After our hugely successful week’s flying holiday in North Eastern USA in 2015, the same group of pilot friends from Bristol Aero Club agreed to repeat the exercise, this time on the West Coast. After some research to locate a suitable flight school, we settled on Channel Islands Aviation, based in Camarillo – about an hour or two drive from Los Angeles international airport. There would be just the four of us this time, and instead of staying in hotels we opted to rent a four bedroom house in Oxnard nearby. It was within a marina village and only a few steps away from the beach.
The flight school is used to foreign students so was more open to our unusual requirements than others, but we didn’t need any special visas or TSA approval because we weren’t undergoing flight training. We all had “piggyback” FAA licences from before. I’ve explained the process to obtain a 61.75 licence here.
My friends all flew out a day earlier than me due to business commitments. They completed their check flights before I arrived and planned to make a short landaway flight while I was checked out at 7am next morning. Low cloudbase grounded them from solo VFR flight but my instructor, a CFI with an instrument rating, was able to fly above the overcast for my check flight.
Comprehensive Checkout and Flight Review
This was undoubtedly the most comprehensive checkout we’ve ever experienced – far more than a VFR Flight Review which was also signed off. We averaged four hours instructor time of which 1.5 hours airborne (Hobbs) each. There were no parallel sessions, each one of us had our own dedicated instructor with their own emphasis. There were several quiz sheets to fill out requiring detailed research of specific Cessna 172 model features, autopilot use and tyre care. It sounds like flat spotted tyres have been a major issue – the preflight included moving the aircraft to check for them and a warning that any defects found which required tyre replacement would be charged in full. Some of the instruction was highly relevant to the local area, noting VFR reporting points, likely ATC directions, parachuting nearby. Some less so – did we really need to know the class of airspace above 60,000 feet? Could I have answered questions about emergency procedures on the ground instead of flying straight and level at 3000 feet?
I arrived in good time for 7am as arranged and finished up by 11am, with 1.6 hours Hobbs time. I then had to fill in a couple of detailed quiz sheets, calculate a weight and balance from raw data before being cleared to fly solo. The flight school would also require me to take a full Instrument Proficiency Check before being allowed to fly IFR, despite being legally current within both EASA and FAA systems, so declined that option.
I’d thoroughly recommend this little booklet which concisely summarises the key facts required for a Flight Review. Really helpful prior to any US flying trip and only $10.
All flights outside the local area require to be “dispatched’ (signed off by an instructor), with cross country flights needing a flight plog, weight and balance form (if more than two on board), density altitude calculations for higher airports. GPS spot trackers are used to record your activity and progress. The aircraft themselves were quite clean and tidy. We’d gone for Cessna 172SP models which have a 180hp engine and cruise speed of around 120 knots. The KAP140 autopilot was more fully featured than the one I’m used to in the TB20, featuring vertical climb rates and target altitudes. The onboard GPS was quite an old model King non-WAAS KLN80 model capable of LNAV approaches and IFR en-route.
The map below shows our flights for the first few days, with Camarillo about 40-50 miles North West of the Los Angeles metropolis and Santa Barbara a further 40 miles north west up the coast.
The cloudbase improved after lunch and we were able to fly up the coast to Santa Barbara in the afternoon. The visibility was fairly limited inland, but we kept slightly off the coast and were guided in by ATC along the highway and landed on runway 15 left (perpendicular on the photo below), with the FBO located at the far end just a few minutes walk from the beach. We walked by the sea shore and along the pier, stopping for a drink in the beach cafe before returning.
It is one of the few US airports that you have to pay handling fees at, but it was still inexpensive compared to the UK for such as large airport (and the cost split four ways). In the end, we only paid handling fees at one other airport throughout the entire week. My yellow reflective jacket was never used nor required.
On Sunday I flew down the coast to Santa Monica airport, just inside the built-up Los Angeles metropolis and close to Beverley Hills. The flight was pretty straightforward, with flight following handing us over to each sector, and the tower controller immediately clearing us for a downwind join into the circuit to land. Some of the different procedures quickly came back to me – they will clear multiple aircraft to land (e.g. you are number 3, cleared to land) – but don’t issue a land after clearance. It seems to be up to the pilot to determine if the runway is clear ahead, although landing clearances can be revoked if required. It’s a busy airport and I was encouraged to expedite vacating the runway, which can be done anywhere rather than just at marked exit points.
