Tuesday, June 18, 2013

RIP Stimpy

I have three cats. I still stay that, because until about 11 this morning, I did have three cats. Now I have two cats. I had to put Stimpy, who is the picture to the left, down today.

Stimpy was a beautiful cat. Black with huge eyes, a triangular face, long slender body and long tail.  She was a strange cat. As a kitten she was very friendly to people until she got a very bad staph infection. After a long stay at the vets we brought her home and she was a changed kitty. Very skittish and afraid of people. Every once in a while she would decide that she wants love and would be all over your lap, but most of the time she stayed away from people unless she was hungry.

Five days ago I took her to the kitty hospital because she appeared ill. She was very ill. Acute renal failure. The doctors suggested IV fluids and pain medicine and see if her kidneys could recover. The chance of full recovery was low, but I know how the body can heal if given a chance and I wanted to give her a chance. Five days later she went from recovering well over the weekend to her kidneys looking so bad the oncologist at the hospital had never seen something that bad. They thought there were tumors in her kidneys bleeding profusely and causing bad swelling and kidney failure again. I made the call. I told the vet I thought we should put her down. The vet agreed. I left work immediately and came to be with Stimpy in her last moments.

The hospital has a room set up like a living room. The vet came and talked with me a bit. She asked if they could biopsy Stimpy's kidney to see if they could learn more about what happened. Perhaps it would help another kitty. Of course I agreed. Another person came in and asked me what I wanted to happen with her body. I choose community cremation and asked where they would scatter her ashes. He said her ashes would be scattered on a ranch in the foothills near UC Davis. That sounded very good to me. I fly over and near those hills often, I would be able to say Hi to her sometimes.

They brought Stimpy out to me and let me sit with her and pet her for a long time, just me and her. She was more friendly than she'd been in years. She climbed on my lap and kept shoving her head into my hand. I rubbed her back and found her favorite scratching spot on her back and she flopped over with obvious pleasure. She looked so much better than she had when I brought her to the hospital before but I could see the bruising on her belly from internal bleeding. I knew it was time.

The vet came in and I held Stimpy on my lap, in my arms. She tucked her head firmly into the crook of my arm and stayed there, purring. I told the vet you could tell she wasn't feeling well because she never did this at home. But here she was, leaning heavily into my arms, purring. I pet her some more, the vet pet her too. Then it was time to let her go. The vet did the first injection to have Stimpy sleep. She fell asleep quickly, her head still tucked into my arm. As she readied the second injection I asked if this was the hardest part of her job as a vet. The look on her face spoke volumes as she quietly said, Yes, and pushed in the second injection. I couldn't tell if Stimpy was still breathing over the sound of my own heart.. I kept petting her soft head. The vet checked Stimpy's heart and told me,  She's gone.

I asked and they left me alone with her for a couple minutes more. She still sat on my lap, head buried in my arm. I cried. I finally got up and put her down and covered her with a towel with only her ears showing. Her body was limp and felt light. The life had gone out of her. Just like that.

I shared the news with one of my close friends and she said something so beautiful I will quote it here, I hope she doesn't mind. She said, So nice that she can be in the foothills, away from all those nasty things called humans, but where Mom can soar over her.

Rest in Peace, Stimpy. I, we, will never forget you. And I will soar overhead and check on you once in a while.

One Yellow Piece of Paper

I guess I'm a bit of a dinosaur, but I use paper and pen and a kneeboard to write down all information when in the plane. Be it clearances, weather, frequencies, or whatever I may need. Looking at my most recent piece of paper from my most recent flight, from Montgomery Field in San Diego to Reid-Hillview in San Jose, I see a full record of that flight. Step by Step. So please allow me to geek out a bit and walk you through a 2.9 hour flight described in one piece of yellow paper.
1) Tail Number, departure and destination

2) Hobbs and tach readings at start and finish of the flight and total hobbs time

3) My initial clearance and two modified clearances received during the flight

4) Frequencies and altitudes assigned to me by ATC on the way

5) Descent plan

6) ATIS at my departure and destination airports

7) Oil and gas used for the flight

All of this information, a rather complete description of my flight, captured on one piece of yellow paper. I think it's pretty cool.

Friday, June 14, 2013

DSWT Day 9 - Heading Home - MYF > RHV

The Feral Chihuahua

After breakfast with the whole family Sunday it was time to go back to the airport and head home. First I had a little side track to enjoy, The Feral Chihuahua. My husband and I rode up to the airport in a taxi and Jerry was waiting for us with a big grin on his face. We introduced Jerry to N20791 and he checked out the plane for a bit. Then we dropped off our bags under the plane and went with Jerry to his hangar. Jerry introduced us to his plane. He built the plane himself and you could tell he knew every nut and bolt on the plane and exactly what he was doing when he modified it for speed. I'd never seen an RV-6 up close and was amazed by how small and light it was.

He did a pre-flight inspection and showed me every bolt he checked and why, then we hopped in to do a short flight. We took off to the west and as soon as we were level he handed me the controls. I had never flown a plane with a stick instead of a yoke and this plane felt like a Lotus Elise compared to the truck that was the 182 I was flying. I was quick to get the hang of the stick though and with small movements had the plane flying the direction and altitude he wanted.

The Feral Chihuahua
We went out over the water and did some turns between the water and the clouds. The plane was a lot of fun to fly. I really liked it's light touch and responsiveness. It seemed very stable in the light turbulence we flew through, especially for such a small plane. We had 195 knots ground speed with seemingly no effort from the plane. We came back towards the field and he took the controls on the 45 for the airport. We had a 195 knot ground speed and I wondered how we would slow down. A couple twists on the prop and a little less power and suddenly our ground speed was closer to 120 knots. A touch of flaps and speed was down to 100 knots and we were on final then on the ground before I knew it. I was all grins when I got out of the plane. It was a real special treat to top off my stay in San Diego.

Time to Go Home

Northern San Diego
County coastline
After more time chatting with Jerry, a weather briefing and talking with my hubby before leaving him for a week, it was time to go home. One final solo leg of my "big adventure". I filed and departed on an instrument flight plan, mostly to have ATC working for me as I flew through San Diego's class Bravo and over LA's class Bravo airspace. I filed for 10,000 feet which gave me plenty of clearance over the mountain range between the LA Basin and California's long central valley, of course it would... instrument routes are required to have 2000' clearance over mountainous terrain :) Normally the winds would be from the north but this afternoon the winds at my planned altitude were strong from the south, helping me on my flight.

The clouds had burned back to the San Diego coast and scattered by the time I took off so I got no actual on my instrument departure. This time I hand flew my clearance and route until after the first major waypoint at Oceanside VOR I needed to work on my tracking and knew I'd have at least two hours to practice. I quickly got back into the groove of holding a proper ground track on an instrument flight plan. My route took me along the southern California coast from San Diego to Los Angeles.

Catalina Island and a cloud free shadow
The strong tailwinds were giving me a ground speed of 165 knots and sometimes more in smooth air. I looked out over the clouds low over the Pacific Ocean to my left and saw Catalina Island created its own clear weather on its downwind side. I saw a large fire in the mountains far to the east but no sign of smoke near the Lake Hughes VOR which had a TFR near by. Air traffic was relatively light at the altitudes I flew and I saw, but didn't hear, the jets flying into the LA area airports below me. I flew right over downtown Los Angeles and just east of Van Nuys and Burbank airports. I even spotted the country club I had lunch at with my friend Rick a couple days before.

