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.