OUTSTANDING FLIGHTS: I Flew Coast to Coast for $25.70
Ed. Note: While others were establishing speed records for transcontinental flights during the late 1920s and 30s that required one or more refueling stops, Johnny Jones set what was perhaps the most significant OUTSTANDING FLIGHT of all. His solo, non-stop Los Angeles to New York flight in a 50 h.p. Aeronca Chief proved, without a doubt, what extraordinary efficiency and reliability these light, low powered aircraft were capable of achieving.
But what a difference a few decades can make in airplane performance! For example: compare the 30 hours and 47 seconds Jones spent in flying coast to coast at 90.6 mph in 1938 to the record flight of an Air Force Lockheed SR-71 on March 6, 1990 crossing the United States—Los Angeles to Washington, D. C. in 68 minutes, 17 seconds at an average speed of 2,153 miles per hour.
However, Jones’ fuel cost was only $25.70 for the entire flight. Fuel cost for the SR-71’s flight was many, many, thousands of dollars more!
Following is the article which appeared in the February 1939 issue of POPULAR AVIATION, in which Johnny Jones discloses details of his remarkable OUTSTANDING FLIGHT.
I Flew Coast to Coast for $25.70
by Johnny Jones
The idea for a non-stop coast-to-coast flight with a lightplane was Carl Wootten’s. Carl (vice-president of the Aeronautical Corporation of America) and myself have for years been confronted with the difficulty of convincing the average pilot that the lightplane really is capable of doing almost any kind of flying there is. Usually pilots snort at the tiny 50 h.p. ships and, usually, the mention of a long cross-country flight with one of them will shock Mr. Airman no end. Personally, I’ve been flying these little “backyard flyers” (some skeptics concocted that name) for about nine years. I’ve never hesitated to do any sane kind of flying with these ships. So, when Carl described his idea for a “proof” flight that would definitely establish the lightplane as a cross-country ship, I got my bid in for the flight as fast as I could utter the words.
Well, today I’ve got plenty of ammunition to shoot at those die-hards. My flight from Los Angeles to New York was made non-stop in 30 hours and 47 minutes. Average speed for the 2,785 miles I flew was about 91 m.p.h. Considering the fact that my ship was just a standard Aeronca like those you see at the average airport, that speed is excellent. When I say standard, I mean just that. The engine was a stock 50 h.p. Continental. The ship itself went down the Aeronca company’s production along with several others. But because we wanted to try the flight non-stop, extra gas tanks were installed. These facts are unusual enough in themselves, but the most startling thing about the whole flight is the actual operating cost – $25.70! For comparison’s sake, a one-way ticket on a bus between Los Angeles and New York costs $41.85 – and it takes a minimum of 88 hours.
Frankly, when I look back on those figures they sort of take my breath away. Imagine flying from one side of the United States to the other for a mere $25.70! Breaking the cost down, though, you can readily see that such economy actually exists in aviation today. I only burned 125 of my 146 gallons of gasoline on the flight and had enough left for about six hours of flying after I landed in New York. The engine only burned two quarts of oil on the entire trip. Figuring my gas consumption, I got 22.3 miles per gallon. So, inasmuch as my cruising speed for the entire trip was 90.6 m.p.h., that means that the Continental engine burned just 4.2 gallons per hour. On that basis, then, my entire flight cost 9/10 of a cent per mile – which is a far better price than an automobile, bus or train will give you.
From an aeronautical standpoint, I’d say the airplane itself was the most astonishing thing about the whole flight. The standard Aeronca like that I flew weighs 665 lbs. empty. My ship. with its extra tanks and miscellaneous equipment, weighed 854 lbs. empty. Gross weight of the standard Aeronca (that includes all the gas, oil, pilot, passenger and baggage) is 1,130 lbs. My ship, fully loaded, weighed 1,925 lbs. Off-hand, one would think that. with such a tremendous overload for so small an airplane, it would be almost impossible to get her off the ground. But even I was surprised when, on my take-off from Los Angeles, the ship was in the air and climbing within 1,500 feet! Remember, my ship got off the airport in that length carrying more than three times its own weight – and on a 50 h.p . engine!
