February 26, 2005


I discover that Lane Wallace -- author of those rather sentimental and brightly-coloured columns in the back of Flying magazine that seem aimed at readers who loved the even more sentimental columns by the original Bax -- has a degree in semiotics (from Brown, I believe).

Wow. I'd never have guessed from her Flying columns. I confess to having spent a significant amount of time in a University Far Away studying semiotics, structuralism, and post-structuralism, and was once on intimate terms with the writings of people like Foucault, Deleuze, Guattari, etc. (the usual suspects, many of whom would probably eschew the "semiotics" label, but never mind). I can't imagine what deconstructionary havoc those usual suspects would make with some of her paeans to the spirit of flying, etc....

Not that it matters: that supposed havoc is always going to reflect a lot worse on the academic mileu that thinks that havoc important (or even interesting), than on its targets. Not that it matters (again): I like her normal -- non-column -- articles for Flying a lot. She's a good writer and excellent journalist (as if I'm in any sort of position to judge that...); the degree just makes her rather more interestingly multi-dimensional, I guess. I have to wonder just how many pilots Out There have degrees in semiotics...

February 21, 2005

Kicking The Doldrums...

...or some such mixed metaphor. A 10am flight in 2SP (I'm not even sure I can fly that early -- I'm still unused to being able to do a preflight without a flashlight, and I've done so few daylight landings in the last few months that I keep making bad jokes about not being day current...). Another interesting sky with moderate turbulence and some serious windshear at all altitudes (I have trouble holding altitude within 200' for significant portions of the flight; headings suffer similarly). A quick semi-VFR jaunt over to Concord (KCCR), then the Buchanan 7 departure (REJOY transition) from Concord for the GPS RWY 20 approach at Vacaville / Nut Tree (KVCB), with a rather iffy circle-to-land on Vacaville's runway 2 in a stiff breeze (I'm learning a healthy distrust of circle-to-land procedures), then the SOKOY 2 departure back to not-so-sunny Oakland and another bash at the Oaktown VOR/DME RWY 15 approach. The most galling part of an otherwise pretty reasonable flight was getting a lot of the plain VFR bits wrong -- forgetting to report a 2 mile final for Concord tower on the VFR approach, bungling the base-to-final turn at Vacaville, forgetting to check the transponder and lights before takeoff, etc. Luckily I got most of the IFR stuff right(ish).

* * *

An interesting lesson in the limits of 2SP's autopilot: on being told to head direct Concord VOR (CCR), I engage it in NAV mode and watch as it struggles over the next ten miles or so with the wind shear and turbulence. At one stage it's several dots out, and not looking like it's going to recover any time soon. I take over and fly manually. The good thing is that I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing: keeping a paranoid eye on the heading indicator, OBS, etc., and seeing what's going wrong as it happens. It's got to be a rough old day when I can actually fly the plane under the Cone Of Stupidity more accurately than the autopilot....

* * *

John's started talking seriously again about the checkride -- the whole trip-to-Concord thing is to get me familiar with the place, as it's where the likely DE, Richard Batchelder, is based (Lou Fields is unfortunately out of the picture at the moment due to medical problems). This sounds appropriate -- I feel like I'm flying as well now as I was before I had to go to Australia and before I lost the momentum; and I also feel like I actually know quite a bit more (especially about GPS units and autopilot usage) than I did back then too. We shall see.

* * *

As I'm leaving the airport for home after the lesson, yet another thunderstorm breaks out, with torrential rain, lightning, etc. As the breathless reports in the local media never let us forget, this is the third thunderstorm of the year -- we're already running at 150% of normal annual storms!!!!!!! (Urgh. Sorry. But if I see one more damn self-dramatising and self-absorbed report on the local TV news reports about the "immense storms" bearing down on the Bay Area, I think I'll scream...).

February 18, 2005

Mad Dogs And Englishmen

Another good confidence builder -- a long flight in 2SP through interesting weather (interesting by Bay Area standards, anyway), a bunch of actual, a lot of real-world experience in complex on-the-fly clearance changes, a new approach (the GPS RWY 13 into Gnoss (KDVO)), a stretch of airwork on the way back into Oaktown (not terrible, but definitely needs improvement), and a lot of clouds and rain. And an early start (15.00), which is making a difference. I fly OK, and don't make too many stupid mistakes, and really enjoy the whole flight. There was one point somewhere around Concord VOR (CCR) where we broke out of actual into a beautiful cloud canyon, with the walls of cloud to both sides of us, and the ground visible 6,000' below us; off through another canyon to the left we can see the low sun reflecting against the Bay. Then it's straight back into the soup...

