Thursday, September 4, 2014

Because We Can - 12 Airports in One Day

Sunset Over the Bay
It amazes me how flying has become somewhat routine, yet still magical. That's probably one of the things I love most about it. One can reliably transport oneself from point to point with freedom, speed, and relative comfort in the air of all places. And I'm one of the ones that can do it. I cannot and do not want to escape that feeling of awe and gratitude that I can do it at all.  Annnyyyyway... that's not what I'm writing about, I'm writing to share a story of a really neat flight or two.

It's Labor Day weekend and I was going to be up in Willows, CA for another NASA auto racing  event. Given it was Labor Day weekend, driving to Willows was out of the question. So I flew! The flight up to Willows was one of the more beautiful flights I've flown with slanting sunlight, clouds and haze making the sky merge into the ground in one amazing painting. I'll share some of the photos here.

My friends Craig, Kim and little Alexis were flying that weekend too. They went up to a fly-in at Trinity Lake near Mt. Shasta and then met me in Willows so we could all fly somewhere, anywhere, together on Labor Day. This was a rare day that we were all free from work and other obligations on the same day.

While the family had a great experience at Trinity Lake, little Alexis was congested and she was not a happy child on descent into Trinity or even a very gentle descent into Willows. Her parents purchased some medicine from the nearby Walmart but we weren't sure the medicine would relieve her congestion enough for her to not be in pain during climbs or descents on Labor Day.

The Plan

We had toyed with the idea of visiting Shelter Cove because I'd never flown there before, but to get there we would want to climb high and we weren't sure Alexis' ears could handle it. So that sent us to the other plan. Both Craig and I learned to fly from the same CFI. That CFI had flown to 35 airports in one day with his brother over a decade ago. The thought of doing a trip like that had drifted through my mind several times over the last few years. I knew Craig liked airport hopping on his trips, so I suggested landing at 10 airports neither of us had been to before as a fun flight we could all do together. We agreed that was the thing to do, hoping staying low between airports would result in no discomfort for Alexis' ears.

Craig and I sat down at the bar in the best Mexican Restaurant in town and spread out a sectional to plan our our flight. I had spent the last two days thinking about it so I had a pretty good idea of what I thought would be good. After some discussion we agreed on 10 airports between Willows and RHV to land at. Two of them I had been to before but Craig had not so I figured that was good enough. 

Our Route
We would start at Willows and then fly north to Haigh field in Orland, CA, east to Chico Muni, south to Oroville Muni, duck under the Beale Class Charlie to visit Marysville (or Sutter County), south east to Lincoln, south to Mather AFB, then to Rancho Murietta. We would stop in Rancho Murietta for lunch and then continue on. Next stop was Sacramento Executive, then Franklin, Byron and finally finish at Reid-Hillview. 

The total straight line distance 210.8NM and flight time, if we never stopped, of a little over 2 hours. We would land and taxi back at each airport since Craig wasn't in the habit of doing touch n' goes in the 172 he was flying. To reduce any stress about "staying together" in two planes when we weren't going to fly in formation we agreed to wait for each other at Oroville and Rancho Murietta. I expected to be much quicker than they were in the air because I was flying a faster plane. What I didn't realize was, while I was taking it easy flying at 65% power on the short legs between the airports, Craig would be flying at "full rental power" in the 180HP 172 so he kept up with me just fine. 

More Planning

After agreeing on our route and spending more time hanging out we retired to our various hotel rooms to do the rest of our planning. Remember, pilots are required to have "all available information" pertaining to the flight. Well, that's a lot of information when talking about 10 new airports in addition to RHV. The first thing I did was get online and check for NOTAMs at each airport and for TFRs. Then I looked up key information for each airport. Runway orientation, length, field elevation (FE), traffic pattern altitude (TPA), pattern direction, any approach notes for the class Delta airports, potential hazards (deer for instance), etc. I didn't have my knee board with me so I scrounged around my hotel room for something to write on. Below you see the result. 

I'm not a CFI yet.. but I did stay at a HI Express last night!
I had 10 little sheets of paper with everything I needed, including approach and departure plan, for each airport with the exception of Willows and RHV of course. Those airports I already had covered. 

I remember my first cross country flight plan took over an hour for one airport. This time I planned for 10 airports in an hour! What a difference a couple years of practice makes :) 

I did one more check of the weather forecast - relatively calm winds, hot, with some smoke aloft - then I went to bed. Happy to be sleeping in until 7 am the next day. 

Pre Flight

We agreed to meet at Nancy's Airport Cafe for breakfast at 8 the next day so we could leave at 9. I woke up at 6AM anyway so I used the extra time to get a weather briefing. The forecast winds were changed from the night before. Now the forecast was for gusty winds north of our location, especially after 10AM. No other big changes there. I got ready and walked out to the plane early to add some oil and get her ready to go. 

