Proficient Pilot

A bittersweet flight

August 1, 2005

Longtime pilot and former airline captain Barry Schiff flies out of Santa Monica, California.

I usually plan a long cross-country flight by first laying a yardstick on either a global- or a jet-navigation chart to connect the beginning and end points of my proposed journey. I then study the topography and modify the route to sidestep any hazardous terrain that might be lying in wait. Finally, I consult current, larger-scale charts to ensure that I will not trespass through restricted airspace.

So it was that I planned my recent flight from Los Angeles to Seattle. The purpose was to deliver my 1998 American Champion 7GCBC Explorer (nee Citabria) to its new owners, Jules Bresnick, a fraternity brother from my student days at the University of California, Los Angeles, and his partner in the airplane, Karen Mitchell, an FAA air traffic controller.

I checked the weather the day before departure and learned about a tightly wound low-pressure system moving slowly but inexorably toward the coast of Washington from abeam the northern Alaskan panhandle. "No need to worry, though," said the briefer. "Looks like you'll have a three-day window of clear skies; it'll take at least that long for the low to impact Washington weather." The Weather Channel agreed.

Because this would be the last flight in my beloved Citabria, I opted to bend the route westward and fly along the coast of Northern California and Oregon. It is one of the world's most spectacular low-altitude flights and would be worth the extra time required for the dogleg.

The next morning N707BS and I made a beeline for Watsonville, California, a fuel stop and the point at which we would intercept the Pacific shoreline.

We flew beneath San Francisco's Class B airspace and passed abeam the Golden Gate Bridge 1,000 feet above the Pacific entrance to the bay. It seemed like only yesterday that I had a fresh seaplane rating in my wallet and was attempting to land directly under this great span. But as I approached the touchdown area, I noticed that the water was much too rough for floats. It was in the best interest of safety to go around. I really had not intended to fly under the bridge — honest! — but I had no choice. (Hey, I was still a teenager.) Today there are cables suspended from the bridge that make such a foolish stunt considerably more dangerous.

The sun slid beneath the horizon as we approached Mendocino, a planned overnight stop on the coast of Northern California. The glorious sunset had left a spectacular twilight in its wake and reminded me of the many spontaneous sunset flights I had made in the Citabria. Living close to my home airport (Santa Monica Municipal), I would impulsively take off and chase the setting sun into darkness. A fellow vagabond in an open-cockpit biplane or other sport plane occasionally pulled alongside. A mutual wave of the hand gave each of us permission to join formation, dance together in the fading twilight, and watch the sky change colors before our eyes.

The flight service station briefer told me the next morning that the weather gods apparently had decided to expedite moving that low-pressure system toward Washington. "But you can still expect VFR conditions along the coast all the way to northwestern Washington."

Sure, I thought skeptically.

The shoreline of Northern California and southern Oregon is the stuff of which picture postcards are made. One can get mesmerized staring at powerful waves crashing against jagged rocks and gazing at pristine beaches so remote from civilization that they almost make you believe that you are the first to see them. By the time I got to North Bend, Oregon, the coastal weather began to rapidly deteriorate and threatened to reach my level of discomfort. Instead of continuing along the shoreline and possibly being forced to scud run, I cut inland to Eugene in Oregon's fertile Willamette Valley to distance us from the rapidly approaching low.

Flying northeast on the southeast side of the low gave us a slight push, and the winds got stronger as we progressed. At only 2,000 feet northbound over the Columbia River, we were propelled by a 35-knot tailwind. When flying a Citabria, which always seems to have a built-in headwind, this is an experience to cherish and behold. We were moving so fast that I almost began to worry about fabric peeling from the wings.

I had hoped to get a close-up and personal view of Mount St. Helens, the volcano that blew its top some years ago and might do the same in the near future. But the entire mountain was shrouded by a rain-soaked overcast.

After flying through a few showers, weaving my way under various chunks of Seattle's overhanging Class B airspace, landing at Crest Airpark, and shutting down the engine, I watched the propeller tick to a stop.

I climbed out of N707BS, walked a few steps, and turned back for a last look. Although I am not one to assign anthropomorphic qualities to an inanimate object, I began to feel as though I were abandoning a good friend or giving away my pet Havanese dog. But N707BS is in good hands and will reside at a beautiful residential airpark 10 nautical miles southeast of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Besides, part of the sales agreement includes a verbal understanding that I may fly the airplane whenever I visit Seattle.

You can bet that I shall return. Often.

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