Cross-Country '06

Cross-Country '06

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Getting Started

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ATC radar trace of IFR portion of flight
I left Gaithersburg, MD (GAI) on May 2 in a 4-seat Cessna 182RG named "N405JH", with a destination of "some place on the California coast, where the blue stuff is". Having earned my pilot's certificate two years earlier, this would be over twice as far as the longest flying trip I'd ever made before, and would be the first time I'd flown on the Western half of the US, and thus the first time I'd encounter real mountains (unlike the bumpy bits we have out here), high-elevation airports, desert thermals, and a bunch of other things that don't crawl up and bite you unless you manage to escape your own backyard.

After a quick stop at Frederick, MD (FDK) to pick up the newly-filled oxygen tank that I'd later need when flying in very thin air high over the Rockies, I headed west towards a planned fuel stop in Peru, Illinois. There was a very broad area of clouds, rain, and thunderstorms over West Virginia, Ohio, and Indiana which I'd have to contend with en-route, but the weather looked clear at my destination.

Because of low clouds and poor visibility due to rain en-route, I'd have to fly "on instruments", often having no view out the windows of the plane of anything but the "milk-bottle" insides of the clouds. I'd need to rely on reference to the gyros and flight instruments to keep the plane upright and on course, as without any view of sky or ground, I'd have no visual reference as to up or down, and no reference to landmarks on the ground to help me tell where I was or which way to go. Having been trained for instrument flight, this should be no problem, but having only recently achieved this rating (an add-on to a private pilot rating, requiring an additional 40 hours of training), I still had only very limited real-world weather experience, so flying inside clouds was still a fairly new experience for me, enough so that I still needed to take a deep breath just before launching into the "soup", to gather up my nerve.

While flying through clouds and rain shouldn't be a problem, the thunderstorms along the route needed to be avoided by a wide berth, at least 20 miles, as they can entail hail and extreme turbulence that can be destructive to the plane. A small plane that stumbles into a severe thunderstorm can be literally ripped apart by the extreme up and down-drafts inside. On-board the plane, though, I had weather radar downlinked from satellite that would show areas of heavy precipitation associated with thunderstorms and a "stormscope" that detects the electrical discharges from lightning and points out the direction and distance of the storms, and I'd have an on-again, off-again view out the window that would help me visually avoid the unmistakably huge, towering thunderstorm clouds.
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Entering the clouds
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Can't see much in here
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When flying on instruments, it's important to stay focused

I picked up a stow-away in Frederick. He'd ride with me all the way to Omaha. I bet when he bragged to the Nebraska flies, he didn't tell them he had help flying there.
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In the summer-time, we get mostly big, puffy cumulus clouds. When flying through these, you're continually in and out of the clouds. When in between, the view is pretty spectacular, like flying through enormous canyons.

The clouds have very definite edges, and when approaching one, it feels like you're about to fly into something, expecting to feel a big "bump" as you crash into it, but you end up just whooshing right through. If you fly right along the edge of a cloud, you can dip one wing in the cloud while you're still in the clear.
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"touching" a cloud with a wingtip
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thunderstorm cell, bad thing
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Baby storm, just starting to build
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Overflying Fort Wayne Airport (FWA)

By Illinois, the storms started to subside and the skies started to clear. As predicted, the landing at my fuel stop in Peru, Illinois was under clear skies, and I could now say I've flown all the way to Peru. This was a very small airport, and I suspected I was the only one who didn't know everybody else's name. I was soon off again, headed towards Iowa.

