Build Partners Phil Simon and Jerry Bassler of San Rafael, California first flew Sonex# 492 in February 2006, and have since flown many long cross countries in the aircraft. On July 21, 2008 the aircraft touched-down in Maryland, completing Simon’s goal of landing their AeroVee-powered Sonex in all of the lower-48 United States!
“Our Sonex is the perfect airplane,” writes Phil Simon. “Lots of fun to do basic aerobatics in (loops & rolls) and enjoyable to fly cross country in. The little AeroVee engine is bullet proof… Building the Sonex & the AeroVee were two of the most rewarding things I have ever done.”
- August, 2006: 10 States
- September-October, 2007: 32 States
- July, 2008: The Last 12 of all Lower-48 United States
August, 2006 – 10 States
24 Hours in Sonex 492
This is a REALLY LONG report on my flight from Oshkosh to the San Francisco area last week, in Sonex 492 which is a tri-gear, AeroVee powered, dual control plane. We removed the right stick for this flight to accommodate all the baggage we carried. For this adventure I was loaded down with survival gear, drinking water, tools, oil, spare spark plugs, head gaskets, tie down stakes and hammer, etc. etc. I’m sure the plane was near gross weight.
My Sonex building partner and co-owner Jerry Bassler flew from the Bay Area to Oshkosh. It took him about 21 hours for his 2,000+ mile flight.I flew the return flight from Oshkosh westbound to the San Francisco Bay area. It took me about 24 hours as I had headwinds and did some detouring. I took off early with first light each day (around 6 AM), flew about two hours then landed for fuel, then repeat 2, 3 or 4 times. About 1:30 to 2 PM it would get too windy and bumpy to continue and that was it for the day. I was fortunate to have chosen a good weather window for my flight and missed thunderstorms and a tornado by one day.
I spent over 30 years flying across the US at 35,000′ and now want to see things in detail, down low and close up. My goal for this flight was to fly it at 1,000′ AGL. But with only one engine I decided to stay within gliding distance of Interstate 80. This I did almost all the way through Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and crossing the Sierras in California. It turned out it wasn’t necessary as the little AeroVee engine is bulletproof and never missed a beat.
In reviewing the flight, some things stand out in my mind:
a. It was lots of fun and thoroughly enjoyable. The Sonex is a pleasure to fly and I would do the flight again, but not in the middle of summer. Next time I think I’ll do it in the Spring or Autumn. I averaged over seven hours of flying a day for three days and enjoyed it all. The plane was full, I had a roll-a-board suitcase in the passengers seat and I just put my right arm on top of it and leaned back and enjoyed the view. I’m glad I had the two green sun screens in the top of the canopy. Later in the day I needed my Sonex baseball cap. I flew the entire trip at a low altitude and loved the sight seeing.
b. The Garmin 296 GPS is worth its weight in gold! I especially liked the terrain feature. Very useful when crossing numerous hills and mountain ranges in the west at 1,000′ AGL. Using the GPS I could look out in front of my position and see just how I was going to do as far as terrain clearance goes.
c. I really liked the DigiTrak Wing leveler. It tracks the magenta course line from the Garmin 296 perfectly. Occasionally it would hunt, and when it did I just disconnected and re-engaged it. This device really reduced the work load, as not only did it keep the wings level and on course, but this also reduced pitch inputs enabling me to maintain altitude for long periods of time. This GPS course following feature did not work with our old Garmin 196, but works fine with the 296. I believe the reason is the 296 sends its position more times per second than the 196 did.
d. Another handy cockpit tool is the little Flight Guide binders with airport information. I was able to look up the services at an airport I was thinking of landing at and to decide to overfly those without services.
e. I like our Dynon EFIS as it is compact and has lots of information readily available, but the sunlight behind me would cause the Dynon screen to fade out. I will build a little sun shade to prevent this in the future. Also, it was so hot in the Midwest that I got a message that the Dynon’s temperature limits were exceeded and it reverted from color to black and white. Once I left the Midwest and it cooled off, the color came back.
