Flying by instruments to San Diego

I’m not yet certified to fly in the clouds. But recently, events conspired to end up with me in the pilot’s seat, on a instrument flight plan, all the way to San Diego!

It was a rather last-minute decision. Manuel and I had planned to go to a tour of the SoCal TRACON facility in San Diego. These are the voices we hear over the radio that guide us around the southern California airspace and help us not run into other planes. Another pilot planned to take a second plane. But then it got too cloudy and stormy for us to fly, and the other pilot had a brilliant idea: invite an instructor (David) along, all pile in to one plane, and then make it into an IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) lesson!

We decided that I would fly the segment from El Monte (KEMT) to Montgomery Field (KMYF) in San Diego. It was an hour of flying that was packed full of new activities and skills to learn. And that was all before the tour!

This flight felt like a return to my early lessons. My instructor talked me through every step, and I did what he told me to, feeling a little bewildered at several points when things happened quickly. He commented that the usual first IFR lesson involves going to the practice area and being told to hold a heading — not to execute a cross-country flight. :)

We requested a “tower enroute” (TEC) clearance from KEMT to KMYF, which meant we didn’t need to pre-file an instrument flight plan. The TEC route between these two airports is pre-specified, and their use is encouraged in SoCal (they aren’t available everywhere, just in busy airspace). So, while we were waiting to depart, the ground controller came back with the clearance, which we had to write down and then read back before being allowed to depart:

“Cessna 54678 cleared to MYF via the San Gabriel Valley runway 1 obstacle departure procedure, Paradise (PDZ), Victor 180, HAILE (intersection), Victor 66, Mission Bay (MZB), climb and maintain 3000′, expect 9000′ 10 minutes after departure, stand by for squawk.”

We plugged all of that into the GPS and then were ready to take off!

Once we got away from the airport, David had me put on a “hood” (“view limiting device”). In this case it is a set of blinders that clip onto my glasses so that I can only see the instrument panel and nothing outside the plane. While flying this way, everything felt more touchy. I worked to monitor airspeed, altitude, heading, and power, while paying attention to the radio (fortunately, David did all of the talking). I also had to periodically check the engine and exhaust monitor, the outside temperature (to decide if we needed to worry about potential icing), the suction gauge, and the directional gyro (for deviation from the compass). That’s about twice the number of things I have to monitor during regular VFR (Visual Flight Rules) flight.

Other challenges:

  • Maintaining heading and altitude. This seems really basic, but it’s amazing how much your peripheral vision helps on this! No such input means you have to consciously think through everything, and your intuitive sense of direction often battles with what the instruments say. Disorienting!
  • You are always thinking about what you could do next, so you can do it early. There are times in IFR flight that are so busy they can be truly overwhelming. If you can spread the tasks out in advance, you are less likely to get overwhelmed.

Along the way, we entered the San Diego Bravo space! And there wasn’t even a fanfare on the radio — nothing. Awww.

We flew for an hour, and then about 20 miles away from MYF, the controller started giving me vectors to gradually turn me around and line up with the ILS (Instrument Landing System). At right is the actual ground track from our flight. That bump out to the east near MYF is the result of those gradually turning vectors.

His vectors made us skip over most of the standard approach segments, which was confusing enough, and then he was giving us altitudes also seemed lower than the specified approach (but maybe that is fine?). Once on the ILS, things got better: you line up with a radio beacon coming from the airport and then keep it centered, horizontally and vertically, to end up right at the airport.

At about 700′ off the ground, David let me take off the hood — and I saw RUNWAY in front of me! I had a very nice landing and then taxied to the transient parking area. We shut down the plane and then too a Lyft to the SoCal TRACON center. The tour was excellent! Here’s what the control room looks like (with no people inside):

They let us sit at the controls in a training room:

And then we took a Lyft back to the airport for our return flight.

