December 02, 2006

The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

N1004E being pre-flighted at Hayward

I could go on and on about how the late-Autumn crop burnoff left a surreal smoke layer over the Valley, or how when we returned to Hayward someone had stolen our plane's parking spot and we had to do this creative little game of musical chairs to park it somewhere inconspicuous in the darkness near the NBC11 truck (I'm still waiting for the airport police to call… :-)), or how rugged the Tuolumne River canyons around our destination were, but I talk too much, so instead of letting me yammer on about today's flight out to Pine Mountain Lake (E45 / Groveland), just click on the image above and go to the flash snapshot / slides gallery instead. A thousand words and all that… (but you'll need a Flash plugin, which you probably already have anyway).

November 25, 2006

Artist 1

Author scowls at cameraThe tops of the Fremont and Oakland hills to my right are shrouded in dark grey stratus, while to my left the late afternoon sunshine's still lighting up the Bay and the Coast Range along the Peninsula. The weather ahead is deeply confusing — it looks like classic scud-running stuff up beyond Oakland, but looks are really deceiving today, and Napa — many miles further up the Bay beyond Oakland — is reporting good VFR conditions. In any case, the ceiling's still pretty high over Hayward (KHWD, my destination and home base). I'm with NorCal for flight following back to Hayward, and things seem quiet. Artist 1 in the right seat snaps a few photos of the Garage Mahals below us.

Suddenly, an RV of some sort appears off my right, a little above us, about a mile off towards the hills, and doing maybe fifty knots faster than us. Simultaneously, NorCal calls it for us, then says there appears to be another aircraft a mile or so behind it, same altitude, same speed, same track. Neither plane is talking to NorCal (but they're not required to at that point — I guess I'm just the sort of wimp that always talks to ATC if it's there). Both of them have just apparently scud-run in from over the hills, but that's not certain either — they may have just followed us up from San Jose. We check in with Hayward tower, get the straight-in for the left, and a few seconds later the RV's check in. And then a few seconds later two C172's check in; we can also hear another 172 approaching from the northwest. Everyone's converging at once on Hayward. There are also several planes in the pattern. Cool! I think… who's on first? This is the sort of beehive I like joining, that makes me nostalgic for the organized chaos of Oakland sometimes. I'm told to keep forward speed up and get slotted in behind the second RV. It's moving. And it's very low, a real problem with the noise-sensitive areas under the approaches. And it's way off the extended centreline.

Artist 1The Cessna off to our left is told to climb a little and pass over the RV's for the right; we get cleared number three for the left. Several downwinds are lengthened for our arrivals. The arrival from the northwest is given a short approach, with the other other Cessna being slotted in behind the Cessna-that's-going-over-the-RV's for the right. Cool! I watch in amusement from the back of the line as Tower smoothly juggles the lot of us with minimal confusion and just a slight hint of impatience in his voice for the Cessna that didn't quite understand the urgency of the short approach, and a minute or two later we're all on the ground, where there's now a similar mess contending for taxiway alpha. All of the arriving Cessnas turn out to be from the club, and the resulting pirouetting little dance to get us all into the very tight parking spaces on the ramp in front of the club's worth the price of admission.

Hayward Tower at duskA few minutes later after tying down at the CalAir ramp there's not a plane in the sky, it's dead quiet except for the noise from the fueling truck. I ask Artist 1 whether she enjoyed the flight. Yeah, she says, I especially liked that beehive thing at the end. Well, me too, except it probably looked worse to me than to her.

* * *

Altamont windfarmThis is yet another one of those Plan A / Plan B flights, but I won't bore you with the details of why we flew Plan C instead (let's just say the "INOP" sticker on the main glideslope / OBS steam gauge made me pine for the G1000 glass in the other planes…). Artist 1 has flown with me before, and claims to really enjoy flying, so I drag her along for a VFR trip to Salinas (KSNS) down in the Salinas Valley (recently in the US news due to the poisoned spinach episode — I always knew spinach was evil).

I bring along one of my older Nikon DSLRs to take some photos of the Altamont wind farm and just generally document the land from the air. Artist 1 somewhat shares my obsession with the abstract patterns, and she ends up taking about half the images from the trip, especially over the Salinas Valley. The one on the left here's a classic shot from about 3,500' above the windfarm; that menorah-shaped road / windmill plantation on the centre right's been a landmark for me for a while. Experiencing these from above is always a sight for sore eyes, but from ground level the windfarm's astonishing, all smooth movement and the whooshing, clanking, clicking noise of huge blades being pushed through the air (the windfarm stretches for miles in each direction). As an engineer I'm always fascinated by the progression of different technologies visible from the ground — the older, louder, less efficient blades progressing through the new, much wierder-looking things that have sprouted up in the last decade.

The problem with this sort of photography is the really annoying reflections and colour issues you get when shooting through the typical crap dirty glass on small GA planes; today's images show the problems in abundance, unfortunately. When I have the time to prepare, the results can be a lot better, but just throwing the old camera into my backpack and pointing it out the window is a lot more fun, I guess.

In any case, the results this time were very mixed, but it's definitely the time of the year to be doing this: late harvest / planting season, lots of varieties of brown and gold, a slight tinge of green starting to appear, workers and equipment in the fields….

* * *

T28 on Salinas rampAt Salinas we watch a T28C fire up and taxi noisily past us on the ramp; it spends the next thirty minutes or so in the pattern doing touch and goes, mixing it with the 152's and such. You still see a lot of these planes at places like Salinas, Oakland, Hayward, Livermore, etc. — it's gratifying to see so many still flying, given the gallons of money they must burn in those radials every hour….

One of the guys from what's now Acme Aviation / Light Sport Airplanes West in the terminal building wanders over to us as we're poking about looking at the two really small interesting-looking planes next to us on the ramp. I have no idea what they are, but he explains they're new Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) that Acme's now selling and using to train people for the Sport Pilot Certificate. Flight Design CT Cruiser at SalinasHe patiently answers all my questions about the engines (Rotax, of course), the panel (very basic -- see image below, click on it for much larger version), the cost, etc., and lets us clamber about over the planes even though I tell him we're not ever going to be in the market for something like this. I have to admit, though, the planes looked slick and not the sort of modified old Piper J3 you might expect an LSA to be — I can actually imagine someone who knew nothing about flying looking at one of these things and thinking "Cool! I could fly one of those…" in a way he or she wouldn't when faced with a typically crappy old 172 or 152 that's been around the block a few times too many. And Cessna's apparently developing its own LSA variant, which looks just as slick and nice. You could certainly entice me up in one of them; given the 4.2 GPH fuel consumption and a decent airspeed, it'd be just the thing for solo or dual Bay Tours, etc. Not sure I'd want to take it much further afield, though, especially with a panel as bare as that (but apparently you can get typical Garmin GPS 530 (etc.) installations — which would kinda turn it into a light GA plane rather than an LSA, I guess). On the other hand, it's a good plane for something like a Garmin 396 or 496 (neither of which I own — my old Garmin 195's still going strong).
Flight Design CT Cruiser panel

November 11, 2006

Aviatrix Does Berkeley

Surprise! Aviatrix not only really exists, but she has a strong Canadian accent (I'm not sure why that surprised me, but it did. I guess I'm not exactly the sharpest tool in the toolshed with things like this). And that's all I'll say about her real-life existence :-).

We'd arranged to meet in Downtown Berkeley, at one of my regular haunts, but after 30 minutes of standing on the corner waiting at the appointed time, it dawned on me that maybe Ms Aviatrix's urban traffic survival and navigation skills weren't quite as well-honed by driving weedwhackers around the Frozen North as you might expect (I'm being polite :-)). Sure enough, when we finally met (after a couple of hurried cell phone calls as she drove around claiming to be not-quite-lost), she had some, erm, deeply-resonant things to say about Bay Area traffic and California driving in general, subjects close to my heart. And she turned up driving a rented PT Cruiser, about which I've promised not to make cheap jokes or snide remarks (I'll let her do that). And yes, she was wearing that shirt (hey, it's mid autumn in Northern California, which means it's t-shirt time).

We took a pleasant evening stroll around Telegraph Avenue, the University, and Downtown, with a long break for coffee and bad pastries at the Mediteraneum (a classic Berkeley coffee shop on Telegraph a block from People's Park), where she spent some time very patiently trying to explain to me where the various companies-posing-as-mammals and animal-named places really were. But since she was talking to someone who thinks Seattle is the Deep North, and who knows about (aboot?) as much about Canada as he knows about Kansas (read: "very little" — it's sort of Baja Greenland, isn't it?), some of it went right over my head. But hell, it sounded exotic, and some of the names stuck enough that I was able to find them in my atlas later. I was entranced by stories of a part of the world where you can fly literally hundreds of miles in any direction at 2500' MSL and not hit anything (try that in California…) and where they have snow that's not on the sides of high mountains and not primarily for skiing on.

