Saturday, December 30, 2006


Today I did the longest flight I've ever done. It was great! I planned a flight last night from San Carlos (SQL) to Oroville (OVE), a non-towered airport about the same latitude as Fort Bragg. My flight plan took me out of SQL, over the Sunol Golf Course, and then north over the 680 freeway, basically staying between Mt. Diablo on the right and the 4000' shelf of SFO's B airspace on the left, at 4500'. I had planned an early departure, around 9:00 am, but when I checked the weather in the morning, there was a lot of fog everywhere except in the Bay Area. I waited, and by 10:30 things were looking more clear (9SM visibility at the destination, pockets of 6 and 7 in between) and I figured as the day went on, things would clear up.

So I took off. The flight up was good, but again I had the same experience I did on my previous longest cross country (to King City, back almost a year ago), where I kept thinking about calling up Norcal Approach for flight following and then not doing it. I kept thinking about it, and I did keep switching frequencies and listening in, but I didn't call in for a long time. What finally persuaded me to call in was when I was coming up on the Williams VOR, and it seemed like there was a lot of traffic in the vicinity, so I called in finally. I found the airport without a problem, and there were other planes in the pattern so I used the same active runway as they did, 30. My touchdown was smooth and on the center line -- I couldn't have been happier with it! I taxied over to transient parking and tied down.

Turned out everything was closed at the airport! I called a cab, and asked to be taken to "a diner for lunch," so the driver took me to a local place that advertised breakfast for $1.99. That can't be good...but the Gardenburger I had was actually very good. After lunch I cabbed it back to the airport, and was in the air at 3:05pm.

Now, the visibility was a bigger issue. I was travelling primarily westbound for the first leg, right into the sun, and I couldn't see much at all. I got flight following right away, and it was a good thing, because there was another Cessna coming on the same route the opposite direction at the same altitude. The controller had me descend 500' to avoid him, and I never saw him. I decided based on the visibility, and my guess that it'd be clearer toward the coast, to abandon my plan and instead fly toward the Scaggs Island (SGD) VOR, and then to Sausalito and take an SFO Class B transition -- this also seemed to be what the controllers were expecting, and it was a shorter path, so I went with it.

The middle of the trip, between the Williams and SGD VORs, was actually stressful enough that I got out my portable GPS to verify what I was reading on the VOR indicator. The plane's GPS was out of commission, and the plane had no DME, so I really wanted some better indication of my position. The portable worked great, and I found my way OK. They cleared me through Class B automatically, and I flew it perfectly (though I did miss one instruction from the tower; I'm sure the jet pilots were rolling their eyes at my amateurish performance!). The SFO controller transferred me to the San Carlos tower, and I came in and landed again really smoothly and on the center line!

All in all, this was a really good flight. I think this really establishes my personal minimums for flight visibility -- 10SM for comfort, 6SM in a pinch and with flight following. Nothing less. Improvising in the air is always exhausting and difficult, and I think I did it pretty well this time. I changed my route, but I had my backup route in mind, and it was actually an easier route. I read the charts, made sure I had obstacle clearance and all that, and of course having flight following helped a lot. My landings in the Cessna were really good, which I'm really happy about!

On another note, I've been studying for the instrument written test. I tried reading the Jeppesen book, and learned a lot, but just didn't have the ability to visualize some of it. Also, the chart-reading sections are confusing because they teach you the FAA chart stuff as kind of a secondary step to teaching their own charts. Their charts do seem like they might be better, but the test is going to use FAA charts, so I don't want to confuse myself. So I ordered the King DVDs and have been working through them. They're quite good, and are really good about making me feel like I'm learning something. Whether I am or not, I guess we'll find out!

Friday, December 22, 2006


I flew a new (for me) Cherokee Archer out of PAO today, N81034. I've tended to shy away from the planes with "all numbers" call signs for some reason; I think I was afraid the call signs would be less identifiable by me in the air. No such problems today, and it turns out the plane was really, really nice! Nothing fancy, or anything, it was just totally solid and flew really well.

I took off out of PAO at about 4:30pm and stayed in the pattern for two landings. Both landings were excellent -- nice and soft, I remembered to look down the end of the runway (unlike last Friday). So I decided to head out to SQL. There I got a straight in landing clearance, but the controller (who's not the best, frankly) then got overloaded with 610SP in the pattern wanting a short approach and a King Air coming in faster than he'd thought. He made both me and the SP do a left 360, which for me was a little uncomfortable right over 101 between PAO and SQL at 1000'. But oh well. I came in and landed again very well, and taxied back.

I stayed in the SQL pattern for two more landings. I became steadily more precise both on holding pattern altitude and on following the VASI glide slope. I tried leaving the power on for the third landing, since it was getting dark, but I think that just served to confuse me and land a little harder. After the third landing I took a right downwind departure back towards PAO, and came in and landed again with the power on and again less smoothly than before. But still, pretty well.

All in all, a good day/night of practice!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Nighttime In Modesto

I returned to Modesto for the first time since the Satanis....I mean, Stanislaus County Fair last August, in 610SP, a nice 172SP out of San Carlos. I thought I'd kill several birds with one stone by stopping at Palo Alto on my way back to San Carlos.

Things went well! I took off from SQL with a left crosswind departure off of runway 12, and proceeded over the mountains. I decided I really wanted to try to fly headings that I'd precalculated and not rely on the GPS, as much as possible. Once I got clear of Sunol Golf Course, my first waypoint, I tuned the VOR to Modesto, and went straight for it. Well...almost. Turns out hills are kind of scary at night, and even though I was at 5500 feet, and knew for a fact that I was not anywhere near any of the hills, I still kind of veered around the hills.

My landing in Modesto was good; I did need the GPS to track my distance from the airport on my way in, though, since either there was no DME or I couldn't figure out where it was. One mystery yet to be solved. I taxied back and took off on a straight out departure, and this time at 4500 feet decided I would fly directly to Sunol (using the GPS). I looked at my chart and saw that the minimum safe altitude was 4200, so I was safe by at least 600 feet including the 300 built into the MSA. So I did it, flew straight to Sunol, uneventfully, and then made for Palo Alto.

