My longest X-country yet: KPAE(Seattle) to KSTS(Sonoma), over San Francisco, and back
Hey everyone. I'm going to split this into five parts, because... basically because I like to write a lot, and this is just for fun, so I'm not going to worry about editing it down. Feel more than free to just scroll down and enjoy the pictures ;) (Then again, if this is a little bit too long... then that's part of the point. This flight was definitely a test of my endurance!)
Let me start by mentioning my PREVIOUS longest flight: A couple months after I earned my Private Pilot certificate, I flew a 172 from Paine Field (my "home" airfield; I live and work right by it) to Priest Lake and back. It's about 270 miles each way, a cross-country that requires careful planning by a new pilot.... and also a lot of patience: In a Cessna facing 30-knot headwinds, the return trip took almost 4 hours (including a fuel stop). Several months after that, a friend of mine and I bought an RV-6A. I have used it to fly to Priest Lake a few times. That flight got pretty easy, less than two hours each way. So I was looking for the next challenge to continue to increase my cross-country skills. Also, I hope to fly to Oshkosh someday, so I should work my way up to that gradually.
What I finally decided to do: Fly to the Sonoma airshow, "Wings Over Wine Country", organized every August by the Pacific Coast Air Museum. I visited this airshow every year when I lived in California (i.e. 8 times), got to know the organizers, they used my airshow pictures for their promotional materials, and in exchange they got me really cool rides in the airshow airplanes (DC-3, C-17, Harmon Rocket, even the Patriots' L-39s). So now that I was a pilot, I thought it would be cool to fly down there, maybe even give THEM an aerobatic ride in MY airplane!
So I planned the trip, as you can see above. It's about 650 miles. Less than three times the distance to Priest Lake, but long enough to require one or two refueling stops (if I'm going to be very conservative about fuel, which I am) and less than 5 hours of flying. Should be doable. I planned on leaving on Thursday August 15th, spend that night in Palo Alto with some college friends, head to Sonoma on Friday (a quick hop), spend the weekend there at the airshow, and fly back home on Sunday night. The weather around mid-August is the best all year, so while nothing was guaranteed, I looked forward to the trip for months.
As the date approached, a nasty front was making its way from the Pacific into Washington and Oregon. The weather in most of Oregon was due to be pretty crappy on Thursday, low ceilings all around Portland, a persistent marine layer down the coast... and on top of that, there was a huge number of wild-fires all over the state. For all these reasons, I decided that a good path (as you can see above) would be to cross the Cascades and fly down the eastern side of WA and OR, then fly around Mount Shasta and back over to I-5 once I got to California. The desert-like high plains on the eastern side of the mountains are a lot flatter than the hills and woods on the western side (i.e. in case of engine failure, I could land safely), and the weather is much better (typically sunny, and any incoming front loses most of its steam when it goes east over the mountains into the desert).
So that was the plan. On Thursday, the morning fog took its time burning off, as it does on many days here at Paine Field. And just as it did burn off, that nasty front rolled in from the Pacific. The TAFs had predicted clouds at 4000-5000 feet, plenty high for me to get out of town. But the reality was a ceiling barely 1000 feet AGL, and rain showers. Paine Field was IFR. All day on Thursday I just stayed home, waiting for the weather to let me fly out of here. (At least I got all kinds of random errands and chores done). But no go. I told my friends in Palo Alto that I had to cancel dinner, and that I would be flying straight to Sonoma the next day. They understood. Such is life when you don't have an instrument rating (which is next on my to-do list after I finish paying off the airplane. Probably next year).
On Friday in the late morning, it was looking like the clouds were finally burning off. The TAFs said the same thing as the day before (ceiling around 4500 AGL, burning off around noon) but this time it looked like it was actually happening. So even though the airport was still IFR, I headed out to the hangar, looking up at the sky (see above) and hoping that the trend would hold.