I got to hear some very funny (but sadly unrepeatable) stories about her experiences in the industry, and we did a lot of the typical pilot talk about approaches, weedwhacker flying (there's a bunch of weedwhackers based at Oakland that I see a lot), general life, etc. I was surprised to discover that she'd flown GA out of Oakland (which was where I did my original training at roughly the same time as she was learning to fly). It's funny (but, I guess, predictable) that even though she typically flies steam-gauged piston twins out in the Middle Of Nowhere for a living (where NDB's rule, VORs are rare, ILS's almost non-existent, and towers a luxury), and I fly little glass-cockpit 172's for fun in a chaotically-busy airspace with a huge choice of approaches and airport types, there was a lot of stuff in common. This extended to a fascination for old navigation techniques like A-N ranges and celestial navigation, oddball airplanes, and weird gear (she'd just been down at the fascinating Hiller Aviation Museum, where's there's plenty of that).

All in all, as Sam also discovered, it was a lot of fun meeting The Person Behind The Blog. I think next time she's down this way we'll organise a fly-in lunch or dinner or something at Napa or Livermore. We shall see…

October 24, 2006

The Short Approach

Chelsea DIgsNo GA in CA for me, again, for a while — I'm in New York, on assignment in our Chelsea office (hip digs, to be sure — see left…), surrounded by the media types I secretly want to be when I grow up (ah, Fashion. Life's tough, eh?!). But while there's no GA, the Expressway Visual 31 approach into La Guardia — while listening in to ATC on United's channel 9 from a window seat in the first class cabin — now that's flying: after having been asked to keep up our speed all the way from SWEET (?) intersection through reporting the tanks in sight to the sharp right over the expressway, the resulting short swooping approach over Shea Stadium and tight full reverser sound-and-fury landing in the 757 from Denver's quite the experience. No, that's what I want to do when I grow up.

October 18, 2006

Get In And Go!

One of those "Just get in and go..." flights: a brilliant warm sharp utterly cloudless autumn evening, a somewhat impromptu VFR flight in one of Cal Air's older 172SP's to… who cares?! In the end it's a quick hop over the hills from Hayward (KHWD) to Livermore (KLVK) for some night pattern work ('round and 'round…), then a leisurely slightly-longer hop out to Sacramento Executive (KSAC) for no reason at all except that I enjoy the sights of the Delta at night from 3000' (the lights of the various cities and towns, the roads traced in red and white, the reflections on the dark sloughs and canals, the 2,000' towers near Locke), and because it's a lot of fun just … arriving … without a flight plan and without obsessing about altitude, heading, final approach fixes, missed approach points, etc. Light relief, I guess. At Sacramento we swap seats and Boyan (my usual flight share partner) flies us back to Hayward VFR with flight following, and I get an even better view of the view. Mesmerising.

OK, so my landings weren't as good as they should have been, and I was a bit rusty on the VFR side of the radio work, but I didn't break anything or kill anyone. A lot of fun.

October 06, 2006


It's Fleet Week, and the Blue Angels are in town. Not only that, but this year Fleet Week coincides with the Red Bull Air Race here in San Francisco. Lots of TFRs, but who cares? It's aerobatics paradise, and the sight of the Blue Angels practicing twice a day over Downtown and Fishermens Wharf (and I mean over — a lot of the maneuvers are done above the City rather than over the Bay), and passing the building I work in a few hundred metres away, a few hundred feet AGL… well, what a sight. And the sound's astonishing, it's loud enough to regularly set off car alarms in the streets around us, it reverberates around the canyons between the buildings, it creeps up on you suddenly in the back alleys 'round here. And it's all free!

September 16, 2006

I Hate Flying!

Yeah, well, I guess it's not really flying, but sitting there at FL370 heading for Boston in seat 19A without being able to see outside because they want you to pull the shades down so other people can watch the movies… well, that's definitely not flying. Urgh. Not my fave pastime. So no GA in CA for me for a while, but I'm tempted to say that if I get the time I'd like to try the GA in MA, but since The People Who Pay The Bills keep changing their minds about how long I'm out here (a week? ten days? three weeks?), that seems unlikely. But it would give me a new meaning to the term "Bay Tour", no?

August 23, 2006

Command And Control

Grace under pressure, finally? I'm under the Cone Of Stupidity trying to set up the VOR/DME GPS-A practice approach into Tracy (KTCY) in the darkness over the Central Valley. I've just been vectored from the previous KSCK ILS-RWY 29R missed approach hold at ORANG intersection towards the extended final approach course for the new approach, and I confidently reach over to the G1000, press direct for Tracy airport, then hit the "proc" button, then the "select approach" option. Instead of the usual menu of approaches, I get an unfamiliar menu that stops me dead. Now what? I do the usual Garmin thing to try to get to the field in the menu that looks like it should give me a menu of approaches, but that doesn't work. Nothing works — I'm having one of those GPS Moments where nothing I do gets the expected results, and since I'm flying by hand, I start worrying. What the hell is going on? How the hell do I fix it? But that little voice in the back of my head kicks in (the result of long years of teaching by John, mostly, I suspect), and I suddenly think: who cares? I'll just do it with the VORs. Hell, it's the VOR GPS A approach, isn't it?! And so I do, and in a few seconds I've got the course on the CDI VOR 1 display from Manteca (ECA) VOR, and the cross radials dialed in from Modesto VOR on the VOR 2 overlay (something I would have done once the GPS version had been set up in any case). This gives me the luxury of debugging on-the-fly, which gets me nowhere, and so I finally just set the GPS into OBS mode based on ECA VOR and the course interception and final approach go just fine. As does going missed, using the newly-NOTAMED missed approach procedures with the GPS still in OBS mode (yes, it was far easier the new way). Boyan B., my safety pilot in the right seat, doesn't seem too fussed by the rocky start to the approach, so I count this as a real success. If this had been IMC I would have acted a little differently (in particular, I'd have used the autopilot rather than hand-fly it through the confusion), but the underlying principle's the same: don't panic, and concentrate on what's important.

The whole flight's been a bit like this so far: lots of small things going wrong, but I seem to have developed an ability to not panic but step back and work around the issue. For example, I was unable to get the autopilot to couple with the glideslope on the only coupled approach I did, the second ILS-29R into Stockton; in that case I gave up in disgust and set the AP's vertical speed to 500fpm down, which (with appropriate attention to the throttle) tracked the glideslope nicely. So far, in every case I manage to keep my cool and work around the problem, and I end up feeling pretty good about it all.

We go back to NorCal on the missed and ask for the practice localiser approach back into Hayward (KHWD), our home base. A short while later we're back on the ground, 2.5 hours logged, 2.3 continuous hours under the hood, five approaches (GPS, VOR, LOC, and 2 x ILS), a couple of holds, a bunch of enroute flying — it all adds up….

* * *

One of the aims of this evening's flight is to take heed of John's observations about the difference between flying glass and flying the old way. As one of his students, I learned both the traditional instrument flying techniques and the glass cockpit techniques with him, and I'm curious just how much the old ways have contaminated my glass flying. And of course, it turns out he's right — I really am treating the glass instruments as just glorified versions of the older gauges, when I really should be adopting a more "command and control" approach to things. It's not hard, and in many cases it's really just "obvious", and by the end of the flight I'm having no trouble using the AI as more of a flight director thing than as something to react to. The difference in things like heading and altitude stability is obvious — I really am finding the G1000 easier to fly than the old steam gauges. It's an attitude thing, really, in every sense of the word.

The other reason for this flight (apart from the fun of actually flying, of course…) is to maintain currency. No, I'm nowhere near losing instrument currency legally, but I like to keep my hand in, and as long as someone like Boyan's up for it, a decent workout like this evening's keeps me sharp. Or sharper than if I just did the minimums, I hope.

August 16, 2006

Yet Another JABBAS

It never gets old: the sunset from 2,500' over San Francisco Bay, the beautifully-textured and shaped marine layer pouring through the Golden Gate with the two red towers sticking out, the reds, purples, golds, and browns of the Marin headlands and Mt Tamalpais, the lights and reflections of The City itself from the shoreline, the ships and boats on the Bay, the bridges, the distant brooding darkness of Mt Diablo, the busy-but-friendly flight following from NorCal Approach…. Just Another Boring Bay Area Sunset, I guess, this time with Sheena C., another colleague from my day job, who's consented to potter about in the little 172 with me for an hour or two's meandering around the Bay, entirely VFR for once. A nice leisurely trip from Hayward up over the Diablo Valley, a short landing at Napa (KAPC), then a long slow lazy go-where-we-want thing over Angel Island, Alcatraz, Fisherman's Wharf, Marin, the Bridge, etc. Not a bad diversion from the strains of the day.