We met up for breakfast and I showed Craig and Kim my stack of notes. It turns out Craig did the same thing but he had his kneeboard so he was able to keep it a bit more neat. He added little airport diagrams to his planning materials while we ate. After fueling our bodies with food I had to fuel my plane with 100LL.

When we walked outside the wind was gusting and I could see smoke or dust blowing across the ground. This was not as forecast, but not the strongest I've experienced at Willows by any means. Definitely time to go.

Time to Go

Willows Ramp
There were six or seven planes on the small ramp at Willows (three taking off including us) and two or three more planes in the pattern when we left. All of the sudden this sleepy airport became as busy as our home class Delta, without the benefit of a tower. Craig was ready to go first so I told them to go ahead, then I was stuck behind a twin that departed towards the runway without talking. So I decided I would do my run up in a corner of the ramp near the fuel tank. A Cherokee on the ramp decided it needed fuel. I didn't want to blast them as they fueled up. I would wait in line at the runway end to do a run up there. I started taxiing towards the far end of runway 34. Just then a Bonanza lands and exits the runway on the one taxi way between me and the end of the runway. He realized he was blocking the taxiway and crossed to the other side of the taxiway to give me room. After all of that excitement we were finally able to take off.

The twin Apache took the runway and announced he would do a pattern and touch and go before heading north. Craig took off after the touch and go was done. I programmed the full flight with all of our stops into the GPS to give Craig time to get well ahead of me so there'd be no chance of us meeting in the air with the unexpectedly limited visibility. All of the airports I checked reported at least 10SM visibility but the haze and smoke was much worse than we'd expected.

Airport Hopping

I flew to our first stop, Haigh, and was approaching as Craig was on downwind. Craig reported rather strong headwinds on final. The winds were strong but straight down the runway. Craig landed on the numbers and taxied clear of the airport. Craig waited for me and let me taxi ahead to lead the way east to Chico.

Chico Muni is a class Delta airport with a strange runway setup. One runway was roughly 6000', the other 3000'. The 3000' runway was wasn't a separate paved area like we're used to. It was just part of a large asphalt pad. The pattern was strange two, both runways had pattern entries from the same direction, one inside the other. I requested a stop and go from Chico's tower and was cleared for downwind for the larger runway. A normal pattern for the larger runway would be right over the smaller one. I asked the tower if there was anyone using the smaller runway and they said no. Alright. I flew a normal pattern, did a touch and go and headed south to the next stop, Oroville. On climb out I had to switch my little pieces of paper around on my kneeboard. That was more difficult to do on a touch and go than a stop and go.

I would climb only to 2500 feet between these initial airports because there was so little time between them. Oroville had a more complex runway configuration but was simple to fly and land. If I recall correctly, it also had a dip in the middle of the runway that made for an interesting optical illusion. I waited there for Craig and family only for a few minutes before they arrived. Off to the next stop - Marysville.

Marysville was more interesting. Marysville was situated just east of another small airport, Sutter County. Both airports sat under the Beale AFB Class Charlie airspace that started at 1600 ft. I flew at 1300 feet to Marysville, looking for it in the haze and smoke. I figured I would see Sutter County first, it was slightly further north, then Marysville to the left of Sutter County. Craig called me on the air-to-air frequency we used to check my groundspeed and altitude. It seems I was cruising at the same speed as he was. He could see me on the GPS display in his plane via ADS-B and he didn't want to catch me in the haze.

I saw Sutter County and swung east of that airport to set up for the approach to Marysville. I still couldn't see Marysville. As I passed Sutter County I realized the airport had two runways instead of one and they were marked with the same runway numbers as Marysville. That was Marysville. I was on the wrong side of it to enter the pattern correctly so I announced I was crossing midfield from east to west (to let Craig know what I'm doing) to do a tear drop down to the 45 for my desired runway in Marysville. I flew right over the real Sutter County airport to enter the pattern for the correct airport and landed.

Craig landed shortly after me and asked if I wanted to land at Sutter County. I said no because I already "visited" it. Kim asked if I didn't want to go there because it would be airport number 13. I said, "that too!". Next stop Lincoln. I stayed low under the Class Charlie shelf and altered my course away from a completely direct route to get out from under the shelf quicker. There was a helicopter doing pattern work at Lincoln. He was a friendly pilot and landed on the parallel taxiway to give me room to land on the runway. It was odd to be landing parallel to a helicopter. Craig landed shortly after.

Next stop Mather AFB to the south. I'd been there before and researched how they would set us up for entry. When they told me to make a right base for 22R (only 6000' long) I was well positioned for the approach. This time Craig was further behind and he was doing his initial call when I was already on final. I requested and got permission for a touch and go on the "little" runway and, with more note juggling on climb out, headed east to Rancho Murietta. The Mather tower controller was very helpful keeping an eye on traffic nearby.

