California Flying Holiday 2017 – returning for a second year

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Friends in the Bristol Aero Club enjoyed our week’s flying holiday in California in 2016 so much that we decided to return there again for a week in September 2017. Fewer club members were able to join us this time, so the holiday team this were Deb, Phil and myself. We flew out on a BA Airbus A380 from London, staying overnight at LAX airport and driving up the coast to Camarillo next morning.

On the plane, we studied the little BFR booklet with helpful tips for Flight Reviews and radio vocabulary that differ in the states – everything from Backtaxi rather than Backtrack to the concept that multiple aircraft can be cleared to land simultaneously (“You are number 4, Runway 27, Cleared to land“).

BFR flight review
Great refresher guide for US VFR flight reviews and club checks

Hiring a Cessna 172SP from Channel Islands Aviation again, there was less admin involved since both parties knew each other from last year. Rather than a grueling 4 hour Flight Review, we only required a 2 hour session each (1 hour ground and 1 hour in the air). I was really pleased with my flying on the checkout, really nailing the landings on the centreline despite a reasonable crosswind. The 172 is a fairly easy and tame beast to fly, but differs in characteristics from the PA28 and TB20 I’m most used to.

This year’s gadget – Dual band GPS Stratux

My latest gadget for the trip was a self-constructed Stratux receiver, using mostly the same components as last year but adding a second receiver and GPS dongle. This little battery powered box could receive transponder signals from nearby ADS-B out equipped aircraft and ADS-B groundstations, feeding data about weather and traffic into my tablet App.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t yet fully compatible with SkyDemon (although it does use a public data interface format of GDL90), so I trialled a US navigation App called FlyQ. I had used ForeFlight in previous years, but don’t quite like that as much as SkyDemon. I understand that a later version of Stratux combined with a barometric pressure sensor solves the compatibility issue.

Stratux dual band receiver – top side with fan
Stratux dual band receiver – bottom side with screw mounting fitting

The good news was that the gadget worked seamlessly with the FlyQ App, figuring out when it could make use of the external GPS and ADS-B data feeds and automatically reverting to the onboard iPad GPS when unavailable. This is a lot easier than SkyDemon. However I really missed features like virtual radar looking ahead at airspace you are heading towards, or the clarity with which SD shows airspace classifications, and logs each flight automatically.

Navigation to find specific information, such as airfield data, is a little awkward at times. I did like the automatic switching of the display to the airfield charts after landing, and there was comprehensive and fully up to date information about every airfield in the region. Paper copies of charts (which last 6 months) or the AFD (Airfield Directory) are still available but more difficult to find now that the majority of pilots have switched to electronic guides.

Traffic information was variable (you only get it from the ground stations in your area if someone else equipped with ADS-B out is flying nearby). I sense that there are still quite a few aircraft without ADS-B fitted yet, despite an FAA mandate to do so by January 2020 for those that want to enter controlled airspace. The cost of doing so continues to drop dramatically, with some pretty smart integrated devices now costing less than $1000 plus installation (with a $500 FAA subsidy available to help further). Read the skinny on the FAA program here.

Typical real-time chart showing other traffic, colour coded with danger level

The good news is that ground based ADS-B transmissions are being trialled by SkyDemon in the UK in conjunction with uAvionix to broadcast weather radar across the south/south west of England. I hope I can make this compatible with my Stratux so I can try it out.

Week’s tour format

Rather than running through a detailed flight by flight log of the week’s journey, I thought I’d pick out a few highlights. We stayed near Camarillo for a couple of nights then headed out on a short tour, staying away for two nights, returning to base for a final couple of day trips. The chart below shows all our routes.

route map
USA 2017 route map

For those that haven’t visited, the Los Angeles area consists of a heavily populated flat area surrounded by some pretty high mountains – the Rockies – of 10,000 feet or more. You can find yourself in the middle of desert just a few tens of miles from heavily populated urban areas. The LA basin is covered by special flight rules and SoCal (Southern Californiia) Approach, using a large number of different frequencies and controllers. There’s plenty of airspace of all classes and you have to treat VFR flights more like IFR, with Flight Following, preferred routes, levels – mostly allowing you to go where you want but sometimes getting vectored out of the way of the heavy stuff.

