Avalon: Airport in the Sky

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“A Mediterranean resort off the coast of Southern California”
Now that my Instrument training was finally over, I was ready for new adventures. The past few months had been hectic and nerve racking. Instrument training is very demanding and I am glad that, it is finally behind me. Browsing through “Fun places to fly in California” I thought I may as well start with the first airport listed there, which happened to be Avalon. I have wanted to fly to Avalon for sometime now. I had been under the misapprehension that I needed some kind of checkout prior to attempting to fly there. As it turned out, the flying club I rented from had no such restriction.

So it happened, that my friend Michelle and I set out from SBP airport one fine September morning. Low clouds and fog had laced the morning skies over SBP rendering the airspace IFR but this was not a cause of concern for me. The weather south was already clear all the way to Catalina island. By the time we set out at 10am though, the fog had already lifted denying me an opportunity to depart in actual IFR. The skies were clear, which meant another perfect day for flying. The plan was to shoot my first GPS approach at Avalon in the 2004 C-172 I was flying, which contained MFD, autopilot and all the latest shabang. It was only the second time I was flying the aircraft and I had never flown a GPS approach before, but Michelle was there to help me through.

Soon we were off, on our IFR flight plan cleared all the way to AVX. The GPS updated with our ammended clearance and the aircraft set on autopilot, afforded us time to sit back and take in the breathtaking views along our route of flight. I had been conservative in my flight planning  and filed
which implied we fly along the coast  from Venture to Seal Beach before crossing over to Avalon across 25 miles of ocean stretch. That afforded us some leeway should things go wrong or so I thought.

As we neared VTU, SOCAL approach decided to change our plans one more time:
“Cessna 773 cleared direct AVX, descend and maintain 5000”

Okay. Here we were cleared to fly 50 miles across the ocean and at 5000, what chance did we have of survival should our engine quit? Nada. We could of course not accept the clearance. But hah! neither of us had any intention of refusing it. A quick check to make sure the engine was running fine and a glance through the instrument panel. Everything looked good. So off we went, across 50 miles of the Pacific Ocean with barely a glimpse of Catalina Island in the distance

“They know where we are if anything happens.” said Michelle.
“I am not a stronger swimmer you know ” said I.
Now in retrospect I wonder should anything have happened we would possibly have been listed under the NTSB records as “Two fatal. Pilot error”.

But worries such as those were not racing through our minds. Instead, with suppressed excitement, we looked at Catalina Island looming ahead in the distance. Cleared for the GPS Bravo approach, I concentrated on the approach plate clipped to my yoke. I  had to fly direct to the VOR, then make an almost  parallel entry to get on the final course for the approach.

Seemed straight forward.
Talking to Unicom at Avalon airport is an unforgettable experience.
“Cessna 773 on GPB Bravo approach request permission landing at Avalon.” said I.
“Make right traffic to 22. ” said Unicom
” Cessna 773 on GPS Bravo approach request permission landing at Avalon” repeated I.
“Make right traffic to 22.” said Unicom. Okay, what’s going on?
“After GPS Bravo approach will make right traffic to 22” improvised I.
“Good.” said Unicom.

There is no tower really at Avalon. A structure resembling a tower serves as the Unicom. One needs prior permission to land at Avalon and in addition one has to pay a landing fee. So gotta do as Unicom commands.

Making the entry to right traffic after a GPS Bravo approach is rather tricky. One ends up rather close to the runway, you have to make a quick left turn (which seems contrary to what you want to do) but this puts you on the right downwind and a quick right turn  to right base to 22. After all the suitable turns, I was on eventually on final (short final rather) a tad bit faster and too high to make a normal landing on the small runway  ahead. No option but to go around. Then the fun began. I thought I would be clever and execute a go around and come back on the left downwind and use left traffic pattern for runway 22. Full power, retract flaps and climb. Turning downwind I announced “Cessna 773 making left traffic for 22 request permission landing Avalon”

“Cessna 773 making left traffic for 22 request permission landing Avalon”
“Make right traffic 22” responded Unicom. Here we go again. “We did a go around and now we are on left downwind” replied I hopefully. “Make right traffic 22” retorted Unicom

Here we go again. “We did a go around and now we are on left downwind” replied I hopefully. “Make right traffic 22” retorted Unicom

“We did a go around and now we are on left downwind” replied I hopefully.
“Make right traffic 22” retorted Unicom
“Make right traffic 22” retorted Unicom unrelentingly.

Looks like we are stuck with right traffic which meant we have to head out  further into the ocean fly toward Two Harbors before setting up for 45-degree entry for right traffic. While concentrating on accomplishing all this, “Contact SOCAL approach” ordered Unicom tersely.

“Contact SOCAL approach” ordered Unicom tersely.

Now, what?

So we switched to SOCAL Approach. “You have to talk to me after a missed” says SOCAL. What missed? We did a go around.

What missed? We did a go around. Well it still is missed. We were on an IFR plan and until canceled specifically stays that way. After further reprimands, appologies and cancellations, at last free and VFR we attempted and safely landed. Talk about new adventures!

Talk about new adventures!

After a quick lunch at the airport restaurant, we were off in a shuttle bus for a trip down to Avalon. The real adventure was going to begin now. The shuttle bus meandered through narrow winding roads and steep uphill and downhill roads offering spectacular views of the ocean, the cliffs and the harbor filled with sail boats, sun bathers and tourists enjoying a beautiful saturday afternoon. One has to cling to support rods to stop oneself falling as the bus  made its way to Avalon. Mirrors placed strategically assisted the driver to see cross traffic coming uphill and through turns. Cross traffic meant we pull over to the side almost right smack to the mountain side so the other bus could climb on its way uphill. After a dizzy 30 minute drive we arrived at Avalon.

Boat loads of people usually arrive from across the Orange county, Los Angeles and Seal Beach area. Avalon is rather touristy, boasts a casino and a population of 4000 with lots of water activities such as canoeing, diving and boat tours. After a delightful afternoon strolling through the streets of Avalon, a sub-sea tour in Nautilus to view under water marine life, we braved the return trip back to the airport once again through winding roads in the shuttle bus. It was time to head back home.

The return trip was uneventful yet exciting. This time around we did not have think twice. We took off and headed straight back the way we came– 50 miles across the ocean VTU direct, skirting past and staying outside the LAX Class B airspace.

Notes and Acknowledgements:
Avalon is located on Santa Catalina Island, third largest of the Channel Islands off California’s southern coast. It is California’s only public-use airport on an island. Visit   http://www.catalina.com/airport.html for all the details.
Click on the image to see a slightly larger version.
Some photographs and MPEG movies courtesy Michelle Torres-Grant

A version of this appeared on Forbes WheelsUp

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