San Diego trip


A few days after I returned from the Rutan Brothers Birthday Bash in Mojave, Terri and I were scheduled to go out to San Diego for a vacation. I had investigated various methods of travel and decided that the LongEZ was still the most economical and by far the most adventurous mode of travel for us. Terri has accompanied me on several trips in the LongEZ. She has the dubious task of squeezing into its compact back seat beset with our baggage. It’s a good thing she’s svelte.

We’ve taken several LongEZ trips together to Illinois, Seattle, and Lake Tahoe. She also accompanied me on many trips in our Piper Colt including a 1500 mile trip from Pennsylvania to Colorado, but that plane had side-by-side seating so it was more comfortable for the passenger. It takes Terri time to get over the discomfort of long distance traveling with the LongEZ and so we don’t do it all that often, about once every 2 years. The primary motivation for finishing the Cozy, which has side-by-side seating and much more baggage space, is to make our traveling more comfortable. The seating position and visibility in a canard airplane is much better for the front seaters than for the rear seaters because they have better visibility and can stretch their legs out a lot more. It’s also a lot easier to communicate with someone who is seated along side you than it is with someone sitting behind you.

I try to break our trips up into 2 to 3 hour legs so that it doesn’t get too uncomfortable. When I fly with a passenger, I need to keep the fuel load light, no more than half full, so as not to put the plane over its gross weight and to help maintain a reasonable climb performance.

The night before we were scheduled to leave, we had a Rush concert at Red Rocks amphitheater in Denver. That meant we wouldn’t be getting home until nearly 1:00 a.m. and so we didn’t expect to leave until around 9:00 a.m.. The concert had been rescheduled from earlier in the month because of a weather cancellation so there wasn’t much we could have done short of missing it, and that wasn’t going to happen.

When flying a small airplane, if you can start your traveling at the crack of dawn, you can reduce the amount of time flying in the bumpy air that generally starts around 11:00 a.m. Unfortunately for us, it would have meant getting little or no sleep, so it wasn’t an option. We managed to get in the air about 10:00 a.m.

The climb performance of the LongEZ at gross weight with the 108 HP engine is not great and the continental divide is the first and highest part of the Rockies we needed to clear. It’s just about 15 minutes travel to the west. I have a policy that I won’t fly toward a mountain pass until I can see over and clear it by at least 500 feet well before I arrive at it. Too many pilots get in trouble as they try to out climb a mountain and that’s a formula for disaster, especially when you figure that the service ceiling for many small planes is around 14,000′ and there are mountain peaks taller than that in the Rockies. It’s possible to fly a northern route up around Laramie, WY or down around Albuquerque, NM if the plane can’t safely climb over the mountains and that would be my advice for anyone who hasn’t done much mountain flying and wants to cross the Rockies. The density altitudes tend to be very high around here because the ground warms the air at these high elevations, so a 12,000′ mountain pass may have a density altitude much higher than its elevation, possibly beyond the service ceiling of an aircraft, so you have to be aware of that when crossing the Rocky Mountains in a small airplane. Even taking off from high altitude airports can be a very strange sensation if all of your experience has been close to sea level. Planes tend to accelerate and climb much more slowly when the density altitude reaches 8000′ or more which is a very common occurrence in Colorado and other western states with high altitude airports.

We climbed over the Rockies just to the north of Long’s Peak and got a nice view of Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park. Our first fuel stop was in Grand Junction, near the western border of Colorado and as we approached it, the afternoon thermals were already starting to make the ride bumpy. I knew we were in for a rough ride across Utah and Arizona. We were planning to spend the night in Sedona, AZ because we had heard so much about it and had never been there. We were eager to see if it lived up to its utopian reputation. After fueling up at Grand Junction, we headed off toward Moab, Utah and then turned southward. I was hoping to cross into Arizona near Monument Valley to get a good look at the famous formations that have appeared in many western films. The terrain below us for much of our journey across Utah was a series of canyons and rugged formations made by the Colorado River drainage. It eventually turned into Lake Powell, which was visible off of our right wing. Monument Valley was just to the left as we crossed into Arizona. We were too far above and to the west of the formations to get any good pictures of them, but they all looked very familiar.

