Fly Baby Long Trip

Text and Photos by Matt Michael

September 2009


I’d been working on 48ML for a few years with the goal of having a plane that could take me on long trips.  The engine was brought back to new limits, carb and mags overhauled…  I didn’t want to worry about anything failing and leaving me stranded, or worse.  I added a canopy to a classic open cockpit design figuring it would make long trips more practical and comfortable.  I had a LOT of help in all this and much of it was free.  For those folks I offer this account of a fun flying adventure. 

In one sense, flying an old, slow, single seat airplane nearly half way across the country is sometimes considered a bit extreme.  On the other hand, people have been doing it for decades.  For me, it was both straightforward and simple while at the same time being a very satisfying challenge that gave me a better appreciation for the early pioneers of long distance flying. 

A stock Fly Baby, which mine was before I got it, typically cruises about 80 mph and has to re-fuel every couple of hours or about every 160 miles.  In an 8 hour day you might be able to go a little over 400 miles if you can stand to sit on the less than plush seat in the open air wind blast for 6 flying hours.  Many have done it, and they certainly had great stories to tell.  Pete Bowers, the designer of the plane, did many longer trips across the country in his prototype.  

While overhauling 48ML I realized that just a few small improvements might result in significant gains in long distance performance.  I had the prop twisted to achieve a little more thrust in cruise flight, changed the fuel tank from 12 gallons to 16, and added 6 more gallons of auxiliary fuel.  Now, cruising at 90 mph and able to stay up for nearly 4 hours, I could fly over 350 miles before stopping for fuel.  In an 8 hour day I might be able to go 700 miles! 

So, I’d been yearning for some reason to go somewhere since finishing the overhaul and all the enhancements on my cute little plane.  When I got word that Col, Harold Fischer, Korean War double ace and my deceased fathers best friend had passed away and was going to be honored at Arlington National Cemetery on September 14th, an idea began to form in my mind.  My dad was a P-38 pilot in WWII and when he died suddenly in 1967 “Hal” got leave from active duty in the Air Force and traveled a long way to be at the funeral.  Later, in the 80s he wrote me a letter telling me about his friendship with my dad.  Here was an opportunity I thought, to honor the friendship of two great pilots, to stand up in my fathers place, and to do it as a pilot.

I flew to the Antique Airplane Association’s fly in at Blakesburg in early Sept. for an overnight camp-out as a shakedown flight.  I found that the battery powered electrical system for lights, strobes, and fuel transfer pump worked perfectly.  Everything on the new instrument panel worked properly.  The seat was a little less comfortable than I’d realized however and the plane had a slight but annoying tendency to want to turn left on it’s own.  In the week prior to the funeral in DC I worked like a fiend carving foam to make a contour fit seat that didn’t kill my back and tweaked the wing wires to get 48ML to fly straight.  I also added a simple bungee cord trim system to the control stick that would keep the plane from diving or climbing on it’s own while I folded maps or ate or stretched. 

As the weekend of September 12th approached I was ready but knew that I must have perfect weather to make the trip.  Not only would it be poor judgment to attempt such a long flight in questionable weather, I couldn’t afford to be delayed getting home since my wife was scheduled to leave for Scotland 2 days after the funeral.  Beyond all odds and hopes the weather WAS perfect.  It was a perfect forecast for weeks across at least half the continent!  Sunny, light winds, hardly a cloud in the sky, for hundreds and hundreds of miles!  Amazing.

I mapped the route from Ames to the DC area with regard to car gas fuel stops.  I can burn car gas in my plane and it’s typically cheaper than airplane gas.  Strangely, there is a huge gap in airport car gas suppliers across Ohio which was right on my route.  There was one small grass airport just southeast of Muncie, Indiana that offered it so I chose that as a fuel stop.  If I topped off at Muscatine Iowa on the Mississippi river I could just make it to Muncie.  I pulled a 5 foot mirror from a bedroom door to use as a straight edge to draw the route lines across 3 taped-together sectional charts.

