Westbound again

The huge sprawl of the Phoenix metro area is sliding under the wing. My face is pressed against the smudged glass of an exit row seat, headed west to visit family. As the desert landscape passes by, a blur of browns, browns and more browns, I marvel at how fast it moves when you are at 38,000 feet and 78% of the speed of sound. I’ve flown this way before, following Interstate 10 west towards the glow and haze of the LA Basin and the sparkling waters of the Pacific beyond. Of course I was in a little trainer then, bouncing in the thermals which today are thousands of feet below us.

The Colorado River snakes across the landscape to the northwest, a gash of blue water and white sand, twisting and turning through the scrub. My mind wanders back to the time I took a student out of Phoenix, up to Lake Havasu and then down along the twisting path of the river towards Blythe, watching jet skis and wake boarders play in the water below our wings. I also remember another trip down the river, that time in the stormy darkness of an overcast and rainy winter night. As we crept south over the dark river, skimming the bases of the clouds, pushing through rain and mist, I kept my flashlight’s weak beam on the outside air temp gauge which hovered right at 33 degrees; icing territory. The chart showed peaks rising to 6500 all around which kept us pinned against the bottom of ice laden clouds. Finally the lights of I10 and the truck stop at Blythe came into view on the horizon, and with a huge sense of relief we descended into warmer, drier air.

Now 200 miles out of LA, the desert is giving way to ridges and hills of rock, rising from the sands. I am sitting on the right side so I can’t see it, but I known the great Salton Sea stretches away to the south, a relic from another time. Years ago, heading west in a beat up Seminole, my student and I ran into nasty ice around here. We were at 11000 feet and tried to climb out of it but due to the altitude and extra weight from the ice, ran out of climb power within a few hundred feet, forcing us to try to descend out of the weather and hope we got out the bottom before we got below ATC’s minimum floor. We popped out of the clouds at 8000 feet, perhaps slightly wiser and certainly more cautious.

We’ve started descending now. In the haze ahead I can see the terrain start to rise upwards, marking the beginning of Banning Pass. Even from this altitude San Gorgonio Mountain towers skyward on the passes northern boundary. I always felt that coming through here in a smaller plane, down low, was an amazing experience. The wet coastal air of the LA basin would often times be sucked eastward by the dry air of the desert, funneling through the pass at incredible speeds. We could be doing 100 miles per hour across the ground on the east side off the pass and be slow to 30 or 40 mph once we entered it. Human kind has taken advantage of this effect and a huge wind farm lines the eastern slopes dropping down towards Palm Springs.

Today, up high, and in a much bigger plane, the winds effects are negligible. I stare intently at the mass of wind turbines below, but from this distance I can’t tell if they are spinning or not. The turbines drop behind the wing and the peak of San Gorgonio slides by, looking like a giant boat straining towards the waters of the Pacific, 75 miles away. On the west side of Banning Pass the terrain rapidly changes from empty hillsides to the sprawl of roads, houses and buildings of the LA Basin. On most days an orange tint hangs in the air, but today the smog is absent. The plane dips a wing to the right and we turn to the northwest towards LAX.

Off to the right the terrain rises towards the northeastern edge of the Basin. Interstate 15 snakes its way to the north east, rising towards the rim of the Basin until it drops over the top and out of sight behind Mount Baldy. I’ve taken a little Cessna up that way, leaving Riverside at dusk, as the millions of lights started flickering on below us, the plane’s radio surprisingly quiet for the busy airspace. Climbing as quickly as possible to clear the ridgeline we eventually leave the bright lights behind and start to follow the steady stream of red car taillights heading towards the glare of Las Vegas visible as a white glow on the horizon, 200 miles away. Today however we continue to the northwest, descending towards the mass of humanity below.

As always here, the last little bit seems to take forever. The seemingly endless stream of houses, roads, shopping complexes and golf courses slide by, getting slowly bigger and bigger as we get lower. The nice thing about LA is that in general you don’t get vectored around a lot. Once you get headed the right way you tend to just keep going. This proves true today as the flaps are out now and the gear soon follows. From who made the in flight cabin PAs I’m guessing it’s the captain who makes one of the nicest CRJ 700 landings I’ve ever seen before slowing the plane and turning past the new International Terminal with a giant Air France A380 parked out from. Taxiing towards the gate with the high pitched electric whine of the flap motor running below my feet I realize for about the 100th time that whether the plane is big or small, fast or slow, traversing the landscape of the Southwest is very different than my day to day travels on the other coast, and I really do miss it. Maybe someday I’ll get back to these skies.

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