Pittsburgh to Palo Alto, Day Five – from Sea to Shining Sea

Okay, I didn’t leave from the Atlantic, and I didn’t quite see the Pacific, but I did see the cloudbank covering the endless expanse where it lay to the west. And when I did, I think I understood the emotions of Cortez, who is said to have broken down in tears upon reaching the sea. Not that it was an unspeakably beautiful sight (which it was), but it meant that I could finally stop cramming myself into a noisy vibrating phone booth for 10 hours a day, and not wake up each morning with the same phrase on my lips: ‘density altitude’.

Yes, I’ve made it to California and am safely tied down at the Palo Alto airport. Or rather, the plane is tied down there. I’m at Jim and Marlene’s house, nursing a bad case of “road buzz” and trying to catch up on everything I left hanging for the last week. But before I do that, let me catch up on that last day.

Morning out of Phoenix was another glorious day. Winds were forecast to be light, but as usual right on my nose the whole day. You get used to that when you’re westbound. The only areas of concern were the Tehachapi range, my last mountains, where surface winds were forecast to be 10-15 knots, and the Bay Area itself, which was still under a blanket of fog. Winds aloft were forecast to be light near the pass, and the fog was forecast to clear, but I’ve learned to trust forecasts just about as far as I can throw them.

So again, I set out westbound, hugging I-10 to avoid the worst of the headwinds. A long slow crawl past giant monuments backlit by the early morning sun. I guess the fatigue of the trip was beginning to set in: “Oh look –  yet another jagged column of red rock, jutting skyward from the desert floor. How nice…” I was looking ahead to Blythe, the Colorado River, and crossing the border into California.

I’d remembered crossing that river the other way, eastbound, a few years ago. Much like the Rio Grande, the Colorado breathes a swath of verdant life into the parched landscape. But the landscapes it separates are strangely different, as if they know they lie on opposite sides of some border. Arizona has always felt red to me. A reddish dust, clay, iron oxide or something that seems to permeate even the thought of the state itself. The California desert,on the other hand, has a lunar feel. Gray and resolute, not so much challenging the hand of man as simply ignoring it as inconsequential.

Up across Blythe, turning the corner at the Palen Mountains, then across Joshua Tree. JT is one of those rare spots in the lower 48 where, even from the air, there is no sign of civilization – no powerlines, no roads, no trace of anything other than raw nature for as far as the eye can see. Comforting to the naturalist in me, but a little unnerving to the pilot being hauled along behind a 50-year-old engine.

Clearing JT to the north, I rejoined civilization in the guise of Twenty Nine Palms. I was amused to note that, as I changed course northward, so did the winds, so as to once again conveniently provide a direct headwind. But I was still making 74 knots over the ground, plenty to make my first fuel stop, so on I went.

One of the challenges of flying in the southwest are the many restricted areas you have to thread your way through. Sometimes, it’s oh so tempting to cut a corner here or there, but especially after 9/11, that temptation is fleeting. Especially when listening to ATC: “Approach, Viper 17 – we’d like to enter the assault area for a live run…” I don’t know what Viper 17 is, or which “assault area” they were talking about, but I could tell that I didn’t want to be anywhere near it. And the NOTAM for “unmanned aerial vehicles – caution advised” was further food for thought.

Finally, with 3:15 on the morning’s flight, Apple Valley came into view. Or rather, the hills/mountains surrounding APV came into view. The day was already hot, so I opted to tuck in from the valley entrance rather than make the Skyranger haul directly over the hills – there would be plenty of hauling later.

APV turns out to be a delightful airport, nestled in a rather foreboding setting. Big, long runway lined up with the wind and not one, but two FBOs selling 80 octane gas! First order of business, once I had tied down, was a quick oil change. I’d put ‘395 through about 30 hours of brutal flying so far this week, and I wanted to have a fresh load of oil in before I pushed it over the Tehachapis in the heat of the afternoon.

I’d scrounged an empty gallon milk jug from the motel restaurant back in Phoenix, and had picked up four quarts of fresh Aeroshell 100 at the airport. Cowling off, jug in place on a paint bucket borrowed from the local FBO, and it was a done deal.

I’d been eating breakfast and lunch from my bag of flight rations for a few days now, and was sorely tempted to stretch my legs in the Wings Cafe, but the winds were picking up and Palo Alto was calling. Hem, haw, hem haw. I went in for a can of juice, and came out with a grilled cheese and fries to go. Not exactly the healthiest fare, but a nice change from beef jerky and pretzels.

Tanks full, and westbound again, getting ready for the final hurdle. About 60 miles to the west, past Edwards AFB, Palmdale and Mohave, lay the Tehachapi mountains, topping 6000’ and reporting 15 knot surface winds at the desert floor. To clear them safely, I’d want to be high – as high as possible, and the afternoon temperatures were already going to make that climb difficult. To complicate things, I had that headwind to beat, and the best way to do that seemed to be staying low as long as possible.

Crossed Palmdale at 3000’ with C-130s shooting touch-and-goes in the pattern, handed off to Fox tower, and it was time to start the climb. I’d been thinking about strategy on this pass. The Tehachapi range curves northward as it goes. If I crossed at the pass, just west of Mohave, I’d be going into the wind. Probably catching the downdrafts off the lee side, which would do their best to mash me into the rather inhospitable terrain below. Further south however, the winds would be along the ridgeline. At Gorman, they should even be glancing off the windward side, providing lift, and with it a safe crossing. I’d charted a straight line to Gorman, and as I climbed, watched the GPS and VSI carefully. GPS to tell how strong the winds were blowing, and VSI to make sure my lift-vs-downdraft theory was working.

