Back to the (Supersonic) Future

Spike Aerospace S-512

Despite wars — both hot and cold — abroad and social upheaval at home, the 1960s must have been an incredible time for those in and around the aerospace industry.

Over the course of a single decade, the United States went from being unable to reliably launch a rocket (nearly half of the twenty-nine attempts in 1960 were failures) to putting men on the moon and bringing them back to Earth in one piece. In the realm of atmospheric flight, the 1960s saw the development and construction of the first supersonic passenger aircraft, the stratospheric cruising and futuristic-looking Concorde.

That was a half-century ago. I wonder, who could have predicted that the year 2014 would see the U.S. unable to launch a man into space on its own? Or that Concorde would be a dusty museum piece replaced by aircraft which lack the speed, altitude, and glamor of that legendary delta-winged craft? Anyone prescient enough to make that call would have been laughed out of the room. By 2014 we were going to be colonizing Mars!

While the march of computer technology has certainly eclipsed anything we could have dreamed of in the 60s, aerospace has, in many ways, stagnated. Visit any airport this side of Mojave and tell me I’m wrong.

Business Aviation Leads the Way

The space program has some promising “green shoots” with the Orion/SLS program and the emergence of third-party spaceships from companies like SpaceX and Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser. When it comes to atmospheric flight, the most exciting developments are no longer taking place at Boeing or Airbus. Over the past couple of decades, competition and market demand for ever more capable business aircraft has revolutionized that segment of general aviation. The VLJ sector has brought small, quiet, efficient business jets to market, while on the ultra-large cabin side, today’s airplanes fly higher, faster, and further than ever before.

But we’re pressing up against the limits of what’s possible through the continuing evolution of current designs. It begs the question: what comes next? I believe we’re headed back to the future. I’m talking about the return of supersonic aircraft to general aviation. Well, perhaps “return” isn’t the proper word, because GA has never had them. More like the return of supersonic passenger aircraft. There’s nothing on the horizon in that department from the airlines, but for the corporate/charter folks, there is plenty of research and development taking place.

Spike Aerospace has designs on one, and Gulfstream worked with NASA on a project called Quiet Spike in 2006 and 2007 where they retrofitted an F-15 with a 24 foot-long retractable nose spike to experiment with reductions in the sonic boom footprint. The goal was to find ways to make transonic flight possible over the continental U.S.

What's stranger than a 24 foot spike on the front of an F-15?  A Gulfstream logo on an F-15.

What’s stranger than a 24 foot spike on the front of an F-15? A Gulfstream logo on an F-15.

The Quiet Spike project has/had an offshoot called the Gulfstream X-54, which could very well be in development at this very moment. The X-54 is rumored to be an experimental stab at overcoming the challenges of domestic supersonic passenger flight.

Sukhoi also partnered with Gulfstream on a potential Mach 2+ business jet called the S-21 in the early 90s. They determined that there wasn’t enough of a market to proceed. But that was twenty years ago.

The Marketplace Is Ready

So what has changed to make supersonic flight a potential reality for passengers? After all, we’ve had supersonic aircraft since the late 1940s, and airliners capable of the feat for half a century now. A level of skepticism is understandable, especially in an industry known for physical vaporware, but I believe the elements are now in place to make this a reality.

For one thing, Gulfstream is now owned by General Dynamics, a conglomerate with deep pockets and significant experience with supersonic flight. If you were going to partner a bizjet manufacturer with organizations that could help it overcome the technical hurdles of a Mach 2 passenger aircraft, could there be any better synergy than Gulfstream, General Dynamics, and NASA?

Then there’s Gulfstream itself, which has become one of General Dynamics’s primary revenue sources. As always, just follow the money. In years past, the idea of a $120+ million corporate aircraft wold have been laughable. Airliners didn’t even cost that much. But today, Gulfstream is building $75 million business aircraft and buyers are lined up around the block to purchase them. Boeing manufactures corporate versions of the 747 and 787. Airbus has the ACJ. Clearly, price is not a show-stopper. With that in mind, maybe there is a market for a supersonic airplane.

