December 21, 2007

Silent Night

There's something a little creepy about the silence tonight — it's a clear, still, cool Friday evening, perfect VFR flying weather, but … well, where is everyone? Even my passenger, Artist 1, notices it. We're the only active GA traffic at 7pm on a Friday evening at Oakland (KOAK), and we clearly wake up the poor tower controller at Napa (KAPC) when we call her over San Pablo Bay to tell her we're inbound for landing twenty minutes later (it's so clear I can easily see Napa's runway 18R from over Berkeley). What's up with everyone? It's Friday evening just before Christmas — this should be prime flying time, one way or another.

Oh well. I don't know what's going on, but for Artist 1 and me, it's all a pleasant surprise, a beautiful night VFR Bay Tour with a landing at Napa, and Artist 1 gets to fly again before going south to the OC with Artist 2 to visit the rels (what fun). It's so quiet (and the air so still) that when Napa tower asks me where we're parking after landing on runway 6, and I reply that I'd like to taxi back and do a downwind departure back to Oakland, she tells me that, well, I can have any runway I like (except 18L which isn't lighted) and any departure I want; my choice. I elect to keep pottering slowly down runway 6 in the dark and do a 180 at the end, with the straight out on 24 back towards the Bay. Which is exactly what we do (waking up the controller again after the 180 for the takeoff clearance). The entire time from first call to Oakland ground to some time after contacting NorCal Approach on the way back into Oakland some forty minutes later there's not another GA soul around (or at least on-air). I start to wonder about the likelihood of some sort of GA-specific neutron bomb or something.

And then things perk up, at least a little: just as we're over the shoreline heading for the Temple at 2,500', NorCal says she'll have to vector us and climb us a while for a mercy flight incoming from the east. Sounds good to me, and soon we're way up in the Class B on vectors while somewhere in front of us a helicopter heads low and fast towards Oakland Children's Hospital (I always get a terrible feeling of foreboding or sadness when I hear or see a medical helicopter heading in a hurry towards Children's Hospital). From the on-air calls, the pilot sounds unfamiliar with the landing spot; I've seen the landing pad many times from the ground, but I can imagine it's pretty difficult to spot from the air, surrounded by typical built-up urban density and confusing lights. We finally see the helicopter itself, crossing in front of and below us, and call traffic. NorCal sounds relieved, tells us to keep visual separation, to head for Oakland, own nav, and switch to tower. This leaves us crossing the Temple at 4,000', which locals will recognise as presenting an interesting altitude, airspeed, and energy management problem, but hell, it's a clear night, and once again we seem to be the only light GA traffic on (or above) Earth. I briefly wonder what'll happen if I request the Oakland trifecta (27L, 27R, and 33, all in one fun series of sidesteps and a single extended clearance) but think the better of it with a passenger. And that's about the extent of the excitement this evening, I'm afraid. Not much to write home about, but it's a very pleasant and relaxing flight overall: night VFR over the Bay and / or the City has to be one of my most enjoyable short just-do-it flights.

Back on the ramp in front of Kaiser, right where the old 737 was parked last time, and right next to the (now-working) fuel pumps, there's another 737, this one (I think) a New Zealand registered but otherwise anonymous new-gen plane that had been taxiing in from runway 29 when we departed. It looks like it's being prepped for departure as we park at the pumps — its APU is running, and there are two pilots (or pilot-like entities :-)) in the cockpit — so I don't wander over and take photos (and it'd be just like my luck to discover it belonged to the NZ equivalent of the CIA or something). A nice-looking plane; Artist 1 says it's probably one of Google's slumming it at Oakland, and they just haven't had time to change the registration. This seems as good an explanation as any; or maybe there just isn't enough room over the Bay at Moffett for all Google's owners' aircraft anymore.

December 15, 2007

Fame At Last!

Or so I'm told. A month or two ago a freelancer connected with the Wall Street Journal emailed me, mentioning that he was going to write about Yankee Alpha Foxtrot Bravo (the blog you're reading now, for those not following along closely) in the WSJ's blogwatch section, and asked a few questions about me and the blog. Or something like that — while flattered by the attention, I was a little too preoccupied with the rest of my life at the time to do more than respond with a few quick answers, and I promptly forgot the whole thing.

Until, that is, a few days ago, when John called me and mentioned that one of his ex-students (and a mutual acquaintance — hello Andy!) had called him and told him "Hamish's blog was in the WSJ". Well, maybe it is, but since I don't subscribe the the WSJ, and no one else has mentioned it, and "Hamish's blog" could refer to at least four blogs under my own name or a pseudonym, I don't actually know when and where it appeared, let alone what was written about it (and googling "YAFB WSJ" or obvious permutations doesn't hit much, except self-referentially it'll soon probably start serving up this entry…). Anyone got any details? Or was it all a cruel hoax?! :-)

As with my fifteen minutes on BBC Radio a decade ago in connection with one of my other sites, this fame hasn't exactly rocked my world (or even made a spike in my readership as far as I can tell), but I'll try not to let it go to my head. Not yet, anyway….

November 08, 2007

And Nothing Went Horribly Wrong… (Back in the Saddle)

It's been a while, that's for sure. I sit there in the darkness between the rows of Port-A-Port hangars on the ramp at Oakland, looking at the 172's G1000 glowing there in the cockpit in front of me, thinking "this sure looks familiar". Well, it had better, hadn't it? I'm about to trust my life — and that of Evan H., my safety pilot — to it in a night IFR practice flight in what looks like a bit of night IMC and the usual crowded airspace. The plan's simple: a pre-filed IFR flight plan out to Stockton (KSCK), a handful of practice approaches there, then another clearance back to Oakland for the RNAV approach with LPV minimums through the coastal stratus. Nothing too difficult, but I sure feel rusty, and while I'm not anywhere near getting out of instrument currency, I do get a little worried about proficiency now and then. I don't want to make too much of a fool of myself on the radio or on the approaches with Evan — who's not far from getting his instrument rating with John — sitting there eagle-eyed in the right seat.

The engine starts first go, which is always a good sign; I taxi out past the Port-A-Ports and stop before I get to the movement area. Time to call Deliverance for my clearance; at Oakland this can sometimes be a bit like joining a poetry slam mid-show since the controller's also doing South Field ground as well as giving both North Field (GA) and South Field (the airlines and the Big Boys) clearances (and you can't hear the responses to South Field ground, making it way too easy to step on someone). I like slams but sometimes I've had to struggle to get a word in edgewise, and once waited several minutes to read back my clearance, all the while thinking "they've forgotten me, they've forgotten me…". This time it's a snap — just one other plane, a Southwest 737, is on clearance frequency — and after copying down the clearance I start to feel better about things. Until I call ground, that is, and give our position as "the New T's", which is totally wrong (at least I didn't say "the Old T's", which would be even more wrong, but a lot more forgivable after all the years I spent based there). After a verbal nudge from Evan I amend it to "the Port-A-Ports", which is close enough for government work. We saunter out onto taxiway bravo.

Since Evan's the IFR student and co-pilot, I pull rank and ask him if he'll program the G1000 for the clearance (hey, I can program the damn thing in my sleep nowadays, and I can always rationalise making him do it as "real world IFR training" or some such guff :-)). In any case, at this stage in his training he ought to be better at this than I am; he starts programming a plausible flight plan as we taxi off towards the 27R runup area. Almost immediately we hit taxiway delta ground asks us to cut over to 27R on golf and back-taxi down 27R to the runup area for traffic. We potter slowly down 27R and watch a Justice Department MD-80 and a FedEx Caravan cross 27R's threshold a few hundred metres in front of us, all flashing lights and movement in the darkness, both of them making a quick left onto the taxiway we've just vacated. This is entertaining, especially watching the little Caravan scurry along close behind the MD-80. And you don't get to back-taxi down 27R here that often, given the traffic (the last time I did it, I think, was when there was a plane sitting temporarily disabled on taxiway delta just next to 27R).

We get to the runup area and do the runup — all systems go! I look over Evan's G1000 program and apart from a minor disagreement about how to program the first leg of the clearance, it's identical to what I'd do; and this being NorCal Approach territory, we won't fly much of the programmed plan anyway, so the disagreement's pretty moot. Just pulling rank, you know…. We edge up to the hold short line, and I look around again. There's some coastal stratus around Oakland (which is currently IFR), but it doesn't extend very far inland, and it's pretty shallow. I start feeling pretty good about things — no real mistakes so far. This could actually be fun…

* * *

And so it is. There's just enough real IMC to make things visually interesting, and frankly, things under the Cone Of Stupidity (a.k.a. "the hood") felt comfortable the entire flight (well, at least Evan doesn't start screaming "we're all going to die!!!" at any point, or try to depart the plane on the ground at Stockton). I put the G1000 / autopilot combination through its paces for a couple of approaches, and hand-flew the others. No real problems to report with anything, but my hand flying isn't as sharp as it should be after the time off (but not outside PTS standards, which I count as reasonable). As happened the first time I flew the new version of the G1000 software, watching the G1000 command the autopilot around the full pilot nav version of the Stockton GPS 29R approach from Manteca VOR (ECA), including a full course reversal teardrop entry hold over the IAF (OXJEF), is, well, it's just magic. I don't think I'll ever be nostalgic for steam gauges, even though they were at the heart of my basic instrument training.

