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.


Jack said...

Ah yes, KMCC...can be quite a fun place with helicopters buzzing around like gnats and the occasional Coast Guard C-130 on a crosswind pattern entry. Been there/done that as we had the Arrow hangared at the Jet Center the first month we owned it. Fun times! :-)

If you ever get a chance, the air museum at KMCC is nicely done.

Nice posts about learning to drive those plastic...er, whatever they're made of, airplanes :-)

Hamish said...

Jack -- thanks! I didn't know there was a museum at KMCC -- all I could see at the time were large hangars and lots and lots of taxiways :-).

Hamish said...

Tony -- thanks! Yes, it's certainly less expensive out here than in Oz, but it's still not cheap. As someone who learned to fly here in California, I was initially shocked when I rented a plane at Bankstown a few times several years ago -- but then the sheer scale of GA here, and the resulting expectations for things like approaches, ATC coverage, etc., is so different as well. I doubt that I could really afford to do something like getting an instrument rating at Bankstown -- and I doubt it'd be nearly as useful there as here.