f. The Grand Rapids EIS worked fine, I especially like the Princeton fuel probe that reads the fuel in fractions of a gallon. However, the high temperatures and humidity in the Mid west caused the EIS alarms to sound (as they should). With the hot temperatures, if I raised the nose too high to try to increase rate of climb, I would get high CHTs, the oil temperatures would get rise and the oil pressure would drop, all causing the warning alarm to go off. Once I reached the western US and the temperatures and humidity were not so high this problem disappeared.
g. The AeroVee engine was really put to the test on this journey, and passed with flying colors. It flew for hours in temperatures that were in the high eighties. Over Wyoming I was at 8,500′ and the OAT was 87 to 89ºF. Cooling was minimal and the engine had to work hard. There were periods as I approached mountain ranges that I operated at wide open throttle (WOT) for long periods. With the density altitudes in Wyoming the plane wouldn’t climb at the normal speed and I had to slow which reduced the cooling air into the engine. So it operated for long periods with high CHTs and oil temperatures. It handled all this without a problem and I can endorse the
AeroVee engine as being very reliable.
One of my goals is to fly the Sonex to all 48 lower states. With that in mind I looked at the charts and found that I could add several states by detouring slightly from the direct line from Oshkosh to the Bay Area. I altered my planned course to add the southeast corners of Minnesota and South Dakota and the northeast corner of Colorado. I don’t think it added 55 miles extra to my route.
Leaving Oshkosh I flew west to Viroqua, Wisconsin (Y51). This is a beautiful little airport with the cheapest gas of the entire flight at $ 3.30/gal. Their second runway, a grass strip, was completely hidden from the FBO location by the high corn. The country side in Wisconsin is certainly green and lush with rolling hills and small farms. I crossed the Mississippi River south of La Crosse and entered the southeast corner of Minnesota. I landed at Houston County (CHU), to add Minnesota to my list of 48 states, and then headed back west-southwest into Iowa. Like Wisconsin, Iowa is a lush, green state with lots of farms and fertile looking land. I was interested in the rows of trees that are planted on the north and west sides of the farm houses to act as windbreaks. I stopped for fuel at Clarion, Iowa (CAV) a really small field, and then headed west, past Pocahontas (POH) and Cherokee (CKP). This was slightly north of my planned route but I wanted to land in South Dakota to add another state to my list, and had located the Davidson Airport (VMR) in the southeast corner of the state. I had to pay the price for this decision as fuel
was a dollar a gallon higher at $4.31/gal. Fortunately I was only burning a little more than four GPH and it never cost very much to fill the tank up.
Taking off I crossed the Missouri River northwest of Sioux City and entered Nebraska. Here the land starts to turn brown and irrigation is required to grow crops. I flew over Chartington (0B4), Antelope (4V9), Sharp (ODX) and Broken Bow (BBW) headed for North Platte (LBF). However, the sky was getting darker directly ahead of me and soon I hit some showers, so did a quick 180º turn and retreated to Broken Bow, Nebraska, for the night. The airport has a “real” airport loaner car, complete with “Broken Bow Airport” on the side, that must be al most 50 years old, but it ran and I appreciated the car as it was three miles into town.
The next morning I got a real early start, in fact I preflighted the Sonex in the dark and took off just as daylight was breaking. Headed for North Platte (LBF). Not much farming from here west, mainly cattle grazing. I noted that patches of sand are breaking through the top soil in the western part of the state, and many fields had long rows of trees bordering them. At North Platte I crossed the Platte River, which is hardly a river at all (a mile wide and an inch deep) and picked up Interstate 80 which was to be my companion for the rest of the journey.
Leaving North Platte and its large railroad yards I flew over Searle (OGA) then did a slight dip to the southwest to land at Julesburg, Colorado (7V8). I added another state with only a 5 mile detour. The Flight Guide mentioned that the airport was used as a drag strip, and indeed it is. There were no airplanes on the field, no services, no tie downs and not any indication that it was an airport at all. There was thick rubber on the north end of the runway where the dragsters accelerated. After landing and looking around, I turned and took off within a minute or so. The Dynon EFIS has a feature the logs flight time and it didn’t even pick up the fact that I had briefly landed here.
