Flying to Catalina Island

Recently I had the opportunity to fly from El Monte to Catalina Island (KAVX). This is one of two local airports for which our club requires that you first go with an instructor, due to special challenges. (The other airport is Big Bear, KL35). Catalina is a beautiful island not far off the coast (~30 nm) that is 88% controlled by the Catalina Conservancy. The airport is privately owned and, unlike most of the L.A.-area airports, charges a landing fee ($25).

Getting from El Monte to Catalina poses the following challenges:

  • Navigate around the LAX class Bravo airspace. (Flight following is your friend! Except when they are too busy.)
  • Cross over the water. Bring life jackets. Study ditching procedures. Try not to freak out with imagined scenarios.
  • Land on what looks like a misplaced chunk of runway stuck on top of a mountain. Don’t get low on final approach and crash like this Cessna 172 did, 9 days before our visit. The tail of the airplane is sitting near the west end of the runway (moved there from the crash site) – a grim reminder to take this seriously. Be ready to go around.

My instructor, David Werntz, wrote up an excellent guide to help you prepare for flying to Catalina. He’s not kidding about the poor runway condition! It’s not just bumpy, but it’s full of holes and little piles of debris. It looks like someone took a pickaxe to it all along the length. It definitely calls for soft-field takeoff technique to save your nosewheel. (Maybe soft-field landing as well!) Even better, the runway is peaked in the middle, so you take off (and land) on a 2-degree slope, which believe me does noticeable things to a Cessna’s acceleration. It also gives this awful illusion from the ground that the runway is going to end halfway along its length, since you can’t see over the peak during takeoff.

The trip out went smoothly. We aimed for Fullerton and climbed to 3500′, staying under the 4000′ LAX Bravo. At Fullerton, we turned southwest and climbed to 4500′ and headed out to sea. I could tell whenever my instructor got bored, because he’d ask, “Okay, where would you land if the engine quit … NOW?” When we got far enough away from land to preclude gliding back, he’d point out ships in the water to land nearby to minimize rescue time. “Ferries are good; they’re maneuverable and they have rescue boats,” he said. “Sailboats are bad.”

Catalina

Catalina runway
There it is, KAVX!

We flew to Two Harbors, then turned south to enter the pattern for runway 22. Delightfully, the airport was nearly deserted. I understand that on weekends it can get very busy. I got to do three landings (full stop), and we had lunch at the cafe.

Runway 22
This view obscures the cliff below us. But steady on!

Unfortunately, we ended up with insufficient time for Manuel to get his three landings in! But thankfully, he flew us back home.

Long Beach
Crossing over Long Beach airport. Note the big red X on runway 16R.
Don’t land there!

That was a far more challenging transit than on the way out. The first SoCal approach controller he hailed refused to give us flight following (too busy). A controller on a different frequency was willing to take us, and after a few comments to Southwest XXX and Delta YYY, he spent the rest of our flight (transiting under the Bravo) devoted just to us. For some reason, we had constant traffic alerts, one after another, mostly helicopters. Coming in to El Monte, the controller directed us to make a right 360 for spacing (someone ahead of us), and then seemed to forget we were there. After prompting, he told us to make left traffic for runway 19. Suddenly, Manuel spotted a helicopter at our altitude just ahead, and called it out to the tower controller, who seemed a bit befuddled. He cleared us to land behind a Diamondstar, so we had to turn inside the helicopter, which was further out and moving slower. It all worked out, but it was the closest I’d been to a helicopter in the air. Go Manuel!

Here’s our route:

Catalina route

Given that trip, I am now certified by the club to fly their planes to Catalina. I’m thinking I could use some more practice there though! We might go out to do it again and let Manuel get his landings in :)

Here’s my updated map of L.A. airports I’ve visited since getting my license (green) and those yet to be visited (red):

First flight with a passenger!

I took my first passenger for a ride in a plane! Manuel picked KWJF (General William J. Fox Field) as our destination, which is near Lancaster. In the desert. On the other side of the mountains. I had never been there.

