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A Circum-navigational Flight Around the United States

The PYOA Contest 5th Place Story

By Erica Zangwill

After passing my instrument written exam, I figured if we were going to spend the money on an instrument rating, why not make it a bit more exciting than just flying approaches in the local area? Why not take an epic, fun-filled trip around the country?

Fortunately for me, I had an instrument-rated pilot for a husband, who was willing to be my safety pilot, as well as the perfect airplane — our flying club’s Mooney M20J, fresh out of annual — hangared at the ready to get us around the entire United States.

Brandon and Erica in the Mooney

On September 20, 2020, we packed the airplane (to the brim and just below max gross) and set off into the sky. Over the course of two weeks, we flew over islands, mountains, deserts, two oceans, and overflew Canada and Mexico. We saw incredible places and met incredible people along the way. Although I had the ‘hood’ on the vast majority of the time, I did also fly a few VFR legs, especially when we knew we’d be passing over sights not-to-be-missed, and boy were there some stunning views!

Packed to the brim!

The Hudson River Corridor and being surrounded by giant skyscrapers was the most spectacular view of all. Having grown up in New York City, flying over it in a single engine piston was something I never imagined I’d have the opportunity to do. Circling Niagara Falls was another incredible sight, and the approach at Mackinac Island — just gorgeous. Seeing the Grand Prismatic Spring from the ground was neat, but seeing it from the sky was definitely one of the highlights. Other sights we enjoyed were camping in and exploring West Yellowstone, flying over the Rockies, visiting the Museum of Flight at Boeing Field in Seattle, flying right over the foggy Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco, landing on the famous 16R in Van Nuys, and catching a glimpse of LAX through the clouds.

After departing Catalina Island (which is a must-see), we had an experience that many pilots will likely never have. As we were flying along and enjoying the perfect VFR day en route to Thermal, CA, LA center asked if we could help locate two downed military aircraft, a KC-130 and a F-35B, which were suspected to be within close proximity of the airport area. It was reported that the two aircraft had experienced a midair collision during refueling ops. We looked everywhere quite intently, scouring the ground below, and finally located the KC-130 that appeared to have landed safely in a field. We never did find the F-35B, but later learned that the pilot ejected safely with minimal injuries. After landing in Thermal, just to say we landed at an airport with an elevation of -114 MSL, we departed to the East (after a long, slow climb to altitude to cross the 9,000 ft elevation). After a long day of flying, we landed in Flagstaff and enjoyed an excellent sushi dinner at our hotel and got some much-needed rest.

Adding oil to the Mooney

The next day held something special: the approach into Sedona and landing on a mesa surrounded by beautiful red rocks, which was something I’ll never forget. After a delicious meal at the airport restaurant, Mesa Grill, we decided to continue on through the evening to get to Pecos, TX. On the way there, the controller cancelled our flight following so that we could dip our wings into Mexico (legally, they must terminate flight following if you exit the country, and then you can reacquire it upon reentry). One of the coolest parts about this nighttime leg was seeing the stark delineation of city lights between Mexico and the United States. It was fascinating to see how densely urbanized it was on the Mexican side in Juarez in comparison to El Paso. The next day, we made a brief stop in Austin, TX to enjoy some delicious barbecue for lunch and then left for New Orleans. We enjoyed NOLA so much that we stayed an entire day there, exploring The National WWII Museum (a must-visit for military history buffs!), and later, Bourbon Street with a ‘hurricane’ in hand while watching all the talented street performers. On the last day of our trip, instead of spending time in Florida as initially planned, we had a wonderful lunch with fellow Mooney friends in Mobile, AL and then decided to fuel up in Cross City, FL (cheap fuel) and head home to beat the tropical storm heading northeast.

There was a plethora of emotions when we touched down at our home airport in Concord, NC that evening and were greeted with a “welcome home!” by none other than the legendary controller, Adam Dancy, which made my night. But the icing on the cake was taxiing around the corner to find my CFII, George, who was waiting by the hangar with a bouquet of flowers for me.

All in all, an EXCELLENT learning experience and amazing way to build time towards my instrument rating.

Round Robin Route

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