Airports, Airlines, Aviation

The Private Flight Experience

Today we caught up with John and Jody, who recently took a private flight from the Van Nuys Airport (KVNY) in Southern California up to the Santa Rosa at the Charles M. Schultz Airport (KSTS) for a Sonoma Valley Wine Tasting weekend. It was an overnight round-trip private flight experience – up on Saturday and back on Sunday. Incidentally, John and Jody are my parents, and were avid frequent flyers pre-retirement, Jody on United and John on American Airlines. So it was a very unique private flight experience for them, since they only ever previously flew out of large commercial airports.

John and Jody Jacobs after their Private Flight
John and Jody Jacobs after their Private Flight

They won this particular private flight package during a live auction for the New West Symphony in Santa Monica for $1,500. Besides the round-trip flight on the private plane with the pilot and his wife, it included a wine-tasting, an overnight stay at a Landmark Winery Cottage and wine tasting for four at the Landmark Winery. A small breakfast was provided as part if cottage stay. My parents paid for dinner and their rental car.

Keep in mind that it’s about $1,000 in plane fuel round-trip from SoCal to NoCal, so this was about at cost.

What’s Your Take on the Small Airport and the Private Flight Experience? 

The private flight experience is much better (as long as the weather and everything cooperates) especially from a comfort perspective, not having to deal with security, having a higher degree of cleanliness at the airport (and the airplane), more professionalism and services, and a more upscale experience (with valet etc.) – there’s really no comparison. The only downside is that you might actually be grounded for a quite a while (there’s no “next flight”).

The view ain't bad!
The view ain’t bad!

Tell Us About Your Private Flight Aircraft.

The plane was a Beechcraft 58 Baron (originally a Raytheon model), and was a twin engine prop plane. The plane itself was used to be owned by Northrup Grumman, and it used to be a corporate plane until the pilot bought it for his own personal use. It was a six seater aircraft, but the last row was being used for luggage. There was no bathroom on the plane (which was often the most restricting factor on the flight route). There was de-icing equipment on the plane – holes that could be activated on the wing that could push out an anti-freeze like substance.

The Beechcraft 55 Baron - Private Flight Aircraft
The Beechcraft 55 Baron – Private Flight Aircraft

Tell us about your Private Flight’s Pilot.

The pilot is a certified Boeing 737 pilot, and his wife is also trained to some degree and can take over in case of an emergency. The plane is hangared in Van Nuys, their home airport. The pilot is fully instrument rated with IFR (Instrument Flight Rules). There are different level of flight rules that you fall under – either VFR (visual flight rules) or IFR. The first certification you get is VFR (the most restrictive and most conservative) – then the next level is IFR. If a pilot chooses to only fly VFR, when there’s a cloud deck below 3,000 feet then you can’t even take off (which is why it’s more restrictive).

The pilot is a big fan of small airports and that’s the way he prefers to go. He just flew cross-country to Nova Scotia to see the leaves change colors on this same aircraft. The couple flew from Los Angeles, to Albuquerque, to Detroit, up to Rhode Island, Niagara Falls, and then to Nova Scotia to really make a trip out of it.

Recent Trip to Nova Scotia
Recent Trip to Nova Scotia

Describe the Departure Airport for your Private Flight

Signature Aviation
Signature Aviation

The departure airport for their private flight on Saturday was the Van Nuys Airport, using Fixed Base Operator (FBO) Signature Aviation (at their West location). At the airport, there was a lounge, a coffee bar, vending machines and bathrooms, and an even larger lounge in a separate area.

Van Nuys is actually one of the busiest airports in the country with a large number of corporate jets using it, as well as the smaller privately owned aircraft.  Several Boeing 737s are based there, including one owned by Steven Spielberg.  The runway is long enough to accommodate the B1 bomber and has at previous air shows.  The main distinction separating Van Nuys is that it doesn’t serve the airlines.  There are however, multiple jet charter services available from the airport that fly to world wide destinations.  Many of the Hollywood and corporate elite fly out of there.

They arrived at the airport around 9:30AM and departed by 10:17AM (15 minutes behind schedule). No security, no real check-in to speak of or anything – just easy-peasy park to runway to take-off in no time flat. Security is provided by the pilot and the employees of the fixed base operator, (FBO).  Access to the ramp is controlled from behind the desk.  Also, the airport police are always on duty and are part of the LA Police Dept.

The Van Nuys Airport
The Van Nuys Airport

They simply parked in the little airport parking lot and they car stayed there for the duration of the trip. However, there was an optional valet service, which also would have taken their luggage directly to the plane from the car.

When my parents walked into the airport, the plane was already out of the hangar, gassed up, and right there on the runway ready to go. The FBO ramp personnel took my parents’ luggage (which the pilot loaded for space efficiency), and then helped the passengers on.

The pilot did the check-in for everyone at the airport, and my parents didn’t need to show ID – the pilot vouched for them.

There was a small delay as previously mentioned because the pilot thought the battery was out (because the clock in the cockpit was only intermittently working) – but in the end, the battery was working fine, and the clock was just not working. Once everyone was loaded into the plane, they got vectored onto a runway, waited for a plane to take-off in front of them, and then they were next. It was less then 10 minutes from powering up to the private flight taking off.