On the way back, after the somnolent-sounding NorCal sector over Stockton, NorCal's 125.35 sector over the Diablo Valley and into Oakland's a bit of a shock, a non-stop circus of requests, vectors, commands, and errors, and we hardly get noticed. But we're on a real IFR clearance, and even with the half-jammed frequency we get competent (if terse) vectors for the RNAV 27L (with LPV minimums) back into Oakland. At one stage the controller clears me "direct BAM[something]" (sounded a bit like "BAMPY"), which threw me — I know pretty much all the relevant intersections and waypoints for Oakland and Hayward approaches and associated airways, and I've never heard of this one. I fumble around uselessly with my charts and reply with "was that direct 'BAMPY'?". After a slight pause she returns with "051 never mind — cleared direct JUPAP", which makes a lot more sense [later: I still can't find any intersection or waypoint with a name like that in the area; at first I suspected she was clearing us for one of the runway 29 approaches, but none of them have fixes named something like that either]. A few minutes later she gives us a vector for the segment just outside JUPAP and clears us for the approach.

Then it's my turn to screw up: for some reason I reactivate the approach on the G1000 as we're getting close to JUPAP (the intermediate fix that's commonly used for vectoring). This has the predictable result of suddenly trying to send me to SUNOL, the IAF, an almost complete course reversal. I sit there for a few seconds wondering "what the hell?! Why's the needle suddenly swung around?" before it sunk in (with a little prompting from Evan). A few years ago I might have panicked or sat there a lot longer trying to intellectualise what was happening, but this time I don't spend much time thinking: I just put the autopilot into heading mode with the old heading (which was bugged, of course; and we hadn't deviated more than a few degrees at that point), then hit the flight plan window, scrolled to the SUNOL JUPAP leg, then hit "join the leg" (or whatever it's called). Voila! Back in business (well, that's the simplified form, anyway). Nothing dramatic, nothing special, nothing requiring any special airmanship or anything, but I think it does reflect how much a few years' experience flying IFR can make in recognising, debugging, and correcting mistakes like this in the real world.

Back on the ground there's an old privately-owned 737 sitting near the fuel pumps at Kaiser. We park right in front of it and wander off to wake up the fuel truck guys (the pumps are broken, apparently). I stroll up to the 737 in the dark and take a few pictures — it's a nice looking plane, and it has the old early-series low-bypass narrow engines — then go back to the fuel truck to watch $6-a-gallon being transferred swiftly from (my) wallet to fuel tank. Urgh. I sometimes wonder how much more flying I can really afford nowadays….

October 23, 2007

Out Of This World

No flying for a while — I'm on vacation in one of my hometowns. I'm sure you all recognize these things; I know I'm enough of a nerd that I can name the function of each of them (hint: not aeronautical). Yes, such a nerd. Back sometime November….

September 27, 2007

How Many Pilots Does It Take To…

Hangar View

Cessna 051 Being Pre-Flighted In The Hangar

I feel like a complete idiot. I'm standing in the fading light and early Autumn cold outside Oakland Flyers, trying to get the external lockbox open so I can retrieve the paperwork for my evening flight in Cessna 051, the G1000 / WAAS equipped 172 I've booked for a short VFR trip to Livermore (KLVK) and back. I know the combination for the lock. I've opened it before. But nothing I do will get the bloody thing open, and I can't fly until I get the paperwork out (it's one of those shocking and little-known insider secrets that planes don't fly without the correct paperwork).

In desperation I call John to see if someone's changed the combo or something. John turns out to be on the way to this very spot for a flight with Evan H., one of his students, in another of the club's 172s, so I wait a few minutes until he turns up. He can't get it open either; neither of us can no matter what song and dance or imprecations we make. Evan turns up a few moments later, and the combination of the three of us trying subtle and not-so-subtle variations on the usual theme doesn't work either. Just as someone makes the inevitable joke, Evan manages to get the bloody thing open (with exactly the same combo and sequence of twists and turns we've all been using for the past fifteen minutes). And of course, inside the lockbox is… nothing. The powers that be at Oakland Flyers have forgotten to leave 051's paperwork out for me.

Luckily, John's got a key to the (locked up, gone-home-for-the-day) office, and we eventually find the folder and paperwork inside. While doing this I ask what the others were planning — an IFR practice flight to Mather (KMHR) and back, apparently, as part of Evan's training to get his IFR rating. They're taking one of the crappy old non-GPS non-glass 172s, the only thing they could get on the day. I suggest we could swap planes, since I'm really only flying for VFR landing and circuit practice today, but it turns out I'm not technically checked out in the other plane (it has a few quirks to do with the fuel system that require a separate but minor checkout). So I suggest I'd be happy to share 051 and back seat for at least half the trip, as long as I get some flying and an approach and landing in, and the costs are shared appropriately.

And so that's what happens….

FedEx Caravan at KOAK

FedEx caravan Bearing Down on 051 Next to 27R, KOAK

IFR training's a lot easier when done from the back seat. I watch and listen as John and Evan go through the paces, a simulated SALAD 1 departure from Oakland and a simulated clearance along a plausible route to Mather, interrupted by an ad hoc hold John threw at Evan somewhere out towards OAKEY intersection. Evan handles it all pretty well, and the (night, VFR) practice approaches into Sacramento Executive (KSAC) and Livermore (KLVK) are basically smooth and well-flown. I kinda enjoy passively following along and monitoring things, and predicting or guessing what John's about to say in response to Evan's actions or some interesting indication on the panel. Evan's basic IFR skills seem to be very sound, but he's not so familiar with the glass panel or the autopilot, and there are some typically head-exploding moments over the Delta. But he copes better than I did at the same stage in my training….

Departing the sunset...

Leaving The Sunset...

We do a full stop in the dark at Livermore to refuel the plane (it's a good 80 cents a gallon cheaper here than in Oakland, where it's above $5 a gallon now), and to let me take the left seat for the quick flight over the hills back into Oakland. I plan on a VFR departure under the cone of stupidity and a quick stab at the RNAV (GPS) 27L approach with LPV minimums, if ATC and the G1000 will cooperate. The ATIS for Oakland mentions a broken layer at 1,100 feet (the usual Bay Area summer evening coastal stratus), so we'll need a popup clearance in any case, and I'd like to get more familiar with the G1000 LPV setup. The whole thing shouldn't take more than twenty-five minutes, max. What could go wrong?

Not much, really, in the sense of any sort of emergency or incident, but we hadn't planned on the absolute mess that was NorCal Approach's 125.35 sector that evening, with all sort of overheard botched radio calls, vectors for spacing, misunderstood instructions, etc. (none of it by us, of course :-)). Not knowing what's coming, we depart into the night and I go under the hood, and John plays ATC and vectors me until we're high enough for radar contact and to not have to climb for the approach. We call NorCal, and after a couple of attempts get through with our request for the approach and clearance. The controller sounds irritated and overloaded, and estimates at least a ten minute delay before he can slot me in. In the meantime, he wants us to maintain VFR and loiter roughly where we are until he can fit us in (not quite his words, but more-or-less his intent).

John vectors me a bit more, then throws me an ad hoc hold that throws me: as transcribed from my kneepad, "hold northeast of a point 4 miles from JUPAP waypoint on the 025 bearing, left turns, 3,700 feet…". Now it's my turn to have the head-exploding moment, and I scramble to visualise what the hell it all means (if I remember correctly I had the presence of mind to ask "nautical or statute miles?!" at some point as a diversionary time-waster). Just as I work out what he's asking me to do (as we're rapidly approaching the holding fix, something I only woke up to at the very last second), NorCal barks a vector at me for joining the ILS. I try to query this, but the controller's got other things on his mind, and so I follow the vector, hoping he heard my request for clarification on the RNAV vs. ILS 27R thing. In the meantime we can hear a bunch of misunderstandings and missed calls on-frequency, and things start mentally heating up. We're definitely not the only traffic being held in the area, and it sounds like there's a whole series of spacing, ummm, "issues" being worked out with varying degrees of patience by controller and pilots. Not an ideal flying situation, but this sort of thing is great real-world practice, and a good occasion for snarky remarks from John, Evan, and myself. And I can't help noticing that there seems to be more than the normal helping of British accents out here tonight, earlier as well as now. It's not just me with the funny accent….

Eventually the controller gets back to me and gives me a quick vector to JUPAP (the RNAV approach IF) without mentioning the approach. We lumber towards JUPAP with me wondering what's next. Should I turn at JUPAP for the approach? What's on the controller's mind here? The frequency is a continuous traffic jam of requests and commands, and I'm just not going to be able to ask. I decide to turn, as, as John says, it's going to keep me out of the ILS for Oakland's runway 29 a bit further across from us, which has to be a plus from ATC's point of view. Just before JUPAP I unexpectedly get instructed to do a 360 for spacing. Just one, I wonder? As we complete the first I manage to ask whether he wants more and he just basically grunts "051 keep circling". I feel a little exposed, sitting there at 3,700' right off the main ILS and RNAV approach centrelines, but there's not a lot we can do: we can't go VFR because of the stratus, and at least we're in the system.

After a couple of orbits we're hurriedly vectored for, and cleared for, the RNAV approach. Immediately I join the approach the controller asks me for best possible forward speed (he's sandwiched us between a couple of jets, as he reminds us several times), and asks what speed we can do. The "120 knots" I give him isn't really enough, as he'll keep implying over the next few minutes, but hell, it's all we can safely do, really, and it's all I'll give him. The actual approach flying bits go fine (this is a very straightforward approach), but there's no vertical glideslope coupling yet with the G1000 and the autopilot; however, since the LPV glideslope's pretty easy to get right by dialing in a suitable vertical speed on the AP, the rest of it's easy. I'm told the G1000 / AP combination will properly couple "in the next release". Yeah, I've heard that before.

