August 28, 2005

Checked Out

As I've said elsewhere, I've been thinking of looking around for another local club or FBO that has a complex airplane or two for rent, as I'm slowly getting used to the idea of doing my commercial rating. In addition to this, 2SP and 4JG -- the only planes I'd really trust flying in sustained IMC -- are leaving the club (the economics of GA flying are quickly getting to the point that clubs like ours are barely able to charge enough to cover expenses without losing members rapidly), so I also want a place to rent decent 172s (or whatever) for flying IFR in IMC.

So over the past few weeks I've been in touch with California Airways down in Hayward (KHWD), a few miles further south of Oakland (KOAK). I did my instrument written there a year or so ago, and was impressed by the place back then, but didn't really think of it in terms of an alternative to the club -- there wasn't much point back then. But now there is, and I book a checkout with them for today so I could start renting and flying with them. I've already completed the copious paperwork needed -- a set of typical question sheets on VFR and IFR flying (airspaces, FAR stuff, personal minima, etc.) and a two-sheeter on the 172S's I'll be flying (POH stuff, W&B, fuel management, stall speeds, etc.), plus all my personal details (well, not the really personal stuff :-)).

I meet Chuck Kennedy, who'll be my instructor / checkout guy today, and we go over the paperwork. It checks out OK, except I made a mistake with the 172S's Vs0 (not sure what I was thinking there...), and got my own address wrong (very impressive work there, Hamish...). Chuck turns out to be a software kind of guy, and a good instructor, with a good sense of humour (I can't imagine a humourless instructor being a good instructor, but that's just me...), and a fairly thoughtful approach to things.

After the paperwork we wander out to the plane itself -- 8TA, a 2003 model 172S (or SP, as some people call it). It's pretty much the same as 2SP, the only real difference being a slightly different panel -- apart from the KLN 94 GPS it's got a KMD 550 moving-map display coupled to the KLN 94 (not too shabby...) and a KAP 140 two-axis autopilot (cool!). Basically, though, it's very familiar, and pre-flight, startup, and departure are routine (I'm pretty familiar with Hayward since it's where I did a lot of my initial tailwheel training, and it's a favourite for touch and goes when Oakland's 27L isn't available).

We head for the Diablo practice area, where I do the usual repertoire of MCA maneuvers, stalls, bad jokes about aerobatics, observations about the rapid growth of the Diablo Valley, emergency procedures, etc., and I discover that I'm actually enjoying this part a lot. It feels like years since I've done a real VFR workout like this (dragging the plane around continuously on the edge of a stall, doing steep turns, clearing turns, real rudder work, etc.), and it's not only going much better than I expected, but it's such a pleasant change to chasing needles in IMC (I must restart my aerobatics training with Ben again soon...).

Chuck asks me if I want to do an approach back into Hayward, without going under the hood or anything, just to check out the approach and the GPS and associated gubbins. I'm keen, since I've never actually done the HWD LOC/DME 28L approach before, and this seems like a good time and leisurely way to get acquainted with the instruments and the approach (it's a pretty common-and-garden approach, but it's likely to be my main route back in the future, so checking it out in VMC seems like a good idea). I grub around in my flight bag for the approach plate while Chuck flies for a minute or so. I familiarise myself with the approach, then set up the localiser and GPS, then follow the GPS to SUNOL, getting ready to call NorCal for the approach. After a few seconds we both realise very quickly that the GPS isn't taking us to SUNOL as it said it would, but direct to the approach's MAP. What follows is one of those GPS Moments, when two instrument-rated pilots taking it in turns can't work out for the life of them quite why the properly-programmed GPS has suddenly decided to bypass the activated approach and send us direct to the missed. Hmmmm. In the end I simply set it direct SUNOL and figure we'll get vectors anyway, which is (of course) exactly what happens. I still much prefer the Garmin 530, which seems a little less capricious -- but then this was one of those impromptu things, where I probably missed something crucial during the setup, and where it just wasn't worth debugging at the time, given that the approach is flyable entirely with the other gear, and the GPS was still giving us DME. One of the heartening things about it all is that nowadays when this sort of thing happens, I don't get flustered any more -- I just get on with it, which is part of basic instrument flying skills.

We do a couple of touch and goes in the pattern at Hayward, mostly to fill out the full hour needed for the checkout, then head back to Cal Air, where I meet Cal Airway's owner, Keith, who seems scarily on top of everything, and learn a little more about the rental procedures (basically a more formal version of what we use in the club, including using the same online web-based scheduler). Chuck signs me off and I'm now a fully-qualified Cal Airways renter. Cool!

* * *

Today's checkout was a much more enjoyable experience than I expected, and I'm so far pretty impressed by the procedures, aircraft, and general attitude at California Airways. Everybody there seemed enthusiastic and helpful, and there was always someone around who could tell me how to do this or where that was, etc. The planes look well-maintained, and the rental costs are similar to the AAC's (but charged dry / Hobbs rather than wet / tach). I'm not sure how well flying out of Hayward will work in winter IMC with the Southeasterly flow in place -- the only approaches into Hayward fly you straight into the path of Oakland's bad-weather approaches, and circling minima aren't great at Hayward -- but I'll burn that bridge when I get to it. And I'm sure I'll discover the hidden bodies at Cal Airways soon enough :-).

