USA 2011

Return to the American SouthWest

C172 RG

At fairly late notice in 2011, I became fed up of the terrible summer weather in Holland and decided to get back to the US for some relaxing flying. The trip to Egypt had been incredibly good fun, but it certainly wasn't relaxing for most of the time! I booked flights out to Los Angeles and got in touch once again with Channel Islands Aviation, the rental outfit which had supplied the C182 for the trip in 2009. This time I decided to make another attempt at renting their C172 RG, N6543V, which we had intended to fly in 2009 but broke down before we set off. The attraction of this aircraft is the retractable gear; it gives you some extra speed, seems to be more stable than a standard C172, and most importantly it just feels like you're flying a proper airplane when the wheels go up.

I arranged to spend my first two days performing a rental checkout, including an instrument proficiency check to enable me to use my instrument rating; it had lapsed since gaining it in 2010. The first afternoon would be spent using a Redbird flight simulator, which I had not tried before, and the next morning would be the checkout in the aircraft itself. The charts and approach plates I would buy on arrival, but I spent a while brushing up on the instrument flying handbook just to take some of the rust off. Finally, I ordered a new tent to be delivered to the flight school so that I could collect it on arrival; once again, I'd be avoiding hotels and camping out on the airfields or other locations wherever possible!

Ross and James on the airline flight

This time I would be making the trip nominally solo, but would not be short of company. A friend of mine from West Virginia, James, would fly out to LA to join me for a few days at the beginning of the trip, and then fly out again a week later to meet me in Reno and fly for a few days. In addition I planned a weekend in San Francisco with a friend from University; and apart from this, of course, you always end up meeting interesting people on trips like this! A few weeks after setting the plan in motion I was on a Delta flight from Amsterdam to LA, via Memphis where James met me and liberally handed out free drinks vouchers. Although having originally planned to meet me, grab something to eat, and then return home before coming to California the following week, he decided to board the aircraft with me and come to LA for a few days. Being a Delta employee evidently has its perks.

Fortuitously, the person assigned to the seat next to me turned out to be the one guy who failed to show, so James and I settled down for an enjoyable flight. Given that I'd be driving in a few hours, I restricted myself to just the one whisky, but the time passed quickly nonetheless. Surprisingly quickly we made it through the terminal in LA and collected our rental car, an "HHR". This was rather an upgrade from the compact which I had booked, and is the kind of car that drug dealers are generally seen to "pimp out". We headed for Camarillo, fighting off sleep on the drive up there, and checked into a couple of rooms at the Days Inn Camarillo, just 3 minutes drive from the airport and, more importantly, 5 minutes drive from IHOP (The International House of Pancakes. Like many American "Internatonal" institutions, I have only ever seen it in America).

The Route

Clickable map of the USA 2011 Trip


James posing with a picture of Kevin

I was scheduled to arrive at Channel Islands Aviation for my checkout just after lunch, so we spent the morning eating pancakes and shopping for essentials. James bought some new sunglasses, having travelled to LA with his sunglasses case but not the all-important glasses that should have been found there-in. I treated myself to tent pegs, so that I could actually pitch my tent for camping. We returned to the motel to drop off our shopping, collect the flight gear, and make our way to the flight school where I checked in with Jason, my instructor for the next two days. The afternoon was spent in the simulator, a learning experience for both Jason and I given that it had only been installed at the school a few weeks before. The advantage of a simulator is that you can reposition the aircraft exactly where you want it, meaning you can fly many more approaches and other manoeuvres in a given time. You can also give realistic instrument failures, although this would not be new to me after the loss of the artificial horizon in the Maule on the way to Egypt earlier in the year.

After an enjoyable afternoon in the simulator, shooting a few approaches and also coming to grips with how exactly the darned thing worked, Jason announced progress to be satisfactory and we parted ways for the evening. After a couple of hours hanging out at the motel, James and I headed to a nearby mall to try an Indian restaurant that we'd noticed earlier in the day; James was well pleased with his first ever taste of Indian food.


Before heading to CIA for a second day, we embraced some American culture and went to McDonalds for breakfast. I was dismayed to discover that a cheeseburger was not available at this time of the morning, so made do with icecream; my mother would have disapproved. On this day of checkouts, the idea was to fly North a little to Santa Barbara for a nice lunch, practising some approaches and the rest of the skills required to complete the "instrument proficiency check" (IPC) on the way. James would come along for the ride in the back seat. Beginning to pre-flight the aircraft, however, I noticed a subtle flaw in this plan; the back seat was missing, giving excellent space for luggage but rather limiting our capacity for carrying passengers. The plan was swiftly revised to a quick local IPC with Jason, followed by James and my flight to Santa Barbara for lunch. Jason was upset to miss out on a good meal, but took it well, and soon we were off.

