Tag Archives: west

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.


The radar is showing splotches of green and brown ahead as the landing gear thumps into the wheel well. It’s my leg to fly (and the 6th I’ve worked today) but the end is in sight, at least on my display screen. 300 miles to the west, and still well over the visual horizon the runways at Montgomery, AL are waiting for us. I’m much more interested in the hotel room bed that is waiting for me, but for now the runway, depicted on my screen, will have to do. Tower hands us off to Departure just as we pass through the first bands of rain.

The sun is still up, although as of right now it’s behind a wall of clouds. Despite that there is plenty of light to see where we are going and I’m able to dodge around a small buildup of clouds off the nose. Coming around the backside of the buildup I run out of options and we slam into a solid line of clouds. The radar still isn’t showing much so we accept the turn to the west Departure gives us.

The world goes momentarily dark and the control yoke bucks in my hand as we hit moderate chop. Before I can even reach up and arm the ignition to protect the engines from a flameout we are out the other side and the setting sun is clearly visible through cloud layers, hanging like a red beach ball just over the horizon. The radar depicted view of our path westbound is mostly clear now, but looking forward I can see a fuzzy gray blob of rain clouds just to the left of our route, plus a higher overcast we will likely have to claw our way through as we climb up.

I duck my head below the glare shield as the sun breaks through the clouds, suddenly blinding me. My FO grabs a sun visor and snaps it on the overhead rail. I can’t find my visor so I position my head so that the center pillar on the windshield blocks most of the light. Through the pinkish glow spreading across the windshield I can see giant raindrops splattering on the glass, streaming upward and out of sight.

Both the rain and sunlight levels increase as we continue climbing through 10,000 feet. I comment to my FO that with this much rain and sun you’d think there’d be a rainbow somewhere. With the autopilot now driving I take a few seconds to look around and sure enough, just to our south is the vertical stripe of a rainbow, running from the ground up into the cloud layers above us.

Departure Control hands us over to Atlanta Center who clears us to climb to 23,000 feet. Despite the hot temperatures outside we are lightly loaded and the airplane maintains a somewhat respectable climb rate. Working through 16,000 feet we fly into the base of the rain cloud I’d seen before and the ride roughens. As the light fades the rainbow shimmers, looses intensity and then disappears into the gloom. Seconds later we break into the clear again, now on top of the clouds, just in time to see the last sliver of the sun drop below horizon.

The route ahead is clear. Now just 220 miles away, below a solid layer of clouds and well beyond the curve of the earth, the beacon at Montgomery is reaching out to us.