A flight from Oshkosh,Wi. to Santa Rosa, Ca.
Saturday July 31 and Sunday August 1, 2010
Pilots: Jeff Coffman and Dave Purcell
Aircraft: DC-3 N943DJ
by Bob Esler
The weather in Oshkosh Saturday morning was foggy and damp. The
airport was closed until late morning when the ceiling lifted just
enough to permit take offs. Jeff and Dave decided at about noon
that the weather was good to go. N943DJ was gassed up and the oil
tanks were topped off.
We climbed on board. On the outside, this DC-3 looks like it
just left the factory even though it was built in 1942. On the
inside it looks like no DC-3 ever did, then or now. There are 10
large passenger seats covered in cream colored buttery leather. A
couch for two or three more is at the left front. Bird's Eye maple
tables and cabinets are in the main cabin and a stainless steel
galley is just behind the cockpit. Sound proofing makes for a quiet
Engines were started at 1:35 pm. The plane did not move for
seven minutes until the engine oil warmed to proper operating
temperature. The idling engine sounded like a Harley: ka-chunk,
Taxi began at 1:42 and the take off at exactly 1:52. We took off
to the north on runway 36, then made an immediate hard right 180
degree turn to avoid the EAA AirVenture traffic on runway 9-27,
which is just at the end of runway 36.
Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska
We leveled off at about 2,500 feet to stay under the solid cloud
deck. As we neared Baraboo, the clouds started to break up. We were
able to climb through a layer of scattered cumulus to 8,500 feet
just before we reached the Mississippi River near DeSoto.
The rolling hills of Wisconsin's dairy farm country were lush
and green. About half the land was covered in woods. Roads twisted
in the deep river valleys.
The clouds thinned out and soon disappeared over Iowa. The look
of the land changed almost immediately to flat, huge farm fields,
few woods, and no lakes. The roads ran straight and were aligned
north-south and east-west. It was easy to see the mile square
sections. Green fields in Eastern Iowa changed gradually to mostly
brown fields in the west.
We crossed the Missouri River near Vermillion, South Dakota. We
were soon over Nebraska and the Great Plains, mostly flat, treeless
grazing ranch land.
The air was smooth over Wisconsin and Iowa, but with the sun and
heating of the land, strong up and down currents made for a bumpy
ride once we crossed into Nebraska. Nothing serious- pilots would
call it "light chop"- but it reminded me of airline flights I made
in DC-3s in the 1950s. Back then, at about this point, the barf
bags would be pulled out of the seatback pockets.
By the time we neared Scottsbluff, rolling brown hills were
common, with an occasional outcropping of rocks.
The first real mountains we saw were on the western edge of
Scottsbluff. And, Scott's Bluffs, rising 800 feet above the plains,
stood out just as it did for travelers on the Oregon Trail 170
The weather was clear, hot and windy as Jeff made the approach
to land on runway 12. The wind was out of the south at 20 mph,
gusting to 30, setting up a good crosswind component. Jeff flared
with the right wing low into the crosswind and touched down on the
right main tire, then the left. A nice landing in difficult
Plans were to make a fuel stop at Scottsbluff on Saturday
afternoon, then press on to Salt Lake City before nightfall. But
radar showed an area of strong thunderstorms with hail scattered
from Salt Lake City to the northeast into Wyoming- right on our
flight path. So, we decided to spend the night in Scottsbluff.
That night, at dinner, I got to know the pilots better. Dave is
a most interesting fellow. He lives in an airpark in Chandler,
Arizona, and owns several airplanes, including a German-made
glider. He also builds and races autos. Trained as an engineer,
Dave once worked designing aircraft engines at Pratt & Whitney
in Connecticut. He is very intelligent, learned everything possible
about the two Pratt engines on the DC-3, and took great care to
baby the engines during the trip.
Jeff was the man in charge of the trip. He is thoughtful, kind
and considerate to the folks around him and meticulous in his
approach to flying. He makes it all look easy, but he is always
thinking a few moves ahead. Jeff and Dave told good stories about
flying and had their audience laughing constantly with their good
The weather in Scottsbluff Sunday morning was clear with light
winds- perfect for flying. The forecast was for the same
conditions- clear with light winds- all the way to California.