The mountains north of LA.
As I approached the mountains that marked the northern edge of the LA basin I expected to feel some turbulence. I estimated the winds had to be 20-30 knots at my back and they would hit those mountains and have to go somewhere, namely up, when they got there. I got closer and closer to the mountains and the air was so clear it seemed the mountains were only a thousand feet below. I double checked the altitudes of the peaks below and I had plenty of clearance. I took pictures but I was ready for a good bounce as I crossed the ridge line. I approached the Lake Hughes VOR and ATC told me to cross Lake Hughes VOR then I was cleared direct to Reid-Hillview. A nice side benefit of flying on a Sunday afternoon when the jet traffic was lighter and MOAs were cold.

Fun Riding the Air

I crossed the first ridge with no turbulence but I noticed I was flying a straight and level attitude at 10,200 and climbing. I pushed the nose down and was still climbing. I pushed the nose down more, still climbing! I needed to be at my assigned altitude. ATC was bound to call me soon. Sure enough, "Skylane 20791, say altitude, altitude reporting 10,400 feet". I responded back with my altitude, 10,400 feet and said I was in an updraft and correcting. "Roger, report when back at your assigned altitude." I got back down to 10,000 feet with the wind whistling through the plane as my airspeed increased. I reported back at altitude and was ready for the inevitable downdraft. Another Skylane heard my report and asked ATC where I was so they would be ready for the same conditions. A minute or two later the downdraft came and I was ready for it. My airspeed slowed towards 100 MPH as I raised the nose to maintain altitude. For the benefit of the other Skylane I contacted ATC and let them know I was now in the strong downdraft but was able to hold altitude. They said roger and told me to contact Bakersfield approach and relay the conditions to them as well.

Folds in the earth between the
central and coastal valleys.
I spent another 5 minutes or so maintaining altitude in the up and downdrafts. It was fun. Then the air turned a bit turbulent. I was flying on the eastern edge of the larger coastal range and I thought the turbulence was probably from winds coming over the range. Either way it was nothing I couldn't handle. My ground speed still hovered around 165 knots and I watched the GPS count down the time to arrive back at my home airport much faster than I thought. I was over the south central valley and would be home in less than an hour.

I was absolutely comfortable alone at 10,000 feet - almost two miles over the valley surface, flying an instrument flight plan, riding a bit of turbulence, watching the clouds to my west, the low mountain range below and the valley to my east slide by. I monitored the instruments and engine gauges, my heading and altitude, and was totally at peace. No thoughts of anything else but just that moment. I wasn't bored or in a hurry, I was just there.

Expedited decent.
ATC interrupted my peace. They had a reroute and wanted to know if I as ready to copy. The reroute was clearing me direct GILRO, the Initial Approach Fix for my airport. It was time to be planning my approach. In spite of being over 60 miles from GILRO the final approach was coming soon. I was going to use this opportunity to practice flying a proper glide slope on approach this time. ATC cleared me to descend to 6000 feet about when I expected. Then they asked me to expedite my descent for crossing traffic. Well, if there's one thing I was getting good at, it was expediting my descent! I expedited and got the plane down to 6000 feet quickly. I got the weather for RHV and winds were variable at 6 knots. The next step down was 4000 feet and I was cleared for the approach. I intercepted the glide slope and followed it down from 4000 feet to 1300 feet then I came in on the VASI and landed.

I taxied off the runway at Delta and contacted ground. Then I was taxiing back to Squadron 2. As I turned down the row to my parking spot the realization washed over me, I did it. I was home from a nine day tour of California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona as PIC of a small aircraft. I flew to airports with altitudes of 135 feet, 7,600 feet and everything in between. I flew over some of the least and most populated areas of this country. I did all of the planning, the flying, everything, myself. I had dreamed of this trip for so long and I did it. I couldn't wait to do it again!

N20791 back at Squadron 2. We're home.

DSWT Day 7 and 8 - Here's to My Dad

Ocean Beach

Hubby and two brothers
in Ocean Beach
Two full days to spend on the ground in San Diego between my arrival Thursday and departure Sunday. What was I going to do with myself?!  Day 1, Friday, I slept in with a vengeance. Catching up on my rest. I wasn't near as tired as I was after arriving in Bryce Canyon but I relished the opportunity to sleep without having to get up early. Lunch with my dad, his wife, two of my three brothers and my other half. After that, an afternoon in Ocean Beach... the most casual beach community in San Diego. Also a place I lived over 20 years ago, another life, another person back then. We wandered the pier, got ice cream, and talked. It was great. I had dinner with the rest of the family and a couple more friends including New York Strawberry Cheesecake to celebrate the hubby's birthday.

USS Midway

Day 2, Saturday. I slept in, not quite as late but much later than 5AM wake ups to get in the air before 7. My dad, husband, two brothers, two sisters, one niece and one nephew and I all went to tour the USS Midway. A new floating museum in San Diego's harbor. On the lower deck there were displays of aircraft cockpits that you could climb inside. I have to admit I monopolized those. I hopped in and looked at all of the knobs, dials, and instruments... I know what this one does and this one... this is old... no idea what that does... I grabbed the stick and made airplane noises. Then I figured I should share the fun with my little niece and nephew so we put them on my lap and I showed them what all the knobs and dials were for. We grabbed the stick and made airplane noises. I have to admit the 2 year old nephew was less than amazed but my niece, I think she's 5, seemed really interested.

Dad giving a tour of the E-2 Hawkeye
My dad was a Naval Flight Officer during the Vietnam war. He flew the E-2 Hawkeye. It was great getting a personalized tour of the Midway with my dad telling us his sea stories. We spent a long time in front of the E-2 Hawkeye they had on display on the carrier deck. We walked around it and he told us where they always found hydraulic leaks, the story of the one E-2 that was lost at sea, what is was like to fly on that plane. He talked about how bored the E-2 pilots were most of the time. They were required to turn on autopilot during the 4-5 hours of the mission that were not enroute to station, take off or landing. To keep the radar dish flat they had to do flat turns with no bank, apparently the only pilot the Navy trusted to do that with precision was the autopilot. He told us about the first, second and third dumbest people on the flight deck, etc. We also learned about the steam catapults used to launch the planes off the flight deck and the tiny patch the pilots had to land their planes on.

I was wearing my USS Sedona cap. I purchased it at the Sedona Airport after my "carrier landing" there. ("Carrier" as in - the runway looked like it was on a carrier. Not "carrier" as in my landing was that hard. Just to be clear.) Many of the veterans working as docents on the ship asked me which ship that was. So I had to explain where I got the cap from and why. Most of the veterans seemed OK with the story and somewhat surprised that a woman was telling them that she did the landing. One heard my story out... then about 10 minutes later he looks at my cap and shakes his head, smiling... Sedona eh? ... Huh. That made us all laugh.

The Retirement Party

Time for the big event. My dad's retirement party. I didn't know companies did retirement parties any more after seeing people who worked 20 or 30 years for a company get laid off. If anything the longer you work at a company the more likely to get laid off it seems. Retirement parties... real parties... paid for by the company the person is retiring from, just didn't seem possible. But my dad was having one and "all the suits" were there. The founder of the company, VPs and "C-level" executives. Friends and family - nearly a third of the party was family flown in by the company. Over 60 people were there.

