I’ve always wanted to be a pilot. I was obsessed with Top Gun from the time I was three years old and was determined to become a fighter pilot. Those dreams were crushed early and hard when I found out in pre-school that I am insanely color blind. Fast forward about 19 years and I received a gift from an uncle who had just finished getting his sport license. He would pay for my first flight lesson. At the time I was living in San Diego and Montgomery Field was the closest airport to me. I called up a local flight school and booked my first lesson. As obsessed as I was with Jets and flying I never actually looked into how airplanes fly so when I found out you steer with your feet and your hands and the modulation of throttle and the other million things going on to fly the plane really hurt my thinking cap. Yet here I was for the first time with my hand on the yolk and throttle, feet on the pedals, and about to take my first flight to become a pilot.
My first flight was incredible taking off and looking out over all of San Diego. We flew straight out over Mt. Soledad and then pointed north to head up the California coast. As we turned north a pair of F-18’s blasted west 1500’ feet blow us presumably heading off the coast to go practice dog fighting and other Top Gun shit. I was putting along at 90knots but I was up with the F-18s flying. It was a surreal first flight. I hit the flying hard for about 3 weeks until my bank account was hit hard by the reality of how expensive it is to fly. I made sure that day though that if I ever could afford it I would be a pilot.
Fast forward 7 years I find myself watching YouTube and a video comes on from a pilot named Trent Palmer. From the introduction of the video I was hooked. He was flying a sporty looking plane who’s cockpit was pretty much all glass. It had big tires, and he was landing on gravel bars, empty desert roads, and taking off from mountain tops. He was doing rolls and throwing Shaka’s. I’d heard of bush flying but never gave it much thought because I figured it was strictly for Alaska business operations, getting hunters into the bush, or get supplies to far off remote places. Here I find a young guy flying like this for fun and of all places Reno, NV! My head was ripped open and I was obsessed with his videos. At the end of each video he wraps it all up saying “you know what to do guys, hit the thumbs up if you like this video, subscribe if you haven’t, COME BE MY WINGMAN, peace.” COME BE MY WINGMAN!!!! If that isn’t an invitation into aviation, a call from the heavens to get off my ass and go flying I don’t think I was meant to be a pilot. It called to me and I became obsessed. I was going to be a pilot and just happened to have the funds now to do so.
I wanted to find a flight school that specialized in tail draggers. I wanted to be a bush pilot. It took about 3 seconds to find exactly what I was looking for. Adventure Flight with Fred Williams, flys out of Stead Airport in Reno and teaches out of a Kit Fox with a 912. I had just sold my house in San Clemente and was escaping that nuclear waste land. I was headed to Tahoe to live and learn how to fly bush planes.
Getting my pilots license is one of the best things I have ever done. I won’t drag you through the weeds on what it takes to do it, or my experience (in this article). I will say it was awesome and very worthwhile. If you have any interest in flying go do it you will not regret it.
Come be my wingman.
The goal was to create the camper I really wanted for the price of a new Hawk shell. Four Wheel Campers while many might say has been resting on their laurels without much innovation in comparison to other more modern pop top camper companies I’d agree. Although bang for your buck, reputation, serviceability, space, style, and price FWC is just really hard to beat no matter what way you look at it. So that’s why the night before I was going to pull the trigger on a brand-new Hawk shell model I found a 2011 Fleet shell locally. Now it was spring 2021 and everything was crazy overpriced but timing and market rule the world dollar, dollar bill ya’ll and in northern CA where I was at the time $12K for a FWC was pretty common so that’s what I paid for it. The Hawk I was ready to buy was going to be $20K for shell, 2 fans, kingsize bed, and thermal pack, nothing else. So now that I had my $12k shell could I make my Fleet exactly what I wanted with the $8k I had saved over the new Hawk?
My goals for the build were to be able to comfortably sleep my wife, 2 kids (under 3) and my self. Diesel heater, solar and battery system, fridge freezer that were basically self sufficient if we had good sun. Keep it simple, light weight, easy to use and maintain. I wanted the good stuff though. I wanted better wiring, better solar solution, diesel heater, simple requests that FWC does not offer or at least not at a reasonable price.
Why a fleet? I saw LandCruiserPhil build on expedition portal for his power wagon and he made a lot of really compelling statements. Keeps the camper narrower, lighter, looks better in my opinion by hugging the body lines of the truck bed. The little tag from FWC on the back states the fleet shell weighted 570. My shell came with a a roll over couch, battery, old school 100watt solar panel, and a roof vent. So it maybe weighed 750 so my 2009 Dodge 2500 Cummins handles the weight beautifully. In order to have the fleet clear my bed rails I built a simple wood platform out of 2x4s and a 3/4” piece of plywood.
