Monday, August 10, 2009

Chapter 16: Sunset Delight

In 1985 the Mooney 231 was one of the fastest piston-engined retractables around, with its turbocharged TSIO-360 giving a 200 knot cruise, very useful for cross-country flying. Immediately recognisable by its raked-forward vertical, the Mooney was fast, but demanded careful handling of the engine, and accurate speed control on landing.

From more than two miles above the desert resort of Palm Springs, I looked down to see streamers of dust being scraped up from the desert floor by near gale-force winds. Off my port wingtip Mount San Jacinto was clear of clouds, but ahead and below me lay a deck of clouds stretching westwards towards the Pacific coast. The cloud blocked the mouth of the Banning Pass, the only VFR low level route back home to Los Angeles. Listening to the radio traffic I could hear that the Cherokees and Cessnas were having a hard time fighting the rain and turbulence down in the Pass. Having been down there in the Pass on previous occasions I could sympathize with them. The edge of the cloud deck was hovering just above the entrance to the Pass, and it looked dark and dismal in that gloomy cavern.

But up here in the sunlight on the airway, the Mooney was humming along effortlessly, the turbocharged TSIO-360 pulling me along so that the DME was clocking off the miles at three miles for every minute. I was heading into the setting sun on Airway Victor 16. On the shadowed panel the glowing amber numerals of the state-of-the-art KNS-80 area navigation equipment confidently monitored the Mooney’s progress between the waypoints I had programmed into it. Instead of bucking the turbulence at low altitude, my task of flying the airways was one of comparative comfort. I was thankful for the fact.

It was time to change frequency to Coast Approach, who would be monitoring the last part of my IFR flight. My route lay from Palm Springs to Paradise VOR and thence via the Seal Beach VOR, culminating in an ILS approach at my home base in Torrance. I contacted Coast Approach and at their direction started to step down in altitude, constantly adjusting power and tweaking the cowl flaps to keep the engine temperature within limits. This engine could easily be damaged by thermal shock. I was careful not to cool the engine too quickly on descent.

I was by no means the only aircraft in the sky. Five miles to my right a constant double stream of heavy jets paralleled my course. They were heading for Los Angeles International airport. In turn the airliners were dipping down into the cloud deck far ahead on their final approach to the parallel runways at LAX. To the north the summit of Mount Baldy poked above the cloud deck. On this spring day the mountain was topped with snow. Further north still a tremendous arch of lenticular clouds hung in the sky. This was the awesome Sierra wave.

I was always impressed by the sight of the Sierra Wave. It meant that away to the north, sailplane pilots had a few hours to ride the wave to altitude. This weather had been forecast. At my weather briefing earlier that day I had learned that a depression over the Pacific was bringing rain to the west coast. This rain stretched in a wide belt from Seattle down to San Francisco. The edge of this weather was forecast to hit our area this evening. It looked as if that forecast was correct.

Coast Approach cleared me down to 6,000 feet as I approached Paradise VOR. The cloud cover rose to meet me and as I leveled off I found myself surfing just over the top of the cloud. There was now a rare impression of speed as the Mooney skated over the top of this apparently solid cloud deck. By now the sun was almost on the horizon in front of me, turning the cloud into a golden carpet being pulled past below at breathtaking speed. It was a beautiful sight.

But I had work to do. With my approach plates for Torrance already on my lap, I checked that the various radio aids were set to the correct frequencies and were operating correctly. I checked my missed approach procedure. Once I started to descend on the approach, it would be busy in the cockpit. The art of instrument flying was to be prepared.
The VOR To/From flag flipped as I crossed Paradise VOR, unseen below the cloud. I returned the receiver to the Seal Beach VOR. On a heading of 238 degrees on Victor 8 I headed for Seal Beach.

The radio was busy, my controller at Coast Approach having to deal with a series of commercial jets descending into Long Beach airport some ten miles or so ahead of me. His task was complicated by jet traffic descending into Orange County airport which lay off to my left. The controller at Coast Approach finally solved his problem by asking me to orbit for spacing while he cleared an MD-80 airliner of PSA into Long Beach. It was not an unusual request in this crowded Los Angeles airspace. I had been asked to do a 360 degree turn on an ILS approach before now.

