I do these write-ups for my 89 y.o. mom and also to document certain events. Thought I'd share it here. This year involved a unique mode of transportation to Wichita Falls.
After all the planning and packing, Friday finally came. I called my ride partner and pilot John, around 1:30p, to let him know that I was ready to go anytime he was. He keeps his plane about 60 miles south of Austin, near his ranch, so after my call he headed for the airport, packed his stuff into the plane and took off for the short 30 minute flight to Austin-Bergstrom to pick me up.
He texted me just before take-off, which was my signal to pack up the van and head to the airport. I arrived at the General Aviation terminal at the south end of the airport, just in time to see him land and taxi to a spot on the tarmac just outside the terminal.
Plane on tarmac.jpg
The plane is a Mooney 252, originally manufactured (production run was ‘86 – ‘90) in Kerrville TX, about 45 miles southwest of Austin. It’s a four seater plane and it’s small! The 252 has a reputation for being both fast and economical. At cruise altitude the plane was consuming about 12 gallons/hour. They also have retractable gear which makes them pretty aerodynamic.
John’s bike was already in the plane. This model Mooney has only two openings: The passenger side door (open in the picture) and the cargo hatch, which you can see just behind the window. Both bikes had to have their wheels off in order to get them through the door. John sat on the wing facing aft, with his back to the door. I handed him my frame, which he coaxed through the door opening until I could reach it leaning in through the cargo opening to help guide it into place. We had a couple of blankets that helped protect the plan and the bikes. My bag went in next and finally the wheels.
Obviously, with one door, John had to get in first, then instructed me where I could step and not step. Neither of us are small men, so it took some effort for both of us to finally get in and settled.
John cranked up the plane, radioed the tower and got instructions to taxi into place for takeoff. After waiting for a private jet to land, we taxied onto the runway and took off!
John’s been flying for 30+ years, is “type rated” for several types of executive jets and for a seven year stretch, John flew a private jet for a man who lives in Austin. I felt pretty comfortable with his skills and his running communication with the tower and controllers was impressive for a non-pilot like me.
Climb out was pretty bumpy given it was almost 100-degrees on the ground, so the thermals made for an exciting ride. John kept turning dials, punching buttons and at about 2,000’ he said “Okay, you fly”. He showed me the course to follow on the GPS and at about 7,500’ things finally began to smooth out. He had the trim set so that I didn’t have to pull on the wheel at all...I just had to keep the wings level and maintain the course. We couldn’t fly directly to Wichita Falls because Fort Hood is restricted airspace, so he set a course for Lampassas, east of Ft. Hood and made that our first waypoint on the GPS.
The control panel a mix of old and new.
I wish I had gotten the whole screen that’s in front of John...but you get the idea. The half of the screen that you can see showed our course and all the other airplane traffic around us, along with all the ground features including airports, lakes, highways, etc. To the right of the two dials is the combination comm stack and Flight Director. The comm stack was where you set your frequencies as instructed by the controllers when they handed you from one controller to the next. The screen with the blue columns is the Flight Director, where John programmed in waypoint and destination information. At the bottom of the stack, just above the red knob (which I think was prop pitch control) is the autopilot. It did most of the flying (I think he called him “George” at one point). We cruised at 10,500’ at about 175 mph airspeed but had a 15 mph tail wind and were making about 190 mph over the land.
Our destination was the Kickapoo Downtown Airport, just south of the city. It’s a small airport without a tower, so the only people John had to notify about our approach was the main Wichita Falls airport. He called in about 30 miles out to let them know we were beginning our descent and was told he was clear to descend and land at Kickapoo. We entered the pattern on the downwind leg, turned left onto a short base leg and then left again to line up for the runway.
Weeks ago I had read up on the Mooney for the trip and one of the things I kept seeing was that they could be a bit of a challenge to land. They have a tendency to float for a long time just off the runway and the biggest mistake pilots make is to try to force the plane down, which leads to a bounce, which leads to more nose down, another bounce and then often a prop strike.
We came down to the runway and were probably about 10’ off the ground at the runway numbers...and true to form, it didn’t feel like we touched down for about 1000’. The landing, when it finally came, was smooth as silk and we taxied to a tie down spot and shut down. We pushed the plane into place and unpacked everything.