That landing was pretty crunchy. Nothing too bad, I just hit a little hard. No bouncing, though, so it couldn't have been too bad. I taxied back and made straight out for San Carlos, where I got a straight-in for 30. Decent landing there.

So, I'm now night current for 90 more days, I've added some cross country time to my total, and I think I've bumped my Cessna 172 currency as well. A good night!

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Three flights in three days

I've been doing a lot of flying over the last three days, totaling 4.5 hours, six landings and three round trips. On Thanksgiving morning, it was such a beautiful day that I just had to go flying. I was scheduled to visit my friends in Tracy over the weekend, and I thought, how nice it would be to fly there instead of driving. But the last time I'd tried to fly to Tracy, I hadn't planned it at all, and getting within 10 miles of the airport made me realize that I was totally unprepared, so I turned around and went home. That was a few months ago. So this time, I decided to treat the trip more or less like a real cross country, with a flight navigation log and times and a real plan. As a result, things went much more smoothly! In fact it was completely uneventful -- except I missed my climb checklist. Luckily in a Cessna 172 the only thing that I missed doing was turning off the landing light. I had two excellent landings in Tracy and back at San Carlos!

Being encouraged by that flight, I decided the next day that I should do a real cross country, to someplace I'd never been before. I chose Los Banos, since it was a greater distance than I'm used to but still not all that far. I did extensive planning, and found that it should be an hour each way or so. This time I took a Piper Cherokee, N4319D. This was my first cross country in a Cherokee, which is significant because there is an added step in fuel management -- the Piper has completely separate left and right fuel tanks, and unlike the Cessna, has no capability to draw from both simultaneously. I have read many accounts of Pipers making emergency landings due to fuel starvation when they have a full tank on the other side.

Everything went really well with the trip! We practiced finding our location on the chart, finding check points, and marking down times. The approach and landing were totally smooth. We only had about 15 minutes to look around, which was a little disappointing, but I had to get back to go visit my parents in the evening. It was kind of a long time in the airplane especially for Nirmala, but it was good to have done it -- after all, if we want to take longer trips, we need to get used to it!

So today, we flew to Tracy. I knew there was supposed to be a cold front coming through, but according to the forecasts, a layer of scattered clouds at 4000 was supposed to develop around 8:00pm, and I was planning on getting back no later than 6. But I knew that these things had a way of being wrong, so I planned to check the weather on the other side and leave early if necessary. It was necessary -- at 3:30, I checked the METAR at San Carlos, and it was already reporting a scattered layer at 3000! Great. So I basically interrupted the festivities and said we had to leave pretty much right away. My friends were more than understanding and happy to get us back to the airport, so we took off by about 3:50. As I departed Tracy, I heard another plane saying "straight out to San Carlos" so I knew we'd have company.

I took it up to about 2500, and steered out over the Altamont Pass to avoid the higher hills. I told the GPS we were going to Livermore so that I'd know exactly what our distance from there was and I could stay out of their airspace. But I got nervous about it anyway, so I took it up to 3200. As I came abeam Livermore, there were a slew of clouds at 3000, so I got down to 2500 and got below them. I crossed the Sunol ridge at about 1900, and settled down at 1700 over Fremont and on to Coyote Hills. As I was about to make my call to San Carlos, another aircraft reported inbound over Coyote Hills at 1700'! I made a call immediately afterwards, and then a third Cessna reported the same position! The controller had us all ident, and then gave me clearance to go ahead -- I was lucky enough to be first. I entered the right base for runway 30, and made kind of a crappy landing thanks to a few wind gusts.

It was a bit of an adventure, but I felt like I had a plan the whole time. I think that I've really learned the importance of doing some planning, however informally, on the ground so that I don't have to think so much in the air. In this case, the instant I saw the SCT030 in the METAR, I started thinking, well, if it's at 3000 over Sunol, I'll go through at about 2000. So when I got there, I knew it was a possibility.

Nirmala was a real trooper through this whole thing; I was very honest with her about being very worried when we took off from Tracy, and telling her there was a real possibility of having to turn back and spend the night in Tracy (and probably the next day too!). I'm sure I made her more tense than she would've been otherwise, but at least she knew the possibilities.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Luck: -1. Experience: +1.

Once again, I've reached into the depths of my bag of luck and made a withdrawal. Tonight I decided to take Nirmala out on a night flight -- it was a really nice night out, and there are a few storms coming through this week so I wanted to get one more flight in the Cessna before not flying for a while.

Things started out a little messy. I accidentally left the passenger headset next to the box of plane keys by the door to the club. I almost left the tail tiedown tied down. And, my flashlight is on its last legs. I probably should've just canceled the flight at that point, but startup went well, and taxi and runup went well, so I went ahead.

We took a left crosswind departure out of San Carlos runway 12, and flew across the bay over Fremont. We did a 180 and came back in toward Palo Alto. Palo Alto gave me a base entry to runway 31, so I took it, and recovered from a high approach to land pretty smoothly. I taxied back, and we were cleared for takeoff so I took off.

Unfortunately, at liftoff, I was only going about 45 knots, way too slow. I pushed the yoke forward, fighting the liftoff forces and trying to gain some speed. I was already in the air, above the runway. At 65 I could do no more, and we were climbing. But why so slowly? I showed normal power, the engine sounded fine, but I was climbing maybe at 200 or 300 feet per minute. I was frightened, but I managed to make about 70 knots and still climbing. I thought about turning back, but I figured that it was just as far to San Carlos as it would be to turn around and get back to Palo Alto. And, I was climbing, just not how I expected to.

I went ahead and switched to San Carlos tower and got a clearance to land straight in to runway 30 -- the winds were calm. I'd made 1000 feet, finally -- it sure took a long time, and the plane would not break 80 knots.

Then I realized.

My flaps were still out. Fully out, 30 degrees of flaps. I just frickin' took off, at night, with a passenger, with full flaps.

I am still reeling from my stupidity; I can't believe I did such a stupid thing as to (a) not clean up the aircraft after coming off the runway, and (b) not check the flaps prior to takeoff. I could've easily entered a low altitude stall, and then we'd have been totally screwed.

