Southeast Alaska

A picturesque sunset over the harbor

I spent a few years in the 49th state while growing up, but for some reason never realized what a titanic place it is. Kind of ironic considering most things seem downright massive to a kid. Perhaps it’s because I lived near Anchorage, whose population is large enough (just shy of 300,000 inhabitants — 41% of the entire state tally!) to provide the look-and-feel of a major American city. It’s also blessed with temperate weather due to the comparatively low latitude and coastal location.

But that’s all on top. Truth to tell, once you get out of the “big city”, it quickly becomes clear that Alaska is a place of extremes. The mountains, the temperatures, the fuel and food bills, the natural resources, the isolation, the beauty, and of course the physical size of the state itself are larger-than-life. Even going to a restaurant was an exercise in extremes; one of our favorite joints was a steakhouse that served such a large slab of meat that if you could finish it, it was free. I never made it under that limbo stick.

Alaska has a lot in common with Texas, come to think of it. Big, wide open spaces, a thriving oil industry, and a proud, much-deserved reputation for self-reliance. Back when I lived there — the early-mid 1980s — there were plenty of Texans in the area because of the new pipeline which was bringing crude oil from the Northern Slope to Valdez for shipping to refineries in the lower 48. The locals always knew how to get a Texan’s goat: tell them that someday we’d split Alaska in two, thereby making Texas the third-largest state.

As I recall, they didn’t like that very much.

The early 80’s were a transitional time for southern Alaska. The population of Anchorage had grown by 263% over the previous decade and the area was still feeling the effects of such rapid expansion. Our little hamlet, Eagle River, doubled in size in less than five years, and the state was so flush with money that they instituted the Alaska Dividend, something which is best thought of as a reverse income tax. You’d get money — a percentage of the state’s oil revenue — simply for being a resident of Alaska. For an adult, the annual dividend check was more of a nicety than anything else, a small help in offsetting some of the high costs of living up there. But imagine being a 10 year old kid! It’s the early 80’s, you’re used to having nickles, dimes and quarters… and suddenly you’re getting a $1,000 check every year. “Score!!”

Like I said, a land of extremes.

The water's blue color is from glacial silt.

The water’s blue color is from glacial silt.

Anyway, since I started flying the Gulfstream, I’ve been back to Alaska several times. Anchorage is a frequent “tech stop” for fuel before launching off to Asia. I’ve also done a pair of crew swaps in Nome, and most recently spent a few days in southeastern Alaska on a charter trip.

We were scheduled to fly into small fishing village near Juneau, but pre-flight planning determined that most of the instrument approach procedures in that part of the state had just been NOTAM’d as “Not Authorized”. An interesting turn of events, to say the least. Alaska’s weather more often than not dictates the use of an IAP to get on the ground when you’re flying a turbojet, but suddenly most of them were stripped away. The only one still available was a localizer approach which featured a DME arc and a 65 degree offset between the final approach course and runway.

This approach also featured my first live experience with the “inverse C” symbol on the Jepp chart. If you’re not familiar, this symbol indicates the use of new circling minimums for the procedure. I wrote about this several months ago, presciently noting that “increasing the circling radii will often have the effect of raising the Minimum Descent Altitude, and that could make the procedure less valuable.” In this case, our circling minimums were 3,100′ AGL, so we literally needed VFR conditions to land. As anyone who’s been to southeast Alaska will tell you, that kind of weather doesn’t occur too often in the region, and this day was no exception. Despite good visibility underneath the layer, we never broke out and after a textbook missed approach procedure, diverted to Sitka where the weather was VFR.

The FAA had recently NOTAM'd many of the approaches in the area as out of service due to a magnetic variance in the region.

The FAA had recently NOTAM’d many of the approaches in the area as out of service due to a magnetic variance in the region.

As the state’s fourth largest city, Sitka boasts a massive population of 9,000. Even a blind man would identify Sitka as a fishing town due to the persistent smell of fish throughout the area. It’s not unpleasant, especially when mixed with the scent of salt air, but is definitely a sign that you’re “somewhere else”.

The airport features something wholly unfamiliar to most pilots these days: an on-site Flight Service Station. I had to think long and hard to determine whether I’d ever even been inside one of them before. I believe the answer is “no”. The lone employee working the facility enlightened us about the area’s approach procedures; they were NOTAM’d out of service because the FAA discovered a magnetic variation in the state’s panhandle.

Few of today's pilots have seen this:  it's the interior of a flight service station!  If you want a clearance here, just walk inside and pick it up.

