Last April 2013, Leanna, Jose (Arik Air Q400 FO), and I embarked on an amazing tour of the West Coast of the United States including a brief stint in Canada. Originally the trip was to get more flight hours. I needed 3,500 hours total time to reach the company’s insurance minimum, and Jose desired to reach 1,500 hours total time so that he’d get a pay raise. We spent the months prior to the trip planning out our destinations, fuel stops, who we’d visit, and what activities we’d do while we were there. We wanted to visit family along the way which gave us some quality time with them and saved us money on lodging as well. I called up dozens of FBOs and sent a lot of emails out looking for a good aircraft rental rate. The right match ended up being an FBO in Chino, California who had an aircraft that wasn’t getting flown very much and they could let it go for a couple weeks. They gave us a decent “dry rate” which means we pay for all of the fuel ourselves rather than it being added to the cost of the rental. Because of that, we constantly were looking for cheap places to fuel as you could easily save as much as $100 on a single re-fill by choosing one airport instead of another. We briefly considered flying further East toward the Rocky Mountains but in the end decided it’d be better to stay primarily West of the Cascade Mountains where the weather was more fair and had routes we could take that kept us low and out of icing conditions. Weather, new airports and airspace, fuel planning, who to visit and when, international flying, cruising altitude consideration, high altitude airports, turbulence and mountain waves, landing fees, and a plethora of other factors had to be considered and discussed amongst one another throughout the trip. This proved to be a true test of our airmanship and aviation knowledge. With that being said, here is a summary of our trip with accompanying photos.
Above is the bird in which we flew over 65 hours over the course of two weeks. It’s a Cessna 172XP, meaning it is basically a regular 172, but with a constant speed propeller and a larger engine. The aircraft also had long range tanks installed allowing us to have an endurance of almost 8 hours at long range cruise! It proved to be the perfect aircraft for the trip.
Leanna and I drove her car from Las Vegas to Chino, California where I was promptly checked out in the aircraft and given the go ahead for the two week trip ahead. Jose was flying into Los Angeles International that afternoon and the plan was for Leanna and I to fly to the nearby Hawthorne airport which serves corporate and general aviation traffic, then use the FBO’s crew car to pick Jose up.
Leanna and I loaded up the plane and set up the cockpit with some added technology. Thanks to having an extra Android phone and a couple Android tablets, we were able to have a ton of valuable flight information and a moving map in front of us at all times. We used an application called Garmin Pilot that allowed us to not only have access to all of the current FAA charts, but plan and file our flight plans directly from the app!
Day 1 (Chino, CA > Madera, CA)
It was a bit overwhelming being thrown into the busy Southern California airspace in a new-to-me aircraft (modified 172) and flying directly South of one of the busiest airports in the world (LAX). I filed an IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) flight plan which made it a bit easier since I had priority over VFR (Visual Flight Rules) traffic and would not have to worry about getting clearance through the class B airspace.
As we flew relatively low to the ground over the densely populated city, I realized the only safe place to put the aircraft down should the engine quit on us would be the highway. Fortunately ATC (Air Traffic Control) and the excitement of the trip ahead of me didn’t permit me to dwell on that and I was able to enjoy the short flight albeit with intense focus on what was going on around me. I remember the flight progressing very slowing. There was a strong sea breeze giving us a strong 20-30 knot headwind the entire way. If anything it was a blessing though since it gave me a bit more time to get comfortable in the aircraft and admire the city spanning from one end of the horizon to the other.
After we landed, Jose hadn’t yet arrived so Leanna and I walked to the nearby Quiznos to enjoy a sub sandwich for lunch.
Then shortly after returning, it was time to go pick up Jose at LAX! We borrowed the crew car which was a Cadillac and super luxurious. It was a short drive and after going around a couple times because we couldn’t see him, we finally saw him and learned that he had been inside the terminal unbeknownst to us! But we were elated to see Jose who flew all the way from Spain and now would help me fly the aircraft up North. He was quite tired but I could tell the excitement of flying with Leanna and me gave him a second wind.
So we returned the crew car and topped off the fuel. I then got Jose familiarized with the cockpit and showed him how to use the software on the tablet and phone. I sat in the left seat for the first day, but for the remainder of the trip I sat in the right seat since I was used to flying these small aircraft in the right seat and felt Jose would be more comfortable in the left seat since it had been a long time since he had flown a general aviation aircraft.
Our first turn took us right over LAX airport. It was quite an awesome place to start the trip with the urban Los Angeles on our right and the Pacific Ocean gleaming on our left.
We originally intended to fly all the way up to see Leanna’s sister and brother-in-law but after stopping in Madera, CA for a bathroom break, the sun began to set and left us with a decision to make. If we wanted to continue, I’d have to do three landings beginning one hour after sunset to get night current so that we could continue the flight at night. We were all a bit tired and decided it’d be better just to find a hotel for the night and leave early the next morning. It was tough because this meant that we’d have to cancel our stay with Jordan and Shannon, but we knew we’d get to see them again later in the trip so it wasn’t the end of the world. So we got a taxi to take us to a cheap hotel where we dropped off our gear and then proceeded to the nearby restaurant for a tasty first dinner all together. It had been a successful first day. Although we didn’t reach our intended destination, we were all willing and able to adapt to the situation and make sensible decisions.
Day 2 (Madera, CA > Camas, WA)
We woke up relatively early on day #2 because we had to get to Sacramento International Airport in time to pick up my brother Jake! He was flying in to join us on our trip for a few days since we had an extra seat in the plane. We had a classic American continental breakfast consisting of cereal, toast, waffles, and pastry. It wasn’t the most complete breakfast but it sufficed. We were treated to an absolutely gorgeous sunny California morning. Leanna had taken the time to make us custom t-shirts for the trip so we took a couple photos of the team wearing them at the airport before departing.
Jose and I of course work in Nigeria, and Leanna has spent a significant amount of time there, so she found it only fitting to put “No Wahala” on the back which means “No Problem.” And below that was our aircraft’s N#: N758GF. On the front, Jose and I have “Captain” before our name, and Leanna has “auto-pilot” prior to hers. Leanna can fly quite well and I was going to use her for a cruise relief pilot but in the end she spent the majority of the time in the back of the plane taking care of us by offering us snacks and keeping track of our flight times. She also ended up being the baggage and cargo loader since it was quite a tight fit back there and took some special attention to make everything fit well.
