Categories: all aviation Building a Biplane bicycle gadgets misc motorcycle theater

Mon, 21 Aug 2017

Seattle to LA and Back, Episode 4: Can a Champ Really Fly from LA to Ashland in One Day?

Previously: Tulare to LA, and Flying with David

Aside from a somewhat dodgy choice of hotels (maybe avoid the Travelodge Pasadena Central -- it's cheap, but it's also cheap), my stay in LA was pretty cool. David and Tara, his wife, were fun to hang out with, and in addition to getting to spend time with them, we also went to the California Science Center, which was one of the tiny handful of museums which received a Space Shuttle when the shuttle program was decommissioned. It was very cool to see the shuttle in person. The trip was well worth it even if that's all I'd done. I was still eagerly drinking it all in as the closing hour drew nigh, though my companions were nearing done with artifacts of the space program.

On the flight down, I'd found myself squinting uncomfortably into the sun as I flew south, and had finally grokked what ball caps were good for: my full-brim sun hat, though effective and good for most things, simply wouldn't fit under the headset. I figured a NASA baseball cap would be the closest I'd ever get to actually wanting to wear one, so I grabbed just such an item from the Space Shuttle Endeavor gift shop, exclusively for use while flying.

It was odd saying farewell so far before my actual departure, but the timing of things meant that I said goodbye to Tara shortly after dinner on my departure eve, and David and I said goodbye around 10 that night. They both had work in the morning, and the directions everyone was driving meant that it was far more sensible for me to take a taxi to the airport than any other choice.

So, I prepped that night and got everything as ready as I could. David and I had stopped by the Vons supermarket earlier in the night and I'd picked up my flight snacks. We also made a trip to Sprouts, which seems to be the LA equivalent of the Puget Consumer's Coop, so I could get slightly less terrible candy-style snacks than Vons carried.

My plan was to try to launch by 9 am the next morning. I figured that would mean about half an hour of getting to the airport, and at least 45 minutes of packing, preflighting the plane, getting fuel aboard, paying bills with Billion Air Aviation (everything's bigger in LA: I'd passed several Million Air Aviation FBOs already on the trip, but LA just had to one-up them), etc. So I called the taxi for 7:30 am on Thursday.

As expected, I was awake before the alarm went off (I never sleep very well when I know I have an early alarm, probably out of anxiety I'll oversleep and miss it), and went down to check out the breakfast offered as part of my room price at the Travelodge. It was better than I'd expected, and I had a waffle from the waffleautomat and half of an indifferent bagel with cream cheese from a little blister pack, along with a nearly ripe banana. I found I wasn't very hungry though, being somewhat anxious about my day's itinerary.

Norbert was alert and ready to go

The weather was as close to perfect as I could have asked for. The previous days I'd been aware of had all had a heavy marine overcast layer in the morning that wouldn't burn off until almost midday, but on this day, it was bright and clear (for LA) when I checked upon waking. Good thing, too, because the flight plans I'd filed had outlined that I needed to make an early launch if I wanted to actually reach Ashland by sunset.

As it happened, things continued well as I went to the airport. I got a friendly, chatty cab driver, and we spent the whole ride discussing engines, airplanes, cars, racing, motorcycles, and more engines. After he dropped me off, he asked if he could come see the plane, so I took him back and showed him Norbert, with its very simple instrument panel, and the engine, which is really just an overgrown VW Bug engine. The Continental C90 under Norbert's engine cowl, which produces 90 HP, displaces about 200 cubic inches, or almost 3.3 liters, vs. the last generation Bug engine, which produces about 65 HP from 1.6 liters. The Beetle engine gets to turn twice as fast as the Continental, though, since the Conti is limited to 2500 RPM.

Residential Pasadena, looking westish, with the Rose Bowl just visible in the distance

The fuel truck rolled quickly, and I got the plane packed faster than I'd expected, so that I found myself starting the engine at 8:42, and starting my enthusiastic trundle down the runway at 8:51, a full nine minutes ahead of schedule. Norbert eased off terra firma, gained a bit of speed, and we proceeded confidently into the LA permasmog. Of course, the air was perfectly smooth, and I thought wistfully of David, even now on his way to his office. Hindsight, as he commented a couple text messages later, is 20/20.