John and I weren’t staying at the same location...I was headed to the downtown YMCA and he to the La Quinta west of the airport. The original plan was that we’d throw our bags on our backs and ride our bikes to our destinations, only about 3.5 miles each. As it was already 5pm, we ended up borrowing a car owned by the airport (called a “Pilot’s car”...available for visiting pilots to use if available) and headed downtown to pick up our packets and eat our spaghetti dinner. The convention center was alive with people and all things bike related. Packet pickup with simple, with no lines at all. We next headed into the “expo” which is where different vendors set up to sell their wares, then we headed over to the spaghetti feed.
We stuffed ourselves with a huge plate of spaghetti, salad and bread, then headed back to the airport for the rides we weren’t really looking forward to. It was about 7pm , but it was still about 98 degrees and blowing 15 – 20 mph (a foreshadowing of the ride). Thankfully, a nice guy in a FedEx uniform offered to give us both rides to our respective destinations in his truck, with plenty of room for our gear and bikes. We gladly accepted and where profoundly grateful for his generosity.
I was dropped off first and “checked in” at the Y. Every year the Y opens their facility for riders to stay for $25/night. It’s a huge place and I was told there were 400 of us staying there. Someone showed us around the different places where we could set up and I finally settled on “Racquetball Court #2 ”. There were about 25 set ups already there but plenty of room for me and my inflatable mattress. It was nice and cool, which was the biggest selling point as I sleep better when it’s cool versus when it’s hot. The place was so big I kept getting lost trying to get from Racquetball Court #2 to the lobby and back!
The main gym was set up for bike storage. Upon checking in I was given a number tag to put on my bike and a corresponding tag for me to keep with me for checking my bike back out the next morning.
The triathlon bikes don’t lend themselves to balancing upside down like road bikes, so their owners found other ways to store them.
I got everything set up for the next morning, relaxed a little on my bed, talked to other riders in the court and finally changed into my jammies and brushed my teeth. They shut off the lights about 9p and everything got quiet pretty quickly. I put in my earplugs and probably fell asleep around 10.
I was using a folded up blanket as my pillow, sleeping under a sheet the I had folded in half to serve as both a bottom and top sheet. About 2:30a I woke up and was freezing! I unfolded the blanket and put it over me, substituting my towel and the backpack for blanket/pillow. I slept off and on until until a little before 5a, when others began to get up.
I deflated my mattress, folded the blanket and sheet, partially re-packing my backpack. I changed into my cycling clothes then went up to the lobby where they provided a breakfast of coffee, fruit and cereal. I was drinking water and powerade in order to hydrate as best I could before the ride.
John called about a little before 6a to let me know he was about to leave his hotel on his bike. He rode to the Y where I met him out front and we rode to the start, only about 6 blocks away.
With 14,000 riders, there’s a strategy to lining up. When you register, you let the ride organizers know the distance you’re riding and the number of hours in which you expect to complete the course. John and I had signed up for the “Scorchers” group, which means we expected to finish in under 6 hours.
There were signs at the start indicating our entrance to our spot. It wasn’t as crowded as I thought it would be but as the 7:05 start got closer, it became more crowded. Looking behind us, the sea of cyclists seemed to extend out of sight!
The Star Spangled Banner was sung by a live choir, a cannon was fired and we were off! Slowly we inched our way forward and were able to start riding prior to reaching the official starting line.
Everybody was pretty well behaved and appeared to be riding safely but we saw our share of crash results along side the road...thankfully nobody crashed right around us.
We skipped the first rest stop and stopped at the second for water and food. I had half a pickle and some cookies, filled my water bottles with ice water and headed out again.
We tried to find groups to ride with so we could catch a draft but the wind was favorable the first 2/3rds of the course (either from the side or behind) and it wasn’t really critical to have someone in front of you splitting the wind.
We made great time to “Hell’s Gate”, which is 60 miles into the ride. If you don’t reach Hell’s Gate by 12:30, you can’t continue on the 100 mile course and are sent on a route back to the start. We reached the gate at 10:30 so no worries for us. However, about 3 miles before Hell’s Gate, we got our first taste of what was to come. A right turn put us straight into the headwind for the first time...and it was a shock. We went from cruising between 17 – 20 mph to gearing down and working harder just to maintain 12 mph. Additionally, at that point my computer says the ambient temperature on the road had reached 100 degrees.