Since I was wearing a hood while flying, I couldn’t look outside the plane nor take any pictures. So I took pictures on the way back instead :)

Here is a residential area not far from MYF, soon after taking off:

Here we crossed out over the coast:

The clouds grew thicker beneath us:

In a break in the clouds, I spotted a little runway! We weren’t going there, but it’s always nice to spot nearby emergency options.

And finally, we made it back to El Monte! Very eventful and exciting day.

Flying to Rarotonga

The Rarotonga International Airport (RAR) has a runway that is 7,638 feet long.

I am flew there on a 777-200. That seems like a rather short runway for a big jet. I’ve landed on longer runways myself (like San Bernardino or Ontario). Curious, I looked up the minimum runway length for a 777-200. According to the Air Cyber Alliance, it is 8,563 feet. Yes, that is longer than the Rarontonga runway. Eeek?

Minimum runway lengths are dictated by how much space the plane needs to take off (which is generally longer than the space needed to land. Yes, this means planes can land somewhere and then be unable to take off again). The minimums are calculated for the aircraft when fully loaded, at max gross weight. So one way to take off in less distance is to reduce the load – fewer passengers, less cargo, or less fuel.

According to the seat map, my return flight is nearly or completely full of passengers, so they won’t go that route. And they can’t skimp much on fuel: the flight from RAR to LAX is quite long (4,688 miles, 10 hours) and the 777-200 has a maximum range of 5,240 miles when fully fueled. Plus, you don’t just take exactly enough fuel to get there; you need extra fuel in case you have to divert or circle or otherwise go out of your way. So maybe they just reduce cargo?

I noticed that they schedule return flights to depart close to local midnight – probably trying to use the coolest part of the day to improve the plane’s performance. And by “coolest”, I mean 78 F. Challenging for flying. I want to chat with these pilots!

Cornelia Fort and WWII

On December 7, 1941, Cornelia Fort was up on the air giving a flying lesson near Pearl Harbor when the Japanese bombed it. “I jerked the controls away from my student and jammed the throttle wide open to pull above the oncoming plane,” she wrote.

“The painted red balls on the tops of the wings shone brightly in the sun. I looked again with complete and utter disbelief. Honolulu was familiar with the emblem of the Rising Sun on passenger ships but not on airplanes.

I looked quickly at Pearl Harbor and my spine tingled when I saw billowing black smoke. Still I thought hollowly it might be some kind of coincidence or maneuvers, it might be, it must be. For surely, dear God…”

She quickly landed her plane and ran for shelter with her student while Japanese fighters strafed the area. She was 22 years old.

Cornelia survived the attack. Other civilian pilots were not as lucky. She returned to the mainland and joined the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, a precursor to the WASP program.

“We have no hopes of replacing men pilots. But we can each release a man to combat, to faster ships, to overseas work. Delivering a trainer to Texas may be as important as delivering a bomber to Africa if you take the long view.”

Tragically, she died just two years later (age 24) in a mid-air collision with another ferry pilot. She was an excellent pilot and no doubt would have gone on to do other great things. How I wish I could have known her!

Flying to Santa Barbara

Recently I flew to Santa Barbara (KSBA), my first class C airport! The seasonal Santa Ana winds were in effect, so I got to use weird runways for part of the trip.

1. From El Monte (KEMT) to Santa Monica (KSMO):
Normally our wind is from the south, and we typically use RW 19. On this morning, the winds were from 050 at 7 kts, and RW 1 was in use. The Santa Anas come from the desert, and sure enough – the temperature spread indicated a relative humidity of just 15% (dewpoint was -9 C!).

Departing on RW 1 makes my home airport feel like an alien airport. I made a left downwind departure for Santa Monica (that’s how backwards it was). Halfway there, near Dodger Stadium, I was given a vector to avoid a 737 (probably on downwind for LAX). I never saw it, so it was probably pretty far away and above me (in the LAX Bravo airspace, which I was studiously staying under). But I’m happy to get out of their way anytime 😃

KSMO told me to make left traffic for RW 3 (also not the usual runway there, and humidity was down to 9%!). I was following a small jet, so I also got “caution: wake turbulence.” It was flying a higher, wider pattern (at a higher speed as well) so it was a bit weird to be below and between it and the runway, but I kept it in sight without trouble. It landed just as I was abeam, so I had a great view of its touchdown point and was able to plan my landing accordingly. (When landing behind a jet, you want to touch down past where it did so its wake vortices don’t roll you onto your back.) I made a nice landing and taxied to the transient area to pick up Manuel.

