It seems unlikely that we will make our usual jaunt from coast-to-coast this summer. Rudy starts college on August 20th, Dexter is booked solid for the entire summer up until a Shakespeare performance on August 9th, and we are here in Los Angeles for a wedding the following weekend. So we’re pretty pinned down.
I’m going to count our trip up the west coast as our summer family flight. I’m hopeful that in August we’ll get up to at least the Bay area, or maybe even Lake Tahoe, but for now this one will have to do.
For Rudy’s college tour we flew much of this same route, stopped overnight to look at Berkley (too big) and stretching as far north as Wala Wala, Washington for Whitman college (too small) while also stopping in Portland to look at Reed (just right!).
While casting about for ideas for his summer, Dexter talked about working in a science lab. I asked my brother if he had a spot for Dexter in his marine biology lab up at Friday Harbor. He said the Fish Course was running this summer for five weeks and Dexter would be welcome to be his lab assistant for any part of it. Since Dexter wanted to return to Topanga Canyon for Shakespeare at the Theatricum Botanicum, that gave him three weeks at the Labs. It seemed like an excellent excuse for our family trip: all of us would fly up to drop him off. We’d go up a week early and poke around in the San Juan Islands and Seattle.
It was a great plan right up until when Nell was needed in Los Angeles for a Writers Guild board meeting. So we were on our own for the trip up on Monday, she’d meet us there on Wednesday. This gave us a nice buffer, the possibility of an overnight in Oregon if I didn’t feel like doing the entire flight in a single day. Dexter said he would help by being co-pilot.
For Rudy’s college tour we wanted to stop in Klamath Falls, Oregon, but there was a cloud cover with some low temperatures. That could mean ice, so we diverted to Medford, Oregon, the home of Harry & David and where I had a delicious toffee carmel apple from the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Company in the nearby mall. This time we’d make it to Klamath Falls, since it was too warm for icing. Reports on Airnav and other sites said that it was a beautiful spot.
We were wheels up out of Santa Monica before 8am. It would be almost a thousand nautical miles and nearly nine hours of flying. I figured at least a few hours for the fuel and rest stops and that we’d land nearly twelve hours later. The first stop, Napa County, was just north of the Bay area. The early morning departure meant that Dexter wasn’t that active a co-pilot for the first leg. He did help perform the tasks
that I told Nell we would do on each landing: I verified our destination, brought up the airport diagram, verified the traffic pattern altitude and the altitude of the airport. I discussed the assigned runway and loaded any possible lateral and vertical guidance to help us get to the runway’s landing zone. Nell doesn’t really like when the three of us are in the plane without her, and the night landing in Indianapolis shook her confidence in the pilot a little. Dexter learning to fly would be a very good thing for our trips.
A sixteen minute nap in one of the quiet rooms at the FBO, a walk to the terminal to hit their vending machines, and we were ready to climb back into the sky. I had us all hooked up to the O2 bottle, which meant that I could climb to 14,500 feet (or 13,500, depending on our heading). That additional altitude made me feel better about the rumpled topography below us. Northern California and Oregon is not hospitable country for an emergency landing. I have gotten a little less stressed about that possibility (in part because engines don’t really fail catastrophically very often). And our airplane can be flown directly into the wall of a canyon with people still walking away. But I still watch out the window most of the time, looking for a little field, a little straight piece of road, a long lake I could do a water landing on…
When I am not searching for that landing spot, I am checking the instruments, talking to Air Traffic Control, and occasionally reading for a little bit. It’s not very efficient reading, since I’m scanning the instrument panel and looking for my landing spot, but I’ve reading a few mysteries and light books. I guess “summer beach reading” is done at altitudes above ten thousand feet for me. For a test of my ability to compartmentalize, I was working my way through Understanding Air France Flight 447. As a pilot, reading a description of the pitot probes clogging with ice and have the airliner fall out of the sky while you are piloting a plane and checking the readings from your own pitot tube is pulse-pounding. I didn’t get very far in the book and switched to Gilgamesh somewhere near Eugene.
