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A Long Journey

By Eric McCarthy

Marine layer on departure from CRQThe day began, as many summer days in southern California do, with a thick marine layer along the coast – only, it was no longer summer. In fact, it was late October. I had been watching the weather for several days and we were definitely in a rut – each day for the past week had featured marine layers both in the morning and late in the afternoon. The marine layer faithfully burns off by 10 a.m. mostof the time and usually doesn’t rematerialize until evening, but even that would lead to a late start for an all day flight, and could well result in a return not only into an advancing marine layer, but also at night. 

With the days getting shorter and shorter, I had planned to do my night-currency takeoffs and landings during the week prior to my planned flight north, but the aforementioned marine layer had thwarted that effort. I was neither instrument nor night current and there are way too many rocks in the clouds in SoCal to be flying around in the dark with clouds if you’re not current and proficient. Time to move to ‘plan B’…

I’d be flying this mission with my friend Jerry; Jerry and his lovely wife Eileen live in Murrieta, not far from French Valley Airport (F70). Located in the Temescal Valley on the other side of a mountain range from the coast, French Valley is usually a safe weather alternative to the airports located along the coastal plain. If I could coerce, or convince, them that I’d be a good houseguest, I could depart Palomar (KCRQ) late afternoon on Saturday and reposition the plane to French Valley for our flight Sunday and spend the night at their home. This would provide several benefits including better weather, an earlier start, and saving Jerry from driving to Palomar. I could also do my night currency there under the forecast clear night skies of French Valley. 

I suggested my plan to Jerry and was immediately welcomed to their home – I love it when a plan comes together! Not to mention, Jerry’s a great cook!

Then the fun began – Rich, owner of the plane and local Carlsbad resident, contacted me around 1p.m. Saturday afternoon concerned that the marine layer was already beginning its assault. Now!?I was planning to head to the airport at 4 p.m., expecting to beat the evening’s marine layer for the short hop to French Valley… the weather had other plans!

I dropped what I was doing, hurriedly stuffed a backpack with a few essentials and ran out the door. My race to the airport was brought to an almost-immediate grinding halt when I joined the bumper-to-bumper traffic southbound on the 5 – where the heck is everybody going on Saturday afternoon? As each minute passed I imagined the marine layer advancing inland more and more. I contemplated departing on Runway 6 under a Special VFR clearance – the marine layer often encroaches on the departure end of 24, leaving the approach corridor to the east in the clear. Stewing in frustration, my normal 35-40 minute drive to Palomar took over an hour this time.

But my aggravation was all for naught – the marine layer had stalled off the end of 24 (barely) enabling a normal departure with a quick turn downwind to the clear skies east of the field – whew!

The short flight to French Valley was pleasant and uneventful; Jerry met me at the airport and off we went to his house for a restful afternoon and a delicious dinner he had prepared. As soon as the sun set we headed back to the airport so I could take care of my night-currency flying. By the time we had finished the preflight, civil twilight had yielded to full-on night and I was ready to go. One or two other aircraft finished up their days as I joined the closed pattern for my three full-stop landings with a touch and go thrown in for good measure. It was a beautiful, calm evening with just a sliver of moon rising in the east. Night currency completed and the aircraft secured, it was time to head back to Jerry’s house to watch my Red Sox beat the Dodgers in game four of the World Series.

San Andreas faultlineWith best intentions we headed to the airport a little later than planned Sunday morning. We departed the airport and headed north up the Temescal Valley, staying east of the 15 as is the protocol in case there are jumpers at Lake Elsinore. As we approached the Paradise VOR (PDZ), still climbing for our planned cruising altitude of 8,500-feet, SoCal requested that we maintain 6,000 for crossing traffic, an Airbus at 6,500-feet. The picture doesn’t do it justice, but it’s pretty cool to see an airliner cruise just 500 feet over you.