Few of today’s pilots have seen this: it’s the interior of a flight service station! If you want a clearance here, just walk inside and pick it up.

As if this wasn’t enough, that day the list of banned procedures had grown significantly, and now included most of the departure procedures. Apparently this was causing havoc with lifeguard flights because without those departures they needed VFR weather in order to take off. While I understand the significance of magnetic variations on some IAPs, it was frustrating to see the satellite-based procedures cancelled due to this phenomenon. Wouldn’t a NOTAM announcing the variation be sufficient?

I was motivated to ask this question after seeing Alaska Airlines 737s coming and going from airports in IFR conditions. A fueler told me that they have their own custom, FAA-approved instrument approach procedures. So while the air ambulances were grounded, the airline soldiered on without a care in the world. This suggests a “red tape” situation more than a serious problem with the approaches. It’s probably driven — like most things these days — by liability concerns. The FAA is responsible for the approaches we were flying, whereas Alaska Airlines is the accountable party for their procedures.

There's nothing like fresh, crisp air and relaxing saunter through a scenic little town after a day of flying

There’s nothing like fresh, crisp air and relaxing saunter through a scenic little town after a day of flying

The next day, we repositioned the airplane to Petersburg, a short 100 nautical mile flight from Sitka. With only 2,800 residents, Petersburg is even smaller than Sitka, but differentiates itself from the latter with a strong Scandinavian character. The town was founded by Peter Buschmann, a Norwegian immigrant who started a cannery there in the 19th century. The village evolved into a successful fishing center due to the nearby LeConte Glacier icebergs, which provided a method of cooling the fish. Even today, it is one of the most successful fishing towns in that part of the world with huge hauls of salmon, halibut, black cod, king crab, tanner crab, and herring.

Petersburg is sometimes referred to as “Little Norway”, and boy does it look like it! In fact, I saw more Nordic flags than American ones on display in town while we were there. Every year on May 17th they celebrate Norwegian Constitution Day and hold an annual festival in honor of their Scandinavian heritage. Apparently they celebrate it longer and more boisterously than in Norway!

Petersburg is a town with major Nordic connections.  You'll see it in everything from street names to architecture.

Petersburg is a town with major Nordic connections. You’ll see it in everything from street names to architecture.

Alaskan towns are know for their high ratio of watering holes to inhabitants, but even by that metric, the folks in Petersburg know how to party! Perhaps it’s because the town sits on the northern end of an island which has no bridges to anywhere else and they have to make their own fun, but we were regaled with more than one story of legendary, alcohol-fueled hell-raising during the festival, including throwing an Alaska Airlines crew into the town jail just because they could.

As with many such towns in Alaska, boats and aircraft are every bit as important — perhaps even more so — than cars and trucks. Petersburg’s airport is much larger than one would expect for a town of that size. Even so, there was only one provider of Jet-A fuel: a helicopter operation run by a single employee. He answered the phones, flew the helicopter, did the maintenance, the whole works. Normally a Gulfstream is gassed up using a “pressure fueling” connection underneath the wing which transfers the fluid at a very high rate, but that wasn’t available here, so we had the not-unpleasant experience of fueling Alaska-style: with a traditional hose hoisted over the top of the wing through fuel caps that probably hadn’t been opened in 10 years.

Over-wing fueling is so rare that we weren’t even sure the fuel caps were unlocked, or where they key to unlock them might be. Thankfully we had no problem getting the caps open. Over-wing fueling is much slower than pressure fueling. We added a thousand gallons and it took at least an hour and a half to move the plane into position, add the Jet-A (at a rate of about 15 gallons per minute), and then reposition the aircraft to a dedicated concrete pad designed to hold something of it’s significant weight.

Adding a thousand gallons via over-wing fueling took about 90 minutes.

Adding a thousand gallons via over-wing fueling took about 90 minutes.

Our fueler was extremely friendly. In fact, everyone we encountered in Alaska was pleasant and helpful. The locals might not notice it, but coming from Southern California, it was clear as day to me since, sadly, we don’t always see that attitude down here. It was obvious that they take pride in their work and are always on the lookout for ways to help strangers. When we needed ice for the galley, a guy on the airport offered to drive me to the market. When we couldn’t find a ladder to check the fuel caps, there he was again, lending a hand and offering us a meal from the barbeque they were preparing outside their hangar.

The fueler was kind enough to not only do the grunt work of adding kerosene to our bird, but also offered to take us on a helicopter tour of the area since he had to reposition a logging crew from one place to another. Well we certainly weren’t going to say no to that!