* * *

It's a Real IFR kind of day, so we file using DUATS. I look at the charts and pick V195 SGD V108 STS as the route; it's about 80nm for what would be a 40nm flight under VFR, the extra being due to the usual victor airways and feeder routing contortions, but nothing too onerous. John just smiles and says he has a feeling we might get something a little different. Half an hour later sitting on the ramp in light rain the clearance comes back from Deliverance: heading 090 then vectors to V244 ALTAM V334 V108 STS direct... i.e. the long way round, a 130nm trip for the 40nm direct flight. Even as I'm getting it down from Clearance I understand why -- NorCal's got the main Bay Area airports going on the SouthEast flow plan rather than the much more usual Westerly flow plan, and there's not a hope in hell that they'd route us straight into the incoming. Wish I'd thought of that myself... (not that I'd have filed any differently, but I'd have been better prepared). A good lesson in real-world IFR.

Later, even that plan gets amended on-the-fly, and once again I curse the KLN 94 as it just sits there staring blankly at me as I make yet another silly input mistake in IMC. This unit is even worse in some respects than the GPS 530 -- in some cases nothing you can seem to do will save the loss of several minutes worth of keystrokes due to a stupid blunder, and the unit rarely tells you in any coherent fashion what it is you've done wrong. I guess I'm just going to have to get better at getting it all right the first time. And this is with a unit whose manual I've read completely, several times. Urgh.

* * *

We depart Gnoss VFR for Oakland and do a bunch of airwork over San Pablo Bay before calling NorCal and heading back to Oaktown. The first thing I see when John tells me to get out from under the Cone Of Stupidity over Richmond is a flash of lighting out over the Golden Gate. Hmmm. The way ahead looks dark, grey, wet, and uninviting, but the horizontal visibility is OK, and the ceilings surprisingly high despite the constant rain. And no one's going missed due to the weather yet, at least not as reported by NorCal. So we decide to get back as quickly as possible before we get stuck in the storm coming across the Bay at us; we can always divert to Concord if it gets too bad. We do the Oaktown VOR/DME 15 approach all the way back to runway 15 in the rain; I land in a stiff variable quartering tailwind in increasingly heavy rain. The VOR/DME 15 approach is -- once again -- a very flyable approach; here's hoping that it, or something like it, might one day be available instead of the (not-as-usable) approaches for runways 9.

Fifteen or so minutes after landing the storm's directly above us; another thirty minutes after that there's just some drizzle, and a bunch of lightning in the distance. This is the second thunderstorm this year in the Bay Area -- the newspapers are already calling it a record year for storms. Well, it may sound pathetic to those of you raised in stormy climes (as I was), but it was quite dramatic approaching Oakland just ahead of it...

* * *

As we're tying 2SP down in the rain and gloom, I can't help muttering about the weather and Mad Dogs and Englishmen. Almost as I'm saying this -- with the storm still directly above us -- we watch a Lancair depart noisily for the north, straight towards the worst of it. We can't tell if it's VFR or IFR (the former, by the looks of the departure path), but it looks suicidal. Hmmmm, again.

February 08, 2005

By George, I've Got It!

Well, almost. After several weeks of cancelled flights and iffy flying, everything comes together this evening and I seem to fly the best I've flown in months. I nail the ILS back into Oakland to ATP standards, and the two approaches and associated holds at Tracy (KTCY) also go well. I feel on top of the plane and the procedures, and keep the stupid mistakes to a gratifying minimum.

The difference? Firstly, I got off work early, spent some time preparing, and we started an hour earlier than usual. Normally I can't even turn up at the airport much before 7pm, meaning we're often still at it at 10pm, which dulls the mind for me if I've spent the previous eight or more hours down in Silicon Valley then driven for two hours to get back to Oaktown just in time to fly. Things were much more leisurely this time. I'm trying to arrange for the earlier exit from the Silicon Valley job on Tuesday to become permanent. We shall see.

