Trip of a life time
A brand-new pilot takes license to learn to new heights
There was a surreal moment on that sparkling August morning as Nate Foster flew his 1975 Piper Super Cub through the Teton Pass, a mountain corridor in Wyoming near the Idaho border.
“There’s a 12,000-foot peak on the left, a 13,000-foot peak on the right, both with snowcaps. There’s nobody out there, no other airplane in the sky…it was as though I had the whole mountain range to myself,” Foster recalled.
It was a spectacular image during a trip that likely would rank high on any pilot’s wish list—flying one’s own airplane across the country. What makes Foster’s experience stand out just a little more is that, at age 17, he was a little wet behind the ears when he departed for the West Coast. He had logged about 100 hours. And he had taken his private pilot checkride just nine days earlier.
Raise your hand if you read Rinker Buck’s Flight of Passage. Keep your hand up if you wish that you, too, could fly a long cross-country in a classic airplane like the Piper Cub, throw your sleeping bag in the back, and take off to see America. That’s what Buck and his brother, Kernahan, did in the summer of 1966. The author was 15 at the time; his brother age 17—the same age as Foster—when they flew their Cub from New Jersey to California.
Flight of Passage has inspired hundreds of pilots, Nate Foster among them. He had spent several months helping to rebuild his father’s Super Cub, and then learned to fly in it.
He hadn’t yet taken his checkride when he proposed the idea to his father, Franklin “Whit” Foster. His dad, also a pilot, wasn’t horrified at the idea. Nate proposed that he would fly from Westminster, Maryland, to Monterey, California. Whit would meet him there and fly the airplane back to Maryland.
Key to pulling off such an ambitious trip, just one week before he was scheduled to start his senior year of high school, was the flight planning—that, and a little luck.
“We weren’t out to set any records,” Foster said. “We were going to play it safe.” The “we” referred not only to the pilot in command but also to his flight instructors, Andrew McFall and James Schlegel, and his parents—all of whom were involved in the preparations that took place in the days leading up to the flight.
There are different routes that one can take to fly across the continental United States. Each has tradeoffs. The southern route, through Texas and New Mexico, offers some lower terrain, whereas the northern route is mountainous. McFall, who was born in California and spent years teaching glider flying in Nevada, favored the northern route.
“The southern route can get very tricky,” he said, explaining that late August and September can bring weather fronts throughout the region, and big winds across the Mojave Desert. This time of year can also mean monsoons in Texas and New Mexico, he said. “The northern route is really pretty…the winds are a little lighter, the chances of big weather were a lot less.”
What about those mountains? Pilots who fly closer to sea level generally aren’t accustomed to thinking about high density altitude operations and flying in the thinner atmosphere of higher elevations. But when your primary flight instructor taught glider flying in Minden, Nevada—the soaring capital of the United States—your base is covered. McFall and Foster spent hours in the Super Cub simulating high density altitude conditions. McFall told Foster that when he reached Casper, Wyoming, which sits at about 5,300 feet, he was to start using supplemental oxygen and to keep himself well hydrated.
Over a two-day planning session, the two of them drew the entire route on sectional charts and created a binder that Foster would carry with him in the cockpit, containing all of the charts and frequencies in the order he’d need them. The route began in Maryland and went to Ohio, Illinois, Iowa, Wyoming, Idaho, and Nevada. The final portion of the trip would take him to Lake Tahoe before finishing up at Monterey.
Foster would fly several short legs each day, checking in with McFall and his parents at each stop. McFall would monitor the weather on his end so they could compare notes and make any route adjustments as needed.
But first he had to take his checkride.
Of course you know that Foster passed his checkride, or else you wouldn’t be reading this article. And that he got the good weather he needed to make a fairly uneventful trip. The good weather was the lucky part of the equation.
A high pressure system provided clear skies to Fairfield, Iowa, on the first day. “The second day I woke up and flew all the way to Casper, Wyoming. It was a really long day,” Foster said. Before he reached Casper, he stopped to refuel and call home, “and I almost called it a day there, I was so tired.” After a rest, he pushed on to Casper. “I wanted to stick to my original plan,” he said. “The more you get off your original plan, I figured the more rushed I would get toward the end.”
But Foster didn’t allow get-there-itis to rule his pilot decision making. He stayed on the ground a full day in Battle Mountain, Nevada, to wait out thunderstorms that lay ahead in Carson City. And while he had been averaging four to five legs per day throughout the trip, he flew just one leg on the day he left Battle Mountain en route to Minden. “I didn’t fly in the afternoon because the winds were picking up and I didn’t want to deal with any crosswinds,” he said.
At Minden, Foster spent a day enjoying the very different aerial experience that gliding provides, getting a ride with one of McFall’s friends. A group of pilots there also helped him change the oil on the Super Cub.
For his sixth and final day, Foster flew over the Sierra Nevada, over Lake Tahoe, and landed in Monterey. “It was amazing,” he said.
“He really did a fantastic job,” said McFall.
Asked whether he has plans for future flights, Foster says college is his immediate concern. He’s a senior at a high school in Baltimore, with all of the senior-year responsibilities that go along with it—college applications, entrance exams, and the like. He says he won’t stop flying, however. McFall thinks Foster might even be thinking about another trip—although where he might go to top a solo cross-country trip from Maryland to California is the question.