Sunday, November 09, 2008


Yesterday, I had the pleasure of volunteering at this year's AOPA Expo in San Jose, CA. The Expo ran from Thursday through Saturday, and as a volunteer, I was granted free admittance to the exhibition hall floor. My post, however, was at the Aircraft Display, which was at San Jose Mineta International Airport (the FAA wouldn't expand the current airport codes to give them KSJMIA, so they stuck with KSJC).

I arrived at 8:30am, and for four hours, handed out flyers to, well, flyers, and directed people to the port-a-potties and shuttle buses (hopefully I didn't mix that up at any point). At the end of my shift, I took off and wandered around the Aircraft Display for a little while.

My first stop was at Lafferty Aircraft Sales, because they had a bowl of candy, and I was starving. I picked up an inventory list, and am actually just looking at it now for the first time. The actual conversation was mostly about candy. Looking at their list, it seems they have quite a few Beechcraft singles and twins. No pictures = no drool.

My next stop was at the Civil Air Patrol table, where a woman sat with an unruly rescue dog. By "unruly" I mean that his guardian could not get him to stop going up to people and leaning his head against them to get petted. Away, foul beast!! I mean..aww, cute!! In any case, I want to learn more about CAP and think this'd be an ideal way for me to stay involved in aviation. Step 1 is apparently to learn how to fly a 182, which I want to do ASAP anyway.

Next was the Cessna tent. Kind of boring, actually, but I was also really hungry by now, so I went and got some fries.

I then came upon TJ Neff's refurbished 1995 Socata TB-20 Trinidad. Whew. His pitch: For $150K, you get 90% of what you get if you pay much, much more for a Cirrus. Hmm. Well, the plane was really nice, I'll grant you; in fact I've been dreaming of sitting in the cockpit again ever since then. I felt like I was sitting in a race car. It's beautiful; everything's amazingly within reach. The plane does about 155 knots at 12.5 GPH, which seems a bit high to me given other options -- heck, the Diamond DA40 does the same speed on 8-10 GPH and it's not even a retractable OR a constant speed prop (the CS model adds about 12 knots to that on the same fuel burn). Still....very nice airplane. West Valley Flying Club has a Trinidad; I'm going to request a training ride in it.

Then, on to the Diamond display. I've been admiring Diamonds from afar for so long that I had to go sit in one. So I had a seat in the DA40, and...well, it was comfortable...the company rep described it best when he said it's like "flying a La-Z-Boy." Yeah, that's kind of what it felt like. I suppose I actually have to fly it to judge, so maybe I'll try to arrange a test flight if I can find a club around here that has one (I know there's a place in San Carlos, so I could just go there).

So I drove downtown from there and hit the Exhibit Floor. I went from one corner to the other; I saw sunglasses (neat, but ugly), all kinds of avionics -- there's one, I forget what it's called, that replaces the attitude indicator and heading indicator with a tall, thin digital display akin to the attitude/heading displays on a Garmin G1000. Pretty nice engineering, if you ask me, since it can be fit onto an existing six-pack and replace just those two instruments pretty easily. [EDIT: Thanks to reader Colin for informing me that this was a unit made by Aspen Avionics] I talked to an AIG guy about insurance for a while; he looked bored. I talked to someone from a flight academy about whether it was possible to get a job with an airline as a 35 year old with my experience level (of course her answer was "of course!"). I got talked into buying a VFR FlightGuide; it's like the Pilot's Guide that I'd been subscribed to, but (a) covers something like 13 states instead of just CA, (b) is less expensive, and (c) most importantly, is small enough that I could actually carry it in my flight bag. They have a nice looking website service I could subscribe to, but didn't yesterday. Then I stopped by the West Valley display and chatted with the chief pilot Lucy for a bit, and then on my way out, I met and talked with John and Martha King of the infamous King Schools! That was actually really cool; they were really nice.

I feel like I got some interesting data on the "what to do next with this" front. Join an airline? A possibility, though letting go of my nice job (in every way) at this juncture is not on my list of favorable decisions. Buy my own aircraft? Maybe; it sure would be nice, and free me up to make more trips without worrying about reserving and all the other hassles of club aircraft. Let's face it -- I'd love to own an airplane. But it's expensive, and it's a big commitment. I'd also like a dog, which is also a big commitment, but at least a little bit less expensive. CAP seems like a great option no matter what; I will look into that as soon as practical.

I looked around the expo for only about three hours after my volunteer session, but I ended up having a great time! I can only take so much of those settings anyway, and I feel like I got everything I want to out of it.

Now, let's see when that West Valley Trinidad is available...

Monday, November 03, 2008

300 Hours!

I was just updating my logbook, and realized that on my way to Santa Barbara, I crossed the 300 hour mark! I'm also coming up on 100 hours of cross country (I'm at 96.5 right now). Still inside "The Killing Zone" but a nice milestone nonetheless.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

First Real IFR Flight: Santa Barbara

I've written before that some experiences just make you feel "like a pilot." This weekend was one of those experiences, I think in part because of the large number of "firsts" and how well I handled them. This was the first time I:

  • was pilot in command of a flight in real IMC, and real it was -- an hour in the clouds on the way down!
  • used my new Lightspeed Mach 1 headset -- the fitted earpieces had just come in on Friday!
  • spent two nights away
  • flew somewhere I had a reason to be
  • was cleared for and flew a "visual approach" (you'd think this was easy, but at an unfamiliar airport...)
  • dealt with a rapidly changing weather forecast for the return trip, which at times included thunderstorms, and ended up having somewhat lower-than-expected freezing levels

And the heartening thing is that this might have been the best I've ever flown -- of course that involves some luck as well as all the preparation, but without the preparation you don't even give yourself a chance.