Mostly, though, I suspect the improvement came because I cheated. Well, not so much cheated, as used the autopilot strategically during the early part of the flight to keep headings under control automatically while I concentrated on altitude, power, airspeed, and the procedures. This worked a dream -- I'm hoping the lesson will stick so the next time I do it all uncoupled I'll be more savvy about control -- and since I have fewer problems with headings than the other aspects, it's not such a bad strategy (it was John's idea, actually). I did the Oakland ILS and the last GPS approach uncoupled, but it was a good lesson learning how to get George to drive us around a hold or intercept the VOR-A inbound with a bit of knob-turning and situational awareness. It's magic.

February 06, 2005

Doug Johnson, RIP

Doug Johnson -- Lt. Col. Douglas Johnson, USAF (Retd.) -- a man who piloted B17s over Europe in WWII, flew fighters in Korea, and who later helped form the Alameda Aero Club -- died last week after a short fight with cancer. He'll be greatly missed.

Doug was for a long time the maintenance and procedures backbone of the club, and was a mentor and tutor to many of us who became pilots and instructors through the club (you can glimpse him behind the scenes here and there in my original flying diary -- Doug did a lot to encourage me and keep the planes running during that period). Doug had the sort of common sense and experience that a club like the AAC needs, and (lucky for us) over the years he ensured that most of that was passed on to others.

Doug had a sharp mind -- even in his late 70's he actively adopted things like email and the web before many of the rest of us, and he was always one of the first to understand how to use things like the new web-based scheduler effectively for the club, or how to use spreadsheets for maintenance tracking and rental rate calculations, etc. Years ago when I was the club's webmaster and helping to set up the new scheduler, I'd receive a steady trickle of email from him commenting on a particular page or suggesting a new external link or whatever (he particularly delighted in making fun of my inadvertant Britishisms).

Doug often described himself as a "redneck from backwoods Arkansas", but he was also the sort of guy who drove a small Toyota, liked the Bay Area life (while still pining for those backwoods...), and who railed publicly against the US's isolationism on Iraq (he once said he couldn't understand why the US didn't defer to the UN on Iraq -- "Wasn't the UN one of the best things that came out of WWII? Wasn't it one of the things we fought for?" -- and proceeded to wonder out loud what it would take to get Colin Powell to run for president...). He and I sometimes sparred in the club over things like tax policy or welfare (he was predictably a lot more conservative than I am), but he was always funny and friendly about it, and he was better at conceding his opponent's points than I'll ever be.

Doug was also reputedly one of the few people to actually get away with replying to a lightspeed clearance from clearance delivery at Oakland with a (very) obscene variant of the classic old "Very impressive. Now how about giving it to me at the speed at which I can write rather than the speed at which you can read?" line. When I once asked him about it a few years ago, he just grinned and said in that distinctive Arkansas voice of his: "Boy -- I ain't saying. But if that's the worst you can dig up on me, you ain't trying!".

February 04, 2005

Those Rainy Days

What does an instructor do on those proverbial rainy days? I don't actually know. But I do know that over the past few rainy weeks John managed to dream up and chart a new approach into Oakland: the Oaktown VOR/DME RWY 15 approach.

Oakland's not exactly hurting for approaches -- I count at least fifteen separate approach plates for KOAK, along with a dozen DPs and eight STARs all specific to Oakland -- but it's still a useful addition, actually filling a real need. When the weather's bad and the big boys are landing on Oakland's runway 11 rather than 29, the approaches to Oakland's runways 9 intersect the ILS for 11, meaning long delays for the GA fliers. Runway 15's big enough for an approach, and with a bit of care on the missed, it'd give us all a nice alternative way back into Oaktown during bad weather.

We've tried it on the sims and did the early parts once on an actual flight (in late-evening VFR) with NorCal and Tower's unwitting approval (well, they didn't tell us to stop). It's quite a flyable approach, in fact. The sources of the intersection names are left as an exercise for the reader (local knowledge helps).

I shouldn't have to say it, but: absolutely not to be used for navigation. Void where prohibited. Some assembly required. Your mileage may vary. Don't try this at home. Objects in mirror are closer than they appear. Etc.