Ross at lunch

First exercise was an ILS approach into Oxnard. This is not a difficult one to set up as when you take off from the west-facing runway at Camarillo, you are effectively instantly lined up on a long final approach to the ILS at Oxnard. We practised some holding patterns and unusual attitudes, using the view-limiting glasses to eliminate my view of the outside world, before flying a VOR and a GPS appraoch into Camarillo and landing. Jason signed off my logbook, and before long James and I were headed North on an IFR flightplan to Santa Barbara. We passed over Oxnard, and then up the coast towards Santa Barbara, being vectored by Air Traffic Control for a GPS approach. We were able to fly IFR up to Santa Barbara without needing to pre-file an IFR flight plan by using something called "Tower En-route Control" (TEC). This is a system whereby, if you are not leaving airspace controlled by "Approach" controllers (as opposed to "Centre" controllers), you can be handed off from one to the other and never have to enter the main IFR system. It is quick, easy, and convenient; just like most flying in the USA compared to elsewhere!

Formation of Grumman aircraft

We landed uneventfully and taxiied to the FBO ramp. The ramp fee was waived for being a member of AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots association), neatly paying for half of the membership fee in one go. We made our way to the Elephant Bar Restaurant, just 30 seconds walk from the FBO, and highly recommended by the staff at Camarillo. The menu was challenging, in that I wanted to try almost everything on it and I briefly considered re-assessing my plans and simply flying here every day for lunch. James waited patiently as I polished off the mandatory chocolate brownie desert and we made our way back to the aircraft for another TEC flight back to Camarillo. The marine fog layer was still sitting off the coastline North of Camarillo and made for some attractive photos as we were vectored in for the VOR approach and taxiied back to CIA. The maintenance crew took the aircraft off my hands to refit the rear seats, as I would be flying with several friends later in the trip, and would need the extra capacity.

That evening we located a seafood restaurant just a few minutes from the motel. We were seated at the Oyster bar where the shucker was dismayed to discover that neither of us liked oysters. He put on a brave face though, and entertained us with stories about growing up in Camarillo as we ate and planned our actions for the next day. Somehow I had to take James to a Delta flight so he could get home for a few days work before flying back out to Reno and meeting me for some more flying.

Day 1 - South to the desert

LAX under scattered cloud

We set off mid-morning, and the first leg of the day was an IFR flight down into central LA and Hawthorne airport, just a stones' throw from Los Angeles International. Our route took us South at 7000ft, overhead Los Angeles International where the marine fog layer was battling the sun to encroach onto the airport's runways. Due to heavy traffic into LAX it was not possible to fly the full Localiser approach as I had wanted to, but we were vectored onto final approach and could at least fly the localiser as practice. We parked up at the FBO and paid our ramp fee (sadly no AOPA discount this time), before spending a pleasant hour or so in the cafe watching the traffic into LAX. Soon it was time for James to board the free shuttle bus to LAX (FBO service in the USA really is very good), and I was on my way South once again.

Hawthorne Airport

My destination was Agua Caliente, a small desert airstrip in the far South of California. I had been attracted to it by some good reviews on US pilot sites, and especially the fact that there was camping at a state park within walking distance of the airstrip. Leaving LA behind, I crossed the hills heading inland at 9000ft, and the change in the landscape was dramatic; from dense city to empty desert in what seemed like minutes. Agua Caliente was not easy to find; despite its position next to a road, there were very few other landmarks around, but the GPS was accurate and helped me locate it. The airstrip is short by American standards (although still huge compared to most UK farm strips), and sloping slightly uphill towards a good size hill not far from the end of the runway; it's best to land uphill towards this hill, and take off downhill away from it. I made a low pass over the airstrip to check the condition, and the wind direction, as the site is unattended with no radio service. On the ground I could see another aircraft parked up on the ramp, with a couple of figures next to it watching me as I positioned for final approach, landed, and taxiied in to park.

Flying over overcast

The other aircraft was a 2-seat Cessna 150, in beautiful condition. The pilots were an elderly American gentleman and his French friend; the Frenchman was busy studying for his pilots licence, and was out and about flying with his friend to gain experience. They were surprised to see me; in 20 years of visiting the strip, this was only the second time the pilot had seen another aircraft there! They had thought, when I made my low pass and then flew away again, that I must have been lost and just passing by. It turned out that the French gentleman, Gerard, was staying with his daughter on an airfield a little West of Agua Caliente called Ramona; she lived in a hangar where she kept four perfectly restored warbirds (including a P51 Mustang and a an F4U Corsair) which earned their living on the airshow circuit. How could I refuse such an offer?

Descending into Agua Caliente The C150 at Agua Caliente

My two new friends departed first, due to the fact that their aircraft was considerably slower than mine. I followed a few minutes later and headed directly across the hills to Ramona, still arriving a good 10 minutes or so ahead of the Cessna 150. I parked the aircraft up outside the hangar and went inside to meet my host Julie. The hangar was astounding; four beautiful aircraft, a giant RV, and a Maserati; the airshow business apparently paid well. I was shown my room downstairs, warned to keep an eye out for rattlesnakes which occasionally slithered in to the hangar, and then Gerard and I made our way into town for dinner. We took a chart with us of the local area, and planned a trip for the next morning so that I could introduce him to IFR flying; although he'd flown a P51 and various other exciting military aircraft he did not yet have any experience of the IFR system.