Back at Hayward we sit on a bench in the late evening calm and eat a snack in the darkness beside the club. We watch a few late stragglers arriving or departing on 28L long after the tower's closed for the night, and talk about the flight. Sheena's been in small planes before, but as she says, flying in California is so different from flying in most of Texas or over the fly-over states where she flew — here's there's always the landscape: mountains, oceans, canyons, rivers… and it's hypnotically-beautiful rather than just hypnotic.

The idyl's spoiled completely by Sheena getting stung by a bee as we sit there eating. I'm never going to hear the end of this one — she survives what everyone's telling her is a dangerous thing to do ("those small planes are always falling out of the sky!!") only to be bitten by a bee. I drive her back to her place wondering whether she's going to die from anaphylactic shock or whatever, but she makes it back to her place without any obvious problems.

[Two day later: Sheena's entire arm managed to get incredibly itchy and there's still an angry red patch around the sting, but otherwise there's no obvious harm. I guess I survived that one…].

August 10, 2006

By Any Means Necessary, Redux

During my instrument training I had an irritating time one night on the VOR A approach into Tracy (KTCY). The published missed approach procedure for that approach struck me as particularly difficult to fly, and I wrote that in hindsight it would have been easier (and safer, I guess) to ignore the written missed instructions (which included getting onto the SAC 157 radial inbound) and just fly the "wrong" radial (ECA 229) with DME to the missed approach holding point (TRACY intersection). The hold is so close to the airport itself that there's little chance of intersecting and tracking the SAC-157 radial before getting past TRACY intersection.

Well, lo and behold, here's a NOTAM I just noticed:


Someone's listening, I guess :-). Or someone complained loud enough… (not me).

July 29, 2006

Follow The Turkey

I plan a short trip with Ben, a friend visiting from New Zealand, down to Monterey (KMRY) and back to Hayward (KHWD). At least parts of it are going to have to be IFR — Monterey's reporting the usual summer coastal stratus — but I need the IFR exercise, so that's OK. And Ben's flown with me before (he used to live just down the road from me in Berkeley), so he's not worried by the idea of disappearing into the clouds, and the view's always great along almost any route to and from Monterey. So I decide to do it as a full IFR in (mostly) VMC thing.

But Woodside VOR (OSI) has been NOTAM'd out of service for a while, and my interpretation of the FARs indicates that even with the spiffy new G1000 and GPS I can't use OSI for en-route navigation with the usual Victor airways route to Monterey. So I file direct, mostly just to see what happens when I call Deliverance at Hayward a few hours later. Sure enough, I get the usual clearance — basically vectors, OSI, SNS (Salinas VOR), direct — and, for the first time in my short IFR life, I get to say "unable clearance". I tell the clearance guy that OSI's NOTAM'd out and while we can navigate it easily, I don't think we can do the clearance legally. He sounds a little surprised that OSI's out and that it would make any difference, but he's friendly and rather curious about it, and says he'll talk to NorCal and see what they say while we taxi off to the runup area and sort things out over there. He comes back a minute later and basically asks us what clearance we'd want instead of the canned one. I reply something along the lines of "basically the same route but with vectors — a sort of a wink and a nod thing" (it helps to have a British(ish) accent at times like this). He says "gotcha!" and a minute or so later we have a clearance that cleverly never mentions OSI but in the end will probably have us flying pretty much exactly what we would have flown had OSI been in service. I feel really dumb doing this — it's VMC around the Bay and we could probably have navigated visually to OSI from at least 10 miles away (you can actually see OSI VOR from that distance if you know what you're looking for up there in the hills), and GPS would get us there more accurately — but I push the point with bloody-minded determination (OK, I have to admit I'm also curious about what happens in circumstances like this as well).

We spend the obligatory 15 minutes waiting next to Hayward's 28L for release, watching the steady stream of Southwest 737s passing just 1000' above us on the ILS into Oakland's 29, and then we're off. And as soon as we're handed off to NorCal we get a clearance mentioning Victor 25 And The Forbidden VOR and I have to remind them it's out of service. This time the reaction's a lot quicker, if less friendly, and I negotiate a vector routing. So vectors it is, all the way down the coast towards the approach. And, for one reason or another (mostly traffic), there are a lot of vectors this time… (and much as I end up feeling like I've caused a lot of irritation to the ATC people, I don't want to be the one picked on by the FAA just because I tried to make things easier for the controllers. I sort of resent being made to feel bad about all this, but that's life, I guess).

The ILS 10R approach into Monterey is fairly straightforward, and I've done it before in actual, but sinking into the marine layer over Monterey Bay — with the various nearby ranges poking out of the layer in several directions — never gets old. This time it's going to be to near minimums, with reports of what sounds like a darkening gloom below a 500' ceiling (that would be a good description of pretty much any summertime evening in Monterey, approach or no approach, come to think of it). And, for reasons that have always escaped me, autopilot (coupled) approaches are prohibited on the ILS here, so I'll be flying manually the entire way, or at least from somewhere before the FAF (yes, I know it's not a FAF for the ILS, but the localiser-only FAF is still a mental checkpoint for me). I may have to go missed for real. I prep carefully, internalising the missed procedure several time while Ben looks out over the cloud layer and takes a bunch of photos. I can hear that there's a Cherokee about five miles ahead of us; the controller keeps pronouncing "Cherokee" a lot like "turkey", so much so that Ben finally asks me in all seriousness what sort of plane a "turkey" is (like most people 'round here, I heard it as "Jerky", but never mind). I can hear that there's also an American Airlines regional turboprop behind us out of San Francisco bound for the same approach.

Things seem pretty quiet and I'm enjoying the view when the first little sign of trouble insinuates itself into things: the NorCal controller confuses us with the Cherokee in front of us. Just as we're recovering from that rather minor slip, a VFR flight at the very edge of the controller's radio range starts repeatedly calling for flight following, stomping on several transmissions. In the air all of us can hear the VFR flight just fine, so the controller asks whether any of us — the Turkey, the Turboprop, or our little Cessna — can either get the tail number of the other aircraft or encourage him to wait a few minutes until he's in range. This goes on too long, and while the controller's juggling the VFR request thing and getting the Turkey onto the localiser, he keeps us high too long for my comfort. We approach the extended localiser way out over the (rough, cold) Pacific on a vector at least 3,000 feet higher than I'd like. When I can get a word in edgewise I ask for lower and the controller, sounding apologetic, immediately clears me for what would be the appropriate altitude at this stage, then goes back to juggling the Turkey and Turboprop. But he's about to blow us through the localiser, and I'm having to drop out of the sky (and into the marine layer) at a deeply-uncomfortable vertical speed of above 1,000 FPM. I start feeling bad about all this, but we're still well outside the glideslope interception point so we'll have time to stabilise. I plan to use the autopilot to get initial trim and heading correct on the extended localiser centreline then disconnect it and fly manually before we hit the cloud bank. No big deal. But that extended centreline is coming right up and the controller's still trying to sort out the VFR flight. Suddenly he asks me for ten knots slower, something no one ever asks a C172 for on the approach; it's especially odd since I'm already only doing about 90 KIAS because I can hear that the Turkey in front of me is not a long way ahead of us. In response I blurt out that we're about to bust the localiser. That gets his attention, and we get an immediate heading for the localiser, and cleared for the approach. I make a sharp turn onto the localiser, blow through it a few dots, then converge on the correct track. By now I'm feeling a little stressed, and we're about to sink into the marine layer; but I set the plane up, track the localiser with the autopilot, set the AP's vertical speed appropriately, get it all into trim, then disengage the autopilot before we hit the clouds.

