From Palmes to Pines

“A first time racer’s personal account”

“You have to go down to 350 feet for the flyby,” I reminded gently. “I am not going any lower“, pat came the response while Grace stayed steady at 400 feet. “We’ll be disqualified if we are not at or below 200 feet for the flyby,” I said a trifle forcefully.


It was a beautiful, pleasant day. The heat wave we were expecting hadn’t caught up with us yet. Earlier in the morning, fog over Santa Monica had cleared rapidly, affording us an early departure on our first leg to Merced. With luggage stowed in baggage compartment, cooler with ample water in the rear seat and neck strap comfortably around our shoulders to keep us cool from the heat, we had set off from Santa Monica with anticipation for the race ahead. This was the first time I was participating in an air race, but for Grace this was old hat, as she had flown the year before.

Skirting past the Van Nuys and Burbank airspace, we sped towards the Gorman Pass. Having scouted the area the previous day, we had no trouble finding the pass. Staying as low as terrain permitted, we raced through the pass and headed towards Merced which was the checkpoint for our first flyby. Once past the Gorman Pass, the terrain flattened out and all that lay ahead were green fields, haze and beckoning skies. The haze layer hung steadfast over the surface washing the fields below with gentle whitish hue. Staying high enough to avoid the airspace below and slightly above the haze layer, we made it to Merced in good time for lunch. The first flyby at Merced called for a pass at 350 feet MSL at full throttle over the adjacent taxiway. Grace finally acceded after realizing that the elevation of the airport was 156 feet and we nudged closer to 350 feet and sped down the taxiway at 110 knots. I could feel the rush inside me as my heartbeat quickened. This was racing indeed!

The heat wave finally caught up with us as we left Merced towards our next destination, a flyby to land at Red Bluff. The flat terrain all the way to Red Bluff meant we could fly as low as we desired. The direct route from Merced to Red Bluff also meant we had to cross Sacramento Mather airport’s Class Delta airspace. Reaching Mather airport we requested and duly received permission to cross right over the airport at 1200ft. Multiple airplanes crossing the airport at low altitude had piqued the controller’s curiosity.
“Do you have time for a question?” she queried “Is something going on? I’ve had four planes flying through here already” “It is the annual Palms to Pines Air Race hosted by the 99s” Grace replied. “May I ask you a question?” Grace requested. “What altitude were the other planes flying?” We certainly wanted to be sure we were flying at the right altitude.


By the time we arrived at Red Bluff, the heat index there was already oppressive at more than 100 degrees. Coming as we did from San Luis Obispo, where it stayed mostly pleasant, this was extreme weather indeed. Executing the flyby we simultaneously realized that the temperature gage appeared dangerously close to the red line. We landed without mishap after cooling off the engine, but the incident certainly irked us. Thus day one of the racing ended. We could relax, take a dip in the pool, do some hanger flying and most importantly plan for the next day. “We have to be the first ones to leave tomorrow” stated Grace “Before Fran”. And so we did, without much trouble as it happens, as Fran’s aircraft had a dead battery.

Taking off promptly at 8:00 am, we headed north towards Redmond, Oregon for the final flyby. This was the most challenging segment of the race and also the most spectacular. With terrain high above sea level, we had to cull our way through valleys and gullies as our intention was to fly low. We experienced some of the most incredibly beautiful views as we flew north. The early morning rays washed over the earth giving the landscape a reddish yellow hue. Shasta Lake below remained pristine at an exotic turquoise shade. Mount Shasta stood impressively tall and snow covered at 14000 feet as we eyed it from below from our altitude of 6700 feet. The final flyby was a pass over Redmond Airport 10 miles north of Bend, before returning and landing at Bend. After more than a total six hours of flight time from Santa Monica to Merced to Red Bluff and Redmond, we finally reached our final destination, Bend OR. Fortunately the temperature guage remained in the green and we sighed thankfully as we landed at our final destination.


The race was not without some anxious moments at least for some of us. A dead battery, high oil temperature, low oil pressure and no water in the battery constituted the extent of some of the issues faced. But all were resolved expeditiously with minimal inconvenience and all the fifteen planes that set out from Santa Monica finished the race at Bend.

Now that the race was over, we had time to enjoy an afternoon of white water rafting, cooling off from the hot weather and enjoying the company of some remarkable aviatrix. Following the awards breakfast the next day (where as expected the invincible Fran Bera won the race) we made our way south again, taking time to visit Crater Lake along the way. The much anticipated race was finally over but what remained with us, were the unforgettable memories of the amazing journey and the camaraderie. We may have had our moments of disquietude and dissension but we made it through. What an incredible journey!


Here’s looking forward to the race next year,

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