Day 2 - San Diego and Agua Caliente

P51 Mustang

The weather at Ramona the next morning was bright and clear, but as usual the coast was hidden under a low overcast. Our first destination of the day would be McClellan Palomar airport in San Diego, which had an ILS approach with minima of 200ft. The reported cloudbase at the airport was currently 400ft, so, it would be a great practice approach in real IFR conditions. We were vectored all over the place by air traffic control, at times being further away from our destination than when we had been on the ground at Ramona, but eventually we were vectored in to intercept the ILS. The overcast layer, as it turned out, ended right at the threshold to the runway so, while the airport was under cloud, the approach itself was clear; we landed VFR and took a table at the restaurant for lunch. A couple of pilots at the table next to us had come to the airport to practice some approaches in their Cessna 210, but had determined that the weather conditions were no good for it and were enjoying a meal instead; they were most surprised to meet a student pilot who had received some of their training in a P51!

Cessna 152 landing

We departed McClellan Palomar and headed North past the Marine Corps base at Camp Pendleton towards the small airstrip at Fallbrook Community Airpark. I'd chosen this destination simply because it was close by, and offered a much smaller and more interesting runway than our brunch stop. The traffic frequency was silent, and we completed our circuit and landing without spotting any other traffic. It was as quiet on the ground as it was in the air, so we stretched our legs briefly and set off VFR back towards Ramona.

Ramona Airport

I parked outside the warbird hangar again, and spent the afternoon relaxing with soft drinks and catching up on emails. As the afternoon drew on, I said goodbye to my kind hosts and took to the air once again, flying back across the hills to Agua Caliente. It did afterall have nearby camping, and I wanted to see what it was like! I didn't see or hear any other airplanes and once again I made a low fly-by to check the strip condition, landed, and parked up; this time in isolation. I packed my bag with the camping gear, and set off towards the state park. It was an uphill walk, and my bag was certainly not suited to carrying a lot of gear for any real distance over a rough trail, but I persevered and after a while made my way into the camping area by a back route.

Agua Caliente campground Tent in desert

Being out of season, and a weekday, there were not many campers around. Those who were there were almost exclusively retirees travelling in RVs or caravans so I had the tent area to myself. I left my gear at my chosen pitch, confident that not many opportunist thieves would be passing by, and made my way to the ranger station. In the USA, even when parks are unmanned you can usually just leave your fee in an envelope and choose a site, without any hassle; fees are generally low as well, especially for tents. I returned to the pitch and set up my new tent; an easy job given that it was almost identical to the old one! There wasn't much to do at the park except relax, make a light dinner and read before an early night.

Day 3 - To Tehachapi

Salton Sea Parked at Chiriaco Summit

The desert heats up early and it was not long in the morning before I was driven out of my tent by the increasing temperature. After a simple breakfast I packed up, and made my way back to the aircraft; this time following the road which turned out to be a far easier route, even if slightly longer. It took only a few minutes to load and pre-flight the aircraft; I took off down hill and turned NorthEast. The first destination was a small airstrip known as Chiriaco Summit, which was used by General George Patton as a training area in World War Two to acclimatize the fighting men to the conditions in North Africa. A runway was constructed there, and has been kept in use through to the present day. The only other establishments at the site are a cafe/gas station, and a museum dedicated both to General Patton and tanks in general.

M47 Patton Tank

The first plan after landing was to get something to eat. I tied the aircraft down in the parking area, which was handily located adjacent to the truck parking area. A large brunch later, I made my way to the museum to see what it had to offer. A film crew were filming some kind of documentary as I arrived; I paid my $5 entry fee and slipped past them into the main part of the museum. The internal area contains information and exhibits on the history of the site, and Patton and his exploits in general. Outside, past the sign warning of rattlesnakes, was a somewhat eclectic collection of donated tanks. Some were World War Two vintage, but most were most were a seemingly random assortment of more modern tanks and other military vehicles from the USA and elsewhere, donated to the museum mostly by their old military units. No maintenance seemed to be done on the vehicles, and they were in varying states of decay, the oldest ones sinking into the desert floor and generally wasting away.

Big Bear airport

On my way back to the aircraft, I stopped off at the tourist information centre which is co-located with the cafe. I spent an enjoyable half hour discussing the history of the location, as well as my trip, with the gentleman manning the desk before moving on to pre-flight the aircraft again, and depart. The next leg took my to an airfield called Hesperia, which I had chosen for two reasons. Firstly, it had cheap fuel, and secondly the restaurant there came highly recommended! I departed Chiriaco Summit and turned NorthWest, climbing to 10500 feet as I went in order to safely clear the high ground along my route. This high ground included Big Bear Lake, and Airport, a very pleasant destination which we had flown into in 2009. This time I carried on overhead without stopping, although it was tempting to drop in, and started a slow bumpy descent towards Hesperia. A quick fly-by to check the wind direction and I landed on the small uphill runway and parked up near the restaurant. A small boy with his grandfather had watched me land and park, and they approached as I tied down to find out where I was travelling from and to. I let the little boy sit in the aircraft and have a look around; it's always good to try and get more people keen on aviation! Breakfast at Chiriaco Summit had beena hotdog, so I balanced things by having pancakes for lunch at Hesperia. It's great being on holiday.