Goofing around at the party
All but one of my six siblings were there. The one that wasn't just had a baby. All of my step-mom's five kids were there. Some of us brought our kids. Nearly a third of the party was family. Someone commented...  This isn't a retirement party, this is a family reunion with spectators! My dad's friends, many who I've met over the years were there. People that were friends of my dad and mom since my teenage years were there. People that I knew from working at the same company over 20 years before were there. It was a huge affair. And, of course, having my brothers and sisters there was very special. We are scattered about the country, each with our own lives and we rarely all gather in the same place.

I talked with the sibs, my hubby, and the other people there but I have to admit, there was one person I really wanted to talk with. A gentleman named Jerry Jackson. He's worked with my dad for a very long time and, he also happens to be a record holding, record breaking pilot. After I started flying dad bought me Jerry's book, Flight of the Feral Chihuahua. It is the story of Jerry's round trip transcontinental record flight. I really enjoyed the book and was anxious to meet Jerry and talk flying. Dad also told me there was rumor that Jerry recently crashed a plane and we both wanted to hear that story.

Dad and I found Jerry and his wife, Nina, and we heard the story of how Jerry had an engine failure on his newly built RV-10 during a test flight. Jerry said he had a total of 4 minutes between the time he first declared and emergency and the time he crash landed in a state (or maybe national) park and walked away with a repairable airplane. I'm not going to tell all of the story because Jerry will be writing a new book about it. Nina was also very enthusiastic about flying and told me all about the process of selecting a company to repair the plane. We chatted for a long time about flying and such. I asked Jerry what routing I should expect leaving the area headed north and he rattled off a route that was about what I thought I would get.
Me, brothers, sisters, niece,
nephew and dad.

As we talked I mentioned I had my plane tied down at Gibbs Flying Service at Montgomery Field. Jerry said he had his RV-6, the record breaking Feral Chihuahua, hangared there as well. He said he would be at the airport the next morning working on his book and offered to show my husband and I around his plane and the modifications he'd made on it for his record breaking trip. He also offered to take me up in it and let me fly it! I didn't have to take off early on Sunday this time, I had no high density altitude to worry about or gusty winds expected so I absolutely agreed to meet him late the next morning and meet his plane. After that I tore myself away from aviation talk and returned to the rest of the party.

As the sun set time the time for speeches came. We got to hear how much my dad is loved and respected by his co-workers and friends. It was so wonderful to hear. Then I spoke. A friend suggested I start with "a funny thing happened on the way here...". I didn't start with that. I did tell a couple amusing stories both of growing up this wonderful, workaholic father's daughter and then working with him. I talked about seeing his life transform for the better when he met his wife. In closing I said I was sure he would be as successful in retirement as he was in work if he put half as much passion into enjoying his life as he did into his work. With his lovely wife and support and encouragement by his family and friends, I'm sure he will!

Dad talked about how he dreamed of a retirement party with all of his kids there. How his dad had told him about his own retirement party as a janitor for Kodak when all of the suits came to congratulate him. And here we were, almost all of the kids and all of the suits were there to celebrate his retirement. He talked about how he tried so hard to do right by the kids with all of his work. (He was a single earner with seven kids and a wife to support.) He talked about his lovely wife and how wonderful she is (she really is). It was wonderful to be there and be part of fulfilling his dream.

My brother, my dad and me.
I dedicate this post to my dad. The man that instilled in me the discipline, work ethic, toughness and fairness that makes me successful in what I do. Who taught me to be a perfectionist, which sometimes helps and sometimes does not. Whose intelligence, passion, dedication, quirky sense of humor and huge heart are loved by those who know him. I can only hope I reflect those same qualities to my family and friends.

I love you, dad!

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

DSWT Day 6 - IMC Up, IMC Down - VNY > MYF

Busy Airport

The next morning the clouds were low at both my departure and destination airports. The clouds were forecast to be low enough at MYF that I had to file an alternate. They were low enough to not be VFR, but they were high enough they met my personal minimums for instrument flying.

Lineman waits patiently as we get
our clearances and program flight plans

On this leg I wouldn't be flying alone. My friend Rick would fly down with me. His CFI, Paul, would fly down ahead of us in a Lancair. Then Paul would fly Rick back to Van Nuys. This was going to be fun! For one thing it would be great to fly with a friend and for the second thing its always fun to fly with other planes, even if it isn't a formation flight. We weren't in a hurry to leave and both Paul and I are instrument rated so we didn't have to worry about the clouds being there or not. We all met for breakfast at a nearby diner and had fun joking and teasing each other. When we got back to the airport we saw a large twin, maybe a 12 passenger plane, break out of the clouds obviously high over the runway. He did a go around and circled back for landing on 16R.

It was time to go, I did my preflight and called for a weather briefing while the guys waited patiently. Then Paul started up the Lancair first and contacted clearance delivery for his clearance so I could hear the clearance he'd get. It was exactly what he told me to expect. It's always nice to fly with a pilot knowledgeable about the area. Then I got my clearance which was the same as Paul's. There is no run up area with the construction going on at Van Nuys so we did our run ups on the taxi way. Then we contacted the tower for our instrument release. The tower told Paul to pull up to the hold short line. I was told to wait where I was when I contacted the tower. 

Lancair interior, complete with "smoke on"
button on the stick.
We waited and waited for release. A large jet taxied up going the opposite direction, I figured he was waiting for an instrument release too. Behind me a Baron pulled into the "run up" and began his preparations.  This was a very busy airport! The tower contacted me and told me to pull up into the runway hold short area beside the Lancair. Fortunately, my high wings overlapped his low wings with plenty of clearance. That let the jet taxi past us. The tower told us to expect another 4 minutes. I told my friend Rick I've waited longer at RHV with our close proximity to San Jose International. A plane landed and Paul was released for an immediate take off. The Baron was told to pull up along side me. A few minutes later we were released for take off. Time to go!

Up into IMC

The cloud layer was supposed to start around 1200 feet and be a couple thousand feet thick. The departure procedure told me to take off, turn to 110 and climb and maintain 1700 feet. The plane took off quick and climbed strong. Paul gave me a tip that a better climb rate gives more direct routing so I planned to ensure our climb was good. In no time we were in the clouds and I was hand flying at 1700 feet, waiting for SoCal departure to give me a new heading and climb. The wind from the plane was hissing in my friend's mike adding to the noise in the cockpit. Loud noises like that bother me but I tried to force myself to ignore it.

CFI Paul and the Lancair
SoCal had me ident, gave me a new heading and told me to expedite my climb. I turned to the heading and started climbing. I saw I was in a 30 degree bank to the left. A quick correction and I was back wings level ... deep breath. SoCal said I had a stuck mike and told me to ident to acknowledge their transmission. I didn't see the transmit light blinking but I sure heard the wind. Still in the clouds I reached over and unplugged the mike portion of my friend's headset. The noise went away. I contacted SoCal and verified they could hear me. They could. Then they told me I had only climbed 200 feet in the last two miles, gave me a new heading and told me again to expedite my climb. A quick turn to the new heading, established in a proper climbing attitude and wings level. We were out of the clouds in a couple more minutes and intercepting the first leg of the expected route.

