I shut down the plane, my shirt back darkened from having sweat through it. Having finished my pilot's license, I was now well into my secondary training to fly only with reference to instruments. I’d just finished three practice instrument approaches with my instructor, Gary. Nature's supreme sense of irony dictated it was a clear day: there’s no better way to make sure the sky is blue than to go up in the air for instrument training.
Instrument flying is much different than flying visually. Each airport has its own procedures published for instrument-on landings. In small planes like mine, we can't fly all the way down to the runway on instruments alone. The airport's approach procedure dictates the minimum altitude to which you can descend safely on instruments. If you come down to minimums and can't see the runway yet, you have to abort the landing. At airports with the most precise landing systems, the minimum allowed altitude might be as low as two hundred feet above the ground. Airports with less precise equipment or nearby obstacles might require pilots to stop their descent sooner, at 500 or 1,000 above the ground. No matter what the published altitude, the rule is the same: if you come down to minimums and can't see the runway, you have to abort the landing.
During instrument training, I'd wear a hood that restricted my view to nothing but the plane's instruments. Right before reaching minimums, Gary would tell me I could take the hood off. This would simulate descending through a cloud deck and finally breaking out the bottom of it. It's surprisingly tiring: it takes a lot of concentration and hard work to keep the plane right-side-up, navigate to the correct destination, and talk to controllers on the radio, all just by reference to some gauges and lights.
I’d just spent an hour training by flying under the hood and was exhausted.
“Workin’ pretty hard today, were you?” Gary said, noting my sticky clothing as we walked back to the flight school.
“No, it’s not that at all. It’s just so hot up there,” I said.
“Oh yeah? Why isn’t my shirt soaked then?”
I laughed -- he’d caught me. Mental note: wear light shirts for flight training.
“It’s hard, I know you’re working hard,” he said. “But it’s worth it. Someday you’ll be up there, and there will be clouds, and you’ll be able to use your instrument ticket to get home. And let me tell you something, if the weather is low, and you come all the way down to minimums and then pop out of the clouds with the runway right where it’s supposed to be...”. He got a faraway look in his eyes for a moment, then looked back at me.
“It’s better than sex.”
“You should come out! We’re having a barbeque for the Fourth of July!”
We’d gotten the same offer two years in a row. Last year we hadn’t really considered it, but this year we were excited. My girlfriend, D., worked with a woman who lived in Chino. With traffic, it was nearly a two hour drive from Santa Monica; how she ever survived that daily commute on LA freeways I’ll never know. The year before, the prospect of spending that much time on the road for a barbeque didn’t seem all that appealing. But this year I was an aircraft owner. Once we found out she lived a few miles from the Chino airport? Of course we’ll be there!
The afternoon of the Fourth was a mild, clear day. We made the quick drive over to the airport, preflighted the plane, and started to head east. The sheer size of Los Angeles is just amazing, and I really never appreciated it until I started flying. Most cities have a tightly packed downtown area that quickly becomes greener and more suburban. LA, in contrast, is just mile after unending mile of dense city. We stayed fairly low, at about 2,000’, to avoid entering the restrictive Bravo airspace around Los Angeles and followed Interstate 10 inland. After a few minutes we reached the interchange with I-5, my landmark that it was safe to start heading further south. I punched Chino into my GPS.
As a precaution, I was getting a service known as "flight following" from the air traffic controllers at SoCal Approach. It's an optional service that pilots can use to have controllers track them on radar, even in situations when it's not required. I nearly always get flight following: it makes me feel safer knowing someone is watching me, I have someone I can talk to instantly in case of emergency, and I hear about updated areas of restricted airspace and hazards such as skydivers. My plan was to squeeze in between the Los Angeles Bravo and the small region around El Monte’s airport that requires permission to enter, known as its Delta airspace. Flight following was an extra pair of eyes on radar warning me if I went astray. Plus, if I did violate the Los Angeles Bravo, the impact would be minimized since I’d already be talking to its owner. Controllers get much more upset over violations by someone they’re not talking to than someone they are.
It was a perfect day to fly. The air was smooth and it wasn’t too warm. Staying that low, my Cardinal’s engine had all the air it needed to develop full power, so we were fast. Even in straight-and-level flight, the airspeed indicator was creeping into the yellow.
D. and I had a guest in the plane. One of her co-workers also lived in Santa Monica and wanted a ride. She was soaking it all up. “So you can just fly up here however you want?” “How fast are we going?” “How many airports are there around here?”
The barbecue was great fun. I didn’t drink, of course, but I was never much one for beer anyway. Everyone wanted to hear the story of how we’d flown out there. As 9pm approached and the summer sun set, our hosts dropped us back off at the airport on their way to see the Chino fireworks.
“Are the fireworks going to hit your plane?” they asked.
