Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, February 21, 2012

From The Editor: Traffic, Gray Whale. 12 O’Clock, Low.

On a recent sunny Saturday, contributor Marc Lee and I decided to fly from the Los Angeles area to Santa Barbara for lunch. Marc would hop over to Santa Monica Airport from John Wayne Airport in his Great Lakes biplane, and then we'd fly a Cirrus SR20 up the coast to SBA. It was meant to be an easy afternoon of fun flying. And it was. It just didn't start out that way.

Santa Monica Airport was busier than normal. The standard traffic pattern had expanded to a three-mile base turn, three planes deep on final. The run-up area resembled rush-hour gridlock on a Los Angeles freeway. It seemed like the entire airport population was going flying. This mini-Oshkosh was a great sign for GA, but it required extra attention all around. Not to mention that the typical southerly ocean breeze was instead a gusting variable crosswind.

On short final to runway 21, Marc had called for a wind check: 060 gusting 14. "It wasn't my best landing for sure," he lamented at the tiedown. "I should have insisted on runway 3." But at the time, there was a Sukhoi behind him, a Citation on approach and what seemed like a dozen student pilots in the pattern. Besides, Marc had already held near Hawthorne, biding time before LAX granted him permission to enter the Mini Route, a VFR corridor through the Class Bravo airspace. Asking to land on the opposite runway might mean another 30 minutes or more of circling. So, Marc landed his taildragger with a quartering tailwind. Lesson number one.

As we taxied out in the Cirrus, the wind was foremost on our minds. We talked about Marc's earlier landing. We watched the flags above the terminal building whip about. We commented on the wind sock, now sticking straight out with a direct left crosswind. We watched the constant stream of 172s practicing crosswind landings.

Our attention was first diverted at the run-up area. There were no spots available, and we had to shoehorn ourselves in. A long wait at the runway hold-short line brought our focus to the Hobbs meter, ticking away on the rental aircraft. We were eventually told to "line up and wait" on 21, and the plane that had departed ahead of us came on the radio. "We spotted a gray whale just off the shoreline! For anyone departing Santa Monica, you should be able to see it, too." Marc and I immediately perked up and reached for our cameras. Tower caught the excitement, too: "Cleared for takeoff runway 21. Traffic, gray whale. Twelve o'clock, low." I pushed the throttle forward without hesitation. I was thrilled!

But then an even more exciting thing happened. As I anticipated the usual right rudder on the takeoff roll—would we see a spout or a tail, I wondered—the nose of the Cirrus pointed left. Huh? I pushed the right rudder harder, and then full deflection. For what seemed like an eternity in the cockpit (but probably only a few seconds in reality), the airplane turned even harder to the left. At full power, I regained rudder authority, returned to centerline and rotated, somewhat perplexed. The wind! In my Moby Dick moment, I had become distracted and neglected to compensate properly for the crosswind. Lesson number two.


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