Enroute to San Diego

Above the low cloud layer we cruised according to plan and ATC control. My ground speed was slow compared to what I was used to and there was nothing to see below us but clouds. Rick tried to point out a couple landmarks but we couldn't see them in the clouds and haze. We tried plugging in his headset and every time the mike was plugged all the way end I could hear the wind. Neither of us could figure out how to stop it so eventually he unplugged the mike jack of his headset. I had to tease him for that, "Just think," I told him, "you are stuck in a plane with a woman and all you can do is listen to me talk." He plugged the mike back in for a moment to retort.

We were vectored back and forth across our route for traffic. The airspace was busy and the flight took a longer than expected but that was OK. We had plenty of fuel and it was anything but boring. When we approached San Diego our controller was working military planes off of Mirrimar making things even busier. Eventually he started giving me vectors for the approach into Montgomery Field.

IMC into Montgomery

Once I established for sure I was going to keep getting radar vectors I activated the approach. Almost immediately I was cleared for the approach and could start descending straight into the clouds.   I intended to continue to use the autopilot for headings while I controlled the altitudes manually. This method served me well in the past, but this time something was odd. I was coming in on the ILS approach so I made sure to turn the GPS over to CDI / OBS mode. Maybe that disabled the GPS portion of the autopilot. The autopilot did not turn the plane onto the localizer as I thought it should have. I recognized it 30 seconds late and was turning back towards the localizer when the controller asked me to let him know ... again ... when I was established on the approach. I turned off the autopilot and intercepted the localizer easily by hand.

Paul and Rick ready to head
back to VNY

Next challenge, I was high on glide slope. I started correcting that and started to drift left of the localizer. I was told to contact the tower. The tower told me I was high and left. I said I was already correcting. I got back on the right track and struggled to get the plane back down on glideslope. Rick didn't say a word until we broke out of the clouds and he saw the airport, right where it should be. Airport in sight I switched to "visual" mode and proceeded for the straight in landing. I was high still but not terribly high and I got the plane down without heroics to a decent landing on the centerline.

I wasn't happy with the sloppiness and mistakes on the IMC portions of the flight. I couldn't blame ATC for being high on this approach, this one was all me. I knew I could fly instrument much better than this. I decided I would fly the full instrument approach back into RHV even if it was visual conditions to force myself to fly a proper glide slope and track. I definitely need more instrument practice if I am going to continue instrument flying. That was OK though, better some small, non deadly mistakes to point out where I need to improve. I knew how to fix this problem and resolved to do so.

Land Bound for a Couple Days

Paul and Rick in front of N20791.
Tied down at Gibbs Flying Service for a couple days.
After clearing the runway and doing my after landing checklist I contacted ground to taxi to Gibbs Flying Service, an FBO I researched a couple days before. Paul would meet us there. We taxied up to the FBO and parked the plane. Paul arrived about 20 minutes before us in his faster Lancair. I tied down the plane and arranged for fueling and a refill of my O2 bottle. Then we hung out and chatted for a while before Paul and Rick had to head home. I had a couple of hours to wait before my husband arrived at San Diego International on his commercial flight. Then I would remain in San Diego for a couple days. Spending time with my brothers and sisters and Dad before my Dad's retirement party. My next flight would be Sunday. It seemed odd to not be immediately mentally planning for my next flight and knowing I would not be getting into the plane the next day. I already missed it.

About the Headset

You may be wondering, what was the problem with my friend's headset? Why did it always transmit this wind noise? Well... we discussed that on the ground with Paul. I'm sure the experienced aviators out there know the answer already... squelch. Somehow the squelch on that channel got turned way up (or down, I don't know which). With the squelch set where it was, almost all of the ambient noise was being picked up by the mike. My good friend Rick was quick to question how I can call myself a 300+ hour pilot and not know that? Easy, a good pilot is always learning! And for me, considering how much loud ambient noises disturb me when I need to concentrate (as in IMC conditions in busy airspace) this was a very important lesson that I won't forget.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

DSWT Day 5 - Headed West - SEZ > VNY

Departing Sedona in the morning light

Departing Sedona

After a day and a half relaxing and exploring a bit of Sedona I felt recharged and ready for my next flight. I expected this leg to be relatively boring as I planned to fly and actual IFR flight plan on a single airway from 30 miles off Sedona to approximately the same distance away from Van Nuys airport. Van Nuys, in the LA basin, is subject to the regular low clouds and fog of the "June Gloom". That fact combined with the fact that I wanted my first solo flight into the LA airspace to be as uncomplicated as possible contributed to my decision to file and fly IFR. I know it is strange to think of filing and flying IFR as simple or uncomplicated, but for me, IFR flying makes flying into unfamiliar airspace much easier to do.  I've heard many other instrument rated pilots say the same thing. We know, if we are flying instrument, that we always be pointed at the airport at the end of an approach correctly flown.

Before departing I saw the Cessna Citation Jet that was parked on the ramp was getting ready to go. I saw one of the pilots walking towards the terminal building, I intercepted him and walked with him to the building as I wanted to know what the take off and landing distance at this DA was for that jet. He told me landing distance was 3000' in the jet which meant he landed it on the numbers and hard when he came in to Sedona, he could not have landed long like I did safely. In more chatting I mentioned I had come from Bryce Canyon. That was where he was headed and he had questions about the airport there. It was cool to exchange info with another pilot. 

The winds favored runway 3 for take off that morning. Runway 3 has a slightly uphill slant to it and has the red rocks and plateau off the departure end. I knew I had plenty of runway and climb capabilities as the density altitude was around 6000' for my take off. This time I did something different though, I started up as normal but in run up I leaned the engine the engine again for best power as suggested by my husband instead of leaving the mixture at the setting I knew worked for the altitude plus a bit more fuel for cooling. He had mentioned doing this procedure a couple times and I figured I would try it out.

The plane took off strong and I turned southwest and began my climb to 10,000 feet, my filed cruise altitude for the IFR plan. I planned on picking up my clearance over the Drake VOR near the Prescott airport, the start of the airway I was going to fly. On the climb out I admired the red rocks below in the slant of the early morning sun. I am not a morning person, but I was enjoying the way the morning light shown across the desert around me. My eyes scanned the engine instruments automatically, making sure everything was in the green.

California / Nevada border
Everything was in the green but I saw the oil temperature was higher than normal and rising. That caught my attention quick! Oil pressure was normal, one engine temp gauge showed normal but the EGT gauge was showing higher than normal, much higher. The engine sounded fine but this was not going to be good if the trend continued. I started to run through my mental list of common problems and fixes. Things are getting hot, they need to be cooled. Fix that, then figure out why. I heard the electronic engine monitor beeping at me quietly through my noise cancelling headset. The number 1 cylinder readout was flashing and the display flashed "CHT". In a flash I remembered I leaned the mixture before take off more than I normally would. I immediately pushed the mixture to the setting I knew was good for about 5000 feet altitude. Not too rich and not too lean. The engine monitor stopped flashing and beeping, the cylinder head temp went down quickly, EGTs when down across the board and the oil temperature started to slowly return to normal.