Klamath Falls is, indeed, a beautiful piece of countryside. It is not a great lunch stop, though. Rudy did the best he could with Yelp and we wound up at a BBQ joint which had very salty fries and cardboard burgers. It was passable and better than a McDonalds. I missed Chipotle. The FBO didn’t have a place for the regulation (er, my regulation) sixteen minute nap. The tradeoff is that it was a pretty cool place that loaned us a crew car to get to lunch and there were fighter jets right adjacent on the ramp. I rested for the allotted time with my cap pulled down over my eyes on a beat-up couch with Rudy sitting next to me. I bet there are times that people wait out winter storms on that couch. It feels like the wind could really howl along that valley floor.
On the way out of Klamath Falls and the valley we passed by Crater Lake. That looks like it is worth a visit all by itself. There were a few moments where the best emergency landing spot seemed like it would be a ditching in the Crater. Apparently I wouldn’t be the first one, they have had their share of aviation events at the Lake.
As we flew west out of the hill country of Oregon and into the farmland around Eugene, the autopilot seemed to flutter a little. I was trying to read a little more of my aviation book, which didn’t help, but the autopilot wavered on course. The wind
was not high and the nose started tracing small figure eights, like the autopilot was trying to learn how to do Dutch rolls. I disconnected, checked all the parameters and instruments, and engaged it again. With the same results I pulled its circuit breaker, resetting it entirely. It performed its self-test, and when I re-engaged it followed the same pattern. It was disappointing, but not a huge deal. I’ve hand flown the plane quite a lot, it just means I can’t read while flying (or enjoy the scenery quite as much). So as we turned north near Eugene, I was doing all of the flying myself, no Otto to take over when I was bored. Fortunately, I did have Dexter, who held altitude and followed the magenta line for me as we left Olympia and headed out to the San Juan Islands.
(The landing at Olympia was uneventful. It seemed like a good choice since we needed one more fuel stop before Friday Harbor and it meant that our last leg was less than an hour. The FBO there is real old-time with beds upstairs for pilots to sleep through the weather that might be pinning them down. Very friendly and they loaned us the crew car so we could grab Dairy Queen while their fueled the plane. I am all about an Oreo Blizzard when I am flying a thousand miles.)
Adam texted me while I was on the ground in Olympia and said we should land at the other end of the island, at Roche Harbor, and we’d all have dinner. The boys were up for it, so we took off with that in mind. We told the controller that was where we were headed. Then I got a text while aloft (Dexter was flying) saying the timing wouldn’t work, so we changed the destination to Friday Harbor airport. Then it was back on. I gave up and changed again. It was the end of a long day, I figured I’d just land and if the dinner wasn’t happening I’d take off again for the other end of the island. It’s a tiny place.
We skimmed over the masts of the fancy boats in Roche Harbor. The private strip is narrow and not terribly long. It has trees around it, so I was extremely focused on the landing. I taxied back to the start where Adam was waiting with the car. He helped get the plane backed onto the grass so it was out of the way of anyone else landing.
It was great to see Pog, Alex, Sharalyn and Adam right away like that. I wish Nell had been able to fly up with us, because it was a dramatic arrival (they were on the deck of the restaurant and Adam said as he heard the plane he pointed us out and we flew fifty yards off the end of the deck, right over the water) and fun to be right in the midst of family on landing. After an appetizer (I think the boys had a real dinner), we returned to the little strip. Rudy and Dexter were done with flying for the day, so Pog hopped in the plane with me for the short jump to KFHR. We buzzed Adam’s house on the way there. I didn’t do the best landing, but it wasn’t awful, and we taxied over to a transient tie down.
Adam arrived with the car, the boys helped tie the plane down and grabbed luggage. We headed off to the little apartment that Adam had set up for us at the Labs. Once again, N971RD had been a reliable steed, carrying us all the way up the western coast and delivering us to our destination. Having flown the same route on a commercial flight only a few months back, it also let us see the land in so much more detail, and gave us a better understanding of the people between us and Adam and Sharalyn’s home in Friday Harbor.
