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…