So much for the opening statistics. The actual flight itself had many interesting aspects to it, although my 30-hour ride was comparatively monotonous and routine. All things considered, the weather was excellent all the way across. But that’s getting the landing before the take-off, so I’ll back-track a bit. As I’ve pointed out before, Carl Wootten thought up the flight. He had proposed it to the lightplane manufacturer with whom he’d been associated before joining the Aeronca company. They were just lukewarm to the idea, despite the fact that they were fighting the same prejudices against lightplanes that every other small-ship manufacturer was. My first impression of the idea as broached to me was that it was just a publicity stunt for the manufacturer. But, on thinking it over, I soon was convinced that such a flight would really put the lightplane on the map as well as help all the lightplane manufacturers in getting over their “jinx”. The more I thought of it, the more enthusiastic I became. When Mr. Friedlander, president of the Aeronca company, officially okayed the flight I couldn’t wait to get my ship off the factory’s production line and get going. I flew out to Cincinnati as soon as I learned that the ship was being built up. Finally, the finished airplane was rolled out on Lunken airport and I took her up for her first test flights.
With initial tests completed, I took the ship to Detroit, where Carl Bachle, chief research engineer for Continental engines, helped me run tests on the engine’s fuel consumption. We got that down from its original 6.2 to 3.6 gallons per hour. Those tests ran from November 12 to 19. When they were completed, I flew the ship from Detroit back to my home field at Los Angeles. Incidentally, if I’d had a National Aeronautic Association barograph in the ship on that ferry flight I’d have broken the world airline distance record for lightplanes. One leg of my flight to California – from Cincinnati to Fort Worth, Texas – I made non-stop in 12 hours and 13 minutes. The distance is 901 miles; the lightplane record in my ship’s category is 564.88 and was made in France. The rest of that ferry flight was uneventful.
Once back at my home field, we set to work getting the ship ready for the big flight. By “getting ready”, I mean we installed a new Kollsman turn-and-bank indicator, a compass and radio. We had a wind-driven generator to operate the radio and lights. That generator turned out to be the only really unsuccessful piece of equipment on the whole flight. It had burned out on the ferrying flight to California and subsequently burned itself out two more times.
The ferrying trip ended in California on November 25. The four days between that date and the time I left for New York were occupied in installing instruments, having pre-flight photographs made and waiting for an extremely high east wind to die down. On the 26th, airline weather men informed me that, if I took off right away, I’d have a fairly strong tail wind all the way. That east wind still was blowing on the ground, though. Nevertheless, I took them at their word and we rushed ahead with plans for the take-off. An observer of the National Aeronautics Association had ripped a hole through my ship ‘s fuselage fabric and installed the barograph which would make the flight official. Part of our time was spent in patching the large hole that had to be torn in the bottom of the fuselage for the purpose. As I say, we hurried ahead that afternoon and evening, hoping to get the ship ready in time for me to take-off and use the tail wind the weather men promised me. Then, when I checked the weather again at 11 p.m., I discovered that that tail wind was at 12,000 feet. That ended that start right there, for I couldn’t possibly plan on climbing the ship higher than 6,000 feet with that tremendous load aboard.
So, at a little after 11 p. m., I flew the ship from Grand Central Air Terminal over to Mines Field for the night. I planned to use Mines’ long runway for my take-off. Incidentally, in flying from Grand Central to Mines, I flew over that tremendous forest fire we had there. When I landed I found many cinders on the ship’s fuselage and wing.
As soon as I landed at Mines Field, we loaded the ship ‘s tanks with fuel so as to facilitate an early departure. By the time we finished all these little items it was 2:30 a. m., so I slept at the airport that night.
While I’m on the subject of sleeping, I understand some people have said that I “practiced staying awake” especially for this flight. Well, that’s a silly statement, it seems to me. So far as I’m concerned, the best practice for staying awake is sleeping. Actually, I had no excess sleep before the flight. At no time did I sleep more than eight hours at a stretch.