I continued on to Sydney, Nebraska (SNY) for fuel. The line boy showed me a digital photo on his cell phone that he had taken the previous day of a tornado that went across the field right where I was parked. It missed the line shack by a couple of hundred yards. He had taken the photo and hit the deck till it passed. My timing was perfect as it was clear today.
Leaving Sydney I flew over Kimball (IBM), and entered Wyoming. Crossed Pine Bluff (82Y) and approached Cheyenne (CYS). Here I made my biggest tactical mistake of the journey. I contacted the tower to see if they might let me cross over the field at a lower altitude as they are not that busy and I really didn’t want to detour too much. They agreed and and I was pleased with my self. It didn’t last long though, as soon they had me on a vector to the south for traffic and I probably lost ten minutes being shuffled out of the way of a FAA test flight that was inspecting all the approach lights at the field. After that experience I avoided all FAA radio contact for the rest of the journey.
Wyoming is THE test for any small plane, as the elevation is almost all over 7000′ MSL. The little AeroVee did just fine at these altitudes. Our Sonex is heavy, being a tri-gear and with all the extras we have on it. I’m sure the plane was near gross weight. We climbed slowly in the high temperatures, but it handled everything I threw at it, including several takeoffs over 7,000′ MSL with hot temperatures (read – really high density altitude).
After Cheyenne I had to cross the first real terrain of the journey. 1,000′ AGL in this area is about 8,700′ so I flew at 8,500′ to be at the correct altitude. You can see the spots on the cows when you are this low. Here I learned to really appreciate the terrain feature of the Garmin 296 as there are acres of wind generators on these hills that were higher than I was. With the head winds, the trucks on I-80 were about the same speed, and it was starting to get bumpy as the day heated up.
The next landing was at Laramie, Wyoming (LAR) which is in a beautiful green valley with stream beds all around. The local pilots encouraged me not to deviate too far from I-80 as I continued west. It was starting to heat up, so I only stayed a few minutes. I took off from Laramie (7,284′ MSL) with the OAT at 85º and I’m sure the density was over 10,000′. My Koch Chart said that I would need 230% of my normal take off run and would have a 75% decrease in my rate of climb! -The little Sonex took off just fine (but indeed used twice as much runway) but the climb rate was low. I followed Interstate 80 and hoped that the highway department’s climb gradient for trucks was less than I was getting. I spent the rest of the day watching my altitude and fighting downdrafts and thermals that would cause me to loose 500 feet in a moment and take me a long time to regain.
The leg to Rock Springs, Wyoming (RKS) was rough and I probably should have stopped at Laramie. The only airport along this leg was Rawlins (RWL). It was a constant battle to maintain altitude and there was a lot of turbulence on this leg. There were a couple of jolts that rolled me almost to knife edge flight and really got my attention. Fortunately I am not bothered by rough air, but I was glad to land at Rock Springs and have this leg behind me. East of Rock Springs is a huge strip coal mine with a giant shovel. To the north is a large power plant sitting right in the middle of the coal fields. Approaching the town of Rock Springs I had trouble finding the airport until I figured out that it was up on a plateau which was above me. Next time I’ll know where to look! An older man and his wife hurried out to talk to me saying they had seen the plane the previous week. It turns out Jerry had stopped there for fuel flying eastbound. The man was interested in the Sonex so I did my song and dance routine and sales pitch for a few minutes. Its a long trip from the airport into town and I had to wait quite a bit for the hotel transportation. I remember when Rock Springs was all house trailers, now it is growing and has some nice looking housing developments.
At the hotel I decided the next day I would have to take off even earlier. Took the 5 AM hotel van to the airport and was off before 6 AM. Crossed the Green River just north of Flaming Gorge Reservoir, but I was too low to really see it in the distance. I know they grow some of the best cantaloupe here which go to the finest restaurants and hotels. To my left was the Greater Green River Intergalactic (honest) Airport (48U). Between here and Fort Bridger (FBR) it is really ugly. This is oil, gas, and mining country and the countryside is crossed by hundreds of dirt roads, and a half dozen plants emitting lots of smoke. There is nothing green anywhere. Leaving Fort Bridger (FBR) there is another range to cross. This one had a huge wind generator farm on it that isn’t on the sectional. I counted 77 of the large wind mills, all above me.