Five miles short of the ridge line I was at 6500’, looking over into the central valley, with not a downdraft in sight. Still, I didn’t want to be surprised, and the Skyranger still had some climb left. Hauling the nose up, I coaxed another 2000’ feet out found myself looking over the ridge level at 8500’. Heeled over to a 45 degree crossing angle to leave a quick escape route and drifted across with neither up nor downdraft. Realized I’d been holding my breath for the last five minutes, and decided it was time to start breathing again.

Also took my first good look at the central valley. They’d mentioned haze in the forecast, but this was a bit more than I’d expected. It was haze – I could see the ground below, but it looked almost like a sea of fog at my feet. Now came the next decision: stay high and clear in the smooth air, or get down out of the (of course) headwind. Impatience got the better of me, so down I went. First 4500’ then down to 2000’. Into the muck. It wasn’t actually that bad – visibility was probably around 6 or so miles, but after the clear Arizona air, it was a bit disconcerting. No global references, feeling around as if at the bottom of a murky lake. Still, there were good landmarks every few miles, and the GPS showed me on course.

What can I say of the next couple of hours? Low and slow through the haze, bouncing along over almost featureless farmland. Not desolate, but a bit repetitious. I did pass a blimp (not the Goodyear one) northbound on I-5 – but at an embarrassingly slow rate. Still, it’s nice not to be the slowest thing in the sky. Occasional dustdevils swirled south, looking like lazy tornados. I was astounded to see them reach from the surface all the way past my altitude, slithering along across the landscape.

Finally, 30 minutes south of Los Banos, my final fuel stop, the haze cleared and of course, the headwind picked up. Sigh. I was ready to be home, wherever home was. A few calls to Unicom brought no answer, so I slipped in to the pattern for 32 and made an uneventful landing (where landings are concerned, “uneventful” is always something to strive for).

The airport seemed deserted, except for a small cargo hauler sitting on the ramp with its loading doors open. I found the well-hidden “terminal” building, where a bored-looking twenty-something crewcut in cargo hauler epaulets looked up from his magazine and glanced me over, and went back to reading without a word of greeting. Ah well, not a kindred spirit – he’s just building time. But at this point, I’m not looking for a kindred spirit – I’m looking to get to PAO.

A quick call to flight service reveals that the clouds around PAO have retreated to the western hills, and the valley is clear. As I cross the ramp, a fellow pedals by slowly on his bike, eyeing the Skyranger with what looks like vague suspicion. Five minutes later, as I finish fueling, he rolls back in the other direction.

 “Don’t see many Commonwealths around here,” he offers.

That, of course, stops me in my tracks. We begin talking. He’s Paul Douthitt, who seems to have been flying people and cargo up and down the coast for the past 50 years. We talk airplanes, we talk fog. We talk about the pilot’s life. I’m torn – here’s someone I’d love to talk to for hours on end, but the sun’s racing westward, and I’m just over the hills from the end of my journey. Again, impatience gets the better of me. I excuse myself, and he bids me a gracious farewell. I sump the tanks, check oil, climb in, and I’m westbound again.

West over the San Luis reservoir, into the golden brown hills of northern California that my wife loves so much. Beyond the hills, I see the bank of fog creeping in from the west, held gingerly at bay like a tiger in a circus show. Almost home, our new home. I shouldn’t, but with the journey almost over, I can’t resist. Three miles shy of the valley, I drop down into the hills. One last meander among the solitude of nature, wingtips pinioned on the hilltops, wending my way through the gentle canyons before I meet the sprawl of Silicon Valley.

At last I emerge from the hills, shake the fancy from my mind, and resume the “business” of flying. Tune the radios, grab the Palo Alto ATIS, and plot out a course. Wait for a break in the chatter on approach frequency, then chime in. “Good evening, Bay Approach, Commonwealth 33395 over South County at 2000, VFR Palo Alto.” Approach gives me a squawk code and vector, and I’m in the system. I’m amused at how easy the process seems now. I hear a Cessna calling in, awkwardly, giving a destination, but no current position. Bay Approach seems to ignore him – that was me, a few years back. Maybe I’m cocky now, maybe I’m just punch drunk from too much flying, but after threading mountain passes, “working the system” just doesn’t seem to hold any challenge.

I slide past San Jose, am handed off to Moffett tower, then PAO, and told to report passing the amphitheater. Field in sight, wind (finally!) right down the runway. Nothing more to do but ease the power back, settle onto the glide path and aim for the centerline. A touch of power over the pond on short final (I should have remembered that there’s always sink there!), and I chirp the wheels just past the numbers.

Off the active, I call ground for directions to transient parking, and bounce along down once-familiar taxiways. There are plenty of open spots in the transient row – I’ll call the airport tomorrow about a permanent place to park – so I pick the closest, swing the tail around and shut down.

I suddenly realize that I’m here. That’s it. I sit in the silence of the cockpit, thinking that I should commemorate this moment, somehow bless the Skyranger for carrying me, yet again, across the country above peril without complaint, but fatigue and my ringing ears nip any deep thoughts in the bud. Besides, there is much that I still need to do. I must take care of the plane, get myself from the airport to Jim and Marlene’s house, let everyone know I arrive, and get ready to start work at Google in a couple of days. The voyage defined by its destination is over, but the greater voyage, which has none, continues. There will be other adventures, but they’ll have to wait. At least until my ears stop ringing.


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