March 19 – April 05, 2004
By Sue Ramsay
A trip to California had always been on our wish-list of projected travels, but was invariably put to the “back burner” because it appeared to be such an undertaking. However, when some close family members moved there a year ago, the incentive was provided – so this was the year!
Our routing door to door, beginning toward the south, comprised close to 5000 nm and 40 hours of airtime, and we were either in, or traversed +/- 20 of the domestic States.
We departed IFR from home base Peterborough, Ont. (CYPQ) in light haze and ground fog, climbing to 10,000 ft with an OAT of -11 degrees and a ground speed of around 138 knots, over solid overcast with tops around 4,000 feet.
Most of the leg to our customs stop remained above solid overcast, and for our descent into Fort Wayne Indiana (FWA), we broke out at around 3,000 feet in heavy haze. This time, our customs officer was much more thorough in his paperwork, requesting to see most of our documentation and comparing it to what we had been requested to fax prior to our departure. But ever courteous, we were bid a gracious welcome to the US of A.
From Fort Wayne, we departed back into solid overcast, breaking out at around 4,000 feet on our way back up to 10,000. It was only near Indianapolis, the overcast gave way to thin scattered, with an OAT of around +3C. It was near Terre Haute where conditions turned to SKC - and our ground speed dropped to 115 knots at best.
As we continued our routing Southwest bound, whilst flying between the Troy and Vichy VORs, we heard ATC instruct another aircraft with an expression we had never heard: “QBALL.”
My first response to an unknown expression is to look on the map at all the surrounding intersections for an “explanation,” but since this one continued to evade my search and my curiosity was piqued, I subsequently posted a message on the AOPA message boards. An invaluable resource in itself, the mystery was promptly solved by a number of knowledgeable pilots who responded to my question, revealing that QBALL is a reporting point fix for approaches into St Louis – and they even provided a web site that has a section specifically for QBALL (Air Nav Info on Fix “Qball”: www.airnav.com/cgi-bin/fix-info/QBALL).
Something new is learned every trip - even if I should have been able to unravel this one for myself!
Our first overnight stop over was Lebanon, Missouri, where we landed at the Floyd W. Jones Airport (LBO). This most courteous FBO provided us with a loaner car which allowed us a glimpse of rural Missouri’s countryside on our way into town.
Departing Lebanon the following morning, we climbed to 10,000 feet through an overcast layer with bases around 3,000, a layer at 6,000, considerable shear through 7,000 and tops around 8,000. The view from 10,000 feet was quite spectacular - and our storm scope gave us an indication of the weather we were leaving behind!
This overcast remained with us pretty well all the way across Oklahoma, blocking our view of the country beneath, though we did get a little peek at Oklahoma city as broken gave way to SKC shortly before our arrival at our projected fuel stop, Clinton (CSM), OK.
Arriving in the circuit there, just prior to landing, we were informed there was no Av Gas available at that time, which left us with a bit of a scramble to make alternate plans. We over-flew the Clinton-Sherman airport, and opted to land at a smaller airport called Elk City (ELK) OK, since it was a few miles North West of Clinton and almost along our route of flight.
Upon arrival there, we found a Poker Run in full swing and winds gusting close to 30 knots – apparently a regular occurrence around those parts. However, the facilities were excellent and the FBO folk were most friendly and helpful.
Leaving Elk City and Oklahoma, our route took us into Texas over some totally arid areas that melded into irrigated farmland with small towns dotted about, the largest being Amarillo.
Still at 10,000 feet, flying over the Texas Panhandle gave an unimaginable view of the countryside, such impressive expanses of farmland as far as the eye could see... lending credence to the renowned Texas Ego and the stories of Texas’ greatness that emanate from the Lone Star State.
There is no doubt in my mind, a small aircraft just has to be the ultimate in personal transportation for travel, the revelations provided by this bird’s eye perspective of the country being simply unparalleled by any other mode.
As we flew over the Panhandle and into New Mexico, I observed many large dark areas dotted throughout the farmland, it being not immediately evident what they were. My curiosity once again piqued, I adjusted the zoom on the video camera ... which revealed that these were huge feed lot operations, with literally thousands of animals locked into compartmentalized pens.
Our overnight was slated for Roswell (ROW), NM ... of “The 1947 Roswell Incident” repute. Arrival in the circuit at Roswell provided a spectacular view other than of “potential Aliens” – it being a veritable “parking lot” for aircraft belonging to many well known companies.
We rented a car through the Roswell FBO, Great Southwest Aviation Inc, tied down and headed into town to find our hotel and look around the vicinity. The first place I insisted on visiting was the Roswell International UFO Museum & Research Center.
Not very large, it nonetheless provides in depth background information and witness accounts of the alleged UFO landing and subsequent happenings.
From there, we headed out of town to see the countryside and to get an idea of what life was like in New Mexico. As we were landing, I had spotted one of those feed lots previously observed from the air just out of town, so we located it on our map and drove by for a visit.
