August 28, 2007
August 28, 2007
The View from Up Here
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Mike: "Twenty six miles across the sea, Santa Catalina is waiting for me....." Remember that song? Not long after earning my private pilot license, I took my first cross-country flight, from El Monte, California to Catalina Island, and it’s “Airport-In-The-Sky.” Now there was an adventure. Catalina Island is twenty-one miles long and about eight miles across at its widest point. There are two distinct parts of the island, separated by an isthmus about half a mile across. The airport is built atop a cut-off hill. 1,600 feet above sea level it drops off steeply to the ocean at either end. From the air it looks like an aircraft carrier. The first two-thirds of the runway slopes uphill and the last third levels out, so on close-in final approach, the last thousand feet on the other end are not visible. The view from the cockpit makes the runway look incredibly short just as one is about to land. Back then most airplane rental operations required no specific training to fly to Catalina Island, but I can understand why that’s changed. Taking that first trip over with a person experienced with Catalina‘s special characteristics would have been nice.
My brother, Doug, and our friend, Tim, accompanied me for a day trip. On final approach the runway looked too short. I thought I wouldn’t make it so I applied takeoff power and climbed out again, making a go-around. I flew the traffic pattern, set up on final again, and this time a gust of wind bumped us up in the air causing me to decide to make another go-around. On the third attempt the airplane settled smoothly onto the runway and we used barely half of the available real estate with little braking applied before coming to a stop. Third time’s a charm.
Avalon, the only town, is 10 miles away on the southeastern side of the island and the switchback road descends into Avalon where the majority of the citizens live. Renting a seat on the shuttle van proved to offer a ride as unique as the island’s runway, dodging wild buffalo set loose by a movie company after filming on the island in the 1930’s.
I have since made over 50 trips to Catalina Island, mostly as a flight instructor, showing others how to land there, but on this trip I had to endure the rest of the day as Tim ribbed me with comments to total strangers that “this is the guy who buzzed the airport three times.”
Linda: Well, they say a pilot is only as good as his last landing, but most pilots love re-living challenging landings, ever on the look-out for new audiences. I checked online and sure enough, now there’s a list of warnings for anyone planning to land at Catalina. I’ve done a little island hopping myself in the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington State–I’ll tell you about it sometime–but I’d like to try Catalina for the challenge.
Mike and Linda can be reached at Texasavi8r@aol.com