Newlon Field in Huntington, West Virginia, is a beautiful little airport with a restaurant, campground, and skydiving center.
Blame it on YouTube.
Sailors have an affliction they call “bigger boat disease” or “one-foot-itis,” and I was starting to feel the rumblings of the aviator’s version. I had been flying and enjoying my Fisher FP-404 biplane [“Restoring a Stored Homebuilt,” February 2017] for the past three years but was starting to bump into its limitations: low speed, modest climb rate, and no aerobatic capability. I was sort of keeping my eyes on prices for a Smith Miniplane, Baby Lakes, or similar, when a member of the Homebuilt Airplanes Forum mentioned that his friend Jerry Carter had a Starduster One for sale at a good price. I was vaguely aware of the Starduster as one of numerous homebuilt biplanes but never really looked at them; there aren’t that many of the single seaters around, and the two-place versions are outside my budget. Anyway, some research showed me that a Starduster might be a good choice. Then I came across some YouTube videos Jerry had posted of him flying the plane a few years earlier, and that was all it took. The next day, with a serious face, I told one of my flying buddies, “I did a very foolish thing last night…I watched a video.” A few days later, I was on an airline flight to Memphis, Tennessee, armed with my checkbook. After looking it over, I became the proud new owner of a somewhat beat up (“A flyer, not a show plane,” Jerry had warned me), but basically solid Starduster SA-100.
Dana Hague relaxing at Newlon Field in West Virginia, where the airport manager found him and offered him a beer.
Built in 1982 by Richard A. Parks, my new plane is powered by a Lycoming O-290G, the converted GPU engine common in those days. With only one foot more wingspan than the Fisher but three times the horsepower, it has double the cruise speed and four times the rate of climb (and, sadly, four times the fuel consumption). It was damaged a couple of times in the past; one logbook entry describes a rebuild of the upper wing and fin/rudder, along with redesigning the brakes “to make them less sensitive.” Not too hard to imagine what happened there! But there was enough flying time since the repairs that I wasn’t concerned. There was a minor oil leak somewhere that Jerry hadn’t managed to track down; it was enough to be messy, but not enough to be a big concern…yet.
Although I now owned the plane and could have flown it right then and there, it was so different from my Fisher (twice the weight, twice the speed, and zero forward visibility on the ground), I contented myself at that point with only taxiing it around for a while, as I had to leave soon for my airline flight home. Jerry agreed to let me leave the plane in his hangar for a couple of months until I could pick it up.
It was still winter in the Northeast, not a good time for a long, open-cockpit cross-country. Disassembling the plane and renting a truck was another option, but the one-piece top wing meant a large (expensive) truck, and it would have been a long, tedious drive. So even though I hadn’t made a long cross-country flight in many years, I decided to fly the plane back to Connecticut once the weather was suitable, camping out along the way. I also hoped to get some time in a similar two-seater first, but that proved easier said than done.
Another concern was hangar space at home; although I had advertised it for some time, I wasn’t getting many bites on my Fisher. I spent some time playing with paper-doll cutouts of the two planes, trying to figure out how to maneuver them to share the hangar, when the plane finally sold. Three days before my scheduled departure for Memphis, I helped the buyer remove the wings, pack it into a U-Haul truck, and take it away.
When my brother-in-law, Mike Baldwin, heard about my plans, he offered to fly me to Memphis in his RV-8, saving me the hassle of doing it by airline. We waited on a weather window and in mid April set out for Tennessee. Leaving after lunch, we got as far as Lexington, Kentucky, where we spent the night. Bad weather currently over Memphis was forecast to move east and clear out overnight, leaving me a decent shot to get home. In the morning, though, we found the weather had stalled over central Tennessee and didn’t look as if it was going to clear out any time soon. So after spending half the morning looking at the forecasts, talking to flight service, and theorizing about how it would go, we agreed that it was best to abort the mission and return home, instead of continuing on to Memphis.
