To make the trip, I knew I needed a clear, cool day, but the forecast for the week looked marginal at best. Weather in Southern California, despite what the movies might suggest, is not always glamorous sunshine with a breeze just strong enough to rustle the palm fronds. We get clouds and gusty winds here, too, and SoCal is now in the “bad” weather season. Los Angeles’ proximity to the ocean plus the effects of temperature inversions cause a pesky layer of clouds to hang over the city in the spring, resulting in “May gray” and “June gloom.” Typically, the clouds lift in the early afternoon. The beach cities are usually last to see a clear sky, though, and Torrance is just a couple of miles from the ocean.
The marine layer is thin, though, and I considered departing early and IFR. The IFR route into Big Bear is slightly circuitous and requires a relatively high altitude for a Cessna 172; also, while I’m IFR current, I’m not single-pilot IFR proficient. A morning departure on a cloudy day wouldn’t work for me, and an afternoon departure wouldn’t work, either: Big Bear’s elevation is at 6,752 feet msl, and the density altitude consistently climbs to nearly unflyable heights past noon. SoCal can test your decision making; I’d have to wait for a VFR day where the clouds lifted early enough that I’d arrive at Big Bear in time for breakfast.
After a couple of days of persistent clouds and temptation to lower my minimums and just file IFR after all, the weather finally became better than the expected 800-foot ceilings. In a rare turn of events, the coastal airports cleared up before the inland fields. I waited for the conditions to improve enough that there was a “sky clear” airport on my route every dozen or so miles, just in case. Thrilled that I hadn’t canceled on the forecast, I took off from Torrance, picked up flight following, and began my climb up to the mountains.
The flight was stunning. After a task-heavy start where I was cleared to climb into the LA Class B airspace and almost hit an errant “Happy Birthday” balloon, I settled in to enjoy cruise. As I approached the mountains, the scattered-to-broken layer beneath me continued to dissipate, but wisps of clouds continued to cling to the peaks—not obscured enough to be a problem, just enough to look mystical.
Mountain flying is a special kind of magic. The risks are higher, the terrain less forgiving, and the views more rewarding. Anywhere the terrain is above you requires extra vigilance, and as I flew into the valley before Big Bear Lake, I made sure to keep to one side rather than fly down the middle—even though it isn’t a true canyon, I’d still have more room available if I needed to make a 180-degree turn. If I flew down the middle, I’d cut that available space in half.
While descending from 9,500 feet for the traffic pattern, my true altitude above the ground dropped by the thousands. Below me, stubborn snow stuck to the north face of the pines. Toy cars skirted the side of the mountain on a white ribbon road I used as a waypoint to ensure I was flying up the correct valley. Ski slopes that looked far too steep braided down the mountainsides, and I considered how convenient it would be to have another pilot on board so I could better admire the view.
Despite the AWOS calling for just a few knots of wind, the pattern was bumpy and gusty even early in the morning. The density altitude was noticeable as I flew the true numbers yet still felt too fast; later in the day or with passengers it would have felt even worse. After landing, I taxied to transient parking (conveniently located right by the terminal and restaurant) and wandered inside for the ForeFlight Fly-Out goody bag. I picked up my treats—which were wrapped up with a ForeFlight keychain and displayed next to a stuffed bear aviator (perfectly on theme for the airport)—said hi to the terminal folks, and walked over to the Barnstormer Restaurant for my first diner breakfast in a year.
I started for home about an hour later, leaned for takeoff for Big Bear’s density altitude, and flew out over the lake before descending down into the LA Basin for an almost direct flight back to Torrance.
Big Bear has always been a winter-only flight for me because of high density altitudes the rest of the year. But it isn’t an impossible airport—it just requires some extra planning, flexibility, and a thorough review and understanding of how the airplane will act at a high density altitude.
Without the ForeFlight Fly-Out, I might not have pushed myself to go, but it was a manageable challenge, and it expanded my skill and proficiency.
Check out the June ForeFlight Fly-Out and get the skills to fly safely to a destination you might not otherwise visit. It’s well worth it.