Santa Monica, CA to Marfa, TX

Monday, March 30

The Southern Route: KSMO - KRYN - KELP - KMRF

The Southern Route: KSMO – KRYN – KELP – KMRF

I had spent the last few days packing and re-packing the plane so that all the little bits and pieces I needed were on board, but out of the way. I had the boys’ clothes packed along with mine. We had delayed our departure for a day so that we were sure we were landing in small Texas towns on a weekday rather than on a Sunday. That also gave me more time to re-pack the clothes and make absolutely sure that we had all of the gadget chargers we needed. (That didn’t work. A lot of the chargers have a little USB connector and I thought if I brought along a hub it could charge six iPod/iPhone/iThings at once. No such luck.) And Nell was able to do her first pass on a script she was rewriting, so she could print a clean copy to bring along on the trip.

[Part of our Spring Break 2009 Trip.]

We drove down to the airport and the boys helped push the plane out of the tie down spot. That let me park our car there for the duration of our vacation. Everyone climbed in, the boys installed their sun-blocking shades in the windows so that they could snooze a little more, and I fired up.

The ATIS was reporting a few more clouds than were forecast for the morning. I asked for a SADDE climb (standard out of Santa Monica to get above the marine layer), but the tower said that SoCal’s air traffic controllers weren’t giving them any climbs to VFR on top. I thought about it and decided I didn’t want to delay us twenty minutes while I filed an IFR flight plan that I was just going to cancel as soon as I was above the clouds, so I departed VFR to the west, turning right at the beach and right again to head back along the I-10 freeway.

As we climbed over the downtown area I checked in with SoCal. They asked my destination and cruising altitude. I said I would eventually be flying at eleven thousand five hundred feet, but that I had to wait until I was out from under the overcast layer at five thousand feet. The controller asked, “Are you IFR rated and equipped?” I acknowledged that I was and he gave me a vector (right on my current course) and clearance up through the clouds. That saved us a lot of time, hassle and fuel (we had a tail wind and winds are generally stronger higher up).

We missed getting a good look at Lake Arrowhead or Big Bear since we were in the clouds as we made our way to and through the Banning Pass, but the clouds did thin and we had a good survey of the Palm Springs area. We turned toward Blythe, with the SoCal controller handing me off to Phoenix Center. Nell and the boys napped as we flew on past Phoenix to the very barren desert around Tucson. Mindful that I might get stuck there (or anywhere), I had asked my friend Peter Murrieta for a hotel recommendation. He wrote back:

The Hotel Congress. It’s historic, if a bit rustic. I used to work the front desk, and it’s in the middle of downtown. No pool, but open since 1902 and they caught John Dillinger there.

Hell, that almost made me want to get stuck in Tucson. That seemed pretty unlikely as we scooted along over the desert, covering more ground in an hour than we ever had during our summer trip. We were up at eleven thousand five hundred feet and the air is pretty thin up there. Rudy and Nell were asleep, but both Dexter and I got slight headaches and, as Dexter said, “Didn’t really feel well.” When he announced his headache we started a slow descent for Tucson.

(Little planes are not pressurized. Passenger jets are pressurized to keep the cabin at eight thousand feet. So no matter how high the JetBlue plane is flying, you feel as if you are just hiking in the San Bernadino Mountains at eight thousand feet. When Adam and I flew to Ryan field a few years earlier we had an oxygen tank. (And when we flew across the country we had an even cooler oxygen concentrator.) It would be nice to have as an option on our trips, but the plane is small and fitting in a tank and the hoses and regulator… it’s just easier to stay a little bit lower for these trips. Maybe someday we’ll be in a bigger plane with a built-in oxygen system.)

We were wheels up in Santa Monica at 7:20am and we landed at Ryan field at 10:00am. We put twenty-six gallons of fuel into the plane having flown 382 nautical miles (nm). Google tells me that it would have been 515 miles of driving and it would have taken seven hours forty-five minutes. We would have needed a car getting twenty mlles to the gallon to match the plane, but a lot of that was because of the tail wind we had.

