Today was an interesting flight. It was my first “$100 Hamburger” and it was a huge learning experience about judgment and decision making in real life. Yesterday’s weather was terrible, no question of even considering flying. However, today it was marginal and all the implications of “weather or not to go” came into play. The forecast for today was for showers in the morning as a front passed over the Bay Area. It was supposed to clear by mid-day with sun shine and scattered clouds following. I had organized with two friends to take them on their first plane trip with me to go for lunch in Marina Airport (OAR) near Monterey. So there is the first big “external factor” coming into play – I didn’t want to disappoint my friends and cancel the flight. Checking the radar on ADDS about 10am there was a distinct but narrow band of heavy rain baring down on San Jose.
The Satellite pictures showed the front clearly with only light and scattered cloud behind it. The TAF’s for San Jose & Monterey were both for clearing after midday with scattered clouds at 2500′. I decided that once the rain passed it looked like the forecast would be correct and the flying would be fine, possibly just having to navigate around “some” cloud at 2500′.
As I drove to the airport about 11am the rain was coming down hard and the ATIS at RHV was reporting visibility of less than one mile, mist & rain, the ceiling was well below 1000′. I spent the next hour at Tradewinds checking the weather radar and the METARs at WVI, MRY and SNS. As expected the rain stopped and the cloud started to break-up, when my friends finally showed up about 12:30pm the sun was shining and there was only some scattered cloud at about 3000′. I could see mostly blue skies to the west, but there was some cumulous over the hills. The ATIS/ASOS down south had started to clear, with both MRY and WVI reporting few at around 2000′. The visibility was fine under the cloud. So I decided that we were good to go, in hindsight I’m not sure I ever even considered not going – I was convinced that scattered cloud and sun shine would be fine.
About 1pm we took off straight out on runway 13L. This in itself was interesting, I had more weight in the plane that ever before (just 37lbs under MTOW). The climb out over Eastridge Mall was ponderously slow and we took a long time to get up to 3000′. Once I got to 3000′ it was clear I needed to keep going up, there was a layer of scattered stratus over Morgan Hill and Gilroy and the easiest was around it was over the top, I leveled off at 4500′. As I passed South County (Q99) I could see what appeared to be a solid wall of cumulus sitting over Highway 101 just where it turns west to head into the Monterey Bay area. It was going much higher than I wanted to fly, but I could see clear air underneath it through a hole in the cloud. So while my friends happily snapped pictures of the beautiful clouds around and below us I decided to take a closer look and see if I could drop down through the hole and fly underneath it. I checked the ASOS at WVI and they were reporting scattered at 1200′ so I thought that once I got under the wall the ceiling would probably be higher. Well first of all, dropping down through a cloud hole is not as easy as people make out – my friends seemed to actually enjoy the steep turn to the right I had to make to avoid flying into a cloud on the way down. I was just lucky that that was the only maneuver I needed to make, there just happened to be clear air to my right. If there hadn’t been, I would have been in cloud trying to execute a standard rate turn on instruments to get myself out again. You think, duh! how could someone fly into a cloud, well guess what, if you start doing dumb shit stuff like I had just done, then it’s really easy. I had managed to put myself into the situation where I was reacting to circumstances in real time, with no idea if each action was increasing my options or decreasing them. In fact, in situations like this options are almost always decreasing – less altitude, less clearance to the clouds, less fuel, more stress. The shit just piles up until you can’t keep up and something bad happens. It is no fun, when you start to realize you are about 3 steps down a chain of actions that you’ve read in an NTSB report about some poor sod who flew VFR into IMC and hit a mountain. I was lucky, once I got down to about 1000′ I could see clear to the sea, I knew that worst case I could head to the coast and then follow it south to MRY without danger of hitting anything sticking up from the ground. The highway follows a valley between fairly low hills (you can see this pretty easily on the GPS map). I had to drop a little lower flying towards Moss Landing, but as I neared the coast the cloud base lifted a few hundred feet and I was comfortable at 1000’. Along the way one of my friends asked me to cut across the hills on my left to fly over a friends house, I at least had the sense to say no, that I didn’t want to cut my ground clearance anymore than it was already. Just after I turned south to head towards Marina, my friend realized that the house he wanted to see was actually just east of my flight path – so I did a nice lazy circle over it so he could take pictures. A few minutes later I found the Marina pattern empty, did a standard 45 entry to right traffic for 29 and made a feather light landing to my great relief.
Our rather late lunch was at the Marina Airport Restaurant. It was almost empty when we arrived. The food was fine and there was plenty of it. Definitely a nice spot for my first $100 hamburger (or in my case a $100 tuna sandwich), just fly down when the weather is nicer.