A race track near Tehachapi

The cafe was well situated to watch traffic coming and going at the airport, although it was not a very busy day. After lunch I refueled and took off to fly to my night stop, Tehachapi. The flight took me across the fringes of the Mojave desert, and as I flew I could see the huge runways of Edwards Airforce base in the distance, as well as an interesting and bizarre looking electronic warfare aircraft flying circles far below me. Tehachapi airport is located just a few miles away from another airport, which is primarily a gliding site, and both locations were relatively busy as I flew in, with several aircraft heading into Tehachapi ahead of me and a number of gliders and tow-planes in the air. Parking was available right next to the on-airport camp ground and it did not take long to set up my site.

That night was not the most relaxing I have ever had. Tehachapi is a railroad town and a major freight line runs through. Roughly one enormous freight train comes through each hour, with 4 or 5 locomotives, and at each of the many level crossings in the town they are obliged to blow their airhorns. There are quite a number of railroad crossing in Tehachapi, it turns out, and the campsite is a mere 50 metres or so from the railway. Early in the morning, previously hidden sprinkler heads popped out of the lush grass and created a localised rainstorm; on the plus side, it did demonstrate the water-tightness of my tent.

Day 4 - Tehachapi

Tehachapi Museum Tehachapi water tower

My first stop of the day was the Tehachapi railroad museum in the centre of town. This told the story from when the railroad first came through town up until the present day, and was a reconstructed version of the old passenger station. Passenger trains had ceased to come through town some years before, and the original station was being restored for a museum but burned down shortly before completion. The museum was excellent, and I was guided around by a retired railroad buff who had moved to the town after finishing his work in Los Angeles. After chatting for a while he invited me to return to the museum when it closed at 1600, and he would take me driving along the railroad service track down to the world famous "Tehachapi Loop" where the track turns a full 360 degree spiral to gain height through the Tehachapi Pass. He also gave me some tips for things to see around town until then, so I set off to do some shopping and view the murals which decorate various buildings around the Tehachapi.

I returned to the museum at 1600, and accompanied my new friend while he closed up. His car was a new model Toyota 4x4, which turned out to be essential for the track that we were going to take; it was an unmaintained dirt road that ran alongside the railroad for construction equipment and inspection runs. Over the last decade security had been becoming tighter and tighter along the railroad; while railroad buffs used to be able to come and watch to their hearts content, these days people were abruptly run off by employees of Union Pacific. However, one or two locals were still allowed to visit, my guide among them.

Freight train

This time of the afternoon was a busy time on the railroad and several trains passed us as we travelled towards the loop. The quantity of goods being moved across the country was impressive! As we went, various local landmarks were pointed out to me; mostly houses along the railroad where friends of my guide lived! A number of them, my guides' among them, were perched on the hills overlooking the rails and offered ideal homes for railway enthusiasts; outside of town the number of road crossings, and hence number of horn blasts in the middle of the night, were considerably reduced. Eventually we came to the famous loop, and drove up to a vantage point on the hill which overlooked the entire area. Having seen numerous trains on the drive here, our luck ran out, and we waited for an hour or so without seeing any rail traffic at all. We were just starting to give up and return to the car when a horn blasted, far down the valley.

Train on the Tehachapi loop

In the distance, through the haze, we could just make out the front end of a freight train coming up the valley. As it came closer more detail was apparent, three locomotives at the front of a long stream of automobile carriers, and a single helper locomotive bringing up the rear. As the train proceeded around the loop the front end came around and met the back end, passing over the top of it as the train now extended around the entire loop. As the train moved on we returned to the car and back into town, stopping off to pick up his wife on our way to dinner at a Japanese restaurant near the centre of Tehachapi. Afterwards they kindly dropped me back off at the airport, and I turned in for another night of sleep interrupted only by loud trains and early morning sprinklers!

Day 5 - To San Francisco

Tehachapi Loop

The flight to San Francisco would be a two hour leg, and basically just a straight line from Tehachapi. The valley was full of mist when I awoke, so I packed up the campsite and waited for the mist to burn off. I departed VFR in order to fly down the railway line and take some pictures of the loop, before continuing NorthWest and climbing to pick up my pre-filed IFR clearance to San Carlos airport. The flight was uneventful, a straight line to the NorthWest across the central valley and then a gentle descent over the hills for the GPS approach into San Carlos. The airport was still familiar from my visit two years previously, and I parked up in the same place as before and went looking for my friend Nina who was studying at Stanford and would be my host for the next two days.

Solar power plant

We zoomed off through the suburbs around the airport towards a shop I wanted to visit. Navigation, however, soon became an issue, but we were saved after I clambered into the back of the car to extract the GPS from my luggage. Parking near my desired shop, we found something even better; an English food shop! Full of real chocolate (none of the horrible American rubbish), cans of baked beans, and an astounding array of tacky Union Jack and Royal wedding memorabilia, it was an enjoyable place to browse (and buy chocolate) before we made our way to lunch at a Mexican near the university.

A380 in flight

That afternoon we relaxed in the sun on the lawn out the front of Stanford's main buildings, before driving North through San Francisco itself to the Golden Gate Bridge. While I had seen this from the air more than once, I had never crossed it at ground level. Even at night, the bridge is extremely impressive and offers commanding views back across the city; there are viewing areas at both ends of the bridge where you can stop and take in the sights. We were driven back into the car by the cold before long, and made our way back to Stanford; the next day we'd be flying, for a change!

