No Brake Lights at 8,500′

You may be asking yourself what I am referring to in the title. Of course there are no brake lights at 8,500′ in the air. Don’t worry, I’ll get to that eventually, but first I need to tell you about some of the most fun I have had flying in…

Written by
Richard Brown
Published on
1 Jan 2018

You may be asking yourself what I am referring to in the title. Of course there are no brake lights at 8,500′ in the air. Don’t worry, I’ll get to that eventually, but first I need to tell you about some of the most fun I have had flying in quite awhile.

Despite wanting to get to AZ to visit family for about two months it hadn’t happened. A combination of adding some avionics, finding that the generator needed to be replaced, and then putting the plane through annual delayed the trip. Finally, with all of that completed we made plans to go see family for New Years.

It had been getting cold out at the little Corona Airport. The airport sits in the river bottom so the cold air settles in there in the evenings. By cold, I mean it has been down to about 30° F the last few nights. (I know, all of you in the north are saying “That’s not cold” and yes, I know what cold is. I lived all over this great country growing up with a dad in the Air Force, including 4 years in Alaska, but 30° F is cold for the engine, or so I’ve been told). What I have read is that if it’s below 40° F you should preheat the engine to extend the engine life.  So, I went out Friday night, fueled up the plane, and set up my heater. I don’t have a fancy engine heater but a small space heater along with a blanket over the cowling had the warm air going up through the cowl flaps and keeping it nice and toasty.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

We got to the airport Saturday morning and it was 31° F outside. When I switched on the engine monitor it showed the cylinder head temperatures all in the mid 80’s.

With pre-flight done and the plane loaded up I opened the hangar doors the rest of the way and pulled the plane out. The car was parked in the hangar, the hangar doors closed, the padlock put on, and after one last stop at the restroom everyone climbed aboard and got buckled up. Before I could get the plane started the windows were fogged up, but once the propeller was turning and the defrost on it cleared up quickly.

It was a beautiful morning to go fly. The sun was just coming up, the air was calm and smooth, and the skies as clear as they could be. We took off on 25 and once we made our downwind turn and began climbing out I called up SoCal Approach to pick up flight following. I was given my squawk code and cleared to climb to my requested altitude of 7,500′ along with instructions to advise of any altitude changes after reaching 7,500′. There was some haze hanging on the hills to the south and as we climbed over March AFB two hot air balloons stood out against the lighter haze, just a beautiful sight. I’m not sure there is anything more fun than flying your own plane…

The flight was as smooth as it could be all the way there and there was not much traffic in the air until we got closer to Chandler (KCHD). We rounded the south end of the Estrella Mountains and I started to see some of the planes that had been showing up on my tablet. Off our right wing I saw two gliders, one was still hooked up to a tow plane. There was a Cessna a little further away and maybe 4-5 miles out in front of us was another small plane. About 10 miles south-west of the airport I let Phoenix  Approach know that I had the airport in sight. They told me to keep my squawk code and contact the tower. I repeated their instructions and tanked them for their help, then hit the swap button on the SL-40 as I already had the tower frequency loaded in standby.

Me: “Chandler Tower, Mooney 78878, about 8 miles southwest of the airport, inbound full stop with Quebec.” (When you are flying into a towered field the ATIS, Automatic Terminal Information Service, recording has a letter associated with it and letting the tower know you have that tells them you have the most recent information).
Tower: “Mooney 78878, make straight in four left (4L), report a three mile final.
Me: “Straight in, four left, report three mile final, 878.

At about a 4 mile final the tower called us up to tell us we were number two following a plane on short final.

Me: “Number two and we do have that traffic, 878.”
Tower: “November 878, number two, four left, cleared to land.”
Me: “Number two, cleared to land four left, 878.”

After landing we taxied to the fuel, filled her up, then tied down in the transient parking.