After a quick meal in town, we returned to the airport and departed on a spectacular flight over Spirit Creek, Wrangall Narrows, Summer Straight, glaciers, and various other inner passages of southeast Alaska. It’s one thing to see sights like this from the flight levels, but quite another to watch them slide by from just a few hundred feet above the Earth. If you want to see things up close and personal, a jet is not the right tool for the job. When we’re down low in the Gulfstream it’s almost always because we are in the process of taking off or landing, so our sightseeing opportunities are rather limited.

Anyway, our intrepid pilot dropped us off in the midst of Tongass National Park, right next to a tiny U.S. Forest Service cabin on the edge of the Harding River. He zoomed away to move that work crew and left us free to explore the area for an hour or so. It’s moments like that that really make this job worth it. I looked around and couldn’t believe our good fortune. People pay thousands of dollars for the privilege of “getting away from it all”, and here I was being paid to do exactly the same thing!

Nothing to do here but relax and enjoy communing with nature.

Nothing to do here but relax and enjoy communing with nature.

That hour passed all too quickly. It seemed like just a few minutes before we heard the familiar sound of the rotorcraft’s blades beating the air into submission as our ride returned to pick us up. By this time the ceiling was down to 500′ overcast in light to moderate rain. Not something I’d typically fly VFR in. But then, this is Alaska, and we were in a helicopter, so it qualified as “better than average” conditions.

It was one of those perfect days. We had just enough time to head back to our hotel, grab a nap and shower, and return to the airport — a three minute drive — to prep the jet for a smooth, pleasant flight back to the “lower 48″. As we streaked across the sky, eight-and-a-half miles above the earth, I looked over my shoulder at the slowly setting sun and hoped I’d be headed back to the Last Frontier again soon.

Enjoy this gallery of photos from the trip:

Circling the Pacific

Circling the Pacific Ocean: three days, five cities, and nearly 11,000 miles!

And he’s off again!

Actually, I’ve been off for quite a while — and since I don’t get paid when I’m not flying, it’s with a sigh of relief that your humble host finally got back on the proverbial road. Also, my annual recurrent training is just around the corner, and so is the five-figure bill that comes along with it. Ah, the joys of a Part 135 contract pilot…

But enough about that. This trip took me west rather than east, essentially making a giant circle around the Pacific Ocean within the space of three days. It started at LAX, probably my least favorite airport on the planet.

Speaking of Los Angeles International, does anyone else think the entire place looks and smells like a third-world country? Even the iconic Theme Building isn’t enough to relieve the dread of an LAX encounter. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard or seen the phrase “I love LAX” used anywhere beyond the possible exception of an advertisement put out by Los Angeles World Airways. And I’m not really sure they could utter it with a straight face.

Thankfully all we had to do was fly to Las Vegas to overnight. Since I know you’re wondering, no, I didn’t put it all on black. Every since he went to prison for tax evasion, Wesley Snipes advice just doesn’t have the same panache.

The next morning it was off to Anchorage for fuel and a crew swap. Just about every time I’ve been into Ted Stevens Airport, the area’s been plagued with enough weather that there wasn’t much to see out the window. This time, however, the skies were completely clear and presented an almost surreal scene of majestic snow-covered mountains surrounded by the dark, serene waters of Aialik Bay, Cook Inlet, and the many sounds, arms, and lagoons along the southern Alaska coastline. Those large oval windows that dot the Gulfstream fuselage may be a signature feature of the brand, but they’ll never compare with the panoramic view from the cockpit!

Every time the main entry door opens and that first crisp blast of Alaskan air hits my palette, it takes me back to the years I spent there as a kid. Alas, we weren’t even on the ground an hour before it was “wheels up” as we winged westbound toward eastern Russia and then southwest into the northernmost Japaneses island of Hokkaido.

The gods were once again kind to a pair of lowly aviators and the weather, originally predicted to be near minimums, was scattered-to-broken, allowing a good view of the island landscape. Hokkaido reminds me quite a bit of central California, with gently rolling hills of golden scrub among various types of farms and orchards. It could have been Santa Maria or Salinas I was watching float past our jet rather than northern Japan.

Hokkaido was another “tech stop” where a fresh flight crew took over the aircraft, so we retired to a hotel in Sapporo for a few hours of rest before trekking back to the airport to catch a Hawaiian Airlines commercial flight to Honolulu and then Los Angeles.

