Flying to Seattle

Brenda and I went up to Seattle the weekend of 18 July 2003 to for Jim Geldmacher's 3-ring birthday extravaganza, stopping along the way to see several other friends. This was our longest trip by small plane so far, and was generally a lot of fun.

As with all my trip reports, this one is really aviation-geeky.

There are more pictures of the trip.

Day One (18 July)

Santa Monica (SMO) to Sonoma County (STS)

We got a good early start, leaving Santa Monica about 8. A low overcast had just burned off, but was still scattered at around 600'. There was a high overcast above it, and with the low sun and the high overcast, it was tough to judge how solid the layer was closer to shore, so I filed IFR to get on top. For my trouble, I got roughly 2 seconds of IMC climbing out, canceled IFR and climbed out to the Gorman pass.

The weather was clear underneath, with some mid-level clouds at probably 10,000 to 15,000 feet. The weather briefing said that there were decent tail winds up around 8,000' so we climbed up to 8,500'. Not a lot of people up and around yet, and the valley was pretty as usual.

Getting into the pass itself, we had our only real dose of turbulence for the trip. There must have been a pretty good wind blowing through the pass, because we got some decent mountain wave action, steady drafts up and down of 500-1000 fpm. Then, hey, a little rain on the windshield and whoop! - sudden dip. Virga. Heh. We passed along a report on conditions in the pass to the local flight service station.

As we broke into the Central Valley, the high overcast slowly got thinner, pretty much disappearing north of Bakersfield. The Central Valley is always a surreal experience for me. As long as you look mostly down, it looks exactly like Iowa or Missouri. Then you glance at the Eastern horizon and there are the Tehachapis or some other massive range of mountains. As I say, surreal.

Santa Rosa water tower Brenda napped and I flew and the valley became the Bay Area. I'd planned to skirt San Francisco's class B airspace so we'd stayed fairly far inland, turning westbound around Manteca, and proceeding across the top of the Bay Area. There are some winding rivers and deltas in the area up by Pittsburg. We crossed Napa and headed into Sonoma County Airport. Apparently this was a great idea, because four aircraft had it right around the same time. The tower sequenced us up well, but it was a good little workout to keep the spacing tight and get everyone on the ground in order. This is my idea of fun.

I've wanted to get into Sonoma County for a while, because the airport is named after Charles Schulz, creator of Peanuts. I don't think there are too many people my age flying who don't owe at least some of their excitement about flying to Snoopy on his doghouse.

The field itself strikes a nice balance between jets and a wide range of small planes. There's also a firefighting tanker base there, and tankers were arriving and departing while we were there. Brenda's eye was caught by a beautiful polished aluminum Cessna 140 on the ramp. She took a bunch of pictures for herself and our friend Peter Uchytil at It was quite a shiny object.

shiny cessna We ate at the restaurant on the field, Manny's, which was good but a little odd. We had sandwiches which came on sort of a cross between Wonder Bread and egg bread. Everything tasted great and prices were reasonable, but there was something unusual about it. I'd go back, though. While we were at that, Apex Aviation filled up the tanks for a fairly reasonable $2.65/gal. I should mention that I bought all my avgas full service or off the truck this trip. I know I paid extra for that, but FBOs have been taking it on the chin for the last couple years and I don't mind spending a few extra bucks in the hope that they'll be open next time I come through.

Sonoma County (STS) to Crescent City, CA (CEC)

This is the leg where I learned that there is a lot of Northern California. I mean, I've seen the charts, so I knew there was a lot of land up there intellectually. Flying for 2 hours after leaving the Bay Area and still landing in California really brings it home viscerally.

The two hours were spent flying over some fantastic terrain. It was mostly three or four thousand foot mountains covered with old pine forests with lakes nestled in them. Occasionally, the canyons broaden into valleys filled with towns, farms, and ranches. Beautiful land, but well worth maintaining some clearance over (we were up around 8500' again).

Sadly the beauty is marred because the tops of the mountains are largely bald. It looks like they've been logged right down to the stumps, but it's hard to be sure.

On the way out we had to avoid a parachute drop that was having radio problems, and got to relay messages between the center controller and an aircraft that was having problems getting messages back.

lighthouse on approach As we got close to Crescent City, it became clear that McNamara field was IFR, with a thin layer of clouds 600' above the airport. I got an IFR clearance and was “cleared approach.” I was actually pretty excited about this, because in the LA area, where I do most of my flying, I never get “cleared approach.” Yes, I realize that this is an incredibly aviation-geeky thing to be excited about.

I did forget that a provision of this is that the pilot is implicitly cleared to the MEA of the current route. Fortunately the controller was tolerant of a city boy and pointed this out to me when I asked. I also got to fly the full approach, which was fairly easy given that there wasn't a cloud in the sky other than the thin layer at 600'. It was good practice to track the back course of the localizer and fly a procedure turn. I opted against the DME arc because I haven't flown one in a long time.