It was apparently a Fresian breeding stock operation, and though both the animals and the pens were spotlessly clean, and the copious quantities of hay was all absolutely top quality, and was stored under cover, the odour from the manure lagoon was potent enough to knock you off your feet. Needless to say, we did not dally there long – though given the direction and the strength of the wind, it was hard to escape it wherever you went.
Following a very pleasant and informative stay at Roswell, we took off the following day into solid overcast, with bases of 4,500 feet and tops of 9,000 feet, to level out at 10,000 feet.
Unfortunately, once again, we saw nothing of the country beneath us between Roswell and El Paso, Texas, though the cloud did begin to break up as we turned along the U.S./Mexico boarder.
At this point, we were sent up to 12,000 feet. As we donned our oxygen, the clouds became thin scattered to reveal low valleys and mountainous, desert terrain, irrigation farming and salt lakes.
Our fuel stop was Tucson Ryan Field (RYN), Arizona. Exiting the mountains at 8,000 feet, the city of Tucson & Ryan Field suddenly appeared, just close enough for a rapid descent to 3,400 feet without pause, straight into the down wind!
This made for an interesting approach – leaving no time for photography - for added to our swift descent was considerable turbulence, our approach akin to riding a bucking bronco.
The OAT was 32C as we lined up to land 06R, with winds of 30G36 from 080. Stepping out of the plane, we were nearly blown off the wing, and walking was difficult. However, after a good lunch and refuelling, we decided to continue on to our next planned destination, Las Vegas, since conditions all along that route were forecast to become increasingly favourable and were to remain SKC - fortunately for us!
The view of the ever-changing scenery was quite spectacular, and included desert like mountains interspersed with symmetrical croplands, leaving one wondering what must be undertaken to eke crops out of such a land.
As we turned north toward Nevada and entered the western edge of California, still in VMC, but flying in the IFR system, the unthinkable happened. Without any warning whatsoever, an alert appeared on our TSO’d GPS that our “Data Card had failed.” Needless to say, this called for some rapid CRM since we were now essentially reduced to VFR.
At this very point, ATC gave us a routing change, so I took that opportunity to inform them that we no longer had RNAV capability. And to complicate matters further, VOR in mountainous regions more often than not cannot be relied upon at the altitudes we fly, fluctuating in and out and often not coming “alive” until almost over top of them.
So, we resorted to our back-up equipment – our hand-held GPS - and continued to destination in the IFR system under VFR, the (fortunate) SKC conditions allowing us to continue to enjoy the view in spite of this setback!
We had decided to land at Las Vegas Henderson Executive (HND), a very busy airfield situated south of the city. The FBO there helped us to find a hotel, difficult at the best of times if you have not booked ahead.
In luck, we opted to take a taxi into town ... having discovered that a car rental was apparently practically impossible to arrange at the last minute!
Since the main reason for our stop in Las Vegas was to see the Grand Canyon by helicopter rather than driving around the area, the lack of a rental car was not an issue. However, I did take the opportunity to walk the Vegas Strip, going into a variety of the Casinos – even though I did not bet even one dollar!
Upon arrival at our hotel, I phoned our GPS provider to obtain a replacement Data Card. However, since the weather was to remain VFR and we would be staying for about a week with the family in California, we had the card expedited “Red” to their address in Palmdale, so that we would have more time to look into the situation in a more leisurely manner.
This settled, we proceeded with our plans ... our helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon! We were picked up at our hotel by the Heli USA driver and taken to the McCarran (LAS) Airport – which just happened to be over the back fence of our hotel! There were six of us in the copter, including our pilot, and we were just one of a long line of helicopters taking people to see the Canyon.
Flying north out of Las Vegas, we first viewed Lake Meade and the Hoover Dam, the brilliant blue of the water standing out against the sandy landscape.
Onwards into the Canyon, flying just below the rim, swooping over ledges into great expanses of depth to look down on the Colorado River - a most highly recommended experience!
Flight time for this trip is about 1-1/2 hours, and the pilot is very knowledgeable about the archaeology and history of the region, including lots to tell about the various major movies that were produced in the vicinity.
The return flight included an over flight of the Vegas strip, likely the best way to see it
Leaving Nevada the following morning, we remained in the IFR system using our hand held GPS for the short flight to Palmdale, California. The weather remained fair all along our route, with fascinating desert terrain and lakes dotted here and there. We landed in Lancaster at the Willy J. Fox Airport right on schedule.
Once we were settled for our planned stay of about a week with the family, we installed and tested the new GPS card that was waiting for us upon arrival. However, it became immediately apparent that our problems were not over - and we had to resort to the assistance of one of UPS AT’s technical experts to finally succeed in getting the GPS back on line.
This accomplished, this most helpful person confirmed our suspicions that the source of our problem was likely caused by some sort of electrical surge rather than actual Data Card failure.
As luck would have it, there was a fully equipped engineering shop at our FBO, and these obliging people efficiently looked into the problem, testing out our electrical system. However, since nothing overtly apparent showed up, we knew that we would be overhauling the system once home.