From a technical standpoint, you can’t go much faster without exceeding the speed of sound. We are already flying around at Mach 0.9 and the G650 was dive tested to Mach 0.995, where plenty of transonic airflow must have already been present.

Profit and Loss

The primary reason I’m bullish on supersonic passenger flight now is because it makes far more sense for the corporate/charter market than the airlines. An airliner needs to make money for the owner. That’s their business, and the only reason those aircraft exist. If the jets don’t turn a profit, the airline goes bankrupt. As glamorous and enchanting as Concorde may have been, it was a money loser. And with fuel prices headed skyward faster than a ballistic fighter jet, the economics only got worse as time went on.

Corporate airplanes don’t have to make money. They aren’t profit centers in and of themselves, but rather a means to an end: a way to get more business done. Supersonic speeds would allow the transcontinental traveler to quite literally put more than 24 hours into a day. Imagine being able to hold a lunch meeting in Europe and have another one in North America on the same afternoon. Take a look at a map of the sheer number of aircraft crossing the Atlantic on a given day. It’s dramatic.

There’s another reason supersonic bizjets could work when an an airline version would not. Airliners carry hundreds of people and tons of cargo, catering, baggage, etc. A typical business aircraft might have 4-5 passengers on board, so there’s far less need for a big cabin or massive payload capability. The one thing every Mach 2 design has in common is the general shape: long and very slender. A space that would be cramped for 100 airline guests would feel far more luxurious if it was only occupied by a half-dozen businessmen. The needs of the corporate/charter market are simply a far better match for a supersonic design.

In conclusion, all the elements necessary for a successful supersonic business aircraft are in place. Now someone just has to build it. Between their Sukhoi partnership, the NASA Quiet Spike research, and the X-54, Gulfstream is obviously serious about taking the next step. They have General Dynamics’ resources, large market share, and deep-pocketed clientele.

My prediction: Gulfstream Aerospace will deliver a supersonic bizjet within the decade.

Our Flying Family

Etihad Air Show

[Note: this is a guest post -- the first ever here at the House of Rapp! -- by Rob Burgon, an F-22 Raptor pilot and member of the Blogging in Formation team. You can read more of his writing at TallyOne.com.]


The weather couldn’t have been any better for flying. From 28,000 feet, and just a few miles east of Oklahoma City, I could practically see the runway at Fort Smith Regional Airport (KFSM) in Arkansas. It was a rare mission that allowed me to fly solo as instructor with a solo student as my wingman, and such was the mission today. On a typical sortie into KFSM, we would plan to fly VR-272, a low-level military training route that allows us to fly fast and low as we wind our way through a series of lush, rolling green hills. But the 500 knot fun would not happen today, not with a solo student on the wing. Regardless, this day would turn out to be a memorable one. It was on this glorious spring morning that I first met Dave and Race Burns, and learned something about my flying family.

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Solo: The Abandoned Column

The east side of the Sierras is in some ways more rugged and beautiful than the west

To the uninitiated it’s just another cheaply-bound ledger, unremarkable, a bookkeeping tool no different than those ones dumped haphazardly into the dollar bin at every generic office supply store in the world. It wouldn’t attract a second look.

But to a pilot? No matter how dog-eared and scuffed it may get, an aviator’s logbook is invariably one of his or her most prized possessions, the decimal-based journal of a life lived in the clouds. I love logbooks. The weighty, aging pages, the archival scent of a long-stored document, every little stain on the parchment. Even the way a pilot scribbles on the paper, the penmanship, contributing flavor to the tale. For those with an imagination, it can whisk you away to adventures in the sky just as surely as any air craft.

Who wouldn’t kill for a peek into the most immediate and personal flying notations of Chuck Yeager, Jimmy Doolittle, Bob Hoover, or Scott Crossfield? More than the chronicle of a pilot’s career, they document the history of aviation itself.

One wonders what will become of these relics when decimal is overwhelmed by binary. Like an aviation Guttenburg Bible, physical logbooks are already becoming a rare commodity, their raw data now residing, in truly ironic/hipster fashion, within the “Cloud”. No random pen marks generated out of excitement from that incredible flight, no fading from exposure to the sun, no aging whatsoever. Just perfect, uninspiring, character-free characters.

