Playing with the Big Dogs - Dan Pimentel - Airplanista Aviation Magazine Feature Story

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This aviation magazine article was originally published in the October, 2011 issue of Airplanista Magazine. You can view the original story in our digital aviation magazine here.

Once a private pilot earns an Instrument Rating, the lessons learned are put to the test inside the IFR system. And when your CFI tells you that filing an IFR flight plan is the best way to arrive in busy class bravo airspace, you’ll be a safer, happier pilot if you heed that advice.

By Dan Pimentel,
Airplanista Editor

If you regularly fly IFR into busy Class bravo airspace, either in heavy iron or a fast, composite private ship, this might not be the article for you. You’ve been “in the system” and are able to fly SIDs and STARs with confidence and precision into very large, busy airports. But if you think back to your very first successful trip inside the Los Angeles BravoDome, you’ll know why I’m stoked to have just completed that task.

Yes, to a high-timer flying 777s into LAX, arrivals and departures in the busy L.A. basin are probably close to boring. But to this 500+ hour, instrument rated private pilot, filing IFR into Bob Hope Airport (KBUR) over Labor Day Weekend on a business trip was both exciting and challenging.

To help private pilots who are contemplating the instrument rating, I thought it would make good reading to give a play-by-play of the arrival and departure as a way to illustrate what you might look forward to after you earn the rating and start using it to explore busier destinations.

I have flown into and over the Los Angeles area numerous times, but always VFR. Each time was a new surprise, with crazy routings and plenty of inquiries from Controllers as to route of flight and preferred altitudes indicating that in this airspace, ATC really would rather you file IFR so they know where you are going. Sure, it’s possible to fly VFR around, under and through Los Angele’s class bravo, but like my CFI, Jim Hunt promised, filing IFR into that area just makes the entire affair infinitely easier.

I picked KBUR because it is minutes from where the trip’s core meetings would take place, and my routing after a fuel stop in Modesto, CA was CZQ (Clovis VOR), EHF (Shafter VOR), LHS (Lake Hughes VOR). I had added “No DP” (departure procedure) in my remarks so I could leave KMOD on a direct heading instead of a possible goose chase somewhere. That plan worked out well and I was even able to shave a few minutes off the en route time by asking for and receiving a “direct Shafter” amended routing.

But somewhere about Bakersfield, I was told Center was issuing me an amended arrival clearance. My route was the same, except for the addition of the Lynxx Eight arrival. I had seen this in the charts, and had even briefed it, and had it in a chart folder in Foreflight on my iPad. But on a crystal clear day when I could see KBUR from 40 miles out, I did not really care to fly far west of the field and fly the same arrival as the bizjets and airliners. So I asked for and got radar vectors to runway 15.

Not that I would have had trouble flying the arrival route, but I wanted to get Katy’s wheels on tarmac and get this flight in the logbook in the shortest amount of time. Not long after ZLA (Los Angeles Center) graciously accepted my request (without making silly rookie jokes), they pointed me at KBUR and asked if I saw a JetBlue Airbus at my nine o’clock also descending for KBUR. Upon my “affirmative” call regarding the blue and white ‘Bus, Center told me simply to follow him in which I did. The arrival was as simple as following some guy in a Skyhawk into a Saturday Pancake Breakfast at a sleepy little municipal field.

I will admit that my 1964 Cherokee 235 was almost giggling when we pulled up between the business jets at Atlantic Aviation. Swanky and sophisticated, this is obviously the FBO that the stars use, judging by the high-end flying hardware parked on their ramp. As we were pulling our bags out of the plane, the enormity of it all sunk in when we heard over the Line Guy’s radio that one of the jets on their ramp “only needed 6,000 gallons today!” The Atlantic staff were great and treated us exactly like the high rollers, which, in my world is the sign of a fabulous FBO. Oh, and the free cookies were deluxe.

So the southbound leg of this adventure was in the books, but I still needed to get home. After a few days of magazine and ad agency business, it was time to depart on Monday, and I knew the day might be interesting when I first looked out the window and saw low clouds. A quick look at the NEXRAD revealed a significant line of thunderstorms had moved in to the area, and the most colorful returns were southwest of KBUR, headed northeast across my intended route of flight. I had hoped to skate out of there with clear + 1,000,000 WX, but now I’d have to work at it. All of this was confirmed with a call to the briefer.