Looks like I'm not the only one who wants to fly today! On the way to my hangar, I pass the Flying Heritage Collection, who was doing engine run-ups on some of their warbirds in preparation for "Luftwaffe Day" flights the following morning.
While I was getting fuel, the airport finally went VFR. And best of all, it sounded like there was little to no mountain obscuration over the I-90 pass, which is what I hoped to fly through (or, ideally, over) to go from the Puget Sound area to the high plains of the eastern desert. Here you can see my flight log, with dead-reckoning headings and times between each of the airports along the way, as well as extra info (radio frequencies, runways, elevation, etc) for the airports where I might want to stop for fuel.
As I climbed out, it was clear that some scattered white puffy clouds would not keep me from crossing the pass. No concerns about mountain obscuration! However, I was aware that this was just the trailing edge of a front that was moving across my intended path. So I was still ready to turn back if I hit a wall of bad weather.
After flying east over the mountains and hanging a right, things looked just fine off my right wing as I looked west, back at Mount Rainier.
Looking east over my left wing, however, things looked less pretty.
Still, the front seems to have lost a lot of energy when it went over the mountains, so flying under it should not be too huge a problem... right? We'll see.
After I crossed the mountains from Seattle to Ellensburg, I basically followed Highway 97 all the way down. (It meets I-5 just west of Mount Shasta, in a pass that looked like the best way to go over that hilly region). I know some people who have spent quite a bit of time in the eastern foothills of the Cascade mountains, and they warned me that the terrain could be quite hilly and full of trees, not ideal for flying over in single-engine airplanes. I was relieved to find that, as long as I followed Highway 97, the terrain was actually very flat and nearly always had clearings and straight roads within gliding distance. I was glad to have picked this route (rather than the I-5 corridor, or the coast).
Unfortunately I did have to fly under that front at one point. It may look here like it's raining, but actually what you see in the photo is haze from the wild-fires to the east, with sun beams coming down through holes in the clouds. Here the ground is at about 4000 feet elevation, the clouds are about 4000 to 5000 feet above that, and I'm about 500 feet below them, i.e I'm at 7500 to 8500 feet MSL.
Part 2 of 5
After a while, I did hit some rain. I avoided the densest of rain showers, so that I could see where I was going, basically flying from one "light patch" to another. As you can see here, visibility was still several miles, so I kept moving forward, ready to land or turn back (and ask ATC for help if necessary... I was getting VFR flight-following the whole time) if I was ever unable to see where I was going. I'm glad it never came to that.
At one point, I did encounter an area of rain showers that was too wide to fly around, so I went through it. It was not super dense. Visibility dropped to a few miles, and it started getting bumpy. After several minutes of being shaken around uncomfortably in my little airplane, watching my G meter skip between 2 and a little below zero, and only being able to see about 4 miles in each direction, I had had enough for a little while. I decided I was going to land and take a break. I noticed that I was just a few miles from Madras, so I looked outside and spotted the airfield, and told ATC that I was starting a descent. I pulled the carb heat, redced the power, and pointed my nose down and towards the airport.
About a minute after I started heading for Madras (I had not even descended 1000 feet yet), I came out from under the clouds, and all of a sudden the sky was mostly blue again and the air was smooth. Wow! Looking left, I could see that I was coming out of the leading edge of the front (as you can see in this photo). So I told ATC: Never mind, I'm climbing back up and continuing my trip south.
A while later, I landed in Sun River for fuel. Very nice and helpful folks over there. And cheap fuel! I would recommend it.
After that, it was smooth sailing. A few clouds and a strong cross-wind from the west (as expected) but mostly blue sky and clear, smooth air.
Up until this point, I had been at 7500 or 8500 feet. But once I got to Klamath Lake, I climbed to 10500 so that I could safely make it around Mount Shasta.
And there it is! Mount Shasta! Looks like I'm going to fly all the way to California!
Highway 97 follows the lowest and flattest valley, along the northwest side of the mountain, so I simply followed that, flying just to the right of the peak.
