We only had the plane for ten days when we decided to take a family trip up to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. My parents were out at Catalina Island and after lunch I ran some groceries out to them. Then we picked the boys up from elementary school and zipped down to the airport.
The weather for Monterey was predicted to be clear until 8pm, after that fog was meant to roll in. We took off a little bit before 4pm, so I figured we’d make it up there around six, a good two hour margin before the fog bank closed in. I was still learning about weather.
I had thoroughly planned the flight. I had a list of fourteen waypoints for the flight up. I had an alternate airport (KSNS: Salinas) and even knew the FBO that I would be using at the alternate airport. I had spent hours planning the route, looking at the mountain ridges and the weather at each airport. I knew the altitude we’d fly and which airports we would glide to if there were any problems. I had the rental car arranged at the FBO in Monterey. I knew that if we had to use our alternate there were rental cars there as well.
This would be the furthest north along the coast that I had flown (Fresno was just a couple miles further north, but it was in the central valley), so it was some unknown territory. So… more research. A lot of studying of the charts and considering the terrain. I learned how the central valley was separated from the coastal plane, how we would duck inland to a smaller valley between the coast (where San Simeon is) and a set of hills that separated it from the central valley. In my head, over and over, I flew the route.
We took off from Santa Monica. It took a little longer to load the plane than I had thought because we had some luggage for the overnight. Finally, we were rolling down the runway, angling into the sky and turning north for the climb over the Santa Monica mountains.
The boys watched the scenery for a while and then, as usual on any trip more than twenty minutes, asked if they could play their game boys. It was getting too dark to read so we said that was fine. Nell and I watched the scenery unfold beneath the plane. The coastal communities of Ventura, Montecito, and Santa Barbara followed by the wine country outposts of Santa Ynez, Santa Maria and San Luis Obispo. We turned and flew over Paso Robles, where I took my check ride to allow me to fly us on this trip. As we started up the next little valley and flew over King City I changed frequencies from Los Angeles Center to Norcal Approach.
“One Romeo Delta the last few flights into Monterey went missed. Do you want to fly to the airport, or do you want to just land at your alternate?”
“Uh, you mean Monterey is IFR?”
“Affirmative. Do you have an alternate?”
“Uh, yes, One Romeo Delta will change our destination to Salinas.” Since that was already programmed into the GPS as a waypoint on the flight plan we would just start our descent early and land there. The FBO that I had picked out there was voted one of the best in the country. How could you beat that?
“Roger, One Romeo Delta. You should be fine getting into Salinas, the last three planes made it in on the ILS approach without a problem.”
“Affirmative. You are instrument rated?”
“Oh. No. One Romeo Delta is VFR only. Where should we go?”
“One moment.” I studied the chart on the MFD, but I couldn’t see which airport would make the most sense. If the fog had rolled in on the coast covering Monterey (apparently tightly enough that even commercial flights on the instrument approach were not making it in) AND Salinas, what would make sense? Palo Alto? Go back to Paso Robles? I needed to plan more alternates. The controller came back, “One Romeo Delta, you can land at Hollister.”
“Ah, thanks. Do you have an identifier for Hollister?” I didn’t see it on the list of nearest airports that I popped up with a single key press. Nell was complaining that we should have left sooner and we would have avoided this problem, but of course that wasn’t true, the fog was in sooner than forecast by a lot.
“One Rome Delta, Hollister is three, Oscar, seven.” I plugged that in and thanked him. He passed me off to another controller as we tuned and descended over a ridge into the area around Santa Cruz. Hollister is a tiny airport. It has a lot of glider, ultra-light and sky diving activity. Not at night, but in general. It was night, so I had my little flashlight out and I read up on the airport in my airport guide. I set up to enter the pattern and land on the calm wind runway, but I was high and fast. I was self-announcing on the CTAF and I announced that I was going around. I told Nell not to worry, that I had just come in with a little ground-shyness and that we’d be landing in just a couple minutes.
We rolled out onto the taxiway lit along its centerline with the beautiful blue lights. We were the only aircraft moving on the field and since it was now 7pm everything was dark and closed. We taxied over to the fuel depot and shut down. I filled the plane, since I have that rule about topping off if I’m going to fly more than twenty minutes.
Nell and I discussed options and I said I’d check to see if we could get a rental car brought to the airport to just drive over to Monterey. I figured in the morning I’d drive back and hop the plane to the correct airport. I wandered around for a while until I found a couple guys in a hanger working on a fighter jet (that’s a common toy for dot-com wealthies). They let me borrow a yellow pages. I called a few rental car places, then a few hotels, and gave up. I went back and talked with Nell and the boys. The boys were hungry and Nell was tired of trying to overcome the obstacles to getting to Monterey. They all wanted to just go home and try again on another weekend.
I saddled them up. The boys were disappointed, but already talking about where they might eat back in Santa Monica. I self-announced all our taxi movements on the dark field, made sure the runway lights were at high-intensity and did another careful run-up to check the engine. I set up our flight plan home, and turned on the terrain shading on the moving map of the MFD. I knew that between me and the next valley over was a 3,500ft ridge. I was nearly at sea level and the plane (easily) climbs at about 750fpm. I’d need five minutes of climbing to clear it, and that looked good, but in the dark I was really glad to have the terrain shading to tell me that we were above it. Very comforting.
As we left the Hollister area I tuned in NorCal approach to get flight following back to Santa Monica. ATC gave me a code and just as I made it over the ridge I heard him talking to a Cessna that was trying to get into Salinas. They were VFR-only and when the controller said Salinas was still IFR they said, “What about Monterey?” and the controller said, “That’s Special VFR now, do you want to change your destination?” They did.
“This is One Romeo Delta, we’d like to change our destination too.”
“From Santa Monica to Monterey?” Affirmative. “One Romeo Delta, turn to a heading of two-four-zero, we’ll vector you to Monterey.” The airport was really hard to find in the dark because it is hidden behind some hills, but I trusted the Garmin (and ATC) that we were headed in the right direction. When I hadn’t yet spotted the airport the NorCal controller said, “I’ll have them turn the lights up to high intensity, but remind them to turn them down when you’ve landed.” Boom. There was the airport, all aglow. When I had turned off the runway (after quite a nice landing) and mentioned that they should turn it back to low intensity the tower said, “We already have.” I guess they get complaints from the neighbors.
It was great to finally get there. We had a nice dinner, collapsed in our hotel and made one of what have become regular visits to the great Monterey Aquarium. Since then there have been two major improvements to our aviation experience which would have changed the trip: we now have XM weather in the plane, so we would have known sooner about the fog. Maybe we would have landed at Paso Robles for a nice dinner, maybe we would have stopped at San Luis Obispo and stayed at The Madonna Inn for the night and flown the rest of the way in the morning. I am also instrument rated now, so I could land at Salinas.
But it was a great first trip in the plane: a good distance, a good destination, and a good demonstration of the sort of variables involved in this sort of travel.