Monday, January 1st, 2018

We had a great time visiting family and celebrating the arrival of the New Year. I put out the invitation to my sisters that live there and parents to take anyone flying that wanted to go. I had come up with a flight plan that I thought would be fun, “flightseeing” up the Salt River Lakes to Lake Roosevelt and then back over the Superstition Mountains. There was no shortage of family that wanted to go fly, so I changed plans to just make some short flights south of the field to fit everyone in the time available. (Two sisters, their husbands, four nephews, and two nieces meant multiple flights would be needed.)

I got to the airport a little before them and started to get the plane ready. There was what looked like an RV bi-plane having some fun over on runway 4R. He was flying a tight downwind leg, rolling into a 90° bank and diving toward the runway, level off for a fast low pass before pulling vertical and rolling out on the downwind leg.

When my family got there I talked the kids through the pre-flight, telling them about different parts of the plane. I told them the plan was to take off, fly southeast toward the Santan Mountains, fly around a little, and then come back for another group. A couple hours later I had taken 9 people on their first flight in a small plane and one other his first flight in a small plane since a little boy, that was fun!

With the first group on board and having gone through the pre-flight briefing with them I listened to the ATIS and called up Ground.

Me: “Chandler Ground, Mooney 78878, request taxi from transient to four left for a southeast departure.” (At KCHD they tell you on the ATIS to let them know the direction you are departing. I often forget that as other airports don’t ask the same thing, I remembered this time, but forgot something else…)
Ground: “Mooney 78878, taxi four left via alpha delta, and verify you have yankee.”
Me: “Four left via alpha delta, and yes we have yankee.”

We taxied down to the run-up area and went through the checklist, then pulled up to the hold short line and called up the tower.

Me: “Chandler Tower, Mooney 78878 holding short four left at delta for a southeast departure with yankee.”
Tower: “Mooney 78878, right turnout approved, four left, cleared for take off.”
Me: “Right turnout, four left, cleared for take off, 878.”

With that we rolled onto the runway, lined up, pushed the throttle in, and we were soon in the air. The air was smooth as we headed out to the southeast. Once we were about 10 miles from the airport I decided to see if they wanted to have some fun.

Me: “Do you want to see a steep turn?”
Kids: “Sure”
Me: “Okay, so you know what 90° is right?” (Holding my hand vertically)
Kids: “Yeah.”
Me: “Well, we’re going to go halfway to 45° but it’s going to feel much steeper. There’s a spot right there with a little dot that tells me we are at 45°.” (Pointing to the dot on the ADI).

I started a right bank, “We’re going to keep going, and going, until right about there,” as I held it in a 45° bank. They were looking out at the ground and how it looked like we were going to fall to the ground. I pointed out to them that the needle on the altimeter wasn’t moving which meant that we weren’t getting any closer to the ground, we were just hanging there in the air. They thought that was pretty cool.

I turned the plane over to my brother-in-law and let him fly it a little and take us back toward the airport. I called up the tower, who turned me over to the other frequency based on where we were 11 miles south of the field, and we came in to land on 4R. As we rolled towards taxiway november the tower told us to make a left and cross 4L. Despite a beautiful day the airport was pretty quiet. We taxied back to transient, shut down, and made the switch to the next set of passengers.

Next up was a sister and a niece. We did the same thing, except while my niece was excited about doing a steep turn my sister was not quite as sold on the idea… she also didn’t want me to turn the yoke over to her during the flight. It would turn out that the best landing of the day was that one as we returned to the airport. Again we taxied to transient, shut down, and a new set of passengers came out of the terminal building. With almost no traffic at the airport I wondered if the folks in the tower right above us were watching the scene unfold right below them on the ramp.

Flight number three was another brother-in-law along with a niece and nephew. Once again we were cleared for a right turnout from runway 4L and we were on our way. A little flying around, a steep turn, my brother-in-law taking the yoke, and then we were on our way back again. This time the landing was not as good… By this point the tower had the routine down. As we rolled down the runway the tower called up:

Tower: “Mooney 878, turn left on november.
Me: “Left on november, 878.

Once we turned onto the taxiway the tower called us up again.

Tower: “Mooney 878, continue taxi, cross four left, taxi to the ramp via alpha,  monitor Ground.”
Me: “Cross four left, taxi to the ramp via alpha and will monitor Ground.”