Lake Shasta. I made it to California! This is evident just from the beautiful blue sky ;]
(You can see I-5 cutting down through the hill, in the middle of the lower edge of the picture)
So then something funny happened. I entered my next waypoint into my GPS... and it didn't know the airport. All right, I thought, this happens sometimes, it must be a very small airport, I'll just enter my final destination, KSTS. The GPS didn't know that one either. How can that be? Ok, how about SFO? Nope. I realized that my GPS database was only for Washington, Idaho, and Oregon. Now what? I pulled out my chart and got ready to do some pilotage. There were enough lakes, roads, and mountains for my location to be clear. (Four years ago, my instructor said he'd only let me turn on a GPS after I passed my checkride, and that's how it went. So I'm comfortable navigating by looking outside).
Still, I wanted to double-check my location. As they say, there's an app for that. I have AviMaps on my phone, which is a very basic app: It just displays a sectional and uses the phone GPS to show your location on it. You can also enter two or more airports and it will give you distance, heading, and ETA. My data connectivity was kinda poor, so it wasn't loading the sectional very fast (hence the grey square on the top left). But it was enough for me to make sure that I actually was where I thought I was. I asked the app for a heading to KSTS, and followed it there. It was a relatively boring last hour or so, crossing the valley in a straight line.
Success! The airfield that I had visited so many times during my college days, and got so many memorable airplane rides out of! I can't believe I'm finally going to land here as a pilot, in my own aerobatic airplane! It's a dream come true.
Once I landed, I was directed around the hot ramp to the static display area. One of the highlights of the airshow was the gathering of sixteen P-51 Mustangs, including some very rare models (such as the P-51H you see on the left of this picture).
Part 3 of 5
My Spot tracker worked perfectly. It shows that, well, I did it! I can't believe it. My longest cross-country ever. I was exhausted, it was a bit of a marathon, during the last hour I was starting to get uncomfortable in the cockpit, my butt and back just a little tired... but I did it. I flew to California. Two thirds of the way down the west coast. Made me feel like a real pilot.
I barely had a chance to find a restroom and change my shirt before the airshow's press & marketing coordinator (the guy who had set up all those cool airplane rides I had gotten at STS over the years, and who kept using my pictures on the airshow website and posters and such) found me and dragged me to the performers' dinner. I sat at a table with him, a couple of his friends... and Mike Goulian, one of the best aerobatic pilots there is. We had a great chat about Red Bull Air Racing, and also got to say hi to Kent Pietsch and Julie Clark and Jon Melby who stopped by.
After a good night's sleep, here I am, on Saturday morning. My airplane is on static display at an airshow! How cool is that? I hung around the airplane for a couple hours between when the gates opened and when the flying displays started, answering questions and explaining why RVs are the greatest thing since sliced bread.
I did get to meet a few other RV-ators, including Steve Barnes. Very cool to look inside each other's airplanes and appreciate all the variety of ways that an RV can be built.
On Saturday, I left in the middle of the airshow and spent most of that afternoon wine-tasting with friends. It is Sonoma, after all!
You can actually see San Francisco from Sonoma. I really wanted to fly down there and take a picture of the famous skyline and Golden Gate Bridge out of my RV. But that would have to wait until after the airshow.
Back to the airport for a hangar party as the sun set on Saturday. Meeting more and more of the pilots, Pacific Coast Air Museum people, and other folks who hang out at KSTS and who love everything about aviation and try to share it with other people as much as possible. It's a really terrific community and I felt honored that they let me crash their party and feel very welcome.
Then on Sunday, I spent all day at the airshow.
How was the airshow, you might ask? Well, I spent years covering airshows for aviation magazines and websites, so you have to be careful when you ask me that question, because you might get a 2500-word answer (and the words might not be in English...). But here is a Facebook album with a few photos from the airshow that I think do a good job capturing what it was like.
