Autumnal Equinox and Full Moons and Santa Ana’s

A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I was a bartender. I did it for a year or two in college (too many beers destroyed my retentive abilities so accuracy suffers), and for over a decade as a profession, from 1982 til 1993. I got fired, before my shift, at the Old Town Mexican Café, on Cinco de Maio, the bizziest day of the year. It seems that after a dozen or so years of slinging gin, a manager realized that I couldn’t stand drunks, and absolutely could not stand the majority of the “regulars” who kept his doors open.

(And if that ain’t a misnomer, there’s never been one. Tell me what’s “regular” about consuming alcoholic beverages, sometimes to excess, on a regular basis, in the same establishment. Is one’s life so forlorn and hopeless that one spends his post work downtime swilling booze and retelling the same sad stories to the same, sad crew of “regulars?” Sorry. Me Sainted Oirish Fadder, Stephen Aloysius O’Daly, made a fine living as a publican and provided all the comforts for his family through the largesse of his “regulars”. May they rest in peace. My apologies if I offend, but, really, is being a “regular” at some gin mill all that you aspire to? Sigh.)

But I digress.

Full moons were uniformly hated by nearly all of us who worked in the restaurant bidness. Despite no scientific evidence, ask any bartender, waiter – cop, or ER doctor or nurse – and they all will swear that when full moons rise, weird shite begins to happen.

Now what’s all this got to do with flying? Hmmm. Not sure, really. Although as I write this just after the Autumnal Equinox of 2018, a full moon is getting ready to burst forth and, at first, I shuddered, forgetting for the moment that I no longer had to gird my loins for battle with the late night, full moon maniacs, malcontents, weirdos and whackos who would haunt my working hours when once I was known as a barman.

In Southern California, when a full moon coincided with the Santa Ana winds, I’d try like hell to think of a creative excuse for not working my shift that night. Raymond Chandler, the master of noir detective stories who ended his days in La Jolla, wrote about it in a short story called, “Red Wind.” Here’s the opening paragraph:

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Ana’s that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.

Grabs ya’, don’t it? Chandler knew something about people, and cocktails, and bars, and life – and Santa Ana’s.

Anyhow, in twenty years of flight instructing, I’ve never correlated full moons, or Santa Ana’s, with poor performances from my students. And yet, sometimes, some people with skills suddenly lose them, or forget them. Maybe it was a full moon. Maybe a red wind. Something to think upon, methinks. Those of us in the restaurant biz believed that the full moon’s effects lasted more than just one night. People started acting weird a few days early and continued for a few days past. The ones who realized, too late, that the full moon had waned, tried to make up for all they had missed and worked at their individual weirdnesses with wonkish enthusiasm.

Okay, the whole point of this rambling ramshackle narrative was the near coincidence of the equinox (autumnal) on 22 September and the full moon, on 24 September. Back to the equinox. There are two each year, a fact of which you may be aware. In the spring, the vernal equinox allows us to dream of summer, with the delightful knowledge that the daylight will grow increasingly longer, until the solstice begins the long, sad, slow loss of sunlight, and the autumnal equinox whispers that winter is nearing, although not nigh. Here’s Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary:

e’qui·nox, n. 1. the time when the sun crosses the plane of the earth’s equator, making night and day of approximately equal length all over the earth and. occurring about March 21 (vernal equinox … ) and September 22 (autumnal equinox) … .

The autumnal equinox, when one lives in the northern temperate zone north of the equator, is the harbinger of winter. Days grow steadily shorter; nights depressingly longer. Having lived in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, PA, and New Yawk, NY, drinking would increase, moods would darken, attitudes would simply start to suck.

Here in Sunny Sandyeggo – well … what’s the hubbub, Bub? Fershure, winter is when we get nearly all of our 10.34” of rain each year. Sometimes we get winter storms spawned in the Arctic Ocean, fast-moving cold fronts that roar down the coast, dropping ceilings, whipping winds, spewing rain and giving we CFII’s the opportunity to show our IFR students ACTUAL IMC. It’s such a rarity, it almost becomes a celebration.

So the autumnal equinox under SoCal Skies is a fine time. Rarely do the temps reach the 80’s along the coast. (Inland? Who cares? There be Trumpkins inland.) Autumn days get shorter, nights cooler, as September slides into October, Halloween becomes Thanksgiving, and then, just before Christmas, becomes the winter solstice.