The weather looked a lot better after lunch. The sky over Marina was almost clear of clouds and I could see all the way up the coast to the mountains north of Santa Cruz. A call on my cell phone to the ASOS as WVI reported “few at 1900’”.However, there was still a mass of clouds over the tops of the mountains northeast of Marina, just where I wanted to fly home. I decided to takeoff, I could always return to Marina, MRY or WVI if I got into problems. I was going to fly up the coast to Moss Landing and then see if I could cut across the mountains following 101 back to San Jose. My friend also wanted to do another circle around that house again, now that he had called its occupants so they could come out and wave. So I took off from 29 and made a right crosswind departure staying at 1000’ (to remain well under the shelf of MRY’s class C). I did another circle around the house. The route back the way I had come looked terrible from 1000’ and there was no way I was going to tread my way back up that valley flying into raising terrain with no clear idea if there was space to get over the hills. So I decided to climb above the scattered cloud base that was at about 2000’ and see what it looked like from above. This involved a big S-shaped climbing turn as I avoided some scattered clouds on the way up. The picture looked no better from 3000’ so I continued on up the coast towards Santa Crux. By this time I was staring to wonder how I was going to get back to San Jose. Stupidly I was thinking I wanted to avoid the hassle of talking to ATC involved in crossing San Jose class C. I think I was worried that on every other occasion crossing San Jose I was directed to over fly the field. However from this direction there was no simple way to do that. Instead I would have to fly directly across the approach path to runway 30 in SJC or be vectored around the place by ATC which would be a new and novel experience for me. As all this was going through my head I had turned east over Santa Crux and started towards the mountains more or less following Highway 17. I was thinking that I might see somewhere to cross that was still far enough south of San Jose to avoid their airspace. Now I have never actually flown in this area before, so as I let the terrain and clouds more or less direct my path I started to get concerned as to exactly where I was in relation to the mountain peaks higher than me (anything above 3500’) and the boundary of SJC class C. By this time I was actually close to Lexington Reservoir (I know now, I didn’t at the time). There was a big assed mountain right in front of me. Beautiful clear sky on my left with a view towards San Jose (and its airspace). I actually turned right away from the nice blue sky. After about 15 seconds of staring at a mountain top embedded in cloud I realized what a dumb idea it was to fly into that, just because I didn’t want to talk to ATC. I turned the plane around, got a fix on the San Jose VOR, got a distance to it from the DME, found the right frequency for Sierra Approach on the chart and got on the radio to ask for flight following to RHV. It was easy and the relief of hearing the controller read back my call sign knowing I could now happily enter SJC class C was worth it. As soon as I got clear of the mountain, I turned right directly towards RHV and flew past downtown San Jose (much to my passengers enjoyment) at 3500’ without even getting a traffic alert from ATC. About 3 miles west of RHV I was told to descend at my discretion and given a frequency change to contact RHV tower. They gave me an entry on left downwind for 31L or a base entry, again my choice. In the end I came in on a 45 degree entry that was very high, turned downwind which I extended a bit to lose altitude and then made a nice uneventful landing. So today I learned a lot about making decisions, good and bad. I learned a lot about how external factors and wishful thinking can conspire with marginal weather reports to get you into a bad situation quickly. In hindsight, the air mass behind the front must have been warn and unstable. As soon as it hit the mountains it bubbled up into cumulus clouds. The nice satellite picture of clear sky over the ocean behind the front was totally misleading, that treacherous air was just clouds waiting to happen as soon as they met a friendly mountain. In fact there were some pretty heavy thunder storms over the North Bay in the afternoon that I heard about as I drove home. I should have realized this when I saw the cumulus forming over the mountains when I took off and certainly when I found them blocking my path on the way to Marina. Next time, I’ll try to be a lot more tuned into what the weather is actually doing, rather than what the current METAR’s claim is happening. Next time I remember that “few at 1900’” can be like flying under what feels like a solid ceiling. Next time I won’t invite passengers if the forecast is marginal, its too much of a temptation to cut corners, and it really should be the reverse – more care and attention to conditions when you’ve got passengers. At best they can be a distraction if things go bad and the added responsibility just increases the stress level. Next time, I resolve not to dive through holes in the cloud hoping to find a welcome on the other side. Always have an exit plan, I didn’t when I dove into that hole, if the base had been just a couple of hundred feet lower I would have been in the soup, close to the ground with raising terrain to my left and right. This time I was lucky, its a lesson well learned. Next time I will fly in circles until I have a plan rather than just let the plane take me somewhere. I ended up almost making a really stupid decision over Lexington because I left the plane take me there not really sure of where I was going to go. I could have got on the radio to ATC over Santa Crux and saved myself a lot of heartache instead of waiting until I had few other options left.
So did I do anything right. Well, I didn’t panic and I got my plane and passengers back safely and actually none the wiser to how marginal the whole flight had been (unless they read this web page). I didn’t press my luck, once I saw a safe path to the coast I took it and didn’t deviate into a more dangerous situation (like flying over 400’ hills at 800’ feet with who knows what sticking up into the air). I quickly realized my mistake over Lexington and did the right things to get home. I will probably look back at this flight after many hundreds of hours flying an wonder what all the fuss was about. Probably pilots that live and fly in places with much worse climates than San Jose will read this and wonder what I’m complaining about. Still experience is earned the hard way, I don’t have much in the bank yet – but my 1.6 hours flying today was a pretty big deposit to get started on.