My job as an airline pilot has taken me to many different places, including various countries and continents. I have traveled as far north as Anchorage and as far south as Sao Paulo. To the east I have been to Athens and to the west all the way to Hong Kong. If there is a major city in between these great cities, chances are that I have landed there, experienced the place and its people, and moved on to the next stop. Each destination brings with it its own memories and experiences; yet of all the places I have been there is one place that in my humble opinion surpasses them all, San Francisco.
As a newly minted first officer one of my first assignments at Continental Airlines was a transcontinental flight from Newark to San Francisco. While I had been with ExpressJet as a pilot for a few years before this, my flying experience was essentially limited to east of the Rockies. This was my first trip from one side of the country to the other and over those great mountains that were such a barrier to the first pioneers. I will never forget how amazed I was by what I saw out the window.
This early morning, a few years later, I am yet again setting out for my favorite destination of San Francisco. Today’s flight will be 2,257 miles long and take us five hours and fifty six minutes to complete. Our route of flight looks like this:
Of course this might look a little confusing to the untrained eye so here is what that route means:
We will take off from Newark (KEWR) and after some radar vectoring fly directly to a satellite based fix called COATE, which is nearby the airport. From COATE we will join Jet Route 36, which will take us a short distance to Dunkirk, New York (DKK). After Dunkirk we leave the jet airways and proceed directly over Lake Erie, the Michigan Peninsula and its namesake lake to the Badger VOR (BAE) which is near Milwaukee, Wisconsin. On this flight I am fortunate enough to get a good view of the lake I grew up on in southern Michigan. From Milwaukee we turn slightly southward out over the heartland of America and head to Mason City, Iowa (MCW) and then Ainsworth, Nebraska (ANW). For hours there is very little to see aside from farm fields dissected by the occasional river. In the summer time, these fields are a sea of green corn and soybeans and in the winter they are often uniformly blanketed in snow. Just passing Ainsworth is where what I call “The Show” (a true visual spectacle) begins.
From our altitude we are just beginning to see the front range mountain peaks of the Rockies in Colorado. We fly in between Cheyenne, Wyoming and Fort Collins, Colorado. Slightly south of Fort Collins is Rocky Mountain National Park and the small town of Estes Park that serves as the unofficial gateway into the Rockies. In the fall flying over the park is nothing short of amazing as the Aspens perform their fall ritual and blanket the mountainsides in gold. We keep heading west towards the small hamlet of Myton, Utah (MTU), flying across Steamboat Springs and Dinosaur National Monument along the way. A few minutes past Myton, on our way to Coaldale, Nevada (OAL), Emigration Canyon becomes visible. It was down this canyon that Brigham Young led his weary followers to their new home at the Great Salt Lake. Before us now is the Great Basin of Nevada, and Wheeler Peak, standing tall at 13,000 feet. Nevada is amazingly dry and the Great Basin is the clearest example of this. For as far as the eye can see in the basin there is not a drop of water and very little human development. To the left of the aircraft is Tonopah, and yet further south lies the dry lake bed of Groom Lake and the restricted airspace of Area 51 above it.
Just after crossing into California we come upon Mono Lake, a large lake that also serves as a reservoir for Los Angeles. I have never actually been to Mono Lake, but I have watched it from above for years as its water level rises in the spring and falls dramatically in the fall. Mono Lake sits at the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevadas, the last great obstacle to early westward expansion. The Sierras hold within them the great jewel of California, Yosemite Valley. Even from 36,000 feet it is easy to pick out El Capitan on the south side of the Valley and Half Dome on the north. One can quickly see why the early conservationist John Muir wanted so desperately to protect this valley and why then President Theodore Roosevelt agreed. Over Yosemite we begin a slow descent into the San Francisco Bay area and begin to prepare our flight deck for landing. With the Sierras behind us we are now looking at the great fertile valley of the San Joaquin. If you ever wondered where fresh fruit comes from in the winter, it is from this valley and the river it is named after that feeds it.
The approach into San Francisco is my favorite, and for good reason. We fly the Quite Bridge Visual Approach to runway 28R, which is both technically challenging and breathtakingly gorgeous. When flying the approach we turn just north of San Jose and stay over the bay so as to reduce our noise footprint. The approach is an offset approach meaning that we are not lined up with the runway until the last minute, this keeps us away from other aircraft longer and helps keep the noise down for the residents below. The final approach into SFO can be very interesting as this airport uses two parallel runways that are very close to each other, 750 feet to be exact. In airplanes of any size we try to stay quite a distance away from other traffic; thus, being so close together brings with it its own challenges.
After landing we taxi to the gate and wait for the passengers to deplane. In just a few hours we have traversed a distance that took the pioneers in their wagons many months to complete and still takes many days in a car. Of course this flight, like any other flight brought with it challenges and duties such as fuel management, company position reporting, lots of paperwork, and the ever important goal of an on time arrival. Yet along the way we were treated to a view of one of the most rugged, diverse, and breathtaking landscapes that any county has to offer and I had the best seat in the house for the whole show.