Flying Lessons

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"This is my friend Lane. She flew in from Northern California for the party."

The speaker is my friend Tony, an entertainment lawyer and manager in Los Angeles, as he introduces me to the host and various other guests at the holiday party we're attending. A party, I might add, at the Malibu beach house of an actor and backer of movies and entertainment "projects," as they are known in "the industry."

The house is a gorgeous mix of beachside airiness and California rustic retreat. It has broad, wood floors and big wooden beams arching over an open floorplan that spills out onto a sumptuous beachside deck, complete with cushioned, built-in seats along a protective railing. Outdoor heaters are set up in the sand at the bottom of the deck stairs, champagne flows freely, and delectable hors d'oeuvres are continually replenished by the efficient catering staff. Valet parking "elves" in red sparkling Santa hats are busily parking designer cars out front, next to large security bouncers who check would-be attendees against an approved guest list.

This is not, as they say, my typical milieu. It is, however, a place where flying 350 miles to go to a party isn't anything out of the ordinary -- judging from the casual nods and smiles that greet Tony's statement. But as I politely meet and mingle with the guests, I suspect they're imagining a slightly different scenario than how it really played out.

After all, it does sound pretty glamorous, the way Tony put it. And standing in such lovely surroundings, champagne glass in hand, I could almost fall for the image, myself -- the dashing jet-set sophisticate, flying in from San Fran (or Aspen, or Rio) for a smashing Hollywood party. Now, granted, some of those folks may have thought I was flown in for the party, in one of the shiny private jets that grace the ramp at Santa Monica. But I'll bet even the pilots on hand -- and there were a few -- envisioned something a bit more cushy or zippy than a well-worn Grumman Cheetah that needs a new paint job and goes 112 knots on a good day.

The truth, of course, is that "jetting down" for a party takes on a whole new dimension when you're a VFR pilot in a very basic GA airplane. The trip actually started the night before, checking the weather. I had two routes I could follow -- the more direct route, down Highway 5 through the San Gabriel Mountains into the San Fernando Valley and across the Hollywood Hills into Santa Monica. Or, the longer route down the Salinas Valley to Santa Maria, Santa Barbara, and in along the coast.

I even told Tony that I wouldn't be able to confirm whether or not I was coming until late morning, when I saw what the fog was doing -- fog being the single most challenging weather factor Northern or Central California has to offer. In the summer, the fog tends to cling to the coast. But in the winter, when the inland valleys cool down, they can get socked in by dense fog for days. Non-aviation friends who see all airplanes as cool, business-type modes of transport often puzzle over the idea that a friend with an airplane can't guarantee they'll actually get there.

But life as a VFR-only pilot means ending every "sure, I'd love to" with the cautionary phrase " … God willin' and the creek don't rise." I'm okay with that limitation, but it's still a challenge for nonpilot friends who are used to a world more insulated from Nature's unpredictable shifts and moods.

Friday morning dawned clear in Palo Alto, but Livermore, where I keep my plane, had lingering low clouds … and the San Joaquin Valley was totally socked in. That meant the only option was the coastal route ... and even that required waiting until after noon. I packed clothes for the party and finally headed out to the airport about 11:30. It's almost an hour from my house to the airport, so by the time I got there, fueled the plane, loaded, flight planned, preflighted and took off, it was 1:30. Sunset in Santa Monica was 4:41, and I was going to have some serious headwinds. I hoped it wouldn't be too hazy in LA. Dusk and haze are a bad combo.

I headed south, skirting the eastern edge of the San Jose airspace, and was almost to Hollister when a controller called out traffic to me. "Six o'clock, same altitude, he's pulled in behind you, and he's gaining on you," the controller reported. I looked back through the Cheetah's long back windows, and saw an alarming sight -- a sight familiar to any fighter pilot, perhaps, but not something any normal pilot should ever see: the sight of an airplane on my tail, closing fast, and way too big in the rearview mirror.

The eastern edge of the San Jose airspace is a popular route out of the Bay Area, and I was at a standard VFR altitude. So my guess is that the pilot on my tail -- who wasn't talking to controllers -- was headed south and simply never saw me. (REALLY?????? NEVER SAW A 2,200-POUND AIRPLANE HE WAS ABOUT TO EAT FOR LUNCH??? On the other hand … I can't even count the number of times traffic has been called out to me and I never saw it, even though it supposedly passed close by and I was looking for it. So … it's possible.)

In any event, I didn't stick around to debate the point. I banked hard left and got the hell out of the way. Heart pounding, I watched as the plane zoomed right by me and headed blithely down the valley, adding insult to injury as it left me in its proverbial dust.

Not exactly glamour at its most impressive.

Neither, for that matter, were the next two and a half hours, as I battled my way slowly down the California coast, watching my groundspeed fluctuate between a whopping 89 and 98 knots. The gods might be allowing me to make it to Santa Monica, but they sure weren't going to make it easy.