Day 6 - San Francisco

Airplane with crew

The next day we met up with 2 of Nina's friends who had both studied at Stanford and now worked nearby. After a breakfast of bagels (when in Rome, etc...) we drove to the airport and pre-flighted. The weather was perfect, with a clear sky and pleasant temperatures. Today's plan was to fly North to a small airport called Little River, and then walk the few kilometres from the airport down to the coast for lunch and some time on the beach.

Coastal view

This being a Saturday, and beautiful weather, everyone else had decided to go flying as well. We queued for take-off with about 6 aircraft ahead of us, as well as several flying around in the traffic circuit and the occasional arrival. After what seemed like hours, we were given our takeoff clearance and departed on the Southerly runway, turning out West to the coast and then heading North for Little River. A few minutes into the flight we passed San Francisco International, and shortly after that the Golden Gate Bridge appeared. We flew in closer for a better look and some photographs before continuing up the coast.

Coastal inlet

The flight was smooth and uneventful, and before too long we were starting our descent to the traffic pattern at Little River. The airport has an automated weather reporting system, which reads the current weather to you over the common radio frequency when you transmit. We were the only aircraft in the area and were free to approach and land at our leisure. Moments later we were parked up and getting directions into town from the attendant at the airport shack; apparently, it was downhill all the way! The walk back, however, might not be so easy; but we didn't have to think about that until later, did we?


The road into town led steeply downhill through a dense forest, with little traffic and the occasional forest home almost hidden in the trees. It looked like an idyllic place to live, close to both airfield and sea, and surrounded by gorgeous wooded hills! As we went we debated the merits and pitfalls of travelling from the airfield into town by roller-skate, only to turn the last corner and be confronted with a T-junction at the bottom of the steep hill and appropriately enough, directly opposite was the town cemetery. This was taken as a definitive argument against the roller-skating idea, the helpful placement ensuring that you would end your rather misguided thrill-ride in the right place, at least.

Gas station Deli

Lunch was at the deli and general store located inside the gas station. While not as impressive as the fine cuisine at the Whoa Nellie Deli that we visited in USA 2009, the food was still good enough and with sufficient variety to ensure that the vegetarians in the group were also happy. Mealtime complete, we wandered down to the beach which was fairly active with kayakers, as well as a group of wet-suited people who seemed to be doing their best to fall into the surf and be dashed on the rocks, but we were assured that it was indeed a legitimate pastime and not as foolhardy as it appeared.

Seagull on the beach

After a relaxing hour or so on the beach, which I mainly spent photographing seagulls, it was time to head back to Stanford. However, between us and our aerial steed lay an almost insurmountable obstacle; a moderately sized hill. For a resident of the Netherlands, this was quite a novelty and not entirely unwelcome. We started our walk, only to meet a middle-aged American lady coming the other way who engaged us in conversation and, learning of our destination, set off towards her home to fetch her car and drive us there. We kept walking, to make a little progress before she re-appeared, but before too long the ladies decided that our transport might not be going to show and elected to hitch-hike. Nipun stayed with the ladies for their safety, and I continued my hike in an effort to beat them back to the aircraft. A mere 10 minutes later however, a beaten up SUV slowed down behind me and hooted its horn. A large, hairy, and heavily tattooed American leaned out towards me which gave me pause for thought until I spotted the others in the back of the car, so I hopped in and before long we were back at the aircraft.

Sunset over the Pacific

We refueled the aircraft and chatted to some local pilots for a while, one of whom turned out to be a member of the same internet flying forum as me. We departed before it became too late, however, as we had to be back in Stanford in time for a dinner appointment with some other friends of Ninas'. The flight back was once again smooth, and I filed IFR once airbourne in hope of a direct routing across San Francisco, as well as for the practice. All it got us was a long drawn out route to final approach at San Carlos however, so we secured the aircraft quickly and made our way to the "Cheesecake Factory". As well as, unsurprisingly, cheesecake, this restaurant chain serves just about every single tasty American dish I have ever come across, as well as plenty of others. It was clear that I'd have to visit again, probably several times. For dessert I elected to order some kind of chocolate monstrosity which was the size of a large house-cat, and my dining companions kindly informed the waiting staff that it was my birthday, ensuring that dessert arrived accompanied by candles and a lot of singing employees. It was 5 months from my birthday, but it was a nice thought anyway.

Day 7 - To the mountains

View over San Carlos shoreline

Nina and I joined Nipun for breakfast the next morning, and then relaxed at Stanford until early afternoon when the time came for me to be on my way. The following night I was due to collect James from Reno airport, so I planned to East to the foothills of the Sierras today, camp overnight, and then continue to Truckee Tahoe where I'd park the aircraft and rent a car for a couple of days. Nina dropped me off at San Carlos and I pre-flighted and received my IFR clearance to Westover airport. I was unsure if I'd be able to camp here, but it looked good from the flight guide so was worth a try. The weather, as usual, was warm and clear! I was cleared pretty much direct at 7,500ft and less than an hour later I cancelled IFR and made my approach to Westover, parking up in the transient area. A quick look around suggested that this was not an airport where camping would be particularly welcomed; it was rather too built up and populated. However, plan B was just 30 miles North; Georgetown airport, with an on-field camp site.