The decision altitude for this approach is 480' for a touchdown zone elevation of about 190', so the decision height is significantly above the usual 200' ILS decision height. ATIS is reporting a 500' ceiling, which sounds fairly doable, but personal experience with Monterey tells me that's not the full story: the marine layer over the coastline (the approach end of the runway) is often slightly lower than over the airport itself, so I have the feeling that we may not break out at 700'; we may not even break out at 480'. We descend in the gloom with a fair tailwind and droplets of water streaming across the windshield, and get switched to tower. I can hear the Turkey getting taxi instructions on tower frequency, which means he didn't go missed, which helps my optimism a little, and apart from the early little SNAFUs, things are now going fairly smoothly; I feel fully in control again. The autpilot's set things up nicely, and tracking the localiser manually goes well. We're cleared to land, and we keep going down the glideslope, a little high, but slower than usual (still at 80 KIAS). 1000' … 900' … 800' … 700' … no sign of breakout, things as gloomy and impenetrable as ever … 600' … at 550', just as I'm about to firewall the throttle and go missed, we suddenly see the approach lights ahead of us, then a few seconds later I can see the runway lights. Cool! It's like winning a video game… I land and get off the runway as quickly as possible, thinking of the regional behind us. It lands as we're turning onto the parallel taxiway; the regional back-taxis down the runway for the main terminal.

I'd told Ben not say anything from very early in the approach because this was going to be stressful, and I finally ask him what he thought of it all. He claims he enjoyed it a lot, which surprises me, but then he has to get me to fly him back up to Hayward, so he would say that, wouldn't he? He asks me whether I could have refused the approach when the controller didn't seem too on top of things (he's flown enough to follow the basics on the radio), and I explain about going missed and that I'm supposed to be in charge and could have gone missed without penalty at any time if I'd got uncomfortable enough. Like me, he really enjoys the let-down into the soft clouds, and the appearance of the approach lights through the gloom. I'm glad he enjoyed it — I'm not sure too many other friends who fly with me would have quite the same reactions to a near-minimums approach in early-evening IMC.

The flight back is pretty straightforward, the only IMC being the first few minutes of departure. Predictably, the ceiling on departure is several hundred feet higher than on the approach, and the late sunset visible from above the marine layer on breakthrough is stunning. On handoff to NorCal I ask for and get the usual shortcut via BUSHY intersection, saving nearly 80nm off the canned route, and except for the fact that several controllers seem to think we're heading for Oakland rather than Hayward, things go smoothly and nicely all the way back. It's late Saturday evening by the time we arrive on the ground at Hayward, and the place is dead.

June 17, 2006


Yes, Just Another Boring Bay Area Sunset from 7000': the mountains of the Coastal and Diablo Ranges in silhouette or sharp relief against a darkening orange sky, the sun setting into the slight mist over the Pacific, the same mist extending in tendrils along the canyons and valleys between the peaks, the view extending for maybe 100 miles in each direction, NorCal Approach calling 747s and smaller traffic for us we as head up over the Santa Cruz range... but I'm under the bloody Cone Of Stupidity again, so I miss most of this, sitting there ruefully (and not for the first time...) thinking "People pay hundreds — in some cases thousands — of dollars just to see this view, and I'm paying to block all this out?". Hmmmm.

* * *

I've been spoiling myself by flying the club's G1000-equipped 172s almost exclusively lately (VFR as well as IFR), so I thought since I have no life I'd spend Saturday evening flying one of our older 172s under the hood with just the steam gauges (plus a panel GPS) to see if I still have the Right Stuff without all the glass and an autopilot. "It doesn't even have an HSI!" I think in horror as I sit there in the left seat waiting for Hayward (KHWD) Deliverance to give us the usual clearance, wondering what the hell some of those thingies on the front panel are for. Boyan, my usual flight-share partner in the right seat, finds this vaguely amusing, but I'm sitting there thinking that two years ago I'd have found this attitude incomprehensible. No HSI?! I have to twiddle OBS's with a mechanical knob?! (of course where The Aviatrix currently flies, she doesn't even get to twiddle VOR OBSs — there are no VOR's up there (that's another world entirely, one that intrigues me from this distance)). But it's all very familiar after a minute or two (some things you never lose), and after the usual delay waiting next to Hayward's 28L for release, we're off into the evening.

Miraculously the entire flight down to Monterey (KMRY) is utterly routine: no altitude problems, only momentary lapses with heading (usually as I struggle to reprogram the GPS), the radio work goes just fine (you can get away with a lot when you have an Anglo-Australian accent in this part of the world), and if the initial stages of the LOC/DME RWY 28L approach into Monterey are a little, erm, agricultural, I can always blame the bad vector NorCal gives us that blows us straight through the localiser (it wasn't really her fault — she was contending with an extremely gabby VFR flight that kept stepping on both her and me, and she was really apologetic about it afterwards). As I've noted elsewhere, the Monterey LOC/DME 29L approach goes over some rather interesting terrain, and done in the latter stages of sunset, it's apparently breathtaking. Or so Boyan tells me, as he flies us home back up over the Santa Cruz range and across to Hayward.

A really enjoyable IFR flight in near-perfect VFR conditions. Wish I could afford the time and money to do this more often.

* * *

The most interesting thing about the evening for me was that I still actually find it easier to keep a non-G1000 172 level than the G1000 version when hand-flying. Sure that G1000 glass AI is (relatively) huge, but the little turn coordinator in the older 172s is instantaneous, and easy to see out of the corner of your eye as you're looking at the other instruments, and I find myself once again using the TC more than the AI as a basic instrument. Not sure what to make of this really … probably nothing.

June 07, 2006

Just Another Bay Tour

Another Bay Tour, this time with Rob P., a colleague from my day job in San Francisco. A cool, luminous late afternoon and early evening, a steady seabreeze, a cloudless blue sky: Northern California flying! It's a relief to just get in the 172 and go, no flight plan, no vectors, no autopilot, no endless knob-twiddling or menu-searching, no ILS or localizer, just the Blue Book, the sectional, the terminal chart, and a briefing from DUATS. Cool! I keep saying I should do this more often, but sometimes it's hard to find the time.

We cross the hills and run up the Diablo Valley and over Concord (KCCR), land at Napa (just to show Rob what it's like), then fly slowly over San Pablo Bay towards Angel Island and the The Bridge, maneuvering lazily at various altitudes, watching for the other traffic. Rob seems to enjoy it immensely, and after maybe half an hour he's having no trouble keeping the plane within 100' of the assigned altitude and on heading from the right seat, without his ever having flown any sort of plane before. By the time we've landed back at Hayward (directly into the sun) he's asking me what it would take for him to get flight training...

May 14, 2006

Freight Dog Woes

Over at Freight Dog Tales John's announced he's leaving his Van driver job this week. I guess this hasn't been a surprise to most of us here — talking with John in person over the past month or two it's been obvious something like this was probably going to have to happen. It's just too hard to live decently in the Bay Area on a junior Freight Dog's income, especially if you have a wife and a mortgage. I know — I tried it for a while as a pro photographer, with virtually no real income for a couple of years before I had to start the long trek down to Silicon Valley and back every day to make a real living in computers again (and I have neither a wife nor a mortgage). I've always harboured vague dreams of flying for a living, but I'm too damn old now (hint: I'm a year or two shy of being twice Sam's age…) to want to have to move from the Bay Area and starve again like a student for a decade before making enough to not just survive but thrive.

But as Sam says, once a Freight Dog always a Freight Dog — and as John said this morning, he'll never be cured of being a Freight Dog, he's just in remission :-). He's definitely got other aviation things up his sleeve…

April 30, 2006

Get Out Of Fresno

Prepping the approach....Finally, after six solid weeks of rain-outs and cancelations, a flight (woo hoo!) This time, it's the long-planned (and long-postponed) 160 nm run down to San Luis Obispo (KSBP) with my usual flight-share partner Boyan B. It's all about the mythical (but very real) thousand dollar hamburger (inflation, you know). We'll take one of Cal Air's G1000-equipped 172's; I'll do my leg (there or back, I don't much mind) IFR under the hood (except for the scenic bits :-)), and Boyan will do his leg VFR. The weather around our Hayward (KHWD) home base and the Bay Area in general is perfect — clear late spring weather, barely a cloud in the sky. And San Luis Obispo's a nice friendly scenic little airport with a decent restaurant (the Spirit of San Luis) that Artists 1 and 2 and I visited on our way back from Venice and Santa Monica last year. But there's a hitch (there's always a bloody hitch…).

San Luis Obispo's near enough to the coast that it gets the same sort of regular coastal stratus that we get up here, and while it's unusual for the Bay Area to be clear of it and San Luis Obispo to be socked in, today's the day. And while it's unusual for San Luis Obispo and nearby airports to be below minimums with this stratus, today's also the day: all likely airports in the area— San Luis, Paso Robles, Santa Barbara — are reporting at or below minimums (with Paso Robles reporting 100' and less than a mile visibility for an airport with no precision approaches). San Luis also starts reporting 100', 1 mile visibility (it's getting worse!), so even the ILS isn't going to help me here (and I feel too rusty to want to shoot an ILS to minimums today, especially in a place like San Luis Obispo with some interesting terrain around it). It's the same for all airports along the coast from San Jose south, pretty much all the way to at least LA. So I can't even file Santa Barbara as an alternate; I'll have to file Fresno (KFAT), an hour's flight away inland. We sit and wait a while, suspecting it'll clear down there, or at least get better. But it doesn't — the stratus just clings to the region, and the forecast calls for no lifting until well after midday, if at all.