As we got further into Arizona, the thunderstorms had begun to appear on the horizon. I called up Flight Watch on 122.0 and asked about weather developing along our route and the weather briefer suggested that we fly directly west to the Grand Canyon Airport and then head south to get around some cells that had formed just east of Flagstaff and Sedona. I decided that it would be good to land at Grand Canyon Airport and take a break while we looked at a weather radar screen, just to make sure we’d be clear getting into Sedona. This allowed us to fly over the Grand Canyon, which was fun to see from the air. Terri and I had visited the Grand Canyon in 1985, just a few weeks after we got back from our honeymoon. I can still recall how hot it was driving across the Painted Desert in a car that had no air conditioning. The Grand Canyon airport had many commercial aircraft on the ramp taking tourists for scenic flights over the canyon. There were at least a dozen twin turbo prop aircraft parked there and they were leaving at a very regular rate. Most of the visitors appeared to be from other countries. After recovering from our bumpy ride, we got back into the plane for our short flight to Sedona. Flying into Sedona is visually stunning. It’s surrounded by red rock cliffs and formations of all shapes and sizes and the airport is like the deck of an aircraft carrier sitting up on a butte with 400′ dropoffs on all sides. There are many scenic overlooks around the airport and people drive up to it just to take in the 360-degree views of Sedona.

We had reservations at the Sky Ranch Lodge at the airport, and I’m glad I made them a few days in advance, because they were completely booked when we arrived. We also ran into John Lambert and his wife at the terminal. I recognized his name when he introduced himself because he had put together a slide presentation at the Rutan Birthday bash I had attended the previous week. He and his wife were on their way back to Arkansas from Mojave via automobile and had stopped in Sedona for the night. John built a Varieze but had since sold it.

There is a restaurant at the Sedona airport that serves dinner, but we wanted to see some of the town and to do that, we needed to get a ride into town. As we were walking to the hotel, we had been offered a ride into town by a kind stranger who was driving by but we only needed to walk a few hundred yards to the hotel. John Lambert had already offered us a ride to the hotel, but we opted to walk since it was so close. I figured getting a ride into town would be easy. However, the first 2 taxi services w
e called didn’t have any drivers available to take us to a restaurant so we called up a car service operated by ‘Gator’ who gladly showed up in a unique vehicle with horns on the hood and gave us a ride into town. After an enjoyable meal on the outdoor patio of the El Rincon restaurant along Oak Creek in Tlaquepaque Village, we started walking back to the center of town, figuring our odds of getting a lift back up to the airport might be better there. As we were walking, I turned to ask a woman who was walking behind us if she could direct us to the center of town. She asked where we were going and we said we needed to get back to our hotel at the airport. Without hesitating she said she was going that way and offered us a lift. It was the third ride we had been offered since our arrival.

The next morning, we had breakfast at the airport restaurant and took off around 9:00 a.m. The airport elevation is 4800′ and the temperature had gotten high enough that the density altitude was already 8000′. With an uphill departure, we used most of the runway to get airborne and I was grateful that by the time we flew off of this aircraft carrier of an airport, the town was already 400′ below us. We had to turn west to avoid the 6000′ tall cliffs just north of town.

From Sedona we flew over Prescott, then just south of Lake Havasu, Palm Springs, and on to San Diego. Upon arriving near the busy airspace around San Diego, I attempted to contact SoCal Approach to get clearance into the Class B airspace that covers most of the airports around San Diego. The controller was not responding to me and when he finally did, he told me he’d call me back in 5 minutes. My alternate airport was Ramona, which is just outside the Class-B airspace and so I started circling toward it waiting for my call. After 5 minutes with no response I called him again, and got a response that he’d call me back in another 5 minutes, all while sounding overworked and flustered. This appears to be a stall tactic used by controllers that means, “Don’t bother me, I’m busy with more important traffic right now.” The airspace over Montgomery Field, which is downtown in San Diego, was very hazy with only about 5 miles of visibility. By contrast, Ramona was clear and right below me, so I decided to land there and see if we could get the rental car delivered there instead. I called the Ramona tower, got a clearance to land and then taxied over to Chuck Hall aviation. After a few minutes on the phone with Enterprise, they agreed to pick us up and drive us to Poway to pick up a car. So that made the decision to park the plane there instead of at Montgomery Field. Even though it would have been more convenient, Montgomery Field often gets fogged in for several hours each morning in June. Ramona is far enough inland and higher in elevation that it’s not as susceptible to those conditions so I was fine with parking the airplane there while we visited San Diego.

Our Starwood Four Points hotel was next to Montgomery field and with the GPS, we were able to find our way there without difficulty. I should mention that during this trip I used my HP Travel Companion running Anywhere Map software for aerial navigation and then switched to its built in Tom Tom Navigator in the car. We found this gadget to be invaluable both in the car and plane during the trip. We used it constantly. I was even able to send email with it from a free wireless connection at the hotel.