As a result, dusk was definitely settling as I cleared Santa Barbara and headed past Oxnard. The visibility had been pretty good for most of the trip, but 12 miles out from Santa Monica, looking ahead into the deepening eastern sky, it was as if Los Angeles had disappeared into the mists of Brigadoon.

I peered ahead as I got close to Santa Monica, finally spying the city pier jutting out into the water. According to the chart, if I turned inland there, I'd be on a perfect entry for downwind at SMO. But it wasn't until I turned that I finally saw the runway lights.

I landed and taxied in -- which at Santa Monica consists of turning off the runway/ramp pretty much wherever you like -- and went to what I'd been told was the only full FBO there … Atlantic Aviation. And only then, like Cinderella stepping into her carriage, did the glamour part finally start to kick in.

Atlantic, after all, is where all those shiny private jets park when they visit Hollywood. So you get jet-set service, even if you arrive in a Cheetah. A cart and three line guys showed up to help get me parked amidst all those big jets and transport my bags into the modern glass and metal facility. A sports car showed up, too -- a local pilot who wanted to show me his SIAI Marchetti S.211 jet in a nearby hangar. The desk personnel asked politely what time I wanted my airplane ready to go in the morning, and what services I might require. And then I relaxed in the black leather and chrome lobby to wait for my driver -- a.k.a. my friend Tony -- to come pick me up.

The party was a lovely affair, awash with both well-heeled and really creative people, starlight, champagne, and the gentle crashing of waves on white sand. Truly … everyone should get a chance to play Cinderella every now and then. It's fun.

Of course, all Cinderella parties come to an end, at which point the illusionary, glittering carriage turns back into a pumpkin. Or, in this case, a Grumman Cheetah. The next morning, clad in practical jeans once more, I made my way past all the shiny jets at Atlantic, drinking in a last few minutes of Hollywood glamour before attending to the same preflight, loading and flight planning tasks as every other working crew on the ramp.

The reality-check icing on the cake came when I climbed into the cockpit. As I closed the canopy, I detected an unmistakable odor of … jet fuel. I sniffed my clothes and pulled back in distaste. Oh, good lord. The only lingering result of my mingling with the jet-set was a dose of jet fuel mist that apparently settled on my clothing while walking around all those running jet engines. I sighed. So much for glamour. Cinderella was definitely back at her fireplace -- and covered by a substance far harder to wash away than soot or cinders.

But that's where the comparison stops. Because Cinderella actually would have given quite a bit to have my seat -- jet-A or no jet-A -- the morning after the ball. The Cheetah might not be a particularly glamorous airplane. But the flight home was a very long cry from kitchen duty.

The skies were cloudless and, heading back north, those horrible headwinds had turned into blissful tailwinds. Now that I had no schedule to keep and wasn't pushing dark, I was suddenly zipping across the landscape at 140 knots. Of course. But the air was smooth, and the visibility was crystal clear -- at least where I was flying.

In the Midwest, where I learned to fly, bad visibility tended to spread everywhere if it was anywhere in the weather picture. But weather in California can be almost unnervingly diverse, with sharp boundary lines delineating vastly different conditions. Over Paso Robles, conditions were CAVU (Ceiling and Visibility Unlimited). But one ridgeline over, I could see the San Joaquin Valley was still completely socked in with dense fog.

It was kind of pretty, actually -- tendrils of fog creeping along the tops of the ridges and flowing in cotton-ball waves of opaque white across the valley to the east, while sunshine bathed the rolling hills and vineyards beneath me in contrasting shades of gold. So, okay. "Kind of pretty" doesn't really cover it. And yet, "glamorous" didn't seem quite the right word, either. Why was that?

As I flew along, surrounded by some of the most beautiful landscape in America, it struck me that perhaps it's because glamour -- at least as I think of it -- has to do with man-made beauty. Clothing. Trappings. Image. Refined tastes. Ease and privilege. Usually with a big price tag attached. Glamour is about things -- including a lifestyle -- that money can buy. Flying a plane to LA for a party -- while fun -- isn't particularly glamorous unless the trip is relatively quick and easy and the plane itself is refined and glamorous -- which a used, 1977 Grumman Cheetah most certainly is not.

Having my own airplane certainly puts me far higher on the food chain than many people in America. I am fully aware that it is a tremendous privilege to be able to own and fly a plane, and to have access to the world it shows me. And it does shorten the distance between two points … sometimes. But I gave up owning my own home to buy the Cheetah. I pump my own gas, tie the plane down outside, and work hard to fly it -- sans autopilot or much electronic wizardry -- through challenging conditions. And to make that five-hour party in Los Angeles took the better part of two days.

Do I mind? No. Because I didn't learn to fly, or buy the Cheetah, to have an easier or more glamorous life. I did those things to have a more rewarding life. Which may include flying down to a glamorous party every now and then, but -- like the stunning, natural beauty of the California landscape -- is something far beyond, and far more valuable, than anything money can buy.