The light was fading as I made the short hop to Georgetown. The airport was deserted when I arrived, and I hurried to pitch my tent before darkness fell. The campsite is situated on a small rise overlooking the airport, and is surrounded by trees, a beautiful location to spend a night. I wandered around the field for a while admiring some of the aircraft parked there, and pitying some which seemed to be abandoned. After a thoroughly unhealthy dinner of snack food, I retired to the tent for an early night.

Day 8 - Arrival at Tahoe

Blue Canyon Airport

An early start was easy after my early night. I swiftly packed up the camp site and was soon on my way, initially heading North before turning East and following Interstate 80 through the mountains. Mid-way through the flight I passed Blue Canyon, a small local airstrip up at 5300 feet elevation, which I'd love to visit some time; but not today. I carried on following the interstate and soon Truckee-Tahoe airport came into view. As always with airports at this altitude, the approach was noticeably faster due to the lower air density, and the landing roll longer; the runways up high tend to be longer to make up for it though.

My first stop was the airport restaurant, for an American-size breakfast/lunch. This done, I spent some time upstairs in the control tower on their PC, reserving a rental car and researching where would be best to go for camping. I collected my car and drove over to the aircraft, a freedom seldom afforded at European airports, to load my luggage and headed off to my first choice camp site, a mile or so from the airport. Unfortunately I found it closed for the season, despite the opening times listed online suggesting otherwise, so I headed off into the mountains past a chain of reservoirs to find a site that was still open. Most were not, but eventually I found an open site high up near the upper-most reservoir. It was unattended, and had only 2 or 3 other campers spread across the 100+ sites; perfect!

Mountains on the way into Truckee

I claimed a pitch and set up my tent before hitting the road again. The next stop was Reno, to hit the shops and kill time before collecting James from the airport that evening. The route down into town took me down a dirt road; the surface was good but it was still slow going. After a while I made it back to the highway near the airport and set off West towards Reno, less than an hour away from Truckee. The interstate wound steeply down a canyon, with impressive views and what looked like an old wooden water pipeline clinging to the canyon wall across from the highway. For a lot of the way the railway was visible from the road, but it did not seem to be nearly as busy as the Tehachapi line and I saw no trains.

I spent an enjoyable afternoon exploring the suburbs of Reno. In one mall I found a model train shop, the walls lined with tiny replica rolling stock, track, and so on. While I was talking with the owner, another customer entered; he was here to buy a safe. The owner explained that the safe shop was next door, and that he did not sell safes, which perplexed the new customer; he looked around the room at the thousands of model railway items and then asked "So, what do you guys sell?". Perhaps he was just having an off day...

Industry East of Reno

As the day drew on I headed back into the centre of town and managed to locate some free parking. I still had time to kill before going to the airport, so I decided to go and see what the casinos had to offer. As it turned out, casinos in Reno on a Monday night are distinctly depressing places to spend time. I had no interest in gambling so simply sat with a soft drink and watched the world pass by; or, more commonly, the world sit and feed coins into bright, buzzing machines. I was really quite pleased when it was time to leave and collect James.


It was after 10 by the time James finally appeared, and we set off to follow the sat-nav back to the camp site. It took us a new route, along dirt roads the same as the one I had descended earlier in the day; easily passable, but slow going. It was approaching midnight by the time we neared the camp site, and discovered that the sat-nav was now trying to take us down roads that did not exist. This complicated matters somewhat, but was solved by locating the road I had come up earlier in the day, descending slightly until I recognised the surroundings, and then retracing my steps from the afternoon. We found the camp site and after a few minutes for James to set up his amazing waterproof no-tent-needed sleeping bag we turned in. Not long afterwards, James came to me for the keys. Despite the amazing military issue "sleeping system", it was not very comfortable out there so he'd be sleeping in the car!

Day 9 - Tahoe and Reno

Mist over lake

The night was bitterly cold. I wore all my warm clothes inside my sleeping bag and was still barely comfortable, and woke in the morning with ice on the inside of the tent. James was in the car, with a thick layer of frost on all the inside windows. We got the engine running quickly to warm up the car, and packed up the camp site before heading back down the valley towards Reno. The decision was made to camp at a lower altitude that evening in the hopes of more comfortable temperatures!

James posing

On the way to Reno we stopped off at a giant outdoor store, just across the border into Nevada, called Cabela's. The place was bigger than any store I had been into in the UK, with the possible exception of Harrods. Every conceivable outdoor activity was represented with, not too surprisingly, a well-stocked firearm section which was what had attracted James. While he and the sales assistant were deep in conversation about the merits of different pistols and assault rifles, I wandered round the less deadly section, particularly enjoying the wide range of fake geese that were available in a variety of poses and colours.