A pilot logbook from the first World War, circa 1917.  Even the handwriting tells a story.

A pilot logbook from the first World War, circa 1917. Even the handwriting tells a story.

I’ve got an electronic logbook. Oh so convenient for the incessant flood of insurance renewal requests and time-in-type queries posited to a professional who flits from this airplane to that one. The ease of transmittal, the freedom from data loss! It’s neat, expedient, a mathematically flawless miracle. A pilot like myself, raised on computers, one who takes to them with the greatest of ease in the cockpit, ought to love it.

I don’t.

That’s why I keep one on paper as well. And though it displays few of the characteristics that make great logbooks worth venerating, it has the unique virtue of being mine. Every page brings back a memory: a bumpy day under the LAX localizer keeping the world safe for democracy from the Medfly, success in the aerobatic box, or an open-door sunset flight down the California coastline with my wife in an 80-year-old friend.

Yet in this venerated document, there exists one quirky column which lacks appreciation and respect even among pilots: the one marked “solo”. Every logbook on the market has a space for this data, yet virtually no one uses it. Reserved exclusively for flights when no other person is aboard the aircraft, a tally of solo flying hours is not legally required for anything beyond primary training. Once the requisite solo hours are achieved, no other pilot, employer, insurance agent, FAA inspector, NTSB investigator, friend or foe will ever inquire about it again. It might as well not even exist. “How much solo time have you got?” It sounds preposterous to even say it.

But I’ve kept track of my solo time since day one. Flying alone is magical, in many ways the purest form of aviating. Every pilot gets that feeling the moment their sensai departs the aircraft for the very first time, but I love it for the same reason I enjoy scuba diving: you’re in your own world, ensconced in a place where no one can bother you. There’s nobody to teach, soothe, impress, or transport. No questions to answer, no one to be responsible for. Toss in VFR and you’re a cowboy riding that trusty steed off into the sunset like the pioneers of old. Want to go somewhere? Then go! Your destiny is open, no limits beyond a little airspace and the occasional need to refuel.

Sixteen years on in my flying career and it’s still like that every time I’m alone in an aircraft. Flying the Gulfstream is always a two-pilot affair, so I relish every available opportunity to go aloft on my own. It’s one of the reasons having an airplane is important to me: I can take wing whenever I want. As they saying goes, it’s cheaper than a therapist (although to be honest, whoever said that probably never added up the total cost of ownership).

Last week I was asked to ferry an Extra 300L from Reno/Stead to John Wayne Airport for the new owner. Solo flying?  I’m in!  I had airlined up to the Biggest Little City in the World the previous day and was racing a cold front off the California coast which was forecast to bring rain and snow to the Sierras in the afternoon.

An interesting side story: knowing the weather was going to turn, I’d booked a ticket to come up the previous morning and fly the airplane back that same day. The skies were forecast to be clear. Unfortunately, that 6:30 a.m. departure turned out to be a 6:30 p.m. ticket, and booking through a third-party travel site leaves you with few options for fixing these sorts of errors.  Thanks for nothing, Orbitz…

Note how the routing from RTS to SNA passes east of the Sierra Nevada range

Note how the routing from RTS to SNA passes east of the Sierra Nevada range

With weather blowing in from the west, the low-altitude route through California’s Central Valley wasn’t going to be available the next day, so this trip was what we call a Sierra Special: down the high terrain east of the Sierras and through the Owens Valley. The scenery is beautiful, but this area demands respect. More that one pilot has entered the valley and not left it one piece. Owens is one of those places that reminds you Mother Nature can overpower any man-made conveyance, even one with the incredible strength of an Extra.

Upon arriving at Stead, I learned that the aircraft’s oil pan had been replaced recently, but since the plane had been sold, it hadn’t been test flown. Liability, you know.  Well there was no way I’d take a single-engine airplane over some of the country’s most rugged terrain without a thorough test flight and leak check, so what better excuse for a few high powered laps around the patch?  Stead is home to the world-famous Reno Air Races.  The field was deserted this weekday morning, but I imagined the Unlimited warbirds zooming around the pylons at 500 mph.  I can see how it could become addictive.

