Connie and I showed up at the airport at 11:30 a.m. or so. It was a bright sunny day and only a bit cool, maybe sixty degrees; for the most part, Winter had passed over the Houston area so far this year. We pulled the cover off the airplane, I gathered up the fuel stick and fuel tester jar I used to gauge and test the airplane’s gas, and I started my preflight. The fuel stick said we had about 12 gallons in one tank and I could see gas sloshing over the metal tabs in the other (telling me I had 19 or so there). We chatted about what the fuel stick was telling us; we were getting confused about what the conversion factor was, so I mumbled something about needing to consult the original calibration card and moved on. Popping open the hood on the left, I looked over the mags and their wiring, the defroster and heater hoses (replaced not long ago during the pre-sale inspection), checked the oil cooler for cracks, and the engine and spark plugs for general condition. I pointed out the electric fuel pump to Connie and then shut the cowl, pushing on it to make sure it was closed. I continued around the cowl checking the general condition, finding one more little mark on what used to be my perfectly black and painted propeller, and then popping the hood on the passenger side to check the oil and all that engine stuff over there. Checked the gas (already told you that), the wing, untied everything, looked at the fuselage and inspected the ailerons and elevators and then pulled out my cell phone and called my buddy Dave whom we were supposed to meet. Getting only his voicemail, I left a message saying we were on our way and hopped in my airplane. Plugged in my headset and my “push-to-talk”, put my checklist and my charts up on the windscreen, and strapped in, telling Connie to come on up. Getting into a Cheetah is like getting on a see-saw; one of you needs to be in the front of the airplane before anyone steps up on the back or there is REAL trouble!
Connie got in and I helped her get arranged. Once she was strapped in and her headset was plugged in and hanging around her neck, I grabbed my checklist and started going through it. The engine roared to life easily; and after I was satisfied all was well, I turned on all our radios and taxied the airplane forward.
A few moments later, we were roaring down our little taxi-runway and lifting into the air. No one was in the air but us, so I cut to the southeast, heading us toward the bay. The homes and streets of Friendswood slid by below and on our left as I juggled our course to make sure we stayed just south of NASA Road One. To venture north would put us into Ellington Field’s airspace, and I had no intention of engaging in a run-in with the Feds.
About ten knots of wind on the ground equated to a bit more at fourteen hundred feet, as high as I felt I needed to go to make this short trip. We could see the wide expanse of Ellington p to our north, followed by the closer and smaller confines of Johnson Space Center and the ragged, blue oval of Clear Lake. Flying over the top of League City, I looked down at the new housing development that now occupied the spot of what once had been my aerial home, i.e., Houston Gulf Airport but named Spaceland the first time I saw it. The old airport had hung in until after 9/11 when the price became right to sell it, a wise choice made by owners are named Bin Laden. (If you’re thinking this is coincidence, you’re wrong. This WAS the infamous Bin Laden family. The airport had been bought years ago by Osama’s brother who was a pilot and was, ironically, killed in an ultra-light airplane crash.) Now, there was nothing to show for it but a cluster of homes.
As we approached the shoreline of west Galveston Bay, I turned us north, tracking just east of Highway 146 and past oil tanks and refineries. Ahead of us, the quad spires of the Fred Hartman bridge challenged us; but I saw the black asphalt strip of La Porte airport’s Runway 30 and turned toward it. There was no one in the pattern but us, and I thought about flying a “break” to downwind; but the Cheetah doesn’t really go fast enough to make a break look great, so after calling “upwind”, I did a leisurely turn across the end of the airport to downwind. As we passed over the three rows of hangars on the airport’s west side, I looked down and spotted Dave’s white and red-striped Pitts Special sitting on the tarmac in front of one of them. That meant he was probably around somewhere.
Rolling out on downwind, I completed the landing checklist and pulled my power back abeam my landing point. Descending, I turned onto base leg and into my crosswind, still feeling a bit high and still up around 80, close to my best glide airspeed. Urging the yoke back and nose up gently, I slowed us to 75 and felt the Cheetah begin to decelerate and sink faster. The numbers on the runway were sitting in the same spot on my windshied, so I left the flaps up and just continued to hold my speed. We touched down on the numbers and really slow. I was able to easily stop and turn off onto Taxiway A (Alpha) only a couple of hundred feet (if that) down from the runway’s threshold.