Speaking of L.A., Japan was pretty much the polar opposite of our fair city when it comes to cleanliness and efficiency, especially as it regards their New Chitose Airport.

Chitose is actually two airports in one. The west side of the complex is a military field used by the Japanese Self-Defense Force, while the eastern half is a purely civilian airport. I would have sworn the terminal where our driver deposited us was brand new, but everyone I asked said no. It looked new, smelled new, was (if anything) overstaffed by impossibly polite employees, and definitely under-utilized. We spent an hour or so inside the first-class lounge and I occupied myself with an obsessive search for any sign of dirt or wear on anything. Even the urinals and restroom floor were completely spotless.

I may have also indulged in a beer or two poured by a robotic bartender.

Now if that’s not Japanese, I don’t know what is! Besides, how could any self-respecting man pass up the opportunity to drink a Sapporo while actually in Sapporo? I was almost disappointed when they issued the boarding call for our flight, especially because returning to the States meant older infrastructure. Speaking of which, the Hawaiian Airlines first-class lounge was the exact opposite of New Chitose, which is to say quite disappointing. Small, dirty, overcrowded, no food, nothing but a soda machine for drinks (with no ice!), ratty old furniture, and a tiny rear-projection television.

I know, I know: hash-tag it under #FirstWorldProblems. I wish it was isolated to a few commercial airports, but more and more I see our aviation infrastructure degrading while government spending virtually assures it will only get worse even as user fees and higher taxes are crammed into the budgets of the few who can still muster the wherewithal to fly.

On the other hand, we have far more GA in this country than they do anywhere else, including Japan. In fact, I know pilots who will airline across the Pacific for a weekend just because general aviation is so much better, simpler, and less expensive in the United States. But I always tell those who are interesting in pursuing aviation to do it now, because the only thing I can guarantee about the future is that it will be more expensive than it is today.

As usual, here are a few photos from the trip:

A Weekend in Yosemite

It ain't easy being green.  Or is it?

Summer is officially here! And just to show that not all of my traveling occurs via Gulfstream, I recently spent the Memorial Day weekend in Yosemite with my wife and her extended family.

They have a tradition of booking a series of rooms at the centrally located Lodge at the Falls the moment they become available (precisely a year and a day in advance). Pretty impressive when you consider that Memorial Day is the busiest time of the year for the park.

As someone who’s spend most of his life in California, I’m mildly ashamed to say I’d never been to Yosemite. The equator and the arctic circle, sure, but not this jewel of the national park system which sits practically in my own back yard. I even made it to Yellowstone before Yosemite. They do start with the same letter… that’s gotta be worth something, right?

I didn’t think much about it until the folks who work in Yosemite started asking where we were from, and the reply of “Orange County” always engendered the same response: “oh, you’re locals!” It seems many of the park’s visitors travel from Asia and other such far-off places. It didn’t feel very local when we were trying to get there, though. After a full day of work and six hours of late-night driving on Thursday, we stopped at about 3 a.m. just south of Fresno to get some rest.

I assumed the remaining 90 miles wouldn’t take long the next morning, but between the winding roads and traffic, it was a solid two-and-a-half hours before we arrived in the valley. The drive was not unpleasant, and I have only myself to blame for not believing the Google Maps iPhone application when it correctly predicted the exact time it would take.

The next three days were spent exploring the base of Yosemite Falls, hiking to the top of Vernal and then Nevada Falls, bike riding to Mirror Lake, touring the village, and watching Kristi paint a lovely watercolor of a little church that sits up against pine trees and a 2,000 foot high wall of granite.

It doesn’t take long to see why people flock to Yosemite. I’m used to hiking trails in Laguna Canyon, Crystal Cove, Topanga, etc. These are spots along the California coastline with spectacular vistas. But nothing compares to standing atop one of the world’s highest waterfalls and seeing what is best described as a granite Grand Canyon filled with pine trees and flowing water. The photos below are my best attempt at capturing the experience, but even the finest photography doesn’t hold a candle to the real thing.

The Nevada Falls hike is fairly challenging if you take the seasonal (summertime-only) Mist Trail. It starts off easily enough, but there are areas where you’re almost rock climbing due to the rise of the granite stones. And the higher the trail gets, the steeper the gradient becomes. Eventually we reached the summit and were greeted by a hilarious sign proclaiming that Mt. Whitney was available if we were willing to hike another 211 miles. Um, no thanks. Maybe next year.

