December 17, 2009

Very IFR

Somewhere after the hold for the ILS RWY 29R missed-as-published at Stockton (KSCK) we hear our NorCal Approach controller advise someone on air that she doesn't have the weather for Tracy (KTCY, fairly close to Stockton) at the moment, but right now it's "Very IFR" at Stockton. Righter K., my safety pilot in the right seat, comments that he hasn't heard it put that way before — it's definitely an oddly-non-standard way for a controller to phrase it.

But she's right in spirit, even if she's not using standard phraseology — it is very IFR out here, at least close to the ground. We've just gone missed for real — as in not a training exercise — at minimums for the second time in a row this evening at Stockton. It's one of those weirdo Central Valley winter nights: warm air with unlimited visibility above about 1,000' for literally hundreds of miles around us, but an impenetrable cold ground fog (a.k.a. "Tule fog") with tops at 450' going all the way to the ground. We know miles out from Stockton from ATIS and the various hints being dropped to us and other aircraft by ATC ("Stockton 29R RVR now 800, ceiling indefinite") that we'll have to go missed at Stockton, but as a Part 91 flight on an IFR flight plan, it just seems like a great opportunity to shoot a couple of real-world approaches to minimums in otherwise very benign conditions.

So that's what we do, with the RNAV RWY 29R approach (full pilot nav, just to get the thrill of watching the C172's G1000 do the course reversal automatically in conjunction with the autopilot), followed by the ILS with vectors. The descent into the fog layer's typically fantastic but brief; I can probably log about 90 seconds of actual for this flight :-). Otherwise the weather's California Perfect: calm, cool-but-not-cold, very clear, and just generally why-we-fly. Righter K. keeps me honest during the non-IMC bits, and thankfully doesn't spend too much time screaming "we're all going to die!!!" or anything like that (thanks, Righter!). All in all, a very enjoyable flight, even if I do start rather rustily ("what the hell does this button do?!"), miss a few en-route radio calls, and end up landing way long back at Oakland after a rather fast final on the RNAV RWY 27L (LPV) approach under the hood. A good IFR systems workout; just what I needed.

* * *

Earlier, I discover that the relevant club paperwork hasn't been left in the drop box outside the (closed-for-the-night) clubhouse. I suspect the damn thing's inside the clubhouse having been dropped off inside by the previous flight (instead of being left in the drop box), but I can't get into the club to retrieve it. But I can see John sitting in one of the club meeting rooms with a bunch of students. He can't see me out in the dark, of course, so I call his iPhone, but he's not answering. I contemplate knocking on the windows to attract attention, but think the better of this until Righter turns up. After trying to call John once more, we hit the windows. John's look is priceless, is all I'll say :-). Anyway, thanks John for rescuing us and letting us retrieve the paperwork, without which, of course, no airplane can fly.

November 16, 2009

Dang It Jim...

Just another night VFR flight through gorgeously-clear and eerily-still night skies to Livermore (KLVK) and back, with a bunch of stop-and-goes for landing practice at Livermore (one of my all-time fave landing practice airports) and a wide excursion up to San Pablo Bay for … well, for fun, I guess. Unusually, I'm on my own — I haven't been able to blackmail anyone into accompanying me this time — and it definitely feels a little odd with no one in the right seat, whether co-pilot, safety pilot, passenger, or sightseeing relative.

Just as I'm calling NorCal Approach for the return home to Oakland (KOAK), I hear on frequency:
"Uh, Norcal, Southwest xyz, can I have that frequency for Oakland again please?"
"Dang it, Jim!"
(Short delay)
"Southwest xyz, that was 128.7..."
And just another late evening on the ramp back at Oakland, the fields of steady red, blue, green, and white lights, the flashing lights and movement, the Coast Guard flight practicing approaches, the noise of the Pilatus PC12 that followed me in on the visual going into beta on 27R, a brightly-lit Gulfstream being readied for departure near Kaiser, the Amflight Navajo weedwhacker taxiing along taxiway Charlie … and my old nemesis again (again! The damn thing's always there…), the unmarked white Justice Department MD-80 on the Kaiser ramp preparing for departure, ringed by ostentatiously-armed men in dark uniforms watching me taxi past. I can almost imagine the pilots waving cheerily at me as I taxi by ("Oh him again! Didn't we run into him off 27R a couple of years ago?!" :-)).

I should do more of this sort of thing, but I never seem to find the time.

