Wednesday, January 02, 2008

December Flights

One of the things that I've found a little bit disappointing about aviation is how solitary an activity it has been for me. I've taken cross country voyages by myself, I've gone and practiced by myself, and I haven't really met other pilots except for my instructors, who are great and I consider each of them to be a friend, but there have only been three. So in reflecting on the four flights I took in December, I'm psyched to discover that each one had a really nice social component to it.

Earlier in the month, I took my friend Barbara and her cousin Alice, who was visiting from Boston, on a Bay Tour. We got possibly the nicest day ever for it -- not a shred of turbulence, great visibility, not a huge amount of traffic, and a nice plane (610SP at San Carlos). As we went north through SFO's Class B, they routed us directly over midfield of SFO International, as a couple of the big guys took off in sequence on parallel runways beneath us. It was a beautiful sight, so much so that my passengers later told me that that was their favorite part of the trip! I guess it doesn't take a pilot to appreciate that view.

We continued north, checked out Alcatraz and the Golden Gate, and went all the way up the coast to Point Reyes. Turning back toward the Bay, we came over the mountains, back down over the Bay, over the Golden Gate again and down the coast toward Half Moon Bay, before cutting back in toward SQL. My landing was a greaser!

On the way out, we fell into conversation with a couple of guys from the club. One of them, Roland, was complaining about the lack of social interaction with other pilots, so we traded numbers, and a couple of weeks later (on Christmas Eve), after canceling one flight due to borderline weather, we took N35583 on a trip down to Watsonville (WVI), where I had never been. I really enjoyed flying with Roland -- he's got the same level of conservative decision making that I do, which was really nice, and I think possibly the most important thing about flying with another pilot. I took the outbound leg; we had to do some creative navigation to avoid clouds, but we ended up on the coast and made our way in. WVI's runways are huge! And as a result, I did the standard thing and flared high, but recovered for a decent landing. Zuniga's, the Mexican restaurant on the field, was closed, but we walked a bit and found the Happy Garden Chinese restaurant, which was actually quite good. Roland took the inbound leg, and we hit a fair bit of pretty heavy turbulence, which shook us up pretty good, but no permanent damage!

On New Year's Eve, I took N35583 again to Tracy to visit my friends Ian and Jessica and their awesome family. I've known Ian since High School, and the fact that he lives in Tracy gave me a nice excuse to hop in an airplane, practice an approach and turn it into a social visit. I flew the GPS-A into Tracy...kind of; I never actually contacted Norcal, so I didn't go all the way to Manteca VOR (the IAF), which lies inside Stockton's class D airspace (I could've scooted above it, but why be in the way?). Instead I got outside MANCO intersection (the first fix after the IAF) and pretended I got a vector. There was traffic in the pattern at Tracy, so I never descended below 2000 before entering a normal pattern for left traffic runway 30.

The way home was a bit more adventurous. When we arrived at Tracy Municipal, at around 6pm, all the entrance gates were closed and locked. Perfect. This had happened once before, but one of the gates had a gap big enough to sneak through. Not this time. So I ended up having to scale the fence, the whole time expecting air-raid sirens to go off and officers with machine guns to apprehend me, take one look at me and ship me off to Gitmo. Thankfully, none of that happened, but my friend kept his headlights on me as I walked toward the tarmac. I was thinking, "shut those off!!" but it was actually probably a good thing, to make it highly obvious to anyone watching/apprehending me that I was not trying to commit a crime (because how stupid would that be?).

The adventure didn't end there; I had a hard time finding runway 26 (which the winds were heavily favoring) because the lights weren't working. Perfect. They flashed on occasionally, but would not stay on for more than a 1/2 second. It was enough for me to ascertain that I was on a runway, which was enough for me to take off, but it wasn't the most comfortable experience, and in the stress of that I forgot to switch my transponder to ALT. I realized just after liftoff, so no biggie, but I made a note to myself: You're getting sloppy. I resolved to pay extra attention for the duration of the flight, and thanks to that, the rest of the flight was uneventful and I greased a nice nighttime landing at SQL.

The next day, New Year's Day, I asked Roland to be my safety pilot as I did a few practice approaches. We went up in N35583 again (nice plane!), and started by going out to Stockton for the VOR 29R approach. I put the hood on as soon as we entered level flight at 5500 -- my first time under the hood with no instructor present. But things went pretty well; I had a little trouble visualizing the holding pattern in lieu of procedure turn, but got it eventually and in plenty of time. On the inbound leg, things started going south a little; basically upon crossing the FAF I forgot to descend, for some reason (something distracted me). But at the MAP (more or less) I called the missed and flew it reasonably well, and entered the hold at ORANG. Roland informed me that I wasn't really near the runway at all, which didn't surprise me much -- I veered pretty heavily when trying to make a steep descent. Lesson: if something goes awry, just execute the missed, don't get clever. I went once around the hold to set up for the GPS-A at Tracy, which we did next.

This one was smoother, and again we only descended to 1600 before flying the missed. My hold at TRACY was a little weaker, and I was behind the airplane really for the first time. But I caught up, with the help of the autopilot, and set up for Livermore ILS 25R. Turns out the winds at LVK were favoring runways 7L/R, which I've never landed on, and I'd not done the ILS 25R circle to land either. Also, I knew that the minimums for LVK were NOTAMed to be higher than on my plates, but I didn't have the higher minimums due to a series of unfortunate events. I flew the ILS as an autopilot coupled approach down to 1400, and at 1100 at the instruction of the tower, began my circle to the south. At that point, I broke off the approach and went visual, and we headed back to SQL. Let me just say, it was really nice to be in a plane with TCAS -- there was a lot of traffic, including one that was same altitude/opposite direction that we didn't see for a while due to the hazy conditions.

It was an incredibly instructive flight! It's very different without an instructor sitting next to you, and being unable to see. There is a safety net, obviously, in the safety pilot, but it's in a much different place than when there's a CFII in the right seat, and therefore there is much more responsibility on me. I enjoyed it, and I want to do it again at least once prior to my check ride.

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