Copyright © 2001 John Ewing, 4AC Plane Captain
Part 1: Heading to the Central Coast
We were on our way from Oakland to San Diego in a Cessna 172 to spend Thanksgiving with my wife’s parents and relatives. I was a little apprehensive, but not about my in-laws. I actually like them a lot. What was weighing on my mind was my first time flying through the LA Basin. Several people I had talked to said it was easy enough. Having done it, I’d have to agree. If you’re used to talking with Bay Approach, passing over or around LAX is pretty straightforward.
I decided to break our trip into three legs, mainly for bladder endurance. We’d fly to San Luis Obispo, then Camarillo, then to Gillespie Field in San Diego. This would give us time to refuel and grab a bite to eat along the way. In retrospect, I only wish we’d allowed more time to loiter about at some of the airports, particularly Camarillo.
We departed Oakland at about 9:45 a.m. and headed southward toward San Jose. We’d planned to leave at 9 a.m., but the visibility was marginal and I debated about filing IFR. By 9:30 a.m., flight service told me that the visibility at Oakland was still reported as three miles, but PIREPs and the ATIS for Hayward and San Jose indicated this was a slight haze that had been slowly clearing. San Jose and points south were all reporting visibility of six miles or better. As soon as we climbed above 1000 feet, the flight visibility improved to at least 15 miles.
Bay Approach let us climb to 5,500 feet and we crossed over San Jose International Airport. After clearing the arrival corridor south of San Jose, we headed toward Salinas, then down the Salinas Valley, to Paso Robles, and over the hills into San Luis Obispo. The ride was nice and the skies were clear south of San Jose. Only Paso Robles was blanketed with a stubborn fog that had refused to clear. Approaching Paso Robles, I usually just stay a few miles east of Highway 101 to avoid the restricted airspace above Camp Roberts. We couldn’t see the highway and though the Paso Robles VOR or my hand-held GPS would keep us clear, I decided to ask Oakland Center if the area was hot. We discovered it wasn’t in use and we were free to pass through it.
I checked in with the San Luis tower as we approached the Cuesta Grade, where Highway 101 makes its way over the mountains. The descent down from the mountains to pattern altitude was a little hurried, but we were on the runway an hour and forty minutes after departing Oakland. I asked ground to taxi to restaurant parking and while the plane was being refueled (there are no self-service pumps at SBP), we had a nice lunch at the Spirit of San Luis (yes, that really is the name). Sitting outside on the terrace, we had an unrestricted view of the landing and departing traffic, everything from Cubs to Brasillias.
Everyone from the tower controller to the fuel truck driver to the restaurant staff seemed to be running at a friendlier speed than we Bay Area dwellers – not less efficient, just more relaxed. So while basking in the sun, we decided to adopt the “SLO attitude” ourselves and take a longer lunch than we’d originally planned.
After lunch and the ever-important bathroom break, we made a right downwind departure from San Luis, contacted LA Center for flight following, and started the one-hour journey to Camarillo. We headed toward the San Marcus VOR, situated on a mountaintop just north of Santa Barbara. Our route gave as a wonderful view of the farms and vineyards in the Santa Maria Valley, but it also kept us well to the East of the restricted airspace over Vandenburg Air Force Base. LA Center handed us off to Santa Barbara Approach and they kept us as we followed the coastline, until we were about 20 miles from Camarillo. Santa Barbara tried to hand us off to Point Mugu Approach, but we had already begun our descent and their radar couldn’t pick us up. They just told us to squawk VFR and contact Camarillo Tower.
The Camarillo ATIS mentioned that all aircraft were to comply with noise abatement procedures, so when I checked in with the tower I told them we didn’t know what those procedures were. Whenever flying into a new area, using the word “unfamiliar” is handy shorthand to alert ATC that you don’t know the local landmarks. There’s no need for a lengthy explanation or apology, just say “unfamiliar.” “No problem” was the controllers reply. “Report four miles out on the 45 for right downwind, runway 26.” The tower ended up having us cross mid-field to enter left downwind, but the 45-degree arrival was easy to comply with and kept us over farmland and away from the residential areas. We landed right on schedule under clear skies with warm, calm winds.
