January 27, 2007

Greetings from Jingletown! (Shameless Self-Promotion)

Sunset over the Estuary, Jingletown, Oakland CaliforniaDue to the suprising (and short-lived) onslaught of rainy weather in the last couple of days I've had to postpone the next installment of the SR-20 sign-off thing with John, meaning I've had time to do something else in my studio instead. The result's unlikely to interest too many of you, but I'm shameless, so if you've got the time (or you're curious), wander over to my new Jingletown shop at CafePress.com. I've produced a bunch of slightly oddball and off-kilter postcards, greeting cards, coffee mugs, etc., for sale based mostly on my neighborhood, Oakland's Jingletown (it's about bloody time someone gave poor old Oaktown and the surrounding areas the recognition they deserve…). Yes, I'm a photographer in Real Life. And no, none of the images there are directly related to flying, but at least one of them's appeared in YAFB before (a free 8-pack of the postcards of their choice to the first person who identifies that image either in email or here :-)). And yes, that sunset clutter of masts and barges and derelict vessels is one of the views from my extended back yard in Oakland… :-).

So take a look…. Note that it's still a bit of a work in progress, but you can probably see where it's going (there are also a couple of other shops in store, so to speak, for my other ventures), and there's likely to be a few more images and products added over the next few months (and if you have any requests — like dog shirts or fridge magnets :-) — tell me and your wish is my command (or something like that)).

And if you're really curious and adventurous, I have an otherwise-unpublicised store on Imagekind.com for a very small selection of my high-resolution high-quality non-commercial photo prints. It's still embryonic, but it might give you food for photographic thought (Imagekind's prints are much better than I'd expected; the prints on canvas of some of my stuff surprised me by how good it was). And no, this is most definitely not how I make money from photography — the entire combined annual profits from these stores will probably barely cover an hour's SR-20 rental. You make money from PR shots and events in this industry, not arty-farty prints or snarky slightly-hip postcards :-).

January 15, 2007

Sooper Sekrit!

What I now know about the-airport-formerly-known-as-McClellan-Airforce-Base (KMCC, in suburban Sacramento), an airport I've never seen before today: it's big. Very big. It has a long single runway. It has a huge amount of empty ramp space with lots of painted yellow taxiway lines arcing around and leading … well I never did find out quite where. It has one of those tall military towers that's permanently closed. It has a lot of big rounded hangars. It has an immaculately-painted ATI DC8 freighter sitting on the ramp with the new high-bypass conversion engine cowls — but no engines inside the cowls (it took me a few seconds to work out what was wrong with the plane). It has a lot of very confusing and not-ICAO-conforming (well, not obviously-conforming) taxiway signs. It has a large number of really cool-looking OV-10 Broncos in white-and-red California CDF colours, and a bunch of older fire-fighters, C130s, and an odd-looking Canadair amphibian, all also in CDF colours. And it has a lot of helicopter traffic nonchalantly doing rather close training passes to each other in the pattern.

I know all this really useful information about an airport I would probably otherwise never visit because as I was pre-flighting the club's Cirrus SR-20 for my second familiarisation / checkout flight with John this morning, Keith, the club's owner, wandered by and casually asked where I was headed. I said I wasn't sure but we were probably off to Franklin (F72 — an airport I've also never seen before) for landing practice…. So can you do me a favor? Keith asks, and in a minute or so I've agreed to ferry a new starter motor and a club pilot to McClellan so we could get another of the club's planes back without a round of musical airplanes. It's not out of the way for us, and when John turns up a few minutes later he's OK with the whole thing, and soon Keith's joshing me about my Sooper Sekrit Mission To Save Calair. He'll pay for the fuel (not a small amount of money in the Cirrus…), and since John still owes me instruction hours, what's to complain about? As long as the other pilot isn't too worried about being ferried by a novice like me, at least.

Carl, the other pilot, turns up a few minutes later with not just the starter (which went into the baggage compartment in a taped-up cardboard box) but also with his small pet dog in a dog carrier (which stayed with Carl in the back seat). The dog's called Romeo, apparently, and both he and Carl are relatively quiet and well-behaved while in the air. Carl's a bit of a character, and has actually flown GA out of Bankstown in Sydney over the years (as have I); I've seen him around the club without really knowing who he is. Now I Know.