A park ranger was atop the bridge that spans the waterfall, and he suggested taking the John Muir Trail back down. It was a mile or two longer, but far less steep and therefore easier to navigate. All in all, we put in about 10 miles that day. Kristi’s cousins hiked up Yosemite Falls and I believe that’s an even stronger workout with a 2,600 foot elevation gain in just over three miles. Most people spend 6-8 hours to complete a round-trip on that trail. On the other hand, a guy named Hari Mix once climbed it in 43 minutes.

Despite the crush of humanity that could be found at certain choke points in the valley (one of which seemed to be the lodge — quite understandable because there are only two hotels in the entire park) the weekend never took on the look or feel of a visit to that most unholy of places, Disneyland.

If you only do one thing in Yosemite, though, I’d recommend a visit to Glacier Point, a vista from which you can see about a quarter of the 1,200 square miles that comprise Yosemite National Park. It’s 3,200 feet above the valley floor and from that point we were able to see Vernal and Nevada Falls, Half Dome, Liberty Cap, and all the other big landmarks. It wasn’t terribly crowded when we arrived, but by the time we departed an hour later the traffic was so bad that the Park Service had closed the road to Glacier Point because the place was so far over capacity.

Speaking of capacity, there’s nothing like being on the road on Memorial Day. Traffic was sporty, to say the least. It reminded me of a visit to Las Vegas over the Memorial Day weekend in 1990. I left Sin City at 1:00 p.m. on Monday and didn’t get back to Irvine until 10:00 a.m. the next day. That’s 21 hours to travel 299 miles. I’m pretty sure Hari Mix could have run it faster than that.

The City of Lights

First order of business upon arrival:  food and wine!

Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once said, “A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.” Were it not for the fact that he died 2,500 years ago, one might imagine this was a tip of the proverbial hat to those of us who fly ultra-long range jets.

To the general public, this kind of life is glamorous and carefree, but insiders know quite well that long-distance international trips frequently take on a yin-and-yang quality. Between blasting through a dozen time zones in a single flight and the long dark hours spent on oceanic red-eyes, they can be impressively exhausting.

Maybe that’s why pilots I’ve talked to who are scheduled to transition into the Gulfstream G650 aren’t always as enthusiastic about the upgrade as one might expect. Sure, it’s the latest and greatest business jet, but with 8,000 statute miles of range, those grizzled road warriors know that the jet lag from those max-endurance flights can be just as awe-inspiring, especially if it’s a Part 91 ship being flown by a single crew.

Of course, it goes without saying that there are many wonderful aspects to this sort of flying. These are the things most people think of when I tell them I’m headed to Paris: decadent food, historic architecture, wide boulevards, and world-class museums. And that’s what you’ll see in the photo gallery below, because… well, time zones are hard to capture on film.

This trip started with a series of airline flights, first to New York and then on to London via Kuwait Airways. We are fortunate to fly in business class when airlining internationally, and the guy I was traveling with was looking forward to a beer or two before he sacked out for the long flight over the pond. Little did he know that Kuwait is a dry airline!

Eventually we alighted in Paris and had a couple of days to enjoy the town before flying out. Our hotel was on the south side of the city in the 14th arrondissement and proved to be an ideal place from which to explore restaurants and cultural sites. The area is known as a home to many members of Paris’ arts community. Speaking of the which, here’s a short piece by a former roommate of mine that captures the quintessential joie de vivre in the City of Lights:

This was, I believe, my fifth trip to Paris. I’d visited many of the city’s lionized sites and museums over the years, but had yet to make it down to the catacombs. So we walked the two or three blocks to a completely nondescript entrance and took the long, dizzying circular staircase that leads to “The Empire of the Dead”, a series of tunnels buried deep beneath the streets and Metro lines where the remains of more than six million Parisians are stored.

As we walked along the dark passageways, I couldn’t help but wonder who all these people had been. Was there a famous painter down here? A great political genius, a scientific wunderkind? You could literally walk for miles and see nothing but piles of bones on both sides of the tunnel, stacked five or six feet high. The “six million” figure brought to mind the Holocaust, and the sheer magnitude of the humanity represented there.

These people, of course, were not victims of a genocide, but rather ordinary citizens who had been buried in cemeteries within what were at that time the city limits of Paris. Eventually the graveyards began overflowing with human remains, and so the decision was made to relocate the bones to former mining tunnels out the outskirts of the city which had been dug in order to obtain the limestone needed to construct Paris’ many architectural landmarks.

