Sunday, November 22, 2020

Dennis Munoz: Retired police officer realizes lifelong dream

EGG HARBOR CITY, New Jersey — Former Atlantic City police Officer Dennis Munoz knew at an early age that he wanted to spend a good part of his time up in the skies. When he was 7 years old his mother asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. “I want to be a paratrooper,” he said.

He eventually realized that dream when he enlisted in the Army. “You are only in the air for a few seconds in that role,” he said. “I always wanted to stay up in the air much longer.”

After leaving the Army he assumed a couple of other roles in the military serving in a special forces outfit as well as a reconnaissance commando. He then became an Atlantic City police officer and served for 30 years, retiring in 2005.

His love for aviation then lured him to take lessons at Big Sky Aviation in Millville that same year. “I soon discovered that renting a plane was cost prohibitive,” he said. “At $140 an hour I discovered it would be better to buy my own plane.”

Soon he did purchase one, but it was damaged in a hurricane.

“My dream for many years was to one day fly across the country from coast to coast by myself,” Munoz said. “I’ve read articles in aviation magazines and saw several videos on YouTube on the Vashon Ranger LSA aircraft. I was curious to see how well-built the aircraft was and how it handled when flying. I contacted the Vashon Company in Woodinville, Washington, and inquired if I, as an interested consumer, would be able to tour the facility and fly in the Ranger aircraft. They welcomed me and I arranged a trip to Washington.”

Following the tour, Munoz took a test flight. “The interior of the Ranger was spacious, clean lined and appeared to be built very well. We went flying and he allowed me to take the stick and make several turns. He was very patient in answering all my questions. The plane handled very nicely and felt comfortable.”

“After we landed, I was told that the company delivers planes to customers anywhere in the country. “On my return home in a commercial jet, I was astonished to see how beautiful the Rocky Mountains were and I thought to myself, what an experience it would be to fly over them in a small light sport aircraft.”

“Several days later I contacted a company representative and asked if the company would have a problem if I wanted to take delivery of my own plane. She stated no problem and the process to own a Vashon Ranger began.”

The pandemic slowed down production of the Ranger. The wait for the plane would extend an extra few months. He then received a call from pilot/ instructor Kurt Robinson in August. Robinson said a customer whose plane was almost completed backed off his delivery date and said he needed more time. Robinson asked if he would like his plane. Munoz said yes, and the correspondence between Kurt and Munoz became steady.

“In the middle of September, the call came from Kurt for me to make plans to pick up my Vashon Ranger in Everett, Washington, and begin the 10 hour transition training (flying) and ground school, required for me to safely fly the airplane.”

After a week of training, Munoz was given the go-ahead to begin his cross-country trip on October 6th.

Munoz encountered numerous difficulties on his trip east. Most notably was the turbulence he encountered when crossing the Rocky Mountains. “My poor Ranger and I were tossed up, down and sideways, so violently that I thought my plane was going to be torn apart,” he said. “The five-point harness kept me in my seat, but I still managed to bang my head against the ceiling several times. At first I didn’t know what was happening to me, then I realized that the autopilot was trying to keep the plane on its assigned heading and the wind was trying to blow my plane to the right, up and down. I quickly disengaged the autopilot, slowed the plane down and turned to the right with the wind. Then I used the tracking mode that I was taught, which allows you to turn the knob on the Dynon screen, which moves the heading bug and steers the plane while still keeping track of the GPS. I went around the side of the mountain instead of over it. I was shaken but regrouped and continued to my first refueling stop with a slight headache.”

“I landed at numerous small airports throughout my trip, all with automated fueling machines. Not one of those airports had an outhouse or porta-potty nor did they have any vending machines to buy snacks. I was angry and thought how unprofessional and inhospitable on the part of the municipality and/or airport authority, not to offer the most basic amenities to transient pilots. For the most part, if you land at one of these small airports after 4 pm, you are on your own. Thank goodness for the one bag of Raisinets I had. I stretched out for two days.”

“There was an exception, and only one: Lewistown airport in Montana. Even though the airport was closed, there was a sign on the door and some phone numbers. Calling one of the numbers told me where a car key was so you could borrow their loaner car to drive downtown to get a room or some food and return it when you were done.”

“I did originally plan for a relaxed 600- or 700-mile-a-day trip, to get home in four days, but after my experience with those small airports, I decided to take off at 4 a.m. I flew all day, fueling up several times and traveling the 1,000 miles remaining to get home. I arrived in New Jersey on Oct. 8 at 3 p.m.”

Munoz houses his plane at Buck’s Airport outside Bridgeton. His goal is to fly two or three times a week and plans future flights to Florida, Michigan and Texas. “I am on nobody’s schedule but my own,” he said.

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