My lessons from tonight: 1. Flaps, and the flap switch in the Cessna, are not visible at night. They don't enter your visual scan; you have to make a special effort to think about them. 2. Checklists are your friends. Use them every time, even in the most familiar of circumstances. 3. Even the most friendly, well behaved passengers give you more to think about and make it harder to focus. 4. A Cessna 172SP CAN actually take off and climb with full flaps. Just don't ever, ever do it again.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Piper Archer Checkout Complete!

Two flights, over and out. Interestingly, I needed more than that to complete a Cessna 172SP checkout, and that's coming from a Cessna 172N! Two factors are at play -- for one, this is a classic example of how much more efficient with my time Sergey is than anyone else. He knows my flying, he knows what to look for, and doesn't waste much time. It's very impressive. For another thing, I went into this checkout with a lot of practice, so I didn't have to relearn much in the way of fundamentals.

Today we took off from Palo Alto in 2395V, a nice Archer from the 1980s. I've noticed that the Piper aircraft from the 80s just seem much more solid, in better repair than Cessnas the same age. I mentioned this to Sergey, and he agreed -- basically he attributed the difference to the quality of manufacturing. Very interesting -- I'm starting to think that if I decide to purchase an aircraft, I'd be more comfortable with an older Piper than a Cessna, and the Piper might hold its value a little better. Just an opinion based on limited observations.

Anyway, we went out to Livermore and basically just did a bunch of pattern work, starting with normal landings, which are dirt simple in an Archer, then Sergey pulled the power on me on downwind. I actually was heading for the wrong runway, but Sergey caught me and said, "You've already drifted too far; I don't think you'll make it." I saw my mistake, and immediately turned for the numbers. We had a nice conversation on the way down, basically with me claiming we'd make it and him saying "I don't know..." In the end, we did make it, and it was such a great glide in! I can't describe how nice it feels to fly the Archer; it's so intuitive, it's a real pleasure.

We then did a short field takeoff and landing, a couple of more touch and goes, a no flap landing, one more power off approach, and then a forward slip, which is a lot less scary in a Piper than a Cessna. Once again, while the high wing design may be more inherently stable, the Piper Archer just feels a heck of a lot more stable than the Cessna 172 or SP. I'm not, however, one to choose sides in what has been a heated debate within aviation for years; I really want to be good at both platforms (and others). But I do feel that mastering the Cessna has made me a better pilot, and more able to transition easily to other aircraft.

Anyway, I'm now checked out on the Piper Archer -- oh, one mistake I continue to make is a failure to do a prelanding checklist. This time there was a distraction in that another plane was reporting the same position as us (turns out it was a half mile closer to the airport). But still, that's no excuse.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Man, I Feel Like A Pilot!

There's something about getting into a plane that's totally unfamiliar and finding myself able to fly it that makes me feel like a "real pilot." Today I began getting checked out in the Piper Cherokee with Sergey, my original instructor. For one thing, it was really great to see him again. He went off and joined the airlines, but came back recently to instruct part time. He has such a calming, encouraging presence that even though he's teaching me the whole time, I still feel like a pro.

For another thing, wow, what a really cool feeling to fly the Cherokee! This was a Cherokee Archer, with the 180HP engine. It's interesting, it's like everything's the same, but not really. The first difference that really struck me (other than the wings being low unlike the Cessna, but I knew that) was that there was only one door! I walked around to the left side of the aircraft, and stared blankly at the plane while Sergey explained to me that no, I actually had to climb in the passenger's door.

So after that, we went through the preflight procedures, which are pretty simple with a couple of minor differences. The biggest one was the importance placed on the linkages to the rear stabilator -- "if these go out, you're screwed," as Sergey put it. One nice feature is that the stall horn is testable without sucking on it. Eew, bugs.

We took off from San Carlos from runway 12, and took a Woodside departure as we climbed to 3500'. From there, I just did a few turns and a little light maneuvering as we made our way out over Crystal Springs reservoir and out to the coast. There, we did a couple of steep turns, where I realized how much harder it is to pull and push the yoke than I'm accustomed to, but also how much more stable the plane feels when it's turning. Then we did some slow flight, which was trivially easy compared to the Cessna. The Cessna, compared to the Cherokee, feels like it's constantly about to flip over -- in steep turns, in slow flight, and stalls. Sure, the 172 stalls very friendly, but the Cherokee was in a different world -- Sergey went into a power off stall and held the controls back, and the thing went into a cycle of stalling and recovering all by itself, bucking like a bronco through the air! It just wouldn't drop a wing, it wouldn't go into a full stall.

Then, at my request, we went and did a landing at Half Moon Bay. As you may recall, a few weeks ago I tried to go out to Half Moon Bay and land, but the turbulence scared me away on downwind. Well, it was pretty much the same story here, except this time we actually rode it out. It was amazing how in control I felt, even when we were having the heck kicked out of us by the turbulence. We stayed the course and actually landed on runway 30, then just turned around and took off on 12 and headed back to San Carlos.

We entered the pattern for 12 at San Carlos, and Sergey walked me through a landing. I flared a little high, so he helped me correct for that. The next time through, he let me do it myself. I flared high again, but corrected myself. Both times my turn to final was late and I had to make an adjustment. The third time, I was still late, so the fourth time I paid more attention and flew a proper pattern without the overshoot. All of the landings were quite good!

Hopefully my checkout will be complete in one more flight, which is currently scheduled for Saturday morning. Then, once I check out on the 160HP Cherokee Warrior, I'll have access to most of West Valley's fleet! I think these are enough to keep me busy for the time being, and there's always the greater challenge of the Cessna 182 and the Piper Saratoga for when I get bored!

Monday, October 23, 2006

Much more practice

I went out twice yesterday! The first time was at 1pm out of San Carlos. I went up in 610SP, and did six takeoffs and landings in the pattern. It's interesting -- just because you have your license, doesn't mean this stuff all of a sudden becomes automatic. It's a lot like practicing your swing-out in Lindy Hop; even if you've been dancing for years, you still tweak your swing-out. I don't know if landing is the same way, but so far it sure seems like it.