The fuel was self-service, so Nell and the boys went into the little diner while I got the plane squared away. Dexter wrote:

We’re at a restaurant in Tucson, Arizona. Next stop is El Paso, Texas.

Not a lot of detail, but I liked that he was getting the hang of his Sidekick and the blogging. Rudy actually blogged while hot food sat in front of him, which was remarkable restraint:

We just hit Tucson, Arizona. I love this place! Looks nice, locals are friendly and most of all, the food looks delicious! I am sad to have to leave so fast. Next stop, El Paso, Texas. The winds are with us and we should hit there in a little more then two hours.

Dexter's pancake arrives

Dexter’s pancake arrives

An hour and a half after landing we were rolling down the runway for take off. The next flight was bumpy (the tail winds pushing us along tumbled over mountains and hills below us, producing waves in the air we were flying through). It was one of the only times that Nell has felt ill in the plane, which was probably a combination of trying to read while the plane was pushed around the sky by the wind, and the overall degree of turbulence (probably higher than anything we had on a family flight so far).

The wind was incredible. Occasionally we were pushed along with an additional fifty-two knots on our tail (so the wind was higher than that overall), and at one point our groundspeed was 201kts (we usually see that at about 138kts). The plane has a very accurate fuel meter called a totalizer, and the G1000 can draw a range ring right on the map (taking into account the current winds and the current fuel flow) to show you how far your fuel can take you. As we made it through the pass to El Paso (I wonder how they got the name for that town), we saw that we had plenty of fuel to make it to Marfa. The boys  were asleep again, so we just made the turn and headed direct for our night’s lodging.

The bumps were worse as we skirted the higher country along our route. It was only on the ground (and actually much later at night) that Rudy mentioned that he had been scared during some of the flight, that the bumps seemed like they were big enough to hurt our little plane. We had a talk about how it was like waves on the ocean, that we wouldn’t be flying if there were a chance of the plane being hurt by turbulence, because that was unsafe. Since we’re never that anxious to get somewhere, we don’t do things that are unsafe. Dexter slept almost all the way to Marfa.

Winds were high across the plains around Marfa. The airport’s automated weather system reported twenty-seven knots of wind gusting to thirty-five. Fortunately, it was nearly directly down the runway. I wrestled a little with the plane flying the pattern and I think some of my traffic announcements (it is a non-towered airport) were in a tight, clipped voice, but we made it onto the runway without incident. The wind continued to push the plane around as we were taxiing, which required a lot of my attention. We arrived at 2:20pm which was 4:20pm local time.

There were no welcoming line personnel running out of the little FBO. The only tie down I saw was right in front of it, so I spun the plane around into the wind and parked there. As I let the boys out the wind sucked one of the solar shields they use to block the windows. Rudy dashed after it and only with super-human effort was he able to grab it before it disappeared forever into the Texas hills.

He wrote:

With advantageous tailwinds, we skipped El Paso, Texas entirely and went on to Marfa, Texas. We just landed in the middle of a wind storm and took cover in the airport. The airport (technically a little FBO) was completely deserted and felt like something out of a horror movie when we read the reminder note about being here to get a car for us. Like I said, scary. We also found a guy’s jacket. The details are ambiguous but we might be able to get a ride from the hotel we’re staying at. Keep posted readers because this could be the weirdest day of my life.

Thunderbird Hotel

Thunderbird Hotel

Ron showed up a few minutes later. I had the plane buttoned up and he said it was fine where it was. He gave me the keys to a beat up Hundai and we loaded the bags into that. Nell confirmed our rooms at the Thunderbird Hotel and we headed in for some rest (me) and a walk (the rest of them).

Rudy’s follow-up post:

Good news. We got a car and are on a drive to the hotel.

Not bad for a little traveler who had made it 776 nautical miles that day.

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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