I did my flight planning and research, and I was all ready to go with my nav log and GPS flight plan. The flight there and back went well, but it featured several new challenges for me:

  • My highest altitude yet – 8500′. I’ve flown higher, but never as the pilot. Because KEMT and KWJF aren’t that far apart in straight-line distance, this meant we spent most of the time climbing and then descending. In a long climb, you have to think about “cruise climb” (lowering the nose to increase air cooling of the engine). In a long descent, you have to think about power and mixture settings to avoid fouling the spark plugs.
  • Picking altitudes was challenging. In addition to clearing terrain, I needed to follow VFR conventions. This flight zig-zagged northwest, northeast, northwest, creating three different regimes (west trajectories use even thousands + 500′; east trajectories use odd thousands + 500′).
  • As always for a new destination, I had to visually locate the airport :) Luckily KWJF is not too challenging to spot, unlike KEMT which is buried inside urbanity!

Cruising over the mountains yields some delightful views (photos taken by Manuel, not me :) ).

San Gabriel mountains

We approached KWJF from the south. Runway 24 has a right pattern by default (north side), but the tower kindly directed me to a left downwind approach from the south (instead of crossing over midfield). I still struggle with figuring out how to pace my approaches. I’ve been instructed to be at pattern altitude well before I enter the pattern, and I’ve read in several places that descending into the pattern is very dangerous (you could descend into another plane, since you can’t see below and they can’t see above). So I was at pattern altitude before entering downwind. But pattern altitude can feel rather low, especially at KWJF where it is only 800′ AGL! (More typical is 1000′.)

KWJF
Final approach to runway 24 at KWJF.

On the return to KEMT, I got an instruction that was new to me: “maintain maximum forward speed.” I understood that the tower was trying to increase spacing between me and the plane behind me. But the importance of a controlled, stabilized approach has been drilled in to me, and I was already doing my usual process of gradually adding flaps and decreasing speed. (The plane is certainly capable of flying faster, but it won’t stop flying (i.e., land) until you get it going slow enough.) I acknowledged and continued, adding a tiny bit of speed. Maybe I should have said “unable” or “I am already going max speed”. Happily, I landed just fine and got off the runway before the other airplane needed it.

Back on land, I found this discussion of how to interpret “maintain best forward airspeed”. This procedure would have me flying > 100 mph until just 1 mile from the runway (!!), then slowing down and deploying flaps. Normal is 80 mph approaching, then slowing to 70 mph on final approach. I’ve landed at 80 mph (to practice a no-flap landing), but I wouldn’t do it by choice. I definitely would need to practice any kind of faster approach to get comfortable with it, and (as noted in the article), it would likely require more landing distance (runway). It’s useful right now, however, just to have the increased understanding of what ATC is asking for with that particular phrase.

I’m looking forward to more exploratory flights and more learning opportunities!

First stops on my L.A. airport tour

Today I made my first flight as a licensed pilot!

I’ve heard that one of the challenges for new pilots is, ironically, to find reasons to fly. I no longer have a pressing need to schedule weekly lessons and practice times. But as soon as you stop flying, your skills start to atrophy. The period between getting your license and the ensuing 50-350 hours of flying experience is known as one of the most dangerous in a pilot’s life: enough confidence and freedom to try new things and not enough experience to do them all safely. The antidote? Keep flying and learning!

To combat the rustification of my skills and to simultaneously keep building knowledge and experience, I set myself the goal of landing at all of the Los Angeles area airports. Each one presents different a configuration and challenges. With that diversity of exercise problems, I should gain a lot of experience *and* become more familiar with all of the local options, should I ever need to divert or land unexpectedly.

Most people are aware of the big L.A. airports: LAX, Burbank, Ontario, and Santa Ana. But it turns out that there are in fact 28 airports (!) within the L.A. basin (excluding military airports). I want to visit them all (except LAX, which would probably laugh me out of the sky if I called in to request a landing clearance – it’s legal, but it’s like a golf cart trying to get into the carpool lane on the freeway). I’ve previously landed at Cable (CCB), Chino (CNO), Banning (BNG), and Ontario (ONT) with my instructor. But Brackett (POC) and French Valley (F70) were the only ones I was allowed to go to on my own. Now I can go anywhere!