After being switched to Oakland tower I'm immediately cleared for landing … on the wrong runway (it must be catching). But the controller's good-humoured and rather laid-back, and after clearing this up I hand-fly the last part of the approach under the hood to about 150', with John watching like a hawk. It's always nice to be able to hand-fly an approach to below the minimums without any major deviations…. Nearly forty minutes after departing Livermore we're back on the ground at Oakland; Livermore airport is roughly eighteen nautical miles from Oakland airport.

Back at Oakland Flyers I file my paperwork and discuss the flight with John and Evan. A lot of fun, really. I should do this sort of thing more….

* * *

I know I've said this before, but 051 is the only airplane I've ever rented that's actually kept in a hangar. The climate around here is benign enough that outdoor tie-downs are just fine for most small planes, and the cost of a rented hangar here is high (and, more importantly, the waiting list for one is years, if not decades, long). The hangar itself is a pretty standard Port-A-Port thing, but the whole opening and closing the door thing is quite a process, and always reminds me of an old drawbridge / portcullis in Heath Robinsonesque (Rube Goldbergesque) style, with a lot of clanking and bits of wood and iron that don't seem to fit together quite right (when I was a kid in Britain I remember something like this in real life in Cornwall or Devon somewhere, I think). No matter what I do, I end up injuring one of my fingers or jamming the door or getting something wrong each time I use the thing; this time, not only do I manage to get grease all over my hands while cranking the door closed in the darkness after the flight, but I ding my thumb with the latch release mechanism. Hmmm. There's got to be a better way… (but it's nice that there's a hangar for this plane).

G1000 at night

September 25, 2007

The Ritual

I'm based at a busy high-security airport (Oakland, CA — KOAK). This means that to access even the non-airline ramps at the airport I have to have an official ramp pass or badge; this in turn means I have to be background-checked, finger-printed, indoctrinated in the finer points of airport security, and renew my badge every two years (this is probably the long-term future of GA in the US, at least for busier airports, even if they don't have quite the mixture of aircraft light and heavy, commercial and private, on the ramp that Oakland has).

And today it's my turn to go back in to the Port of Oakland's airport security badge office deep in the airport's main terminal buildings and claim my new badge after another two years. Nothing too onerous, and I've done it at least four times in the past, but there's always something that comes up…. In this case, the Port's belatedly discovered that they don't have my fingerprints on file, despite my having done the whole fingerprinting thing for them some time ago (I don't remember when — I've had them done so many times for various immigration and security agencies in the last two decades, that the individual experiences just blur into one). But in this context it's not such a big deal; all it really means is an added thirty minutes of hanging around and the chance to see the new fingerprinting systems in action (quite cool, really), and I'll survive. Yes, the ambiance is a bit like a cross between a second-rate university and a really noisy train station, and if you go in with the wrong mindset it can be a relentlessly depressing and demoralising experience, but the staff are unfailingly cheerful and helpful, and in the end I just sit or stand around watching the TSA folks do their job in the crowded concourse below me or catch a glimpse of the orange NorCal approach radar head going around and around out past the 737's, 757's, and Airbuses on the apron in front of Terminal One. Life goes on all around me, and if it weren't for the irritating sound environment — a never-ending confusion of canned security announcements, the clash and clang of the rollers and machines in the security checkpoints downstairs, barked orders, kids screaming, shouting cell phone and radio users, PA announcements — I could probably have kept sitting there for hours, reading or thinking about nothing in particular, getting up occasionally to have my mug shot taken or to put my prints (again) on the glass and watch them develop on the screen in front of me.

But I was getting hungry, and hadn't had any food or coffee yet, and I'd told everyone I'd be at work by 10am, so I was relieved when the clerk called my name again, gave me my new badge, and validated my parking (as the badge clerk says to me somewhat sardonically, "hey, you pay us $58 and give us an hour or two of your life, and we give you validated parking!"). Cool. Hourly parking here on the airline side of the airport isn't exactly cheap….

And just like the last time, after two hours of almost pure waiting (and five or ten minutes of fingerprints and form-filling) I leave with a new badge, and the world (or at least Metropolitan Oakland International Airport) is just that little bit safer because of it all, I'm sure.

September 15, 2007

The Duchess Of Oakland

Duchess 15Q at Oakland's Old T's

John calls me early this afternoon and asks whether I want to come along while he continues the left engine break-in on the Oakland Flyers Duchess. Well duh! I drop the work I'm supposed to be doing on a website for a friend (one of the Artists — sorry, Scott) and rush to Oakland's (KOAK) Old T's, where John's preflighting Duchess 15Q (above) in the tundra in front of Oakland Aircraft Maintenance (the shop that's helping with the break-in).

I've actually flown in Duchesses before, most memorably during my initial PP-ASEL training, with Edd ("short for 'Eddy'") P., a colleague of mine at the time who let me "fly" large parts of a relaxing flight along the coast and Peninsula, San Carlos (KSQL) to Salinas (KSNS) and back again while he maintained currency. I couldn't log that flight, of course, but I did learn the basics of how to keep the Duchess stable, upright, and on course, all at the right altitudes (there's a punchline in there somewhere).

This time the agenda is for a quick VFR flight down to King City (KKIC) and back, with some strict limitations due to the engine break-in: keep below 4,000'; keep both engines 24"/2500 RPM or lower except on take-off; throttle back to 18"/2300 RPM periodically for a few minutes; and don't lean the left engine (the refurbed one) at all. Nothing too onerous (I probably missed a few), but given the history with this particular rebuild (don't ask), it's crucial that we get this right. Sounds good to me, and I load my everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink flight bag into the plane and get into the right seat (John will fly left seat for this one, not his usual seat at all, of course). About the only potential fly in the ointment is the fact that NorCal's Oakland radar head is out for repairs (or whatever), and Oakland's normal Class C services are NOTAM'd inop today, meaning things like flight following and instrument approaches are iffy at best. In the end, this isn't a factor at all, but combined with unusual local parachute jumping NOTAMS and the aerobatics typically done out of King City (think "Sean Tucker", for whom Ben, my old (young) aerobatics instructor now flies…), it'll pay to keep our eyes especially well-peeled (or some such metaphor).

The plane looks and feels well-maintained and looked-after, and from the right seat the cockpit looks familiar, similar to the Duchess I flew all those years ago, except for the nice Garmin 530 / 430 panel on the right. Unlike the first time, this time pretty much everything on the panel and all the controls, etc., are familiar and make sense to me, and I feel well at home.

So after a careful startup we taxi towards 27R, and I program the 530 (VPCBT, KRHV, SNS, KKIC) while John does a careful runup. And then we're on our way…. Apart from a lot of bumps between Oakland and San Jose in both directions, the flight's uneventful, and I end up flying from the right seat enough to log a couple of hours dual, including a bunch of fun steep turns somewhere between Salinas and King City. This is a nice plane to fly, but as John notes, there's quite a difference between the roll and pitch sensitivities: you could roll this plane 30 degrees easily with a flick of the wrist, but in the pitch axis it's really quite a lot less responsive. Even so, the pitch trim (manual and electric) seems overly twitchy. But the ailerons feel a lot more natural than the Cirrus's, which may just be a reflection of that particular Cirrus (or it may reflect the spring-loaded system in the Cirrus that I'm really not sure I like all that much). A prominent missing feature that it'd be nice to have in this plane is an autopilot: I've become somewhat convinced that for single pilot IFR flying in serious sustained IMC, a good basic autopilot is essential (it doesn't have to be able to do much more than keep a heading or even just keep the wings level, if you ask me). Other than that, this plane is an instant hit with me — the steep turns are easy (I lose altitude and steepen the turn a little too much a couple of times mostly because being in the right seat I concentrate more on the horizon and flying by the seat of my pants than on the instruments I can't quite see over on the other side of the panel. "Welcome to my world…" as John says), the Garmins make casual IFR flying a lot more pleasant, the forward view from the cockpit is easily the best I've seen in a low-wing plane, and it basically just felt like a straightforward and safe aircraft.

We turn back a little before King City (we don't need to land, just do about two hours' tach time in the air), and shoot the ILS 27R back into Oakland, with John flying (no cone of stupidity for this, as I can't act as safety pilot on a twin).

Back on the ground at Oakland we do a magneto test again before refueling, and the results aren't promising — although the engines have been smooth and well-behaved in the air, back on the ground the left engine's running rough during the runup on single mags, and since we can't do the standard lean-it-and-rev-like-hell plug clearing on the new engine, it'll have to go back to Oakland Aircraft Maintenance for plug-pulling or worse.

I help refuel (to 40 gallons each side) and get a lesson in why, although this plane rents for "only" (ha!) about $120 per hour dry, it's never going to be my choice for pleasantly pottering about the Bay or Valley: we end up putting in about $200 worth of fuel, and that was nowhere near topping the plane off. In this case, at least, Oakland Flyers will reimburse John the expense (we hope), but it's still a shocker. And yet, and yet… learning to fly this thing and getting a multi rating would be a really enjoyable experience, and probably not too hard. But keeping current, especially to club rules, would be prohibitively expensive, and I'd probably want to get the multi add-on for IFR, and then there's the increased renter's insurance… and all this is yet another slippery financial slope I could really do without. We shall see.

Back in front of Oakland Aircraft Maintenance, Eric and his crew wander out and look the plane over. Apart from the rough-sounding left, there's a slight oil leak on the right cowl from the prop, and John and Eric agree it should be looked into. Eric's pessimistic about the left engine — he thinks it's probably one of the magnetos rather than the plugs, and he'll work on it on Monday. The good news is that the left engine barely used any oil during the two hours of use, and the actual break-in appears to be relatively successful. With (maybe) a new mag (or just a plug cleaning) and (probably) a new seal for the right prop, the Duchess should be in good condition to return online sometime next week.