Next morning the fellows at the airport woke me quite early. But, in checking with the airline weather men again, I found that that queer east wind still was blowing hard, particularly through Guadalupe Pass, which was the one spot on my transcontinental course that worried me – largely because of its altitude compared to the ceiling of my heavily loaded airplane. They told me the wind through the Pass was blowing 44 m.p.h., something unheard of in the past.
Consequently, I had to postpone my take-off again. So, at 6:30 that morning. I went to bed. My mother woke me up at 9 a. m. She had just gotten a local newspaper with my picture and a story about my impending flight. It was the first she had known about it, for I’d not told her my plans for fear she’d worry like all mothers do, whether there’s reason to or not. But she just grinned at me when I told her.
That was the 26th, and that freak wind still blew on and on. Next day I went back to my regular work at Los Angeles Metropolitan airport. I kept checking the weather three times daily. On the night of the 28th came the report I’d been waiting for. The wind through the Pass had died down from 44 to 10 m.p.h. Reports all along the route that kept coming in told me I’d have no more than a 10 m.p.h. head wind from Los Angeles to El Paso and that from Fort Worth to New York I’d actually have a tail wind. At 6:30 a. m., Pacific Standard Time, on November 29 I took off down Mines Field’s 3,000-foot runway. There was an overcast sky above the airport, so I circled and climbed-staying over the airport all the time – until I had climbed through the overcast into the clear. In 40 minutes I had reached 3,300 feet. lthen set a compass course for the San Gorgonio Pass, using the mountains as landmarks. Meanwhile, the visibility had cleared and I could see the ground. At about 7 a.m. I flew over the Army’s big air base – March Field – and saw squadrons of big bombers warming up for morning maneuvers.
My greatest worry now was the usually turbulent air in the Pass. I didn’t know just how my heavily loaded ship would take it. It wasn’t long, though, before I had reached that avenue through the San Bernardino mountains. When I entered the Pass I was flying at 3,300 feet. The ship settled to 3,000 feet almost immediately – but that’s all that happened; the air was comparatively smooth. Then I let her settle to 1,500 feet as we passed over Salton Sea. By that time, I had become fairly accustomed to my comparatively small quarters and had settled myself for the long trip ahead. The big auxiliary gas tank beside me (where the passenger ordinarily would ride) cut off my view to the right, but I still had excellent visibility forward and to both sides.
From Salton Sea I set a compass course for Yuma, Arizona, 125 miles ahead. At Yuma I began a gradual climb to 4,000 ft. to get over the mountains. I made it without any difficulty. At that time, the ship’s weight was lightening at the rate of 30 lbs. per hour due to fuel consumption. Later, the rate dropped to 24 lbs. per hour and, at the flight’s end, had dropped to 20 lbs. per hour.
En route to Tucson from Yuma I ate the first candy bar. My “food supply”, incidentally, consisted of candy bars, dates, water, milk and bread. I had only had a cup of coffee for breakfast before leaving Los Angeles. Tucson, then, was my first definite check point from which information was passed on to the Aeronca factory. I passed over Tucson ‘s airport at 800 ft. at 3:14 p.m., Eastern Standard Time. 465 miles out of Los Angeles. I figured my average speed from L.A. to Tucson was 81.1 m.p.h.
Again I had to climb to get over mountains. This time I went to 6,200 feet to get through a pass in the White Mountains to Rodeo, New Mexico. Then, I followed the international border to El Paso. I had to stay at 6,000 feet all the way, because the ground is about 5,000 feet above sea level all the way. At 6:30 p.m. E.S.T., I passed over the El Paso airport at 1,200 feet. During all this time I had been getting my weather and winds aloft over the radio, which continued to work excellently until the wind generator went out of commission (again, and for the last time) somewhere between Nashville and Louisville.
At El Paso I flew over a smelter and noted from its smoke that the wind had shifted to become a tail wind for me. This was encouraging, although my cruising speed already had started to better for the leg from Tucson to El Paso figured up to an average of 86.3 m.p.h.
