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New Book: Fifty Classic Destinations for Pilots

December, 2014

Cover (Large)I’ve published a new book Fifty Classic Destinations for Pilots.  Epic Adventures, Romance and Outdoor Fun in the Western USA. The book has received great reviews (thank goodness) and is available at  As a West Coast Flying Adventure blog reader you can use coupon code “blog20” to get 20% off on the price of the book.

– Thanks – Ney

Obscure Nevada Backcountry Adventure: The Lava Beds

November, 2015

I was on my way to a meeting in Salt Lake City and I looked out the airplane window to my left and saw in the distance spires rising out of the Nevada desert. Are those granite? There, close to the Black Rock Desert (aka home to Burning Man)? I looked at my watch to make sure I had enough time before my meeting in Salt Lake City, then banked the plane and descended for a closer look. The spires were indeed granite and looked tall enough for some interesting rock climbing. I circled a few times, took some photos then banked away towards my meeting.

The strange and wonderful Lava Beds, all Granite

The strange and wonderful Lava Beds, all Granite

Research turned up very little about the place.  It seems to be a relatively unvisited part of Nevada.  So that settled it. Betsy and I had to go to this remote area of Nevada and find out what is really there.

Lonely Granite Spires

Lonely Granite Spires

There were no airports or dirt strips close to where we were heading so Betsy and I headed out in our van after work on a Friday, stopping in Reno for dinner and then out into the Nevada wilds. We first ran into a rainstorm and flash flood, and wondered why every time recently when we drive into the Nevada desert where it never rains, it rains.

Nevada dept. of trans. crew quick to clear the mud off the road.

Nevada dept. of trans. crew quick to clear the mud off the road.

Soon we were on a decent mud-free dirt road, heading into the darkening desert.

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In spite of GPS and modern Google/Bing Satellite previews of the roads, at one point during the evening we took a wrong turn and drove down to a gated private ranch – and we couldn’t back up in the mud nor could we turn around. We could only go down but were block by a gate. We crawled through a barbed wire fence, a cattle dog warily circling and barking, and slowly approached the ranch house. It was surrounded by corrals, pickup trucks and long multi-horse trailers – so I felt better that it was probably a cowboy’s bunkhouse rather than a private ranch with an old rancher sitting on his rocking chair with a rifle in his lap. Sure enough a couple of guys answered the door and said the gate wasn’t actually locked, it just looked like it and we could unwrap the chain and drive through. In fact, they said we could drive though a road on the ranch and meet up with the correct road later.

We spent the night just off the dirt road before we hit the “less traveled” road in the morning. It was definitely less traveled.


It was only 30 miles on dirt, but it seemed like a lot more. Click on this for full effect!

Wet, but surprisingly firm creekbed/road.

Wet, but surprisingly firm creekbed/road.

I had learned a well-known 4×4 technique after being stuck in the mud previously. Let the air out of your tires, all the way down to 25 lbs or less (from 50). It works! Which means we have a new air compressor for the van.

Soft sand plus a turn. Keep your speed up!

Soft sand plus a turn. Speed is your friend! Yee-haw!

The soft-tire bit really did the trick! Until it didn’t.

Turns out the long wheel base doesn't just make parking harder.

Turns out the long wheel base doesn’t just make parking harder.

Not stuck in the mud, but definitely stuck at a creek crossing.

Not stuck in the mud, but definitely stuck at a creek crossing.

Forget the soft tires, I need a couple of inches!

Forget the soft tires, I need a couple of inches!

We bent the propane filler attachment and crammed dirt into the van’s battery box but didn’t seem to do other damage. We do have a satellite emergency beacon and lots of extra water but getting stuck out here would not have been fun.

We finally make it. Not to where I had planned because another dry creek crossing scared us, but we certainly can’t complain about the camp site:



But don’t let your guard down. Right to the left from where this photo was taken Bodie, one of our dogs, leapt straight up like a cat and a buzzing sound ensued. Betsy and I stepped forward to inspect the rattlesnake under the rock, but not until I later looked at the photo on the computer did I see the second snake! We were close to that snake!

If you only see one, click to enlarge.

Where is Waldo, the second snake?

Betsy found a really cool spot where perhaps Indians made arrow heads. There were flakes of obsidian everywhere. We collected some of it for this photo, then spread it out again.

Arrowhead factory?