Anyway, so I think I finally shook off my ground shyness that had set in over the last couple of months of not flying very much. I got my landings to be on the center line. And I learned the hard way that Kaiser is not the same as the AT&T Tower (any SQL pilots reading this are pointing and laughing at me right now).

After that, I went again last night at 7:30pm out of Palo Alto. Sunset was at 6:26pm, so my goal was to go out and do three takeoffs and landings to maintain my night currency. I took 222MF, a really nice plane. It was so nice to do pattern work with nobody else around; while my six landings earlier took 1.3 hours, my four landings at night took only 0.7 hours, with a much, much longer taxi. I did four landings because the first one was kind of flat. The next three were great though, and on the last two I used my soft-field technique with some success.

This week, weather permitting, I'll check out on the Piper Archer. I've never been in a small low-wing aircraft before, so I'm very excited!

And by the way, I'm still lusting after the Diamond DA40-TDI. 5.0 GPH at cruise in a 4-seater! And Jet-A fuel, which is cheaper than 100LL. Trouble is, these aren't sold in the US :-(

Saturday, October 21, 2006

The importance of planning

I took 610SP out of SQL today, and it started out fine -- I decided I'd go out to Tracy, land, and come home. So I got my left crosswind departure, went out over Sunol, and then I realized: I had no plan at all. The GPS would tell me which direction to go, but..where am I? What altitude should I be at? What's the weather like in Tracy? What's my descent pattern? Basically, I got within about 10 miles of Tracy, realized I had no plan, saw how hazy it was, heard at least 4 other planes in the pattern, and decided to turn around and head back.

So I stopped and did a landing at Livermore, which was fine except that I couldn't understand one of the tower's instructions for the life of me (it ended up being "traffic on the runway" which was fairly obvious). Then I came back to San Carlos, landed, and waited 12 minutes behind a dozen other planes to take off again. So, only one more loop around the pattern. The landings were not nearly as good as yesterday, but still decent.

I'll go again tomorrow; either just stay in the pattern or go up with a plan.

Friday, October 20, 2006

A bit to the left

I went out and did some pattern work today. I flew 739TW out of Palo Alto -- a really nice plane! The day was pretty much completely perfect, so I decided to try and land as smoothly as possible. Everything went well, except that every landing was off the centerline to the left. I thought about it later and realized that I hadn't been using my right rudder during the flare -- and certainly left turning tendencies would take effect with a nose high attitude during the flare. So I'm going tomorrow and I'll try some more.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Practice again

Short post. I went out and did 0.9 hours of practice last Friday. It was a beautiful day, and I went up in the early morning so it was quiet and incredibly peaceful. I just did a few steep turns out between SLAC and Crystal Springs, then I went out by the ocean because it was clear. While I was out there I decided to try landing at Half Moon Bay, which is usually too fogged in. I was very clumsy about getting in the pattern, in large part becaus there are all kinds of hills to the east, which is where a right pattern for 30 would put me. So it was awkward. Then as I was descending on my downwind, I encountered so much turbulence that I bailed on the whole thing. "Half Moon Bay traffic, Cessna 54JA departing the area." Good thing nobody was listening.

That's about it. Landing back at SQL was uneventful. Hoping to go out and practice again sometime in the next few days.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Angwin Trip

Yesterday was the first time in about six months that I'd flown to an airport to which I'd never been. It marked a number of other milestones: my second Class B transition, my first night landing with a passenger, only the fourth passenger I'd taken up, my first time at an airport with no taxiways, my first time landing as high as 1850 feet (2000 and higher requires the mountain checkout), and the crossing of the 100 hour mark. What a day!

My friend Katherine wanted to go flying, and she came prepared with a plan: We'd fly to Angwin airport above the Napa Valley, get a cab over to Bothe State Park, go hiking, and come back. My first reaction was, holy cow, can I handle this? So I did some research, and basically could think of no reason I could not do this flight, despite the number of firsts and seconds involved. The previous two days had been pretty excessively windy, but yesterday was beautiful and calm. So we went!

Takeoff was uneventful. I had a lot of trouble understanding the SFO controllers for some reason, and on the way out I completely missed the fact that I had been given clearance into Class B airspace. They asked me why I'd turned away, and I had to sheepishly admit my mistake and thank them for their assistance. The rest of the journey up was great! We tracked the SAU VOR, then the SGD VOR. From there, my plan was to fly direct to Angwin, but the turbulence off the hills was pretty bad, so I decided instead to get over Napa Valley and follow it up. That was a good decision; things were much smoother. Kat actually found the airport first, which is impressive -- most non-pilots have a lot of trouble seeing tiny airports.

And tiny it was -- a single, narrow strip, no taxiways, and an upslope at the end, surrounded by trees on the top of a hill. What a totally different experience for me! We came in at about 4200 MSL, with the airport sitting at 1850 MSL and TPA at 2700 MSL, and me being nervous about the surrounding hills and trees. I chose runway 34 based on the windsock, and clumsily came into the pattern. My final approach was high, but I got it down in what turned into a pretty bad landing -- off center (on a narrow strip -- not the best idea!), and a little fast. There was a crosswind, and I came down on the upwind wheel correctly. I think the speed really was the biggest problem. But in any case, we got down, turned around and taxied back to the parking area at the approach end of 34.

We had lunch while waiting for the cab, and then went for a hike at the Bothe Napa Valley State Park. It wasn't the hike that we'd planned on, as we walked right past the entrance to the correct trail and got on the wrong trail. But it was great anyway! The cab picked us up at 6:30 as I got more and more nervous at the prospect of having to take off at night, on a runway whose lighting I was completely unsure of. But we got back to the airport and lifted off about 15 minutes before sunset, and headed south. I started to worry as I saw fog in the valleys toward the coast, so I called up Oakland Center and got the current weather for San Carlos: Sky clear. Whew! But I was having the hardest time seeing anything. Why can't I see anything? sunglasses are still on. Very clever!

On the way back, again I had a lot of trouble understanding the SFO controllers, so much that I think I had to say "Say again, please" four times. But whatever; we made it through. I contacted San Carlos, entered the pattern, and executed one of my best landings, especially fortunate considering that it was my first night landing with a passenger ever!

