Although it was July already, June gloom still prevailed. Early morning fog, gave each morning a caliginous beginning. But nothing could deter my excitement on this day. It was 4th of July and I was scheduled to fly with my instructor to the San Francisco Bay Area to fly the unofficial “Bay Tour”. Ceilings as low as 100ft, delayed our early departure. The fog was gradually beginning to lift off, as we stood on the airport tarmac, trying to guess the altitude at which the just the departed aircraft would disappear, giving us a clear indication of the cloud bases. “800ft, I think,” observed my instructor, which was later confirmed on ATIS. This was a reasonable ceiling for our departure. Seat belts fastened, floatable devices stowed away in the baggage compartment and cameras in hand, we were ready to depart by 10:30 a.m.
The plan was to fly to Palo Alto Airport, buy the Bay Tour map at the Airport Shoppe, peruse the map and plan the flight over lunch, and fly the much anticipated flight after lunch before finally returning home.
Without much ado, we were off on our IFR flight plan to Palo Alto. The flight was uneventful, and as filed, at least until we reached San Jose. I had planned to shoot the VOR/DME approach into Palo Alto. After several minutes of hovering over San Jose airport, doing S-turns waiting for a clearance, we had to abandon any ideas of executing an approach owing to difficulty obtaining a clearance. Instead we opted for a visual approach and landed at Palo Alto Airport, excited and anxious to fly the Bay Tour.
We received the first setback, at the Airport Shoppe. The Bay Tour maps were all sold out. “Oh no!” thought I in dismay, as I reprimanded myself for not ordering a map beforehand. We had flown all that distance for nothing! But luck was with us that day. We had the good fortunate to run into a pilot, who was gracious enough to take the time to chalk out the procedures to us. He assured us, that we could fly the tour without the Bay Tour map.
After a well eaten lunch, we were off, on a straight out departure. Within minutes, we were transferred to San Carlos Tower, who directed us to stay left of the freeway and squawk a unique transponder code. Just when we were wondering if we had to do circling turns at the Bay Meadows race course, we were cleared through the San Francisco Class Bravo airspace. The “Bay Tour” was officially beginning. Off to our right was San Francisco airport. We could see at least two heavy carrier aircraft takeoff from the two parallel runways towards the bay while others taxied to the runway. The view this close and from 1300 ft was spectacular, as we traced our path, following the meandering freeway through South San Francisco and into the downtown area.
Off in the distances was the city and to the right, Oakland Bay Bridge, that connects San Francisco to Oakland. Billowing clouds and persistent fog still hugged the coastline. A thin layer of haze gently washed over the surface, dimming the otherwise vibrant hued landscape. We hoped fervently that the Golden Gate Bridge was not socked in the fog as we flew towards the bay. “There it is,” said my instructor spotting it first. Like magnets attracted to iron, we pointed the aircraft towards it. Awe struck, we watched its approach in all its golden splendor. I have driven on it, walked on it, got glimpses of it from various angles, from various ground locations, but nothing could surpass the breathtaking views it offered from 1300 ft. We flew to our heart’s content; over the bay towards the Bay Bridge and Oakland first; then back again towards the Golden Gate; then over towards Sausalito and back again. I felt one with the city and the bridge.
Down below was Alcatraz Island, which once served as a high security prison that no inmate could escape. Known simply as The Rock to inmates of past, it now serves as a busy tourist attraction that many a time requires prior reservation on the ferry boats. Take it from me, after three unsuccessful attempts; I am yet to visit Alcatraz Island.
Then there was Coit Tower on Telegraph Street. Built in 1933, in art deco
style, the Coit Tower provides impressive views of the city. But from 1300 ft, it was foreshadowed by the imposing skyscrapers that are iconic of any great city. It looked obscure and diminutive, almost forlorn.
Then there was Fisherman’s Wharf; with Ghirardelli Square, The Canary and Pier 39. Fisherman’s Wharf is one of the busiest tourist areas drawing millions of visitors each year. Most tours to Alcatraz Island and the Golden Gate originate here.
Over to the right stood the beautiful Palace of the Fine Arts with its dome, glittering in the sun’s rays. Built in 1915 for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, on land originally belonging to the Presidio, the Palace of Fine Arts features a classical Roman rotunda with curved colonnades. The park with the lake, birds, ducks and fountains offers an idyllic and ethereal setting for many a visitor.
But it was the Golden Gate Bridge that had our undivided attention. It beckoned, each time we flew away, and like an elastic string whose stretch is limited by the elasticity afforded by the string, each time we returned to pay homage to the majestic achievement of mankind. Completed in 1937 and open to vehicular traffic, the Golden Gate Bridge connects San Francisco to Marin County. Built in the art deco style, it was the world’s longest suspension bridge at the time of its construction and for twenty seven years thereafter.
In the midst of so much beauty, it was a tough choice to end the trip. But as all good things must end, so did the flight. For days, afterwards I reflected on it. I still do. Thanks to the marvels of technology we had those moments captured in digital images and video. But nothing can supplant the memories- of not just the sights, but all the exultant emotions, all the thoughts racing at warp speed through my mind when presented with such immense pulchritude. Nor the solitude or the reverence I felt that day. Nothing can replace those moments or the moments of gratitude for being able to experience so much unforgettable beauty, or the splendor of San Francisco, of everything that I am and will be. This was irrevocably one of those golden moments in life, written with indelible ink: a moment to be cherished over a lifetime.
Note: A version of this appeared on Forbes Wheels Up