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Valuable Experience

By Eric McCarthy 

Many of my aerial photography ( assignments take me through or into Class Bravo airspace in the Los Angeles, San Diego, and even San Francisco areas. I fly out of Palomar Airport (KCRQ) in Carlsbad, Calif.; some of my flights are relatively local, while others are 3-400-mile cross-countries – in a Cessna 172, that’s a long flight! It occurred to me during one such long flight with a newly minted private pilot, that this was a really beneficial experience for him - experience I wish I had had as a new pilot. 

Much, if not practically all, of the training most aspiring aviators receive is, justifiably, focused on flight maneuvers, take-offs and landings, pattern work, navigation, regulations, radio work, weather, etc. I don’t mean to minimize the importance of these training regiments – there’s a lot to learn and basic airmanship is clearly more important at that point than learning how to fly in complex airspace. Some might even argue that it would be a detriment to a student pilot’s training to expose them these environments. After all, some pilots flying in remote rural areas might never even have to contact ATC… 

But, for reasons of efficiency and cost-containment, a lot of the time is spent bouncing around local-area airports (see what I did there? CFIs will get it…at least mine would!), with maybe a few longer-legged flights to demonstrate navigation and satisfy training requirements. Truly long-distance cross-country flights are just too time consuming and costly to undertake in the training environment.

But once you’ve mastered the basics and earned your Private Pilot certificate, I think it probably takes some time for the new pilot to expand their horizons and travel beyond their local area comfort zone – I know it did for me, both because it’s costly and because, well, it’s a little scary. I mean, we’ll be traveling through airspace we’ve never been before, dealing with controllers we’ve never talked to before, and seeing sights we’re just plain unfamiliar with. What if I get lost or blunder into some special-use airspace? And let’s face it: if you’re going to leave Southern California for points north, you’re going to have to deal with the LA Basin and all of its complex airspace. It’s a little intimidating for a new pilot.

I’ve traversed the LAX Class Bravo a couple dozen times now, often enough that I know about where we’re going to hear the magic words “Cleared into the Class Bravo…” so I can anticipate when that’s going to happen. I’m also familiar with some of the visual cues that make it easier to navigate: “See that long, straight road directly over the nose that’s running away from us? That will take us directly to the Seal Beach VOR, where we need to enter the Coliseum Route…”And I’ve got a couple of my “standard” routes memorized for quick recitation when asked for by ATC – or my copilot as he tries to enter it into ForeFlight. KPRB – Fellows (FLW) – OHIGH – Fillmore (FIM) – CHATY – LAX – FERMY – KCRQ. I know what altitudes I need to be at on various segments of the flight. Familiarity with the route, and the ability to thoroughly brief it, breeds confidence to a new pilot in the right seat in an unfamiliar area. It shows them that it’s not as difficult or overwhelming as it might at first seem. And hopefully gives them the confidence to do it themselves.

There’s nothing difficult about long cross-countries – you basically just string together shorter segments. Oh, there’s more involved in planning, with weather, terrain, and airspace considerations playing a more significant role than on a short hop – not to mention fuel planning. Here in Southern California, we deal with LAX and San Diego Class Bravos, several Class Charlies, numerous Restricted Areas and MOAs around military playgrounds, a permanent TFR (?) around Disneyland and others that pop up around sporting events, and mountainous terrain dividing coastal areas from desert areas, often with very different weather on either side. Late spring brings “May Gray” and “June Gloom” along the coast – a marine layer that creeps onshore overnight; it usually burns off by late morning, but it’s handy to know that it can usually be topped by 2,000 feet or that you could depart inland and find sparkling clear skies just a few miles east. Of course, just a few miles east you’ll also find those aforementioned mountains – this is where careful planning comes into play.

It’s also there on a long cross-country that one gets to work “in the system” with ATC, even if you’re just using Flight Following as I do. You’ll learn that, while they’re busy, the controllers are also very helpful, quite accommodating, and usually patient. On one of my recent flights, we came through the Coliseum Route northbound at 8,500 feet headed for the Mojave area. The Coliseum Route connects the Seal Beach VOR (SLI) with the Van Nuys VOR (VNY); turning toward Mojave (KMHV) at Van Nuys requires a 60-degree turn to the north. The controller recognized this and offered to let us proceed direct from our position just south of Los Angeles, taking us off the Coliseum Route and through the wilds of the Class Bravo (it was a quiet morning…). My new co-pilot was flying at the time and couldn’t quite grasp what the controller was offering; it took several transmissions before he got it – a testament to the controller’s patience. 

I think and hope it was a valuable experience for him. Talking about working with ATC and actually doing it are two different things. Getting used to hearing your call sign among the cacophony of radio calls is an acquired skill. Operating in complex airspace, while initially intimidating, is really just a matter of doing what you’re told, or in the case of VFR corridors, what’s expected of you. It’s really pretty simple, but it can be a lot easier to accept and understand if you go with someone who’s done it before.

Traffic No Factor

You really gain an appreciation for the need to maintain an assigned altitude when you’re navigating a defined route such as the Coliseum or Coastal VFR corridors through the Los Angeles Class Bravo, or approaching a busy VOR with traffic converging from the opposite direction such as at the Carmel VOR (CMK) just north of the New York Class Bravo. Carmel VOR can be a very congested area with Westchester County Airport (KHPN) just to the southwest, as well as all of the greater New York City airports just a bit further southwest. It serves (or it used to) as a gateway for aircraft flying into the NY metro area from the northeast and as a departure point for aircraft headed to New England.

One time flying in the New York area, I was returning to my home base at Lawrence (KLWM) about 20 miles north of Boston, navigating around the Class Bravo and approaching the Carmel VOR while using Flight Following to help locate and avoid traffic. This was long before GPS, and my rental PA-28R Arrow (N2818R) wasn’t equipped with RNAV, so VOR navigation was it for me! 

It was later in the afternoon when I had the sun directly behind me as I approached the VOR northeast-bound. ATC had been calling traffic alerts rapid-fire since I contacted them departing Morristown (KMMU), but this call-out really caught my attention:

ATC: “November 2818Romeo traffic ahead, 12:00, 8 miles, opposite direction, a Gulfstream descending out of  6,000. Let me know when you’ve got him.”

We were VFR at 5,500 feet, and as I said, we had the sun at our back – there was no way the Gulfstream was going to be able to see us…

Me: “18Romeo looking for the traffic…”

ATC went on to call us out to the Gulfstream, then back to us:

ATC: “18Romeo, Gulfstream traffic now 3 miles, opposite direction, 5,000.”

Me: “18Romeo negative contact – oh, wait, traffic in sight.”

I had spotted his landing lights ahead and slightly to the left of our course, slightly lower than us. Within what seemed like seconds, the big jet cruised by just a few hundred feet beneath me, close enough that I could easily see the pilot squinting and attempting to locate us in the solar glare. I think he might have caught a glimpse of us as we passed overhead…

Seconds later:

ATC: “Traffic no factor.”

But it sure was for a few anxious seconds!

That’s all for this month. Until next time: fly safe!

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