Monday, July 28, 2008

A Hurried Trip Around The Clouds

Yesterday I took a friend on a trip to Petaluma, from Palo Alto. As with many of my friends, it was her first time in a small plane, so I wanted the introduction to be a kind one. I'd reserved 669TW at PAO, but since it was recently back from maintenance and no one had booked it since (even though it was "free" all day Saturday), I was suspicious, and rightly so -- when we arrived at PAO, the plane was nowhere to be found. Luckily, 222MF had opened up from 10 to 1, so I jumped on it.

The plan had been to get brunch at the 29er Diner in Petaluma, my favorite $100 (well..$300) meal location so far, but with the restricted time options, I figured that this would just be a bay tour. But San Francisco was still covered with low overcast, according to the weather, so my choices were limitied. I figured the clouds might burn off sometime during the flight, so I decided to head over the east bay. We followed Highway 680 up the east bay, past Mt. Diablo and over Danville and Walnut Creek and Concord's airport, and headed out over San Pablo Bay. There I let her steer around a little bit, and after climbing a little and seeing that the coast was totally covered with clouds, decided that it'd be cool to touch down in Petaluma and just step out for a minute, even though we didn't have time for brunch.

Traffic pattern and landing at Petaluma went well; there was one other plane that was entering the pattern at the same time. I was more or less exactly over the airfield, and didn't even see it (it was off my right side)...luckily my passenger did! I was about 1500' over TPA anyway, so nothing too worrisome. We slotted in behind the other plane, and since I was high I came in pretty hot, which led to a nicely greased landing. We parked and went in for a quick cup of tea.

As we sat, I called West Valley to check that the 1:00 reservation on 222MF was still in the books. Unfortunately it was, so I had to rush things and leave immediately. It was 12:25 when we got in the plane; we taxied back and took off pretty quickly. Unfortunately, SF was still covered with clouds, and here I was uncertain of what to do. I could of course ask for IFR to PAO, but as I was in a hurry, I didn't want some crazy routing. I could always cancel, but I didn't want to waste time getting a clearance only to cancel it and have to go back around the east bay anyway. I thought about asking for a high VFR clearance over SF, over the clouds (they were at about 1000' and only a few hundred feet thick at most), but I know they usually rely on ground reference for transitions, and...well, frankly I didn't want to sound like an idiot. So I went back around the east bay route, this time skirting as close to the Class B shelf as I could without busting it (at one point I thought I had busted it..the rings are shown on the GPS, but without the altitudes, so I had to cross reference it with the chart, and I misread it at one point, resulting in a rapid 500' descent).

We cruised back in; I announced myself over Coyote Hills, made right traffic, and was cleared to land before I even made the downwind leg -- things were very not-busy for some reason. I touched down, another greaser in a crosswind, and this time not even going too fast! We tied down and got back to the club about 20 minutes late.

This flight was an interesting one, in terms of decision making. I had oppositely confounding variables in time pressure and a passenger. I think my one poor decision was to get out of the plane in Petaluma; we should've landed, taxied back and left again. I wanted to show my friend around a little, but that resulted in a rush situation coming back. Everything else I think was reasonable, from the standpoint of risk mitigation (in not wanting to try something new with a passenger on board) and comfort. So, overall, a good flight -- it's always great to go up, and my friend will have to go again if she wants to see the Golden Gate!

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Castle Air Museum

I have no idea how long my flying buddy Roland and I have been talking about going to Castle Airport, but it's been a really long time, since well before my instrument checkride. Through my training, I hardly ever flew for pleasure, since I spent all my time flying approaches and stressing myself out. Hey, it was important. Anyway, so I had a plane booked for today with the thought that I'd go somewhere, and as it turned out, Roland was free, so off we went to Castle!

Castle Airport used to be Castle Air Force Base until 1995 when they shut down military operations and it became what might have been the longest runway on a non-towered airport ever, with its 11,800 foot runway. Within the last two years (not sure exactly when) they put in a control tower. Apparently, Boeing is now going to use the airport as a 737 training facility.

Anyway, I took a guess at an IFR routing and filed a flight plan from home, and then drove off to the airport. I got there at 11:00, and by the time we got fuel, preflighted and chatted a bit in catching up, it was 11:30. We taxied to the run-up area, and I got my clearance: SJC V334 SUNOL V195 ECA Direct. That's precisely the same routing I get for my numerous trips to Stockton, which surprised me -- in my filed plan I followed another airway south to get at least near the El Nido VOR (HYP). But oh well. So we took off IFR, did all the familiar stuff, and before we got to ECA we were given a heading and told to go direct HYP when possible. Great!

We were still about 20 miles out when we got a vector for the ILS (which I'd requested earlier). They kept me high for a while, presumably to avoid any conflict with the neighboring Merced airport, but the descent was still pretty easy. I fought the ILS most of the way down, but kept pretty well on it before floating high right around the DA. I went visual, and landed relatively well on the gigantic runway. I taxied off, contacted ground, and with their help, parked at transient.