August 19, 2005


On Top, Direct MUNSOI discover I have the day off and decide -- what else?! -- to get up really early and fly to Monterey (KMRY) and back in 2SP. Pretend freightdogging, really, especially the getting up early bit. All in search of actual, and, well, fun -- and to make up for Wednesday's failed attempt. NUEVO5.SHOEY MUNSO -- the Usual, with the ILS 10R at Monterey, and TORO5.SNS PXN SUNOL / ILS 27R return to Oakland. Nothing I haven't done before. This time, though, there's widespread coastal stratus from about 600' up to 2,500 or so, and I'm guaranteed real IMC departures at both ends as well as a real need for the ILS in to each airport. Cool!

Prepping the ApproachThings don't start so well. I can cope with the earliness (with the help of coffee from Javarama), but when the fuel pump at Kaiser spends several minutes printing my fuel receipt one character to a line, double spaced (I still have the three-metre-long receipt in my flight bag), and then the Kaiser person on the desk gets my written receipt wrong twice in a row, and then tower tells me I'm number five for release ("expect about a fifteen to twenty minute delay") as I sit there just off 27R, I realise this is probably going to be One Of Those Days. I sit there thinking it's a good thing it's cold and grey out there and I'm not literally stewing in the cockpit... I depart 45 minutes later than expected. So much for being early.

But the rest of the flight actually goes well, and I get quite a lot more actual IMC than I'd expected (ATC keeps me low and in the clouds longer than usual on both departures). Not much to report about the actual flights themselves except that the stress levels on the ILS into Monterey -- my first real IMC single pilot approach to near minimums (600' MSL breakout for 440' MSL minimums) -- are much higher than I expect, even though it's an unremarkable vectors-to-final approach. It feels great to break out still in "the donut" at a little under 600', the runway dead ahead, but single-pilot approaches in solid IMC have to be the most stressful thing I do at the moment, even worse than the drive down Interstate 880 each day. The ILS back into 27R, by contrast, is a relatively familiar exercise despite having to keep the usual best forward speed, and breakout comes at about 800' into light drizzle. As always, sinking into the cloud layer on the approaches is just breathtaking -- but of course that's exactly the time you should be most concentrating on transitioning to instruments, and not looking around, and the approach into Monterey is momentarily destabilized as I forget this obvious fact (another good lesson...). I use the autopilot this trip for the enroute portions only -- I want to keep my actual approach flying from getting rusty -- but as always, it's good to know it's there if I need it on the approaches.

Position and Hold, 10RWhile sitting on 10R holding for the Citation that departs immediately in front of me I get enough time to actually look down the runway and contemplate what it is I'm about to depart into -- the cloud-shrouded hills just to the right of the centreline, the range I know is just behind those clouds... it's a sobering sight, and that left turn and 400' per NM to 4,000' climb requirement on the DP chart makes a lot of sense. I watch the Citation climb steeply and disappear into the cloud at about 800' or so, then it's my turn. Again, nothing interesting to report about this part of the trip except as soon as tower hands me off to NorCal I get the dreaded "2SP standby for a new clearance, Oakland Center wants to re-route you...". I ask in my best whiny pleading Anglo-Australian voice if I can get direct BUSHY or BORED instead (as I've said elsewhere, a significant short cut from the standard SNS PXN SUNOL routing), and tell him that it'd make my life a lot easier... he replies that for reasons he's not going to go into right now it'd make his life a lot easier too, and he'll see what Oakland has to say. One minute later I'm cleared direct BORED, and life goes on...

* * *

Lou's Thunderchicken at the Old T'sWhile tying 2SP down at the club I hear a familiar voice calling me from Lou's hangar. It's Lou himself, dressed up against the cold grey, working on his latest plane, a 1946 Aeronca Champ. He wants to know the real ceilings down past Hayward to see if he can get out beheath it to Livermore. Not likely, I tell him, it's hanging low all the way out to Livermore, and Hayward's reported 800' is a little optimistic right now if you ask me... oh well, he says it'll give him time to do a little more work on his plane. I've never actually seen it close up before -- it's an absolute classic, almost no instruments (the only concession to modernity being the hand-held GPS unit strapped to the internal cockpit bracing -- Lou wouldn't fly anywhere without it), and with a relatively powerful 85HP engine. We talk a while about taildraggers and aerobatics, and how much he enjoys the Champ for just pottering about the Bay and out into the Valley. He's started calling it the "Thunderchicken" after the artwork on the side.

Lou and the Thunderchicken at the Old T'sLou's watched me get my private license, then let me rent his Arrow to get my complex endorsement (and later just to fly it around), he had some usefully-pithy advice when I was having trouble learning to do good wheel landings in the taildragger, he had similar things to say about my aerobatics training (until recently he still taught aerobatics, and he gets on well with Ben, my aerobatics instructor), and until some health problems cropped up, he was slated to be my DE for the instrument rating. He's been a constant background presence in my life at the Old T's, and I've always been grateful for his help and his sense of humour. Lou flew off carriers in the Pacific during WW2 and for many years after that, including Korea, and given his background and age you'd probably expect him to be the sort of crusty old military type who'd get on badly with me. But he never seems to mind the earrings, the funny accent, or my basically Berkeley Liberal (East Oakland division) existence. Living in the Bay Area can do this to you, Naval Aviator or not, I guess...

