Here’s a report, mostly for friends and family, on a recent trip to California. I met a guy in Hawaii, “Dr. Doug”, who purchased a two-seat Diamond DA20 airplane. This is a fast fun easy-to-fly trainer that is certified only for flying in visual conditions. The plane has instruments, but no lightning protection, and therefore is not legal for flight in the clouds. Dr. Doug is a Vietnam vet who served two tours in Vietnam flying Hueys and Cobras. After getting out of the Army, he became an emergency medicine doc and married another physician. Dr. Doug had three goals on this trip: (1) become familiar with the DA20 and its avionics, most critically the impossible-to-use Garmin GNS 530 combination communications radio, navigation radio, and GPS receiver, (2) build up his instrument flying proficiency, and (3) get the plane to Hayward, California where it would be prepared for shipping to Hawaii. A lot of four-seat airplanes are flown 13-17 hours to Hawaii. You take out the back seats and put in a “ferry tank” full of fuel. That isn’t possible with a two-seater.
Friday: Departed the Diamond factory in London, Ontario (CYXU) at 11:30 a.m. after sorting out some last-minute issues with customs, weather, and the GPS database loaded in Dr. Doug’s DA20’s Garmin GNS 530. Low ceilings and snow showers imposed a somewhat circuitous 2500′ MSL route on us, mostly following the north shore of Lake Ontario. We landed in Toledo, OH (KTOL) at around 1:15 pm and were greeted by a friendly customs officer. After an hour of resting and flight planning, we departed for KMLI with a practice ILS 25 approach back into KTOL. Dr. Doug hadn’t flown an approach for twenty years, but he handled the task well. It helped that the weather was good VFR and he wasn’t wearing a hood. We departed the Toledo area after I had showed Dr. Doug how to use the GNS 530 for missed approach guidance. After about 50 miles, we were having trouble maintaining VFR at 2000′ and there were some radio towers in the area at 2100′. It was time to give up and turn around. We advised air traffic control of our situation and they offered an IFR clearance, which we accepted. It turns out that instrument-rated pilots such as ourselves don’t do that much better than raw Private pilots unless we subject ourselves to the full discipline of IFR flying. ATC suggested landing at a nearby airport, KGWB, with an ILS. Another pilot on the frequency then reported the weather at GWB to be 700′ overcast, which wasn’t so bad on an approach where the minimum is 200′. His next bit of information, that the visibility was down to 1 mile, was much more disturbing. This is only a tiny bit better than the 1/2 mile of visibility that is the minimum for the ILS. It didn’t make sense to do an approach down anywhere near minimums when we had plenty of fuel and VFR conditions back towards Toledo. We said that we’d rather go back to Toledo. The weather improved with each mile east that we traveled. Toledo wasn’t even using their instrument approach by default. They offered visual approaches to the standard IFR arrival. We shut down at the FBO, rented a car, and drove into town for dinner at Tony Packo’s, made famous by Klinger in the TV series M*A*S*H. The Hungarian food was reasonably good, but I only finished about half of what I ordered. There is nothing like being surrounded all day by a tiny two-seat airplane and at your table by 300 lb. Ohioans to encourage moderation.
By 7:30 pm, we were checking into the downtown riverfront Radisson ($65/night, including free high-speed Internet). The desk staff advised us that there wasn’t a whole lot to do in downtown Toledo, even on a Friday night. Saturday morning dawned gloomy from the windows of the Radisson. It looked as though we might be staying in Toledo for at least one more day. We drove out through the deserted downtown to the Toledo Museum of Art, which I had often seen listed as the source of paintings in traveling exhibitions. The medium-sized museum is free and filled with one treasure after another from medieval to Old Masters to more modern works. French paintings are especially well represented, supplemented by a beautiful Barye sculpture of a heron meeting its end in the jaws of a big cat. The museum is not turning into a fancy club for rich people. The cafeteria-style restaurant is crummy. There is no new $100 million soaring glass atrium addition. They have great art collected when Toledo was getting rich off the American car manufacturers’ success and seemingly a large enough endowment to keep the place going.
By noon, the weather was lifting enough that we thought we might make it out. The clouds were generally 3000′ above the ground except where scattered rain showers reduced the ceiling and visibility dramatically. Our plan was to head southwest and divert to the south when we encountered rain in our path. It was bmpy underneath the clouds and especially near the rain showers, but with our airplane not being certified for instrument flight, we couldn’t climb in hopes of smoother air. We stopped for fuel in Bloomington, Illinois and talked to a retired guy who is instructing in a Diamond Star DA40 with G1000 cockpit. Only $110 per hour!