The atmosphere at Camarillo is certainly faster-paced that San Luis. There’s one runway, a lot of flight training, and just a whole bunch of aircraft. We couldn’t look in any direction without seeing a shiny, late model Bonanza, Robinson R-44, Malibu, Lancair, Cirrus, or Baron. Though we didn’t have time for a proper visit, we saw an assortment of vintage aircraft at the museum operated by the Southern Wing of the Commemorative Air Force (formerly the Confederate Air Force). It’s hard to miss the two Lockheed Constellations parked near the approach end of runway 26, one painted in the presidential colors of Air Force One. As we taxied to the cafe parking, we spied a rare C-46 Curtis transport plane parked at the ramp. This twin engine tail-dragger, named “Tinker Bell,” has the distinctive horizontal indentations on the nose near the cockpit common to all C-46s. The C-46 was used during WWII to ferry men and supplies across the Himalayas and I found myself wondering what kind of action “Tinker Bell” must have seen. The other historic aircraft include a Mitchell B-25, a Grumman F-8F-2 Bearcat, and an SNJ-5, to name just a few.
Part 2: Taming the LA Basin
After a short stop for fuel, a soda, and a pit stop, we took off from Camarillo for the last leg of the trip to Gillespie Field in San Diego. We asked for a downwind departure toward Van Nuys and checked in with SoCal Approach for flight following.
According to Flight Guide and the LA VFR Terminal Area chart, there are at least three ways to transition past LAX: The Shoreline route, the Hollywood Park route, or through the Special Flight Rules Area. The Shoreline Route requires radio contact with SoCal approach, a clearance, and may not always be available. It takes you off shore a mile or so at an assigned altitude. The Hollywood Park route follows the Van Nuys 140 degree radial and you can request any altitude you want, as long as it’s at least 7000 feet. If you don’t want flight following, you can transition through the Special Flight Rules Area and fly right over the top of LAX at 3500 feet, if you’re southbound, or 4500 feet, if you’re northbound. Regardless of the route you choose, make sure you have a current LA terminal area chart, allow yourself plenty of time to study it, and understand the procedures before you get in the air.
If you’re instrument rated, you can always file IFR. There are several preferred IFR routes listed in the back of the Airport/Facility Directory. Some of the routes require a minimum airspeed and/or altitude, so make sure you choose a route that is compatible with your plane’s performance. The IFR Low Altitude chart for the LA area is a maze of airways, airports, navaids, and intersections. Give yourself time to study the routes before you head out.
When I checked in with SoCal Approach, I asked for the Hollywood Park Transition at 7,500 feet. SoCal gave us a squawk code. As we approached Van Nuys, the next controller cleared us through the Hollywood Park transition at 9,500 feet.
So up, up, up we went. After reaching our assigned altitude, the controller informed me “At that altitude, you can go wherever you want.” So I said we were proceeding direct to the Oceanside VOR. This was more direct and cut quite a minutes off our flight time, but we wouldn’t fly over the Queen Mary – darn! The air was smooth, the visibility excellent, and there was no traffic at our altitude. We did, however, have a clear view of the parade of big jets below us, arriving and departing at LAX, Burbank, and Ontario.
After passing over Santa Ana/Orange County/John Wayne Airport (now there’s an airport with too many names), we asked for a lower altitude and were cleared down to 7,500 feet. We followed the coast and after passing the restricted areas north and east of the Oceanside VOR, we were cleared into San Diego Class B airspace directly to Gillespie at 4000 feet. This took us over the approach end of the runways at Miramar Air Force base. This is where my handheld GPS came in handy. I just entered KSEE for Gillespie, pressed “go to,” and we were in business. The controller called out two Hornets passing in front of and below us in formation, on their way to Miramar. They scorched past us, moving so fast that the controller’s statement “traffic not a factor” was an obvious understatement!
