June 17, 2005

We're Not In Kansas Anymore...

Venice BeachNot that I've ever been to Kansas, or that the Bay Area is remotely like Kansas, but the view outside surely isn't Oakland, either. The VOR / GPS-A approach into Santa Monica (KSMO) takes you straight down a line from Glendale over the Griffith Observatory past the Hollywood sign and close to the towers of the Westside / Westwood / Beverly Hills axis straight towards Santa Monica and Venice beaches. Just as we're 7,000' over Burbank (KBUR) above a beautiful broken marine layer a few thousand feet below us, SoCal Approach starts vectoring us for the approach inside DARTS (the customary vectored entry point for the approach on this arrival), and has us descend to 6,000'. We can see downtown LA in the distance through a light haze, and Santa Monica airport itself is glimpsable below a thin scattered marine layer off to our right (I know the area from the ground very well, so I at least know where the airport should be). One final vector and we're cleared for the approach inside DARTS at 6,000' -- 3,500' above the minimum altitude for this leg of the approach, and less than 10 miles from the threshhold (which is about 175' MSL). And we're still doing the 120 KIAS SoCal asked us to maintain a few minutes earlier. I've been warned by almost everyone who's done this approach about the "Santa Monica Slam", and this is it -- cool! It's too scenic to complain, and I slow us down quickly and just drop us like a rock through the scattered layer. The slam would take a supreme act of faith in actual, but this is kinda fun...

SoCal hands us off to Santa Monica tower, but tower's carrying on a standard Friday afternoon race call -- the first thing I hear when I switch to tower frequency is a slightly more formal version of "attention all aircraft, don't call me I'll call you...", followed by a string of clearances and instructions. Then he calls us -- "Cessna 2SP if you're with me report the airport in sight". After waiting nearly a minute to get a word in edgewise we report the airport in sight, get an immediate clearance for the visual (I guess this just isn't the time to insist on the full GPS approach...), and a minute or so later we're cleared to land number three in front of a Citation and immediately behind a very slow Cherokee who is in turn behind a completely invisible 172 on short final somewhere. The Cherokee exits the runway just before I think I'm going to have to go around, and we land roughly and a little too fast. Oh well. At Santa Monica you exit the runway basically wherever you can -- the apron extends to the runway along most of the runway's length, and we pull off as soon as we've slowed down enough not to rip the tires off the wheels. We sit there on the apron clear of the runway waiting for a break in transmissions to call Ground; behind us we can hear the Citation landing. Deafening (and this is a very noise-sensitive community...). Finally we're cleared to taxi to Supermarine, who have a "Follow Me" vehicle coming towards us, and only a few minutes later we're in a nice little rental car heading for a cheap hotel in Venice. Cool! This has gone a lot smoother than I expected...

* * *

I've wanted to do this trip -- Oakland (KOAK) to Santa Monica (KSMO) and back, about 350 nautical miles in each direction -- pretty much since I got my license all those years ago. There was always some reason not to do it, and I delayed it until this year; but now I have the instrument rating, there's really no excuse. A couple of friends of mine -- Barb and Scott, two local artists I've known for years -- want to come along (Barb enjoys flying, and Scott likes Santa Monica), so we settle on a two-day trip there and back with an overnight stay in Venice, and a stop at Santa Maria or San Luis Obispo in each direction for lunch and fuel. All three of us have lived or worked in the Santa Monica area at some point in the past (yes, as hard as it is for a Northern Californian to admit it, I actually like parts of LA -- Pasadena, Venice, Santa Monica, etc...) so this isn't entirely a trip into the Unknown.