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Western Illinois
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Crossing the Mississippi into Iowa

Flying over Iowa, it was starting to get late, and I needed to start thinking about where I was going to call it a night. The skies were clear where I was, but there were some BIG thunderstorms prowling the area, and as night fell they were lighting up the sky in the distance like fireworks, so I decided to stop in Omaha, NE, safely short of the oncoming storms. Omaha's Eppley Airfield is what's called a "Class C" airport, which is typical of the "big airport" at small cities, places where little planes mix it up with bizjets and the occasional airliner. Eppley is pretty close to downtown, tucked in a bend of the Missouri River, and picking out the airport's runway lights from all the surrounding street lights at night was a bit of a challenge, but I managed to land on the right runway, going the right way, and without causing too much commotion. Even more impressively, I successfully negotiated the "hard part", which is taxiing on the ground at night through a sea of blue lights to find a parking spot, all without ever rolling off into the river. The plane was securely tied down well before the approaching storms barreled through.

Businesses that provide services like parking and fuel at airports are called FBOs (fixed-base operators), and at larger airports like Omaha, the FBOs are used to dealing with business jets that come in quickly, pull right up to the front door, load up a few thousand dollars worth of fuel, and load or unload some fast-walking, cell-phone yammering, and important-seeming people, then take off again as quickly as possible. When one of these planes arrives, the FBO's employees tend to start scurrying frantically like mice, and a little plane driver sometimes has a hard time getting their attention.

As I arrived, a business jet on a "quick turn" had everybody scrambling, and I was largely invisible. But without much trouble I found what seemed like a nice place to park the plane, scrounged up a nearby hotel with a shuttle bus which would come pick me up, and I was soon calling it a night. After about 8 hours of flying, 1000 miles, clouds, rain, and thunderstorms, it was by far the longest and busiest day of flying I'd ever done, and I was pretty beat.

Quick hop to Colorado

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Platt River, West of Omaha

I brought only the barest of essentials on this trip, of course, including about 50 lbs of aviation charts. I think there's a piano back there somewhere. One lesson learned on this trip is that anything that's in a layer of bags below another layer, is just too much trouble to ever bother getting to during the trip, and so might as well just be left home.
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Being about as flat as can be, Nebraska's a pretty good place to put a foosball table.
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Nebraska
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Nebraska briefly goes nuts
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There, that's better

I took-off from Omaha the following morning, May 3. It was very windy by "home" standards, but with no rain, clouds, or storms, this was the only flying day in the entire trip that had no significant weather to contend with, making for an easy 3 hour flight. My destination today was Fort Collins, CO, where I had lined up a local flight instructor to fly with me into the high mountains of the Colorado Rockies. Mountain flying requires a very specialized set of skills and knowledge, and I thought it prudent to take a local expert with me for my first encounter, to do some training and some sightseeing, and to do some takeoffs and landings at some of the highest altitude airports in the US.

The area around Eastern Colorado and Western Nebraska and Kansas is known as the "high plains". The flight westward from Omaha was over mostly featureless and very flat terrain, but as time wore on, the elevation of the terrain slowly but steadily climbed. From the plane, you could almost feel the ground slowly creeping up to meet you, and every once in a while you'd have to climb a bit to get back your distance above the ground before you find yourself buzzing the cows. Soon enough, the Rockies started to appear as a wall of rock across the horizon; we'd be approaching the bases of this range, but landing just short at Fort Collins, which is a little North of Denver.

At high altitudes, the air is much thinner and planes have to fly faster to generate lift. The thin air also reduces the power available to the engine, giving it somewhat anemic performance. This means planes don't climb nearly as well, they need longer runways to land and take-off, and the plane is going much faster over the ground during these operations, as compared to low-elevation airports. At 5000ft, Fort Collins was the highest elevation airport I'd ever flown into, despite not being particularly high by Western US standards. In the Eastern half of the US, the highest mountain peaks are around 6000ft, and the highest airports around 3000ft. Landing at Fort Collins turned out to be no big deal, though. The runway has a significant incline, but the winds favored landing "uphill", which helps to slow the plane down on landing.

