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Saturday, January 13, 2007

REVIEW - Catalina Island, Excitement off the Southern California Coast

'Catalina Island is the place to be', as the old song says. Fun for pilots, fun for passengers, for a day, a hike, a swim, or an overnight adventure in Avalon.

Living in Southern California, Catalina was one of my favorite destinations. Once owned by Mr. Wrigley, of chewing gum fame, the airport was a private strip created by flattening the top of a mountain. Now it is a paved strip with an attendant, unicom, a restaurant and transportation into the town of Avalon down by the sea, and open to all.

Pilot challenges abound. First, you have to decide what altitude to use, which is dependant on whether you angle out to sea from the south coast or from the north prior to reaching the Los Angeles area, or choose instead to fly lower with less water to cross but having to communicate with LAX controlled airspace and watching out for large volumes of traffic coming from every direction.

It's a right-hand pattern when the typical runway 22 is used as the winds are blowing from the west, but here's where the real fun begins. The airport is at the top of a mountain, and on all sides terrain rapidly falls away towards the sea. Your turn to base and final are out over the ocean, over a thousand feet higher from a ground reference than you are used to at that point. It feels like making a turn in space, but remember, you are working not off sea level below you but the top of the mountain, which you are turning back to meet. This makes judging pattern and altitude tricky, yet it can be accomplished best by keeping a close watch on your altimeter and the VASI on final. The fun is not over yet, though. The wind blowing over the top of the mountain often creates strong laminar flow with a downturn - you guessed it - right before the landing touchdown zone, which means you have to be ready for a healthy addition of power on final to hold your glide path.

But wait, there is more! The runway has a slight rise, with a subtle peak in the middle. This means just as you touch down, you look down the runway and see the apparent length diminishing very rapidly. There are a LOT of brake skid marks from prior pilots who thought they were going over the edge on the far side, but just like you, they successfully crest the middle of the runway to realize they still have a half runway left. Turn off to the left, and find a parking space and register your plane inside the building.

Now the ground fun starts! For lunch, have a buffalo burger, at the restaurant with a spectacular view out to sea. The buffalo are from the island. They are rumored left over from a movie shoot early last century and are regularly harvested and served. I found it better than any hamburger I've had before.

You can sign up for a ride down the bumpy hill to the town of Avalon, which in all ways is a sleepy beach town with a great history. Visit the beautiful casino building at the end of the promenade. Tour the Wrigley mansion. Skin dive or S.C.U.B.A. dive and swim with orange Garibaldi, the California state fish; among one of many species you will see. Get a room for the night or a weekend. Rent a boat. Swim, or hike to the other side of the island on a week-long backpacking trip.

When you are ready to leave, there is one last treat the island airport offers. As you take off, when you would be typically 200 feet above the ground, the end of the runway drops away over a cliff and the zoom effect is stunning, you feel for all the world like you are in a rocket climbing to space.

I've flown many aircraft to Catalina; a Kachina Varga, Aeronca 11AC, Stinson Voyager, many Cessna's and Pipers, and a Cessna 320.
The fun never ended and each aircraft allowed me an opportunity to explore the challenges - and rewards - one more time. Someone once flew a glider from the mainland, with photos on the walls to prove it, however they did need a tow back to the mainland.

Here are a few useful links: - About getting to Catalina Island and contact information. - Specific airport info with a good aerial photo of the airport. - An interesting site with many images and tips. - Chamber of Commerce, official Catalina Island website.

This is one destination worth traveling to as you head up or down the coast, or as an end destination unto itself. Enjoy your flight!

Onward & Upward! ~ rfb

(the image shown is a computer generated image in Microsoft Flight Simulator accurately reflecting the approach to Runway 22 at Catalina. I applied digital filters to the image to make it more artistic and interesting).

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