Overall it was a great trip! I highly recommend it. I clearly need practice with my Class B transitions, so that might be the next order of business. And I really want to fly more!

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Comfort zone?

It's been a month since I last flew. A MONTH! And a summer month at that. It's been a terrible waste of daylight, a waste of a summer that should have been spent in the air. Now, it's not been without its causes. For one thing, I've been happier recently with the rest of my life (job, home) and therefore less eager to run away and go flying. For another thing, I was without a car for all of August, which was problematic at best.

I love flying. It's such a tremendous feeling to be up in the air. But as it is such a new skill for me, it requires a LOT of maintenance. I've read The Killing Zone, and I'm doing exactly what The Killing Zone says not to do: Stop training, fly occasionally. From now on, that ends. I fly once a week at least, and make sure I have at least one "good" landing per week. If I fly a cross country, and both landings are merely "OK" then I've got to go out and do pattern work.

Anyway, so it's been a MONTH. And today almost didn't happen, except that I was determined to go -- not a good state of mind in general, but necessary today. First, I came to Palo Alto and found out the plane I'd reserved was actually in San Carlos. My goof. No other 172SPs were available at Palo Alto, and I didn't want to fly out of San Carlos because while it was windy in Palo Alto (9 KT direct crosswind), it was even windier in San Carlos (by a lot). Plus, I hadn't flown in a MONTH, and PAO is definitely my comfort zone. So to extend my comfort zone, I ended up in 6521J, the plane I did almost all of my training in; the plane that led me to my license in the first place. Good plane.

So: Preflight was totally smooth. Radio work, taxi and runup were all great. Takeoff was...acceptable. I correctly went controls into the wind, but I kept feeling like it wanted to take off too early. I think the trim is not properly marked for takeoff. So I took off. First time around the pattern, I came in on a relatively short approach and ... whoops, I'm way too high, I can't align myself with the runway, screw it, I'm going around. I went around; it was a good go-around (and dealing with carb-heat again at that, a "feature" that the 172SP neither has nor needs thanks to its electronic fuel injection). OK. Second pass...not too high this time, but man, that wind is a pain! Actually I came in too low. Added a bit of power, and 6521J does this thing where the engine hesitates when adding power from idle in flight. I'd forgotten about that, and it was freaky, so I added more power. THEN I was high. Go around again.

Third pass. This time I took a nice long approach. I got positioned early. I kept the crab angle all the way in, and this time the same thing happened as last time, but I panicked less, so I didn't end up way too high -- just a little. I landed long, halfway down the runway, and ugly, with a little bounce, but safely. OK, one landing. Taxi back.

Fourth pass. An even longer approach thanks to the controller wanting to let a few planes out. Fine with me. This time I kept the approach under control and didn't panic when I felt low. This is a recurring theme with me, I feel low when I'm not. I didn't land as long, and this time I landed on the upwind wheel, as I should. My nose came down early and I had trouble controlling the plane to a standstill, though I did it. Yes, getting better!

Fifth pass. Another nice long approach, not as long as the last. This time I maintained my TPA better, and planned my descent much better. I cut power right over the numbers. I did everything almost right, touching down on the upwind wheel. I think the nose wheel hit a little harder than it should have after that, but not a big deal. All in all, a decent landing! Still a little controlling issue after all three wheels were down. I think this gets to what they say about "continuing to fly the plane even when it's down."

So, hopefully I can try again in the next couple of days, and maybe in an SP!

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Lunch in Livermore

Today's flight was actually very tiring, considering that we only went to Livermore and back. For one thing, it was a plane I hadn't flown before, so I always do an extra careful preflight. For another thing, my sister Shilpa and her fiance (and my good friend) Bud were with us, and they had many questions. It was great, it really gave me an opportunity to teach them a lot of what I'd learned, and frankly to remember some details that are generally..not forgotten, but compartmentalized..after the checkride.

It was really fun for me to take them up, as they are among the (many) people who expressed some consternation about flying in small planes. Afterwards, they said they had a great experience and gave every indication that they'd have no problem going up again, which is a good sign!

The flight itself was pretty uneventful except that the visibility was lower than I'd been used to going in. It was listed at 10SM. My yardstick has been that if I couldn't see the hills to the east of Fremont (probably about 20SM away) I wasn't going, at least not in that direction. Today, I could barely see the outline of the hills, and I'd cancelled flights in these conditions before. But today we went, and it was fine. So I have a new, lower personal minimum for visibility, which in this case I think is a good thing.

The only other eventful part was trying to find my way around Livermore ground. I basically wasn't totally prepared and kind of blew it, and the controller kind of handed me my hat at first, but then helped me out. I do need to do better at studying ground diagrams before going off to new airports.

Beeb's at Livermore is excellent, by the way.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Clouds at night are scary

I read somewhere that pilots start out with a bag full of luck and an empty bag in which to put their experience. The trick is to fill the experience bag faster than you empty the luck bag.

Tonight I definitely filled the experience bag some, and took something out of the luck bag. I flew to Modesto for the final day of the County Fair Gig From Hell, after checking the weather and feeling quite sure that the marine layer was not coming in until 2 or 3 in the morning. The flight out was quite nice -- windy, at both ends, but nice otherwise. I got flight following, which made my transition into Modesto really easy.

I parked at regular transient parking this time, and the place was nearly deserted. Very strange, and very different from the Sky Trek experience from last time. This came into play when I got back to the airport at 9:30pm, and ... I didn't have the code for the gate. All the doors were locked. I had no way to get to my plane, until a very nice guy opened the door for the local flying club. Whew, was I lucky. Experience says: Never leave your plane without knowing the gate code.

I took off without incident, and kept contemplating getting flight following and then getting distracted by trying to stay on course or avoiding other planes. Soon enough, I was near Livermore, cruising along at 4500', and all was well. Then I was past Livermore, and ... what exactly am I looking at, down there below me? Hey, I know what that's a SOLID deck of clouds!

Alright: Options. 1. Go to Livermore. It's wide open, I know I can get there, and it's inconvenient but it's ground. 2. I can see that there are some clouds over the east bay, but I can see the far side of the bay. See if I can just play giant slalom with the clouds. 3. Call up NorCal and ask for help.

