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….

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