The Longest Nautical Mile

Adam was running his laboratory and teaching classes up at Friday Harbor Island Marine Station. That’s on one of the San Juan Islands off of Seattle. Bob and I were curious about taking a long flight, and I checked to see how long it would take. Eight and a half hours each direction, and since I couldn’t be away from home for more than a night it would be seventeen hours of flying in two days.

The plane only has a four-hour range, so at the least we would need a fuel stop and the truth is I felt more comfortable with two stops. Planning it out (many hours on the flight planner before the weekend of our departure) it looked like APC (Napa Valley) and EUG (Eugene, Oregon) would be our two stops. That meant that we would head out over the Seattle bay with close to two hours of fuel and that made me much more comfortable.

We told Adam that we weren’t sure that we were going to make it. Nell was very skeptical of the idea, since the longest flight I had taken to date was a little more than three hours (to Ryan Field, AZ). I was a little skeptical myself, since I don’t really enjoy cross-continental flights any more and those are six hours where I am able to get up and walk around (and watch television, use my laptop…).

We launched at 8:30am. We weren’t sure until the previous afternoon that we were going, so I would say that we were rather under prepared. I mean, we had some snacks and things, but we were probably missing some key items like a survival kit, a first aid kid, and handy wipes for when our hands got that orange powder on them from the Cheetos.

It was a gorgeous day. Really, a perfect day for flying. We headed up the coast over Malibu, over the Ventura VOR, and on to the Santa Barbara airport. That meant that we didn’t have to go over the Santa Monica mountains and into the Central Valley, and we never flew over any really high terrain.

As we flew past Paso Robles Bob admitted that it wouldn’t be a bad thing if we had a morning pit stop, so we let Air Traffic Control know that we were going to land at Hollister, switched to the advisory frequency, and dropped in. It was fun because there was a glider in the pattern with us, and another one getting ready to go as we touched down. We taxied in and took a few photos after Bob checked their plumbing.

We had to wait to take off because there was yet another glider getting ready to go. And when we headed up to our cruising altitude there was a plane circling over the airport getting ready to drop some sky divers. A busy little place, Hollister. Especially on the weekends.

We flew over the Class Bravo airspace around San Francisco (SFO) and Oakland airports. We then power dove to get down to land at APC. Bob said it seemed we were a little high to land, and indeed we were. We wound up fast on final approach, skipped down the runway, and got off of the runway at the very end. Bob said he would prefer if the next landing was a little slower with a little lower approach, and if there were two runways that I request the longer one (we were given the shorter one at APC, even though there was no other traffic).

APC has, according to many of my aviation sites, the best food on any airfield in the United States. Jonsey’s Steakhouse provided us with a very tasty lunch. Really, too good a lunch for a fuel stop. We had the fuel truck top off the tanks and headed back into the sky. Napa is a nice sized airport. It seems like there is some sort of major flight school there (a whole fleet of low wing planes at one end of the field entirely in dark blue and a blue-ish orange), and a considerably amount of jet traffic.

We climbed out and turned north. We were immediately following the GPS heading over low lying hills and I was very aware that we didn’t have a lot of good options for an emergency landing site (see my post about Emergency Landings).

As we left Napa, the engine sounded a little rough. Bob told me I was hearing things. (I know! I’m hearing a missing cylinder!) After the hills we started flying over small lakes and a few vineyards which would have made decent landing spots and I felts a little better. We exited the Napa Valley to the north east, flying over Redding and on toward Lake Shasta. In the distance we could see Mount Shasta climbing out of the haze.

That was a stunning sight, flying past Mount Shasta a few miles to the west. The Lake looks magnificent and Bob and I talked about how we hear a lot about Lake Tahoe, but not much about Lake Shasta, which looks beautiful and full of activity.

As we crossed the Oregon border I realized that I had discounted the comfort of the plane when I was thinking about the long flight. The interior is a little like an exotic sports car, a Lotus Elise or something equally far from Detroit. The seats are not adjustable, but they are leather, reclined and bucketed. They have a lumbar bulge. They are much more comfortable than the coach seats that I cram myself into for the trip across the country. I also was making the trip in three hour hops, and at each stop we really got out of the plane and walked around. That’s different from the little stroll I take once or twice a flight up the aisle of the JetBlue Airbus. And instead of a couple crackers, we had a real lunch.

I’ve never been in Oregon (or Washington state, for that matter), and it was a revelation to fly over. It was rumpled, like a forested set of bedclothes on the bed of a fitful sleeper of earth. On maps I’ve always been curious that it was not more settled, that the towns dotting northern California stop, essentially, at the border. Now I understood why. There was no way to get from place to place on the ground. The folding of the forest was a series of hills and valleys that meant that moving from one town to the next was a couple hours of driving no matter which direction you went. I was a little surprised there weren’t more little airports, since hopping around by plane would have solved the problem. Staring down into the little isolating towns I figured that most of them were not looking to solve the problem.

EUG (Eugene) is a large airport in the middle of a plain. They assigned us a squawk code on departure and the tower controller we were talking to became our “Oregon Center” controller for most of our flight north to the Washington border. There is a large terminal (any flight into Oregon is going to land in Eugene), and parallel runways on either side of the terminal (which is a little odd, since you don’t see the other planes once you land). We parked at the FBO (Fixed Base Operator) which got the best reviews on AirNav. They topped off the plane while Bob and I stretched and used their facilities.

Heading north, we could see a layer of clouds start to lower over the border ahead. We checked the weather on the G1000 (XM satellites download weather information into the system every few minutes). We could see precipitation (none up ahead) and by pulling up the weather reports from each airport between our position and Friday Harbor we were able to construct an image of the lowering ceiling. We had flown up past Mount Shasta at over ten thousand feet and we were probably going to have to drop to below eight thousand as we were getting past the Seattle Tacoma airport air space. It might require a little discussion with the controllers.