Arrowhead factory?

Location of arrowhead pieces

Location of arrowhead pieces

Oh yes, we came to climb. It was great and we did some probable first ascents. Betsy ended up leading the first crux pitch of a delicate climb called “South Spring Arete”. There were places for natural protection but you had to seek them out. The rock is rough and a little crumbly in spots on this spire.

Spring Spires

Spring Spires

There are many springs in the area which cows, wild horses, wild burros and one small fawn enjoy. We saw a lot of burros on the way in and out.

Never saw mom.

Never saw mom.

Lightning, 5.10a

We climbed a few of the spires.  This one we rated 5.10a

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Having abandoned the drill, Betsy is at the end of the face section and is now contemplating the finger crack

We also put up a couple of shorter fun climbs.

No Bodie, it doesn't go.

No Bodie, it doesn’t go.

Shangri La

Shangri La

Road to Ruins (5.6)

Road to Shangri La (rated 5.6)

We found a grassy area / oasis we called Shangri La, hidden from the wild horses or even deer because of the rock climbing required to get there.  We almost expected mini-dinosaurs to be living there, undiscovered for centuries.

We were so tired at the end of the weekend we didn’t even make it home. We pulled over in Tahoe Sunday night at a hidden spot to sleep, then continued on early Monday.

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Not a bad splitter crack. Next time

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Storm clouds behind spires

Storm clouds behind spires

Some History

The Lava Beds are also known as Elephant Land which comes from research that shows that desert rat and well known Nevada climber Alvin Mclane (passed away in 2006) discovered this place in the 60s. He was known for keeping secrets but for this place he didn’t. He brought National Geographic out here and the results were published in 1983s “America’s Hidden Corners: Places off the Beaten Path”. I found an old copy on Amazon and bought it. The article’s author calls it a climber’s paradise and Alvin names it Elephant Land. It is better known as The Lava Beds for 4×4 enthusiasts and Chukka hunters, although it is misnamed as a miner looking for Tungsten in 1921 said, “…but so far as has been ascertained there is not a pebble of lava in the range”.

National Geographic

National Geographic

National Geographic, page 2

National Geographic, page 2

The Exhaust, The Rogue, The Engine Fire, The Rogue, The Refusal and The Rogue.

September, 2015

It promised to be a few months of convenient and fun flying and I had been looking forward to it for a long time. Our daughter Belyn is a whitewater river guide on the Rogue River in Oregon. She is also at a point of thinking about what she wants to do long term. We originally were not going to see her much this summer, so we hatched a plan. We get a family discount on river trips so the plan was to sign up on her trips in order to spend some quality time with her. First I would go, then Betsy would go, then the entire family would go as our summer get together. This would normally be a lot of driving back and forth, but with the plane it would be a piece of cake. In addition, the rafting company ARTA has a “guide house” near Grant’s Pass airport, so it would be very convenient to fly in there and just walk over to the guide house.

The Exhaust

It wasn’t to be. My annual was due in June (into July), and the first Rogue river trip (mine) was happening in late July. My plane seemed to do well in annual with good compressions in all cylinders and only a few minor items to take care of. Tom my mechanic knew about the trip coming up, so he was putting the plane back together the week prior so I could get it out for a test flight. Then the call came. He had found a crack in the exhaust manifold near the turbo and it had to be fixed. We called around and I was prepared to drive somewhere to have it welded, but it turned out it needed to be replaced. I was grounded.

I flew commercial to Portland, then my flight to Medford was canceled and I finally got on the last flight of the night at 11:00 pm. So instead of a 2 hour flight in the Cessna, the journey via commercial was about 13 hours. I know, pity me that I had to fly commercial. But it did kind of suck. Belyn had been loading all evening for the four day trip, and had to get up extremely early to finish, so I felt guilty because she had to drive over from Grant’s Pass to pick me up.

The Rogue River

The trip was awesome – what a beautiful river with bear, bald eagles, osprey, mink and river otters. I was able to hang out on Belyn’s gear boat and chat for hours.

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Belyn and dad

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Next was Betsy’s turn to head up and spend time with Belyn. Tom got the exhaust replaced and I took it up for a 30 minute test flight around the airport the day before we were to leave. The test flight went well with no problems.