I created a map to track my exploration of L.A. airports. Ones I’ve visited since getting my license are in green (El Monte, Cable, and San Bernardino, today!). The ones to be visited are in red.

Today, I took off from El Monte with a left downwind departure to the north. I was heading for Cable. Cable is an untowered airport, which immediately induces anxiety because I get so little practice with untowered airports. A towered airport is like a busy intersection with a traffic cop. It might be busy, but someone’s in charge. An untowered airport is like a 5-way uncontrolled intersection in which everyone yells out what they want to do and somehow people sort themselves out – plus the guy who’s not talking to anyone but just cruises through. I knew it would be a good exercise to go back to Cable by myself. To prepare, I listened to the recording from my last visit (with instructor), which it turns out was just over a year ago (!). This was perfect preparation and helped remind me of how to approach, what to say when, and some of the gotchas: the uneven runway, the lack of space between runway and taxiway. I also got a refresher on how to request a transition through Brackett’s airspace, since Cable is so close.

Can you find Cable here? I zoomed and cropped for you – in the air, it’s tricky!
Cable airport

This all went as expected until I got to Cable. I was crossing over the runway and about to turn downwind for 24 when I realized that I was both lower than pattern altitude (not good since it’s only 800′ above ground to start with, instead of 1000′) *and* going about 20 mph too fast. I tried to fix both things at once by pulling back on the yoke (to slow down) and adding power (to climb) and managed to get too slow (I sensed the oncoming stall) before I finally got to the right altitude. I remembered my instructor saying “Keep the nose down when you add power, or you can power right into a stall.” Yeah! No, I didn’t stall, and it was actually a nice reminder that I can feel when it’s getting too slow – I didn’t need the airspeed indicator to tell me. Next time I would climb first, then slow down.

I landed at Cable with no trouble, then taxi’d to the runup area to catch my breath and be ready for my next leg, which was to San Bernardino (SBD). I’d set up a GPS flight plan at the beginning, and it would be even more useful for this leg, since I’d never been to SBD before. I plugged in the frequencies I would need, then took off from Cable, left downwind departure to the north. When I got north of the 210, I called SoCal Approach and got flight following at 3500′ to SBD. With the airplane trimmed and a mild tailwind, I could enjoy the view and scan for traffic and new sights.

The I-15 N would not be a good emergency landing option:
I-15

At just the right time (about 10 miles out), SoCal invited me to switch to the SBD tower. I called in and was told to report when I was 2 miles NW of the midfield point and to expect a midfield crossover. I descended to pattern altitude and called in, at which point they told me to look for a Cessna taking off and to be sure that I crossed over behind it. I complied (the Cessna took off well before I got over the runway) and turned left downwind and landed. Oh wow, the SBD runway is HUUUGE! It’s so big (both long and wide) that you get this weird illusion as you’re landing that you’re just hanging motionless in space and you’ll never touch down. The runway looks MUCH closer than it is because it’s so big.

I was going a little too fast to get off at taxiway Alpha, so SBD told me to exit at Alpha2 – then to expedite because someone else was landing behind me. :) I complied and taxi’d back for takeoff (no separate ground controller). Originally I’d planned to continue on to Banning, but looking at the clock I realized that I only had 30 minutes left. I requested a straight-out departure to the west and was soon on my way back to EMT with flight following at 4500′ (thank you SoCal!). El Monte gave me a left base approach, which was mildly exciting because I was cleared #3 and #2 was turning right base in front of me. I kept a close eye on that plane as I came in! I then executed a picture-perfect short-field landing, about 10 feet past the threshold, and celebrated all the way to taxiway Delta.

Here you can see my ground track, starting at EMT on the west and heading east to CCB and SBD, then back west to EMT (click to enlarge). Total flying time: 1.5 hours.