 The day before I was planning to leave, my friend Chris Uhl in Cincinnati called saying he’d heard I might be flying his way.  I told him I was wondering about car gas at airports in Ohio.  He said that he didn’t know of any but that if I stopped by Cincinnati he and Julie would meet me and give me a place to sleep.  I quickly modified my route from Muncie to angle south to a little airport near Cincinnati where Chris flies gliders and J3 Cubs.

Saturday morning a Temporary Flight Restriction was to go into effect for the Ames airport starting at 10am due to the college football game.  I had my hands full getting myself ready and loaded and in the air before 10.  With no transponder in 48ML I would have no way to get out of Ames while the TFR was in effect.  As I taxied by the terminal the secretary called me on the radio to remind me about the TFR.  I told her I had a couple more minutes on my clock and I scooted south away from the stadium as fast as I could.

The 134 statute miles to Muscatine was uneventful but I was really pleased with the seat comfort and how nicely the trim and rigging had worked out.  48ML flew like it was on rails which gave me a good feeling about the potential workload ahead.  I cruised at 3500 MSL or about 2500 feet above the ground in perfect weather and landed an hour and a half later.  Re-fueling was a drag as I managed to splash half a gallon of fuel all over the plane and myself when the hose surged and caught me off guard while filling the main header tank.  Fortunately, they have a shower at the Muscatine airport and after I removed and filled the aux tank I cleaned up and changed clothes.  I loaded the aux tank into the baggage compartment with all its’ tie downs and supports then packed everything else, including my fuel soaked clothes in a garbage bag.  I called Flight Service for a briefing on winds aloft and TFRs along my route then, after pushing to a tie-down and hand propping to start, I was off towards Muncie, 316 miles away, at 12:48pm.

This was the first take-off with ALL my baggage AND aux fuel which put 48ML right at max gross weight.  It still leaped into the sky and climbed nicely at around 400 feet per minute.  I cruised-climbed to 7500 MSL where I would be above the developing thermal clouds, and hoped to get better speed and gas mileage.  I set the throttle at 2500 rpm and the exhaust gas temp at 1300.  Airspeed was about 84mph. 

The landscape below the clouds was about the same as Iowa but far from being dull and monotonous as it might be from a car.  Multiple hues of green, mile square farm fields interspersed with occasional small towns and tree lined rivers in every direction to the horizon is quite pleasing to the eye.  But, it makes navigation somewhat challenging.  It’s easy to confuse one little town with another and convince yourself you are either on course when you’re not, or off course when you aren’t!  But it’s a fun game to play and it’s easy to relax knowing that if there is engine trouble there are a lot of good places to land.

I mainly used a sectional chart and the compass to find the route but I do have a simple GPS unit that gives me ground speed, heading, and lat./lon.  I’d use it occasionally to check my old fashioned speed, heading, and position calculations.  I was tempted to go without the GPS just so I could say I didn’t use one but since it was available I thought it better to have just in case I got lost.  I also have a fire extinguisher, a carbon monoxide alarm, a radio, and a parachute all for safety’s sake so why not the GPS?

3 hours and 48 minutes after leaving Muscatine I found Reese airport near Muncie, IN and landed at 4:30pm.  There were a couple of yellow Piper Cubs there and while fueling a small bi-plane landed and taxied up near the pumps.  When I returned from paying in the small terminal building there were 5 or 6 friendly guys standing around chatting and looking over the planes.  One asked what sort of plane I was flying and another, the bi plane pilot, said he was going to just pass by but had to land to see what the heck kind of plane mine was.  They’d seen Fly Baby’s before but not with a canopy which I said was a pretty good disguise.

It occurred to me that here, at this old-timey sort of airport there might be someone who was experienced in hand propping to start my engine.  This relieves me from having to go through a complex and time consuming process of tying the tail hook, chocking the wheels, going to and fro multiple times to turn the prop with the ignition off, then on, removing and stowing the chocks, and finally climbing in the cockpit with the engine already going.  So, I asked if anyone might be able to hand prop me?  Every guy raised his hand, then started laughing.  Someone said, “take your pick”.