About 30 miles SW of Bloomington, the clouds thinned out and we were able to climb up into smooth clear air at 8500′. Towards sunset, we got cleared through the Kansas City Class B airspace down into the university town of Lawrence, Kansas (KLWC). Pam at the airport was kind enough to lend us the courtesy car overnight. Dr. Doug checked into the downtown riverside Marriott while I went to five chain stores looking for some cushions to provide extra padding and lumbar support in the DA20, whose interior was designed by a short Austrian engineer for 1.5-hour training flights. All of the clerks working in the shops were Kansas University undergrads. At elite high-tuition schools such as Harvard, it is tough for a teacher to feel that he or she is making a difference. And in fact, economists have shown that the Harvard education is NOT making a difference; students who were admitted to Harvard but elected not to attend ended up with the same lifetime earnings as Harvard graduates. For a lot of students at fancier schools these days, attending college isn’t a material necessity. Their parents are going to provide them with a house, a car, use of a private aircraft, and a job if they feel like working. If I teach one of these kids how to use a relational database management system, he might thank for showing him how to do something interesting and challenging, but the skill is certainly not going to enable him to thrive economically; financially, he has already gotten beyond where 95 percent of Americans hope to be. KU is completely different. The 20,000+ kids are coming from all over the state and from all kinds of families. They need the education that they are getting at KU to have a career and move ahead with their lives.
Lawrence, Kansas has a reasonably comprehensive downtown, with at least a few good restaurants (Freestate Brewery is supposed to be the best, but it was packed on a Saturday night and we ended up having barbecue instead). Unlike Madison, Wisconsin, the town is not home to a massive government bureaucracy as well as the university. Therefore, the town is a lot more compact. Within a five minute drive of downtown you are back in farmland or at the airport. For minimal $$, you could buy a farm right next to the airport and an 1987 Piper Malibu. This is pretty much smack in the middle of the U.S. That six-seat Malibu would take you, a dog, and a couple of friends non-stop from Lawrence, Kansas to just about anywhere in North America within 6 hours. When it was time to return home, the full instrument landing system and reassuringly flat terrain would welcome you back on bad-weather days. You could have the farm, the Malibu ($350,000), and ten years worth of Avgas (the Malibu carries six people at 200 mph and gets better mileage than an SUV) for less than the price of a single-family house in Cambridge.
I liked Lawrence so much that I was prepared to stay an extra day, especially after checking the weather forecast and finding out that surface winds were going to be gusting up to 35 knots with the turbulence you’d expect (right up to 18,000′ as soon as one got close to the rRockies). Dr. Doug wanted to press onward, however, so we departed for Hutchinson, Kansas. The steakhouse on the field is a popular fly-in destination and the fuel truck guy said that normally 10 or 15 light airplanes would come for Sunday brunch. How many had braved the winds and turbulence today? None.
We departed Hutchinson for Liberal, Kansas into a 32-knot surface wind that stiffened into a 50-knot headwind aloft. We were in time to become the sixth patrons at the Mid-America Air Museum. Going back to get our bags from the plane, we met Jeff Mawhinney, the aerobatic champion, refueling a Cessna 310 en route to Phoenix. Asking around for restaurant and hotel recommendations, we discovered that 9 out of 10 Liberal residents don’t know the population of the town, can’t give directions, have no idea which businesses are open on a Sunday, and think that Applebee’s is the best restaurant in town. We ate a steak dinner at Cattleman’s and came to share their comparatively high opinion of Applebee’s. County commissioner Joyce Hibler was quoted in the local paper as saying “I think we have a good future in Liberal. I like the new cotton warehouse. … We have an awesome landfill.”
From Liberal we flew over corners of Oklahoma and Texas into Albuquerque. I was sorry to get so close to Amarillo without stopping for lunch at the Big Texan, home of the 72 oz. steak dinner (eat within one hour and it is free). At the Albuquerque airport, we took a tour of Eclipse Aviation, makers of a $1.5 million twin-engine 6-person “very light” jet airplane. Getting the airplane certified has been a tortuous process and is running some months behind schedule. What’s holding up the plane right now? Is it the engines, which are much cheaper and lighter than any jets ever produced? The robotic friction-stir welding process, which has never been used on an airplane before? The fire suppression system, which uses a chemical formula that has never been used? No, no, and no. It is the code monkeys (local guys at a company called Avidyne) writing the software for the avionics. They’ve had about five years to catch up to the aeronautical and mechanical engineers, but it hasn’t been enough. Despite the reliably disappointing performance of the world’s computer nerds, the Eclipse should be shipping in June. We watched one of the test airplanes taxiing around and taking off. It is remarkably quiet on the ramp, perhaps 10 dB quieter than a standard business jet. It is also reasonably quiet on takeoff, probably quiet enough not to annoy neighbors at small airports. In an Eclipse jet, we could have made the trip that is the subject of this blog entry in one easy day without too much skill or planning. With de-icing boots on the wings and tail, you can go up into an ice-filled cloud. With the amazing climb power of the jet engines, you can get above that ice-filled cloud and into clear air 40,000′ above sea level. Using compressed air from the same jet engines, you will never be breathing air thinner than what you’d get at 8,000′ above sea level. We might have made one stop in the Midwest to clear customs and refuel, then gone straight to Hayward in time for dinner.
