Usually, when a pilot sits down to flight plan a cross-country trip of 2,100 nm from one coast of the US to the other, there is a Cirrus SR22 or Pilatus PC-12 involved. If that planned route takes you from Naples, Florida, to Riverside, California, over several days and through all sorts of weather, flying the trip in a light sport airplane is not something many people would even consider.
When certified flight instructor Rich Lytle’s granddaughter, Lily Lytle, suggested she airline to Florida and learn to fly Rich’s 2010 PiperSport LSA on the very long XC back to the West Coast, Rich thought the idea made perfect sense. Not only would the trip be fun, it would also serve as training for Lily as she pursues her sport pilot certificate.
In summer 2021, Lytle and his granddaughter—17 years old at the time of the trip—departed Florida and arrived in California after five flying days and four nights, plus several fuel and food stops. The route took 29 total flight hours, and Lytle’s PiperSport LSA averaged 100 mph in cruise, burning five gallons of fuel per hour.
Lytle’s PiperSport isn’t going to set any National Aeronautic Association speed records, but high speeds were not the point of this flight. The point was for Rich to teach Lily how to fly safely and build hours and experience. Along with that, Rich—a 22,000-hour former airline pilot with six type ratings—also wanted to demonstrate that it is quite possible to make a long cross-country trip in a light sport airplane.
Long Training Flight
As a full-time biology major at Oregon State University, Lily successfully flew her sport pilot solo flight in Corvallis after the long westbound training trip and is planning to take her check ride over spring break this year. While the long cross-country training flight with her CFI grandfather prepared her to ultimately earn her sport pilot certificate, the trip was not without its share of wild aviation adventures.
Rich and Lily Lytle departed Wing South Airpark (FA37) on May 16, 2021, with Rich’s wife and daughter following along, serving sort of as a ground crew in the family Astro van. Each fuel stop was carefully planned, and on occasions when self-serve mogas was not available on a field, the van was used to tanker fuel from a nearby gas station back to the airplane.
From the very first hours, it was clear to the CFI that his student was “getting it” quickly.
“This was Lily’s introduction to my PiperSport’s Dynon glass cockpit, and she had no problem with it,” Rich said. “She did the hand flying from the left seat and also the radio communications. Her ATC procedures are superb! ATC speak is like a foreign language to most student pilots, but Lily did great because she has a natural language learning ability and speaks German and Spanish fluently.”
Severe WX Training
Almost any trip in a general aviation airplane of 2,100 nm is bound to run into some weather excitement along the way, and this trip was no exception. Each morning, the CFI went over that day’s route, and both student and teacher got the weather together.
“Although my grandpa was the one who made the final decision on what would be safest,” Lily said, “he always asked for my input and informed me on everything that was going on.”
Some of that rough weather included a harrowing extreme crosswind landing in San Marcos, Texas, and turbulent air so rough over New Mexico that the autopilot failed when the pitch actuator sheared off.
“Our last day from El Paso to Riverside was 9.1 flight hours,” Rich explained. “With no autopilot, it was all hands-on flying for Lily. And then, after flying the busy LA corridor from Palm Springs, we could not make contact with Riverside tower because the entire airport had lost power! The tower finally came up on emergency power and cleared us to land.”
As if all the weather excitement wasn’t enough, on day three of the trip departing Austin Executive Airport (KEDC), Lily was flying and noticed what she thought was a large bird while over downtown Austin.
“I kept glancing at it,” she said, “and the closer it got, I realized that there were several spinning black propellers and I could clearly see that it was a drone because it was eye level with us and only about 200 feet away . I instinctively performed a sudden evasive maneuver to avoid a drone strike, and we radioed it into Austin Approach.”
Rich added that “her quick reflexes saved us from having a mid-air.”
Precious Time Together
Anyone who has grandchildren will say they cherish every minute they can spend with them, doing just about anything. For Rich, who will always be “Papi” to his granddaughter, the long cross-country from Florida to California was “precious time” he will never forget.
“Through often difficult and tiring circumstances,” Rich said, “she never complained. Her highly motivated attitude was a real inspiration to me.”
With 29 hours of real-world flight instruction, a successful sport pilot solo flight for Lily, and the kind of quality one-on-one time spent with a grandchild that money cannot buy, this flight checked off a lot of boxes. CFI and student bonded like only a grandpa and granddaughter can, and both agree every nautical mile was to be remembered for a lifetime.