Humans need adventure, stories and new experiences. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard friends talk about the millionth approach to the same old runway, but I still listen because I love to fly.
My first dreams of becoming a pilot were born while flying with my father to remote bush camps in northern British Columbia and Alaska. How easy it seemed to jump into a small airplane in downtown Vancouver, and within two hours, arrive at a completely different world. We’d step out of the cockpit into the wilds of nature—no lights, no traffic—a remoteness that we were privileged to access thanks to general aviation.
As a pilot, I get wrapped up in technical details: how fast and how high. As a CFII, I focus on lesson progression. But today is different: I simply want to check weather, preflight and depart to a new destination for a new experience.
1:00 p.m.: “Clear prop!” Jessica Ambats and I bring to life the Cirrus SR20 that we’ve rented from Seaside Aviation at Santa Monica Airport in California. The baggage compartment is loaded with camping gear, but not much else. Most of my flight time has been logged in older airplanes with steam gauges. I’m impressed by the simplicity of the electronic checklists on the Avidyne glass panel. There’s no need to reach for paper—it’s all in front of you and easy to read.
1:15 p.m.: “Cirrus 453AT, cleared for takeoff, runway 21, right turn at shoreline approved.” I advance the throttle, and the SR20 jumps at the bit. A gentle pull on the side stick, and we’re airborne. For once, I’m not fixated on our climb rate, but I smile as the houses below get smaller. During my three years as an instructor and director at American Flyers, I’ve taught students how to fly cross-country trips but never got the chance to do them myself. It’s my turn to relax and do a different type of flying than the methodical student training I’ve grown accustomed to. Jessica posts up on the radios, and not having to monitor every word is a relief. This adventure feels fresh, fun and even spontaneous.
Death Valley National Park is home to the lowest, driest and hottest locations in North America.
Airport sits at 211 feet below sea level.
1:30 p.m.: We’re level at 5,500 feet on an easterly heading. The Cirrus is fast, but I’m not obsessing over knots like I normally might. We’re going, and that’s what matters. Whether you’re a new student pilot or a Boeing 747 captain, there’s a moment during each of our aviation lifetimes when we feel warm inside and say to ourselves, “Hey, I’m flying an airplane!” Right now is my moment.
1:45 p.m.: The mountains of Angeles National Forest make their last step, and the flat vastness of the Mojave Desert appears over our cowling. An endless stretch ahead is calling, and we feel free. Death Valley, our ominously named destination, features the lowest terrain in North America (Badwater Basin is 282 feet below sea level) and the hottest recorded temperature in the Western Hemisphere (134 degrees F in 1913). The Winter Solstice is just around the corner, and a low of 30 degrees is expected at Furnace Creek Airport—probably a good thing, because I forgot our water in the car.
1:55 p.m.: Jessica contacts Joshua Approach. Although it’s tempting to continue our journey without talking to anyone, we want to see if we can get approval to fly through the restricted airspace over Edwards Air Force Base. Just because.
2 p.m.: We’re cleared through R-2515 and R-2524 at or above 6,000 feet. Even from up here, the runways at Edwards, which are used as a landing alternate for the space shuttle, are amazingly huge. Additional airstrips are carved right into the dry lakebed of Rogers Lake, and their runway numbers look like they were etched by giants into the earth.
2:45 p.m.: We ask approach for lower, and descend to 4,500 feet to search for more goodies in the Wild West. Near the big blue “I” in RESTRICTED R-2524 on the Los Angeles Sectional, we spot an old wind-blown and sand-blasted aircraft that has seen better days. We weave between rugged mountain peaks and make our way over desolate terrain into the valley. Approach advises that there’s no traffic in sight, and that we should change frequency and squawk VFR. Another euphoric wave of freedom takes over.
We’re cleared by Joshua Approach into restricted area R-2515 and pass by Edwards Air Force Base.
2:55 p.m.: The panorama of Death Valley National Park from above rewards us with dreamlike patterns of sands, rock formations and salt flats. We listen to music on an iPod Nano through the airplane’s audio-input jack, and we throttle back, flying lazy, sweeping S-turns to take it all in.
3:15 p.m.: This is my first time landing a Cirrus and my first time witnessing an altimeter go below zero feet. As we turn final for the northern runway at Furnace Creek Airport, which sits at 211 feet below sea level, I reduce power, and the aircraft follows the movement of my hand on the side stick. I line up on the centerline, and the SR20 handles the earth like an old friend when our wheels touch down. We taxi to the empty ramp—it feels as though we’re driving on a sun-scorched road—and shut down.