All three of us proved to be a great team. I found myself giving Jose little bits of instruction here and there since he was still getting used to the small aircraft after not flying one for roughly 5 years. He would routinely say “I knowww I knowww.” And we would all laugh. Eventually we would all jokingly say “I knowww, Yea yea I know I knowwww.” A lot of times Jose would handle the flying while I would handle the ATC communications. I tried to give him more time on the controls so he’d get the feeling again. Leanna was a bit cold in the back since air would sneak in through the poorly sealed doors, but she handled it like a champ and just bundled up to keep herself happy. We usually tried to spend more time at higher altitudes to conserve fuel, and to take advantage of a tail wind if we were in a hurry. Normally all we cared about was conserving fuel, not the amount of time we spent in the air since our goal was to get as much flight time as possible!
As we approached the Sacramento airport, they cleared us for the ILS approach to the left hand parallel runway. You can see in the photo above how the application is able to show our aircraft on the actual approach chart which helps a lot with situational awareness; although that wasn’t much of a problem since we had unlimited visibility.
Jose got to have his first landing of the trip with a Horizon Air Q400 holding short for him, since that is the plane we fly in Nigeria. Due to our proper planning ahead of time, we knew exactly where the FBO was, how to get there, and even how much fuel we’d have to buy so that they would waive the service fee. The FBOs at these airports are usually quite luxurious since they often deal with wealthy corporate operations. They charge fees just to park your plan there, but fortunately they’ll waive the fee if you buy a certain amount of their “pricier” fuel.
After parking, I began to look for the portable scale that I had planned to use to weigh all of Jake’s stuff to make sure we’d be below the maximum ramp weight of the aircraft but couldn’t find it for the life of me. We spent quite a while looking for it, and then I felt something in my left coat pocket… Yup, it had been there the whole time! Leanna was furious and Jose shook his head at me but they got over it soon enough. I was just happy to have found it.
The FBO loaned us the crew car which was just as luxurious as the one we had used down in L.A. and proceeded to pick up Jake at the main terminal.
Jake was all ready to go with his large cup of coffee.
Jose and I look way too serious but what we’re doing is figuring out how much fuel we can take with Jake and his baggage now on board. We could no longer take full tanks but could still take a healthy 3-4 hours of fuel.
We were able to take enough fuel to waive the FBO’s fee but didn’t take more than that because of the high prices. Our next stop was Lincoln, CA due to their low gas prices. The Garmin Pilot app is able to map out all of the fuel prices so you can see who has the cheapest fuel. At Lincoln we took as much fuel as we could while still being below the maximum ramp weight, and continued our journey up North to Camas, WA to see my parents. We decided since we’d fly down the coast on the return trip when we head South, that we’d stay over I-5 all the way up to Camas which kept us just West of the Cascades. We battled a quartering headwind which made the already long day even longer, but all in all things went smoothly and we enjoyed relatively smooth air and great visibility.
For lunch, we stopped in Redding, CA and went to a Chinese restaurant near the airport. We ordered wayyyy too much food though. And we refused to take leftovers onto the plane with us which disappointed us and our waiter, but we just wouldn’t be able to eat it later on so it wasn’t practical.
With stomachs full and still plenty of time to get up to Camas, we got on board our trusty little aircraft and blasted off once again. We landed briefly in Roseburg, Oregon for some fuel, and then continued North along the highway and past beautiful scenery. As we got close enough to Camas, I began checking the weather and noticed it had deteriorated quite a bit and was lower than forecast (we were expecting much better weather based on the terminal area forecast for PDX). We were flying visually and weren’t in contact with anyone but just in case, we decided to file an IFR flight plan over the radio since we hadn’t gotten into the bad weather yet, and then we’d be able to continue our flight. I called up the FSS (Flight Service Station) and relayed all of our flight details and then pulled up nearby ATC frequencies, which in this case was Seattle Center. I called them and got our IFR clearance to Camas and onward we went.
The closer and closer we got to Camas, the cloudier and cloudier it got. Eventually we were fully in IMC (Instrument Meteorological Conditions) and Jose continued to fly using the instruments while I monitored.
When you want to practice flying solely using the instruments, you can wear what are called “foggles” which restrict your view so that you can only see the instrument panel. Jake is modeling them with a smug smile above.
The weather cooperated with us allowing us to descend below the clouds without having to do an instrument approach. We were able to fly visually to Grove Field and land to the West. Jose did the landing onto the relatively short runway surrounded by trees.
We tied down the aircraft, unloaded the gear we needed, and were off to my folk’s house where they treated us to a lovely dinner.
It was great to relax after a long day of flying. The next day we decided since we didn’t have too much flying to do, that we could do a hike in the morning. So that’s what we did!
Day 3 (Camas, WA > Gold Beach, OR)
We started our third day off right with an awesome breakfast. Fresh fruit and French toast!
Then to prepare for the hike, we made some sandwiches to have at the summit, and were soon on our way to enjoy one of the prettiest hikes in the Columbia Gorge: Cape Horn Trail.
We setup a lovely self-shot of the group, and then continued down to finish the hike. We couldn’t dink around too much since we wanted to get to Gold Beach, OR before sunset. So we proceeded directly from the trail to the airport where we enjoyed some of the cheapest fuel in the area, said our goodbyes, and departed to the West, climbed above the clouds and were soon on our way to Gold Beach. It was a gorgeous flight and we enjoyed a healthy tailwind, especially once we paralleled the coast which gave us more time to enjoy the daylight once we reached our destination.
We landed to the North after entering a left hand downwind and bundled up as soon as we got off the aircraft because the sea breeze was quite chilly.
We must have been quite the sight to see walking around with backpacks on and holding pillows and random bags. It was about a mile walk to the campground located right next to the airport. We had a reservation to stay in one of the yurts for $35 a night. The yurt was awesome and proved to be the perfect place for all of us to spend the night.
We took a walk down to the beach and saw some seals playing in the waves as the Sun retired for the evening. While there was still some daylight, we looked up a restaurant and walked there for dinner. We found a place not too far from the campground that served us up some delicious food on some colorful dishes.
