From the Wall Street Journal, January 28, 2002

A Big Lake, a Little Plane
and 12 Gallons of Gas


Hampton Airport, New Hampshire

Zero Six Hotel has a 12-gallon fuel tank. That's enough for three hours, but the Federal Aeronautics Administration requires me to keep 30 minutes in reserve, and a cautious pilot doubles that. The wind is always blowing -- almost always to the disadvantage of a Piper Cub -- and airports aren't spaced as closely as Exxon stations.

Getting a prop For a Cub driver, therefore, any flight longer than two hours requires a fuel stop. I've flown from Hampton to Wiscasset on the seacoast of Maine, and to Northampton in western Massachusetts. For Zero Six Hotel and me, these are expeditions to the outermost limit of ambition. But our recurring adventure is to circumnavigate the big lake: 45,000-acre Winnipesaukee in central New Hampshire. The name supposedly means "Smile of the Great Spirit." Certainly it leaves me smiling, whether it's sparkling with sunshine and the frothy wakes of speedboats, or gray and frozen in winter, or crouching beneath a cloudy sky.

The Cub takes its name from its FAA registration, N7006H. It was built in 1946, and its 65-horsepower Continental engine is roughly the same age, though Michael Dunn, the mechanic, is forever taking it out, rebuilding it and returning it, sometimes to this Cub and sometimes to another. If not for Mr. Dunn, I wouldn't smile so easily. When I have a "squawk" about Zero Six Hotel, he runs his hands over the affected part like a mother with her child. Mr. Dunn is a Cub-whisperer -- a comforting thought at 2,900 feet, in a 55-year-old airplane powered by a 55-year-old engine.

That altitude is precisely chosen. It's beneath the lowest standard flight level for aircraft, but high enough to give me a moment of reflection if I must land in a farmer's pasture. There's little traffic at 2,900 feet. Sometimes I see another small plane following the same logic, and twice I've met A-10 Warthogs on low-level training missions. A Cub travels at 60 knots, a Warthog at 250. Look out!

Zero Six Hotel has no electrical system, and therefore no radio. So my first checkpoint is the roof of the Newmarket Gym. This route allows me to climb at leisure while staying clear of Pease International Tradeport, whose airspace is a tuna can eight miles across and 2,500 feet tall. I'm not allowed to fly through that space without communicating with the control tower. The checkpoint is stored in a Garmin GPS, small as a cell phone and powered by four AA batteries; it tracks global-positioning satellites that show me a perfect line from Hampton Airport to the Newmarket Gym to Alton Bay on Winnipesaukee's southeast corner.

What wealth this country has! Approaching Alton Bay, I pass over an estate on a bend in a river, with a private runway, too exclusive to show on the FAA chart. (I'd land there in a pinch, however, and I shape my course to take me near it.) On the big lake itself, I cross an island that boasts its own dredged harbor and eight boats, each tied to its own dock.

I grew up in this area. My dad was a rambling jack of all trades who looked after rich men's estates, and in my three-hour excursion I pass five of the seven schools I attended before graduating from high school -- including the high school, Brewster Free Academy in picture-postcard Wolfeboro.

I circle Brewster at 1,000 feet on each of my Winnipesaukee excursions. I've also located two of the houses we lived in, and I've circled them at 500 feet. (These are the FAA minimums.) Nobody has yet shaken a fist at me, or otherwise challenged my right to fly over my own boyhood. In 1946, when Zero Six Hotel came out of the factory, I could only dream of flying anything so splendid as this airplane. It cost $2,195 then and today would sell for 10 times as much. If only I could age so well!

There are three airports around the lake, and I land at each in turn. My favorite is Moultonborough, at the northwest corner, because it's unassuming and has a self-service pump. Rarely is anyone on duty, obliging me to rely on the kindness of strangers to restart my engine. (It has, of course, no starter motor.) Once I coaxed help from the pilot of a jump plane, while half a dozen parachutists drummed their fingers, anxious to be at the business of walking on air.

The world from 2,900 feet is quite different from what you experience in a wide-body jet. I see berry pickers on a hilltop, a water-skier jumping the tow boat's wake and Brewster students loafing on the lawn. (Wolfeboro has its own high school now, and Brewster is no longer tuition-free -- it's $16,000 per year, in fact.) I also see a construction crew, putting rafters on a dozen new houses, filling yet another pasture. New Hampshire is not nearly as rural as it was in 1946, when my dad tired of caretaking and became a carpenter in his own right. Nobody ever seems to take houses down, only to build them.

The airports at Wolfeboro, Moultonborough and Laconia have asphalt runways. As I slip toward the centerline, I feel the beginnings of a cringe, knowing that my tires will squeal when they touch, telling everyone that I did it badly. Hampton Airport, by contrast, is surfaced with grass; there's no centerline to worry about, and I know every square foot of the field. My landing here is as soft as a grandfather's kiss.

"How much?" says George Forrest, the airport manager.

"Three hours and two minutes, 6.1 gallons from your pump, 5.5 at Moultonborough."

George records time on one clipboard, gasoline on another. Zero Six Hotel is documented as seriously as a wide-body jet, which assists Mike Dunne in his whispering.

As for me, I'm both tired and refreshed, as if I've spent the morning swimming in cold water -- the length of Alton Bay, perhaps. It's amazing how far a Cub can travel on 12 gallons of gas.

The Wall Street Journal
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