Approach to Minimums

Friday was a gorgeous day in the middle. There was a fog bank that hovered off of the shore for the whole day and occasionally drifted inland for half a mile, but it was warm and clear above the fog. I flew out to Catalina to collect my parents. We loaded the plane to its limit and it flew (slightly slower) off of the humped and bumpy runway at Catalina’s Airport in the Sky to Torrance’s Zamperini Field.

That evening Nell returned from the office a little early and said it seemed like a nice day to fly up to Santa Barbara for dinner. I checked the weather. Santa Barbara (SBA) was reporting ten miles visibility and a clear sky. Santa Monica (SMO) was reporting a ceiling of seven hundred feet and some fog.

Fog is tricky. Our very first flight in the DiamondStar was up to Monterey and at our scheduled arrival time (6pm) there was meant to be no fog. Fog was meant to roll in at 8pm and close the airport. As we were arriving, the fog beat us there and not only closed Monterey, but turned Salinas (our planned alternate) IFR. I wasn’t instrument rated at the time so we had to divert to Hollister. After a lot of mulling it over we decided to head home. As we flew up over the mountains we heard a controller clearing someone into Monterey. It had turned VFR at 8:30pm, totally contrary to the forecasts.

Airborne Express has done a lot of work on fog prediction because it closes one of their hubs so often and complicates the delivery of thousands of packages. There are a few things you can look for, but in general it just isn’t possible to predict with any accuracy.

I saw this on Friday morning planning the flight out to Catalina. I was standing on the field at Santa Monica, the fog seemed to be just above my head. Art and I watched a business jet go missed. (A CFI nearby said, “Well, that’s expensive at a hundred gallons of jet fuel an hour.”) Fifteen minutes later the sky was blue and the trainer Cessnas were buzzing around in the pattern. If the business jet had just slowed a little on his approach toward the coast he would have made it in. (He probably went over and parked at Van Nuys for half an hour and watch the weather at Santa Monica on his fancy weather computer.)

The weather at these two airports (SBA, SMO) is reported in two ways: a METAR and a TAF. The METAR is instant. Or close. That’s the current weather. Winds, sky condition, temperature, barometer reading and other important things you want to know as you are approaching to land. The TAF is a Terminal Area Forecast. Santa Monica doesn’t have one because it is so close to Los Angeles International (LAX) that you just look there instead. LAX’s TAF said that the fog would be at seven hundred feet for the late afternoon and in the evening would turn to scattered clouds. Starting at 8pm it looked like Santa Monica wouldn’t just be available for IFR pilots, you could even land VFR. Excellent. Santa Barbara was reporting something similar, that fog would roll over the airport around 8pm and be there for a couple hours, but would stay high and break up.

I picked up a clearance for a SADDE climb. That’s a special instrument clearance out of Santa Monica where you turn as you get to the shore and climb to an intersection over Saddleback Peak in the Santa Monica Mountains. It is generally used when you know that the clouds are thin and you are just going to climb to VFR conditions on top.

As I took off I could hear the tower talking to a Bonanza that was on the VOR-A approach. He sounded fast. We vanished up into the clouds and nearly all my attention went to the instruments. I knew where we were, what the next two things were (turn to 270 at the LAX 315 radial, contact SoCal on 125.2). The tower told me to turn right to 210. That was an odd request since that was my current heading and for a moment I started a right turn. Then I corrected it. I heard him talking to the Bonanza pilot, who didn’t get in on the approach.

It sounded like the Bonanza pilot was having difficulty following instructions. If I were to guess I would say that he was totally unprepared to go missed and that hearing, “Fly the missed approach, contact SoCal on 125.2” threw him into a panic. The tower was having to feed him headings and altitudes. I was told to switch to SoCal, which I did.

We had broken free of the clouds at a thousand feet over the ocean. I was ready to turn north, but now I was in the Class B associated with LAX. I stayed with the controller and he turned me north. I waited while he dealt with the Bonanza pilot, who didn t know what to do next. He wanted to go back to try to get into Santa Monica again, but the controller discouraged that. He said the ceiling at Santa Monica had dropped and it was below minimums for the approach now. (This couldn’t have been true, since I entered the bottom of that fog bank at eight hundred feet, but the controller didn’t want that Bonanza pilot back on the approach. This was an instrument student and he wanted him to go somewhere else to learn.)

I wanted to just get out of the controller’s hair so I canceled IFR and flew VFR up the coast. The boys were happily eating Cheetos and Flaming Hot Cheetos and drinking from their water bottles. The tough life. Nell was less thrilled with the view than she is usually, since the clouds blocked the coastline. She started discussing heading back.

