October 21, 2021
Words by Red Horse Aviation
This flight actually took place a couple of months ago. I had planned a day to fly out to the famous “Airport in the Sky.” Making a dream flight, along with checking a box off on a close family friend’s bucket list, come true!
Doug at the controls
Doug and his wife Grace have been a close family friends of ours for many years. Earlier this year, Doug had called me and wanted to get some information on flying, what to look for in a flight school as well as a good Certified Flight Instructor (CFI). A week or so later, he contacted me again and told me that he was going on his first ever flight out of the Nut Tree Airport (KVCB) in Vacaville, CA.
Doug had told me that he had always wanted to fly for many years.
A couple of months had passed and he kept me up to date on his progress. One evening, over the phone, Doug told me that he had always wanted to experience a flight out to Catalina airport. As I was talking to his wife, she told me that Doug really would like to fly to Catalina. In fact, she said, that Doug had mentioned to her that it was a bucket list item of his. So his wife and I decided to keep the planned flight a secret. If we were able to fly out there, it would be a very special surprise for Doug.
Catalina Airport (KAVX) is known as the “Airport in the Sky,” due to it being 1,600 feet above sea level, the highest point on Catalina Island. The airport can be a little tricky to land at, since there are large drops off on either end of the runway, and if the wind is blowing from the west, which can create downdrafts. Pilots need to use caution during the takeoff roll, when taking off on runway 22 to the west. The runway is up-sloping and pilots cannot see the other end of the runway for other aircraft. Radio calls around the airport are very important. There are no ATC radar services, nor is Catalina a towed airport. Catalina Airport is also famous for its Buffalo burgers at the DC-3 Grill and Gifts. It was last June, Doug and his wife told us they plan on coming down to visit, Doug really wants to go flying. I began planning a flight out to Catalina Island. I planned on an alternate place in Southern California to fly to, just in case the weather was not good around the island.
In early July the weather is great all week and into the weekend, the day I planned on taking Doug to Catalina Island’s “Airport in the Sky”, was looking very good.
The day of the flight had arrived. Doug and I were getting ready to go flying, and he still had no idea where we were flying to. The weather was perfect, high overcast clouds, the visible was 10 miles plus. As we took off, we made our north, slowly climbing to stay under and clear of the San Diego Class Bravo airspace. From 4,500 feet MSL (measured sea level), just northeast of San Diego we could see the island in the distance. As we cleared the bravo airspace, I directed Doug to fly towards the coast, he still had no idea where we were flying to.
As we were flying towards the coast, I contacted Southern California (So Cal) approach control to request flight following to Catalina (KAVX) and a climb up to 8,500 feet. Flight following is an Air Traffic Controller (ATC) service that VFR (visual flight rules) aircraft are recommended to use. It’s like having another set of eyes and someone to talk to in case of an emergency. Flying at a high altitude is recommended, as well as being a safe pilot to climb to a high altitude when flying over the ocean to Catalina. The purpose is to have enough altitude in case of an emergency. You can try to glide the airplane and get as close to land as possible.
The funny thing is, while I was talking to the (ATC), Doug still had no idea where we were flying to. Later, I broke the news and told him we were flying to that big rock out in the ocean, Catalina Island. He was already excited to be flying with me, but this made him even more excited that the rest of the day he had a smile so big from ear to ear.
Avalon, Catalina Island
The flight at cruise altitude over the ocean was like glass. It was a perfect day to fly. I had taken over the controls of the airplane for landing. We parked the airplane and went to the DC-Grill to enjoy our $100 buffalo burger. The weather was warm, warmer than I expected with a slight breeze.
On departure back to San Diego, we flew around the island to enjoy and take in the sites. The marine layer was beginning to move in over the island for the evening. As we climbed to 9,500 feet, we made our way back to San Diego, once again requesting flight following from So Cal approach. As we got near Carlsbad Airport So Cal approach control gave us a direct to the Mission Bay VOR (VHF Omni-directional Receiver), which is located in Mission Bay. Later, that would put us paralleling San Diego International (KSAN) and directly over downtown. Couldn’t ask for a better return flight back to Brown Field (KSDM) to end the day.