As much as I enjoyed the experience of being 100 feet underground in musty, dark medieval caverns, it was nice to get back up to the surface among the living. There are some who really enjoy exploring the catacombs, however, and do so to the point where they’re almost living down there.

Between sightseeing and long relaxed meals, time in Paris tends to go by quickly and pleasantly. Eventually work called and we jetted off to Green Bay, Wisconsin for what’s referred to as a “tech stop” — a landing for fuel and/or a crew swap. Under Part 135 rules, pilots are not allowed to fly more than 10 hours in a 24 hour period. That’s not to say our work day can’t be longer than 10 hours. Between pre- and post-flight activities, it’s often much longer. But when flying charter passengers, we are prohibited from functioning as flight crew members for more than 10 hours of flying in a single day.

In the Gulfstream IV, this works out pretty well because that also happens to approximate the jet’s fuel capacity, so upon landing in Wisconsin the airplane was re-fueled, re-catered, and turned over to another crew who were taking the passengers on to their ultimate destination somewhere along the west coast. The “10 hour” rule doesn’t apply to flight attendants, however, so our FA continued on with the airplane while I got to adjourn to a warm meal and bed.

After spending the evening there, I realized that Green Bay might have more in common with Paris than it does with Orange County, California. For one thing, there’s the snow and cold wind that seems to penetrate even the most substantial clothing. That’s rather foreign to residents of coastal Southern California!

Another similarity: both Wisconsin and France are obsessed with cheese. I actually had a 45 minute conversation with someone over the squeaking sound of cheese curds, and another half hour about why they don’t squeak once they’re fried.

I am not making this up.

The next morning, we airlined to Chicago and then LAX, where I shuttled to my car and then fought rush hour traffic on the way to Orange County.

I try to keep my watch on Pacific Standard Time, as it seems to help stave off jet lag. Probably has something to do with keeping mental track of what everyone’s doing back home. Sleeping, working, eating lunch, etc. I’ve found that if I can periodically “check in” with the daily routine of my home time zone, the rhythm seems easier to fall back into once I’ve returned to California.

Enjoy the photos:

Low and Slow


Early on in my initial flight training, I started hearing occasional references to a requirement for a couple of solo “cross-country” flights. Nobody actually defined the term for me, and this was in the years before the partnership between Google and your ordinary smart phone made figuring these things out a non-event, so in my mind I was looking forward to the adventure of flying literally across the entire U.S. and seeing it all from the air.

I was half relieved, half disappointed to find out that for the purposes of obtaining a my private pilot certificate, “cross country” meant landing at an airport at least 50 nautical miles away from my departure point. Fifty miles? In an airplane? Now how long could that possibly take, I wondered? As it turns out, between the flight planning, pre-flight, taxi time, run-up checks, and just being a slow-moving neophyte, it could take quite a while.

The 50 nm standard also applied to instrument rating and commercial pilot certificate. The ATP certificate was even less restrictive: logging “cross country” time didn’t even require a landing. And last but not least, the general definition of the term in 14 CFR 61.1(b)(3)(i) only required landing in a different place, regardless of distance. You could takeoff from John Wayne Airport and land at Tustin MCAS two miles away and it qualified as “cross country”. What kind of crazy world was this?

The vaunted cross country flight of my dreams would have to wait a while.

Eventually I did start flying across the entire country, and over the years I’ve done it in a wide variety of aircraft ranging from single engine recips down low to the Gulfstream up at FL450. Off the top of my head, I’ve made the trip in a Skylane, Tiger, Cirrus (3x), Pitts, Diamond Star, and Gulfstream. I even did the mid-20s in an unpressurized King Air while sucking on oxygen. Each has it’s pros and cons.

In a more modest aircraft, the trip is always different because of varying weather, even when flying the same general route. You see and feel more of the land when you’re down there. In a jet, it’s the exact opposite. The transcon flights always feel the same, regardless of route or direction. You’re up high, way above the weather, and can’t see much detail. Of course, that’s a welcome trade-off for the ability to climb through ice, clouds, and bumps to smooth clear air on top while making the entire flight in a few short hours.

A couple of weeks ago I made a memorable cross-country once again, bringing a newly purchased 2007 DA-40 DiamondStar to Southern California from upstate New York. And as always, the least pleasant part of the trip was that spent on the airliner. After a full day of work on Thursday, we began with a rush-hour drive to LAX and a jam-packed red-eye to JFK, arriving at 5 a.m. We grabbed a rental car and drove up to White Plains for a pre-purchase inspection and test flight with the soon-to-be ex-owner.

