While initially planning this trip, we thought we’d fly from our home airport of Nampa, ID to Oakland, CA which would take us 3.0 hours with no wind. When I checked the weather on Wednesday night prior to our Friday morning departure, the forecast winds aloft showed a significant headwind for the whole route.
The winds aloft forecast only looks out 12 hours, but the pressure systems generating those winds weren’t forecast to go anywhere between Wednesday and Friday. Factoring the winds into our flight planning gave us an estimated time to Oakland of 3.9 hours. That was well within our Mooney’s fuel capacity of 6.4 hours, but it was a little bit longer than Nancy and I like to stay cooped up.
We had read good things about the restaurant at Santa Rosa, CA so we decided to stop there to stretch our legs and get a bite to eat before continuing to Oakland. We’ve made the trip to the San Francisco area several times, always following the generally direct route to Reno, then making a slight right turn to cross the Sierra Nevada mountains just north of Lake Tahoe. Stopping in Santa Rosa would take us a bit further west into California and give us some new scenery to check out.
Friday – Nampa to Santa Rosa
Of course I never wish for bad weather on days we’re planning to fly, but this would be our first long trip after getting our Garmin 396 which has the unique ability to display live weather information on a portable aviation GPS unit. I didn’t want any really bad weather, but I was hoping there would be something interesting about the weather that the new GPS would help us with. The Garmin 396 is a fairly pricey item, and on top of the purchase cost a monthly subscription to XM Radio is required to get weather via satellite. Phil recently passed his Instrument Flight Instructor (CFII) checkride and as a reward, I suggested that he upgrade to the Garmin GPS 396 (we previously had the 296 model which lacked the ability to get in-flight weather). He wasn’t sure he wanted to spend that much money on a portable GPS, but I twisted his arm to upgrade knowing how valuable it is to have ready access to weather information in flight. I’ve got a wife who 1) is a pilot, 2) enjoys flying with me and 3) she encourages me to buy aviation gadgets. How lucky can one guy get?
Friday Morning’s Weather Briefing
The morning weather report matched the forecast I had received last night: low-level clouds (as low as 100 feet) at both Santa Rosa and Oakland, forecast to clear up around noon Pacific time. This was pretty ideal for trying out the new 396: the weather was interesting enough to monitor while in flight, but not significant enough to cause us problems while we learned how to use the new features.
We typically try to take off as early as possible to enjoy the smooth morning air. This has always been challenging for me since I’m not a natural morning person, but well worth it once we’re in the air. Today was my lucky day … we actually had to delay our departure to allow time for the morning fog in Santa Rosa and Oakland to clear up. In contrast, I am very much a morning person. One of the many ways Nancy shows me how much she loves me is the patient way she tolerates my typical flurry of morning activity before she’s fully awake. She did show me a full smile when I told her we needed to depart an hour later than our original plan to let the fog burn off. By departing at 10 am Mountain time would arrive at Santa Rosa around 1 pm Pacific time.
We left Nampa just after 10am, and one of my students was doing some solo take off and landing practice. When we took off from runway 11, David was abeam our position and just turning onto the downwind leg of the traffic pattern. I gave him a little wag of the wings before leaving the traffic pattern towards our destination. Next, I called Boise approach and got our IFR clearance to Santa Rosa. IFR clearances can sometimes get complex, but today ours was pretty easy: “Cleared to Santa Rosa as filed, climb and maintain 10,000.”
The FAA regulations don’t require oxygen use until 12,500 feet, but Nancy and I have found that we’re both better off using it anytime we’re above 8,000 feet for more than about 2 hours. With oxygen, we both feel more refreshed and alert even after a 4 hour flight. Prior to having our portable oxygen system, I’d often have a headache and be tired after flying at altitude for more than a few hours. During one of the Mooney Pilot Proficiency classes I took, Dr. Bob Achtel stated that you’d have the same amount of hypoxia after flying for 4 hours at 8,000 feet as you would flying for 30 minutes at 16,000 feet. During this flight, we plugged in our nasal cannulas after leveling off at 10,000 and we used our pulse oximeter to make sure our oxygen saturation stayed above 92%.
Checking the Weather In FlightAs Phil mentioned earlier, today was our first long trip with the new Garmin 396 GPS and I can’t recall the last time I was this excited to check the weather. At 9 am PDT, the conditions at Santa Rosa had already improved from 1/4 mile visibility to 6 miles and the fog had lifted to just broken clouds at 100 feet above the ground. When we checked the weather on the GPS again one hour later, Santa Rosa was reporting clear skies and 10 miles visibility.
Of course it’s possible to get all this information in flight without special equipment by simply contacting a Flight Service Station over the radio. Unfortunately when the weather is bad, the radio frequencies for getting weather information can get quite busy. On our trip from Iowa City to Sandusky, Ohio a few years ago we actually made an unplanned landing enroute to get updated weather because the flight service frequencies were too jammed up to use. Also it’s not possible to get a graphical picture of the weather over the radio, while the Garmin 396 is a wonderful example of a picture being worth a thousand words.As we passed Pyramid Lake just north of Reno, our friendly ATC controller offered a shortcut direct to the SIGNA intersection which shaved a several miles off our route. We gladly accepted and continued west.