I took off at 5pm and headed southeast for Stewart airport, 78 miles away just outside the busy Cincinnati Class B airspace.  An hour later I was flying this way and that trying to find this grass airport in the otherwise mostly green landscape.  There was a yellow J3 Cub in the pattern and a couple more parked near the hangers along with a blue and yellow Stearman.  I saw Chris and Julie waving me toward a parking place as I taxied in.

I was elated to be now more than half way to DC and to have good friends to meet me and to stay with overnight.  After securing 48ML for the night we went straight to Deweys for some of the best pizza I’ve ever had with some of the best company on the planet.

Sunday morning was pretty relaxed since I only had 317 miles to go to the DC area.  By the time we drove back to Stewart and I went through all the fueling and loading it was well past 11.  Chris helped a lot and took some photos showing me shoehorning myself into the cockpit.

Chris hand propped me and I took off at 11:35.  I climbed at 60mph for an average rate of 320 fpm up to 5500 MSL.  At 2500 rpm my airspeed was 80 mph. The outside air temp was 57F and my groundspeed was about 92 mph.

It wasn’t long before I left the flat farm landscape of the Midwest behind and found myself over the forested hills of West Virginia. 

 There weren’t a lot of places to land down there so I kept an extra sharp eye on my position and for any airports along the way.  I think my experience as a glider pilot helped put me at ease here.  Even in the most densely forested areas I could see little clearings and pastures near rivers that I was pretty sure I could put the Fly Baby down on if the engine quit.  I’m not saying it would be easy but at least I’d had the experience of dropping in on pastures without an engine before.  And, if there was no place to go but into the trees I’d use the parachute.

 As I flew further east over the higher terrain of the Appalachians the little convective clouds grew taller and soon reached my altitude.  I enjoyed deviating around them but eventually climbed another couple thousand to get above them.  Before long I was on the downside of the highlands and began my descent to Front Royal airport just outside the Washington DC Security Zone.  Flight duration was 3 hours 35 minutes.

Here I was met by my glider buddy Bob Ball. Bob was a good friend of Pete Bowers, the designer of the Fly Baby when they were flying gliders together near Seattle in the late 50s.  I felt privileged to have such support on the far side of this journey.  Bob had flown little airplanes across the country on more than one occasion and knew what it entailed.  He brought cans full of auto gas and helped me tie down, then drove me an hour east to his house so I could change my clothes.  After that, he drove me to Bolling Air Force Base in the heart of DC where the Fischer family was having a memorial BBQ in honor of the Colonel. 

 The next morning I put on the pinstripe suit that had traveled rolled up on 48MLs turtle deck and went to Arlington National Cemetery for the service.  In my pocket was a pair of my dads Air Force sterling silver wings.  There was a band, an honor guard, and a horse drawn caisson.  The day was bright and sunny with light winds.  The acres and acres of white headstones on green hills a stark yet beautiful reminder of so many sacrificed.  There was a long walk behind the caisson, taps, the startling report of the gun salute at graveside, words about an amazing flying career, time as a POW in China, about freedom.  There was no missing plane fly-over because of the post 911 security enhancements to the DC airspace.  Apparently almost no one gets that any more but Col. Fischer would have in another time.  It was just as well as I’m pretty sure I’d have completely lost my composure.

 It was a long and convoluted chain of lost car keys, missed exits, and confusion that followed a very nice luncheon on the Potomac.  Now that my reason for being in DC was done I wanted to start home immediately.  My wife was due to leave on Wednesday and I wanted to see her off.  I didn’t get back to Front Royal airport till past 3 in the afternoon, finally thanks to Bob Ball.  Once I was in his car things went like clockwork.  By this time I was no longer fixated on getting back to Cincinnati before nightfall but I hadn’t completely ruled it out either.  48ML has battery operated position lights and strobes that can run for a couple hours.  I also carry a tent and sleeping bag so that I am never tempted to push on into unfamiliar territory in deteriorating conditions.