The approach itself was pretty routine, with less than 30 seconds of IMC, but good quality low IMC. It's always satisfying to come out of the clouds low right on line with the runway. We pulled in to Westlog Aviation to get a briefing, pit stop and fill up with $2.99 full serve avgas. Again, I paid the full serve price. The folks there were helpful and friendly.

Crescent City (CEC) to Portland (TTD)

This was the frustration leg. I was already getting fatigued from several hours in the air, and we had two mechanical problems on this leg. Things started out OK, in that the clouds over CEC broke up while we were fueling up and we were able to depart VFR.

The first problem was that the transponder, which had been getting steadily worse all day got bad enough that Seattle Center dropped us from traffic advisories because the transponder became too intermittent. We'd been asked to recycle it a couple times, but I had just thought it was poor coverage. After we got dropped, I eventually tried to reseat it into its spot on the rack, and heard a click that sounded like the transponder had slipped back in and re-seated itself. Sure enough it didn't give us any more trouble all trip.

Dealing with the transponder was more of a pain than usual, because about the same time, my headset developed a loose wire that kept opening and closing the mic. The result was frequent clicks in my ear and difficulty hearing what was going on on the radio. Basically every time I turned my head to look for other planes, my long hair pushed the wire, which opened the mic. Once I figured out that I had a loose wire, Brenda and I changed headsets, but I knew I was going to have to buy a new one if we could get a decent price on one. That preoccupied me somewhat.

oregon The actual flight went as planned, and we were able to get to Portalnd-Troutdale without problems beyond the ones described already. The terrain began similar to the STS - CEC leg, but eventually gave way to the Columbia River Valley and small cities seated on that plain.

The approach at Troutdale was trickier than I expected because there was a bluff under the pattern that was hard to pick out in the light (and uniformity of the trees). As a result, I came in much higher than I thought because the bluff made me feel like I was low. We got it all straightened out, landed, left the plane at Premiere Aviation to get fueled, and left with one our Portland friends, Cookie Chen. On the way out I noticed that they had the Dave Clark headsets I was planning to upgrade to someday for the same price as Sporty's and my local pilot shop. Looks like “someday” would be tomorrow.


We know lots of fine people in Portland, and many of them met us at McMenamins' Blue Moon up in the NW part of Portland. Peter Uchytil was a friend in undergraduate in St. Louis, Karen Karavanic knew me in graduate school, while Cookie Chen and Kate Fleisher know Brenda better than me. We all got along well and had a fun meal before walking around and getting dessert. We all got to meet Cookie's friend Sara for the first time. Brenda and Cookie had some fine baked goods while the rest of us had some Ben & Jerry's. It was great fun seeing everyone again or for the first time.

Day 2 (19 July)


Cookie was kind enough to put us up for the night. The next day Cookie and Sara took us out for an excellent breakfast at the Utopia Café. Nothing like fresh blueberry pancakes and real maple syrup to start the day right. We also hit one of Cookie's favorite coffee places, Stumptown, where he and Brenda each had an espresso.

We made our way back to Troutdale, where 32169 had been fueled up and was ready to go. I did buy a new active noise reducing headset, which I like very much.

Portland (TTD) to Seattle (BFI)

We wound up taking Cookie with us to Seattle to meet up with his cousins. Because Boeing Field is busy, right next to Sea-Tac, and unfamiliar, I filed IFR to make my life easier. We were routed direct to the Seattle area and the flight was beautiful. Mount St. Helens and Mount Rainier to our right and the Columbia river valley and Puget sound to our left. Gorgeous.

Stratoliner at BFI Getting into BFI was straightforward, though there were some bumps due to terrain. Taxiing to Galvin Flying Service we got a real treat. There are some folks restoring a Boeing Stratoliner there, and they were taxiing it out. Ground control was kind enough to let us pull off and take some pictures as they went by. Unfortunately, they had some engine problems and didn't get to take off.

Galvin was great. They rolled the rental car right out to the plane and generally made life absolutely painless. Brenda said she felt like a princess. Unsurprisingly, this was reflected in their $3.20/gal avgas price.


Jim's party We dropped Cookie off en route to Jim's Extravaganza. Jim and his friends are serious volleyball players. His parties usually feature no fewer than 3 simultaneous courts playing volleyball at various levels, all considerably higher than mine. He picked a great location this year, Golden Gardens Park, right on the Sound. We spent the afternoon hanging around with his very cool friends, walking by the Sound, collecting rocks, and watching volleyball. Along the way we got to talk to a fellow who'd recently won a couple hundred thousand on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, had some great food and drink, and generally had a great time.

