A Private or Commercial certificate restricted to VFR is adequate for recreational flying anywhere in the United States. Should you feel the need to acquire an Instrument Rating (perhaps because you are venturing further afield), you may sit the FAA Instrument Rating exam. The Freedom of Information Act means that all the questions that may be asked must be freely available – so you can buy a revision book containing all 300 questions and answers. Another visit to the FSDO to sit a short, fifty question exam, and the VFR restriction is removed. No flight check is required (provided you hold a current ICAO IR) – they simply want to satisfy themselves that you know the rules.
There are two FSDOs within easy reach of Los Angeles, one at LAX ((213) 215-2150) and the other at Long Beach Airport ((213) 426-7134). The FAA FSDO web page includes directions to the office. I am familiar only with the Long Beach office: take the Spring Street exit off the San Diego Freeway southbound, and the office is on the left, on the junction of Spring Street and Temple Street, as you approach Long Beach Airport. It is open from 0730 to 1600 Monday to Friday but avoid lunchtime (1130 to 1230) as they suffer a staff shortage then. In fact, since 9/11, it’s a requirement to book an appointment.
Where to Rent
The next step is to find a Fixed Base Operator (FBO) to rent an aircraft from. The closest airfield to Torrance is, of course, Torrance Municipal, and there are several FBOs there. I go to Rolling Hills Aviation ((310) 375 0061) which is run by Bill Sherwood. His fleet includes Cessna 152, Cessna 172, Cessna 182, Citabria, Piper Archer and a Beech Duchess.
If you take the aircraft all day expect to pay for a minimum of two hours in the week and three hours at weekends. You will probably want to take a four-seater, say the 172 or Archer, but the 182 is good value for longer trps as it is some 20 kt faster.
Also at Torrance is South Bay Aviation ((310) 326 8053). Their fleet includes Cessna 152, Cessna 172, Cessna 172R, Cessna 172RG, Cessna 172S, Cessna 177RG, Cessna 182S, Bonanza E-33A, iamond Katana, Grob 115C and a Beech Duchess. A few miles North is another good FBO, Justice Aviation at Santa Monica ((310) 313 6792). They have an extensive fleet including Cessna 152, Cessna 172, Cessna 172 (180 hp), Cessna 172R (1997), Cessna 172RG, Cessna 182, Decathlon, Piper Warrior, Piper Warrior (180 hp), Piper Archer II, Piper Dakota, Piper Turbo Arrow IV, Tobago TB-10, Trinidad TB-20 and a Cessna 310.
You will need to buy a couple of maps; the VFR Terminal Area Chart for Los Angeles (1:250,000) covers the LA basin. Outside the basin you will need the Los Angeles Sectional Aeronautical Chart (1:500,000). These charts are about $8 each.
Highly recommended is the Pilot’s Guide to California Airports. This loose-leaf book contains detailed information on all California airports, useful telephone numbers, and explanations of the rules applicable to VFR flight in the States. The price of $30 includes a quarterly update service for the first year.
As a reference book, the Federal Aviation Regulations & Airman’s Information Manual (FAR/AIM) is useful. If you are having trouble decoding a weather report, want to look up the night flying currency rules, or intend dropping a sonic boom from a civil aircraft, then this is the book for you (about $11).
If you find you are renting aircraft frequently, you will probably want to get hold of a headset. It is possible to fly around using a hand-mike and the cockpit speaker, but it isn’t easy. Headsets range in price from $90 to $300, but expect to pay about $200 for a good quality David Clark.
Renter’s insurance is also a good idea in today’s litiginous age. If you’re already a member of AOPA try their site first.
The Check Out
All FBOs require a check ride before you rent an aircraft, firstly for insurance purposes and secondly to validate your FAA licence. The trip will probably involve a little general handling (steep turns, stalls and slow flight), some circuits, and a visit to one or two local airfields to acquaint you with the local procedures. A good idea at this stage is to fly through the LAX Special Flight Rules Area to Santa Monica and return to Torrance. Despite reading the rules and understanding them, it is worthwhile having an instructor with you the first time you fly overhead LAX at 4500 ft, VFR, transmitting blind! Total time for the check will be about 90 minutes provided you’re already current on light aircraft. Make sure the instructor signs your logbook – it is an FAA requirement that you fly with an instructor every two years.
Start your flight planning with a free telephone call to Hawthorne Flight Service Station. They will give you Area and Terminal Forecasts, SIGMETS, AIRMETS, NOTAMS and accept VFR and IFR Flight Plans. Various flight planning services on the internet can be found on my Flight Planning page.
Don’t despair if the weather is foggy or overcast while you’re eating your breakfast in Denny’s at 0600. It usually clears by 1100.
Remember to check the density altitude if you are planning to go to the desert or the mountains. Light aircraft on a hot day have got the performance of a Tristar trying to get to FL330.
There are a lot of aircraft out there (9,000 light aircraft in the LA basin alone, down from 26,000 ten years ago) so try to get a traffic advisory service (called “Flight Following”) from the nearest radar unit. Workload permitting, LAX, Point Mugu, Ontario and Coast Approach will be happy to help.