My friend Glen (Navy SEAL/CIA, KIA in Benghazi, Libya in 2012) and I departed from Peoria, Illinois and started to pick up ice climbing through 4,000 feet just after losing communications with departure control. Fun meter pegged.
I had purchased my first airplane in 2003, a little 1980 Cessna 172 and had this great idea to fly it back to California from Illinois in February.
As we climbed through the gook, we lost all communications. “No problem,” I thought. “We’ll just fly our filed plan.” However, to make things worse, as we were about to break out between layers, ice started to form on the wing struts. We knew we were about to break out in a thousand feet, so we decided to push on rather than descend into a low ceiling and risk picking up more ice. I remember Glen saying something like, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger…” It turned out to be the right call and this was one of those flying experiences that either makes you a better pilot – or a dead one. After the long trip to San Diego, we learned it was an antennae grounding issue. On the tarmac, the radios worked fine. In the air, we were unable to transmit.
I’ve always wanted to fly planes as long as I can remember, but I wasn’t a very good student. Plus, I had a weird school record, growing up most of my teenage years on a sailboat with hippie parents. I left home at 16 (home was floating in the South Pacific at the time), finished school on my own, and joined the Navy at 17 to become a SEAL. After a stint in the aircrew program as a search and rescue swimmer in the back of SH60s, I finally was accepted and graduated with SEAL Class 215. There were 220 when we started and 23 originals at the finish. I would later deploy to Afghanistan after 9/11, and come back to my first son who was born as I was chasing bad guys around the mountains of the Hindu Kush. I accepted duty as a sniper instructor and would eventually be promoted early, twice. I took over as sniper course manager as a young 28-year-old Chief Petty Officer. The full story is in my memoir, “The Red Circle,” for those interested.
I finally decided to learn to fly at 29 while attached to the SEAL sniper program at the Naval Special Warfare Center. My boss was Ryan Zinke, who would go on to serve in Congress and as Secretary of the Interior.
Aviation has always been my passion since my earliest memory of looking skyward. After getting my instrument rating, I got into flying warbirds through a chance meeting. Since then, most of my time has been spent in military metal and I think it’s some of the greatest flying you can do with your clothes on. The only thing I’ve found that comes close is flying floats.
Through mutual friends, I got introduced to the warbird community after meeting Dee “Bones” Conger one fateful morning at the Coffee Cup in La Jolla, California. Bones is one of the smartest and most capable people I know. He can think it, build it himself in his shop, and then go fly it. I’ve seen grown men come close to tears in their eyes, who’ve spent years trying to finish a home build, only to watch in awe as Bones offloads a plane from an overseas crate to have it flying a few weeks later. This is no exaggeration.
Bones came out of the USAF as one of the last Phantom F-4 pilots, and after a stint at UCLA getting his MBA, he’s gone on to become a successful entrepreneur in biotech, and recently bought and rebranded the local FBO at KSEE called, Circle Air Group. His friends and I are convinced he’s an alien life form spawned from Area 51, as there’s apparently nothing Bones can’t do if he puts his mind to it, and God help you if you get in his way. He’s also one of the most genuine and generous people I know in aviation.
Bones told me over coffee in La Jolla, “Stop f’ng around and buy a Yak 52. Here’s one right here. Start flying with us,” as he whipped out a listing from Barnstormers on his phone. “All hail Bones”, I thought, and a month later taxied my new Yak 52 into a hangar at Gillespie Field just down from Bones’ hangars known to most, and KSEE ground as, “The Boneyard.”
That was five years ago, and since I’ve been fortunate enough to fall in with Bones and his squadron of active and ex-military pilots who fly warbirds together a few times a year. These guys took me in like a lost military stray, trained me up, and made me a better and safer pilot. FAST card, upset training, aerobatics, turn circles, flow checks, and BFM 101. Frosty, Sandy, Moto, BB, Wingnut, Hairball, Bones – and the list goes on. The experience level in this group is unmatched from former Top Gun instructors, to pilots who’ve flown the space shuttle (most will say landing a jet on a boat at night is harder), the U2 spy plane, and dropping bombs on bad guys that had it coming.
Last Christmas, Wingnut handed me a zip-lock bag with a bomb firing pin, photos of a bomb with my name on it addressed to ISIS, and a USB drive showing the bomb being dropped on a bunch of terrorists. A better gift I have not found. I couldn’t be more grateful to fly with this incredible group of men who love aviation as much as I do. It’s why I traded my 52 for a Yak 50, and recently sold my RV6 and bought an Epsilon. More to come soon on that.
Bones and these guys have filled a massive hole in my life. The SEAL community doesn’t have a great alumni association. In fact, we are really good at eating our own, but that’s a story for another day. I’m thankful for this group and what they’ve done to ease my transition to civilian life.
