Although I have been flying every week, we really haven’t been taking trips in the plane. That’s too bad, since it really contributes to my mental stability, something I thought about a lot on the two hour twenty minute flight from Santa Monica up to Concord, California. I don’t need to say anything about the Germanwings accident that hasn’t been written better by other, more knowledgable people, but mental stability is important.
For the first hour of the flight Dexter was at the controls. He and a few of his friends from school have started to get a little interested in learning to fly and I’ve talked about how the more time you spend holding an altitude and following a navigation line the easier it will be to learn the rest. So Dexter did the takeoff, turned us to follow the coast and climbed to 10,500 feet over Point Mugu. After an hour of keeping us on our purple line and within fifty feet of our desired altitude he declared it exhausting and handed his duties over to Otto. Minutes later Dexter was asleep.
We were headed up for what has been a yearly event for both boys: Latin Convention. This year’s landed smack in the middle of Dexter’s Spring Break, which affected other possible plans a little bit. Although he could have flown up with his classmates, I enjoyed having the excuse to fly north and if a high schooler is going to give up three days of Spring Break for something that is pretty academically-oriented, it seems they should get pampered a little. So we motored along over the San Marcus VOR, over Santa Ynez and the range adjacent to Santa Maria, over Paso Robles (where long ago I was scrutinized by the Designated Examiner empowered by the Federal Aviation Administration), over Hollister and on up the hills east of Silicon Valley to descend slowly as we passed Livermore until our wheels finally dragged on the concrete at Buchanann Field, Concord, California. Dexter woke up on the descent.
If you don’t pilot often enough, to new airports or newish airports, you lose the knack of making decisions on the fly. It’s important, as an aviator, to make flights that require the skills that are so fresh right after training: chart reading, checking the critical information about an airport in the facilities directory, flying and communicating to remain safe while completing the flight. My flights in the past few months have all been from Santa Monica to a half dozen nearby airports (Catalina, Camarillo, Santa Barbara, Van Nuys, Long Beach and San Diego). Now I wanted to traverse some of the busiest airspace on the west coast to stop in and see friends.
The Bay area has a large international airport (KSFO) and an extremely busy domestic airport (KOAK, which I imagine has a few International flights as well). So there is a lot of restricted Bravo airspace controlled by approach controllers. There are a half dozen little general aviation airports and a couple large military airfields as well. Since it is a major metropolitan sprawl there are the usual complement of traffic and law enforcement helicopters scooting around. Legally, I could fly from Concord right over to Palo Alto, only bothering to talk to Palo Alto’s tower when I got within a few miles. I cannot imagine thinking that would be safe. I talked to a NorCal controller the entire way, right up until when I switched to the tower and told them I was a few miles east and inbound for landing. During those sixteen minutes the approach controller called out six pieces of traffic for me, three of which I spotted. I also knew that if I started to head toward restricted airspace the controller would probably ask me what I was up to. Talking to the controller, flying the plane, and keeping track of my position on the moving map to stay out of the airspace was intense and a nice balance to the long, uninterrupted ride up the coast.
Winds were brisk at Palo Alto, which was the shortest runway I have landed on in a while. Even after the wheels were on the ground a gust managed to pick the plane back up again right before I retracted the flaps and slowed enough to make the turn off on a taxiway. In transient parking the ropes weren’t long enough for the Diamondstar’s long, glider-like wings, so I unpacked the straps I carry.
The next morning I was back at the airport. It was a wonderful evening, and breakfast, catching up with friends I don’t see often enough, but they were busy and I found my cousin available up in Marin County. Once again, I’d fly some unfamiliar airspace, have to search for an airport I have never landed at, and figure things out once I landed.
It was a crystal clear morning, brisk enough that my late-morning takeoff was easy. Now I tend to think of the Tesla engineers who died one foggy night as they took off from the same airport. As always, with accidents, I try to determine what would have kept me from being involved in the same set of events. In their case, I would not have taken off from an airport which was below minimums for its own approach. That means you can’t return to the runway if something goes wrong. And they didn’t fly the published obstacle departure procedure, which if I was climbing straight into a fog bank I would have followed really closely. On this visit I finally had the weather of Silicon Valley explained to me. The heat in the valley causes the air to rise which pulls cooler air from the ocean over the hills, dragging fog with it. However it works, it was a wonderful weekend to be up there, clear air over all the neighborhoods I flew past.
The hop over the hills to Half Moon Bay is above beautiful landscape. I have yet to land at the Half Moon Bay airport and I should move that up my list a little bit. It looks gorgeous and there are some places to eat within a short walk of the runway. Turning north, I stayed at 3,500 feet and, since I was talking to a NorCal controller, was cleared into the Class Bravo airspace around SFO. I would love to take a helicopter tour along the same route so I could move more deliberately. As an architect, city planning is always interesting and the vantage from the plane makes it possible to see things in a way that even Google Maps doesn’t quite capture. I was especially interested to see the large flat area of low-rise residential buildings that stretched like a carpet all the way to the sandy beach where one could look out over the Pacific. Apparently part of this is called Richmond and is not the most desirable. That’s strange, coming from the east coast and up from SoCal, where being five blocks from the ocean would make it the most sought after. Cold fog makes a difference, I guess.
I started a descent over the Golden Gate bridge and turned northeast along the Marin headlands. I could spend a month flying around San Francisco. The way the city’s buildings are packed tightly onto the end of the peninsula, and then right across the bridge the headland’s green carpet unrolls over the hills with barely any marks of habitation is startling every time. I turned a little east and followed the shore, over San Rafael (and a tantalizing private airport), over San Quentin, and into the airspace over extensive marshland. Some of it looked like it was set up as salt lagoons, but I don’t know enough about that sort of engineering to be sure.