In the comparatively cool morning air, we climbed with admirable speed, and it didn't take long before I was passing the Burbank airspace and climbing for my mountain-traversing 8500 feet. The mountains didn't seem so daunting as I flew northbound, mostly because they were no longer Terra Incognita for me.

Mountains receding to the east, toward the Mojave Desert

The trip back, like most trips back, seemed to take much less time than the trip down had. There's something in our psychological makeup that makes it much simpler to retrace footsteps in reverse than it is to follow that path the first time. Of course, it took a similar amount of time, but it seemed to go by much quicker. I also finished the bulk of Ruby 2 as I traversed the San Joaquin valley, which may have contributed to the effect.

Flying past Burbank and headed into the mountains, making good time in favorable wind

I noticed, while I was in LA, that I had a weird itchy spot on my left leg. I couldn't remember if I'd scratched myself there and perhaps it was getting infected, or quite what could have caused it. It was sort of a low-grade rash, but there was something familiar about it. Right above the knee, and it certainly felt like an allergic reaction.

My first stop was Porterville (PTV), which had been a planned stop on the way down. It had the cheapest fuel in the area, but was otherwise unremarkable, at least in my mental state as I was passing through. When I unstrapped the kneeboard from my left leg, I suddenly realized what must have caused the rash. I turned the kneeboard over, and sure enough, it was bright shiny metal right where it had been resting on the rash. Well, it used to be bright shiny metal. It was nickel, and I inadvertently confirmed that I am still allergic to nickel (a process which quickly corrodes and renders dull whatever nickel I'm in contact with). I filled the tanks, and continued on, stopping only 20 minutes on the ground. I departed from Porterville at 11:15 am, and aimed myself at Tracy (TCY), another cheapest-fuel-in-the-area airport. A washcloth was laid carefully under the kneeboard to prevent further nickel contact.

The trip to Tracy (which I chose for scenic variety as much as anything else, though it didn't end up being terribly different from other airports in the valley) was remarkable for one reason: I spotted and reported a fire that had apparently not yet been reported. I'd heard some discussion of reporting fires to ATC in the weeks before my trip, particularly with the wildfire smoke sweeping down into Seattle, and I wondered at the time if I'd have occasion to do such a thing. The possibility seemed remote.

A fire burning in a field near Merced Regional (MCE)

Yet here I was. I called up the controller and asked if they'd had a fire reported near my position. She didn't think so, and asked a few detail questions: could I tell what was burning? What was the exact location? I answered as best I could -- I initially thought I was approaching a couple of low-lying clouds, which seemed weird. It took about five minutes of approaching the clouds before I realized they must be smoke, and I started looking for the source. Finally I saw it, and reported back that it was a field burning, about 2 miles off my right wing, bordered by a canal to the north. She thanked me, and presumably sent off a report to regional fire authorities.

The remainder of the flight to Tracy was unremarkable, though it was on the western edge of the valley; if I had kept flying west, I would have crossed the hills into the Bay Area. As I descended, it became clear that there were a number of people flying around the airport, and it took me a little bit to figure out how to insert myself safely into the traffic pattern.

Once I was in, I was following a Cessna a little bit too closely, banking on Norbert's relatively glacial speed to get us a little bit of separation. Fortunately, my plan worked, and it was aided when the Cessna made an uncomfortable-looking touchdown, thought better of it, and goosed it to go around and try that landing again. I asked over the radio if he'd run into a crosswind (gusting crosswinds are kind of a nightmare in a taildragger like Norbert, and I'd never really dealt with one before, so I was a little worried), and he gave me a one-syllable answer that I couldn't interpret. Another voice came on the radio and said, "Yeah, there's a bit of a crosswind down here." I thanked her, and determined to do my best.

As it happened, I needn't have worried. There was indeed a crosswind, but it wasn't very strong, and at least for my landing, was pretty steady. I got the plane on the ground with a minimum of squealing tires and bounces -- the oleo gear in the Champ really does make non-bouncing arrivals easier than they should be -- and taxied to the fuel tank.