The controller had vectored us east and now cleared us to pass midfield over Ontario International (KONT) as we continued our climb, then ‘resume own nav’ to Pomona (POM) and beyond. Our route took us past Mount Wilson and its historic namesake observatory on our way to Gorman VOR (GMN). Passing Gorman we could see that the Central Valley was very hazy – I’m not sure if this was ‘Tule Fog,’ a condition where a thick ground fog fills the Central Valley, or just haze, but slant-range visibility was significantly reduced, particularly along the eastern side of the valley. We skirted up the western side of the Central Valley to Avenal VOR (AVE), then Panoche VOR (PXN) where we began the approach to Los Banos (KLSN).

Refueled and fed we departed Los Banos for Panoche Valley and the large solar array being built there. It’s an impressive development with about a half million photovoltaic panels covering 1,300 acres generating 130 MW of power while preserving more than 25,000 acres in perpetuity as conservation land. Clean power and conservation land – a win-win, don’t you think?

Vineyards everywhere in Paso RoblesWe refueled again at Paso Robles (KPRB) for our flight back to French Valley (F70). Our flight would take us over some of the many grape vineyards in Paso Robles, then past the San Andreas Fault in the Carrizo Plain National Monument before we again entered the Central Valley en route to Gorman (GMN). We planned to climb to 9,500-feet to clear Gorman, then retrace our steps back over Pomona (POM) and Paradise (PDZ) and on to F70. As we passed Gorman the sun began to set treating us to a beautiful sunset as low clouds filled in the nooks and crannies of the mountainous terrain beneath us. As we passed about 15 miles northeast of Los Angeles we could see the glow of Chavez Ravine where, we had learned via text message from my wife, the Red Sox had taken a two run lead on the first six pitches of the fifth game of the World Series – does it get any better than this?

Beautiful sunset afterglow

As I had expected, SoCal requested a deviation to the east for arriving traffic into LAX – the route from Pomona to Paradise passes just outside of the LAX Class Bravo airspace, but still apparently uncomfortably close to the line of airliners on final approach. I offered to descend if that would help.

“If you can descend to 7,500-feet you can go direct to French Valley…”

Down we went! Meanwhile, the afterglow of the sunset just kept getting better and better, crescendoing (is that a word?) in beautiful hues of red, orange, yellow and purple, while twisty strings of traffic on the highways below glowed white and red – a spectacular scene!

SoCal cleared us to descend at pilot’s discretion and handed us off to March GCI, who, in turn, advised us of traffic northbound, 10 miles, at our one o’clock position. As we closed on the target, we spotted the traffic following the 15 and turned away to intercept the extended centerline of French Valley’s runway 18 as we searched for the airport’s beacon. The day had transformed into a beautiful, calm night. With no traffic observed or heard, we made a straight in approach that culminated in a comfortably smooth landing.

I had been monitoring Palomar’s weather in ForeFlight as we came across the LA Basin and confirmed with the ATIS as soon as we could receive it, concerned that the conditions that had had me scrambling the day before had again reared their ugly head. The fear was not unfounded…

The hope was that I would be able to drop Jerry off at F70 then head back to Palomar and home for the evening. It was now dark and, although Palomar was still reporting VFR conditions, the temperature/dewpoint spread was steadily trending toward zero. With a line of low mountains and lots of dark, rural areas between F70 and CRQ, now was not the time to try to ‘slip’ into Palomar ahead of the impending fog. Daytime, might have warranted a look; nighttime, no way! Just not worth it.

Jerry and Eileen graciously allowed me another night at their lovely home and we enjoyed the rest of the fifth and final game of the World Series from the comfort of their family room. The Red Sox won 5-1 and took the Series 4-1 to claim the World Championship! Ya baby!

It took most of the next morning for the clouds to clear from Palomar, but then it was an easy half-hour flight back to CRQ, wrapping up an adventure that logged over nine hours of flight and covered parts of three days. Along the way I was able to renew my night currency, view the spectacular beauty of several diverse regions of California as well as an incredible sunset, and experience the camaraderie and generous hospitality of a good friend. I am truly blessed!

That’s all for now – until next time: Fly Safe!

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