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).

May 14, 2007

Still Alive

Off to Oakland airport for my US third class medical exam. Despite my general decrepitude I guess I'm not too worried about passing (I don't think I've seen a doctor for anything other than a checkup or for flu or something like that for years and years), but there's always something in the back of my mind each time I do this that wonders whether I'll fail this time….

I've used the same AME (Airman's Medical Examiner) since I started flying, so I know what to expect. He's an, umm, character, a guy I rather like; locals probably know exactly who I'm talking about: his office has a hand-written note on the door warning that you're about to enter a "politically-incorrect office!!" (the extent of the un-PCness is really just his dislike of bureaucracy, the FAA in particular, judging by the other amusing hand-written notes around the walls), he knows a lot of the places I knew as a kid in Scotland (like Tighnabruaich and the little pitfalls in its pronunciation…), he's an experienced GA pilot, with an office decorated with snapshots of him, his family, and various people who've passed through his office all in planes or standing next to planes or in military garb in military cockpits, and he's quietly jubilant that his favourite team West Ham had just beaten Manchester United over the weekend at football (West Ham beats Man United?! One of the signs of the apocalypse if you ask me, but never mind).

There's really not much to say about a third class medical: the exam itself is pretty perfunctory, covering the absolute basics (heartbeat, urine sugar levels, hearing, eyesight, blood pressure, etc.); I suspect the hard parts are when you've had recent medical treatment you have to explain to the FAA (see Aviatrix's blog for a long and mostly depressing — but ultimately successful — story of one person's struggles against the Canadian version of the US's FAA).

So I fill in the form, identically to the last time as far as I can tell, and thirty minutes or so later I have a new medical, signed sealed and delivered for the next two years (yes, I'm old enough to be on the two year cycle). I guess it's nice to know that I'm officially Still Alive…

May 11, 2007

Three Years

I've just noticed that I've been continuously doing ("writing" seems too grand a word…) this blog for more than three years now, which is a long time in Blogland. My first attempt at periodically describing GA flying live, as-it-was-happening-to-me, was my original Learning To Fly — A Flight Diary, done during 1999 as I successfully got my US private pilot's license. It was really a blog avant la lettre, being written with basic HTML tools and a lot of string and tape behind the scenes (funnily enough, at the time, I was heavily involved in the whole Java and XML thing in which another current GA blogger, David Megginson (LAHSO), was — and still is — a leading light; we may even have met on one of those endless traveling "XML and Java" expert panels I used to occasionally be part of at the time, but I don't remember).

But I didn't keep it going beyond the point where I got my license, and apart from a few informal articles, I only really picked it back up again when I started doing my instrument rating with John, who's now of course got his own blog, Aviation Mentor (the successor to his older Freight Dog Tales). At the time, I expected to go on to do my commercial and CFI ratings, but life keeps getting in the way, and I know I'm really only a Sunday Flyer nowadays, which isn't so bad I guess (at least I've kept flying). I'd still like to get my Commercial and then the CFI, but that's maybe a few years away, if ever. We shall see, as I so often seem to say.

In the three years covered here so far, I've gone from flying exclusively VFR to mostly IFR, from flying exclusively with the Alameda Aero Club out of Oakland to mostly flying with California Airways out of Hayward (mostly due to the much larger choice of aircraft at Calair; the two airports are pretty similar in terms of traffic and convenience, at least from my point of view), from flying ratty little 1970's Cessna 172s with steam gauges to rather smarter little 2000-era glass cockpit 172's and Cirruses, and from mostly impromptu local flights to longer, more-planned flights semi-locally (I seem to have mostly given up on the aerobatics, due mostly to cost and the fact that my aerobatics instructor moved away). Not radical changes, really, just the evolution that goes with trying to juggle work and flying, and the inexorable rise in rental and fuel costs.

