Learning to fly in Santa Monica has advantages and disadvantages. There's certainly no shortage of interesting things to see on the ground -- whether it's the shoreline, Disneyland, the Hollywood Sign, or Griffith Park Observatory, L.A. basin pilots get to see a lot more than student pilots in a random town in Oklahoma. The congested airspace is among the most complex in the country, with LAX, Burbank, Ontario, Orange County, Van Nuys, Santa Monica, and a dozen smaller airports all packed within 30 miles of each other. One downside is that training takes a lot longer; it's a 20 minute flight to the nearest practice area and a 20 minute flight back. One upside, however, is that I can confidently fly in dense airspace surrounded by big jets. This confidence started at Hour 34.
It had been just a few days since my first solo and I was feeling on top of the world. This was a problem for my instructor, Gary. He was one part grand wizard of aviation, one part crotchety old man, and one part car salesman. (He was, in reality, all three of these things.) With over 8,000 hours of instruction under his belt, he felt strongly that an overconfident pilot was an unsafe pilot. My recent success required a new challenge to keep my ego in check.
"You're going to get a real workout today," he warned.
He first had me fly to Van Nuys, just a few miles north of Santa Monica. No problem; I'd been there before. The flight was easy. But after we landed, we taxiied back, and he said, "Ok. Now fly me to Burbank."
Burbank? That airport 6 miles away that has commercial service? 737s and MD80s lined up for miles to land? The one in the middle of Class C airspace? You want me to land there?
He sat back and let me sweat. There'd be just 4 minutes from takeoff to landing; in that time, I'd have to talk to at least three different controllers. I pored over my charts, writing down all the frequencies I'd need and planning my arrival at an airport that surely had better things to do than let me train there. After we lifted off, I turned east. Sweating profusely, I worked the radios madly, talking first to controllers at Van Nuys Tower, then SoCal Approach, then Burbank. Before I knew it, I'd landed on Runway 8. I pulled off the runway just as a 737 roared overhead, departing the intersecting runway. I had to admit, tough as it was, this was really cool.
"Okay, now what?"
"Tell him you want to do some pattern work."
I looked around. It was mid-morning -- aviation rush hour. The airport was buzzing with activity. A dozen big passenger jets were taxiing around. Gary was suggesting I ask the airport to just circle the airport, practicing takeoffs and landings.
"Pattern work here? Really?"
"I told you you were in for a workout."
The controller was surprisingly happy with the idea. He'd have us take off from one runway and land on the other, stuffing us in between big-iron departures and arrivals wherever he could. Occasionally, we'd have to wait for 10 minutes on the ground, but I didn't care -- waiting in line with big commercial jets, talking to the same controllers, and using the same runways made me feel like a real pilot!
Burbank has two intersecting runways, but they intersect pretty close to their ends. In theory, one might be issued what's called a LAHSO clearance, or "Land and Hold Short." For example, if a controller said, "Cessna 123, Runway 15, cleared to land, hold short of runway 8," it would be the pilot's job to land and come to a stop before reaching the intersecting runway. In practice, the distance from the Runway 15 threshold to the intersection is about 5,000', more than any competent (cough cough) Cessna pilot would ever reasonably need to land.
So there I was, doing takeoffs and landings with Gary at my side. We took off from Runway 8 (going east), and the controller told us to turn left and expect to land on Runway 15. We turned north, and a few moments later when we were directly abeam the end of the runway I heard: "Cessna 831, turn left direct for the numbers now, Runway 15, cleared to land. Traffic on a 4 mile final." In other words, someone else was also lining up to land on Runway 15 and the controller was trying to sneak me in first.
Attempting to comply, I did 180 degree turn to line up with Runway 15, even though I was directly abeam the threshold. This left me with virtually no space between me and the runway to descend. I'd extended the flaps and idled the throttle before starting the turn, but we were still ridiculously high. Crossing over the Runway 15 threshold I was still 200' in the air. I pushed the yoke, trying to coax the plane onto the ground, but picked up way too much speed as the plane went downhill. With half the 6,800' runway behind us, I was still 30 knots too fast. I wrestled the Cessna to the ground, bounced high, descended again, and finally got the wheels down as the airspeed bled off. As we rolled out, we got confused about which taxiway we were allowed to turn at, and ended up drifting past the runway intersection.
"Southwest 624, Go around."
In addition to the guy behind me, apparently a 737 was also landing on the intersecting Runway 8. The controller hadn't given us a LAHSO -- the Southwest jet was far enough away that the controller reasoned, in the incredibly unlikely event I crossed the LAHSO line, he'd just have the conflicting traffic go around and try again. And this is how, one day, I cost Southwest Airlines a few thousand dollars worth of fuel. Oops.
Twenty minutes and another two landings later we were ready to go home. "Sorry we made that guy go around," I told the controller as we were exiting his airspace.
"Sorry we didn't get you around more times!"
I laughed -- no hard feelings on the ground, at least! But Gary was angry.
"First of all," he began, "don't admit a mistake on the radio. They record all this!"
Then he said something that's always stuck with me: "And don't you apologize for using an airport or talking to a controller. It's your airspace just as much as anyone else's."