by Chris Dixon
The Airventure 2000 Airshow, Oshkosh, Wisconsin. July 24-30, 2000.
Around the World With Captain Kids
Pilot Dan Dominguez and His 1957 Aero-Commander
On his 22nd birthday, young pilot Dan Dominguez and his 21 year-old partner Chris Wall stepped aboard the Albatross for an interview. The interview was long, but it was so compelling and entertaining, that I just let them go. It's a worthwile and inspiring read and when you finish it, you might just want to fly solo around the world as well.
CD: You two will be the youngest duo to fly around the world if you complete your journey. Tell me how this came about.
On the Left, Dan Dominguez, and Right, Chris Wall
CW: Four years ago, we were down in Mexico at a bar called Fred's, and we decided one way or another that we were going to fly around the world. Didn't know how, didn't have any money, didn't have a plane.
D: Ten Coronas led to the decision, then we woke up the next morning and said, "Shit, how are we gonna do this?"
I told Chris, first thing we gotta do is get an airplane. It took two years. We ended up going to college -- Chris to Rice; me to the University of Rochester. I figured out that we needed a big old airplane. The first plane we were looking for was a Grumman Goose, and then we looked around for an Albatross, but, whew, we couldn't afford that.
CW: Then we came across a good lead for a Widgeon, which wasn't exactly what we were looking for, but we figured it would work. Unfortunately, a windstorm blew it into the back of a barn and messed the tail up -- so that fell through.
So, I'd been working on my amateur pilot's license in Houston and one of the planes I worked on was an Aero Commander. I just loved the look of the plane -- the high wings, the nice round nose, they just looked beautiful. You can buy them for a pretty good price -- even if they're kind of beat up. So Dan became a flight instructor, and we started looking for a Commander. It's got great short-field perfomance, takes off easily and carries a good load.
I drove out to Georgia to look at one. It was a piece of shit. Then we drove out to Oklahoma and found a beautiful Aero Commander 560E. The paint was peeling off, the interior was dead, the plane hadn't been flown in a year. It had been a drug-running plane in Miami for awhile. It had some corrosion, the paint was falling off, but it was only selling for $15,000. We figured we could take out student loans to pay for the plane. Now we'd have an airplane that we could say, "This is what we're flying around the world." So I call Dan and say, "Dude, I found our airplane."
Dan: So I take a plane to Houston and then ride seven hours on an old bus out to Oklahoma and look out the bus window at the ugliest airplane I've ever seen in my life.
Here's the story: It hadn't been flown in eight months, it had been a drug-running plane in Miami, got caught in Miami, the guy who owns it gets himself killed, the family sells the plane to a single-pilot operation guy and he flies it to Dallas. He fills the gasoline-powered engines up with kerosene jet fuel. The FAA gets pissed at him for doing that, and so they ground the plane. But the guy keeps flying it and eventually drops it off in Guthrie, Oklahoma where he sells it for 8 grand. So here's this plane that's been sitting for 8 months. It looks like crap and surely flies like crap.
CD: So it was fueled up with old gas and just sitting there?
CW: No, the tanks leaked, so most of the gas had already run out. So I went out there on Christmas break, Easter break, Spring break and worked on the plane on weekends -- 700 miles each way. I'd work all weekend, get no sleep, then would try to make it back to some of my classes so I wouldn't flunk out entirely. Eventually I got it together. Most of it didn't work, but the engines were running pretty good and the basic instuments worked. I called Dan and he caught a one-way flight and that same seven hour bus ride up here.
We hadn't tested the gas tanks because we didn't have enough money to fill it with gas and have it all run out. The right wing tank was hollowed out and had apparently been used to store drugs. So we filled the frickin' thing with 156 gallons in the center tank, and it starts to run out of the plane. Dripping out of the fuel selectors and down the side. We looked at each other and said, "Well, we've got to get to Rochester." A little duct tape here and there, then we got in it and went.
D: Duct tape, a wing and a prayer. Two 21 year-olds hop in an old, beat up looking piece of junk, fly it across the country and land in Rochester. Everybody comes out of the woodwork and was like, "Oh my God, what is that ugly looking thing?"
CW: Right on, but we own a freaking twin engine airplane! We were on top of the world because we were alive -- and at that point, really weren't sure if were going to make it back from Oklahoma.
CD: I'm sure the plane was reeking of fuel.
CW: Oh man, reeking of fuel, smoking, burning oil, the fact that it even flew was a miracle.
CD: So how long did it take you to get it back into full condition?
D: Two years total. All the while going to college, playing guitar, drinkin' and surfing, oh, and drinking. Of course, we were also working full time, planning the flight and restoring the airplane. Now she's a beautiful little plane here at Oshkosh.
CW: The really cool thing about it too is that it really has been student done. We'd invite our friends out, have a case of beer, and we stripped the whole plane at the international airport. Bunch of kids with stripper and polish. We tore out the interior, rebuilt the engines, all new hoses, everything. Just to give you an idea of the shape it was in -- by the time I changed the oil hose, I took it off and it broke into three parts in my hands. It was that dry rotted and destroyed. How it made our original flight, I have no idea. So, we finished it all up and the plane's parked up in AeroShell Square, we've got a bunch of sponsors. We're still trying to finish funding our project, which is one reason we're here, but we're aiming to leave Sept. 1.
CD: Who are some sponsors?
D: Garmen, Xerox, AeroShell, lots of small ones and even individuals.
CW: Yeah, people at the airport would come out and see us working on the plane day and night and at midnight, they'd ask "What the hell is wrong with you guys?" We'd say, "We're flying this plane around the world. They look at us like, "Is this plane even going to fly at all?" It's been a real trip.
Chris with a Fan In a Handbuilt, Completely Refurbished Cockpit
D: Definitely, we'll definitely write a book.
CW: Last night we were sitting around drinking beers with Steve Fossett and Dick Rutan, so it doesn't get any better. And now we're sitting here on Jimmy Buffett's Albatross!
D: Yeah, Jimmy, I know you're looking for an excuse to fly around the world, so let's go. We've got space for a couple of surfboards in ours, and it would be a great excuse for you to use us as an Albatross support plane.
CW: It's amazing, we're a couple of years into our project, and we buy A Pirate Looks at Fifty. The opening says, "Well, I wanted to fly around the world, but we looked at the map and decided that it would be too expensive. Then I looked at Dan and said, "Oh shit, if Jimmy Buffett doesn't think he can afford it, how the hell are we gonna do it?" We just stayed at it, said, you know, we might as well do this while we're young, we've got no ties, it doesn't matter if we're living out of the airplane. We're not taking our family with us, we've got nothing to lose. It seems like something Jimmy might have done when he was our age. It's funny, to keep down on our bills and put all our money towards the flight, Dan and I sold everything and moved into our office at the University of Rochester. It's got a refrigerator and microwave in it and we trade flying lessons to our friends for homecooked food.
CD: So your message would be just get out there and do it.
CW: Yeah, a big part of what we're doing is educational. On our webpage, we're stopping to talk to a lot of schoolkids, and spending a lot of time showing them the plane and even having them help work on it. Our main message, is that anything is possible. Dare to have a dream and then go after it. Even if you fail, you'll have a hell of a story to tell.