Finally, flying to San Francisco: On Sunday evening, after most of the performers and static-display pilots left, I went for a little local flight, with the airshow press/marketing coordinator on the right seat. (He's a student pilot, and will probably own a Piper Cub by the next time I see him). The Golden Gate Bridge is just 15 minutes away by RV. Luckily I got to see most of it before the fog rolled in.
I did it! I flew my RV-6 from Seattle to San Francisco!
Then I flew it back to Sonoma and landed.
I had been planning on flying back home on Sunday night, but I was exhausted after a long day at the airshow, and knew that a marathon flight would not be a good idea (especially flying over the I-90 mountain pass at night). So I decided to stay in Sonoma overnight and fly back home on Monday.
The folks at Kaiser Air were extremely helpful. I used one of their parking spots and bought fuel from them, and they even helped me with my rental car. They are a top-notch business... as you can tell by the line-up of jets they were servicing. (And behind that DC-3 there is a Gulfstream 5...)
Departing Sonoma, you can see a huge scorched area that caught fire during the airshow. You can read more about that here.
Part 4 of 5
There were a LOT of wild-fires in California and Oregon while I flew back up. This was the view looking east during most of the flight. I could see several miles of ground under me, but towards the horizon, it kinda faded to brown...
I could see much less of Mount Shasta on my way up than I had been able to on my way down. I knew I had climbed high enough when I could see the tip of the mountain sticking up above the top of the haze layer.
For some reason (mainly I was just tired and wanted to stretch my legs), I stopped for fuel at Klamath Falls, a little earlier than I had originally planned. Some mental math showed that taking off from here with full tanks, I would still have enough to get home, plus a half hour.
I did not know that Klamath Falls is an F-15 base!
I realize this looks like a scene out of the movie "Planes". My little RV thinks it's cool enough to hang out with the big boys...
Good thing they have a nice long runway over here. Look at that density altitude! (And good thing I have a slider canopy, to help me deal with 38 degrees C...)
Following Highway 97, from Weed CA all the way back up to Ellensburg WA.
I really wanted to see Crater Lake during this flight. I have snowshoed there, and seen it from airliners, and it's absolutely beautiful. Originally, I planned to fly right over it. (The little spike to the west, about halfway down the map at the top of this page, is what I hoped would be a quick detour over the lake). But then I realized that the terrain around it is almost 8000 feet high. You'd have to be up at like 15,000 feet to get a good look at it. On my way south, there was no way that was going to happen. On my way back north, I went up to 11,500 feet for just a few minutes so I could at least get a glimpse of it. Not what I had hoped for, but better than nothing. Someday I will get an oxygen system and try again. (I know it probably would have been fine for me to go up to 14,000 feet for just a few minutes to check it out, but I felt like I had accomplished enough "first"s that weekend, and I kinda wanted to get home...)
Paulina Lake and East Lake. They are surprisingly colorful! The picture does not quite capture just how blue and green they are.
Mount Jefferson and Lake Billy Chinook.
Part 5 of 5
Mount Hood, the Dalles Dam, and a huge wild-fire.
Wind turbines along the Columbia river.
Less than an hour after the above picture, something interesting happened.
When I got to Ellensburg, I figured that I had barely enough fuel to get home, with a half-hour reserve. I turned west to fly over the mountain pass towards Seattle, and boom, I was hit with a 30-knot headwind. I re-did my fuel calculation in my head, and that half-hour reserve started being eaten away. Clearly it was a mistake to have stopped for fuel so early and to have flown at such a high RPM as I hurried north. I won't give you the specific numbers, primarily out of embarrassment. Suffice to say, I learned my lesson: I will keep a closer eye on the fuel totalizer, not blast around at over 170 knots true airspeed, and also not get fuel too early next time. The RV-6 is the only airplane I have ever flown with a constant-speed prop, and I never really learned properly how to optimize the engine settings for range (other than just slowing way down). So over the past week I have already contacted a couple CFIs so that I can go up in the RV and learn how to get more than 400 miles out of it.
