Last week when I looked at the upcoming syllabus for my flight training, I couldn't help but notice there was a "long cross country" item next on the list. Normally, this would be a cross country flight to Ukiah, a small town north of here 60 miles or so, which would have been absolutely fine with me, but as it happened, on the day I was scheduled to make that cross country flight, I also need to be in Reno, Nevada, a not so small town some 150 nautical miles from here on the other side of the Sierra mountains, so of course, this got me thinking…
Now, flying to Ukiah up the valley is pretty straightforward, while there are mountains to the east and west all along the way, you don't necessarily have to pass over them, at least, not over anything above 3500 feet, so you can fly at 4500 feet all the way and have good clearance. The airport at Ukiah is also only at 600 feet MSL, and the weather and temperature is quite similar to Sonoma, so other than keeping your pattern altitude in check, the performance charts are going to be pretty similar for the entire flight. Since it's basically a local flight, there also wouldn't be any need to figure in weight and balance, and you can make the entire round trip in about an hour and a half, so it fits well into my scheduled 2 hour training and I'm back to work. Flying to Reno, over the Sierras and the Tahoe National forest, now that was a whole different ballgame. Additionally, my wife needed to be in Reno with me…or more accurately, she was the reason we were going in the first place, you see, as her childhood friend had flown in from New York to meet us, and coincidentally, it was also our 26th anniversary.
Personally, I was really liking this idea I had but there were a lot of considerations. Did it fit the criteria for the cross country requirement, would we need to come back the same day or could we stay over night, since the single leg up was longer than the entire Ukiah round trip, would the return flight from Reno count towards any additional requirements, and then there were the really big questions, can we fly over the Sierras and can we take a passenger, i.e., my wife, who had never been up in a small plane, let alone with me as the pilot.
After some lengthy discussions we decided it was all perfectly doable, but it would take some planning that the scheduled cross country would not, of course, I knew this all along, and that is what made it all the more enticing to me. This flight would require a number of things that would not be necessary during the Ukiah cross country, weather considerations, winds aloft over 3 decidedly different types of terrain, significant temperature and altitude changes, highly accurate flight planning including weight and balance calculations, fuel consumption and performance calculations, numerous waypoints and checkpoints, including en route airports where we could successfully abort the flight if necessary,, not to mention, mountain flying at altitudes over 12,000 feet and landing and taking off from an airport with an elevation of 4400 feet MSL where the outside air temperature is well over 100 degrees. In other words, this was going to be a challenge.
Now, don't think any of us entered into this lightly. If there wasn't any part of this that wasn't going to work out, we weren't going to do it, it was that simple, and it we were going to do it, it was going to be loaded with contingency plans including the opportunity to abort before ever reaching the Sierras and then at at least 2 points while crossing the Sierras. So with all of these things in mind we started planning. I wrote the flight plan probably 5 different times in the last 2 days and settled on 2, the final of which would be decided on the morning of the flight.
This morning, we all met at the airport to go over the flight plan and make some final wind calculations and corrections. Once we had the flight plan mapped out, including every possible airport, frequency and contingency along the way, we calculated the weight and balance for the plane. Since there were 3 of us going on this flight and we were staying over night, each of us had a small bag, so everything needed to be considered. JP had fueled up the Cessna this morning and filled the tanks, but if need be, we could have left a little fuel behind to make our weight and balance, although, since we were headed over the mountains, we wanted as much fuel as we could carry. Of course, less fuel would have made the climb easier, but it would also put us at additional risk if anything were to happen, say, getting lost in the SIerras. Like I said, a lot to consider, this wasn't your typical flight around the block.
Once we had all of our calculations nailed down, I performed a thorough pre-flight on the plane, and with all of the planning and pre-flight done, we boarded the Cessna. On the ground and prior to the flight I had talked to my passenger, my wife of 26 years, about what to expect along the way, that the takeoff would be a little turbulent…as it always is at Skypark, but that things would settled down at about 1400 feet and probably remain reasonably calm for most of the flight, until we reached the Sierras of course, where we were likely to experience some mountain turbulence, although we would be at 9.500 feet and we didn't expect it to be bad. Most of the turbulence was likely to occur as we were coming through the Truckee pass, a high pass thought the mountains that you must fly through on the approach to Reno International Airport, and then there would be landing at Reno International, although I didn't anticipate problems, it was a BIG airport and I had not landed there before, in fact, I had never landed at any international airport before.