Boyan B. at Hayward.Now what? We can't do San Luis Obispo. We can't do Santa Barbara. We can't even do Arcata, at the other end of the state — it's even worse off. It's just the Bay Area that's free of stratus (a first, in my experience). Plan B? (This sounds familiar…). There isn't one, of course. So we settle on flying to Fresno, where there's allegedly a place to eat in the main terminal. Neither of has actually flown there, so at least it's a new airport. I'll fly out IFR, Boyan will fly back VFR. Fresno's not exactly the most interesting or scenic destination in California (a lot of Californians will say it's one of the least interesting and scenic destinations in California, but I think that's a little unfair), but it's all flying, and if we don't start soon we'll never go.

So I file for Fresno, which is reporting a lot of haze (almost MVFR) but is otherwise hot and cloudless. I don't remember what I filed or got from Deliverance, but in typical NorCal Approach fashion, we probably fly less than 10 nm of what I filed, being cleared direct Clovis VOR (CZQ) a minute or two after we're airborne, and being constantly vectored for traffic on the first 20 nm or so where you cross the approaches into Oakland. I find myself thinking I'm rusty as hell — not so much the raw flying skills (e.g. keeping the plane on course or right-side-up which went OK, if a little roughly at times) but in procedures (I blow a few radio calls, I momentarily misinterpret a chart) and G1000 management (I sit there for a few seconds at one stage thinking "what the hell am I looking at?" after I push the wrong MFD soft key; earlier, on the ground, I had one of those blank moments when I simply couldn't remember how to do some flight plan thing or other; neither incident was a real safety issue, more just a reminder of how irritating the G1000 (and GPS 530) interfaces can be). We do the ILS into Fresno coupled with the autopilot, which goes fine. We notice a bunch of what-look-like F18's (or whatever they are) next to the end of the runway when we're on final.

Prepping the approach....Fresno's dead. It's 11.30 am Sunday and there's nothing moving on the ramp except the Mercury FBO line guy in his golf cart trying to guide us to parking (apparently the airport is digging up and re-arranging the normal transient parking so we have to park at Mercury). We ask him about food. There's a snack bar / coffee shop in the main terminal, but nothing else. We ask them to refuel the plane (shouldn't take more than a dozen gallons), then on the spur of the moment Boyan calls the ATIS number for San Luis Obispo while we're out on the ramp. It's good news — San Luis Obispo isn't VMC, but it's now above minimums, 600' and several miles. This is a real no-brainer: get out of Fresno! We pay for the fuel, then file for San Luis Obispo, the long way around (FRESNO5.CZQ PXN ROM PRB, from memory). We'll ask direct PRB when we talk to either Fresno Approach or Oakland Center.

As we're standing next to 04E on the ramp we hear and then see two of the F18's taking off. I'm used to the sound of military jets at reasonably close quarters, but this was louder than usual, absolutely ear-splitting: they pass by, gear up, not more than 50' off the runway, at what looks to be about 200 knots, then depart almost vertically into the murk just over the opposite numbers. Cool! I want to do that when I grow up. A minute or so later they land and then depart again in a haze of noise, that familiar mixture of low roar and high shriek. Unfortunately, they do this while I'm talking to FSS on my phone, trying to file. When she can finally hear me again, the specialist on the other end of the line asks whether I'm standing right in front of a DC8 or something. I deadpan that no, it's just a little 172 (Noise? what Noise?!). She one-ups me by drily saying something like "that's the jet-equipped 172, right?!". For once I'm left short of a snappy response and confess that we're watching the F18's doing another low pass. "Not much else happening in Fresno", I say. "Yeah, I think I'd rather be in San Luis" she says. Time to depart….

As expected we get direct Paso Robles VOR (PRB) from Oakland Center about ten minutes after departure, a good short cut on the victor airways routing we'd been given by Deliverance. Unfortunately, when I'd asked Fresno Departure earlier for Paso Robles direct, the controller responded with "Unable Paso Robles direct", which I heard as "when able, Paso Robles direct", a form of clearance or instruction that's fairly common around here (usually with an initial vector, though). I read it back my way and she catches the error, luckily enough. Not sure what to think of this — it was partly due to the really crappy sound we were getting from Fresno Approach's transmitter (everyone else was coming in loud and clear) and partly due to my expectations. I should have expected not to get it — Oakland Center would be the right place to ask for this, but I thought I'd try anyway — but for some reason I was being more optimistic than usual.

On the ramp at KSBPWe're instructed to climb and maintain 7000', which as Oakland tells us is the wrong altitude for this direction but that it'll help keep us clear of some other traffic he's managing. He promises higher or lower in a few minutes, but we spend the entire en-route sections at the "wrong" altitude. No big deal.

What is something of a big deal is the engine emergency we hear on air near Paso Robles. A small Cherokee under flight following calls Center with unspecified engine problems and asks Center for vectors to the nearest airport. He's vectored towards a small private rural airport the controller tells him is about five miles dead ahead of his location, and is also advised that Paso Robles airport is a further five miles or so in the same direction (I don't remember the actual details here). We listen as the pilot talks a bit more to Center, asking for details of the strip. After a few minutes the pilot says his engine's now "doing OK", but he's heading straight for Paso Robles for an immediate landing there. Wise move.

Strangely enough, when John and I flew Lou's Arrow down to Santa Barbara a few years ago we heard a similar emergency at almost exactly the same place. Hmmm. At least both incidents ended OK (as far as I know).

The ILS into San Luis Obispo must be visually breathtaking — you come in over the Coastal Range and Morro Bay and down through a sort-of valley with short sharp volcanic peaks and outcrops haphazardly strewn around below and to each side; plus, there's usually a lot of low stratus around creeping over and between the peaks. And that's the way it looks today: really beautiful. Or so I'm told — but I'm under the Cone Of Stupidity and miss most of it, doing the ILS to circling minimums and then finally seeing it all as I look up and circle for runway 29. We land uneventfully and taxi to the restaurant parking area. We're both really really hungry by now.

Lunch at the Spirit Of San Luis is predictably pretty good — I have the fish and chips and a decent cheesake, which does the job; Boyan has a hamburger — and after a bunch of coffee we stagger out to the plane and preflight. No need for fuel — we left Fresno with 50 gallons and we average about 8 GPH — so we depart VFR with flight following back to Hayward, with Boyan in the left seat. The flight back is uneventful but — as always in California — very scenic, and after the rainiest wet season in decades the ground is unnaturally green and soft-looking from 4,500'.

Coming back into the Bay Area we start getting TIS traffic displays on the G1000, and then a sporadic but really annoying series of "TRAFFIC!" calls on the intercom as planes pass over and under us on the approaches into San Jose and other airports (as is pretty standard for 'round here). As I've complained before, you can't turn this off, and you miss radio calls, or get distracted from other tasks, regardless of whether you already know about the traffic or not. This continues on and off all the way to Hayward. There are times when I'd like to take a surgical knife to certain parts of the G1000 anatomy….

The Comanche at Hayward

Back at Hayward there's a nicely-maintained old Piper Comanche on the ramp next to the Cal Air club offices. I'm somewhat partial to Comanches because when I was a kid in Australia it was one of the small GA planes that I got to fly in (along with a Cherokee a friend of the family owned). Sitting there on the tarmac it brings back memories of overflying western Sydney or the Central Coast north of Woy Woy and Gosford all those billions of years ago.


Well, the hamburger didn't end up costing us anywhere near a thousand dollars, but it's the thought that counts, no? It's a shame about Fresno, but I log two more approaches and a bunch of time under the hood, and even the Fresno bits were flying.

Home sweet home....

March 30, 2006

24 Days

It's rained 24 days so far this month (March), an all-time record for this area, and more's on the way. That's not as irritating as the more than forty days in a row that it rained on me once when I lived in London, but the constant drizzle and (sometimes) heavy rain's played havoc with my flying schedules, and I've had to cancel several planned IFR flights in the past two weeks. The latest cancellation being Sunday's long-planned trip in one of the club's G1000 172's down to San Luis Obispo (KSBP) and back for lunch and IFR practice under the hood with Boyan B., my usual flight-share partner, as safety pilot (and flying his leg VFR).

