First, a Little Background
Yesterday I got a chance to enjoy one of the perks of being a pilot in California…a destination daytrip to the Napa Wine Country. Now given that all my stories are strangely connected, I have to give a bit of context to this story. The inspiration for this trip actually occured on a Friday night back in March at a wine bar in Half Moon Bay. I’d visited the bar with a group of friends to enjoy a Zinfandel tasting for wines from all across the Bay Area wine regions. That night, my friends (Marc and Christianne) really liked a set of wines from a winery called Trinitas, which happens to be based in Napa, CA. A few weeks later, I drove up to Napa to meet with my Crushpad winemaking group to blend our 2008 Syrah. On the way back home, I found out where Trinitas was located, visited the site, and picked up a bottle of wine for Marc and Christianne.
Trinitas is a winery within a pretty large resort and spa. When I visited the site back in April, I really became interested in taking a flight up there one day. The resort is located less than 5 minutes from Napa Valley Airport (APC) and has an Italian restaurant, a bar, a gorgeous patio area near the pool, as well as a walkable vineyard on site, and the Trinitias Tasting Room located in a cave below the vineyard. At the time I thought it would be the perfect daytrip spot for someone special, once that person entered my life.
Now fast forward to a few weeks ago when I finally met that someone special who I thought would be willing and worth taking on such a journey. When I first met Kaitlyn, she mentioned that she loved wine and loved to travel…so it wasn’t long before I thought that this type of trip would be perfect for her. We’d actually arrranged to do the trip a couple of weeks ago, but due to an unfortunate event in her family, we had to reschedule. I was quite surprised at how eager she was to go flying with me so soon, but she mentioned that she could tell I was trustworhty as a pilot and a person from reading a few articles on my various blogs.
Well, I told Kaitlyn that I’d take her somewhere for a quick daytrip/lunch but given I know she likes surprises, I didn’t tell her where it was. I just asked again if she’d let me “kidnap her” for an afternoon once things settled down a bit more for her (hence, the title of the article, “KidNapa”). And so it was set, we rescheduled the trip for this past Sunday and she had no clue where we’d be flying to until she arrived at the airport.
I arrived at Palo Alto Airport (PAO) as I normally do about an hour before my scheduled passenger flights. It always gives me time to relax, preflight, and get all the little stuff out of the way. Well, it was a good thing I kept that schedule on this day, since I’d scheduled N343MM (Archer III) for the flight and it’s not the plane we ended up flying. A week prior someone noted an issue with the Comm radios that forced them to switch planes for the weekend. So I checked the issue during my preflight and decided that the plane was not flyable. Essentially, Comm 2 was stuck “on” and created problems in not only hearing Comm 1 but it basically blocked any communications on Comm 2 over whatever frequency it was set to. So I repacked everything, drop those keys, and picked up keys to N209J (Warrior II)…which ironically is the same place I flew up to Napa the last time I flew there to pick up my wine in May.
I wanted to use N343MM since it’s my favorite airplane to fly and it’s the nicest Archer in the club. I wasn’t too excited about flying N209J but it was the only plane available for the rest of the afternoon and, at least, I’d flown it before. But at least this time, I did run through my complete checklist and set the trim for takeoff. Ironically, though, I did something else pretty retarded on this flight (which I will not put on the Internet), but if any pilots want to know what it was…feel free to hit me up.
Heading Out to Napa
The flight over to Napa was pretty usual…a right 45 departure out of PAO up to 1200 ft and then a transition over Oakland at 2000 ft. Even before reaching Oak, I requested a cruise altitude of 4500 ft to every controller that I spoke to, hoping that they would work me into Class B airspace at some point. It was a good thing that I did, since the marine layer from Oak up to San Rafeal had tops of 2000 ft. So as soon I reached Oakland, NorCal cleared me up to 3000ft and eventually 4500 ft once I crossed the Bay Bridge. It was a lil weird flying above the clouds because for the little distance that we flew above them (maybe 15 miles), there was a complete marine layer overcast. Generally, I only perfer to fly above clouds if I’m flying in an area I’m familiar with and if the cloud layer is pretty short. I tend to like to be able to see the ground below me and my options in case of an emergency. But in this case I knew that I was flying in a familiar area and the layer wasn’t too long. That said, I kept flying over the Bay rather than land, just in case anything happened. It would give me more options to put the plane down in the water and less concern about diving through the clouds only to find a foothill at an altitude of 2000 ft in the front of my windshield.