We left Cabela's without firearms (the ones James likes best are illegal in California) or fake geese (they wouldn't have fit in my suitcase, and my neighbours at home might not have been impressed with my attracting flocks of migrating geese to the apartment balconies). The next stop was the wonderful International House of Pancakes for some breakfast before we set out in our rental Nissan Versa to explore the area. We drove down towards Lake Tahoe and drove East around the lake, soon coming to a "Scenic Drive" heading up into the mountains. We followed the route up into the hills, enjoying the stunning views back over the lake as we went. Coming to what seemed like the top, we parked the car for a while and walked up onto a ridge to look back over the lake; you could see all the way back down the valley we'd been driving up to Lake Tahoe beyond. You could also see various interesting looking mountains off to one side; "Let's climb that one!" we said. This was clearly a great idea so we returned to the car and carried on along the road which was by now a well maintained dirt track, and led to the foot of what turned out to be the 8,166ft Barker's Peak.

Ross in front of lake

It swiftly became apparent that there were no trails to the top of Barker's Peak, given that the top section was more a haphazard pile of loose rock than a rugged, jutting peak. We set off cross-country, and soon disagreed on the best way to reach the summit. In the best traditions of scary movies, we split up, with James tackling the hill head-on and me following the trail around the base to reach a gentler slope around the other side. In the end, both routes turned out to be far from ideal and we both struggled onto the top at roughly the same time. It was worth the difficult trek through thin air; the view was amazing! James discovered he could access the internet on his phone from up here, so decided to be the first person to "Check In" on Facebook on top of this rather unremarkable mound; he was disappointed to find that 5 or 6 other people had for some reason previously decided to climb Barker's Peak and do the same thing.

Barker's peak

Aware that we still had half of the scenic drive to go, we rested for a short time and then made our way back down the mountain to the car. Just past the foot of Barker's Peak was a small signpost with an outline drawing of a sedan car, looking remarkably similar to our own Nissan Versa, and the words "Not Recommended". However, this is the USA, home of the nuisance lawsuit and therefore the sad requirement to cover yourself from any possible liability; a sign saying "Not Recommended" probably only meant there was a small puddle halfway down. If there was really any problem, the sign would be screaming "Access forbidden for all except off-highway vehicles" - wouldn't it? And after all, the road down was in our GPS - how bad could it be?

James on Barker's Peak

By the time we realised that no, the sign might not actually be exaggerating and that yes, it could indeed be very bad, it was too late to go back. The top part of the trail had been generally downhill, and the first rough patch we gingerly negotiated our way down was impassable in the other direction for the mighty Nissan Versa. We realised that we were on a serious off-roading track, in the Sierra Mountains, in a Nissan Versa. This was not a very good idea; on the plus side we did have all the camping gear so if we got stuck we wouldn't die of exposure, and we even had a satellite emergency beacon if things got really dire. Of course, if it got that bad there would likely be a very expensive recovery fee from the rental company, so getting ourselves out of our own mess was a very attractive idea.

The Nissan Versa

We soon fell into rhythm. James would walk ahead of the car, pointing out the most favourable side of the track over the rough sections and shifting loose rocks and so on. When it got really bad (which was about every 50m) I'd get out and we'd walk the section, planning exactly where we'd put the wheels, and shifting rocks to move obstructions and fill in holes. It took a few hours, but we eventually made our way about 3/4 of the way along the track, with the occasional heart-stopping thump of rocks on the underside of the car, and one place where we even got stuck for a while. At last, though, things smoothed out a little and became less rocky; "Thank goodness", we thought, "we're through the worst".

Of course, nothing could have been further from the truth. We rounded a corner and came to the first of the water hazards; 20m or so of submerged trail. James probed it with a stick, and it was pretty deep. However, there was no way around...I had to go for it. The Versa formed a bow wave around the top of the bonnet, but powered on through! We rejoiced at our good luck, and saddled up to head down the final bits of the track to town. Of course, we rounded the corner, and found an even bigger pool of water; but, to make us feel even worse, it started to snow. I'd be lying if I didn't admit to feeling the onset of creeping hysteria, but we held it together and faced the pond head on - despite feeling the drive wheels starting to slip, we managed to climb out the other side. Another 3 or 4 of these, and we were back into the rocks, but with the end in sight; after taking 5 hours or so to go 10km, we finally rolled out into the parking lot at the bottom of the trail. I was convinced that the car would be a wreck, but a thorough inspection revealed no noticeable damage at all - even the underside looked pristine! All that would be needed would be a thorough wash...

The dirt road

The four guys preparing a pair of modified Jeep wranglers to run the trail in the opposite direction were a little taken aback to see us emerge from it in the Nissan.

The trauma of the drive meant that we completely failed to take any photographs. This was regrettable, but James vetoed my suggestion that we go back and do it again so we could take some.

Still hyped from the adrenaline, we drove North around the lake to find dinner, and ended up in a small grill by the water. The food was excellent and, as always in America, came in portions sufficient for a family of five. Dinner completed, we decided it was time to find some night life, and headed to Reno! Unfortunately, Reno on a Tuesday night is not the most exciting place to be. We wandered around one of the casinos for a while, neither of us being gamblers, and ended up at one of the bars talking to a travelling trailer salesman. A few hours of Reno was more than an enough for a lifetime, so after trying one more dreary and depressing bar we headed for the camp site near the airport. It was closed, but given that it was the middle of the night, there was no-one to complain about me pitching my tent for the night, and James bedding down in the car again. The night at this slightly lower elevation was a few degrees warmer, but still below freezing, and that made up our minds for it; we were heading for the coast!