Right turn and we taxied onto the long taxiway parallel to the runway. We taxied down maybe a quarter mile to the taxiway parallel to intersecting runway 5/23 and paused as we scoped out the red hangars to our right. I recognized an aviation gas fuel sign but didn’t see any hide nor hair of a restaurant, yet it just seemed to me that it had to be down there if it was anywhere. The only thing behind us was the sole hangar of Debbie Rihn’s flight school, and in front of us the hangars looked like, well, hangars. So, I turned the airplane left onto the southeast taxiway.
As we approached the red hangars, the first thing I noticed was a little yellow helicopter sitting square in front of us. As we taxied up to the hangars, we passed a Cherokee tied down outside the first red hangar and then saw a small shack in front of it with a sign that said “Triangle Aviation”. A Cessna 150 sat on some grass just down from it; we pulled up alongside the Cessna and stopped, scoping the situation out. I spotted the restaurant over to our right and alongside a small dirt road that curved along the fence to the red hangars. But I was perplexed about where to park the airplane. My first instinct was to taxi down the dirt road and put it on the grass next to the restaurant or on the cement patio behind the restaurant. But I tied myself too much to convention and kept looking for a more “normal” tiedown spot. A small cement “T” jutted out into the grass on my right, and a pair of green wooden chocks sat in its right and foremost corner. I decided to park the airplane over there.
I taxied her in and shut her down. As Connie and I were getting out, I noticed a pilot in a brown flight suit with a yellow stripe walking around the helicopter. Was he doing a preflight? I wasn’t sure. Stepping off the airplane, we walked toward the old dilapidated ex-hangar that was now the Runway Grill.
Immediately in front of us was a patio surrounded by a little red, wooden fence. A little dark-haired boy about ten or eleven years old leaned against it and looking our way. I couldn’t tell if he was interested in us or something beyond. I saw a wooden screen door at the building’s left corner but it looked like it led into the grill’s kitchen, so I didn’t bother with it. Instead, I stepped over a garden hose and black mud through a small gate into the cement patio’s fence. Behind me, I heard Connie get told she wasn’t at the right door. She had apparently tried to enter the door behind me. So much for having a PhD.
The back door into the place opened into a warehouse of a room littered with brown wooden tables. To our left was a buffet style counter, behind it a wall covered with automobile license plates and a whiteboard touting the day’s specials. We glanced at the steaming food behind the serving counter’s slanted glass window but wondered if that was all they had since we hadn’t seen a menu. Sitting down at a table in front of the counter, we waited to be served but none of the waitresses in the room seemed interested in us. An attractive young blonde opened the back door, saying, “Tommy, come on back in.”
“But, mom, I want to watch the helicopter take off!” he replied.
She stepped back inside as I told Connie I wanted to watch the helicopter take off, too. I was concerned about how close the Cheetah was to it. If he lifted off and climbed up vertically before going forward, then I wasn’t concerned. If not….
I stepped outside just in time to see him left up about six feet off the ground and then drive forward at angle that put him just behind my airplane. He went by it no higher than the top of its tail, and his inconsiderate if not downright hostile windblast threw the Cheetah’s control surfaces in all directions. Then, once he had given it a good blast, he drove forward toward the northwest in a shallow climb.
“He didn’t have to do that!” I exclaimed. “I want to go out and check on the airplane.”
We walked out the back gate and cut across the grass to the airplane. I unlocked the canopy, pulled the control lock out of the pilot’s yoke, and flexed the surfaces. Everything felt okay. I put the control lock back in and took a quick look at the surfaces to see if I could see anything abnormal. It all looked okay, though I wasn’t sure we’d really know the true story until the airplane’s annual inspection.