Dreaming is nice, but the Eclipse jet isn’t certified and we didn’t have $1.5 million in our wallets. So we paid for 10 gallons of gas to top the DA20 back up and departed over I-40 West. The rain and clouds got pretty thick in the high terrain around Gallup, New Mexico and for a few minutes we considered landing at Gallup and calling it a day. But two guys will do a lot dumber things than one guy alone, so we pressed on to Winslow, Arizona (KINW) where Dr. Doug executed a perfect GPS approach under the hood. The FBO was closed, but a couple of very helpful folks at the (reputedly excellent) on-airport Mexican restaurant got us set up with a hotel and taxi. Winslow’s biggest employer is the Santa Fe railroad, which houses and changes crews at here. Winslow is also known for its appearance in the lyrics of an Eagles song and features a “Standin’ on the Corner” park complete with a statue of a guy and a genuine vintage flatbed Ford truck.
We woke up in our truly crummy Best Western Adobe Inn and got a somewhat discouraging weather briefing. Scattered rain showers with low clouds and poor visibility across our route. Not quite bad enough to push us back under the covers, but not good enough that we felt sure of making it to our next airport. Ever since leaving Albuquerque, the weather briefers had become much more bureaucratic and much less helpful. Fortunately, the Winslow airport lounge had high-speed Internet access and we were able to look at the weather RADAR ourselves. It seemed as though the rain showers were much worse to the SW of the big mountain just to the N of Flagstaff. We talked to a local pilot about the terrain, checked the chart, and decided to abandon I-40 and divert around to the north of this 12,000′ peak. Our liftoff from this runway 5,000′ above sea level was leisurely. The airplane needs more ground-speed to get the same number of air molecules flowing over its wings yet at the same time the (non-turbocharged) engine is producing less horsepower because there aren’t as many air molecules to burn.
We enjoyed a sightseeing detour over the meteor crater, described as “just a big hole in the ground” by a clerk at the Best Western. The visibility under the clouds was excellent and the rain showers were indeed only scattered on the north side of the high terrain. Getting back down to I-40 was a little more challenging. At one point we went as low as 300′ above the ground to remain clear of the clouds. Once we picked up I-40, it was an easy if bumpy trip to Kingman, Arizona (KIGM) where the winds were gusting to about 20 knots. We visited the famous Sheble Aviation, where people do accelerated flight training. The on-field airport restaurant was good, but otherwise there seemed to be few distractions in town. Maybe people get their multi-engine rating in three days because they are so anxious to get out of Kingman…
We had good clear weather from Kingman to Barstow. It was a bit bumpy in the air and Barstow was reporting winds of greater than 30 knots on the surface. We had planned to push through to Bakersfield, on the other side of the 7000′-high Tehachapi Mountains, but low clouds and rain made it seem wiser to stop in Lancaster-Palmdale, California (KWJF). These are true wastelands in the Mojave desert, exurban sprawl towns where people commute 3+ hours per day to and from jobs in Greater Los Angeles. Locals told us that chains such as Olive Garden are considered among the finer dining establishments. We had a fairly good Indian meal served by an Afghani immigrant waitress.
Flight service was quite discouraging when we asked for a weather briefing to Hayward, California. We would have two rides to cross. The first was the 7000′ Tehachapis. The second would be the mountains running just east of the San Francisco Bay, though these could be circumvented with a trip up to Concord, California and then a flight around the shore of the Bay. “VFR not recommended” was the conclusion. We were going to find clouds obscuring the mountains, clouds going up to 20,000′, far above the DA20’s climb capabilities (and we did not have an oxygen bottle on board), and rain. Palmdale might be the Paris of the Mojave, but it is not Paris. Plus it was clear enough right over the airport. We decided to take off and see the clouds for ourselves. As we climbed through 8,000′ on our way up to 10,500′, we could see Bakersfield clearly over the top of the Tehachapi ridge. We were definitely going to make it into the Central Valley and from there we could fly 1000′ over I-5 if necessary. Low clouds as we proceeded north forced us down to about 2000′ and it was bumpy. There didn’t seem to be a clear and obvious path over the final set of mountains between us and Hayward, so we landed in the face of a stiff breeze at Los Banos, California (KLSN). This is home to a 5-ship, 65-student helicopter school, a branch of Silver State Helicopters. They were looking to hire an additional instructor or two and threatened to kidnap me. Half an hour in Los Banos seemed like more than enough, however, so we continued up I-5 with the intention of cutting over the mountains at Livermore. The pass would have been doable, but it seemed as though we’d pressed our luck enough in one trip. We decided to take the extra 30 minutes and stay over the flat sprawling terrain around Concord and then the San Francisco Bay. We landed in Hayward on Wednesday afternoon around 1:00 pm, almost exactly five days and 25 flight hours after departing London, Ontario.