Before we hit the hay, Jose and I were checking the weather forecast for tomorrow morning. They were expecting some morning fog and low clouds to move in overnight so we’d have to fly IFR initially until we got further South. We looked at the obstacle departure which is what you follow to ensure terrain clearance when departing into instrument conditions and filed our flight plan. Then we all slipped into our sleeping bags which lay on top of the bunk bed mattresses and dreamt of the day to come.
Day 4 (Gold Beach, OR > Columbia, CA)
We woke up rather early with a big day ahead of us. Our final destination was Columbia airport which sits just West of the mountains in California, East of Sacramento. This airport is rather unique because it has a grass strip with an adjacent campground in addition to the paved runway. Jose, Leanna and I walked to the aircraft and got it packed up while Jake volunteered to go find us some breakfast. He came back with muffins, donuts and orange juice. We were all thankful to get something in our system before the rather long flight ahead of us. We planned to stop in Healdsburg, CA for cheap fuel, and then on to Half Moon Bay for lunch before heading to Columbia airport.
Since we couldn’t get ahold of ATC or an FSS (Flight Service Station) on the ground, we had to call up and copy our IFR clearance over the phone. They give you a small window in which you are allowed to depart otherwise your clearance becomes void and you must call again for a new one. We were able to depart within our window and established contact with ATC as soon as we got to altitude. The first 10 minutes or so of the climb was in the soup (clouds) but we finally broke out and were given a beautiful sight to see.
The flight down to Healdsburg was aided again by a nice tailwind and after landing it was back to t-shirt weather as we were again finding the warmer weather and the famous California sun.
I gave Jake instructions on how to fill up a general aviation aircraft for fun. It isn’t too difficult, but it can be awkward getting up on the small steps with the hose in one hand. Also the majority of the pump handles don’t have an auto shutoff so you have to be cautious of overfilling the tanks if you’re topping it off.
As we descended into Half Moon Bay, we were treated to a beautiful site of the Golden Gate Bridge in which the photo above does no justice.
Before leaving the aircraft, we took a group photo. We were hungry but having a marvelous day and had the highly rated and unique 3-Zero Cafe to look forward to for lunch. While we were ordering our food, the male waiter kept saying “roger” and all of the items on the menu had an aviation themed name.
After lunch, I told everyone to “act tough” for our photo in front of the cafe.
It felt good to sit on the warm pavement after having some delicious food. And we had nothing but more fun ahead of us. It was time to fly to Columbia and make camp. We filed IFR not due to the weather, but to make our flight through the rather busy San Francisco airspace easier. But once we got clear of the airspace with nothing but beautiful weather ahead, we canceled IFR and flew with nothing but the roar of the engine in front of us onward to our destination. As we approached Columbia, the terrain gradually rose until we finally saw the airport where Jose was treated to his first grass landing of his life. He set the aircraft down holding the front wheel off as long as possible then gently set it down. Although the ground was hard and the grass was dry, it was still fun to practice. We taxied the aircraft to the side of the grass runway then proceeded to set up camp.
The town of Columbia is more than a hundred years old, and they have preserved a lot of the old shops. It was like we took a step back in time as we strolled through the historic downtown.
Below is where they would pan for gold.
There wasn’t much to offer food wise but we stumbled into a neat bar/restaurant and got some hot dogs and nachos for dinner.
After dinner we walked back to the campground on a nice little trail through the trees. It was a beautiful evening and a wonderful night to be camping.
Day 5 (Columbia, CA > Lincoln, CA)
After a good night’s rest under the stars at Columbia airport, we woke up and took turns using the showers which were on site. It was freezing getting out of the shower since it was quite chilly and the facility wasn’t heated of course, but it was nice to get cleaned up nonetheless. We were flying into Lincoln, CA today to see Jordan and Shannon and go whitewater rafting on the American River. It was convenient that Lincoln also had one of the cheapest rates for fuel in the area as well. Once we got packed up, we departed the grass strip to the North and enjoyed the smooth flying conditions on our short journey to Lincoln.
After landing, we unloaded our gear and waited for our ride in the airport lounge. Shannon showed up in her car and crammed us 3 guys into the back for the 10 minute drive back to her place where Jordan was waiting for us. Leanna and Shannon decided that they’d drive down to see their grandma while us guys would go whitewater rafting down the American River. We did a class 3+ section that went well except for Jordan and Jose falling out of the boat on one of the final rapids. Jordan made an awesome video of the trip, check it out:
We had a blast to say the least. We snapped this shot just before I was shuttled to the put-in to pickup the car. Then we drove back to Jordan and Shannon’s house where we changed, relaxed, and went out for dinner.
After a fun day hanging out with Jordan and Shannon, we got some well-deserved rest and prepared for another fun day ahead of us.
Day 6 (Lincoln, CA > Camas, WA)
While everyone else slept, I woke up super early to take Jake to the airport in Jordan’s car so he could catch his flight back home. After dropping him off, I came back to the house and got a bit more shut-eye. Now that it was back to just Jose, Leanna and I, we were able to take full tanks. This allowed us to top off on the cheap fuel in Lincoln, CA which would actually take us all the way to Camas again.
Jose and I filled up the bird, pushed her back, and then seemingly moments later, we were climbing into the friendly American skies with pleasant weather ahead of us. Our plan was to fly along the coast initially this time so we could stop for lunch in Arcata, CA.
During our approach to Arcata, Jose put on the foggles and did an ILS approach in rather bumpy conditions to a rather deserted airport. We parked the aircraft, tied it down, and then walked into the main terminal to enjoy some classic American food in the airport terminal. I actually flew once or twice into Arcata, CA when I worked for Horizon Airlines back in 2008 so it was fun to visit the airport again.
After our brief stop in Arcata, we departed towards the Pacific Ocean, made a right hand turn to parallel the coast, and then decided to stay at a slightly lower altitude due to the strong quartering headwind. As we got closer and closer to Portland, the weather once again became worse requiring us to activate our IFR flight plan and follow the Victor airways towards Eugene, OR and then Northbound to the Portland area.
I never grow tired of the view when skimming just above the clouds. It gives you a real sense of speed and reminds me once again of one of the reasons I love being a pilot.