Gillespie Field is surrounded by some mountainous terrain, several freeways, a maze of Class B airspace, and numerous houses. We were cleared to enter right traffic for runway 27 left. I found the traffic pattern was a little crowded by the hills located near the turn to the base leg. No problem. I just turned base a little early, reduced power, and considered it short field landing practice. We touched down an hour and forty minutes after leaving Camarillo and taxied to transient parking right in front of the terminal.
Gillespie Field is one of several airports managed by the County of San Diego and it is a bustling, well-maintained, and friendly airport. It was five minutes after 5 p.m. when I went inside the terminal building to arrange a tie-down spot. The airport staff all seemed to have either left for the day or to be headed for the doors, but a friendly woman met me. She said that collecting tie-down fees wasn’t really her job, but she’d be happy to help. I paid the $15 for five days of parking and she gave me a receipt, an airport newsletter, and a bunch of other helpful handout about the airport and surrounding areas. After we arrived at our hotel, I sat down to read the airport newsletter. That’s when I saw a photograph of the woman who had helped me with the tie-down arrangements. She was Noreen Crane, the manager of four of the San Diego County airports!
Part 3: To Go or Not to Go?
On longer cross-country trips in a small plane, one thing as certain as the need for regular bathroom breaks is unexpected and unwanted weather. Crossing hundreds of miles north to south or east to west, you’re bound to encounter moving weather systems, changing terrain, and even different climates. Our return trip from San Diego was no exception. A little over 400 nautical miles separates San Diego from Oakland and a series of cold fronts was going to make planning our return a bit of a guessing game.
When we first discussed this trip, we agreed early on that we’d have to be flexible about our schedule. During our five-day stay in San Diego, I watched the Weather Channel and occasionally checked DUAT. On Thanksgiving Day, the three-day forecast and my intuition were both telling me that our schedule flexibility was going to be tested. A series of cold fronts was moving on shore, crossing the Bay Area, then the Central Coast, and finally passing over San Diego a few days later.
On Thanksgiving night, Thursday, a cold front that had already passed the Bay Area. As far south as Santa Barbara was clear, but the front was crossing over LA and was forecast to move south and east of San Diego sometime the next morning. By noon on Friday, San Diego would have the usual scattered clouds. But if we waited until noon to depart San Diego, we would not arrive in Oakland until after dark just as a second cold front was forecast to arrive in the Bay Area.
That night I poured over the TAFs, PIREPS, and charts available on DUAT. My conclusion was that we’d probably need to file IFR to get out of San Diego on Friday morning, but we’d find clear skies by the time we reached LAX. We’d be able to fly VFR the rest of the way to Oakland. Somewhere around Paso Robles we’d encounter high overcast clouds, but it would be clear at our altitude and we’d be well below the freezing level. There would only be a 12 to 14 hour window before nasty weather would cover the Bay Area. I concluded that we’d best not wait until noon to leave San Diego, but why not call Flight Service and see what they think?
The Flight Service briefer immediately tried to talk me out of departing San Diego IFR on Friday morning. He cited a SIGMET for moderate to severe turbulence and several pilot reports of severe turbulence. He also mentioned a strong wind shear layer at 3000 to 4000 feet near Santa Barbara. I was looking at the DUAT printouts as I listened to his assessment and found myself disagreeing with him. The SIGMETs and PIREPs he cited were for areas over the San Bernadino Mountains and well east into the desert, where the cold front was headed. Our route would be along the coastline, which had already begun to clear and pretty far away from the serious weather action. The wind shear situation at Santa Barbara had already subsided as forecast, the METARs for the coastal airports were all reporting light west winds, and the forecast winds aloft were out of the north at a fairly light 12 to 16 knots. So I politely thanked the briefer and decided to check the weather again in the morning. If the conditions were as forecast, I was comfortable with departing IFR at 9a.m. This was one of those rare times where the briefer and I looked at the same information and came to different conclusions.
