Photo taken near Monument Valley, Utah

Friday, April 28, 2017

Time to Fly Again

At Sunset Shores RV Park, Willis, Texas...

After enjoying visits with friends and family in central Texas, we slipped into Burnet, Texas to attend the tail end of a rally of the Texas Bluebonnet Allegro Club, of which we are members. During these visits, we found a couple of restaurants that had to be added to our "best" list: The Best Quality Meats and Sausage Shop in Temple and Spykes BBQ in Kingsland. Not much to look at, but trust me...

From there, we motored down to our sort-of home park, Sunset Shores on Lake Conroe, where we tucked Phannie into a nice shady spot that only catches a few warm rays near sundown:

We got an enthusiastic welcome from the kids, especially the grandsons Mason and Pryce, who are willing beneficiaries of all the schemes we dream up to spoil them! Who knew you could have so much fun with grandkids? Why, we've developed ways to spoil them even when we're not here. They love to get surprises in the mail so, when we're traveling, we collect a few small things we think they'll like and send them a package every week or so.  Mindy is always thoughtful to send a video of their excitedly opening the packages, so it's almost like being there!  Thank you, sweetie, for being so considerate.

The rest of this post will probably be more meaningful to my pilot friends but, hopefully, others will find some interest in it. Several posts ago, I talked about having re-established my currency as a pilot after a 20-year absence from the cockpit and what fun it was to take the grandsons flying.  Now it was already time to fly again, so that was among the first things on my to-do list now that we're here. (The FAA requires pilots to maintain their currency by making at least three takeoffs and landings every 90 days if they are to carry passengers.) So this time, I thought it should be Sandy's turn to go along, as she remained behind during the first flights so the kids could all have a ride. I decided to take a short flight to Nacogdoches, my home town, to have dinner with John and Pat Sharp. John is perhaps my oldest friend, and we were best men at each other's wedding. It would be good to see these two again. 

There was also the nostalgia of returning to the airport where I learned to fly 54 years ago and where I hadn't landed an airplane since 1973. 

Isn't it funny how advancing age causes us to seek out the venues of our youth to relive the memories? In this case, my memories are good ones, but that's not always why we find ourselves going back, is it?  Soldiers often return to battlefields, for example, where the memories may be terrible ones. I think we do this partly for fun and partly as a means to affirm that all of our lifelong experiences--good or bad--have contributed to a life well lived and to seek some satisfaction that we may not have contributed all we did for others had we not had those experiences. 

Okay, I digress; enough with the amateur psychology.

I felt even more at home in the little Cessna this time as we climbed into smooth air above some scattered clouds. What was taking some getting used to was the maddeningly slow speed of the airplane. It was chugging along at an agonizing 110 knots, about one-fourth the speed of the jets I had been flying. I had to keep telling myself: "That was then; this is now. You're retired, and there's no need to hurry; just enjoy yourself." 

I also missed the autopilot which, in a modern jet, is a technological wonder. It flies the airplane much more precisely than a human can, so airline pilots go ahead and let it do just that most of the time. But then, hand flying this little airplane was sort of cool; it actually felt good returning to the basics, where one feels the immediate effect of a wind gust or a thermal pushing the little craft slightly out of its intended trajectory, followed by corrective control inputs from me. You should know this is much different from large aircraft that, because of their weight, speed and control input dampers, generally give a much more stable and comfortable ride for skittish passengers. In the little Cessna, I was really flying again, about as close to being a bird as man gets. Yes, I had come full circle.

According to ForeFlight, the air navigation app on my iPad, we had a 26-knot tailwind, so the flight turned out to be a really short one. It wasn't long until I was turning final approach to runway 18:

There was a gusty southeast surface wind, so the landing wasn't great, but serviceable. During the flight, I had been a little worried about Sandy, who hadn't done much flying in small airplanes in bumpy air, but she did fine--indeed, fine enough to take these photos.

Touchdown was just beyond the numbers above, for the first time in 44 years at my hometown airport!

Rolling out after touchdown--still holding the yoke into the left crosswind.

