wire fence that I tried very much to avoid. There was a bull about 30 feet from my left wing and I didn't know if he was going to be a problem. Some parts of my sails are red, so I'm pretty wary.

I push my ultralight over to the fence and look for some signs of people. There's a house nearby, but no cars around it. I walk up and knock on the door. Nobody home. Bummer. I call my wife on the cell phone (barely any signal) to let her know what has happened and that I'm not hurt. I don't know exactly where I am, but my GPS tells me I'm about 2 miles from a nearby major highway, so I start following the driveway out of the place. I walk about 3/4 of a mile, passing 3 closed gates. It didn't appear that I would be driving the plane out on that day. I get to a dirt road and record the mailbox information on my GPS, then start walking toward the highway. The GPS says it is still about 2 miles away, but it doesn't show the road I'm on. It's getting dark now, I've walked about 5 miles and I'm still 2 miles away from the highway!

I finally see some houses on the road and I stop at one where there appears to be a man working out in the yard. I explained my situation and he said he had seen me fly over a couple of hours ago. He offered to take me to a gas station on the major highway and I gladly accepted. If I had to walk the entire way, it appears that it would have been over 10 miles because the road twisted and turned so much!

I call my friend on the cell phone and tell him where I'm at. He arrives about an hour later (it's dark now) and we drive out to the entrance to where my ultralight is. We take some rope back into the field and tie the plane down and leave a note telling why it's there and a phone number where I can be contacted. We hike out and start to leave. About a mile down the road, we spot a driveway that is hidden back in the woods with lights way back off the road. We decide to drive up and see if anybody knows who owns the property where I landed.

Dogs bark and yelp as we drive up and a man comes out of the house and he doesn't look happy. I explain why I'm there and he lightens up a bit. Then I describe where my plane is and wouldn't you know, he knows who it belongs to and calls the person on the cell phone and lets me speak to him. We made arrangements to pick up the plane on the next weekend and we head home for the night. What an adventure. I sleep well that night!


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