(June 2011) For an 80-something-hour pilot, the Sacramento Valley was like a giant flying playpen for me. The foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains border the eastern side while the Coastal Range separates the valley from the Pacific Ocean on the west. The Cascades, including 14,000-foot Mount Shasta, form the northern boundary of the valley.
One weekend in October 1978 a friend and I decided to take a Cessna 150 from the local flying club at the Yuba County Airport (MYV), not far from Marysville, California, for a flight to Redding, California. It’s at the northwest end of the valley and is the last stop before heading into the Cascades. We heard there was a decent restaurant on the field. For two young airmen looking for something to do, we needed no other excuse.
There was a flight service station on the field at Marysville in those days. A routine check of the weather confirmed what we could already see, great VFR weather throughout the northern valley, and a forecast to remain that way. As we headed for Redding, we soaked in the beauty of the mountains, the valley and the freedom our “econo-size” chariot gave us. It would take about an hour to make the 93 nm trip.
Even though basic navigation to Redding was as simple as pointing the nose toward Mount Shasta and keeping it in the middle of the valley, I tried to practice good airmanship by using the VOR as well. It wasn’t long before I realized the CDI needle seemed to indicate a one- to two-dot off-course deviation. I suspected the VOR must be out of alignment and couldn’t be trusted for great accuracy. But, under these conditions, it wasn’t really going to be a factor.
The remainder of the trip up was uneventful. While having lunch, we were able to survey a collection of World War II-era bomber aircraft in firefighting colors that was parked around the ramp.
Before departing Redding, I dutifully checked the return weather. A flight service station recording for the northern valley was no surprise. It was the same great weather that we had had on the way up. We launched to the south and, once again, soaked in the beauty that surrounded us.
After about 10 to 15 minutes, I was shocked to see the valley ahead was blanketed with what looked like a solid layer of stratus forming a smooth east-west line across the valley. As I tried to mentally reconcile the weather forecast and reports with what I was seeing out of the window, I came to the conclusion that this must be some sort of local anomaly.
I thought to myself, “The weather in Marysville must be OK. I’ll just fly above this layer for a few miles and then we should be able to land in the clear back at Marysville.” Right. My first impression was that this layer extended as far to the south as I could see. As I began to climb, my fear was confirmed. I’d have to go under it. The top of the layer was around 3,500 msl. There was forward visibility, but it looked reduced all the way to the ground.
I was still in the clear and was just coming abeam Chico, California (CIC), when I thought, “What would Richard Collins and the folks at Flying magazine do?”
I certainly knew that continuing into deteriorating weather resulted in many sad endings. If I’d listened just a little more intently, I probably could have heard the gentle, instructional voices of Richard and his staff whispering, “Turn back to Chico now, ya moron!”