I made the decision to land early at Evanston, Wyoming (EVW) to fuel up so I could attempt to overfly the Salt Lake City class B airspace without having to stop. Evanston is a nice airport with a new runway completed and the new taxiway now being built. There was another homebuilt tied up in the transient parking area, but the owner must have still been in bed. They have an old airport dog, but he’d had a rough life and didn’t want to be petted. I bought fuel and some peanut butter crackers for breakfast and headed off.
Leaving Evanston I had less than 50 miles to climb to 10,500′ to overfly the class B airspace or I would have to stay low and fly under it. There is an easy, lower altitude route following I-80 which goes past Park City that is only narrow at the very west edge of the Rockies. This was my original plan, but I was able to climb up to 10,500 fairly easily (though I had to stay alert not to lose the hard gained altitude with one of the sinkers that were too frequent) and so flew directly over the top of the Salt Lake City class B airspace and saved a lot of time and miles. I then started a long slow descent to Wendover, Utah (ENV).
After flying along the southern shore of the Great Salt Lake I entered an area that looks like the moon! It is all salt flats and desert; every thing is white and desolate. One of the only buildings is a military explosives plant on the left side. The Bonneville Salt Flats (where they do speed runs for cars and cycles) are visible on the right side. Wendover is an old W.W.II airport with the original tower and wooden hangars. The runway is in Utah and the town is in Nevada. They do a big business with locals from Salt Lake driving to Nevada to (gasp) gamble and cavort! There was a B-737 on the ground at ENV and he couldn’t take off as it was too hot and the runway too short. I heard them discussing off-loading fuel and then flying to Salt Lake to refuel and use the longer runways. The airport has a interesting museum of the W.W.II period when they trained B-36 crews. The photos showed them training new gunners who were riding on a moving trolley, while their targets were moving in the opposite direction on top of a jeep behind an embankment.
After fueling and taking off from Wendover, I left the blinding white salt flats behind me and started another climb to clear two small ranges on the way to Wells (LWL). Then around the north end of another range (the Ruby mountains) and on towards Elko. I used to fly into Elko and always wondered if they would ever sell any of the subdivisions east of town. There are dirt roads scrapped into the land and the lots were sold to unsuspecting easterners I imagine. Sure enough there were a few house trailers spread about, but 90% of the lots are still vacant. There are other “developments” like this in SE Colorado and another not far from Albuquerque, New Mexico.
West of Elko there are some pretty, green areas; mainly a long green valley with a river flowing through it. The Garmin gave me the name of the river, but I’ve forgotten already. As I approached Battle Mountain there was another large green valley with a big power plant being constructed right in the middle. I thought Battle Mountain (BAM) was a pretty area and it was a very nice day. Though the line boy told me it gets really cold in the winter and hot in the summer. The Battle Mountain Air Attack Base was right next door to the FBO and I took a photo of an old C-119 converted into a fire fighting tanker with a jet engine mounted on top of the fuselage. You won’t catch me getting into that beast!
After fueling and another cracker and peanut butter feast I was off. Heading towards Winnemucca, Nevada (WMC) I passed a hill that recently had a fire burning up one side. The air attack bombers had made four drops (you could still see the red marks from the liquid) and enclosed the fire. I was amazed by the precision of the drops – it almost looked like a fence line. I am guessing that they used a crop duster rather than a big bomber to do these types of precision drops. Winnemucca is a much larger town and has a bigger airport. South of town, out in the middle of the desert, was a prison. It looked like it would be 120º in the summer there, what a desolate location.
