On March 21st, 2009 (Yes, I'm a little behind in my blog entries!) I flew my wife and three of her friends to Catalina Island in Plus One's Cessna 210 N210BX. Catalina Island is one of the "Channel Islands" about 30nm off the coast of Los Angeles. We departed from Montgomery Field (KMYF) in San Diego which is 76nm away from the island. This is usually about a 40 minute trip since I like to climb up high going out over the ocean. This is a fun place to fly to for various reasons. I have flown out there probably 20 times by now.
From a pilot's point of view the trip out over the ocean is something you don't get to do often unless you fly the international big iron. There's something cool about seeing only water in any direction. Aside from my many Catalina crossings, the only other time I have flown across a long stretch of open water is when I had to fly due west across the Sea of Cortez from Culiacan to La Paz. There was a tropical storm to the north of Culiacan on my way to San Diego from a friend's place south of Puerto Vallarta.
Originally constructed in the late 1930's, the Catalina airport itself is on top of a mountain. Each end of the runway is practically a sheer cliff. The runway has a hump in the middle so that when touching down (or departing) you can't see the other end. Rumour has it that pilots have been known to think the peak in the middle of the runway is actually the end of the runway and slam on the breaks or initiate a go-around. Since it is often impossible to tell if someone is departing the runway going the opposite direction it is very important to use the UNICOM (local airport radio communications frequency) to be aware of what is going on and announce your intentions. The field has no official tower or controller but there is a tower of sorts above the terminal building where you go to pay landing fees and book transportation down to the town. There is usually an employee in there monitoring the UNICOM who will announce winds and help out within their abilities. The winds around the island can be tricky as you can get up and down drafts right around the cliffs on each end of the runway.
And then there is the fact that the airport itself is at 1,600' MSL (Mean Sea Level) elevation. And that is what made this day's trip more interesting.
We got a rather late start due to the low marine layer clouds that often cover the coast. I am a current instrument rated pilot and our 210 is a capable airplane with IFR instrumentation and a Garmin 530 so normally a marine layer is no problem. But if the clouds start at 1,900' MSL as they did on this day and Catalina Airport is already all the way up at 1,600' MSL that means there is only 300' of clearance between the runway and the bottom of the clouds. That is not enough room to safely get there and maneuver to a landing.
The combination of warm landmass and/or a light breeze often produces a bubble of higher ceilings over the island. On this day I met a pilot who had flown at about 1000' MSL the whole way over all that ocean (from LA but I know people have done this from San Diego too) and then quickly climb as they approach the cliff-face at the end of runway 22 at Catalina entering that bubble of higher ceilings immediately over the island just barely clearing the cliff making it up to runway level and then plop it right down on the deck. But that's not for me. Nor do I recommend it for anyone else. If you have a problem at 1000' over the ocean you have little time and even fewer options. Not only does this risky maneuver likely violate VFR (Visual Flight Rules) cloud clearance requirements but it leaves too few options should anything not go exactly as planned. Any go-around is likely to involve going into IMC (Instrument Meteorological Conditions). I insist on a normal, stabilized approach to landing. Lack of pilots choosing to go around has cost the club some bent aircraft in recent years. It is never a good idea to do anything which would preclude the ability to go around. Recall that the number one cause of weather related general aviation accidents is VFR into IMC.
So we waited. Some of us more patiently than others. A pilot must resist get-there-itis, especially when it comes from passengers, even if that passenger is the pilot's wife. Eventually the weather reported that the ceiling was 500' above AVX which put it at 2100' above sea level. Departing Montgomery Field (KMYF) in San Diego with a VFR-on-top instrument clearance to OCN (Oceanside) VOR (Variable Omni-range, a navigation beacon on the ground) we climbed up through the clouds, canceled our IFR clearance upon reaching clear skies, and then on up to 8,500' for the cruise out there. I was hoping that things would begin to clear during the flight to the island. As the surface of the island warms it will often burn a hole through the marine layer and sometimes you will find the island sitting in the clear surrounded by clouds. I knew this was unlikely to happen on this day as the temperature was just too cool. But I had a plan B and plan C.
We agreed before take-off that when we got to Catalina Island if there was no way to get down in clear skies I would attempt the VOR instrument approach to landing. That was plan B. And if that didn't get us down into clear view of the airport we would execute the missed approach procedure, get back on top, and then we would fly about an hour to the east and spend the day in Palm Springs instead of Catalina. This was plan C.