As we continued to monitor the weather, we realized that it would be safer to fly an approach into Portland airport to get below the cloud layer, then once below the clouds and in visual conditions, proceed to fly towards Camas visually. The alternative would be for ATC to descend us to the lowest radar vectoring altitude but this was likely too high to get us below the cloud deck. After a series of radar vectors, they turned us onto the final approach course towards Portland airport and it worked wonderfully. The cloud base was about 1,000 feet above the ground and I was very familiar with the terrain in the area. Jose flew an ILS approach into runway 28R and once we decided we could fly to Camas visually, we called the tower and canceled IFR and broke off the approach to the North. I then took over the controls and entered a right downwind at Grove Field (Camas’s airport) and put er’ on the ground which was still nice and wet after a recent Spring shower.
My parents picked us up at the airport and brought us back to their house where we spent the evening making sure we had all of our paperwork in order for our flight into Canada tomorrow. It was all of our first times flying internationally in a general aviation aircraft. We had to fill out special forms online with detailed information of who would be on board and where and with whom we’d be staying with in Canada. The process wasn’t entirely user friendly to say the least. I think they’ve made it too complicated but that’s a subject for another blog post if I decide to do one. We felt we were good to go after a couple phone calls to make sure.
Day 7 (Camas, WA > Nanaimo, BC, Canada)
Jose has family in Nanaimo, Canada and the surrounding area. Some of them he had never actually met in his life! It was great to give him the opportunity to see some of his own family since he had been such a good sport allowing Leanna and me to visit our own family all over the West Coast. The weather was beautiful for our flight and after topping off our tanks in Camas, we left on schedule. Once airborne, we wanted to activate our IFR flight plan to make the flight through the Seattle and international airspace more fluid. The only problem was our transponder wasn’t working! They could see us on their primary radar but couldn’t see our altitude and other details which are provided by the transponder in the aircraft. They let us continue our flight while I began trying to fix the transponder. On occasion they’d ask us for our altitude since they couldn’t see it on their screens. After about 15 minutes of nervousness since this could potentially cancel our flight if we didn’t get it fix in time, it miraculously started working and ATC shared our excitement and told us to contact Seattle Center. After that minor headache, the rest of the flight went rather smoothly.
We overflew the Puget Sound staying West of the Seattle area but still close enough to see the Space Needle and Safeco Field. As we got closer to the Canadian border, we wondered if they’d mind that our boarder crossing time was off by about 10 minutes; however, the border crossing actually went quite smoothly. It was as seamless as I had remembered back when I used to fly to Vancouver and Victoria back in the Horizon days.
As we flew over Victoria, B.C. we took a photo of the waterfront facing the Southeast. During a couple of overnights in Victoria I had rented sea kayaks from the boardwalk on the waterfront. But we were heading further North to Nanaimo which fortunately was an airport of entry, in that they had customs at the airport. Before you can land just anywhere, you must land at a place and clear customs. Once this has been completed, you are free to move about the country as you please as if you had driven your own vehicle across the country.
After landing in Nanaimo, we parked the aircraft and then proceeded to look for a phone to call for customs. We were instructed previously to call a certain number and let them know that we had arrived, and then they’d let us know if we needed to wait for an actual customs agent to meet with us prior to leaving the airport. When I called the number I got a surprise though! They thought we weren’t supposed to arrive until the following day… I have no idea how the mix up happened because on our paperwork which we had printed out and brought with us, it clearly stated the current date as our arrival date. We were instructed to remain with the aircraft until they arrived at the airport to clear us.
I went to the restroom in the small FBO located on the field and then told Jose where the restroom was and remained with the aircraft. Apparently we weren’t even supposed to go to the restroom until customs had come, so the fact that Jose was walking back to the aircraft when the two agents were coming over didn’t start out the interview very well. They may have been concerned because Jose was with us. He lives in Spain but has a Dutch passport which he had to of course explain why. Then we told them we were flying all over the US to get hours and see family. They probably don’t hear that reason much so that simply raised more questions. Early in the interview, they separated the three of us and had separate interviews. Then they’d talk amongst themselves possibly seeing if we were all telling the same story. Finally they wanted to inspect some of our luggage. Thankfully we didn’t have any produce for our snacks, just dried fruit. They said that was a smart idea. In the end they were nice to us, but they were definitely serious and stern in the beginning.
With that out of the way, Jose’s cousin (of which he had never met) and her boyfriend picked us up and took us to her place which is where we would call home for the time being. Jose’s family was all very friendly and easy to talk to. We walked around near the ocean and had a couple of good meals which gave Jose time to get to know his relatives better. After an evening hike to watch the sunset with Jose’s cousin, we returned home and enjoyed some wine and chocolate. Later, Jose and I briefly used the internet to make sure we were all setup for our border crossing back into the US tomorrow.
Day 8 (Nanaimo, BC, Canada > Klamath Falls, OR)
Before leaving for another day of flying, we had time for a morning round of disc golf and to enjoy some coffee with Jose and his family. We later took a short walk, said our farewells, and then were dropped off back at the airport to begin our journey Southbound.
It was a perfect day for flying. Perfect temperature, unlimited visibility, and calm winds. We taxied the aircraft for a Southbound takeoff after getting our IFR clearance and off we went. From the get-go we had issues with our transponder again though! Fortunately, just as the controllers in the US had been the day prior, the Canadian ATC was also understanding and worked with us by allowing us to continue our flight. We told them it’d probably start working shortly since we had had this problem yesterday, and we were right. It began working shortly before our border crossing and we all let out a sigh of relief.
Before we could land in Camas again for a fuel top-off and to have dinner with my folks, we had to land at an airport of entry, which in this case was Bellingham, WA. It is a relatively quiet airport that I used to fly into quite a bit when I worked for Horizon that served as the perfect airport to clear customs. We taxied the aircraft to the customs clearing area which was painted on the ramp near the control tower, and then got our passports and went inside for another round of questions. They had plenty of questions but it wasn’t nearly as intense as it had been in Canada. They didn’t need for us to take things out of our aircraft for inspection but we believe they used dogs or some other mechanism to check our aircraft for anything out of the ordinary while we were inside. Once that was finished, we took to the skies once again to head South overhead Seattle and then past the gorgeous Mt. St. Helens.
When we landed in Camas, my parents picked us up and brought us to a pizza place for a nice sit down dinner. We didn’t have much time though since it was getting late and we weren’t night current yet so with as little delay as possible, we finished our food and then returned to the airport where we topped off and got airborne. Our final destination for the night was to see a good friend of mine from college who is a commercial pilot down in Klamath Falls, Oregon.
