Sunday, May 11, 2008

Bay Tour for Mom

This is my 70th post in this blog, surpassing the 69 posts in my original flight training blog, Learning To Fly. And I can think of no better way to commemorate such an event, especially on Mothers' Day, than to write about the flight I took yesterday: A bay tour on a beautiful day, taking my mom up for the first time.

I reserved 739TW at Palo Alto, a nice plane with the avionics suite that I've grown used to through my instrument training (the timer doesn't work and the #2 radio has been flaky in the past; hence my reluctance to use this aircraft on my checkride). My mom got to the airport well before I did and got a coffee at the Abundant Air Cafe while she waited for me. When I got there, we ran into my friend Terry at West Valley, who wished my mom a good flight and gave her a good impression of the club. We also ran into Sergey, my PPL CFI, which was awesome -- I think he impressed my mom with his professionalism and friendliness even in a short conversation.

It was a little hazy out, but still greater than 10SM visibility, so nothing to worry about. So we took off northbound off of 31, and contacted San Carlos tower and requested a bay tour. Bad news: SFO Tower informed SQL tower (just then, apparently) that they weren't authorizing bay tours or B transitions. Perfect. I asked for a higher altitude and SQL told me to circle left and climb to 3000' and contact Norcal up there. So that's what I did, and Norcal cleared me through Class B at 3500 -- a higher view than is customary, but still spectacular.

We ended up being vectored west of San Francisco city on our way up to the Golden Gate, so we didn't get the close up view of downtown like we might've on another day, but again, still not bad. As we crossed Golden Gate Park, Norcal asked if I wanted to stay at 3500' and I asked for "as low as we could go." He gave me "at or above 2500'" so I dropped to 2500 and stayed there. We crossed the Golden Gate Bridge from west to east, and circled Angel Island, giving my mom a good view of the City's amazing skyline and the Bay Bridge in the distance. We circled back and crossed back westbound over the Golden Gate, with a couple of traffic alerts along the way. We checked out Stinson Beach, and then back over the Golden Gate once more to head up the north bay toward the Carquinez Bridge.

Norcal asked at this point whether I was going to Napa; I told him negative, we'd head east and follow 680 down. So he discontinued flight following and we were on our way. Once reaching the Carquinez, I climbed back up to 3500 to get more clearance over the hills. On the way down to 680, I quickly showed my mom the GPS and autopilot operations because she was curious. As we followed the freeway down, she was very interested in the distribution of houses around there -- it was a lot less crowded there than in Fremont or San Jose, where she and I live, respectively.

We never did get back on flight following, but we did encounter some traffic to the west of Livermore, at the same altitude. We maneuvered around them and made our way back over Fremont (we think she saw her house) and back to Palo Alto. Interestingly, I got knocked off centerline pretty good as I crossed the numbers, but recovered alright and landed smoothly.

All in all, it was a great flight in that it was totally unremarkable, other than the views, which are always remarkable. It was really nice to just cruise around and be looking out the window.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Glider Ride

Staring at instruments, having one's vision blocked in one of the most beautiful areas to fly in the country, always thinking of what's next and how best to get to the destination -- that's what instrument flight is in the Bay Area. It's frustrating -- rewarding, for sure, to be able to do it and to have learned all that I've learned, but sometimes you just want to go cruisin'.

So I did.

In Hawaii.

With no engine.

I arrived in Honolulu with a hotel reservation and no plan; I figured I could sit there in the hotel all day and it'd still be a great vacation, but I felt pressure to go out and do stuff so that I wouldn't come back and have to tell people that I sat in my hotel all day when I was in Hawaii. So I booked a glider ride out of Dillingham Airfield on the North Shore of Oahu, and paid the extra $20 for their "mini-lesson" which puts me in the front seat, doing the piloting of the aircraft.

I arrived at Dillingham an hour early!! That was cool, of course, because I had plenty of time to walk around, check out the gliders and airplanes, chat with the staff (we had a protracted debate on who exactly WANTS to see a Jimi Hendrix sex take was "nobody"), and just stare at a runway backed by a huge mountain, and bordered on the other side by the warm ocean. Hawaii's an incredible place.

At 10:30, my pilot showed up. Very cool guy, young, maybe mid-20s, named Scott, and so we chatted for a bit as we walked out to the glider. I told him I'm an airplane pilot and just got my instrument rating, and he congratulated me and tailored his lesson to me, which was nice. He gave me an orientation of the panel; there was an airspeed indicator ("Keep the nose just below the horizon, and it'll stay at about 60 mph which is what we want."), something akin to a VSI but far more sensitive and calibrated to the elevator input (so you know when you're in an updraft or downdraft), a compass (no DG)...I think that's it. Oh, there was an inclinometer, but Scott told me it was broken. There was also a string taped to the cowling outside the window -- this is apparently normal -- for a glider, it's very important to be coordinated as much as possible, so there's a lot of rudder use, and you step on the opposite direction of the string (makes sense..).

I'd paid for a one-hour flight, but the winds were pretty severely uncooperative, in that the direction they were coming from gave us no updraft off of the mountains (we spent a lot of time trying, but not finding one). So we took off, pulled by a towplane, and we were towed over the adjacent mountain range -- pretty close to it, actually; much closer than I'd be comfortable getting if I'm flying myself someplace in a Cessna, but probably still a good 7-800 feet off. Seemed really close, probably in part due to my unfamiliarity with the region.

So eventually we released, which entailed a pitch up to slow down and tighten the tow rope, followed by a pitch down to slacken the tow rope and then a release of the rope. Cool stuff -- because of the winds, we ended up doing 2 half-hour flights instead of one one-hour flight, and on the second takeoff, Scott was explaining to me how a glider pilot can actually communicate with the tow plane pilot. We had no radios or headsets or anything, since it's so quiet, but by steering to the left, you can tell the tow plane to go right; etc. Neat stuff.

We tooled around the mountains, and Scott gave me the controls. I was very conservative with the controls, and had to force myself to keep looking out the window, especially not fixating on the airspeed indicator. It was hard! But it was so beautiful outside -- the mountain range, the fields, the towns, the beaches, the Just incredible. I flew around for a while; we'd been towed up to 5000' and we were descending constantly (as gliders do, sans updraft), so at about 1200' we headed back to the field and Scott took the controls for the approach and landing.

This was a trip. He crossed over the runway at 500', went out over the ocean, made a hard left 270 over the water and squared up for the runway, landing on the bicycle-style 2-wheel configuration. Crazy!

The second flight was similar to the first but the tow plane left us in the northwest corner of the island, from where we could get a great view of both the north and west coasts. Amazing. And then we flew right over the mountain range; I tried again for an updraft but was unsuccessful. I got more aggressive on the controls, trying a few steep banks, which gliders can do far more successfully than Cessnas (I assume the much longer wingspan and lighter weight gives much lower wing loading and lower stall speed?), and tried to stay coordinated.

Good stuff. I may want to add a glider rating to my license; it's amazing how in touch with the air you become. I'm looking forward to getting back in an airplane, maybe getting a mountain checkout, maybe learning to fly some other aircraft...should be a fun few months!