It's one of those beautiful warm Northern California winter days, bright sunshine and dry air, and you can see the Sierra from just above Hayward. Perfect flying weather. We get flight following all the way to McLellan, and the flight out from Hayward's both fast and routine (35 minutes door-to-door for what would normally be about a two hour drive). The landing's actually one of my best ever, and we face the first problem: where the hell are we going? Carl himself has never been here, and John's airport diagram (Jepp) isn't quite corresponding to what we see on the ground (John: "let's get off at Kilo just up there". Me: "I can only see Delta...". "That should be Kilo!". "It's Delta...". We never did find Kilo...).

Carl gets out his cell phone and calls a person-who-will-remain-nameless back at Calair (no, not Keith) to find out exactly which FBO we're heading for. What follows is a gentle argument over the phone that threatens to turn into a polite shouting match as Carl (and John and I) start to wonder if the-person-who-will-remain-nameless back at Calair has sent us to the wrong airport: there's also a Mather ex-AFB within spitting distance, also in Suburban Sacramento. I taxi around the ramp from one end of the FBO-ish part to the other and back again, between hangars, around the DC8, etc., with Carl trying not to lose his temper in the back while still on the phone. It's not getting any better, and just as the FBO actually calls us on CTAF to ask if we're lost, John sees the plane Carl's here to rescue in the hangar off to our right. The person-who-will-remain-nameless back at Calair is still insisting that the FBO's name is Mather Jet Center, even though we can actually see the plane in McLellan Jet Center. Carl shuts his phone off and we taxi around to park next to a nice-looking Citation (or whatever it was) in front of the FBO. I feel like a complete idiot, taxiing around like the Flying Dutchman, but just for once on the ramp, It Wasn't My Fault.

Carl gets out, starter and dog in tow, and we climb back in and taxi back to the runway for a series of touch and goes in the pattern. This turns out to be an educational and enjoyable twenty minutes or so: the normal landings actually go rather well (OK, there was no crosswind (or any wind) at all, which made it easy), and the no-flap landings were an interesting exercise in sink-rate / airspeed management and tradeoffs. The Cirrus drops like a rock at the recommended no-flaps landing approach speed of 85 KIAS when clean, and the difference between that and the Vg of 95 KIAS is quite marked. So my first no-flap landing using 85 KIAS has to be salvaged with more power than I'd hoped, but it was still a smooth landing. The next few times around I get better at managing and estimating things, and by the time we're heading back to Hayward (with flight following from NorCal) I'm feeling pretty pleased with myself.

The first half of the flight back goes smoothly, so John asks if I want to do the GPS 28L approach back into Hayward just to get a feel for how it works in this plane. I'm up for it, and while I'm still feeling a bit iffy from a week's worth of sore throat and colds, I put on the Cone Of Stupidity and head for SUNOL intersection, and start programming the GPS. I suspect I'll probably put the hood back up when the going gets tough, but I'll try it anyway. But there's really not much to say about the approach — it went well, I didn't get out from under the hood until 50' above the MDA, and if the approach was a bit agricultural, it was well within the private instrument PTS limits, and I felt able to nail the approach speed and descent rate pretty well with trim and throttle early enough to just leave it set up like that nearly all the way down. Woohoo!

I look up at 500', and there's the runway, dead ahead (that always makes me feel good, of course). The landing's pretty normal, but John, who's noticed that I have a Cessna Driver's aversion to stepping on the brakes while slowing down, shows me just how quickly you can bring the plane to a standstill with them. Cool! I guess I'm just a cautious kind of guy…. We taxi off to be welcomed as heroes by Keith (well, not quite, but it's the thought that counts. He was pleased by the way it all turned out, though).

* * *

So what's left? Probably just another flight for VFR signoff (short-field landings, real crosswind landings, etc.), and an IFR flight with a bunch of approaches for IFR signoff. And that bloody ten page familiarisation sheet. Urgh — I'm really having trouble finishing it. Not because it's particuarly difficult, but because it asks lots of questions that don't strike me as always being terribly relevant. Oh well. A small price to pay for being allowed to fly something like this, I guess.

