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!