Sunday, July 1, 2012

A Visit to Pinnacles

This morning the plan was to meet at 9:30 with my daughter's former science teacher and take the two of them for a sightseeing flight up down to the Pinnacles National Monument and then over to Monterey Bay and up the bay to Santa Cruz. Planned route, my normal one... RHV southeast to Hollister area, southwest to Salinas, and southeast towards King City. Pinnacles is an obvious outcrop of rocks and mountain, easy to spot from the Salinas Valley.

As per usual, the plan and the reality were two different things. Another low moved over the Bay Area and left a layer of MVFR and IFR clouds over the South Bay Area and Monterey Bay. The clouds were lower and thicker over Hollister and Salinas but predicted to clear by noon. A quick check of ASOS at Los Banos and other central valley locations indicated the skies were clear there. This was confirmed by a review of the satellite data. There was a small hole in the clouds southeast of RHV that seemed to be getting bigger as time went on.

We waited for an hour until the hole got big enough for me to be comfortable I wouldn't have to do anything out of the ordinary to fly through it. I also made sure the hole was obviously trending bigger so I would have a way back into RHV if the coast and Hollister area didn't clear up as predicted. New route, RHV to Los Banos Muni (LSN) in the central valley where the skies were clear. Then navigate back over the mountains towards Pinnacles from the east. If the skies were clear. If not, the flight would turn into a tour of the central valley and return to RHV through the hole.

Problem, Pinnacles is easy to identify from the Salinas. Not so easy to find via pilotage from the central valley. Which mountain peak to turn right at? There were a lot. I could spend the time to count peaks and valleys and figure out a route. Pinnacles isn't a GPS waypoint, though there were some GPS waypoints nearby I could use. I decided to have fun with VORs instead. I've become much more comfortable and competent navigating by VOR in the last few months. I planned to head towards Panoche VOR (PXN) and then use the 205 radial from PXN to navigate to the south end of the Pinnacles area. This would put my passengers on the Pinnacles side of the plane and allow an easy transition to flying in a big circle or two around the monument so we could check it out. I planned to do the circles at 6500 ft to stay clear of the California Condors that I would have loved to see.

We found Pinnacles very easily and circled the extinct volcano a little over 3000 ft AGL. There were rock outcrops and pinnacles and trails zig-zagging around the area. It looked like a really awesome place to hike and climb. We could see many cars at the visitors center. It was cool to have a chance to really look at that place. I've been wanting to fly around that location since my first solo cross country when I spotted the distinctive rocks on the way back from King City. Was that only a year ago?

By the time we were done flying around the monument, the clouds over Salinas were scattered and the weather at Hollister was reporting clear. I could see sections of the bay too. So we headed up the Salinas valley, towards Salinas and the Monterey Bay. We took a peak at Moss Beach and Watsonville under the clouds and flew in the clear air over the bay for a bit. Then my passenger announced he had a little too much coffee that morning and he needed to get on the ground soon. So much for sightseeing! I took a more direct route back to RHV over the remnants of the marine layer and landed at RHV in very little time.

Another great flight in the books - almost all flights with passengers who are just as excited about flying as I am are! And, I got to use some skills I'd been honing with my instrument training too.

In case you're interested our final route looked something like the picture below...

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