I knew that trading in my IFR K35 Bonanza on a VFR-only Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) meant that my 38 years of flying IFR were probably over. No need to recite here the reasons for the move (if you’re wondering, no medical issues or bad IFR experiences), but the decision was not hastily made and there were no regrets.
I always enjoyed IFR flying, though, and my last IFR trip was one of the very best and most meaningful of all.
It was in late August 2007, a business trip from home base in Vancouver, Washington, to San Luis Obispo, on the central California coast, with a side trip to San Diego on the southbound leg to visit a dear friend who had been in failing health. Marine low overcast frequently invades the central and southern California coastal areas during the summer, so likely IFR was considered in preflight planning.
For the San Diego stop, I selected Montgomery Field (MYF), a few miles north of downtown San Diego. MYF had an ILS approach, and was more GA-friendly and less expensive than Lindbergh Field (SAN), the air carrier airport adjacent to downtown. Confident of this plan, I made a pre-paid reservation at the hotel on the southwest corner of Montgomery Field.
I planned to leave Vancouver mid-afternoon on Friday, August 24, 2007. Around mid-day I printed out the full DUATS briefing. With all of the security notices, forecasts, METARs and NOTAMs for the 860-nm trip, the printout (single-space, 10-point font) filled fifty sheets of letter-size paper. It said that the San Diego area was forecast to go 1,500 foot overcast right around my arrival time of 9pm. Had it been VFR all the way, I could have made it to San Diego with just one fuel stop, but the prospect of headwinds and night IFR at the destination suggested two stops to leave more than ample fuel on the last leg. I decided on Red Bluff, California, and Visalia, California, as fuel stops.
It would have been easy to overlook the single line among the dozens of NOTAMS on page 19 of the DUATS printout:
!MYF 08/007 MYF 28R ILS LLZ/GP/DME OTS TIL 0709112300
Montgomery’s entire ILS system was out of service for weeks. The only other IFR approach at MYF was an NDB/GPS procedure. I had neither an ADF nor an IFR GPS, so a Plan B was called for. I thought of Palomar (CRQ) about thirty miles north, which also had an ILS. I looked at DUATS again, finding this on page 47 of the printout:
!FDC 7/3592 CRQ FI/T MC CLELLAN-PALOMAR, CARLSBAD, CA.
ILS OR LOC RWY 24, AMDT 8C…
S-ILS 24 MINIMUMS NA.
S-LOC 24 MDA 1540/HAT 1214 ALL CATS.
CIRCLING MDA 1540/HAA 1209 ALL CATS.
TEMP CRANE 4196 FEET EAST OF RWY 24 THLD, 85 AGL/492 MSL.
CRQ’s forecast was for lower ceilings than San Diego, so this NOTAM left CRQ with no approach with minima below the forecast ceiling.
Plan C was Lindbergh Field, despite its heavy jet traffic, non-precision LOC 27 approach over Balboa Park and close-up views of downtown skyscrapers. At least there I’d be assured of finding a rental car to get me to my hotel, even late in the evening.
The VFR legs to Red Bluff and Visalia were pleasant and uneventful, other than an eye-stinging smoke layer at 8,000 drifting over the Fresno-Visalia area from brush fires near Santa Barbara.
With full tanks I took off from Visalia at dusk and picked up the clearance to SAN. The sun set through the smoke layer to the west while a huge, near-full moon rose in the east.
The route, LHS V459 SLI V23 MZB, took me over West Los Angeles, where I could see the coastal overcast was already making its move onshore in the darkness.
By Oceanside, there was a solid undercast, surreal and luminescent in the moonlight. Though my last IFR trip to San Diego had been more than a dozen years before, the vectors and frequency changes were all familiar. I was given the vector to the LOC 27 final, cleared for the approach, and was told to maintain at least 120 knots (Vle in my airplane) as long as possible for jet traffic following.
The runway came into sight from a couple hundred feet above MDA, I landed, and scooted off the runway as quickly as possible.
Parked at the Jimsair FBO, mine was the only piston airplane on the ramp—and for all I know on the whole airport. Service both on the ramp and at the desk was excellent if not inexpensive, and soon I made it to the hotel back at MYF.
On Saturday, I spent some treasured time on Coronado Island with George S. Alfieris, for whom I had worked for 15 years as a young lawyer, and who had been my friend and mentor in the practice of law. This visit made the whole trip worthwhile, and it occurred to me that it would not have been feasible but for a general aviation airplane and IFR. It was the last time I saw him.
The next morning, Sunday, August 26, I was to fly from San Diego to San Luis Obispo, where I would meet with my clients in advance of their depositions on Monday. Saturday night I checked the outlook forecast. It called for low overcast at both the departure and destination, and all coastal areas in between. If navaids are working that would not be a problem. So I checked NOTAMs—lightning couldn’t strike three times on one trip, could it?
Yes, it could:
!FDC 7/9016 SBP FI/T SAN LUIS COUNTY REGIONAL, SAN LUIS OBISPO, CA.
ILS RWY 11, AMDT 1…
Again, the forecast ceiling was below MDA on any other available approach at SBP. If the forecast proved accurate, I’d just have to go inland to Paso Robles and improvise ground transportation.
Sunday morning I pulled the hotel room curtain, and in place of the forecast stratus I was surprised to see towering CB to the northeast.
I fired up the laptop and consulted DUATS. Monsoonal moisture was seeping northward from Mexico. The cell I saw was drifting away from the route of flight, but there were others lurking offshore that might be a factor if I didn’t get a quick start. Otherwise there would be some mid-level clouds in San Diego and Orange counties; the good news was that SBP was VFR and expected to stay that way.
After a long hold short of the runway for a stream of airline traffic, I was cleared for takeoff and made the quick right turn to the northwest, the usual GA departure from SAN. The route was V23 SLI V459 DARTS V186 V597 V12 V27 MQO at 10,000. I was in IMC intermittently from 6,000 until the cloud layer ended just east of Long Beach, just occasional very light precip and no turbulence.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was likely my last IMC.
The rest of the trip was either clear or under a higher broken-overcast layer from about Santa Barbara to Santa Maria. Unremarkable from an operational standpoint (other than vectors around a TFR for the aforementioned Santa Barbara fire), the route of the IFR clearance was highly significant to me personally. It passed over places where I had once lived, went to college and worked, the beach where my wife and I met and the church where we were married, favorite weekend getaway spots—all places I hadn’t seen for years.
The landing at San Luis Obispo was in “severe clear” conditions.
Opposing counsel at the depositions on Monday had come from Portland to San Luis Obispo by airline, a journey that took considerably longer than it would in the Bonanza. He gladly accepted my offer of a ride back home.
It was a textbook VFR flight from San Luis Obispo back to Vancouver, with a fuel stop at Redding. To top it off, as I was refueling after arrival at my home field Monday evening, the full moon made a dramatic appearance from behind Mt. Hood.
I’m retired and live in Arizona now, and in not much of a hurry any more. The 172N I have now is legal IFR, in a 1978 sort of way. But there aren’t many clouds here, and those that do show up often have turbulence and lightning and hail in them. So I’m content to remain VFR and have no inclination to get myself IFR recurrent, or to update the panel of my Airborne Museum of Antique Avionics—at least for now.
If that indeed was my last IFR trip, it was a good one.