September 25, 2010

Hot And High

It's another hot Central Valley day out there; this time, though, I'm in the right seat as safety pilot for Evan. He's under the hood as we approach Linden VOR (LIN) for the VOR/DME RWY 1 approach into Westover Field / Amador County Airport (KJAQ, a.k.a. "Jackson"). I briefly look over the approach plate and make fun of Evan for picking what looks like the easiest approach in the state. About the only thing that's even mildly interesting about it is the note that says use Sacramento Executive's altimeter setting if you can't get the local one — but KSAC's something like 35 miles away and in a different sort of physical environment altogether. I guess the 300' MDA penalty takes care of that, but in any case we've got the local AWOS on COM 2 and it's not just giving us the altimeter settings and all the usual boring stuff about wind and ceilings, etc., it's giving us the local FBO's Avgas and Jet-A prices! And damn they're cheap, at least compared to home (Oakland, KOAK) or a lot of other places in the area. Pity we don't need fuel.

We get to Linden VOR and turn to the final approach course. It's hot dry country down there, shimmering golden-brown Sierra foothills studded with green oaks and the occasional man-made lake or reservoir under the relentless California sun. Classic gold rush country. We've been cleared for the practice approach some time ago, and we're turned over to CTAF quite early. It's the usual Central Valley mass of incoherent, inconsistent, or hapless calls and stepped-on transmissions from the usual distant suspects like Gnoss (KDVO) and Tracy (KTCY) and much (much) further away, but there's no sign of anyone on air at Jackson itself. We potter on along the approach course at a steady 3,000' MSL, past the LIN 8 DME fix and towards the LIN 15 DME fix. We both think it's kinda quaint (or at least unusual) to be doing a VOR approach, let alone one without a GPS overlay (I was kinda surprised to see it existed at all when Evan mentioned that'd be the approach we'd do). There's no doubt that this is a straightforward approach, even if it's a VOR approach — in fact it's one of those approaches without even a published procedure turn, and whose missed approach notes just basically tell you to turn around and backtrack twenty-something nautical miles to Linden VOR, at which point … well, what? That's where the missed instructions end.

I can see the runway from about five miles out, and we debate whether to do a circling approach to runway 19 or a straight in to runway 1. The AWOS claims a very mild wind favouring runway 1, but we actually have a slight tailwind at 3,000'. We decide on the straight in, especially since the runway's long enough that even if the density altitude is fairly high and there's a 2 knot tailwind, we'll be fine. Evan makes a few calls on CTAF, but all we hear is the staticky squeally babble from far away, and we potter on. Past the LIN 15 DME fix the runway and airport environment get clearer — the runway basically sags in the middle and it seems to be sitting on a small semi-wooded hill. Nothing terribly unusual for the California foothills, but you never know — a deer might dart out from nowhere or the hot wind might suddenly start gusting something terrible at ground level.

As we get closer I notice that Evan is still going along at 3,000'; my instincts tell me we need to start lower now, and I hint at the issue over the intercom. Nothing worrying, at least not yet, but that airport environment down there looks a little unforgiving if — like me, and like Evan — you've never even seen the place before, let along landed there. Evan's OK with the current altitude, and we potter on; the weather's hot as hell even up here, but there's really no wind at all. Still no one else on CTAF or (as far as I can see) in the pattern. A minute later we're still too high in my judgment, and this time I let Evan know a bit more forcefully. Still nothing too worrisome, but Evan mutters something and points the nose down while cutting back on the power.

We start descending, but maybe not enough — within another mile or so I tell Evan we're still high; he says he's working on it. We're bang on laterally — it's just the altitude that's off. We both notice simultaneously that the tailwind has strengthened quite a lot in the last few miles, and Evan again considers circling. I obsess more and more about the altitude, and say so out loud again. We approach at quite a high rate of speed, the runway looking more and more scary as we get closer. Evan starts counting the altitude down in hundreds; I start thinking we're going to have to go missed, but I stay quiet this time. At the MDA, Evan looks up — and swears. Yes, we're way high, very fast across the ground, and it's even hotter down here than either of us had expected. And the runway's almost beneath us. It takes Evan about a second to decide to go around and go missed, and we do what amounts to a low approach over the runway at full power, climbing in the heat, and announcing our broad intentions on CTAF. Good move, I say to Evan. He gets the plane re-trimmed and pointing in the right direction, then says he just hadn't realized how fast we'd been going across the ground (ATIS was no help here), and how much quicker he'd needed to descend. Hot and high, and no way he was going to land on a small unfamiliar hilly runway with a tailwind in this heat.

We go back to NorCal for our next destination. Not for the first time, I guess, I jinxed an approach by making fun of it; but this was definitely one of the few times I've been involved in a real unplanned missed approach. Quite a lesson.