We were marshalled into parking at American Flyers, who also act as an FBO (Fixed Base Operator) there, with no landing, parking or handling fees despite not buying fuel. We walked down the street past the aircraft museum for lunch at the Spitfire Cafe.
The airport is said to be under threat of closure, but must be very popular with the local celebrities. We saw quite a few executive jets arrive and depart, and there were quite a few aircraft based there. The local procedure was quite clear – departing with a slight turn towards the golf course, then 225 from there to the shoreline before turning north.
On the way back, I tried out my new Stratux receiver with Foreflight alongside my existing Pilotaware ADS-B receiver with SkyDemon. Stratux uses similar hardware to Pilotaware (Raspberry Pi microcomputer and a programmable TV tuner USB stick), loaded with open-source software to receive ADS-B signals. In the US, these are broadcast from groundstations and include both weather (eg weather radar, METARs, TAFs) as well as Traffic information (anything that is known to or can be seen by ground radar). I don’t believe it detects other aircraft directly in the sky, which is what Pilotaware ADS-B in does.
The two screen captures below show first the Pilotaware/SkyDemon indicating only ADS-B traffic above, and secondly ForeFlight with uplinked traffic information. This shows both our other Cessna slightly ahead (shown with yellow 0 altitude difference) and also traffic converging towards us 400 feet above (show as yellow +4). This had been called out to us by ATC Flight Following initially at a similar level and we spotted it as it climbed above and to our right.
Visiting the Airliner Boneyard at Victorville
You probably know of the airport in the Mojave desert where they park up old airliners that might be brought back into service should the need arise. Being so hot and dry, they don’t age so quickly. Hundreds are parked up in a remote town called Victorville. The airport itself is now called Southern Californian Logistics. I hadn’t expected to be able to land there, but a quick call confirmed this was not only OK but free of charge.
It was my turn to fly and we first made a short stop at Oxnard airport, then at Santa Paula just up the valley. This is a very old and characterful airport where they bring out many vintage aircraft for display on the first Sunday of every month.
Departing, we climbed up through the valley between the Sierra Nevada mountains, into the flat and relatively featureless desert beyond. In less than an hour and 80 miles distance, we were there. With calm wind, we saw a jetliner depart to the north on the reciprocal runway. I was cleared to land when still a few miles out and positioned for a base leg relatively close to the runway numbers. I was still far too far away from my intended touchdown point, landing about half way down the three mile runway and needing to taxi for a few minutes into parking.
The FBO there was very pleasant and clearly want to encourage pilots to visit (and presumably refuel). Not only were there no landing charges, but crew are given a $1 bonus voucher which entitles you to anything on the cafe lunch menu for $1 including unlimited soft drinks. We enjoyed a large sandwich before departing.
This is an absolutely huge facility and benefits from year round clear sky weather – 360 days are regularly CAVOK. Temperature was about 37 Celsius.
Bakersville, Fresno and Castle
The weather looked to be quite cloudy along the coast for the next few days (typically this happens in June rather than in May), so it was suggested we should go inland and stay away overnight. San Francisco itself was out due low cloud. We plotted a route up through the central valley towards Lake Tahoe with several stops on the way, intending to reach Carson City.
We stopped first at Bakersville Municipal just before a dust storm blew through. There was a crosswind meaning that either end of the runway could be used. We self announced and landed, hearing another aircraft inbound and making an approach from the opposite end. Clear position radio reports meant we both understood what was happening, but it was still disconcerting to see the aircraft on final ahead as we exited the runway. There was quite a strong crosswind on landing and a dust storm blew through shortly after we landed.
We stopped for a quick snack in the cafe there which was heavily branded with high power motor car racing memorabilia. The dust storm quickly passed and it was my turn to fly the next leg up to the large regional airport at Fresno. It has parallel runways and we were cleared to land early for the left runway whilst other instrument traffic was approaching on the right hand one.