I gulped, glad that I had developed that scan of engine instruments regularly as a habit. The scan combined with my knowledge of what "normal" looked like for this plane at altitude, climbing, and in cruise helped me quickly identify the signs of a problem. The fact that I took the time to read the engine monitor's manual over my brief rest helped as well. I knew what it was trying to tell me and I was able to correct the problem quickly. I hoped I hadn't done any damage to the engine. The engine continued to run strong as I leveled off at 10,000 feet and contacted Albuquerque Center to pick up my IFR clearance.

Enroute Across the Desert

After a brief delay from ATC who had to launch another plane from Prescott on an instrument flight plan I got my clearance which was essentially as filed. I had my flight plan already set in the GPS so I turned on the autopilot's GPS heading hold and settled in for the long flight, keeping one eye on the engine gauges and one eye out for potential emergency landing spots in case the engine lost power for any reason.

Lava flows and sand
I had a decent tail wind pushing me along on my west bound route. This was an unusual but pleasant situation. The air was smooth most of the time with the exception of immediately above and after the mountain ridges the airway took me across. I knew to expect updrafts and then turbulence as I crossed the mountains with the wind behind me. There was also a section of air nowhere near the mountains that gave me about 5 minutes of turbulence for no apparent reason. Surprisingly I heard two other planes, jets flying in the flight levels reporting turbulence at the same time. I wondered where they were. I went ahead and let ATC know what I experienced too. Maybe that information combined with thousands or millions of other PIREPS collected over the years would help improve forecast accuracy.

Miles of desert passed by below my wings as I made a game of spotting airports and trying to identify them from my memory of the charts and the terrain of the area then verifying my guesses with the GPS. Every mountain ridge I crossed seemed to be very high but they were all at least 2000' below my cruise altitude. I was relaxed and not bored. The ATC frequency was mostly quiet except for an occasional call out of other IFR traffic going the opposite direction. I wondered if those pilots were cursing the same winds that I was enjoying.

Approach to Van Nuys

ATC contacted me with a re-route that added a STAR to my clearance. I had already studied that particular STAR as it was the one that made the most sense from the direction I was arriving so it was easy for me to add that to my plan. I started to slow the plane as I waited for an initial descent. The airport was at 800' my cruise altitude was 10,000' I had a long way to go down. They weren't giving me a go down, so I started a slow down instead.

I was cleared to 8,000' and cruised at that altitude for a while over the Palmdale / Lancaster area. At one point I spotted a military plane almost directly below me. What a unique view of an airplane! ATC contacted me and cleared me for the STAR procedure. A minute later they contacted me again and asked me to confirm I was a /G (GPS) plane. I confirmed I was and they cleared me direct to the initial approach fix for the GPS approach. They still kept me high though, so I slowed down and pulled back power even more. I could see the bank of low clouds over the LA basin from my position over the desert. I wondered if I would end up flying an approach in actual or not. I was asked to slow down 15 knots to allow a jet finish his extended downwind at Van Nuys. Me! Slow down for a jet... that was a first! I was cleared to descend to 6000'.

On the approach to Van Nuys Airport
I was finally cleared to descend to 4000' and cleared for the approach. I descended as fast as I could as slow as I could. I had 3000' of altitude to lose and less than 5 minutes to do it in at my current ground speed. This was going to be interesting. I could see the airport clearly and I was past the final approach fix, time to "go visual" and land. I already had 10 degrees of flaps in when I slowed down for the jet. I added another 10 degrees of flaps and did a forward slip. I slipped the plane for all I worth and had about 1500 foot per minute descent going. Not a stabilized approach by any means, but a heck of a lot of fun! I finally got an an altitude that I allowed me a normal landing on the famous 16 Right runway at Van Nuys Airport.

I landed and requested taxi to Bob Hoover Jet Center which I was told would be a good FBO to park at for the night and get fuel. This airport was extremely busy. A combination of small and large biz jets and piston aircraft were all over the place with construction equipment busy tearing up the approach end of 16R. For example, as I was taxiing my route was blocked by a large jet. I waited patiently, figuring this time on the ground was costing him much more than it cost me. Ground control suggested I taxi around the jet because he was holding for an instrument release but I told them I wasn't sure my wing tips would clear the winglets on the jet. Ground had the jet move over so I could get by.. thus for the first time in my life I got to taxi through jet exhaust and feel what that felt like (I was ready for it). Finally I taxied to the FBO and shut down. The lineman handed me a bottle of ice cold water before I even got out of the plane. The FBO had fresh cookies and fruit, leather couches to relax on and a big screen TV.  Yep, I was in Los Angeles area now. Goodbye desert. Hello Southern California. 

Time with a Friend

I met up with a friend of mine, Rick, in Van Nuys. He was doing his flight training in Van Nuys and lived near by. He talked me into flying there to land on 16 Right. (OK, he didn't have to work too hard to get me to land there at all!) He also offered me company and a place to stay for the night. After 5 days alone it was nice to spend time with a friend. We ate lunch at a country club overlooking the valley and talked long about flying and our flight training follies, struggles and fun. Then we went by his house and I worked on my flight planning for the next day while he visited his sick dog. He came back home and I had instrument plates and low altitude enroute charts scattered all around me. I expected I would have to take off into the clouds at Van Nuys and descend through the clouds at Montgomery Field (MYF) in San Diego so I was studying them and preparing for the routing Rick's CFI told me to expect. Rick laughed and teased me for so much work for an hour flight. It was a great way to top off a great day.

Monday, June 10, 2013

DSWT Day 3 - Direct Sedona - BCE > SEZ

Looking back at the edges of Bryce Canyon.

Departing Bryce Canyon

I planned my flight to Sedona to take off quite early in order to be on the ground before the gusty winds and heat started up at that airport and before it got too warm or gusty at my departure. Utah is one hour ahead of Arizona so I got to "sleep in" til 6AM and was at the airport by 7. That gave me three hours to make it to Sedona by 9 Sedona time (1600 Zulu) which was my target. The Mooney and two Skylanes were parked on the ramp by my plane. It seemed those pilots weren't leaving that day or didn't have the same planning requirements I'd set for myself.  I chose not to pick up any additional fuel. I had plenty of fuel for the 2.5 hour flight to Sedona plus some more in case I needed to land elsewhere if the winds there were too strong, runway closed or any other issues appeared when I got there.

Ribbons of land in the distance.
When I got my weather briefing in the morning I asked the briefer if there were any issues with the ATC radar this time. I really wanted to be able to get Flight Following and, to know I wouldn't be able to get it before I left. The briefer was puzzled by my question but he said radar was fine. Winds were predicted to be light at my predicted arrival in Sedona and skies clear. "Check density altitude" he mentioned.  I chuckled. I had just listened to the density altitude information for Bryce Canyon, my departure airport. It was 9100 feet. This would be the highest density altitude I've ever started a plane and taken off in. "Check density altitude" indeed.

In preflight I saw the plane was almost a quart low on oil so I added one quart and finished my preflight. I also set up my GoPro camera to capture video of the landscape I'd be flying over. This was some of the most impressive landscape I've seen in a long time and it needed to be captured in flight. I charged the camera the night before so it should last the entire flight.

I leaned the plane for altitude and it started up like a champ. In run up I noticed the prop wasn't very responsive the first time I cycled it. I cycled the prop three more times to get the oil moving. I wondered if that was due to density altitude or cold oil from the low temperatures the night before. I ran the engine a bit longer in run up to get oil temperatures up a bit more before take off. Just to be safe.