Day 10 - Back to the coast

Plague warning sign

We packed up our camp site early to avoid unwelcome attention from both state employees, and the rabies-ridden squirrels which large warning signs informed us were out for our blood. A quick breakfast, and a wash of the Nissan (it was really, really dirty) and we headed back to the airport. We loaded the aircraft and dropped off the rental car without arousing their suspicions (to be fair, the car was fine) and took off. The airport at Truckee is up at 6,000ft+ so aircraft performance is not impressive. The noise restrictions for Truckee dictate a route to follow out of the area immediately after take-off, but unfortunately we were nowhere near a safe altitude by the time we got to the turning point for the departure route. Safety always comes first, so we made a few circuits of the airport to gain altitude before setting off south over Lake Tahoe.

Forest and lakes

We flew due South over Lake Tahoe, taking time to do a few orbits of Barker's Peak and try and spot the trail we'd taken yesterday. That done, we flew across the lake and struck out South towards our first stop, Pine Mountain Lake. This is both a public use airport and a residential airpark, and we wanted to see if it was possible to camp there. It soon became clear that it was not ideal for this, so we spent a couple of hours there relaxing in the lounge, recharging electrical gear and refueling, before deciding to set out for a favourite destination of mine; Oceano. Here at least we knew we could camp, and spend a relaxing day before returning the aircraft to Camarillo.

Lake Tahoe

We took off and headed first for Harris Ranch, a well-recommended restaurant which has its own airstrip. Half way there, however, we came across a small crop-dusting airfield called Chowchilla. We liked the name, so we landed there, and then took off again immediately for Harris Ranch. Parking is next to the petrol station, and indeed there's an AVGAS pump which is simply an extension of the petrol station that serves the interstate. It's about a two minute walk to the restaurant which also has a general store attached selling the ranches own beef and other "country" items. The food was superb, and I'll definitely be making return visits!

Cattle sheds

After a long lunch we made our way back to the aircraft, did a quick pre-flight and flew the short hop to Oceano. I tied up in my usual spot near the camp site as there were no other visitors, and reflected on the fact that the first time I'd visited, in 2007, N6543V was the aircraft I had seen taking off that night as we were setting up our tent. It was a coincidence to now end up here flying her; I hadn't realised I'd seen her before until reviewing photos from 2007 after I'd already booked N6543V for the 2009 trip. We walked into town (not that there is much to the town) to stroll on the beach for a while before visiting the local store on the way back to collect firewood and food for the evening.

Bear Grylls somehow manages to coax fire from a few damp twigs and the lint from his pocket. James and I failed to coax a fire from dry, packaged firewood, despite a firelighter and healthy doses of AVGAS. It did at least burn for long enough for us to cook some frankfurters and marshmallows before I retreated to my tent, and James to the pilots lounge. Down by the beach, it was a much warmer night!

Day 11 - Oceano

Amtrak Train Bird of prey

A very useful feature at Oceano is a small shed with bicycles in, for use by visiting pilots. We took advantage of this facility to cycle North to Grover Beach for breakfast at a small cafe, and then spent a while attempting to locate a hobby shop to buy model train track. Through a combination of unclear maps and James' expert navigating, we failed miserably, and ended up slogging back to the airfield over the hills in the heat, getting stuck the wrong side of the railway line in the process. It was at least good exercise.

The rest of the afternoon was spent relaxing around the airfield and entertaining ourselves feeding the geese at the pond next door. For some reason they seemed determined to bite James' legs - the most likely explanation is that they took offence at his rather poorly judged haircut. That evening we were much more successful with our campfire, and even discovered that we could connect to an unsecured Wifi point while sitting around the fire; possibly rather missing the point of getting away from it all...

Day 12 - 43V goes home

All too soon, it was time to take 43V back to her base, and head back to Europe. Having been woken, yet again, by James' never-tiresome bigfoot impression, we quickly packed up the campsite and gave my tent a chance to dry in the sun for a while before loading up the aircraft and departing over the beach. Even at this time of morning the vehicle traffic was busy, driving up and down the sand (this being one of the very few spots in the USA where driving on the beach is permitted).


The usual morning low overcast layer was visible spilling onto the coastline as we flew Southeast towards Camarillo. James handled the controls, leaving me free to enjoy the ride and take photos, as well as keeping up the usual lookout for other traffic. We flew the VOR approach into land, getting in one last practise instrument approach, and parked 43V back up at Channel Islands Aviation.

We drove back to LA via an Indian restaurant and several hobby shops. The Indian restaurant was excellent; the hobby shops, disappointing. I did buy one item from a shop near LA Airport, and on my return to Holland decided I wanted another matching one; I found one on ebay and ordered it but received a message from the seller saying that he'd recently sold the last of his stock. I checked out the store in more detail and discovered it was in fact the same one I had been in in LA; I had, effectively, narrowly beaten myself to buy the last one.

I waved James off for his flight and settled into my hotel for the night. The next day it was back to Holland, and straight back to work; as always, a rude awakening after several weeks of great flying!

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