Thursday, January 31, 2013

Cloud Flying in a Baron

I get an email from a friend, Joe, last Friday... "I'm flying down to San Diego in my Baron to install a computer at my wife's parent's place Sunday. Do you want to come?" Do I?! Do I? absolutely! My husband, Jeff, wants to come too. I ask if there's enough payload in the plane for all three of us and a computer... I could almost hear the laugh his email reply. With full fuel this plane has 1900+ lbs available before reaching max gross. Yes, Jeff can come too. And, there's a high possibility that we'll be flying in some IMC also. I've flown with Joe before in his Bonanza and he showed me how easy flying an ILS can look, when you know what you're doing. Joe's a pilot I trust and I was looking forward to seeing the inside of some more clouds from a plane bigger than a 172. Not to mention experience cruising at 175 knots.

We exchanged several emails Saturday and Joe shared the route he was planning and why. He said I could co-pilot if I wanted. So I quickly agreed to manage radio comm and back him up on copying clearances and re-routes. The plan was set and we were going to meet at Palo Alto Airport (PAO) at 8:30 Sunday morning.
Joe's Plane N277MD

We arrived and Joe started his pre-flight. Joe's plane is a beautiful BE55 Baron. It is equipped with actual de-icing and anti-icing equipment too. Boots on the wings and props and an alcohol drip for the props as well. He just purchased it some months ago because he does a lot of weather flying and flying over unfriendly mountain terrain.  I called the FBO at KSAN - yes, Lindberg Field, San Diego's main airport right by down town - to reserve a rental car for the quick trip to deliver and set up the computer and give Jeff and I a way to see some of San Diego while the install took place. All I had to do was give the FBO our tail number and my name and they would have a car waiting for us. I told them we would arrive around noon.

We took off into clear if hazy skies and headed south. Surprisingly he got cleared on the route he filed which was over Catalina Island. He wanted this route to avoid the affect of 35knot winds from the west that he thought would give us a rather rough ride using the eastern route he normally takes. Once we got up to our cruise altitude of 9000 feet he asked me if I wanted to fly the plane. Of course! He had the plane trimmed rather well so, while we did have a few co-pilot induced oscillation in altitude we stayed well within 100' of our cruise altitude at all times.  I had no good idea of what the right visual on a baron cowling and low wing would look like on straight and level flight so I used the instruments to maintain our track within 1 degree. Another benefit of my instrument training. After a while I gave him the controls again. We had a great time chatting on the way.

Small amount of ice on the wing. The
de-icing boots were deployed but useless.
Not enough ice :).
We stayed in the clear until Oakland Center handed us over to SoCal. Then we were approaching the mountains north of LA and a cloud deck formed beneath us. It bothered me to be flying over mountainous terrain, knowing there were mountains below but they were covered with clouds. This was why, Joe explained, he bought the Baron. A single engine failure for him would be manageable and he would fly the plane to the nearest airport. I could see the advantage. About this time we were re-routed by ATC back to the route that he was used to flying, one that was more likely to be turbulent. Oh well, that's what we had to do. So far the ride was mostly smooth.

After a while the clouds started to pile up along the tops of the mountain ranges and we were flying in and out of them. Joe turned on the anti-icing alcohol spray and pitot heat before we got in. The turbulence wasn't bad in most of the clouds. Then we encountered one particularly angry looking and wet cloud. It was much more turbulent than the others and I had a close eye on the instruments and the iPad on Joe's lap. My CFI's definition of moderate turbulence was iPad hitting me in the head. The iPad remained in place on Joe's lap. We popped out of the cloud in about 30 seconds it seemed and Joe excitedly exclaimed, "Ice!" Yep. There on the front wind screen and the wings was a light coat of rime ice.

The world's most expensive
Lenovo desktop.
We navigated our way in and out of the cloud layers and got re-routed a couple more times. It was hard for me to understand what the SoCal controllers were saying. I think it was mostly because I was unfamiliar with the waypoints they were referring to. Aviation waypoint names are often meaningless and if you have no context they can sound like random noises. Joe was very familiar with the route though and when he read back the way points I was better at understanding them. Eventually were stepped down to 7000 feet. The cloud deck was below us again and broken. I could see glimpses of cities below in the shadows. The cloud tops started rising towards us and my eyes kept telling me we were descending, but we weren't.

We switched frequencies and eventually we were talking to the SoCal controllers managing San Diego's airspace. We were stepped down a couple more times and got cleared for the LOC approach in the clouds. When we broke out Joe had the plane in an amazing crab angle, seemed like 30 degrees, due to the winds. I wish I had a picture of the approach to San Diego. I was so absorbed in what I was seeing and paying attention to the approach - I was calling out the next step down as we passed each fix on the approach. We landed right after a 737 (caution wake turbulence) and before another one and taxied off the runway to the FBO. The rental car was waiting for us and we were off to eat lunch with the parents.