The real purpose of the trip was to get Dexter settled in for his three week stay (or, really, a month from when we dropped him off, we’d be there with him the first week). The first day on the island we really just relaxed. We had breakfast at Cafe Demeter, some lunch at the Market Chef, and Alex cooked us dinner at their apartment next to ours. Dexter (and Rudy) took to the Island like ducks to water. They had no problem strolling the town, enjoying the smaller world of a small town, and amusing themselves and their younger cousins. At one point Dexter said he’d walk with Elly into town, or at least would head that way until we picked them up.
His three weeks in the fish program were a huge success. He learned a lot about physics, mathematics, data collection, specimen collection and, of course, fish. One of his tasks was to remove a shark jaw from a shark (dead, which is when they are less thrash-y). Then the teeth would be removed and used in a graduate student’s project measuring the effectiveness of various teeth groupings. he reported that the weeks flew by and there was interesting stuff happening every day. He suffered through a couple days of a sore throat and bad cold, but mostly was neck deep in a graduate level course in marine biology every day.
After a day of settling in we needed to go pick up Nell. As with our trips across the country, we were only loosely planned. Nell would fly into Seattle and we would see some of Seattle and head north to see a little of Vancouver. Then we’d return to San Juan and check out the island before we needed to say goodbye to Dexter. I was a little stressed about the flights up and back to Canada because I didn’t have a current customs sticker, wasn’t perfectly sure about the EAPIS process (I screwed it up last summer), and worried that without the autopilot if we wound up IFR it would be less serene than it is normally. (Flying single pilot IFR never gives me pause when I know that with a push of a button I can monitor the systems and divide my attention among different tasks. Without an autopilot a lot of your focus needs to be on the instrument scan and less is available to check the approach plate, write down your updated clearance or fiddle with some settings on the G1000 to expand your situational awareness.)
We departed the Friday Harbor airport on a beautiful VFR morning and saw the marine layer pressed against Lopez Island. In less than an hour we were descending abeam Seattle, straight in for runway one-three left. It was a little grey in Seattle, even sprinkling occasionally. We rented a car from Clay Lacy (such a great FBO, they really cater to pilots), and headed into the city. We wanted to see Adam’s exhibit of images of fish (and accompanying poetry) at the Seattle Aquarium. After days of flying and strolling around a little island it was jarring to return to the traffic jams of the Interstate and surface roads. But the rental car from Hertz was very comfortable and while he was navigating us into the city Rudy asked about our plans for Vancouver. I said they weren’t set and he said, “We could do it as a road trip, couldn’t we? Isn’t it pretty close?” That seemed like an interesting alternative and we agreed to propose it to Nell when she landed.
The exhibit was great and it had been a while since the boys were in an aquarium. We checked out the otters and read about salmon farming. I have the Flightaware app on my phone so I was able to keep an eye on Nell’s flight coming up from Los Angeles. We ducked out of the aquarium and with some guidance from Yelp! Rudy found us a fantastic Japanese restaurant for lunch. Really fantastic. Dexter said it might have been the best yakitori he had ever had. We just sat at the sushi bar and hustled out with enough time for the boys to grab some ice cream as we hopped in the car to zip to SeaTac.
The sign of a civilized city is how quickly you can slip in and out of their international airport. Seattle is high on my list and we nipped in, grabbed Nell (“Yay!”) and were headed back into the city center with no fuss. The only two things I wanted to see in Seattle were the Space Needle and the EMP, a music experience museum created by Paul Allen and designed by Frank Gehry. The exhibits were pretty interesting (SciFi, Horror Movies, Fantasy, and some music video things were highlights), but the truth is the building could have been empty and I would have been happy. I’m so glad that I can stroll around inside the curves that Mr. Gehry finds interesting enough to build.