After arriving at our destination, we went for lunch at Buffalo Bill’s Brewery on B Street in Hayward, home of Alimony Ale, the “world’s bitterest brew”. Doug talked to the folks at International Aircraft Services, which is handling the containerization of the DA20, while I went out with his wife Beth, who had done about 10 hours of flight training the early 1990s. Most of my fixed-wing students have been working on instrument ratings and are reasonably good pilots. The first hour with Beth was a little rough. I’d look out over the nose of the plane, where the horizon usually was, and see nothing but clouds and sky, the little airplane hanging from the prop. “This attitude might work in an F16,” I noted, “but I have a feeling that 125 horsepower won’t hold us here indefinitely..” The airspeed did decay, but the DA20 is incredibly forgiving and never stalled.
Wednesday night was dinner with cousin Doug and family. On Thursday, I met Paul and some other Bay Area thinkers for a drop-in social breakfast at Saul’s Deli in Berkeley. The Bay Area seems to support a lot more ad hoc socializing than the East Coast. It seems to be mostly fairly technical middle-aged guys who are attracted to such events, so if you’re already a middle-aged nerd you won’t be broadening your circle. I drove back to Hayward to meet with Doug and Beth for some strip-mall sushi and ground school before going up to help Doug do some touch-and-goes from the right seat (where he’ll be as Beth learns to fly). Then Paul showed up and I took him for a quick tour over Berkeley and San Francisco. Then Beth and I did a couple of patterns and we dropped the plane off with the merchanics who are going to take the wings off.
Thursday night was a delicious dinner at JoJo’s with Joel, Karen, and Nomi. We watched Grizzly Man on DVD afterwards. I’d spent some time in the same national park where Timonthy Treadwell and his girlfriend met their end, so it was a little sobering to see that it might be best to stick close to the lodge, the plane, and/or one’s guns…
I spent Friday at the new De Young Museum, which replaced an earthquake-damaged structure. The cost of the new museum was $202 million for 84,000 square feet of gallery space. It is reasonably nice, but no more effective than an airplane hangar with some dividers. A prefab steel airplane hangar costs around $30 per square foot to construct, or $2.5 million for 84,000 square feet. After the De Young, I stopped downtown at Yank Sing for some dim sum, then spent about 30 minutes at 3:15 p.m. traveling the final three blocks before getting onto the Bay Bridge ramp. This reminded me of my idea for dealing with California traffic by buying a monster RV and hiring a driver (see separate posting).
Saturday was devoted to flying with Ken and Bonnie Thompson. Ken was one of the three initial developers of the C programming language and the Unix operating system, back at Bell Labs in the early 1970s. I used to hate Unix and C, and indeed they turned out to be the worst possible forms of computing… except for all of the others. Ken flies a Cessna 182 with Garmin G1000 avionics out of the Reid-Hillview Airport in San Jose. The 182 was the standard family man’s airplane for decades and remains extremely popular for its ability to haul a lot of weight and land on short runways, but I had never flown one before. We flew 1.5 hours northwest under clouds and up the coast to Shelter Cove, an isolated outpost of 200 full-time residents on California’s “Lost Coast”. The coast is “lost” because it is too rugged and unpopulated to make it worth running Highway 1 along. You can get to Shelter Cove from Highway 101 in a car, but it is a winding 45-minute drive on mountain roads and the only way out is to go back via the same road. Arriving via airplane is a lot more convenient, especially as the golf course and most of the rest of the town are arranged around the paved runway (0Q5, 3400′). The winter spirit of Shelter Cove is about as close as you can get to Alaska’s without leaving the Lower 48. Folks become full-time residents here only if they enjoy a lot of time to themselves. Ken and Bonnie have a spacious open-plan house on the hillside with fantastic views of the ocean. You can rent it, and get an airplane ride up there from one of the world’s most successful software engineers, by visiting http://www.cyberrentals.com/USA/California/North-Coast/vacation-house-Shelter-Cove/p108611.htm .
On Saturday night, I joined Faith D’Aluisio and Peter Menzel, authors of Material World and Hungry Planet, for dinner in Napa with Peter’s son Jack, who went straight from college to work at Microsoft. Jack had been my conduit for suggestions on how to fix Windows XP Mobile (Microsoft’s moderately dumb operating system for “smartphones”). I won’t be able to provide Microsoft with any more free advice, however; Jack recently quit his job at Microsoft to work at Google.
I had planned to spend Sunday relaxing in the pool and hot tub under the Napa sun, but the rain that they’ve had here for more than a month is continuing. JetBlue back to Boston on Monday…