In any case, given the headwind and the somewhat twisty-windy path I wanted to take through the mountains (following I-90), I had barely enough fuel to get home, possibly not quite enough. I was right over the Ellensburg airport (KELN) so I radioed in and started a descent so that I could fill my tanks again.
The wind at the airport was 26 gusting 33 (which is why I thought there was a chance I would not make it home, if I had to fight this wind all the way). But it was right down the runway, and did not feel bumpy or too gusty. So I just used one notch of flaps, and made an approach in the high seventies KIAS. It was actually a very smooth landing, and I came to a stop in no time. Filled up and headed for Seattle! (But not before calling my girlfriend and telling her I'd be late for dinner...)
As you can see in this photo of Mount Rainier, there were some clouds right at the same level as the tips of most of the Cascades. I started to worry about mountain obscuration. Since everything under the clouds looked clear, I descended to about 5500 feet and ducked under the clouds as I made my way over Highway 90 and through the mountains. As always, I was ready to turn around if I ever saw a wall of low-visibility.
As it turns out, most of the flying over I-90 and through the mountain pass back into the Puget Sound area was perfectly fine. The headwind was a bit of a pain, but the air was actually pretty smooth, visibility was good, and the clouds stayed out of the way.
The I-90 pass is really great. Here, the ground is at 1000 to 2000 feet elevation (that's as high as the road ever gets in this pass, i.e. you're not really flying over the mountains, more like between them), the tops of the mountains are at around 5000 feet, the clouds are at around 5500 feet, and I'm at 4500 feet. So, despite the clouds and the mountains, it's VFR flight by a wide margin. And it's really safe, too: The pass is easily wide enough for a U-turn. And in case of power loss, Highway 90 is almost entirely surrounded by flat land. As a cherry on top, there is a series of airstrips along the highway. On the lower left of this picture, just left of the highway, the light-green patch is the Bandera airstrip (4W0).
Once you're flying past Mount Si, you've pretty much made it through the mountains.
Made it through the mountains and into the Puget Sount area. There's downtown Seattle. Time to hang a right before I hit SeaTac's bravo airspace.
And that was it. Paine gave me a straight-in to the long runway. And I was home. It was about four and a half hours to go from KPAE to KSTS, and about five hours to come back. In between, there was some wine tasting, a really fun airshow, and two local flights to San Francisco (one flight with the airshow press/marketing coordinator, and one flight with one of his kids, a 14-year-old who is starting to want to become a pilot).
This was a great trip that gave me confidence as a pilot. It also showed me that I have a little more to learn about optimizing a constant-speed-prop airplane for range, and about precise fuel management. But I am motivated to learn these things so that next time goes even better.
This trip made me like my RV-6A even more. Remember learning to drive, getting your license, and going on your first long road trip, crossing a state or three... The freedom... Yeah, it felt like that. Man, it's great to have access to a 200mph airplane.
It was also really long and exhausting, my butt and back and legs were not super comfortable after 4 hours crammed in a little RV-6, and the weather was unpredictable, so I don't think I'll be doing this kind of thing on a regular basis, probably once a year at most... but I'm very glad I did it.
However far you have ever flown VFR, I challenge you to fly three times that far!
Blue skies and tailwinds!
Nice write up...thanks for sharing
Very nice Bernardo!
I'm hoping to make a similar trip down the east side to Reno in a couple of weeks.
Great write-up. Thanks for sharing. I hope to get up to Seattle some day soon. A 4 or 5 hour flight sure beats a 15 hour drive. ;)
Thanks for the pics!
I was planning a similar route and it was great to see the pictures for reference
Great write-up! Thanks!
I used to be based at Napa and flew my Mooney all up and down the West Coast, from Vancouver, BC to San Diego and dozens of points between. I really miss flying out there. Your photos brought back some great memories.
Here are some shots of Crater Lake for you from a little higher up. :)
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