Outside of the clouds, the only other major thing to note on the 30 minute flight up to Napa (which by the way is like a 2 1/2 drive in ridiculous traffic) was a traffic alert prior to my initial descent into APC. We were at 4500 ft when NorCal requested that I immediataely descend to 4000 ft to avoid converging traffic. So I immediately pulled back on the power and put the nose down. Kaitlyn really liked that part….come to find out she loves rollercoasters. After that brief interruption, we leveled off and begin our approach into APC.
I’m always a bit nervous on my first landings with new passengers and perhaps I was bit more anxoius than normal given that it was a bit windy (200 @18) on approach into Napa. Given that, I opted for the larger runway (18R) for our landing. Bigger runway means more room for error. But surprisingly, though I was a bit fast on the final approach, I was able to slow it down before we hit the threshold and the landing was one that I was proud of. It’s always a relief to arrive safe and sound at your desintation.
An Afternoon at Meritage
We immediately contacted our ride and headed to the Meritage Resort and Spa. I have to say that I really appreciated the service by the concierge at Meritage. I’d called early about taxi in the areas but most charged $25 at a minimum for the less than 5 minute ride to the resort from the airport. But the concierge was able to work with us to provide a courtesy shuttle from the airport to the hotel at no charge. I guess these are just some of the perks of being a pilot. 🙂
At Meritage, Kaitlyn grabbed a glass of white wine from the bar, I ordered a lemonade (no drinking for me on this trip), we ordered a pizza and headed out to the patio pool area. It was a prefect day to enjoy a drink and lunch outside. After the quick meal, we took a brief stroll through the vineyard on site and even pulled a couple of merlot and malbec grapes off the stems to try. Then we headed undeground to visiting the Trinitas Tasting Room. There, she tried 10 different tastings of mostly red wines and ended up buying four bottles (2 pinot noirs, a Zinfandel, a Carbernet…her hands down favorite).
Heading Back to Palo Alto
After enjoying a mini resort/wine country vacation for about 3 hours, we headed back to APC for the return flight home. The winds at APC are notoriously strong in the late afternoon and yesterday was no different. The wind was blowing so hard my eyes were watering during much of my preflight. But thankfully, there wasn’t much traffic on the field at that time. All the biz jets were chillin’ and most of the single-engine GA planes had left by this time.
During the preflight, I could see that the marine layer over the Bay was still pretty heavy, even though my weather briefing with Flight Service didn’t quite confirm that. Sometimes pilot knowledge is just as strong as their briefings. So I figured that we would depart south and climb to about 3500ft. At that point, I would contact Oakland Center and NorCal for flight following to see if I could get cleared direct over OAK at 5500 ft. Well, NorCal would clear me through but due to the incredibly busy late afternoon traffic flow into the Bay, then would only clear me over OAK at or below 2000 ft. I knew I couldn’t fly that and be legal VFR. So I opted for the longer route through the Livermore Valley for our flight back at 5500ft.
Much of the flight back was smooth and without any issue. We didn’t have much of a tailwind or headwind, so we were hitting typical Warrior groundspeeds of about 110-113 on the flight back. As we crossed the Sunol Pass and prepared for transitioning to PAO, I spent about 3-4 minutes just waiting to get a word in edgewise. It literally took that long for me to wait and ask for a frequency change to PAO tower. I clicked the push-to-talk button and blurted out my request as fast as I could. After a quick confirmation, we switched over to PAO Tower and received clearance to enter base for runway 31. The approach into PAO was smooth and clean. The only minor hiccup on the landing was that I touched down about a second or two before the plane was ready. But unlike my last homebase landing in N209J after a flight to Napa, I didn’t bounce the plane. It just didn’t touch down with the normal smoothness that I’ve gotten accostumed to on my landings. But Kaitlyn wasn’t phased at all and thought it was just fine.
More Wine Country Getaways
Just like that…we were back from a beautiful Napa wine country daytrip. Kaitlyn mentioned that she would have liked to share the experience of wine tasting with me, but I was a “good boy.” So perhaps one of our next adventures will be to make it a day/night trip to somewhere like Pas Robles, Healdsburg, or Santa Barbara. Until next time…”keep the dirty side down.”