Santa Rosa Arrival
The remainder of our flight progressed as planned. We were handed off to Santa Rosa approach and asked to report when we had the airport in sight. We kept looking, but couldn’t yet see it behind the rolling hills. I began to wonder if the controller knew about the hills that were sitting between us and the Santa Rosa airport. She prompted us to report the airport at least 3 times before we were even within 20 miles of the airport. Since this was our first trip to the Santa Rosa area, we requested the GPS 14 approach to the airport. We had just started towards the initial approach fix when we spotted the airport south of our route. We let ATC know and we were cleared for the visual approach to Runway 14. The approach controller handed us off to Santa Rosa tower who asked us to report a 4 mile final for the runway, and then cleared us to land.
We cleared the runway, contacted ground and requested taxi instructions to the restaurant inside the terminal. I thought the controller was feeling chatty when he asked if we were planning to have lunch. Unfortunately, he had some bad news – the restaurant was closed and not just for today. They were out of business. We were grateful to get the news before we parked the plane and walked all the way inside. We heard several other requests for directions to the restaurant on the ground frequency. I guess we weren’t the only ones hoping to make a lunch stop.
Since the only on-site restaurant was closed, our next stop was the fuel pump for a fill up before reaching the bay area prices. We pulled up to what we thought was the only self-service pump on the field. Phil found the nearest restroom inside Sonoma Jet Center while I fueled the plane. A gust of wind almost extended our stay in Santa Rosa by lifting my sunglasses off my nose and aiming them towards the left fuel tank. Luckily I caught them before they actually went in.
We’re Being Watched
Just before leaving on this trip, I discovered a cool website that allows you to easily track almost any IFR flight in the U.S. I told our friends and family to enter our tail number at flightaware.com. After my student David got done with his flight back at Nampa, he went home and watched our progress using that web site. When I turned on my cell phone after landing at Santa Rosa, I had a voicemail from David, “I can see you just landed, that web site is really something!” I was quite impressed with flightaware.com, and it’s certainly handy when you are flying to an airport and having someone meet you. They can see your progress, and even get an updated estimate of your time of arrival.
There are two FBO options in Santa Rosa, Apex Aviation and Sonoma Jet Center (SJC). The latter just opened up earlier this year. Confusingly, the Apex pump is located right in front of the SJC building. After Phil borrowed their restroom, SJC politely pointed out that we were using their facility, but purchasing fuel from their competitor while their own self-service pump was just around the corner (and out of sight). Oops! We’ll definitely support SJC on our next visit.
Santa Rosa to Oakland
We decided that our stash of snacks would do for lunch until we reached the city. We made a few quick calls to family to update them on our arrival time and filed our IFR flight plan to OAK. All we had left to do was wait out the required 30-minute departure clearance. Half an hour wasn’t really enough time to go anywhere and the airport seemed quite small, so we decided to start up and take our chances with an early departure request. We didn’t’ have much extra time at all. After letting a Gulf Stream taxi in front of us, performing our run up and waiting for landing traffic, we actually left right on time.
We flew the STS6 departure with the SNUPY transition. This was yet another interesting intersection name with some local flavor (we found several when we flew to Boston). This intersection was named in honor of Santa Rosa resident Charles M. Shulz, the creator of the Peanuts cartoon characters (including Snoopy) The radio frequencies between Santa Rosa and Oakland were surprisingly quiet. We found ourselves on the verge of making a radio check several times just before we would hear ATC broadcast.
ATC vectored us around the Blue Angels practice area and to the ILS at OAK, which provided a nice view of the bay, Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance. The only frequency that was slightly busy was the final NorCal approach controller who was vectoring us into Oakland. After he handed us off to the Oakland Tower, things got pretty quiet again.Kaiser Air was easy to locate as soon as we turned off the runway. Lots of line personnel, but no welcome or offer to help find a parking spot. The office staff was definitely on the ball. Our paperwork was waiting and everything was as expected, including the rental car that they reserved for us through Enterprise (which has a desk in their FBO). I was surprised at their choice of a standard mid-size car: a Dodge Neon with manual windows and locks. What a great reminder to appreciate the little luxuries like power windows and locks. The Blue Angels were practicing as we drove over the Bay Bridge. We hadn’t seen them for a few years, but they were impressive as always. Phil had the biggest challenge trying to divide his attention between the jets above and the cars ahead of us. As we got closer, the powerful jet engines echoed through the city as we made our way towards our hotel in Fisherman’s Wharf. You could hear them coming, but the tall buildings only allowed a fleeting glimpse of the fast jets. We easily found our hotel thanks to the GPS (which also has a very useful land navigation mode) then headed out for a late lunch and a bit of wandering on the Wharf before we joined family for dinner.
Be sure to check out our pictures and video from the airshow in the next part.