The Engine Fire

Both Betsy and I worked all day and we met at the airport at 6:00 pm for her flight to Grants Pass. We packed her stuff, got in the plane and I turned the master (electrical) switch on and listened to the gyros wind up. But some strange static came through the overhead speaker and the electrical aux fuel pump would not come on. Something was wrong. Betsy said, “I think there’s smoke”. Remember, the engine isn’t on at this point, just the master switch. I immediately switched the master off, but I could hear that the gyros were not winding down. What? It isn’t powering off! I cycled the switch but nothing. I pulled the pullable circuit breakers and tried to think how I could get the power off without having to remove the cowl and disconnect the battery which would take some time. I then decided I should probably turn the fuel off and pull the mixture off as we are trained, but the mixture cable was frozen. What the hell? It was seemingly an electrical problem but the mechanical mixture knob would not move? Then Betsy said, “yes, definitely smoke”. Ok, let’s get out. Now.

Once outside Betsy said, “Is it a fire?” I said no, some sort of electrical short but probably not a fire. The gyros were still spinning so I was bewildered on why the power was still on. I opened up the oil access door and peered inside. Flames! “Uh, yes, Bets, it actually is a fire”. I got the fire extinguisher from the cockpit and thankfully it immediately put out the flames. After a few moments the gyros spun down. Betsy looked at me and said, “Its probably not going to be fixed tonight, is it?” I said unfortunately it wasn’t going to be flying for quite some time.

We unpacked her stuff into her car and she took off driving to Oregon for the river trip that started early the next morning. I felt terrible. But I was also thankful it didn’t happen in the air. That kind of fire in the engine compartment would certainly be much much worse with the amount of air that flows through the compartment during flight.

So what happened? A large battery cable that goes from the battery to the coil lays on an aluminum firewall shelf. Either the cable had worn through from the shelf or the mixture cable had worn a hole in it. Either way, a major electrical short occurred and a fire started which burned some cables (thus the frozen mixture cable) and a few small holes in the firewall. Fortunately it didn’t burn any structural members or any rivets in the firewall, so the mechanics were able to patch it without major work.

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Burned mixture cable

Tom and I had a good laugh at the fire extinguisher / test flight stunt, and we re-enacted it.

Tom and I had a good laugh at the fire extinguisher / test flight stunt, and we re-enacted it.

The Rogue River

Betsy also had a great time on the river with Belyn. She was a little tired from all the driving because we had scheduled everything with flying in mind, not driving. So once off the river in the afternoon she had to jump in the car so she could be at work the next day.

Rogue (Large)

The Refusal

The last trip was coming up. Our son was working at a summer camp and had a few weeks off before school started again so as a way to all be together we planned another river trip with Belyn. Who knows, she maybe was tired of having her parents as guests but we did tip well.

The plan of course was to fly, and Tom worked hard to get the plane patched and put back together. I took it up for a test flight while Tom waited on the ground and as a joke I shut it down and jumped out with a fire extinguisher in my hand. However, there were no fires and he made sure that the new cable was well armored. It was ready to go – again.

Betsy had other ideas. Like not flying for a while. Who could blame her? She knows how serious it could have been had we been in the air. She wants to wait a few flights, without any smoke or fire, before getting back in the plane.

Well, at least I didn't have to worry about getting the kayaks into the plane

Well, at least I didn’t have to worry about getting the kayaks into the plane

The Rogue River

So we drove and had a wonderful time again, the entire family together. Driving wasn’t bad since we scheduled enough time. It wasn’t nearly as painful as the 13 hour commercial flight – and shorter.

I had moments of frustration when we stopped by the guide house and I saw how close Grants Pass airport was – and realized we did three trips there and I never landed there.

Maybe next year.

ARTA guides (Large)

Awesome ARTA guides and awesome food spread!

Betsy Kayaking

Betsy Kayaking

Belyn, my son Ney and other Rogue guests

Belyn, my son Ney and other Rogue guests

A 33 Year Journey to a First Ascent

May, 2015

In 1982 (yeah, sorry, the story starts in 1982) my sister set me up on a date and to entice me to follow through she said it was with a woman who “was a rock climbing instructor and had her own rope”.  That was Betsy and besides having kids and all that stuff we’ve been climbing rocks together ever since. One of the first places we climbed together was at Lover’s Leap using a guidebook written by Rick Sumner.  Yes, you’ll hear the name again later.