A peek into edges of the Grand Canyon again and the
Little Colorado River
I turned on the camera, announced my intentions and took the runway for my departure. I lined up at the very far end of the 7000+ foot runway, stood on the brakes and applied full power smoothly. Not to attempt a short field take off, but to make sure I had a short ground roll as possible. Not required for this runway I was sure, but I thought it was good practice. I smoothly took my feet off the brakes transitioned to the rudders and I was rolling down the runway. I watched the runway remaining signs as they went by. After almost 2000 feet the plane wanted to take off, so I let it. Out of ground effect I pitched carefully for Vy and 20791 and I flew into the early morning sky. The climb rate was good, around 400 feet per minute in spite of the high density altitude. This was one time I was glad I was flying light and alone, I like plenty of safety margin and I felt I had it.

Enroute to Sedona

Sand dunes and plateaus.
I circled over the runway once to get some additional altitude before heading south over Bryce Canyon proper. The canyon was beautiful and I turned the camera to get a better view. I headed towards Page Airport as my first way point and location I intended to pick up flight following. The camera was pointed out the right window to capture views of Bryce Canyon and the Grand Canyon. I shot other pictures with my hand held camera. The air was smooth and cool and the high desert was beautiful in the slanting early morning sunlight.

I had originally wanted to fly over the Grand Canyon proper but when I did my flight plan for this leg the night before I decided I'd rather go as directly as possible without the efforts of navigating the appropriate corridors over the Grand Canyon alone. I was very motivated to get to Sedona quickly and get some rest! Once I got flight following I checked on the status of the Sunny MOA south of Page and when I found that was cold I flew "direct" through it towards Flagstaff. My GoPro was pointed the right direction to capture some peeks at the Grand Canyon and I figured that was good enough for me.

I love the transitions in this landscape.
After I got past the canyon and the landscape became less impressive I reached over to turn off the camera. When I hit the button the camera beeped and a red LED started blinking. It was then I realized I had turned on the camera before take off, but most likely hadn't recorded a minute of video. The camera battery was showing low charge too! I growled at the camera a bit and turned it back off. I hoped it would work for me on approach to Sedona now that I knew what "on" looked like. I resolved, next time I go fly over beautiful landscapes, I should bring a passenger to help manage the cameras and take pictures! 

I sighed and continued my flight. Aside from the first day this flight didn't have to be solo, but I was enjoying flying alone over my desert. This area, while desolate and just as empty, if not more so, than the Utah landscape that had me so disturbed the day before was very comfortable to me. In part, I think, because of my long time living in deserts just like this, in part because I had flown over this region a couple years before with my husband and, in part I'm sure, because I had flight following this time. The watchful eye and usually friendly voices of ATC, avoided by some pilots who don't like "big brother" or are not comfortable communicating with ATC, have long been part of my regular flying routine.  I kept up my scan of the instruments, especially the engine related instruments as I flew. The flight to Bryce burned into my brain how important it was to monitor instruments like oil temp and pressure, EGT and cylinder head temps, etc. I knew now, what "normal" looked like and watching those gauges continue to show "normal" was a pleasing activity.

Approaching Sedona

The San Francisco Peaks and old volcanic craters.
I talked to Denver Center for a while and they handed me off to Albuquerque Center. I went to high school in Albuquerque so I'm always somewhat amused when I talk to Albuquerque center as I feel an admittedly silly connection to the people operating the center there.

It was a very short climb to cruise altitude from Bryce Canyon but it would be a longer descent to the approx 5000' high runway in Sedona, first I had to get past the San Francisco peaks between me and the Flagstaff / Sedona area. I told ATC I was starting my descent and 5 minutes later ATC asked me if I was familiar with the high terrain between myself and Flagstaff. I told them I was well aware and planning to pass the peaks to the east. I found that amusing too, how could I possibly miss these large, tree covered peaks rising from the desert below? But I knew ATC can't see what we see.

Fly around these rock formations for
awhile and become enchanted.
As I descended near the San Francisco peaks and the extinct volcano craters below the air got more turbulent, just as I expected it would. I was getting more used to this type of turbulence, a combination between air moving over the mountains and the heating from the land. My plane rode the bumps as smoothly as possible and it became part of the experience.

I got the weather for Sedona airport and heard the winds were from the south and favored 21. If the winds were favoring runway 3 I was going to approach the airport between two wilderness areas and end up in the Sedona area on the downwind for runway 3. However, with the winds favoring 21 I decided to fly around the wilderness areas to the south east and approach on a more standard 45 degree entry for 21. I found a highway that marked the boundary of the wilderness area and flew away from the plateau the San Francisco peaks sat on and down into the Sedona valley. 

Landing in Sedona

SEZ aka USS Sedona sitting on Airport Mesa,
high over the surrounding town.
I turned the camera on again, ensuring the red LED was blinking this time. I hoped to get as much of this approach as possible.  The winds in the Sedona valley weren't as smooth as on the plateau above. As I finished my descent into the valley and turned towards the Sedona airport I spotted my alternate airport, Cottonwood, in the near distance. My turn completed and I caught my breath, red rocks jutted up from the valley, some seeming to tower 1000 feet or more. I caught sight of the airport itself, it wasn't hard to spot, it was on a mesa that rose 600 feet over the valley floor below. On the approach end for 21 there was another hill rising to almost the same height before the ground dropped and rose again to the edge of the mesa.

I leveled off at pattern altitude and announced my intentions. Pattern altitude was 1200 feet over the airport elevation, unusually high for me. That, combined with the runway's location over the ground made for a very interesting sight picture. To add to the strangeness, when I turned downwind I was flying straight towards more red rocks looking like they were right on the downwind for runway 21. Well, I told myself, don't hit those... just fly the patten and don't do anything silly with all of this strangeness.

I knew from a friend that had landed here before that the winds could create dangerous downdrafts on the end of 21 if they were strong enough. The winds were only 9-10 knots on my approach but I chose to fly a high approach and land a little (not a lot) long to mitigate that problem. When I turned final I was higher than I wanted to be, probably due to the higher pattern altitude. I knew, from experience, I could get the 182 down quick if I had to by underpowering it, so that's what I did... I put in the last 10 degrees of flaps, reduced power even more and, carefully monitoring airspeed, descended to the runway quickly. I rounded out and landed, slightly unaligned so I had to quickly get the plane back straight on the roll out. I turns out I did capture video of my approach to Sedona Airport... here it is.

I taxied clear of the runway and asked on Unicom where transient was then taxied to transient and shut down the plane. When I got out I found a large patch of fresh oil on the ground. I couldn't see any sign it came from my plane but to make sure I caught any oil drips from my plane I pulled it to another, oil free, parking spot. I did my normal post flight walk around just to make sure the plane was OK. This airport had good services, so if I did find a problem I would be able to get it fixed there. Then I took out the ladder and cleaned off the windscreen. This post flight cleaning had become another habit of mine, to ensure any bugs were cleaned off before the desert sun could bake them onto the windscreen. I also felt like I was taking care of my plane, sorta like cowboys used to take care of their horses first at the end of a long day. If I take care of the plane, the plane will take care of me.