January 13, 2007

The Cirrus Driver

Some of us in the US GA scene have this … thing … about Cirrus drivers. You know: arrogant, a little clueless, flying fast complex planes (toys for the boys) a little beyond their experience and ability simply because they can afford to — that sort of thing. Around here the Cirrus has something of a (rather unfair) reputation as the dot-commer killer, the dot.com equivalent of the old doctor-killer Bonanzas. And as we're cruising back towards Hayward (KHWD) over Oakland we can hear this Cirrus Driver on Oakland's tower frequency missing a mandatory readback and then asking a couple of really clueless questions about his (standard, canned) departure instructions. Urgh. This guy's about to takeoff in a fast, powerful, loud, and rather slippery plane straight at us….

But what am I flying as we hear all this? Yeah, the club's Cirrus SR-20. Yes, I'm becoming one of them. True, it's the smaller, cheaper, much less powerful SR-20 rather than the Big Boy SR-22, but it's still a Cirrus. As John, sitting in the right seat, says with a grin sometime during the Cirrus Driver vs. KOAK tower exchange, "Cirrus Drivers! Dontcha just hate them…".

* * *

So what am I doing in the Cirrus? That's easy: John owes me a few hours of instruction, and hell, the Cirrus looks like a good way to do those longer flights (for example back to Santa Monica again later this year) quickly and relatively cheaply, and, as always, I'm just really curious what it's like to fly one of these things. Plus it's on a pretty reasonable special intro rate at the club and I can just about afford it (at least every now and then). So here I am…

The club's Cirrus is one of the older ones, with conventional (steam) instruments rather than a glass cockpit, but that's almost light relief for me (at least it's got an HSI). There's one of those weirdo S-TEC S-30 autopilots (literally) attached to the turn coordinator (more on this later), and one of those sui generis multifunction displays that turned up in GA in the early days of such things, a unit I don't think I've ever seen before but that seems straightforward to use, if not quite as useful (or pretty) as the G1000's MFD. And there's the early-day Cirrus Garmin 430 / 420 combo set for the radios and nav (for the life of me I still can't understand what Garmin were thinking with the 420 — a 430 without nav radios — did this save them all of $100?!).

I've had to do my homework to be allowed to fly this thing, of course: there's a ten page familiarisation sheet that has to be filled in before sign-off (not too hard, but the sheet itself is rather oddly structured, leading you to have to page back and forward in the POH between questions), and the usual 350 page POH to be internalised. Nothing I haven't done before, and (perhaps unfortunately) I have an Aviatrix-like fascination for systems and figures (hell, I am an engineer by training…), so that part goes fairly quickly as well. The two things I think I'm likely to have trouble with are the whole side-stick control thing (I'm used to either yokes or conventional sticks, both of which are just fine by me), and keeping ahead of what's likely to be the fastest and smoothest plane I've ever flown as PIC. Yes, I've had a complex endorsement for years and have many hours in an old Arrow, and have a few hours in a Tiger, so I have some idea of what to expect, but there are always surprises.

Preflighting this thing is straightforward, except I can't open the baggage compartment door without major swearing and key-jiggling (what are the manufacturers of expensive GA planes thinking when they use really crappy locks on things like this?), and I embarrassingly couldn't find the gascolator fuel drain under the nose (it looked like an electronics attachment to me and I didn't want to break anything). At least there aren't thirteen fuel sump drains to be tested as with the Cessna 172 SP's.

Startup and taxiing turn out to be pretty simple — as with the Tiger, the Cirrus has a castoring nosewheel and uses differential braking for steering on the ground, and despite having heard a few horror stories about getting Cirruses (Cirrii?) started, it starts first go. Very smooth. But I haven't flown enough in the past few months to avoid sounding really flaky on the radio, and I embarass myself a couple of times on the radio taxiing to the runup. Taxiing and runup expose what will become one of the only real annoyances with this aircraft: the power lever (which controls both manifold pressure and RPM) has very non-linear characteristics, and is extremely sensitive at lower power settings, and I end up lurching around with the engine changing speed all over the place (the Arrow's separate MP and RPM levers were both pretty linear and easy to use by comparison). John urges me to learn how to anchor my hand and use very slight adjustments at the lower end; of course, at the other end of the power settings, dramatic movements make almost no difference. This causes problems for the rest of the flight — not dire problems, but definitely major irritations and some rather rougher-than-I'd-like adjustments. I'll get used to it.

