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The Ideal Airport Car: A Sportsmobile Sprinter

July, 2014

Betsy and I like to drive or fly to the east side of the Sierra Nevada for climbing and hiking adventures.  We’ve camped, slept in the plane and in hotels.  But last Fall we decided to get an adventure van.  Sure, it will go places on its own, but we also plan to use it as a mobile airport car – for example we’ll use it in the Bishop area for climbing, then fly home and leave it for a week, returning to use it again the next weekend.

At least that is the plan.

This post is a pictorial story of how we got and built the van.  We flew down to San Jose on January 1st and bought an empty cargo van.  We played with it for a few months (added tires, suspension, painted part of it, added graphics, lights, etc.).  Betsy designed a custom interior and then the van went to Sportsmobile West for almost 4 months for the build-out.  On July 3rd we final got our new van.

Here’s the story:

Betsy walking over from airport to buy van.  I don't think many people walk in without a vehicle and buy one.

Betsy walking over from airport to buy van. I don’t think many people walk in without a vehicle and buy one.

Pick your color

Pick your color

Pretending it's a camper van

Pretending it’s a camper van

Belyn adding vinyl graphics we designed to lower panel

Belyn adding custom design vinyl graphics to lower panel

 

It's a rope.  Awww - how cute.

It’s a rope. Awww – how cute.

OK, too cute.  Back down guys.

OK, too cute.

Painting some panels black (too much white)

Painting some panels black (too much white)

On a business trip I stopped by Aluminess to get front bumper rack

On business trip I stopped by Aluminess to get front bumper rack

 

Larger more aggressive tires and powder coated black rims (and heavy duty shocks/suspension)

Larger more aggressive tires and powder coated black rims (and heavy duty shocks/suspension)

Still pretending its a camper van but not yet

Still pretending its a camper van but its not – yet.

Prewire for lights before going into Sportsmobile.

Prewire for lights before going into Sportsmobile.

From Sportsmobile (SMB) factory: Cutting out windows

From Sportsmobile (SMB) factory: Cutting out windows

SMB photo: Paneling and wiring in.

SMB photo: Paneling and wiring in.

Shower stall, cabinets going in.

Shower stall, cabinets going in.

We flew to get delivery of the completed van.  I felt a little bad for the plane, but we'll still do plenty of trips in it!

We flew to get delivery of the completed van. I felt a little bad for the plane, but we’ll still do plenty of trips in it!

Finally, its done. Ande likes it.

Finally, its done. Ande likes it.

Bodie likes the storage under the bed.

Bodie likes the storage under the bed.

First weekend at Sonora Pass to check everything out.

First weekend at Sonora Pass to check everything out.

Interior.  Designed for windows, not counter space.

Interior. Designed for windows, not counter space.

Front seats swivel, and a table can be set up in "living area".

Front seats swivel, and a table can be set up in “living area”.

This is what it is all about!

Turns it is a magic van too. We no longer have to hike to climbs – it just takes us there.

 

 

Cliff Dweller’s Airstrip and Soap Creek Wash River Hike

July, 2014

I noticed on a map that the Cliff Dweller’s airstrip in Marble Canyon is right next to a wash (canyon) that leads down to the Colorado River.  I called the Cliff Dweller’s Lodge, made reservations for the night (a side trip on a business trip to Phoenix) and asked about the dirt airstrip. It turns out it isn’t theirs, but is owned by the Hatch family that runs Hatch Expeditions river running. So I called them and they said, “Land at your own risk, have fun.” Thank you, Steve Hatch! I really mean that.

The strip was a little soft and bumpy at the start but smoothed out right away. There are chains at midfield, but there was loose gravel beneath them and I couldn’t push the plane by myself there and I didn’t want to taxi in. But there seemed to be enough room, it just meant my plane wouldn’t be tied down. I rode my folding bike to the Cliff Dweller’s Lodge which is nice enough and the outdoor porch dining was perfect.

Early the next morning I headed back to the plane to drop off stuff and grab a day pack. The hike literally starts midfield across from the plane! There is a small drainage ditch that heads off perpendicular to the runway. It gets deeper and deeper until it’s a full-fledged canyon with walls hundreds of feet high. There are two places, one in particular, where you meet another canyon.  The canyon involves a lot of scrambling over boulders and rocks, but it isn’t technical except for one 30-foot drop with a knotted rope.  (On the way back I noticed you can skip the rope with a side trail).

It took me about two hours to reach the green/blue Colorado. I hung out in the sun on a big flat rock and almost went to sleep, then hiked back out. It’s pretty cool that when you’re still fairly deep in the wash, the first thing you see that tells you that you’re nearing the end is the windsock at the airstrip.