It's not that we probably couldn't get there and back fairly safely VFR, it's that we couldn't do it IFR: the icing levels are well below the MEA, and although the ceilings are fairly high, there's cloud everywhere now and forecast for tomorrow at and below the relatively high MEAs needed to get to San Luis. And I'm not pleased with the idea of always looking over our shoulders worrying about the latest approaching cold front. Yes, I'd normally be fine with leaving the damn plane at Salinas or King City or somewhere like that and renting a car or taking a train to get back (and picking it up the next day), but that quite likely scenario (given this week's unstable weather) just doesn't appeal to me at the moment. All I really want to do is file and fly, dammit.

March 12, 2006

Plan B

Plan A: a leisurely flight late this morning down to Monterey (KMRY) in N1004E wth Boyan B. (my usual flight-share partner) as PIC, then lunch, then I'd fly back under the Cone Of Stupidity to see how well I coped with the G1000 without John in the right seat. Boyan has the G1000 VFR signoff, and Monterey's a nice little airport we've both visited many times before. Plus he owes me lunch, and Monterey's got a restaurant in the terminal building (nothing special, but it's definitely food). But by last night it's obvious that plan A's going to fall victim to the same weather that's causing all sorts of disruption around here (with freezing levels down to sea-level, rain, and forecast ceilings of 3,000' or less), and I start thinking about Plan B.

Plan B? Well, I dunno — there really isn't a plan B. After breakfast this morning at Javarama I use DUATS to get more forecasts, and while it doesn't look so good right now, the forecast has things clearing over the next few hours. It's definitely flyable VFR as long as you dodge the rainshowers and keep below the ceiling. And surface temperatures seem higher than I'd expected — often nearly 10C. So Boyan and I meet up at Cal Airways, prepared to cancel the flight, or just spend some time flying locally. Maybe a short trip to Livermore or San Jose (Reid-Hillview). And the sun's actually shining on Hayward (on and off, at least).

So we discuss the plan. We'll fly to Livermore (KLVK), just over the hills, and if it still looks good after landing there, we'll go on into the Central Valley to Stockton (KSCK), where we'll get some lunch if possible. Then we'll return the same way, cautiously. Some rules we agree to: no pressure to get back (it's OK to leave the damn plane at Livermore or Stockton and catch a train or BART back); no flying without at least a clear way to a visible airport (there are plenty in the Valley at least); we'll go to the nearest airport on any sign of ice at all; absolutely no IMC; no flying through rain; we turn back if the celings get below 2,500' AGL. That about covers it, and we get another DUATS briefing and look at Nexrad. Again, nothing too bad, and we pre-flight and head for Livermore. Livermore's looking good, and we taxi back and depart for Stockton. We have to dodge a rain shower, but otherwise things are still pretty good. The outside air temperature (OAT) doesn't go below 5C (which surprises me), and the G1000 Nexrad display correlates well with what we can see around us. Plus the celings are higher than reported, in some cases by several thousand feet.

We land at Stockton — the place is dead. The terminal's closed, so no lunch here. There's no one around on the ramp. There's one plane in the pattern doing touch-and-goes. We swap places, get ATIS again, look at the G1000 Nexrad display again, then decide to depart towards Tracy then Livermore, giving us an out if the rain gets started again. I take off and as planned head towards Tracy. Things look pretty good again, but Nexrad confirms that the ugly-looking rainstorm around Byron is much thicker than it looks, and there's unseen heavy rain up north of Concord. But otherwise, it looks OK, and we head towards Livermore. The OAT is still about 5C (it was 10C on the ground in Stockton), and things feel good. Then we see the rainstorm appearing on Nexrad out over the Peninsula and the San Francisco coast getting more intense. We can't see it from where we are approaching Livermore, but we're both conservative enough to trust Nexrad in this case, and decide to head straight for Hayward to get home before it makes things difficult. It's clear behind and around us, so we can escape back to Livermore if it looks like the rain will hit before we get home. As we approach the Oakland Hills we can see a huge dramatic dark curtain of cloud and rain coming across the Bay, and it starts lightly raining on us as we join the pattern at Hayward. I land a little fast with a gusty quartering headwind, and taxi back to CalAir as quickly as I can. As we start tying 04E down, the deluge breaks, and for the next few hours it's raining cats and dogs. Cool. If we'd departed Stockton any later, we'd have been sitting at Livermore or Tracy for the afternoon.

Overall, an interesting flight, and a good opportunity to see Nexrad do its work in real time in the cockpit. It did a good job of showing us trouble well ahead of when we could see it — we would not have seen the unforecast and basically invisible-from-Livermore rain front until much closer up, and it made it clear that going up towards Concord was not a smart idea either, regardless of what Concord's ATIS was reporting at the time. No, on-board Nexrad didn't enter into the decision to fly today (I would have flown one of the other non-G1000 SP's just as readily (or not)), but I can't help feeling it made me more conservative in my in-air decision making. Basically, it provided that extra information that helped me not do things I might otherwise have done (like head up towards Concord). It's probably not so useful 'round here for IFR/IMC flying in my situation, though — most "bad" weather around here is either too bad to fly a light plane IFR in, or it's relatively benign. But the extra information Nexrad gives you can't be a bad thing, can it? Unless you use it to justify bursting the envelope…

February 25, 2006

Flying Glass (Part 3)

Finally, a day with decent weather and a few hours to spare, and — finally — I get the G1000 IFR signoff (with a full instrument proficiency check into the bargain) out of the way with John. It's taken since mid-November — much longer than I expected, mostly due to bad weather and the pressures of taking on a new job — but I suspect it's been worth it. It's certainly been an interesting and enjoyable look into another way of flying, and when you're sitting there looking at the beautiful displays and letting George do his thing, it's hard to want to go back to something like 4AC with its steam gauges and its lack of GPS and autopilot for serious IFR flying. I still wouldn't hesitate to use 4AC (or at least a similar plane) to just punch through the summer coastal stratus here once in a while, and I actually suspect that my main IMC flying will more likely be done in the plain old SP's with GPS and mechanical gauges, but so much about the G1000 feels right to this old engineer.

Today's flight is a mostly-unexceptional finishing up of the G1000 IPC needed for the club's insurance coverage: the GPS RWY 25 approach with circling into Rio Vista (O88) done partial panel, a bunch of times around the missed-approach hold at OAKEY, then back to Hayward for the GPS RWY 28L approach, with a bunch of unusual attitude recovery exercises along the way. I end up enjoying the flight much more than I'd expected, and much of the flight went smoothly, and even the landings were good.

Flying the G1000 partial panel turns out to be an irritating but not particularly difficult experience, with the PFD displayed on the MFD with the engine controls. It's irritating to have to look right all the time to concentrate on the reverted PFD, but it's not that hard; it's surely better than having no backup display at all. I also try simply looking at the backup mechanical guages under the space between the displays early on the approach — no nav instruments just an AI, the altimeter, and the airspeed indicator — this also turns out to be not excruciatingly difficult to use to keep the plane under control, but what you'd use for an approach in IMC isn't exactly clear. The location of the mechanical backups makes it difficult to follow any yoke-mounted hand-held GPS, and you don't have anything but a whisk(e)y compass for vectors. Again, though, it's a lot better than the backups available in something 4AC when the primary instrument systems fail….

The approach into Rio Vista involves using CTAF in the later stages to listen for other traffic and announce our intentions — no big deal under normal circumstances, you'd think, but it's a beautiful Saturday morning, and the CTAF frequency (yes, I know there's a redundancy there) is jammed with continuous transmissions from all over Northern California. From 4,000' over the Central Valley any CTAF frequency is going to have an endless stream of transmissions from the dozen or more airports within 150 nm that share that frequency, and today's a classic example of that. The actual traffic at Rio Vista itself is unexceptional (a couple of other planes in the pattern), but the effect's so bad I get John to handle the radio work (there was also a radio level problem I was having that we didn't solve until we'd departed Rio Vista, which certainly didn't help).

