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Feature Article 1

FEATURE ARTICLE

Matt Debski, Aircraft Owner WVFC tdebber@alum.mit.edu

 

There and Back Again

 

My family had been planning to go to San Diego for spring break for about six months.  Legoland, the Safari Park, and warm beaches all beckoned.  My wife and I talked wistfully about the breweries.  Of course, San Diego is also one of those perfect destinations for a general aviation flight.  It's 377 nm direct from San Carlos, a bit over 400nm via a reasonable route, or about 3 hours 30 minutes by Cessna 182.

 

During the first week in April, we were still enjoying the rainy season here in the Bay Area.  Our plan was to depart on Saturday morning, April 7 and return the following Saturday, April 14.  I start to obsess about the weather about a week before departing on a trip like this.  For this trip, rain predictions moved in and out of when we were hoping to leave.  As the weekend approached, it looked pretty certain that if we were departing on Saturday, it would be an IFR flight.

 

While the flight would be IFR, the ceilings in the Bay Area, in San Diego, and along the route all looked as if they would be substantially higher than minimums.  So, the next thing to look at was the freezing level and icing potential.  The mountains near Los Angeles and enroute to San Diego get pretty high and the enroute altitudes are up in the 8000 to 10,000-foot range.  As I went to bed on Friday night, the freezing level forecast was well above the enroute altitudes until later in the afternoon.

 

On Saturday morning, the weather was as predicted: 2500 overcast and 3500 broken in the Bay Area, clear at departure time at San Diego but becoming overcast at 2500 before we arrived.  My family drove out to the airport, loaded up, and launched.  After the usual San Carlos downwind departure, we were in the clouds for about five to ten minutes before popping out on top.  From there it was a beautiful, uneventful flight until getting near San Luis Obispo.  As predicted, there was line of moderate precipitation that extended from the coast to half way across the Central Valley.  The tops for the precipitation reached pretty high.  However, there wasn't any convective activity.  As we got closer to the clouds, ATC advised that we'd be in the precipitation for twenty to thirty miles.  The NEXRAD from ADS-B agreed.

 

For the next twenty minutes, I had to work to keep the plane at the assigned altitude.  Our family 182 does not have an autopilot.  We were brushed up and down a bit.  I learned later that my family hadn't really even noticed the slight but repeated changes in pitch and power that I was certain would make them uncomfortable.

 

After getting through the precipitation, we were back on top of the clouds again.  By now, the undercast topped out around 4000 to 5000 feet.  As we approached San Diego, it was clear that an instrument approach would be necessary.  I briefed the ILS and we were sequenced and vectored among several other planes headed for Montgomery Field.  After about three minutes in the clouds, we popped out just inside the final approach fix for an easy landing.

 

I watched the weather at Montgomery Field for the rest of the day and into the next.  It didn't clear up until noon on Sunday.  So, having the instrument rating and keeping current and proficient enabled us to arrive as planned for our vacation.  Had the conditions been worse -- lower ceilings or icing potential -- we could have delayed until Sunday.  Still, it was nice to start off as scheduled and meet everyone's expectations.

 

The trip home the following week was substantially different.  On Saturday morning, April 14, the route was clear from takeoff to landing.  We obtained VFR Flight Following from takeoff in order to have an extra set of eyes and help navigating the busy airspace in southern California.  However, instead of staring at a sea of white for most of the trip, my family enjoyed the suburban sprawl of southern California, the Rose Bowl, and carpets of California poppies coming over the Grapevine.  We flew parallel to another Cessna for a while before they headed off to Bakersfield and we continued to San Carlos.

 

One surprising note from the flight home: I'd planned the route to remain clear of LAX Class Bravo.  It didn't require any substantial course bends and it just seemed easier to avoid it.  As we got close to an 8000-foot shelf, the controller instructed us to descend to 7000 feet to remain clear of Bravo.  The chart pretty clearly showed that Bravo only went down to 8000 feet.  I began to comply with the instruction, but also asked for clarification.  The controller said that we had to remain clear of Bravo.  He must have been a trainee, because another voice came on and said the instruction to descend was to avoid the wake turbulence of jets going into LAX.  I was happy to comply, despite not seeing any jets.

 

These two flights demonstrated the variety of weather that can arise in California in the spring and fall.  While the weather pattern was such that we could have continued on our vacation plans a day late without an instrument rating, the weather could have been such that VFR flight down to San Diego would not have been possible for several days.  Freezing levels could also have been low enough for a few days that we would have been forced to drive!  The instrument rating in California doesn't guarantee that a flight can be completed according to plan, but it does mean that the frequent coastal stratus or marine layer is more of a nuisance or opportunity to log some actual instead of a deal breaker.

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