A Trip to the Boon(t)ies

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We didn't expect to be home this weekend, so I hadn't planned anything, and the Skylane was away with someone else. At the last minute I managed to reserve one of Sundance's Skyhawks, 738GE – the plane I used for my checkride. Although as elderly as most (1978), this is not your usual tired, clapped-out club Skyhawk. Its owner, George, loves his plane and is out fixing minor things every week. He recently spent a small fortune on a new leather interior and a new paint job, so only the avionics give away its age – old-fashioned mechanical radios with clunky tuners like a 1960s TV set. The airframe has an incredible 13,000 hours on it and the engine is getting a bit tired – the plane is good for an honest 105 knots true.

So, where to go? We seem to be using up the more obvious destinations at quite a pace, and in the Skyhawk we didn't want to go very far. In the end I picked Boonville (Q17), in the Anderson Valley about 100 miles north of San Francisco. The main attraction given is that the airport is within walking distance of the town, which has a few cafes and restaurants listed. Supposedly the inhabitants once spoke a dialect of their own, Boonty, which survives in quaint names for gift shops and the like.

We set out a little late for lunch, as the plane was booked in the morning, taking off at 13h03 on my usual route north: straight out in San Carlos' airspace, and a call for Class B clearance to SQL tower. This time they handed me over to SFO nice and early, giving me time to get the clearance before I was too close to Class B. This isn't always the case – sometimes they leave it late to hand off, and then if SFO is busy (which it usually is) it can get a bit tight for the clearance. Once I had to make a 360 while I was waiting. There was another problem though: by now I could see that there was low cloud over the city, obscuring the top of San Bruno "mountain" (in its 1200' magnificence). My normal route is to the west of the hill, along 280, but it would be impossible to stay legal at 1000' and be sure of staying clear of clouds, so instead I went east of the hill, tracking 101, having descended to 1000'. I'm not wild about doing this as the corridor between the hill and the road is very narrow – instructions are always "stay west of 101" – so the risk of traffic coming the other way cannot be ignored, although SFO seem pretty conscientious about traffic alerts, perhaps because sending a couple of Cessnas plummeting in flames onto their neighbors would generate bad publicity.

Fortunately the cloud was thinning and by flying out over the water we were able to avoid it and start climbing to a more reasonable altitude – 2500' at first and 4500' once we could do this without bumping into the Class B. We were rewarded with a magnificent view of the city (but no pictures I'm afraid, as I forgot my camera). I tracked direct to the Santa Rosa VOR, slightly to the west of the Sonoma valley over low hills and expensive-looking houses. From Santa Rosa I went direct to Boonville, using the VOR (Santa Rosa VOR that is – Boonville doesn't even have a beacon although it did manage a windsock) – this is not particularly friendly territory although I could always see somewhere I could land if need be. Soon we were over the Anderson Valley itself, with an immediate descent as I had been holding altitude to have a decent terrain clearance.

Despite the apparent absence of any traffic – in contrast to the Sonoma Valley airports (Petaluma, Healdsburg, Cloverdale) which were all bristling with activity including parachute jumps – I did it by the book with an AIM approved right traffic approach. While the airport was easy to spot, the town was harder, there really isn't much of it. On final I saw a bunch of people to one side of the runway. At first I thought we had become a tourist attraction, but we later realized they were up to little good. We didn't figure out exactly what, but shortly after we landed a sheriff patrol showed up and they all evaporated rapidly. The airport consists of just a runway and a small parking area, without even a parallel taxiway, so after a slightly hard landing I turned on the runway and taxied back to the parking area. This is so overgrown that we had to struggle to get the plane over the clumps of weeds! The tie-down ropes looked pretty dubious, but as we weren't expecting any hurricanes I put my faith in them.

With the plane closed down, we set off on our hike to the centre of town – a quarter mile or so down a country road, then the same again on route 128. This is the main road from the Bay Area to Mendocino, and its passing traffic is responsible for such fortune as Boonville possesses. We looked at all the places listed in our guides, but Isabelle wasn't very tempted by any of them at first. Then we looked in at a microbrewery which had several Harleys parked outside – generally a good sign. Inside it was pretty nice, all natural wood finishes and plenty of light. The beer looked very tempting but unfortunately of course not for me. The food was OK, nothing special but perfectly edible.

On the way back to the plane, Isabelle couldn't resist stopping at a garage sale organized by a church. The thing that struck me was that from 20 yards, there was the unmistakable odor of old garage junk. Indeed there was nothing worth looking at closely, and we soon set off again to our faithful airplane. During the whole time we had been there – about 90 minutes – there had been no other traffic. There were two other planes parked there, and I saw no sign of any hangars although airnav.com claims that there are more planes than that based permanently.

Amazingly, once we'd untied and were in the runup, there was another plane on downwind, but we took off before him, on a right downwind departure back towards Santa Rosa. This time I flew closer to the Sonoma Valley, partly to get a different view. Cloverdale was again busy with jumpers. Our flight was uneventful south over Petaluma (directly over the field) and towards the bay. Then came the question, which way back? The cloud was still low over the city, but Oakland was visible in the distance although the city was overcast, so the choice was either the San Ramon valley, which was cloudless, or the shorter route over Oakland. After some hesitation I went for Oakland, partly because I've never done this before, so I called Bay who as expected handed me off to Oakland tower, where things started to get interesting. By now we were down to 1000' to stay legally clear of clouds, with a magnificent view of Oakland (to the extent that this is possible). They gave me the usual directions, "follow 880 to the Coliseum then cross the airport". This meant some serious scud-running and I confess to turning a bit short of the Coliseum as the overcast was getting lower heading inland. We turned and flew over the airport terminal at a bare 1000', with directions to "cross the 29 numbers and fly to the middle of the San Mateo bridge" – again as usual. (Although I'd never flown this myself, I've done it a couple of times with a colleague). Meanwhile we could hear a 737 on its way in to land through the overcast on 29, so my interpretation of "over the numbers" was a little displaced. Once clear of the airport, we were also clear of the overcast, and could climb to a slightly healthier 1500' to fly down the bay. We did see the 737 pop out of the clouds, but we were well clear of his path by then.

We finished with a routine approach to 31 at Palo Alto, busy as ever, and a near-perfect touchdown despite a varying crosswind. The flight took about 1h10 each way, a little faster on the return because of the tailwind. The DME showed us making 94 knots northward and about 118 back home – no GPS in Golf Echo! It was fun to fly a Skyhawk for a change, although we both agreed that we'd prefer not to go much further in one. The controls are incredibly light and delicate compared to the Skylane. I'd flown 738GE a few days earlier for an instrument lesson, and on take-off had over-rotated despite using a fraction of the force in the Skylane. Of course this flight was entirely hand flown – no autopilot – and I was pretty pleased with that, especially on the way back where I held my altitude to within 50' the whole time, and a good heading too. A good trip, although from a flying point of view rather eclipsed by the Cirrus I flew a couple of days earlier – but that is a different story.