And so, we flew to Asheville North Carolina.
It was a gorgeous morning as we loaded the Mooney with light bags and a small box of snacks. Preflight was normal with nothing to report and despite leaving later than we had planned (a chronic affliction it seems) we were soon settled in and climbing steadily along the magenta line on the Garmin. Strange how familiar that little magenta line has become. I had picked 9000 as the cruising altitude mostly in hopes that KCVG would allow us to simply blast straight over the middle of the aerodrome. This trick has worked well in the past and besides, at altitude the air was smooth and a push from the north was helping us along. KCVG accommodated us as planned.
With the under-cast below scenery was not what it might have been but the clear blue above and the abundant sunshine made up for it. By the time we were handed off from Grand Rapids to Kalamazoo south sector we were enjoying a nice push and the Garmin showed 175 KTS ground speed. Ah, how nice to be back on the flight deck enjoying a hell-of-a-ride and working with the helpful folks at ATC! Asheville would be but a short hop this day thanks to the weather Gods. Not even time enough to break out the snacks!
A quick recalculation showed that with little effort we would be able to descend into KAVL with ample reserves and no need to even consider a stop. Elizabeth worked with the Fore-Flight system, checked frequencies and pulled up passing ATIS and ASOS broadcasts to pass the time and assess the weather. It is simply amazing what we have to work with in the cockpit these days. I distinctly recall crossing Lake Michigan for Oshkosh in a Taylorcraft one time; the haze was so thick that the lake and horizon all became one and I spent a great deal of time on needle ball and airspeed just hoping to hit the shoreline near Sheboygan WI! Now days we have magenta to everywhere and synthetic vision for those times when things get “fuzzy.”
By the time we got to KAVL the cloud cover had become broken and after a quick descent through what was left of the deck, we were cleared up the valley for the visual to runway 35. A short taxi later we were marshalled to parking right at the front door of Signature Support Services. Since Signature is the only place to find services at Asheville; it is simply the best FBO on the field. Fuel here was pricey and the service was a bit snippy, still; we had everything we needed. Signature will graciously wave the tie down fees if you purchase fuel. That does not however, stop them from charging a “sur-charge” for federally mandated “enhanced security” at the aerodrome. I had never experienced this maneuver before and can only imagine what the companies frequently landing bigger iron at Asheville must think of it.
We had elected to make no reservations on this trip; something we have done many times in the past on other travels. We simply go with the flow in most cases. We also had squelched the idea of a rental car on the grounds that it would be too expensive. This was a decision that we would regret later on. The girls at the Signature counter called a cab for us and I passed the wait time enjoying some of the free popcorn available at the FBO. It was a short wait until “Bob” showed up with his dog wrapped around his neck and we loaded in our duffle and set off in search of lodging. On our way to the motel area “Bob” regaled us with his plan to walk the entire length of the Appalachian Trail in the coming year; with his dog of course. His pup remained securely seated on the top of his seat back tight to his neck for the entire ride. Bob also told us that we should go down into “old town” since that’s where all the new craft beer breweries were located. “That’s why they call it Beer City U.S.A.” he grinned. We were a bit put off knowing that Grand Rapids Michigan where we are from is actually Beer City.
We had been through Asheville earlier in the spring and the only place we could find lodging at that time was the Red Roof up behind the Cracker Barrel restaurant. Apparently we had forgotten about that because we wound up at the Days Inn after several failed attempts at booking a room. I have to say that despite being an older facility, the rates were good, the place was neat and clean and well appointed. Beds and pillows were perfectly acceptable. Since we were now located in the middle of nowhere it was decided that we would simply veg-out for the evening and order a pizza later. It was an enjoyable decision as the cable system afforded plenty of movie choices and it was indeed, very warm outside. The down side? KAVL is located a fair piece from the city and the rental car we had chosen not to get involved with had just cost us $50 in cab fare. This promised to be a recurring theme throughout our brief stay.
We had the front desk call us a cab the next morning. We had been assured that the Biltmore was just a brief walk from our motel room but elected to call a cab anyway because we figured we would get plenty of exercise strolling about the Biltmore grounds. We were right of course, and the brief walk to the Biltmore everyone told us about decayed into a $35 cab ride. We were certainly happy we hadn’t tried to hoof it! Check in at the Biltmore welcome center was required and in order to proceed on our tour in an orderly fashion Elizabeth had reserved a slot for us. We arrived in a timely manner and were greeted with a spot in the waiting line that wound like a serpent out through the doors of the welcome center and into the parking lot. The waiting line ate up any extra minutes we had built in to our appointed slot time and soon we were at the check in counter admitting that we were late. The lady at the counter advised that we shouldn’t worry, we could always go in later when we got there. Got there? I thought we were “there?” It was about now that we discovered that the welcome center was three miles from the actual estate grounds. There were a few awkward moments while we carefully weighed the idea of walking in. That idea vanished after we explained that we were afoot to our gate keeper. “No problem” says she. She would call the express to the mansion for us. Cool! We get the express. “When do we leave?” I asked. “Next express is 11:00” I checked my watch, it was 10:10! So much for “Express.” As we waited we reviewed. It was apparent now that distances were somehow greatly compressed in the minds of folks in Asheville, and that despite having a slot; all you really did was wander Biltmore at your leisure unless you rented a recorder and took a self-guided tour or for even more money took the professionally guided tour. The expensive tour is probably worth it but we chose to wander. We had also learned that the word “express” carried no assurance of speed, and that cab drivers were really well paid in this part of the country.