* * *

Lou Fields, Oakland Airport 2005

Earlier, as I'm walking across the ramp at the Old T's, I see Lou Fields's Thunderchicken in front of a hangar, and wander over to see if Lou himself is there as well. I haven't seen Lou for a while now, but he's still the same — he seems happy to see me; I'm definitely happy to see him, and we talk a while about the Thunderchicken (Lou's jokey name for his '46 Aeronca Champ, above, with Lou in front) and Oakland gossip. The champ's got radio problems, apparently; I say I'm surprised it's got any radios at all, but as it's based in Oakland, I guess it has to. He has a portable GPS in the cockpit — he wouldn't fly the thing without it, as he's said several times, but there's a panel-mounted radio in there too, somewhere.

It's always pleasant talking with Lou — as I've written elsewhere, over the years he's watched me get my private license, then let me rent his Arrow to get my complex endorsement (and later just to fly around for fun), he had some usefully-pithy advice when I was having trouble learning to do good wheel landings in the taildragger, he had similar things to say about my aerobatics training (until a few years ago he still taught aerobatics, and he got on well with Ben, my then-aerobatics instructor), and, until some health problems cropped up, he was slated to be my DE for the instrument rating a couple of years ago. He's been a constant background presence in my life at Oakland's Old T's, and I've always been grateful for his help and his sense of humour. Lou flew off carriers in the Pacific during WW2 and for many years after that, including Korea, and is something of an institution around here.

September 07, 2007

Where's That VOR?

VOR in the middle of nowhere

I saw it in the distance as I drove past it out in the Californian outback a dozen times in the decade before I learned to fly; even then I knew what a VOR was and how it worked (just not how to use one when it mattered). Such a nerd. I went out of my way to take a couple of photos of it back then, it seemed so unreal in context. It's still there, of course, and this image is from the same trip earlier this year that included the mystery town with both a Clown Motel and a Missile Test Firing Range (cool — my sort of town!)

A year's free YAFB subscription to the first reader in email or here who can identify which VOR it is, preferably because they've also seen it from the ground (or air) and / or can recognise the landscape (this should be easy…).

August 12, 2007

The Workout

A short IFR workout with a bit of real IMC and a lot of the sort of landscapes and seascapes the Bay Area's known for: KOAK (Oakland) SABLO SGD KAPC (Napa), KAPC SGD REBAS KOAK (with suitable allowances for the approaches at both ends and the fact that in true NorCal style, I didn't fly more than a small percentage of the clearance as given), in the new G1000 C172 with Oakland Flyers. A workout designed to keep it brief and keep things happening one after the other, which is the way things happened. No trouble keeping on top of things, which was gratifying, even if it was mostly VMC.

About the only gripe about today is a relatively old one, one I think I've noted before: once again on the ILS with the G1000 properly programmed and set up, I sit there confused for a few seconds looking for the glideslope indicator bugs on the G1000's HSI display, wondering what the hell was wrong with the ILS...? And once again (after a few seconds), I wonder why on earth Garmin made the decision to put the glideslope indicator only on the altitude tape. I can understand it being there in addition to on the HSI because of the relationship to altitude, etc., but not being only there. There's always been something deeply satisfying to me about the human factors usability of the all-in-one HSI + glideslope combination. If only Garmin would put the bugs on the HSI as well as the tape…. Oh well; I just can't really believe I fell for this again, I guess.

July 20, 2007

The Cirrus Rescue Unit ("All Systems Go!!")

I wake up stupifyingly early, maybe 7am, and have a quick breakfast at Javarama in Alameda. I'm not sure how today's going to sort itself out (or, indeed, if anything's going to be sorted out today at all), but I suspect there's going to be a fair bit of traveling involved if Alex has been successful with the alternator. Strangely, I feel physically pretty damn good, maybe a little too sunburned, but not especially tired or anything. I potter about my studio trying to blog the earlier bits of the trip, but since I don't know how the story ends yet, my heart's not really in it. I read email. I walk around the block for exercise a couple of times. I browse the blogs of the other Usual Suspects. I just know it's not worth actually doing anything sustained yet…

Sure enough, at about 11.30 Alex calls and says he's got good news — the alternator's been repaired. And could I drive to Sacramento to pick it up … right now? Sure, I think, I could actually enjoy doing that, especially if we can get 75T back this evening. And that's his plan, so at about midday I drive the 90 miles or so through the oppressive Central Valley heat to the electrical repair place way out the other side of Suburban Sacramento. I meet someone I'll call "Mike" in the repair place (he's been told ahead of time that I exist, apparently), and this rather engaging, odd, wild-haired older guy goes over the paperwork and tells me what happened. He's worked on quite a few Cirruses before, apparently (mostly at MacLellan), and he's impressed that Alex managed to get 800 hours out of the alternator — the ones he's familiar with don't usually last unrepaired more than about 500 hours, if that (I'd already heard similar things from other people). Plus he's never seen one of the older belt-drive alternators like this — they're mostly geared nowadays. Still, the alternator's ready to go, and the paperwork's properly signed sealed and delivered, and I call Alex and discover that he's arranged to fly the club's Mooney back to Skyblue at Camarillo (KCMA) with me and a student of his at 18.00. I'll ferry 75T back after he and the Skyblue A&P install the alternator. I'm up for this, too, so after a few minutes of electrical shoptalk (yes, I was an electrical engineer in a previous life, albeit in electronics rather than electrics) I drive the ninety miles back through the heat and traffic to Oakland.

An hour or so later I park at Hayward (KHWD) outside CalAir. I check out the keys for the Mooney, and go out to start preflighting. Although I have a complex endorsement and a bunch of hours in an Arrow, I'm not checked out by the club to fly the Mooney, but I might as well get acquainted with it ahead of time, and besides, I'm curious — I've never actually flown in one before.

The club's Mooney turns out to be an older version, with an absolutely classic of-its-time panel full of ADFs, LORAN, ancient radios, etc. No GPS. No DME. An autopilot that looks like it's entirely mechanical, or at least uses tubes for guidance. A confusing array of switches. A weird panel layout. Yes, this plane would be, umm, fun to fly IFR… luckily it's forecast clear VFR there and back. Not really my cup of tea, the Mooney, but I guess you can see why they have devoted fans. They're supposedly fast and efficient. We shall see….

Alex and his student Eric turn up around 18.00, and after the usual formalities and procedures, we're heading off into the wild blue-turning-yellow-and-purple Southern Californian yonder. Alex has arranged with Skyblue for one of their A&Ps to be around when we land (original ETA 8pm, which we're not likely to make). I'm in the back seat, which isn't as bad as I'd expected. The intercom isn't working for me in the back, but other than that, it's just enough space for someone of average height and average weight (i.e. me). The Mooney seems to fly nicely, if a little stiffly, and it's surely not the slowest plane I've ever flown in. For much of the next two hours or so Alex has Eric under the hood as part of his instrument training, and we track down towards Camarillo pretty much the route we'd do for an IFR flight plan; we get flight following with vectors for the firefighting TFRs, and I just sit in the back and watch the usual beautiful California landscape go by. Around Santa Barbara the smoke's as bad as it was for me a couple of days ago, but it's basically clear VMC away from the smoke.

The boys and the alternator...

We land at Camarillo and taxi to Skyblue. The next hour or so is taken up with reinstalling the alternator. As the Boys are putting the finishing touches on the alternator (photo above), I realise I'm bloody starving. I had a croissant for breakfast about 14 hours ago and a minimalist lunch at about 11.30 before driving to Sacto, and, well, dammit, it looks like more junk food for me this evening. I discover a packet of Kettle chips in the bottom of my backpack (I sort of suspected I'd be late and hungry today…), and I find the yogurt health (ha!) bars I'd stowed in my flight bag yesterday. Not too bad. They'll keep me going another six hours or so.

After a bunch of testing and paperwork, Alex flight tests the alternator and electrical system in the pattern for a while, then we're good to go. We discuss the plans for the return trip. We'll get flight following back as a loose flight of two, with me leading and navigating, and Alex in the Mooney doing the radios and squawking appropriately. We'll use the air-to-air frequency to communicate between us. Both Alex and I have done formation flying before, and as long as he stays a reasonable distance away from me, I'm up for this. Especially since I have the nice GPS for navigation, and it's good to have the Mooney around in case I have to land at King City or somewhere equally out of the way on the way back if the alternator fails again.

After refueling the Mooney we depart Camarillo at about 22.00. It's an almost moonless night, very dark, but the area's fairly well-known to me, we have flight following (with, again, vectors around the TFRs just to be sure), and both the GPS and the autopilot in 75T work wonderfully. Alex has Eric in the Mooney some distance behind me second guessing my course and doing VOR radial versions of my course and cross-checking my GPS distances and estimates with Eric's manual versions (I picked a course that would make it easy to follow along with VORs — what's the fun in Camarillo direct Hayward?!). About the only surprising thing about the return flight is that the Cirrus consistently seems to out-perform the Mooney, even with my rather conservative power settings. At somewhere around 2500 RPM / 23-25 inches MP the Cirrus slightly outclimbs and outcruises the Mooney, at least during this trip. This doesn't seem right to me, but the Mooney's quite old, and the Cirrus surely can't be called slow, even if it doesn't have quite the speed demon image that the average Mooney's supposed to have.