Betsy and I have climbed a lot, have been on first ascent teams but have never actually put a route up ourselves.  As you can imagine, finding a new route at established areas these days is extremely difficult. But it sounded like a worthy goal and as you age you start thinking about what you leave behind.  When someone says, Ney and Bets – what did they leave behind?  For example, did they help end world hunger?  No, but they did put up some rock climbs out in Nevada where no one really goes.  Well, it would be a fun goal anyway.

So I started watching for areas as I flew across Nevada and eastern California on my trips.  I found one worthy area but it turned out to be too good to be true – it was a large granite wall that had been climbed.

Pequop (Large)

I was also doing research on the web and I saw that Rick Sumner (same one) was developing a secret area out in Nevada somewhere.  He was posting enticing photos but not revealing where the place was.  I started to strategize on how I could find out where he was climbing. Extortion? Kidnapping?  I finally settled on bribery.  I offered him an airplane ride over his area and to recon other areas in exchange for introducing Betsy and I to his area.

Rick lives halftime in Alaska and was soon to depart north, so he declined the ride in order to get more rock time – but he graciously invited Betsy and I out to climb.  We had a great day out and Rick led us up some of the climbs he had recently put up – and we got to feel some of the excitement of being in an area not fully developed. Thank you Rick.

Now Memorial day weekend was coming up and the weather was crappy each day, but I snuck out for a two hour flight one morning to try to photograph some of the crags in the area that Rick had now publically named, “The Egyptian Ridge”.

At first I thought the flight was a total dud.  The ridge was mostly in clouds and the photos I got were blurry because I didn’t want to slow down too much or get too close.  I can fly slow, take photos and deal with clouds and terrain, but not all three at once.

Oh  uh, are those T-storms forming over the Egyptian Ridge?

Oh uh, are those T-storms forming over the Egyptian Ridge?

But I did get some blurry photos that ultimately came in useful. Note that I’m not including here the photo of the formation we ended up on – because that location is still secret.  Here are some photos of the Egyptian Ridge taken on a later flight on the way to Salt Lake City for business:

Egyptian Ridge

One of the Egyptian Ridge formations

A segment of the Egyptian Ridge

A segment of the Egyptian Ridge

Betsy and I drove out Friday night and camped in our van nearby, only to wake up with rain, clouds and the Egyptian Ridge completely obscured.  Damn.

But then I remembered a blurry photo of a formation, not identified on the ridge by Rick, that looked promising.  Betsy and I headed that way and got halfway across a large field of sagebrush on a dirt track before becoming stuck in the mud, with the cool traction sleds and the tire chains tucked safely away in our garage for the summer.  Bummer.

Minutes from getting bogged in mud

Minutes from getting bogged in mud

Oddly, not long after we stopped forward progress we saw lots of cows moving all around us.  We eerily ended up in the center of a cow roundup.  A cowboy and his dog came riding over and we were feeling guilty that we were stuck in the middle of the jeep track, but he was only asking if we had extra beer. He ended up with wine, which I felt bad about because he surely thought I was a wus not having any beer.

We hiked up to the formation Saturday and spent the day with our dogs hunkered down under rocks in the rain watching water pour off the face. But what a face it is! We picked out some good lines and went back to the mud-bound van for the night.

Our van, outstanding in its field. (old joke but couldn't help it)

Our van, outstanding in its field. (old joke but couldn’t help it)

Betsy got the van stuck again just trying to turn it so we would have a nice view, but she redeemed herself by figuring out we could use the plastic leveling blocks (which we broke to bits) to help free the van. We then decided to just leave it in place until Monday when everything was hopefully dry and we could drive it out.

On Sunday we put up two new first ascents!  We did it. The first, we named High Desert Solitaire, starts on the left side of the face with a bolt, which protects a few thin (5.9) face moves up right into a crack (5.6) leaning right, then up to a small roof/belay (5.8), then up to a ridge that leads to summit blocks.

Betsy putting in a protection bolt on High Desert Solitaire

Betsy putting in a protection bolt on High Desert Solitaire

The second climb, called Visions of Empire (the modern ghost town of Empire is just within sight), is a fine face climb that goes up the middle of the face (5.8).

Visions of Empire route

Visions of Empire route

I had posted the photo of us in the mud on the climbing forum on Saturday and a climber, Alex Kirkpatrick, saw our van in the field and drove out Saturday afternoon to make sure we were OK. Thank you Alex. He ended up camping with us, and we all did the big hike back up to put up a third climb called The Hourglass (5.7).