The circling part of the approach is the usual mild fear-and-loathing caused by suddenly joining a pattern with other aircraft in it and trying to balance the altitude / distance requirements for circling with the need to keep from hitting those other aircraft and the need to actually land properly. It all works out fine in the end, but a night IMC circling approach near minimums has to be one of those experiences I don't want to have to do for real any time soon. The first time I did the GPS 25 with circling at Rio Vista I bungled the circling bad enough to cause several forced go-arounds; this time, at least, I land normally. We depart for the hold, and later for Hayward, and the only interesting thing about the rest of the flight was the GPS 28L approach into Hayward, an approach I haven't done before. The GPS approach has an MDA of 440', only 40' above the localizer version into Hayward, and it shares the same drop-like-a-rock gradient of that approach around the FAF, usually exacerbated by NorCal Approach's tendency to vector you way above the segment altitude for whatever segment they're making you join (often at least a thousand feet above that altitude, usually just before the next leg…). This time we get vectored at a reasonable altitude, but at 100KIAS, even dialing in 900 fpm on the autopilot barely gets us down in time. In the 172 in IMC any time after the FAF, 900 fpm takes quite a bit of faith. Not quite the Santa Monica Slam, but enough to make you bloody watchful.

The other aspect of the enroute bits of the flight that I find helpful is having John show me a lot of the more useful display and instrument options hidden away behind the MFD menus. Little things like track vectors, range circles, etc., make a nice addition to the basic display, and help you visualise trends and needed heading or airspeed adjustments, etc., a lot more intuitively (at least for me). Again, not something you want to start relying on, but in the hold with a decent crosswind it's interesting to be able to pretty accurately see the heading and airspeed corrections needed to track around the hold nicely. Still, as John comments in the hold, I seem to find it easier to fly holds by hand rather than command George, and it's true — I used to really dislike holds, but increasingly they've become light relief from the other bits of flying IMC or under the Cone Of Stupidity. Which is what a missed approach hold should be, really — a time to gather your wits and start again.

One really irritating thing with the G1000 (and the similar system in the Cirrus) is the inability to turn off traffic warnings on the TIS service. Typically what happens is that a very loud voice starts announcing "Traffic! Traffic!" at just the time ATC is giving you a traffic report or vectoring you, and you miss the ATC transmission. This happens several times today, given the usual Saturday morning zoo over the Bay Area (we had traffic crossing us constantly all the way back from Rio Vista). I can't believe this is a safety improvement, especially since TIS misses a fair bit of the real traffic anyway, and a healthy paranoia about traffic is the default attitude here.

* * *

Back at Hayward, I'm surprised by a very familiar face and voice greeting me exuberantly as we're tying 04E down — it's Praniti L., a colleague of mine from my old job down in Silicon Valley. She's a student pilot not far from finally getting her private license (it's a long story…), and she's looking over California Airways to see if she could restart her license here. I'm really pleased to see her again (and to gossip about the old company, but that's not for public consumption :-)), and I'm even more pleased that she's restarting the whole flying thing. I used to kid her sometimes about the few hours she needed to finish off, and kept gently cajoling her to keep going; now maybe it'll happen (she's a natural pilot, I think, and she comes from a flying family).

* * *

Those of you who follow John's blog know that lately he's been whining publicly about his camera, a little digital point-and-shoot. I've called his bluff by lending him one of my older digital SLRs (with a decent lens), the Nikon D100 I use as a backup on real photo shoots. Now there's no excuse, John :-).

February 12, 2006

Heavy Weather

I look outside my studio window at about 7.30 am: a nice sunny morning, a typical Oakland winter's day -- temperature about 12C, no wind, a light scattering of high clouds. Perfect for finishing off the G1000 checkout. Cool! But by the time I've driven the 10 miles or so down to Hayward (KHWD) 90 minutes later, Hayward airport's covered in a thin layer of heavy fog. Visibility 1/2 mile; ceiling 100', tops probably 500', certainly less than 1000'. The locals are saying it wasn't there thirty minutes ago. Hmmm. Oakland (KOAK) -- 5 miles to the north west -- is still effectively reporting CAVU. It'll blow over -- it always does.

John arrives and we discuss this morning's agenda -- a GPS approach somewhere (we decide on Rio Vista, O88), a circle-to-land (Rio Vista again, if possible), and some partial panel and unusual attitude work along the way. Sounds good to me, and I preflight the plane. John has what he calls a mild cold and sore throat, but he sounds like he's about to die, while repeatedly insisting he's OK. I joke about dead bodies in the right seat, etc., but John's got a heavy schedule for the rest of the day, and I really don't want to screw that up for him if I can help it.

Thirty minutes later the fog still hasn't cleared. We sit there in the club listening to Hayward ATIS -- the visibility is up to a mile or so, and the ceiling is now 300' (still below the best Hayward approach minimums, so I can't depart), and Oakland's now reporting 200' / 1 mile (or similar, i.e. right on OAK 27R's Cat I ILS minimums), and it's obvious that we can't depart Hayward at all, despite it being sunny maybe 500' above us and pretty much all the way to Colorado to the east. We're still hopeful it'll clear, but by 9.45 am (for a 9am flight) it's obvious it's going to hang around for a while longer, and we cancel the flight. In the end it doesn't actually clear fully for another hour or more after that.

What now? John suggests we finally go through the paperwork -- the two long written tests I have to complete in addition to the practical checkride to be allowed to fly the C172 G1000 version. But I've left my mostly-completed paperwork at home (D'Oh!) and I did the original several weeks ago, so we have to start again, and I can't remember a lot of the answers.

What follows is excruciating -- two hours of searching the various Garmin manuals in vain for things you should be able to find instantly. An example: the test asks how you check system and / or GPS status on the MFD -- the sort of thing you'd probably want to do at least once each flight, maybe more. Ditto for RAIM status. Is there an index entry for any of these things in the Garmin manual? Not bloody likely. Is there even a paragraph or two in the entire manual about these status pages? Not bloody likely. An entry in an unrelated section of the official checklist implies that you can do this sort of thing with the MFD AUX pages, but that's it. OK, I'm sure that if I were sitting in front of the unit I'd suss it out pretty quickly, but sitting at a table in the club lounge it's less obvious. And so it goes -- Garmin does a great job in general with their products and things like simulators, but the written manuals are truly dreadful. It's hard to conceive of a manual that's intended to be kept at your side in the plane that doesn't even mention RAIM status, let alone tell you how to check it explictly.

Ditto -- in slightly less annoying ways -- for the Cessna 172 POH. I know Cessna has to use the approved FAA POH format, but it's astonishing how difficult it is to find the answers to things like questions about emergency S bus performance or battery current draws under alternator failure (etc.) in the POH. Urgh.

So, two hours later, with John's help, I get the paperwork out of the way and signed off. Shame about the flying...

January 30, 2006

From Our Wellington Correspondent...

Sent to me by YAFB's Wellington (NZ) correspondent, a nice little story about a Cessna and alleged insurance fraud. Not quite typical YAFB fodder, but I can't help wondering what help the guy had with getting the wings off so it'd fit in the container... (not to mention all the other help needed to keep the whole scheme afloat, as it were... assuming it's all true, of course, of which I have my doubts).

January 21, 2006

Flying Glass (Part 2)

A grey morning, layered overcasts from about 1,000 feet up through maybe 5,000 or 6,000 feet, clear above 6,000, and a forecast for slow clearing across the region. Icing levels about 6,000', but escape routes above and below. Not a bad day to continue my education with the G1000 in N14008, one of the California Airways glass cockpit 172SP's. John arranged it with me yesterday, and although I vowed to get it together this morning, due to other commitments I'm already late and feeling under-prepared by the time I reach Hayward airport (KHWD, my main home base). And, once I get there, instead of filing, pre-flighting, studying the charts and POH, etc., I end up discussing the club with Keith (the owner) and the G1000 with Mal R. (one of Cal Air's instructors), and not noticing the time going by. Oh well.

John calls and asks if it's OK to bring another of his students, Andy K. (whom I've met before a couple of times at the Other Club) as a back-seat observer. Fine by me, and John and Andy turn up as I'm finally getting ready to pre-flight. Andy's wearing shorts, which initially horrifies me — it's California-cold and grey outside — but then I think "Well, he's from Russia..." and it all makes more sense. It is, after all, somewhere above 12C outside already, despite the winter grey.

And so for the first complication: when you fly a 172 with just two people, as long as neither of them are especially overweight and you don't have a lot of luggage, you pretty much can't bust gross weight or centre-of-gravity limits even with full fuel loads, and you basically don't spend too much time obsessing over weight and balance issues. But there are three of us this time, and although none of us is particularly large — I'm 180 cm tall and under the average weight for the FAA standard person (who apparently weighs 170lbs in Nineteenth Century measurements), and John and Andy are both taller than me and similarly proportioned — we have to do a weight and balance check. After going through the agony of trying to remember how to do one without a spreadsheet, it confirms what I suspect: we'd be 100lbs over gross and close to the aft CG limit with Andy along and with full fuel. We could dump fuel, but it seems easier to dump Andy instead :-). So we're left pondering the poor lifting capacity of the 172SP with full 56 gallon tanks — back at the Other Club we kept 2SP (the 172SP there) fueled up to the collars instead of fully-fueled for exactly this reason, as that at least allowed three full-size adults and baggage to depart legally. It seems pathetic that you can't get such a relatively-powerful plane off the ground (legally, at any rate) in such circumstance, but there it is. Something else to ponder if I want to drag this plane back to Santa Monica or up to Portland some day — get the previous pilot to refuel only up to the tabs. I'm not sure what the hell I'd do if I turned up one morning with passengers and discovered I had to drain 20 gallons of fuel to make gross….