Although the flying day shortens, the temperatures drop into the sixties and the flying becomes wonderful. No more schweaty shorts, no more stifling cockpits, just pretty blue skies and increased airplane performance. And, truly, closing in on Thanksgiving we start to see some clouds and, if we’re really lucky, a slow-moving cold front that lingers for days and allows IFR folk recapture their acquaintance with IMC.

Mid-late autumn is a great time to pursue that instrument rating you’ve promised yourself – your significant other, your family, your flying friends. While the weather remains balmy, you can accomplish the first two stages of the instrument curriculum: learning to fly solely by instrument, then learning how to add IFR navigation and communication skills to your abilities. Then, in late November and early December when the clouds become more frequent, you would learn how to fly instrument approaches – and you would do it in actual IMC conditions which, as you might correctly assume, are a whole lot different than sticking a view-limiting device on your head. Getting an instrument rating without flying in actual instrument weather, ain’t the best way to train and limits your ability, and confidence, to fly on instruments in actual IMC, after you’ve worked so hard for the rating.

Sadly, the winter storms can cause some to come to grief. Just about every year, a pilot decides that 40-60 kts of wind blowing over Volcan Mountain isn’t a cause to cancel his trip. Wind behaves over mountains the way a river behaves over rocks. Most of you have seen water in a stream rising and tumbling over the rocks in the stream bed and when the water moves fast there’s quite a bit of tumbling, swirling, back-filling and eddying in the water behind the rock. Wind behaves just like that river and rises as it approaches higher terrain, and tumbles and swirls and back-fills and eddies down the back side of that higher terrain – especially if the leeward side of the mountain or ridge, has a steep drop off.

Take a look at the Julian VORTAC on the San Diego Terminal Area Chart. See the dark shading? There’s a 2500 – 3500’ drop off on the east and northeast of Volcan Mountain. Look to the west of Volcan Mountain and what do you see? There’s terrain that slowly rises from the coastline, and the farther east you go the more quickly the terrain rises. When a winter storm races out of the Bering Sea all the way into San Diego County, winds associated with the low pressure system often reach 40 to 50, even 60 knots.

So, a fast-moving cold front approaches San Diego. Cyclonic wind, circling counter-clockwise from the heart of the low, reaches the coastline and continue east, rising with the terrain. The wind continues to rise until it hits the top of Volcan Mountain, and then it tumbles down the steep eastern slope dragging anything airborne with it. Some of that wind will form rotors, causing turbulence that will scare the whoopee outta you.

And, let’s say that you and friends have taken a weekend getaway flight to Borrego, or Palm Springs, or even, shudder, somewhere in Arizona. Should you return from your trip as the cold front reaches San Diego, you could become a statistic. Where are you gonna head if you’re returning from the east or northeast? The Julian VORTAC, of course. And, if you’re instrument rated and there’s clouds associated with the winter storm, you’ll be inside them, on an airway, headed towards the VORTAC. If the winds are severe, a wise controller will tell you that you may have to climb to ten, twelve, or even fourteen thousand feet. Most of our club airplanes will have a hard time making twelve thousand.

As a general, and very conservative rule of thumb (glider pilots will scoff at this), if the winds over the mountains you’re flying towards are reported or forecast to be in excess of 25 knots, wait until the winds change or make sure that you can fly high. How high? Well, the generally accepted rule is to climb ½ again as high as the mountains rise over local terrain. On a windy VFR day at Julian, that would number would be ½ of 3,000 feet, or 1500 feet higher than the top of the ridge line which is about 6,000 feet – adding the two equals 7,500 feet – or 8,000 heading west, IFR.

Would I fly at 7,500 feet going west over Julian with westerly winds? Well, hell, no, and for two reasons. One, you’re flying west so you’d be at 8,500 feet. Two, I want more air between me and the top of the ridge. The minimum I’d fly would be 10,500 feet.

“Coward,” you think? You betcha. Wind over mountains deserves respect and the last thing I want is to have that wind dropping me onto the sharply rising ridges east of Julian VORTAC. It might ruin my day.

When there’s a Santa Ana blowing, the equation changes. For one, you get spectacular VFR visibility. Santa Ana’s usually blow from the northeast and often occur right after the autumnal equinox, although they can occur at any time of the year. If you remember the government publication “Aviation Weather”, Santa Ana’s are katabatic winds, a rough translation from the Greek for “flowing downhill”. They are dry, they move fast, and, sliding downhill as they do, they seek the path of least resistance – gaps in the mountains, mountain passes – where they react as if in a venturi and speed up even faster. Check the wind reports for Ontario Airport when the Santa Ana’s are blowing through the Banning Pass.