The hotel is undergoing an extensive remodeling project and so we got a new room with a nice soft bed. It reminded us of our the bed we had at a Sheraton in downtown Chicago this past March. Later we’d find out that this bed is called a ‘Heavenly Bed’ and we’ve since put it on our shopping list.

Terri is a beach person, and one of our major goals was to visit the beaches around the San Deigo area, so after a short rest, we headed off for Mission Beach. I’ve only been to San Deigo once before, in 1984, and had visited Mission Beach so I was a little familiar with it. We strolled along the beach and took in the sights. Later that evening, we ate at a restaurant in ‘Old Town San Diego’ and did some sightseeing there as well.

Prior to arriving in San Diego, I had emailed my college roommate, Dave Serhan, who has lived in San Diego since graduating from Penn State to tell him that we’d be visiting the area. Whenever we travel in the LongEZ, I generally try to avoid setting up any meetings that would make us feel like we have to be in a particular place at a particular time. When I visit fellow pilots, they tend to understand the unpredictability of private airplane travel and so I don’t mind telling a pilot in general terms when I expect to be around, because if I show up late or not at all due to weather or some other reason, he’ll understand. Dave was the first person I knew who had his pilot’s license and he took me for an airplane ride at Forty Fort, PA airport when we were both teenagers. I still remember it vividly because he let me fly the airplane while he took some aerial pictures. It was my first experience at the controls. I guess in some ways, I have him to blame for my aviation addiction. Dave also spent much of his military career flying F14 fighter jets off of aircraft carriers, so he parlayed his investment in learning to fly small airplanes into flying multimillion dollar jets before retiring from the Navy a few years ago. I had visited Dave during my last trip to San Diego and he gave us a tour of Mirimar Naval Base and we got to see his F14 fighter jet. It was very impressive.

The following day we decided to visit Coronado Island and I gave Dave a call on my way to see if he was around or if he was off traveling for his job. Dave was home when I called and told me he only checks his home email address once a week and so he didn’t get my message. He invited us over for dinner and to meet his family. I saw Dave last year at our high school reunion, but hadn’t met his wife or daughters.

We spent the afternoon in Coronado Island and even rented a pedal-car called a surrey to travel around the island to get a better feel for the place. We really got a good workout as a result of our 6-mile pedaling adventure. Previously, I had thought that Coronado Island consisted of just a Naval base, but quickly realized that it had a beautiful beach and surrounded by many quaint neighborhoods. We ate lunch there and then went to walk on its beautiful beach that had sparkling golden flakes mixed in with the sand as it washed in on the beach. We also took a quick tour of the The Hotel del Coronado which was built in 1888, and it was quite spectacular. Terri has decided that on our next visit to the area, that’s where she’d like to stay.

After a day touring around Coronado Island, we headed up to Dave’s house north of the city. Our GPS led us right to his door. We really enjoyed getting to meet Dave’s lovely wife, Anita, and his two beautiful daughters, Lindsey and Kristina who are ages 19 and 15 respectively. Dave and I spent some time catching up while Terri and Anita became engaged in lively discussions on topics involving pets, furniture, and clothing. Anita is an expert in furniture and when we described our Starwood hotel bed to her, she immediately knew that it was called a ‘Heavenly Bed’ and that you can order one for your home. Part of its incredible comfort is a result of the high thread count sheets and blankets.

I learned that Dave has become quite a skilled pool player and is top ranked in his league. He recently built a billiard room and so I played a few games of 8 ball, all while feeling quite outclassed as he demonstrated his considerable skills. In a few hours, it was time for us to leave, but we hope to get back in the area and pay them another vi
sit. I am confident it won’t take us another 24 years to get back to San Diego again.

On Sunday we decided to visit the aircraft carrier, the USS Midway, which is docked at a downtown pier. First launched in 1945, the ship has undergone several retrofits and saw action right up until Operation Desert Storm in 1992. It’s been a museum/tourist attraction since 2004. An aircraft carrier is an engineering marvel and neither Terri nor I had ever seen one up close. I’ve seen plenty of TV programs that describe them on the Military Channel, but getting to walk through one is quite an experience. It took us about 3 hours to take the full self-guided tour which included an audio recording of many of the ship’s features. I won’t go into all the details of what we saw, but there are some pictures linked below and about half of them are of this tour. If you’re ever in San Diego, I suggest you spend a few hours to tour this ship.