Screen Shot 2016-03-25 at 10.41.07 PM

Lessons:

  • Having all of the radio frequencies I would need (SoCal approach, tower, ground, and ATIS for each airport I visited) written in advance on my kneeboard made this a lot easier than otherwise and allowed me to focus much more on flying.
  • I had taxiway diagrams for all of the airports with me, but didn’t use them. Still, I was glad to have them just in case!
  • I wish I’d been able to get a picture of the SBD runway!
  • Both SoCal controllers misheard my call sign initially. Either this plane’s radio is flaking out, or I need to enunciate better.

Looking forward to my next airport touring flight!

Reflections on flying

As a consequence of my flying lessons, I’ve found that I’m much more aware of the sky than I was in the past. I think I thought of it vaguely as a transparent lid, an empty space above my head that occasionally contained things that impinged on my life, like rainclouds or noisy police helicopters. Now I spot clouds wherever I go, and I notice their types from a pilot’s perspective: how high? moving how fast? cumulus or cirrus? threatening or not?

I feel like my view has been elevated, literally: I see the sky and notice its characteristics. My eyes are also drawn to its artificial occupants; I spot planes and helicopters, try to determine their direction of travel, notice when I must be near an airport due to a clear traffic pattern, and wonder when I see a plane in an unusual location. Like any learning process, it’s as if a new code has been unlocked: I see meaning that I would previously have been blind to.

Some of the biggest highlights of my primary flight training that stand out are:

  • Doing intentional spins in a Citabria over Santa Paula (and coming out of them)
  • Taking my mom for a sightseeing tour of L.A. (with my instructor)
  • Flying to Santa Maria, then Porterville, then back to L.A. (all by myself!)
  • Night flying over L.A. (it’s gorgeous)

And some things that I really enjoy doing:

  • Soft-field takeoffs, in which you nose up into the air and then stay as low as you can until you build up speed to climb out of ground effect. It makes me feel like Jonathan Livingston Seagull, every time.
  • Unusual attitudes, in which you close your eyes and your instructor does crazy things with the airplane and then has you open your eyes and save the plane. This means recovering from a dive or a steep climb. Love it! (Probably because I can’t see outside the plane. You do this with a “view limiting device” that means you can only see the instruments.)

Private pilot checkride

On March 8, I took my private pilot checkride at the San Gabriel Valley (El Monte) airport. This is the final exam that you must pass in order to get your pilot’s license.

I got to the airport an hour early so that I could check over the plane and see if it needed fuel or oil. The oil was fine, but I did order more fuel and then busied myself doing a pre-flight inspection of the rest of the plane while I waited for the fuel truck to arrive. Everything checked out fine. I was a little anxious about the weather, since we had had a big storm the day before, but so far it looked clear, and I was prepared to deal with whatever runway the winds would dictate, although I really hoped for our standard west/south-west winds to align with runway 19.

Five minutes before noon, I knocked on the door of Alan Johnson, DPE. He welcomed me in and we sat down to deal with preliminaries – my photo id, medical certificate, and logbook experience. He noticed that I had done a spin training lesson and approved! We also went over the airplane’s logbooks, which I had borrowed from the mechanic for that purpose. I showed the entries that indicated that the airplane had had its required inspections. Then we both logged in to the IACRA site on his laptop to confirm that the checkride was happening, and we were ready to start.

I really liked how organized and structured Alan was. He gave me an overview of how the exam would be structured and how long it would take and then carefully explained the order in which everything would go (including elements of the practical exam, so that I could organize my cockpit accordingly). He reminded me of the precision requirements for the landings and asked if I wanted to review any of the other maneuver limits.

We then started the oral part of the exam, which took a little less than 2 hours. We began with my planned cross-country flight to KSBP (which he’d assigned to me when I scheduled the checkride). I had filled out a navlog, marked the course on my charts, and printed out all of the weather products. We went over all of that and it gave us the basis for discussing weight and balance, weather, terrain, airspace, chart markings, etc. He asked me to show how I computed distance, heading, and time for one leg of the plan (plotter and E6B!).

