Getting a pilot's license is a bit of a different affair. There are a bunch of knowledge requirements and you have to build hours of experience in a bunch of different categories. One of the categories is the night cross country - a flight over 50 nautical miles in length (~58 regular statute miles) conducted entirely in the dark.
Mine was to Long Beach (LGB). This would be my furthest incursion into Los Angeles airspace yet.
The route for the flight was to begin the same as my previous flight to Santa Monica (SMO). Take off from SBA and fly direct to Camarillo (CMA), then turn to a specific heading designed to maneuver me clear of Pt Mugu's restricted airspace. One I hit the ocean, turn directly east to track the coast through Malibu to SMO. The eastward track needs to track the coast pretty closely - there are some pretty tall hills to the north (hills tend to be pretty hard to spot at night), and LAX airspace to the south.
That's enough to get one to SMO, but there's a big problem with flying direct from SMO to LGB: LAX. LAX is a huge airport with a big airspace and a lot of big planes flying in and out. You can't just meander around the area - there are special rules and clearances. Planes with engines larger than my entire craft are keeping the controllers busy enough - they don't want to mess with small fry like me.
The good news is: someone was looking out for the little guy. There's a tiny little hole (more like a pair of tunnels really) through LAX's airspace designed just for us. You overfly SMO, turn to a specified heading, squawk a special code, and fly at a designated altitude (3500 heading south, 4500 heading north), and you can fly directly over the LAX runways without having to talk to the tower at all! The "tunnels" are collectively referred to as the LAX Special Flight Rules Area, or SFRA, and we would use both the north- and south-bound sections on our round-trip flight.
How is it that you can fly right over the airport without talking to the controllers? LAX has four runways, but they all face basically the same direction: east-west. So there would be planes descending towards the runway from LAX all the way east towards Arizona, and climbing out from LAX west across the ocean, but no one to the north or south of the four parallel runways. The jets would all be beneath me, either about to land or about to take off. I actually got to see a few from above on the way through. Pretty neat.
Once through the LAX SFRA, we used VOR navigation (radio-based direction finders used by planes and boats) to locate a designated waypoint where we would turn direct towards LGB.
As a cool and unexpected bonus, we turned towards Long Beach just as nearby DisneyLand was setting off one of its many nightly fireworks displays. We could see the fireworks pretty clearly from the plane, but they don't come out too well in the video. In case you're wondering, the airspace over DisneyLand does have a restriction to keep planes from ruining the show. =)
We contacted the tower as we approached LGB and got a clearance to land. The prevailing winds meant that we had to land in the opposite direction from which we were coming, so we went three quarters of the way around the airport before lining up on our assigned runway. The landing went quite well for my first landing at LGB and only my third night landing ever.
After a brief pause to set up our navigational plans for the return trip, we got a clearance to take off and departed LGB on the same runway that we'd landed on a few minutes prior. The winds that made us circle the airport on arrival also meant that we got a straight-out departure, so we were taking off directly towards LAX. It was all my little plane could do to get up to the designated 4500 feet above sea level in time to enter the SFRA tunnel heading back over LAX and towards SMO. We made it though, set our radios and transponders and made it to the other side without event. After crossing over SMO for the second time in one evening, I turned west towards Malibu for the trip home.
Just as we passed Malibu, we dialed the radio for the Automated Terminal Information Service (ATIS) at SBA. ATIS gives you information on winds, clouds, rain and all the other weather and airport operation details that a pilot needs to have before landing. The weather was fine for our purposes, but my instructor asked me what I would do if the report had instead been that SBA was fogged in.
I told him that I knew that fog in our area is usually a marine layer that settles into the temperature inversions between the mountains and the ocean in coastal areas, and that I would divert to the other side of the hills where I would expect clear weather. Of course talking is one thing and doing is another, so my instructor told me to show me.
I selected nearby Camarillo airport for our diversion since it was pretty close to our route yet further inland than SBA and likely to be clear of fog in our hypothetical scenario. I make a paper flight plan for each cross country that lists radio frequencies and navigational info that I'll need, but I hadn't planned on landing at CMA, so I didn't have all the info I needed.
Of course I had come prepared. I had a paper chart which would have all that I needed, but it was dark and it would be a pain to try and fly while unfolding a map in the cockpit and trying to read it. You can't just pull over and ask for directions when you're in the air.
In another day and age, unfolding the map and looking things up in the directory is what I would have done. These days though, we have better tech. I have aeronautical charts, airport directories and all the information that I need pre-loaded on my iPad. I turned on the tablet and got the frequencies I'd need for weather and communication at CMA, figured out what direction the runway went and found the landmarks that I'd need to set up my approach to land.
It was after hours at CMA, which means that the tower was closed and landing craft were expected to hop on CTAF, a communal radio frequency where pilots talk to each other in order to make sure that no one hits anyone. There was no one else about, but I still called out my position and all my turns just in case (and for practice). I selected a runway direction based on the wind that I got from CMA's automated weather radio frequency, and lined up to land. My landing wasn't as smooth as the one in LGB, but it was a minor bump, nothing dangerous to us or the plane. We didn't even stop this time - as soon as the wheels were on the ground I gave the engine full power and took off without ever slowing down (this is called a "Touch and Go" and pilots do this all the time when practicing).
Satisfied with my handling of our imaginary predicament, my instructor allowed me to navigate us back to good old SBA to call it a night. The flight back was uneventful and I got to land on the big wide runway that the jets use because there was very little air traffic around the airport. The big runway (25) is nicer at night since it has better lighting and is also more convenient since it drops us off closer to our parking area.
All in all it was a successful flight with a lot of firsts for me. It was my first night cross country, my longest cross country yet, my first time in the LAX SFRA, and my first "unplanned" diversion. Not to mention my first time watching fireworks from the air! Not bad for a few hours!
Here's a video of some of the highlights (as well as my trusty little GoPro could record the proceedings):