Safe Operating Techniques
Ah, Big Bear! Images of shushing down steep mountain slopes on skis, hooking a 2-pound trout on Big Bear Lake; hiking scenic sections of the famous Pacific Crest Trail; or staying at a rustic cabin with a crackling fireplace, surrounded by pine trees. These are the rewards of pilots successfully navigating into this high-altitude valley.
But beware . . . each year some unwary fliers enjoy less than a pleasurable vacation through lack of mountain training, inattention of safe procedures near or on the airport, and proper preflight planning for the unique conditions found here.
Big Bear City Airport is located 32nrn, 303 degrees from Palm Springs VORTAC (PSP-115.5) or 40 nm, 044 degrees from Paradise VORTAC (PDZ-112.2), and Daggett, 43 nm, 183 degrees (113.2); its Unicom frequency is 122.725. A recent and most useful pilot aid is the AWOS (Automatic Weather Observation System) which can be monitored in the air on 135.925 or during flight planning by calling (909) 585-4033 24 hours a day. A voice synthesized message, updated every minute, will inform you of wind direction, speed, and gusts; density altitude, ceiling, visibility, and local NOTAMS, and other useful information. During daylight hours (7 a.m. – 6 p.m.) Unicom is attended and all traffic should report in as they enter the valley. If flying after hours, a broadcast ‘in the blind’ to ·Big Bear traffic’ on that same frequency should be done, stating your position, altitude and intentions.
The runways 08/26 are paved, with pilot-controlled lighting and are 5,850 feet in length. To aid in obstacle clearance, your descent for landing can be coordinated with PAN lights on both ends. Due to mountainous terrain north of the field, right traffic is dictated for runway 08, left traffic for runway 26.
This mountain airstrip is 6,750′ above sea level (second highest in California) with pattern altitude at 8,000′ MSL (1,250) above ground level), so your aircraft performance should be figured using the corrected ‘density altitude’ numbers; many mishaps are caused by not leaning your mixture for best performance before takeoff, overloading the craft on a warm summer day, or miscalculating how many feet of runway will be used before your plane becomes airborne.
When you enter downwind and complete your ‘before landing checklist’ DO NOT put the mixture to full rich (a habit you get into in the basin). Leave the mixture in the lean position for best power and for landing.
For noise abatement and safety, arrivals should remain at 9,500 feet above the ridge south of the lake and city before entering the pattern on a 45-degree angle and turning downwind. When you depart in either direction you should turn left 10 degrees to avoid residential areas and schools.
Climb out to the west midlake to the dam, or eastbound to pass over Baldwin Lake. Over the dam, contact SOCAL approach 127.25 Mhz. Use maximum climb consistent with performance to avoid school (round building) and playground, staying south of the strobe light and do not overfly high school on departing runway 08; when departing 26 to make a downwind exit from the valley or to remain in closed pattern, climb to 7,500′ before making a left crosswind turn. Inbound flights from the southwest should come over the ridge at or above 9,500′ near Bluff Lake and outbound craft should climb at or below 8,500′ toward the dam.
To the non-pilot, Big Bear’s airstrip designation as an “uncontrolled airport” implies a chaotic traffic situation; but, as pilots, we know that if all of us conform to the standard traffic pattern and use the proper self-announce procedures, non-towered airports are capable of safely handling large volumes of traffic. In recent years this airport has recorded over 45,000 operations annually which, on a busy weekend, translates into hundreds of landings and takeoffs each day. Therefore it is essential that all pilots keep alert for other traffic and exchange information with one another and with the Unicom operator. A typical message as you near Big Bear Valley might be: “Big Bear Unicom, Cessna 9371X, over the darn for landing. Request advisories“
No straight-ins, please! As you approach the traffic pattern area, try to fly your upwind leg near the mountains over the ski areas; the valley is narrow and you don’t want to find yourself converging head-on into planes on downwind. Execute the pattern entry on a 45-degree angle at pattern altitude (8,000′). Communicate your position when you’re abeam midfield and again when you are turning base and final to ensure you can see and be seen by others in the pattern.
On short final as you prepare to land, resist the temptation to add more airspeed or land “on the numbers,” there is plenty of runway and your true airspeed is automatically greater by several knots than at sea level due to the less dense air. There are wind socks at both ends of the field as well as two more near midfield. The tricky winds at Big Bear are notorious; all four windsocks have been observed to be pointing in different directions at the same time!
After landing and pulling off the active, Big Bear Airport reminds all pilots not to turn off their radios until they are parked; it is very aggravating when the Unicom operator can’t communicate needed taxiing or parking instructions.
The rewards of flying into this high-mountain resort are many – clean air, recreation, great restaurants and lodging, fishing, boating, siding, shopping -just be sure you understand its unique conditions and keep active control of your airplane until it is safely off the runway and tied down.
by Gary Buscombe