Hourglass (Large)

For getting almost hopelessly stuck in the mud, it turned out to be a fantastic climbing weekend!

Betsy and Alex enjoying a Nevada sunset

Betsy and Alex enjoying a Nevada sunset

Betsy, now a ground-up bolting machine.

Betsy, now a ground-up bolting machine.

A Flight over the Cascades to Seattle

April, 2015

When flying north to Seattle it is easy to see why it is green and lush on the west side of the Cascades and dry on the other.  On this trip there were thick clouds from the ocean to the peaks of the cascades, and there they stopped.  On this trip the clouds were flowing over the cascades, only to dry up within miles.  It made for spectacular scenery.

Although I was up there for business I was also able to spend a day and take by daughter Belyn and her friend Jason to Friday Harbor, a fun day.

I fired four of my overhead missiles at Mt. Baker.  Clearly I missed.

I fired four of my overhead missiles at Mt. Baker. Clearly I missed.



Somewhere in the Cascades

Somewhere in the Cascades

Nothing like being on Final to Boeing field next to Downtown Seattle. (Photo by Jason)

Nothing like being on Final to Boeing field next to Downtown Seattle. (Photo by Jason)

Over the sound on the way to Friday Harbor. (Photo by Jason)

Over the sound on the way to Friday Harbor. (Photo by Jason)

Successful Winter Week of Business in a Small Airplane

February, 2015

I abandoned the idea of flying my own plane several times that week. I was checking out Southwest flights up to the very last minute, but then it seemed like it might work despite a weather system that was forecast to drift through the southwest.  My overarching concern the entire week was icing. Specifically icing over mountains where there is no way out. I fly a turbocharged Cessna 210, a capable plane for regional business travel but mine doesn’t have any anti-icing capability.

Here are some definitions for those that don’t speak aviation:

  • IFR – Instrument Flight Rules: You are under a more regimented set of flight rules and controlled by ATC
  • IMC – Instrument Meteorological Conditions: You are in a cloud or can’t see a horizon
  • VFR – Visual Flight Rules: You are under a flexible set of flight rules and can basically go where you want (almost) as long as you are VMC
  • VMC – Visual Meteorological Conditions: You can see outside
  • ILS – Instrument Landing System: The old but proven precision landing system in IMC
  • WTF – What the heck?

Monday Morning

I had a 12:30 meeting in Long Beach and the flight down from Placerville was probably the easiest of the week. I filed an IFR flight plan only because it is often easier having ATC tell you where to go in the Los Angeles basin than it is trying navigate the very complex airspace there.

The meeting was less than a success but that is a different story. It went rather late and on the way back to the Long Beach airport the taxi ran into traffic and I could see the sky darkening with storm clouds. The ceiling stayed high at 8,000 feet above the airport so I wasn’t too worried, but I did want to get into the air before nightfall so I could see the mountains and get away from the localized rain showers. Once over the mountains it was going to be clear all the way home.

It didn’t happen.

The sky darkened with heavy clouds as I got to the plane and it started to rain as I taxied out. The ceiling was still 8,000 and I still had plenty of daylight so I decided to get airborne to see what the visibility was. Once in the air the showers turned to heavy rain and the visibility was terrible. ATC radioed, “Centurion three-one November, heavy precipitation ahead for 10 miles”. That is ATC speak for “Dude, WTF?” It was actually a little thrilling because I rarely fly in heavy rain. However it is more like roller-coasting thrilling, where you only want it to last a few minutes and then stop.

Remember, I don’t want to file IFR and go IMC for fear of icing in the clouds over the mountains getting out of the LA basin. So I took the nearest out and asked to divert to Fullerton. Fullerton tower was great, he didn’t care I hadn’t received the airport weather yet (the ATIS) and cleared me to land, suggesting that if I started a right teardrop turn I would be lined up with runway 4.

I had only made it about 10 miles, but I had a much cleaner airplane than when I took off.

I sat in my plane in the heavy rain for quite a while as the sun set, even though I knew my chances of getting out were now zero, eating the leftover lunch that I luckily still had in the plane. I finally called a cab and went to one of the dozens of nearby Disneyland motels for the night.

Oh – did the title say “Successful winter trip”. Perhaps I meant “Mildly successful winter trip”.

