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”.

Brazil

Cloud formations

Brazil has long been on my mental “bucket list” of places to visit. Not only is it one of the world’s largest countries both geographically and by population — fifth on both counts — but it’s also the center of attention right now because they are hosting 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. Add in a Carnival or two and you’ve got quite a party!

Brazil also fascinates me because it contains the Amazon rainforest and is home to the planet’s greatest biological diversity. One in ten known species in the world lives in the Amazon, by far the largest collection anywhere. Speaking of diversity, from a sociological perspective Brazil is equally manifold; it’s home to a unique blend of so many European and African cultures that it almost reminds me of the United States.

Anyway, recently a two-week trip came up that allowed me to cross this one off my list in the best way possible: on the company dime. The trip originated in Los Angeles with a day of flying to Santa Barbara, Vermont, and then New York. The east coast has been having some spectacular fall weather which we were able to enjoy for a few days before departing at about 9:00 p.m. on an overnight flight to São Paulo.

Our route of flight from New York to Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Our route of flight from New York to Sao Paulo, Brazil.

This was a maxed-out night of flying, as the Part 135 rules which govern on-demand charter only allow for ten hours of flight and fourteen hours of duty time per day. The straight-line distance is about 4,800 miles, just beyond the Gulfstream IV’s non-stop range, so we alighted in the Lesser Antilles island of Barbados after about four and a half hours for a splash (aka several thousand gallons) of kerosene before proceeding on a five hour leg to the Brazilian capital.

The second leg took us past Guyana and over the Amazon rainforest which, while it was teeming with life, was also one of the darkest places I’ve ever traveled. Even with a partial moon, from 45,000 feet the Amazon was like an earth-borne black hole, inky in every direction. I wasn’t just the absence of man-made lighting, because I witnessed far more luminosity from the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Here, the sky was a much lighter shade of sable than the earth.

My thoughts went back to N87V, a U-21G which disappeared with three aboard during a uranium survey mission over the dense jungle of western Guyana back when I worked for Dynamic Aviation. Despite spending years and millions of dollars on search efforts, as far as I know the aircraft was never located. The jungle is like that. The forest canopy is so dense that it can swallow an aircraft, leaving no visual trace for searchers or satellites to pick up on. The foliage has a matte-like surface, so it makes sense that at night this same vegetation would absorb light. I can’t even imagine how dark it must be underneath the canopy.

Note the "IRS 1" lattitude of exactly zero degrees.  It means we're directly over the equator.

Note the “IRS 1″ lattitude of exactly zero degrees. It means we’re directly over the equator.

Despite the Gulfstream’s many creature comforts, overnighters are tough. I tried my best to get on a sleep-all-day/up-all-night schedule in the days leading up to the Brazil trip, but it’s easier said than done. Altering one’s circadian rhythms so drastically over just three days when you’re already several time zones away from home… well, it’s not impossible, but circumstances do tend to conspire against you. Room service knocking on the door, hotel maintenance, an occasional incoming phone call, invitations from the rest of the crew to grab a bite, etc. I pride myself on being able to sleep just about anywhere, but there’s always something keeping you on the front side of the clock.

That’s the long way of saying we were a bit bleary-eyed when the sun came up just prior to starting our descent into São Paulo. What first captured my attention was the sight of the city itself. I’m not sure how to describe it except to say that from 15,000 feet up, skyscrapers stretched as far as the eye could see in every direction. There was no central “downtown” as you’d expect with most American cities — everywhere was downtown. The pilot I was flying with exclaimed, “I used to fly into Mexico City all the time and this place makes it look like a quaint little fishing village!” The official population of São Paulo is 12 million, but to my eyes that figure looked severely understated.

Congonhas Airport is at the top of the photo.  We departed this airport enroute to Salvador de Bahia in northern Brazil.  Sao Paulo makes Mexico City look like a tiny village.

Congonhas Airport is at the top of the photo. We departed this airport enroute to Salvador de Bahia in northern Brazil. São Paulo makes Mexico City look like a tiny village.

One element of the trip which was not surprising? The red tape associated with flying internationally. They have it in spades down there. After landing at Guarulhos Airport, I spied our hotel not a quarter of a mile away. Ah, sleep! Could it be true, I thought?

No, it couldn’t. Our handler did her best to expedite us through the maze of airport roadways and paperwork, but it was still two hours before we collected our room keys. The driver who shuttled us to the hotel spoke of the incredible cuisine available “in town”. I thought we were already in town! We inquired about how long it would take to get there and was told “two hours — three if there’s traffic”. It was just as well, I suppose; we’d be sleeping much of the day anyway and were scheduled to pick up passengers at São Paulo’s Congonhas Airport very early the following morning for a 900 mile leg to the Bahian capital of Salvador.

The flight guidance panel.  Our Mach .80 speed seems rather dowdy compared with the .90 of the new Gulfstream G650, but on an average leg the difference isn't all that great.

The flight guidance panel. Our Mach .80 speed seems rather dowdy compared with the .90 of the new Gulfstream G650, but on an average leg the difference isn’t all that great.