We flew through the Columbia Gorge to get East of the cascades, and then turned South and watched the terrain steadily rise underneath us. Just as we were approaching the airport the Sun went down giving us just under an hour legally to land which proved to not be a problem. We did need to turn on the cockpit lighting to help us see things in the dim lighting.
It had been several years since I had last seen my friend Jevon so it was great to see him again. He actually picked us up in his band’s bus and then brought us to his house where we spent a good hour or so jamming out with him and his friends.
Day 9 (Klamath Falls, OR > Las Vegas, NV)
After a rather short night’s sleep since we wanted to get an early start, we moseyed out of the house and ate breakfast at a local restaurant. Jevon dropped us off at the airport and then watched us taxi away in our lovely little aircraft that had continued to treat us well and perform wonderfully.
As we proceeded South towards Lincoln, CA for a fuel stop, we battled some pretty strong mountain waves. At times we struggled to maintain altitude but the extra horsepower in our 172XP helped us out and made it possible during those strong down drafts. The terrain below rose slowly as if trying to reach out and grab ahold of our aircraft with its snow covered surface. At times I struggled to keep an emergency landing spot in view but some two lane roads within gliding distance comforted me although actually landing on one of them would be quite the feat I’d imagine. Jose and I talked about these concerns openly with Leanna listening in the back seat which wouldn’t be very professional if it were any other non-pilot. I’ve explained to her how it’s very wise to always have a plan in case the incredibly reliable engine up front decides to quit on us.
I like to ask people what they’d do if their car brakes failed completely while driving because most don’t have a plan meaning that they’d likely panic or at the very least compromise their passengers’ safety if such an event were to occur. Prudent pilots expect the worse and think, “what will I do if ‘this’ happens.” My point is, when I am in a single engine aircraft I try to always think of where I will land if I have an engine failure. If I am in a high performance multi-engine aircraft, you don’t constantly have to look for landing spots, although there is always the possibility of needing to put the aircraft on the ground as soon as possible. But on to more positive things! Beautiful mountains, scenery, cheap fuel, and tasty meals!
After a brief stop in Lincoln for fuel, we continued over the rather quiet Eastern California skies until we began to get hungry. I pulled up the extremely useful Garmin Pilot application and looked at airports ahead of us with restaurants on the field much like one would look ahead at restaurants near exits on a highway. Merced, California apparently had a restaurant on the field so Jose did a back-course practice approach and landed to the South. We found the general aviation parking but the restaurant appeared to be closed. There was another pilot in the traffic pattern at the time so I asked over the radio about the restaurant and was informed that they were renovating it. But unexpectedly they said they’d give us a ride somewhere if we wanted to which I graciously accepted. Moments later an older couple taxied near us in their Piper aircraft and we shook hands and were soon on our way to the local Dennys! How random is that!
After some nice conversation and some tasty yet inexpensive food, we were dropped off at the airport. Our oil was at the minimum so we bought a couple quarts and put it in. It’s perfectly normal for these engines to burn through oil as long as it isn’t at an excessive rate which in our case was perfectly acceptable. We had a long flight ahead of us but were looking forward to seeing Leanna’s parents and eating a nice home cooked meal.
On our way to Las Vegas, we flew over one of the places that we previously wanted to camp at called Kern Valley. Hopefully some day we’ll find the time to fly into that airport and camp there. It was really cool creeping over the high mountains lying directly West of the airport and then watching them steeply fall to reveal the beautiful valley below (the photo above shows the entrance to the valley to the South).
The weather was gorgeous in Las Vegas. The perfect temperature with calm winds. We tied down the aircraft, snapped a photo as the moon rose in the distance (you can see the moon in the photo of the aircraft above), then took a free van ride to the terminal where Leanna’s parents, Mike and Liz, were waiting for us. They took us into their home and we quickly made ourselves at home and then we enjoyed a home cooked meal. Later Jose and I decided what we’d do tomorrow. In the end we decided we’d fly to Big Bear, CA and Sedona, AZ then come back and spend another night in Las Vegas.
Day 10 (Las Vegas, NV)
Leanna dropped Jose and I off at the airport (She wanted to spend time with her parents that day) but after getting our IFR clearance and taxiing out, we noticed a possible electrical problem. The ammeter which shows the charge on the battery was freaking out swinging rapidly from a full positive indication to a full negative indication combined with a light saying the alternator was offline. We did a bit of fiddling and troubleshooting in the aircraft to no avail and in the end decided it’d be best to taxi back and call a mechanic to take a look at it. In an aircraft like we are flying, all of the instruments required to maintain control do not require electricity besides the turn coordinator. So even with a loss of electricity, the other five flight instruments would continue functioning with their own dependence on a vacuum pump (engine powered) or simply air pressure. What this means is if we were mid-air and lost all electrical power, the engine would continue humming along, but you’d have no communications, no navigational ability (loss of VOR, and ADF), and no instrument lighting, but beyond that you could still fly the aircraft and maintain control. And if you are in VMC day conditions in a low traffic density environment, it’s really not a big deal. Just land and take care of it wherever it’s suitable
If you are in IMC conditions, or a busier environment, things can become a bit more interesting which is why we at least carried a handheld radio and several GPS devices with backup battery power so we could stay in communication and navigate should something like that occur to us. But even with all of that redundant equipment and the beautiful weather conditions ahead, we didn’t want to takeoff with a known electrical problem. After returning and parking the aircraft, Jose and I went upstairs and got a small bite to eat while I chatted with the mechanic in Chino, CA. I answered all of his questions, did some trouble-shooting to the plane over the phone, and in the end he decided he’d need to come out and take a look at it as he suspected the alternator had gone bad. So our day of flying was shot but thankfully they were going to fly over to meet us that evening so we could at least hopefully be on our way the next day.
The mechanic was flown out and met us at the airport around 5 PM that evening. Once he arrived, he had me run the engine while he checked the voltage of the battery to see if it was being charged or not. He determined that everything was in fact normal and didn’t understand why the gauge was doing what it was. In the end we decided that it was okay to fly but it’d be a good idea to stop by at Chino the next day to take a closer look. We really appreciated them coming all the way to Las Vegas from Chino and giving us the green light. It meant we’d be able to continue our trip and we were just happy to be able to have that going for us. We couldn’t help but be a bit disappointed though that we weren’t able to fly that day.