With the exception of such routine things as checking landmarks on my maps, getting weather information over my one-way radio, eating a candy bar or drinking some milk, I did little but sit. One of my duties was the pumping of gasoline out of the auxiliary tank up into the main tank from whence came the supply to the engine. This I could do with a special electric pump installed for the purpose. However, when the generator went dead for the last time, I had to continue the flight by using a hand wobble pump. At first, this pumping had to be done 10 minutes out of every hour. Later, as the fuel consumption dropped, the required pumping time took just five minutes each hour. At no time did I let the main tank get more than half empty .
With Guadalupe Pass just ahead, I passed towering El Capitan Mountain at about sunset. Climbing to 7,500 feet, I went through the Pass just as it got dark. By that time, the airways beacons had been turned on. The weather was so clear I could see six beacons ahead, which is about 60 miles. With conditions like that, I had little to do outside of fly from beacon to beacon along the airway. The route I flew was that used by American Airlines. Officials and other employees of that airline helped me tremendously throughout the flight. American Airlines weathermen compiled special weather reports and relayed them to me by radio. They kept me advised as to conditions ahead.
My next check point was Fort Worth and, aside from checking the Aeronca’s performance every so often, I had nothing to do but follow the beacons to Fort Worth. At 11:30 p. m. EST, I flew over Fort Worth airport at 1,500 feet. Just as I passed over the field, I heard a special weather report come through my earphones which told me I still had favorable conditions ahead. I was interested largely in the winds aloft, although I was prepared to fly on instruments in case the weather clouded up on me.
From Fort Worth I headed for Texarkana, 195 miles away. Again I had little to do but sit and watch the beacons. I drank some milk and ate a slice of bread. One thing at which I marveled throughout the flight was the steady beat of the engine. Not once did it falter in the slightest, although it ran more than a solid day without letting down a bit. Passing over Texarkana at 1:45 a. m., E.S.T., I checked off my 16th hour of flying. Yet, I didn’t feel the least bit tired or sleepy. Now, too, time began to pass a little faster because towns and other check points began to appear more often than in the more thinly populated west. On top of that I began to feel a little better when I discovered I had picked a light tail wind.
It seems to me that time passes much faster at night while flying. I guess it’s because every beacon and the Lights of even the smallest towns stand out so prominently. Anyway, the hop from Texarkana to Little Rock, Arkansas, didn’t seem at all monotonous although it was quite uneventful. That was a 135-mile hop between check points.
Passing over Little Rock, I set a course for Memphis, 130 miles ahead. It still was pitch black out, although visibility was excellent and I could still follow the string of airway beacons. I was flying at 4,000 feet between Little Rock and Memphis when I spotted a large forest fire a little to one side of my course. At about the same time the visibility started to haze up. I thought at first it was because of the fire, but the haze continued far from the fire. I drank some of the water and milk and nibbled a candy bar just before checking in over Memphis. All the while it kept getting hazier until my visibility was cut down to just two airway beacons. Just outside of Memphis I discovered one of the beacons had gone out and I had to set a compass course for the next one. Nashville, my next check point, was 200 miles ahead. I have been asked “how it felt” to sit in one little seat for so long. Well, I didn’t just sit all that time; there was a metal bar running across the top of the cabin and I’d “chin myself” on it every so often. Then, I could stretch fairly easily, for the ship flew herself a lot of the way…
The weather kept getting hazier. Visibility ahead was quite restricted, though I still could see lights that passed directly beneath. As the visibility kept getting steadily worse, I switched on the compass light and flew by that instrument for the next half hour. It still was very dark. Then, two hours and 10 minutes out of Memphis, I made out the lights of Nashville, Tennessee. This was to be my last important check point, for I had to choose one of three alternate routes on into New York, depending on the weather ahead.
I flew fairly low over the Nashville airport so as to make sure the attendants on duty at that early hour would know I had arrived. Sure enough, just as I flew by I heard their special weather report intended for me come through my earphones. I breathed more freely on hearing that all three routes were flyable.
