Flying into Big Bear
Many pilots unnecessarily avoid flying into Big Bear because of the imagined dangers of gusty winds, up-and-down drafts, and teeth-rattling turbulence. With a little knowledge of the unique wind conditions found at this high altitude airport, however, a safe and enjoyable flight into the San Bernardino mountians can be made in any season.
When the winds are strong, often a wind shear is present at the approach end of runway 26, caused by the tumbling eddies of moving air as it climbs, then cascades over the high ridges north of the airport. A sudden change of wind direction can occur just as you are in a position over th trees to descend and land on the numbers; to be safe, give yourself some extra altitude on final and aim your touchdown for a point several hundred feet further down the runway. The runway is about a mile long, so it isn’t likely you’ll run out of asphalt!
Pilots approaching in windy conditions from the west in the Cajon Pass area are advised to follow the ridge line eastward and enter the Big Bear Valley over Fawnskin, thus avoiding the lee side of any mountain. This route passes over relatively flat mountainous terrain and little turbulence will be felt. Also, he suggests that after departing runway l8 to the east, make your cross wind turn further out over Erwin Lake, then continue your climb out and depart over the ski areas, where you will encounter the helpful boost of an updraft as the air moves up and over the snow-covered ridge. To avoid the churning downdrafts of the Arctic Circle and the other deep canyons below, he said outbound traffic should fly over Bluff Lake and remain high as you turn southwest toward Redlands. Many pilots also report much turbulence over San Bernardino International Airport which can be lessened with an additional 2,000 feet of altitude when overflying that region.
Beware of lens-shaped clouds! The lenticular formations that seemingly hang motionless above a mountain ridge indicate high-intensity winds in the region and strong turbulence will be encountered, often miles from those telltale clouds. Mountain waves, flowing like water over rocks in a stream, also can cause severe turbulence, with jutting mountain peaks creating a venturi effect, compressing the moving air, often doubling or even tripling the wind speed. Also, when approaching the Big Bear Valley from the desert, be sure to avoid the base of buildups of cumulus clouds. Venture too near and the lifting action of internal updrafts can suck your plane up and shake it violently, perhaps causing dangerous structural damage. The best defense against turbulence is avoidance!
Pilots encountering turbulence in the traffic pattern should “fly the airplane, and don’t be afraid of the bounces, you actively control the aircraft with firm responses.” Landings should not have more that twenty degrees of flap, and no more than a few extra knots of airspeed, otherwise you might “float down the runway, increasing your chances of gusty winds suddenly veering you off the centerline.” With crosswinds, keep lined up in a slip configuration, the nose pointing down the runway,” he said.
Crosswind suggestions include: drop your wing into the wind and add uphill rudder, or simply “crab” into the wind, then straighten out just before touchdown.
For a smooth landing, add 3-5 knots for better control response, then allow your plane to settle down to the ground after getting into the “pad” or “ground” effect.
It is advised that pilots not attempt a landing at Big Bear if winds greater than 18 to 20 m.p.h. are blowing across the runway. In most cases, blustery winds can be tamed by more altitude and a steeper approach, landing further down the runway. Instead of stubbornly trying to salvage a bad approach, simply “go around” and try again. Another important suggestion is to tighten your seat belt when bumpy conditions are forecast so you won’t hit your head, and always remember to slow to the recommended maneuvering speed to avoid undue stress on the airframe.
Big Bear’s AWOS (Automatic Weather Observation System) is available on 135.925 or (909) 585-4033 and is a useful early warning system of actual conditions on the airfield 24 hours a day so you can decide to land or go someplace else. The synthesized voice tells you wind direction, speed in knots, gusting conditions, density altitude, special NOTAMS, and other information.
The daytime Unicom frequency, 122.725, can advise you of any special wind hazards. Four windsocks also dot the airport: at both ends, lighted ones midfield between hangers on the north side, and inside the segmented circle on the south.
Frequent aerial visitors to Big Bear and those pilots based there often solve the wind and turbulence problem by simply departing or arriving in the colder, calmer morning hours before convective condition’s chop up the sky.
Big Bear is the second-highest airport in California, nestled serenely in a beautiful valley, with a shimmering blue lake dominating much of this popular resort. It should not be feared by aviators, just respected.