We tied down, and at the end of the parking area were a number of GIGANTIC military jets. These things were huge. One of them was being loaded with something; we didn't want to get too close or stare too hard (I had my sinister unshaven look going today). We walked into the terminal, where a number of military personnel were sitting around. I guess we looked confused (I think we were just dazed by the heat -- the ATIS had said the temperature was 32C), because a woman from the onsite FBO, Anabel (or Anna Belle or some variant thereof) asked if we were lost. I asked her if there was a good way to get to the air museum other than walking, and she offered to drive us there herself! How sweet!

Anabel (that is now officially the correct spelling, at least as far as this blog is concerned) dropped us off at the entrance to the museum, which (I hadn't realized) was all outdoors. Of course -- when dealing with HUGE planes, it'd have to be. The first thing we saw was an SR71 Blackbird. After we ate (ugh...I don't want to talk about it), we went out and saw so many planes I can't even begin to convey what any of them were or in what way they were significant, though they all were. I'm well aware of the rich history that aviation has within the military, but I'm not a plane geek -- I don't know the production history behind certain models of aircraft, I have no idea about war stories (literally!) associated with certain planes, I can't identify a plane by looking at it, even if it's really obvious. I'm still thoroughly impressed by these planes and those who flew them, it's just...anyway, here's my attempt; if you want accurate info I suggest the museum's website.

There was the SR71, which was very sleek. We saw a B-17, and I was impressed by the number and locations of the gun turrets. The B-52 was overwhelming. The C-123 made me laugh -- it looked vaguely like the plane in Chicken Run. The F-14 still looks like something out of the future.

It was getting hotter, and what breeze was once there had died down. After a brief stop in the "inside" portion of the museum, we went back to the entrance and the gift shop, and had the staff there give Anabel a call for us. She picked us up and took us back to the terminal. As we got there, we watched two of the GIGANTIC jets taking off (though one of them had to hold for a Lear jet to land -- we were feeling quite inadequate in our little Cessna). We walked out to our 172, opened the doors and...sat outside for a little while. It was really hot outside, but it was REALLY hot in that cockpit. Whew. We got in and were eager to get in the air ASAP, so we got the ATIS, got some taxi instructions, got a takeoff clearance and used it. We climbed to 6500 in an effort to find some cooler air (our OAT gauge still said 72 degrees F at that altitude). We were VFR, but it was really hazy -- we got flight following, which at least helped our peace of mind. The flight back was totally uneventful and utterly enjoyable.

I like this idea of taking trips, flying out IFR and coming back VFR. They're totally different skills, and I enjoy the opportunity to work on both.

Friday, July 18, 2008

I Know Kung Fu!

Three months. Three months since I took N222MF up with Sherry Diamond, donned the foggles, flew for far too long around the Salinas area, shot three approaches, did some holds, and came back with a temporary airman's certificate. That was April 25.

In the intervening time, I've flown three times: Two bay tours, and a practice VFR flight. Long story short, I did not feel like an instrument pilot at all. I had no confidence that my IFR skills would come back without a lot of work. I'd never even been on an IFR flight plan by myself. I'd tried to schedule myself for an IFR practice flight, to shoot approaches and try to remember how it all went, but when you think something is going to be unpleasant, you find excuses to not do it.

So on Monday, after canceling another flight, I scheduled one for Thursday (yesterday). And yesterday, I took a lesson from the baseball field: after you make a fielding error, tell yourself "I want the ball" till you believe it. So, that was me all day: I want the controls. I told my friends I was going, so I could not get out of it (obviously barring some good reason to not go).

I got to the airport and picked up the keys and went out to preflight....and forgot my headset in the car AGAIN (this has been a trend). Then I needed to use the restroom, which, thanks to the draconian landlords at PAO, entails a trip to the terminal building. So, by the time I boarded and started setting up, it was 6:00pm. No problem, I'm taking my time. I did my basic checks, started up and contacted ground. IFR to Stockton. Here we go.

I got to the run-up area, and got my clearance and copied it and read it back. One thing done. I set my avionics, and told the tower I was ready for release. Hold for release. Great. Now we sit and....ah, crap, I never did my runup checks! So I sped through my runup, and sure enough, one of the mags was rough, so I leaned and cleared it, and went back through the checklist, completing it just in time for "Cessna 222MF, position and hold, and we have an amendment to your clearance." This is new...."position and hold, ready to copy." It was a right turn 040 instead of the standard 060 after takeoff. No big. Cleared for takeoff.

It was a beautiful day -- clear, not too hot, with some clouds up to the north and offshore (in other words, not where I'd be flying). There were TFRs all over the place, thanks to (a) fires and (b) the president of the US getting an aerial tour of the fires. I probably would not have even gone anywhere VFR today, but this is the beauty of IFR: YOU keep me out of the TFRs (I mean, I was aware of where they were, etc, but it's just less thinking to have ATC as a first line of navigation).

