"The ruggedness of the mountains and their brown contrast to the green flatlands bordered by the bright blue Pacific Ocean seemed to have been drawn from a painting."

essays

Brandon Wilson

An Angeleno from the Westside, Brandon Wilson loves to fly, and in his essay “California Skies,” he describes how he learned to fly and what California looks like from the air.


California Skies

When I made the decision to learn how to fly, little did I know that my love of aviation would lead to the discovery of a new world. The world I found was the beautiful landscape of Southern California as it unfolded before my eyes, extending to all horizons as I piloted a single-engine aircraft in the process of obtaining my private pilot’s license.

As long as I can remember I’ve wanted to become a pilot, and at the age of 16 the stars aligned and my parents offered to finance my dream of learning how to fly. Then, as now, I lived on the Westside of Los Angeles, and the nearest flight training school was located at the Santa Monica Airport in Santa Monica, California. After the necessary medical certificate was acquired and various forms of paperwork were completed, I was scheduled for my first training flight in what most would consider a very small airplane.

The make and model of the plane I would take to the skies was the Cessna 152, a single-engine, two-seat plane with a 360 degree wraparound view through lots of glass. The Cessna 152 is a staple of flight trainers because of its docile flight characteristics and has a relatively modest cruising speed of 95 knots (100 mph).

As my instructor and I lifted off for my first training flight from Santa Monica Airport, the first thing I noticed was my unfamiliarity with this airborne perspective of California slowly revealing itself to me. The sheer density of Los Angeles and its contrast to the openness of the Pacific Ocean left me in awe. As we turned north toward Simi Valley where our practice area was located, we flew along the coastline and the ribbon-like Pacific Coast Highway until the coast turned more westerly, forcing us inland. From 3,500 feet above the Santa Monica Mountains, I remember thinking to myself that never before had I seen the San Fernando Valley, Malibu, Catalina, The Channel Islands and Los Angeles from a single dizzying vantage point. Being able to see so much of my immediate habitat from such great heights highlighted how seamlessly an overflowing city like Los Angeles blended into and altered the natural landscape of mountains, lowlands and beaches. I distinctly remember being overcome by a strong desire to see more of the California landscape, and knew it would happen from behind the controls of an airplane.

As I gained more experience and training flying, the time came for me to complete the cross-country requirement for my private pilot’s license. The term "cross country" is used loosely because the actual flight must span 150 miles; traveling 150 miles in any direction from Santa Monica will either leave you within the borders of California or bobbing in the Pacific Ocean. My chosen route would take me north to San Luis Obispo, and then east over the Santa Lucia Mountains and the Salinas River toward Bakersfield before returning home through the southern section of the San Joaquin Valley. On the day of my trip the weather cooperated perfectly, and I was off the ground before eight in the morning. The sun cast shadows over the terrain, and it slowly came to life while I watched, in awe of the scene before me. From Santa Monica to San Luis Obispo the ruggedness of the mountains and their brown contrast to the green flatlands bordered by the bright blue Pacific Ocean seemed to have been drawn from a painting. What I saw as I traversed the mountains to the east into the San Joaquin Valley was endless square tracts of farmland pierced by fragile aqueducts that intersected the land haphazardly, giving it the appearance of being patched together like a quilt. By the time I returned to Santa Monica in the early afternoon I felt like I had been on more of a sightseeing trip, and I hardly remembered the act of having to actually fly the airplane. I had seen parts of California on that day in a way that relatively few people will ever experience, and had gained a newfound respect for the beauty of our great state.

Once I gained my license I earned the privilege of being able to fly anywhere in the country, as long as the weather fell within my experience level. The first destination on my list was the island of Catalina, which has a reputation among experienced pilots for having a very challenging runway. Located 40 nautical miles off the coast of Long Beach, Catalina Island’s airport is renowned for being carved out of a mountain top with precipitous drop offs at both ends. Piloting an aircraft into Catalina is often compared to taking off and landing on an aircraft carrier, and there have numerous accidents over the years to enhance its dangerous reputation. To be completely honest, half of the reason I wanted to go was to see just how terrifying it would be, and I wasted no time after getting my license in doing so.

After another early morning take off from Santa Monica, the 40 miles I traveled over the deep blue Pacific Ocean passed uneventfully. Looking back over my shoulder, I saw the coastline grow longer as what previously appeared as a big lump grew into the island of Catalina. Only 26 miles long, Catalina appears as the top of a mountain that descends from its peak of 2,097 feet (Mount Orizaba) directly into the ocean, leaving a little habitable land around its edges.

As the airport came into view and I lined up for landing, I felt amazingly calm despite my discovery that everything I had previously heard of the runway’s perils was true. With my speed and altitude at the magic combination, I touched down gently and wasted no time in applying the brakes very liberally. The runway was only 3,000 feet long with a cliff a waiting to swallow me whole if I did not rapidly check the speed of my plane. “The cliffs will have to wait another day to claim me as a victim” is what I thought as I slowed the plane and taxied toward a parking spot.

After a quick lunch, I hopped back in my plane and headed back to Santa Monica with a feeling that I had traveled to what seemed like another planet. Even though the flight took less than an hour, the ocean creates a profound sense of isolation from the rest of California and the bustling metropolitan areas of Los Angeles and Orange counties.

In the years since I earned my pilot’s license I’ve had the opportunity to cover many miles of California by air. The beauty of California is everywhere around us, but in my opinion the reason why our great state is cherished by its inhabitants is best realized from the sky. 


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