For those who have flown between Los Angeles and San Francisco must have seen this welcoming island in the vast Central Valley of California.
It is a wonderful place in an otherwise uninterrupted sea of drab and dusty farmland.
The “ranch” is actually a rest stop for drivers driving down on Interstate 5, the busy road that stretches from Canada to Mexico. There is a gas station, a hotel and a steak restaurant, among other amenities.
For aviators and pilots, Harris Ranch provides a 2,800 foot long lighted runway and a number of free tie downs. This makes it a famous place for the $100 hamburger, or the $150 rib-eye in my case.
It was one of those day in July when the temperature hover close to 108 degrees. The hot westerly breeze blows almost parallel to Runway 32.
The place has no weather-reporting facility, so it is up to the aviators to use they knowledge and prowess to understand what it will take to fly out from here.
I had the challenge to fly out in a 180 hp Skyhawk with three well-fed adults aboard. Judging the igh density altitude and relatively short runway, I decided not to top up the fuel tanks of Skyhawk.
I made some precise calculations on fuel burn to fly back to Santa Rosa. My destination was nearly 182 nm northwest from here.
The pilot’s operating handbook of the Skyhawk showed that at 104 degrees Fahrenheit, this 2,800 foot long runway will be enough to fly out with 550 pounds of passengers and 24 gallons in fuel tanks.
It will be possible to gain enough altitude before the aircraft reach the elevated freeway overpass, some couple of hundred yards from the departure end of the Runway 32.
There is nothing in the POH that illustrates on what will be the right pitch to climb out on such a hot day.
As the aircraft accelerated down the runway and reach the rotation speed, I was counting every foot that was passing under the tyres and how much runway is left.
The Skyhawk lifted off gently as the yoke was pulled back and I see the runway disappearing under it. In front of me now was sizzling desert like sand and sage brush the spread across the vast landscape.
It was such a relief to be in air safely, but then, something interrupted my peace. It was the sudden whine of the stall horn.
I looked at the airspeed indicator and it was flickering around 50, OOPPSSS!!, I was 10 knots slower than the rotation speed.
My instincts sprang into action and I pushed the nose down, silencing the stall warning.
I flew myself out from one danger and flew myself in the next one. My aircraft was now aligned with the broadside of an 18 wheeler on the I-5 overpass.
For few seconds I felt that it is the heat that is creating an illusion, as the tractor trailer was looking 30 feet tall.
I managed to clear the overpass with enough room to spare, thanks to the amazing flying ability of Skyhawk, even with an almost normal cruise pitch.
With the overpass behind us, the direct flight path to Santa Rosa will put us in Class B airspace of San Francisco.
During the past number of trips over this city, I was gladly welcomed in the class Bravo, and I was quite sure that this time will be no different.
I filed the flight plan with 24 gallons of fuel on board keeping this assumption in mind. It kept my aircraft light enough to take off and fly for two hours in moderate headwind. There was enough one hour legal reserve as well.
The third hiccup sprang up when NorCal approach asked me to stay out of Class Bravo and fly under the Class B shelf.
The controller called me second time to remain outside Bravo. It is then my fuel calculations became invalid suddenly.
I turned the aircraft northward and climbed down to 4,500 feet to stay clear of the upside-down wedding cake. I had to fly a good 10 minutes more to stay out of Class B perimeter.
Much of my concentration now was on fuel gauges, which cannot be trusted blindfolded. Both of them were teasing me at five-gallon mark.
Thankfully, Santa Rosa was clearly visible just when the second low-fuel warning light woke up.
My curiosity pulled me to climb and check the tanks after I made a normal landing. It made me a bit nervous to find out that I only had seven gallons left.
I was safe for the 30 minute daytime VFR requirement, but was out of my personal minimum of one hour.
This flight taught me two valuable lessons.
The takeoff performance mentioned in the POH for the available runway cannot be taken up as such. There are numerous variables that an alter these numbers, including exceedingly warm weather.
It prepares us for what changes might be required, in this situation is the pitch attitude during climb-out.
The second lesson was also on expectations or assumptions, in this situation it was about routing and flying with extra fuel. It keeps us legal and above all safe, when things don’t go exactly as planned.
Harris Ranch has a 10% discount for those who arrive by air, it makes the lunch more delicious. The aftertaste may turn unpleasant when things don’t go as expected.