By the time a local mechanic pronounced the Extra leak-free it was eleven o’clock and the winds were already kicking up, so I topped off the fuel, carefully secured my miniscule travel bag and a second parachute in the front seat, and blasted off for a solo adventure.

The Extra is as beautiful as it is capable.  The wing is completely smooth.

The Extra is as beautiful as it is capable. The wing is completely smooth.

And what an escapade it was!  The airplane was flawless, but weather threw a few curves my way.  Turbulence? Oh yeah. Plenty of that. The G-meter hit +4.5, and that wasn’t from aerobatics. It was cold, too — about -11 degrees Celsius at 11,500 feet, from which altitude I was still looking up at the mountains. I couldn’t have been more than 30 minutes out of Stead when it became clear my haute couture was inadequate for the frigid temperatures.  Not enough to present a serious safety-of-flight issue, but certainly uncomfortable.

I kept looking for opportunities to fly lower, but much of the journey was marked by significant up- and downdrafts, ones even the Extra couldn’t outclimb. Cold or not, the smart choice is to fly high. Just past Mt. Whitney, the wind flowing over the mountains pushed me down to 7,000 feet MSL (3,000 AGL) while bumping the plane around so much that I whacked my noggin on the canopy several times.  When an Extra 300 pilot feels compelled to slow the aircraft to maneuvering speed, you know the turbulence is bad.

Nevertheless, the trip was fun. Those 360 degree views of the snow-capped Sierras inspired a few barrel rolls once I was south of Bishop and clear of V381, and the weather providing several opportunities for crosswind landings and a bit of reasonable scud-running (2,000′) through an L.A. basin covered with thick stratus.  The adventure was another worthy memory for my paper logbook, and one I took particular pleasure in adding to the “solo” column.

Here are a few photos from the trip:

Passengers: Keeping Things Interesting

Gulfstream V

When it comes to cataloging the intriguing travelers one has encountered over the years, few people can rival the improbably tall tales spun by pilots. I’ve never been one to kiss-and-tell about the goings on inside the airplanes I fly. That’s a good thing, because discretion is an vitally important aspect of working in the Part 91 and 135 worlds. It’s a significant part of what the customer is paying for, in fact.

Of course, the most engaging stories are worth telling not because of who was involved, but rather what happened. So by avoiding or altering all references to individuals, employers, brokers, locations, aircraft, dates, and so on, an anecdote from years in the past can be related in general terms and still entertain.

Here are a few that have happened to me or others with whom I’ve flown:

The Wake Up Call

I was just sitting down to dinner with the rest of the crew one summer evening when a company dispatcher called to ask how quickly we could get to Washington, D.C. for a “pop up” (short-notice) trip. After abandoning our meals, we returned to the hotel, packed up, checked out, and ferried the airplane to the nation’s capital, not knowing who our passengers would be. It turns out they were a half-dozen very clean-cut folks who were schedule to escort an important individual back to the United States.

So off we went, arriving at our destination around 1:00 a.m. Our guests milled around at the FBO, making phone calls and waiting for their subject to appear. Eventually we were advised that he wasn’t going to arrive for another twelve hours, which created a regulatory problem for us. We’re limited to 10 hours of flying and 14 hours of duty per day, so we wouldn’t be able to legally complete the return leg without getting some rest.

Hotels were arranged for the flight crew, while the passengers said they’d need to stay with the plane overnight because of the weapons on board the aircraft. They couldn’t take them off the jet without breaking the host country’s laws about importation of firearms. Nor were they willing to leave the firearms on the plane and go to a hotel. There was no GPU cart available, and our company policy prohibited leaving the jet’s APU running unless a crew member was present.

I explained that without the APU, they’d have no electricity or light and be unable to flush the lavatory, run water, move the window shades, or heat the cabin. The lead passenger laughed and said, “We’d be comfortable living in a rough hole dug into the ground. I’m pretty sure we’ll be okay. Go get some rest.” Nobody at the airport or our company could think of a better solution, so we provided a tutorial about how to operate the Gulfstream’s main entry door, made the cabin as comfortable as possible for them, and shut everything down.

