Del Mar pilot breaks world transcontinental speed record

Jerry Jackson, 60, recently broke the world round-trip transcontinental speed record in a piston engine plane he built in his Del Mar garage.

He took off from Montgomery Field on at 6:11 a.m. Jan. 30 and returned at 6:21 a.m. Jan. 31. Jackson flew the 4,200-mile round trip to Jacksonville, Fla., and back in 24 hours and 10 minutes at 174 mph. He only made three stops for fuel.

The National Aeronautics Association in Washington, D.C., awards the record for piston-engine planes. Jackson shattered the previous record of four days, a record set two years ago when a pilot flew to San Diego, then waited two days for ideal weather before returning to the East Coast. Each leg set a record, but the total round trip took four days due to the two-day delay.

The highest cruising altitude he flew was 17,000 feet and the lowest was 4,000 feet, and at times his ground speed exceeded 310 mph.

Jackson is an engineer at Kleinfelder who, in addition to his aviation affinity, holds eight skydiving records.

“I’ve always been into airplanes ever since I was a little boy,” said Jackson, who has been flying since 1976.

In 1993, he started building his own airplane in his garage. The RVGA two-seater took him four years to build. The last year, he worked on the plane in a hangar at Montgomery Field.

He built a second airplane, which he sold, but kept his original, named the Feral Chihuahua. It is the Chihuahua that takes him and his wife, Nina, on weekend getaways to Napa or to see family. It was also the Chihuahua that took him across the country and back in record time.

This wasn’t the first time Jackson tried to beat the transcontinental record. He tried last year on Feb. 4, taking off in the evening. A number of things went wrong with his instruments, and he had to land in Abilene, Texas.

Additionally, he had the flu and it was 4 degrees F in the cockpit.

“I had to limp my way back home,” Jackson said of his first effort.

This time around, Jackson knew what he needed to do to make it work. He spent six months making his gas tanks bigger and upgrading his engine to go faster.

He suffered a small disaster in October. When taxiing out on a flight to Texas, he hit a low-level trailer on the runway and destroyed his propeller and some fiberglass on his plane.

He explained that whenever there is “a propeller strike, the FAA requires that the engine be torn down and inspected for any consequential damage.” Since the plane was built in Canada, he added, “it made sense for them to do the inspection.”

He worked “feverishly” through Christmas on the repairs and monitored the weather through January.

Around this time of year is a good time to try for the record, as there is a jet stream that occurs once a year, he said. In that tiny window, Jackson could take advantage of the jet stream to Jacksonville and fly low to the ground on the way back as he fought against the jet stream. Lower altitudes also mean warmer temperatures.

“You had to wait for the perfect day,” Jackson said. “And I had the perfect day.”

Friend Andy Keech drove down from Washington, D.C., to meet Jackson when he landed in Jacksonville, waving a flashlight on the runway to direct him to a waiting meal of a burger and fries. Full of adrenaline and encouragement from Keech, he took off again at 8 p.m. Flying low as planned, he said, the flight was very turbulent at 4,000 feet, so he climbed to 6,000 feet.

Jackson had planned to take an hour nap at 2 a.m. in Texas, but the weather was close to the freezing level. If the airplane took on frost, it would crash, so Jackson had no choice but to leave without a nap, only staying on the ground long enough to get a big mug of coffee.

He arrived in San Diego at 6:21 a.m., where his wife and friends were waiting with champagne.

“I was so happy and so relieved,” Jackson said. “I had a big grin on my face.”

Jackson has high praise for the FAA, the air traffic controllers he called his “guardian angels.”

“The FAA is superb,” Jackson said. “They kept me safe and kept me out of trouble.”

For now, Jackson said he is content to stay on the ground. He has no desire for any more long-distance flying, but he is considering writing a book about his cross-country aviation adventure.

“It has satisfied me for awhile,” Jackson said, a big smile on his face. “It was a lot of fun.”