Tuesday Morning

I had to be in Utah Wednesday evening for my next meeting early Thursday morning so I decided not to even go home – I would just head directly to Utah. But the weather remained over Southern California so I got up early and got to the airport right at daybreak. I wanted every chance of getting out somehow and often early morning is a little better before the sun re-charges the storm by creating more instability.

Dawn Departure from LA

Dawn Departure from LA

It worked. There was a visible gap to the east so I was able to fly up between layers and eventually get “on top” at 13,500 feet in a nice tailwind all the way to Ogden Utah.

Under some clouds and over others

Under some clouds and over others


OK, I knew there was a chance I may not make it home so I happened to have my skis with me. Serendipitously a storm came in on Wednesday and made for a wonderful day of skiing at Snowbasin – my only non flying day of the week.

A little fresh powder at Snowbasin

A little fresh powder at Snowbasin

Thursday Morning

I had the FBO put my plane in a hangar for the night, which was a great call with 30 degree weather and heavy frost that morning. I carry a preheater with me, but you need to get rid of the frost too and the best way is to keep it off is in a hangar. I got in the air early and headed for Provo where the weather was clear to pick up some clients at 8:00 am for the short trip to Heber City / Park City for a meeting. I was flying VFR along a special corridor that keeps VFR aircraft from being a nuisance to Salt Lake City jet traffic when ATC came on, “Centurion three-one November, Provo has gone IFR and reports 1 mile visibility in mist, state intentions”. I don’t like the term “state intentions” because it often means they have surprised you with something and want to know what you want to do before you’ve really thought about it. This time is was easy, I asked for a clearance into Provo and the ILS. I was a little lucky because I was almost on the ILS approach already so it was an easy transition onto the approach and down to the threshold of the runway. I love that – flying blind on approach and having the runway show up where it is supposed to. That is always a thrill and so far the runway has always been there…

I took my clients up for a scenic ride and then over to land at Heber City.   I was a little lucky again in that there was a 2,800 foot ceiling that looked hard to get under. However I heard traffic in the pattern at Heber City and they said it was no sweat to fly Provo Canyon in, and after that we found a large hole right above the airport anyway so it turned out to be easy.

Thursday Evening

After a successful meeting the two clients and I needed to be in San Diego on Friday for the last meeting of the week. They had asked if they could fly with me, but I said no, not at night and not with weather around. So for me it was a bit of a race. Could I fly the three hours to San Diego in my 210 faster than they could fly Southwest from Salt Lake City through Las Vegas to San Diego? Certainly I could.

I could not.

Typically with my own plane I’m not the person saying he has to go catch a flight, but in this case I wanted to have an hour of daylight in front of me so I did leave the meeting early. That system of weather was now over Arizona so I wanted to (again) avoid flying in the clouds over mountains. I took off and got to around Delta Utah before I knew it was going to be a challenging night flight. Visibility was not great and I was sure it was going to get worse as I approached the edge of the storm system so I filed IFR for Tonopah Nevada, way off to the west. I was going to go around the storm.

Limited visibility for night flying

Limited visibility, so I turned west towards better weather as night falls

I wasn’t actually in a cloud, but I was on instruments at 15,000 feet and on an IFR flight plan in mist with a ceiling somewhere above. The plan was to get to Tonopah and if things didn’t look better, land for the night. I didn’t want to cross the Sierras IMC.

I did the GPS approach into Tonopah and did notice the town lights were especially bright but I was concentrating on the complicated approach procedure and didn’t look up at the sky.  I knew I could abort the approach early on and continue visually but it was a challenging approach and I wanted to finish it. Once on the ground I looked up and saw the moon and stars. It was clear above me and I didn’t even notice it!

So I relaunched and although there were clouds around, I was able to get well above them and could see clouds and mountains in the moonlight. I easily crossed the Sierra near Mammoth pass in the clear and turned south again – toward the storm.

Did I say “mildly successful winter trip”? I think I meant “very challenging but mildly successful winter trip”.

The clouds came up to meet me and I climbed to 17,000 to stay above them. I picked up an IFR clearance into Montgomery field in San Diego. My goal? Stay out of the clouds until clear of the mountains and into the LA basin. ATC said I couldn’t stay at 17,000 and offered me 13,000 or 19,000. 13 would be in the clouds so I went to 19 and turned up the oxygen.

