T-34 to Georgia

In addition to flying the Plus One Flyers Malibu for some time, I’ve been fortunate to be able to fly a friend’s T-34 out of Gillespie on formation flights with the San Diego Salute Team for fly-bys at parades, holidays events and even funerals for the past 2 years. But, recently the owner decided to sell N34TX. The new owner lives in Georgia and asked if I would be interested in flying “Tex”, as the old owner called her, from Gillespie to Blakely in the southwest corner of Georgia. With someone else buying the gas this was an offer I couldn’t pass up and so began a bunch of risk management and flight planning.

Even though the airplane is IFR approved and I’m IFR current in other aircraft I hadn’t been doing any instrument flying in Tex so right away I knew this flight was going to be day, VFR all the way. Only problem was, as you remember, we were having weekly weather fronts move through from the Pacific all the way to the Atlantic during the month of March when I wanted to make the trip. So Iknew I needed to allow extra time for contingencies and be prepared to stop and wait if the weather dictated. I also knew it would be a lot easier to do this with another pilot to help with navigation, flying and logistics so I recruited my son, Chris, who flies with the Armed Forces Aero Club, to come along. I’m used to flying an airplane with a G1000 that has XM weather and I had just taken Tex to Redding, California for a wing spar inspection and modification without the benefit of XM when we needed to know what the weather ahead was doing. So for this trip I had an excuse to get a new Garmin Aera with XM and I’m glad I did. This gave us my son’s Garmin 296 and my Garmin 96C for triple GPS redundancy and XM/NEXRAD.

Redundant GPS and XM Weather

Next came the flight planning. Tex has been modified with tip tanks on the wings, not standard issue for Air Force T-34A aircraft. That gave me 25 gallons in each wing tank and 15 gallons in each tip tank for a total of 80 gallons. Burn rate is 13 gallons per hour which works out to 3.5 hours on the main tanks including fuel burn in the climb to cruise altitude plus 2 hours on the tip tanks. I’ve got a 2 hour rear end so I figured no leg longer than three hours to have plenty of reserve at each stop. With those parameters the longest leg I planned was right at 3 hours. At 140 knots I was looking at 400 mile legs. Plotting that out over the 1900 mile course that worked out to six hops of about 2.5 hours each. Some a little more and some a little less. With the short spring days and fighting the time zones, I conservatively planned two flights a day for a 3 day trip and hoped I might be able to do better. The original plan was San Diego to Tucson; Tucson to El Paso; RON, El Paso to San Angelo, TX; San Angelo to Beaumont, TX; RON, Beaumont to Mobile, AL; Mobile to Dothan AL for a top off, and then a quick 30 mile hop to Blakely, GA. There is no fuel at Blakely and I didn’t want to give the new owner a plane with no gas in it. Once we got to Blakely the new owner would drive us back to Dothan to catch a flight to Atlanta and then back to San Diego. The plan was to leave early on Friday morning and get into Blakely in time to catch the 5:30 flight out of Dothan Sunday afternoon. That would put us back into San Diego at midnight Sunday if everything went well.

Waiting for Daylight

Friday morning we were at Gillespie and had the pre-flight complete before sunrise. As soon as it was light enough to be comfortable, we were on our way to Tucson and the weather all the way to El Paso was forecast to be good with the exception of AIRMETS for turbulence all day and blowing dust in El Paso in the afternoon. We had a great tail wind and the 3 hour flight to Tucson only took 2.5 hours. A quick re-fuel and we were on our way to El Paso. Along about the New Mexico border we found the turbulence that had been forecast and slowed to below maneuvering airspeed. Along the way we could see dust storms across the border to the south in Mexico. The trip to El Paso only took 2 hours and when we got there the winds were down the runway but at 20 knots gusting to 35. We were ready for lunch and shared a crew van with two Air Force pilots flying a T-1 Jayhawk, the military version of a Beech/Hawker 400. They were headed west for Sacramento. The winds were still blowing strongly out of the west after lunch and we would have plenty of time to get to San Angelo before dark so off we went. At 140 knots true we had been looking at ground speeds between 170 and 180 all day. As usual, I was using flight following and we listened to the airliners at altitude complaining to Albuquerque Center about the turbulence at altitude but it wasn’t bad for us where we were at 7,500. Two hours later, well before sunset, we were in San Angelo. When I checked the weather I saw that El Paso had gone IFR for blowing dust after we left. We were ahead of the plan and it was time for a Texas BBQ dinner.

Gas and Go at Marana outside Tucson

Saturday morning we were looking at another dawn launch. The winds were still blowing but the turbulence was gone however, Beaumont was reporting 1500 overcast and was forecast to stay that way. It was clear and a million in San Angelo so we decided to see how far east we could get before we found any weather. About an hour later as we approached Austin we got our answer. At 7,500 we could see the solid undercast up ahead and Austin Bergstrom off to our right was in the clear. The XM confirmed that Beaumont was still IFR so we decided to land at Austin. Half an hour later they were IFR with a 1200 foot overcast. So we enjoyed the Atlantic FBO facilities and kept checking weather. An hour and a half later the clouds went scattered at Austin and we had a VFR forecast for Baton Rouge so off we went. Instead of a solid under cast the clouds were broken to scattered and by the time we got to Baton Rouge 2 hours later the weather was scattered at 4000. Now we had hopes of getting to Georgia before dark on Saturday so we borrowed the FBO’s crew van, headed to Subway, got in-flight lunches and we were on our way to Dothan, Alabama. It was 4 pm when we landed in Dothan which meant it was already 5 pm in Blakely 30 miles away. We pulled into the first FBO for a quick gas and go. The receptionist said the line crew was busy but would be back shortly. Chris had the alertness to ask what she meant by “shortly” and when she said half an hour we said we’d taxi on down to the other FBO to get gas which is when she told us the other FBO was out of gas so there we were. But, southern hospitality is real and she called the line guys on the radio who stopped what they were doing and came back to top us off. Half an hour later we were on our way to Blakely which only took 30 minutes and we were on the ground well before sunset. Things had gone way better than planned even with the weather stop in Austin. It took a total of 12.5 flight hours to cover the 1900 miles for an average ground speed of 152 knots and we never had to use any of the fuel in the tip tanks.

T-34 Co-Pilot

Tex’s new owner took us out to dinner Saturday night and we had breakfast with the Mayor of Blakely Sunday morning at Micky D’s. Chris and I were able to catch a 2:00 pm flight out of Dothan and with the connection in Atlanta we got back to San Diego by 6 pm instead of midnight. A really super 3 day weekend.

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About Rich Martindell

Instrument flight instructor (CFII), rated airline transport pilot (ATP), former military instructor pilot in F-4s and F-15s. Aircraft accident investigator and flight safety consultant. FAA Safety Team Lead Representative.
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