On arriving at Nashville I was to decide whether I’d fly on to New York by way of Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, by way of Chattanooga (in case of particularly bad weather) or via Knoxville, Roanoke and Washington. However, inasmuch as all three routes were available, I decided on that via Cincinnati because I wanted to fly over the Aeronca factory at Lunken airport. So I set my course for Louisville, 156 miles ahead. It started to get light between Nashville and Louisville. But, the lighter the sky got, the hazier it seemed to be. In fact, when my calculations told me I was supposed to be at Louisville, I couldn’t see any part of the city because of the thick ground fog. Then, when I tried to raise Louisville airport for a weather check, I found that my radio was completely useless because of that faulty wind generator which had gone out of commission again. From there on I was definitely on my own. It was up to me to find my way over the rest of the course by dead reckoning.
Picking up the Ohio River just outside of Louisville, I followed it 95 miles to Cincinnati where, at 9:11 a.m., E.S.T., I zoomed over the Aeronca factory. It was a great thrill to see all the Aeronca people out on the airport to see me pass. They told me later they’d had a man on lookout at Lunken airport since 5 a.m. After zooming the airport at about 100 feet, I climbed back to 3,000 feet and headed for Columbus, 105 miles away. Again, the flight became uneventful. Over Columbus at 10:21 a.m., I climbed to 7,000 feet and headed for Pittsburgh. By then I was getting a little excited because I was on the “home stretch”. I had only one thought in mind after leaving Cincinnati, and that was getting to New York.
I identified Pittsburgh like all pilots do – by the extreme lack of visibility. The huge black blob on the horizon definitely identified that city. I wasn’t particularly interested in that phase of the trip by that time, though, because I had plenty of rivers, railroads and towns to check on my map. As I crossed the Allegheny Mountains I ran into a full-fledged blizzard. I flew on instruments for a while, keeping my compass course for New York City. Then, through the thick haze, I saw a fairly large airport directly below. I circled the field at 1,500 feet several times but could not identify the field except by the large name BENDIX laid out on the ground. I couldn’t find a Bendix airport listed on my airways map. Just then I saw another Aeronca taking off so I waited for him. The pilot pulled up alongside and waved at me, then headed east. I flew up beside him and together we flew out over what turned out to be Long Island Sound and then on to Roosevelt Field, my destination. I discovered later that the Bendix field actually was the old Teterboro airport in New Jersey.
On November 30 at 4:18 p.m., E.S.T., I landed in snow and slush on Roosevelt Field, 30 hours and 47 minutes from my warm, sunshiny starting point in Los Angeles. I didn’t even have time to get out of the ship before newsreel and newspaper cameramen pounced on me. Then an N.A.A. representative ripped the patch off the bottom of the ship’s fuselage and removed the barograph. A few minutes later, two fellows shoved through the crowd with a large chunk of airplane fabric they wanted me to autograph. I asked them where they’d gotten it and they pointed to the bottom of my ship!
After a couple of glasses of orange juice (Florida!), we piled into a car and drove into New York. And, just as we drove away from the field, the ceiling really dropped right down on the ground, complete to a pouring rain! It seemed as though Mother Nature had just been waiting for me to land before cutting loose.
From then on it was a series of interviews, radio spots and dinners. The latter included a policeman’s ball, where I was made an honorary cop. Officials of American Airlines as well as other civic groups had all sorts of things planned, but at midnight, I decided I’d better get to bed. Truthfully, I still wasn’t tired, but I thought it better not to sit around and wait for the letdown.
When I finally got to bed, I had been up constantly for 41 hours-from 4 a.m. November 29 to midnight of November 30. Naturally I felt wonderful over the whole thing. Above all, I had proven beyond any doubt that our modern lightplanes really could take it…
My fastest cruising speed over any leg of the flight was 98.3 m.p.h. Cruising speed for the entire flight was 90.6 m.p.h. Average altitude for the flight was 5,000 feet above sea level. And, when I landed at Roosevelt Field, I still had enough gas left for six more hours of flying!