October 06, 2009

Keeping The World Safe For Democracy

Once again I have to renew my Oakland airport security badge, and once again the actual process is much less irritating or Kafkaesque than I imagine it will be beforehand. This time, the whole thing's over in less than twenty minutes (no queuing! no paperwork! validated parking!), and I walk out of Oakland's badging office with yet another shiny new badge that certifies me safe for democracy, or safe from democracy, or whatever, whenever I'm on the ramp or movement areas. And once again, the Port staff are efficient, friendly, and, above all, good-humoured. Which really helps...

September 29, 2009

An Evening Of (Fun!) Failure

California Airways G1000 Simulator at KHWD

Somewhere just past GULLS waypoint on the RNAV RWY 25 approach into Rio Vista (O88), in thick day IMC, the G1000 GPS fails. Not just a GPS1 or GPS2 failure, or a RAIM failure, but a full GPS system failure. Perhaps the satellites have all just been shot out of the sky or something? Who knows? All I know is that the autopilot's making an unpleasant repeated "disconnect!" noise, and the HSI annotation is "GPS DR", i.e. dead reckoning. Time for plan B. First things first: are all the other instruments and comms OK (or at least plausibly still working)? Will the autopilot work on plain old heading mode rather than the nav mode it was just on? Yes to the second question (I switch immediately); "unsure" to the first. Everything looks normal — no big red X's or anomalous values on the screens — so I assume it's just the GPS. Which I can probably handle. The plane flies on; it's only been a few seconds since I noted the failure, but it feels longer. We're just inside GULLS with a stable flyable aircraft, so I don't need to do anything immediately, but I'd better get my act together fairly soon.

What now? Well, I'm flying the (excellent, loggable, certified) G1000 simulator at California Airways again, so I have time to think a bit without hitting anything in real life, but it's still stressful. John remains poker-faced at the sim's meta-controls. He'd mentioned something about "a scenario" earlier; this is it, I guess.

My scribbled notes from when I picked up Travis's ATIS for Rio Vista (Rio Vista doesn't have its own AWOS for some reason) earlier indicate a 1000' ceiling. Not too bad, but I don't trust it (Travis is some distance from Rio Vista), and we're well above 1,000' at the moment. So I call NorCal Approach (i.e. John) and tell them we need to go missed as we've got a total GPS failure in IMC. "NorCal" doesn't sound too concerned and gives me vectors, a climb-and-maintain 3,000' altitude, and a "when able, direct Sacramento VOR". I acknowledge the instructions and set up the HSI and OBS and autopilot to get me SAC direct, then start climbing. Everything non-GPS still seems to be working (but I wouldn't put it past John to throw in something like an alternator failure at this point, so I keep a good eye out for any other failures). A few seconds later "NorCal" asks my intentions. I need time to think, so I respond with that old standby, "stand by".

The only other approach back into Rio Vista is the VOR/DME approach, but without GPS I don't have DME, and (unlike a few years ago when I did my checkride on this approach for real), there's no radials from Travis VOR to substitute for DME (Travis VOR was recently decommissioned). No going back, then. I ask "NorCal" whether there are any VFR airports in the vicinity; NorCal replies that the nearest airport reporting VFR conditions would be Klamath Falls (KLMT). I've driven to Klamath Falls several times; it's in Oregon, literally hours away from Rio Vista by car at 70MPH, and probably involves all sorts of mountain passes or high en-route altitudes to get there (John has that sort of dry sense of humour). I ask what the ATIS at Sacramento Executive (KSAC) is reporting; after a short delay I get the picture: KSAC's at absolute ILS minimums, but a) it at least has a working ILS, b) it's an approach I've flown many, many times in IMC and under the hood in real life; and c), it's relatively close. Oddly enough, KSAC ATIS (i.e. John) is reporting "ILS in use runway 2, circle to land runway 20", which wouldn't quite work given the reported weather, but never mind — I don't think I've ever heard KSAC ATIS without that phrase.

