Solo flight to Phoenix

For Thanksgiving, I flew myself from L.A. to Phoenix. It’s about a 3.5-hour flight in a Cessna 172 – long enough to make for an interesting cross-country planning exercise and good practice for me solo!

I departed the El Monte airport at 11:17 a.m. with flight following to my destination, the Mesa Gateway airport (KIWA). Initially I got an altitude restriction of 2500′, which progressively stepped all the way up to my cruise altitude of 9500′.

Diamond Valley Lake
Looking south towards Diamond Valley Lake

The SoCal controller asked, “What is your route of flight to Williams?” Since I had gotten this question on my flight to the Grand Canyon, this time I was ready to answer!

“Palm Springs to Thermal to Blythe to Buckeye to… Gateway!” (i.e., not “Williams”)

“Oh yeah,” said the controller. “I forgot the name.” Later I learned that KIWA used to be called “Williams Gateway airport” which helps explain why this controller (and another one along the way) used the other name.

Banning Pass
Approaching the Banning Pass

Near the Palm Springs VOR, I got a traffic warning for a jet passing by (“caution wake turbulence”). I looked out to the left and saw a jet climbing past, a healthy distance away. I reported the traffic in sight and was told to “maintain visual separation.” I watched it climb up and away from me (fast!) and decided it was okay.

I then spent a couple of hours droning my way east through the desert sky. I scanned my instruments. I updated my nav log. I drank some water. I played with the GPS (good time to explore new features ;) ). I fought off the hypnosis that comes from nothing happening in a fully trimmed plane and no adverse conditions and very little traffic on the radio.

Most of the desert looked like this:


At Blythe, I crossed the Colorado river:

Colorado River

As I got close to Phoenix, things started to happen (and I got too busy to take pictures).

Luke Approach asked me, “When will you begin your descent, and to what altitude?”

“I was planning to descend at Buckeye, but I can start now, descending to 5500′, or a Bravo transition if possible?” (This would allow me to go more directly to KIWA, which is on the other side of Phoenix.)

He told me to stand by, then: “Descent approved, switch to Phoenix Approach, expect a Bravo transition.”

But my celebration was short-lived. I switched to the other frequency, which was suuuper busy. The controller gave me a right turn for traffic and told me to remain clear of the Bravo. I complied. I continued my descent and kept an eye on the mountains (alt 4600′) as I drew closer and closer (around 5500′).

Finally I said, “678 requests left turn to avoid terrain.”

Controller: “678, negative, maintain heading.”

This was rather vexing. I could of course go higher to clear the mountains with more margin. But just to the east of the mountains, the Phoenix Bravo airspace begins at 6000′. So if I got higher than that, I would have to be ready to dive under it, and that seemed like a bad set-up right over the mountains. I continued thinking about it and climbed up to 5900′.

Finally I got switched to new controller who was more accommodating (or less busy). I requested a direct turn to Gateway (I was still heading southeast thanks to the earlier controller!) and was approved. I soared over the mountains and carefully slid in under the Bravo airspace. I then had to continue stepping down to stay under it. I got traffic alerts a couple of times to help spice things up more. Then I had to cross over the Chandler airport’s airspace (goes up to 3000′) while staying under the Bravo (which goes down to 4000′ there). If you think this is stressful while you’re watching for other airplanes, navigating an unfamiliar area, and remembering to fly the plane (airspeed, engine status, throttle, enrich that mixture!, pre-landing checklist!), you’re right.

At last I got handed over to the KIWA tower. Home free! Except not. I got assigned a right base entry for runway 12R, which was exactly what I was anticipating given the winds. Then:

“678, converging traffic, same altitude, suggest you climb.”

Argh! I turned my descent into a climb (mindful of that 4000′ Bravo!). After a bit, the tower informed me that the traffic had passed behind me. He instructed me to “continue east, we’ll fit you into the right downwind.” This was kind of handy since by then I would have had to work pretty hard to get down to pattern altitude (2600′) before reaching the airport. But it was also tricky because I was then heading southeast and would need to set up for a northwest downwind prior to a right turn to 12R. This is easier to see with a picture:

PHX trackThe green line is my radar track.

I landed neatly just after the threshold for 12R… then had to roll a looooong way to get off at taxiway H. By that I mean something like 3000′ of putt-putt-putt down the runway. Next time I will land longer. These 10,000′ runways are huuuuuge for a little Cessna!

