Monday, August 17, 2009

Santa Paula - Big Bear City / Piper Dakota (N9702W) / VFR

Off to Big Bear in yet another Piper from the same Santa Paula airport. There's something soothing about flying familiar routes.

SoCal was busy this evening. I actually saw traffic out the window, which is unusual by day unless it's something big. It's true that I was at 7500, which would put me closer to other heavy traffic than I would be at 3500. I was flying without flight following and I tried to keep my eyes open, and I monitored SoCal Approach (at least) to help.

All went well for most of the flight. This Dakota has more gadgets than the Cessna 182, particularly a more functional autopilot, two-axis with a connection to the installed GPS 430, so I can automate a lot of the flight, which is handy when the airspace is crowded (you don't want to wander off your planned route too much).

There was a bit of heightened concern as I turned north from REANS to go over the mountains. By that time, the sun had set, and the mountains were just looming dark silhouettes against a darkening sky. I tend to get mixed up in situations like this, so I stared at the chart a lot to make sure I'd be following the right path through the mountains to the lake. It's only a short distance, but that doesn't make it any less hazardous.

I knew that a heading of 003 from REANS would help me through the mountains, but I had no way to navigate this with instruments, so I had to estimate by looking out the window. I anticipated and made my turn, only to realize that I was a bit too far west, so I turned slightly east. After peering into the darkness without much result for a while, I finally realized that there was a mountain directly ahead, and so I turned sharply west and got back into the Bear Creek valley that I was looking for.

In addition to this, I was at only 7500 feet, which is enough to clear terrain, but only if you follow the right path (you clear Big Bear Dam about about 700 feet). So I had a few minutes of nervousness finding my way up the valley (it didn't help that a Cessna crashed here back in February of this year, although nobody was hurt). Once I got back into the valley, it only was a minute or two before I saw the lake on my right, and after that, the approach over the lake and the landing were easy.

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