As I followed their vectors and altitude assignments, I found myself way ahead of the airplane. I got SCK's ATIS way ahead of time, and when switching to the final controller had my approach request ready to go: VOR 29R, pilot nav, published missed hold at ORANG. There was some confusion later when the controller asked me if I wanted multiple rounds in the hold at ECA (meaning the hold in lieu of procedure turn on the approach) whereas I heard ORANG, so gave a nonsensical answer, but we straightened it out. As I approached ECA, she told me she'd call my inbound turn, so I slowed, did my T's and headed outbound on an extended parallel entry. I did everything right in this approach, including the GPS management, pressing the OBS button at the right time, getting OUT of OBS mode when back inbound, starting my time at the FAF...everything. Even the missed was great, except that I forgot to exit NAV mode on the autopilot on the teardrop entry (I needed HDG mode) so my holding pattern was a bit messed up.

I set up for and requested the ILS 29R, and was vectored over. I flew it very well, completely by hand, dealing pretty well with gusty winds. I stabilized the heading pretty well; I had more trouble with the glide slope but corrected rapidly and the biggest deviation was one dot high (but it was pretty close to the DA). I went missed, flew it even better than last time, and went back to ORANG and requested clearance to PAO. Again, I was ready to copy, I got and read back a clearance, and climbed to 6000 on the assigned heading.

As I neared the approach structure for PAO GPS 31, I was being absolutely blinded by the sun, which was well on its way to setting. As I was vectored gradually onto the final approach course, I couldn't see anything. Technically VMC, and I could see the ground, but I could not look out the front window at all. Good thing I was IFR! There was an unexpected frequency along the way (Moffett Tower, for about 30 seconds before switching to PAO Tower), and I just followed the GPS in. I saw the REIL first, then the threshold lights, then the runway itself. The sun was just starting to drop below the horizon on my final approach, and I followed the VASI down and slowed to landing speed. I touched down with a squeak.

What a flight!! I'm absolutely stunned by how much I enjoyed it, as well as how good I was at it! Not that I think it'd be a good idea to take three months off with any regularity, but it's shocking to me that all that I'd learned was right there, at my fingertips, even after so much time. I knew exactly what to do and when, I acted and sounded like a pro (except for that whole hold at ECA issue, but we worked it out), I maintained my airspeeds very well, my scan was actually good, my preparation was excellent, I used the autopilot and the GPS to maximum effect, and I even flew smoothly -- a passenger could've been with me on that flight.

I'm impressed by, in some sense, how much easier it is to fly IFR than it is to fly VFR. An IFR flight is the same, no matter what. I'm taking a trip to Huntsville, AL, in August, and am planning to fly to the Atlanta area. I will be flying IFR, because there's so much less "creative" thinking to do, so many fewer variables. Many more procedures, yes, but those are just procedures, which I can do anywhere.

After a long and difficult training cycle, and a necessary detox period, I'm excited to be a pilot again and am psyched for my next trip.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Practice Flight

Wow. June was an incredibly busy month, and between that and still being pretty burned out from the instrument training, AND not giving the club a copy of my new temporary airman's certificate, which indicated that I'd passed a test and therefore didn't need a BFR, thereby causing them to disallow me from renting a plane at's been a while since I've flown. After the bay tour for my mom, I took my friends Alex and Lisa from Alabama on a tour; that was May 29. It was a choppy ride, and while the tour went well, my approach and landing back at PAO coming in from left traffic left something to be desired.

So, having not flown in five weeks, I thought today would be a great day to head out and get some practice. I hadn't really decided whether to just go and fly, or to go out and practice approaches (without view limiting), but as visibility was pretty bad at most nearby practice destinations and I was really not feeling up to such a huge challenge, I decided to fly to Livermore, do a little pattern work, and come back. Should be a nice short flight, and maybe I could work on those landings.

So I got 739TW ready to go, and after I preflighted (and went back to my car to get my headset, which I'd forgotten), I started her up perfectly, got ATIS, taxied out, did my runup, and prepared for takeoff. Everything went very smoothly; I got an early crosswind so I arrested my climb until I had the GPS where I wanted it to make sure I was avoiding SJC's airspace. I came through the Sunol pass, got LVK's ATIS and gave their tower a call and entered left traffic for 25L.

My first approach and landing were quite good. I landed just past the numbers, and made it a touch and go, which is not something I've done a whole lot of on short runways, for good reason. But in this case I'd decided that if my landing was close enough to the numbers, I'd go for it. So I went back up, second time around, and made left traffic for 25L. This time my approach ended up high -- 25L at LVK has no vertical guidance lights, so that made things harder. I floated long, and landed pretty cleanly but about 1/3 of the way down the runway so I made it a full stop and taxied back.

One more lap; this time my landing was good again, and I terminated and took a left crosswind departure to head back to PAO. It was hazy and hard to see, though visibility was supposedly 10SM. I made right traffic at PAO, lined up the approach, came in, was about to set down, and....just lost it. Gust of wind and probably an overreaction on my part, but the plane was in no position to be set down, so I added full power and retracted flaps halfway in one smooth motion to go around. I was quite pleased with myself that in that situation, without actively thinking about going around, the instinct was there, and solid enough that I did it correctly.

Because traffic was heavy, they sent me into left traffic, and I eventually found my place in line and approached and landed.

A nice little refresher flight, basically -- later in the week, if I get a chance, I'll try shooting a few approaches!