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!