Frankly, if I had to give up GA flying for a year or two for financial reasons (always a possibility), it wouldn't kill me — but it sure would hurt. I'm surrounded by aviation (I live right near Oakland airport, and not too far from Hayward airport), I know a lot of people in the GA biz locally, and aviation in one form or another has been in my family for about as long as that's possible. It's a part of my identity I'd find very hard to give up permanently….

May 06, 2007

Rough and (Not Quite) Ready

I've set 04E's autopilot for 2,000', and as it's just leveling off after a short climb on an IFR-in-VMC departure from Hayward over the Bay, there's a series of annoying bumps from turbulence, then an enormous thump as I'm pushed down into my seat and we gain 300' in a second or two. Then just as suddenly we're pushed back down past 2,000'… with a major roll towards the left, then right back up to 2,300' banked in the other direction. A small hell breaks loose — simultaneously the autopilot disengages with a loud beep, a synthesized voice somewhere in the panel tells me there's a major trim problem, and NorCal tells me to watch my altitude — he's just had a return showing me well above 2,000'. I brace for more windshear, throttle back a bit, and push the nose over to get back to 2,000'. I don't have time to respond with more than a rushed acknowledgement to NorCal, and a quick look to see how everything's going. Fine, so far, and I'm back on track and altitude. The turbulence continues, but not as bad; a few seconds later I call NorCal and tell the controller there's some major windshear here over the Bay. Yeah, he says, sounding unconcerned, it's the offshore flow, and 04E, climb and maintain 5,000…. After a while, it's quiet again, I gingerly re-engage the autopilot — everything's working just fine — and start enjoying the view and the flying again. A few minutes later I'm over Woodside VOR on my way to Monterey in relatively calm air. It's a beautiful day out there, the sunshine, the Bay, the City up in the distance, the blue Pacific stretching towards Japan, the Coast Range below me….

* * *

I'm on what should really just be a pleasurable IFR-in-VMC flight to Monterey and back in the 04E, one of the club's G1000-equipped 172s. And for the most part it is a pleasurable flight, in beautiful weather over rugged and familiar landscapes. But two things stand out this time: the turbulence (it hit me once more on the way back in almost identical ways, but at a much higher altitude this time), and the mortifying realisation of just how quickly you lose a lot of the IFR "edge" skills when you don't fly IFR very often. I don't mean the basic keep-the-plane-upright or keep-a-decent-heading things (both of which I do roughly but robustly), I mean the sort of thing that happens when you look at the G1000 after twiddling a few knobs and sit there wondering "why the hell is it doing that…?" (without having the presence of mind to think "it doesn't bloody matter!"), or when you hesitate on the radio for a little too long. Nothing major, but it's good to do in-the-system IFR in VMC flights like this for precisely this reason: after a couple of hours doing it for real, but in good weather, the rust starts wearing off. By the time I'm back in Hayward I start feeling pretty good about my IFR flying again; I'll have to drag Boyan out for a decent workout under the Cone Of Stupidity sometime in the next few weeks if he's still around.

In any case, the offshore flow (a very mild version of SoCal's more famous Santa Ana wind) is a definite issue this flight, and not just because of the turbulence — there's a strong gusty crosswind on landing back at Hayward, prompting one of the better crosswind landings I've done in years (a nice one-point landing on the right main and a gentle let-down from that), and on the return leg from Monterey, the crab angle during cruise is very obvious (at one stage near BUSHY intersection the G1000 tells me I have a 40 knot crosswind at almost exactly 90 degrees from the right).

* * *

For the most part during this exercise, the NorCal controllers have been their normal rather pleasant and competent selves, so it's a bit of a shock when I'm given several bad vectors and instructions in a row on the final NorCal frequency — for example, I'm vectored for (and told to join) Hayward's localizer after having requested and been told to expect the GPS 28L approach, and I'm told to descend to an altitude that's several thousand feet higher than I'm already at. At least three times I hear a second controller's voice immediately come on and say something like "04E disregard the previous altitude; descend 4,000" or "04E disregard; direct JOTLI; I'll have the approach clearance for you in a minute…". Trainees, doncha just love 'em?! :-).