2. From KSMO to Santa Barbara (KSBA):
Manuel took the helm, and we departed on RW 3. He was piloting and I was doing nav and comm. This is a great way to split piloting duties! Except I managed to say something like “Santa Monica Tower, Skyhawk 54678 holding short of runway 3. Requesting left crosswind departure to Santa Monica.” DOH. I meant Santa Barbara! Tower politely asked me to repeat my destination and I got it right. 😃

Manuel flew us along the coastline, which is stunning (although my pilot brain can’t quite relax due to contemplating the minimal emergency landing options). We also had a nice tailwind that had us making 130 kts ground speed!


When we got close, Santa Barbara Approach handed us off to the tower and that was it – we were inside class C airspace! It was kind of anticlimactic. KSBA was less busy than KCMA (class D). The only difference was that tower was giving us vectors, which actually makes your life easier. We landed on runway 15L and taxied to the Atlantic FBO. One difference was that we were told to “monitor” the ground frequency, not to “switch” to it, which apparently means “switch frequencies but don’t self-announce.” Tower had already given us taxi instructions, so we didn’t need more info from ground, but we would certainly want to be listening if they had anything more to say to us (they didn’t).

We signed in at the FBO and then walked down to the beach! There is a nice 10-15 minute walk to Goleta Pier and a cafe right there. Perfect lunch spot!


3. From KSBA to KSMO:
After lunch, I flew us back. A class C airport requires that you first call “clearance delivery” to make your departure request. The key pieces of information you need are summarized by the acronym “CRAFT”:

  • C: Clearance (e.g., if it’s a named procedure, or your destination)
  • R: Route (direction)
  • A: Altitude
  • F: Frequency (of departure control)
  • T: Transponder (squawk code)

We were assigned runway 15L, the same one we’d landed on. Except that the winds were now from 320 at 3 kts. I stared at that for a minute before saying, “That’s a tailwind,” in puzzlement. Manuel noted that they don’t like you to take off to the north since there is a big mountain right there. So… okay… 3-kt tailwind… but more runway than we really need, so I guess that’s okay…

[Note: that uneasy feeling is a sign that you should probably check your personal minimums and decide whether you want to proceed. This is something I am still working on. Curiously, “tailwind component” is not on the list (only “crosswind component”).]

There was also a warning for “low-level wind shear”, which is NOT a pilot’s friend. As we taxied into position, I kept glancing at the wind sock, which was swinging around. Tower announced that the wind was now from 090 at 7 kts, which was stronger, but I’d rather have that crosswind than a tailwind.

While we waited, I heard another plane being cleared to take off on runway 7 (KSBA has crossing runways). That would be a much better runway, given the winds, but maybe they only use that one for commercial traffic. Anyway, we finally got cleared to take off and “maintain runway heading.”

This makes for a breathtaking soaring climb out over the ocean. We were initially told to stay at or below 1800′, but before we reached that altitude, they canceled the restriction. I kept the heading nailed, but after a while of climbing into the big blue sky I rather wanted to turn and head for Santa Monica (and get back closer to land). Tower kept us heading out for what seemed like a really long time (we got to about 5000′) before allowing us to turn.


Since we hadn’t actually asked for “flight following”, I wondered how that would work out. We had a squawk code, but in some online discussions I’ve seen cases where towers assign local codes that aren’t valid once you leave that airspace. But tower handed us off to departure, and departure to Mugu, then SoCal approach, and a couple of times we got traffic warnings, so it all seemed to work perfectly.