Cliff Dweller's Lodge Airstrip

Cliff Dweller’s Lodge Airstrip

Soap Creek Wash

Soap Creek Wash

Overflight of Marble Canyon

Overflight of Marble Canyon

Sea Otters and more Sea Otters – Kayaking in Elkhorn Slough

June, 2014

Watsonville airport is 10 miles from Moss Landing, a small but busy harbor and village at the mouth of the Elkhorn Slough. The slough is one of the last coastland wetlands in California. Located on the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, it has been described as the best place for wildlife viewing along the length of California’s coast.  The Elkhorn Slough is a dramatic backdrop for wildlife year-round— home to otters, seals, sea lions and an infinite variety of birds.

I went on a guided tour of the slough, guided by (not by coincidence) my daughter Belyn, who is currently working as a guide for Kayak Connection for the summer. Going with a guide is wonderful because you learn so much more than going solo. Left to my own devices, I would’ve just paddled away into the slough, but Belyn slowed us down and directed my attention to the sea life under the water— where we could see abundant sea life and even an occasional seal swimming beneath us.

I also learned, for example, that there are approximately 100 sea otters living in the slough, so you’re guaranteed to see at least a few of them frolicking, hunting or floating as they rest. There are about 3,000 sea otters in California, all descendants from a group of only 50 that remained in the 1930’s after extensive hunting in prior decades.

Belyn picked me up at the Watsonville airport, but you could take a cab or there is a Hertz car rental place right on the field (well, a little hard to find but it is there – walk out the terminal building and take a left and its down one block).

Sea Otter - One of Many

Sea Otter – One of Many

Sea Anemone

Sea Anemone

Enthusiastic Guide!

Enthusiastic Guide!

Elkhorn Slough from the air

Elkhorn Slough from the air

Hiking Notch Peak, Second Highest Cliff in North America

May, 2014

I picked up a copy of a old 1970s guide to the Great Basin area and read a section on Notch Peak, and how the vertical drop from the top is equaled only to El Capitan in Yosemite (in North America).  I was surprised because I’d never heard of it.  Was this true?  Was it still there after all these years?

I was pleased to find that it was indeed still there, and in fact some people online said they thought it was the best day hike in America. So I had to go there.  Here’s a 3 min video of our quest to get there and climb to the top. The title of the video could also be, “Why You Should Never Buy a Used Rental Car”.

 

Notch Peak from Plane

Notch Peak from Plane

From the Top

From the Top

 

Bristlecone Pine

Bristlecone Pine

 

By the way, for those pilots wishing to go to Notch Peak, here’s some info:

Ely Nevada isn’t that close to Notch Peak, but nothing is close to Notch Peak unless you own a suitable plane and want to land at the Ibex dry lake bed and bike over to it, but I measured it and its about 30 miles of hard riding. You could also land at Provo, Utah to the north and drive about three hours down to Notch Peak.

To reach the trailhead drive east from Ely on Highway 50 to mileage marker 46 and turn left. Drive four miles north to the signed Miller Canyon Road, and then turn left. Drive another five miles to a sign that points left to Sawtooth Canyon. A short ways later you will encounter a stone and log cabin on the north side of the road. Continue on up the canyon dirt road eventually you’ll see a sign signifying “Notch Peak Trailhead”.

Mexican Margaritas and Fish Tacos – This Time for Fun

May, 2014

I’ve had a few blog posts about my trips with the Flying Samaritans, but recently  we flew down to Mexico, just for fun, with some good friends Kristi and Scott from Lake Tahoe.  We’ve spent many powder days skiing with them, both on and off the ski resort, but we never seem to get together often enough once the ski season is over.  This year was a terrible ski season, so we didn’t really see them much at all.  So we thought a weekend in Mexico would be a fun way to spend some time together.

But first we had to leave.  We woke up on departure day with rain and zero visibility.  The forecast of “40% chance of rain with mostly cloudy skies” wasn’t happening.  Even worse, I couldn’t just sneak out IFR from Placerville into the California central valley where the weather was better.  I needed to fly over to South Lake Tahoe to pick up our friends and that meant snow, icing, and big rocks in the clouds.  It is only a two hour round trip drive to get them, but luckily it cleared up enough that we were able to sneak through some holes in the clouds, fly over them, then drop down into Lake Tahoe clear of the clouds.  We did notice fresh snow on the mountains – so it felt good to be heading to Mexico!