Day 11 (Las Vegas, NV > San Diego, CA)
Our first stop of the day was Big Bear, California which is a high elevation airport sitting at 6,752 ft. above sea level with the cheapest fuel in the area. It was the highest elevation airport either of us had ever landed at actually. We carefully checked our performance hand book before coming into the airport to make sure we’d be able to land there since the thin air combined with somewhat warmer temperatures put the density altitude over 8,000 ft. severely decreasing our aircraft’s performance.
With the air being less dense, the aircraft must travel faster over the ground to get the same amount of lift and airspeed compared to flying near sea level. In our case, our speed over the ground was about 10 knots faster than what it would have been at sea level for the same indicated airspeed.
After we fueled up, we went inside to have breakfast but after waiting almost 45 minutes and still not seeing food on our table we decided to just leave and eat in Chino, California. The flight from Big Bear to Chino as indicated on the tablet’s Garmin Pilot screen below was only 42 miles away. We took off and held about 8,500 feet as we traveled Westbound until we got to the edge of the mountain and the terrain just fell below us. From that point we began a high speed cruise all the way down to Chino making it one of the fastest flights of our trip since we hardly had to climb at all to reach a cruising altitude.
The electrical problem had appeared to magically go away from that morning onward and none of us were sure why! Just as a precaution though, we let the mechanic take a look at the aircraft while we took Leanna’s car to one of her favorite restaurants: Pick up stix. It was delicious I must confess. They are only in Southern California currently. We only hope someday that they’ll get a location up near Portland.
In the end the mechanic decided the aircraft was good to go and just told us to keep an eye on it on the rest of our trip. We never did end up having any further electrical problems thankfully. Our next stop was San Diego’s Brown Field where my family and others from my Mother’s side were in town since my grandma had recently passed away. We were given the news actually when we were in Half Moon Bay and we were shocked! We had intended to go to San Diego to see family down there anyways but now the primary reason for going down there would be for my dear grandma’s funeral. Well actually it was more of a celebration of her life than a funeral. I wasn’t very close to her but I have nothing but good things to say about her. She was one of the nicest and most caring grandmas one could wish for. I knew grandma Lois would want nothing more for us to enjoy ourselves and continue our flying trip though so that’s what we did. We kept our chins up and smiled and enjoyed ourselves as much as we could.
Our arrival into the somewhat busy San Diego airspace was a non-event thanks to us being on an IFR flight plan and getting a visual approach into Brown Field which rests just miles from the Mexican border interestingly enough. Conveniently the airport was less than 10 minutes from my Aunt and Uncle’s house so it worked out perfectly. My parents and brother picked us up and brought us back to the house where we said our hellos to everyone. Then later we went to the only place one should go to if you are in San Diego: the beach!
My cousin Brett and Emily joined me in the water where I did a little surfing while Brett gave instruction to Emily who was surfing for the first time. I stood up a couple of times so I was happy although the majority of the time I’d have a dramatic fall during the process.
The rest of the group tried to keep an eye on us beneath the bright sunlight. Jose is an avid surfer so he was right at home and loved the chance to get in the water and show off his skills.
Brett got in the water as well when he was done giving lessons to Emily who did quite well standing up several times even though it was her first time surfing! We tossed around the frisbee a bunch too which is always fun since you can dive into the sand to catch the disc.
After an awesome first day in San Diego, we made our way back to the house and rested up. The next day we had my grandma’s celebration of life in the late morning ahead of us. We decided that getting up early and flying around the area would be fun the next day so that we could get a couple hours of flying in since we wouldn’t have time later in the day.
Day 12 (San Diego, CA > Agua Caliente, CA > San Diego, CA)
We wanted to fly somewhere near San Diego that would be interesting and not too busy and Agua Caliente Springs Airport to the Northeast fit the bill. We woke up super early since we needed to be back in time for the event later in the morning. The TAF (Terminal Area Forecast) said the morning fog would burn off enough to let us do the VOR approach from the North into Brown Field so we felt we’d be good to go even though the fog was super thick with visibility around a quarter mile. Leanna slept in and Jake got up early to tag along in the back and enjoy the view. In the photo below you can see how low the visibility combined with all of the water condensing on the aircraft really makes it look miserable outside. In actuality though it was fun to finally get a solid IFR departure where you depart right into the soup. I copied down the IFR clearance and before we knew it, Jose was blasting off down the long runway and moments later he was flying solely with the instruments in front of him as the ground beneath transformed into the same nothingness that surrounded us.
At about 2,000 feet we popped out of the clouds and soon were being vectored around other large traffic in the area while the majority of San Diego lay in the misty conditions below.
Once we got clear of the busier airspace, I called up ATC and canceled our IFR flight plan allowing us to turn off the radio and fly visually just talking amongst ourselves for the remainder of the flight. As we neared the airport, it was actually relatively hard to find. There wasn’t much to it – just a runway and a small little area on one end to turn around. Apparently there is an actual hot springs you can visit and/or camp at. Some day! But that day almost as soon as we landed, we had to depart again so we wouldn’t be late.
As we were on our way back to San Diego, I called up ATC and copied our IFR clearance to Brown Field which was rather simple since we were already so close. Jose and I checked the weather and surprisingly enough it hadn’t cleared up as forecast said it would and although the visibility was sufficient for the approach, a broken layer of clouds was lingering right at the minimums for the approach. We got the approach charts and reviewed the VOR approach which takes you directly to the airport from the North and requires you to circle to land from a certain distance North of the VOR on the field. We spent the majority of the approach in VFR conditions with the clouds below us but, with less than 10 miles to the airport, we had finally entered the cloud layer where we both put our game faces on and got focused. At a certain distance from the VOR we were permitted to descend to our MDA (Minimum Descent Altitude) where, unfortunately, upon reaching it we were still in and out of clouds and, although we could see the ground, we couldn’t see the airport. We hung out at that altitude as long as we could until we reached the missed approach point and then with a bit of hesitation and disbelief that we hadn’t seen the field, we executed the missed approach. A climbing right turn ensued which began later than the controller was comfortable with, and he reminded us that we should execute the turn immediately to avoid entering Mexican airspace. I apologized and after talking with Jose, I advised the controller that we’d like vectors to try the approach again. Our thinking was that the cloud base was sooo close to being sufficient that by the time we were on the approach again it’d be enough for landing.