Announcing on the CTAF, I flew straight in for runway three one. I came in a little high so I went around. My flight instructor of the first few hours I spent in the air used to say, “Every go around gets a free cookie.” He used it as a reminder that even with the cost of renting the plane and paying the instructor, you should lean toward giving a landing a second try if it wasn’t looking perfect. I was enjoying my view of a brand new place, and I was early, so I didn’t mind prolonging my time in the sky by another ten minutes. Flying downwind it sure seemed like the radio transmission towers (a group of four southeast of the airport) were impinging on the traffic pattern and might be a real hazard in poor visibility. I know in Texas there was a recent accident where a pilot flew into one of the support wires (which stretch out from the tower and are nearly invisible).
I landed nice and slow (it’s a short runway), and taxied over to the transient parking. While waiting for my cousin and his family to arrive I sat on a second floor deck atop the terminal and watched the activity on the field. It’s a quiet little place.
I took my cousin and his son Harry up for a little half hour flight. Moments after takeoff we were looking back down at their house in San Rafael. We flew out to Stimson Beach and made a few turns over the house of a friend. We flew over San Quentin again and saw the inmates out in the yard. We flew by Harry’s school and got a good look at how it sat in the topography of the shore, looking out into the Bay. My cousin was texting his wife as we turned toward the field and she saw us fly over to enter the right downwind for three one.
Things were slower back on the ground. We drove back to their house, and then to dinner. Traffic wasn’t terrible on the 101, but it was constant. After a delicious dinner we returned to Novato Field as the sun was setting. I’d be hopping to Concord for the evening, a place his wife often drives for work. “How long will it take you to get there?” Twelve minutes, it looks like. “It takes me an hour and a half!” Ah, the joys of being straight-line and above the crowd.
I barely had time to contact NorCal approach before they switched over and I was talking to Concord’s tower. In fact, I wonder if I could have just contacted the tower as soon as I had departed Novato’s area. I was cleared to land one-four-left, which was disorienting since I’ve been to the airport a half dozen times and that’s the first time I had even heard the one-four runways mentioned. Easy rollout and taxi to Pacific States Aviation and I pulled right into an available parking spot.
When I left the previous day, the desk said there would be people there until 8pm. They had a big Cirrus fly-in event and there were over a dozen Cirrus planes on the ramp further south. But there was no one who showed up to marshal me to the tie-down spot and I didn’t find anyone as I exited through their gate. The Uber driver found me and took me down to my hotel in Walnut Creek.
On the Hobbs meter it wasn’t that much time in the sky, but it felt like a lot of decision making, risk assessment and good stick and rudder flying. I was very glad to be a few steps from a comfortable bed, well fed, and with a mission for the next morning. (I told Dexter where I was, in a hotel across the street from his, and at first he was interested in flying home that night, but since the FBO was closed we had no way to fuel the plane and I had already paid for the hotel room. We agreed that as soon as he was awake the next morning we would head up to the airport.)
The sun low on the horizon made for a lot of glare as we packed up the plane. Dexter got in, made himself comfortable and was drifting off listening to his music almost before I got the engine started. I fished my sunglasses out of their case. They are prescription, tuned for distance, and are just for flying. I’ve managed to hold onto them for over eight years.
With Dexter asleep, NorCal departures clearing us for our climb through Oakland’s Bravo airspace, and Otto steering us homeward, I watched the terrain. Just south of the San Jose airport I saw a strange airpark runway. I thought at first it was a paved runway next to a grass runway. Sometimes you will see that in a place where they launch (and land) gliders, but this didn’t look like the right territory for that, and something seemed odd about the paving. As we got closer I realized I was looking down at water. I have no idea how that works. It seems like once a plane has landed and is tied up there’s not a way for another seaplane to land without putting the parked plane in harm’s way.
These long, quiet flights are some of my favorites. I watch the landscape scroll by beneath me and think about how fortunate I am, how I love Nell, Rudy and Dexter and enjoy all of the time I get to spend with them. I am a solitary sort and it’s unbelievable to have three other people that I like having in the tiny plane with me. Dexter snoozed on, or at least rested his eyes while listening to his playlist.
Around Salinas things are mostly bare, but there are groups of shrubs and low trees where the long fingers of fog have dragged over and over, leaving their sticky prints on the low hills. Just north of Paso Robles things are drier, with just one tiny dime of water on the brown undulations. The 101 hums along through the valley unaware.
Coming in over Santa Ynez and Solvang I heard Santa Barbara approach talking to FlexJet five one alpha. She told him which approach he would be vectored for and there was a pause and a tentative “Roger.” She asked if there was something wrong and he said, “You kind of pants’ed us there, we were expecting the approach from the other direction. We’ll get it set up here in a moment, though. Not a problem.” I wondered if she was picturing them in their jet cockpit with their uniform black slacks around their ankles. Stay ahead of the plane, boys.
I have started planning the descent to Santa Monica way out beyond the ridge by Santa Barbara. Dexter had some tooth pain on a fast descent (ATC’s fault) in New Jersey one summer and since then I have tried to get ahead of things so we come down more slowly. So as I passed over the San Marcos VOR we were already coming down, just at a stately two hundred feet per minute. I doubt it is even noticeable in the back seat for the first ten minutes. By the time we are going past the Ventura VOR we are sliding under the 5,000 foot shelf of LAX’s Bravo airspace and I’m listening to the ATIS from Santa Monica and talking to SoCal approach.
We landed home smoothly and Dexter helped secure the plane. We had a note from the officials at the airport that if we are gone overnight we need to make sure our car is parked in our tie down, not in an empty one. Small blemish on a great weekend.