Nothing goes wrong with the electrical system, or anything else, for that matter, and we land back in the cool still air of Hayward sometime after midnight. It's good to be back. I park the Cirrus in its new spot on the Green Ramp and meet up with Alex and Eric at CalAir for the inevitable paperwork. I finally get home about 1am.

* * *

A few hours later I'm woken suddenly and violently by a fairly major tremor epicentered close to where I live in Oakland. It's been that sort of day for me now, a couple of days in a row…

July 19, 2007

I Can Think Of Worse Places To Be… Stranded

At about 2,500' and a few miles after departing Camarillo (KCMA) in beautiful warm late-morning VMC, Tower gives me the frequency change. Just as I'm about to call Point Mugu Approach for flight following up the coast past Santa Babara to San Luis Obispo (KSBP), I notice the low voltage annunciator come on in front of me on the panel.

What now?, I think. I don't panic (what's to panic about in a plane like this in clear sunny VMC five miles from a large towered airport?). I turn to the red side of my SR-20 checklist and look under "Low Volts Light On". I follow it to the letter (but I already know pretty much what it's going to say). After a minute or so it's obvious it's not a transient problem. I suspect the alternator's gone, but that's not a sure thing at this point.

"Camarillo Tower, Cirrus 75 Tango, we're going to have to make an immediate return to the airfield. We've got an electrical problem up here…"
"75T, understood. Confirm that's you 5 northwest?"
"Affirmative, 75 Tango."
"75T do you need any assistance or want to declare an emergency?"
"75T… nah, I think we've just lost our alternator. We'll debug it on the ground. If you don't hear us again that'll be the reason."
"75T, understood. If you lose the radios, look for the lightgun."
"75T, will do, and thanks."
"75T, cleared to land 26, wind 240 at 15, traffic on the upwind is a Cessna in the pattern."
"75T, cleared to land 26, traffic in sight."
"75T, exit at Charlie, ground point eight, and, um, good luck…"
"75T, ground point eight, and thanks. I'm sure the owner's going to be thrilled…"

I exit 26 and taxi to transient. I shut the engine and electrical system down, then start everything back up again. No change. I try again. I make damn sure the breakers are all OK. I try again. No luck.

Now what? I'm stranded, I guess. I'm sure there are worse places….

* * *

KVNYI'd returned to Van Nuys (KVNY) at about 10am and dropped the rental car off at Skytrails.

Everything checked out on pre-flight, and I went back in to Skytrails to go over DUATS again for the TFRs and forecast. It was a beautiful sunny warm clear VMC day in Southern California, but, weirdly for this time of year, it wasn't just IMC back in the Bay Area, it was apparently raining (you don't know how odd "summer rain" sounds to a Californian unless you've lived here…). There'd been a rare front moving through, meaning the IMC wasn't just the usual low thin quick-clearing coastal stratus, but a more persistent layered set of clouds and rain extending much higher. At least the freezing levels were reported as being thousands of feet higher than I'd be flying. So I planned for a simple VFR-up-the-coast departure for San Luis Obispo for lunch, and filed a suitable IFR flight plan for the San Luis to Hayward leg after a decent lunch.

I taxied the full length of the airport from Skytrails to the 16L runup area, did the runup and GPS programming, then got a very rushed "75T cross 16L no delay cleared for takeoff 16R no delay traffic is a Citation on final right turn out approved" takeoff clearance. Nothing too unfamiliar to a pilot raised in Bay Area airspaces, I guess. Departure was routine out over the flood control basin, and I turned right towards Camarillo (KCMA), my first VFR waypoint. The view was perfect, a slightly hazy mix of mountains, urban sprawl, the ocean… at about 4,500' I leveled off, and thought "Hey, why don't I land at Camarillo?". It's dead ahead, it's apparently got some sort of air museum, and if it looks good I can come back next time. I'm in no real hurry now, it's good landing practice, and, yes, it's another airport to add to the logbook.

About eight miles out I called Camarillo Tower and got the straight in for runway 26. Closer up, I realised this was a bigger place than I'd expected, and by the time I'd taxied past the Commemorative Air Force hangars and the assorted warbirds on the ramp (and the Constellation being rebuilt near the runway), I'd definitely made up my mind to return.

So I departed runway 26, made a right crosswind departure, climbed to 2,500', got the frequency change, and… returned.

* * *

I park the plane in transient parking, then call the club to ask them what they want me to do. Keith runs through the obvious things (e.g. check the breakers…), then gives me the owner's mobile phone number, and says it's probably best to call the owner direct. Before I do that I call John just to make sure I haven't missed anything obvious — the last thing I want is to cause a huge hassle when it was something simple like a hidden breaker or fuse that I just didn't know about.

No such luck, so I call Alex, the owner. I briefly met him just before I pre-flighted the outbound flight to Van Nuys, and in retrospect, it was Alex who showed me the bullet mark in the Cirrus's wing a while back. He's an instructor, a young guy, and (apparently) an NPS grad. I suspect I'll get to know him a fair bit more over the next few days….

There's some sort of weird interference on my phone, and Alex can't hear a word I'm saying on the ramp, so I walk across the ramp towards what looks like a suitable FBO, Channel Island Aviation (yes, the CIA), and ask the guy behind the counter if I can use their phones because "I've got a broken Cirrus out there on the ramp…". Sure, he says (like everyone else I meet today, he's unfailingly helpful and friendly), and after a bit of maneuvering I'm on the landline to Alex in San Jose (Los Gatos, actually, but close enough).

I go through the symptoms with Alex, check off the obvious things, then Alex plugs me in to a conference call with Cirrus tech support. They basically run through the same checklist we've all been through already, and then suggest I find a suitable service center with an A&P who knows Cirruses and / or electrical systems. They don't suggest one, but the tech rep gives me his name, number, and cell phone if I find a service center that needs a Cirrus contact. Alex tells me to use my judgment and see what's available locally, and he'll wait for news from me. I tell him this might take an hour or two….

Once off the phone I think "where the hell am I going to find a Cirrus-savvy A&P in Camarillo?! Should've returned to Van Nuys…". I ask the CIA guy behind the counter. He looks at me a little oddly and says something like "well, you know Skyblue Air just up the ramp here is a Southern California Cirrus sales and service center…". Hmmm, so there are definitely worse places to be with a dead Cirrus.

I walk down to Skyblue ("just up the ramp" turns out to be a kilometre or so, in relentless Southern California sun, but never mind; on the way at least I get to see the on-airport Ventura County Fire Department depot and training center, with really impressive flames and smoke and gear being deployed or extinguished each time I pass it) and wander into their main office. I blurt out to the guy behind the counter that I've got a Cirrus up in transient with a low voltage indicator. He looks up at me, wanders over, shakes my hand, tells me he's "Larry", Skyblue's owner, and within a few minutes, he, "Tommy" (their main Cirrus A&P) and I are in a golf cart heading for transient. Tommy tells me it's almost certainly either the alternator (not cheap, but not too bad), or the MRU (really really expensive). It takes him about ten minutes to confirm that there's a real problem (i.e. it wasn't just me…), and we taxi 75T down to Skyblue. Tommy says it'll take maybe an hour to test the alternator properly, and I fill out a bunch of paperwork, call Alex with the good news, then tell Larry that if I'm not needed down here, I'll be back in an hour after getting some lunch at the airport cafe, a place called Waypoints back up near the CIA. I'm starving.

* * *

CH-46 Sea KnightIn the cafe over a pretty good burger I watch the LAPD and Ventura County Sheriff's Department cars careering around chasing each other in the shimmering haze out beyond the runway. There's apparently a special car chase training area on the airport. Alex has already called twice to see if there's been any progress. Suddenly there's a growing noise of military helicopters and out of nowhere three large grey-painted USMC CH-46 Sea Knights descend in formation into the heat at the far end of the ramp, out beyond the parked airplanes. The noise is deafening. They descend in a cloud of dust and blown-around trash, with all the smaller planes rocking around in the wash, and in a minute or so the crew chiefs lower the back ramps and three or four dozen marines in fatigues line up on the ramp. After what looks like a short briefing the marines stroll briskly across the ramp towards the cafe. I ask the cafe owner what's happening. "Oh", she says, "they've just flown in from Edwards. They've reserved the entire front patio. It's Tri-Tip treat day for them!". Cool, I think, as I watch them start to rush in like excited kids.

No, I've been in this part of the world a couple of decades and I didn't know what Tri-Tip was either.


* * *

Back at Skyblue I hear the bad news: yes, it's the alternator, and yes, it'll cost a lot to be replaced by the (Cirrus) book (the good news is that it wasn't the MRU, which would cost maybe $15K…) They give me a printed estimate, and I call Alex. He audibly blanches at the cost, and says he'll research alternatives if I can hang around another hour or so.

To cut a long story short, for the next seven hours I hang around Skyblue (and, for a short time mid-afternoon, Waypoints Cafe again), calling and being called by Alex, and lounging around on the bench outside the Skyblue office or on the sofa inside the office with various friendly and patient Skyblue staff. Alex and Larry negotiate some sort of deal on the phone; the upshot is that Alex is driving down from Los Gatos to pick me and the alternator up (ETA at Camarillo about 7pm if we're lucky), and he and I will drive straight back up 101 to Hayward (KHWD, 75T's home base up next to Oakland) later tonight (ETA about 2am tomorrow if we're really lucky). I can't complain (well, I don't complain (much)) — I'm on vacation, and the company's good (lots of gossip about a certain Hollywood dustup earlier that day involving someone personally known here), and while I'm occasionally bored, it's at least comfortable. It strikes me at one point that this is what freight dogs and Part 135 pilots go through, lounging around crew rooms and bad cafes (or eating out of vending machines, which so far today I've been able to avoid). Maybe this is some sort of initiation.