I planned to spend the night in Colorado, giving me chances to fly on two different days, in case weather prevented flight on one of them. Unfortunately, my visit to Colorado turned out to be a complete bust, as the weather was cloudy, foggy, and rainy on both days. I did some ground training with my instructor, which was valuable, but we never got to go flying in the mountains. Due to the extremely high and irregular terrain, mountain flight in small planes really requires visual weather conditions to navigate your way through mountain passes, and both days were clearly instrument weather days, and pretty rare for those parts, I think. Some bad luck there, but that's how the flying thing goes.

Escape from Fort Collins

A trace of my flight from Fort Collins to New Mexico. The clump of highways just South of KFNL is Denver:
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ATC radar trace of IFR portion of flight
So on May 4th I woke up to a very crappy weather day, quickly scrapped my plans for mountain flying, and set about scheming my escape. I needed to make my way towards the California coast as by now I'd arranged plans to meet Angelique in San Diego in 2 days. Given the weather and the extremely high terrain in the Colorado Rockies, I didn't want to head directly west towards California, instead the plan was to remain to the East of the mountains and fly South paralleling them until New Mexico, where the Rockies are quite a bit lower, and crossing them would be a safer proposition.

Unfortunately, that path was covered with low clouds, fog, rain, and scattered thunderstorms. My other concern was that given the high local terrain, instrument flight would require flying high enough that I might be getting close to the "freezing level", the altitude where the air temperature reaches the freezing point of water. It can be dangerous to fly in clouds or precipitation near freezing temperatures, as water droplets can adhere to the plane's wings and freeze there, quickly icing up the plane to the point where it cannot fly any more. If I could climb up above the low clouds and reach clear air above, while still staying below freezing temps, then I'd be okay, but the weather forecasts weren't very conclusive about how high I'd need to go to top the clouds, nor what the temperatures would be there, it was all a bit borderline.

Fortunately, while puzzling at the airport, I bumped into my mountain flying instructor, who had just returned from a local area flight in the clouds with an instrument student, and he provided a first-hand weather report (what we'd call a "pirep" for "pilot report") that was far more valuable than any forecast, and which indicated that I'd be able to reach the cloud tops safely free from icing, so it would be safe to fly, at least in the local area. This was enough information to assure me that I could safely depart, and if encountering unfavorable conditions aloft, I'd at least be able to safely return back to the airport. So off I went!

Upon departure from Fort Collins, I climbed to an altitude of 12000ft. This would be high enough to safely clear all the terrain on this leg, planned for a destination of Las Vegas, NM (yeah, not that Las Vegas, the one in New Mexico). While it was high enough to clear the tops of the clouds around Fort Collins, I'd be in and out of clouds all the way to New Mexico, though I was still in air warm enough to avoid icing, and the air was getting warmer as I headed further South. Flying this high, though, the air is very thin, so I flew using supplemental oxygen. For this purpose, I had brought along a small portable tank of pure oxygen, and was using a "cannula", a pair of tubes stuck up my nose. This is all a little uncomfortable, but the thin air can lead to hypoxia, which can cause a marked increase in your stupid level, leading to reduced ability to make decisions, confusion, and tunnel vision, while potentially leaving you "euphoric", and thus unable to grasp your predicament. At even higher altitudes, oxygen not only keeps your stupid level in check, it helps you to stay conscious, which is helpful when you're the only pilot on board.

Unfortunately, all the photos I took this day and the next disappeared somewhere into the computer void (proving that no amount of oxygen can cure stupid entirely). Too bad, because it was pretty stunning up there, flying along just above a "sea" of clouds, with the peaks of the Rockies poking up through the cloud deck below. I also lost all my photos from New Mexico, Arizona, and California, including Sedona, which is really beautiful. Sigh... digital cameras.

