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Wednesday, 27 July 2011 13:48

Touching down in 48 states: Six days in the cockpit with peanut butter sandwiches

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When Mike Schoonover was 10 years old, he had a transformative experience. It wasn’t a religious conversion per se. There was no epiphany-inducing encounter with a sports hero. But there was a cathedral of sky and a 10,000-foot high playing field, and there was born a fledgling devotion to the skies that has lasted five decades.

“I can remember it like it was yesterday,” says Schoonover, who lives in Waynesville.

He’s sitting in the tiny office of the one-runway Jackson County Airport, an unassuming room with faux-wood paneling and the single air conditioner in the small hangar, whirring against the staunch July heat.

He recounted tagging along in the cockpit during a sales call with a family friend who sold used airplanes.

Now he owns his own airplane, a 2006 Maule M4-180V — a throwback, he says, to the earlier days of small-scale flying, and earlier this month he and his 13-year-old grandson, Sam Bolduc, achieved the complicated feat of touching it down in all 48 contiguous states.

They did it in six days. The plane averages around 110 miles per hour, so even a cursory encounter with a map and a calculator will tell you it means essentially constant flying.

And Schoonover did much more than a cursory encounter.

“It was so over-planned and, you know, I flew this thing on paper over and over, four or five times — what altitudes will I fly at, what headings,” says Schoonover.

He’s a self-described type-A man, the kind of person who finds precision relaxing. When he says the trip was highly planned, his claims are genuine.

He planned the routes, of course, and the particulars of the plane. But he also made survival plans, mapped out locations where the plane was most likely to go down without radio contact and then researched and packed a survival kit for the eventuality.

He worked out which foods they could take in the tiny, two-seater plane. They subsisted mainly on peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and bananas. Apparently, they’re lower on the choke-hazard scale. Because, says Schoonover, you can’t just pull over a plane to do the Heimlich maneuver.

But even with the copious preparations, things went far better than even the pilot himself expected. He blocked out 12 to 14 days for the trip, breaking it up into 48 1.5-hour flights. That’s another fun fact gleaned from his background research — it takes about 1.5 hours to fly from one state to another, pretty much regardless of size.

He got the idea in the doldrums of winter, one of those intricate daydreams that carry us through the gray expanse of winter days.

But Schoonover’s fantasy crossed the portal from dream to idea, from idea to reality. He doesn’t think they’ve set any records doing it, but that part is a little murky, because he couldn’t really find any record of someone else actually doing it. He’s pretty sure people must do things like this all the time. But maybe, like him, they didn’t exactly look for any record books to put it in.

Record breaking or simply noteworthy, it was an exhausting and expensive proposition. Schoonover was the plane’s sole pilot for all 5,951 nautical miles of the journey, and he relieved himself of more than $3,000 on fuel alone.

“I knew it was one of those things that was once in a lifetime, but at a certain level is hard to justify,” said Schoonover. Overall, the trip cost around $4,000. “But to say that we’d done something like this and to have the experience and have it documented and share it with people and family and stuff, I could justify it one time.”

Hearing him recount the tale, too, it’s clear that one unexpected benefit was worth four grand.

“My grandson loved it. He got into more than I would expect. He became more than a passenger, he was truly a copilot,” says Schoonover. He has 11 grandkids, but this particular 13-year-old seemed the right age. So when he was planning the trip, he called his daughter in Cary.

Would Sam like to come?

Sure.

And just like Schoonover’s own inaugural ride into the clouds, he hopes his grandson will remember this voyage as the moment his love of aviation began.

“I know he will because I watched and I saw how he got into it. If you ever have that deal where you can see somebody with a passion, see that passion begin,” says Schoonover, the joy on his face replacing the end of his sentence. That is what he saw kindled in his grandson.

Over the course of the trip, they burned 600 gallons of fuel, flew more than 59 hours and made friends at small airports in every quadrant of the country. They passed over three major disasters and countless acres of untouched natural beauty.

Would he do it again? In a heartbeat, says Schoonover.

“You know, did you ever have a family event, something where you wanted it to be perfect and you hoped it would be perfect, but things aren’t perfect?” he asks, as he pushes the small plane, it’s green stripe gleaming in the sun, out for another jaunt into the crisp summer sky. “Well, this was.”

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