Every weekend, visitors head up the highways to Calaveras County to enjoy all that the area has to offer.
On Feb. 1, the Enterprise took our own tour of the county, but instead of fighting traffic on busy roadways, we took to the skies.
At 10:40 a.m., local pilot Dr. Rodger Orman pulled his Cessna 182 in front of the parking lot at the Calaveras County Airport between San Andreas and Angels Camp and pushed open the door to the passenger’s seat.
Orman began training as a pilot at the airport shortly after moving to the area in 1986. In 1988, he received his private pilot’s license, and he now has 1,600 hours of flying under his belt.
“I try to go twice a week; sometimes more. My most frequent flight is going to the Nevada County Airport in Grass Valley,” he said. “I like the freedom that it gives you to go wherever you want.”
Orman said that he enjoys taking passengers along for the ride, especially when they haven’t been in a small plane before.
“It’s really fun to see the exhilaration on their faces,” he said. “And taking off is always such an uplifting experience.”
After starting the engine, Orman completed a quick checklist and taxied over to the southern end of the runway. Following a quick back-and-forth with other pilots over the radio, Orman accelerated the aircraft. The plane barreled down the runway and gently lifted off the ground.
Buildings and trees shrank in size as the lush countryside came into view. The sun glimmered off of New Hogan Lake, and several elephants could be seen wandering the grounds of the ARK 2000 sanctuary in San Andreas. The top of Mount Diablo just barely rose to the west above the haze across the Central Valley.
Orman said that the winter is an especially good time for flying.
“It’s always fun, but the winter’s nice,” he said. “In the summertime when it’s hot, there’s more turbulence.”
The plane passed above San Andreas at 3,000 feet in altitude. Mark Twain Medical Center, where Orman works as an anesthesiologist, passed by below. Highway 49 was busy in both directions, and several plumes of smoke from winter burn piles slowly dispersed into the sky.
Orman bought his plane 18 years ago, trading in his old Grumman AA-1C.
“The beauty of a Cessna 182 is if you can close the doors, you’re going to be within the weight and balance of the aircraft, and it will fly just fine,” he said.
The radar showed a commercial plane passing by several thousand feet overhead. Several miles to the west, a light aircraft flew over Bear Mountain.
“I usually try to keep about 1,000 feet above the ground – at least 1,000, sometimes 2,000 – it depends on where we actually are,” he said. “I try to have a safe margin in case the engine quits so that I’ll have more options as to where to land.”
A haze hung over New Melones Reservoir as Orman circled around Angels Camp at 4,000 feet. Visibility improved as the plane followed the rugged Stanislaus River Canyon up to the mountains. Arnold passed by below – a small island in a sea of green – and the former Meadowmont and Sequoia Woods golf courses stood out among the trees.
Orman said that golf courses are good places to land in an emergency.
“Every golf course has a long fairway where you could not only land an airplane safely, you probably could get it fixed and then take off again,” he said.
Farther up the hill, snow began to blanket the ground. While most had melted from the trees, patches of white dotted the forest where logging has cleared the land.
Orman said that he wanted to fly ever since he visited an airport with his father and brother when he was a kid.
“He would take us to the Tucson International Airport and we would watch the little airplanes take off and land, and I always wanted to fly airplanes after that,” he said. “It was always like a childhood dream.”
Bob Dylan’s “Bringing it All Back Home” played through the headset, occasionally interrupted by communications from other pilots.
The Sierra Nevada rose up on the horizon – snowcapped mountains stretching from Yosemite to Tahoe. Spicer Reservoir shimmered in the distance.
“If you fly 12,500 feet for more than 30 minutes, then the pilot has to have oxygen,” Orman said. “Then you have to offer it to the passengers when you’re above 14,000.”
At Big Meadow, the plane reached an altitude of 10,400 feet. Mokelumne Peak and the Bear Valley Ski Area lay covered in snow. Orman swooped by Salt Springs Reservoir and headed back down the hill.
Orman said that he recently had a major overhaul on his engine done by a repair shop based at the airport.
“We’re lucky in Calaveras County to have two really good repair shops,” he said. “The mechanics are very good.”
Blue Mountain passed below. The Stanislaus River Canyon dominated the landscape to the east, while the Mokelumne River Canyon marked the county line to the northwest. Orman circled around Murphys and pointed out the sights.
Now back down to 2,800 feet, Orman headed west, passing over Sierra Ridge Academy. The business section of Mountain Ranch could be seen to the north. The narrow landing strip at the airport again came into view.
“Calaveras County Airport is a low-use airport, so it’s not very busy, not very crowded,” he said. “We have an airport manager that’s very supportive of general aviation, and it’s nice to be able to fly somewhere from Calaveras County.”
Familiar objects began to take shape as the plane began its descent. The Earth rose up as the surrounding landscape fell from view. The plane touched down gently on the runway as the hangars of the airport zoomed past.
Orman circled the plane around to a fuel pump and filled the tank, ensuring all would be in order the next time he goes to see the sights in Calaveras County.
“It’s the best way to see the county,” he said. “The aerial view is just phenomenal any day.”