Las Vegas, NM

It was a little over 3 hours from Fort Collins to New Mexico, all in and out of clouds, though the weather started to improve a bit in New Mexico, and I was flying in the clear below the clouds near the end of the flight. There was a big thunderstorm just before Las Vegas which I needed to divert around. I was hugging the eastern edge of the Rockies for the entire trip, and wanted to divert to the West, taking me closer to the ridgelines, as a diversion in the other direction would have taken me many miles to get around the storm. ATC wouldn't approve this, as they couldn't ensure my terrain clearance that close to the mountains, which would be a problem if I was in the clouds and couldn't see out the window, but since I had good visibility at this time, and could ensure my own terrain clearance, I cancelled my instrument clearance and proceeded visually. I nearly came to regret this decision a few minutes later, as I found myself facing some more low clouds and some higher terrain, and I had to do some maneuvering to stay visual, clear of all clouds, without bumping into anything, but I was soon scooting past the ugly stuff, a safe distance away from the storm cell, and into clear skies over Las Vegas, NM.

Landing in Las Vegas at around 5 or 6pm, I quickly ascertained that the town that shares its name in Nevada had little to worry about. This place was dead. I was the only person in sight, the guy who sells fuel had gone home, and the restrooms were locked. Oh well, not to worry. I had plenty of fuel to make the short hop over the mountains to Santa Fe, where I planned to stop for the night, and, well, we'd have never heard of Lewis and Clark if the lack of a designated place to pee had stopped them in their tracks.

A short hop across the Rockies to Santa Fe

While slowly wandering about the grounds, decompressing from the flight just completed, and fussing with my camcorder (which I never did get to work right), it dawned on me that the sun was about to set. While the trip to Santa Fe was short, it was across a mountain pass in the Rockies with higher terrain around, and I really didn't want to make that flight in the dark. So I quickly screwed my head on straight (or, at least, straighter) and began preparing to take-off again.

Las Vegas, NM is at an elevation of just under 7000ft. Combined with warm, desert temperatures, that meant that the air was very thin, and the plane's performance would be far less than I was accustomed to when flying at sea-level. Fortunately, the runways out west tend to be extremely long, so there was plenty of room for the sluggishly performing engine to pull the plane to the higher liftoff speeds needing up at this elevation. There was a strong cross-wind, and fighting this while the plane grudgingly contemplated lifting itself off of the runway reminded me of how much a sea level high-performance "pop the plane right off the runway" takeoff covers up some of the challenge of handling a strong cross-wind. While there was plenty of runway, and the crosswind's attempts to throw me off the runway were thwarted, the plane's climb rate was anemic, and long after the runway was behind us, we continued a very shallow climb out. Fortunately, the tallest obstacles out here were 3 foot tall desert scrub, so while being that close to the ground with the airport far behind was a new (and somewhat jarring) experience, it's all good, and we're soon climbing towards the ridges of the Rockies.

Unfortunately, sunset can fall more quickly in the mountains, as the horizon is blocked by high terrain, and as I was headed for my mountain pass, I was quickly running out of sunlight. Before taking off, I had quickly charted out a route that I could fly precisely via my GPS, and for which I had determined a safe terrain-clearance altitude, so all should be well, but as the sky grew darker, my view of the terrain around me quickly disappeared, and the view out the window soon became pitch-black emptiness. As this area was sparsely inhabited, there were no lights on the ground from houses and streets. I no longer had any view of the ground below or of the peaks that reached above me off to the left and right, and I had to trust to my flight planning to keep me clear of them. This was a very dumb mistake, as this leg of the trip would have been done much more safely in the daylight with a good view of the terrain, and without leaving me at the mercy of my GPS to guide me precisely along my planned course.

More than a few tense minutes later, the lights of Santa Fe gradually began to appear out of the darkness, as they slowly revealed themselves from behind the last intervening ridgeline, and all the white and blue and red and green lights of the Santa Fe airport were soon in sight. One advantage of the darkness is that nobody could see a wholly unpretty approach and landing into Santa Fe, fighting a mean cross-wind. But the plane was soon in chocks on the ramp, and I was in a rental car, mostly lost.

Goin' back to Cali'

Delays in making my escape from Fort Collins left me a little further from San Diego than I had planned to be on this morning, with Angelique's airline flight arriving in San Diego in the early afternoon, and me still 650 miles away in Santa Fe. With a (fairly) early morning start, I was soon aloft again. The weather up ahead seemed a bit uncertain, with thunderstorms on the prowl, but as it turned out, there was little in the way of interesting weather to contend with until nearing the California coast.

