April 15, 2005

Dirty Socks Springs

I think it finally hits me as I'm standing in the High Desert glare at Dirty Socks Springs near Olancha, watching a California Air National Guard C130 doing exuberant-looking low passes over the dry lake bed a few miles to the north -- hey, I have an instrument rating! Finally...

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A few hours later I'm standing in Bishop's Mountain Light Gallery, looking at a bunch of Galen Rowell's Owens Valley and other photo landscapes. Galen and his pilot wife Barbara -- both well-known in the Bay Area -- died while landing at Bishop (KBIH) late one night in 2002 in a locally rather infamous incident (Barbara was not the pilot). From long-time local knowledge, Bishop's not the sort of place you want to do a lot of late night moonless landings, let alone circling approaches at minimums. Take a look at Bishop's approaches (VOR or GPS-A, VOR/DME or GPS-B) -- and those minimums. It's one of the three airports in the US where the lowest approach minimums are higher than the standard minimums needed for filing an alternate (2,000'). As the FAA rather drily says somewhere in relation to these airports, don't just assume the old 1-2-3 rule about alternate minimums with this airport -- you may need an alternate for real with the ceiling at 3,000' -- and this is the sort of airport where even a 3,000' ceiling might cause you problems if you don't know the local terrain (it's in a long valley ringed by sharp 14,000' mountains, and subject to some pretty rough weather, and any local alternates are in similar weather and terrain). Having said all that, it isn't clear quite why Bishop's minimums are so high -- the immediate vicinity of the airport is fairly benign, at least by Californian standards -- but I presume it's due to the excessive descent angle required for lower minimums after the initial legs of the approach needing to be so high.

It's not too clear what a small plane like the 172 gets from IFR out this way -- it's been my ambition for years now to fly from Oakland to Bishop via (say) Minden or Reno, and I still want to do it, but Bishop and its approaches, and the various victor airways and feeder routes to them, are a classic example of where the various minimum climb rates, altitudes, and procedures all make flying something like a 172 IFR in even VMC pretty much too close to the edge to be really comfortable (for another relatively close-by example, take a look at South Lake Tahoe's Richy Five departure procedure -- that anodyne little note, "This SID requires a minimum climb rate of 400 feet per NM to 10,000’" rules out the average 172, especially in summer. I guess it pays to read these little side notes (this was actually a question in my orals -- "would you accept the Richy Five SID in a 172?" No, not bloody likely...)).

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