Acknowledging, I banked gently right, putting the Mooney’s right wingtip down into the golden carpet of cloud, now deeply furrowed by purple shadows. As the Mooney turned, the sun swung round behind me, sending shadows moving across the panel. On completing the orbit I leveled the wings, westbound again, heading into the eye of the sun, which was by now half-hidden between low battlements of mist which were tearing past to either side.
It was a moment of magical splendor.
By this time Coast Approach had moved the MD-80 out of my way and the controller now cleared me to descend over Seal Beach.
“Mooney 231 Bravo Sierra leaving six for four thousand.” I responded.

I was reluctant to leave the beauty of the sunset, but started descending, the clouds closing quickly above me. It was dark in the cloud, although smooth for the moment and all the instrument needles were behaving themselves. The panel lights cast a cozy glow over the instruments, and the haloes of my navigation lights rode at each wingtip. On the panel the green light of the transponder flashed intermittently as the probing radar beams from the various ground stations interrogated the receiver.

I kept my scan going. Something was not quite right. There it was again, a glimmer of red light from the voltage overload light. Throttled back as we were, the alternator could not keep pace with the electrical load. Another quirk of this aircraft. The Mooney was fast but, like a thoroughbred horse, needed a watchful eye kept on it. I eased the throttle forward fractionally and the red light flickered and went out. As we passed over the Seal Beach VOR the VOR flag flicked from TO to FROM. Coast Approach started to vector me south-west out over Los Angeles harbor, where I would intercept the ILS into Torrance.

Now I was cleared down to 2,000 feet, the Controller vectoring me round to 300 degrees. The localizer needle started moving in from the side of the dial and I gently corrected until it centered. The clouds were darker down here and raindrops started sliding back across the windshield. I switched on the landing light, dropped the landing gear, then the flaps in anticipation of intercepting the glideslope. Switching to the ATIS frequency I listened to the latest recorded weather for Torrance. Home base had a visibility of one mile in rain, with a 600 foot cloudbase. Just sufficient for an ILS approach.
A blue light started pulsing on the panel, signifying that the Mooney was crossing the outer marker. Completing my pre-landing checks I switched to tower frequency for my final clearance. As the glideslope needle started sliding down from its perch at the top of the dial, I started to descend. With decreasing altitude the air started to get rougher. This was not unexpected. Experience told me that the bumpiness was due to the wind blowing around the Palos Verdes hill, just south of the airport.
Knowing this act, however, did not make the task of flying the ILS any easier as the needles insisted on jiggling about in the turbulence. As the altitude decreased and the beam got narrower I had to ride this tightrope with tiny control corrections, trying to anticipate the movements of the instruments.

Time for a final check of gear and flaps. I eased the mixture forward and put the prop into fine pitch. At fifteen hundred feet the rain hit in earnest with fire-hose intensity. As the altimeter inexorably dropped towards a thousand feet I started looking for the first glimpse of the approach lights. Nothing yet. If no lights appeared by 300 feet I would have to go missed approach. Check the airspeed needle was on 80 knots. Check again for gear and flaps down.
At 600 feet through the blurred windshield the first faint glowing balls of the strobe lights came into view, arrowing towards the runway. Then the runway lights materialized. I slid in over the green threshold lights to a world of color once more. Don't forget to trim back. The Mooney floated for a second until the main wheels finally touched. It was still raining hard and I was careful not to apply hard braking lest the Mooney start to aquaplane.

I sped past the first two taxiways before our momentum was dissipated, finally braking gently and letting the Mooney roll right to the end of the runway. As the red lights barred my progress I turned off the runway between the twin lines of blue lights which led towards the tie-down area.

I switched to ground frequency for taxi clearance. It looked as if I was the last one home at this normally busy airport. All other aircraft were tied down for the night, their glistening shapes silhouetted against the glow of the street lighting. With a final interchange with the unseen ground controller “Torrance ground, 31 Bravo Sierra, Goodnight” I pulled into my parking slot and shut down.

Rain still beat heavily down on the cabin top and I waited for a few minutes hoping for the noise to slacken. Meanwhile I packed my charts into my briefcase in the darkened cockpit, lit by the alternating green and white flash of the airport beacon slanting down through the side window.
The drumming of the rain on the metal skin of the Mooney lessened. Inside the cabin the only noise was the gyros whining down into silence. I slid quickly out of the cabin, locked the door behind me, chocked the wheels and attached the tie-down ropes before making a dash for the car. The rain was strangely warm by European standards. It was late, and I was tired. But the memory of that sunset would linger.

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