After runup, the first real test: takeoff, with that sidestick, and the general speed demon thing. We're cleared for takeoff, and take the runway. I push the power lever forward, and (maybe predictably) with the exception of minor issues to do with trim, from this point on the sidestick is no issue at all. I simply don't really notice I'm using it (as opposed to a yoke or whatever) — it's intuitive to use, the mechanical feedback feels right, and not having the damn yoke keep hitting my knees (as used to happen with the Arrow which had fixed-height seats like the Cirrus) was a real plus.

The speed thing, however, and the general slipperiness of the SR-20, does keep me occupied for the entire flight. Not in a particularly worrying way, but this plane certainly flies faster and reacts quicker than any non-aerobatic plane I've flown, and the urge to just roll it over and do a quick roll or loop while no one's looking stays around in the back of my mind (no, of course I bloody wouldn't…). The plane certainly feels heavier on the controls than most others I've flown, but it's not a ponderous sort of heaviness or stiffness, just a reminder that it's not a Decathlon or Aerobat or even a 172.

Which brings up the next issue: while climbing over the hills towards Mt Diablo at an airspeed of about 140 KIAS (and not at full throttle) I start trying out the electric trim system, which is a must for longer flights with the heavier controls. It's controlled with one of those hat switches on the top of the sidestick, and elevator trim seems to work just fine: no surprises there. But roll trim turns out to be incredibly touchy, and it takes a long while to get the hang of just nudging the hat in the right direction quickly enough to not cause a major upset. I guess I'll get the hang of this, too (at least it has roll trim). I also try out the S-30 autopilot: again, no surprises, but it's a clunky interface compared to the ones I'm used to in the 172s, and altitude hold seemed pretty, well, impressionistic, at least when I tried it. I haven't tried the nav modes yet, but it looks fine in general — and especially useful with longer flights, IFR or VFR, because (again) of the general heaviness of the controls, and the twitchiness of the trim.

We head out (quickly) to do some airwork over the Delta with traffic advisories from Travis Approach. Disappointingly, I'm sure, nothing here went wrong or felt odd either, and stalls, steep turns, etc., were all (more or less) done within PTS the first time. Stalls are a non-event in this plane, but you need to be rather lighter on the rudder on the edge of the stall than with some of the planes I'm used to. Steep turns were a joy — the plane kept level and easily predictable in either direction — and the emergency descent workout was as dramatic as I'd expected (this plane flies fast). I think the thing that started to bug me slightly at this stage was the lack of separate manifold pressure and throttle — this is a rather non-complex plane in comparison to the Arrow, and I guess I miss the ability to change RPM independently of MP (at least up to a point). I guess you just have to trust the engine control. The other side of this is that mixture control can be left to the default engine controller as well, but you can do manual adjustments if you want (and we did, right down to a metered 9 gallons per hour — not bad for a 200 HP engine doing 140 KIAS).

And so to landings. We head off towards Napa (KAPC), probably my favourite little towered airport for landing practice. John does the first touch and go on 18L, the small runway, and we request 18R (the larger one) for my turn(s). So I do right traffic for 18R, and try to keep to the recommended airspeeds and engine settings (etc.) for each leg. Not too bad, and I line up fine and go over the proverbial fence at 75KIAS… and land, pretty much as instructed. You fly this thing on and keep the nosewheel off the ground much the same as I used to do with the Arrow, and everything feels familiar and, if I crabbed a little too much on landing, Oh Well. At least I didn't kill anyone or break anything. A couple more touch and goes, and I still haven't killed anyone or broken anything, so we head back to Hayward through Oakland's airspace, talking to NorCal and Oakland tower.

The landing at Hayward goes fine and I start to feel I can fly this plane — and I could really enjoy flying it long distance. We shall see. In any case, I have at least another flight to complete before VFR signoff, and I'd like at least a flight or two after that under the hood for IFR. Given the state of my professional and private life at the moment that might all take longer than I'd like, but it's a goal worth aiming for. And no, I'm really not interested in the SR-22. I couldn't afford it even if the club had one. But the SR-20's a good alternative to the club's 182, even the G1000-equipped 182. Nothing's cheap about this sort of flying, but I guess I can rationalise the extra hourly cost of the SR-20 by pointing out that you actually get a hell of a lot further during those hours, and when well-leaned, the fuel consumption isn't a lot worse than a 172SP. Well, that's how I rationalise it, anyway.