Throughout the week, we found ATC overall to be very helpful and efficient, using the VFR Flight Following service seamlessly to pass across between controllers. With the ATIS in hand, approach and tower controllers gave us clear directions.There are separate frequencies for Ground control, sometimes band-boxed to the Tower controller frequency. Larger airports had a further separate frequency for Clearance Delivery, where you initially request Flight Following. You normally listen to the ATIS, call for taxi (effectively booking out) and receive any departure clearance. At the hold, you don’t sign off from Ground but instead switch directly to Tower for take-off clearance. I don’t think we ever got a line-up-and-wait clearance; there was occasionally a short delay until a landing aircraft vacated.
Our last leg of the day was up to Castle, where we’d heard they have an outdoor museum including a Vulcan bomber on display. We were running out of time by then, with only an hour’s daylight left, so had to stop there. It took a little while to find a relatively nearby hotel and a cab company to drive us there. In the end, this all worked out remarkably easily and great value, although Google’s search function for local cab companies definitely needs improvement.
Carson City, Placerville, Salinas, Santa Maria and Santa Paula
With CAVOK weather, we hoped for an early start but were delayed because we couldn’t get back into the airport. It doesn’t officially open until 9am, and the flight school operating there were understandably reticent about letting us airside without permission. We also liased with our rental flight school about our planned route, submitting density altitude calculations including landing and take-off distances. This was approved subject to flying at or above 9,500MSL, following the highway and keeping well away from mountains. Refuelling prior to departure was quick and efficient. So it was almost 10am before we took off.
We climbed initially up to 9,500 feet and later up to 11,500, following the highway up towards Lake Tahoe and over the top across to Carson City in Nevada. The 180hp engine worked hard but climbed adequately even at that altitude, with a bit of judicious leaning for performance. The scenery was spectacular throughout. We had remarkably little turbulence – it can get rough up there in strong winds – and our self-announced arrival into Carson City itself (altitude 4700 feet) was really quite straightforward.
There are not a lot of facilities there, but we spotted an immaculate sports car in the parking lot. Some pretty nice aircraft airside too, including an amphibious one taking off (presumably to land in Lake Tahoe itself). A local pilot confirmed that 11,500 feet is a good altitude to cross in good weather, with 13,000 better in stronger winds. Unlike Europe, US pilots are allowed to climb to 12,500 feet without oxygen (Europe is 10,000), and up to 14,000 for up to 30 minutes.
My turn to be passenger as we departed back across to Placerville. Phil couldn’t quite decide which end of the runway to use – the crosswind didn’t particularly favour either one, and there was some debate by (local) pilots airborne about which to use. In the end, we took off from the opposite end we had landed at, just after another aircraft landed. There was plenty of area to climb up, this time to 12,000 feet, as we passed back across Lake Tahoe and headed down the valley. Placerville is in a stunning setting, with the runway projecting outwards on a cliff edge in beautiful countryside.
We arrived at Placerville to meet our friends who were just about to depart. They had made a shorter flight up towards Lake Tahoe but returned without landing. There was no cafe at the airport, and after refuelling they left quickly looking to lunch at Salinas.
My turn to fly and we departed not long after, having refuelled at low cost using the self-service fuel pumps. There seemed to be a common thread to the day because after landing at Salinas, our friends again were about to depart for Watsonville in search of food. The cafe had just closed (many airport cafes seem to open at 7am and close at 2 or 3pm). We looked at the weather and thought it best to continue south, planning a short stop for crew change at Santa Maria before returning to base.
We flew down the valley, keeping west of the military areas on the coast (there were NOTAM’ed active military exercises on) spotting a large forest fire from some distance. Traffic called out to us by ATC was probably a tanker going to dump water on it.
A quick crew change at Santa Maria was just in the nick of time. There were a few scattered clouds when we arrrived, but in the minutes before departing the fog was rolling in. As I took off, tower approved an early crosswind turn to remain VMC with broken cloud covering the far end of the (long) runway. We were handed over to regional approach prior to departing the Class D airspace, tracking south. Climbing up to 7500 feet to clear the mountains, we saw some spectacular views of the clouds rolling in all along the coast. It was clear we wouldn’t make it back to base at Camarillo, but we were hopeful of diverting to Santa Paula (which we had landed at earlier).
