Underprepared and Over the Water
"Bonanza 46R, when able direct STINS," said the NorCal Approach controller.
"Direct STINS, 46R," I replied. My wife Janet and I were in my club's A36 Bonanza on an IFR flight plan, but in glorious California VMC. I'd recently earned my instrument rating and took the opportunity to file IFR whenever possible to get practice "in the system." We'd been on vectors at 4000 feet, keeping us to the West of traffic approaching San Francisco International airport, on our way to the North Coast to visit my parents.
The huge parallel runways of SFO passed off our right side as we headed West past San Bruno Mountain. Soon we were heading out over the ocean. I looked at the GPS distance to our next fix, STINS, near Stinson Beach. It read just under 15 nautical miles. I took another look at our IFR en route chart. I'd been so focused on navigating as directed, I hadn't noticed how far offshore our route would put us. Ocean and land look just about the same on an IFR chart. I looked up and gazed uneasily out to sea. We didn't have any ditching gear, and because the flight wasn't for hire, none was required.
The cockpit was quiet as we motored out over the blue ocean. It was a gorgeous day with barely a cloud in the sky. The majestic Golden Gate Bridge passed abeam far to the East. Finally Janet spoke up.
"Is it OK to be so far out to sea?" she asked. Apparently that big expanse of blue made her uneasy too. We both knew how cold that water was even on such a glorious day.
"It's fine," I answered casually. "ATC likes to use this routing to keep us little guys clear of SFO." She didn't seem particularly reassured. I racked my brain trying to remember the airplane's glide ratio at best-glide speed without looking it up. I recalled it was about 1.7 nautical miles per 1000 feet, assuming gear and flaps up, cowl flaps closed, and the propeller pulled to low RPM. Assuming there was enough oil pressure to keep the prop at low RPM. Which there wouldn't be if the engine failed catastrophically.
"What am I doing out here?" I thought to myself. "We're well beyond gliding distance from shore!" I'd known this was a bad idea as soon as we crossed the shoreline. Why did I continue? The wording of FAR 91.13 echoed quietly in the back of my mind: "No person may operate an aircraft… in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another." Was the IFR practice really worth this risk? No, it wasn't. I should've canceled as soon as I recognized the risk and kept us close to shore.
On subsequent trips, I've learned that ATC prefers to assign the Point Reyes One Arrival to small airplanes approaching the Bay Area from the North. It's pretty much the reverse of the route we flew that day. These days when approaching the Bay Area, I stay VFR and inland as long as I can. If I finally need a pop-up IFR clearance to get through the thin stratus that often blankets the Bay, I know my routing will keep me over terra firma. And if the weather is so bad as to require IFR the whole way, well, there's always tomorrow.
Before long, our Bonanza made landfall once again as we approached the Point Reyes VOR. We didn't say anything about it, but we both breathed a little easier.
"This is a beautiful flight, honey," Janet said. "Thank you."
"You're welcome, babes," I answered. "It is an amazing day." To myself, though, I thought about how I might make decisions more worthy of the trust she places in me flight after flight.
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