I initially plan this flight to go down the coast IFR but in VMC, assuming typical early summer coastal weather, but the day before the flight the weather's dreadful, absolutely the sort of weather you don't expect to see mid-June in the Bay Area: widespread layered overcasts, rain, southerly winds, low temperatures, icing levels below 10,000', and some scary-looking low twisted cloud formations below the overcast over San Jose. The weather's likely to make the coastal trip an unpleasant sustained-IMC sort of thing out over the Pacific with no nearby airports for several legs down past Big Sur and towards Morro Bay, and late that day I opt for the inland route, a much longer route that looks likely to be more manageable in IMC. The forecast right up to midnight for the next day promises more of the same, and I call Scott and Barb and warn them that the trip probably won't be quite the sunny experience I'd promised. They're still up for it, so we decide to depart about eleven the next morning, and stop for lunch at Santa Maria (KSMX). I call Supermarine, the larger FBO at Santa Monica recommended to me by several people, and book a small rental car for the stay. I'm a little apprehensive about Supermarine -- they do corporate jets and such, and we're small beer to them -- but my guess is they'll be professional about it all.

* * *

Enroute, 7,000'...Friday dawns much brighter and sunnier. Scattered showers, slightly warmer, and basically a single scattered-to-broken ceiling over Oakland and the inland route. I feel relieved -- I didn't much like the idea of lots of actual with my passengers -- but still file the inland route, KOAK ALTAM V244 ECA V113 MQO KSMX, which is effectively what Deliverance gives us a few hours later when we're ready to depart. As usual, we don't get to fly this clearance for more than the first 15 minutes or so, but loading it into the GPS keeps me occupied while waiting for release off 27R.

We depart about 11.15 am and spend the next 20 minutes or so in and out of clouds. I ask for higher a couple of times to get above the layers; by about 9000' we're above it all and that's where we stay until approaching Morro Bay VOR (MQO). I get about five minutes of actual during the climb (Barb and Scott seem to enjoy this part more than I thought they would...), but otherwise the flight could have been done VFR with a bit of care. We pick up trace icing on the windshield coming through the highest broken layer (OAT reads about 2C at this point), but this disappears almost immediately we're out of the thin layer of clouds, and the plane keeps climbing just fine.

Somewhere around ALTAM just after I say something to NorCal a familiar voice pipes up on frequency with "Hey Hamish!". Me: "John? Ben?". The Voice: "The Colonel!". Aha -- Mike "Colonel" Klinke, one of our club instructors and all-round nice guy. "Hi Mike!" I blame my accent for things like this. Other people get away with anonymity on-air around here; me, I'm kinda marked... (Dave Montoya used to do a wicked impersonation of my indeterminate Anglo-Australian accent on air, good enough to fool controllers...).

On Course...The scenery from up here above the broken layer is typically California Beautiful, and I engage the autopilot and basically let it follow the GPS from this point on until the arrival into Santa Maria. We get an amended clearance somewhere past ALTAM -- direct Paso Robles (PRB), MQO, direct. A nice, undramatic short cut I'd requested on initial contact with NorCal, and after a few seconds hitting the knobs on the GPS we're heading for Paso Robles about 120 nm away. Nothing much to say about this part except that I start rueing the fact that I'd forgotten to slather myself with sunscreen, and after an hour or so I feel quite sunburned.

By about Paso Robles the cloud layer has mostly dissipated, and we're vectored for the ILS RWY 12 approach into Santa Maria with the circle to land on 30. ATIS is reporting strong gusting winds out of the northwest, which is pretty characteristic for the Santa Maria / San Luis Obispo area -- it always seems to be windy here. We're cleared for landing, circling our discretion, then tower requests a short approach due to a commercial arrival. No problem, and I do a rather dramatic diving arc onto the runway from abeam the numbers (keeps the passengers amused...), landing into the headwind at a groundspeed that doesn't seem much faster than a quick jog. We pull off at the first exit and taxi for the fuel pumps. We're all starving, looking forward to lunch. And I need sunscreen. And coffee. And Scott needs a cigarette.

* * *

Artists At Work, Santa Maria (KSMX)...After refueling and tie-down we walk to the little GA teminal and I call Hawthorne FSS to get a briefing for the proposed route to Santa Monica (I have the usual problem this time using my mobile phone to call the generic FSS 1-800 number -- you always get routed to your home FFS, not the local one, so I had to call Oakland FSS to get the local FSS number, which can be quite an exercise, as I discovered...). The weather's apparently basically pretty good from here on, with the usual marine layer over the Ventura coast and extending inland over the San Fernando Valley (Burbank, Van Nuys, etc.). Santa Monica itself is reporting scattered clouds at about 3,000', and the forecast is pretty much unchanged for the next few hours. Sounds good to me, and I file BUELT1 RZS OHIGH.FERN5, which looks a pretty logical set of DP's and STAR's; I make a bet with myself over just how long this clearance will last unamended. I think it'll last about 20 minutes.