The flight West from Santa Fe took me across the Continental Divide, which this far South is something of a non-event as compared with crossing the much higher Rockies in Colorado. Routes through the Rockies are often named by the highway that takes that route (as highways are sensibly routed along paths of relatively low terrain, and those are typically also the easiest routes to fly), so this path across would be the "Route 40" route, cutting across the middle of New Mexico.

I flew across Flagstaff and then down to Sedona, where I couldn't help but take a few minutes to do some sight-seeing and take some photos (hah!), despite running very late. I ended a three-hour leg out of Santa Fe with a stop at Sedona, an airport placed very dramatically along the top of a butte, not a good place to land short of the runway, or run off the far edge.

After a quick sandwich and a visit to the "little pilot's room", I took off again from Sedona. The winds that day were very strong and gusty, and on climbout from the airport I experienced the strongest turbulence I'd ever encountered, and had to struggle to keep the plane under control. The sudden onset of this caught me by surprise, but I was able to keep everything right-side-up, and was soon climbing out and headed for California.

The leg to San Diego was about 2.5 hours, crossing the Colorado River into California, and over-flying Joshua Tree NP and Palm Springs. This area is mostly desert and can be pretty desolate and sparsely inhabited. Still, in mostly the middle of nowhere, it's not uncommon to over-fly an airport next to a golf course, with nothing much else apparently near-by. While a traveler stranded in the desert might struggle to find water, precious for survival, if he had remembered to bring his clubs with him, scrounging up a round of golf is comparatively easy out here.

San Diego boasts of having the best weather in the US, but for our visit in May, it seemed to be cold and cloudy the whole time. In particular, as is common along the California Coast, San Diego spends much of its time beneath a "marine layer". From the ground, looking up, this has the appearance of cloudy, overcast skies. From the air, looking down, you can see that this layer of clouds doesn't reach very high at all, it's just a thin blanket of clouds just above the ground. As you arrive, you're flying high above the tops of those clouds under sunny blue skies, but you have to get through that layer of low clouds to get to the airport.

Ordinarily, an airport covered by low clouds would require an "instrument approach" to get into. This is a procedure where you fly along a prescribed path through the air as specified on a special chart which leads you to a point very near the airport, fairly low to the ground, from which you (hopefully) can see the runway and come in to land visually. An instrument approach is planned out to ensure that if you follow it correctly, that you'll get to the airport and as low as possible to the ground without bumping into any hills or TV towers. Since you may be flying this approach through clouds and fog, you follow the path using avionics like navigation radios or GPS, so you can fly the entire approach while inside the clouds, without needing to see out the window.

By now Angelique was waiting in the San Diego airport, so I was in a bit of a hurry to get down, and was worried that ATC (air traffic control) would delay my arrival at the airport if I asked them for an instrument approach, so I decided to try to find a "hole" in the marine layer to scoot down through and get beneath, and then just land visually at the airport. In retrospect, it would have been a much better decision to take the full instrument approach, and one of the many lessons I learned on this trip is that I tend to do the right thing with passengers on board, but to take on some small but unnecessary risks when it's just me alone.

In any case, a little bit of wandering around allowed me to find a nice gap in the marine layer just inside the hills that border San Diego to the east, and I descended beneath it and proceeded below the clouds towards San Diego's Montgomery Field (MYF). Seems a few other people had the same idea, as there was a fair amount of traffic buzzing around this area, flying low beneath the "ceiling" of the marine layer.

Any way, the plane was, in short order, tied down on the Montgomery Field ramp, and I was once again in a rental car, mostly lost, headed to the "big airport" to pick up Angelique, who would be my co-pilot for the return trip.

Continue to Page 2.


Harry Mantakos / harry@meretrix.com