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!

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