The photo above was taken upon engine shutdown at the ramp. I didn't know Sandy was going to take it, but the smile seems to say it all, doesn't it?  The caption for this might be something my friend Ed always says, "Life is good." 

After a fine dinner and plenty of conversation, we bade goodbye to John and Pat and hopped back in the airplane for a little longer flight back to Huntsville. The same wind that sped us up earlier now slowed us down for the return trip. However, we enjoyed the flight--this time beneath the clouds, so I could point out to Sandy familiar landmarks around my ancestral homeland. I was quite captivated by the air navigation software on my iPad that has done away with the need for the paper charts we always had to carry and continuously fold and unfold. It also made the old VOR and ADF receivers--in use for decades--seem ancient by comparison:

This photo of the iPad display was taken well after we landed, so the information about the airplane performance doesn't appear. If we had been airborne when the photo was taken, you would see a light blue pictograph of an airplane superimposed on the map--hopefully on or near the magenta line that indicates the planned route of flight. Of course, there are very sophisticated digital flight navigation and performance systems using GPS that can be professionally installed on airplanes if you have some rather serious cash to buy them. If you don't, this is the next best thing, for merely the cost of an iPad and a small annual fee to ForeFlight. I confess still to be fascinated with the breathtaking difference technology has brought to flying since I was in the cockpit.

Okay, that's enough with the flying thing for now, but we'll go aloft again in a few days, as the grandsons will be clamoring for another ride. I hope you non-aviators weren't too bored with this. 

We will be parked here on the shore of Lake Conroe for about ten more days, then heading to Port Aransas for another rally. Thanks for reading and stay tuned!

Thank you, Lord, for this wonderful life; please forgive me if I don't appreciate it enough each day.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Trip Planning: Ditching the Maps

At Cicada Springs RV Park, Killeen, Texas...

After completing Phannie's work at Red Bay, we migrated back to the Dallas area for more of our never-ending medical checkups and then to our spot here in central Texas to visit friends and relatives.

Several posts ago, I mentioned that I had done a presentation on electronic trip planning and navigation at one of our rallies. Some folks mentioned that they would like for me to put some of the same info in one of these posts. Well, why not? 

I should mention that I have tried a new app or two since that rally presentation and found them to suit me better than some of the ones I touted then. It was during this most recent trip from Red Bay to Dallas that it occurred to me that I haven't used a paper map or road atlas in quite a long time. I'm not sure when I stopped, but they simply became unnecessary. 

Now, I must admit that I like gadgets--especially electronic ones--and I tend to trust them. Perhaps this is because of my years flying airliners when I had to rely solely on the cockpit instruments in front of me. On countless occasions, I had to fly the big airplanes down through the clouds and fog, seeing nothing but gray soup outside, trusting the instruments to guide me exactly to a point on the approach to the airport where I would finally catch sight of the runway only seconds before touchdown. (Things are different now--it is not uncommon for airplanes to land themselves in really low visibility.) If that doesn't build trust, nothing will. Having said that, I do not extend the same level of trust to off-the-shelf GPS systems for automobiles, having been led astray a few times. By and large, however, these are pretty reliable.

The revolution in electronic mapping for auto and RV drivers has, of course, extended to aviation. You don't see flight crews carrying around big bags of charts and maps any longer; these have largely been replaced by the iPad. I say, thank goodness; revising those charts used to be the bane of my existence--as it was for all professional pilots back in the day.

But, I digress. Let's get to the apps and websites:

If you've read this blog for a long time, you probably know that I am not much of a planner. That may seem odd for someone who had to use detailed flight plans for decades when flying airplanes, but that was then and this is now; I'm retired and not prone to doing anything that requires a lot of effort. There is so much information available on the Internet nowadays that it tends to make child's play of planning--if you have the right apps and websites. 

Some degree of planning is necessary, I've found, because there are more and more RVers chasing few new RV parking spots, so we have to make reservations more often than not. We also have certain standards for park amenities and cost, and some research is necessary to find a decent park and yet stay within a budget. Also, I want to know how many miles are in each driving leg; we don't like to drive more than about 250 miles in a day. Finally, I like to do some research on things to do and see when we arrive at one of our stops. And yes, there's an app for that!

