We’ve all done the 50.1 nm $100 (just kidding, it’s not 1997; $500) cheeseburger lunch and the more daring of us have trusted our single engine planes with a jaunt out to AVX. For something more of a challenge you’ve got Pismo, Flabob, Big Bear, and Kern as a few other tantalizing spots, but these are all missing that one key ingredient. Doing something with an airplane that feels wrong but rewarding at the same time – they’re are all paved!
Unimproved strips hold a certain allure to most pilots, a harkening back to that classic era of aviation. You know what I mean, biplanes, radial engines, tail wheels, black and white photos (or sepia?!), and that real grit that classic aviation required and asked of us. People like Earnest Gann, Jacqueline Cochran, Saint Exupery, Raymonde de Laroche all cut their teeth flying off dirt strips and fields. Contrary to them, we are pampered by thousand foot markers, indulged with displaced thresholds, VASI and PAPI mollycoddled, and ultimately blessed with forgiving and helpful controllers (that reminds me I still have a number to call).
It’s not all a distant Howard Hughes past time though, each state has their handful of unimproved gems that local pilots talk about. We’ve got a couple out here in California: Columbia (the airport, not the country, although I’m sure they’ve got a few as well), Salton Sea, Ocotillo, Frazier Lake, etc. all have unpaved runways. Sadly, we can’t use of any of them in club planes..
Until this past weekend! On April 30th our Safety Director organized our second group fly, err, Safe Out event, this time featuring L90 for a series of exercises. Our stead for the day was N734DN with a crew of myself, Manuel Gil (you’ll remember him from my LAX adventure (the airport, not Metamucil)) and Miko as our instructor. We departed MYF early Saturday and as luck would have it our engine failed near Borrego and we executed a safe approach and landing. Incidentally the engine roared to life as the main gear romanced the pavement, funny how that happens. Heading to L90 from Borrego helps you understand what ingenuity must have seen on Ares’ counterpart. After departure Ocotillo Wells quickly heaves into view.
There’s not much for runway markings, other than some dark spots and a few white markers. The landing itself is not challenging, touch down smooth and hold the wheel off the ground with stall horn (more like a flute in 172s) blaring. I found the biggest challenge to be in accurately judging height, speed, and touchdown point. Without all the visual queues that a normal runways boast you really are flying by judgment (at least I was). The desert is refreshingly bleak and devoid of features making height, speed, and overall perception a challenge to judge. Once on the ground the plane shudders and jostles as expected. Taxiing is another peculiarity, cruising down the dry lake bed staying off the ‘runway’ and avoiding the occasional tumbleweed – but I won’t give away all the events of the day, I’ll leave that chapter for you to fill at the next Safe Out – and to that point I’d highly recommend future Safe Outs to our club members, if you haven’t attended one it’s a great alternative to the usual lunch run. There’s only so many times you can go to Hemet and French Valley before you get bored.
Hat tip as well to Miko, he clearly knows the local area very well and helps you understand basic aviation principles beyond rote memorization. It was a pleasure flying with him, thanks Miko!