No one had any interest in the Space Needle since, as Nell pointed out, we have a better view from the plane, and Nell liked the idea of our road trip. So we saddled up and rolled north toward Vancouver. It was a couple hours on a super smooth road, not too much traffic once we escape the Seattle metro area, and we played a trivia game Rudy picked out at the EMP. There was a half an hour wait at the Canadian border (are a lot of people trying to sneak into Canada?) and then we were twenty minutes from our hotel in Vancouver. Nell booked the room as we were rolling north.
After checking in we went for a walk and found dinner. Then we collapsed in the hotel.
Every day of our vacation had flying except Monday. Thursday’s flying was all the way at the end of the day. We were able to start our Thursday the way we do back home, with crepes. Sadly, Crepes Thursday was not nearly as delicious at the Crepes Cafe as it is when Nell is making them, but traditions are important.
Sadly, Dexter left his hat at the restaurant where we had dinner and they didn’t have it when we returned the next day. We walked to the Vancouver Aquarium and saw more otters, beluga whales, rain forest denizens and tropical fish. I would have thought a sixteen year old and eighteen year old were too old to drag through the second aquarium in two days, but they both had a lot to talk about as we looked at the creatures. Nell was working, so she stayed in Stanley Park, tapping away on her laptop on a bench overlooking Vancouver Bay.
Our only appointment of the trip was to meet our friend Doug Coupland at the Vancouver Art Gallery to see his retrospective (whenever possible, tour a retrospective with the artist himself). At the end of the day the timing didn’t work out to meet him, so we headed over there on our own (after a stop at a Mongolian BBQ place for lunch). Nell and the boys posed with a huge bust of Doug that the public is encouraged to cover with chewing gum. The exhibit was full of good ideas well executed, decades of thoughtful commentary on our changing society, shifting world views and memories of growing up in British Columbia. For me the driving up and back would have been worth it just to walk into the room where Coupland had staged a huge Lego Levitown.
We had already checked out of the hotel and we realized that we could dine at Japonessa if we didn’t hit too much traffic at the border. We rolled south with Nell driving so that (once we passed the border) I could nap. A well-rested pilot is a good idea for an evening flight out over the freezing Pacific Ocean.
Dinner was just as delicious as lunch and this time we found a chocolate place across the street that had carmel apples (I like mine with toffee and cut into pieces, it’s healthy because it’s fruit, right?). We rolled toward Boeing Field with sticky fingers. Rudy tried to call to have our plane dragged up front, since it was sprinkling a little, but he couldn’t get through to the FBO.
I had watched the weather on the way down and knew there were a few showers in the area. We took off under a low overcast and skimmed over the city of Seattle, heading out to the San Juan Islands. Nell had never been out to them, so I tried to tour guide a little, but I was also trying to navigate between layers of clouds to the one spot of clear light I could see in our direction. Sure enough, in twenty minutes we broke out into the open, with the setting sun lighting the ocean below and mottling the sky above. I had texted Adam that we needed a pickup (and a ride back to our little apartment at the Labs) and he managed to catch a photo of us arriving.
His exact quote: “I know most of the planes that land and I saw one coming in that was flying left traffic for a field that is right traffic. It had a strobe and nav lights, so it was fancy, and it seemed fast. As it passed over I knew it was you.” Right traffic. Got it.
This was a perfect day to demonstrate the usefulness of a little plane in the Seattle area. Nell had an old roommate who was living on Orcas Island, all of twelve nautical miles from Friday Harbor (at least measuring from airport-to-airport). There were some clouds (and it was a little chilly, so I wasn’t too keen on heading up into the IFR), but by 10am when she wanted to head over the clouds had spread out enough for us to dance between them a little. Less than ten minutes after takeoff we were descending over the northern edge of Orcas and turning to land on their little paved strip. (Adam is a better pilot than me because he spends all of his time flying in and out short runways. If I was up there for a month each year I would get a lot better, too. Orcas is twenty-nine hundred feet long.) I left Nell in the little terminal building (cute, clapboard) and trundled back down the taxiway to takeoff. Having done the route there moments before made it fun to flit back, low over the farms of Orcas, alongside Mount Constitution, across the little bit of water abeam Shaw Island and then lining up for runway one-six at Friday Harbor.