If I have the time, I'll generally do trip planning on a PC at my desk in Phannie's living room. Then when we're on the road, I'll use the iPad to do the navigating and trip following, like in this setup:

So, let's talk first about the pre-trip planning that I do on my PC. When we decide on an itinerary, I bring up Good Sam's travel planner at and begin entering the itinerary. (You have to be a Good Sam Club member to use the planner.)

This is the best trip planner I have seen so far, and adjusting the route is very easily done in the itinerary list on the left of the screen or by merely dragging the route line around on the map. You can tell at a glance the number of miles between each stop. Then, at each depicted stop, you can zoom in and take a look at all the nearby campgrounds, rated by Good Sam. They even rate the ones that are not Good Sam parks:

There are limitations to this app, however. Clicking on the buttons representing the individual parks doesn't give much information other than the Good Sam rating. To get more info, I like to take a look at Passport America ( to see if there are any 50% bargains to be had among the local RV parks:

Clicking on the red teardrops takes me to more information about the discount parks, including the conditions under which they will grant the discounts. Then, if I would like to get some reviews on the parks, I'll pull up RV Park Reviews ( to check out what others say:

If I want to include federal, state and municipal parks in the mix as another economical choice, I'll bring up Ultimate Campgrounds website ( In the photo below, I notice there is a state park right in the middle of Indianapolis. This might be worth checking out:

So, I click on the state park icon, and I notice that it is the Indiana State Fairgrounds with 170 sites; this might be a possibility:

If I'm still not convinced, I'll sometimes open Google Earth to get a buzzard's eye view. Here's a closeup of one of the state fair RV parking areas at Indianapolis:

On the other hand, if I'm looking for a high-end place with the best of facilities, I'll take a look in this very blog you're reading and click on the link "Best of the Best RV Parks." (Pardon the shameless self-promotion.) That will bring up a list like this:

You will notice that I have no high-end listings for Indiana. That doesn't mean there isn't one, but that I couldn't locate one that met my standards during my research for the list.

If I'm looking for a good place to eat, I'll open my own list, "Favorite Restaurants" (again, shameless self-promotion), linked on the Phannie and Mae blog:

I notice that I have no listings for Indianapolis (not a surprise, as I haven't been there to do any restaurant reviews), so I move on to Yelp ( 

If I'm spending more than one night in Indianapolis, I might like to see some attractions, so Travel Advisor ( is a good source for that:

Well, that about does it as far as pre-departure planning goes. But I like to acknowledge that planning a trip is a very personal thing, so I'm just sharing the things I find myself doing. Now, if you're using some cool websites or apps for this purpose, please leave me a comment; I'd like to try them out.

Once I fire up Phannie to get on the road, I use my iPad for enroute mapping. My preference is to toggle between the InRoute app and the All Stays app, both of which are available from Apple. InRoute is good for mapping your route, keeping up with your position and doing a re-route when necessary. It also has a built-in GPS:

I like AllStays because it has an exhaustive display capability of anything you could think of that would be of interest to an RVer, including things like places to get propane or warnings of low bridge clearances, not to mention RV parks, Walmarts, truck stops, and a bunch of other stuff. Here's what the AllStays screen looks like for Indianapolis:

We will be leaving Killeen soon and heading to a Tiffin owners' rally near Lake Buchanan, Texas. Then we'll be spending some time at our sort-of home base park on Lake Conroe before heading north for the summer. Hang around and see where we end up--we haven't planned that one yet, but we have the tools when we do!

Thank you, Lord, for this wonderful life; please forgive me if I don't appreciate it enough each day.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Working Through Phannie's List, A Day Trip and Small Town Values

At Red Bay Downtown RV Park, Red Bay, Alabama...

One thing is certain, whether you live in a stick-and-brick house or in an RV: Maintenance will always be required. It is perhaps more of a certainty in an RV, as it is a combination of house and vehicle, both of which require frequent attention. Fortunately, my insistence on following carefully a maintenance schedule for Phannie's engine and drive train has resulted in almost no problems in this area in nearly 50,000 miles. 