Maybe not so huge for these guys, who landed right after me:

Jets at KIWA

Great flight, all told!

Fly by night – into a curious situation

I mostly fly during the day, so it’s easy to get out of practice with night flying. Recently I went out at night to refresh my memory (and skills). I started with one loop around the pattern at El Monte. After I took off, the next pilot reported a balloon near the runway threshold, so the tower asked me to look for it and suggested landing long just in case. I did as requested and did not see the balloon. After I exited the runway, they had ground personnel drive onto the runway and check it out. They couldn’t find anything either, so I was cleared to take off again.

I departed to the east, heading for the Brackett airport (KPOC). It was a smooth and uneventful flight. Flying at night in L.A. is a visual pleasure. Navigation tends to be easier, since the streets and freeways are all lit up. You can see other planes more easily, too, with their lights. Inside the cockpit, we use a red light to illuminate the instruments (which are also backlit) to maintain night vision. I was also wearing a headlamp as a backup. I like my headlamp, but it keeps giving me a headache. I think I need to upgrade to one for people with large heads. :)

At Brackett, I did several landings and takeoffs for practice. I mostly had the place to myself except for a pilot who came in and landed to get fuel. It was nice getting to focus more attention on just flying, and the controller was very friendly and accommodating (he was probably glad to have someone to interact with).

On my return to El Monte, a strange thing happened.

7:54 p.m., Me: “El Monte tower, Skyhawk 54678, 7 miles NE of the field at 2200’, inbound for landing with Juliet.”
<no response>

7:55, Me: “El Monte tower, Skyhawk 54678, 7 miles NE of the field, 2200’, inbound for landing with Juliet.”
<no response>

El Monte is a class D airport, which means you cannot enter their airspace unless they acknowledge you with a response that includes your callsign. While waiting for a response, I got this:

7:55, Tower: “Attention all aircraft. El Monte class D services will be terminating in 5 minutes.”

The El Monte tower closes at 8 p.m. At that time, the airport converts from class D (with tower services) to class G (without). When it is class G, you can enter without anyone’s acknowledgment (just by announcing yourself). But it was still 7:55, so still class D.

Me (confused, thinking maybe they mean it’s already class G since they aren’t answering me?): “El Monte traffic, this is 678, 6 miles NE of the field, north of the 210, inbound, will make a left base for 19.”

7:56, Me (realizing it must still be class D, so I can’t just enter without acknowledgment): “El Monte tower, if you’re still there, I think I do still need your approval for the next 4 minutes to enter your airspace. This is 678.”
<no response>

At this point, to avoid entering their airspace, I turned my descent into a climb and started circling outside.

7:58, Me: “El Monte tower, Skyhawk 54678, remaining clear of your airspace for 2 more minutes, just to be safe.”
<no response>

7:59, Tower: “Attention all aircraft. El Monte tower is terminating class D services. Class G airspace and noise abatement procedures are in effect. The frequency for pilot-operated lights, CTAF, and SoCal approach is 121.2 [etc.]”

8:00, Me: “El Monte traffic, Skyhawk 54678, 7 miles NE of the field, 2100′, inbound for left base for 19.”

I came in and landed. No one else was around. It was a very strange experience.

I think I made a fine decision by staying legal and remaining outside until 8 p.m. I discussed it with my instructor later and he identified some other things I could have tried:

  • Try switching to my #2 radio in case I was able to receive but not transmit, and that’s why they weren’t answering me. This is unlikely, since I had just been talking to the Brackett controller, but it would be a good troubleshooting step.
  • Try calling the El Monte ground frequency and see if they would answer there.
  • Switch to Brackett’s frequency and test my radio again with them. They could probably even call El Monte using a land line and wake them up. :)
  • Enter the airspace, assuming that I had a radio problem, and look for light signals (standard procedure if your radio fails). I don’t like this strategy, and if they still didn’t see me or respond (with the light gun), I would end up in a weird state where until 8 p.m. I wasn’t legally cleared into their airspace, but when the clock chimed 8 I could proceed as if it were untowered. This would probably have happened right about when I was on final approach. So probably I could have landed legally. But… ugh.

Ultimately, it comes down to just 5 minutes of time (7:55 to 8:00 p.m.), which seems pretty trivial. But that was the five-minute window in which I found myself, and I had to make a decision about how to proceed. Flying is full of moments like this! It wasn’t an emergency; I wasn’t in danger, and I wasn’t scared, just perplexed. I knew that if I didn’t feel comfortable or wasn’t able to land at El Monte, I could go right back to Brackett and land there. Circling not only helped me stay outside of El Monte’s airspace, but it also gave me time to think about the situation and how best to proceed.