This is the 2007 DA-40 XLS that we ferried across the country.

This is the 2007 DA-40 XLS that we ferried across the country.

It’s places like White Plains that make me appreciate the weather we’re blessed with in Southern California. We can fly any time of the year in jeans and a t-shirt with little worry about ice, thunderstorms, or whether the very act of starting the engine will damage it unless you carefully pre-heat first. In New York, many folks just put the airplane in a hangar and walk away for six months. Sure, you can fly, but it’s not exactly fun.

It was bitterly cold and windy in White Plains, as it always seems to be when I’m there. Winds gusting to nearly 30 knots. The simple act of opening the canopy is a challenge in those conditions.  The DA-40 front and rear canopies become sails, and if you’re not careful the wind will rip them right out of your hand, snapping them up with sufficient force to damage the hinges.  Even with three layers of clothing, a jacket, hat, and gloves, my limbs were frozen solid by the time we walked across the ramp to take our first look at the aircraft.

But the inspection and test flight went well and the logbooks were in order, so money and title were exchanged and we departed mid-day for Morristown, NJ to get some paperwork notarized. Here’s a little know fact: many FBOs have a notary on staff. Who would have thought?

By this time, I was already a bit tired, but weather was bearing down on us from the Midwest. This has been a crazy year for winter weather. A few days before we flew out to New York, a solid line of storms extending from the Gulf of Mexico well into Canada would have made the trip impossible in a DA-40. It literally bisected the country. The 24 and 36 hour prog charts predicted similar chaos descending on the New England area, powered by a collision of unusually cold polar air and warm moisture from the Gulf. Bad juju.

Our strategy was simple: fly VFR. If we can see the weather, we can avoid it. This is something they don’t often tell you when you’re spending all that money pursuing an instrument rating.  In a light aircraft, sometimes VFR is safer. The DiamondStar has no de-ice capability, so if the clouds are below freezing, you can either stay out of them or, if that’s not safely possible, remain on the ground.

Anyway, our trip to the west started off with the compass pointing south. Past Washington D.C. and the infamous ADIZ, tracing the Appalachians and we skirted the eastern edge of a band of mixed rain, ice, and snow.  The DA-40 had an active XM weather subscription, so we were able to see the big weather picture as we flew.  It was a good thing, too, because headwinds kept our ground speed in the 80-90 knot range for most of the trip.

The XM weather was a big help.  You can see the snow and rain we were avoiding as we flew over Tennessee.

The XM weather was a big help. You can see the snow and rain we were avoiding as we flew over Tennessee.

I’m a big fan of the DiamondStar, but one “gotcha” with this aircraft is the low Vno speed:  129 knots.  At low altitudes, the airplane will cruise in the yellow arc, so any turbulence requires an airspeed reduction.  Once you’re above 6,000 feet or so, the indicated airspeed gets low enough that full-throttle cruise will be below that Vno limitation.

I made the trip with a talented automotive engineer and designer named David who, while he’s not the owner of the plane, is going to be the primary pilot.  He’d never flown east of Palm Springs, so this was a big deal!  I’m actually glad the weather was a challenge, because it presented a much more valuable learning opportunity for him.  Between our low altitude, the (relatively) high terrain of the Appalachian range, and the wind, we spent the first four or five hours fighting some annoying up- and downdrafts.  Or should I say, he did.  After ensuring the path ahead was clear, I took a nap!

The clouds were below freezing, so we stayed low.  You can see sunlight ahead -- a good sign.

The clouds were below freezing, so we stayed low. You can see sunlight ahead — a good sign.

The first fuel stop was a night landing at Lewisburg, West Virginia where somehow it was even colder than in White Plains.  A quick bathroom break and we were in the air again, finally in clear skies on a direct route to our overnight destination of Knoxville, TN.  I should point out that when we left New York, we had no defined route and no hotel reservations. Where we went and where stopped for the night was going to be dictated by weather.  There are plenty of airports all over the country.  Rarely is one far away.  If either of us didn’t like what was ahead or just wanted to stop, we’d stop.  And our plan did change several times based on what we were seeing.  Even fuel stops were fluid, as the strong winds decreased our range.

Day two was much easier.  The weather kept us heading southwest until we passed Birmingham, Alabama but was relatively good during our fuel stops in Greenwood, MS and Ada, OK.  Greenwood is an interesting place.  It’s got a huge new control tower and scads of old airliners on the ramp, but curiously, no traffic.  Even the tower controller seemed to be half-asleep.