Alex arrives at about 8pm, and it doesn't take long to get the alternator completely off and 75T parked out of the way with its cowl back on. Alex's plan is to drop the alternator off at a suitable place in Sacramento early tomorrow morning after the drive back up tonight (i.e. he'll get up at some ungodly hour and drive a two-hundred mile round trip after the mad dash up and down 101 to and from Camarillo), and if it's a simple deal, we'll somehow return tomorrow or the next day to install the repaired alternator (or whatever) and fly 75T home. So that's the plan. It's doable, as long as everything goes OK; I'm just damn glad it's not me doing the driving.

After a bunch more paperwork Alex and I depart in his car and stop off at a local Applebee's for something to eat. Amazingly, given the time I've lived in this country, this is the first time I've eaten at an Applebee's; it turns out to be exactly what I expected…. We talk a lot over dinner — Alex can be a pretty entertaining guy with a similar set of interests and professional concerns as me — and I find out a lot more about the Cirrus and Alex's background.

After dinner we depart Camarillo on 101 north and for the next five hours or so we drive through the darkness in very familiar country, up through Santa Barbara, Santa Maria, San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles, King City, Soledad, Salinas, San Jose… the names just roll off the tongue after all these years of driving or flying that route. At one point just before Santa Maria I see a freeway exit sign for Orcutt, and suddenly I realise there's a "real" Orcutt somewhere below the ORCUTT intersection or waypoint I'm familiar with on the IFR version of California I've internalised and flown (no, I don't know why I hadn't noticed the real Orcutt before). The conversation about hi tech, warbirds, flying, instructing, etc., continues pretty much all the way back to Hayward.

At Hayward I discover my truck's still there in the external parking lot (be thankful for small mercies…), and Alex says he's going to sleep on the CalAir sofa before getting up in a few hours to drive to Sacramento. Better him than me. I get home about 3am, I think (I lost track). I'm pretty sure tomorrow's going to be just as long…

* * *

I want to thank all the Skyblue staff, especially Larry, Heather, Brian, Lorenn, and Tommy for their help, humour, and patience — what could have been an excruciatingly boring or stressful eight hours or so was actually a fairly pleasant time. They'd get my business if I actually owned a Cirrus….

July 18, 2007

Santa Monica

Santa Monica, my fave LA place (along with Venice). No, that's not me up there, just some random character from Harry Shearer's "Home Of The Homeless". Me, I get up early and stroll the old familiar haunts, trying not to get too sunburned or jaded… I can think of worse places to be.

July 17, 2007

One Six Right

KNVY runways 34L-16R from taxiway Bravo at Quebec

I can still smell the smoke from the big brush fires above Santa Barbara as I cross OHIGH intersection on the Fernando Five (FERN5) arrival. 145 knots ground speed; 9,000' MSL. Beautiful rugged country below me in the post-sunset, hints and glimpses of dark-tone mountains, canyons, and chaparall. It's mid evening, getting dark, and there's the usual LA area haze as well as the smoke, but you can see bright smudged hints of the city in the distance. Southern California Approach tells me to expect vectors for the ILS. I cross CANYN intersection, still at 9,000', then turn to UMBER intersection over Filmore VOR. SoCal has me descend (rapidly) to 6,000' immediately after Filmore. I can hear SoCal Approach vectoring a Hawker onto the localiser a few miles in front of me, and a Citation on the arrival behind me; I'm the slowpoke in the middle. I'm almost immediately vectored with a sharp(ish) turn towards the localiser and asked to slow down for the aircraft in front of me. There's one for the books, I think: we small GA pilots are usually asked to keep as fast as possible on the approach because of the faster traffic we mix with. Cool! I briefly wonder what the Hawker thinks about being overtaken by a mighty Cirrus, but I suspect SoCal have the same staffing issues that NorCal has, leading to botched spacing and ad hoc vectors with newbies at the scopes….

In front of me and off to my right LA's now a blaze of light smeared across the hills and mountains, and my brain keeps misplaying the old Doors lyrics as "City at night, city at night!" over and over (no, I'm no Doors fan (understatement), but LA and the Doors have History, you know). It's beautiful, and the smoke and haze and warm air has everything on the ground shimmering or slightly veiled. I can easily pick out the Van Nuys (KVNY) runway 16R lights as I turn towards the localiser (I have a certain amount of local knowledge here so I know exactly where it should be in relation to the 405 and the other main landmarks down there). I'm cleared for the ILS RWY 16R, and a few seconds later I've joined the localiser, and a little while later I'm on the glideslope. This is a steeper than usual glideslope (take a look at the terrain around here…) and the final approach segment is also rather long — roughly 8 miles with an intercept altitude of 4,300 MSL (for a runway at roughly 800' MSL), but otherwise it's a pretty straightforward approach.

Tower clears me to land after the Hawker, and 16R floats up towards me in the darkness in that very familiar unreal videogame-for-real intense concentration way I find so enjoyable. After a book-perfect approach I'm over the threshold and a few seconds later I'm on the ground in the muggy warmth surrounded by lights and aircraft. I'm told to exit 16R at November, and that's what I do, with the Citation not far behind me on final.

So that's Van Nuys One Six Right in real life, I think. Cool! It's tempting to say it's a special thrill, a really distinctive experience, but really, it's the views of LA and the approach and descent into the airport environment at night that's the thrill, and Van Nuys may be the busiest GA airport in the US, but it isn't proving any harder to cope with than my native Oakland (KOAK) or Hayward (KWHD) — I've been trained well. At least that's what I'm thinking until I fluff the ground call on exiting 16R at taxiway november and hear the mortifying and very public "75T, you're still on tower frequency…". D'Oh! I taxi to Skytrails, park, and a few minutes later (thanks to the excellent ground staff at Skytrails) I'm on the 405 in a little rental car bound for the hotel in Santa Monica.

* * *

This is another of those always-wanted-to-do-it trips, and a combination of a break in jobs and having seen One Six Right a few weeks ago gives me a good excuse. Unfortunately there's not enough notice to drag the Artists (or anyone else) along with me this time, so I go alone. An IFR flight to Van Nuys via San Luis Obispo (KSBP), an overnight stay in Santa Monica, and a leisurely VFR trip back up the coast (lunch at San Luis Obispo maybe) all seem like a good idea to me, and I have the time (if not really the money), so I organise, plan, and arrange things over a few days, and at around 16.30 I'm sitting sweltering in the club's Cirrus on Hayward's Green Ramp getting my clearance to San Luis Obispo from Hayward Clearance. A few minutes later I'm departing on the familiar dogleg route ("runway heading until 400', left turn heading 160, radar vectors for ALTAM, V244, Manteca VOR (ECA), V113, Paso Robles VOR (PRB), direct", and there's really not much to say about this leg of the trip except this time at least I remembered to put on some sun screen, and the ground below and airways all seem very familiar nowadays.

I stop for fuel and food at San Luis Obispo, and spend a pleasant hour or so eating decent American Diner food watching the planes out on the ramp and runways at the Spirit Of San Luis restaurant at the airport. This is one of those unusual airport cafes where the food really ain't bad, and where locals go to eat with no intention of flying. It's an almost ideal place to stop and eat if you're flying GA to LA from the Bay Area.

I watch the coastal stratus coming in from the west towards the airport and reflect that I'd be in a hell of a hurry to eat and leave if I were VFR. But I'm not, and by the time I pick up my clearance from Tower ("Cleared to Van Nuys airport via the CREPE3 departure, Morro Bay transition, San Marcus VOR, V386, OHIGH, Fernando Five arrival…") the clouds are overhead, and VFR would not be strictly legal (you could depart "VFR" east if tower looked the other way, I suspect). As with the last time I departed here for LA, I wonder how long that clearance will last, especially since it seems to be taking me straight into the firefighting TFRs inland from Santa Barbara. Sure enough, immediately I switch to departure (in a few moments of actual IMC before breaking out), Santa Barbara approach calls me and says "75T, bad news, got a new clearance for you, advise ready to copy…". The new clearance is basically just vectors to San Marcus (RZS) around the TFRs, then as before — so nothing too difficult.

In the distance towards Santa Barbara I can see what looks like an unforecast thunderhead above the pervasive smoke layer in front of me, but with a shock of recognition I realise it's an enormous billowing smoke cloud reaching way up into the flight levels and spreading horizontally like an anvil. The smoke will be the dominant visual element all the way to around Simi Valley — there's a large fire down there out of control, and the TFRs extend up to 15,000' 24 hours a day for firefighting aircraft. I can see Santa Barbara and the Channel Islands and most of the coast line fairly clearly, but almost everything inland for what looks like 50 or more miles is buried under the smoke layer. The layer reaches to about 7,000' by my estimation, and it's making for a beautiful sunset, I have to say, all reds, yellows, purples and pinks. Just Another Boring Southern California Sunset, I guess.

