Sunday, January 13, 2008

Contingency Plans

The rain is gone, and with it went the sorrow of instrument training. OK, not entirely true; the rain will be back at some point and the instrument training will one day be less sorrowful.

The bird strike from last week left a few repercussions in its wake. N222MF is still off the line since then as they give it a thorough examination (my apologies to the owner, again), and a few days ago I received an email from my instructor that indicated that I would be liable for any damages incurred, up to the club's deductible.

West Valley Flying Club has a "deductible waiver" program that they introduced last year. It's a good idea, because these deductibles are fairly high -- as I just found out, the deductible in a no-pilot-error scenario such as mine is $3500. The deductible when there is found to be pilot error is $5000. However, I was turned off from the deductible waiver program because of how hard they kept pushing it. When an organization pushes something that hard, I'm always suspicious, so I opted instead to keep my AOPA renter's insurance, which covers me up to $5000 on aircraft damage, and has an additional liability component. The AOPA policy also has the added advantage of being useful on non-WVFC aircraft.

Well, after the recent course of events, I strongly encourage any pilot to have SOME kind of deductible insurance. $3500 is a lot of money, even in aviation, and spending $100-$150 to protect oneself from that is totally worth it.

Today, my pilot-friend Roland and I went up to Napa for breakfast. We got to Palo Alto around 9:00 (actually, I got there at 9; Roland was there I think at 8:30!!), and faced our now-standard dilemma of deciding where to go. We really wanted to go to Petaluma, but it's impossible to get weather reports from anywhere near there, so we decided to try Petaluma but keep Napa as a contingency plan.

We took off straight out from Palo Alto, switched to San Carlos tower, requested a Bravo transition and were denied.

Denied? Turns out San Carlos had had a power failure and had no ability to grant a squawk code for a transition or handle the handoff. Nice. "Climb above our airspace and talk to Norcal," they said. Um...the airspace immediately above yours is Class B, we implored, but we were ignored. Fine. So we made a hard left and weaved a path in between San Carlos' airspace and the Palo Alto Class D we'd just departed. This would've been much less likely to succeed without GPS. We went out west, and gave Norcal Approach a call to request the transition. Once they figured out who we were, where we were and what we wanted (I don't know why it took so long; I told them all that on the first call), we were vectored for a coastal route at 3500' until we got to the Golden Gate Bridge, at which point we were allowed to navigate on our own.

The route to Petaluma was looking unpassable due to a solid cloud layer at about 1500'. So, we turned toward Napa. Norcal turned us back toward Petaluma for traffic, and then handed us off, which gave us a perfect opportunity to get ATIS at Napa, and tell the next controller at Oakland Center that our destination was Napa. As was the case all day, about 30 seconds after we got really impatient waiting for the controller, they gave us what we needed, which in this case was the handoff to Napa Tower. The landing was smooth, and we taxied in and had a nice brunch at Jonesy's Restaurant.

On the way back out, Roland took the left seat, and we took a right downwind departure off Runway 6 at APC. Once we left APC's class D, we tried to raise Norcal -- we agreed that I'd handle the Norcal communications for this, because it's a busy frequency and that way Roland could concentrate on flying. So I called Norcal. No response. Three minutes pass, I try again. No response. And again, several minutes later...same result. Ordinarily I wouldn't care, but we needed a Bravo transition, so I tried once more, and got a terse response that contained our callsign and a squawk code. Perfect, it's all we needed. Clearly the controllers at Oakland Center were busy today because traffic alerts were not a high priority -- evidenced most notably by one pretty close call where I was checking a chart and Roland I think had looked down briefly to check something (power setting or whatever), and he looked up and said, "Look at this guy!" So I looked, and there was another Cessna 172 headed right for us, opposite direction, same altitude, about a half mile off. Roland turned us to the right, and immediately afterwards we got handed off to Norcal Approach.

Norcal Approach was much better (despite seemingly being more busy...), gave us several traffic alerts, and cleared us through Class B. We were handed off to SFO Tower, and as they prepared to hand us off to San Carlos Tower, they said, "Descend to pattern altitude at your discretion." What? Whose pattern? You want me to fly from SFO to PAO at 1000'? Uh..OK....but of course our response was just "9TW, descending, own discretion." So we came down to 1200' which was the usual thing and switched to SQL Tower in time to hear him chew someone out pretty good for apparently not being able to follow an instruction. First it was "Make immediate right turn to avoid crossing into Bravo." Then it was a pretty good (but calm) tirade along the lines of "I'm not sure how I can say it any more clear than 'at or above 1200.' You need to follow these instructions." Nice; I thought the controller handled it very well, though the pilot merely acknowledged the transmission with his callsign, which left us looking for him so we could avoid him.

At the appropriate time we gave Palo Alto Tower a call, and .... nothing. I felt like a doctor with a dying heart patient and a defibrillator: AGAIN!! We called; nothing. Roland turned right to attempt to skirt around PAO's airspace until we were acknowledged. A few seconds later, we got a traffic alert: "9TW, traffic 9 o' clock 1700." OK..that counts as acknowledgement, right? So, onward. Still no landing clearance, no pattern instructions, instructions for other planes to look out for the "Cessna over 101 at 1200" meaning us. Finally one more call: "Palo Alto Tower, Skyhawk 739TW over Stanford 1200, we'd like to land, we have Golf." The response: "739TW, number one, cleared to land." Uh....OK, left turn for base! Roland maneuvered through the abbreviated pattern and set it down.

A fun flight, I thought, with lots of randomness on the radios to keep life interesting. And a new destination for me!

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