I was not in a good mood. Cursing the luck, I walked back to the grill with Connie, though she insisted we take the front door back in. So, we did; and this time we were met by a young, happy, black haired high-school waitress as soon as we walked in. I felt like we had crossed into another dimension. Or come back from the dead.
The waitress was a charming young woman who happily took our orders of two fish sandwiches but forgot to tell me--when she said I could get onion rings instead of french fries with my order--that they cost extra. Silverware included a knife and a fork. No spoons made it tough to stir the tea unless you have straws, which we requested. The fish was almost too hot to eat but good, lightly battered. The sandwiches were just under six bucks each, not a bad price because the helping size was pretty nice.
We paid at the counter and walked back to the airplane, thankfully getting there before our little helicopter got back. I did a quick inspection and we hopped in, starting the airplane up and taxiing back to 12/30. But when we hit its parallel taxiway I turned left to taxi toward the three hangars at the west end of the field. I had seen Dave’s Pitts sitting out beside one of them when we landed, so I was hoping he might be somewhere about.
We turned into the hangars at the westernmost taxiway and had to stop next to a pile of rocks sitting near the taxiway to wait for a Cessna 172 that was also turning in but had more smartly taken the easternmost route. We followed them into a space between the two western hangars; and as we did, I saw Dave down near the other end polishing a motorcycle. He had told me a day or two before he had been looking at one. I spun the Cheetah around on in front of a hangar door just north of his and shut its engine down.
Dave was happy to see us. He had bought the motorcyle for four thousand dollars and was very happy about the deal. He walked up to look at the Cheetah. Though we had been talking about the airplane for months, this was the first time he had seen it.
“Sweet!” he exclaimed. “This is really nice. Looks great on the inside, too.”
I appreciated the compliments. But beauty really is in the eye on the beholder. I thought the airplane looked fairly good but sorely needed a new paint job, something Connie and I simply could not afford to do. But it was nice Dave thought so much of the airplane.
We chatted for a few moments more, including the subject of a little yellow helicopter that had rudely flailed the control surfaces on my airplane. Dave acknowledged that he had noticed the helicopter’s departure and said it was much lower than usual. He encouraged me to go over to the helicopter operation to complain. Frankly, I didn’t see much use of doing that. While I couldn’t know for sure, I believed that the control lock had prevented the surfaces from being damaged. And I wanted to go fly some more.
Connie and I manned the Cheetah up, strapped in, and waved goodbye as we started her engine. I taxied east to the approach end of runway 30 and pulled off into an empty concrete pad that was the remnants of Cliff Hyde Aviation, a flight school that had moved to Ellington Field. I did performed the Takeoff Checklist, running the engine up, checking control surfaces and trim, setting the radios and flight instruments, and then turning on my transponder and ensuring the canopy was latched closed. Saying my intentions over the radio, I taxied out onto the runway and pushed the throttle to full. We took off and I waggled the wings at Dave who waved at us from the seat of his motorcyle sitting on the taxiway. I turned us back to the east, and we headed out across the bay.
In front us, green flatlands jutted out into the bay. As we crossed the small expanse of open water, I checked our course against the curling road I could see in front of us. We were heading almost straight for a small airport named “RWJ”, and I dialed the radio over to its communication frequency to listen for any traffic that might be arriving. Our destination was Chambers County Airport also known as Anahuac, the “Alligator Capital of Texas”, a name that probably would have panicked my wife and caused her to forbid us to land there to get gas. It would turn out to be a good thing that there weren’t any alligators to be seen, other than the gator gremlins that would bite us at the gas pump.
We did hear an airplane calling in from the north as RWJ’s single paved runway slid beneath us. I called our position as “over the airport heading eastbound at fourteen hundred”. The other aircraft acknowledged the call even though we both knew we would be no threat to each other. I looked at the chart again and Chambers County should be just to the right of our nose. It was just south of the town of Anahuac itself. Spotting the town, I banked us ever so slightly to the right to take us a little more south and then caught sight of the airport. The runway was making about a seventy-degree angle to us, and there was right traffic to runway 35, so I flew over the north end of the runway and banked right to line us up. From our thousand foot perch, the runway asphalt looked in fairly good shape, but the runway numbers were all but faded and gone.
