Flying solo

Malibu resident John Castellucci, 65, in his Stardust II biplane, after he flew solo, cross-country.

A spine crushing crash put a damper on his flying plans for 15 years, but Malibu resident John Castellucci decided to take to the skies again, flying solo cross country-in a biplane.

In 1990, Malibu resident John Castellucci, a private pilot, parachuted out of a T-28 Fennec fighter-bomber at the base of the Hollister Mountains in Northern California after the plane’s engine failed. His rough landing caused spinal compression, which would later require three surgeries, and made walking impossible after landing.

Castellucci crawled for a day, then limped the next, and finally found a ranch where he could call his wife, at home with their 18-month-old son, and let them know he was alive.

He didn’t fly for 15 years after that, but, in 2005, he got the urge to take to the skies again and bought a Stardust II biplane from Don Mather, a flight instructor and owner of a private airport in Ohio. After a bit of acclimation training, Castellucci flew the plane back to California.

After his 65th birthday in June, Castellucci vowed to make another solo, cross-country flight in his plane, something he had not done since 1988. This fall, he fulfilled his promise, traveling 6,800 miles in 58 total flying hours in his open cockpit, red biplane, returning last month.

“It’s very unusual to hear of someone doing something like this,” Mather said. “He’s a rare person and a very accomplished pilot.”

Mather said a cross-country trip in a biplane is unusual in and of itself, but especially in an open cockpit biplane like the one Castellucci uses, of which, Mather estimates, there are only several hundred in the United States.

While the plane has a windshield and the pilot sits low in the cockpit, the wind stream is powerful and pilots can face extreme sunburn and windburn, and a dramatic drop in temperature, Mather said. For every 1,000 feet you rise, the temperature drops 3 degrees, so at 10,000 feet, the temperature will be 30 degrees colder than it is on the ground.

Castellucci also extended the trip by not flying directly across the country. He flew from Camarillo Airport to Casper, Wyo., where he owns an oil refinery, then flew to Minneapolis for the Republican Convention, and on to Sandusky, Ohio, followed by Ocean City, Md. From Maryland, he flew back to Wyoming, followed by Iowa and on to Camarillo.

The technology he used while flying, Castellucci said, is different from his trips from 1979 to 1988, but the “country really hasn’t changed much, once you get out of the major metropolitan areas.”

“There were days were I’d fly all day and only see open prairie and no roads, and never see another airplane or even hear another voice on the radio,” he said.

Castellucci flew across the Grand Canyon, over the Rocky Mountains at 14,800 feet, above Mount Rushmore and over Midwestern farms and the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.

“The Grand Tetons look like knives and forks sticking up to the sky,” Castellucci said of the Wyoming Mountains.

“The [Mississippi and Ohio] rivers look like snakes and are so peaceful from the air,” he continued. “You bounce like a Yo-Yo over the Rockies and it raises the hair on the back of your neck.”

Castellucci stopped at airports every 300 miles, roughly every two to two and half hours, landing at 41 different airports during the course of his trip. At night, he slept in a sleeping bag under the wings of his plane at the edge of the small airports, protected from dew.

These uncontrolled airports are mostly unattended, Castellucci said, and pilots simply self-serve their own fuel using a credit card, much like at a regular gas station.

The Stardust II travels 150 mph and up to 25,000 feet, but Castellucci has only taken it up to 16,000 feet. The plane is similar to one he owned in 1975, though the technology is much improved, making the planning aspect much easier, he said. On earlier trips, he only had a compass and had to spend much more time calculating where the airports where and looking at a map and following gauges in the plane.

Now, Castellucci said, you just follow the GPS heading, which gives you direction and speed. He also used a fuel flow meter, which told him how many gallons per hour he was burning. To navigate the trip, he mapped everything out in advance, and wrote the coordinates, degrees, direction, runways, airports and mileage on 6-inch by 8-inch notecards. He then plugged this information into his GPS system on the way to each airport, which ensured he stayed on the right track. He also used his cell phone, which wasn’t available in previous trips, to call home every night.

“I think he is very safe. He spares no expense doing anything that needs to be done on the plane,” said Castellucci’s wife, Linda, who, after his accident 18 years ago was worried her son might not have a father if her husband continued flying. “It’s comforting for me to know he is doing the thing he loves the most, and I know he feels at peace knowing that I am OK with him flying again. It was time for him to get back to his passion.”

Growing up in Los Angeles, Castellucci remembers sitting on his back porch and being fascinated by watching birds fly and land on the fence. When he was 18, he took five hours of flying lessons, but quit when he couldn’t afford additional lessons. At 31, he started training again. He received his private license a year later and bought his first airplane.

Castellucci’s biplane is currently being worked on, but next July he is planning on making his first trip to Alaska. If the Alaska trip doesn’t work, he said he will fly back to Ohio.

As for how long he plans to keep flying, Castellucci said, “The privilege of being able to see our world from the open cockpit of a biplane is awe inspiring … I plan on flying until I leave this old mudball and go wherever we are supposed to go when we kick the bucket.”