Well that was certainly a good question! When I'd called the government weather information service that morning, the briefer hadn’t mentioned anything about fireworks being a hazard. I called back to get updated weather before returning home. He still he didn’t mention anything about fireworks, so I asked.
“It’s Fourth of July, do I have to be careful of fireworks shows?”
“There’s nothing in the NOTAMs about it,” he said, referring to the NOTices to AirMen that are issued when an unusual aircraft hazard exists. I think fireworks usually don’t go above about 3 to 400 feet.”
Well that’s a relief.
I got out my night-flying kit -- flashlights of every size and shape -- and preflighted the plane. The three of us climbed in. We launched into the balmy, cloudless evening air and into a sight I will never forget:
Fireworks. Fireworks everywhere.
Even on a normal day, flying over LA at night is quite a sight. Ground lights seem to stretch out to infinity as the packed city spreads in every direction. But that night there were thousands of people celebrating on the one night when explosives are socially acceptable. Everywhere we looked, every moment we looked, there were literally dozens of fireworks exploding somewhere below us. It was a dynamic, undulating carpet of bursting color that moved as you watched it. It was just stunning. Both my passengers spent the next 20 minutes with their noses pressed against the plexiglas.
“It’s just … oh my god, J. I’ve never seen anything like this.”
I had to pry my eyes off the ground and remember to fly the plane. I tuned one of my airplane's radios to the Santa Monica Airport's information frequency and the halting, computerized voice of the automated weather station brought my carefree evening to an end:
“Santa Monica Airport, Automated Weather Observation, 0604 zulu. Wind calm. Visibility 10. Sky condition, overcast, six hundred...”
The marine layer had come in. It had come in right at minimums. This was getting interesting.
Van Nuys was just 6 miles to the north and was usually a good backup - they had an ILS, a precise landing system that would let me descend all the way down to 200 feet, well below the clouds. Plus, the Santa Monica Mountains in between the two airports usually kept the marine layer at bay. I checked the Van Nuys weather on the radio and found they were reporting clear skies. I decided I’d try the approach at Santa Monica, maybe even try it twice, and then go to Van Nuys as a backup plan. We still had four hours of fuel.
“We might end up at Van Nuys,” I told my passengers. “I’ll get us a cab back to Santa Monica if we do. But we’ll try to land at Santa Monica first.”
I told the controllers at Flight Following I wanted to change my flight from visual flight to an instrument flight plan, which they granted. I already had the approach procedure for Santa Monica at hand. We were still flying in completely clear air -- even 20 miles away, the marine layer was out of sight.
“Cardinal 15H, 3 miles from BEVEY, turn right heading 250, maintain 3,000 until established, cleared for the approach,” the controller said, giving me my final instructions for our descent to the airport.
Then I saw it: a thick layer of clouds below, in a crescent shape ending about 8 miles inland. The airport was right in the center of it; there was no way we’d get in visually. I intercepted the final approach course and started down.
“OK guys. I need your help. We’re going to be going right down to minimums, and my eyes will be on the instruments. So look out the front and let me know when you see the runway. It should be ahead and to our right. I’m not going to talk since I’ll be concentrating on flying.”
The clouds were just a couple of hundred feet below us. I checked the GPS. The status panel had gone from ARMED to ACTIVE -- we had the computer’s blessing to shoot the approach.
“We’re going in.”
We reached the cloud tops and continued down. The plane sank into a thick fog. The wingtips were barely visible and the strobe lights reflected brightly back into the cockpit.
“Whoa,” our passenger said.
We were right on course. I’d done this approach dozens of times in training … but usually wearing a hood.
“One thousand,” I said out loud. We were at 1,700’, with a thousand feet left to go before we had to abandon the approach.
I worked on keeping my breathing even. The air was silky smooth so the approach was going well. We were still going right down the center.
We passed the last waypoint, called CULVE. I immediately chopped the power back to idle -- this approach was really steep due to the skyscrapers in Century City and Westwood.
The cockpit was totally silent other than the even sounds of the engine. We were still in a thick soup.
In my peripheral vision, I thought I saw a flicker of black ground beneath me. I tried to push it out of my head and just keep watching the gauges.
“I see the ground!” our back-seat passenger said in an excited whisper.
D. was up front. She was still peering out the windscreen.
I had my hand on the throttle to avoid overshooting. I was about to move it when--
“I see it!”
We popped out the bottom. The runway was ahead and to our right, exactly where it was supposed to be. The city lights were all around us and a carpet of low fireworks heralded our arrival.
I landed moments later and pulled the plane off the runway. The moment we stopped, even before I could retract the flaps, I burst into laughter.
It was my first approach to minimums. Gary had been right again.
Epilogue: Flying on July 4th can be exhausting, stressful, and a lot of fun. If you do it in a high traffic area, make sure you keep your eyes outside for other aircraft. Beware of "moose stalls". Here's a picture we took last July 4th over Seattle -- the Space Needle is visible at top right.