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Nevada County couple builds plane and travels to each of the 48 contiguous states

Joe Rainbolt services the RV-7A plane he and his wife, Carol, built from a kit.
Submitted by Carol Rainbolt |

When Joe Rainbolt’s aunt was diagnosed with cancer, there was only one thing she wanted to do after her first round of chemo — get her pilot’s license.

Her determination to follow her dreams was an inspiration to Joe, who had always loved flying. He was 23 and broke, but decided to take the plunge anyway, and got his own license.

He was hooked on flying, but it wasn’t until nearly 20 years later that Joe — by then an electrical engineer — could afford to regularly take to the skies. It didn’t take long to realize that he wanted his own plane, but the cost seemed out of reach — with one exception: an RV-7A, two seater, single engine plane, measuring a little over 20 feet long, with a 25-foot wing span. The entire plane weighed little more than 1,000 pounds and the luggage compartment was about the size of a trunk in a Mazda Miata.

The biggest hurdle? He would have to build it himself.

“We had flown around California, but we were looking for a bigger adventure.”— Joe Rainbolt

But Joe was committed, so he decided to purchase the RV-7A, “kit” sold by Van’s Aircraft.

“The only problem was I had nowhere to build it,” he said, with a laugh. “So I had to build a shop first.”

On Jan. 1, 2012, Joe started to build the plane in his Rough and Ready driveway, with his wife Carol working at his side. Fortunately, Carol had experience with electrical systems, making her an ideal work partner.

“Carol was a huge help — she was right there with me, bucking rivets and wiring the instrument panel,” he said. “She was my only assistant.”

On July 4, 2016, Joe took his first test flight out of the Nevada County Air Park in Grass Valley. During the “Phase 1” trial period, pilots who build their own planes are required to fly alone for the first 40 hours.

On the morning of Joe’s first flight, Carol was there, on the tarmac, with nothing to do but watch and wait while her husband of 21 years ascended off the end of the runway.

“I was shaking,” she said. “I was trying to take pictures, but it wasn’t working very well.”

Wheels down

The Rainbolts went on to log thousands of miles in their beloved cobalt blue and white plane, but their biggest accomplishment came this summer, when they took on the challenge of flying to all 48 contiguous states in the span of a two-week vacation.

“We had flown around California, but we were looking for a bigger adventure,” said Joe. “I tried to calculate the shortest route for passing through all 48 states.”

As it turns out, said Joe, that conundrum is a well-known mathematics puzzle coined, “The Traveling Salesman Problem,” with the aim of minimizing a salesman’s route.

“The bad news for me is that this problem has never been solved for nontrivial cases, as it becomes fiendishly difficult to prove that a good route is actually the very best one,” wrote Joe in his blog. “There are algorithmic methods available, but when I looked into this, I found that they operate on the classic traveling salesman problem, not the more useful Rainbolt vacation routing problem.”

“Just what does it mean to “visit a state?” pondered Joe, while the trip was still in its planning stage. “Must we spend the night there? Or is it that you must pass through at least one gift shop? Perhaps it’s all about eating at one McDonald’s per state?” he asked. “Clearly, I needed an underlying rule to guide this adventure. It would be this: We will make a full stop landing in each state in order for it to count as ‘visited.’ Obviously, merely over flying a state just doesn’t cut it.”

Off they go

On a clear mid-July morning, the Rainbolts took off at 7 a.m. with the sun hovering just above the horizon. They went on to log roughly 6,500 miles and a total of 59 hours of flight time before landing back in Grass Valley.

They visited a friend in Colorado, attended a Cleveland Indians game in Ohio, flew over the skylines of Manhattan and Chicago, visited the birthplace of aviation in Kitty Hawk and landed with thousands of other small planes at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s famous air show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

As to be expected, there were hiccups along the way. On rare occasions, they landed in tiny deserted airports, such as the one in Mississippi, where the cab driver told them over the phone that there wasn’t an airport in their town. He eventually showed up late at night in a car with the interior of the doors torn out and the passenger seat stuck in the recline position.

But mostly the Rainbolts said they were overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers whose “warm hearts” seemed to renew their faith in the spirit of humanity. In Rhode Island, they arrived late and hungry at their hotel only to discover that a restaurant was not within walking distance. Without hesitation, the night manager handed over his own car keys and told them to go enjoy their meal.

“And so, this adventure is concluded,” wrote Joe in his final blog entry, found at https://roughandreadyaerospace.blogspot.com. “Our little airplane has touched the ground in 48 states and has given Carol and I the gift of time that we may achieve such wide ranging travels. The things that we saw and the people that we met are etched forever in rich and happy memories. And to those who extended good will and assistance to us along the way we will be eternally grateful.”

“The truth is that I enjoyed every minute of our trip — perhaps I would have answered differently at various times, had I been asked,” he continued. “But now in the coolness of my home office, having had some trouble on our 48 state adventure seems more like an unforgettable life experience than a significant hardship. When these kinds of issues pop up they add texture to our memories and ultimately help us to retain the details of the experience as a whole. In hindsight, it’s all OK.”

To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.

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