COMANCHES ON THE FLY
TWO BROTHERS, FOUR DAYS, AND A TWIN COMANCHE
by Todd La Neve
A few months after buying our 1966 PA30, N599R, my brother, Steve, and I decided to take a few days off to try to fly until we couldn't take any more. I'm pleased to report that we failed to reach that goal, as we were still chomping at the bit by week's end. But what a time it was!
On Tuesday, August 6, 2002, I got to the airport (CKB) early and conducted my preflight. As always for me, there was a little extra adrenaline about making the solo trip from my home airport at Clarksburg, West Virginia into the nation's busiest airspace. I was heading to Teterboro, New Jersey (TEB), near the heart of the class B airspace surrounding JFK, La Guardia, and Newark. Teterboro is nearest to Steve's home so that's my usual destination when picking him up. I usually track my progress by noting the passage of Deep Creek Lake in western Maryland, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and the nearby Three Mile Island nuclear plant and finally, Allentown, Pennsylvania. Once past Allentown, I typically begin my descent and get ready for the rush that comes with entering the Bravo airspace. The contrast between my home airport's relatively slow pace and the frenzied pace of New York Approach is worth the trip. I love listening as the controllers bark out nonstop clearances and assignments, orchestrating the heavy metal symphony taking place all around. My aerial companions have the effect of making my erstwhile twin-engine standout seem like a little flute somewhere in the fifth row back! But, obviously, every instrument has its place in the overall performance.
The flight lived up to its normal good result with an exceptionally short landing roll, the product of 25 knot winds straight down runway 1. After a refuel, Steve and I embarked together for the leg to Hagerstown, Maryland (HGR). This was the first time we'd gotten to fly our plane together for any distance or length of time and we both relished the opportunity of the next four days. In May of 2001, just one month after earning my multi rating, we spent three days flying in the magnificent west in a rented Duchess with a flight instructor friend of Steve's. It was a memorable trip for me and there were a number of firsts, but this was different. We were in our own plane, we had our own agenda and we called the shots. The busy controllers shuffled us out of the New York City area at 1,000 feet AGL before finally climbing us to our en route altitude.
In stark contrast with the trip into TEB, the flight to HGR was uneventful after clearing the Bravo airspace.
The heavily populated and built up coastal landscape of the New York/New Jersey area gives way to more green space, and the mountains begin creeping back towards your perch, over a mile up. We discussed plans for the upcoming renovation project so we would know exactly what to address with the folks at Hagerstown Aircraft Services who would be doing the work. We spent quite awhile at Hagerstown that afternoon and finally boarded to head back to Clarksburg, knowing I'd be returning the plane back to HGR in just a few days.
Our trip back was one that makes you realize why you fly. We flew westward into brilliant late afternoon golden red skies and enjoyed smooth air the whole way. Traveling the old fashioned way, by road, leads to familiarity with certain landmarks we come to rely on to signal the end of our journeys. Upon reaching those places, there is always a sense of accomplishment and comfort, knowing that home is just around the corner. Deep Creek Lake represents that aerial milestone for me. No more than twenty minutes later I know I'll be in the positive control of Clarksburg Tower and it signals the nearing conclusion of another successful flight.
This day was particularly satisfying as I was sharing it with my brother, doing something we had both been talking about since I started flying, and which had truly begun over twenty years earlier without either of us really knowing it. At the end of the day, we'd logged over five hours of quality flight time that will remain more than just a series of entries in our logbooks.
The next day we started our long-planned cross-country trip, totally within the State of West Virginia. The goal was to land at every towered airport in the state, plus most of the bigger non-towered fields. We worked out the plan so that our trip was in the following sequence: Clarksburg (CKB), Parkersburg (PKB), Huntington (HTS), Charleston (CRW), Beckley (BKW), Bluefield (BLF), Lewisburg (LWB), Elkins (EKN), Martinsburg (MRB), Morgantown (MGW), Wheeling (HLG) and back to Clarksburg.
We departed Clarksburg, pulled the power back to 18" MP/2000 RPM and settled in around 140 MPH on no more than 12 GPH. Who says you lose the ability to sightsee when you own a performance oriented twin! We had planned the day to be a series of instrument approaches and landings followed by quick turnarounds as we departed to the next destination. The trip to Parkersburg follows the highway--State Route 50--the entire way. It's about the only consistent sign of civilization as the communities along the route are small and scattered among the rolling hills. Parkersburg is a nice class D airport with crossing runways situated right by the meandering Ohio River. It is also the base for a National Guard helicopter medevac unit commanded by a friend of mine. A couple of choppers were flying the pattern and practicing autorotations--always a fun thing to watch. We flew the ILS to a full-stop landing, then immediately taxied out for a southerly departure.
Leaving Parkersburg, we headed next to Huntington, also class D. Just for fun, we followed the Ohio River, which forms the border of West Virginia and Ohio. The land here is fertile and produce farms abound on both sides of the river, all a verdant green that time of year. Bright white wakes flowed off powerboats and water skiers on the aqua water below as we cruised overhead at a leisurely pace. Eventually, the industrial nature of southwestern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky became prominent as Huntington and the nearby towns came into view. In spite of the development, the old hills still reach tall and proud, refusing to be diminished by the "progress." After a short rest stop, we departed for Charleston, the state's only Charlie airspace. It's not uncommon to sequence in with C-130s and business jets along with other small GA traffic. We landed and got cleared back to the active for a departure to the southeast towards Beckley, a non-towered field. The flight from Charleston to Beckely, then Bluefield, all in the southeastern part of the state, is marked by some of the highest mountains in West Virginia. There are few areas suitable for much of anything besides some kind of mining, the terrain being primarily high peaks and deep valleys. The mostly unspoiled wild goes as far as the eye can see at times. No one answered our calls on the Unicom frequency at Beckely, so we entered the pattern and made a visual landing on the long primary runway.