3:20 p.m.: It’s completely quiet, and the dry desert air is remarkably still. My ears ring in the silence. The ramp looks and feels like cracked lips in need of ChapStick. The crowded city sprawl is now a memory, and I’m amazed at the sudden transformation of landscape that our airplane has provided in only two hours. (And we didn’t have to honk at a single person.) It’s just like the trips with my father up north, when piloting was still a dream. We’re giddy but we don’t say much as we savor the moment.
4:15 p.m.: Our tent is pitched and sleeping bags ready. The surrounding valley turns golden with the sunset.
5:00 p.m.: The first lights appear in the darkened sky. We cheer at shooting stars, watch in awe when satellites cross overhead and try to identify constellations as they appear over the horizon. The desert night is alive, and the legion of stars makes the sky brighter than it is dark. Looking at the night sky, just as humans have for thousands of years, makes you appreciate being in the moment. We set up a tripod and camera in an effort to capture the sentiment.
6:00 p.m.: There are some things you just can’t leave behind. (Water is one of them, Jessica reminds me.) We plug a mini-projector into the iPod Nano, and Top Gun illuminates the Cirrus fuselage, our makeshift movie screen.
9:00 p.m.: The sun has been down for more than four hours, and temperatures are sinking. We bundle up in our warmest clothes and take shelter in the sleeping bags.
Miles of sand dunes stretch to the west of Stovepipe Wells Airport.
6:45 a.m.: I awaken to the howl of what I think is Maverick doing a flyby, but instead discover a pack of coyotes singing to the rising sun. They’re just a few yards away. The air is frigid, and I’m not ready to be awake, but we’re now on Coyote Standard Time and the howling persists. We watch as the wild animals inspect our ride, jump onto the wind tee, then scurry across the runway and vanish into the scrub brush.
8:30 a.m.: Coffee is a must. We hop into our flying machine and take off. Jessica flies a couple of touch-and-goes (“just because”), and the Little Cirrus That Could whistles to the cold morning sky.
8:50 a.m.: It’s a pretty approach over sand dunes into Stovepipe Wells, only 16 nm to the northwest. The runway isn’t as well maintained as at Furnace Creek, but it’s still decent for landing, and we can’t resist. The early-morning air is unmoving, and I touch down on runway 23, turn around at the end and depart on 05.
9:00 a.m.: The Avidyne display tells us that density altitude is minus-1,700 feet—1,700 feet below sea level! The Continental IO-360 is performing at 102% power. However, I’m not performing quite as well. Coffee: direct enter enter.
9:15 a.m.: Joshua Approach clears us through the restricted airspace again. We’re making good time heading back west. But it doesn’t feel good. The shift from our desert existence to “real life” in Los Angeles seems too abrupt. We need to ease the transition, and a “spaceport” seems like an appropriate setting. Next stop: Mojave.
Enjoying the moment with a panoramic view of Death Valley from a Cirrus SR20.
10:00 a.m.: Rows of large, sleeping airliners are in sight so we ask approach for a frequency change. You never know what you’ll see at Mojave, which serves as a test bed for civilian aerospace. We park the Cirrus between an L-39 Albatros and a PA20 Pacer, and just down the ramp loom several menacing-looking F-14 Tomcats (I expect Maverick to appear). We settle in at the Voyager Airport Restaurant. Coffee is good.
12:30 p.m.: No matter how much you don’t want a flying trip to end, it’s always comforting to hear what I like to call “local mothers,” controllers from your home base area. SoCal is our local mother, and she welcomes us back to the Los Angeles basin. Today is so clear that we can see Catalina Island, the Channel Islands and beyond. It’s so different from the typical haze to which we’re accustomed that the limitless view is almost disorienting.
12:45 p.m.: We’re not ready to end the journey just yet, so a detour toward the Malibu shore for a surf check is in order. The swell is mellow, good for a longboard—clean, waist-high waves, not too steep. We orbit over Point Dume and check local surf spots at Surfrider Beach, Topanga Point and Sunset Beach. On the edge of Santa Monica’s airspace, we make one last effort to prolong the voyage. “Santa Monica Tower, Cirrus 453AT over Palisades with Poppa, request low-level shoreline transition for left traffic, runway 21.” We drop down to 500 feet, pass the Santa Monica Pier, smile down on the Venice Beach break surfers and start a climbing turn to join the pattern.
1:00 p.m.: We shut down on the ramp at Seaside Aviation, and pause for a moment. All is still quiet from inside the cockpit. The SR20 has become a friend—like the bond a surfer has with a surfboard. It dawns on us that not once on this trip did we step more than 100 feet from our airplane. Death Valley was the destination, but the Cirrus was the adventure. We hesitantly open the gull-wing doors, and the world rushes in. I can’t wait to relive the journey again by sharing the story with friends at the airport. There’s a saying on the water: “Only a surfer knows the feeling.” The same is true of us in the sky: “Only an aviator knows the feeling.”