The last flight would be another sister and nephew. Their youngest son declined a flight but informed me that he would go flying “when I’m a grown-up.” With everyone on board, buckled up, and pre-flight briefing done I started her up again and called up Ground.

Me: “Chandler Ground, Mooney 78878, one last time request taxi 4L for a southeast departure with zulu.” (A new ATIS update meant a new letter.)

Finding ourselves southeast of the airport at about 3,500′ I again asked if they wanted to do a steep turn. My nephew did, my sister not quite so much. “It’s ok, it will be fun” I said as she gave me a “yeah right” kind of look. Landing once again on 4R I had my worst landing of the day as we plopped down on the runway. Following my apology my nephew said “That’s ok, it makes it feel more authentic.” (I’m not quite sure what that means… but he had a fun time.)

We taxied to the pumps so I could top the plane off before our flight back to California. The time was getting late so rather than driving back to my parents they brought my wife and son out to the airport. I wanted to be in the air in time to be over Palm Springs as it got dark outside. Flight over the desert at night, even with a full moon like today, is not something I want to do. There is no reason to take on the added risk of what would essentially be IFR flying conditions.

We said our goodbyes and loaded up the plane. After starting it up again I called up Ground, thanked them for their help, and requested taxi to 4L for a southwest departure. We lifted off from 4L, tucked the gear away, and then shortly after that turned a left crosswind followed by a left downwind departure to the southwest. As we were passing the end of the runway the tower asked if we were going to pick up flight following. I confirmed that we were and they gave me an early frequency change to contact Phoenix Approach.

Phoenix approach gave us our squawk and asked what our cruising altitude was. I responded that we were looking for 8,500′ and they cleared us through the Bravo at or below 6,000′. The shelf there is at 6,000′ but it was nice that they gave us clearance to go right up to it. Once out past the shelf we were given clearance to continue our climb to 8,500′.

There was a little bit of a headwind but it was smooth air so I really didn’t have much to complain about. The sky was clear and beautiful, and as we were crossing the Colorado River you could see San Jacinto and San Gorgonio about 150 miles away. The sun was setting as we approached Indio and it looked like a bank of orange clouds on the other side of the pass as the sun was going down. However, things can often be deceiving, those clouds were really way out off the coast.

Right as planned, we were coming into Palm Springs about 30 minutes after sundown as it got dark. Remember the title of the post?

No Brake Lights at 8,500′

You finally get to find out what the title meant. If you are coming back to Southern California after a holiday Weekend the traffic is miserable. Once you start coming through Indio you run into the traffic and it turns into a crawl. It once took me 10 hours to make the 5 1/2 hour drive back from Phoenix on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. (The extra 4 1/2 hours all took place on the stretch from Indio to Banning). From 40 miles away you could see the string of brake lights going up through the Banning Pass. As we started through the pass we were given clearance to begin our descent, and with cars crawling along the 10 freeway below us we were seeing ground speed in excess of 180mph.

I made the comment to my wife on the flight to Phoenix that even if it was the same speed as driving I would rather fly. As we were zipping downhill through the Banning pass, I was really glad that we were flying.

SoCal held us above 4,500′ because we would be flying over March AFB. Normally once we are past the runways at March SoCal will drop the altitude restriction which is nice because at that point you are about 15 miles east of Corona and you can settle into a nice easy descent, but there was a lot of radio traffic and I think he forgot about us. As we cleared their space to the west I called up and asked for lower.

Me: “SoCal Approach, Mooney 78878, can we get lower now?
SoCal: “Plane asking for lower, please repeat call sign.”
Me: “Mooney 78878.”
SoCal: “November 78878, descent approved, radar services terminated, squawk VFR.”
Me: “Descent approved, squawk VFR, thanks for the help, 878.”

By this point we were about 10 miles east of the field with 4,000′ to lose and moving right along. I pulled the nose up just a little to bleed off some speed and get down to 120 mph IAS so that I could drop my gear and use the extra drag to slow us down. Shortly after that we were on the ground and rolling to a stop in front of our hangar. What a great way to start the New Year.

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