The trip down was great with a tail wind and short side trip over Yosemite.  We had a slight scare at Ensenada, an official port of entry to Mexico, when the immigration officer declared that we shouldn’t be there, that we were in Mexico illegally and that we should have immigration forms with us. Man I wish I knew Spanish.   I thought perhaps Ensenada wasn’t a port of entry any longer but I had failed somehow to see that in my flight planning.  However, at some point he opened up his drawer and there was a stack of the immigration forms.  What the hell?  I still don’t know if he was messing with us (me), or wanted a higher fee or what, but from then on the process went as it usually does.  Which is a musical chair type of march from flight plan control, customs, airport authority, accounting, and the commandante’s office, visiting most stations at least twice collecting numerous stamps and dispersing pesos and dollars along the way.  I’ve learned it helps greatly to have all your documents pre-copied and available to them to keep (entry permits, proof of Mexican insurance, aircraft registration, pilots license, etc.).

Two hours after this, and five hours after leaving the snowy mountains of Tahoe, we were enjoying a Mexican sunset at the Estero Beach Hotel with fish tacos and Margaritas.  As it got cooler the Margaritas shifted to the hot tub.  Fantastic.

On Saturday we had a tour guide (Blue Water Divers) pick us up at the hotel and take us south to a remote cove for some awesome sea kayaking.  Whales abounded, although I don’t have a camera with a long enough lens to capture them.

Unfortunately the trip home was very bumpy with the Socal ATC frequencies filled with reports of turbulence up to 15,000 feet.  I know its not my fault, but I feel guilty subjecting my passengers to such discomfort.  Luckily by the time we got back to Tahoe the wind had died down (I was a bit concerned about Tahoe) and the descent and landing was OK.

Yosemite Falls

Yosemite Falls

 

 

Cloudy Tahoe | Sunny Mexico

Tahoe | Mexico

Kristi and Scott

Kristi and Scott

Eine Kleine NachtFluge (A Little Night Flying) – 2 Min Video

May, 2014

I love flying at night.  It is peaceful, calm and the radio traffic is usually quiet.  Although there is far less aircraft traffic, what planes that are out there are lit up so you can see them from many miles away, seemingly floating around.

I put together some night video shots I had into a short video.  The music? Mozarts Eine Kleini Nachtmusik (A Little Night Music).

Enjoy.

Pilot’s Log: Flying Samaritan’s Trip to Mexico

April, 2014

Wonder what a flight to Mexico with the Flying Samaritan’s is like?

Thursday, April 10th
There are four planes scheduled, and the four pilots email, text and call each other during the day to plan and schedule the trip, and to coordinate picking up passengers pretty much all over California. There are reports that the usual runway at Los Pinos is closed for repairs because of a heavy rain so we all agree to stay at Tijuana before heading on down into Baja together.

I contact my passengers and finalize the list. I file the border crossing passenger manifest list (eAPIS) with US CBP (Customs and Border Patrol) for both the outgoing and incoming trip back, and also file two flight plans with the FAA.

Friday, April 11th
8:15 am
I arrive at the airport and pre-flight the plane. Typically there are passengers at my home airport, but today my first pickup is in Tracy, CA.

Preflight in the Hangar

Preflight in the Hangar

9:30 am
I pick up two passengers, both nurses, in Tracy. An additional nurse will fly home with me, but she drove down with someone to spend an extra day cleaning and organizing the clinic. I fuel up in Tracy.

12:00 pm
I overfly Los Angeles Class B airspace and we watch all the jets flying into LAX directly below us. The controllers are very helpful and direct me straight through San Diego airspace and across the border. There, Tijuana airport is just a few miles ahead and Tijuna tower, with good English but a heavy accent, directs me around the airport and then clears me to land.  I land long on the runway so I can turn off at the end into the small plane area.

12:00 pm

Tijuana Inspector

Tijuana Inspector

Mexico is still pretty messed up in terms of efficiently doing anything, at least at the airport. I don’t speak Spanish, so I have to resort to standing there looking bewildered as I am directed from desk-to-desk, office-to-office, paying pesos and dollars as I go, until I am finally free to go. Forms and flight plans are filled out with three or four carbon copies. A multi-entry permit is typed into a computer in Word format (no database that I can see), printed out, and stamped multiple times in a very official manner. They love their stamps, and I have to admit standing there bored I would have loved to (Kabam!) stamp a few documents.

1:30 pm

Steve's Bonanza, 9:00 low

Steve’s Bonanza, 9:00 low

All pilots have now paid their money and have filed a bunch of flight plans (for example, you also have to file a flight plan for the flight you already did entering the country). We all taxi out but the tower informs one of us, Joel, that the tower does not have his flight plan he must not taxi any further. Oh oh. The last time this happened the pilot had to go back and take the flight plan from Office A to Office B. They apparently can’t do that for you. However the tower then said they found the flight plan, and we were cleared to take off, one by one.

