Back in Air!

I got my ticket back in 2012, in the San Francisco bay area, while I was on an internship. It was intense, a lot of fun, and probably the most effort I’ve ever put into achieving a single goal in my life, but I’m really happy that I was able to finally get my pilot license. Unfortunately, I ended up moving to the UK not long after that, which was great for my career, but not so good for flying – general aviation in the UK is much less accessible, in terms of cost, licensing, and physical access to airplanes and airports. So I haven’t been flying since.

I decided that needed to change, so I booked 3 weeks off work to spend back in the US, and flying!

The Plan

After a lot of research, I decided to fly with Camarillo Flight Instruction, a flight instruction / rental place with good reviews and a very cheap Diamond DA40, based in a small town outside of Los Angeles. Would totally recommend them, especially for long trips. Feel free to contact me for a more information. Very helpful people and they reserved the plane for me for the 3 weeks I was there, with very reasonable minimum hours.

The Victim

A Diamond DA40!

It has a nice Garmin G1000 avionics system with TIS-B traffic (so FAA Mode-S radar sites will actually tell the plane where everyone else is), a KAP-140 autopilot, and standard range tanks.

I really appreciated having the TIS-B system, since we flew into some of the busiest airspaces in the US on this trip, where the risk of mid-air collisions is very real. It’s no TCAS, and only operates while in range of an FAA radar site (unlike a more advanced active interrogation system that interrogates other aircraft’s transponders directly), but it’s still highly effective especially in terminal areas where it’s most needed. There have been many times where it picked up traffic that blend so well into the background that I would have never seen if I didn’t know they were there.

The Flight Review

I spent the first week with an amazing instructor, Alec Ticherich who basically taught me to fly again. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect after such a long break, but as it turned out, I still remembered most of the theory, though the flying has definitely gone rusty, and landings very rusty. The week of dual flights were really helpful – not only am I confident flying again, I’m also pretty sure I am a better pilot now than I used to be.

We visited quite a few local airports on these training flights, including John Wayne – the second busiest airport in the LA area! That was definitely an experience. I had flown into San Jose International before, and even that wasn’t as busy. We also got a nice aerial view of Santa Monica and LAX along the way.

Overflying Los Angeles International
John Wayne
Santa Monica
Los Angeles. People, people, and more people.

I also got some cloud flying time! Flying by instruments has additional certification requirements for both the pilot and the airplane. I don’t have the training to do it myself, and have never done it before with instructors because the plane I flew before wasn’t IFR-certified. With previous instructors I’ve trained with we have always just cancelled flights if the conditions don’t look favourable. Here apparently they don’t cancel flights… we just get an instrument departure to go above the clouds, do what we need to do up there, and come back on an instrument approach. I’m very happy to finally have some experience flying in clouds (safely, with an instructor), and it was actually quite a bit easier than I imagined it would be with the G1000. It’s just like playing a video game!

Above the clouds. Gloomy overcast below, sunny above!
Like playing a video game!
Mountains blocking stratus clouds from the marine layer from moving into the central valley
Flying between layers

KCMA → KSQL

Flight log

My partner joined me at this point, but we weren’t able to leave on the day we planned due to a low overcast over the region thanks to the famous California marine layer. On the second day it still wasn’t clear, but it was becoming broken at 2500 ft, and the sky is clear over Santa Clarita, which was only about 10 minutes away. So we took off on our first flight into the San Francisco bay area. We decided to go to San Carlos Airport because it’s the closest small-plane-friendly airport to downtown San Francisco! It’s a very busy airspace, but I wasn’t too worried since I got my initial training at KRHV not too far south, so I was already reasonably familiar with the airspace and procedures. We decided to fly up to Livermore (see flight log link above) before turning into the bay area, to limit how much time we have to spend at low altitude avoiding SFO Class B airspace (Class B airspaces are airspaces protecting the busiest airports in the US, like SFO in this case, and they often don’t let us in if they are too busy).