N20791 enjoying a view of Cathedral Rock
I put up the car sunscreen I'd been using the last few days to keep the interior and equipment in the plane cool and then walked over to the restaurant on the field for breakfast. It was only 9AM and I was done flying for the next day and a half. I was looking forward to relaxing a bit in one of my favorite spots in the desert southwest.

Friday, June 7, 2013

DSWT Day 3 - Change in Plans

After Bryce my plan was to fly up to Spanish Fork airport near Provo, Utah on Monday to visit my friend Alan. He was the one that inspired me to visit Bryce Canyon with his frequent trips to that airport and beautiful picture of his plan parked in front of the Bryce Canyon hanger. Before I went on the tour of the canyon I texted him to check the weather on his end and send me his estimate of likelihood of making it up there. He said maybe but suggested I should get some rest.

After I did the canyon tour I came back to my hotel and reviewed the prog charts. Not only would I have to get up to Spanish Fork Monday, I'd have to fly back down to Sedona the following day, Tuesday. So I had to consider not only the TAFs and Area Forecasts but the progs became even more important. What is the big weather picture what would it be in two days time? When I reviewed the progs I saw a cold front sliding north to south across Utah and then parking itself for at least 48 hours in central Utah, becoming an occluded front. There didn't seem to be major weather associated with it, but I wasn't sure flying through that front would be pleasant (turbulence could be bad crossing a front for instance).

After my experience the prior two days I wanted to do the best I could to ensure a pleasant flight for myself. I also was very tired. I'd done just short of 7 hours of solo cross country flying in the previous two days and I was beat. The idea of flying directly to Sedona and parking myself there for an extra day to recharge was becoming more and more attractive. Finally I made my mind and told my good friend I wouldn't be coming up to see him. He agreed with my decision, especially with the decision to rest.

Once the decision was made I knew it was the right one. I'll never know what the weather would have been like or if there really was turbulence in that front, but my gut, instincts, whatever you want to call it, said it was a good thing to do directly to Sedona and take care of myself.  Such is the nature of single pilot flying in small airplanes, it is important to take care of the pilot too!

DSWT Day 2 - The Bryce Canyon Reward

Beyond the wagon ride .. a rock shop,
saloon, rodeo, and all kinds of
western stuff for the swarm of
European tourists.
I spent a fantastic afternoon in Bryce Canyon after landing at that high altitude airport. For the middle of nowhere, literally, the BCE is rather nice. It has a nice new terminal, tie downs and fuel for the plane. Rental cars, shuttles and nice spaces to relax for the pilots. The terminal didn't have coffee(!) but did have a soda machine and the airport manager was very friendly and talkative after I paid him a $10 tie down fee instead of the $3 required. I figure an airport deserves supporting and every little bit counts.

Ruby's Inn, which, it turns out, is Bryce Canyon City. Offers a free shuttle from the airport into Bryce Canyon City. The shuttle wasn't timely by any means, but I was tired and happy to relax in the terminal and chat with a couple that arrived shortly after I did in the nicest looking Mooney I'd ever seen. There was also a group of four women who landed some time after the Mooney in a 182 TC. They went immediately to get their rental car and go into the canyon. The guys in the Mooney were going to Ruby's Inn also so we ended up catching the same delinquent shuttle. They were from North Carolina and flying back from a business meeting in Newport Beach. With the nice tail winds they had it took them the same amount of time to fly from Newport Beach to Bryce as it did for me to fly from Elko to Bryce. The pilot said he was flying around 90 knots ground speed on the way to Newport Beach so he was really enjoying the push!

You can see the curve of the "amphitheater" of Bryce Canyon
in the pink and orange formations in the distance.
The white hoodoo in the lower left is supposed
to resemble a poodle.
When we got to Ruby's Inn my room was ready so I checked in. The Mooney guys' room wasn't ready. The hotel staff told them they would store their luggage (including the pilot's flight bag) in the lobby. I knew that wouldn't fly, no pilot leaves their flight bag out for easy access. I told them the could store their luggage in my room. After the staff saw whatever this stuff was must be important they offered to store it in the office and the problem was solved. The Mooney guys went to freshen up and I went to find out about shuttle that I read could take me into Bryce Canyon National Park.

Sure enough there was a ticket office right by the main entrance to the inn. There are two types of shuttles, one runs every 10 minutes from the Inn complex into the park and stops at about half of the overlooks into the canyon. There are hiking trails everywhere and the shuttle option looked really good if I had the energy to hike. The other option was called the Rainbow Point shuttle. The same price as the regular shuttle, this one takes you all the way to the far end of the canyon, to Rainbow Point. The driver gets out of the shuttle and explains the flora and fauna around you as well as the amazing vistas you see at the various overlooks. It was a four hour trip and only ran twice a day. The next shuttle out was at 1:30. Perfect! That gave me time to put my stuff in my room and get some lunch.
The mesa you see in the background tops off at
11,000 feet high. My highest cruise altitude was 11,500!

I hopped on the shuttle at 1:30 and was treated to a great overview of Bryce Canyon National Park. I didn't have the energy to go hiking but I saw Pronghorn, a prehistoric type of dear that can run over 60 MPH, mule dear resting in the shade and ground squirrels and some amazing vistas of the terrain that is Bryce Canyon and the canyon lands to the south.

I encountered ancient bristlecone pine trees and a tree that was stuck by lightening and survived. The most amazing thing was the vistas of the eroded lake bed that is Bryce Canyon. At Rainbow Point we were standing over 9000 feet. The lower points of the park were around 8000 feet. Bryce Canyon was described as the last and highest step of land that starts at the Grand Canyon, then Zion and finally Bryce.

Here are some more pictures from the brief time I spent in the canyon. The vistas and hoodoos and brightly colored rocks were just the reward I deserved for my flying to that point. I want to come back here again and do some real hiking in the canyon. I know I just scratched the surface. I hope when I do come back there will still be an excellent airport to land at and the friendly people of Ruby's Inn to help shuttle me to and fro.

A natural arch. Who knows
how long this will last?
The most dangerous critter in the park. The ground squirrel.
10-15 tourists a year get bitten by this ferocious animal!

What can I say? Just amazing.

This tree was stuck by lightening and survived.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

DSWT - Interlude - 3 Years of Flying

I will post about my trip to Sedona and landing here in a day or two.. for now I have finished my flight planning for tomorrow's IFR flight plan from Sedona to Van Nuys after a wonderful day and a half exploring Sedona by car and by helicopter. I have to get to sleep soon.

I post today to celebrate the day, three years ago, that I first took the controls of a small plane. I was scared to death and sitting in the right seat. On June 4th 2010,  my husband's CFI took me up for my first "Pinch Hitter" flight. The idea was to teach me enough about flying an airplane that, in case my husband had a heart attack or something, I would be able to communicate an emergency, find an airport, get the plane to an airport, safely crash land the plane and walk away. From the moment I took the controls, I was hooked and haven't looked back.

So, to celebrate 3 years of flying I share with you a picture I took from the Sky Ranch Lodge on Airport Mesa in Sedona last night. A place I wouldn't be staying at and specific view I probably never would have seen if I didn't do that flight 3 years ago today. My life will never be the same and I am glad!

Monday, June 3, 2013

DSWT Day 2 - Flying Through - EKO > BCE

Climbing out from Elko, NV.