It was 1:30 when I shut down the engine, and I decided I should probably eat my lunch at Tracy. After a moment of panic that I'd broken the fueling protocol when I forgot to press the START button (which apparently reset the counters), a guy in an official-looking truck pulled up, and we looked helplessly at the squat industrial boxes as he explained that the person who actually knew the system was out. Then, minutes after I thought it should have happened, the self-serve console beeped and printed out my receipt. It listed the correct amount, about 11 gallons. We both heaved a sigh of relief. I asked him about bathrooms, and he pointed to a trailer with PUBLIC RESTROOMS printed on it in big bold letters, and when asked about lunching shelters, pointed to a covered picnic table. Good enough for me. I had my supermarket lunch of bread and cheese and a brownie as I listened to the ravens cawing at each other from lamppost to fence. The trailer bathrooms were, miracle of miracles, air conditioned and pleasantly cool.

A cool construction that gave every house waterfront access

Norbert's tires lost contact with Tracy's runway at 2:45 pm, and I aimed our path towards Willows (WLW), where I'd stopped on the way down. The path was quite different, coming from Tracy as I was, and I found myself flying over a fascinating series of canals and waterways, including the one pictured above, which seemed to provide a large number of houses, each with its own dock jutting out into the water. The water around the houses was connected to all these canals and waterways, which seemed to stretch in a network for miles and miles.

Eventually, I left the waterways behind me, as I listened to Ruby 1 ripping the jacket off Rodant Kapoor, button by button and piece by piece, as he emceed a concert on live holovision, to his complete spluttering displeasure. It was understandable: poor Ruby had been attacked by the Slimeys, genetically engineered assassins, and one of them said Rodant had hired them. What a pickle for poor Rodant, framed by Horace Wimpy!

Willows was just as I had left it. As I came in, a Cherokee coming from the southeast tried to sneak in front of me, but gave up when he realized we were trying to land on conflicting runways, and he hadn't spotted me yet. I didn't have him in sight either, but I had him on the traffic display, and after we'd both landed he came up to ask what I was using that had allowed me to see his location. I showed him my tablet and Stratux box. He admitted to feeling a bit rusty, and I congratulated him on not landing on runway 31 like he'd been planning on, since it would have been a 5+ knot downwind landing (downwind landings can dramatically increase landing distance, and it's pretty easy to run off the end of the runway doing them; pilots who want to have long flying carers avoid downwind landings if at all possible). When I departed Willows shortly thereafter, I chose runway 13, the opposite direction of 31, as the one best aligned with the wind.

I launched from Willows as quickly as possible, mostly because it was still beastly hot: 35° C, 95° F. In fact, we left the ground at 5:10 pm to fly our final leg of the day, to Ashland. Since the planned flight time was only a bit over two and a half hours, I felt confident we would be able to make it before sunset. Surprised it had all worked so well, but confident nonetheless.

Mt. Shasta with considerably less smoke obscuring its flanks

The flight to Ashland was livened up by a call from air traffic control as I was passing Mt. Shasta: there was a much faster plane behind me, on exactly the same path (a logical rubber-band-line between airports). He asked me to divert, and I found myself briefly aimed straight west instead of the north I had been going. I finally spotted the plane as it passed me by, a thousand feet below off my right wing and, indeed, going much faster. In the monocular, it looked like it might be a Cherokee, although your basic Cherokee isn't that much faster than the Champ.

Air traffic control lost radar contact with me as I descended toward the Ashland airport (as expected), and let me loose to fend for myself. I had a moment where my brain couldn't make sense of the scene in front of me before it snapped into mental focus, and I saw that the Ashland airport was still behind a hill. I thanked them (as always) for their help, and landed at Ashland a whole fifteen minutes before sunset. I felt like I was losing my razors-edge timing.

Sunset as seen over Norbert's nose

I fueled up and picked a spot far from the sodium lights, strategically placing Norbert between tent and rotating beacon for the night. It was a better setup than the first time through.

As I ate my dinner at Skinner Aviation's picnic table, a gent walked by with his dog, and we ended up chatting for an hour. He had spent many years living in Ballard, the same neighborhood I live in now, and we discovered that we're both theater folks, he being employed working in the scene shop for the Ashland Shakespeare Festival. It was a delightful end to a long but fulfilling day of flying my plane from Los Angeles to Ashland.

And now I've broken the rule of internet articles which ask a question as their headline, by answering "yes:" a Champ can, in fact, fly from LA to Ashland in one day.

Next: Ashland to Snohomish and Home Again

Posted at 23:27 permanent link category: /aviation

Categories: all aviation Building a Biplane bicycle gadgets misc motorcycle theater