Coast to coast adventure: Virginia Beach to Catalina

Editor’s note: This article is the latest in our “My Adventure” series, where everyday pilots share their memorable flights. Send your story: editor@airfactsjournal.com

Our trip started off at Hampton Roads Executive Airport (KPVG) in Chesapeake, Virginia. This is where I hangar my 1974 Cessna Cardinal RG (N409SP) and began my trip. This adventure was planned as a father-daughter trip for some much needed bonding time. Plan A was in effect, which was to be gone nine days and visit some very prestigious locations or a pilot’s bucket list of places to fly to.

Since there are so many variables that could not be accounted for, Plan B was to roll with the punches and make the best of whatever gets thrown our way. The Itinerary was to leave June 1, 2014, from my home airport (KPVG) and fly to Louisville, Kentucky’s Bowman field (KLOU), a regular stop for me since that is where many of my family still reside. Night one and next morning pick up my daughter and head for Independence, Kansas, home of the Cessna piston aircraft, Mustang and M2 jet manufacturing.

Leadville airport
Leadville, Colorado – “yes, I got the certificate.”

Donna from Cessna met us at KIDP, which is where the assembly plant is located, and brought us over to the plant for an in-depth tour. It was enlightening to see how an aircraft comes together from beginning to end. Night two and the next morning we were off to Leadville, Colorado, the highest elevation airport in the country (yes, I got the certificate).

Although I have flown over and around the Appalachian Mountains many times, I was amazed by the effects of mountain wave action and operating at 11,500’ msl and still looking up at the mountain tops, Pikes Peak for one. The ride was bumpy but worth it to land at such a remote airport. I learned something else too: there is this little technique called the “Rocky Mountain Lean.” If you don’t know it, your plane will be too rich when you land and it will quit right on the taxiway, just like mine did.

Andy and Levi, the airport manager and attendant, were super helpful and very nice. They informed me of my mis-step and told me it happens about once a week. I was feeling better already. Night three and the next morning (30 degrees F), we were off to Furnace Creek, California – Death Valley. This is where the gremlins jumped onboard. My transponder was not working on the ground and I guessed it was the temperature and thought it will come on once everything warms up, NOT!

In flight we decided we would get the transponder fixed or replaced before heading through the Los Angeles basin. Due to the density altitude, I chose to leave Leadville with enough fuel and reserves to get to a fuel stop instead of full fuel. Montrose Regional (KMTJ) was my choice where I gassed up at Black Canyon FBO. It turned out to be a great choice since it is probably the nicest FBO I have ever been in. Sorry, Million Air. The staff was super helpful and accommodating at helping us find a repair shop. As good luck would have it, the stop was directly on our route to Death Valley. St. George (KSGU) had an avionics shop that was able to test the transponder but not fix it; however they did sell us an identical make and model, for a modest fee. I also realized while moving further west that my Garmin 530 and 430 did not have the western United States data base installed, which the repair shop hooked us up with (for a small fee).

We were only supposed to stop in Death Valley and head on to Catalina but the transponder problem set us back in time, so we decided to stay in Furnace Creek for the night, and I am glad we did. The 113 F (dry heat) was suffocating, but the desert was a fun place to explore and we got to check the box for the lowest elevation airport in the United States (-211’ msl). My daughter and I ventured out past the runway and took in the mountains, valley and vastness of the desert.

Santa Catalina
Santa Catalina Island – a long way from Virginia.

Night four and the next morning, with a working transponder we were off to Catalina. I had to climb to 10,000’ msl before I could reach Nellis Approach and pick up my flight plan to Santa Monica Airport (KSMO) for fuel since Catalina has no fuel and the ceiling was 200’ at KAVX.  Since the future of KSMO is uncertain, I wanted to stop there and sign a petition to keep KSMO open.

Atlantic Air Services took good care of us but they did not have a petition to sign. After a break and fuel, we were off to Santa Catalina Island. Other than the 10 mile, one hour bus ride, Avalon is a quaint town where you can really relax. We enjoyed great local food and a beautiful view of the Pacific Ocean.

Night five and the next morning we were off to Grand Canyon Airport (KGCN) via the touring corridors of the Grand Canyon. The ride was very bumpy, but a worthwhile exchange for a spectacular view of the Canyon. At KGCN things were abuzz with tour operators in helicopters and fixed wing aircraft. We were only in their way so we took a quick break and headed off to Cortez, Colorado, where the Four Corners Monument and Mesa Verde awaited.

Leaving KGCN, it was the first time I ever heard an ASOS recording, announcing to check density altitude. The heat and altitude gave us a density altitude of over 8000’. Arriving late in Cortez put us a little behind schedule but we still had time to get to Four Corners and take some great pictures and then have a nice dinner.

Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon is always spectacular from the air.

Night six and the next morning we visited Mesa Verde, where the Pueblo Indians built their homes in the cliffs. We did a tour and headed off to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. We landed at Wiley Post Airport (KWPA) where Atlantic Air Services took great care of us again. We used a crew car and visited the Oklahoma City Memorial. I was shocked when I experienced the sadness I felt walking around the memorial. As a law enforcement officer and Hazardous Devices Technician (bomb tech) who has worked and spoken with many FBI and ATF agents who worked that bombing site, I felt compelled to visit and pay respect to those who had lost their lives that day. I felt a heavy grief while I read the signage around the memorial; this stop was the most meaningful of our trip. This was about those who lost their lives and symbol eternalizing they will never be forgotten.

Night seven and the next morning we were off to KLOU to return my daughter in time to catch my grandson’s baseball game. Our departure was delayed by two hours due to thunderstorms. Landing in Louisville my son-in-law was waiting with my grandsons to welcome us home–what a great reception.

After our hugs and kisses and goodbyes, my co-pilot was off to be mommy again and I was headed to my son’s house for dinner and rest before the last leg of the trip. The eighth night and next morning it was up early and back to KPVG. A nice tailwind and I was home in three and half hours. As I gassed up and looked across the airfield I thought to myself, “Did I just fly round trip to Catalina Island?” It was as if I had just left the day before. As I closed the hangar door, I patted N409SP on the top cowling and said “good job.” I just did the cross country of a lifetime with a great co-pilot and a great plane.

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