My note for Rancho said "Deer!" This airport was known for deer, especially at night according to the AF/D. I didn't want to encounter any deer this time. As I monitored CTAF there I heard a couple planes in the pattern one landing after another. I was midfield downwind and one plane took off, then when I was abeam the numbers a second announced it was taking the runway to take off. I hoped any deer would be scared away by them. I extended my downwind and looked for deer when I was on final. I had a deer free landing, taxied over to transient and shut down. Time for lunch!


An Arrow, shutdown on a ramp in the summer, is an instant sauna. I popped open the door and window and used my sectional a sunshade to try to keep the plane cool. Craig and family taxied up and shut down next to me. Craig immediately got out and said something about needing an airplane with air conditioning. I pointed out the fact that at least he was flying a Cessna with built in shade.

We were all too hot to feel hungry but we walked to a nearby pizza place to get something to drink, some food and some air-conditioning. We found our appetites after we cooled down and enjoyed the food and company. Alexis was doing great with no problems for her ears and we were all having a great time.

We both pushed our planes over to the fuel island to top off the tanks before our last few legs. We weren't sure we needed fuel, but we weren't sure we didn't. So we erred on the side of caution.

Four More to Go

Next stop, Sacramento Executive, another class Delta. I closed the door on the Arrow and was immediately covered in sweat. It was hot, hot, hot! I couldn't wait to get up in the air to cool down but this time I didn't want to juggle my little sheets on climb out after the touch and go at the next stop so I took the time to set up the sheets for my next two stops ahead of time.

I was finally ready to go and took off for Sac Exec, this was another airport I'd been to before but never from that direction and it had three runways. I was expecting to get runway 20 so I did my approach planning based on that. I contacted Sac Exec and was cleared for a touch and go on 20. On departure from there I requested climb out to the south to head towards Franklin. This time I only hear Craig call in as I left Sac Exec's airspace.

Franklin I was curious about. It was a waypoint on my long solo cross country but I never saw it on that flight. Franklin had two runways and no weather reporting. I used Sac Exec's winds to plan my approach and flew the approach to runway 18, right over a pen full of cows. There was a definite crosswind on final which I wasn't expecting, I was floating down the runway too and decided to go around and do that one again. I announced my go around as Craig started to approach the runway. He asked what happened and I told him I was going to come around again for 18 instead of the runway better aligned with the wind. I wanted the crosswind landing. Next time around I landed just fine and taxied clear, letting Craig know there was a definite right crosswind. After I taxied clear of the runway I finally found the windsock, showing a good direct crosswind. Craig handled it well. We took off on the runway better aligned with the wind (also better aligned with where we wanted to go). Next stop Byron.

We had 30 miles to cruise this time so I climbed up to 3500' I could see the top of the haze layer from this altitude the air was pretty smooth and time seemed to fly by as I peered through the haze, looking for Mt. Diablo and the lake situated in front of Byron. Finally found the airport and came in to land with another crosswind. Not a problem. This airport was pretty busy but we were all using the same runway. I didn't have long to wait before Craig and family landed behind me. The next and last stop would be Reid Hillview.

I took the runway to leave Byron and realized I was getting tired. I was glad my last stop was coming. I climbed out and headed towards the busy Livermore/Calaveras corridor. I monitored NorCal approach to get some hints on any traffic issues they saw but didn't get flight following. As I approached Calaveras I started scanning up towards the hills where planes tend to drop down into the area and head towards the Sunol grade. I was glad I did. I saw a Cessna on a converging course with me that didn't appear to see me. I turned behind him and watched as he continued on over Sunol, blissfully unaware of my presence. I wondered how often I was that other plane, oblivious to traffic nearby.

I got the ATIS for RHV and called in for landing over Calveras. I was cleared for 31R and flew my normal approach. Craig called in shortly behind me. So close, in fact, that the tower had him ident to make sure they knew who was who. They told him to follow me in to land. I flew my best approach of the day into my home airport and landed nicely. I taxied clear of the runway and was switched over to ground before Craig landed behind me.

Back Home

We shut down, got our hobbs time and put away the planes. Both Craig and I were eager to figure out the total time and record the 12 airports in our log books. I had 3.8 hours, Craig had 4.0. I was amazed at how easy the whole thing was. I imagined it would be much harder to fly to 11 different airports in one day, but I was wrong. The trip was 12 airports counting Willows. Planning ahead definitely helped. Having my little pieces of paper made all the difference in the world as I managed the flight solo. The speed at which the airports came helped also. While we spent quite a bit of time in the air, it felt like it went by very quickly. It kept me too busy to feel tired.

We all had a great time, even little Alexis did. She always loves flying in airplanes. It was definitely worth the time and effort to do. Craig and I are already talking about trying to beat the Squadron 2 "record" of 35 airports in one day set by our CFI. We will definitely wait until the weather cools and do it in one plane so we can leverage the brains of two pilots and split responsibilities. Hopefully we can do that this fall or winter.  It's funny though, when my husband told some co-workers in the UK about my adventure they kept struggling with one question... "Why?" All I can say is, "Because we can!"

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