I request the KSAC ILS RWY 2 approach into Sacramento, get vectors for the localizer, and within a minute or two things feel more-or-less routine. Plain old GPS failure is not, after all, any sort of emergency (or shouldn't be), just an annoyance. I can remember how to set up for the ILS and the missed approach manually, and at least the autopilot still works well enough for my purposes (flying this sim is a lot harder than flying a C172 in real life, and it's especially difficult to hand-fly smoothly by instruments alone). I join the localizer and a little later intercept the glideslope, then get handed off to Executive tower. Piece of cake! Then I notice the alternator's failed. And the engine seems to be losing power. What had John said earlier about slow power loss? There's no carb heat in this plane (I don't think I've flown a plane with a carburetor for years), but aha! I hit the auxiliary / electric fuel pump. The engine returns to normal again, gratifyingly quickly. I call "tower" and tell them I've had an electrical failure in IMC. Do I want to declare an emergency, they ask? I guess so — I have thirty minutes of battery power from this point, but with IMC widespread across the area, I'll probably need every minute of that time (at least) if I have to go missed. I turn off inessential electrical gear. I report passing EXEC, the ILS LOM (it's still in use, unlike RORAY, the old familiar KOAK LOM), and prepare for a down-to-minimums approach. I just know I'll have to go missed — a dingo on the runway, a huge squall line across the airport, fire in the localizer transmitter hut, an outbreak of sudden-onset ebola in the control tower, something like that from deep within the simulator — and resign myself to remembering how to do a hold manually (a hold I've done manually many times in real life, but — as I keep whining — the sim's a lot harder to fly gracefully and smoothly than the Real Thing).

But no — about 50' above decision altitude the runway approach lighting becomes visible, and a few seconds later I'm on the ground. Cool! This is the stuff good simulators are made for….

* * *

Just one in a whole string of failures this evening, all of them an education, most of them really enjoyable: alternator failures, a complete engine failure on departure, the total GPS failure, a combined nav 2 / comms 2 / GPS 2 failure, a pitot failure, a fuel pump failure… some in combination, some on their own, and all in IMC. Again, this sort of thing is just what the G1000 simulator's for — and just what I needed. All of the worst failures were mine: forgetting to get the emergency checklist out, forgetting to turn the auxiliary fuel pump on the first time the main one failed, not recognizing from instruments alone that the engine had just failed (the sound on the sim was off), being too hesitant in making major decisions, getting a critical approach altitude wrong, etc. But that's the whole point, I guess: get the failures out of the way now rather than in real IMC. In any case, I didn't do so badly that I'd have crashed in real life, and I also got to "fly" the new 200' minimums RNAV approach into Marysville (KMYV), which, despite the excessive approach plate small print, is easy to fly and (hopefully) portends more 200' minimums LPV approaches around here.

Unfortunately it sounds like the sim may be moved to a different location in the next few weeks, which would make it difficult for me to get to. This particular sim has been a godsend in many ways for IFR currency and proficiency training for me, and I'll be really sad to see it go (if it goes). We shall see….

September 23, 2009

A Potpourri

A potpourri of an evening, aimed at keeping me VFR- and club-current, and especially night-current, with John in the right seat on a short hop to Tracy (KTCY) and back. Not much to report here about the actual flying bits (except just how soberingly bad the first landing and time around the pattern was; at least by the third time around I was able to do a smooth and successful night soft-field landing and takeoff without prompting); but as always, the Bay from above at night returning over the hills into Oakland was breathtaking, and the Oakland airport environment itself the usual enchanting mixture of the mundane, the bizarre, and the sublime.

I won't say which was which, but the sights ran the gamut from the Texas Rangers 757 standing on the apron near the old Alaskan hangar, the Kaiser 737 wedged into a space right next to the fuel pumps causing me to wind my way around the orange markers to get refueled without hitting the plane's tail, one of the local Piaggios doing (loud and wide) pattern work (at great expense, I'd guess), the Coast Guard helicopters doing night-vision practice work around and over a darkened runway 27L (no lights at all), and, of course, the usual familiar feeling of standing on the ramp in the dark surrounded by lights and sounds and movement.

Back in the Oakland Flyers club house, Lou makes fun of John and my dueling iPhones. An occupational hazard for nerdy hi-tech flying amateurs like me, I guess. All my flying nowadays involves direct physical interaction with computers much smarter than even the biggest computers available in the university computing lab when I was an electrical engineering student; even the iPhone comes into the equation for every flight now. Not complaining, mind you (too much of a nerd for that); on the whole it's a great improvement for almost all the flying I do.