The marine layer overstaying its welcome

We picked up flight following on departure (ATC providing advisory service to aircraft flying visually, on workload-permitting basis), and weather was as expected – we had to fly at about 2000 ft for a few minutes until we got to the clearing in the sky. We lost contact with ATC for a few minutes because we were blocked by hills. However, we were still able to hear airliners overhead talking to them, so we knew that if we did get into an emergency, we can get one of the airliners to relay a mayday call, and that’s always reassuring. We re-established contact a few minutes later once we were able to climb higher to cross the mountains near Fillmore.

Bye Camarillo!

Most of the rest of the flight consisted of a 215nm (~1:45) long straight leg flown by our R2-D2 KAP-140 autopilot. There wasn’t much going on in the central valley, but things got exciting again once we were handed off to NorCal Approach, and started our descent into the San Francisco area. As it turned out, they completely redrew the San Francisco Class B airspace since the last time I flew there! They were as busy as I remembered, but watching our navigation screen closely to not violate any airspace, we overflew Fremont, crossed the bay, and was handed over to San Carlos tower. We spotted the airport a bit late, and needed to do a steep descent (averaging about 1000 ft/min, according to the log), but we touched down right at the numbers and stopped with half of the 2600 ft runway remaining according to GPS track.

Being passenger in the front seat. Jesus is my copilot.
Into the Bay Area!

And then things got exciting again… and not in a good way. I was pretty happy with how the flight went, with a first time nervous passenger and all, and let my guard down while we taxi-ed to parking… and ended up under-estimating the length of our wings, and scraped the wing of another plane. Oops!

There wasn’t even a scratch visible, but a bunch of people were contacted, and a mechanic inspected at the wings (due to the wings being composite, which can potentially sustain damage with no visual sign on the surface), and fortunately there wasn’t any damage and both planes were still safe to fly. Could have gone much worse. Amusingly, I wasn’t the only one to taxi into a parked plane this month.

I taxied very carefully since.

KSQL → KMFR

Flight log

After 3 touristy days in SF, we hopped on an Uber and were soon back in San Carlos for our flight north. We were planning to go all the way to Portland in one day, but we departed a bit late, and were only able to make it to our fuel stop, Medford, by the time sunset rolled around.

We were also hoping to get a San Francisco Class B transition (clearance to fly through a controlled airspace without landing) so we can overfly downtown and see the Golden Gate bridge from above. Well, it turned out that departing on a Saturday afternoon is not conducive to getting a clearance – we were advised by San Carlos ATIS that SF transitions weren’t available because they were too busy. That meant we had to duck under their airspace and depart the way we came in – going east through Livermore. As soon as we were out of the SF area, we climbed to 8500 ft and headed straight for Redding. This is a bit of a nostalgic flight for me – my very first solo cross-country flight was from KRHV (Reid-Hillview in Santa Clara) to KCIC (Chico), and I took almost exactly the same route!

The flight to Redding was easy… and then we had to cross the mountains. Conventional mountain flying wisdom says it would be less bumpy if we flew in the valleys instead of over the mountains, but we would lose radio and radar coverage in that case, and without survival equipment on-board, that’s not really ideal. We would also lose our traffic advisory system since that relies on having radar coverage. Instead, we chose safety over comfort and overflew the mountains at 8500 ft. We still followed roads and valleys, though, and I was looking for potential emergency landing sites the whole time. There were quite a few airports and many lakes, so I think we would have been fine if the fan stopped, given the very fine weather this time of the year. We were handed over from Oakland Center to Cascade Approach while we were over the mountains, but we weren’t able to establish contact with Cascade until we popped out on the other side 20 minutes later! We were able to establish radio contact then, but they said we were still intermittent on their radar.

656BC, Cascade Approach, radar contact 3 miles… ah you just dropped off the radar again… oh you’re back!

Mount Shasta
A virga – rain falling from clouds and evaporating before hitting the ground.
Descending into Medford through a valley. TAWS (Terrain Awareness and Warning System) telling us we will crash into mountains if we turned in any direction.