Our hunch was correct. As we descended to our MDA again we were momentarily worried as we were still in and out of clouds; however, this time we entered a long stretch where we were clear of clouds and got the airport in sight where we entered a right downwind and landed. We were happy to be on the ground but the missed approach had added 30 minutes plus to our flight and we were on the verge of being late!
With little time to revel in the fun morning we had had, we quickly taxied in and parked, and then hustled off to the car where we made our way to the house where the event would take place. We made it!
The celebration of Lois Donnell’s life couldn’t have been more perfect. Great weather, a touching yet joyful speech by my Aunt Rose, and all of my Mom’s side of the family there together to celebrate my grandma’s life.
We got a great photo of all of the cousins together in order of age. I would have put the other photo up as well where we’re all in order by height but the three Goodwin boys trump me in height and made me look short! 8)
Later in the evening when things were winding down I took three of my cousins up to the airport to take them on a short flight but the fog and low clouds had already begun to come in. I did one short flight in the pattern by myself to begin getting night current, but before I reached the traffic pattern altitude, I entered the bottom of a few broken clouds. I decided that it was not a good evening to take passengers on a flight. I landed the aircraft and then took my cousins on a fun high speed taxi down the runway which seemed to appease them so the time at the airport wasn’t a complete waste.
Day 13 (San Diego, CA > Las Vegas, NV)
We got a fairly early start on our second to last day of the trip. It had all gone so fast! It seemed like just yesterday we were picking Jose up at LAX with the entire trip ahead of us. But we still had two more good days of flying ahead and had had a wonderful time thus far so we pressed on and let the good times roll.
With the goal for the trip being to accumulate hours as cheaply as possible, we didn’t mind flying out of the way from San Diego to Big Bear for some cheap fuel. We climbed up high enough to get us above the lake which lies West of Big Bear’s airport and made a straight in landing. We then topped off our long range tanks which would get us super far since we were flying at long range cruise all of the time, and then departed to the East and made a right downwind departure to take us back over the lake and toward Catalina Island!
We obtained an IFR clearance to get us through the LAX airspace easier and made our way to the beautiful Island off of the Southern California coast. Once we had the runway in sight, we canceled our IFR flight plan and continued VFR for a straight in landing. The runway really looked awesome with its dramatic drop off on either side of the runway. It really did look like an Airport in the Sky as written throughout the airport’s property. I did a somewhat steep approach for fun by doing a forward slip to lose altitude since we had such hardy people on board who could handle it. A forward slip is done by smoothly adding full rudder to yaw the aircraft to either side then using the ailerons to maintain the intended path. This exposes the side of the aircraft to the relative wind adding drag allowing the aircraft to descend more rapidly without gaining airspeed.
A trick to move the Cessna 172 around is for someone to push the aircraft back from the front while another steers in the back by pushing the tail down and then left or right as needed. We pushed the plane into the grass and then made our way in for a tasty lunch.
After lunch, Jose and I planned out our IFR flight to Las Vegas and filed our flight plan directly from the Garmin Pilot app! Super convenient. But before picking up our clearance and heading East, we did a complete circle around the island for our own private scenic flight. As we were flying around, I noticed Jose was looking inside at the instruments rather than enjoying the view outside to which I responded by putting a piece of paper over the instruments like I used to do in my flight instructor days. On a day like that, one can easily maintain altitude and fly the plane perfectly fine without all of those snazzy instruments. In fact it’s encouraged to keep your eyes outside to look for traffic and only check the instruments every so often when flying visually.
After a lovely scenic flight around Catalina Island, we began our climb and turned Eastbound onward to Las Vegas. We then picked up our IFR clearance to make the transition through the SoCal airspace easier and enjoyed the view from high above the cities. As we later approached Las Vegas from the Southwest, we snapped the relatively new solar arrays (we didn’t know what they were at the time) which consist of tons of mirrors reflecting light into the center which houses the actual solar panels.
Our landing in Las Vegas was uneventful – this time arriving without an IFR flight plan (we canceled it when we got clear of the SoCal airspace). We received clearance into the class B airspace and, while staying nice and low to the ground to not interfere with other traffic landing at the international airport, we entered the traffic pattern at the smaller Henderson Field which serves general aviation traffic. Before we knew it we were sitting down with Leanna’s parents having another tasty meal.
Later that night, we took the plane on a beautiful night flight all around the city of Las Vegas. I first did two more night landings by myself to get night current, and then taxied the plane over to Jose, Leanna and Lindsey (Leanna’s good friend) and off we went into the darkness. There is a relatively large hill East of the airport so we first did a climbing turn over the airport before proceeding Eastbound while staying in communication with ATC. We circled around the city in a counter clockwise direction and then did a practice ILS approach into the North Las Vegas airport which required us to fly North of the city before turning Southbound and slowly descending to the field. We didn’t want to land though; we just wanted to be in a great position to see the famous Las Vegas strip and it worked out perfectly. We went missed approach and told ATC we’d like to overfly the international airport and land visually at Henderson Field. So we flew directly East of the strip and right overhead the rather large sea of lights representing Las Vegas International Airport. I then set the plane down softly on the concrete at Henderson where we taxied in and snapped a nice group photo full of smiles. What an opportunity to be able to give ourselves a self-guided tour overhead Las Vegas at night!
The red light shining from above illuminates the cockpit while not interfering with our night vision like white light would. Each of the instruments has their own little light to further help with our ability to read them and maintain aircraft control.
Day 14 (Las Vegas, NV > Chino, CA)
Day #14, our final day!!! None of us could believe it. We didn’t want the trip to be over. It had been amazing how much ground we had covered but it wasn’t over yet. And this final day would prove to be our longest day of flying yet!
We started by flying to Sedona, Arizona for a coffee and pastry. I know right? Who stops into Sedona for coffee!? Sedona’s airport is unique in that it sits on a plateau with rather interesting winds at times due to the topography of the area and the airport itself. We landed to the North and took our brief pit stop while checking out the small terminal on site.