I decided for option 2, keeping options 1 and 3 as a backup plan. I descended down past 3000 as I cleared the Sunol hills, so as not to break the SFO class B. There were clouds over the bay, but there were also clear patches, and I could see some lights where I thought San Carlos should be. Palo Alto was in the clear, so I knew I could go there.

I descended to 2000, then as I got over the east end of the Dumbarton Bridge, I brought it down to 1400 and called up the CTAF for San Carlos and announced my presence, and asked for advisories. Eerie silence. Two large dark splotches loomed at my 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock positions, so I concentrated on the lights dead ahead, which conveniently corresponded to where I thought San Carlos airport was (and my GPS agreed). I turned on my taxi and landing lights -- what the heck, let's get through this stuff lit up like a Christmas tree. Wisps of cloud entered my visual field and I went through them. I started to worry -- am I going into a cloud? No, I can still see the lights ahead. Keep going. I'm sure I just busted my 2000' horizontal cloud clearance requirement. Whatever, keep going.

After that, I was pretty much at the cement plant, the reporting point for entering on right base (which in my radio calls I'd been calling "left base") for runway 30. The area around the airport was clear, though I was really trying not to go around because the area just north of the airport was NOT clear. My landing was good, and I taxied to parking and let out a huge sigh of relief.

I was lucky. Experience says: Never fly back to the Bay Area without getting a recent weather report. 1-800-WXBRIEF had gone to a recording, and I never bothered calling FlightWatch or an FSS. That was pretty stupid.

The Stanislaus County Fair is now over and hopefully my flying in the near future will be more fun and less stressful.


Here are the METARS from SFO/SJC/OAK/HWD:

KSJC 070636Z 36007KT 10SM FEW011 SCT019 BKN026 16/12 A2996 RMK AO2
KOAK 070553Z 27011KT 10SM OVC012 16/12 A2998 RMK AO2 SLP150 T01560117 10200 20156 51010
KHWD 070554Z AUTO 27010KT 10SM OVC012 16/12 A2996 RMK AO2 SLP155 T01610122 10200 20161 51009
KSFO 070556Z 28014KT 10SM FEW009 OVC012 15/11 A2997 RMK AO2 SLP149 T01500111 10189 20150 51012

Hayward, Oakland and San Francisco are all reporting overcast at 1200. San Jose is reporting a less intense experience, which is basically what I saw. San Carlos is about halfway between San Francisco and San Jose.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Flying to a Gig!

Today was the first time I successfully flew to a gig! I've been performing with my a cappella group Boyz Nite Out at the Stanislaus County Fair for the last 9 days, which seems totally unbelievable. It's been such an effort to get out and perform every day, and I can't believe I still have 2 days left.

Anyway, that's a different story. The real story is that I actually flew to Modesto today, and I flew back after the gig at night! The flight there was quick and easy, except that I got there much faster than I thought I would and had to take a quick descent path. When I got there, the main terminal building (where I thought I wanted to go) was closed, so the tower directed me to Sky Trek Aviation, an FBO next to the terminal. I landed, and what a squeaker! One of my best landings ever, so great that I actually was cheering out loud for myself! I taxied over to Sky Trek, and they helped me park. They actually waived their $25 fee even though I bought no gas (I intended to, but I'd used so little that they had nothing to fill).

The gig was quite good, one of our better sets. But performing takes a lot of energy. I got to Sky Trek at about 9:15, and did a thorough preflight before taking off. I set the VOR to the opposite as it was when I came in, and sure enough it led me directly to Tracy. I turned on my portable GPS (the one in the plane was completely uncooperative) and it helped guide me back to San Carlos.

San Carlos was a bit stressful; I asked for advisories, and somebody with a thick French accent murmered something completely unintelligible. Then a few minutes later, he said he was lining up on runway 12, which was news to me because I was preparing myself for 30. Anyway, I made left traffic for 12..or I tried to anyway. I could not see the airport! At all!! So I guessed. Turned out, I guessed right, which is a very lucky thing. Since I wasn't sure where I was, I turned base very early (I got really nervous about keeping clear of SFO's class B airspace), and my final leg was very steep and my landing quite long. But all is well that ends well!

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Getting Back Into It

It has been a while since I've written, and as you might expect, it's been a while since I've flown. A strange combination of events, or in some cases, non-events, put me in kind of a strange place with respect to flying. After my last practice session, I'd planned to take a plane out to Mather Field near Sacramento for a gig. But when I got to San Carlos, I could not see the Sunol hills. It wasn't cloudy, just really hazy, and certainly seemed like less than the reported 10SM visibility. In any case, if I didn't really have to be at a gig, I probably would've gone up, checked it out, and turned around if I got uncomfortable, but without the luxury of time, I got in my car and drove as fast as I could.

That, combined with a couple of other aborted flights due to what I considered to be marginal weather, combined with my reading of "The Killing Zone," basically caused me to become a little less comfortable with the entire concept of flight in a small craft. I've spent 90 hours piloting these planes, but somehow it started just feeling like there's so much I don't know and I put myself in so much danger.

So I didn't fly for a while, which is both good and bad. I finally went out last Thursday, and decided I should do my standard 5-landing practice. I went out to PAO and flew 751SP. The session actually went way better than expected. I'd ducked out from work, so I felt some time pressure, which caused me to not think so much about my radio calls. And guess what? They were fine! And my landings were quite good -- my nose (meaning, the plane's nose) is still a little unstable on my approaches in the wind, but the touchdowns are consistently good.

So today I went out again, and decided I need to get used to going to other airports. Why? Because the 11-day-in-a-row gig in Turlock is coming up, and I'm really hoping to fly to at least some of these shows. I needed a bit more landing practice, preferably trying out the soft-field landings too (since I need that for the night landings), and also to go to a different airport. So today I flew to Livermore and did 4 landings there, two soft-field and two normal. They were pretty good -- again, my touchdowns were great, but my approaches were high. Stable, but high. My last landing at PAO was better, so I think it's just getting used to a 1000 foot pattern altitude.

There were some trippy clouds, and a touch of pretty nasty turbulence on the way back, but all in all everything went really smoothly. So I may try to get a night flight in before Thursday; otherwise, I'll just go and hope for the best!

