Yesterday, I took my sister on her first flight in the Diamond. We were going to grab lunch somewhere, and it gave me an excuse to get an extra couple of hours in the airplane.
The weather was what I’d have considered unflyable just a year ago — scattered to broken layer at 2,000-ish feet AGL, sometimes higher and sometimes lower. Lots of fairly solid cumulus clouds covering the entire LA basin. Some airports reporting overcast below 4,000ft AGL. But also stable-and-improving weather throughout the region forecast, and the broken layer not descending, and lack of any ceiling forecast further inland. So with I figured that as long as I retained a ton of flexibility of where to go and how to get there, I would be fine to go.
We flew to Camarillo for lunch. Starting in Hawthorne, we had to go around the LAX Bravo, rather than climb over it (clouds). This isn’t my favorite way of getting around LAX: you make controllers and aircraft on approach to LAX nervous; you have to deal with turbulence; you are forced to fly it around 1,500ft and you end up being concentrated into the same place as everyone else trying to get around the Bravo without being on a shared frequency. I tend to get flight following, when I can, and in this case it helped — after getting past the approach for Runway 25R, the controller cleared me into Bravo and let me cut the corner of the surface shelf so that I can more easily avoid some traffic that was attempting to take the same path as I was.
Generally the rest of the trip was uneventful, though I stayed below 3,000 ft most of the way for clouds, and had to do a bit of route selection to stay away from the cumulus buildups. After crossing into Thousand Oaks, the lower cloud layer disappeared and we landed in Camarillo nicely — for practice purposes, I loaded in the RNAV approach and let the autopilot fly me to the minimums.
After a long wait and a nice lunch, we headed back. This time I wanted to try the coast rather than going inland via Van Nuys, and to see if I could make it back via the Special Flight Rules corridor. On takeoff I proceeded to Pt. Mugu, but the cloud layer kept us at 1,000 ft AGL which was lower than I had hoped. Mugu, after clearing our transition, asked if I was going to climb any higher and I told them I’d wait to round the mountain to the coast to see what the clouds were doing before deciding — but once I did, it still wasn’t obvious. I could get to Santa Monica — I could see far enough at my altitude to see that the coast itself was unobscured, but I didn’t want to do the whole flight at 1,000ft if I could help it. Turn back or continue going? Hm.
Suddenly though I saw some blue sky just over the mountains. A nice hole in the layer just for me — I turned the plane and climbed quickly over the layer which topped out at around 2,500ft, and proceeded back to SMO at 3,500 inbound towards the Special Flight Rules. My sister got an awesome view of the pretty cool cloud layer.
However, as we got closer to Santa Monica I started doubting my plan. Ahead of me I could see the cloud layer get higher up. I couldn’t tell exactly where it was, but possibly it started before I’d be out of the SFRA. In addition, while it looked like it was going to continue to be below my altitude, I couldn’t be completely sure — and even if it was below, I didn’t think I could keep my cloud clearance minimums.
So, more choices. I could continue, and worst case turn around. This could work, but then I’d have to do some maneuvering over LAX — I didn’t like the idea of doing that. Plus I would have to not just turn around but also climb an extra 1,000 ft in the turn. Instead, I could turn north and head towards Van Nuys — the layer stopped there, so I could duck down and go either through the Sepulveda pass (unlikely) or around Downtown LA (very likely) — with the backup plan being to land in Van Nuys for the day.
Fortunately, a third plan presented itself in the form of another hole in the cloud layer below me. With enough horizontal clearance, I told Santa Monica that I wanted to transition, dove down to 1,500ft, and then proceeded around the Bravo shelf back to Hawthorne. In all, I was able to safely complete a VFR flight without creating what felt like undue risk, or coming close to violating regulations, or placing myself in a situation with few outs. I always left myself room to turn around and try another approach, and never felt nervous about the choices I was making. I think that if I hadn’t had IR training, and hadn’t gone on the long trip to Toronto, then I wouldn’t have wanted to try flying in this weather for fear of the unknown.
Anyway, all that that brings me to the most funny part of the trip. With the plane all tucked away and shut down, we got in the car and headed for the exit. And it was after about fifteen seconds of driving that I realized where I was — tracking the centerline of the taxiway. After an hour of flying, I hadn’t transitioned from flying to driving fully, and must have still thought absentmindedly that I was in an airplane. Let’s hope that the tower didn’t care enough to report me as I sharply veered back to the roadway.