My return routing back north was over LHS and EHF, and then I planned to cancel IFR and make a direct flight to lunch with friends in Auburn, CA. I again also added “No DP” in the remarks so I would not get into a conga line of jets all making some strange departure over real estate I did not care to tour. While this might make the high-timers laugh, it seemed perfectly logical to ask for radar vectors instead of a DP and let the competent ATC crew at ZLA aim me in the right direction.

We arrived back at the plane, and as we loaded our bags, I noticed we had a tremendous view of the landing zone of KBUR’s heavily used runway 8. We watched one 737 after another drop into this smallish airfield, sandwiched in amongst the movie studios. As each airliner would arrive, the tire smoke would drift over us, which made the entire ramp smell a bit like the business end of a drag strip when the brackett racers are lighting off their fresh Goodyears.

A look at the sky indicated that things were starting to go our way. I was not afraid to have to pop through a deck on my way out of KBUR, but with CU cells being painted across the NEXRAD, the last thing I cared to do was fly fat, dumb and happy into a hailstorm. So we made a leisurely task out of loading the Cherokee, watching as the weather meandered out of the area.

But a second check of the FBO’s NEXRAD in the flight briefing room looked even more ominous. It looked like the big stuff was pushing east of my course, and if my filed altitude of 10,000’ would keep me under the soup, I felt that I could safely make it north through Tejon Pass. All I needed to do was find out precisely how high the cloud deck was.

The METAR at my time of departure at KBUR was showing the sky was CLR, even though there was a solid deck overhead. This did not compute until I asked a Beechcraft Premier 1A driver who had just landed what he actually saw inbound. He told me the deck was 14,000’ and when I asked why “they” could call this clear, he sort of chuckled as he replied that the METAR’s “CLR” only meant “clear below one-two thousand.” Duh. Had I thought this through a little bit more, I’m sure I would have remembered that part. I do think the bizjet pilot might have almost enjoyed schooling this Cherokee driver.

Once I determined we were fine with the clouds and WX, I jumped on the radio and picked up my IFR clearance. No surprises, and instead of a complex route that the jet drivers have burned into their brains, my “No DP” request gave me back a simple “right turn to 210 direct Gorman (VOR).” Once ground decided which runway they were sending me to, we were off to see how this all would come down.

It is eerie to taxi a small GA plane down the middle of a large airliner taxiway which back at home in Eugene, OR would suffice as a perfectly fine runway. We arrived first in line at the Line Up and Wait line, and that is precisely what we did...waited...for 25 minutes. As the tower sought my IFR release, I sat baking in the SoCal sun, monitoring my mixture and EGTs while getting a VERY close look at the line of airliners arriving on my runway.

The KBUR tower controller could not have been more professional. As we sat, lined up and waiting at what I still call the Hold Short line, she kept me informed of the expected time to release. As I watched a Southwest slide down the glideslope, I could see another arriving jet out over Van Nuys, inbound for the same runway. Right before SWA dropped in, tower told me to “be ready to go in between the inbounds,” which got my attention. Seconds after SWA slammed to Earth, I was sent out to officially Line Up and Wait, which I did with the knowledge that at that precise moment, I was parked exactly where several gazillion pounds of airliner would plant its gear in a matter of seconds. This was no time for errors.

As SWA was exiting the runway for the terminal, I was given a go for launch. Maybe it was the large runway, or the density altitude, but Katy did not seem to be accelerating as fast as usual. Was my brain playing evil tricks on me, knowing I was just a tiny bit freaked to be using the same patch of this planet that another inbound airliner wanted to use? And when we rolled through the large area of freshly-burnt tire rubber in the touchdown zone, I briefly contemplated that quite possibly I had left the parking brake on, because the odor of somebody’s baked tires was permeating the cockpit.

But without fail, we departed and flew the nice, simple heading given in my clearance. It was just minutes before we climbed above the transient VFR traffic below us, on course and gone without incident. The rest of the trip back to my studio in the Pacific Northwest was uneventful and beautiful.

As promised by my CFI, operations into and out of KBUR would be cake if only I filed IFR. I’ll do that now on all flights into the L.A. area, because now I know I can tussle with the Big Dogs and not get chewed up. This is the only way to go in this kind of airspace, because when ATC knows where you are going, they seem to really want to do what they can to accommodate your routing. And when they know what you want as well as you do, a pilot and controller working together inside the IFR system can be quite an impressive team.

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