Flying Sonoma and Napa Valleys

August is a great time to leave Texas. For pilots especially, summer presents unique challenges. High temperatures and humidity contribute to bumpier, often less enjoyable flights. These conditions also diminish aircraft performance, resulting in longer takeoff and landing distances and reduced fuel efficiency.

Of course, these issues aren’t particularly difficult to deal with. Perhaps the hardest part for me is the time spent on a smoldering airport tarmac for pre- and post-flight operations.

In Austin especially, the months of August and September are not kind to Midwesterners.

For these reasons I was anxious to escape with Lauren to California. Sonoma County is a good destination for anyone seeking chilled air. We decide that before setting out on a fast and furious tour of areas wineries, we’ll kick-off the trip by logging some local flight time in Napa. It would be our first experience in flying out-of-state since I earned my pilot certificate in 2012.IMG_1132

Malcolm Lenson of the Napa Jet Center agrees to serve as our guide in the Cessna 182P. Malcolm is a Gold Seal flight instructor with years of experience flying the Bay area. Malcolm is not only a great guide, but also a great safety pilot. Having Malcolm onboard greatly reduces the odds of me inadvertently meandering into the complicated Class B airspace that hangs over San Francisco. The last thing I want to do is invite a call from the FAA.

Malcolm and I meet before the flight and discuss our route and altitudes, area weather conditions, and 182’s performance and handling characteristics. Conditions at Napa just prior to our departure include an outside air temperature of 70°F and light winds out of the southwest.

The same cool marine air the blows from the Pacific Ocean and over the vineyards will give us great performance. It’s been months since I’ve experienced such optimal flying conditions.

We strap ourselves into the aircraft and taxi out to runway 18 and past the Napa County control tower that had been heavily damaged in the earthquake just a week before.

Napa 2

Lauren was armed with a GoPro camera that she purchased the night before. She learned how to operate it just minutes before while sitting in the airport

The flight is a simple affair. We take off to the south then turn north through the Napa Valley. From here you can see miles of vineyards and hills. There is a sharp visual contrast between the drought-hit hills and the lower areas that receive regular irrigation. As we fly, I keep note of locations that might prove useful in the event of an engine failure. It’s a habit that has been drilled into me by numerous instructors. I tell Malcolm that with so many miles of vineyards below us, initiating a forced landing wouldn’t be much of a problem. He cools my confidence by saying that vineyards are usually a poor choice for such an occasion as they contain a number of steel poles and wooden posts that are invisible until you’re just on top of them. In an emergency, a road would be a better choice for a forced landing if no better options were available.

IMG_1137We fly north up Highway 29 then turn and head south through the Sonoma Valley while visually tracking Highway 101. Within just a few minutes we’re over San Rafael Bay and the San Quentin prison before reaching Sausalito and the San Francisco Bay.

A low layer of stratus clouds prevents a good view of either the Golden gate Bridge or downtown San Francisco. We stay just outside of the Bravo-class airspace and fly parallel to Berkeley before passing Richmond and over the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Once over Napa, we join the 45-degree entry to Runway 18 and make an uneventful landing back at Napa County.

I’m reminded how much I enjoy flying the 182. It’s nose-heavy compared to the 172s I usually fly, but requires very little control inputs once properly trimmed. It’s also very fast. In straight-and-level flight at low altitudes, the airspeed will creep into the yellow arc with little effort.

Days later, I find myself back in Texas wishing I was again flying in Napa.

Napa Sectional 1

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