It didn’t. The clouds were low enough that we just kept descending (at one point diving through a hole in the layer that seemed to be getting more solid as we headed out over the Pacific toward the San Juan Islands).

I’ve got to get some flotation devices for the plane. Just some little airline vests so that if we have to ditch we don’t have to tread water waiting for a rescue chopper to pluck us from the sea.

As we closed in on Friday Harbor Island the controller who followed on us radar out over the bay cut us loose. “Squawk 1200, radar services terminated, change to advisory frequency approved.” So I swsitched over to the CTAF for FHR and listened to a large Cessna announce that she was inbound. I announced my position and intentions to land and I heard Adam pipe right up, “Good to hear you up here, One Romeo Delta.” He was flying around the pattern in a little Cessna 152 waiting for us.

It was a difficult landing. Adam even warned me that there was a crosswind and that he was practicing in just about as much crosswind as he could handle. On top of it, I was arriving tired after eight hours of flying, at a new airport, with rising terrain in the left downwind, with Bob saying, over the headset, “Remember, lower and slower would be better…” Slower means the plane doesn’t carry through the bumps as nicely. Lower means you have a smaller margin of error. Amazingly, I kept it on the center line and didn’t have more than one bounce.

In a few hours, Adam had to fly back to Seattle to collect a visiting lecturer coming on a 9pm flight. First, he grilled Bob and me a great steak and fed us a complete meal. I was buzzed from all the flying and collapsed in a chaise by the window. I loved the locale, with the pines and the water all around, and the rocky island. I loved hearing about all of the flying that Adam was doing (although it doesn’t seem to be making it into the blog).

As he headed back to the airport Adam dropped Bob and I at the hotel. We discussed the hot tub possibility, whether to walk around to find ice cream (we tried, but everything was already closed), and realized we were going to just collapse in our beds. It was 9:30pm.

We woke around quarter of six, and I called Adam to check the weather. He said it seemed like it would be clear by the time we finished breakfast. He drove over to go to a little diner with us, and then drove us to the airport. Everything was still wet with dew as I did my pre-flight inspection. We waved to Adam and rolled down the little runway, climbing out over the weekend cottages along the island’s shore. As I glanced back at him on the taxiway I could believe that we had come all that way and managed to see him up in his northern retreat.

The ceiling of clouds was at four thousand feet, so we skimmed across Seattle Bay at two thousand feet above the Pacific. As soon as there was a hole we climbed up through it and sailed along above the overcast layer, occasionally getting glimpses of the Washington forests and Seattle suburbs as we flew south.

We crossed the border into Oregon and landed at Eugene again. We didn’t take quite enough time on the stop, which became clear because our next leg back down to Napa Valley was the most difficult. We were both uncomfortable from sitting in close to one position the entire time. The sun came through the canopy and turned the cockpit into a greenhouse, so we had blankets stretched from the instrument panel to the backs of the seats trying to block out some of the sun. It wasn’t that successful. All in all, by the time we landed we were really ready to be out of the plane.

We strolled for a little bit, but neither of us really wanted lunch. We wanted to get home. After topping the tanks we climbed back into the plane and took off south. It was only two and a half hours down to Santa Monica, but the last forty-five minutes were a long ride. As we crossed over the steep mountains just north of Simi Valley we were bounced around quite a bit. As we cross the valley I dove for speed and we shot across to the Santa Monica Mountains and out to the dark blue, churning Pacific again. It was so great to finally collect the ATIS at Santa Monica and make that initial call, “Santa Monica Tower, this is DiamondStar Niner Seven One Romeo Delta inbound with Kilo.”

It was great landing, just kissing the pavement as we leveled out. We stopped with plenty of runway and turned onto the infield before Supermarine (which is halfway down the runway at Santa Monica). As we unloaded the plane and tied it down, I really wanted to discuss what we had learned by flying for seventeen hours over two days, but we were both too exhausted. I dropped Bob down at Father’s Office to get a burger and I headed home to Nell and the boys.

The next day we talked about it at the studio.

We were both sore from sitting, but Bob’s back was actually bothering him. The long trip that we talked about was flying across the country. It is twenty-seven hours of flying, not counting the time to land and take off when we wanted to stop.

The general feeling was that with some more preparation we would probably have a good time of it. It would be three days of flying, broken up into three sections of approximately three hours apiece. We felt that if we had more lumbar support options we would be more comfortable. We would also be a little more careful about the stops we made, stretching, walking, and generally making sure we took advantage of the time on the ground.

We figured that if we did an early launch and were in the air by 8am, then we would land a little early for lunch and sometimes do a real activity (like check out a flying museum, there are a lot of those at airports across the country). We’d fly another three or four hours after lunch, which would give us a good break for dinner (stop around 5pm, a hour to walk around before eating). Then we would have a pleasant flight away from the setting sun (well, at least when we were flying to the east coast), and we’d do a night landing at our overnight stop.

One of the keys would be to have some very good ground support. If we could text message from the sky: “ETA KSUS 2130” sometime after we reached cruising altitude after dinner, then the ground support could call ahead, get us a reservation at the St Louis Best Western and see whether we needed a rental car or if there was a crew car available. Obviously, we can do it all when we land, but it will take another forty-five minutes to an hour, and we will always be landing after dark, trying to get the plane tied down, topped off and so on.

But the long trip (over a thousand nautical miles) was still a lot of fun, rather than a chore, and it makes a cross country jaunt very comprehensible. (The long range hope is to have the plane on the east coast next summer so that we can fly from New Hampshire to Cape Cod, to Martha’s Vineyard, up to Maine and from New Hampshire up to Canada.)

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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