With those things in mind she gave me the ok, and we climbed aboard, strapped in, ran through passenger briefing about fire safety, door and seat belt operation and use of the headsets, and then we were off. The run up went smoothly and we were soon in the air, headed on our prescribed course out over Napa, the Sacramento Valley and eventually up over the Sierras and the Tahoe National Forest. The flight was beautiful and the air smooth as we climbed to our 9,500 foot cruising altitude, all along the way visualizing the checkpoints I had made and cross checking them with the times and distance on the flight plan and GPS. As suspected, this flight was providing the opportunity to learn and use a number of systems I had little practice with until now, there was the call to Oakland Center to request flight following and the various calls back and forth to Nor Cal and Oakland as they passed us back and forth following our flight, there were the constant way point checks en route, there was setting up the GPS direct to several points along our route, and even a little practice with the VOR which honestly, I still feel pretty insecure about, all the while checking in with our passenger to make sure she was comfortable with the flight at all times.
We made each of our checkpoints easily and JP even mentioned that he was surprised at how accurately I had calculated them, at one point adding that it was the most accurate flight plan any of his students had made, which of course made me feel pretty good. I was happy I had spent the time over the last couple of days practicing the plans and writing and re-writing them as the weather changed. The one thing I didn't want to be doing was guessing about their accuracy and my ability.
As we made our way across the Central Valley of California and began flying over the foothills and soon the mountains of the Sierras we were treated to the most spectacular views which our passenger, and now designated flight photographer, was busy capturing from the back seat. I have lived in California for more than 30 years, and have been to the Sierras 100's of times, camping, skiing, hiking, even rock climbing there back in the early 80's and I had seen some beautiful things, but I had never seen it like this before. The sky was clear and the visibility was excellent providing views 100 miles in every direction. Looking down at the mountain tops and Alpine lakes that would take days, if not weeks to hike to I was in awe, and more inspired than ever to fly. As we flew through the mountains soaking up the beauty, JP and I continued our dialogue about flying, after all, this was a teaching cross country, so we talked about places to land in the mountains if we had to for some reason, and the differences in airplane performance, and the difference in temperature and density altitude and the importance of leaning out the fuel, and what it was going to be like to land in Reno 4500 feet higher than where we took off in Sonoma, and of course, what it was going to be like tomorrow, departing in 100+ degree heat and climbing to 12,500 which would be the altitude we would need to clear the mountains at the south end of Lake Tahoe.
As suspected, the last leg of the flight, from our final check point at Donner pass, through the Truckee pass to Reno was a little turbulent, mild for the most part, with occasional moderate turbulence as the wind and the high thermals rolled through, over and up the pass, but since we had all anticipated and discussed it earlier, it didn't come as a surprise to anyone. Coming through the pass you immediately see Reno, and the giant Reno/Tahoe International airport. I was amazed at the shear size of it even from the distance. We had made our call to Reno approach when we were 30 miles out, and were now talking to the tower who had instructed us to fly over mid field at 6500 feet MSL and make right closed traffic for 34 R a runway so large you could fit the entire Napa County airport on half of. Looking out the window on approach I could see a large commercial airliner in position holding short for takeoff and even it seemed dwarfed by the size of the runway. Turning from final to base we had to fly around a small mountain which obscured our view of the runway for a couple of minutes, but turning base to final had me headed straight in for 34R, a runway so long and wide it looked as though I could land and take off several times before I ever reached the end.
I have to say, this was another defining moment for me, making radio calls and landing for the first time at a busy international airport with my wife in the back seat…I wasn't worried…not for a minute. It actually couldn't have gone smoother, my landing was my finest ever, so smooth in fact that I heard a round of applause from the back seat. I rolled out, turned off the runway as requested and stopped on the other side of the hold short lines as we switched to ground control and requested taxi instructions to "MillionAire" the flight services company where we would be parking the plane for the night. I was elated, I had just completed my first cross country flight, had flown over mountains and nailed my flight plan step by step landing in Reno safely and on time, sharing the entire experience with my wife.
Did I mention, tomorrow is our 26th anniversary? This will be one to remember.