As we sat in the landscape awaiting the “Express” I watched a young couple come from the welcome center and head for their car in the parking lot. Armed with prior knowledge of just how friendly most folks in Dixie can be I approached them, introduced myself to them, and in less than a heartbeat had found us a ride up to the Biltmore. That ride surely would have cost $20-$25 by cab! At last things were coming together.
Coming around the bend in the drive we got our first glimpse of the Biltmore Mansion. It really is far more than you can imagine. And as the day wore on and we made our way through the many rooms (250 to be exact) and areas of the mansion it was even more awe inspiring. Downton Abbey has nothing on this place. Indeed, many of the same traditions and privileges, and the power and position of the Vanderbilt’s in society were visible everywhere. The place was so big (only about 8000 acres now, down from the original 125,000!) that they had a forester on staff to attend to the natural growth of plants and trees and assure that they operated in harmony with nature. They started their own dairy just to fill the needs of the many people who worked on the original estate! They added their own village to house both temporary and permanent employees.
The place was officially opened in 1895. George Vanderbilt was just thirty-three years old! (George was a bachelor until 1898). It took six years to construct the estate and the mark of craftsmen is apparent everywhere from fine carved wood work to superbly cut stone to hand leaded glass to fountains to shingles to gutters to streets; it goes on forever. The completed Chateau covers four acres of floor space, includes thirty-five bedrooms, forty-three bathrooms (in an era when outhouses reigned supreme), and sixty-five stone or brick fireplaces! They had their own heated indoor pool, bowling alley and weight room! They had a huge pipe organ! The library contains over 23,000 books; most selected by George Vanderbilt himself! A voracious reader, George is reported to have read 80 or more books a year!
Of particular interest were the beautiful gardens still in the pristine condition they have been in for the past century. It is interesting to note that despite the size and grandeur of the greenhouse and gardens today, this area was originally much bigger and was home to both a nursery (one of the finest in the world) and a Herbarium. In 1914, George Biltmore passed away at the age of 52 and his widow was burdened with the operation of the estate. She pondered for some time the question of whether or not to downsize or donate portions of the green houses and nursery complex. Then in 1916, the problem resolved itself when the great 100 year flood devastated the gardens as the French Broad and Swannanoa Rivers that flow through or near the estate over ran their banks and wreaked havoc amid the once famous and bustling gardens. Following years saw a further downsizing of the estate land as Edith Vanderbilt traded land for security, determined to maintain as much of the past as possible. A sizeable sale of estate land was made (87,000 acres for $5 an acre) to the government. Much of that land has become the Pisgah National Forest of today.
End of the day found us in the Village at Biltmore where we relaxed over a beer and a sandwich at the local pub. The lady at the information booth outside assured us that the “Express” would come and get us and return us to the welcome center so we made that request and took a seat. In just a jiffy one of the drivers we had met earlier in the day rolled up in his own pick-up truck to drive us back to where it all began. Another $35 cab ride back to the motel wrapped up our day. There was so much to see at the Biltmore that the day we spent was not nearly enough time to take it all in. A return trip is probably inevitable.
Sunday morning came all too soon and after a full day’s adventure wandering up and down hill (mostly up, it seems) at the Biltmore Estate, rising early was nearly painful. Still, after an additional $50 cab ride to the Asheville Airport, we loaded up and departed. Weather was marginal and we were paying the price for the favorable winds on the arrival leg. We struggled to find a smooth spot in the sky and elected to remain between layers as both higher and lower tried to beat us to death. In the end we made 172 time in our Mooney and if we average both legs, we find that it does indeed take about 2.5 hours to get to KAVL by J model. A quick descending poke through the cloud deck and we were looking at home from five miles out; we bid ATC “Adeau”. After rolling out and unloading, our faithful transport was tucked in and we debriefed for a few minutes prior to taking the ride home. All things considered it had been a great weekend getaway; just the sort of thing that keeps us flying to all the weird and wonderful locations we can make time for in this great country of ours. We took our chances by skipping reservations and turning down the rental car but it all worked out in the end. Looking back, these are the only two things we will likely change on future flights.
Before I forget it I should say, “You should have been there!”
Best to all! Blue skies and tailwinds!
Author: Tom Speerstra
Tom Speerstra has had an enduring love affair with aviation for over 40 years. Countless adventures have been enjoyed flying students, people, paper, and parcels in everything from Champs to Citations. He has held positions as both Chief Pilot and Director of Operations for Part 135 carriers and holds an ATP, MEII, SES ratings and a Citation type rating. Tom makes his home in Michigan with his wife Elizabeth and Pappy “the dog” Boyington.