The delay actually proved fortuitous. When I got back home, a message was waiting for me on the Biplane Forum (www.biplaneforum.com) offering the opportunity to fly in a Starduster Too not too far from home, which I arranged for the following weekend. It wasn’t a proper checkout; I was only able to do three landings due to rain and low ceilings, but it left me a lot more comfortable about my ability to handle the heavier and faster plane. As the coming weather looked good, I flew to Memphis the next day by airline, as I didn’t want to ask Mike to take another two days flying me around the countryside. This required some repacking, as some things I had carried in the RV-8 could only go now as checked baggage or not at all. My packing list (see sidebar) was based on my best estimate of what would fit in my new plane’s baggage compartment, with measurements of the door opening size provided by Jerry. As it turned out, I judged it pretty well. Most of the camping gear I already had, but I bought a new, compact sleeping bag I wanted anyway and a small cook pot.
In the morning Jerry picked me up at my hotel and drove me to the airport, with a stop at a hardware store to buy alcohol fuel for my camp stove. I spent some time looking the plane over, installing the new fuel gauge I had brought with me, and talking about the plane’s performance and speeds. Finally, the moment of truth came, and I got in, taxied out, and took off. After a bit of flying around, exploring the plane’s handling over the Arkansas farm fields west of the Mississippi River, I did a few landings. It was delightful in the air, and my first message to a couple of friends after I landed was simply, “Wow!” As Jerry had warned, it was “a handful” on the ground, very squirrely but not unmanageable. After taxiing back in with a big grin on my face, I got ready for the trip, filling the gas tanks, packing my camping gear, and getting my navigation gear set.
The plane came with a Garmin 196, an old-school portable GPS with a small monochrome display. I kept it for backup, but for primary navigation I had an 8-inch Android tablet running Avare mounted to a homemade kneeboard designed specifically for the tablet. As the tablet on my knee, deep in a metal-skinned cockpit, wouldn’t get a good signal, I added a Bluetooth GPS receiver, which was Velcroed just behind the windscreen. The setup worked beautifully when I tested it on one last flight in the Fisher and greatly reduced the stress of flying an unfamiliar airplane over 1000 miles of unfamiliar territory. Both the tablet and the GPS receiver were powered, or so I thought, from a dual USB cigarette lighter adapter in the socket that had been used for the Garmin.
I also had paper charts, printed from image files downloaded from the FAA website and pieced together in strips covering my route. After the first leg, I removed the unused Garmin from its mount on the panel and stowed it in the baggage compartment. The paper charts never got used either, though I always kept the appropriate one accessible in the cockpit.
After grabbing a quick lunch, it was time to go. The first leg would be short, only 110 miles to Carroll County Airport (HZD) in Huntingdon, Tennessee, to get the feel of the plane and check the fuel consumption. To avoid the distraction of talking to ATC, I followed the Mississippi River north until I was beyond the Class D for Millington-Memphis Airport, then turned northeast on course.
This airplane is very different from my Fisher. Both are open-cockpit biplanes, of course, but the FP-404 is only a little heavier and faster than an ultralight. Part of it is that it’s faster and much more solid, but the Starduster just has an “older” feel. A thousand feet over the Tennessee farm country, it could almost be 1927. The fact that I had only one seat and a modern GPS on my knee was irrelevant; I couldn’t resist shouting over the roar of the engine, “Step right up, folks! Only five dollars for five minutes! Five minutes in the land of the clouds, guaranteed to be like nothing you’ve ever done before!”
Back in 2017, it became apparent that the tablet and GPS were running on their internal batteries and not charging; although it had worked with the Garmin’s plug, the old socket was too deep for the new USB power adapter to make contact. Not realizing the plane already had a cigarette lighter socket, however, I had brought along a new one ready to wire in. The new one proved to be shallower, so borrowing some tools at Carroll County, I connected the new socket, tie wrapped it to a fuselage tube, and now had power to the devices.