You can land at any airport (yes even including LAX), with no landing fees at smaller airports but reasonable FBO fees at the larger ones (say $20-40). Refuelling and short stays often meant these fees were waived. FBO facilities are very swish and smart, and you can find yourself near some pretty exclusive executive jets but we didn’t meet any major celebrities (well none that I recognised anyway).

General Fox Airport

It’s the sheer variety and contrast of geographic landscapes that strikes you most – you can appear to be lost in the middle of a desert one minute and then a few minutes later find yourself flying over a dense metropolis with the coast in sight.

Our first landaway headed inland to the north west, flying a fairly simple route into the desert towards Las Vegas, landing at General WJ Fox airport near to the city of Lancaster. If we’d chosen to fly all the way to Las Vegas, it would have continued with a couple of hours of this fairly featureless Mohave desert terrain.

Water Irrigation Canal
Solar Panel Farm
General WMJ Fox (KWJF)

Bracket Field

This had been one of Deb’s major objectives for the trip, having spent a vacation many years ago with her partner (now an airline pilot) clocking up multi-engine time in an elderly and fairly low cost aircraft based there.

The photos below illustrate just how spread out the LA metropolis is – there are quite a few airfields to pass over but very few green fields in between.

Plenty of urban sprawl 
Downtown skyscrapers just visible through the smog
Whiteman Airport
Whiteman Airport – look at the number of hangars
The mountains ultimately limit the urban sprawl
Brackett Field from right base leg
Our Trusty Cessna 172SP
Norm’s Hangar – Famous diner at Brackett Field
A typical control tower format

Palm Springs

It’s low season and very quiet here because the temperature is a bit on the high side – 42C when we landed. Things pick up from November. This meant no congestion, we had the ramp to ourselves, and no shortage of hotel deals – the Hilton was less than $100. The dry heat wasn’t quite as oppressive as the temperature indicated but we were glad to be inside with aircon after landing.

The city is the usual street grid laid out on the flat plain surrounded by mountains – you aim for the mountain while downwind and turn base.

Palm Springs, nestled in the valley
Palm Springs, Downwind
Downwind ahead
Downwind, looking ahead – turn base before the mountain!
View from hotel room
Amusing bar sign
Palm Springs main street
Old fashioned 50’s diner for breakfast
WWII aircraft museum at Palm Springs. We didn’t have time to visit

San Diego

I flew the leg from Palm Springs to San Diego. The contrast was stark, with the first half of the journey over fairly featureless terrain. Heading south east towards the large inland lake of Salton Sea and the town airfield before turning west on a direct track to San Diego. When passing my details to the controllers, twice they queried whether we were going to San Diego International (KSAN) because it’s unusual for a Cessna 172 to land there. Once clarified, they were as helpful as always and didn’t question our choice of destination.

After a fairly bumpy crossing of the mountain range (the chart does warn of turbulence), and with about 30 miles to go, I still couldn’t see the coast or much sign of habitation. Flight following ensured we were cleared into controlled airspace in good time, and vectored on to final.

When the controller asked “Can you see the the SouthWest 737 ahead, crossing left to right” and we confirmed, he instructed us to “follow that 737 on final” ensuring we were positioned well behind. There were two 737’s ahead of us and as we dawdled down a very long final approach, tower dispatched a couple of jets to make best use of sequencing and spacing.

The view out of the side window was amazing – you are level with some of the skyscrapers on short final – but it was a very straightforward arrival. Quick turn off to the right and into the GA parking area, where Signature handlers were waiting to marshall us and escort us to the lounge.

The 2 minute video below shows the views from the back seat up to landing.

We spent a good part of the day sightseeing in the city, including several hours onboard the USS Midway, a WW2 aircraft carrier which has extensive museum exhibits with plenty to see and do.

Follow the 737 on final
San Diego Harbour
View of runway threshold from the GA Apron
Inside the impressive Signature lounge at San Diego
Signature handling entrance
USS MIdway
USS Midway flight deck viewed from the captains seat in the “control tower”
Flight Deck USS MIdway
Huge statue on the shorefront San Diego
GA Apron with airliner on approach
After departure on climbout

Long Beach

The city is a popular tourist attraction but also home to the second largest shipping port in the country, handling about 20% of all container traffic. It’s also home to the Queen Mary, a former cross Atlantic liner and still resplendent in 1930’s Art Deco style. At Phil’s suggestion, we asked for and were granted the opportunity to make a few orbits overhead the Queen Mary and take some great photos.

