CA to UT Race – Mooney in the Morning

I thought the race was all in joking fun, until three quarters of the way through… Saturday September 2nd, 2017 We had the chance to take a car to my wife’s middle daughter up in UT and the schedule worked out well for Labor Day Weekend, so another weekend, and…

Written by
Richard Brown
Published on
4 Sep 2017

I thought the race was all in joking fun, until three quarters of the way through…

Saturday September 2nd, 2017

We had the chance to take a car to my wife’s middle daughter up in UT and the schedule worked out well for Labor Day Weekend, so another weekend, and another flight in the Mooney. My wife and her youngest daughter would drive the car and my son and I would fly the Mooney there. After spending the weekend there we would all fly back Labor Day morning. No doubt I got the better end of that deal, but as I am the only one that can fly the plane it is how it had to be. 🙂

Wanting to get through the desert before it was too hot my wife got up at 3:20am and they were on the road just before 4am. I promptly went back to sleep and woke up at 6am when my alarm went off, got dressed, packed a bag, and ate breakfast while looking at the flight briefings for both legs of the trip. We were going to be surprising her daughter and son-in-law with the car so the plan was to try to arrive close to the same time. They wanted to watch us land (thinking we were all flying there) so we were going to tell them to get there shortly after my wife got there with the car and just say we landed early.

I needed to check the water level in the battery before we flew. You are supposed to check it every 25 hours. I should have checked it when I had the cowling off for the mag inspection but somehow I forgot to do it then. My son and I arrived at the airport about 7am and I went to work taking the cowling off and adding just a little bit of distilled water to each cell in the battery to bring the levels back up where they needed to be. The oil was at 5 1/2 quarts after the flight to Phoenix and back so I added 1 1/2 to it, bringing it up to 7 quarts. Normally I would just bring it to 6 quarts but since it would be around a 4+ hour flight I decided to put a little more in.

Pre-flight was done, the plane loaded and pulled out of the hangar, the car parked inside the hangar, the hangar doors closed and locked, and we started up to taxi down to the fuel island to fill up. After fueling and taxiing I went through the run-up, then sent a text to my wife at 8:19am that we were taking off for what looked like about a 3:20 flight time to Delta.

The saying goes that there are old pilots, and bold pilots, but not many old bold pilots. I am fairly conservative in my fuel planning. VFR daytime minimum is 30 minutes of reserve fuel at your destination. My personal minimum is one hour of reserve. Until I get the RH tank patched I can only put 22 gallons in it which gives me 48 gallons overall, of which 45 is usable fuel. In cruise I burn around 9+ gallons an hour so I can fly just under 4 hours and still have my personal minimum. The flight from Corona to South Valley Regional was showing a little over 4 hours so I opted to stop in Delta for fuel. (Plus fuel in Delta is $0.65 cheaper a gallon than at South Valley so I would rather fill up at Delta and top off at South Valley).

When we had left home for the airport at 6:45 am my wife was just passing Primm, NV south of Las Vegas. Jokingly I said we would race her as she would have about a four hour head start. I did not know it at the time, but my wife really was trying to beat us there…

We picked up flight following, leveled off at 9,500′ about the time we were passing Lake Arrowhead, I slid my seat back to stretch my legs, and we settled in for the flight. As usual the controllers for Vegas’ Bravo Airspace were accommodating, clearing us through at 9,500′.

ATC: “November 78878, what is your destination?”
Me: “Delta, UT, identifier DeltaTangoAlpha.”
ATC: “Roger, November 78878, cleared through the Bravo, maintain niner thousand five hundred.”
Me: “Cleared through the Bravo, maintain niner thousand five hundred, 878.”

About halfway between Las Vegas and Mesquite I had flashbacks of trying to hold a heading when flying under the hood while working on my private pilot certificate. I don’t know if it was smoke, haze, or a combination of both, but there was not much horizon in front of us. To the sides there was still great visibility, probably 20-30 miles, and I could see the ground in front out to probably at least 10-15 miles. However the ground slowly melted into the haze which melted into the clear sky above, and the familiar mountains that I am used to seeing were nowhere to be seen. I would have my heading, glance down at the turn indicator and notice that I had ever so slight a turn to the right and I was a couple degrees off course. A quick correction back on course and then the same thing again. Once I figured out that for some reason I have a natural inclination to drift to the right it was much better.

Before anyone panics thinking I was flying into instrument conditions I could clearly see horizon to the sides, and in front I could see the ground and the sky, the middle section where the horizon was just seemed like someone had taken a paint brush and blurred out the mountains. 

