Saturday, May 05, 2007

Oh. My. God.

The only thing I can say about today is that it was difficult. It was not fun, I don't even think it was educational, it was just difficult. And annoying -- difficult and annoying. Holy crap.

My plan was to go to Nancy's Diner at Willows (KWLW) Airport. It's a 24 hour diner, and I thought it'd make a great midnight destination, so I wanted to scope it out in daylight hours. Today looked beautiful; no clouds anywhere, and good visibility. It started out a little bit windy, but not a big deal.

I took off straight out from PAO, contacted SQL tower like a pro, got cleared through SFO's class B, and was on my way. During the transition, I hit quite a bit of turbulence passing SFO. Didn't think too much of it, I just figured that once I climbed to my cruise altitude, 6500, everything would be fine. As I got out over the bay, I started my climb and held it at 4500 by the time I got to SGD VOR. It was not any smoother, but it was manageable. At this point I noticed that I was having a lot of trouble with keeping the plane at a constant altitude. I'd set it up, and suddenly the engine sounded like it was racing, the RPMs were 100 higher than before, and I was climbing. So I'd reduce it, re-trim it get it all set up again, and a few minutes later, it would be descending, airspeed decreasing and power down by 50 RPM. I never did figure this out; it could have been an effect of the strong and shifting wind, but I don't know.

I continued climbing to 6500, and it got a little more manageable. I was starting to wonder whether I was still on flight following, because I'd heard nothing at all from the controller in about 40 minutes, but as I passed the Maxwell VOR I got switched to a new frequency. Shortly thereafter I began my descent and made left traffic for runway 34 at Willows. The approach was bumpy, but again, nothing too concerning.

I had lunch at Nancy's, which was really good, and only $7.50 including tip for 2 eggs, excellent hash browns and toast. I'm going back soon!

Then the fun started. I got back into N81034, got all set up, went to start, and...nothing. After a few more attempts I realized that every time I tried to start I lost electrical power entirely. Great. I'm stuck in Willows, and kind of need to be home at some point in the near I called the club. They were pretty much useless; I guess maintenance doesn't work on the weekends? I don't know, but eventually I found someone at the airport who knew how to jump start an airplane. I was so clueless, but luckily the guy knew more than me. "12 or 24 volts?" he asks me, like I'm supposed to know..I probably AM supposed to know, but you any case, the POH had all the answers, and he quickly figured out exactly how to get it done. It's just like jump starting a car, pretty much, and it did work, so after careful examination of the alternator gauge, and making sure it wasn't on 0 (it was close, but not 0), off I went. I was very nervous about whether the alternator was working -- I know I didn't leave the master switch on, even though that's the simplest explanation. I have no other explanation. I started out with the GPS (which I was only using as a comm device; it was pretty old) and the DME off to save electrical power, but as I flew it made its way back so I turned the additional equipment back on.

I took off and headed back south. Everything seemed to be in order as I climbed to 5500 and got flight following from a friendly controller. But then I started really getting knocked around by turbulence. And it just kept getting worse! I climbed to 7500, and it pretty much didn't help at all. I crossed SGD VOR at 7500, getting knocked all over the place, just trying to maintain a wings level attitude, which was actually somewhat challenging at times. When I had the Golden Gate in sight, I started a descent (hesitantly) and got handed off to a new controller. That controller told me to cross the Coliseum at or above 3500. What?? I told her that was inconvenient from my present location north of the Golden Gate. She cleared me through Class B at or below 2000. OK, that's better.

SFO Tower had other ideas, though. Instead of the usual transition at 2000 west of Highway 101, he routed me over Candlestick Park and to mid-span San Mateo bridge, at or below 1500. This was not comfortable -- it's the widest part of the bay, and I was still getting destroyed by turbulence. Losing 100 feet suddenly at 6500 is not a big deal. Losing 100 feet suddenly at 1500 feet IS a big deal, at least to me. About half way to the bridge, SFO Tower must have sensed my consternation, and gave me a new altitude of "at or below 1000." Bloody hell. OK, so now I'm at 1000...UNH! I mean, 850 feet above the water with no hope of any sort of emergency landing should anything go wrong with my engine, which, by the way, was still shifting somewhat erratically by 50-100 knots, not that I had any time to be concerned about that since I kept worrying that I would end up upside-down due to some jolt of turbulence.

Finally I was talking to PAO tower, and got the numbers at Palo Alto: Wind 310 at 20 knots. 20 knots, but right down the runway, thank goodness. My landing was bad, but safe -- level too high, balloon, add power, releveling, balloon again, add a little power, level too high, land flat. But safely. I taxied to my parking row and crawled out of the plane, and sat on all fours on the wing for a minute, breathing deeply, really glad to be on the ground.

And now I'm totally exhausted. I did a few things well; I did a good job maintaining my altitude for the most part, given the circumstances, and I did a very good job tracking VORs and courses. Fuel management was good. I did not keep track of the time elapsed on my trip; that wasn't so good. I did deal with an unexpected situation reasonably well, swallowing my pride and asking questions. My radio work was excellent, with the possible exception of the controller who told me to fly to the Coliseum. And I got 3.1 hours of cross country time. And a good breakfast. All in all, a decent bit of experience. Just no fun.

Update: There were definitely PIREPs of moderate turbulence all around the area, and a few of severe turbulence. Also, a Cessna made an emergency landing on a road in Newark, CA after losing its engine and electrical system, allegedly because of turbulence. I'm not sure how that works; I suppose a bad enough hit could shake something loose, but engine AND electrical? That's some bad luck. Apparently though the pilot showed some incredible airmanship to get the plane down on the street that had high tension electrical wires on either side of it, so I'm sure he'll call it even.

I now know my fears were justified when flying at 900' over the middle of the bay in this stuff.

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