That same wind that had sped us over to KSBA fought against us on the way back. I had trouble getting the plane up to 100 kts ground speed (despite 120 kts indicated).

Santa Monica beach and pier:


I got a right downwind approach to runway 21 at KSMO along with a request to “keep it tight” (someone else coming in). The approach and set-up were all fine, but at the last minute I tried to fix the sun visor (we were landing right into the sun and I don’t have sunglasses) and I think that threw me off a little – a bit of a clunk! Lesson learned: don’t mess with stuff when you’re 20 feet off the ground, even when it seems trivially easy 😃 (Yes, I already knew that. But sometimes experiencing it really shows you why!)

4. KSMO to KEMT:
After dropping Manuel off, I taxied up to take off of RW 21 for return to KEMT. I was #5 in line waiting! I got to watch a Decathlon take off (cute little tailwheel!). Then I was off and turning into a left downwind departure. Manuel got this great shot of my takeoff, including people on the observing deck.


Despite my request, I never did get flight following set up by the KSMO folks, but it’s such a short flight that I just kept my eyes peeled, stayed under the Bravo, and switched over to KEMT when I was downtown. I got a nice normal right traffic entry to RW 19 and a very nice landing near sunset. Done!

Training as a WASP for WWII

I recently read a charming book by Bernice (“Bee”) Falk Haydu. She was a member of the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) program in WWII.

It’s delightful to follow along with her training. Before being accepted into the WASP program, Bee learned to fly in a Taylorcraft. As a WASP (starting in 1944), she learned to fly a Stearman PT-17 (“PT” for “primary trainer”), which had an open cockpit, no radio, and a 220-hp engine:

The instructor sat in front and spoke through a funnel into the student’s ear. The student couldn’t talk back to the instructor.

After a couple of months, she moved up to a Beechcraft AT-6, with a closed canopy, lots of instruments, and a 650-hp engine. Quite an upgrade in capability and complexity!

She also used a simulator on the ground called a Link trainer, for use when the weather was too poor to fly outside or to practice instrument and night flying. The hood could be closed to block out all light.

Her training was intense. She spent half of her day in ground school and half flying. She went through several check rides to demonstrate her ability to fly each plane. She received instrument training. She had to demonstrate proficiency with Morse code. She did a *2000-mile* cross-country flight, not as a special race or endurance test, but as part of her training (today you count anything over 50 miles as “cross-country”!).

On her first solo cross-country flight, she had engine trouble (her right magneto failed) and had to do an emergency landing. She describes it as “really fun, nothing serious.” I would have been terrified!

Her flight log from a night cross-country flight would be familiar to any modern pilot! It has estimated and actual times for passing a series of check points along with compass heading, magnetic course, and ground speed. It’s annotated with her notes about the winds (used to compute some of those values). She talks about using an E6B, which is a circular slide rule that we still use today for quick calculations (like distance, speed, and fuel needed to reach a destination). Her flight log doesn’t include fuel information :)

In 1944, the VOR system (radio navigation) wasn’t yet widely available. I’m not sure what she used during the day for navigation (possibly just her eyes and landmarks), but for this night flight she describes the use of light beacons which were spaced out every 10 miles and would flash a one-letter Morse code. By decoding the Morse letter, you could figure out where you were. (VOR stations also use Morse code – audible instead of visible – and pilots can listen to confirm they’re tuned to the one they want. But with the availability of GPS, VOR is more of a backup system, and we are no longer required to learn Morse code.)

Bee was a member of one of the last WASP classes to graduate. She was posted to the Pecos Air Force Base, where she was to spend only three months before the WASP program was disbanded in December, 1944. However, she was determined to continue in aviation, and she became a ferry pilot for Cessna and then headed her own Cessna dealership, flying a demonstrator plane around to raise interest and sell planes. She also successfully led the campaign to get official government recognition for the women of the WASP program for their service to the country. She is now 95 years old.

Bee autographed my book. What an honor!

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