Never Again — A flight tale of a trip to Fallbrook, CA.


I wrote this and it was published in the AOPA Pilot magazine monthly column: “Never Again”. They gave me $100 for the article!

I Learned About Flying From That

In the fall of 1987 I had been a pilot for nearly three years, had an instrument rating, 550 total hours and owned a l970 Cessna l72. I am a professional musician and planned a flight to Fallbrook, Ca. to perform a symphony concert on a Sunday evening with an earlier stop at Oceanside for a matinee concert. My passenger, a prominent Southern California musician, loved to fly with me but was not a pilot.

I had flown into Fallbrook many times and understood its shortcomings. It is a short field (2165 ft.), sits on top of a mesa with drops at both ends of the runway. As a student pilot my instructor took me there to demonstrate short field maneuvers and the optical illusion created by a short runway, on a mesa with a bow in the middle. It is an uncontrolled field with pilot activated lighting and had recently been assigned an instrument departure–but no approach. Fallbrook is located 35 nm north of San Diego and 11 nm inland from the Pacific Coast at Oceanside. It also abuts a restricted area at Camp Pendleton Marine Air Station making it illegal and dangerous to fly a pattern west of runway l8/36.

That morning I got a weather briefing that called for clear weather for the day with possible scattered clouds after l0 PM. San Diego is the nearest forecasting station for the Fallbrook area. At l0:30 AM I loaded my Tuba and formal clothes into my Cessna l72 at Burbank airport near my home. It is a terrific airplane which I had flown several hundred hours including many hours of actual instrument weather and two trips over the Rockies and back East. It is also well equipped for instrument flying. The day was beautiful with

25 miles visibility–great for the Los Angeles basin. My first stop was at Fullerton where my passenger picked me up for a rehearsal.

Afterwards we returned, I got another weather update, which confirmed the earlier one, and we left Fullerton for Oceanside.

It was gorgeous for our flight down the California Coast with l0, 000 ft. mountain peaks in the distance and beautiful seaside cliffs and beaches below. We first landed at Oceanside where the symphony performed at a local college and returned to the Oceanside airport about 5 PM. The sun was going down and the coastal clouds were beginning to form. Fallbrook was only a l0 min. flight away and the weather was most likely to be the same there. If it got worse later I felt comfortable that I could fly the published departure–in fact I was looking forward to it. As we flew inland the haze became more dense and I had to use VOR’s and DME to find the field and to make sure I didn’t fly into Camp Pendleton. Because of the haze I didn’t see the field soon enough to execute a good pattern approach and being too high opted for a go around. The special circumstances at Fallbrook airport leave no room for errors in altitude or airspeed. The second attempt was a success.

At l0 PM after our concert we came ouside to find the entire area in real pea-soup fog–near zero visibility. The next series of decisions on my part were a combination of over confidence and stupidity. Since the field was on a mesa several hundred feet above the surrounding valley I thought the visibility might be better. The short drive there was very difficult and the runway was fogged in too. I called San Diego Flight Service on the pay phone. They assured me it was local fog, maybe 2000-3000 ft. tops but that a front was coming in the early morning with rain, wind and icing. I had a recording session Monday morning and wanted to fly out that night if at all possible. While my passenger waited I did a practice run down the runway to see if I could see the centerline all the way. It was difficult but I could and resolved to leave. I returned to the phone and filed an instrument departure and flight to Fullerton. I accepted a fifteen-minute window for departure, which was a mistake– there was too much to prepare in such a short time.

My Jeppeson chart showed a simple procedure if I used runway l8. It is slightly more uphill than 36 but there was no wind and I had made several flights from Fallbrook at night with heavier loads and never used more that 3/4 of the runway. Rushing to do everything and make my void time I paused at the end of l8 only to find my window fogged. I shut down, pulled on the hand brake, got out and cleaned the windscreen. Getting back in I proceeded with my roll out– keeping the center line off one side because my plane has landing lights only on the left wing. It seemed to take forever to get up the necessary speed to lift off and, as I saw the end of the runway I jerked back the yoke to get it into the air. The stall warning came on and I lowered the nose. Thank heavens the airport was on a mesa–I needed to go down to build airspeed. I recovered only to find myself in a steep bank to the right (toward Camp Pendleton). Quickly I corrected that error, got back on my assigned vectors and climbed out toward Oceanside VOR. In my haste I had forgotten to have the departure frequency dialed in and the enroute map was still in my briefcase in the rear seat. We were still in IMC at 5000 ft. as I scrambled to contact San Diego Departure, find the correct map with a flashlight, and control the airplane. My passenger was unable to help and I found out later that he was having a great adventure. We broke out of the clouds over Oceanside and I could finally relax. It had been a challenging and frightening l0 minutes.

A few miles up the coast it was VFR and the trip back to Fullerton and Burbank was uneventful. It was when I landed a Fullerton to leave off my passenger that I discovered my difficulty in taking off at Fallbrook–my hand brake was still on!!!

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