I took off on Friday a little after 1:00pm, after a rigorous preflight and obsessing about the weather all morning -- not that there was much to obsess about; it was cloudy, but unthreateningly so. Ceilings were around 5000 in the Bay Area, and supposedly around 7000 further south. I filed a flight plan via Salinas, Paso Robles and Morro Bay at 7000, and got set to go. Preflight was fine, I loaded up the plane with all my luggage (which was considerable, since I had to bring all my stuff not only for a half-marathon, but also for the Halloween party that night), and I got ATIS and contacted ground. Runway 12 was in use -- yesss! Whereas the departure procedure for Runway 30 is a bit intense (see my last entry), the departure procedure for Runway 12 is "fly runway heading." Perfect.

I was cleared for takeoff. I lined up, and took off. After switching to Norcal, I was instructed to make a left turn direct to Woodside (Woodside is on the right at that point, so I had to make a 270 degree turn). He kept me on my filed route, and I ended up in the clouds pretty quickly. And I stayed there for a while. My groundspeed was about 87 knots, and things were bumpy. I was in there for nearly a half hour, when the controller asked if my routing was for training, or if I'd like to go direct Gaviota, and whether I could handle 9000 feet as an altitude. Given that the plane was actually leaking water into the cabin, I eagerly told the controller that direct Gaviota would be great and I could do 9000. He cleared me direct Gaviota, and minutes later cleared me to 9000. I climbed, and broke out of the clouds at 8500.

The rest of the ride was much more pleasant. I was in and out of the clouds a little bit, once even for about 15 minutes, but it wasn't as thick or bumpy. My groundspeed was still achingly slow; I had a headwind of about 40 knots, putting me in the low 80s relative to the ground. I plugged my iPhone into my headset and started playing some music. At some point I missed a handoff to a new frequency, but that was really my only error.

As I got into the Santa Barbara area and began descending, things were decidedly VMC outside. It was a beautiful day! Eventually I got the call: "N35583, Santa Barbara Airport is at your 10 o'clock." I saw it, and told him so. "N35583, cleared visual approach runway 7." do I fly this? Since I couldn't see a visual glideslope aid (there may have been one, but I couldn't see it), I tuned the ILS and simply followed it down, executing a greaser of a landing at the end of a completely stable approach. Good stuff. I taxied to Signature, and parked!

Friday night was awesome, Saturday was fantastic, and today, it was time to fly home. I'd been a little concerned about the weather because at one point yesterday, they were forecasting thunderstorms in the bay area -- and if there was really going to be a lot of thunderstorm activity, I think that'd most likely mean an extra night in Santa Barbara for me. But that forecast went away, and in its place was a forecast that made it very difficult to predict how cloudy the journey would be, and freezing levels around 8000'. I fretted about the situation for a while, then decided I'd just file a route the same way back as I'd come, where the MEAs were such that I could file 6000' as my enroute altitude.

This worked for a little while...I called clearance delivery (first time!) and was given my clearance, called ground for taxi instructions, did my run-up, called the tower, and was given a takeoff clearance. My routing was ... tada! Runway Heading! I was sure that I'd get a departure procedure, but Runway Heading, vectors to Gaviota was all I got. Awesome! Things were fine until near Paso Robles, where the controller boosted me to 8000'. I complied without complaining, and a little while later the controller asked if I wanted my filed routing, or direct AMEBY (a GPS fix on the San Carlos GPS 30 approach). So...I thought I was supposed to file on airways, but am I not supposed to do that? Should I just file direct and see what happens? Of course, earlier in the week when we went to Salinas, I filed SNS direct, and they gave me OSI V25 SNS direct. So...who knows. Anyway, I accepted direct AMEBY, and told the controller I was concerned about ice at 8000 when approaching the bay area, and didn't know what the clouds looked like. He basically said I had no choice, because radar is sketchy at 6000 through the valley. Interesting. So I told him "let's give it a shot" and it ended up being immaterial when I was lowered to 6000 (and eventually 5000) before getting into the bay area anyway.

I got vectored around a little bit on my way back into San Carlos: Fly heading 270! Direct AMEBY! Fly heading 270! Fly heading 310! Direct AMEBY! Okay, okay! I eventually made it into the approach structure (way too high -- they really dropped me in rather suddenly; I was at 5000, and next thing it was "2 miles from AMEBY; cross AMEBY at or above 3200, cleared GPS 30." But I landed without incident, pulled the plane into its spot, and I was done!

I will update this entry with a photoset at some point, but it was an awesome flying experience. A lot of firsts, a lot of learning, not a lot of out-and-out slip-ups. I want to do this more, and I want a faster and more powerful plane!

UPDATE: Here's a photo set from the weekend -- mostly pix from the flight, but a few of my Halloween costume (that's supposed to be Michael Jackson) and of my Team In Training team with whom I ran the Santa Barbara Half Marathon. I have also linked the current flying blog from my pilot friend Russ (who I flew with last weekend) on the left.