July 27, 2009

Just What I Needed

Dusk Refueling, Oakland Airport North Field

SOP, in my experience: NorCal Approach seems to like having you hurtle towards Napa's localizer 36L at (at least) 5,000' over the Bay, with little hints that you'll get lower Real Soon Now. I should bloody well hope so: we're hurtling (in that rather slow and steady way that little C172s hurtle, anyway) towards the localizer at 5,000', and if we don't get lower soon, we'll turn onto that same localizer just outside LYLLY at 5,000' on a segment with a 1,800' minimum, with (quite literally) only a handful of miles to get to sea level for the runway. We get 1,000' lower on the hand-off to Oakland Center, but that doesn't help much; I turn onto the localizer just as Center clears us for the approach with a rapid-fire set of instructions and sends me to Napa tower. Down we go; I calculate we'll need something like a 1,200+ fpm descent to make it, and program that in. Not something I'd enjoy in hard IMC, that's for sure, but since it's a nice sunny fog-coming-through-the-Golden-Gate VFR day, and Evan H. is sitting in the right seat as safety pilot, I let it rip. We get down in time, (barely), and successfully start the circle-to-land for 18R.

Just one of the many enjoyable little perils of the quick IFR flight to Napa (KAPC), I guess. I really like a filed-IFR flight there as a real-world work out because you don't get a lot of leisure time (just one damn thing after another, often enough, especially with the crossing traffic arriving at Oakland or departing San Francisco), it's a short (read: relatively cheap) flight, and it almost always involves a constant stream of ATC requests (vectors, altitude, speed, frequencies) ending in a rushed approach (RNAV or localizer, usually) into an airport I know well from years of visits. Oh, and the trip itself is very, very scenic (not that I'd know that under the Cone Of Stupidity, of course). Unusually, this time instead of going missed and back to Center to do the missed-as-published and have a go at (say) the VOR approach (and unintentionally tie up the airspace around us for billions of miles because we forget to cancel IFR), I decide we'll do the full stop and taxi back for some pattern work. I don't really need too much IFR practice (I'm good until November, at least legally), but my VFR airwork could do with some brushing up.

Tower has us circle west at circling minimums for right traffic on 18R, and almost immediately clears us for the option, telling us to follow a Bonanza that's crossing mid-field above and in front of us for the same runway; he'll land well before we do, if it's a typical Bonanza. It all looks good to me. But that Bonanza — part of the JAL ab initio training facility at Napa, I suspect — stays high and very very (very) wide (don't get me started…), and I have to veer well to my left and slow right down to stop myself from getting ahead of him. Then I think "dammit — let's request the short approach. I can be off the runway before he's turned base at this rate…". Unfortunately tower's preoccupied with something else and doesn't respond immediately, but in the end I get the short approach to 18L anyway and cross well in front of the Bonanza; I'm off 18L before the Bonanza's anywhere near short final. Where had he been all that time?!

18L's a much smaller runway than 18R; it's where I did a lot of my initial PP-ASEL pattern work and landing practice, because it's a nice short(ish) runway surrounded by flat land, not too far from home base (Oakland then and now). I really enjoy doing precision landing work on 18L, and the next five or so landings are a real blast (it helps that I had a steady 16 knot headwind straight down the runway, but never mind). At one point tower asks me whether I want the right instead of 18L; I respond with something like "nah, we'll stay on the left — it's more of a challenge…". She replies "well, it looks like you're doing a great job from up here!". My ego just about bursts, but I can't help blurting out that she's probably jinxed the rest of my pattern work with that sort of praise.

Amazingly enough, though, with the exception of some mild ballooning when I tried to be too clever landing back on Oakland's (long) 27L, the pattern work and landings were well within expectation. Just the sort of practice I needed, I think, and the short hop home (with a clearance for the ILS 27R back into Oakland with the side-step onto 27L for an incoming Amflight Najavo on the right) was pleasingly routine and smoothly-executed.

Later, while refueling at Kaiser, I take a bunch of stealth pix of a Kaiser Air 737 sitting there behind us. Something about the soft light and angular geometries appealed to me a lot; the results are up there somewhere at the start of this post, I hope. Not a patch on Glenn's excellent work, but not too bad either for a rushed low-light pic.

* * *

Sometime during the pattern work at Napa a Beech Staggerwing makes an arrival and landing, but rather disappointingly we don't get to see it close up at all — they're supposed to be quite photogenic. Not as exciting as sharing the pattern at Livermore with a B17 and a B25, but still something that caught my attention.

Something else that caught my attention was the inevitable (and slightly ominous) reappearance of my old nemesis, the Justice Department MD-80 that plies that part of North Field at that sort of time of day, as we were sitting in the runup area off 27R. This time it was departing, it was broad daylight, and Ground kept us well separated, but as John's recent posting on Oakland's Bermuda Triangle argues, you have to keep a sharp lookout and think on your feet in this part of the world at the moment. Not coincidentally, that Bermuda Triangle is a place he and I had to take evasive action in a few months ago to avoid being run over by more than one large aircraft due to what was probably a ground controller losing the plot or simply not caring; I still don't know which. I think my account of what happened that evening is remarkably restrained, in retrospect….

