A Trip to the Challenger Factory Fly-in
By: Alan Myers

The pre-dawn hours at Vinita Municipal Airport (H04) are usually quiet as a cemetery. The only noticeable activity is the turning of the airport beacon. But on this particular morning, at the next to last hangar on the west side of the west row of hangars, a sliver of light could be seen spilling out around the left side of the large bi-fold door. Inside a flurry of activity was taking place. There were three Challenger II airplanes inside and their owners - George Hurt, Gary Wallace, and Jim Pilon - were busy getting ready for takeoff at first light. They were headed to the National Challenger Factory fly-in at Erie, Illinois. The back seat of each airplane had been loaded with a sleeping bag, pillow, small tent, a change of clothes, charts, tools, 2 cycle oil, and a five gallon gas can. The gear was secured using the seat belts and harnesses and the planes were checked for proper weight and balance. After completing their preflight checks and double checking the weather conditions, the sky had started to glow in the east, signaling that it was time for departure.

They raised the big hangar door and pulled their little airplanes outside. They started their engines and taxied out to the run-up area to wait for them to reach operating temperatures. There was a tailwind blowing at 10-12 mph which would help them make good time. The weather outlook was unsettled for later in the weekend and would bring some surprises. After the trip, George said, "Erie, Illinois, six and a half hours up".six and a half days back."

A Challenger II normally cruises at an airspeed of 70MPH. However, strong tailwinds aloft had Georgeís GPS indicating a ground speed of 100MPH during most of the flight, and by the time the trio flew over the Challenger factory at Moline, IL, they were up to 105MPH. There they turned eastward and flew the 35 miles remaining to the fly-in at Erie. The three arrived Friday evening just in time for supper and a bonfire. After eating, everyone stayed around the fire and swapped flying stories until late into the evening.

Saturday morning brought cloudy skies and drizzle, but more pilots arrived in spite of the weather, and provided for a good turnout. The Challenger airplanes are kit-built and the factory hosts seminars at the fly-in on various topics of interest to builders. George, Gary, and Jim attended one on using latex paint for aircraft.

By mid-afternoon the weather was clearing and the factory displayed the prototype of their latest kit, a legal ultralight version of the Challenger I. George, the owner of Adventure Aviation, a Challenger dealer, was especially interested in the new plane, since he had purchased the very first kit produced and it was sitting uncrated in his hangar back in Vinita. He was particularly interested in how the airplane would perform; because it is powered by a single cylinder Hirth engine of only 28HP. George was given the opportunity to fly the plane and was impressed with both its performance and handling characteristics. Even with his weight of 230 lbs, the plane climbed well and was responsive and light on the controls. "Itís a fun airplane to fly."

Later in the day there were awards given in several categories and Jim Pilon received the one for "Furthest Distance Flown" at 760 air miles. George received the "Peoples Choice Award" for the airplane that he flew this year, a Challenger II EZ, a modified version of the standard Challenger II. The EZ is an easy entry model that has the bottom of the door frame lowered several inches allowing for a more comfortable entry into the cockpit. The modifications were designed and built by George, maintaining the original strength and integrity of the fuselage. The factory personnel and the other pilots approved.

Saturday evening brought another bonfire supper and more camaraderie. After supper, George enjoyed meeting people in person with whom he had previously only communicated with via e-mail or telephone. As a dealer, he provides Challenger builders and owners with technical support with their aircraft, and likes to "put a face with a name".

Sunday morning, after breakfast, everyone packed up and headed for home except for George, Gary, and Jim. A call to Flight Service had reported IFR conditions to the south of Erie and the trio agreed to stay over until Monday, hoping for better weather.

By morning, the weather to the south had improved and the three took off for home. While the visibility was good, strong headwinds reduced their groundspeed to a crawl at 35MPH. By mid-afternoon, they reached Mexico, MO having had to stop to refuel twice because of the slow progress. All agreed that they were getting nowhere fast and should wait for better weather again tomorrow. The Mexico airport has a courtesy car available for pilot use. There was another pilot there who also needed to use the car so it was agreed that he would take George, Gary, and Jim to a motel and pick them up in the morning when they called.

That night, just before retiring, Jim set the alarm clock for an early start so that they would be ready to take off at first light. The next morning, the alarm clock sounded off in the darkness and everyone rose and readied to leave. Meanwhile, Gary had called the pilot with the courtesy car and informed him that they would need a ride to the airport as soon as possible. The pilot obliged and showed up soon after.

Without comment, he dropped them at the airport and drove away. The three sat in the pilotís lounge waiting for daylight. And they waited". and waited. Finally someone realized that while the alarm had been set correctly, the time on the clock must have been changed by the previous tenant in the motel. To their best guess, they must have called the poor guy who had the courtesy car at nearly 4 AM. He never complained or questioned the ridiculous hour, but must have thought these three were out of their minds. Finally the sun did rise, and after loading their gear and pre-flighting their airplanes, they took off into the morning sky.

Strong turbulent crosswinds buffeted them all day, and at the first fuel stop landing such light planes was quite a challenge. Taking off wasnít much easier, and Garyís hair was starting to turn white. At the second stop for fuel, they reached Warsaw, MO and after a difficult landing in crosswinds at the very limit for their aircraft, both Gary and Jim told George that they had reached the limits of their abilities to fly in such conditions and wished to go no further. George was relieved to hear it. The weather outlook for the next couple of days was not good, and each of them had obligations to get home too, so Gary made a phone call to a friend with a Pilatus, a fast, heavy, passenger plane that would not be bothered by these winds. It took less than an hour for the Pilatus to make the trip from Claremore, OK. After parking their Challengers in a hangar at the Warsaw airport, they climbed aboard the big plane and flew back to Vinita.

The following Saturday, Glen Passmore, the owner of the Pilatus, took the group back to Warsaw to retrieve the airplanes. George and Gary were joined by Joe Reed, a local pilot and friend of theirs who had agreed to fly Jimís plane back to Vinita since Jim had returned home to Lawton days before.

Fair skies and light winds made for a pleasant flight home with a stop at Lamar, Missouri for fuel and a cookout hosted by Elmer Osterdyk, a friend of theirs who hangars at the Lamar airport. Elmer rolled out the gas grill and cooked hamburgers and hot dogs right on the ramp while George, Gary, and Joe mixed two cycle oil with gas to top off their tanks. Everyone ate their fill while Gary told harrowing tales of battling the winds during the trip. All too soon, it was time to depart, if they were going to make it home on schedule.

By the time they landed at the Vinita airport, Jim was there, having been flown up by a buddy from Lawton with a Cessna 172. Jim refueled his plane and said his goodbyes to the Vinita gang, hoping to make Lawton before dark. Nearly a week after beginning the flight home, they finally made it. After enduring winds and turbulence that pushed the limits of pilot and plane, the three agreed that they definitely would do it again next year.

The End

Alan Myers