I'm a gear head so I love cars, but I had no idea what was waiting for me in Reno. As it happens, it's a week of Hot August Nights and there are some 10,000 beautifully restored hot rods and show cars cruising the streets all over town. Thankfully, I had packed my camera on this trip and despite the 107 degree heat, I was out in the vast parking lot across the street from the hotel soaking up the sites and smells of some of Americas finest achievements, the automobile! While the girls were inside testing their luck at the Black Jack table and testing the water at the pool, I was in boy heaven, weaving my way through hundreds of the most beautiful cars I had ever set eyes on.
After getting an eye full of auto candy yesterday I headed back in to join the gals out by the pool and relax for awhile. It was a perfect afternoon and we had little on our agenda besides soaking up some sun and stepping out for some dinner later, after which I managed to convince the ladies to come with me to look at even more cars that had rolled in during the afternoon. It was a beautiful night and we walked around in awe of the craftsmanship in front of us, each of us picking out the one we were going to drive home later when we hit those slots over at the casino.
I was up early this morning, crack of dawn, pencil and flight plan in hand, mapping out the return flight home. John and I had agreed when we left, that if everything went well on the flight up, and depending on what my wife's plans were, we might change the flight plan for our trip back. We knew we could get new updates on winds aloft and weather and reverse the flight plan we had taken up to Reno, but if at all possible, I wanted to fly up and out through the pass heading south out over Lake Tahoe and follow the southern route back to Sonoma. Of course, this idea required an entirely new flight plan with new considerations, challenges and checkpoints along the way.
Even though she told me she would much prefer to fly back with me, my wife had decided she was going to hang with the girls and drive to Sonoma with them in the afternoon, that left things wide open for JP and I to try a new route home. There were a number of things on the table, like, perhaps flying out over the mountains during the daylight hours and then holding up at the airport in Auburn or Placerville and waiting for night fall so I could squeeze in my night cross country as well, but int he end, we decided to take the route I had plotted out this morning, and flying all of the way back without stopping. I went over my flight plan with JP and while neither of us had flown over Lake Tahoe and the higher mountains south of the lake, he agreed that everything looked perfectly reasonable, and of course, if it didn't at any point we would simply abort the plan and choose another path.
Saying our goodbyes to our friends, we had the shuttle pick us up and take us back out to the Reno International airport where the air temperature now at noon had risen to 100 degrees + with the temperature on the tarmac being even higher. When we arrived at the airport I performed the pre-flight while we discussed our flight plan, the current conditions and the option to fuel up, or not. Reno International is at 4400 feet MSL, the mountains on the north end of the pass are close to 9000 feet, with the density altitude and temperature, that meant climbing more than 5000 feet as we made our way back up and out through the pass. Filling the tanks gave us an extra margin of safety, but meant loading the plane with a lot more weight making our ascent on this hot afternoon even more difficult. Calculating out the fuel for the trip, we made the decision to leave the tanks where they were, roughly just over half full. The trip back would take less fuel than the trip up, and there were refueling options at other airports along the way well within distance of our current fuel supply. As it turns out, this was a good decision. Leaving Reno the air was hot and the Cessna chugged along slowly gaining altitude as we climbed through the pass, fortunately, the air, and winds, were on our side and a number of thermal updrafts help speed our ascent to our cruising altitude, had they not, we were fully prepared to circle around in the pass using 360 climbing turns to gain altitude, of course, this meant using even more fuel, so we both hoped we wouldn't need to.
It was an exciting ride "up" to altitude to say the least, the thermals would occasionally push the plane upwards at 1200 feet per minute, and then drop us off just as suddenly, once we crested the top of the pass the air calmed for a bit as we moved south towards Lake Tahoe, but the turbulence picked up again as we crossed over the final ridge towards the lake. By this point we were at 11,000 feet, headed straight over the lake and the view was spectacular. If you've never been, Lake Tahoe is one of the most beautiful natural lakes on the planet with cobalt blue water that reaches 1200 feet deep and is surrounded on all sides by the Sierra mountain range. Flying over the lake we could see Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows to the west, North Star and Incline Village to the east, and the infamous Heavenly Valley at the southern end of the lake, these majestic mountains and enormous ski resorts looking more like playgrounds in the foothills from our nearly 12,000 foot altitude.
Since I, for obvious reasons, couldn't, I asked JP if he wouldn't mind grabbing the camera from the back seat and shooting some pictures as we passed over the lake. Knowing that we had a limited time we could fly at high altitude without on board oxygen, I waited to finish are climb to 12,500 feet until we reached the southern end of the lake. Just south of Lake Tahoe there are 2 peaks, both nearly 10,000 feet MSL, both of which also happen to be in National Parks, so in order to clear them comfortably, I chose to take us up to 12,500. It would only be about 10 - 15 minutes at that altitude before we could descend back down to 10,500 on the other side, so we were clearly within limits of flying without supplemental oxygen on board.
I don't mind telling you, I knew when we set out on this trip that we were going to be treated to some incredible visuals and some fantastic flying experiences, but it far exceeded my wildest expectations. When I first set out to learn to fly, I could scarcely imagine being able to fly around the pattern in Sonoma and land a plane, and now here I was, 16 weeks later, flying over the Sierras at 12,500 feet and gazing down on land that for the last 30 years, I had only experienced from the ground, honestly, I wanted to stay up there all day, until the images coming in through my eyes were permanently etched into my mind. Of course, that wasn;t possible, at some point we would run out of fuel, or get hungry, or thirsty and then there was the small matter that this wasn't actually my plane, and I did have to return it…and maybe, just maybe, JP didn't share my desire to stay in the sky forever…ahh, details, details.
Crossing over the southern Sierras and the El Dorado National Forest, I followed my flight path along what is essentially Highway 50 and the American River. I was getting pretty comfortable with the GPS at this point, so even though I was using my paper flight plan en route, I also was setting the GPS for each of my known destinations along the way. The rest of the flight back went quite smoothly, crossing over Placerville and Folsom Lake before re entering California's Central Valley and making our way south back towards Napa and eventually, Sonoma County.
As we entered on a long extended base to Skypark I was completely elated. I had just flown my first cross country, over mountains and alpine lakes, over the Sierras and Lake Tahoe, had landed and taken off from an International airport, had created and successfully navigated two reasonably complex flight plans, had taken my wife up for her first flight in a small plane with me as the pilot and returned and was now landing back at home to tell the tale.
The last 2 days have challenged and tested everything I have learned about flying, and taught me twice as much more. This has been an incredible experience and has proven to me that I can indeed accomplish what I set out to do…fly, and I can't wait to do this again.