One thing is sure -- my confidence is returning, and I think one of the good side-effects of my little bout with myself is that now that I've thought about all that I don't know, hopefully I'll be better at preparation, and more motivated to take the next steps in my learning.

Friday, June 30, 2006


It took me a while, but I finally came to the conclusion that even though I now have my private pilot's license, I still need to keep doing what I was doing before and go out and practice. Prior to today's flight, I hadn't flown in two weeks. And guess what? The same thing happens now after a long layoff as before I got the license. The piece of paper does not keep me from getting rusty and losing my feel for the plane and for landing.

So I went out and practiced today. I want to fly to Sacramento on July 4 (my band has a show), but I would not have been comfortable just getting in a plane after 2.5 weeks off. My goal today was to do 5 landings in a 172SP, at Palo Alto. Pretty much my standard pre-license drill.

So I went out in 751MF, a 2000 172SP. When I got to PAO, it was a beautiful day, but much windier than I'd thought. The METAR report said the wind was from 340 at 12 knots but the windsock said that it was gusty and shifting a little, but mostly right down the runway. Good practice day!

Starting up the plane went totally smoothly! That was gratifying, since the last time I had some trouble. I paused for a long time prior to giving my radio call; when I haven't done it in a while I feel the need to make sure I know exactly what I'll be saying. Of course, someone wound up stepping on my transmission so I had to say it 3 times anyway.

The first couple of laps were a little frustrating in that everyone and their brother was leaving Palo Alto for the long weekend. There were eight planes in line to take off at one point! I was #4. Another time I was #5 to land. So I was not able to make normal patterns; everything was getting extended out, and that combined with my lack of practice and the wind conditions pretty much made my first two landings sub-ideal. They were not bad; I touched down gently, and both times rather extremely on the upwind wheel. I'm not sure if that was really necessary, because the sock was saying the wind was almost directly down the runway, but on the other hand I was just reacting to what the plane was doing, so maybe it was OK.

The third landing attempt was bad, and I wound up pushing the power full and going around. I executed the go-around OK, except that I lost pitch control of the plane for a few seconds upon adding power. Pretty scary so close to the ground. Now this might sound a little overconfident or cocky, but it's not and I'll explain why in a sec: I'm very glad that my reflexes tend to compensate for my lack of experience. In this case, I put myself in a little bit of a scary situation and was pitching up and down very close to the ground, but my instincts said "Level the plane!" and that's what I did, which was the right thing. The reason I say it's not cocky is that even though this has happened a few times, I still cannot and do not ever expect it to happen, and use that as an excuse to either stop learning or stop doing everything I can in the planning phase.

Anyway, so I went around, and my third landing was pretty decent. By this time I was thinking about just terminating, but the amount of traffic dropped off dramatically, so I stayed and did landings #4 and #5, both of which were quite good.

So, all in all, I'm very glad I went. It was exhausting, and I made a few small mistakes (I forgot to turn on my beacon on the first lap, and I couldn't understand what I assume was a "position and hold" call at one point), but all in all it was really good, and I handled the wind pretty well. I think I'll be ready for Tuesday, but just in case, I have time scheduled on Sunday and Monday too. I need to do at least one of those, because they're both in San Carlos, which is where I'll be flying from on Tuesday.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Bay Tour

Today Nirmala and I went up for a little trip up over SFO, the City, and the north coast. It was a beautiful sunny day, which was part of the motivation, but the other part of the story is that we have to go to a wedding in Lodi tomorrow, and before we can do that I need to get my night currency up, which means I need three takeoffs and landings at least one hour after sunset, before I can fly with a passenger at night (and we'll be coming back at night tomorrow). Also, I hadn't flown in nearly two weeks, so I didn't want my first flight to be at night. So, we went for a daytime flight. Originally I was just going to do pattern work, but Nirmala wanted to come with me, and I was pretty sure she'd be bored of the pattern pretty quickly!

So we went to SQL -- as we drove up, I saw N236SP (the plane I'd reserved) in its parking spot, with the flaps extended! Very strange, I thought, but we went into the club and checked out the book. It turns out that the battery has a draining problem, and the plane would not start for a renter last night -- and nothing had been done since the squawk (I guess nobody even went out and looked at it to put the flaps back in!). The only other 172 (SP or otherwise) available was 4849D, an older 172N, old enough to have the 40 degrees of flaps.

We had to sit for a while as I convinced myself that I was indeed ready to try a Class B transition. After a while, I figured, what's the worst that can happen? What I'm nervous about is not a piloting issue, nor a weather issue, nor anything that is really all that hazardous; what I was worried about was just the workload and whether I could handle it. And the workload was pretty much making sure I could hear my clearances, altitudes and routing, and frequencies. So we went for it.

Things didn't start out so well; I actually had to ask my passenger what SQL ground said! Turned out it was "squawk code on request." That was mildly embarrassing, and I'm sure it didn't inspire confidence. But whatever. We went out to the 12 runup, ran up, and took off on a left downwind. I wasn't sure what altitude to go to, so I went to 1200'. SQL Tower handed me off to SFO Tower, and I stated my request. I had to circle over Bay Meadows once before entering Class B, but no big deal -- Nirmala said she saw Whole Foods.

So up north we went! It was totally smooth, I got handed off to Norcal Approach, who eventually asked me if I was going to stay in the north bay for a while. After an affirmative response, he let me go and we flew up the coast up to Point Reyes, where we'd been hiking the previous weekend. The weather was beautiful! Only a little turbulence going over the hills, but otherwise it was totally smooth.

We took an inland route back, over 101 and the Golden Gate. I used the wrong frequency first to contact approach, but no big deal. I called the right frequency and they cleared me into Class B, so we went back down over the City, and followed 101 down. I had not gotten the SQL ATIS weather, so approach gave me the numbers -- by this time, the winds had shifted and SQL was using runway 30 instead of 12 that we took off on. So I crossed over at 1200', entered a right pattern a little high, entered final right on target, and....what a crappy landing. Flat, too fast, a little bounce, and a nearly skidding halt.