August 17, 2005

Dude, Where's My Plane?!

I book 2SP for a few hours at 7pm, ready for a hop down the coast to Monterey in search (again) of actual actual. It all looks good -- the coastal stratus is coming over nicely and forecast for more to come, especially down south Monterey way. I get to the club at 6.30pm. No plane. No worries, the previous pilot's probably refueling... Well, you can see where this is going. All I'll say is I don't even get to see the business end of 27R this evening, let alone the sunless shores of Monterey, and the mortified call from the previous pilot much later explaining that he'd been sitting with 2SP's owner at a certain well-known food place at Livermore airport (KLVK) discussing flying and stuff like that and had just entirely forgotten I had the plane next only partially made up for it (hello, Ian!). Humph. The Sloppy Pilot has it right about the perils of renting -- I just wish I had the money to buy.

Still, I get to talk a while with Wendy K. at the club about training and stuff (she's very close to getting her private), and to watch open-mouthed as a Challenger (I think) departed runway 33 VFR for the hills at a high rate of knots after rotating at what seems like only a hundred or so metres down the runway. Take that, noise-sensitive Alamedans! (the noise was incredible, I have to say...). John once said something about a prominent local businesswoman or something like that who owns and flies it to Tahoe and back every day (I may have this entirely wrong), which leads Wendy to start on an amusing riff about women and flying. So I ask her what she wants to be when she grows up? Not a commercial pilot, apparently -- an answer which surprises me, given her age and enthusiasm for flying. Oh well.

August 07, 2005

The Instrument Training Diary

New!!! Improved!!! Or something like that...

Probably not of much interest to most readers here, but I've finally put the blog entries that relate to my recent instrument training adventure into a coherent, separate, diary called (very orginally and with great imagination) the Instrument Training Diary on the same site ( as this blog (YAFB). Basically, I did this because the back-to-front blog organisation plays havoc with actually trying to read what happens on a sequential basis (rather than following along in real time), and a few colleagues had complained about it being difficult to follow. Well, it's probably still difficult to read, but at least it doesn't start with the checkride and work backwards any more... if anyone does slog their way through it without going catatonic, I'd appreciate reports on things like typos, thinkos, etc. via email (yafb at ylayali dot com is probably easiest).

And once again, thanks to John Ewing, CFII for getting me through the whole instrument rating experience and for putting up with several sense-of-humour failures and other odd contingencies along the way. It was quite a trip.

August 03, 2005

In Search Of Actual

A flight into Yet Another Boring Bay Area Sunset to Monterey (KMRY) and back with Boyan (my flight-share partner, more-or-less) in 4JG -- my half IFR, the return VFR under his command. The whole idea is to leave mid-evening in order to get some actual IMC at Monterey, a coastal airport that's notorious for having low coastal stratus at this time of the year with ceilings regularly down to 100' in the early mornings, and often about 400' at the time we're flying. And although the clouds are rolling in as usual over the Golden Gate, I log less than two minutes actual (actually, I don't log any actual -- what's the point?!) for the whole trip -- a couple of minutes lowering ourselves through a very thin coastal layer on the ILS for 10R, circle to 28L. We break out well before DH; the breakout is very sudden, being both horizontal and vertical at the same time, as the cloud bank just ended abruptly over the shoreline. On breakout I have one of those moments of disorientation when I can't see the runway (which is pretty much right in front of me) -- I guess I'd expected to break out a little later and wasn't prepared for a sudden windshield full of lights. An interesting little lesson.

Making the whole thing worse is the fact that I manage to leave my Cone Of Stupidity at home (D'Oh!) -- so the whole thing, planned as an IFR workout with multiple approaches at MRY, with holds, etc., just turns into a pleasant IFR-in-VMC flight along a familiar course over the usual beautiful Northern California coastline. Could be worse, I guess.

On the way back approaching Oakland VFR (with Boyan as PIC), NorCal -- who's been pretty much ignoring us up to that point except for the usual traffic calls every few minutes -- suddenly calls and with an irritated and slightly urgent-sounding voice tells us "4JG, head north, descend and maintain 2,000". Say again? Both Boyan and I are uncomfortable with this -- apart from the "north" thing (and the lack of any reason for the vector), heading in that direction right there at 2,000' will put us uncomfortably close to terrain which we can't see but we both know quite well from daylight flights (and from the ground). We decide to do as ATC tells us, but if he hasn't vectored us back over lower ground within two minutes (or by the time the last lights on the ground are disappearing below the nose), we'll call him and ask for higher or another vector. After about 60 seconds the controller heads us back towards KOAK and things return to normal. I'm still unsure what the hell it was all about -- there wasn't much else happening in the airspace at that time that we could hear that would have caused such a vector -- but I guess there are times when ATC moves in mysterious ways...