The natural beauty of Catalina Island, 20 miles off California’s southern coast, is best enjoyed by pilots who tackle the challenge of landing on the island’s mountain peak airport.
California’s “Airport in the Sky” at Catalina Island hosts a fly-in every second Saturday each month, weather permitting. On August 13, pilots who fly in in aircraft built before 1961 and earlier land for free. And pilots who join the newly named Catalina Aero Club (formerly Catalina Pilots) receive unlimited landings at the Airport in the Sky for one year.
Why is Catalina Airport ( AVX) called the “Airport in the Sky?” The approach end of Catalina’s Runway 22 begins at the edge of a 1,500-foot cliff. It gives the airport characteristics similar to landing on an aircraft carrier that is 1,602 feet in the air. The single 3,250-foot-long runway was constructed by blasting and leveling two adjacent mountain peaks, and then using the resulting debris to fill in the gaps.
There are no familiar visual cues for altitude reference. Pilots must rely on altimeters. There’s usually a strong downdraft on the approach end of the runway caused by prevailing winds falling over the 1,500-foot cliff. Be prepared for the downdraft and possible loss of altitude during short final. The uphill slope of the runway can cause approach and flare problems for inexperienced pilots and most flying clubs require that on a first landing at Catalina, pilots be accompanied by a CFI or other Catalina-experienced pilot. The shortest overwater distance to Catalina is from San Pedro, southeast of Torrance Airport. It’s 18 nautical miles and you should cross the channel as high as possible, from an altitude of 7,500 feet, so a Cessna 172, for example, can glide for nearly nine nm if an engine fails, nearly assuring you can get to one shore or the other. Bring the life jackets (required on flights for hire).
So, if these challenges don’t intimidate you, what else waits for you on Catalina Island? More than 200 miles of trails make the island a great place to hike. . The most dramatic hike is the 37-mile Trans-Catalina Trail, which opened in 2009. Any portion of the trail will show the dramatic changes in elevation, varied wildlife (sighting of wild bison are often), and the pale turquoise waters that surround the island. The town of Avalon is a short shuttle ride from the airport (no cars here, just golf carts).
For more information on Catalina Island, see the AOPA destinations website for an article from Pilot Getaways magazine.