About this time approach reports that they've lost my transponder return, but they sound unconcerned (he says it's probably just terrain or antenna geometry, and he's got me on the primary anyway), and for a short while I get to do IFR the old school way, reporting a couple of waypoints and estimating waypoint ETA. The GPS units sure help with this, and I can't help reporting my next waypoint ETA with the spurious accuracy the 430's giving me, down to the last second. I'm sure that impressed the controller… in any case, after about 15 minutes the transponder return magically re-appears and I proceed as planned towards OHIGH for the Fernando Five arrival…

July 09, 2007

No Aircraft Were Hurt In The Making Of This Film

I finally got to see "One Six Right" on DVD the other day. As the Wikipedia entry says,
One Six Right is an independent film about the general aviation industry as seen through a local airport. Within a short period of time, it has achieved a cult-like following and presence among pilots and aviation enthusiasts worldwide who see the film as being able to communicate their passion for aviation. Concurrently, the film has garnered both local and national political attention in the United States as an accurate depiction of general aviation and its important contributions to all aviation industries worldwide.
OK, I guess I'm going to be a dissenter here. Well, not radically, but in my own muddled way. Firstly, yes, I enjoyed the film a lot, especially the "pilot porn" bits (you know, all the beautiful flying, the smooth glossy warbirds and bizjets, the aerobatics — all that and more) and the pure history stuff (I'm a big fan of local history, and when, in cases like this, local and national (or even global) history merge in one location, it's a real joy to connect the dots and just watch the story unfold). I really didn't enjoy the intrusive and rather-too-sentimental (or perhaps a bit unimaginative) soundtrack, but that's just a detail. Looked at purely as an independent human-interest and local history documentary about an important GA airport, it gets top marks, and I would have been even happier had it gone on longer, with more history, and more personal stories. These things fascinate me, and it's an obvious labor of love by the filmmakers.

But I doubt that it'll convince too many people out there that GA is important or more than toys-for-the-boys or a rich guy's or old geezer's pursuit. Perhaps "show, don't tell" might have been a better approach here: rather than just stating that lots of economic and social advantages come from having something as big and noisy as Van Nuys airport in the middle of the Valley, it might have been better to do some actual tracing of day-to-day work and activities. For example, follow a mercy flight, or a medevac helicopter's daily routine, or a small freight operation, or a flight school… show the money coming in, show the business accruing to the neighbourhood, show how the airport is such a part of the city's lifeline. And rather than concentrating a little too much on the more glamourous aircraft (the warbirds, the aerobatic planes, etc.), it might have been nice to show just what the workaday planes give to the community (or not); and, unfortunately, all those nice shiny bizjets probably only reinforce the "GA as rich-guys toys for the boys" image in many viewers' minds, no matter how aerodynamically and aesthetically pleasing they might be to you and me.

And as for being able to "communicate [our] passion for aviation", I think it certainly communicates the fact that many of us are passionate about flying and all that goes with it (including local airports), but I don't think it instills or inspires that passion in most people who don't already feel that way. And perhaps it's not meant to — it's certainly a difficult thing to convincingly show rather than tell. While I mostly liked the people the movie used to convey the passion, GA now has such an image problem that showing presumably-rich actors standing in front of expensive shiny (noisy) machines probably isn't going to convince anyone not already convinced; and the use of so many older people as interviewees really hinted at one of the main problems GA faces. In some ways the movie felt more like an unwitting elegy for a GA era than a look forward through the past.

Having said all that, definitely see it if you get a chance. It's good local history, and the pure flying documentary bits were beautifully shot, addictive, and deeply affecting. Almost makes me want to take up aerobatics again….

July 04, 2007

Hands Off!

A short under-the-hood IFR-in-VFR flight to Santa Rosa (KSTS) and back with John, mostly just to get some tips from him on my IFR flying, to keep proficient as well as current, and to get better at managing the complexity that is the WAAS-enabled G1000 and associated process and tools, etc.

The highlight of the flight? Sitting there under the cone of stupidity watching the G1000 / KAP 140 combination fly us around the STS GPS RWY 14 course reversal hold at GETER intersection (including the proper teardrop entry) entirely on its own. No prompting or hints from me at all — it just aimed straight at GETER, entered the hold, and proceeded to fly the hold exactly the way I would, but smoother. Kewl! I love this stuff. As John said at the time, there really wasn't any need for me to be there at all. Actually, as we were approaching GETER I wasn't 100% certain whether the G1000 would push us around the hold or not (the older versions don't), but John just told me to wait and see. And what I saw was very slick and cool, as was the rest of the mostly-automated flight (I flew the ILS back into Oakland by hand for fun; the other approaches were all done coupled). The G1000 is IFR magic, no doubt, even if all you're doing is plain old ILSs or VOR-to-VOR victor airways routes. For VFR, it's nice, but basically just a very expensive way get too-easily distracted — I much prefer the older steam gauge SP's or whatever for just flying VFR around the Bay, etc.

A few other points from the flight: I'm still landing a little too flat for the 172 (it's the baleful influence of the Cirrus, or at least that's my excuse), and (at least on this flight) I was a little too lax about dialing in the underlying VORs for routes and approaches (I'm normally pretty good at that sort of thing, since what the hell else can you rely on when you're having a GPS Moment with the G1000 and you still have to do the hold or go missed or intercept a course that's also based on the underlying land-based navaids?). I'm also still a little too rough-and-ready with power / speed / altitude control trade-offs — the sort of precision John brings to this is still beyond me, unfortunately. But I did nothing terribly wrong, and the refresher was an interesting exercise (and for the short time I was allowed to look outside the cockpit, the view was typically gorgeous).

On the way back into Oakland (KOAK) I'd requested the ILS 27R practice approach, and after a bunch of vectors for traffic and a hand-off, I'd asked the new controller for an intercept outside GROVE intersection (a fairly common sort of request here, as it helps forestall NorCal's habit of instead dropping you closer in onto UPACI intersection, at least a thousand feet too high, meaning you have to drop like a rock to have a chance of intercepting the glideslope from below). The controller didn't quite understand what I was asking for, which wasn't as interesting as his response, which was to query whether I'd really be comfortable with intercepting at GROVE from my current position (a bit of a stretch, for sure). As John pointed out, while it was mildly irritating that he didn't "get" what I was getting at, the controller was definitely thinking the right way about the intercept, and given his understanding of what I wanted to do, was reacting in a really pretty helpful and thoughtful way. Top marks for that, I guess, and in the end I didn't have to drop out of the sky at 1,500 fpm to make the glideslope, and maybe the controller's got a better picture now of what I was really asking for. It's not all doom-and-gloom for GA pilots with NorCal….

Back at the fuel pumps in front of Kaiser, there's a big old Apache with a handful of twenty- and thirty-something hipsters milling around it taking a break. I chat with the pilot, a New Zealander who's lived around here, and it turns out they're just back from the Black Rock Desert (think "Burning Man", but a month or two before time). Seems the perfect way to get there and back (it's a hell of a drive), and I have to admit I've been attracted to the idea of flying there several times, but the alkaline dust and the dirt strip there make it a non-starter with club planes. (At first the New Zealander actually thought I had a New Zealand accent, which kinda amused me. His accent was obviously New Zealand, but, as he later admitted, my accent's a lot harder to pin down, having strong elements of my native British accent as well as a few thin insurgencies from my surroundings here).

June 26, 2007

WAAS, RNAV, LPV, and All That Stuff…

I learned to fly out of Oakland (KOAK), and really enjoy it as a base for GA flying. It's a large, busy airport with a tremendous variety of airline, commercial, business, and small GA traffic, and the sort of operational support (like 24-hour FBO's and fueling) that go with that; it's the centre of its own full-time Class C airspace (and it has two quite separate towers, but that's just a quirk…); it's close to where I live, an easy 15 minute drive (or 25 minute bicycle ride) on pleasant surface streets; and it's got a nice variety of IFR arrival, approach, and departure procedures (roughly thirty or so by my count).

So when I got the chance to get checked out in the new C172SP with a WAAS-enabled G1000 cockpit at Oakland Flyers with John, I jumped at the chance: not only do I get to fly out of Oakland again (for some of my flights, anyway — I'm definitely also staying with CalAir at Hayward (KHWD)) with a "new" club (OK, they're not exactly new to me — I've known of Oakland Flyers for years, and have always known people who fly with them or instruct there), I got to play with the new RNAV LPV approaches using the new WAAS stuff. And it turns out the 172 had exactly 77 hours on it when I started it up. Cool!

The plane itself really wasn't any different to fly than the G1000 172s I already fly with CalAir, and the actual checkout bits went fine, with the exception that, as John put it, I kept trying to land the thing like a Cirrus (i.e. flatter than usual for a 172). Guilty as charged, although the weird and rough windshear just above 27L's threshold made it difficult to land it smoothly at any damn attitude, 172, Cirrus, or whatever (I got my own back when John later tried an approach and landing and had the same "what the hell?!" reaction over the fence as I did :-)).

So what did I like about the new G1000 and the associated RNAV/LPV abilities? John will probably be posting some of his pix from the flight showing the G1000's chart and airport diagram features, all of which is good from a convenience point of view, and the safe taxi feature (or whatever it's called) was cool, even though I know Oakland's taxiways like the back of my hand. Some of the newer G1000 / GPS features like better turn prediction, more detailed fuel quantity resets, etc., were nice but not especially surprising. Some were mildly amusing, like the new vertical obstruction icons that looked like teepes or campground icons in gorgeous reds, yellows, and greens scattered around the hills in the area — I had to ask John what they were twice before I realised he wasn't kidding about them being tower markers, etc.

Of course it was the WAAS capabilities I was most interested in and that give this unit the most added value for me, and it didn't disappoint. There still aren't too many useful RNAV / LPV approaches in the neighbourhood, but luckily Oakland has a good one (RNAV RWY 27L), and we ambled three times around that approach, twice me flying, once with John doing it for light relief (all under the hood, of course). There's not a lot that's difficult conceptually or procedurally with the new RNAV approaches, so I won't spend much time discussing them here (John's had an occasional series of articles about them, e.g. here); in summary, they're basically GPS approaches with decent ILS-like glideslopes with vertical guidance, and, in some cases, very good minimums (but note: some of the LPV minimums are actually higher than conventional non-precision approaches at the same airport. Take a look at Napa (KAPC) for an example of this). The G1000 made things relatively easy to follow along with and fly; I don't think I'll ever miss the "dive and drive" approach to non-precision approaches if given a chance :-). Overall, rather cool, and definitely the way things should be, if a little unpolished on the interfaces.