We landed at Rogue Valley International Airport in Medford – pretty quiet for an airport that’s the third busiest in Oregon (busiest airport in Oregon is Portland International – our next stop)! We parked with Million Air FBO. No fees with fuel purchase, and the nice lady at the reception called all over town to find us a hotel last minute at about 50% discount, and drove us there in a very fancy van.

Runway 32
Rogue Valley International Airport. Space, space, and more space.

KMFR → KPDX

Flight log

We departed for Portland the next morning. There are quite a few airports in the Portland area that would probably be easier to fly into, but I’ve always wanted to fly into PDX (Portland International) since they were reportedly very friendly for small airplanes. I thought it would be a fun challenge, and it actually turned out to be quite a bit easier than I imagined it would be.

We departed Medford and followed the Cascade mountains all the way up to Portland. It was an easy flight from the southern end of Oregon to the northern end, and we were on flight following all the way into Portland.

United Flight 1513 (San Francisco to Eugene) on approach into EUG, overtaking us from below.
This is the closest call on our trip. We manoeuvred to avoid N3817D (a Cessna 182). I never actually saw them with our Mark I Eyeball because they were 1300 ft below, climbing into us on a collision path. They probably didn’t see us either because C182 has a high wing, and since they were a 1957 model it’s unlikely that they would have equipment that allowed them to see us on a screen. We’d like to think Cascade Approach would have told us about them at some point, but they were awfully close, and we didn’t get a traffic advisory by the time we started manoeuvring to avoid them. Since they have a registration on TIS-B, they were probably on flight following, too (or IFR).

Less than two hours later we entered Portland class C airspace and began our descent into PDX. Portland Approach told us to expect Runway 28R, which, from my research, is the runway they use for most general aviation flights because the FBO is right next to 28R, at the A3 intersection. Coming in from the south, our approach instructions were to overfly the field at or above 1500, and join right base for 28R. I tried to fly the approach as fast as I could (about 140 kt), because I thought they would have to merge us in with airliner traffic on final. That turned out to be unnecessary, as the only other traffic was an arrival on the parallel runway. It did make an interesting energy management challenge, though. Losing 1500 ft and about 140 kt from base turn isn’t that easy on a DA40 with those nice glider wings! Big slipping 270 degrees turn all the way (at a safe angle of attack to make sure we don’t stall and spin) got us to the runway, wheels on pavement just past the numbers.

Ross Island, on approach into Portland
PDX Runway 28R

We turned off the runway at A3 intersection, and were marshalled to parking on the Atlantic ramp, among all the private jets. We were definitely the smallest airplane there! Seems like everyone and their dog has a private jet there.

Marshalled into parking.
Our parking neighbours.
On the other side. Can you spot us?

We secured the airplane and walked into the palace they call FBO, and got a taste of the world of private jet travel… this is the fanciest FBO I’ve ever visited. Quite a big change from the FBOs I’m used to with an honesty box for parking fees outside, self-serve fuel, and the airport security code taped to the door.

The very nice FBO.
Atlantic FBO (Photo credit: Atlantic)

They charged us $15 security fee + $20 overnight parking, which I thought was very reasonable for a place like PDX (there’s also a handling charge if you don’t buy enough fuel).

Hi, can I have an avgas top-up for 656BC please? Probably about 20.
20 thousand?
No, 20 gallons.

KPDX → KBFI

Flight log

The next day we departed for Seattle, our last stop of this trip before turning back.

The departure from PDX was pretty interesting. We had to call Clearance Delivery first because it’s a Class C airport (*1), and a very helpful line technician told us that there is no run-up area next to the runways, and we should do our run-up on their ramp before calling anyone.

N656BC, readback correct, contact ground ready to taxi, and confirm you are a Twin Star?

This seems to be a common theme at PDX. Everyone thinks we have more and bigger engines than we actually do.