We flew on over Point Dume, over the heads of our friends Jill and Scott who are hanging out in Malibu for a month or so. I got close enough to talk to the Point Mogu controller and I asked him for a clearance back into Santa Monica. Nell said she would consult with the boys about where to have dinner, while I remained isolated with the controller. She returned to our channel and said the boys wanted to continue to Santa Barbara. Adventurers! I told the controller we were changing plans and continuing. He was nice. Almost all the controllers are nice to me. I try so hard to be crisp, clear, brief and undemanding on the radio. I appreciate the service I get.

Santa Barbara, which was reporting clear skies and ten miles of visibility when we left the house, was now covered by fog. This would be a recurring theme. The clouds sat on Goleta at two hundred feet above the runway. I paged through my approach book and studied the Santa Barbara airport. The approach controller for Santa Barbara’s air space asked me which approach I would like. I pointed out that the GPS approach didn’t have minimums low enough to get in with the current cloud cover. “Oh, I concur, expect the ILS to runway 7.”

We followed a Cessna Caravan. That’s like a 172 on steroids. Huge, ten seats and a big luggage bin hung on the belly. The controller had her fly over me, since she was faster, and she dropped onto the downwind for the approach a couple miles ahead. I could hear her talk to the approach controller and knew it was the Super Caravan pilot I had bumped into out on Catalina earlier. I believe it is the Wrigley family’s plane, which shuttles them (and guests) from their place in Santa Barbara out to their ranch on the island (they used to own the entire island). The pilot is about Nell’s size (tiny) and it s fun to see this huge plane land nimbly on the limited airstrip of Catalina, taxi loudly over to the parking area, and have this small woman swing out of the pilot s door.

The Caravan sunk into the clouds.

Nell felt that the instrument flying added too much time to our flight up and we should just turn back. I said it would be ten more minutes and we would be on the ground. I showed her how the avionics were displaying the relative position of the plane to the approach, and how the autopilot was waiting to capture the radio beam, which we would ride down through the clouds. As we turned onto the approach course the glide slope came alive on the screen, a bright green diamond hovering next to my altitude tape. The localizer showed up as a bright green line on my HSI, the horizontal situation indicator laid over my compass ring. These two green guides were interpretations of a radio beacon beamed up from the runway environment.

I told the autopilot we were flying an approach. It sharpened its awareness and quieted its responses. It coupled with the radio and steered the green line while dropping the nose a bit to keep us sliding down the glide slope. That left my hands free to work the engine controls. I fine-tuned so that we were going nice and slow. When we were about fifty feet above the clouds I focused my attention inside on the instruments. The moments of transition are when pilots are often disoriented. I explained to Nell what I was doing, what the plane was doing, and what we could expect to see. I dropped the flaps, adding drag to the plane and slowing it down more. When I came out of the bottom of the clouds I wanted the maximum hang time over the approach end of the runway to become oriented to the runway environment.

Less than two minutes after we went into the clouds, we came out the bottom of them. The Caravan had already taxied off the runway. I saw the lights of the approach end of the runway. I released the autopilot from its duties and took over for the landing, which was smooth and uneventful. The airport was a little spooky because the fog had really closed in and there was no movement at all.

Mercury Aviation is always nice to us when we re there. They let us use the crew car (I’m the pilot, so I’m crew) to drive to dinner. They waived the parking fee for the plane since I had them add some fuel to the plane. As we piled into the car the boys had a lot of questions about clouds, and whether anyone has ever touched one. We talked about fog and open cockpits. The next time we are in IMC I will see if we can open the little window to put a hand out into the mist.

My original plan was to walk along the beach and see what happened as we neared the UC Santa Barbara campus. But now it was late, dark, cold and the boys were hungry. We drove toward the campus instead. It was just north of the airport and the buildings looked great. Who knows what sort of school it is, I just know the architecture was refreshing. As we turned around on a dead end near the dorms Nell asked some co-eds where we might feed the boys. “Woodstocks!” She was nice and gave us directions. We found the area without too much trouble and walked through the mist, through a park, to a typical college town pizza joint. It was very different from our usual haunts on the west side of Los Angeles and that alone was worth the trip. The boys loved it.

After another stroll back through the park we headed to the airport. The reported weather at Santa Monica was below minimums, but the forecast (both current and the four hours after that) was for scattered clouds at seven hundred feet. (The weather at Santa Barbara was similar. The ceiling kept changing from one hundred to three hundred feet and the forecast for the period (and following period) was for seven hundred scattered.) Since our alternate airports around Santa Monica were totally clear, and since the winds were calm and we could return to Santa Barbara on the ILS if we had to for some reason, I decided we should fly home.