We next headed south to Bluefield, another non-towered field. We were in contact with a Baron and a Beech 1900, both of which had just departed and managed to work out our flight paths to avoid unpleasant surprises. The airport sits at nearly 3,000 feet elevation, but is down in a deep valley so visual contact isn't made until you're nearly on top of the field. The high ridges in this area call for minimum safe altitudes of 5,000 feet at times. The single runway airport and town sit at the base of a plateau and, when the weather conditions are right, the fog rolls off the hilltop like a sloped waterfall in slow motion. We next headed to the state's longest runway at class D Lewisburg, nearby the world-famous Greenbrier Resort. The terrain changes from sharp peaks to more gently rolling green hills, dotted by farms and small communities. This was to be our only fuel stop of the day. After a late lunch, we headed to Elkins, our last non-towered stop, flying over the Cheat Mountain area. In addition to being home to the skiing jewel of the Mid-Atlantic, Snowshoe Mountain Resort, the hills are home to the Green Bank Radio Astronomy Observatory, which sports a farm of gargantuan satellite dishes readily visible from the air. This area is also a second home to famed author and pilot, Stephen Coonts. He owns a large farm on Cheat Mountain and is a frequent visitor to the area.
After landing in the bottom of the mountainous bowl where Elkins-Randolph County Airport sits, we flew to class D Martinsburg. Both Tiger Aircraft and Sino Swearingen jets have production facilities here so the future of the field is promising. The restaurant on the field is run by Twin Comanche owner, Jeff Grove. This part of West Virginia, rich in history as are many parts of the state, sports the lowest and flattest terrain. There are winding rivers and sprawling fields, many of which were the stage for significant battles during the Civil War. We departed Martinsburg in the late afternoon and headed west to Morgantown, over the hills that form a border of sorts for the state's eastern panhandle. With home stretch in sight, and West Virginia University's Mountaineer Field beneath us, we turned north for Wheeling after flying the ILS on Morgantown's runway 18.
Also right next to the Ohio River, Wheeling's airport sits high on a hill in the state's northern panhandle and is on the periphery of Pittsburgh's Bravo airspace. It's common to share the sky with some big iron, though it usually isn't headed to Wheeling. The terminal here boasts a neat collection of flying antiquities that provide a very different atmosphere than you find in most airports. From Wheeling, we headed back home to Clarksburg, six plus flight hours, nearly 700 nautical miles and eleven landings later.
The next day was spent flying approaches at Clarksburg and at Elkins, where our parents live. We visited with them at the airport then headed off to Steubenville, Ohio (2G2), one of my favorite airports. My wife's parents live in Steubenville so I frequently fly there to visit. Since Steve and I were flying for the week, my wife and daughters decided to spend the time with her parents, so we flew up to join them for dinner.
Afterwards, we communed with the airport regulars awhile before heading back to Elkins for a quick stop to pick up our nephew, then back to Clarksburg for some night approaches.
Our final day involved a long cross-country trip to get N599R into the shop at Hagerstown. Our brother Scott's son, Matt, had spent the week with our parents and was returning home courtesy of the new family transport. The leg to Nashua, New Hampshire (ASH) is 447 nautical miles by the great circle route. The forecast was favorable with good tailwinds for most of the flight. We cruised VFR at 5,500 feet in perfectly smooth air, maintaining groundspeeds of 214-216 knots well into New York. As we neared Massachusetts, our tailwinds shifted, dropping our groundspeeds into the low 190s and mid 180s. Nashua is home to the Daniel Webster College aviation program and there were planes everywhere in various practice areas as we approached, now under the control of Nashua Tower. We found our place in the landing sequence and eventually settled onto the runway, shutting down exactly three hours after we fired the engines to life, and showing an actual flight time of 2.6 hours. We visited for a little while with Scott's family and enjoyed fresh New England seafood chowder at the airport restaurant. It really does taste better there.
We had a good flight back to Teterboro and after our goodbyes were said, I headed back out, alone again. The trip to Hagerstown was quick, and while the prospect of the upgrade project was thrilling, there was a part of me that wanted to fly right back home to put 99R to bed in its hangar, ready for flying another day. But . . . the allure of the project was too great. With only some amount of regret, I handed over the keys and hopped a flight back home with a friend from Clarksburg. All in all, it had been a whirlwind tour and I realized the flames had just been fanned. This thing was clearly in my blood and there was no turning back from the experiences ahead.
Todd La Neve, 36, resides in Clarksburg, West Virginia. He and his brother, Steve, 43, jointly own N599R, a 1966 Twin Comanche, which is based at KCKB. Todd started flying in May 2000 and currently holds a private pilot license with ASEL, AMEL, and instrument ratings. When not practicing law, he is either flying, thinking about flying, bumming around the airport watching flying, or spending time with his family trying to get them hooked on flying. So far, his three-year old daughter, Lindsey, pictured here, is his biggest convert. He's an optimist though and believes there is hope for the others.