The 2002 Salt Lake City to Oroville Adventure

by H. Clay Gorton

The plans were made. I would fly with Don Mortensen in his “Utah Too”, beautiful yellow open-cockpit SA300, and Glen Olsen, in his award winning Acroduster Too, would fly with his brother-in-law, Robert Young. We would take off, Glen from Bountiful Municipal and us from SLC Airport 2, 20 miles to the south, at 6:30AM, and hook up over the salt flats en route to Battle Mountain, Nevada, where we would stop to refuel. BLM is the halfway point, 250 miles from both Oroville and Salt Lake. We started out apparently somewhat ahead of Glen, established radio contact, but our first sighting of the Acro was on the ground at Battle Mountain, where he and Robert were waiting for us. Leaving Battle Mountain, we climbed to 10,500, flew just north of Reno, Nevada, and slid down the Sierras into Oroville--total flight time, four hours.

It was good to see “the gang” again, swap lies about our flying exploits, and inspect all the beautiful Stardusters as they came in. On Friday afternoon Glen and Robert opted for the traditional houseboat excursion on Lake Oroville. Don, being retired air force, seemed to have some aversion to water craft, so we stayed behind and spent the afternoon swapping more lies.

Saturday morning all assembled for the fly-in breakfast at Willows, 25 miles west of Oroville. It’s a thrilling sight to see up to a dozen Stardusters in the air at the same time. Between Oroville and Willows we flew over some of the most extensive rice fields in the world. From these fields rice is exported to both China and Japan.

During the day, more lies and flybys. Saturday evening we enjoyed a barbeque dinner prepared by the local EAA Chapter. We enjoyed their hospitality during the entire stay, as they provided accommodations at the airport and free transportation to wherever and whenever we wished to go.

Discussing our return to Salt Lake, Les Homan suggested that we try a route over the Sierras following the Feather River. He reported that he had flown that route from Oroville to Reno at a max elevation of 5,500 feet! Probably had some pine needles in his wheels as he landed. That sounded a bit adventurous, so we decided to try it. However, Sunday morning weather did not cooperate–ceiling 5000. Flight service informed us that we would have to fly as far south as Merced (175 miles from Oroville) to get over the Sierras VFR. However, when we got as far south as Placerville (75 miles from Oroville), a little light over the horizon to the east suggested that we might get over the mountains at that point. So we headed east.

Leaving Oroville, the Utah Too suffered a little instrumentation problem. We carry two GPS’s–one on the GPS batteries in the front cockpit and one on the engine battery in the rear cockpit. It is a fact of nature that when things go wrong, they never occur as single-point failures, but are always accompanied by one or more other failures, not mechanically or electrically related to the first, but both effecting the same function. Not long after take-off from Oroville, the rear GPS antenna, mounted just outside the cockpit, vibrated loose and departed the airplane. At the same time an open circuit developed between the GPS in the front cockpit and its antenna. So it was required that Glen navigate and we fly contact with him. Another related problem was that, somehow, “Old Yeller” wasn’t as perky as she normally is, and we had to use full throttle to maintain 100 MPH in even a slight climb. On landing, Glen touches down the Acro at 100 MPH. So he had to fly at an uncomfortable nose-up attitude to be slow enough for us to keep him in sight.

Under these unfavorable conditions, we turned east, climbed to 9,500, skimmed over Lake Tahoe, and headed for Battle Mountain–over 260 miles from Placerville. Flying full throttle at 90-100 MPH, it soon became apparent that we would not make BLM before running out of fuel, so it was necessary to make an interim stop. The most logical airport en route appeared to be at Lovelock, Nevada. (Have you ever tried to open and study a sectional in an open cockpit biplane)?

We made it to Lovelock about 11:00 AM on a very warm day, and were encouraged to see a large fuel tank near the FBO. However, upon deplaning, we found no one at the airport, the pump to the fuel tank inoperative and a sign on the fuel tank listing four telephone numbers in Lovelock (12 miles away, by the way) with instructions to call for assistance. That all seemed workable, until, although we were able to get into the FBO, we found that there were no telephones on the field. Since I was the oldest of the four unfortunate adventurers (80 on my next birthday) and therefore the most expendable, I was elected to run into Lovelock with the four telephone numbers to solicit aid.

I started out at a comfortable dog trot, which soon became uncomfortable, so I settled for the scout pace–alternating 50 running and 50 walking. Nearing the point of exhaustion–not very far from the field–I flagged down the first vehicle to come by–a farmer in his pick-up truck, headed for Lovelock, who kindly offered to let me ride with him. As I explained to him our situation, he confessed that he too was a pilot, and owned a Cessna 210. Then he found it necessary to pull over to the side of the road, pull out a stack of photographs of himself and his flying buddies–not the airplanes, just the buddies, and walk me through the stack of photographs. (That ordeal was more exhausting than the scout pace). Finally, we were on our way again, when he advised me that he had a cell phone in the car, and would I like to use it? I replied in the affirmative and so he again pulled over to the side of the road so I could use the cell phone.

I called all four numbers and received from each one the recorded message to leave my name and phone number and they would get back to me. I suggested to my kind host that the cell phone would probably work while the vehicle was in motion, and that if he would like to continue driving, I would continue calling. Repeated calls brought no different results, so my host suggested that we stop at his ranch, where he had a phone with a cord on it, which would undoubtedly work much better.

After pulling up at the farm house, he was anxious to show me his “spread.” So after a tour of the premises, we entered the house and I was able to use the phone with the cord attached. The farmer was right about the phones–this time instead of a recorded message I got a busy signal. Upon repeated tries, I was finally connected with the ex-mayor of Lovelock, also a pilot, who informed me that the pump on the fuel tank at the airport was inoperative, and that the telephone company had removed the phone from the field because of its infrequent use.

Enlightened by this revelation, and after some rather heavy duty detailing of our plight, I convinced him that a suction hose of sufficient length would probably solve our problem. So after about half an hour, he met me at the farmer’s house, and we returned to the airport. On the way, discussing our airplanes–he had a Cessna 172–he mentioned that he had never flown a tail dragger. I replied that we called tricycle gear training wheels. That would have been better left unsaid–at least until after we had obtained the needed fuel.

However, arriving at the airport, I found that Glen and Robert had taken off for Battle Mountain with the four phone numbers, planning to call from there to get help. I imagined that they envisioned my carcass lying somewhere on the side of that lonely road surrounded by buzzards. They actually made contact with the ex-mayor’s wife, who informed them that her husband had gone to the airport to help out some poor pilots who had run out of fuel.

So after siphoning out about 25 gallons and transferring them to the Starduster, and handsomely rewarding the ex-mayor, we were ready to depart–my turn at the controls. The reason that Glen had gone on ahead was because Don had found the open circuit between my GPS and the antenna, and it was now operative. So we took off and headed for Wendover, Utah. It was fortunate that I took a wet compass reading on our heading, as the GPS rather soon returned to its old inoperative mode. So we stayed on 80° and made Wendover on the nose.

Out of Lovelock we had a rather strong tail wind and received some welcome altitude boosts as we crossed over the four ranges of mountains between Lovelock and Wendover, Out of Wendover, however, we encountered a dense salt storm (any other place it would have been a sand storm) with what appeared to be near zero visibility for about 2000 feet AGL. We also had a strong quartering headwind, and it was necessary to crab by as much as 30 degrees to maintain course.

Finally, at about 6:00PM we made it to Airport 2, weary, excited and grateful to have survived another Starduster adventure.