16 October 1983

California Here We Come

September 24 - October 16, 1983

I now had my instrument rating. Liz, her parents (John and Phola), and I were going to fly all the way to California in a Cessna 172RG. The trip was almost uneventful.

September 28: The long take off. Liz had a cousin in Los Alamos, New Mexico. The Los Alamos runway is 7,700 feet above sea level. It has a one-way runway. You land one direction and take off the opposite direction, because the runway ends into the side of a mountain. Landing was easy, but the takeoff was interesting.

The airplane was fully loaded, and there was a quartering 10-knot tailwind. According to the Cessna handbook, it should have taken 3000 feet to get the airplane off the ground and about 4500 feet to get 50 feet off the ground. I leaned the mixture, added full power, released the brakes and let it roll down the runway. When the airplane reached the proper airspeed, I lifted the nosewheel and immediately the stall horn blasted. I put the nosewheel back on the runway. The airplane used a total of 5000 feet of runway before it finally had enough speed to be willing to climb. This was not a particularly dangerous situation, but it sure let you know that you should take what is in the pilot's operating handbook with a grain of salt.

September 30: First real encounter with the clouds with my crazy co-pilot. This flight from Grand Canyon, Arizona to Gillespie Field in San Diego, California was my initiation into the instrument flight world. For the first time I was going to have to fly through a lot of clouds and turbulence.

Since her first flight, Liz had been struggling with airsickness. She found that this could be controlled fairly well with transdermal scopolamine. That is that little patch you put behind your ear. We decided she should use two patches, because of the threat of mountain turbulence.

The first hour of the flight was quite beautiful. We went to 10,000 feet and had a good view of the Grand Canyon. Toward Las Vegas the clouds started getting thicker and lower. We began to pop in and out of cumulus clouds. The airplane was picking up minimal ice that disappeared between clouds. I climbed to 12,000 feet to temporarily get on top of the clouds. The clouds continued to build, and we eventually entered a large cumulus buildup. The ice began to pile on so fast that it sounded like machine gunfire. Fortunately we were only in the cloud for a few seconds. The airplane accumulated a small load of clear ice. I immediately descended back to 10,000 feet, where the ice melted. That encounter with icing gave Phola quite a scare. In fact she passed out, and I did not hear much from her until the following day.

When we flew into warmer air I was able to climb back to 12,000 feet. The next hour of the flight was uneventful, except one thing. I noticed that Liz, who was in the right seat, was very agitated. She was constantly moving her hands and her feet, and seemed quite distressed. All she would say was, "I want out of here. I want out of here." She was even crying intermittently.

Then we overflew the mountainous terrain of southern California. By this time I was down to 10,000 feet, it had warmed up significantly, and icing was no longer a threat. But the ride was very bumpy. We were going up and down 500 or 1000 feet frequently. It was all I could do to maintain a reasonable heading and altitude. This exercise went on for at least half an hour, although it sure seemed longer.

Phola was passed out in the rear seat, Liz was crying and hitting the side of the airplane and stomping her feet constantly, but John was my co-pilot. From the back seat he was helping me watch the altimeter and the heading gauge. His extra pair of eyes was an immense help.

Since we were getting beat to death, I asked the controllers if we could have a lower altitude to get out of the clouds. They replied that the mountain peaks were less than 3000 feet below me, so a lower altitude was not possible. Finally we cleared the mountains of southern California, and I descended below the clouds into calm air.

When I called the tower in San Diego, they told me to enter a right downwind for Runway 18. It took a few seconds to realize they wanted me to fly over the field, make three right turns, and land on the southbound runway. Much to my surprise Liz, who had been doing nothing but crying and intermittently yelling nonsense, all of sudden demanded, "I don't want to overfly the field and enter a right downwind for Runway 18. I want to land on 27!"

Two-seven would have been a straight-in approach, obviously the quickest way to get on the ground. So at least I knew she was not completely out of touch with reality. In spite of Liz's demand, I did make the approach as the tower requested and the landing was uneventful.

As soon as the plane came to a complete stop, Liz's door popped open and she disappeared for at least half an hour. Poor Phola was still passed out in the back seat. My uncle arrived at the airport and the men unloaded all the luggage. It took all three of us to literally pry Phola out of the airplane seat and 'pour' her into the car. Liz finally appeared in time to go to my uncle's house. We took Phola straight to bed, and she slept until late the next day.

That next day Liz and Phola were seriously (I think) considering buying a van and driving it all the way back to Ohio. Amazingly, about one week later the four of us got in the airplane again and flew 250 miles north to San Luis Obispo to see the Hearst Castle. We flew back to San Diego without incident. Fortunately there was beautiful scenery and great weather, or we would have bought that van.

Whenever John talks about that flight he always says, "I really wasn't sure what to do for Liz. I didn't whether to hold her down, or just open the door and let her out." My concern was that she would grab the flight controls and wrestle me for control of the airplane.

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