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:

Desert

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!

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!

Flying to the Grand Canyon

Last weekend I flew the farthest that I’d yet gone as a pilot – to the Grand Canyon! It was a short overnight trip, with enough time to fly there, go for a beautiful hike, spend the night, and then fly back the next day.

I took the outbound leg, and my friend Manuel flew us back. The Grand Canyon airport (KGCN) is about three hours of flying from El Monte. After factoring in enough fuel for an alternate destination plus an extra 45 minutes of flying time (my standard margins), it just fit in the plane’s 38 gallons of usable fuel. (Originally I’d planned Valle as my alternate, only 18 miles from GCN – but in my pre-flight research I learned that it no longer sells fuel! The next closest option is Kingman, 97 miles from GCN!)

The usual June gloom meant an early morning start wasn’t possible, so we departed around 10 a.m. We climbed above the haze layer and kept going on up to 9500’. It was a bit clearer (but not entirely) once we crossed the mountains into the desert. We were on our way!

Three hours can be a long time in a plane. I entertained myself by tracking VORs in addition to the GPS. Then things got more challenging as some light turbulence set in. In addition to bumping around, we got a roller coaster feeling from a series of updrafts and downdrafts that would send us suddenly climbing or descending at 500 fpm. This required active attention to manage (pitch and throttle), especially given the occasional nearby traffic which made it very important to stick to our planned altitude. It is a funny feeling to be fighting that kind up updraft – nose pointed down yet fighting to avoid gaining altitude! It felt kind of like surfing! Also, I got to make a PIREP for light turbulence :)


Approaching the Canyon!

As we approached GCN, the winds were reported to be from 260 at 11 gusting to 18 knots. We were landing on runway 21, so that’s a healthy crosswind (with gusts). GCN is also high enough (6600′) that you need to be mindful of your mixture and prepared for faster groundspeed (as I’d trained two days earlier with a trip to Big Bear).

I entered right traffic and the tower gave me an altitude restriction – a first for me – in which I was not allowed to descend more than 300’ below pattern altitude until established on final. As I approached, I spotted a helicopter maneuvering below and figured out why I needed to stay high! I extended my downwind a bit to keep a healthy distance from the helicopter (their direction and speed are extremely hard to anticipate), then turned final as the helicopter went to its helipad. I landed without incident, marveling at the wide runway! I didn’t notice much of a crosswind so I think the winds had died down a bit.

Other things I learned on this long(er) flight:

  • Managing and transitioning between four different VFR charts with a kneeboard is a challenge!
  • Sometimes LA Center is just too busy and you get to “see and avoid” without flight following for a while :)
  • The PGS VOR seemed to be dead. Thank goodness for GPS!
  • It is possible for tach time to exceed Hobbs time!
  • It is hard to find good visual checkpoints when flying over the desert.
  • Sometime I want to try doing a flight via dead reckoning and see whether I can actually get to my destination using my planned headings and time durations for each leg. There’s so much uncertainty in predicted winds aloft and other sources of error that I’m not sure it’s possible to get to actually reach destination that’s three hours away – but pilots of yore did!

We tied down the plane and ordered fuel. We had consumed 24 gallons in 2 hrs 45 mins of flight – pretty good for this plane (my leaning was effective)! We had also benefited from a ~30-knot tailwind. We hit all of my predicted checkpoints almost precisely! I enjoy planning out the flight log and then tracking progress as we go.

We took a shuttle to the Grand Canyon itself and got in a lovely 3.5-hour late afternoon hike. The Grand Canyon is breathtaking from the top and from every switchback down the trail! We hiked down about 2.5 miles, then back up to watch the sunset from the rim.

The METAR and TAF the next morning included “FU” (smoke) – the first time I’ve seen it in reality! They were doing controlled burns north of the airport. The smoke was gone by the time we departed.

On the way back, I got to be a passenger and take lots of pictures. :) As we departed the airport, the Grand Canyon Railway train slid by right under us! What a treat!

High-altitude takeoffs and landings

Yesterday I had a lesson on high-altitude flying. We went up to Big Bear airport (L35) in the mountains above Los Angeles. Big Bear is at 6700′, and that plus some intervening ridges meant we chose a cruise altitude of 9500′. It takes a long time to climb from 300′ to 9500′ on a warm day! Big Bear is 60 nm from El Monte, and it took us over halfway to get up to 9500′.

The goal of this lesson was to learn not only about flying at high altitudes, but how to take off and land at high altitudes. The challenges arise from the fact that the engine’s performance is greatly reduced and the thinner air means the wings develop less lift. Here’s a terrifying tale of how not to do it. Big Bear is also nestled in the mountains, so there are some additional factors to consider in terms of likely updrafts and downdrafts and being mindful to always have one or more exit strategies in mind. Don’t get boxed into a canyon!

The winds were a little odd when we arrived – crosswind and gusty, and mildly favoring runway 8, which points into a forested area, as opposed to runway 26, which points into a lake (which therefore poses fewer obstacles). See image at right for what it looks like approaching runway 8 (image credit Mead & Hunt).

We tested it out by starting with a low approach over the runway – 300′ up, 70 kts, 10 degrees of flaps. We did NOT go full rich as I would normally do. That was my first deliberate low approach, and I’d been curious about how to do it. This meant I got to see how the winds actually felt near landing, without fully committing; midway down the runway, we went full power and did a go-around. Indeed, I could feel the crosswind and some airspeed oscillations from the gusts. And the climb out was weak, even at full throttle. And there were definitely up- and down-drafts and bobbling turbulence in various places. Still, nothing we couldn’t handle.

We came back around for an actual landing, which was beautifully smooth. I had pre-calculated the likely landing distance given the temperature and altitude, which was about 700′ (versus 570′ at EMT – not much difference) and indeed, it felt like a pretty normal landing.

We taxied back for takeoff and there I got to learn how to lean the mixture to get max performance – stand on the brakes, full throttle (only getting 2200 rpm when full rich!), then lean the mixture out (increased to 2400 rpm) but not too lean (we aimed for an EGT of 1300 F). Then – takeoff! I’d also calculated the takeoff distance (1440′ compared to 825′ at EMT) and this time I did notice that it took longer than I’d expect to reach rotation speed. But Big Bear has a 5800′ runway, and that’s tons more than a Cessna 172 needs to take off, even in those conditions (density altitude was about 8500′).

We also practiced an aborted takeoff – a surprise event that my instructor called just as I was about to lift off. Pull throttle to idle, keep the nose up, maintain directional control. Again, plenty of runway for us to slow and stop. This is a great option if the plane just isn’t developing enough speed or anything feels or sounds wrong.

In general, flying at Big Bear was challenging but doable. I felt that it was within my ability to keep the plane under control and doing what I wanted it to – but it took a lot more attention than usual, between the reduced performance, turbulence that induced sudden banks, altitude changes, and airspeed changes, and the gusty (and strongly variable) crosswind that kept playing with me as I’d approach to land. My instructor commented that in those conditions, it’s more about keeping the plane within a box of desired performance, since you can’t micromanage it to stay nailed on airspeed, altitude, descent rate, etc. with the constantly changing conditions.

Now I’m ready to fly to the Grand Canyon! (Almost the same altitude as Big Bear!)

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