Excited to celebrate the unofficial start of summer this past weekend, fellow pilot Juliette Simpkins and I decided to take advantage of some warm weather here in Southern California and fly to Santa Barbara for the day. Santa Barbara Municipal Airport is a Class C airport that sits right on the Pacific Ocean, and the town is known for its seafood, wine, and exclusive ZIP code and red-roofed Spanish-style mansions. It is also home to one of California’s 21 Franciscan missions, which were built throughout the late 1700s along El Camino Real (a historical route that closely overlaps present-day U.S. Highway 101).
Departing from Zamperini Field in Torrance in a rented Cessna 172, the route is like most other coastal flights—very simple in terms of navigation as long as you keep the ocean on the correct side. Taking advantage of LA Special Flight Rules we took off from Torrance, climbed to our northwest transition altitude of 4,500 feet, and flew over Santa Monica before picking up flight following with SoCal Approach.
Between haze and pesky seasonal fog, the crystal-clear skies of winter had been absent lately, making VFR flying days few and far between. After scratching the last few flights we’d planned due to low ceilings, Simpkins and I felt lucky that the weather worked out well enough for us to fly. The haze was persistent, but visibility still exceeded about 8 statute miles for our entire flight. Even so, to those of us used to “visibility unlimited,” even a little haze can be intimidating. And just think—marginal VFR conditions only require three to five miles of visibility. If you haven’t experienced that before, you might be surprised at just how little vis that is and how quickly you can become disoriented once you’re in the air and flying at 100 knots.
Luckily for us, the haze seemed to be enough to keep most traffic on the ground. Flying over the Santa Monica Mountains, we watched the terrain below us transform from the urban grid of Los Angeles to the sprawling tennis-courted estates of Malibu and then the patchwork farm fields near Point Mugu. We flew near Camarillo and Oxnard, both good options in case we needed to make an unexpected stop, and followed the Highway 101 freeway near Ventura where it moves from the interior to directly follow the shore. Flying is of course the best way to get to Santa Barbara, but the drive is also stunning.
The hills were still green and peppered with vineyards as we got closer to Santa Barbara, not quite yet the tinder box of fire season. Santa Barbara Approach advised us to follow Highway 101 to a left base for Runway 15L—a typical instruction for this airport, but a pattern that can make the descent hard to judge if you aren’t prepared.
We flew by Mission Santa Barbara on our right and downtown on our left, and the freeway guided us perfectly into a left base for Runway 15L. After what I’d call a nice landing (I think Simpkins would agree) we taxied over to Signature Flight Support, where the ramp was packed with jets. Even in our little 172, they treated us well.
We let the team at the FBO know that we were only staying for a few hours, and they made our stay smooth. We borrowed the crew car and portable chargers, and grabbed some water. The drive into town is about 20 minutes, and we already had a restaurant in mind for lunch.
The Santa Barbara Shellfish Co., established in 1980 and still under the “same happy ownership,” sits on Stearns Wharf in downtown. Parking on the wharf is free for the first 90 minutes, and we drove out over creaking, weathered planks of wood that inspired a brief conversation about how to survive the highly unlikely possibility of ever being underwater in a car. We rolled the windows of the car down all the way (just in case).
It was the kind of beautiful California day that makes me forget about earthquakes and traffic. A salty ocean breeze—you know, one of those you can practically taste—whispered just enough to keep us cool in the high 70s temperature while we waited for a table. The thing to do here is really to get a fresh box crab or California king crab, but neither of us felt up to the task of dismantling an exoskeleton, nor were we hungry enough to eat one. Even the small crabs are two to three pounds. Instead, we tried other delicious options fresh from the Pacific—umishi oysters, local uni (sea urchin), red abalone, and clams.
Off the wharf, moored sailboats rolled with the waves, a flock of pelicans rested on the shore, a “red, right, returning” channel marker guided boaters around Point Castillo to Santa Barbara Harbor, and beachcombers strolled the sand. It felt like a mini-vacation. Satisfied with our feast, Simpkins and I strolled the wharf before driving back to the airport, careful not to bring the crew car back too late. Believe it or not, the fuel at Signature was about the same at my home airport, so a top-off to waive the ramp fee made perfect sense. Even if we hadn’t needed fuel, the fee would have still been worthwhile to save the cost of a taxi to and from town..
We departed from Runway 15L directly over the ocean, considering that while most water landings are survivable, we would prefer not to test that out. Once at our cruising altitude of 3,500 feet, the flight home was uneventful. All our approach controllers were in noticeably cheery moods, and we got a “good day” from all but one of them when switching from sector to sector. SoCal Approach canceled our radar service near Santa Monica and we set up for the southeast transition through LA Special Flight Rules Area, which includes multiple VFR transition routes—Simpkins noted that she prefers the Coastal Route because you continue to talk to air traffic control. Verifying that we were squawking 1201, had 128.55 in Comm 1, and were tracking the SMO 132-degree radial, we flew right over the top of Los Angeles International Airport before entering the right downwind for Runway 29R at the Torrance airport.
All in all, this 2.5-hour round-trip flight was a great summer adventure. Seafood lovers will enjoy the fresh options in town, but there are options for every palate and dietary restriction. For those staying overnight, there is also an abundance of wine tasting rooms within walking distance of the wharf (and even one right on the water: Deep Sea Tasting Room). And even if you don’t want to stop on the ground, the beauty of the flight itself is worth the trip. Taking off right over the ocean is unique, and the Class C practice is worthwhile for recreational private pilots and time-builders aiming for the airlines alike.
Hopefully you’ll make it out to the coast this summer—be sure to let us know if you do!
What are your favorite coastal airports? Send me an email.
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