I did my night time extra-thorough preflight inspection (checking the lights, checking the free and correct movement of the controls and fasteners with my flashlight, because it would be difficult to see from inside the plane at night). Nell brought the boys out and seeing their three silhouettes walking across the wet tarmac, chatting away about the night, the cold, the pizza, the fog was one of those great moments for me as a dad. I thought of how large some of their adventures must seem, and how much time they spend with us without any trauma, yelling, or chaos. I’m not explaining it well, but although they were walking across a strange, dark expanse in an unfamiliar place, toward a towering figure with a single glowing eye (“Look, guys, a monster” “No, it’s just dad wearing his flashlight.”), they rode along in the safe cocoon of their family, untroubled by the dark or any concern for their next ride up into the night sky.

Sadly, I had taken the blankets out of the plane for the run to Catalina, but I tucked them in with jackets in the back, in case they were cold and needed to be cozy. Dexter says cozy is the word of the millennium. I called the controller and picked up our clearance back into Santa Monica. My hope was that during the forty-five minute flight (plus taxi, plus run-up, plus release time) the fog in Santa Monica would dissipate to the forecast conditions.

I taxied slowly. Visibility was not great and the taxiways at Santa Barbara curved and intersected a little oddly. We eventually sat holding short for one five left. I double-checked all of the settings for the instrument flight. I checked the approach back into SBA on the ILS. I ran up the engine, checking the redundant ignition systems. We were cleared to depart so we rolled out onto the runway and accelerated down it. Runways are more beautiful at night, with the white lights on either side and the line of red lights at the end. To the sides the blue lights of the taxiways twinkled. The nose rose up and we were in the air. It would only be an instant before we were in the clouds, so I put my head down and watched the screens. I knew that moments later we came up out of the fog layer, but I stayed on the instruments because it was dark and we were over water; there’s not enough reference in those conditions for VFR flight so I was better off watching the needles and dials.

We turned south, flying over the ocean toward Oxnard and Ventura. Now we could see the fog banks below, glowing from the lights of the towns they blanketed. The fog seemed to stretch about two miles inland from the shore. As we came onshore north of Oxnard I called Point Mogu Approach and asked if they could tell me if anyone had made it into Santa Monica this evening. It was about 9:20pm. They made a phone call (you’d think they could pull it up on a computer) and reported that no one had made it into SMO in the last ninety minutes, and that SoCal approach suggested having an alternate. I already had that planned (two, actually, or three, really; okay, five, but I m a little thorough).

I waited another twenty minutes, as we got closer to the Van Nuys VOR, and then asked the next controller. Nope. No planes had made it into Santa Monica. (The next morning I checked on FlightAware and no one had made it in between 8:30pm and 8:40am. There aren’t a lot of flights during those hours anyway, but Friday night a lot of chartered jets come in and if those pilots aren’t able to land I probably won’t be able to either.) I diverted our flight to the Van Nuys airport.

Van Nuys is the business general aviation airport in the United States. It was the subject of a documentary (One Six Right), and has a vast array of flight services. It’s a little like landing at LAX. Fortunately, I had already flown into VNY with a friend the morning after he couldn’t make it into Santa Monica one night. So I knew to say I was parking at Sky Trails Aviation. It was the longest taxi in the world, so I chatted with the tower while we were moseying along. I asked him if he knew how the conditions in Santa Monica were doing. He said he had a police helicopter headed that way now and he’d check it out. Hundred foot ceiling, quarter mile visibility, and deteriorating. I’m surprised the helicopter was out in that, but I guess they can fly slow when they need to.

I had asked Sky Trails for a taxi immediately after landing. When I popped open the canopy the line man said, “Your cab is waiting outside.”

Dexter was asleep. He had been asleep soon after takeoff. I woke him as I got him out of his belt and headset. Rudy, watching, said, “Dad, sometimes when I am asleep like that, and you are getting me out of the car or the plane I wake up just a little, but I pretend I am still asleep because I like how much you are helping me.” I lifted them both out and told Rudy he had to help Dexter follow mom to the car.

It was a twenty minute cab ride home. The approach is fifteen minutes, so our diversion cost us forty bucks and five minutes. (The next morning Bob dropped me over there to get the plane back home, so I guess it cost me a little more time, but not the family.)

We’re really lucky to have another airport so close (technically LAX is even closer, but that would be a hassle to land at). VNY has an ILS, so on the off chance it was covered with clouds the approach can be to a much lower altitude.

Adventures have surprises, but this certainly wasn’t a terrible one. Dexter seemed to have very little memory of it the next morning, since he slept in the cab and fell right into bed when he got home. The next morning he still talked about touching the clouds.

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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