So, whattaya do? Me? (I admit it, I am strange.) First I remind myself of the demonstrated crosswind component of the airplane I’m going to fly. Then, when a Santa Ana is blowing, I head to Ramona in a taildragger: the club Citabria, 901T, or my Super Cub, but not the Champ – she may be just light enough to make me whimper and whine as I get blown off Runway 9 and head into the weeds, scrub and sage. What’s the most wind I’ve flown at Ramona in a Santa Ana. Well, Julie Keane and I were in her Citabria (years ago before it went bye-bye) and, as I recall, the ground controller questioned whether I had heard the ATIS (implying that I may have lost my mind) because the winds were 030°, 25G30. I replied that I had (heard the ATIS, not lost my mind), and told her that was why we were flying. She chuckled as she instructed us to taxi to Runway 9 via Alpha. We never scraped paint from a wing, kept the longitudinal axis straight down the runway at all times, and had a lovely, if exciting, time.

I once had to recheck a student who had damaged a Citabria that once had been in the club. We flew up to Ramona in a Decathlon I had owned. A Santa Ana was blowing hard and the Ramona ATIS, as I recall, was reporting winds from 030°, 25G35. When we arrived, the winds probably weren’t more than 25 knots and they varied between 030° and 070° – but they were exciting, and the student learned more about handling an airplane in crosswinds than he probably ever wanted to. It’s astonishing how much aileron you can carry in a hard crosswind and never drag a wing tip. It would be wise, however, to have an instructor on board if you ever wanna challenge strong crosswinds.

Approaching a ridge when any winds are blowing, always cross at a 45° angle to the ridge line. If there is a gap in the ridge, you can be sure that the wind will be blowing faster through that gap, and it might be wise to avoid. As you approach a ridge you may notice some sink – perhaps a couple of hundred feet per minute down on the VSI – beware. As you get closer to the ridge and the VSI starts showing a faster descent – 500, 600, 700 fpm – you may find yourself losing airspeed as you pitch the nose higher and higher to maintain altitude. Should you find yourself in such a dilemma, SMACK yourself in the head with one hand and turn the hell away from the ridge with the other. DUMMY.

You see, Mother Nature is an insidious witch. If you note a slight downward trend on your VSI, you might just think: “Oh, I guess there’s a little downdraft.” And if you’re not paying attention as you get a couple miles closer to the ridge, the VSI starts showing a 500-700 fpm descent. Strong wind crossing a ridge will drop precipitously, but some of that wind – the top layers – won’t drop as fast and the farther you are from the ridge, the more gradual you’ll find the rate of sink. As you get closer, more of that wind is dropping faster, and real close to the ridge you may find rates of sink that will exceed your airplane’s ability to climb – and if you’re too close, you may have insufficient room to turn around, and your life may be about to end.

There’s a Who’s Who of famous aviators who died because they didn’t respect the wind over a ridge line. Does the name Steve Fossett mean anything to you? He was a world famous aviator, balloonist, sailor and held numerous world records, becoming, on July 3, 2002, the first person to fly a balloon, solo, around the world. His disappearance on September 3, 2007 set off an unprecedented aerial search, but the Decathlon he was flying, and his remains, weren’t found until a year later, 300 feet below a ridge that stood 10,000 feet MSL. He couldn’t outclimb the wind descending from that ridge.

Sparky Imeson was a pilot, instructor and writer, famous for “The Mountain Flying Bible,” and other mountain-flying related books. He died in a Cessna 180 on St Patrick’s Day, 2009, in the mountains near Bozeman, Montana, not practicing what he had preached.

Fletcher Anderson, who wrote “Flying the Mountains,” died when the Cessna 182 he was flying, low level, clipped a river gauging cable and crashed into the Snake River in Wyoming.

There are plenty more. It’s amazing how many really talented, really accomplished, really smart people manage to kill themselves in airplanes, oftentimes doing things they know aren’t smart. Don’t you be one of them.

So. Celebrate the arrival of autumn. Look forward to the upcoming holidays. Just don’t do anything stupid in an airplane – especially near a mountain, in high winds. Please.

Posted in Ramblings