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?
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.