California Fires, Smoke & IFR Training

For Instrument (IFR) training part of the training is a cross country landing at 3 airports with different approaches. My CFI & I had planned this trip to SoCal the weekend perfectly, the forecast was good both ways. The plan was to land at Merced for an ILS landing and top off fuel before heading to Bakersfield (VOR), then Torrance (GPS).

It was smoke IFR the whole way down and back. Usually with IFR training you don’t get a lot of actual time in. We figured we’d climb out of the smoke and be done with it at a few thousand feet. All that smoke settled in the Central Valley area, which is a 300 mile span.

When we got to Merced, we decided on an airport in the San Fernando Valley with a VOR approach instead. Bakersfield would have been another descent into the smoke, followed by a steep climb in IFR to get over the Grapevine area and that just wasn’t going to work. The diversion was to Whitman. At one point I felt like scratching the whole thing and saying, “Let’s just go to Torrance.”

The VOR was pretty easy, I could see the airport at the circling minimums that took me perpendicular to the runway for a left downwind and a stellar landing if I must say.

Runway top right where the straight line is. Take off on that other “ear” on the left into hills

Leaving Whitman was a little hectic, they sent us off on a tailwind take off to the North right into the hills in still IFR conditions. We had to do a steep climbing turn to get out of there to head South and were vectored all over the place at the very end. I joked about them sending us to Yuma for the approach, there was a ton of traffic. All went well until the last controller into Torrance, the previous one had given us a semi-short cut. This one had us looking for traffic in still pretty iffy conditions with a lot of haze, vectoring us for traffic.

Torrance red dot

By the time she switched our course up about 5 times I was totally disoriented. I had seen the cranes in Long Beach, it looked like she was sending us on a heading at 2,500′ straight towards the hills of Palos Verdes! I know L.A. well, my CFI does not. He said, “Do you see the runway?” It was right in front of us.

Looking at the map, Long Beach is actually East of Torrance and Palos Verdes is a peninsula that sticks out. My whole life I thought Long Beach was South, that they were taking us over the water for another tailwind landing for traffic or something.

The way back was similar without having to land at 2 other airports. I needed a lot of help with the read back getting out of there, I probably got about half of what they were saying. The CFI copied it all for the clarification, he even had to ask again. Planes jumped ahead of us by not doing a run up, confusing the controller thinking we were holding short. We were 4th up by the time we sat in the run up while the other planes went straight to holding. Rude.

Once we were vectored and on course it was easy enough to just click it in autopilot. It’s not a full auto, it just holds the heading and can do slight turns for heading. For vectors I have to hand fly.

Once we hit the Central Valley, covered with smoke, we flew back at 10,000′ without seeing a thing. We closed the vents for the smoke, most of the time we were on top of it though. The reasoning behind leaving early is that we might not have been able to make it back for another week with lightening in the forecast for that night.

As you can see, they again saved the best for last vectoring us all over the place before putting us on the approach. Twice it looked like they were going to let us land, psych.

3,000′, all in smoke

Topped the trip off with a gnarly crosswind landing with the wind sock perpendicular to the runway. I was so fried, I asked the CFI to land with a firm “no” reply. Crabbed down, firm left rudder with ailerons to the wind, home.

For IFR training, a check ride couldn’t possibly be harder than those two flights! Could I have picked harder conditions or more crowded airspace than L.A.? It’s certainly making me a better pilot, I never panicked or gave up (well, I was ready to wimp on the landing if I could have gotten away with it).

The hardest part was holding altitude during all those turns. I always thought the challenge would be the approach then seeing the runway? Climbing turns with them vectoring me out at Whitman is something I never want to do again. It’s all so hard, but then the thrill of making it through on the other end is wicked fun.

We’re in hazardous smoke conditions today, staying indoors until this clears. The smoke is making me want to barf when I’m out, or is it COVID? Oh yeah, we still have the invisible threat of COVID. At least we all have masks for this smoke, *cough*

Griffin (CFI) took pic of the smoke climbing out with Mt. Diablo.

Here are a few more…

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