I have always considered the VOR approach to Catalina Island to be a fairly useless approach and never expected it would really get anyone below a marine layer. The airport is at 1,600' MSL. With this instrument approach you can get down to 2,440' MSL over the airport. This means you need at least 840' between the clouds and the runway. The marine layer is usually lower than that. When we departed it was reported that there were 500' ceilings.
Having descended from cruise altitude down to around 4,500' and approaching where my calculations told me the island should be and seeing nothing but clouds I advised SoCal approach that I would need an IFR clearance for the VOR-A approach to Catalina while beginning to slow the airplane from cruise speed to approach speed. They cleared us for the approach and with the missed approach procedure in mind and ready to execute we passed over SXC VOR nearing 90kts and tear-dropped into the holding pattern for a turn for alignment with the approach and started a descent down to 2900' which plunged us down into the clouds. There are only 1.6 nautical miles between the FAF (Final Approach Fix) to the MAP (Missed Approach Point) with an MDA (Minimum Descent Altitude) of 2440'. If you have the airplane slowed down to 90knots for the approach you have one minute and four seconds to descend from 2900' to 2440' which means you have to descend at 431 feet per minute to reach the MDA on time. If you go faster you must descend faster and have a smaller margin for error.
Upon passing the SXC VOR (which marks the FAF) inbound we turned to heading 352 degrees while keeping one eye on the time (counting down 1m and 4s), one eye on DME (Distance Measuring Equipment, to tell us when we are 1.6nm from the Catalina VOR on a mountaintop nearby the airport as a cross-check to the time), one eye on the attitude indicator (to keep us right-side up inside the clouds), one eye on the airspeed indicator (trying to maintain 90knots to make all the math work out correctly) and one eye on the compass trying to maintain 352 degrees. You didn't know instrument pilots have 5 eyes? They do. And at least as many hands.
Just as we passed through 2500' MSL we could see the ground. A few seconds later we were at 2440 and the airport had come into view off to our right. Ideally we would have come out right above it. With only 1.6 miles you don't have much room to get lined up on your outbound radial or established on your compass heading and we actually ended up passing just slightly north of the VOR on our way inbound according to the GPS which I suspect is what did it. We made a right turn into the downwind leg of the pattern while simultaneously calling SoCal to cancel our IFR clearance since landing was assured, announced our presence to any other local traffic on the UNICOM frequency (no control tower at this airport), ran a GUMPS (pre-landing) check one last time (landing gear had already gone down at the FAF), made a couple more turns in the pattern and gently squeaked the wheels onto the pavement. Mission accomplished! Apparently, my wife had been doubting our ability to land when we arrived to find the island cloud covered. She excitedly pointed out the airport when it appeared and upon exiting the aircraft I was promptly declared her “hero”!
Unfortunately, it was now around noon. The airport would close at 5pm after which no more takeoffs would be allowed. While open to the public this is actually a privately owned airport and has somewhat restricted hours. We planned to go back that same day. After landing I paid the $25 landing fee and then bought the five of us $25 round-trip van tickets for a 30 minute van ride down the mountain to the coastal town of Avalon, the only town on the island.
We had three hours to look around. It's a small place and you can walk from one end of the main drag to the other in 15 minutes. But the ladies spent a lot of time in each little gift shop along the way. We walked around town and ate buffalo burgers and oysters at a local burger joint with some sort of tropical island theme whose name I don't recall. I've eaten at nearly every restaurant on the island it seems. Many pictures were taken. By the time we had lunch and made it from the docks on one end to the historic "Casino" (not a place of gambling, simply entertainment) on the other it was time to head home. As usual, we got a pretty good look at some buffalo along the winding road from the airport to town and on the way back up. The island was the greenest I have ever seen it due to the recent rains. I also saw a number of scorched tree trunks from the wildfires they have had there in the last couple years.
At 4pm we met the van for the ride back up the mountain to the airport. The van left a few minutes late and we stopped to look at some buffalo on the way up. So we had around 20 minutes to get off the ground. While the passengers made final bathroom breaks and got themselves situated in the plane I did the pre-flight. Then hop in for the start checklist, start, taxi, final takeoff checks, and we were off the ground with only a couple minutes to spare. It was tight but we made it.
After takeoff we were still underneath the marine layer although it was higher now than when we arrived. A few miles from AVX I called SoCal for an instrument clearance to Montgomery so we could get above the clouds for a safe open-water cruising altitude. This was quickly granted and up we went through the clouds. The rest of the the flight back to Montgomery was uneventful aside from nice scenery. The clouds had mostly cleared by the time we got back although I stayed on the IFR flight plan and flew the ILS (Instrument Landing System) into MYF for a smooth landing and happy conclusion to a successful day-trip to Catalina Island.