Greenwood is home to a nice but little-used airport.  GE Capital maintains this boneyeard for old airliners.

Greenwood is home to a nice but little-used airport. GE Capital maintains this boneyeard for old airliners.

The FBO manager, quite a character in his own right, told us the tower was the result of military activity.  They use the airport for practice approaches.  The airliners were old lease returns that GE Capital was storing or parting out.  I asked why they’d part out airliners that looked relatively new and he replied that some of them were just odd cases, like a 7,000 hour 747 that had a container of mercury spilled inside.  Apparently the cleanup costs made salvaging the airframe economically unfeasible.

We ended the day at Tradewinds Airport in Amarillo, TX because David had relatives there.  His uncle was leaving a couple days later to take this homemade trailer to Florida and bring home a new mast for his 40′ sailboat.  I think one of the lessons David learned from the trip is that most of the country is very windy compared to southern California.  All that stuff he learned about positioning the controls for crosswinds that seemed so meaningless in Orange County was suddenly important.

David's uncle fabricated this trailer to haul a sailboat mast across the country.

David’s uncle fabricated this trailer to haul a sailboat mast across the country.

Day three (or four if you want to count airlining) found us ahead of schedule, so we made a detour toward Roswell, NM for some alien beef jerky, a visit to the International UFO Museum and Research Center, and an even larger aircraft boneyard.  We had hoped to make it as far as Flagstaff, AZ by the end of the day, but new hazards started to appear in the form of lowering clouds and rising terrain.

The terrain issue out there is interesting.  There were no “mountains” per se, just a ground elevation that slowly, inexorably rose toward the heavens.  We were at 10,500 MSL yet only 3,000 feet above the flat terrain.  The squeeze started to make itself known right about the time the sun was setting.  It was raining, we were getting a wee bit of ice, even in clear air, and the thick layer of clouds above was blocking out much of the remaining sunlight.  So rather than press on toward a dark night time approach into Flagstaff — which, by the way, is surrounded by mountains as high as 12,700 feet — we diverted to Gallup NM, arriving at our hotel just in time to see the lights go out at Superbowl XLVII.

Our final leg on day four brought clear skies and an actual tailwind (!) as we coasted into Henderson, Nevada where David was due to work out some kinks in a new bus that the company was displaying at the International LCT Show.

The Grand Canyon

It was fascinating to see how these trade shows go together.  For one thing, the MGM Grand’s convention center was going to be full of limos, buses, and other massive vehicles.  The logistics required just to get every vehicle loaded into the building in the right order was quite significant.  Everyone wanted to have their vehicle displayed a certain way, so these behemoths were moving to and fro in a very confined space.  I’m amazed there were no collisions.

Even something as simple as hanging the signage for a company’s booth was a big deal.  It’s done by union members and therefore the cost of hoisting these relatively small signs can be as much as $3,000.

The Grech Motors display coming together at the 2013 LCT show at the MGM Grand.

The Grech Motors display coming together at the 2013 LCT show at the MGM Grand.

The trip ended for me in Las Vegas after about 23 hours of flight time and 210 gallons of fuel burned.  David stayed at the show and I took the Southwest shuttle back to Orange County.  Another coast-to-coast round-trip in the books.  If you haven’t done it, I highly recommend “low and slow” as a great way to see the country, as long as you’re up to the challenge of course.  A few tips:

  • Be flexible.
    Don’t get attached to any particular route, airport, or schedule.  It’s amazing how many solutions make themselves known once you do this.
  • Use CRM.
    “Cockpit resource management” doesn’t just mean another pilot.  It includes ATC, XM weather, your iPad, and whatever else is available.
  • Don’t forget about VFR.
    Sometimes that makes a trip more flyable, not less.
  • Manage your risk.
    Especially if you’re new at traversing long distances, tall mountains, unfamiliar airspace, and weather.  Ask yourself how tired you are, how much experience you have in the aircraft you’re flying, and what tools are available.  We had a glass panel, a great autopilot, a satellite datalink, and two pilots on board.
  • Know when to say when.
    If we had been a day later departing New York, we’d have spent several days there waiting out the weather.  And that’s fine.  Recognizing that light aircraft have limits and that we cannot control the weather is like a 12 step program for pilots. It’s not easy, but we have to do it.

Nothing says “freedom” quite like hopping into an airplane and seeing the States from a couple thousand feet up. As the Southwest ad says, “you’re now free to move about the country”. May that never change.

Here are a few photos from the trip: