So far on this journey, which gives real meaning to the term cross-country, Mrs. Levinson and I have seen our first mercifully mild mountain waves, and we've vibrated our way through the strongest, most sustained turbulence we've ever seen. ATC has kept us clear of a rapidly growing embedded cell, underestimated by XM NEXRAD. Mostly though, we've had a great time getting into our first high-country flying, and are now ready to head across the Rockies into California and on.
Santa Fe To Sedona
It looks good in Santa Fe this morning, but Sedona isn't so simple, with a moderate low-pressure system and TAFs predicting overcast 6,000 with AIRMET Z from 10,000-20,000 feet. For a flatland pilot, this requires some reorientation. METAR, TAF and FA altitudes are AGL. AIRMETs are MSL. Ground level on this leg will be 5-6,000 MSL, so VFR at 10,500 puts us just inside the AIRMET, but below the clouds and ice.
I got my pilot's license in 2004 and my instrument rating a year later. Since then, almost all of my long-distance flying and flying to unfamiliar locations has been IFR. I've become uncomfortable with VFR flight, mostly out of concern for finding unfamiliar airports and not finding restricted areas until coming to regulatory grief. That dependence on ATC is a crutch I want to discard, and this trip is the time. All my friends advised VFR for mountain flying precisely because of weather like today. I need the altitude flexibility to stay between the ice and the granite.
We take off with light winds, 9,000 overcast. Near the hills just west of Santa Fe, there's some low scud and it gets close to us, but we don't have to descend to remain clear. There's no precipitation and, although the outside air temperature is consistently below freezing, ice isn't a concern.
I get flight following right after takeoff and, to prevent losing communication with ATC in this unfamiliar and mountainous territory, I ask each new controller for my next frequency and where it will commence. They accommodate without snickering.
The engine doesn't sputter. The wings remain attached. The mountains don't block communications. Life is good as we overfly high desert with scattered buttes. I plan to circumnavigate the small White Sands restricted area, but ATC assures me it's cold today. We pass Winslow, Ariz., and if you're close to my age, the song will come to your mind, too. Soon after, Meteor Crater appears and is impressive.
|Out of Santa Fe for Sedona|
Nearing Sedona, the geography becomes complex, and the rocks turn red like nothing we've ever seen. Winds are calm, so runway 3 is in use, sloping uphill at 1.8%. If you haven't landed at KSEZ, you must. We've been to some gorgeous airports, but Sedona tops my personal list of drop-dead-beautiful airports. Standing pretty much anywhere and scanning 360 degrees, there's nothing flat, nothing repetitious, nothing you couldn't look at all day. Lunch at the airport restaurant is fine, and the setting is dramatic in a separate building with high ceilings and tall plate-glass windows.
We tour Sedona by car and hike the spectacular Cathedral Rock Trail. Dinner at Picazzo's Organic Italian Kitchen is outstanding, but if we return too often, a weight-and-balance problem will ensue. The next morning, we hike the picturesque Fay Canyon Trail, but I hardly notice, excited to start the main attraction of the day and of my flying career.
Auspicious how this has worked out. Today would have been my dad's 96th birthday. In World War II, he was a pilot with the Eighth Air Force. We know he flew in B17s, and we think he was pilot rated in them. We don't know for sure if he ever flew a mission, and if so, in what role, but flying in World War II was an incredibly vivid part of his life, filled with purpose and emotion. I fly because he flew.
One week ago, just before departing on this trip of a lifetime, was our 24th wedding anniversary, and my wife arranged a formation photo flight for today in Sedona. We hadn't realized it would be my dad's birthday, but there it is.
|The red carpet treatment at KMRY|
At 3 p.m., Mrs. Levinson and I walk into the briefing room of the Sedona Airport to meet Jessica Ambats and her team. Barry Foust will pilot the A36 Bonanza photo ship, and Cheryl Cotman, a student pilot, will be his spotter. The large door is already removed, and Jessica will be harnessed in place to direct the operation and shoot the photos. Paul "Sticky" Strickland will fly with me. Sticky, who now flies for the airlines, is no stranger to aerobatics. He flew more than 160 air shows with the Thunderbirds and now flies slot position in L-39s with the Patriots Jet Team. Saying that Sticky will fly with me aggrandizes my role. Sticky, with no Mooney time at all, wants me on board only for the landing, and he needs me for nothing.
The briefing is a warm and relaxed but well-planned, no-nonsense affair—thorough, clear and professional. Everything is covered from takeoff to landing, including route, communications, contingencies and everything else you might think of. I learn a lot. For example, I've always advised passengers to look for traffic, but that has never been helpful, and that's because I was briefing them poorly. Passengers should be asked to advise "directive then descriptive." Good calls might be, "No factor, small plane far to our right," or maybe, "Climb left now for a jet converging from our 2 o'clock." A bad call is the one we always hear, "Ummm … there's a plane coming toward us. Do you see it?"
The flight goes by in a blur. Takeoff at 1715 is to the northeast as a flight of two, the Bonanza on the runway with us, ahead and to our left. We follow the Bonanza in a variety of formations, generally separated by about 10-20 feet. On the return, I take the controls and land runway 3 with winds 320 at 14 gusting 19. I'm not at my best and get us caught in the approach-end downdraft as I aim unwisely for the numbers. Mercifully, 1WB has plenty of power, and I see it in time to manage a rolling rendezvous with asphalt.
By the time we say our good-byes, it's full night. I'm charged up and exhausted all at once. Theresa and I find a Mexican restaurant. We relive this amazing day and then hunker off like bears to hibernation. I don't know if we will see Barry and Cheryl again, but I hope so. I hope Cheryl goes on to get her license. I think she will, but I've been surprised to learn how often people quit midway. I know we will see Jessica and Sticky again.
Sedona To Oxnard
We awaken early to clear skies and no wind. The route to California is cluttered with special-use airspace, all of it hot. I plan VFR 10,500 MSL on an airway to stay clear of granite and SUAs. The website www.fltplan.com predicts 129 minutes, 43 gallons, and it's spooky how accurate they are. The flight takes 131 minutes, 45.2 gallons. In fact, the fuel discrepancy in this case is no mistake as we have a false start.
About five seconds into our takeoff run, one of the two clips securing the oil access door on the cowling pops open. The remaining clip holds the door shut, but this is no way to fly. Throttle CLOSE. Brakes AS NEEDED. Flaps UP. CTAF ANNOUNCE. This is my first ever aborted takeoff, and it's a nonevent so early on the roll. Fifteen minutes later, we lift into a smooth and interesting flight. Mountains flatten to Mojave. Far to our north, two impossibly bright lights are about where Las Vegas, Nev., should be. Is that even possible?
We cross into California, my wife's home state, the state where I spent a wonderful decade, and where she and I met 33 years ago. It means a lot, somehow, to be back here as the pilot of a small airplane. Simi Valley farmland gives way to progressively dense population as we fly toward Oxnard in the Los Angeles basin.
We land to the west with the Pacific Ocean in sight. At the FBO, I laugh out loud on finding the GoPro lens cap firmly in place. My first aborted takeoff, my first flight into California and this first landing by the Pacific will be remembered, but not re-seen. Some years ago, Susan Sontag wrote a book, On Photography, and it's a stimulating exploration of our tendency in this modern world to be so fixated on creating the image that we don't live the moment we wish to preserve. Perhaps my GoPro's wardrobe malfunction isn't so bad after all.
|A sunrise departure out of Northern California|
My wife's sister, Nina, shows us the sights and feeds us like royalty. Not everyone gets to marry into such a welcoming and generous family. I've been lucky.
Up The California Coast, Then Iowa
A huge high-pressure ridge dominates this last week of our transcontinental flycation, and the days pass in a blur. We fly VFR at 6,500 from Oxnard, passing inland of Santa Barbara's Class C and also inland of Vandenberg Air Force Base, with its cacophony of airspaces starting with "R." There's no more beautiful coast anywhere. We recognize Morro Bay, San Luis Obispo, Cayucos and Cambria, all places with family now or in the past. Hearst Castle comes into view as we follow Highway 1, sinuous and fragile from above. Theresa spots the Bixby Bridge. We were married on a cliff near here 24 years ago with our four closest friends and a wedding picnic. We land on runway 28L at KMRY, and the good people at the Monterey Jet Center roll out the red carpet for our little Mooney.
