October 25, 2005

Vectors, Vectors, Vectors...

Departing Oakland (KOAK) IFR is usually pretty straightforward. There's a bunch of published DP's, and a useful set of airways converging on the on-field OAK VOR, and in reality you'll just get an initial vector or two then you're on your way on the published DP or as-filed route. I'm used to all this, and it's one of the advantages to being based at Oakland in Oakland's Class C airspace (under San Francisco's Class B).

So on my first IFR departure out of Hayward (KHWD, my other home base) today, I'm not sure what to expect. Hayward sits between the KOAK ILS RWY 29 approach and the KOAK ILS 27R approach, only about 5 nautical miles from either threshold. Both are busy and in continuous simultaneous use. And there's San Francisco traffic to contend with just a few miles further west. So you can't just depart -- your path is going to cross one or the other of those two ILS's or the KSFO east-bound departures, and your release is intimately dependent on the traffic into Oakland (which used to -- and probably will continue to -- include me at times). And Hayward has no published DP's. So I'm unclear on what my final clearance is going to look like, and I have the impression I'll be waiting for release next to Hayward's 28L for a long time....

In the end I file KHWD OAK V6 SAC KSAC with DUATS, and a few hours later sitting there on the ramp, Hayward clearance gives me "runway heading until 400', then left turn 160, then vectors to OAK, V6, SAC, direct". Not too hard, I think, and since it's basically VMC today (there's only a broken coastal layer at about 1500'), I'll engage the autopilot early on departure and just sit back and watch for traffic and have fun.

And that's basically what happens for the departure and the rest of the flight (after the obligatory ten minute wait for release), but I've underestimated the amount of juggling and vectoring NorCal Approach needs to cope with my departure. From memory, not only do I never get close to OAK VOR (not that I really expected that...), I receive something like nine or ten vectors and several altitude adjustments from the moment tower hands me off to NorCal to the time I get "direct PITTS" some fifteen or more minutes later. It's like a partial-IMC Bay Tour without the time to enjoy the view. Almost all of the vectors are for traffic into Oakland or San Francisco; at one point as I seem to be well on my way to San Jose VOR (SJC) climbing to 5,000' (i.e. on a heading nearly opposite my intended heading to Sacramento), I'm given yet another vector to avoid an incoming A320 that I can't see, and I start wondering what this is going be like in real IMC when NorCal's running the Southeast flow. Can't wait to find out -- especially on the approaches back in to Hayward that fly straight into the traffic departing Oakland only a few miles away.

Still, I enjoy the flight a lot, and I think I'm becoming fairly good at working with the two-axis KAP 140. With the exception of a last-minute screwup into Sacramento (below), and the initial few hundred feet of departure at each airport, I manage to fly the entire time to and from Sacramento IFR with the KAP 140 fully-coupled. I still have a few rough edges, but the thing's magic, no doubt about it -- as long as you treat it, as John says, like a student (i.e. with eternal vigilance). The only time I screw up significantly is, ironically, just before the ILS glideslope capture at Sacramento -- part of the whole point of the flight today. I manage to disengage the autopilot at just the wrong time (it's way too easy to try to talk to the autopilot when you're really trying to talk to tower -- those two buttons are far too close to each other on the yoke...), and at that point it's easier just to hand-fly the ILS rather than reset the bloody thing and see what happens. Especially since NorCal has handed me off to tower with a Falcon behind me ready for the ILS. No problem -- I'll leave automatic glideslope coupling for another flight.

* * *

In the Cal Air office as I'm filling out the paperwork before the flight I hear a strong Scots accent, and can't help introducing myself. Mark P. is over for a while from Scotland, visiting some friends, and thinking of doing his commercial here. In the meantime he's just flying around in Cal Air's 172s -- Reno today, Vegas a few days ago, etc. We start talking about GA in Scotland -- basically, there isn't much -- and I make a joke about the three days of each year it's safe to fly VFR at his home base somewhere in Fife (an area I vaguely remember from my early childhood in visits from not-so-nearby Tighnabruaich on the other coast of Scotland). GA's hideously expensive there -- a 172 might rent for UKL 120 (about $200) per hour dry, with much higher fuel costs, and it's incredibly restricted -- not to mention ruled by capricous and mostly bad weather (I once saw a dog get blown over while walking in the nearby Grampians as a kid; the locals I was with just muttered something about the breeze and kept on walking). A different world, for sure.

October 23, 2005

I'm Such A Wimp (The Perils Of Renting)

I book 8TA for 10am - 2pm this morning for some IFR practice and to get more familiar with the KAP 140 two axis AP vertical guidance (specifically, coupling to a glideslope). I file KHWD OAK V6 SAC KSAC, a route that's new to me only because of the Hayward rather than Oakland departure; the route back (V344 to SUNOL then the LOC/DME back into Hayward) is something I have flown before already. What could go wrong?