After Phannie's good bill of mechanical health at Bay Diesel, we have been concentrating on the "house" part of our bus. We've had some body work done to take care of some dents and scratches, and next will be some work on our awning and other minor things. 

There is no better place to get these things done than the little burg of Red Bay, Alabama, where the Tiffin factory is located.  There are perhaps a dozen ex-Tiffin employees who have set up little cottage industries of their own to take advantage of the overflow of Tiffin customers who return to the factory for service. With more than 80,000 Tiffin coaches having been built, there is almost always a wait for owners to get their coaches into one of the more than fifty maintenance bays at the service center. The spillover is a feeding frenzy for the local independent techs, who can usually see customers much more quickly than the factory shop.

Because Red Bay is such a small town, coach owners often help pass the time taking day trips into the surrounding area. Tupelo, Decatur and Muscle Shoals are not far away, and these places have all the amenities that could be expected of larger cities. (Red Bay doesn't even have a Wal-Mart.)

We decided to make a round-robin excursion to Decatur and Scottsboro, Alabama.  Decatur is a pleasant town of about 50,000 located on the Tennessee River, and I had long heard recommendations to try the fare at Big Bob Gibson's Barbeque. That would, indeed, be our first stop on the tour:

We were not disappointed. We ordered the Big Bob Gibson feast to share and, upon its delivery to our table by a very cheerful waitress, we both exclaimed at the same time that we couldn't possibly eat all of this!  Guess what--we were wrong! This was some seriously good 'cue, and it will go on our best restaurants list for sure. 

Afterward, we stopped at a local bakery, Mel's Sweet Treats, for some cookies that were to die for, and that place will also go on the list. 

Now, since our stop at Big Bob's was considered my treat, it was now Sandy's turn to make a choice of things to do. She chose the Unclaimed Baggage Center, about an hour away in tiny Scottsboro, Alabama: 

This is the one place in the country where all the unclaimed baggage of airline passengers goes to be sold to the public. Sandy had heard about it for decades, and she had always professed a desire to stop and take a look. Since I had had my Big Bob Gibson fix, I was most agreeable, and off we went to Scottsboro, about an hour away from Decatur. 

I'm not so sure Sandy was looking for a bargain so much as merely being curious as to what things airline passengers would leave behind--as it turns out, some really strange stuff. One of the employees told us that they had recently sold a $75,000 emerald ring for $36,000 and, when we were there, we saw not one, but two, suits of armor that passengers failed to pick up. I didn't even try to figure that out.

The place gave the appearance of a large department store and, as you might imagine, there was a huge amount of clothing on display, in addition to tons of cameras, laptops and other electronic gizmos.
We both decided that the outlet was slightly disappointing in that the prices being asked for the goods seemed quite a bit higher than we expected. That didn't seem to deter the customers, however, as the parking lots were full, and a constant steam of patrons were leaving the store with bags of merchandise. Sandy found a couple of never-worn items, including a pair of pants and some Teva flip-flops that she would bring home to son-in-law Tyler. This was apparently enough to satisfy the little shopping demon that sits on her shoulder, constantly whispering his nefarious temptations in her ear. I counted myself lucky.

It was a pleasant drive back to Red Bay and, upon returning, we remarked how being in this tiny town and its very rural surroundings was almost like being transported back in time to our own small home towns where we grew up in the innocent 50s and early 60s. It is a place that crime and violence haven't discovered--where few doors are locked at night and where the Ten Commandments are prominently displayed in a local cafe:

It is a place where everyone smiles and waves, and the postmaster remembers your name after a couple of visits. It is a place where the sheriff wears a tropical shirt and where you can buy ice on the honor system:

Fortunately, we got back to Red Bay after the 3:30 rush--when all the Tiffin employees leave work from the single factory shift, designed so that the workers can pick up their kids from school and have supper on time. Yes sir, it's a different world.

We'll be leaving here in a couple of days, making our way back to the D/FW area and all the madness that entails. We will miss our little town that time forgot.

Thank you, Lord, for this wonderful life; please forgive me if I don't appreciate it enough each day.