As we approached, we heard our friends self-announcing on the radio and other local traffic landing, so knew we should be able to get in. The curtain of fog was working its way up towards the airport but the last few miles were still clear. It had been useful to have landed there the previous day, and be familiar with the circuit pattern – it’s only 600 feet and close to the hillside. An aircraft in the circuit took off as we approached on extended downwind, but called out that they had spotted us (I had all the lights on), and we followed them making an extended circuit to land easily after they had made their touch-and-go.
We took an Uber back to Camarillo in half an hour, then drove back to our house. A quick BBQ and we all retired early after a couple of very busy days – we had each flown about 5 hours.
Returning the aircraft to base
We had expected Californian weather to be glorious sunshine every day, but it seems this low cloud is quite common during June. We were unlucky for it to appear in May. September would have been best. The cloudbase was too low to fly in the morning, so we drove up to Santa Paula and tidied up the aircraft. I had not expected any flying today but in the afternoon, the cloud base lifted to about 1500 – 2000 feet. We flew both aircraft directly back to base, with me as passenger, leaving the option to fly in the morning if the weather was suitable.
Bonus flying day
The forecast wasn’t looking too good for our last day, but in the morning we could see a moderate cloud base and even patches of blue sky. A ceiling of 2000 to 3000 feet meant it was good enough for VFR flight, at least in the local area, although strong winds were forecast (up to 40 knots) further up the valley. Three of us shared one aircraft and flew a leg each – first down to Van Nuys, then I flew back up to Oxnard, with a final leg going north up the coast and then back into Camarillo.
Arriving into Van Nuys, there were light aircraft cleared to land on both parallel runways simultaneously. Despite being one of the busiest GA airports in the US, we just called up from about 10 miles out and requested a VFR join which was granted immediately – “join 45 degrees left pattern for runway 16 left, report 1 mile before 45”. I spotted the other aircraft at our four o’clock when we were on short final. They often have two separate tower frequencies, one for each runway, but today these were combined.
After a quick crew change, it was my turn to fly and I was granted a crosswind right hand departure from runway 16L, with a Citation Jet departing from the right hand runway. He took off before me but I climbed more quickly so there was no issue of wake turbulence.
I flew up the coast and landed at Oxnard after transiting Port Mugu airforce base at 1500 feet.
The last leg was a local flight up the coast and returning back to Camarillo.
We were finished before noon and back at the house by 1, leaving more than enough time to pack, clean and depart leisurely back to LAX for our late overnight flight home.
What a great holiday! The week had passed very quickly, especially on our two day intensive landaway/safari to Carson City/Lake Tahoe. Overall, I’d flown just over 10 hours during the week (and was passenger for a similar time). By landing away overnight, we had been able to cover a lot of ground in just two days.
On the technical front, I was impressed with what the Stratux receiver had picked up (METARs, TAFs, traffic) although it is highly dependent on your own or other nearby aircraft being ADS-B out equipped to receive local traffic information. Mechanically it’s quite fragile, with quite a large USB stick and antenna. The Pilotaware also worked but only received data for the relatively few ADS-B 1090MHz equipped aircraft, most of which are irrelevant for GA flights. Although both are based on the same Raspberry Pi platform, they use different hardware model revisions. Perhaps it would be a good idea if they both supported the same version, allowing European pilots to make use of Stratux when in the US. They are really quite different systems/concepts, with Stratux relying on ground based transmissions only available in the US while Pilotaware uses airborne transmissions from its own equipment and other ADS-B (and now even Mode S) equipped aircraft.
On the piloting front, I’d say that by the end of the week we were quite familiar and confident again on the Cessna 172, and with US ATC procedures. Our three landings on the very last day were all excellent. I thought we were safe throughout the week, and pushed the limits of altitude (at 12,000 feet) but not wind limits (or crosswinds) and didn’t breach VFR constraints. It was a bit frustrating to sit it out underneath a thin 500 foot cloud layer (at 1200 feet or so), which would have been easy to fly up through. Perhaps next time I’ll ask for approval for IFR flight and allow enough time for whatever checkout is required.
But that depends on where we we’ll end up next year. Watch this space.
Hours Flown: 10:25
Total PIC: 377:10
Total Hours: 515:35