I will make sure to call when I leave the airport next time so that the people I'm meeting don't think I'm in the ocean somewhere.

Brenda's friend Cory Gooch allowed us the use of her palatial apartment on Lake Washington for the evening. We found the place and settled in, and then walked a couple blocks to have dinner at a small Italian restaurant. The food was good, and the evening was great. We finished by taking a walk around the area and making plans to meet other people the next day.

Day 3 (20 July)


Is there a better way to start a day than breakfast at the Five-Spot Diner with Steve Lawrenz and my sweet baby? I doubt it. That's how we did start the day, followed by a trip out to Archie McPhee, where Brenda filled a bag of mirth.

Steve needed to get back to work, but we caught up with Cookie and wandered around the Capitol District for a while before making dinner arrangements from the world's loudest coffee house.

Dinner was at Wild Ginger in downtown Seattle. The food was excellent, and the prices not out of line for the quality. Steve's wife Jenni took a break from studying for the bar to join us, and the company was even better than the food. After dinner, off to the airport where Steve helped us shove off. Or Cast... Off!

Seattle (BFI) to Portland (TTD)

Seattle skyline We retraced our steps to drop Cookie off in Portland again. I filed IFR to get out of the tight unfamiliar Class B easily. We got a good tour of Puget Sound as we left.

On climb out we were paralleling an interesting set of clouds with the sun setting through them. Very nice views. We also flew through a single cloud, which gave Cookie a chance to see what that's like.

The VASI at Troutdale brings you in pretty low over the trees there. Pretty cool, but if I do it again, I'll probably play it a bit higher.

Portland (TTD) to Medford, Oregon (MFR)

A night trip to southern Oregon so we could get to the Bay Area for lunch with our pal Andrea Leonard. I generally go IFR at night and this was no exception. There were delays getting out of Troutdale IFR, so we departed VFR and picked up our clearance in the air.

Climbing out of Portland as the city lights were just coming on was pretty spectacular, and the night flight into a black starry sky was also wonderful. Not a lot of lights between Eugene and Medford.

Arrival in Medford taught me a couple important lessons. First, all ATC is not created equal. The amount of extra help that a center controller can give you late at night is a long way from what an approach controller can do for you. I knew that intellectually, but this really brought it home to me. Fortunately, I checked with the controller a ways out rather than at the last minute, and we had time to work things out. Also fortunately, it was clear and canceling IFR was always a safe option. Still, between the vectoring problems and unfamiliar airport it was not my finest arrival.

Sadly, that wasn't the end of my troubles in Medford. I also didn't look ahead to find out where the FBO was before we left Portland. Wandering around with a taxi diagram at 11:30 PM isn't a good way to do much. Between a little searching and some help from the crew of a United Regional Jet, we found the right place and things went smoothly after that.

After we secured the plane, we were off to the beautiful Rogue Valley Regency for some sleep and reflection. The reflection has led me to believe that:

Day 4 (21 July)

Medford, Oregon (MFR) to Oakland (OAK)

In the light of a new morning, Medford Air, the FBO we had trouble finding the night before, was just outstanding. Beautiful facilities, friendly and helpful staff, and full service avgas for $2.30/gal. If you're in the area, consider a stop.

Medford Air Another IFR leg for no great reason. I'd just gotten into a rhythm of filing, and practice in the system is usually worthwhile. Approach control was back in on duty and we got a couple vectors for our climb rather than climbing in a holding pattern.

The flight over the lakes and mountains near Mount Shasta was gorgeous. Great clear clean air and beautiful views. Then down into the Bay Area for a visual approach into Oakland. Nice uneventful morning flight. We left the plane at KaiserAir. Kaiser filled us with avgas for $2.95/gal and hit us with an $8.00 parking fee, but also gave us a free ride to the BART station.


The whole point of our Oakland stop was to have lunch with Andrea Leonard. We haven't seen her in a long time and it was good to catch up. She's been busy since moving up there, and not all of the busyness was good. Still anyone who hangs out with the Pirate Band is doing something right.

Andrea led us to a super-nifty vegetarian restaurant with a constant videotape feed of the guru of the group who runs the place doing one-armed weight-lifting. The ambience was odd, but the food was good, and the company was excellent.

Oakland (OAK) to Santa Monica (SMO)

San Francisco Fog Last leg, IFR to Santa Monica. As I say, I was in a rhythm, but the weather didn't require an IFR clearance. There was an impressive bank of fog coming in over San Francisco as we left, though.

The trip back to SMO was uneventful. Some haze in the Central Valley, but it got better as we got further south. I canceled IFR before getting routed over Burbank and Van Nuys and slipped back into SMO via the shoreline. There were some clouds just forming over SMO as we got there, but we were able to get in without a problem.

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