Pog and Alex were headed out early on Saturday morning. Although Nell and I were planning to fly down on Saturday, Rudy was going to fly commercial because his friend Sammy’s birthday was Saturday night and with the little plane there was no guarantee he would make it in time. So he would go down to Seattle with Adam, Pog and Alex on Friday, spend the night in a hotel, and Saturday morning he’d fly solo back to Los Angeles.
It was a great plan. Until Adam started adding up bags and people. His little plane had enough seats but couldn’t haul all that weight. Mine wouldn’t either. So Alex climbed into my plane, Pog and Rudy into Adam’s, and we took off from KFHR headed to KBFI together. I was behind by a couple minutes, but not so behind that Adam didn’t hear me on the radio:
“Niner seven one romeo delta taking runway one six for a straight out departure.”
“Really? Where are you taking it?”
Oooooh, darn it. Good point. A little too casual on the phraseology there.
There were clouds between us and Boeing field, but since I am instrument rated and equipped, I talked to the controller and filed for an instrument approach into BFI. It didn’t make a big difference and a lot of the time we could hear Adam on frequency checking with the controller about skirting a cloud or running alongside the aircraft carrier that was headed out of Seattle Bay and into the ocean for some trials.
Descending from a few thousand feet above him, we skimmed past Adam and beat him to the field. There are two tower frequencies at Boeing and while I was talking to one Adam was talking to the other. He asked them to grade my landing and they gave it a B+. It was fun to wait on the ramp for him and see the little red and white Cessna taxi in. And that’s the only photo of the Flying Summers Brothers planes together.
A quick hug and goodbye for everyone while they were filling my tanks and I was back up in the sky headed back to Friday Harbor. Dexter waited for my return to have lunch, so he and I ate at the local burger joint and I waited for Nell’s message that she needed a pickup. Dexter was uninterested in coming for the flight so I went over by myself to get her. The ferry from Orcas to Friday Harbor is only once a day and it’s about an hour. It takes Nell’s friend Diane longer to drive from her house to the little airport (about twenty minutes) than it took us to fly home.
On that little map of the two islands there are five paved runways, but a bunch of other private strips (which are unpaved). Adam said that on San Juan Island itself there are eight landing strips and he’s landed at six of them. I’ve landed at two, the only two that are paved. You can see how having a little plane would entirely change the islands for you. Turning the two and a half hour ferry ride back to the mainland into a forty minute flight makes Seattle more of an extension of your home, rather than the nearest city. (And Vancouver is only a twenty minute flight, so if we spent some time on San Juan I think we’d work harder to figure out the border-crossing hell. Adam was just completing his Nexus training when we were there. We saw the Nexus express lane when we were crossing the border in the rental car.)
We had a nice dinner with Dexter at The Backdoor Kitchen. It was too fancy for him, but Nell had an amazing salad and I loved the lamb chops Dexter ordered (he had my steak). We also got to walk around the little town of Friday Harbor a little bit.
On Saturday we settled Dexter in at Adam’s house. I spent a lot of the morning texting back and forth with him because he was stuck at Boeing Field waiting for the weather to improve so he could get back home. After being up there for five years he has gotten a really good handle on the weather patterns and he said it is only four times a year that he gets a little stuck. I was on call to go down and fetch him (that’s where the instrument rating comes in handy), but the wind picked up after lunch and he was able to sneak through “the conversion zone” and get back home.
Adam had a fundraising dinner and speech to give that night, so we tried to do an early dinner with Dexter at a fantastic Mexican place. We got out of the house a few minutes late, and then the restaurant was a little more crowded, the service a little slower… and he wasn’t going to make it to his event. We got everything to go, Adam and Dexter dropped us at the airport and they headed off to the Labs.