I was relieved to see the rain showers pass beneath me on the radar while I watched the moon above, and even more relieved to see I had passed the mountains. ATC didn’t let me down until around Oceanside VOR and then down I came – quickly. And I did pick up ice around 10,000 feet, but it came quickly as the windscreen turned opaque and then just as quickly cleared up as the ice slid off in a sheet.

I popped out of the clouds around 7,000 feet and continued with the ILS approach as it can be comforting in a large city to have an approach bring you right down onto the correct row of lights. It can be embarrassing landing on a road.

Did I beat my clients? Nope. This was my longest flight ever at 5 hours of flight time, not counting the time on the ground at Tonopah. My clients did arrive at the same time I did and I waited at Montgomery Field while they rented a car at the main San Diego airport to pick me up on the way to a nearby hotel – but they stayed another hour or so at Park City before leaving for the airport.

Friday evening

We had a great meeting Friday but the conference room windows were better than any weather app, telling me that the weather system was being persistent – and annoying! By the end of the day a band of heavy rain was moving through as I prepared to take off. Again I wanted stay VFR/VMC to avoid icing, so I waited for the rain to pass and then flew a special VFR corridor, hoping it would remain clear of clouds. It did, and once passed the crazy-busy LA airspace I was able to visually pick my way through the mountains and clouds.

Rain showers LA (Large)

Rain Showers off the coast of Los Angeles


It was clear north as night fell and I was looking forward to a peaceful end to the trip, which was not to be.

Placerville was sporting a 15 knot wind diagonally across the runway, a by-product of the storm system down south. I thought, “Really, I have to do this now, after battling with weather all week?” Anything over about 10 knots at Placerville, which is located at the top of a hill, is pretty exciting with significant up and downdrafts. In this kind of wind you have to “land long” so a downdraft doesn’t send you into the side of the mountain short of the runway before you can react. My first attempt could be termed, “land WAY long” and it just took me too long as I battled turbulence all the way down to and even above the runway surface, and as the halfway point of the runway came up I added power to abort the approach and go around. As I picked up speed I kept the plane flying along the runway (a steep climb-out can lead to a stall in such gusty conditions) and a gust sent me onto the runway – a big scary bounce. Thank goodness for strong landing gears. My second attempt was similar – a fight to the runway, but I settled onto the runway sooner and definitely remembered the adage, “fly the airplane until it stops”.

Did I say “very challenging but mildly successful winter trip”?  I meant to say, “its OK to take Southwest if things look challenging”.   Looking back I would have flown commercial had I known how challenging the trip would have been.  I was exhausted at the end of the week from constantly thinking of contingencies, back up plans, etc.  I had to overnight once and very nearly had to overnight twice in one week. However, having done it successfully, I’m glad I did it – I executed some interesting approaches, successfully dodged or opted out of any heavy weather flying and continue to gain experience.

I didn’t make it home in time for the traditional Friday night dinner with Betsy, but we were able to get out the next day to climb a mountain, even though I was still pretty tired from the trip.

On top of Pyramid Peak, clear of icing.

On top of Pyramid Peak, clear of icing.


Flying in a Snowy Cocoon

January, 2015

I was flying VFR at 16,500 feet not far above the clouds on my way home from Phoenix. Unfortunately as I approached Death Valley and the mountains surrounding that area the clouds got higher, so I had choice of ducking through a hole and flying under, or getting on an IFR flight plan and using an oxygen mask (I was wearing a cannula) to go higher. Flying in the clouds wasn’t an option as I was planning on crossing the Sierra mountains, a known ice making machine.

The METARs (automated airport weather) for Bishop and Mammoth showed a high ceiling so I went under just as the sun was setting. ATC soon said I was out of radar coverage and dropped me (wouldn’t follow me or talk to me) as I leveled out at 12,500 feet, just 500 feet under a cloud ceiling.

Soon it was dark and I noticed the strobe was picking up some snow. I realized at that point that forward visibility was zero although I could barely pick out the occasional car or house if looking straight down. I was legally VFR, but absolutely 100% on instruments. I would have been scared to death had I been a VFR only pilot. As it was I was only moderately anxious.

