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!