I took my phone off airplane mode when we were on descent into Delta so that hopefully it would have a signal once we were on the ground. The winds were favoring runway 35 so we made a straight in approach and landed at 3 hours and 31 minutes after taking off from Corona. I pulled my phone out to text my wife that we had landed in Delta and saw she had already sent a text that she was past Delta… I decided a quick fueling turn around was in order. I fueled the plane, my son and I both made a quick restroom break, and we climbed back in. Thirty minutes after landing at Delta I sent a text to my wife that we were taking off and looking at a 40 minute flight time.

En-route on the last leg we only went to 7,500′. That was high enough to clear the mountains on the way and there was no point going much higher because you have to duck under Salt Lake’s airspace just north of Utah Lake. As we rounded the point of the mountain I began making our radio calls. The winds were favoring runway 34 and I was hoping to make a straight in approach. There was a Cherokee on the frequency that was going to be arriving about the same time as us but he was coming from the east and crossing midfield to enter the left downwind leg. I had a quick chat with him on the radio and offered to come around and enter a downwind if needed. He told me my straight in shouldn’t be a problem and he would extend his downwind if needed. (I always try to be accommodating to other pilots and have found that most of them are the same way.) On we continued with our straight in approach to 34. The Cherokee had been accommodating so I wanted to try and get in before he had to extend his downwind. To accomplish that I kept our speed up around 140 mph until on a 5 mile final, then slowed to 120 mph to drop the gear (it’s still really cool to fly a plane that you can raise and lower the gear), then slowed to 100 mph on a two mile final where I put the flaps in and then slowed to an 80 mph approach. (I’ll be honest, I didn’t want to just get in quickly to help the Cherokee… I wanted to beat my wife there too).

Forty-two minutes after taking off from Delta we were on the ground at South Valley Regional. A quick text to my wife determined that she was still 10 minutes away. We added some fuel at the self-serve pump (not full tanks, I’ll explain in a minute) and then started up and taxied over to a spot on the ramp. By the time we had the plane parked I saw my wife and her daughter walking across the ramp to us. That was when I learned that she really was trying to beat us there, having made only one quick stop for gas in Mesquite on the way in hopes that she would win the race. Still, she made great time.

Just an FYI if you are going into South Valley Regional, their Self Service and Full Service fuel are the same price. I supposed I could have known that from checking online, but everyone prices their Full Service higher so I hadn’t even thought to look. When filling out my info at the FBO was when the line guy there told me they were the same price. Next time I fly in I will just taxi straight to parking and let them fuel the plane.

My wife’s daughter and son-in-law met us about ten minutes later with our granddaughter and we “apologized that we had landed early and they had missed it.” They were disappointed, but when we walked out and showed them the car explaining why they had “missed” the landing they were surprised, and very grateful.

Monday September 4th, 2017

My wife prefers to fly in the morning when the air is smoother, and I enjoy the smoother rides too (even though my son tends to like the roller coaster feelings from light to moderate turbulence). We were up at 5 am and at the airport at 6 am. First light was at 6:30 am with the sunrise just before 7 am. The plan was to be in the air by 6:30 am. I did the pre-flight on the plane as well as giving pointers to my wife’s daughter about where to step, how to get in the plane, what to expect, etc… The smallest plane she had ridden in before was about a 15 passenger puddle jumper so this would be a little different.

When I am flying alone, with my son, my wife, or both of them together I know what the weight and balance is from the number of times we have flown. However, this would be the first time I had flown this combination of people and bags so I did the weight and balance which put us right at gross weight without full fuel. Prior to leaving for UT I had everyone get on the scale so I had everyone’s accurate weights and I had weighed bags as well. With all four of us and bags I could only put in 40 gallons of fuel which would necessitate a stop in St. George for more fuel. (Going back to my earlier mention of not filling up when landing at South Valley).

The run-up checked out and with the mountains outlined by the pre-dawn light we were lumbering down the runway. At gross weight it takes a lot longer to get off the ground, and you don’t climb very fast either. Especially when you factor in the density altitude which was close to 6,000′. I could easily see how people get in trouble thinking the plane should be climbing faster, they pull back more and more, and stall the plane. I leveled us off at 5,900′ to stay under the 6,000′ shelf of Salt Lake’s Bravo airspace as we headed south for the gap between the point of the mountain and the restricted airspace over Camp Williams.

As we were climbing out over Utah Lake past the Fairfield VOR I called up Salt Lake Approach to pick up flight following.