The snow became thicker and soon I was enveloped in it. I wasn’t in the clouds and the wings and windshield remained clear of ice. My plan should I enter a cloud, a distinct possibility, would be to descend and if required land at one of the small airports along the way. There are high ridges and mountains around so sneaking around down low in low visibility wasn’t a good idea.

However I was safe in my own little cocoon at 12,500 feet. The wing tip strobes were now brightly lighting up snow and I left them on because I liked the effect. I put WingX synthetic vision up on the iPad (using an iLevil device for attitude) so I had a backup to the attitude instrument in the panel. I also had a VFR chart up on the iPad, and at the same time I had a terrain map up on the Garmin 496 which would alert me to being below terrain.

I turned on my landing lights but like car highbeams in snow, the effect was too transfixing to leave on. I think you could hypnotize yourself staring at that – until perhaps a rock came into view.

The air was smooth, the instruments steady and the red terrain warning from the 14,000 peaks of the Sierra Nevada got closer and closer. I overflew Bishop and turned right towards my favorite airport Lee Vining. It was surprising, however, how darn close to high terrain that airport is as I avoided it to the right and away from the mountains.

Still in snow but south of the highest peaks I finally turned left to cross the Sierras and head towards my home field in Placerville, my GPS telling me to start my descent but my mind telling me not to dare. If I looked straight down I could barely see some eerily flashes of white and dark as snow and mountains flew past.

Soon the snow eased up, the lights of Sacramento valley came into view and I could see my way into a visual descent path. There was even another plane in the pattern which reminded me I was not alone and isolated any longer.

The best part? It was Friday night and I was able to make my weekly romantic rendezvous with Betsy for dinner in Placerville.

Wing tip strobe. I took about 10 photos and finally caught it flashing.

Wing tip strobe. I took about 10 photos and finally caught it flashing.

Maybe seems redundant to have three GPSs.  On this night - nice.

Maybe seems redundant to have three GPSs. On this night – nice.

Snow beam.  Now turn it off.

Snow beam. Now turn it off.

High Sierra Flight with Alpine of the Americas and Peter Croft

December, 2014
Sierra Overflight

Sierra Overflight

It is not often that one flight could so easily accomplish two completely different goals but this one did, and it was a lot of fun putting it together.

The main goal was a volunteer flight with the Alpine of the Americas project flown via LightHawk.  In other words, LightHawk arranged the flight for the AAP project (Photographer Jonathan Byers) and enlisted me as the pilot.  The goal would be to attempt to recreate photos taken on overflights of the high Sierra in the 60s and 70s from small planes to compare the glaciation.  My T210 would be a great platform for this, with plenty of power  to get us up to 16 to 17,000 feet required and a high wing allowing good downward visibility.

I also knew that legendary climber Peter Croft was working on a new version of his classic guidebook, “The Good, The Great and The Awesome“.  The Sierra overflight might allow him a unique perspective on some good photos for the guidebook and he readily accepted the offer to go along.

Early morning is critical for both good photography light and calm air and both Jonathan and Peter were good to go in the morning.  I flew the night before to Lee Vining to camp so I wouldn’t have to fly over the Sierras at night in order to meet at dawn the next day.

Right away climbing out of Lee Vining at around 9,000 feet we looked right across at the classic climb Third Pillar of Mt. Dana  and I was seriously stoked, but then had a start when Peter said innocently from the back seat, “by the way, do you know how to focus this thing?” He had borrowed a camera for the flight and luckily Jonathan was able to get it straightened out.

We then proceeded to set up a shot of Mt. Conness from the air, with Jonathan examining an old photo and guiding me for both altitude and heading.  Mt. Conness also has numerous classic climbs on it (I would go on to climb the North Ridge the very next day) so Peter was busy getting some good shots.

A popular climbing route is to do a “link-up” of two routes – in this case the north ridge of North Peak, then over to the North Ridge of Mt. Conness and I was able to get a good shot of both routes in one photo.  I’ll just have to see what makes it into Peter’s new book in 2015.

We then preceded to fly over the high Sierra, getting shots of glaciers and climbing routes from Mt. Conness all the way down to Mt. Whitney.  A spectacular flight all the way around.

Jonathan, Peter and I. (Photo by Jonathan)

Jonathan, Peter and I. (Photo by Jonathan)

Conness glaciation comparison.  By Jonathan.

Conness glaciation comparison. By Jonathan.

Lyell comparison.  By Jonathan.

Lyell comparison. By Jonathan.





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