Now that's door to door service!
Now that’s door to door service!

On the return trip, Signature Flight Services put the plane away for the pilot also, and pulled the pilot’s car around so they could unload directly in to it.

My parents car stayed in the parking lot because they didn’t realize they could have taken advantage of the jetside valet.

The FBO, Signature Aviation, provided aircraft storage and parking, aviation fuel, aircraft sales, flight instruction, aircraft charter and aircraft maintenance.

Describe the  Flight Route for this Private Flight.

At the Van Nuys Airport, the pilot showed my parents the flight route on the internet terminal in the airport lounge. He also brought up the weather report at the Santa Rosa airport to check the status of a front moving through. He mentioned they would be flying via Gorman – a flight traffic control area in the Tajon Pass to do a hand-off to Oakland air traffic control. They mostly flew up Route 5, and then cut towards the coast up 101.

Private Flight Flight Route
Private Flight Flight Route

During the course of the private flight, the pilot also has a iPad that showed the route and location of the plane – this was through the ForeFlight app. He had the waypoints of his route mapped out, and they could watch the plane’s progress via the app. He also uses Flightaware, but is requires an internet connection to provide live updates.

Flight Instrumentation
Flight Instrumentation

It wasn’t synced with the airplane’s computer – it was just synced with the GPS of the iPad, which was tracked. My parents were also asked to turn their cell phones to airplane mode. On one of the pilot’s instrument panels, he could see the weather. He also had a radar panel to see the conditions at the airport for landing, and the wind pattern.

Flight Tracker - FlightAware
Flight Tracker – FlightAware

The air traffic control upon landing actually had them circle for about 10 minutes and then had to re-direct an approach from the north because there was heavy traffic in the SF area since it was the World Series (this caused a slight landing delay). Also there was some delay to due to weather – there was a rain front moving through. In fact, they went through the front several times en route, but it was especially bad on landing – they had a 20-25 Knot cross-wind on landing, so the pilot had to crab the airplane and put a velocity vector into the wind and then straighten out just at landing.

Describe the On-board Experience for Your Private Flight.

The altitude restriction on the aircraft was around 10,000 feet because there was no oxygen on-board to go higher (not pressurized). Because of this, there was only a certain amount of altitude flexibility that the air traffic controllers could play with to route around weather and turbulence. The pilot was constantly talking to and checking in with the air traffic controllers to try to optimize the route at all times. You certainly don’t feel alone up there. And, since it’s a much smaller plane, you can feel the wind and the turbulence much more than on a larger commercial aircraft.

View from the Cockpit
View from the Cockpit
John with Headphones
John with Headphones

Everyone on-board the private flight wore Bose headsets for 2 reasons – because it was loud (just engine noise, not dangerous), but also because they could all communicate to each other via the headsets (send and receive). You can also hear air traffic control, so when air traffic control piped up everyone would be quiet until the air traffic control was done – and then they would continue conversation.

On the return landing (Santa Rosa back to Van Nuys on Sunday) it was very interesting because it was dark. It was kind of like landing on an aircraft carrier, navigating only by the runway lights. Night flying is an entirely different experience from day flying on a private flight. You can see the city lights, the sunset, the moon – and of course you can still see aircraft in the distance because of the particular light pattern on the wings. On the left wing (port) tip, there’s a red light. On the right-wing (starboard), it’s a green light. This is an international aircraft standard.

Instrumentation at Night
Instrumentation at Night

What Was It Like at the Destination Airport?

Sonoma Sky Center
Sonoma Sky Center

Upon landing at the Santa Rosa Airport, there were two rentals cars waiting on the ramp, 10 feet away from their plane. There was also a crew of two crew people who all the bags and they were good to go within minutes.

The Charles M. Schultz Airport - Jody and Stuart, the Pilot
The Charles M. Schultz Airport – Jody and the Pilot

They did spend some time in the Charles Schultz Airport office, had a snack, when the pilot checked-in and chatted about the flight plan and the plan for the return journey. Flight Services at the airport deals with the car rental agencies and gets the cars for you and brings them all the way to the airplane.

Snacks at the Charles Schultz Airport
Snacks at the Charles Schultz Airport

Although they didn’t partake, there is a restaurant at the Santa Rosa Airport – the Sky Lounge Steakhouse & Sushi Bar. Hours: 7:30am-10pm daily, with a Happy Hour: M-F, 5pm-8:30pm

Final Thoughts On Your Private Flight Experience?

It’s clear that it’s the way to go if you can afford it. But, competency is so important. These small aircraft pilots have to not only understand their instruments, and instructions from the air traffic control, but also he had to be able to make calculations manually and make remarks and notes from the air traffic control. It’s probably similar to the skill level of commercial pilots, but its so much more behind the scenes that you never notice the level of skill.

Also, if you’re the one piloting the plane, you have to keep in mind the 8 hour Bottle to Throttle rule – you cannot imbibe alcoholic beverages or drugs within 8 hours of flying. Their pilot adhered to this strictly, which of course meant that he couldn’t partake in the full away of wine tasting Sunday morning prior to take-off.

My parents liked the private flight experience so much that they plan on doing it again in a few weekends!

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