I felt terrible about leaving them in a cold, dark airplane for the night. That’s not the kind of service we typically provide for customers. On the other hand, these weren’t typical customers, and they really didn’t seem to mind in the slightest.

When we returned the following day, the airstair door was open and our passengers seemed a little amped up. I asked how things went and one of them said, “It was fine… but I wish someone would have told us about the shotgun!” Mystified, we asked, “Ummm, what shotgun?” Apparently this airport keeps birds away from the field by having an employee fire off a couple of 12-gauge blanks every hour. I’d never heard of such a thing! At the crack of dawn, some hapless airport worker had unknowingly elected to do the deed while standing near a bizjet full of sleeping, yet well-armed, personnel.

I knew bird strikes are a serious hazard for aircraft.  What I didn't know was the large-gauge method some airports use to keep them away.

I knew bird strikes are a serious hazard for aircraft. What I didn’t know was the large-gauge method some airports use to keep them away.

Before leaving the previous night, we had closed the electrically-powered window shades, so they were in a dark cabin and unable to get a look at what was happening outside. All they knew was that someone was firing a weapon nearby and could only assume it might be meant for them. So they opened the airstair door and came our ready for World War III. Thankfully, they were not the shoot-first, ask-questions-later types. After a few moments of confusion, they all had a good laugh about it.

They were far less sanguine upon learning a few hours later that the principal they were waiting to escort back to the States wasn’t coming after all. As far as they were concerned, the whole trip was for naught. It certainly was memorable for me, though.

It’s Inhuman

Sometimes our passengers aren’t even people. One pilot related the story of flying to Africa to transport gold bullion. Another told me about a Boeing Business Jet (an executive version of the 737) which had a dozen passengers with so much cargo that the customer’s luggage wouldn’t fit. So they chartered a Gulfstream IV to fly chase with nothing but the baggage on board.

These trips might sounds awfully expensive — and they are — but I’ve run the numbers and they can make financial sense. If you travel with a large contingent and like to fly first class, last-minute fares of that ilk — assuming scheduled airlines even go where you’re headed — can run the bill up so high that chartering can even save money.

It's a dog's life... but somebody's gotta lead it!

It’s a dog’s life… but somebody’s gotta lead it!

Sometimes it just isn’t about dollars, though. One of my favorite flights was for a gentleman in Europe who missed his dog so much that he chartered a Gulfstream to fly this tiny teacup canine 5,500 miles across the United States and the Atlantic Ocean. The trip even had a flight attendant on board. Just imagine the catering order for a passenger like that…

I should add a word about pooches: I’ve flown quite a few of them over the years, and every one has been a pleasure to have on board. No barking, scratching, urinating, or otherwise soiling the expensive furnishings inside. I don’t know how they can lay there for eight or nine hours without needing to relieve themselves, but somehow they just splay out on the floor and snooze. If there was a way to let them stick their heads out the window, flying might rival that all-time favorite: a trip in the family car.

The Ultimate Fresh Air Vent

Speaking of windows, one apocryphal story concerns an individual who was being deported. Due to security concerns, sometimes these people can’t be transported on commercial airliners, so a chartered aircraft will be utilized instead. Some of these detainees don’t want to be deported because they know conditions in their home country are far more severe than those in the United States.

These trips typically operate with a one-to-one ratio of law enforcement agents to detainees. On this flight, despite having hands and feet shackled, one of the detainees managing to pull open the over-wing emergency exit window he was seated next to just as the aircraft touched down.

I’m not sure if he knew anything about the airplane or not, but his timing was fortuitous because this was the first possible opportunity to open that window. It has to be removed by pulling inwards, and under normal flight conditions, the cabin pressurization holds the window firmly in place. But as the aircraft descends, the pressure differential decreases, and by the time the airplane lands it’s less than 0.3 pounds per square inch.

Anyway, he was immediately tackled by the guards, who flew across the cabin and over the large dining table to restrain him before an escape could be accomplished. It’s just as well; I’m not convinced that this detainee had really thought things through, because the over-wing emergency exits are awfully close to the front end of a screaming Rolls-Royce turbojet engine.

Note the proximity between the emergency exit and the dining table.  Probably not the place to seat an escape artist!

