Flying to Flabob with a friend!

Today I got to fly with another pilot, Sara. We’ve been trying to get out to Hemet-Ryan for weeks, but the weather just won’t cooperate. Yet again, today, the clouds were too low to make that possible. However, we were able to fly out to Flabob (KRIR) and Corona (KAJO).

I took the helm to fly us out to Flabob. The ceiling was reported around 3500-4600 AGL, but when we got up it seemed a bit lower than that. I settled on 2800′ MSL. SoCal directed us around some traffic, and we got a smattering of rain, but we had a nice view while flying east.

Mt. RubidouxFlabob is certainly a challenging place to land. There’s a big hill/mountain (Mount Rubidoux) that squats just southeast of the runway, right about where you want to be when you’re getting ready to land on runway 24. This biases you towards turning (left) base a bit early. I ended up coming in high on my first attempt to land and doing a go-around. The second time worked out fine, but it takes some mental effort to intentionally fly at a mountain at 80 mph. When it was Sara’s turn, she figured out that by flying a diagonal base leg you can avoid the mountain yet still get a longer, more normal final approach. Brilliant!

At Flabob, we stopped and switched pilots. Sara got in, did a loop around the pattern, and then flew us to Corona. We got a transition through Riverside’s airspace and then cruised over to Corona, whose runway is the same length as Flabob’s but in rather nicer condition, and much wider. There are some beautiful marshlands north of Corona where birds nest.

AJO marshlandAfter landing at Corona, Sara took off again and we got a transition from Chino airport and then flight following to head back to El Monte. Spotting El Monte was difficult due to the low clouds and grey sky, but we got in just fine. Overall, several great landings by Sara!

It was really great to fly with another pilot! We helped each other out with radio communications, double-checking frequencies, and discussing airport approach strategies. Sara has a lot more experience than I do, and I can learn a lot from her (already got some great tips)!

Below is the track of our flight, starting from El Monte on the left and heading to Flabob (KRIR), then Corona (KAJO), then back to El Monte.

RIR - AJO - route

That makes 9 out of 26 L.A. airports for me!

Flying to Redlands

The weather briefing for my flight today had an unusual feature: an upcoming TFR (Temporary Flight Restriction) over my destination, the Redlands airport. It seems that Redlands is hosting an airshow this weekend, and in addition to the TFR covering the airshow itself, they blocked out an hour today from 3 to 4 p.m., possibly for the airshow pilots to practice.

Some calculations later, I determined that I should be able to get to the airport, pre-flight my plane, and fly to Redlands and back before the TFR kicked in. I was off!

(Why Redlands? It’s one of the five airports in the upcoming Flabob Poker Run. I’m doing advance scouting!)

Santa Fe Dam
I got flight following from El Monte and climbed to 5500′ to head east to Redlands. This is not a picture of Redlands. It’s a picture of the Santa Fe Dam area, which I flew past. It’s pretty awesome – note the stepped dams on the left to block debris flows from the canyon. Plus, golf course. I stayed north of the 210 freeway, then swung down behind the San Bernardino airport to enter the right pattern for runway 26 on the 45.

As I was about to turn base, I noticed a helicopter about to land. A few seconds later, someone on the radio said “All aircraft, use the radio for safety” which may or may not have been directed at the helicopter. I had been announcing my position, but hadn’t heard anything from a helicopter. I gave it some extra time and by the time I turned final, it was already out of sight.

On the ground, it was pretty busy at Redlands, with carts, trucks, and planes moving around in preparation for the airshow. I spotted a very pretty red biplane! But it was already 2:30 p.m. and I wanted to be sure to be out of there before the TFR kicked in at 3. I took off back to the west, turned sharply north to stay out of San Bernardino’s airspace, and got flight following back to El Monte at 4500′. It was fun cruising through Ontario’s airspace!

Here is my route today. The more northerly track was me headed east to Redlands, and the southerly one is me coming back.

Redlands route

Back at El Monte, I still had energy and time left, so I did some pattern work. I worked on my left traffic patterns, which tend to be weak (we’re used to right traffic at El Monte, and also at Redlands!). I worked on improving my base to final turn. I also made two very nice short-field landings despite the wind, which was gusting from 8 to 14 knots and also swinging around between 170 and 220 degrees. Great flying day!

Here is my updated airport map. I’ve now been to 8 of 26 L.A. airports since getting my license!


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 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′.)

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:

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


  • 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!

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