*1: You get an simplified CRAFT-style clearance, where they give you a departure heading, altitude, departure frequency, and squawk code. This is presumably because otherwise tower wouldn’t be able to release you until you are out of the class C airspace, since you would immediately be violating the airspace then (in class C and not having two-way contact with ATC). Tower will hand you off to departure on take-off, and you will already be on flight following.

Ground got us to taxi to 28R behind a Delta, I thought we were going to go after them, and finally get to practice wake turbulence takeoff procedure… But no, they told the Delta to line up and wait, and gave us an intersection takeoff in front of them with a turn to heading 320 to get out of the way as soon as we’re able. The Delta took off on our tail.

Our chaser.
“In 500 ft, turn right onto taxiway alpha, then use the left lane to turn onto taxiway alpha two, and your destination will be ahead.”
Bye Portland!
On departure.

Approach into Seattle was interesting due to the traffic density, but Seattle approach was very nice, and we were handed off to Boeing Tower at the Vashon reporting point (northern end of the Vashon island). Boeing is one of those airports with a bunch of local VFR procedures that aren’t published anywhere, so we asked for headings to fly, and they were very happy to give us headings. I found that to be a nice and stress-free technique for all involved at airports with complicated local procedures. I only need to dial the heading into the autopilot, and not have to worry about looking for landmarks. On the controller side, they can tell me exactly where to go, and they know I’m not going to suddenly decide to turn in random directions. We got in on 14R, and parked with Kenmore, which from my research is where most small pistons park. No fees with fuel purchase, and they have all the basic facilities and refreshments.

Vashon Island.
Seattle downtown up ahead.
Boeing Field Runway 14R. 737 Maxs chilling on the right on the Boeing ramp :D.
At our parking. Waiting for the SR22 to get out of the way (can’t see it in the photo, but they had just started their engine). Not going to taxi into them this time!

KBFI → KS03

Flight log

After a few days of Seattle weather and Nirvana, we headed back to the airport under a 3500 ft overcast. Not ideal, but doable, given that the terrain is flat, the weather is forecasted to improve, and there were plenty of airports to land at if things turned south. Flying at such a low altitude does mean the plane won’t be as fuel efficient, but we did carry a bit more fuel than we need, and the sky cleared up shortly after we went past Portland, so we were able to climb to 8500 ft then.

Overcast at 3500 ft
Clouds finally becoming sparse enough that I am comfortable climbing through a hole to go over.
That’s a lot of traffic near Portland and Hillsboro.

ATC was very busy and Seattle Approach wasn’t able to provide VFR advisory services until we were out of the area. Very happy with G1000’s traffic information system – would have been a slightly scary flight out of Seattle given the traffic density and not talking to ATC.

We decided to stop for the night in Ashland, a very scenic small town with a small uncontrolled airport just south of Medford. Why Ashland? Well, it’s conveniently located just before the crazy part of the Cascade mountains, and my intel indicated that it’s a pretty place for a fuel stop.

Ashland Municipal Airport

What my intel didn’t tell me though, was that it’s 4th July the next day, and apparently that’s a pretty big deal. We don’t have anything like that in any of the countries I’ve lived in, so we got caught a bit off guard (Canada does have Canada Day, but it’s not quite as crazy). It was interesting to experience some of the American-style patriotism.

We did not book hotel in advance because we didn’t know if we would be flying or not that day, and it was only on the way there that we realised most of the hotels were fully booked (my partner checked on the phone when we had cell coverage – not very often at 8500 ft!). I decided to continue to Ashland anyways, because we had a plane, and there’s always the option of just taking off again to find another town if we can’t find a hotel. Fortunately we did end up finding a hotel with vacancy, and it’s the prettiest hotel I’ve ever stayed in!

KS03 → KMFR

Flight log

Shortest leg of the trip – 10 minutes flight time.

We had a lazy morning in Ashland and had a nice walk around town before heading to the airport. Tried to use the self-serve fuel pump… and it was broken.