Over the next several days, we enjoy Monterey and then the Bay Area, staying with longtime friends in both places. Their hospitality and warmth, our conversations and the meals we share could fill a book. It's finally time to point the spinner east for home. Early morning departure from San Carlos is a special treat with the marine layer mandating an IFR climb. At 800 feet, we penetrate the clag. In a climbing turn commanded by ATC 1,500 feet later, we're delivered into the California sunrise on top of the smoothest bowl you can imagine, followed soon by a green so vivid it looks fake, like the painted velvet of a toy train set. In Sacramento, we top the tanks, don the oxygen cannulas and climb to 13,500 via V6 for Cheyenne, Wyo.
ForeFlight on the iPad is more helpful than I can say. Thanks to GPS, your kneeboard knows where you are and can show you that spot on any aeronautical or other chart. What is the MEA? Low enroute chart, please. Altitude limit for that MOA or off-route altitude for this sector? Sectional, please. Thinking of a deviation? Let's check the neighborhood for runway choices, instrument approach procedures and recent fuel prices.
|ForeFlight depicts the final legs home|
There's one thing it doesn't show that would be great: nearest precision approaches. It could display minimums, runway length and weather for those approaches, brightly colored for weather better than minimums.
|Eastbound out of Salt Lake|
ForeFlight continuously displays time and distance to destination, as well as ETA, if you choose to show them. Time to destination is available in the G1000, but hard to get to with a complex flight plan. Distance to destination is lost from the G1000 once an approach is activated, as you might do for situational awareness on the visual at night or to an unfamiliar airport. On the visual, distance to the airport is what counts for all radio calls, and it's right there to see, if only you set it up right.
Pretty soon, California is over and Nevada happens, with Utah soon after. Our airway keeps us clear of a large restricted area from the surface to 58,000 feet, continuously active for the 388th Fighter Wing. The same airway takes us through the Lucin A MOA, but a tap on the iPad has already shown me that it tops out at 9,000 feet, well below us.
East of Salt Lake, mountains return with a vengeance: snowy, sharp and ragged. Our tailwind picks up to 40 knots, and there's occasional moderate turbulence. Reports from KCYS and nearby fields are unfriendly, and worsening with enthusiastic and gusty winds. We amend our destination from Cheyenne to North Platte, Neb., where Trego Dugan Aviation treats us more than well. The restaurant there serves a peanut butter crunch pie so good that Mrs. Levinson snaps a photo. Soon after, we take off for KCID, GPS direct. As we turn a long final for runway 27, the ground catches my eye and becomes a powerful distraction. It is almost hypnotically rich, evocative of Kevin Costner's Field of Dreams. Theresa notices this, too.
|Staying south of thunderstorm activity|
We've put 7.6 hours on the engine today, and we have just enough energy to command the elevator to take us to the hotel restaurant which, like the hotel itself, is an outpost of the local college hospitality program. The food is scrumptious and the service outstanding. We'll find reasons to return to Cedar Rapids someday.
Our last leg brings one last weather challenge. A mass of thunderstorms centered on Rockford, Ill., makes VFR appealing, but Ohio to Boston is nearly all IMC, expected to improve, but as always, the question is how much and how soon. I elect VFR well south of Rockford, and it works out okay.
The last leg home is always quicker than the first leg out. The psychology of familiarity is powerful and relevant, but in this case, a 50-knot tailwind may also have something to do with it. We land runway 29 at KBED. I've piloted a piston single from coast to coast on a relaxed 12-day vacation. We've put 28.9 hours on the tach in 11 legs. Six legs were flown IFR and four required instrument procedures. After delaying our first takeoff a few hours for a nor'easter, every flight went on schedule. It's nothing that hasn't been done countless times by much better pilots flying much less capable aircraft, but I've learned a ton, and it's an experience my wife and I'll never forget.