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Feature Article 1

FEATURE ARTICLE

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

Avoiding Frozen

My wife and I decided to take our little ones, 2 1/2 and 4 1/2-year-old boys, to Disneyland for the first time this fall.  A trip to the LA Basin is just about perfect for general aviation.  Most club planes can get there on one tank of gas.  With a Cherokee or 172, it can actually be less expensive than flying commercial, and of course the standard benefits of convenience and fun.

When planning for the trip, one of the first considerations was the destination airport.  The two choices were John Wayne/Orange County and Fullerton.  Since we wouldn't need a car while at Disney, we thought we could take one of the shuttles from John Wayne.  However, the logistics of getting from the GA terminal to the shuttle stop and the vagaries of GA scheduling made that a no-go.  With the shuttle option out of the way, Fullerton won out due to its proximity to Anaheim and good (and well-deserved) reviews of its FBO, General Aviation Co.

We decided to head down on Saturday morning, spend an afternoon at the hotel pool and the Disney Downtown, and then head to the park for most of the day Sunday.   We would then depart Fullerton shortly before sunset to get over the mountains surrounding LA before sunset, then fly the rest of the trip at night.

Well, this time of year the weather conspired to make the flying portion of the trip interesting.  The kids being at Disney for the first time, of course, made the rest of the trip interesting in a positive sense.  Since it's getting toward the winter, I was prepared for the departure from San Carlos to be an instrument departure through the usual coastal stratus.  The day dawned with a bit of unsettled weather down all the way to LA, with a low-pressure system sitting off the northwest coast of California.  There was no forecast of significant precipitation, but clouds at levels from 3000 to 7000 feet were forecast all the way to LA.  That being the case, my main concern became the freezing level and icing potential.  Fortunately, the freezing level was predicted to be above 10,000 feet and there was no potential icing forecast.  So, after a thorough weather briefing and some disappointing winds aloft forecasts, we took off.

We were in the clouds off of San Carlos from about 3000 feet to 4000 feet.  Leaving the Bay Area, we enjoyed clear skies above a solid undercast until about Hollister.  Approaching the LA basin, some puffy clouds reappeared and we were in and out of cumulus for another fifteen minutes before the endless pavement of LA appeared.  At that point we were VFR all the way to Fullerton.

Disneyland itself was amazing.  The boys, my wife, and I all had a fantastic time.

At lunch on Sunday, I started to look at the weather in detail for our return trip.  The low-pressure system that had been off the northwest coast had now moved inland.  It was causing rain throughout California and a forecast of possible convective activity for northern California.  Things didn't look too bad for southern California, with clouds around 7000 feet.  However, this time instead of there just being a single layer, the clouds extended up to and beyond 20,000 feet.  Nevertheless, I figured we'd get out of the LA Basin, then descend to below the cloud layer and get home just fine.

As the afternoon continued, with a trip to the Enchanted Tiki Room and a ride on the jungle river, we did get a bit of a rain shower.  Around 4pm, the boys were pretty worn out and we headed back to the airport.  We arrived at the airport just about 5pm.  Sunset was at 6pm.  I wanted to be on the other side of the mountains before I couldn't see out the aircraft window.  The airplane was already fueled, so I loaded up car seats and luggage.

As we were preparing to get everyone on board, there were some numbers I just couldn't make work in my head.  The clouds near the airport were low enough and solid enough we would have to depart IFR.  The minimum enroute altitude for about forty miles was 10,000 feet, passing over mountainous terrain that was up to 8500 feet.  The cloud bases would be from 7000 feet layered to higher than I could climb.  The freezing level was around 8000 feet.  There was an Airmet for icing above the freezing level.  And there was a PIREP for moderate rime icing near Bakersfield, 20 miles east of our route of flight, reported by a Cherokee at 9000 feet.  And, we'd be passing through all of this just as daylight would be completely disappearing.

Well, none of this was adding up to a positive outcome.  While there was an escape route over the mountains or back to Fullerton, it would have been exciting.  My passengers would not appreciate an exciting airplane ride home after the great weekend we had.  So, we called the Commonwealth Airport Motel about three-quarters of a mile from the airport.  They had a room; we walked to the motel and checked in.

The next morning, there was still a marine layer over the basin.  However, the higher-level clouds were gone, the freezing level was above 10,000 feet and there were no clouds above 5000 feet or so.  We walked back to the plane, loaded up and headed home.  Due to the low-pressure system, we battled stiff headwinds again on the way home.  But, we got home in time for the boys to nap at school and for my wife and I to make it to work.

So, this was another in my long series of trips by general aviation that didn't go exactly as planned.  But, by delaying the trip overnight we ensured that there was no excitement, my wife and kids are still jazzed about flying, and we all got to see the ending of Star Wars Episode 4 (A New Hope) which was coincidentally playing on broadcast TV at the motel room.

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