Sunday: Santa Monica, CA to Albuquerque, NM


First Day

Santa Monica’s little airport has a restriction on early morning departures. You can’t start your engine earlier than 7am on a weekday or 8am on a weekend. So we all rolled out of bed at 6:15am, finished packing up the last few items, locked the house up and armed the alarm. Dexter wanted to listen to loud music (Weezer) on the way to the airport, Rudy wanted to read.

I had already been down to the plane on Friday and tried out the bags in the back. I have an idea for a product for this little plane’s audience: a little rollerblade wheel on a pair of tiny shock absorbers that can be mounted on the tail skid. I have a friend who has bounced the tail on landing and when I load up for a trip like this I have to be careful about what order I put things into the plane. Once my hundred eighty pounds is loaded in the front we are within the weight and balance envelope of the plane, but while I am walking around doing the pre-flight inspection, the plane is a teeter-totter. If Nell isn’t in her seat the tail will sink to the pavement and give a little “thud.” It’s sort of disconcerting. A wheel would help cushion the thump.

With the little green roll-on, the big red roll-on, the dark blue flight bag, my computer bag, the automobile GPS satchel, and the green Solar City snack bag all piled in the luggage area, I helped the boys into the back seat. They each have a courier bag which they keep at their feet. As they get bigger that’s going to be less and less comfortable. They had a laptop to watch movies, books, comics, Magic Cards (vitally important), and iPods. In fact, we each had an iPod and a little cord to connect it to our headset so technically we could all be listening to different music as we flew along. That never happened, but I think once the boys were each listening to their iPods and I was listening to mine. Nell read a book on film editing.

There was an overcast (the SoCal marine layer) on top of the airport, so we needed an instrument clearance to get out. I started the engine at 8:03am and picked up the clearance. At 8:15am we were in the air, making a slow turn toward the SADDE intersection. We broke out on top at 2,700 feet and climbed to 9,500 feet for our flight to Sedona.

I made a huge improvement to the plane for the boys’ travel. It took over six months but eventually I figured out that the little spring-open sun shades sold in auto parts stores were perfect for the plane. They are black mesh and cut the glare while still letting you see out. We have about six in the plane and they make it much more livable. On some of these summer flights they have not been enough, though. So I took one of the more serious silvery, quilted sort of sun shades meant for vehicle windshields and cut it in half. Then I sat in the plane and custom cut it to fit the back windows, added some velcro to fasten it on and effectively made a little cave out of the back seat for the boys, protecting them from the sun on the flight.

So as we flew east on the first leg, the boys were reading and listening to music and occasionally peeking behind their sunshades to see the view. While Nell and I roasted in the front on occasion, I don’t believe that the boys were every really that hot (except on our descent into Kansas City).

Landed on the butte

Landed on the butte

Sedona, AZ is one of the most beautiful airports in the country. Like Catalina, it is a aircraft-carrier landing, combined with the challenge of a high-altitude airport like Big Bear. We had a snack, refueled, and stretched our legs for a bit. Then we climbed in, I did a very careful engine run-up to determine the proper mixture setting for maximum power, and took off turning to the east.

There were thunderstorms between us and Albuquerque, so we watched on the NextRad. That’s an upload of weather radar which shows up on our moving map. It cannot be relied on, because it is delayed and it is only ground-based radar. So if you use it to navigate around really powerful storm cells you will be very sorry. Instead, we use it to confirm what we see out the window (“Look, a big scary storm over there, dumping rain on that little desert community…”) and navigate appropriately. We squeezed through a few spots between precipitation and landed at Albuquerque’s International Sunport. (This is confusing to me. Aircraft land at airports. Spacecraft land at spaceports. When does Albuquerque expect the sun to line up on runway 21? Because I don’t need to be there to see it. I think it will be in the news.)

Albuquerque was the highest altitude airport at which we were landing. I stayed a little too high and was a little fast, but the runway was two miles long and we turned off near the middle. The FBO was very helpful (first pointing out that we had just lost an hour of our day, damn). We rented a little car and tootled off to Old Town. The Natural History Museum was there, and since a lot dinosaur bones were found there in the desert, they have some great displays. The nearby Atomic Museum and Science Centers also looked good, but everything was closing up. We determined that we would like to return to Albuquerque to visit some more. We ate at a place recommended by the iPhone and had an incredible fondue desert at a chain that the boys had been to in Irvine with Adam.

We returned to the airport, hoping to depart toward a planned night in Wichita, KS. First lesson: Don’t plan. It’s really better to just move when you feel like moving, and know that most places you land you can find a place to sleep. The storms had gathered around the airport and pinned us down. I decided we would wait half an hour and then try for departure. I tried to nap in the pilot’s lounge and Nell and the boys hung out in the passenger lounge. We climbed into the plane and taxied off the ramp. We listened to the ATIS and there were some comments about wind shear off the departure end of the runway. We talked to the clearance controller and he said the wind shear was more intense now (minus twenty knots on departure). I turned the plane around and taxied back to parking.

We waited another forty minutes, but conditions just weren’t improving. The FBO was great and booked a hotel for us and shuttled us over. The hotel was a suite hotel and the boys had their own room. Nell pointed out that we probably should have called the flight off sooner, because then the waiting time at the FBO would have been at the hotel instead. We could have thrown the boys in the pool and enjoyed the evening a little more.

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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