The original plan was to leave on Saturday morning, but since Rudy had gotten himself home and we didn’t need to be in Los Angeles for anything on Saturday night, we decided to spend the day with Dexter and start with an overnight in Portland. Although I had called a shop at Boeing Field to see if they could fix the autopilot, and called my own shop at Long Beach to see if they had any hints, there was nothing to do about not having one. It would just be a bunch of hand flying to get us home. We did an instrument departure from Friday Harbor and climbed up into a space between two layers for our hour or so flight to Portland. There were a few showers and the controllers were great about keeping us out of the clouds whenever it was below freezing. Because of Boeing, the sky around Seattle is thick with little planes. Aviation is a way of life up there. The controllers sounds like the “get” little planes a little more because of it.
The FBO (Atlantic) at Portland rustled us up a rental car and while we were waiting we had the Mexican food from Friday Harbor, which we had carried with us. It was amazing. Just delicious, even reheated in an FBO microwave and eaten with a plastic fork out of take out containers. Nell found us a hotel and navigated us into Portland to find it. After checking in we had a nice evening walk around downtown Portland. This will be Rudy’s home for the next four years (well, he’ll be nearby, twenty minutes outside of Portland), so we liked getting a feel for what the city was like.
If I could do it over again, I would have headed out from the hotel early and gone to the breakfast place Rudy and I ate at when we were in Portland for his first look at Reed. Instead I wandered out and grabbed Starbucks for Nell and a little pastry for me. Disappointing, but I figured we’d be home later in the day, it didn’t matter. A really good breakfast would have carried me home, instead I was famished in Salinas and we had to hunt a Chipotle like the natives of that plain once hunted deer.
The departure out of Portland was IFR, but we weren’t in the clouds very much. I let the controllers know that we couldn’t climb into anything colder than 32F and they were very nice about keeping us low. Are we broke out of the clouds over the valley that contains Eugene we could see all the way from the coast to the mountains. That was beautiful.
Nell wanted to see how badly the autopilot would steer the plane (if I become incapacitated she knows how to turn on the autopilot and it made her uncomfortable that it wasn’t working). I explained before I turned it on that it wasn’t going to turn the plane upside down, it just wasn’t as steady as it was usually. I activated it by holding the A/P button for a third of a second. It grabbed the controls and flew us along our magenta line, climbing toward the assigned altitude. Perfectly. Ah, there’s nothing like an intermittent failure. But that was great. Instead of seven hours of hand flying, I’d be able to read, talk with Nell and enjoy the view.
We had the oxygen on and we could have climbed higher and flown for longer. But it was unlikely we would make it all the way to Redding or eliminate one our stops. No matter what we’d need to stop twice between KPDX and home. There are two possibilities for stops about two hours outside of Portland. The first is Klamath Falls, which the boys and I did on the way up. You get to see Crater Lake, Klamath Lake, and the back country of Oregon. The other is Medford, where we had stopped on our trip a year ago. One route puts Mount Shasta on your left, the other puts it on your right. Nell and I opted for the slightly more civilized Medford, Oregon stop. Million Air is one of the snazziest FBOs we have stopped at. They filled our oxygen bottle for $60 (Atlantic in Portland was going to have to charge $300 because they needed to call a mechanic to the field after hours) and had the Mercedes Benz crew car idling (so the air conditioning could get it cooled down, you don’t want the pilots sweating on their way to lunch). It was a quick ride into town to the mall where I found the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Company and my toffee-carmel apple. That kept me happy all the way until Salinas.
The weather over Salinas was reporting 1,200 overcast and it was a pain in the butt giving up our direct VFR routing for vectors out to get onto the ILS. As we got closer I could see that it was just a thin marine layer and the field was really MVFR. So I canceled the instrument approach, ducked under the edge of the cloud layer and headed straight into the airport. It was a fairly desolate spot, even though the FBO claims to be “number one in the country.” They did have a crew car for us, which was great. We gobbled a late lunch at Chipotle, returned to the FBO for my sixteen minute nap, and then we were headed down the coast along our usual route from the Bay area home. Rudy was at a BBQ and was a few minutes late to pick us up, but that meant we got to walk a few blocks, a nice bit of movement after sitting still in the plane the whole day.