After all this we're already late and I'm feeling even more under-prepared, and since it's likely to be IMC for a large part of our flight to and from Stockton (at least I've had the wit to get a decent DUATS briefing for the flight), I tell John we shouldn't bust a gut trying to do the G1000 IFR signoff today — I'd be happy with a quick IFR / IMC flight out to Stockton (KSCK, one of my favourite Central Valley IFR practice destinations) and a couple of approaches — whatever we do will be a good lesson, and I'm resigned to completing the G1000 IFR sign-off sometime later. After all, I already have the VFR version. This sounds like a plan, and we wander out to the apron. John does some of the pre-flight while I file for Stockton (OAK V244 ECA direct, the same whether you depart Oakland or Hayward, a very familiar route).

Once on board we follow the startup checklist and get things started — and, once again, this is a lot more work than with a conventional set of instruments. I know this is probably obvious to most people, but the G1000 is a complex system, not just a disparate collection of mechanical instruments, and unless you start thinking of it as an integrated system, and interacting with it accordingly, it'll never make sense. This time round the workload's somewhat easier, and if you concentrate on the PFD (primary flight display) and the engine gauges on the MFD (multi-function display), ignoring all the extras on the MFD (the maps, the terrain options, the XM radio, the checklists, etc.), it's all fairly comprehensible, if a little complex the first few times. When we're ready to taxi, I call Hayward Deliverance, who gives me a distracted sort of "that's nice, dear" response and tells me to contact Ground without giving me a clearance. We taxi off to the runup area, finally getting the clearance (the usual "runway heading; passing through 400' left turn heading 160; radar vectors for OAK VOR; V244 ECA direct", of which only "left turn 160" and "ECA direct" are likely to be given by NorCal once you're in the air… ) as we get to the runup. Programming a clearance into the G1000 is pretty much identical to the GPS 530 procedure, and nothing about it is surprising or difficult (just tricky at times). We spend a few minutes in the runup area going over the various ways to superimpose the three different NAV sources on the HSI, which for someone raised on separate OBS's (etc), is just magic (this magic turns out to be a significant part of the flight a little later).

I call tower from the runup area, expecting to be told we'll be waiting fifteen minutes for release, but we're told to position and hold on 28L, then almost immediately cleared for takeoff. The departure is pretty standard and I hand-fly until we get into the clouds and NorCal starts giving me the usual vectors and altitude assignments on the Hayward Runaround. Time to let George do the the work. George stays engaged pretty much the rest of the flight until the last few hundred feet at Stockton (with exceptions noted below), which suits me just fine: I like being able to use it as a command instrument, dialing in a new altitude or heading. The only criticism I'd have of the G1000 / KAP 140 combination in this setup is the total lack of altitude coupling between the two (except for the ILS glideslope coupling), which seems a real missed opportunity — it'd be nice to just dial in a new altitude and vertical speed on the G1000 when coupled and have the KAP 140 respond accordingly. Not a big deal, just one of those minor irritations (as someone who spent most of his instrument training in aircraft without GPS, let alone a glass cockpit or an autopilot, I guess I still feel astonished that I have access to any of this technology at all, let alone the ability to complain about some its imperfections…).

We enter IMC about 1000 feet and spend most of the rest of the flight out to Stockton in and out of IMC. The flight out is routine except for two things: at some point after a bunch of vectors we're given a clearance direct to Manteca VOR (ECA) and we set the GPS and autopilot accordingly, but after a few minutes it's obvious the autopilot's developing a mind of its own, and we're increasingly off course. In a classic case of getting distracted by the unimportant, I start trying to debug what the hell went wrong, rather than just turning George off and starting again with a suitable (manual) heading, and using the autopilot in heading mode doing the various corrections with the heading bug until we're back on course and I can set it up properly again. D'Oh! It's the whole (Dis)Grace Under Pressure thing all over again, but with more sophisticated equipment this time. A very useful lesson, needed several more times today as George doesn't always do what I think it will (usually because I don't get the right key sequence). The good news is that (so far) I'm always noticing the problems; the bad news is I try to debug them in real time instead of reverting to something more basic then setting things up again at my leisure.

The only other bit of real interest on the way out was the DME arc John made me do to the final course for the VOR 29R approach into Stockton (in and out of IMC). He'd explained what he'd be asking me to do when we were still in the runup area, so it wasn't a surprise, and NorCal was OK with the request. The surprise was just how much easier it turns out to be to do a DME arc with the RMI-like superimposed display using the HSI with the NAV1 pointer pointing to ECA VOR over the left wing. Sweet! And really a lot more intuitive and easy to visualise than the old OBS-twisting / DME-watching method. I don't think I was more than .2 NM off on the whole arc, a much better result than the last time I did one for real. The following VOR approach is pretty standard, breaking out at about 800 feet (I think), with a quick touch and go and return to NorCal approach on the missed.

We're getting late, so I ask NorCal for a pop-up clearance back to Hayward, which comes a minute or so later, and we head back to Hayward, this time mostly above the clouds for the enroute segments. I get to spend some time playing with the MFD and learning a bit more about how to use it effectively beyond the usual engine instruments and moving map pages (the default versions of which are useful enough in themselves anyway). The LOC/DME 28L approach back into Hayward is routine, breaking out fairly high, and in fact by the time we land the sun's shining over most of the Bay north of about Hayward. We land roughly, really quite badly — last week's landing practice doesn't seem to have had as good an effect as I'd hoped…. Hmmm.

* * *

Once again, a really enjoyable and worthwhile lesson, despite and because of my screwups. No, I still don't have the G1000 IFR signoff, but it's all coming together well, and the next time I fly with John we basically don't have to run through much more than a decent circling approach and a few holds. Cool! And, once again, I find myself actually enjoying even the bits I flew terribly — always a good sign that you're learning. And I learned a lot today, especially about keeping cool under pressure and learning to fall back to something simpler without letting things get out of hand. Yes, I already knew a lot of this, but it's something that needs to be hammered home in a realistic environment (e.g. IMC in a new plane and using new instruments) to be really effective.

January 16, 2006

Around and Around...

I used to hate pattern work when I was a raw student — all those variants on the same theme, again and again, with Dave sitting there trying to distract me, with me sitting there trying not to land too long or too short or too hard, with all those other planes in the pattern trying to kill me, and a poor overworked tower controller trying to keep the whole circus afloat (just to mix metaphors)….

Nowadays it all just seems like light relief, and I'm in the pattern at Livermore (KLVK) just going round and round watching the world go by for an hour. It's hypnotic, and I get a lot of fun out of doing endless variations of landings — full flaps, no flaps, short approaches, etc. — on Livermore's little 25L in 8SA (one of our 172SP's). It's such a change from being under the hood or from endlessly following the charts in IMC…

Yes, I should be continuing on with the whole G1000 glass cockpit thing, but a new job (and a short vacation) is making that difficult to schedule (thanks to John for his patience with this…). So I decide to take a couple of hours to try to improve my VFR flying skills, especially my landings. And the first landing is pretty rough, but after an hour in the pattern dodging Livermore's usual busy mix of Citations, Cubs, Cherokees, 172's, and experimentals, my landings seem a lot smoother again, and I depart back to Hayward (KWHD) feeling relaxed and fairly pleased with myself. A good lesson.

* * *

OK, one of my generic pet peeves: wide patterns. I used to do much of my pattern work on Oakland's 27L, where you have to keep things tight to avoid the heavies and such on the neighbouring runway 29. And at most airports around here, there are similar reasons (or terrain or noise abatement procedures) that keep you in close. So when, several times around the pattern today, I end up way inside the plane ahead of me in the pattern, I wonder what they're thinking — they're too far out laterally to return to the airport if their engine fails even abeam the numbers, and they're making downwind legs so long I (once again) contemplate facetiously asking tower if I'm cleared to TRACY or something just to be snarky. Especially since tower has already gently chided the guys ahead of me at least twice for the size of their pattern…. Oh well. All mild rants start sounding the same after a while, no? So I'll shut up now.