Then sticking to our planned fuel stops where the fuel was less expensive, we landed at what was seemingly a ghost airport with nothing going on whatsoever called H.A. Clark Memorial Field in Williams, Arizona. While Jose and I fueled up the plane, Leanna took some interesting photos which really show how deserted the airport felt.
After our stop for cheap fuel, we departed to the North toward the Grand Canyon. That day the turbulence was pretty bad. We had to keep our eyes outside to avoid getting woozy. One of the plusses of flying West of the Cascades for the majority of our trip had been the more stable air. There is much more turbulence flying down in the Desert near Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. We pressed on though with the ever impressive Grand Canyon awaiting us.
Flying near the Grand Canyon had always been something I wanted to do and it was every bit as awesome as I expected it would be. Seeing the canyon from up above really was mind boggling and trumped the view from the side of the canyon for sure. Now I can see why there are so many scenic flights!
We were getting hungry so we decided to land first before flying around the canyon to get some food. We taxied into the huge ramp and a van came out to meet us to take us to the terminal where we asked for a ride to pick up some pizza nearby. We then took the pizza to the plane and ate it there since we were short on time. Jose had a flight from LAX that night to go back to Spain and we were sitting in a small plane at the Grand Canyon! We didn’t have a whole lot of time but after eating a couple of slices of pizza, we took off into the turbulent skies climbing high to get a better view of the vast canyon below.
As we circled on the edge of the canyon we experienced some strong updrafts that had us climbing faster than 1,000 feet per minute even while were above 10,000 feet MSL! Anyone who’s flown a Cessna 172 would appreciate those numbers.
As we circled overhead enjoying the view we realized we were somewhat close on time and began heading West. The up and down drafts continued for a while but instead of trying to maintain altitude, we maintained our cruise speed and let the drafts take us up and down one to two-thousand feet at times. We passed South of Las Vegas and took as direct of a route as we could while avoiding a restricted area to the South of us.
Jose flew for a bit while I took a short nap which ended up not being a good idea. I wasn’t able to sleep with all of the bumps and as soon as I got up, I was feeling terrible. The turbulence was beginning to take its toll on me. I’ve never thrown up due to turbulence but it felt like my first time could be soon. At one point I told Jose that I wanted to go land somewhere because it wasn’t getting any better. He checked the map and the nearest suitable airport was behind us. I told him just to go there. We then left our comfortable cruising altitude and began descending into the super hot and humid air of the desert below us. Jose did a nice approach and landing at Laughlin/Bullhead International Airport where we taxied in and were brought to the very nice terminal complete with luxurious leather recliners where we all rested a bit. At the time I still didn’t realize exactly how tight we were on time to get Jose to his flight in time. In hindsight, I probably would have been inclined to continue flying Eastbound without landing in Laughlin had I known. We didn’t delay too long though and as soon as I felt better, we made our way back to the plane where we took off with a Westbound turn after takeoff and slowly climbed back to a more comfortable altitude where the air was much cooler.
Unlike the cars most people drive that have air conditioners, they are much less common and are more of a luxury in general aviation aircraft. Our Cessna 172 relied solely on outside air for cooling which works fine for the most part since as soon as you climb to cruise the air outside is cool enough to provide adequate cooling on board.
The rest of the flight was beautiful. We watched the desert slowly turn into forest as the Sun slowly descended to the horizon. The hazy skies made the mountains look super dramatic and gorgeous. As per the norm of our trip, we got an IFR clearance to make life easier and we slowly battled the headwind inbound to the Los Angeles area.
Even though we were just miles from Hawthorne Airport on a visual approach, we couldn’t see it because of the Sun shining through the haze reducing our forward visibility. But just in time, we saw the field, informed the controller, and were transferred to the tower’s frequency where we were quickly cleared to land.
After landing, we didn’t have time to mess around. Jose quickly gathered his things while I got the keys to the courtesy car and, with minimal delay, we were on our way to LAX to drop off our good friend Jose. We were really sad to see him go but we didn’t have a choice! He was a pleasure to fly with and I got along with him great the entire two weeks. Leanna and I were losing a member of our team, and it felt weird getting back into the cockpit without him there.
Leanna and I drove the courtesy car back to Hawthorne Airport. And then back in the plane, we taxied across the tarmac to get some fuel for our final leg since we were supposed to leave the aircraft as full of fuel as possible per our arrangement with the FBO in Chino. We then taxied back and picked up our IFR clearance and takeoff clearance right before the tower closed for the evening. We departed towards the Pacific Ocean and then made a series of left turns as coordinated by ATC until we reached our rather low cruising altitude for our last leg of the trip to Chino, California. I had Leanna fly a bit but we took turns permitting both of us to appreciate the beautiful nighttime cityscape below.
As we neared the airport, I struggled a bit to find the runway as the lights were not clearly visible from the side (by design), but as I entered what should have been a left base in relation to the airport, the runway came in clear view, thus allowing me to turn final and do our last landing in N758GF. This aircraft had treated us well, and we were very pleased to have been at its controls for our two week trip.
Wanting to top up the bird completely before leaving, Leanna and I taxied around to a few different proposed fueling locations but one was inoperative and the others were temporarily closed for some reason so we ended up just having to tie the aircraft down with the fuel it had left, which was still at about 90% capacity.
We offloaded our gear and looked once, twice, and three times to make sure we didn’t forget anything, and then gave the aircraft a pat on the engine and thanked it for being good to us. And into the night we went. Since it was so late in the evening, we decided to stay at a hotel and drive back to Las Vegas the next day.
Although this entire trip was a year ago, I just had to blog about it because it was just too unique of a trip not to share! I hope to do another flying trip someday. And I don’t think I’d do it anywhere else! The West coast of the United States was perfect for such a trip with its friendly weather and relatively low terrain. I’d like to thank Jose for being a great co-pilot and for flying all the way to the US to partake in this epic trip. And Leanna should get mad props for entrusting her life with Jose and I in the 65 plus hours we flew during that trip. She also chose wonderful snacks which kept us all going on the longer legs of the trip, and she handled all of the cargo loading very well. I would also like to thank all of our family members for picking us up at the airport (sometimes on numerous occasions), and for letting us stay the night or stop in for food and conversation. Lastly, I’d like to thank Alliance International Aviation based at Chino Airport for letting us use their aircraft for the trip! Thanks for reading and sorry for being so quiet the past year! Burning Holes in the Sky is back!