We moved into a series of questions that went right through all the topics listed on the PTS (Practical Test Standard). Almost all of the questions were very familiar ones. The only question that was new to me was that he asked whether my airplane’s engine was direct driven or geared. I said I didn’t know, but would assume it was direct driven for simplicity. He said, “Yeah, you’d know if it had gears.” One other surprise was that he didn’t ask about the question I had missed on the knowledge test last November (but I’m told it is good to brush up on those item(s) since they usually do ask!). For some of the questions, he gave me scratch paper and asked me to draw diagrams. For others, he had a little toy plane that we could use to point to parts or hold it in the air and talk about stalls, etc. I really felt like the practice oral sessions I’d done with my regular instructor, David Werntz, were perfect preparation for this.

Next we took a 5-10 minute break (I ate some yogurt) and went out to the plane for the practical test, which also took about 2 hours. He watched me do pre-flight, and I talked him through it. Then we got in the plane, and he said to pretend he was a first-time passenger, so I gave him a passenger briefing. We then did a regular takeoff and flew the first leg of my planned flight to KSBP.

We got about halfway to the first checkpoint (DARTS) when he said “Ok, divert us to KCNO” (Chino). So I set up a holding circle and started calculating. I got an estimate of 24 nm and a heading of 100. Then I went to the GPS to confirm it and could NOT find CNO on the list of “nearest” airports. I tried twice, then decided I was spending too much time on a non-essential item and just moved on to the fuel and time calculation. Much later, at the end of the test, he pointed out that I could have just plugged CNO into the “direct to” function. I couldn’t find CNO because it was too far away! Silly mistake.

Maneuvers were next. He gave me my choice of practice areas so I headed up to Altadena at 3700′. We started with slow flight. I managed to FAIL to keep my heading within 10 degrees of what was specified (?!) and he commented on it. I corrected and he didn’t say I had failed the exam, so I kept going. I got through the steep turns, power-off stall, and power-on stall. Next he had me put on my “view limiting device” (so I could only see the instruments but not outside the plane). We did level flight and turns. I had some trouble maintaining altitude but when I commented on it, he said “It’s gusty today, I’ll factor that in.” Then we did two exercises in which I had to figure out how to fly direct to a VOR station that he specified, and then we did unusual attitudes (dive and climb – one of my favorite parts!).

I took the hood off, and he said “your engine just died,” and I set up my 80 mph glide, looked for a landing spot, and ran through my mental checklist to try to restart the engine. I failed to then confirm it with the paper checklist. Ooops!

We returned to EMT to do pattern work. First we did a regular landing and then taxi’d back for the required PTS landings. The wind had picked up to about a 10-kt headwind with a slight crosswind component, plus gusts. That makes it challenging to do precision landings, but I was very fortunate in that the last time I’d gone flying, two days before, the conditions were about the same.

  • Short field takeoff and landing (must be within 200′ of the landing threshold, which let me tell you is not a lot when you’re going ~60 mph)
  • Soft field takeoff and landing (no distance requirement but must keep the nose high as if you were landing on grass or dirt instead of asphalt)
  • Regular takeoff and no-flaps landing with slip (must be within 400′ of the landing threshold). This is the one I find most difficult. No flaps means you have to land at a higher speed to avoid stalling. That means you have a lot more energy, and it is very easy to float too far and miss your desired landing point. Thank goodness for that headwind, which reduces your ground speed and effectively telescopes your landing! (By this point the winds were from 220 at 11 kts, gusting to 18 kts, for runway 19. I added a few mph to my final approach speed to compensate for the gusts and adjusted my heading throughout the pattern to deal with the crosswind, with rudder to slip/align for the final landing.)

At the end, Alan said that I passed! I said, “Seriously?” because I made many mistakes! The one that loomed largest for him was me failing to check my engine-out checklist during the simulated engine out. In general, I felt that all of his critiques (including this one) were completely deserved and fair. He said I did an excellent job on the oral and that my landings were very good “in challenging conditions.”

And now I’m a pilot! I can’t wait to start flying to new places and exploring the world from the air :)

2016-03-08-pilot-crop

Older entries »