California Flying

San Diego's North County

January 1, 2000

Years ago, San Diego’s North County area had a reputation for plenty of sunshine, great surfing, lots of golf courses, and not much else. The sun, the surfing, and the golf are still abundant, but now there are plenty of newer attractions for pilots and their families.

San Diego County covers more than 4,200 square miles of beaches, mountains, and desert from the Mexican border to San Clemente and from the Pacific Ocean almost to the Salton Sea. Jazz is popular in San Diego, and the three general aviation airports in the south part of the county all carry names of noted jazz artists. They are (Dizzy) Gillespie (SEE), (Wes) Montgomery (MYF), and (Clifford) Brown (SDM). Lindbergh Field (SAN) is San Diego’s international airport. Its namesake is not famous for jazz, although he did set one very famous record.

There are six GA airports in the northern part of the county. McClellan/Palomar (CRQ) is the largest and busiest. In fact, it vies with Santa Monica (California) and Scottsdale (Arizona) as the busiest single-runway towered airport in the United States. The winds typically blow from the southwest, so Palomar (locals drop the McClellan portion of the name) almost always uses Runway 24 with right traffic.

There’s an ILS to Runway 24 that you might need for a morning arrival during early summer—the worst time for gloomy weather. The summer marine layer is usually less than 1,000 feet deep and burns off to the coast by midmorning, leaving hazy afternoon skies. A stubborn marine layer will often burn off just enough to create "broken" conditions at the field, which really aren’t "broken" clouds at all. What may exist is clear skies to the east and a fog bank to the west, but since it falls into ATC’s "greater than five-tenths" coverage, it gets reported as "broken." There’s also a VOR/GPS approach, but don’t expect to get it if the ILS is busy. If the arrival end is clear, a special VFR clearance can come in handy.

Transient parking at Palomar is very tight, but there are two FBOs that always have room. One of them, Cinema Air, boasts a private collection of warbirds that is not to be missed. Rental cars and cabs are readily available at both FBOs. Check AOPA’s Airport Directory for details.

Once you’ve chocked the airplane, you’ll be a five-minute ride from two world-class resorts. La Costa has two championship golf courses; tennis; and enough saunas, masseurs, and herbal wraps to help you forget your last ramp check. La Costa earned the American Automobile Association’s Four Diamond award. Four Seasons Aviara opened in 1999 and just received AAA’s Five Diamond award. Both resorts have award-winning restaurants, and there also are plenty of other great restaurants close by.

San Diego’s North County is golf heaven. Flying into Palomar takes you over the headquarters of Callaway, Taylor Made, Cobra, McHenry, and many other brands. The northern part of the county is filled with golf courses to challenge duffers and scratch golfers alike.

If you’re bringing the kids, plan to spend some time at Legoland. It’s the only Lego park in North America, and, unlike some theme parks, this one is designed to get kids and parents actively involved in creative play. Park designers have built replicas of whole cities out of those little blocks. Shopaholics will find comfort at the Carlsbad Company Stores, an outdoor mall at the west end of Palomar.

If you’d like to see more of the county but want to leave the flying to someone else, you can book a trip in a 1929 open-cockpit Travelair. Palomar-based Barnstormers has two Travelairs, plus a T–6 and an aerial combat adventure using Varga Kachinas. For more information about how to participate in the aerial combat adventure, visit the Web site ( If you’d like to be airborne but move a little slower, book a sunset balloon ride that starts near the Del Mar racetrack and goes inland over the estates of ritzy Rancho Santa Fe. But you don’t have to hit the Lotto to visit North County. If you’re about three seasons shy of the Four Seasons, South Carlsbad State Beach has 222 beachfront camp sites.

Oceanside Airport (OKB) is about seven miles northwest of Palomar on the southern edge of Camp Pendleton, the U.S. Marine base. OKB is an uncontrolled field with what people used to call a "cloud buster" VOR approach. That means the minimums are high enough that you may not get down far enough through the marine layer to see the airport. Oceanside’s runway, like Palomar’s, is oriented northeast/southwest with right traffic. It’s a convenient stop for deep-sea fishing out of the nearby harbor, and skydiving is available at the field.

On the east side of Camp Pendleton lies Fallbrook Airport (L18). It’s a 2,100-foot strip oriented north/south. There’s no weather reporting and no in-strument approach, but it lies far enough inland that the marine layer isn’t as much of a factor as it is at the coastal airports. Fallbrook is avocado country and horse country, and is quickly becoming known as San Diego’s wine capital. The Welk Resort Center is just across the freeway from Fallbrook. For further information, visit the center’s Web site (

Ramona (RNM) is the busiest of the uncontrolled fields in North County. Students go there to practice touch-and-goes, and the CDF (California Department of Forestry) firefighters are based there in the summer and fall. It’s the closest airport to the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park, but rental cars and hotels aren’t as plentiful as they are around Palomar. Further inland, near the Julian VOR, is the Warner Springs gliderport. Year-round glider lessons, a hotel-resort, hot springs, and high-desert golf are available at Warner.

If you get hooked on the sunshine and decide to relocate, North County has several private airport communities. The runways are paved but not long. Pauma Valley, in the shadow of Palomar Observatory, is the longest strip at 2,700 feet. Nearby Blackinton measures 2,100 feet, and Lake Wohlford is a compact 1,300 feet. Practice your short-field technique before you tackle them.

Whatever your pleasure, there’s plenty to keep you busy in San Diego’s North County. Or just kick back on a towel at the beach. Don’t forget your sunscreen.

Links to additional information on flying destinations in California may be found on AOPA Online ( ).

North San Diego County information


Carlsbad: La Costa; telephone 800/854-5000 (

Carlsbad: Four Seasons Aviara; telephone 800/819-5053 (

Escondido: Welk Resort Center; telephone 800/932-9355 (

Warner Springs: Warner Springs Resort; telephone 760/782-4200 (

Beachfront camping

Carlsbad: South Carlsbad State Beach; telephone 800/444-7275


Fun in the air

Carlsbad: Biplane, Air Combat & Warbird Adventures; telephone 800/SKY-LOOP (

Del Mar: California Dreamin’ balloon rides; telephone 800/373-3359 (

Oceanside: Skydiving; telephone 888/300-6966 (

Warner Springs: Glider lessons; telephone 760/782-0404 (

Family fun

Carlsbad: Legoland; telephone 760/918-5346 (

Carlsbad: Carlsbad Company Stores; telephone 888/790-SHOP (

San Pasqual: San Diego Zoo Wild Animal Park; telephone 760/747-8702 (

Camatta Ranch, which was featured in " California Flying: Camatta Ranch ," (December 1999 Pilot) is a private airstrip. Pilots who wish to visit the ranch need to obtain a reservation and sign a liability waiver before landing. To make a reservation or get more information, please telephone the ranch at 805/238-7324; fax 805/238-3644; or e-mail [email protected] . Pilots should note that the airstrip is three miles from the ranch’s headquarters and has no facilities. Transportation to the ranch headquarters will be arranged for pilots with reservations.