Alone Over Utah

I've been flying for a while now (tomorrow marks three years in my log book) and the last thing I expected was to feel fear flying nice and high in smooth air on a cross country flight. However, Sunday, on my flight from Elko to Bryce Canyon... I felt a fear I hadn't felt in a very long time.

It was a sort of nameless nervousness that had me constantly scanning the instruments and the skies to make sure everything was OK. It started about 30 minutes off the ground from Elko. I took off very early in the morning to make sure I would get to Bryce Canyon before the heat, turbulence and gusty winds set in. The plane started beautifully in spite of the high density altitude, take off was smooth and climb out, while taking seemingly forever, was at the expected rate. About 30 minutes after take off I was over a VOR and contacted Salt Lake Center for VFR flight following. Center answered quickly enough but said they were unable due to radar being down.

All of the sudden I felt very… very… alone.

I looked around at the terrain I was flying over. My friend suggested this route, it was a good one, getting me across the larger mountains over relatively low passes so I wouldn't have to climb above my cruise altitude of 11,500 to maintain a comfortable clearance. Some of the peaks still had snow on them, but those were few and far between. Most of the other peaks were just peaks - to me they were potential turbulence generators and ridges to cross with either plenty of clearance or 45 degree angles. Between the mountains were broad and mostly flat valleys. Valleys with no roads and no towns, just dirt, brush, and the bright green circles of irrigated crops. I wasn't following roads on this route like I did the day before. This time I could rarely see a road and cars were fewer and further between.

Some of the many mountains
and valleys of western Utah.

Well, at least there are plenty of emergency landing locations, I thought. The next thought that hit me was the fact that yes, I could land safely, but how long would it take for someone to find me in these empty valleys between the mountain peaks? I took out the SpotGPS tracker that I gave up on before takeoff and determined I would make the thing work. I needed some way for people to find me in case of a problem and that's why I bought it in the first place. Yes, I did have snacks, water and even a very light sleeping bag with me in case of an emergency, but I didn't want to have to wait. I got the Spot tracker working (I know… How hard can it be to get something that has all of 4 buttons to work? Harder than it should be! I just do not get along well with small, simple electronics.)

All I had to do was fly the flight plan… but the terrain was very foreign to me. I am used to desert terrain, I grew up in New Mexico and I love the vast emptiness of the desert. But this desert was not my desert. This desert was different… the mountain ranges cut off my view of the vastness and each one became a new barrier to cross, carefully. I used my charts and GPS to get an idea of what was on the other side of each range, where the roads were, where the nearest airports were (not many and not as close as I am used to in California!)

Bryce Canyon Airport

The foreign terrain bothered me. Not having flight following had me feeling as alone as I actually was. The knowledge that, once it got hot enough, it would be rough *and* strange had me on edge. I was not enjoying this flight. I was grateful that it was smooth and I tried to make myself enjoy the vistas around me, but I just wanted the flight to be done. NOW. Only an hour and a half more to go. To add to my nervousness, there was the challenge of Bryce Canyon Airport (BCE) itself. 

The airport itself sits at 7,600 feet with a pattern altitude of 8,400 feet. Flying in California I almost never *climb* that high, not even in cruise, and here I would be descending only 3000 feet from cruise altitude to an 8,400 ft pattern altitude over a 7,600 MSL airport. The runway was very long, over 7000' long but there was only one - 3/21. At least the airport was on a broad plateau with only a few ridges close by. I had been monitoring BCE's weather for a week or more in order to get familiar with what to expect when I got there and help plan the timing of my flight. The winds I've observed in my monitoring varied from almost every direction but the speeds were more concerning to me than the winds. It was not uncommon at all for winds to be 10 or more knots gusting to 20 or more. I tried to time my flight to land before the winds would pick up. As I cruised my lonely way across the Utah desert, I hoped against hope my timing was right.

Closer to Bryce - more signs of life.
An airstrip (on the left) and farming community.

I realized on that flight how all of the cross country flight planning I learned during my private pilot training is very valuable, even though much is not used to the same level of detail on hundred dollar hamburger flights. This type of flying is totally different. I wished I had done an old fashioned flight plan, by hand instead of by app, so I would have engrained in my brain my calculated winds, ground speeds, fuel, ETAs and ETEs and a better feel for my progress. What if the flight was taking longer than it should? I had more than enough fuel, but I was in a race with the winds at BCE.  I used the timer on my sports watch to monitor time between checkpoints and I was staying within a couple minutes of expected time for everything except climb out, also as expected. For some reason I didn't feel that much better.

Then I heard Salt Lake Center announce there was hazardous weather information for the western US available on HIWAS and Flight Service. There wasn't a VOR with HIWAS within 100 NM of my position and when I tried to contact Flight Watch on 122.0 I got nothing. I felt even more alone and wanted to go back to my Private Pilot text book and figure out what I was doing wrong and why I couldn't get potentially important information. Did I mention how much I wanted the flight to be done?

By this time I was within 30 or 45 minutes of Bryce and more airports were in the area. As I passed over each one I picked up the local altimeter and checked the local winds, just in case. It was not uncommon, it seemed, to have pressures vary 1" or more between these airports.  About 20 minutes from Bryce I was able to get the weather there. The winds were from 120 at 11 gusting 19. With the runways at 3 and 21 I didn't need an EFB to tell me I would have a direct cross wind somewhere between 11 and 19 knots. The max demonstrated cross wind for my plane was 15 knots, no more than a Cessna 172. (It has a higher cross wind for take off, don't know why.) OK, I told myself, if I can't land at Bryce lets pick another place to land that has a town nearby. But I'm going to Bryce and going to give it three tries. I passed over a couple more airfields and checked their weather, each had calm or light winds aligned with their runways. I felt better knowing my options.

Descent towards Bryce Canyon.
The terrain starts to change.
I was descending towards Bryce and once I got below 9500 it got bumpy again, just as expected and not as bad as the day before. I checked the winds at BCE every 5 minutes or so and they remained a direct cross wind, going between 9 and 13 knots. I could land in that sort of cross wind, I knew. All I had to do was not mess up the approach at this very high (to me) altitude airport. Density altitude at the airport was broadcast as 9800 feet, the highest density altitude I'd ever landed at as pilot or as passenger.

I got over the last ridge and saw the broad plateau that was the lip of Bryce Canyon itself. The airport was clearly visible. The plateau was just the type of expanse of land I like to see. It was very beautiful but I didn't have time for pictures. I had to fly the plane. I choose to land on runway 21 because that was the simplest approach. The nice thing about a direct cross wind is it doesn't really matter which runway you pick. One last check of the winds and they were reported at 11 or 13 knots direct cross wind.  I knew is I could land that if I did it right. So I resolved to do it right.

I fought off the illusion of moving too fast and flew the instruments instead of the outside world to determine my airspeed. It was strange. I had a sensation similar to the disorientation one experiences in IMC… fortunately I knew how to manage that.  I made sure I was coordinated in all turns and didn't even overshoot the center line. Once on final I had to fight the winds all the way down to landing. It wasn't pretty but it was safe and I landed on my first try. I was relieved and exhausted and proud of myself. I made it.
Skylane 20791 in front of the historic Bryce Canyon Airport Hangar