Eagle River couple plans vast African adventure in wooden plane

Nick and Lita Oppegard (Photo by Graelyn Brashear/Alaska Public Media)
Nick and Lita Oppegard will fly from the island of Crete to Cape Town, South Africa, a nearly 7,000-mile journey across the African continent, in a wooden biplane. (Photo by Graelyn Brashear/Alaska Public Media)

A lot of people wouldn’t be all that excited about hopping in a wooden plane and flying thousands of miles.

An Eagle River couple will do just that in November.

They will make up one of two American teams on a historic air rally in November that will see two dozen vintage aircraft fly nearly 7,000 miles across the African continent.

The story of Lita and Nick Oppegard’s relationship starts in the air.

Lita was born and raised in Alaska, the daughter of a bush pilot. She grew up flying everywhere with her dad.

“In fact growing up the first family vehicle that I have a memory of was our Stinson Station Wagon, a four-place single- engine aircraft,” she said.

Nick came to Alaska in 1973 as a young pilot just looking to get some multi-engine turbine time, so he could — as he would have said then — go back to America and “fly for a real airline.” But flying for Wein Air turned out to be a life-changing job, and he stayed.

“I could spend three lifetimes here and not see it all,” he said.

And one day, he got up the courage to ask out a beautiful young flight attendant named Lita.

“I was never going to date flight attendants,” said Nick. “And I can tell you this, I’ve dated one now and I’ll never date another one.”

They got married a little over a year later, nearly 40 years ago. They’ve been flying together ever since.

They’re telling this story, appropriately, in seats pulled from a retired commercial jet in the corner of an old airplane hangar at the Alaska Air Museum in Anchorage, surrounded by beautiful old planes that tell the story of flight on the last frontier.

The couple is about to embark on their own journey into aviation’s past.

They’ll be part of a vintage air rally, flying an antique plane from the island of Crete to Cape Town, South Africa, on a journey that will take more than a month.

When Nick first read about the Crete2Cape Vintage Air Rally, he was entranced.

He said to relive those glory days of early flight is something aviators dream about.

“We all have a romantic side of us when it comes to flying,” he said, “the days of barnstorming and flying in open cockpit airplanes over fields and pastures and waving at children whose eyes are as big as saucers looking up at these grand machines. So I went home and ran this one up the flagpole with she who must be obeyed.”

Lita thought it sounded like their kind of adventure.

“Of course then we got on the mission of finding just the right airplane for us to do this in,” she said.

That plane is a 1928 Travel Air 4000, a radial-engine biplane born during the golden age of aviation. It was built by a company whose three founders — Clyde Cessna, Walter Beech, and Lloyd Stearman — all went on to give their names to other companies and other planes.

The plane was owned and flown by a couple of aviation greats: The famed racer Matty Laird, and aerobatic pioneer Frank Price. But Nick’s favorite story from its illustrious history comes from its days with the Newark Flying Service.

“It was rented out to pilots and the airplane was confiscated and sold at public auction because one of the pilots was using it to smuggle booze during Prohibition,” he said. “Now that’s character and I think a lot of Alaskans can relate to that.”

Nick said 1,400 of these Travel Air Four Thousands were built, and only 40 are still flying. Three will join the rally, and, as it happens, two will hold Oppegards. Nick and Lita’s son, Colin, is joining the only other American team on the historic flight.

Getting the biplane across the Atlantic is itself a logistical feat. It will be broken down in Florida and packed into a shipping container with special padding and cradles. Then it will be shipped by sea to England’s southern shore.

Not far from Southampton, a fleet of vintage planes will take off at the end of October.

They’ll fly across France, over the Alps, Italy, and the Balkans to Greece.

Nick will make the 300-mile flight across the Mediterranean alone, swaddled in a survival suit.

Lita will join him when he lands in Egypt.

“Imagine flying in an open cockpit biplane down the Nile River,” Nick Oppegard said, “by the pyramids over the antiquities of Khartoum, by Kilimanjaro, over Victoria Falls and flying out to the fascinating spice island of Zanzibar in the Indian Ocean right on the coast, and then landing in the Great Serengeti Plain, ending the trip at Table Mountain in Capetown South Africa.”

Along the way, they’ll sleep in safari camps and attend Roaring Twenties-themed galas. Their packing list includes a sleeping bag and black-tie attire. But what they’re looking forward to the most is meeting locals and their fellow adventurers.

“As we get to know the other people in the rally and the people that we meet on the ground and in the various place we stop it will be with great pride that we tell them that we are from Alaska,” Lita Oppegard said.

The trip will take five weeks from the time they leave Crete on November 11, and it is not without risks. But they’re OK with that. They’re pilots, after all. And Alaskans.

“Well hey, it’s part of being alive,” Nick Oppegard said. “Mitigate the risks as best you can, enjoy life, enjoy the beauty of this magnificent planet, its people, and these wonderful flying machines.”

You can follow their progress come November on the Crete2Cape Facebook page.

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