Today, I split my time between San Juan, Puerto Rico and New York, running my media and e-commerce business. Last summer I was having panic attacks because I had sold my RV and was plane-less on the East Coast. I wanted a good cross-country warbird that could haul ass and go upside down and I’d settled on the Marchetti SF-260. The problem was, there wasn’t a lot of them on the market and the one I found in L.A. had an owner with unrealistic expectations on price.
Then I found her. During one of my late night Internet plane binges, I found a TB-30 for sale. I asked myself, “What the hell is that thing?” It was gorgeous. I started digging and found the history, and luckily my friend Moto has some time in one and said it was a great plane with safe handling characteristics, fast, a true pilot’s plane. After some back and forth with the owner, Jay, I put a deposit down and started counting the days until the build was complete.
Early March, I got an email from Jay saying the plane was ready for pick up. My plan was to get checked out, and fly down to Bonesfest to meet the guys and do some military-grade flying, then head across America, from the Pacific to the Atlantic Coast.
When the hangar door creaked open, it was love at first sight – which turned to pure stalker obsession after flying my new TB-30. In my opinion, it’s more capable, safer, and faster than the Marchetti or the beloved T-34.
After my check-out, I headed south from San Jose Airport to Paso Robles for a day to see family who have a ranch near wine country, then south the next morning to meet my mom for lunch and a flight at the Camarillo Airport. As I taxied in, I saw my mom wave to me from the fence line. She’s been in my RV6A a few times but in our tradition, she’s usually the first passenger in any new plane. After a quick brief and chat with Point Magu Tower for airspace clearance, we did a few rolls and some low level over the sunny Malibu coast and flew back for lunch. Gotta’ love Mom. She was all smiles the whole time. After lunch, I gave her a hug bye and departed for Circle Air (AKA Boneyard North) at KSEE via the LAX coastal transition. I was indicating 205+ knots ground speed all the way. The Epsilon is such an amazing plane, really the pinnacle of piston single design.
During the flight, I kept the engine rich to keep the cylinder temps low but I did bring it back some, and I was getting about 15 GPH burn at max cruise. I’d rather run rich to save engine life than save a few gallons of gas leaning back and running hot cylinders.
San Diego came fast, and I requested the overhead break and short approach to 27R. The guys in the tower at KSEE are pros and no stranger to the Fighting 50s Squadron at Bonesfest. The group has worked hard to maintain a safe flying environment and there’s always an open invite to the tower guys for dinner and Yak flights.
The next couple of days were a blur of flying, but not my normal Bonesfest. Usually, I would have flown my Yak 50 a lot more, rotating out with my partner in the 50, Paco, who flies for Delta and is a former Tomcat guy. He also recently wrote a great book, “Lions of the Sky.” Instead, I was getting two or three flights a day in the Epsilon, and loving every minute. It was mostly unusual attitudes, slow flight (mandatory to hold station with the Yaks), stalls, and aerobatics fun. I was really getting to know the plane before departing with my girlfriend for our trip back to New York.
Side note: if you want to test a relationship, try stuffing your new girlfriend, with little time in small general aviation planes, into the back of a warbird on a 2,130 nautical mile flight! It wasn’t make or break for us but, at least I’d have a fully air-worthy companion – or not! We departed early Saturday, on a cool clear California morning, for Santa Fe, New Mexico. Little did we know, we’d have our first test in the plane.
About 150 miles outside of Scottsdale, I lost my alternator. I take that back, I noticed it was gone about that time. It was probably gone for a while, and I likely picked it up late on my scan when the voltage meter indicated less than 20 volts and became very noticeable in the red.
I shed electrical load right away and told New Mexico Center that I had an issue and may lose communications soon. I was level 9,500 feet, with outside temperature a few degrees below zero Celsius. The first time I learned batteries plus cold equals bad was humping around Afghanistan in the winter as a Navy SEAL sniper carrying my squad radio and a handheld GPS.
My battery lasted another 5 minutes with Center and it was dead. Before it died, I told my girlfriend that everything was fine, we just wouldn’t be talking to each other for a while. For some, this would define the perfect relationship, flying without having to talk to your significant other. Secretly, I’ll admit to enjoying her conversation.
So I flew my filed plan into Santa Fe. About 20 miles out, I had one bar of service on my cell and called the local FBO through my Bose Bluetooth A20 headset. (Thank you, Bose!) I asked them to let the tower know my condition and that I may or may not have good communications and would overfly the tower to get the light wand and to please let me know if the gear was down. (Thank you, Signature!) I tried calling the tower direct but kept getting re-routed, so I pulled out the number on my AOPA information via my Garmin Aera. What a great little resource that GPS is. It never let me down the entire trip.
In hindsight, regarding my initial alternator issue, I should have cut all power immediately with the master switch and saved five minutes of battery life for gear down, three green, flaps 15, and a quick commo clearance to land with the tower. I had more than enough life for this. Hindsight is always 20-20, but it’s a mistake I will not make again.