The next morning at 7am, the front had indeed passed San Diego and had left behind the usual moist, slightly unstable air. Broken to overcast ceilings were reported as far north as Palomar, though there were no reports of the altitude of the cloud tops. LAX and points north were reporting clear skies and light winds, so I used DUAT to file one of the preferred IFR routes listed in the Airport/Facility Directory from Gillespie to Camarillo and we headed to the airport.
When I called Gillespie Clearance Delivery, I was startled by something I had heard only heard a few times before – “Cleared as Filed!” I’ve often wondered why Bay Approach doesn’t publish preferred tower en route IFR routes and I even asked once while doing a tour of the Bay Approach facilities. “It’s a low priority” was their response. Seems like publishing these routes takes a lot of the guesswork out of flying IFR in the SouthLand and would be a good idea for the Bay Area, too.
We were cleared for takeoff and made our way toward the Tupperware sky. My wife hates turbulence and I was hoping that the trip through the overcast ceiling would be smooth and short. It turned out to be almost perfect. We flew into the clouds at about 2600 feet, and then at 3500 feet we were in and out of the clouds during the rest of our climb to 6000 feet. The view of the cloud tops was so spectacular that I don’t think we even noticed the few bumps we encountered. SoCal Approach requested us to report when we were on top of the clouds. As we reached 5,500 feet, I informed them the tops were ragged from 3,500 feet to 5,000 feet and hoped that helped out the next pilot.
We were vectored to the Oceanside VOR and then followed Victor 25 up the coast to LAX. By the time we reached Dana Point, the cloud layer underneath us had begun to disappear. SoCal Approach gradually stepped us down from 6000 feet. We crossed the departure ends of the LAX runways at 4000 feet, just as a JAL 747 departed and headed out over the Pacific. I thought about canceling IFR, but decided the VOR approach into Camarillo would probably get us on the ground more quickly than a VFR arrival. And it did.
After refueling, I called Flight Service again to check on the conditions at Paso Robles. We’d considered stopping there on the way back rather than visiting San Luis Obispo again, but that stubborn fog was back at Paso. Maybe it had never left! So we decided we’d just have to endure another excellent lunch at the Spirit of San Luis.
The trip to San Luis was pretty smooth and there were only a few scattered, cirrus clouds far above us. A 16-knot head wind at 6,500 feet was slowing us down a bit and making me wish for a faster airplane. We heard a King Air check in with LA Center and ask for winds aloft reports. He was at 12,500 and was complaining of a 38-knot head wind. The controller told him he that the forecast winds at the higher altitudes only got worse. 16 knots didn’t seem so bad after all.
As we started the last leg from San Luis to Oakland, we began to see the outlines of the high, overcast clouds that had been forecast to the north. By the time we reached Paso, we were cruising at 6,500 feet under a snug blanket of overcast clouds at 12,000 feet. The sky had turned gray but there wasn’t a hint of turbulence and the winds aloft had began to shift in our favor. We had to dodge around a few solitary clusters of stratus clouds, but they looked like harmless, lost sheep.
We arrived at Oakland at 4 p.m., right on schedule and a good three hours ahead of the next cold front and the nasty weather. I was happy my flight planning had worked out as well as it had. My wife was relieved to be out of the cramped 172, away from the noise, and to be finally rid of those headphones! The skies over the Bay Area were slate colored, a stiff wind was blowing, and the freeway was crowed with traffic.
As we drove home from the airport, we both were amazed that only a few hours earlier we had flown through clouds over San Diego and then had been warmed by the sunshine of Camarillo and San Luis Obispo. My wife asked me if it felt strange to be driving a car after flying all day. “Yeah,” I replied. “Driving sure is more nerve-wracking than flying and not nearly as much fun.” Then I had a bright idea. “Hey, hand me my headphones.”