There were still a few beaches we wanted to check out, and so we spent the rest of the afternoon comparing the beaches in Del Mar and La Jolla with the ones we saw closer to downtown San Diego. I had ventured into La Jolla during my first visit to the San Diego area, up in the hills and was astonished at how beautiful all the homes looked. So Terri and I took a short ride up Hillside Drive to see if my recollection fit what I had remembered. We found a dream home there offered for $12.1M which looked quite nice, but a bit out of our price range.

We liked all of the San Diego beaches, and Coronado was our favorite because it seemed the most accessible and the least crowded.

On Monday morning we headed home, taking off around 8:00 a.m. and heading to Falcon Field in Phoenix as our first stop. I knew that it would be hot in Phoenix, but it also has a low elevation at only 1400′ MSL and so the density altitude would be more manageable in the heat of the midday than most other Arizona airports. It was close to 100F when we arrived, and we had enjoyed a pretty smooth and comfortable ride at 9500′ prior to our descent. After leaving there, we headed to Albuquerque, so that we could cross the Rockies at a lower altitude and to better avoid the isolated thunderstorms that form just about every summer afternoon in the Rockies. When we landed at Double Eagle airport, there was a jet getting ready to take off. It looked like an Czech L39 Albatros military jet trainer and had a very loud jet engine to match. I was surprised to see the name ‘Eclipse’ on its tail. Last year Eclipse surprised everyone at Oshkosh with a small single engine ‘Concept Jet’ now called the model 400 and so I was wondering if they had some new aircraft they’d be showing this year. I searched the Internet for any mention of this new single engine jet and could find nothing. Eventually, I found out that Eclipse uses an L39 for training and as a chase plane, so that was what we saw.

We borrowed the courtesy car from the FBO and drove a few miles north to get something to eat since the restaurant on the field had closed at 2:00 p.m.. I checked weather upon returning and it appeared that if we flew toward Las Vegas, NM and then east of Pueblo, we’d miss some monster thunderstorms forming over the mountains. In a little over 3 hours after our departure from Albuquerque, we were descending through Denver’s Class B airspace showing a ground speed of nearly 180 mph. We were getting our first significant tailwinds of the entire trip.

It was a great relief to land back in Greeley after a long day of flying. Terri is a great sport for spending all that time in the back seat with hardly a complaint, although I think it may be another year or two before I can convince her to take a trip like that again in the LongEZ. But…. maybe if I can just get that Cozy finished …

You can find some photos of this trip here.

2 thoughts on “San Diego trip

  1. Sounds like a neat vacation!

    I also saw one of those “surry” things when I was in CA, but the one I saw was much more stripped down then the one you guys had. How hard was it to pedal? Did it have different speeds?

    How does the LongEZ fair in high temps like in AZ? How fast was your takeoff speed? I also stopped in AZ enroute and although I never actually stepped outside the airport, the pilot said it was like 110 degrees!

  2. Hi Chris,

    I’ve always wanted to see what it was like to ride in one of those pedal cars and I found it to be more work than pedaling a bicycle because it’s like a very heavy bicycle, probably like 100 lbs. Also, it has no suspension so they keep the air in the tires low to soften the ride, but that makes it harder to pedal. It don’t expect to see those things replacing cars anytime soon. 😉

    As for high temps, it’s the density altitude that you need to worry about. There’s a density altitude calculator here that you can play around with to see how altitude, heat, and humidity (i.e., the dew point spread) influence the altitude that your airplane ‘thinks’ it’s at, performance-wise, which is what density altitude is all about.

    The biggest influence is the field’s altitude, of course, and until you’ve flown off of a high altitude field (like above 5,000 feet) it’s hard to imagine how much of an affect it has on takeoff performance. But the real surprise is when you get to density altitudes of 7,000-10,000 feet which requires a runway length that may need to be two or three times what you need at sea-level.

    Density altitude’s performance hit is two-fold. First, your engine doesn’t develop nearly as much power at higher density altitudes. Secondly, the wing doesn’t develop as much lift. So you really have to be careful when flying at high density altitudes.

    PHX is at 1400′ and even when the temperature is at 115F, its density altitude is lower than my home airport on a 50 degree F day (5200′). On the other hand, Sedona, AZ is just a little to the north of PHX and is at 4800′. But it would have a density of 9300′ if the temperature hit 115F, and that could make for a very challenging takeoff unless you were carrying a light load.

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