Me: “Salt Lake Approach, Mooney 78878.” (There was a long pause as I heard ATC talking to other aircraft, then finally).
ATC: “VFR aircraft that was calling in, say again your type and call sign.”
Me: “Mooney 78878.”
ATC: “Your call is breaking up, I think you said you are a Meridian? And say your call sign again.”
(I sure wish I was flying a Meridian)
Me: “No, a Mooney M20Papa, 7-8-8-7-8 (slowing the numbers way down).”
ATC: “Roger, Mooney 78878, squawk xxxx.”

I put in the squawk, they picked up my radar location, and asked me my cruising altitude. I told them 10,500′ and we continued on our way. As we passed the south end of Utah Lake the sun was just rising above the mountains to the east. I’ve seen the sun set while flying my Mooney, and now I’ve seen the sun rise while flying it.

A side effect of leaving early is that your passengers sleep most of the flight.

It was a little less than two hours to St George and I had everyone wake up while we were on about a 5 mile final for runway 19. I didn’t want anyone, especially my wife’s daughter who hadn’t flown in a small plane, to wake up and be nervous right as I was trying to land… The landing was smooth and we taxied to the fuel pump. I put fuel in the plane while everyone took a quick trip to the restrooms.

I thought that we would have to taxi over to the FBO on the other side of the airport for the restrooms but there was a sign with an arrow for restrooms right above the fuel pump. It turned out to be a little bit of a walk as they are located between the first and second set of hangars to the south of the fuel pumps. (Just in case any of you end up at KSGU and are wondering where they restrooms actually are).

I didn’t want to leave the plane at the pumps in case anyone else needed to use them so I started it up and taxied down closer to the restrooms. Everyone had a bite to eat while I took my turn making sure I wouldn’t need a restroom break between St George and Corona…

I was glad we were there early because it was not hot outside yet. That made it more comfortable since we had to leave the air conditioner at home (no room for extra weight) and with the density altitude about 3,000′ less than at South Valley we were off the ground sooner and climbing faster.

We headed to the south-west, climbing out through the Virgin River Gorge, and picked up flight following again. The air was much clearer than it had been just two days prior and we enjoyed a comfortable ride at 10,500′ as we cruised south-west towards California. As we approached Vegas I woke my wife’s daughter up to look out and see Lake Meade and the Vegas Strip. It was great flight with a broken layer of clouds at about 15,000′ which kept it cooler inside the cabin.

There was forecast an Airmet for low level turbulence for the last part of our flight, an area that covered from about Barstow the rest of the way home. I was hoping it wouldn’t be too bad because I know my wife doesn’t like it, and I was fairly certain her daughter wouldn’t either if she woke up. Fortunately there were only a few bumps as we flew over the mountains between Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead.

About 12 miles east of Corona SoCal turned us loose.

SoCal: “November 78878, I show no traffic between you and the field, radar services terminated squawk VFR, good day.”
Me: “Squawk VFR, thanks for the help, 878.”

I switched over to what I thought was 122.70, the CTAF for Corona. (Always double check your radio frequency…)

Me: “Corona Traffic, Mooney 878, 10 miles east of the field, straight in for two-five, Corona.” (Nothing on the radio and SoCal had said there was no other traffic so I made my next call at five miles).
Me: “Corona Traffic, Mooney 878, five mile final, 25, Corona.”
Unkown: “Last aircraft to call in, say again?”
(That’s odd, then I glanced at the radio and saw I was on 127.00 instead of 122.70. I quickly switched to the correct frequency).
Me: “Corona Traffic, Mooney 878, five mile final, 25, Corona.” (Still nobody on the radio, and I was at least on the right frequency now… After getting home I did a search of that frequency and can’t figure out who I was talking to. I had a quick flashback to my night flight a few weeks ago after having the mags serviced when another plane that had left Corona thought he was calling the Riverside Tower but hadn’t changed frequencies yet.)
Me: “Corona Traffic, Mooney 878 on a three mile final, 25, Corona.”

There was still nobody on the radio and I didn’t see anyone in the traffic pattern so I continued on. I made one more call at a one mile final and then we were on short final, the power was pulled, and we were settling in for the landing.

The rest of the day was spent with a short nap on the couch, a trip to the store for some yard stuff, dinner at The Habit, stopping by another store for some dress shirts and a pair of slacks for my son who is serving a mission for church, and then some yard work before visiting friends. At the end of the evening, looking back on the day, I told my wife I couldn’t believe everything that we had done today considering we woke up this morning in Utah. Just another day with the Mooney time machine, giving you back what Winston Churchill once said is “one thing that can never be retrieved,” time. (I guess he didn’t have a Mooney…)

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