Ultimate Cross Country - Epilogue

First Mate Thomas and Captain Stephen

It’s been over a year since my son Thomas and I set off for the adventure of a lifetime. Reaction to my “The Ultimate Cross-Country” story has been overwhelmingly positive. Many pilots and non-pilots have taken the time to send along their comments and questions.

The most common question from pilots is, “Didn’t you get a pre-purchase inspection?”

The short answer is that “inspections were done”. My story wasn’t about how to buy an airplane. It was about a father and son flying an airplane across the country.

The most common question from non-pilots is, “How did you talk your wife into it?”

I married a remarkable lady. Despite her own reservations, Barbara saw the sparkle in my eye. While that much adventure wasn’t her cup of tea, she could see what it meant to me.

Another common question is, “How did you talk your wife into letting Tom go with you?”

I was surprised, and am still surprised by the number of children that are not allowed to fly with their pilot parent. I can’t conceive of that and neither could Barbara. All three of our children have more hours than a lot of pilots. The gift of flight is precious. I share it every chance I get. Imagine not being able to share flight with your son!

That Boy

Speaking of the son, what about that boy?

The big trip clearly and dramatically affected Thomas. Coming home and readjusting to middle school took almost two weeks. Compared to flying, navigating, seeing a new state every few hours, renting cars, sleeping in hotels, and eating fast food three meals a day—7th grade was completely and totally lame.

After hearing about what we’d eaten for 9 days, Barbara placed Tom into what she called “Detox”. Her goal was to get his grease and caffeine levels back to normal. Boy. That went over like a lead balloon.

Tom became a school celebrity for a few days. We took loads of pictures on the trip. They silenced the few remaining non-believers. One of his teachers asked detailed questions. My favorite was, “What did you do for 42 hours??? What did you and your Dad talk about?”

Tom told him about talking with ATC, about the different kinds of airspace, about getting weather, working the radio and the GPS, and tracking our position on the map.

His teacher had assumed that Thomas was just a passenger. No way. Thomas earned his keep across 22 states and was “on the job” the whole way.

Inquiring minds want to know if Tom will get his pilot’s license. I’m not sure. As most of you know, there’s a lot more to flying than just flying. Thomas shows no inclination to start what I call “the book work.” Beyond that, I’m not sure I could live with him flying around solo in my airplane. Why? Do you remember being 16? I do. Any more questions?

Details, Details

“The Ultimate Cross-Country” was filled with details, but I deliberately left out a lot of names. I didn’t want to get anyone in trouble. On the other hand, my own faults and failings were listed in excruciating detail. When my wife started reading the early drafts, she’d sit quietly and then all of a sudden blurt out, “You did what?!!!” You see, my reports home during the trip hadn’t been entirely candid. I certainly hadn’t lied. Let’s just say I emphasized the positive and minimized the negative.

The Ending

How to end the story was a major challenge. The mix of emotions I felt when I shutdown at Nashua ran the gamut. I couldn’t wait for it to be over and yet I wanted to keep going. The sense of accomplishment was overwhelming. I remember sitting back in my chair and thinking, “We did it. We actually did it.” That, and “There’s no place like home.” I couldn’t wait for slow, home-cooked food. I couldn’t wait to sleep in my own bed.

Need A Name

Right after we got home, it was immediately obvious that Barbara and I had another child. No. That’s not it. It was obvious that I had a mistress. How a man can fall in love with a big hunk of cast iron, plastic, and aluminum foil isn’t clear, but any of you that own an airplane know what I’m talking about.

The little plane needed a name and she needed it right away.

I liked “Aluminum Overcast”. My thinking was that I would always be airborne (making a shadow someplace), but the EAA’s B-17 already had it. English names like “Victorious”, “Courageous”, and “Defiant” were pretty spiffy. “Juliet November” was obvious, but what a mouthful.

In reality, I was kidding myself. There was only one possible name. Here’s how the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it,

“1: undertaking, project 2: readiness for daring action : initiative”

Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase, “to boldly go”. That was the mission of the NCC-1701 Enterprise. It is also the mission of my Enterprise.

In the original Star Trek, Captain Kirk once told an android, “The Enterprise is a beautiful lady and we love her.”

The android reaction? “The Enterprise is a machine. You cannot love a machine.”

Apparently that android had never owned an airplane.

