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.

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