As John's discussed elsewhere, the C172 G1000 doesn't coordinate particularly well for vertical guidance with the (otherwise rather nice) King autopilot that's standard with the G1000, which is a big shame — not only couldn't we get the LPV approach to couple in the vertical dimension (which is not too problematic — just dial in a suitable vertical sink rate on the AP), but the same old irritating inability to set things like vertical speed or target altitude with the G1000 (rather than separately on the KAP 140) remained. This is irritating on such an expensive and otherwise smooth and easy-to-use interface (OK, the G1000 interface isn't easy for beginners, but it grows on you. I find it easy to remember the basics, but I still can't remember all the MFD options off the top of my head).

* * *

Before we got to the approaches John threw me an ad hoc hold at SALAD intersection a few miles out from it. A couple of years ago I used to find this sort of thing quite a mental struggle, but this time it just seemed easy: John's handy-dandy way of using the HSI for working out the entry procedure combined with some sort of mental model built up with experience over the last year or two made it just happen. I could even answer the questions John kept asking me about it while I'm under the hood, which is a good sign (and yes, I've still yet to ever be assigned a hold in real IFR flying, but it'll happen one day, in the worst circumstances, for sure).

* * *

At one point the NorCal controller asks me — twice in a row, if I remember correctly — whether I want the RNAV 27L approach or the GPS 27L approach into Oakland. Argh! It's the RNAV (GPS) 27L approach, folks — get with the program! And at least twice NorCal tries to vector me to JOCPI (on Hayward's GPS 28L approach) rather than JUPAP (the intermediate fix or waypoint on the actual approach we were trying to fly); and the last clearance I get for the approach includes the instruction "cross JOCPI at or above 3,300". Hmmm. At least I knew what he meant, and it was VMC out there. Not as bad, perhaps, as one of my previous recent IFR experiences with NorCal when the controller instructed me to descend and maintain an altitude several thousand feet higher than I was already at while vectoring me for the wrong approach. Perhaps the views of the FAA's current staffing problems from The Main Bang and The FAA Follies aren't quite as extreme as some people seem to believe they are….

* * *

Back at Kaiser we see a couple of really expensive brand-new gold-painted G3 Cirrus SR-22s sitting in all their glory on the Kaiser ramp. Looks like some sort of demo day or tour. These things look absolutely tasteless and rather ridiculous in that livery, and both John and I can't help wondering out aloud whether we should go over and ask them whether the doors work properly on the new models or not (if you've flown a Cirrus, you'll probably know what I'm getting at…). I decide against it.

* * *

The new plane's hangared in a real hangar, which is a first for me — the weather 'round here makes outdoors tiedowns fairly benign and very common. It's one of those Port-A-Port things, with a rather creaky handcrank-driven main door; opening up felt like raising some sort of medieval portcullis. I can imagine enjoying pre-flighting this plane under cover — summer 'round here always seems to involve cold wind and cloud :-).

* * *

So after all that, I'm now a member of Oakland Flyers as well as CalAir, and can call Oakland home again when flying. Plus I get access to a 172SP with the new WAAS-enabled G1000. Not bad for a couple of hours' work, I guess.

May 31, 2007

One Of Those Flights…

We're climbing out of Stockton (KSCK) IFR on vectors for the return trip to Hawyard (KHWD). I'm under the Cone of Stupidity, getting some IFR practice. It's a nice warm hazy Central Valley evening, clear VMC, the air's fairly calm, and the Cirrus is climbing nicely towards our assigned altitude of 6,000'. At about 5,000' the oil annunciator flickers on for a second or two, then goes off. I look across at the oil gauges — the pressure's fine, but the temp's way up towards the red end. Hmmm, I think. The oil level was fine back at Hayward; the gauges were fine on takeoff at Stockton. It's really not that hot out there (at least not as hot as it usually is at this time of the year in inland California). The mixture is on full rich; the EGT looks a little higher than usual but not horribly so; fuel flow looks OK; we're not climbing too excessively or anything, at least not in my opinion…. But the temperature isn't going down, even as I throttle back, and the annunciator's now flickering intermittently and almost continuously. I look at Boyan (my safety pilot), and say this doesn't look good, does it? I pull the hood off, level off, and call NorCal Approach to tell the controller that we're cancelling IFR and heading straight to Tracy airport (which I can see about 4 or 5 miles away to my left) due to an oil temperature problem. Quick as a flash NorCal says Tracy's at your 9 o'clock, 4 miles, no traffic observed between you and the airport, do you need assistance?

I say we're fine at the moment, but that we'll head for Tracy and stay on frequency until we're closer. We can easily glide there from here if we have to, and there are any number of fields we could probably land in if we really have to. As soon as we level off the oil annunciator stops flashing, and less than a minute later the oil temperature's down to an acceptable level. I start a slow descent into Tracy, and — of course — the oil temperature is now normal. Everything's looking normal. I tell NorCal we seem to be over the problem, but we'll orbit here for a few minutes around Tracy to see what's happening — my guess is I just had the throttle setting too high for continuous climb (but I'd throttled back a little on leaving the pattern at Stockton, and a lot when I first saw the problem), and something in the back of my mind remembers reading an article by my long-time-ago aquaintance Phil Greenspun where he commented on how easy it was to get his Cirrus to redline on oil temperatures [later: see his article here — there's a comment about it under "Summer Flying")].

So we orbit slowly over Tracy for about five minutes, the oil temperature normal, and I make an Executive Decision (yes, I'm the decisionaliser in this plane): we'll head for Livermore at the current altitude (4,500') with flight following from NorCal, and then decide from there what to do and where to go. I call up NorCal, tell him we're OK and want flight following back to Hayward with the LOC/DME practice approach into Hayward if possible. And much to my relief, the rest of the flight's absolutely boringly normal, with a tiny bit of real IMC on the way back into Hayward on the localiser necessitating a full clearance from NorCal. On the ground I check the oil level — like everything else, it's boringly normal.

[Later: John calls and tells me he heard it all on-frequency (the man's everywhere! :-) ). We have a long discussion about the issue— I think I just need to climb a tad less agressively. Or even less agressively than I already do.]

* * *

Earlier, we'd paused in the runup area at Stockton before departing to give Boyan, my safety pilot, a chance to stretch his legs and for me to get my water bottle out of the back (never leave things like this buried in the bottom of a bag you accidentally put out of reach :-)). I tell tower we'll be off-air for five minutes, and shut the engine off, thinking it'll be nice to take a short break before plunging on again. We just wander around the runup area off 29R for a while, then get back in and start up. The first thing I see is the "low voltage" annunciator staring me in the face. And sure enough, the ammeter is indicating a battery discharge even though the engine (and presumably the alternator) is turning over smoothly. Argh! I check the breakers and a bunch of other obvious things — nothing wrong. On a hunch, I shut the engine down and start it back up again — and now, of course, it's doing what it's supposed to be doing. I keep an eagle eye on the ammeter the rest of the flight, and it's OK all the way back to Hayward, but (especially after the oil temperature issue) I can't help wondering if this is just One Of Those Flights…

May 28, 2007


My basic (VFR) flying skills always bug me nowadays — they seem to deteriorate way too quickly to the point where I make embarassing landings and laboured radio calls in front of an imagined audience of thousands, and my pattern work is often sloppy to the point of distraction. For all my supposed skills at flying an approach to minimums, the landing that follows is often the low point (sorry) of the approach (which is rarely particularly precise in the first place, but never mind), and being able to cope (more-or-less) with a complex new IFR clearance on-the-fly under the hood doesn't seem to prevent me from stumbling on first call-up to NorCal Approach or Hayward Tower during a simple VFR fly-about.

So I dedicate this morning to just … flying about, VFR. A landing here, a landing there, a call to the tower here, a call to the tower there. That sort of thing — and it's a glorious Bay Area day to do it on, too: cool, sunny, breezy, clear. And I end up with some valuable landing practice, a tighter grip on pattern work, a renewed sense of just what I like about VFR flying (the just-pottering-about, the make-it-up-as-you-go approach, the sightseeing…), and — quite accidentally — I get to share the pattern at Livermore (KLVK) with both a B-17 Flying Fortress and a B-25 Mitchell bomber.

The original Nine-Oh-NineWhat I didn't know when I popped over the hills to Livermore in one of the club's little 172 SPs was that the Collings Foundation's Wings Of Freedom 2007 tour was in Livermore for the Memorial Day weekend, and the B-25 and B-17 ("Nine-Oh-Nine") were both being flown around for paying donors in between display breaks on the ramp (the accompanying B-24 was on the ramp, but didn't fly while I was there). So I ended up doing my touch and goes with the immense distractions of the B-17 first approaching to land on 25R while I was on the left, and then watching both it and the B-25 take off and depart for another flight up the Diablo Valley. The sight of the B-17 lumbering slowly away, a few hundred feet above the ground, a few hundred metres away at my 2 o'clock as I took off on the parallel was worth the agony of all that around-and-around remedial landing practice, for sure; ditto with the smaller B-25.

It's tempting to say I wish I'd had a camera, but the truth is I did have a camera with me — but sometimes it's just better to watch… (I found someone else's photos from last year's events here).