Exploring New Territory
I admit that I have been flying for quite a few years, and I also admit that the more I learn the more I figure out that there is more than I will ever know. I treat flying as a constant learning experience, and as such, it makes life more interesting because it oftentimes stretches my comfort zone a little bit. But stretching, in the end, feels good – so while I am naturally pretty cautious (and have also been trained that way for my entire aviation career), I get satisfaction out of feeling just a little bit nervous when something new comes along. Such is the case in getting out of your home turf and experiencing new terrain, and new environments.
While I have traveled over most of the country in various airplanes, I can’t escape the fact that the vast majority of my hours have been accumulated in the flat central areas of the United States. Long cross-countries take me elsewhere, but my day-to-day flying occurs where the terrain elevation is 2,000 msl or less, and the relief rarely exceeds 500 feet. In recent times, I find myself headed west much more often, since Louise has a family cabin in the mountains of Southern California. Consequently, I am learning to undue years of habits, such as pushing the mixture to “full rich” before take-off, and thinking that a climb to 10,000’ is going to take some time (whereas, if you are starting out at 7,000, it is amazing how quickly the level-off comes!). Flying at low altitude off the beach on the ocean is no big deal, so long as you watch out for birds, but flying low over mountain ridges, forests, and canyons is certainly an attention-getter to say the least, and something that I approach with great caution, even when I KNOW that the winds are calm.
Knowing our local weather is also something that we tend to take for granted after enough years. I have been flying out of Houston for almost three decades now, and while I may not LIKE the weather, I generally have a pretty good idea of what it is going to do under a certain set of conditions. I can appreciate how someone who is not familiar with it might be very wary of what a low morning might become, or how air mass thunderstorms forming in the summer afternoon are likely to be easy to navigate around (since they rarely move). I was reminded of just how important local weather knowledge was this last weekend as we flew in to San Diego from Big Bear Lake (California) for a day of visiting family. For awhile, I was reluctant to set out, and while I told myself that I was sort of concerned about the traffic and airspace, what really had me worried was the fact that I didn’t have a good sense of what the weather might decide to do.
Our goal was a day flight to Montgomery Field, with a return after dinner (which, in the fall, means after dark). I like IFR, I like night flying, and I like flying around the mountains more and more….but I am not really thrilled about combining all three (and sometimes, even two of tem can be outside my zone – I simply won’t launch into night IFR in a single, and will land early to avoid it.). I have experienced the fog rolling in (I guess they call it the marine layer out there – looks like low clouds and fog to me…) around San Diego before, and I was a bit concerned that while the forecast for the evening was good, with nice visibility, there were also calls for broken clouds at 5,000’, and scattered down lower. The fact that a VFR route out of San Diego’s Montgomery Field would launch me to the east, and rising terrain, made me a bit nervous of running into ceilings as the floor came up to smack me! I can hear the SOCAL folks laughing at me now – I am sure that they have a very good understanding of what a particular forecast means, and what conditions will result. But that’s the point – they’ve been flying there for years, and have the local knowledge of what will be good or what will be bad!
Also on my mind were previous trips to Big Bear, where we flew west across the desert, and saw nothing but clouds on the other side of Banning Pass. What I couldn’t figure out is how people could get up and down through that soup without an IFR clearance, and due to my unfamiliarity with the local airspace, navaids, and procedures, I was reluctant to go that way unless I had no choice. There are significant differences to the way various parts of the ATC system handle GA aircraft throughout the country, and while there is no doubt they all follow the same "rules", and flights can be conducted safely, we can often stumble when confronted with unique local ways of doing things. I prefer to sneak up on things a little at a time, and not go charging off into strange airspace in IFR conditions, only to get bombarded with strange place names and fixes. Outside my “zone” I guess!
After looking at the forecasts the night before, I finally decided that if it was good VFR with plenty of breaks, then there was no reason not to head “down the hill” if I could get out of the Valley with good visibility. “Good visibility?” How about I could see to the moon! So out we went on a gorgeous day, and after crossing the dam at the end of the lake, we made the turn down the canyon and looked out over a beautiful LA basin covered in broken to scattered clouds. Sure, the visibility was not that great to the west, but headed south we had a wonderful ride – and the sky looked much like a sky anywhere in the Midwest – albeit the scenery was much more spectacular! The cloud bases allowed good clearance to terrain at all times, so we stayed up above 8,000’ until getting down near San Diego to duck under the Class B, cross over Gillespie, and slide in to Montgomery. I had probably flow the route ten times in my head before we ever left the ground, so we got about what we expected, but it sure was nice having a fully qualified pilot in the back seat watching for traffic and reporting points. It was a marvelously smooth day, and the 70 degree air was great as we visited the zoo and enjoyed the company of family. I can see why people live in the area, despite the crowds!
All afternoon, I kept an eye on the sky, clouds, and dewpoints. As sunset came, it was clear that there would be no marine layer, and the moon was close to full, so the flight back would be nice. The take-off and right turn departure to the east brought a beautiful view of the city, and with airspace depicted on three different moving maps and the Synthetic Vision showing me the hills ahead, it was easy to enjoy the moonlit night, the climb to altitude, and the cruise back up to Big Bear. Seeing the horizon line on the EFIS solidly ABOVE the mountains ahead as I approached the west end of big Bear was a great comfort, and as the city came into view, the artificial glide slope lead me down the lake to a nice touchdown in the cold mountain air, several hours after sunset. As we taxied in to our hangar on the north side, I popped the canopy and relaxed – I had been “stretched” a bit by the day’s activities, but I had approached it as a learning experience, I new what I would do under all likely contingency cases (having full tanks could allow me a VERY long retreat to the west), and having a good co-pilot of which I could bounce my thoughts and decisions made for a safe cockpit. Stretching can be fun, and the next time Louise says “Let’s go to San Diego”, it will be much easier to look at the forecast and know what to expect.
Paul F. Dye
Editor in Chief - KITPLANES Magazine
RV-8 - N188PD
RV-6 (By Marriage) - N164MS - "Mikey"
RV-3B - N13PL - "Tsamsiyu"
A&P, EAA Tech Counselor/Flight Advisor
Dayton Valley Airpark (A34)
Last edited by Ironflight : 11-14-2008 at 07:14 AM.