Meantime, we did a test flight to check out the GPS functions – taking the opportunity to overfly the Mojave Airport which, as well as being a parking lot for unused aircraft – is Bert Rutan’s base of operations. We later drove over there to the restaurant for lunch, to find a very busy place - where Bert Rutan is considered just one of the folk!
We spent the better part of a week in the region, among other things, doing what most tourists do. We went into L.A. and saw the Stars Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard, the Hollywood “sign,” Beverly Hills and Bel Aire, the Pacific Coast Highway and Malibu, and specifically the actual location where the Rockford Files was filmed.
However, we by far preferred the desert side of the area which offered (to us) much more of interest, such as the aqueduct that supplies all of L.A.’s water, and the miles and miles of mountains totally covered with wind generators.
The weather had remained totally favourable throughout our stay in California, and since there was still the potential for further electrical problems, and because our routing eastward was to take us through the mountains and unfamiliar terrain, we decided to “stay with” the prevailing high. Foregoing our projected visit to San Francisco and Yosemite, we left Lancaster in a circling climb to 10,000 feet in order to clear the mountains to the west.
Our routing took us north from Lancaster, over wide valleys of fertile, flat farm country and orange groves, with snow covered mountains east of our track, and over Yosemite and Bakersfield.
As we turned east toward the mountains, we were sent up to 13,000 feet, so donned our oxygen. En route our projected fuel stop, Reno/Stead Airfield (4SD), our ground speed increased to more than 150 knots, and our track took us right over Lake Tahoe, offering a superb view.
With an elevation of 5,046 feet, our approach into Stead required a circling descent as we cleared the mountains to find the Airport in the bottom of what resembled a large bowl. Though Reno/Stead is the home of the Reno Air Races, that day there was very little activity, no FBO in evidence, and just a credit card operated fuel station.
We refuelled and departed eastward at 12,000 feet, to be once again expedited to 13,000 feet “for terrain.” With a density altitude of 14,668 feet, we were back on oxygen - passing almost close enough to touch the snowy cap of the mountains.
Our route took us over irrigation farming, lakes and deep valleys laid out between the ridges of snow capped mountains like wind breaks and as we approached Salt Lake City, a panoramic moonscape of salt flats and salt lakes opened up.
Our overnight stop was to be Bountiful Skypark (BTF), located slightly north west of Salt Lake City International (SLC). Our vectored descent from 13,000 feet was about the closest that a small aircraft can get to a Slam-Dunk approach. The clearance was for a base leg to RWY 35 at SLC International, which we were to over fly and expect vectors from there to Bountiful - all in all, likely one of the busiest and most “interesting” (not to say “fun”) approaches we have ever experienced.
Though the Salt Lake City area is obviously a fascinating place to visit, in order to “stay” with our high, we did not dally there, and took off the next morning – experiencing another “interesting” departure out of Bountiful.
In order to stay out of Salt Lake City’s airspace, we were instructed to depart VFR with a climbing left turn, and to “hug” the slope of the mountains to the east of Bountiful. We were vectored throughout the climb, passing through a canyon between the mountains as we turned eastward en route to our assigned altitude of 13,000 feet – and we never did receive our IFR clearance.
Once through that mountain range, the terrain fell away sharply, our track keeping us pretty much over Interstate 80. There was still ice in the lakes and snow in the crevasses, the ground rough and desert like, a vista of barren lands and lower mountains that gradually gave way to high plains around 6,800 feet in elevation.
It was about this point that our electrical system decided to play up again, evidenced by the alternator cutting out. This time, the GPS was not affected - and after closing the alternator breaker for a few minutes, luckily for us, we were “back in business” (our electrical problem was eventually solved by replacing the regulator).
Leaving all superfluous electrics turned off for the remainder of that leg, we opted to stop overnight at Alliance (AIA), Nebraska, mostly to escape the increasing turbulence from a weather system ahead of us.
Re-entering the vast farmlands of Nebraska, South Dakota, Indiana, and Minnesota, superb as they may be, the view appeared almost monotonous compared to the variety of ever changing “eye candy” of the Western states.
From Alliance, we continued on to Rochester (RST), Minnesota where we stayed with friends for a few days. We toured some parts of the region that we had not seen during previous visits, in particular “Slippery’s Café” overlooking the Mississippi in Wabasha, where the movie “Grumpy old Men” was filmed.
From there, we went into Wisconsin to see the Red Wing Airport that came highly recommended. Interestingly enough, though physically located in Wisconsin, it is actually part of the town of Red Wing and is listed as a Minnesota Airport.
We returned home via our usual fuel stop of Grand Rapids (GRR) Michigan ... entering Canada to find Lake Simcoe still iced over and lots of snow remaining in the hedgerows - bringing us back to reality from likely one of the most memorable of our trips to date.
www.AirNav.com (A most useful resource of pertinent Aviation information)
www.IUfoMrc.org (UFO Museum, Roswell)
www.nps.gov/grca (Grand Canyon – National Parks Service)
www.FoxAirfield.com (Lancaster, CA)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burt_Rutan (About Burt Rutan’s exploits @ Mojave, CA)
www.SaltInstitute.org/3.html (About Salt mining)