We rolled onto base and then onto final. The first turnoff was about halfway up the runway. Because of that, I chose not to use any flaps and landed a little bit long. Even so, I didn’t have to touch the brakes much to make the turn off. As I did, I found the airport’s self-serve gas pump straight in front of us. I taxied up to the pump and shut the engine down at what I considered to be a close but safe distance away.
Connie and I climbed out. The airport office was to our right at the closest end of a rusty-looking metal hangar, and a reddish Ford Bronco sat outside it, though we saw no other sign of life. The airport gave the appearance of being fairly run down. We walked up to the gas pump and I grabbed the metal grounding strap to pull it out, but it wouldn’t budge. I checked everything I could, tugged on the damn thing a couple of times, but still couldn’t get it to move. To work around the problem, I grabbed the Cheetah’s prop at the root on both sides and pulled the airplane gently forward until I could get the strap to reach. After clipping it on, I turned my attention to the gas pump. It was the standard type seen at many airports, and it used touchpad keys to accept inputs. The problem was that the “Enter” key would not work! I tried several times to program in the amount of gas I needed to get, but I could never get the damn thing to accept the numbers. Cursing, I turned and visually checked the gas in the wings. I thought we had enough for about an hour and a half worth of flight time with no reserve but it would only take us about thirty minutes to get back to Pearland. We had come here because another Cheetah owner had told us gas was cheap here and it was, but I seemed to be proving out the axiom that “you get what you pay for”.
“Good thing we didn’t land here without enough gas to get somewhere else,” I muttered. “Or we would be stuck.” And even though I had seen a Cessna 150 taxi past and disappear into a hangar, not one person had ventured out to see how we were doing. It felt disserted, abandoned here. Guess the gators had gotten everybody.
I disconnected the ground strap and pushed the airplane far enough back so I could easily turn without risking my wingtips. We hopped in and started the Cheetah back up, and I ran through an abbreviated takeoff checklist, skipping the run-up since we had only been shut down for a few minutes and I wanted to use no more gas than necessary to get airborne. We back-taxied down the runway, spun around, and took off just as I saw one person out in the lot between the airport office and the gas pumps. He watched us turn back to the west.
Connie hates flying across open water, but I angled our flight path toward the south to cut the distance but a little north of what I could have done to get back over land in a reasonable amount of time. The bay waters were blue and looked shallow, and we watched a few large ships from the Port of Houston as they steamed south out Galveston Bay toward the Gulf of Mexico. The air bumped is now and then, but the day was bright and clear.
We flew past the Kemah Bridge, turning eastbound to split the waters of Clear Lake. I angled us back over its southern shore, as we crossed over the eastern subdivisions of League City, the city itself, and then crossed the north-south grey ribbon of Interstate 45. I listened to Houston Approach on the radios, but none of the traffic he was talking to seemed to be in our area. I spotted a Beech Baron crossing from our right to left and in front of us maybe a half mile away and pushed the nose down and right to put more separation between us. He droned on, as I spotted Pearland, our destination, and switched the radios over to its frequency. I heard no other traffic but called out position anyway as I maneuvered us south of the airport. Turning us back around, I hit the field in the middle and quickly turned to put the runway on our left, completing the landing checklist and pulling the power back a little to being our descent. But with a pattern altitude of only 800 feet, you don’t have to pull the power back too far to get down, especially in my airplane. I had hoped to land with full flaps, but as I turned final and we hit headwinds blowing down the runway, I knew I wouldn’t have to touch them or would have to add power if I did.
Right before touchdown, the airplane danced from some turbulence and she felt kind of squirrely for a second, but I managed to make a nice touchdown. We turned off at the middle taxiway and taxied up to Pearland's gas pumps. Gas was something like $3.25 a gallon over here vice Chamber County’s $2.90 per gallon rate, but gas you can get at $3.25 a gallon you can reach always beats gas at $2.90 per gallon you can’t.
It just goes to prove that runway and gas behind you on the ground really is useless.