My only critique about the Epsilon is, it’s heavily reliant on the electrical system. This is fine in most cases, however, there is no back-up generator. That’s surprising because the plane is so well thought out in its entire design. As a Navy SEAL, and someone who’s worked a lot on MP-14 radial engine Yaks, I like redundancy in the electrical system and I always want two radios. I cringe when I see experimental planes with just one radio. I always have a back-up and usually a back-up to the back-up! In my case, I had a hand-held radio and headset adapter that would get me by with Santa Fe Tower for the few minutes I needed it about 20 miles out.
I slowed down to gear speed of 130 knots, popped the gear breaker, then pulled the emergency gear handle. I breathed a heavy sigh of relief, with my fear-heightened sense of sound, as I heard and felt the trailing gear fall down and lock. It was the only concern I really had, not knowing if the gear was fully down and locked without the three green lights on the panel. Not a good feeling but tower verified my gear was down and cleared me to land.
After landing, I was directed to Skyland maintenance. Big thanks to Steve and his crew for towing me over and ordering a new alternator on a Saturday. My planned overnight in Santa Fe turned into three nights but Steve had us on our way Wednesday morning and the weather was still holding.
I was planning to leave Tuesday, but had the edge of a cold front moving east down from Canada that I thought may be manageable with an afternoon departure out of Santa Fe Tuesday evening. Still, we ended up staying one more night to let the front move out. One thing I learned from that flight with Glen, and flying with my crew, is never be in a hurry, and don’t push weather. So after a quick look at the radar, and talking with a local flight instructor named Paul (always good to get a little local knowledge), I decided one more night in New Mexico would be a safe decision.
Wednesday greeted us with a broken ceiling at 25,000 and scattered 8,000. A quick run-up and we were off for Witchita, Texas, then Monroe, Louisiana, and finished the day with a VFR full moon night approach into Atlanta Peach Tree. It was a great day of flying with over 1,000 nautical miles behind us, and averaging 190 knots+ the whole way as we flew to the southeast to avoid the cold front that continued to march across the Midwest.
My one avoidable issue flying into Atlanta was that I let Approach jam me into a bad situation. I was unfamiliar with the airspace, flying a fast plane, and I allowed the controller to vector me into a jam four miles out of Peach Tree without a visual on the airport. I should have asked for a long final to the active runway to allow time to configure the plane and have a solid visual on the airport. I love vectors as much as the next guy but should have made the request, and instead let myself get handed off to tower coming into the pattern like a Blue Angel making a high-speed tower pass. And like you imagined, tower was not happy with this and cleared me to circle to land as I blazed over the active runway barely picking up the airport, thankful that the tower took mercy on the handoff and cleared me to land on 3L.
Always remember, you are the pilot in command. I should’ve known better. The Epsilon is so fast that my normal 12-mile-out call to the tower is now 20.
After landing, we were greeted by my friend, Amit, and his wife. Amit and I met five years ago through a NYC business group, and we became fast friends. We share a lot of the same passions for watches, flying, great wine and whisky. I like to think the intro flight we took in my RV helped get him hooked on flying, as he’s almost done with the PPL.
Another side note: The Golden Age of Aviation may be over, however, I think there’s a real opportunity to keep the spirit of flying alive in America into the future. However, it’s going to take all of us current pilots to evangelize our love of aviation and support organizations like AOPA that are a huge part in keeping our flying way of life un-encumbered by the type of flying bureaucracy our European brothers and sisters have to deal with. This is why I share my love of flying with as many friends, family, and clients as possible. It’s going to take all of us to keep aviation alive in America.
After a great dinner of Indian food, I checked the weather and noticed the same cold front we’d been dodging since New Mexico was going to catch up to us and land in New York, and it would be instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). I was no longer able to outflank the system. I decided to book a commercial flight back to La Guardia with a plan to come back and get the plane on Sunday with my friend Allan when the weather cleared up.
I’ve met a few pilots on the East Coast who brag to me about flying hard IMC single pilot, and it doesn’t impress me. I think they’re foolish for flying hard IMC single pilot. If you’re going to regularly fly IMC, you better be a professional pilot and current.
Allan and I flew out early Sunday to Atlanta. He does media for Wheels Up, is a great guy and is always enthusiastic about flying with me, so I knew he’d be a good plus one. Also, I could use him as a human autopilot! Muaahhhaha, little did he know…
After an Uber to KPDK, we pre-flighted and took off for KROA Virginia, then KFDK Maryland, and KFRG. We blazed over the East Coast, averaging over 220 knots with a solid tail wind and classic rock of the Stones and Pink Floyd pushing out over the intercom. Does it get any better? Maybe so, as New York vectored us right over JFK, and gave Allan and me a beautiful view of the Manhattan skyline at dusk. Such an amazing last flight leg, to bring to end over 2,100 miles of flying coast-to-coast in my new Epsilon.
See you around the pattern soon.