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…).