Since I was making good time I decided to overfly Derby Field at Lovelock (LLC) and head for Reno for my next fuel stop. I think it was a good decision as Derby Field looked really ugly from the air. Located right on the shore of some alkaline flats it was not a thing of beauty. Just to the south is the Carson Sink and all the military restricted areas.
Once again it was getting bumpy with up and down drafts, and I was looking forward to my landing at Reno. I chose Reno Stead Airport (4SD) just north and outside the Reno airspace, as my plan was to fuel and head off across the Sierras as it was still early in the day. After talking to the local pilots I took their advice and thought the better of it, as the wind had really picked up and crossing the mountains would not have been fun. So I spent the night in Reno. If you are going to do this, my advice is not to land at Stead but rather go into Reno/Tahoe International (RNO). There are no motels at Stead and no one will pick you up there. So I had to rent a car and drive into downtown Reno to get a room.
Early the next morning I was at the airport and took off just as the sun was rising. I did one big circuit of the valley north of Stead and had enough altitude (8,500′) to fly over the Reno airspace and to cross the Sierras. I kept I-80 in sight, as there are only two airports that you can land at if there are problems crossing the Sierras. Truckee Tahoe, California (TRK) is in a big valley and is an easy place to land. There is still plenty of snow in the high Sierras, and it is very rugged. None of the wide open areas like over the Rockies. Further west is Blue Canyon Nyak (BLU) which must exist as a fire fighting base, as there are no services there. Soon I was past the Sierras and over the foothills with plenty of airports to land. Like an ole horse headed for the stable, I was now on the final stretch and found myself pushing up the RPM a little. I normally cruise at 2,900 RPM to get better fuel consumption. WOT gives me 3,200 RPM.
It was all downhill from here and I started a gradual descent, flew over the Auburn airport (AUN), then over the Sacramento airspace at 4,500′. Took photos of the long runway at the old McClellan AFB (MCC) and then of Rio Linda (L36) home of Eric Schepper’s Red Devil (Sonex 250), and the site of the successful Northern California Sonex Builder’s annual BBQ. Leaving the Sacramento area behind I continued the descent to the Nut Tree Airport (VCB) home of the cheapest fuel in the Bay area. After landing I checked the weather for the Bay area, as I could see the morning stratus (fog to those on the ground) coming over the hills. Ceilings were reported 1,500′ overcast with more than 10 miles visibility underneath, so I was off.
I loved the last leg. It was cool, no sunlight, no high temperatures, no humidity, smooth air and lots to see. The ceiling stayed at 1,500′ with great visibility the entire leg. I flew around Vallejo, past the mothball fleet of old W.W.II ships in Suisun Bay. Then over the Benicia Bridge and the Carquinez Bridge at the entrance to Suisun Bay andentrance to the Delta. Then over the old Navy base at Mare Island. The two large drydocks are still there, but gradually the old base is getting cleaned up and housing developments are being built. I then flew along Highway 37 at the north end of San Pablo Bay (the north end of San Francisco Bay). Just past the Petaluma River I could see Gnoss Field (DVO) where we did the test flying of Sonex 492PJ last February, almost exactly 100 hours ago. Then past the old Hamilton AFB and into my home base of Smith Ranch/San Rafael Airport (CA35).
Home at last, but it was a great adventure, a lot of fun and a wonderful experience. I took over 300 photos so I was averaging over 12 an hour. Looking at them now, I realize that I need a more powerful telephoto lens as things look pretty small in the photos.
The Sonex, AeroVee and AeroCarb performed flawlessly. I believe this is the longest flight to date of any Sonex. Between Jerry’s and my flights we crossed the Sierras and Rockies each two times and flew over 4,000 miles. We did this in the middle of summer with very high temperatures and I can’t think of a more difficult test for any homebuilt.
I’ve now flown and landed Sonex 492PJ in ten states; only 38 to go; unless I fly to Alaska – but that’s another adventure.
BTW, I wanted to mention that, after looking at all the Sonex and Waiex at Oshkosh this year, Kerry, Drew and Gus have really raised the bar as far as quality of construction goes. All three of their projects are show planes with very high standards of workmanship. The rest of us have a way to go to reach their level.