June 29, 2009

Flying Debris

There's this weird sign just outside my studio window this morning. I'm not too sure what it could really mean in the context of my neighbourhood in Lovely Industrial East Oakland (we're not quite under any of the normal VFR or IFR departure or arrival paths for Oakland airport (KOAK), a few minutes' drive to the left down the road in the picture), but it kinda felt appropriate for this blog. I haven't been able to keep it up to date nearly as much as I'd like lately, mostly due to a relentless product release schedule at my day job and plain laziness on my part, so it's mostly just debris at the moment. I doubt that it's dangerous debris, but you never know.

Yes, I've been flying, most memorably a great flight down to San Luis Obispo (KSBP) and back with Evan H. a few weeks ago for the legendary hundred dollar hamburger, sharing flight duty and getting quite a lot of real and under-the-hood IFR flying in (well, Evan got all the real IMC; I had to make do with the cone of stupidity for a couple of hours). A lot of great scenery (that's a rugged part of the world, especially around Big Sur), generally benign weather conditions (if a little unusual for coastal California at this time of the year), and (as usual), some pretty good diner food from The Spirit Of San Luis at KSBP (right next to the ramp!).

As penance for my laziness, I've cobbled together a short video from the trip. Nothing special (and it turned out it was actually bumpier than either of us had realised, making a lot of the more interesting video footage useless), and not always entirely coherent, but it was a lot more fun than doing some of the pro videos I have to do now and then. If you've got a late-model Quicktime player and broadband, try this link; otherwise, try this one. If neither of them work, oh well, you probably don't have a Quicktime player for your browser… (or you don't have the patience to wait for it all to download). Oh, and it has a soundtrack, so don't be surprised if it suddenly starts blaring away while you're surreptitiously trying to watch it at work….

* * *

A few words about my fave useful iPhone app, ForeFlight Mobile (yes, I've reviewed it before on YAFB, and I'm even quoted on ForeFlight's site, but I'm not connected with the ForeFlight people, honest :-) )…. ForeFlight did much of the grunt work for the flight back from San Luis (the legs when I was PIC) — including IFR flight plan filing and a great deal of on-the-apron weather checking, not to mention NOTAM listing and much more. I'm finding this thing indispensable; not quite an EFB, but Pretty Damn Good at its intended uses.

I've only very rarely ever talked to FSS, either in person (when that was still possible), or on the phone (I've had online DUATS access since I was a student), but it's kinda ironic that I now file flight plans and get weather and airport info, NOTAMS, etc., through my phone. Just not by talking to a human with that phone….

May 18, 2009

Around and About (Still Alive!)

Given the somnolent state of this blog, my few readers probably wonder whether I'm actually still alive or not, but never fear: as of this morning, the FAA has again certified my aliveness (if not my alertness at that time of the morning), and it's really only the high price of flying and the recession's grip on me and the local economy that's kept me from being more active. In any case, as with last time, my medical got renewed without fuss or bother, and the whole visit to the medical examiner was an enjoyable experience (as unlikely as that sounds — I've been using the same AME for a decade, and he's quite a character…).

In other flying-related news I helped shepherd a friend of mine's two-year-old kid through the Hiller Aviation Museum at San Carlos Airport (KSQL) over the weekend, which was a lot of fun (he's way too young to actually come flying, but he already likes airplanes and seems to have a good idea what they are for a two-year-old). When the Aviatrix had coffee with me in Berkeley a few years ago she'd just come up from visiting the Hiller herself, and her description of the place made me want to visit some time (like so many local pilots I've done dozens of touch and goes at San Carlos airport without ever stopping there, let alone visiting the museum). For a variety of dumb reasons every time I'd planned on going there the visit got canceled, but yesterday seemed like a good day, so off we finally went (it helps that it's mostly indoors in air-conditioned modernity, given that yesterday was wiltingly hot, by far the hottest day of the year around here so far).

Even with Aviatrix's description, I was unprepared for how good it was in reality: it's a sign of something, at least, that while at most aviation museums I can identify maybe 80% of the planes and gear (at least approximately), I couldn't do better than about 40% at the Hiller. Even more enjoyable (especially with kids in tow) was the way you could sit in and play with various real cockpits — a 747, a 737, an ex-Blue Angels F-something-or-other (wish I'd noted it down…), etc., and a bunch of hands-on simulators and other working displays. It's very different in size and focus from somewhere like Castle Air Museum, another local(ish) museum I like a lot, and I'd thoroughly recommend it for kids and adults of almost any age. They even have a little raised platform right next to the museum near the west side of the runway that you can stand on to watch the local air traffic in the pattern or on the runways and taxiways (and, of course, that's exactly what we did, regardless of the heat and glare).

I think one of the high points for me was buying a soft Southwest 737 plush toy that Alex, the kid, immediately took to heart, and apparently cuddled all night. It seemed kind of appropriate given Oakland's role as one of Southwest's main hubs, and the number of Southwest 737's flying past his place that he sees every day. He certainly seemed to know what the fuzzy purple-and-orange 737 was :-).

May 12, 2009

Real Enough

It was a dark and stormy night… I'm sitting in a nice G1000-equipped Cessna 172 on runway 15 at Martin State airport (KMTN), ready for takeoff. It's night time, and there are flashes of lightning illuminating the runway every ten seconds or so. Sitting there I reflect that a dozen or more years ago I sailed the Chesapeake — somewhere out there in the impenetrable darkness a few hundred metres off the departure end of the runway I'm on — for a week on a small sailboat based near Baltimore. Somewhere I still have the Approaches to Baltimore Harbor maritime chart that advises mariners to contact Martin State tower on VHF channel 16 if they'll be transiting the area off the end of the runway and they have a mast or superstructure higher than about 36'. I knew I'd heard of this place before.

More flashes of lightning. Good thing this isn't for real — I'm sitting at the California Airways certified G1000 sim again — but the pre-takeoff tension I always feel on IMC departures feels real enough. For me the transition to IMC out of visual flying immediately after takeoff is always by far the hardest part of real-world IFR flying, mostly because you're typically still getting a feeling for everything at that point — aircraft trim, ATC requests, slightly-unfamiliar instrument layout, orientation, etc. — and in cases like mine, you're a little rusty (I'm sure this is less a problem for the well-practiced out there). At least when you hit IMC on an approach or in cruise your aircraft is (hopefully!) well-trimmed, you're comfortable with the instruments, you've had time to get familiar with things, etc. (in fact, descent into benign IMC in those conditions is something I absolutely love).

John releases me into the void, and the sim gets gratuitously nasty by giving me a pretty realistic-looking bird strike on the way out, smack bang in the middle of the windshield. Talk about topical…. Never mind — on with the show. John repositions me away from the airport, and I dig up the charts for the selected approach: the Martin State (KMTN) VOR/DME OR TACAN Z RWY 15 approach. Take a look at it sometime — you'll see why John's chosen it for this evening's IFR currency workout. The approach is a continuous DME arc that ends at the runway, aligned with the centerline. Cool! Not in itself particularly difficult, but you need to keep pretty much exactly 14.7 DME from Baltimore VOR as you approach the threshold or you'll miss the runway; and DME arcs, while not difficult, can be demanding in cases like this, especially when carried on for a full 90 degrees or so — in a dark and stormy night.

I'm actually most interested in how the G1000 + GFC700 autopilot will handle the arc (I can fly a DME arc fairly well on my own), so when the sim can't find the approach in its database, I'm mildly irritated, but decide to press on regardless, using the raw OBS and DME display against Baltimore VOR, and hand-flying the last few miles. Nothing too strenuous, for sure, and it turns out to be a lot of fun, with a mild mental work out here and there, and it's gratifying to be at 14.7 DME when the runway comes into view just above the MDA. I land, surrounded the sort of weather I'd normally run screaming from in the air or on the Chesapeake, and we suspend the sim to prep the next approach.

* * *

The rest of the "flight" goes well — smoothly and without incident, at least. We'd started with the ILS into Oakland's runway 29 (only because I'll probably never fly it in real life, even though it's my home airport, because I don't really want to pay the landing fee :-)), then Oakland's RNAV 27L as an LPV approach (something I do in real life regularly), then the long arc into Martin State (above). And then — for light relief — the Silver City, Arizona (KSVC) LOC/DME RWY 26 approach which has DME arcs to the localizer from a couple of the outer IAFs. This time the approach is in the database, and I watch with my usual sense of amazement as the G1000 simply flies the plane around the arc smoothly with the autopilot coupled. Well, nothing's ever quite that smooth in the world of sims (otherwise what would be the point?), but nothing went horribly wrong, and, as always, I learned a lot about systems management and the devil lurking in the odd approach detail here or there. Plus it's a fair bit cheaper at the moment than going out in a real G1000 C172…

April 04, 2009

The Legacy

Argh! I was originally supposed to have written and posted something here late February (yes, months ago)… but I got caught up in a product release at my day job, then came down with a persistent bronchitis / sore throat / sinus infection / cold thing that went on forever, and now have to prepare for a small conference in Vegas on top of the product release and all the rest (including my six week photo show at the local coffee place).

So I'll keep it brief: yes, I've flown, but just barely. The most memorable flying bits of the past few months were a night VFR flight with John to get my BFR out of the way and to get club-legal and club-current again where we barely managed to avoid being run over by a series of planes (including a very expensive-looking and rather large Legacy Jet) because it seemed Oakland's North Field ground controller simply wasn't listening to what we were telling her (and seemed to have lost the plot completely at one stage), and where we witnessed yet another screamingly-loud and anti-social bizjet departure off runway 27R (with an almost-vertical departure until it throttled right back at a few hundred feet and disappeared into the night towards Alameda). At least it wasn't the Justice Department MD80 bearing down on me this time, even though I could actually (and quite eerily) hear it on-air in the background approaching across the other end of 27R from where we were as Ground kept unerringly routing planes on the ground (and in the air!) towards us as we were sitting there on taxiways charlie and juliet trying to get to and depart from runway 33. We had to take our own evasive action (and flash our lights repeatedly) a couple of times in the ten minutes or so it took to taxi out to the runway and actually depart for San Pablo Bay. All this in an admittedly-busy but tightly-controlled airport ground environment that until a year or two ago always seemed competently and thoughtfully controlled. Oh well.

Argh. It'd be nice to fly again sometime, but work (and the need to keep a job…) keeps getting in the way. I hope to do some more G1000 sim work in the near future, but We Shall See — low-level Java socket and channel programming sounds more likely for the next month or so….

January 29, 2009

Lights On, Nobody Home

It's a perfect night for some VFR flying, and we're taking good advantage of it: the Bay's spread out 3,000' below us, San Francisco and Marin to our left, Berkeley and Richmond below us, Concord and Walnut Creek to the right, and Vallejo, Benecia and Napa in front of us. It's a calm night, and relatively warm for a winter's night (no scraping the ice off these planes, that's for sure…), it's a good break from preparing for my photo exhibition, and for me it's the end of the longest period without being in the left seat of an actual airplane as PIC in the decade since I got my license (I blame money and too many other damn things going on in my life at the moment). Part of the point of flying tonight is to get me back into VFR (and club) currency (I'm easily IFR current due to sim work), and to start the WINGS thing for BFR currency (I'll explain this in a later posting). We decide to head out VFR for Napa (KAPC) for general VFR practice and night landing work, something I'm looking forward to a lot, as I don't fly VFR much nowadays, and any night flight in clear weather over the Bay is just magic.

Somewhere over Richmond we can see Napa's rotating beacon in the distance, but not much else. No runway lighting, just the rather dark airport area surrounded by urban light that's in more-or-less the right place for Napa. We get the frequency change from NorCal Approach and pick up Napa's ATIS. It sounds a little odd for the still, clear, calm night, but I don't think much of it — nothing too odd, just windier on the surface than I'd have expected. It's claiming runway 24 is the main operating runway, which is plausible, but I'd have expected 18R given the time of day. Then John (sitting in the right seat as instructor this evening) notes what I'd missed: the ATIS is something like six hours old. None of the ATIS's around here are ever more than an hour old unless there's something wrong; I should have picked this up, but the weather's so benign and ATIS didn't have anything terribly interesting to say that I basically heard what I wanted to hear. Coupled with the total lack of runway lighting in what's supposed to be a towered airport with a tower open until well after we'll be finished our practice work there, things seem a little odd. I look up Napa again in my Blue Book, wondering whether they've changed tower hours. Nope. There were certainly no NOTAMs about early closing on DUATS or Forelfight when I'd checked just before startup. We switch to tower frequency — it's deathly quiet, which isn't all that unusual, I guess. John remarks that maybe they've had to leave early and forgotten to switch ATIS to the standard after-hours ASOS re-broadcast on ATIS frequencies (which usually contains a small announcement about the tower being closed until the morning).

In any case I try calling tower to see what happens. No response. I'm suspicious of the lack of runway lights — I can't help feeling I'm missing something, maybe we're heading for the wrong place — so John suggests I treat them as PCL's (pilot controlled lighting), and I dutifully click the lights on from maybe eight miles out on Napa's tower / CTAF frequency. Voila! The runways come into very clear view against the dark background. I still think it's odd that the tower's apparently out, but never mind, on with the show. I broadcast our position and intentions on tower frequency as though it were a CTAF, and continue inbound for runway 24. At maybe five miles out I try to contact Napa tower once again, mostly out of a sense of duty, and because it'll be the last chance before hitting Napa's class D airspace if indeed tower's actually open. Miraculously, this time there's a response. A very quiet, crackly response, and one that I couldn't read at all, but a response. I assume it's another aircraft on CTAF, and transmit accordingly. This time I can just pick out the response, and, mirabile dictu, it's Napa tower. Sounding like they're using a hand-held and just woke up, but never mind, it's still Napa tower. She instructs me to join a left pattern for 18R, clears me for touch and goes, and tells me to make a standard right closed pattern for further work. This all sounds more normal to me. She tells us the wind's calm. ATIS still says it's quite windy; ATIS is still hours out of date.

As we join the pattern for 18R, and still the only aircraft on frequency, John asks Tower about the ATIS and the lights. The controller doesn't comment on the PCL Thing, and claims that the ATIS isn't nearly six hours old, and that it'll be updated again in a few minutes. Hmmm, okay….

We do a bunch of practice landings, short approaches, etc., over the next twenty minutes or so, and the controller's generally on-the-ball and competent (Napa Tower usually has good controllers in it which is one reason I really enjoy doing practice work there), and except for the terrible quality of the radio she's using, we forget the earlier confusion until the bloody runway lights go off suddenly as I'm on short final. Dammit, I think, and quickly click the lights back on from the left seat as I cross the threshold. What's going on? I don't bother asking this time.

We decide to depart back to Oakland, and get routed straight out over the Bay, as usual. On the way out, a mile or two off the departure end of 18R, we monitor ATIS. It's now something like seven hours old, still claims runway 24 is in use, and still claims that it's really quite windy. And that it's early afternoon locally.

Hmmm, is all I'll say here.

* * *

Later, after a bit of fun airwork over San Pablo Bay, we head back to Oakland for some more landing practice — touch and goes, full stops, short approaches, etc. — on 27L. Nothing that I can't do without a bit of coaching from John, and overall a lot of fun; as I've said, it's a beautiful clear still night, and there are few things around here more visually interesting than a large airport at night.

So after an hour or two of flying, we put the plane back in the hangar and debrief. Just as I'm locking up, I somehow walk straight into the wing strut and nearly knock myself flat. Not unconscious, but painful, at least. I guess it's a sign of how little I've flown this plane lately that I just didn't think about the strut. Oh well; days later my head still hurts where it's bruised….

* * *

Earlier, as we're taxiing next to Oakland's 27R for runup and departure, we hear a Citation cleared for takeoff on 27R, and a few seconds after it roars past us we hear an on-air request from another pilot (in a Caravan) for the Citation's tail number. The controller gives it out with a crisp professional-sounding flourish. The back story here is that Oakland's North Field, especially runways 27, have stringent noise reduction policies due to the good burghers of Alameda settling just across the water under the departure ends of those runways, and that policy is pretty clear about not using 27R for turbine departures in these circumstances. ATC can't forbid these departures, even if they're pretty good at spelling out on-air the policy when someone asks for a "forbidden" departure, and it's basically up to the rest of us to try to bring pressure to bear so that anti-social departures don't end up closing the entire North Field. Departing 27R instead of the South Field's 29 is surely somewhat quicker if you're taxiing from Kaiser (the main FBO), but the costs to the rest of us (not to mention to Alameda…) make this a deeply unpopular act with some of us locals…. Not sure how this played out in the end, but I can't help noting that a rather well-known local who routinely did screamingly-loud departures off runway 33 straight out over San Leandro Bay and Alameda in a Citation came to a very sticky end on the other side of the country in that same Citation. Nothing to do with the departures themselves, of course, but the attitude may have had something to do with it.

January 25, 2009

And Now For Something Completely Different…

I haven't been flying much lately, in some ways because of this — a show I've got coming up next month that I've spent way too much time preparing for (if I see another mat I have to cut or frame I have to glaze I think I'll scream). If you're in the Bay Area on Friday Feb 6, you're invited to the informal opening reception 5-7pm at Kefa Coffee (a nice local coffee shop / cafe near my studio in East Oakland). Details here…. I'll probably be the only person there who doesn't look like an artist (well, I guess I don't look like a pilot, either, for that matter).

(I might actually escape to get to do some flying in the next few days; we shall see…)