Salvador de Bahia is one of the oldest cities in the Americas and second only to Rio de Janero as a tourist destination. As a former colonial capital, it’s the spot where the confluence of African and Portuguese cultures is most apparent. We spent four days there at the Pestana Bahia Resort. It wouldn’t win many platitudes from travelers used to the comforts of high-end European or American accomodations, but it did the job and is apparently one of the nicer hotels in town. My room overlooked the rocky coastline where the wind was strong and constant. There were few English speakers in Salvador, so we had a chance to practice our rudimentary Portuguese. I probably insulted more people than anything else with my lousy vocabulary, but it’s been my experience that locals at least appreciate the effort.

The coast is this area is prone to strong wind and surf.  Not that I'm complaining; it sounded great and sure kept the air clear!

The coast is this area is prone to strong wind and surf. Not that I’m complaining; it sounded great and sure kept the air clear!

We were warned by the hotel not to venture outside at night on our own, and from seeing the town during the day I can understand why. Salvador is two cities in one. The southernmost portion is a modern business and financial hub teeming with glass skyscrapers, while the old town area is filled with the sort of colorful and historic colonial architecture you see throughout the Caribbean. Likewise the social and economic fortunes of the residents, where significant portions of the city are overcrowded slums while other sections are beautifully manicured — and gated.

Even the geography diverges; the downtown area sits on a different elevation than the rest of the old city, so an elevator was built to connect the two segments. It doesn’t seem terribly noteworthy until you discover that the Lacerda Elevator was constructed by Jesuit missionaries in 1610. As you might imagine, that first iteration was a bit short on creature comforts. It was operated via a manual rope-and-pulley arrangement. The conveyance was converted to a mechanical steam system around 1868 and then finally to electricity in 1928 (which explains the present art deco style). Imagine — this elevator has been in nearly continual operation for more than 400 years. Top that, Otis!

As an admitted foodie, my best memory of Salvador has to be the grub, especially a traditional Bahian meal we had at a local restaurant called Cafe de Tereza. Our main dish was moqueca, a seafood stew made with dende and coconut milk. They love coconuts down there — in fact it was far easier to find coconut water than the plain stuff. Our hotel put out rows of raw coconuts every day in the lobby, sliced open with a little straw and some fruit hanging off the top. The big adjustment from a culinary standpoint was getting used to the palm oil they use in most of their cooking. In the U.S., our staple is olive oil, but in South America the more plentiful palm oil is utilized. There’s nothing wrong with that, but food seemed to sit “heavier” in my stomach and made me feel fuller for a longer period.

Vitamin water, Brazilian style: straight from the coconut.  Though it wasn't always served this way, coconut water seemed to be available everywhere.

Vitamin water, Brazilian style: straight from the coconut. Though it wasn’t always served this way, coconut water seemed to be available everywhere.

Speaking of drinking, the caipirinha is Brazil’s national cocktail and one of my personal favorites. It’s akin to a South American mohito, except it’s made with cachaça, a rum-like spirit that’s made from fresh sugarcane juice rather than molasses. On our last night in town, the staff at the FBO took us out to dinner and I was introduced to the caipiroksa, a variant crafted with vodka. The suggestion was to try it muddled with fresh strawberries. Delicious!

The following evening we geared up for another overnight flight — the return trip to Gotham — while the lucky passengers slept soundly in the back. The Gulfstream’s cabin is more than 41 feet long, so with only two guests, each was able to have their own generously-sized space. Not a bad way to travel if you’ve got a few extra bucks for the privilege!

The trips to and from Brazil were overnight flights.  Our passengers slept comfortably in the Gulfstream while we kept the watch up front.

The trips to and from Brazil were overnight flights. Our passengers slept comfortably in the Gulfstream while we kept the watch up front.

The only oddity on our trip was the early descent given by New York Center as we approached the U.S. coast. We were enjoying a gorgeous sunrise — or rather, I was enjoying it from the shade of the left seat as my compatriot suffered with a steadily intensifying reddish-yellow sun creeping into the sky on his side of the aircraft because this bird was not equipped with the retractable, dark film window shades found on most Gulfstreams.

Anyway, the radio crackled with a call for us to begin a descent. As I recall they had us down to 15,000 feet more than 200 miles from our destination. Premature descent clearances are nothing new for that part of the country, but this was comical even by those standards. Jets don’t like to fly low. Actually that’s not quite accurate. They have no problem being at that altitude, but it’s extremely inefficient from a fuel consumption standpoint. We spent the last hundred miles droning along at about 3,000 feet, thankful for having a generous fuel reserve.

Those red-eyes can be painfully long.  It's always worth it when a beautiful sunrise casts that reddish glow across the cockpit.

Those red-eyes can be painfully long. It’s always worth it when a beautiful sunrise casts that reddish glow across the cockpit.

This was an enjoyable trip in every respect: a fun crew, new destinations to explore, a lightly loaded aircraft, and plenty of time in between legs to rest up. Much like California, Brazil’s a place you could spend the rest of your life exploring without seeing everything. With all that’s going on there these days, I have a feeling it won’t be long before I’m saying “OLÁ” once again.

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.