The next leg was longer, 200 miles to Taylor County Airport in Campbellsville, Kentucky (AAS), where Google Earth showed a restaurant nearby, and where I planned to spend the first night. Near the end of the flight, I noticed some oil smell, but as the oil pressure was holding steady, and I already knew there was a small leak, I didn’t think much of it. My main concern was keeping the plane straight during the landing rollout. I ran out of speed too high in the flare, resulting in a rather firm “arrival,” but I kept it straight, more or less, and resolved to carry a little more speed next time.
After shutting down at the gas pump and getting out of the plane, though, I knew I had a serious problem—oil was dribbling out of the engine cowling onto the ground, and the lower wing, landing gear, and lower fuselage were covered with oil. Uh-oh.
Upon opening the cowling, it was impossible to see where the oil was coming from, as it was everywhere. It was 2 quarts down on the dipstick. Not knowing what else to do, I went ahead and filled the fuel tank, added a quart of oil (all I had with me), and taxied over to a tiedown spot on the deserted airport. It was getting too dark to investigate further, so feeling rather depressed, I walked the half mile to the Creek Side Restaurant for an inexpensive but nice dinner (I can recommend the beef tips), then returned to the airport for a dreary night of sleeping on the concrete ramp under the beacon and bright spotlights, while worrying whether a blown engine had ended my trip almost as soon as it started.
I woke with the sunrise, and after cooking coffee and oatmeal on my camp stove, I tried to find the problem. Except for oil everywhere, nothing seemed obviously amiss, and it wasn’t leaking with the engine stopped, so leaving one side of the cowl unlatched and the airplane securely tied down and chocked, I started the engine, very carefully crept around between the wing and whirling propeller, and lifted the cowl. It was then immediately obvious: Oil was pouring from a fitting on the back of the engine where an oil-cooler hose connected, and I could move the jam nut with my fingers. The one adjustable wrench I had brought didn’t open far enough, but when people started arriving later in the morning, I was able to borrow a larger wrench and tighten the nut, which completely stopped the leak. I now believe that fitting may have been the source of the minor leak all along, and it must have completely let go shortly before I landed since I only lost 2 quarts and never lost oil pressure.
After buying more oil and adding some, I took the airport courtesy car (a retired police car) to the local auto parts store to buy a bigger wrench, just in case it loosened again. I also bought some spray cleaner and paper towels. After cleaning off as much of the oil as I could, it was past noon before I was ready to continue.
After a quick flight once around the pattern and one more look inside the engine compartment, I took off and flew a half hour to Stuart Powell Field in Danville, Kentucky (DVK), where I landed just to check again that I had no more oil issues. I was also pleased with my OK crosswind wheel landing. From there it was 130 miles to Ashland Regional (DWU) in Worthington, Kentucky, where I refueled and took the courtesy car (this time an old blue minivan) to the Golden Corral Restaurant in town for a late lunch or early dinner. As I didn’t want to spend another night sleeping on the pavement of a county airport, I continued on. One of my possible overnight stops was not far away at Hales Landing (2WV3), a private strip in West Virginia, where my friend Dan Riffee from the Homebuilt Airplanes forum lives, but I was unable to contact him. Instead, I flew the easy 24 miles southeast to Robert Newlon Field (I41) in Huntington, West Virginia, following the Ohio River instead of navigating by GPS.
Newlon turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip. A beautiful grass field alongside the Ohio River, it has a skydiving center, a restaurant (unfortunately closed that day, but I already knew that, which is why I ate in Ashland first), and a campground. The woman who met me said her name was Tina and sure, I could camp out overnight. As it was a hot day, I asked if I could park in the shade on the other side of the runway. She called the airport manager to check, then relayed that I should park by the fence on the other side where there was a path down to the river. It was a delightful place to camp, and after walking down to check out the river, I unpacked my camping gear and rolled it out alongside the plane.
A week ago in Lexington, it was a control tower and long concrete runways, and we parked the RV-8 next to a jet on the ramp of the TAC Air FBO, which has a huge lobby like a Hilton hotel. There were leather couches in the pilot lounge, a fancy flight planning room, and a girl behind the desk who called a hotel to have them send a shuttle to pick us up right away, sir! There was even a Beech Staggerwing hanging from the ceiling of the lobby, though I would have preferred to see it parked on the ramp. But tonight at Newlon, it’s one old biplane, not hanging from cables but parked in the shade along a freshly mown grass runway, with a tired but content pilot relaxing on top of his sleeping bag under the evening sky. This is much more my style.
As I lay there leaning against the wheel pant, two guys walked over. One of them introduced himself as Carl, the airport manager, and he asked if I’d like a cold beer. “I’d love a cold beer,” I said. He handed it to me, then we talked for a bit before walking over to the skydiving center to hang out longer and drink a few more beers. Skydivers are much the same kind of crazies as the paramotor crowd I used to fly with, so I felt right at home. I was even offered the opportunity to make a jump with them the following afternoon. As something I’ve always wanted to do but never got around to, I was sorely tempted, but I didn’t want to wait around that long, so I regretfully declined. Eventually I wandered back to my plane and crawled into my sleeping bag for a good night’s sleep.
The next day dawned damp and foggy, with a heavy dew on the grass and dripping from the wings. I lazed in my sleeping bag for a while with my coffee, then finally got up and hung my wet gear on the fence to dry while waiting for the fog to burn off out of the river valley. When it did, I set out for Jackson County Airport (I18) in Ravenswood, West Virginia, where I topped off my tank before heading to Hales Landing to see Dan, who I’d finally gotten in touch with; he had been out mowing grass when I called the day before.
Leaving Newlon, I made my only attempt to use a GoPro camera on a forehead mount. As soon as I reached takeoff speed, I could feel the camera trying to blow off my head, so I removed and tucked it away. I originally intended to document the entire trip with still photos as well as video, but other than a few snapshots, it became more about enjoying the moment, not being distracted by recording it, which was OK, too.
Hales Landing has an interesting final approach alongside a mountain, and the runway edge markers are large pruned shrubs, which were rather intimidating for a pilot still having trouble landing his plane. After visiting for several hours and looking over his beautiful “JMR Special” project, a single-seat C-85 powered homebuilt of his own design, with a steel-tube fuselage and geodetic wood wings, it was time to continue on.
Airborne again, the next stop was Greater Cumberland Regional Airport (CBE) in Cumberland, Maryland. My radio headset is a homemade rig using noise-isolating stereo earbuds worn under my leather helmet with an adapter for the aircraft radio and a separate boom microphone. Along the way, I found I could hear the radio on only one side. The cause was soon apparent; the cord had gotten pinched between the rudder cable and the pulley. I was unable to dislodge it carefully, so reasoning that no radio was better than no rudder should it jam worse, I pulled harder, which got it out of the pulley but severed the cord completely. There was no control tower to worry about, though I would have liked to hear the AWOS to get the winds. While circling above the pattern looking for the windsock, I saw a Cirrus below me and followed him in—swerving all over the (fortunately) wide runway on a downwind landing. Perhaps Cirrus drivers don’t care about wind.
Departing with full tanks (and my spare earbuds), my next stop was Reigle Field (58N) in Palmyra, Pennsylvania, just east of Harrisburg. I had considered overnighting at Farmers Pride (9N7), a grass field not far north of there, but there was, as far as I knew, no food nearby, and I had been unable to get in touch with a Biplane Forum member based there. Reigle supposedly has a restaurant within walking distance.
Approaching Harrisburg, I ran into the first bad weather of the trip. I had intended to fly over the Class D airspace for Capital City and Harrisburg International, which topped out at 2800 feet, before descending into Reigle, but there were scattered clouds starting at 2500 feet. I climbed to go over the cloud layer, which wasn’t very thick, but it looked like it was going solid under me. Not wanting to get caught on top, I turned around, dove under the clouds, and circled around south of the city under the clouds in deteriorating visibility. My GPS chose that moment to lose its signal (the only time it happened), which made for a few anxious moments, but it reacquired it quickly after being reset. Still, I was relieved to finally find Reigle in the haze, where I made my worst landing yet, coming in too high and fast, and landing downhill on the short, narrow runway and rolling off the end into the grass. I was being very cautious with the brakes, as I knew the plane had been on its back once already, and it’s the first plane with toe brakes I’ve flown in 30 years. Fortunately, I bounced to a stop before rolling into the plowed field beyond, and no harm was done except to my pride. I realized I was overcompensating with too much speed to avoid dropping out of the flare again.
After refueling, I learned that the restaurant I had planned to eat at had closed, but the airport owner drove me to the local Domino’s Pizza, where I ate before walking the half mile back to the airport. I then moved my plane away from the road to the grass on the backside of the hangars for a more pleasant campsite. Before settling in for the night, I wandered around looking in the open hangars; there are some interesting planes there. The evening gave me the chance to catch up online and post updates for people who were following my progress.
The next morning, the weather didn’t look good. Reigle was fogged in, and even though the weather was forecast to improve to marginal VFR, Flight Service was saying “VFR not recommended” along my route. By late morning the weather had improved enough to at least have a look, so I took off and flew the 13 miles to Farmers Pride, again under a low ceiling. My landings had been consistently bad enough that I wanted to spend some time practicing on that 3400 x 150-foot grass strip. I got there and spent a half hour or so in the pattern, making the best landings I had yet done in the plane, the tailwheel kissing the grass an instant before the mains, but I still couldn’t make sense of the airspeed. The plane stalls at 50 mph, which I’d verified on my first flight, but I was touching down at an indicated 60 or more and lifting off at 45 or less. Still, I was starting to feel more comfortable in the plane. I then taxied over to the hangars and shut down for a break.
One of the local airport bums was admiring my plane and telling me about his Fly Baby when two people in black suits, a man and a woman, walked purposefully up to us. Unquestionably government, I wondered if they were FAA—I didn’t think I had done anything wrong, but is one ever certain? They introduced themselves as Secret Service. Asking if anybody was in the airport office, they seemed surprised that everybody had gone to lunch and the airport was left unattended. They explained that they were checking out all airports in the area in advance of President Trump’s visit to Harrisburg that weekend and making sure all local pilots were aware of the associated monster TFR. I assured them I was aware of it and planned to be long gone before it took effect. You know the Secret Service stereotype from TV and movies? They were it, and sure looked out of place on a grass field talking to me in T-shirt and shorts and an old man next to an oily, old biplane.
By this time the weather was improving slightly. It was still marginal VFR, but forecast to continue improving, and I planned short hops. Leaving Farmers Pride, I set out the 50 miles to Slatington Airport (69N), northwest of Allentown/Bethlehem. The ceiling was still low, but sufficiently above the ridges of the Alleghenies (and towers!). Thanks to Avare, I had a good handle on exactly where I was at all times. I don’t think I would have attempted the route in that weather with only paper charts in an open cockpit. It wasn’t hard to imagine the old airmail pilots flying over (and all too often crashing into) these same ridges in their Jennies and de Havilland biplanes along the New York-Chicago route with its notoriously bad weather. If I had somehow lost the GPS again, I would have turned southwest and followed the highway back to Farmers Pride or one of the other airports along the way, or even a farm field if necessary, so I always had an out. It also helped that I was getting into the “safety zone,” where one is close enough to home to ethically call somebody for a ride home if it becomes necessary to leave the airplane somewhere for a few days.
As it turned out, I had no trouble; the weather did continue to gradually improve, and while it was never great, I reached Slatington with no trouble. The Appalachian Trail runs along the 1000-foot-high ridge a mile and a half north of the airport, and flying a tight pattern south of the ridge, I again came in too high and fast on the first approach. I went around, making an acceptable landing the next time.
The first thing you notice about Slatington is the dozens of wrecked airplanes lining the field. Slatington is an airplane junkyard, selling used airplane parts of all sorts. Fortunately, I had arrived just as the man with the gas pump key was getting ready to leave. Not needing any parts but wanting maximum options in case of any weather-caused detours, I topped off my tank again before taking off for the last leg home.
Safely home. The plane is visibly sitting one wing low, and a bit of the fabric on the landing gear is torn.
Still picking my way from airport to airport in case deteriorating weather made landing advisable, I crossed the Delaware River into New Jersey and flew over Blairstown Airport, Aeroflex-Andover Airport and Greenwood Lake Airport. Greenwood Lake was familiar to me, though I didn’t land there this time. From there my course was more east, north of the New York Class B. The visibility got a bit worse as I passed over the Ramapo Mountains of Southern New York near where I grew up; I couldn’t see Bear Mountain to the north or the Tappan Zee Bridge to the south, though I knew exactly where they were. It was still gloppy beyond the Hudson River into Westchester, but getting into Connecticut it started to improve, and I could see Long Island Sound as I flew a slight zig-zag course to avoid the Westchester, Danbury, Bridgeport, and New Haven Class D areas. By the time I passed New Haven, although there were still scattered bits of low cloud at my altitude, they were easily avoided, and I could see patches of sunlight on the ground farther to the east. I was happy to finally touch down at Chester (SNC), my home base, where friends were present to critique my landing and admire my new plane.
As routine as it would be in a different aircraft, a long trip in an unfamiliar old plane like this is always a risk. Some risks can be mitigated by careful planning, but there are always unknowns. I solicited advice from members of the Homebuilt Airplanes and Biplane Forums, and spent so much time looking over the route on aeronautical charts and satellite imagery that it was almost familiar. Even so, I made no firm schedule and finalized my route as I went along, allowing several extra days in case of bad weather or other delays. Having camping gear meant that I could land anywhere if necessary without having to worry about cars or hotels to have a place to sleep. Even so, I was closer to disaster than I realized until afterwards.
I was frustrated by my inability to land the plane well. Reflecting on my observations at Farmers Pride, I suspected a problem with the airspeed indicator. And more than one person had noticed that the plane seemed to be sitting right wing low in a head-on photograph, suggesting that weak bungees on that side could be responsible for the plane’s poor ground handling. After attending to some obligations out of town, I returned to the airport a few days later to look at the airspeed indicator and the bungees.
Checking the airspeed indicator with a manometer, the issue turned out to be a partial blockage somewhere in the pitot line, resulting in a considerable lag in the indication. That went a long way toward explaining my difficulty nailing an approach speed and getting a consistent flare. It was easy enough to fix—some compressed air and poom! Something shot out of the pitot tube, after which it behaved correctly. I never even got to looking at the bungees, though. Looking at the landing gear leg, it was obvious something was wrong under the fabric. Cutting and peeling the fabric back revealed a cracked and bent landing gear leg, which would mess up the wheel alignment and account for the poor ground handling. It was clear that it had been cracked for a long time, hidden by the fabric, but no doubt some of my less-than-graceful landings during the journey pushed it to the point where it was visibly bent.
The pleasant summer of flying I looked forward to didn’t happen. As the broken gear had obviously been repaired and altered more than once before, I thought it best to build a new gear leg from scratch. Furthermore, there was a new Starduster design eliminating the weak spot, though it needed to be adapted to fit my particular aircraft. Due to other obligations, designing and building the new gear leg took four months, but it was finally done, and the airplane’s ground handling is now much better.
Although I was disappointed that I couldn’t fly again until the landing gear was rebuilt, I consider myself incredibly fortunate that it held until the plane was safely home. Having to fix something like that hundreds of miles from home would have turned an adventure into a nightmare. I’m also thankful to have had the opportunity to make a journey of this nature, with its challenges, sights, and great people I met along the way. Who knows, maybe I’ll make a few YouTube videos.