Later I pulled up the ATC recording to see if possibly my radio had suddenly failed and that’s why they didn’t respond. Nope. You can hear all of my queries go unanswered. I typed the exchange above directly from the recording.

Well, if it ever happens again, I now have a good list of backup strategies to try!

Big data in 1981

Browsing the JPL archives, I came across this image from 1981 for the Voyager 2 mission’s encounter with Saturn. It was designed to illustrate how Voyager 2 would be sending back soooooo much data – look how many books it makes! (Click to enlarge)

Voyager 2 data
Image credit: JPL Photolab, 1981.

I love that in 1981, the artists measured data in terms of books :) Not many people had their own computers or would have understood a discussion of disks or files or bits or bytes, so this was the perfect visualization. Even today, I find it more charming and tangible than most “big data” graphics I’ve encountered.

Cassini has, rightfully, gotten a lot of press lately for its gorgeous images of Saturn, but Voyager 2 was there first and captured its own beauties, like this one:

GPS navigation in airplane mode!

Recently on a trip to Ireland, in an effort to reduce my cellular data consumption, I put my phone into airplane mode while driving across the country. Imagine my surprise when, an hour later, I checked my phone and found that it was still correctly reporting my location, and giving me directions!

I scratched my head about this for a little while. The moving map was updating my position even in airplane mode! It was also scrolling the map as I moved. So it must be the case that

  1. Google Maps downloads and caches enough information that it can continue to show you the relevant map info even if it loses a data connection to its server, and
  2. The GPS receiver in the phone continues to operate in airplane mode.

This had never occurred to me! I was able to confirm it at other times during the trip. If you try to get directions from Google Maps when in airplane mode, it doesn’t work – you can’t search the maps. But if you get the directions started, then go into airplane mode (i.e., turn off cell data), then it will correctly continue to give you directions. However, if you deviate at all, it cannot re-route you, so you have to figure that out for yourself.

I decided to test this during a recent cross-country flight. Right before a flight from Los Angeles to Philadelphia, I got driving directions from Google maps (see right; it wants me to start on Sepulveda Blvd) and then I put the phone into airplane mode.

A few minutes after takeoff from LAX, we were out over the ocean and Google Maps was still urgently telling me to get onto Sepulveda Blvd:

I checked on the directions periodically throughout the 5-hour flight.

Each time we had made some more progress, but we were so far off the (road) track that Google Maps kept saying to go back to Sepulveda Blvd and start over.

As we got close to the Philadelphia airport, we were close enough to match up with a road (briefly) and the directions made more sense.

So cool! This means that even when an airplane doesn’t bother to give you that awesome moving-map track of where the plane currently is, you can still get it, IN AIRPLANE MODE, on your phone! (But only if you got some directions first.)

First transatlantic flight

Recently I got to visit the site of the first transatlantic flight’s landing – in Ireland. The June 1919 flight was achieved by John Alcock and Arthur Brown in a biplane.

These were two interesting aviators! They were both pilots during WWI (although not together), and they were both taken prisoner (Alcock in Turkey, Brown in Germany) and then (presumably) released. Alcock approached an airplane company called Vickers to suggest that he fly their Vickers Vimy IV bomber in the race to see who would be the first to cross the Atlantic. Brown joined up later and due to his exceptional navigational skills was chosen to fly with Alcock.

The 16-hour flight itself sounds pretty harrowing. They departed Newfoundland at 1:45 p.m. They had several equipment problems including the loss of their radio, intercom, and heating. They were flying in a biplane with two open-cockpit seats! Bad weather meant Brown couldn’t use his sextant to help them steer from 5 p.m. until midnight. Happily, they still made it to Clifden, Ireland, and ended up landing next to Marconi’s transatlantic wireless station (an excellent visual landmark). Unfortunately, they thought they spotted a stretch of open ground to land on that turned out to be a bog, so when the plane landed and slowed, it sank nose-in. They escaped unhurt but the plane was damaged. Still, heroes who won the 10,000-pound prize!

From Wikipedia, this appears to be an actual photo taken after landing:

They also carried a small mailbag so they could count their flight as the first transatlantic airmail flight :)

As usual, I am awed by the courage and daring of early aviators!

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