2:00
The flight down to San Quintin is beautiful, in a Baja sort of way. We pass Ensenada where the coastal mountains wring out enough moisture for trees and forests. They even have canopy tours there. We pass over areas famous for wine, famous for surf, and famous for being barren and empty.  After 45 minutes we arrive at San Quintin famous for being the agricultural center of Baja.  Mainly tomatoes these days, but the infamous marijuana filled twin-engine plane that crashed and slid into a lake in Yosemite (Cliff Hanger the movie was loosely based on this crash) took off from the beaches of San Quintin. The authorities decided to wait until spring to retrieve the plane, but word got out and climbers from Yosemite hiked in with chain saws and diving gear and managed to retrieve much of the pot.

2:30 pmIMG_0858 (Medium)
We received reports that the runway we use next to the clinic is indeed undergoing repairs so we land at another runway that we had checked out on a previous trip. It was dirt, but very long and flat and in great shape, with the required contingent of soldiers. All Baja strips must have security, otherwise they lose their permit and the government will trench the runway to close it. I’ve heard the US government had a hand in that policy.  It cuts down on the twin engine planes full of pot.

4:30 pm
After dropping some meds off at the clinic, it’s Margarita time at the hotel on the beach that we all stay at. We then head over to Jardine’s for dinner, where the Margaritas continue to flow although some switch to beer or wine.  Oh, and the seafood is excellent there.

April 12th

Waiting for the clinic to open

Waiting for the clinic to open

7:30 am
I always run on the beach Saturday morning. It is a long, wide beach and I always have it to myself, save for the occasional truck that passes – they must be looking for something (what?) that has washed up overnight?  I look for pink Conch shells that can be found there.  Some of the regulars have found some on a short walk, why can’t I find even one on much longer runs?

8:00 am
I grab a quick breakfast at the hotel and say hello to everyone, and we all load into the van and head to the clinic. As usual, a line has formed outside. Each month is a little different in regards to what type of doctors will be at the clinic. There is always general medicine, but there also may be dentists or artificial limb specialists. Word is passed down to local part-time clinic employees the week prior, and they give the information to the local radio station which broadcasts the information. For this particular clinic there were two artificial limb specialists that were kept very busy repairing and creating new limbs.

Great fish tacos, and shrimp

Great fish tacos, and shrimp

12:30 pm
One of the jobs of the pilots is to get fish tacos for everyone in town. Today the order was for 53 fish tacos and 7 beef tacos. I couldn’t remember the word for beef so I drew a picture of a cow and we ended up with 7 shrimp tacos. Apparently I REALLY can’t draw.

4:00 pm
Another run to town to get adhesive for the artificial limb guys. When we return you can tell everyone is tired. Some of these doctors and nurses come down every month, and the dedication is truly amazing to witness. They hustle all day long, often improvising on the treatment or the medications that we have on hand. Some are med students, and they are often grinning at the end of the day, amazed that they got to practice real medicine and make a real difference before they normally would get to.

5:00 pm

14 people in a 12 person van on Baja Highway 1?

14 people in a 12 person van on Baja Highway 1?

Margarita and chips again. Tonight we go to the “other” nice restaurant besides Jardines in the area, the Old Mill. Its on the water, which I like. There is a photo of Bono on the wall, he apparently came down for the fishing but ended up singing with the local band.  When we were there – just one really drunk gringo at the bar.

April 13th

8:00 am

Sunset at the Old Mill

Sunset at the Old Mill

The hotel has a buffet on Sunday and its good, with fresh tortillas, fresh fruit and made to order omelettes. We depart at 8:30 to the planes. On our return we do the “desert route” which avoids any morning cloudiness in the San Diego area. Our desert route takes us to Mexicali and then to Calexico.

Although you have to be VERY careful to file the correct manifest information, the correct type of flight plan, and to open the flight plan before you cross the border – if you do all these things right the process on the ground is the complete opposite from Mexico. The CBP officer looks at everyone’s passport, checks them off the manifest, looks at my pilot’s license and aircraft registration and we are all free to go. Five minutes max. Although it takes longer to fuel up and get a popsicle.

3:00 pm

I’ve dropped passengers off in Tracy, Caleveras and then flown on to home base in Placerville.  I put the plane away and drove home.  It feels good to be finished with a successful trip.  I’m tired.  I get tired when flying passengers, I think because they’ve entrusted their life to me, and there is this thought in the back of my mind that I can’t get rid of, that says it would really be great if I didn’t kill them.  Not that I fly less safely when alone, but I’m definitely more relaxed.

If you want to fly for the Flying Sams, or just want to learn more about them, check out the website below:

http://flyingsamaritansmotherlode.org/

 

 

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