We wander off to get lunch at the main airline terminal at Pepper Garcia's, a Mexican cafe I've eaten at before. I remember it as basically pretty good -- friendly staff, decent food, busy with both locals and fly-ins -- but the place looks dead this time, which is never a good sign at 2pm on a Friday afternoon. We're pretty much the only people eating there, and yes, the staff are friendly and efficient -- but the food ... oh well. Nothing to blog home about.

An hour or so later we get back to the plane and pick up our clearance: an unambiguous "as filed", for maybe the first time in my short experience. We depart a few minutes later behind a United Express Brasilia (I think). As soon as we're handed off to Los Angeles Center at about 400' AGL I get the dreaded "2SP, I've got an amended clearance for you, advise ready to copy...". OK, that one lasted five minutes. "2SP, ready to copy". "2SP cleared to Santa Monica airport; current heading then passing 4,000 direct San Marcus VOR (RZS) then V186 DARTS direct; climb and maintain 7,000". Sounds simple, no? Yeah, that's what I think, too, until I look at my L3 chart and realise it's going to mean a total reprogramming of the GPS and a lot of VOR OBS twiddling enroute. V186 isn't exactly straight -- and it even doglegs over an intersection I've never heard of. Urgh. I guess I'd expected a published arrival (the Fernando Five arrival in particular) and / or vectors, but not a plain airways routing. So I spend the next few minutes flying, reprogramming, and scanning for traffic. This is something I should let the autopilot do (well, the follow-the-heading bit, at least...), but this time since it's VMC I'll do it myself for practice. LA Center calls traffic on a blimp that's approaching Santa Maria from the south -- a brightly-coloured thing that's slowly battling the strong headwind over the hills just ahead of us. From our altitude it seems to be crawling along the ground, but it's not actually much lower than us when we first see it.

We pass over the blimp and proceed towards San Marcus in the mountains behind Santa Barbara, another place I know well from my past. We're handed off to Santa Barbara Approach, who call me a few minutes later to tell me they have a new clearance for us. Cool! So that one only lasted 15 or 20 minutes, too. I tell him I'm ready, and get an identical clearance to what I'm already flying -- the V186 thing. I read it back and then tell Santa Barbara that it's identical to what I've already got. He sounds confused for a second or two then says something along the lines of "Oh well, at least you won't have to change anything!". Well, it amuses me; and it's this sort of back and forth that reminds you that there's a real human being on the other end of the radio.

We join V186, and plod along out over the ocean then back through Point Mugu Approach's airspace, then back inland with Southern California Approach over the Santa Clarita valley. The marine layer's now pretty widespread below us, but we can still see bits of the ground through the breaks. We pass over Santa Paula airport (KSZP), recently almost swept away by flooding, and can just see it against the Santa Clara river 8,000' below us through the clouds. It seems an unlikely place to put a runway -- on the banks of a river known to flood violently every decade or two -- but there it is, a broken smudge of dark grey against the lighter sand and silt. We start to get traffic advisories for Burbank arrivals and departures, but rarely actually see the traffic. Then we're over the San Fernando Valley, heading for Van Nuys (VNY) and Burbank, with the San Gabriels in the distance dead ahead. This is beautiful -- LA at its best, sunny, relatively clear, surrounded by dramatic landscape. And then we start being vectored for the approach towards DARTS...

* * *

So far, this has gone exactly as planned, which is not what I've learned to expect in my world :-). Supermarine treats us with professionalism and amusement. One of the guys turns out to be a private pilot trying to build time towards his commercial between towing the planes around the apron. The other guy has our rental car next to the plane within seconds, and there's a minimum of paperwork for both car and plane. Nice guys. I tell them we'll refuel tomorrow when we return, and then we're on our way towards Venice and the beaches. Which is a whole 'nother story...

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