The Worst Possible Case

Yosemite was rainy, which was a surprise. That is, it wasn’t predicted. That made me a little nervous about what might be happening down in Fresno. We stayed an extra night up in Fish Camp because it was so beautiful in the woods on the edge of the park, and then drove our rental car back to the Fixed Base Operator (FBO) where we had parked the plane. I called about the weather before we left the hotel.

Pilots use a free service. 800-WX-BRIEF. The first they ask for is a tail number, so if you want a weather briefing and you aren’t a pilot, grab the tail number off the next plane you see. I told the briefer N2902S and that I was flying from FAT to SMO via VNY. He said there was a SigMet along my route of flight. That’s significant meteorological activity, worthy of a special report. I looked up into clear blue skies. “Really? What is it?” High winds, thirty-five to forty knots, over rough terrain was causing moderate turbulence with occasional severe turbulence from twelve thousand feet down to the surface. All the way from San Luis Obispo down to Palm Springs. Damn. It looked like it would start to fade around four o’clock.

We head down to Fresno, since I figure that we are better waiting there where we can launch in a hurry if there’s a window of opportunity. I wonder if we had oxygen bottles and a newer plane if we could climb to thirteen thousand over Fresno and then just drop in on top of the airport in Santa Monica. We make sure the plane is fueled (they had forgotten to fuel it while we were away) and that the parking is paid for. (The outrageous sum of ten dollars a day to park there.)

Then we visit the malls of Fresno. If we were better prepared we would have researched Fresno a little for this very eventuality. We hang out in a B Dalton bookstore and Dexter finds the latest Lemony Snicket book has snuck into publication without his notice. He snaps it up. We eat at a food court and I think about how it would be nice to have a picnic instead, but how difficult that would have been to plan.

On return it looks like it isn’t going to let up until close to five o’clock. I get some pilot reports from the weather briefer. Those are real pilots calling in on their radios while in flight. A Cessna over LAX reported strong updrafts and downdrafts of more than a thousand feet per minute which made it “difficult to maintain altitude.” That’s a plane the size of our plane, right in the neighborhood we want to be in. A regional jet over Santa Barbara, right after take-off at five thousand feet, reported moderate turbulence. That’s the altitude I want to fly and that’s my alternate course (out through a pass in the mountains and down the coast to home). A Cessna over Gilmore (a navigation aid near the southern termination of our flight down the Central Valley) reported severe turbulence at ten thousand feet.

Moderate turbulence means that your plane gets tossed around. You are still controlling it, but the nose goes up and down, the wind changing speed and direction around you rolls and pitches the plane and you correct for it. Your passengers probably can’t drink their coffee from mugs.

Severe turbulence means that you can’t keep your hands on the control of the plane because the plane is being wrenched from your grip so severely and often. The briefer actually said, after reading that report, “That’s no fun, you don’t want to be up in that.”

Okay, so we weren’t going to fly to Santa Monica yet, but after a bunch of phone calls to Adam I decided that we wanted to get closer to the decision point and fly at least to Paso Robles. We certainly wanted to get out of Fresno.

I went out and did my pre-flight check of the plane. I moved Dexter’s car seat and made sure everything was securely strapped down. I tried to make sure that I had everything I needed from my flight bag before closing the luggage compartment (that didn’t work, I still had to climb back over Nell and get something and later Rudy had to clamber back and grab my headlamp).

The wind was blowing thirty miles per hour. It didn’t shift much, which is good. Everyone got strapped in and once the door was closed we were instantly cozy (Dexter says cozy is the word of the millennium) in our airplane. I turned the engine and it caught easily. The tower cleared me to taxi to the beginning of the runway, over a mile south. It was my longest taxi. I explained to Nell how we would turn back to land again if it was too bumpy. I talked to Fresno Clearance to get our instructions for the climb out and turn to Paso Robles. Nell put a Direct To route into the GPS (to a navigation aid near Paso Robles; Adam and I figured that if I flew to within twelve miles of that navaid and then cut toward Paso Robles I would fly over the lowest set of hills, flatter land probably delivering the smoothest ride.

With a thirty knot wind coming straight down the runway we leapt off the pavement and into the sky. The boys were already deep in their books.

Although we climbed through a bit of haze and I kept my hand on the throttle and checked the gauges obsessively, it was a smooth ride. Really smooth. Near PRB Nell asked if we should just press on, but I said the plan was to land and check the weather and that’s what we should do. I landed on three zero, which I had never landed on at PRB, and I had to use the mike switch to turn on the runway lights. So I landed at night, on a strange runway, into a stiff headwind, and did a really smooth job of it.

We taxied to the terminal. Nell asked what we were going to do and I said we’d get some dinner.

Matthew’s is a really nice restaurant. Nell got us a table (you know, typical airport restaurant with linen tablecloths) while I called Adam and the weather desk again. Still looked bad. We’d have a leisurely dinner and consider our options. The dinner was great. I had a mushroom tart and Rudy had a Caesar salad. I watched through the window as the wind pushed the plane against its parking brake.

There was a pilot from a Cessna picking up passengers. I asked him which was he was headed and he said he had come up from Palm Springs. I asked how rough it was and he said that I would probably make it through. I don’t like probably. After dinner I called the weather desk one more time. There were a couple more reports of moderate and severe turbulence and now the projection was for it to abate at ten o’clock that night.

Nell said, “We can stay here, that’s not a problem, just tell me what we should do.” I looked at the chart and out at the night. I decided we would stay. We called the Best Western and a couple other hotels, but the Best Western was the best room for the price (and had broadband in the room). Apparently the taxi service in Paso Robles had closed down (how could that happen?) and the fellow running the desk at the Best Western came to pick us up. I ran out to the plane to get our bags and lock it up. As we stood at the door of the little terminal waiting for him Nell said, “This sure beats sitting in traffic,” one of my bigger laughs of the trip and an excellent example of why you should marry a comedy writer.

The boys took long showers, we got them some dessert, they read until bedtime and turned out their lights. It was odd to be in a hotel again instead of back home in our beds. I kissed them goodnight and tucked them in while Nell walked to the nearby diner and worked on her script. In the morning we all had breakfast while blinking into the sun and the maintenance man drove us back to the airport in his pickup truck.

It was another hour or so to get the plane started, a story worth an entry all its own.

The flight home was glorious. The wind had blown all the particles out of the air along the coast. The sun was flashing off the sea, we could see the surf breaking along the beaches. As soon as we were out of Paso Robles we had a wonderful view of the entire way home. The controllers seemed happy to hear from us. We flew down the coast, a little bit inland until Santa Barbara, and then over the Ventura VOR and toward home.

Just over Point Dume things became a little bumpy. It is what pilots call “light chop.” I made sure Nell and the boys were strapped in tightly and I slowed the plane a little to allow for a increase in airspeed if we dove suddenly. I meandered along the coast, picked up the ATIS for Santa Monica and was surprised to hear that they were landing on Runway Three, which would mean that for the first time I would come in from the ocean to land.

There was a fifteen to twenty miles an hour crosswind on the runway, and I brought the plane down right on the centerline with the entire plane twisted into the wind. At the last moment, with the wheels only six inches off the ground, I snapped the nose forward and we landed with the slightest bump. One of my better landings and it was the first time on the runway in that direction with a wicked crosswind.

I considered that to be the worst that can happen on one of our little trips. We were delayed for a little more than twelve hours in a strange spot. A night in a Best Western isn’t the end of the world, and now we know a little more about Fresno and a little more about Paso Robles.

About Colin Summers

I am an architect, programmer, private pilot, husband and father. A couple of those I am good at.
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