Note the proximity between the emergency exit and the dining table. Probably not the place to seat an escape artist!

Big Things Come in Small Packages

After a revenue flight, one or both of the pilots will often stand near the exit to wish the passenger(s) farewell and thank them for flying on the aircraft. One day, a friend of mine transported a well-heeled gambler home from Las Vegas. As he exited, this passenger handed a casino chip to my friend. Tips are not expected or even common, but they’re not unheard of either. So the pilot simply said thank you and placed the chip in his pocket. It was only later that he remembered it and fished the small disc out. Inscribed on the chip: “$10,000″.

Fish Out of Water

I’ll conclude with a story from my days flying for a public-benefit organization. Today, this non-profit only accepts humans in need of medical transportation. But back in the day, they’d occasional accede to requests that were, shall we say, slightly out of the ordinary.

This particular request was to move a juvenile sea lion from a rescue facility to a place where it could be released into the wild. One of their volunteer pilots offered his Baron 58TC for the flight. With the rear seats removed, there was sufficient space for a cage large enough to hold the 400 pound mammal. A veterinarian sedated the animal, it was loaded aboard the Baron, and the flight commenced.

I don’t know if it was an error on the part of the vet, an effect of the high altitude, or what, but a couple of hours into the flight, the anesthetic wore off. Instead of a sedate sea creature, the airplane suddenly had a confused, muscle-bound fighter who was none too happy about being two miles above sea level in a loud, vibrating contraption. Thankfully, he was securely locked inside the cage, so aside from some banging around and a whole lot of noise, there was no risk to the flight.

All was well until the pilots noticed that the sea lion’s barking seemed to be growing in volume. Kind of weird, they thought. One of them turned around to see what was going on and got the shock of a lifetime: the pinniped had somehow escaped the cage and was wallowing forward toward the cockpit. The pilot flying had his hands full re-trimming the aircraft as the animal moved, while the other fended off the sea lion with bound manuals, a clipboard, charts, and anything else he could find until they were able to land.

I’m not sure if this scene was scary, comical, or both. But as W.C. Fields famously said, “never work with animals or children”. Especially when you’re 12,000 feet above terra firma.


This entry is part of an ongoing collaborative writing project entitled “Blogging in Formation”.

Santa Catalina

Rapp-Vest Engagement Photos

Though many of my favorite flying activities — aerobatics, pattern work, sightseeing — are local in nature, there’s no denying that airplanes are made for going places. Even the pokiest of ‘em makes travel faster and more interesting than driving a car. One of my most memorable trips was flying a clipped-wing Cub up the California coast at 60 mph. Between fuel stops and detours, it took the better part of a day to cover the 145 nautical mile straight-line distance from Orange County to Lompoc. But boy was it fun!

Over the past two decades I’ve traveled all over the country. All over the world, in fact, and my list of favored locations is long indeed. It’s hard to beat sitting on the beach next to the Sunset Bar & Grill in St. Maarten. I could spend a month in London taking in shows at the Globe, ENO or the West End. And who could say a cross word about any of the Hawaiian islands?

But if I had to choose just one place to call my all-time favorite, it wouldn’t even be a contest: it starts and ends with Santa Catalina, one of eight isles in the Channel Islands archipelago which sit just off the Southern California coast.

Catalina seems to be a place where all aerial roads meet, especially if you’re from this area. It’s the place everyone wants to go as soon as they learn how to fly or come into town for a visit. The pilot I made my last trip with in the Gulfstream used to fly for Catalina Flying Boats, a company which transports cargo to and from the island in DC-3s and (at the time) Beech 18s.

Catalina is where I took my first passenger after I earned my private pilot certificate. It’s also where we took his mother on her last flight before she passed away from pancreatic cancer.

I believe it was back in '98 that I made my first trip to AVX.  Here's Paul celebrating our safe arrival.

I believe it was back in ’98 that I made my first trip to AVX. Here’s Paul celebrating our safe arrival.