We loaded up, fired up the Pratts, waited seven minutes for the
oil to warm up, and then took off to the east. The air was smooth
for the first two hours of flight over eastern Wyoming. We
initially climbed to 8,500 feet then to 10,500 feet by the time we
got to Rawlins.
The DC-3 is not pressurized - jetliners maintain a cabin
"altitude" of about 7,000 feet - and the thin air made me feel a
little short of breath until I adjusted. Jeff and Dave decided not
to fire up the gasoline heaters for the cabin, so the high altitude
made for a very cool cabin temperature. But we were headed toward
serious mountains, so 10,500 feet is the very lowest one would want
to fly over the Rockies and Sierras.
From Rawlins west we followed the Union Pacific Railroad's
"Overland Route" through the famous South Pass in western Wyoming.
Interstate 80 was built along side the railroad. The railroad and
highway take the lowest route through the mountains so it made
sense to keep them in sight as we flew along.
Elevations in western Wyoming range from about 7,000 feet to as
high as 13,700 feet. Our route from Rock Springs to Brigham City
took us over the Wasatch Range. The ground below us had an
elevation of about 8,500 feet but peaks just to the north and south
of our route reached about 9,800 feet. We had plenty of height to
clear everything, but the close up view of the rugged mountains was
a sight to behold.
The land in Wyoming was brown and parched. West of Wheatland the
terrain was rough and signs of civilization were few and far
between. There were many natural gas wells and several large open
pit mines along the route.
Near Rock Springs, we ran into a patch of clouds that were
producing rain showers- the remnants of last night's storms. We
flew under the dark cloud deck.
On to Elko, Nevada
Once past Rock Springs, the heating of the ground set up mild
turbulence which continued all the way to Elko. We passed over the
Great Salt Lake, which appeared to be evaporating at an alarming
rate. West of the lake and all the way to Wells, Nevada, there was
little sign of life, just desert and low mountains. Just west of
Wells we passed very close to a mountain peak of 11,276 feet in the
Ruby Mountain range. It had a bit of snow near the top. We circled
Elko's airport and got a good view of the small town as we
It was sunny and hot in Elko when we opened the door of our
DC-3. An airport employee placed a red carpet at the airstair door
to welcome us. We took on fuel and got sub sandwiches from a nearby
While on the ground, people came over to look at the gleaming
airplane. One person was a young woman, a co-pilot on a twin
turboprop which was parked next to us. She had never been in a
DC-3, and accepted Jeff's offer of a tour. She snapped away with
her digital camera once inside.
Another visitor was a young man who said he had never seen a
DC-3 in person. On Jeff's suggestion, he climbed into the cockpit's
left seat and hung his head out the open side window. Jeff
took several photos of the scene with the young man's camera.
Elko's airport elevation is 5140 feet. Their main runway is long
- 7,214 feet - which comes in handy when taking off in these hot
and high conditions. Winds were moderate out of the
southwest-blowing right up the runway.
Our take-off run was noticeably longer, and the climb slower as
we departed. Elko is surrounded by mountains so the ground stayed
close to us until we got to our cruising altitude of 10,500
Over the Sierras
The clear skies and hot temperatures set up the roughest ride of
the trip. We bounced along from Elko all the way to the west slope
of the Sierras. Frequently the left wing would pitch sharply
upward. Jeff or Dave (they shared flying duties) would correct with
a firm twist of the control wheel, and a push on the rudder
pedal. The vertical speed indicator was never on zero - instead
showing up 50-100 ft. per minute, then sharply down just as
The terrain in northern Nevada is a barren desert with one ridge
of mountains after another.
After miles of mountain and sand, the huge blue Pyramid Lake in
western Nevada is a shocking sight. Just beyond was Reno with a
steep mountain range just to its west. The High Sierras. We picked
a route through mountains with peaks that topped out at about 9,100
Joe Anderson was spending the weekend at a camp in the mountains
near Truckee. So, Dave and Jeff decided to pay him a visit. Using a
GPS they located the camp, then made two low circles over it. The
camp was located in a valley, so the pine tree-covered peaks were
well above out altitude as we circled.
I was glad when we zoomed out of the valley and back up to
10,500 feet. Once clear of the Sierras, we made a slow descent over
the central valley farmland then over the hills of the coastal
range to Santa Rosa.
What a trip!