Thankfully, right after Hell’s Gate, we once again turned east, now knowing that every mile we went further east, it was another mile we’d have to ride into the headwind to get back to Wichita Falls.
We took turns leading each other and occasionally picked up other riders to work with. On this day, John was the stronger rider and spent more time on the front than me.
Another 18 miles and an hour and 10 minutes took us to the next turn to the south. The computer was now telling me it was 110 and the wind seemed to be strengthening. Forecasts were for 15 – 20 mph and it felt every bit of that. The next 6 miles took us about 25 minutes...which is about a 13 mph pace.
Another rest stop and a short turn off the wind again for a bit of a respite until mile 90. Mile 90 to 94 was probably where the most suffering occurred. It was only 20 minutes of riding but the wind was dead in our face and the computer read 115 degrees. On occasion, a blast would hit you that felt 10 degrees hotter. Each time John would go to the front I’d just drop off the back...I couldn’t keep up. My focus was just on surviving to the finish and knew I needed to ride whatever pace it took to get me there. At this point half our water was being consumed and the other half being poured over our heads and down our backs (thankfully ice water with a lot of ice was available at every rest stop). Humidity was so low however that 3 – 5 minutes later everything was dry.
The last rest stop was at mile 94 and there were a lot of riders abandoning the ride, putting their bikes onto large trailers and getting into the back of the truck. We continued to dump water on ourselves, drink and eat so that we could make the final push home.
We left the rest stop and thankfully the road turned due west, which put the wind onto our left side. It was still in front of us but not dead on. Also, as we left the rest stop, we could see Wichita Falls off in the distance and also realized that we were a good 200 – 300 feet above the elevation of the city, which meant there had to be some down hill to the finish! And there was...a long glorious down hill not requiring much pedaling until we finally reached the flat again.
And then the cruelest trick of all...at mile 99, just a mile from the finish, an overpass. Normally you’d think nothing of it but after 99 miles it looked the the hardest climb of the Tour de France! We geared down and started slowly uphill...John started to feel cramps but kept pedaling through them. Up ahead, several other riders were off their bikes with cramps. So cruel. John powered through, we came down the other side onto the finishing street and triumphantly crossed the finish line!
We received our finisher’s medal, put down our bikes and headed for a tent where a band was playing. We sat down on some chairs and recovered a little, pouring more water over our heads and drinking to cool down. Notice neither of us appear to be sweating? It was 100 degrees and I had dumped water over my head just a few minutes earlier. I suppose it’s possible we had no sweat left!
We decided the longer we put off preparing to leave, the harder it was going to be. I told John that we should ride to the Y and then try to bum a ride off someone to take John to airport to pick up the Pilot’s car. Both of us were hurting as we headed towards the Y, John was still fighting cramps as soon as he got on the bike and started turning the pedals.
As we approached the Y, John said “I’m going to keep going to the airport...if I stop here I may never get back on the bike!”, so slowly he continued on while I dismounted and went inside to finish packing. I took a quick shower and went back up to the lobby to see if I could also get a ride to the airport...but I called the airport first to see if he had arrived safely. He had, but afterwards he described the ride, which sounded worse than the 100 miles we had just finished. He had to stop several times, once getting off the bike to try to stretch out his cramps.
About thirty minutes later, he came by the Y to pick me up. We determined we were both famished, so we stopped at a greasy little drive-in near the airport and had a big helping of burgers and fries...we’re pretty sure it was best meal we’d ever eaten!
After that, we headed back to the airport and once again, packed everything into the plane. This time, things were complicated by the fact that John was continuing to have leg cramps, which meant he had to stop was he was doing every now and then to straighten his legs and concentrate on relaxing. Getting into the plane was a multi-step process for him but ultimately, he got into the pilot’s seat and was satisfied he could safely operate the controls.
The trip back to Austin was a bit less “chatty” than the trip up and it went by quickly. We had a lovely view of Austin as we flew into the airport and had another perfect landing.
John planned to spend the night in Austin, so we unpacked the plane, loaded everything into the van (which was much easier than packing the plane) and I dropped John off at his house about 7:30.
All in all this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.