I lived with the Fleet as I bought it for about 3 months and took a few local camp trips with the family. I had a Dometic 75 and the PLB 40 from previous builds that I used which sat very nicely on the drivers side wheel well next to the cabinet. The weight was high, and when the camper was down I could not open the fridge. At the time one parent slept with one kid and visa versa. My wife and daughter got the upper bed and my son and I got the roll over couch. It sucked. Sleeping with a two year old sucks either way but trying to ride the edge of the roll over couch next to the window is a major pain in the ass because the window well doesn’t have a cushion. The roll over couch also doesn’t extend all the way over to the drivers side wheel well so a gap exists that is the perfect size for a two year old to fall into and never return. I used my Alubox with the goose gear top plates to bridge that small gap and then loaded it down with blankets to eliminated the black dungeon my son might fall into. My wife and daughter slept great up top, my son slept great on the rollover couch. I did not.
I gutted the camper and painted most of the interior white minus a few wood trim pieces. 570lbs empty or 771lbs with me, my sketch book and a pencil. I’ve always been a big fan of the “U” shape. It offers good sitting space for entertaining, and when it is time for bed it can easily be converted into a large sleeping platform. Removing the rollover couch opens up the entry way to the door which is so, so nice. I hated how cramped the door way was when entering the camper with the roll-over couch on the passenger side. I don’t understand why FWC doesn’t put it on the drivers side. It would open up the entryway, and when you’re sitting in it you can look out the window. When it is on the passenger side it blocks the entryway and the window. Probably for the battery and placement of cabinet or heater. I pulled it out and contemplated using the rollover bracket for my “U” concept. I wanted as much weight forward of the rear axle of the truck as possible or as close to the front of the camper as I could. I wanted my battery, electronics, fridge/freezer, and water all up front. I wanted to be able to have a large sitting area that didn’t block the passenger side window a big loungie couch that the kids could relax on and look out the window if it was nuking snow or gusty winds were blowing. If they need to escape the elements they can still watch it and be amazed. I decided I didn’t want to go super spartan and did want a few cabinets to store things. More on that later.
If you have spent any time on the FWC Facebook page you know who I’m talking about when you see the name KP. He is the master of all things FWC. After living out of one for almost 600 years he can pretty much answer or explain any question that is thrown his way or he will give you his blunt honest opinion. He owns Zero Declination in Reno, NV and dials these campers in. The specifics are below on the build but in short Zero Declination re-wired the camper, 220W solar, Battle Born battery, wired truck to camper, MaxX Airfan, and installed a diesel heater. $5,000. Not cheap by any measure but honestly I stay in my lane and know that things are better in his hands done once and correctly than mine. If you need any work on a camper I highly recommend KP and his company. They listen to what you want and tell you if you’re being a dumb ass and wasting money. KP will probably hurt your feelings but deep down I think it’s because he hates talking about the stuff, watts, inverters, etc and just wants you to go fucking camp. It’s pretty refreshing.
For the interior build out I asked my lifetime friend who’s been a professional cabinet maker for 2000 years to help me build out the camper. We went and picked up 3 sheets of baltic birch and managed to build the “U” couch and two cabinets. It turned out incredible. Simple, clean, Swedish. I took a lot of my concepts from Mason St. Peters book The Process. I love his design work.
So everything has kinda been pieced together. Its rough. Cabinets, sleeping area, storage, heater, solar, fridge/freezer. For the fridge freezer I found a front slide from AT Overland for $400 that they had miss priced so I ordered it instantly. Janine at AT Overland called me in the morning telling me there was no way in hell she was selling it to me for that price and to fork over the rest of the money. We had a good laugh, I paid her and she shipped it out. So the battery, electronic stuff, fridge and freezer is tucked nicely away underneath the couch, the heater is places nicely in the driver side wheel well, and I have two large empty cabinets. My camper came with two interior struts that got right in the way of all the open space inside. I had FWC install the exterior struts that come standard now and it opens up the entire space. It was very worth it. It makes it far easier to lift the camper roof and opens up the entire space.
On the exterior I am running the 2500X2500 ARB awning and room. I ordered the front mount RotoPax holders from AT Overland. The drivers side holds 2 gallons of diesel for the heater, the passenger side has 2 gallons of water for dishes at camp. I have a Aluminess shovel and ax carrier that I bolted to the camper also. Ive had that for a long time from when I bought my bumper.
I need a roof rack for surfboards and thinking about building storage in the platform for snowboards underneath the camper. I don’t have board storage, that is missing. I don’t have my Wrappon toilet in the camper anymore but honestly. Dropping one Duce in the Atlas I had made me want to keep my business outside as much as possible. Number uno sure, number dos is an entirely different story. Especially with company.
If you are looking to buy a camper. I’d suggest finding a newer shell. 2015-2020 you should be able to score one for $12-20K really depends. Buy today drive today mentality is pretty nice but dialing your camper in so it fits your personal needs is even better. I know I have a camper that exceeds what I could have gotten for a similar price as a new Hawk shell and that feels pretty good.