So we were in a bit of a situation. We landed the night before with just over 10 gallons left in the tanks. At our cruise setting that’s just over 1 hour. FAA’s legal minimum fuel reserve is 30 minutes for the kind of flying we were doing, but I don’t really feel comfortable cutting it that close, and always aim to have at least 1 hour of fuel in the tanks.

That’s why we decided to turn back and backtrack a bit to Medford (KMFR) for fuel instead of continuing on our way and find an airport along the way, since that would involve flying into the mountains with 1 hour of fuel… not a very good idea.

We were in Medford 10 minutes later with low fuel warning in one of the tanks coming on as we landed, and got some fuel from Million Air (who we parked with on our way up a few days earlier). Being a full service provider at a larger airport, they didn’t have the cheapest fuel, but they were the closest, and hence safest option. After all, fuel exhaustion is by far the most common cause of engine failures in flight, and that’s not a statistics I want to be a part of.

Fuel at shutdown. About 50 minutes of reserve at cruise speed. Still very much legal, but this is the lowest fuel level I’ve ever seen.

Fuelling took a while because apparently their pump broke, too (?!), and they had to figure out how to pump the fuel manually…

KMFR → KMCE

Flight log

After our little unplanned excursion, we headed back towards the mountains and into California.

This time we decided to cross the mountains at 11,500 ft indicated. It was actually closer to 12,000 ft according to GPS, because we were using altimeter settings from Medford, and apparently the mountains had about 0.5 inHg higher atmospheric pressure at the time. On the flight log you can actually see the indicated altitude start deviating from the GPS altitude as we entered the mountains (Klamath National Forest)!

Near Mount Shasta

We decided to go so high because we lost radio and radar contact on the way up at 7,500 ft, and I didn’t want that to happen again. We did manage to maintain radar and radio contact with ATC this time through the mountains.

Of course, flying high is not without disadvantages. At 12,000 ft, air has about 40% less oxygen (partial pressure of oxygen, in more technical terms) than at sea level. We were monitoring our blood oxygen saturation with a pulse oximeter. They are very useful for high altitude flying without supplemental oxygen, but as with all tools, it’s also important to know their limitations – they are much less accurate below 70% saturation or so, can be affected by extreme temperatures, and hyperventilating will make it show a higher number while actually exacerbating hypoxia (because hyper-ventilation takes oxygen away from the brain, and into extremities).

At this altitude my saturation fluctuated between about 85% and 90%, while my partner’s stayed near 90% (women tend to have higher SpO2). 90% is where I start thinking about hypoxia. 65% is where very significant mental impairment starts, and at 55% people lose consciousness (source). Keeping in mind that pulse oximeters become wildly inaccurate below 70% (most specify that their rated accuracy is only from 70% to 100%), 80% is probably about as low as I would go.

A few hours of amazing scenery later, we arrived at Merced, CA for our fuel stop – a small uncontrolled airport with a self-serve pump (that works).

Back in California. All flat!
At the pit stop. Merced Regional Airport.

KMCE → KCMA

Flight log

Our last leg took us back to Camarillo, arriving just after sunset (but before the end of twilight, which is when the FAA definition of “night” starts, so no rules were broken!). Beautiful arrival into CMA, but both my cameras have died at this point, so unfortunately not many pictures!

Crossing our last bit of mountains back to Camarillo (photo credit: Steph, my partner).
Camarillo at sunset (photo credit: Steph).
Back in Camarillo. First time I’ve been able to actually see our own landing lights.
Unloading. I’ll miss you, N656BC! Maybe we’ll meet again in another few years.

On this trip we covered a total distance of 1910 nautical miles (2198 statute miles), and 15 hours in air. The same trip by car would have taken about 35 to 40 hours, depending on traffic.

We returned the plane, spent a few more days in LA, and headed back to London. No more flying for me for a while, but now I am thinking about taking advantage of my recently re-gained proficiency to get that glider license I started working on ages ago…

Departing LAX. Felt a bit weird to be on an airplane and not flying it…