It’s where my wife and I went on our first flight together. It’s where we shot our engagement photos. It’s the only destination I’m aware of that has a classic warbird (the Consolidated PBY Catalina) named after it. It hosts an annual airshow, herds of bison, unique plants that don’t exist anywhere else on Earth, and miles of spectacular coastline, hiking trails, and hidden coves. Catalina has been a film location, a swing dancing mecca, a scuba diving destination, a nature preserve, and a hundred other things.

My aunt used to regale me with stories of the huge dances which took place in the legendary Casino ballroom in the 1930s and 40s. She’d work a 9-to-5 job during the day, then take a ferry (which had it’s own band and dance floor aboard) to Catalina in order to dance the night away with thousands of other people in front of a big band. CBS Radio would broadcast live from the ballroom. After the music ended sometime in the wee hours, she’d hop on the last ferry and again dance all the way back to the mainland.

The airport itself is reason enough to visit the island. Built by chewing gum titan William Wrigley in the late 1930’s, it was specifically designed to handle the Douglas DC-3 which would bring his Chicago Cubs out to the island for spring training. But Catalina’s aviation history goes back a lot further than that. Glenn Martin built an airplane in Santa Ana and set a record for the world’s longest over-water flight in 1912 by piloting it to Catalina Island. To this day, the airport terminal retains its original art deco style.

On final approach to runway 22.  The airport sits on top of a bluff, with steep drop-offs at both ends.

On final approach to runway 22. The airport sits on top of a bluff, with steep drop-offs at both ends.

Speaking of which, the airport itself features a restaurant, camping area, a nature center showing the natural history of the island, a gift shop, and occasional barbeques on the airport’s huge rotisserie grill. The terminal also contains a gallery of photos covering Catalina’s aviation history, starting with the earliest flying boats to visit the island. You’ll see pictures of the airport’s construction, and of the World War II era when the nearly-completed airfield was barricaded with barbed wire and other obstacles in anticipation of a Japanese invasion.

For some reason, people get bent out of shape about flying to Catalina. It’s really not that hard. The airport does sit on a bluff 1,600 feet above the ocean, but the pavement is plenty long and wide. There are just a few things to remember about the field. First, when you’re at pattern altitude (2,600′ MSL), you may be 1,000 feet above the airport elevation, but at times that will put you 2,600 feet above the surface, especially on base leg when you’re over water. Also, there’s a crown in the middle of the runway, so the first half of the landing roll is uphill and the second half downhill. It’s not terribly drastic, but it can create the visual illusion of coming up on the end of the runway when you’ve still got plenty left in front of you. Finally, you’ll sometimes encounter up and down drafts due to the mountainous terrain when the wind blows. Like all approaches, if you don’t like it, go around. No big deal.

Today, about 90% of the island is owned by a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving Catalina. They do a wonderful job balancing the conservancy needs of the island with it’s status as a tourist destination. Over a million people each year visit Catalina, but you’d never know it from how pristine most it looks. I can only imagine how difficult it must be to bring materials and equipment out to the airport (which sits alone in the middle of the island) to work on the runway. It’s one of the reasons I don’t mind the $25 landing fee too much. It’s expensive, but at least it’s going to a non-profit conservancy which is protecting both the island and the airport.

In front of the famous Catalina Airport hangar.  We had a moment there on our first date.

In front of the famous Catalina Airport hangar. We had a moment there on our first date.

Though I haven’t been to AVX on a regular basis in several years, I used to make a habit of occasionally flying over to the island for a leisurely day off. Sometimes I’d hike, other days I’d take the bus into Avalon or Two Harbors. Occasionally I’d just hang out on the back patio at the airport, reading a book, memorizing an opera, or talking with other pilots. One day I ran into Harrison Ford; another time it was Lorenzo Lamas. You never know who you’ll come across when you’re at the Airport-in-the-Sky. Sometimes they’re not even people! I once witnessed a bison stampede from the airport terminal’s patio. Another time I encountered a Native American who was searching for some kind of mystic white buffalo. You can’t make stuff like this up.

Santa Catalina always beckons when I take to the sky. On a clear day, one can see it from the mainland even from ground level, hovering in the distance like a desert mirage. If you haven’t experienced the Catalina magic, put it on your bucket list — you won’t regret it.


This entry is part of an ongoing collaborative writing project entitled “Blogging in Formation”.