Santa Ana’s

By lex, on January 11th, 2009

We’d ten flights scheduled for the Vargas yesterday, split five apiece between myself and Earl-the-Pearl, not to mention four or five biplane rides and one hack in the warbird. Might be that folks are cashing in on gift cards, or it might be pent-up demand – December was very slow – but it was good to be back in the air again.

With all that “work” to do, I was up early. A cup of coffee in hand I let the dogs both greater and lesser out back right at sunrise, stiffening my resolve to face the morning chill. It’s not so much by the standards of folks living in places like Detroit and Rapid City I don’t think, but it does get into the low 50′s over night. Some times into the 40′s. I positively shiver.

I read the sky with professional interest, something you forget to do when you’re not flying. The winds out back were dead calm, the air warm and flat like a changing of the tide. I looked up to see a crystal clear sky, no trace of the usual coastal fog. I knew the signs: Santa Ana’s were coming.

Nothing much to fret about this time of year, we’ve had some good rain and they never last long enough in the winter to dry the roadside grasses out, allowing some careless motorist to flick the embers of his cigarette into the tinder and burn out a thousand homes in East County. That’s every other October or so. But it can make things interesting in the air.

The first pair were a nice young couple down to LA from the Bay Area, with a side visit down to Sandy Eggo for a half-hour learn to fly, side-by-side. They’d gotten their wires crossed somehow and ended up at Palomar and their delay ran one flight into the next, so it was a pretty hasty brief – “I’ve got it-you’ve got it-I’ve got it” – before we putted out west. The winds on deck were light and westerly, so we flew a formation take-off from runway 28 right, Pearl leading. Loose cruise to Mount Soledad, then a descent down to five hundred feet southbound off LaJolla with me a half mile in trail, around the tip of Point Loma and into San Diego bay itself as far as the sub base before bending them back around again for the trip north. There were sailing regattas off shore and in, surfers and sunbathers on the beaches, limitless visibility in every direction and a strange sense of privilege surrounding it all, something hard to explain. Perfect weather, a lovely oasis in an unlovely world, the ocean brilliantly blue and sparkling. Sailing yachts bent to the breeze and well-filled bikinis no very great distance below, we ourselves above it all. My passenger – guest pilot, I suppose I should say – was in awe and wonder at all of it.

Thirty minutes passes pretty quickly in an airplane. We rejoined just south of LaJolla, and there were many happy snaps between the two guest pilots in formation, each of them with matching iPhones. She couldn’t get the smile off her face, didn’t even try. It reminded me, as these things so often do, of what you can come to take for granted.

My guy was equally entranced, he kept asking things like how much the airplane cost, how long it took to get a pilot’s license, was landing the hardest part?

Not so much in this airplane, I told him, just before having to execute a last second go-around at 50 or 60 feet. The pattern winds were starting to get squirrely, Pearl had put his flaps down on final, I’d gotten closer to  him than I wanted to be and settled into his propwash even as I was reaching down to lower my own flaps. Then the stall warning horn went off, which was unsettling. It’s no big deal when it goes off just as the wheels touch down, but there’s a lot that can happen between 50 feet and terra firma in a light single, not all of which is good. There are some things – a safe landing is one – which you should never take for granted. I’d seen enough, and we’d just try that one again. One of the bennies of flying Navy, I think. You get used to the idea of waving off a bad approach.

I led the next hop, a dogfight. In the best traditions of the service, Pearl having been a Marine dinosaur Phantom and Hornet driver before retiring, I gave him the needle during the brief. He smiled through all of it, hammered that needle flat once we got airborne and stuck it between my ribs and twisted during our “proficiency” hack after the paying passengers were done. That’s the last time I give him a hundred feet and 10 knots at a merge in an airplane that can’t legally go vertical.

Sometimes you get the bear, sometimes the bear gets you.

The next folks planning on a one-hour learn to fly (side-by-side) canceled, which got us caught up on the schedule and gave me a chance for a bite while Pearl briefed our fourth flight, another dogfight. You could feel the sea breeze starting to give way to the Santa Ana’s overhead, and at a thousand feet westbound we were being pushed sideways nearly as fast as we were flying forward, it seemed. Helicopter jocks may be used to it, but going sideways at low altitude always sparks cognitive dissonance in a guy who grew up fast jets.

My guy was a jolly gent with a little bit of flight time up against a lifetime friend, but he laid all that by the side once we’d gotten into the mix. He kept putting on turns that would have worked great in an afterburning jet but which were more than the 150 hp Lycoming could graciously sustain. Right into accelerated stall buffet, and no way I could talk him out of it even with the “stick limiter” in place. The consequences were predictable, and we spent more time looking over our shoulders at a Varga at our six than we did looking out the front at a Varga ahead of us. They still had fun.

I took the lead for the jaunt back to Montgomery Field, checking ATIS before dialing up the tower. Once back over Torrey Pines I started getting that sideways feeling again, and had to ask the tower to say again the active runway. Runway 5 he repeated. I’d never before done an approach to Runway 5 – turns out there are some lovely powerlines a half-mile on final. Had to bump her up to a relatively steep glideslope on a short runway (3400 feet), lowered the flaps again to slow her down, but with the Santa Ana’s in our face we had no problem stopping by the midfield taxiway.


The wind was whipping up to beat the band, the taildragger flights were canceled and upon further reflection the owners scrubbed the last two Varga rides as well. Another 3.2 for the logbook – it’s not five flights, but neither is it nothing. And someone else paid for the gas.

As I was leaving the airport, I saw some old coot in a J-3 Cub working the pattern, and I had to admire his fixity of purpose if not his acumen. You could have ran him down afoot on the upwind leg he was going that slowly, quickly turning into a race car on downwind. Probably 35-40 knots aloft and bumpy as all get out. It must have made for quite a ride.

You see a lot if you’re looking for it in a day at the airport, hear things too. News and gossip between people of shared interests, shared purpose. The power lines you’d never noticed on a runway you’d never used. There’s a slick little Mooney with a flat tire that hasn’t moved in ages, and it speaks to me of a younger man’s long-nurtured dream finally realized just in time for the owner to lose his medical. Then there was the futuristic little DA-20 spending an eternity at the hold short whispering its suspicions about  a pilot with more disposable cash than confidence. The little Vargas tucked away at the end of the day hum with their memories of joy and wonder. The Santa Ana’s howling overhead.

Just another Saturday.


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Filed under Best of Neptunus Lex, by lex, Carroll "Lex" LeFon, Carroll LeFon

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