Queen Mary, permanently moored at Long Beach
Long Beach airport viewed from the south west

As you can see above, the airport layout has two parallel GA runways with a longer single diagonal one typically used for airliner traffic. On joining downwind for the left hand of the two parallel runways, I flew a shorter pattern and turned base a bit too quickly than the controller had expected, resulting in a cancelled landing clearance and go-around to ensure spacing for the departing airliner. It was all very much under control and mainly down to my unfamiliarity with the airport layout.

Airliner departs 30 as we continue our go-around
Long Beach Airport Terminal
Short Final 25 Left Long Beach
Signature Handling, Long Beach

We were glad we hadn’t arranged to go flying in Florida

Florida was having a tough time with Hurricane Irma

Plenty of swimming pools in the residential areas here.

Plenty of swimming pools in the residential areas here

John Wayne

Also known as Santa Ana (KSNA), this is the second busiest airport in California with two parallel runways, a long one and a much shorter one for GA. Over 4.5 million passengers (compared to 9 million at LAX) use the longer runway, which at 1735m is one of the shortest of any US major airport, limiting use to Boeing 757 at most.

John Wayne final approach

The CFI at our flight school explained the VFR joining procedure, which is to fly diagonally from the north west (top right in picture above) towards the control tower and overfly it to join downwind on the south side. We made our arrival just as he described with little direction from the controller, so I did double check with the tower that this was exactly what he wanted me to do. With the airliner on approach in sight on the parallel runway, we were cleared to land. Airfield plates suggest GA aircraft make a slightly offset final approach to ensure separation.

John Wayne terminal buildings

In these busy airports, they sometimes have separate tower frequencies for each of the two runways and also separate ground controllers too. You may not hear all the chatter for other aircraft on final alongside you. I recall that the tower frequencies were combined but ground was split when we were there. We were moved off the main taxiway into a run-up area twice in order to make way for 737’s taxing past us.

Pulling into the side to let a 737 taxi past

On our return to Camarillo, we passed overhead LAX airport using one of the approved VFR transition routes.

The wider LA basin
Overhead LAX airport

Santa Paula

Santa Paula

At the end of our holiday we based ourselves at Santa Paula, quite distinctive and full of character. Although small and with no tower or radio service, it’s a busy and thriving home with a flight school, cafe, museum and many home-built/experimental aircraft. We spoke to the CFI at the flight school which offers tailwheel and aerobatic training alongside PPL. We also met the guy who bought Steve McQueen’s hangar and reminisced from earlier times.

Santa Paula Aviation Museum

Instead of a wind-sock, they have this wind vane on the ground.

Santa Paula Wind Vane

Last day sightseeing on the ground

We have tended to spend the last day seeing the sights in the area rather than flying, although we keep it as contingency in case the weather or other issues have held things up.

We filled the day quite easily with an extensive tour of the aircraft museum at Camarillo and a visit to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Museum. The latter is notable because in 2005 they transported Air Force One to the site and built an additional museum/hangar around it. The promotional video is one thing, Videos of the construction are quite dramatic.

Air Force One Boeing 707
Air Force One (N27000) Boeing 707
Air Force One Boeing 707
View over Simi Valley from the grounds

You can also walk through the aircraft and also visit inside Marine One helicopter and motorcade.

There are plenty of videos and images to remind you of those times, such as when the Berlin Wall came down. He noted that Air Force One pilots prided themselves that the aircraft would come to a complete stop at exactly the scheduled time. He flew over 650,000 miles in it during his eight years as president.


Wow. What a great holiday and we definitely packed a lot in. I’ve done most of my bucket list of ambitions in the area now but would be happy to go back again some time. Visiting the island of Catalina remains to be done. The US is one of the most accessible countries for GA private pilots and there’s plenty more of it to see.

Thanks to Phil for organising it and Deb for joining us.

Dual Time: 1:00
PIC Time: 6:50
Total Time: 652:30

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