Renting Vs. Owning

I tell anyone thinking about purchasing an airplane that “renting is nothing like owning”.

The Paperwork

On our first meeting, my local mechanic, Tim, took me aside.

“Steve,” he started, “if we can keep the paperwork straight, everything else will take care of itself.”

I gave him a knowing glance and laughed it off at the time. Now I’m older and wiser. Tim looks like an ordinary guy. He has grease under his fingernails and everything. The only thing I can figure is that Tim sits at God’s right hand when he’s off-duty. Truer words have never been spoken. Remember these words,

Keep the paperwork straight, everything else will take care of itself

As the owner, everything that happens (and doesn’t happen) to your airplane is your fault. Everyone knows about annual inspections, but some routine maintenance can surprise you. 4JN has several 100 hour reoccurring AD’s (Airworthiness Directives). Not knowing about these things isn’t a choice. The worst case scenario would be to have a crash caused by something you didn’t do. The next worst case would be to have an unrelated accident. If the investigation was to show that the plane wasn’t airworthy, your insurance might not pay. The FAA might slap you with an enforcement action. It’s pretty ugly stuff. Assuming you survive the wreck, you might wish you were dead.

I’ve come to realize that the actual condition of the aircraft almost doesn’t matter. The paperwork, on the other hand, always matters.


Owning an airplane puts you into a select group. Once the word gets out, every local tax office will come running with their hands out. I had to pay 5 percent sales tax and register with Massachusetts because I live there. Because the plane is kept in New Hampshire, I had to register the plane there too. I also had to register myself (as a pilot) in New Hampshire.

Maintenance Woes

On the big trip home, Tom and I encountered several bouts of the engine running roughly. At the time (and in the story), I attributed the problem to carburetor ice. Last July, I experienced the problem again. It wasn’t carburetor ice—it was a stuck valve.

The problem was ultimately traced to a worn valve guide.

If you recall, during the test flight, I commented that 4JN’s engine didn’t seem to be making rated power. During the pre-purchase checks, the compressions came out in the high seventies. With 20-20 hindsight, the reported compressions were actually too high. The engine turned out to have some oil control problems which had the effect of masking so-so compression. Old cylinders were also affected by the AD that required a timing change from 28º BTDC to 24º.

A further insult to injury occurred when I flew on the first warm Spring day. The oil temperature almost red-lined. Part of the problem was worn (and ineffective) baffle seals. The bigger problem was what most folks call the “cooling tin”. The little baffles that fit between the cylinders and the cylinder heads were installed completely wrong. Not only were they not doing what they were supposed to be doing, but they were actually preventing cooling air from circulating the way it was supposed to.

If you own an airplane, YOU MUST OWN the illustrated parts catalog.

So you’re thinking, “How could that happen?” How come a whole variety of mechanics didn’t notice? Somewhere along the way, a mechanic made a mistake. He/she probably didn’t have the right documentation. The “wrong” installation looked fine.

If you RISK YOUR LIFE in your airplane, you need to DOUBLE-CHECK everything. You need to be smart—really smart, about your airplane.

"Saving" money - what a laugh!

Probably every first time buyer convinces himself that owning will be cheaper than renting. You figure out all of the various fixed and hourly costs and can’t get over all of the money you will save.

As they say on the Starkist commercials, “Sorry, Charlie.”

It just doesn’t work that way. Owning costs more than renting. It’s just that simple. I hope you’re a member of the club’s email list. Charles Hanna, myself, and others have done our level best to warn you newcomers.

So is owning worth it? As long as you don’t bankrupt yourself in the process, it sure is.

Folks talk about “the pride of ownership”. That’s the real deal.

When you rent, the “tick, tick, tick” of the Hobbs meter is deafening. When you own, it just doesn’t matter. Your plane is ready when you are.

To Boldly Go

The primary mission of my Enterprise is “to boldly go” and I’ve certainly done that.

The secondary mission is, “to alter space/time, to teach, to delight”. That probably sounds like some vague righteous corporate mission statement, but it’s not.

Give a Young Eagle ride. Show a child how small the world is. Fly him over his house. Fly her over her school. Teach them to fly—even if for only a moment. They will be delighted. So will you. All of our lives will be changed. It’s an awesome privilege.

Our mission has just begun.

“Cessna Seven One Four Juliet November. Cleared for takeoff.”


The Ultimate Cross-Country

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