Joe preparing 2MD for departure
with many jets around.
After lunch and plane talk we dropped Joe off at the parent's house at the top of the hill over Ocean Beach and Jeff and I went down to the end of Newport Ave, parked and walked out on the OB pier. I used to live in OB about 20 years ago. If someone would have told me 20 years ago when I was a 20 something with no plan or thought to the future beyond that day that 20 years later I would be back in OB for an afternoon visit after flying to OB from Palo Alto in a friend's private plane, and I'd be a pilot too, and a marathoner, and, and... I wouldn't have believed them. No way. But there I was. It was good to go back to that old place and see how OB and I have changed.

After a couple hours the computer was installed and it was time to go back. When we got back to the ramp there were many more planes at the FBO. All more expensive than the now "little" Baron we arrived in. We all laughed about how no matter how nice your plane is, there is always one more nice somewhere. There were many nice private planes in San Diego that day. On the way back I let my husband ride in front so I got some more pictures. I also made sure to copy all clearances from the back too. I always feel better when I have another pilot backing me up, I figured Joe did too.

When Joe got his clearance it included a departure procedure he didn't know so he had to study that. It was a relatively awkward departure procedure with waypoints that had to be identified by VOR. After some study we were ready to go. We watched another 737 land (caution wake turbulence) and then we were cleared for take off. Immediately after take off the tower controller changed the departure procedure on us and gave us a vector for departure instead. We were handed off to SoCal quickly and climbed through the low clouds until we were cruising along on top of the clouds. Joe leveled off and let Jeff fly for a bit. Jeff had more trouble holding altitude and headings, he's not used to flying by instruments and had a completely unusual sight picture to deal with right seat in an unfamiliar plane. After a while Joe had the controls again and we were cruising above LA airspace at 10,000 feet.

Sunset off the wing. A sight that I just LOVE.
We got a couple reroutes and then we started to fly right at and in a cloud layer with a base alternating between 9,500 and 10,000 feet. The sun was starting to set off our left wing and it was very beautiful. This time it wasn't so turbulent in the clouds but it got turbulent over the mountains in the clear. It wasn't bad in the Baron but I was glad I wasn't in a 172 for that part. All in all the turbulence was a small price to pay for the beauty we saw.  As we got past one cloud bank we looked back and saw a shadow of a cloud over the mountains and the ground. This was a sight I know most people would never see.

Eventually the sun went down and we were out of the clouds for good.  The temperature was dropping rapidly at 10,000 feet on a clear winter night. Jeff finally announced it was time for oxygen, he was starting to feel the effects. Joe's plan had built in oxygen so all we had to do was plug into the oxygen ports with our cannulas. "All we had to do". I think at this point we were all at least slightly hypoxic. It took way too long to figure out how to connect into the plane's oxygen systems but eventually we were all hooked up and breathing well.

We were cleared direct DOCAL (the IAF for the GPS approach at PAO) after we left LA's immediate airspace which meant a very long flight on a straight line. Jeff and Joe chatted. I messed around with my iPad and kept an ear open for ATC communications. As we approached the Bay Area the skies got more and more busy with commercial traffic, pilots practicing instrument approaches at night and VFR traffic. At one point Joe turned his head to talk to me and spotted the full moon rising behind me on my right. It was amazing! Very large and orange just peaking over the mountains. What a sight! I tried to capture it in pictures but my phone's camera just couldn't capture the beauty.

Finally we were cleared for the approach back to PAO. On final approach I put away my stuff and spent my time trying to capture the moon shining over the lights of the Silicon Valley and reflecting off the bay like a spotlight. I think this is the best shot.

Just as planned, we landed at PAO at 7PM.  It was a fantastic trip. We are so very lucky to live in a country and a time where pilots have the freedom to get in a plane and fly almost anywhere with very little notice. I can't wait until I fly myself to San Diego.. hopefully with company as good as Jeff and Joe with me.

If you'd like to see more pictures from the trip please visit this photo album.


  1. Wait, that’s the Beechcraft Baron, isn’t it? The development of the Baron began in the late 1950’s and the first model, the Model 9555, flew on February 1960 as a re-engineered development of the Model 95 Travel Air, the Beech’s first light twin which took flight in August of 1956. And look at that beautiful sunset! Oh what do I have to give to see a view like that?!

    Corina Ogan

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