So tonight I might go out and take care of my night currency requirements, but we'll see how I feel. Otherwise we'll just drive to Lodi tomorrow!

Saturday, June 03, 2006

$100 Sandwiches in Salinas!

I'm writing this nearly two weeks after the fact, but I wanted to document that it had happened. This was my first cross country flight post-license, and first with a passenger! Nirmala and I flew down to Salinas for lunch. I had landed at Salinas twice before during my training, so I was pretty comfortable with the airport.

We went to SQL to pick up N54JA, but when we got there, I overheard the receptionist (that's not the right word, but I'm going with it) on the phone with someone, saying that they were stuck in Half Moon Bay after the fog had rolled in. Which airplane? 54JA. She was saying, "Well, someone else has the plane, and I can't really cancel..." Meanwhile, I was outside thinking, hopefully these crosswinds don't get worse! So upon hearing this, I went in, and cancelled it.

It turned out that 222MF was available at Palo Alto, so we drove down to PAO, got 222MF, and after a little trouble starting her up, we took off toward Salinas!

This flight reminded me of my long solo cross country, in that there were patchy clouds out there that I had to avoid. But this time my comfort level was much higher, given that I'd done it before. We flew down at 5500', and everything went great. I remembered everything, including the leaning on the way down. My landing was a little bit hard due to a high flare, but not so bad.

The lunch was quite good! The sandwiches were big, and the curly fries were delicious. And the price (not counting the flight itself, of course) was very reasonable. Recommended!

So we headed back for Palo Alto, this time at 4500'. Some more cloud avoidance on the way back, but again, nothing too bad. We reported over SLAC, entered a left pattern for runway 31 at PAO, landed, and went home!

Hopefully the first of many!

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Crosswind Practice

Yesterday I completed my checkout in the 172SP, which is great since West Valley Flying Club has about 10 SPs between San Carlos and Palo Alto, and only two regular 172s that I'm willing to fly. Plus the SPs are newer and more comfortable, especially for passengers. Now I can start flying people around!

Steve and I then took an hour and tried to get my crosswind landing technique to be better. My previous attempts were all messed up; I'd get blown all over the place, and let the wind get up under my upwind wing, which is really a dangerous thing to do -- a great way to lose control of the plane and potentially get flipped over.

I'd been taught to do the whole approach crabbing into the wind (i.e. like a boat crossing a river points several degrees upstream to go across in a straight line, the classic trigonometry problem), and then at the end, straighten the nose with the rudder and drop the upwind wing. But that was getting too challenging, too many things happening at once, since I also had to think about the landing flare. So this time we did the whole approach aligned with the runway and with the upwind wing low. We did a couple of rounds splitting the controls; first I controlled the ailerons for alignment and he controlled the rudders, and then we traded. Then I tried to put it together. By the end, I had it kind of working, but not smoothly. I'm still overcontrolling with the yoke, deflecting too far instead of just making small corrections, and controlling too little with the rudders. But I'm getting it; I think one more lesson and I'll have it!

In the meantime I can fly SPs out of the more wind-friendly Palo Alto!

Sunday, May 21, 2006

First 172SP Flight

I took my first flight in a 172SP, N236SP out of San Carlos, last Wednesday. It was a little crazy; I was supposed to meet Steve (the instructor) at 4:00. I had a meeting at work from 3:00 to 3:30, and at 3:30 the CEO walked in and the meeting then got extended. At 3:55, I walked out of the meeting and got to the airport by 4:15.

Steve and I started by going over the major differences between a 172 and a 172SP. There are 13 fuel drains instead of 3 -- they tried to reduce fuel sloshing by contouring the bottom of the tanks, but that resulted in fuel, and possibly impurities, getting stuck in certain spots. So they drilled holes in those spots and installed drains that now must be checked during preflight. Brilliant.

The SP is fuel injected, so no more worrying about carburetor heat! Also, the fuel selector switch has no "off" position; instead there is a separate cutoff control. The startup procedure is bizarre: Priming is no longer manual, but instead, the auxiliary fuel pump is used. So: Throttle 1/4" forward, mixture full rich, turn on the fuel pump, wait for the slightest bit of movement on the fuel flow meter (it calls for 5GPH, but that's a tiny bump the way the gauge is set up), then pull the mixture full lean and kill the pump. Then, start the ignition, and advance the mixture to full rich when it fires, and immediately adjust the throttle for 1000RPM.

Crazy, huh?

After that, things are pretty normal. I got dinged a couple of times for advancing the throttle too quickly, which apparently is never good practice but fuel injected engines particularly hate. We did a Bay Meadows departure, and did a steep turn, slow flight and stall out over Crystal Springs Reservoir. The plane handled so well! Once I got it trimmed, it would just stay there! Amazing. The old 172s are so loose, that this just felt great.

We came back in and did some pattern work. My first approach and landing were all over the place, and Steve told me so. He demonstrated one, and then I did one. The last one was good except I flared high.

And that was it! So hopefully sometime this week I will complete the checkout, and be able to take passengers up in style!

Thursday, May 18, 2006

First Passenger

Two weekends ago, I took my first passenger in the air! What a rush. We were in 6521J, my trusty old training plane. I felt like an airline captain! I gave a safety briefing, demonstrated the use of the safety belts, and showed how to latch doors open in the event of an emergency. How cool was that!

We had a bit of a limited timeframe. My passenger Nirmala was not the least bit scared; she was cool as a cucumber. We had a little bit of trouble getting her headset to work; the first time the headset was just broken. The second time, the headset would not pick up her voice and transmit, so I had to talk first and then she could answer. Not a bad arrangement!

So we decided to fly out over Half Moon Bay and try to fly over the coast for a while. I asked for a left Dumbarton departure out of PAO and got clearance to taxi. Nirmala said, "I didn't understand a word of that!" We taxied over to 31, did a run-up, and got clearance to take off. I started the roll, and we lifted off. Nirmala told me later that at that point, she got scared.

The rest of the flight was pretty smooth. We flew over Half Moon Bay, but clouds were coming in, so we turned around, transitioned back through Palo Alto airspace and out toward Sunol, and then around and back in with a pretty smooth landing.

Now I'm training in the 172SP so that my next passenger will be more comfortable.