The weather this morning turns out to be low overcast, 600' ceilings, 1600' reported tops, visibility 10NM, the usual thin coastal stratus; icing levels well above 10,000'. Cool! I think, I'll get some actual in this as well. I wander down to Cal Airways and get the keys and paperwork for 8TA from Linda, then slouch out through the grey to the ramp. I open up 8TA -- and there's this bloody great hole in the panel where the KLN 94 GPS ought to be. The whole unit's just ... missing. Hmmm, I think, did someone steal the damn thing? No, too clean -- no forced entry or anything -- but then why didn't someone tell me, as now I have no DME as well as no GPS? I'm not a /G any more, but a lowly /U. And, as I quickly realise, without that damn unit I can't do the LOC/DME back (with its very reasonable 400' MDA), or the fairly decent GPS / VOR/DME approaches -- only the VOR or GPS A with a circling-only MDA of 800' (750' AGL). Which means under my own self-imposed rules I can't depart, because I can't actually return to Hayward legally if anything goes wrong. Yes, I could do the ILS back into Oakland as it's only a few miles away (and I'll always have that plate on my clipboard when I depart Hayward, IFR or not), and there's plenty of space under the layer to return visually without hitting anything, and if I can make it over the Berkeley / Oakland Hills it's hard VFR. But I just won't do that; I decide to wait maybe an hour or so to see if the ceiling lifts.

I'm also nowadays very reluctant to fly in IMC without GPS -- panel mount or just my old Garmin 195. But I've left the 195 at home this time because it should have been just a short flight to clear skies, and because, well, 8TA has a decent panel-mount GPS, no? Urgh. OK, the lack of GPS in this case is only a convenience thing given the thin coastal layer, and I actually start looking forward to just using the VORs again without the GPS. But there I am, sitting on the benches on the ramp outside Cal Air, talking to a couple of instructors waiting for students, watching a few IFR departures (all of whom disappear into the marine layer at about 800' or so by my estimation), thinking, "it'll lift a bit soon -- it always does...". Two hours later, just before noon, I give up and cancel the flight with ATIS reporting an unchanged ceiling. Thirty minutes later as I'm getting lunch in Oakland the sun starts streaming through a scattered layer, and within an hour planes are no doubt departing Hayward VFR.

As for the GPS in 8TA -- it appears to have been removed to fix a connector problem; no one's entirely sure why I wasn't told about it. To their credit, everyone who I talked to at Cal Airways thought I was doing the right thing by not departing when the ceilings were lower than the relevant approach minima (some people expressed this in even stronger terms...) and that someone should have been a bit more on the ball about the unit.

Frustrating, but just another lesson in reality, I guess.

October 12, 2005

Making The World Safe (Again)

Like John in Death By PowerPoint (sounds like an exciting movie, no?!), I need to renew my Oakland (KOAK) ramp pass / badge sometime October (unlike John, though, I don't need driving privileges, so I miss the fun of the driving class). So I drive to the airport this morning to sort it out.

In contrast to the initial badge applications -- which involve full background and employment checks, fingerprinting, a three hour security class (whose contents you're not supposed to divulge, but which had some really hokey videos and a lot of Powerpoint presentations when I did it six years ago), a huge amount of paperwork, etc. -- unlike all this, a renewal is relatively easy (they even do all the paperwork for you themselves). As long as your old badge is still current, you just wander up to the badge place, hand your old one in, get a new photo taken, and wait. And wait... and wait... and wait. It took 90 minutes to get my new badge. Ninety minutes of watching the TSA staff taking breaks in the little break area next to us, using the microwave to reheat coffee (urgh) or melt frozen burritos; ninety minutes of watching the TSA people do their thing downstairs in the security check line (why they let us stand there upstairs looking down at the process and machines is beyond me, but never mind). Ninety minutes of wondering just what it is that takes so long.

And ninety minutes of fitful conversations among the two dozen or so people also waiting around for badges. In line, the woman in front of me -- "E." -- turns around and asks me a few questions about the process. I say it's easy, last time it only took fifteen minutes, but she's still there when I leave (E. turns out to be a Berkeley grad student moonlighting with one of the catering firms, a crappy way to get through grad school if ever I've heard one). The baggage handler next to me standing around watching the security check line below keeps talking to someone I presume is his (United) supervisor on his cell phone, getting more and more frustrated by the minute. A bunch of construction workers stand around talking among themselves, periodically sending one their number off to get some snacks from downstairs.

Finally my name's called, and the woman behind the counter apologises profusely for taking so long (I have to say the badging staff were always friendly, helpful, and fairly obviously competent -- it's just the process that seems a little glacial). And I'm surprised that nowadays the fact that I'm a foreigner makes no difference at all to the process. I guess what really counts is that I'm a certified (certifiable?) Oaklander....

So now I have a shiny new badge again (with an awful smug smirk on the photo), and the world -- or at least Oakland International Airport -- is a safer place because of it, I'm sure. Hayward -- my other home airport now -- has no such badging at all. I just have to remember the various lock combos...