 By the time I was fueled and packed it was 4:45pm.  Flight Service said sunset at my destination was 7:49.  I wasn’t going to make it to Stewart in time.  There are no runway lights there but there were several airports close by that do have lights as well as many along the route.  It took me 20 minutes to climb to 6000 feet as I headed west over the rising terrain of the highlands and I continued up to cruising altitude of 6500.  My destination was Lebanon Warren County airport just 6 miles past Stewart.

 The sky was very hazy on this leg of the trip.  I wondered if all the forest fire smoke from California that had made the Midwest so hazy the previous week was now settling over the Virginias.  From altitude there really wasn’t much to see but blue above and white below.  If I looked almost straight down and behind I could see the ground but it was tough to pick out checkpoints unless they were large and close to my route.  To the west toward the sun there was nothing but the top edge of the haze layer marking the horizon.  There were a few small clouds to dodge over the highlands but mostly it seemed I was hardly moving.  I kept watch for traffic and made position reports on the radio whenever approaching an airport.  There wasn’t much to see outside so I took a couple photos inside

 One of the highly visible checkpoints was the Ohio River where it makes a huge bend at Parkersburg on the border between OH and WV.  Once I was past that I decided to descend a couple thousand feet figuring the visibility would improve and I’d be able to see the ground better.  It didn’t help much at all and with the sun getting lower in the west the visibility might have been a little worse.  The air was smooth and the engine was humming along just fine.  I started to look forward to nightfall as I knew the haze layer would vanish and the lights of towns and roads would make navigation easy.  I checked several weather stations to make sure fog wouldn’t be an issue along the route.  Sometimes as the air cools after sunset ground fog can form quickly.  No fog tonight so I kept on going into the setting sun.

Sure enough, once the sun was down and lights on the ground began to appear I could see for 30 miles easily.  I diverted a little from my route to fly closer to airports and used my radio to turn on their runway lights BEFORE it got completely dark.  That way, if my radio failed to do the trick I could land now while it was still light enough.

When I saw the glint of the large lake near Stewart airport up ahead in the dark I knew I was right on course.  I began my descent and transferred the last of the auxiliary fuel to the main tank.  All I had to do was fly right over the lake and I’d be heading directly toward Lebanon airport.  Already I could see the lighted beacon and soon the runway lights came into view ahead.  To my left the dazzling carpet of lights from Cincinnati sprawled across the horizon and to my right the lights of suburbs and Dayton farther north.  It was beautiful, and I was really proud of my plane for taking me on such a voyage.  Chris and Julie were there to meet me again and we had a wonderful dinner and talked way past when we should have gone to bed.

Chris dropped me off at the airport in the morning before he went to work and took a parting photo with my camera.


I knew I had perfect weather and plenty of time to get home so took the opportunity to document all my paraphernalia before packing everything.  This doesn’t include my dress suit that was already packed.


I took off at 9:48 and headed back the way I came, toward Reese airport near Muncie.  I was still thinking of stopping there to top off the fuel and it’s easier to navigate a familiar route.  Additionally, to fly direct toward Iowa I’d have to cross the corner of  yet another map which would make the already fussy business of folding and refolding these very large pieces of paper in such a cramped space even worse.  As I approached Muncie and got an idea of my speed and fuel consumption I decided to try to make it all the way to Muscatine without stopping. I seemed to have a little bit of a tailwind which made my groundspeed about 104mph.  I cruised along at 4500 MSL and when the mid day thermal clouds started to get in the way I went under them for a slightly bumpy ride.  This turned out to be the longest leg of the trip.  4 hours and 5 minutes after leaving Lebanon I landed at Muscatine, almost exactly 400 statute miles.

The final leg home to Ames was completely straightforward.  It’s funny how ones perspective about distance changes after a long trip.  Before my flight to DC, the idea of flying to Wichita to see my pal Tony seemed a major expedition.  Now I realized I could do it in one hop and be there in about 3 hours!  No problem!

My mom had followed the progress of my trip and the funeral closely.  She met me as I taxied in at Ames smiling and taking photos.  I handed her my camera and asked her to take one more before I put 48ML in the hanger.

Matt Michael

Check out Matt's other postings on how he built his canopy and baggage compartment.

Return to The Stories Page