* * *

The rest of the flight's another lesson — mostly in how to cope with the heat and glare of the Central Valley and at Mather (KMHR) after a perfect approach and landing there by Evan, and in trying to decipher ATC's true intentions on the way back into Oakland. At one stage on vectors for the practice ILS approach into Oakland in the left seat I get a string of conflicting and inconsistent altitude assignments (in quick succession, something like "maintain 4,000", "descend maintain 3,000", "at or above 3,000", "at or below 3,500", etc. — all altitudes quite unusual in my experience for where we are at the time), and, inevitably, a few minutes later by "83Y, what's your assigned altitude?". I have the immediate IFR pilot's reaction to this — horror that I've busted an altitude somewhere — but for once it's not a controller hint, it's a case of (I suspect) a controller getting his wires crossed and thinking we're someone else (also, we're actually VFR in Class E airspace at that point, but still…).

Back on the ground at Oakland, the Texas Rangers 757 is parked near Kaiser next to the old Alaska hangar; I guess it's here for the North American Men's Baseball Championships (a.k.a. "The World Series"). It's looking sleek and expensive there in the sun. Later, 83Y's hangar is shady but still hot, and we struggle to clean all the million or so squashed bugs off the leading edges (an inevitable part of flying above the Central Valley) and generally tidy things up. Evan's still wondering about the missed approach (a go-around, really), but there's not a lot to wonder about: he got it right in the bigger picture, and if the tailwind was a lot stronger than forecast or as observed on the ground, well, there are an awful lot worse things to do than going around when you look up at the MDA and don't see the runway where you think you should….

September 09, 2010

Not A Good Sign

There's a large column of smoke rising up in front of us somewhere in the distance across the Bay as we drive through Alameda. We're heading towards Oakland Airport (KOAK) for a short VFR fun flight; my passengers are N. (a colleague from work) and his girlfriend C., neither of whom have flown in small aeroplanes before (they're English (and I'm mostly British, dammit) so it's spelt that way just this once). At this stage and from this distance it looks like someone's burning industrial trash or something, or it's a brush fire in the hills, but I can't help mordantly joking it's probably a plane gone off the end of the runway at San Francisco (it's that British sense of humour, I guess). A few minutes later it's looking pretty serious; it's rising up a couple of thousand feet and spreading horizontally maybe a couple of miles at the top of the usual inversion. It's dark brown, and looks menacing and sinister. I start thinking it may actually be a plane crash — from here the smoke looks to be rising from just under the departure end of KSFO. Not a good sign. My passengers make nervous jokes about it; I point out that we see columns of smoke like that a fair bit around here, and that it's probably a small brush fire. These things happen in California.

We can't see the smoke from the ground while preflighting and running up the plane at Oakland, and basically forget about it. A local pilot's pushing his 182 back into one of the neighboring hangars, and we talk a while with him — he's just back from Burning Man and spent hours washing the plane trying to get the alkali salts and dust off the exterior (I don't envy him that job — one of the clubs I used to belong to basically banned their planes from going to Burning Man because of the dust, which clings tenaciously and corrodes very quickly…). N. and C. learn about the basics of clambering into and back out of our little 172, and how to use the intercom and headsets, and seem fine with the idea of trusting their lives to me and the plane. I think (like me) they're both nerds enough to be impressed by the G1000 system and the way it all works together. We get in, talk to Ground, request the Bay Tour, and take off after the runup off runway 27R. And there it is again — much larger this time, and looming over the area south of San Francisco (South City or San Bruno(ish)), with clearly visible flames at the base. It's not in an industrial neighborhood, so it's probably some sort of major house fire or something. I can't shake the idea that it's a plane gone in off KSFO — it's in just the right place for an errant departure or arrival.

Immediately we're switched to NorCal from Oakland Tower someone on-air asks the controller what the hell that smoke is — the controller responds with something about a burst gas main, and it all seems a lot less worrisome as we potter on towards the Bay Bridge, Alcatraz, Angel Island, the Golden Gate, etc., in perfect California weather. If it weren't for the periodic requests on air by planes coming on-frequency for information about the spreading smoke and flames, we'd probably forget the thing — there's just too much to see elsewhere, and my passengers are enjoying the view.

We circle the Golden Gate a couple of times, then head off towards Napa (KAPC) so we can swap seats — N.'s done his bit of flying and now C. wants to sit in the front. The landing at Napa's fun — it's getting dark and it's Just Another Boring Bay Area Sunset all around us — and Napa's empty and quiet. We stop at the runup area off runway 24 and C. gets in the front. We depart 24 out towards San Pablo Bay, and once we've departed Napa's airspace I let C. fly for maybe fifteen minutes. She enjoys it (more so than N.), and we do a bunch of turns and mild maneuvers in the darkness over the bay as she gets the feel for it all. She seems to enjoy this a lot, but we have to return to Oakland after about twenty minutes. I take the plane back and call NorCal.

And sure enough, within a minute, someone asks on-frequency what all the flames and smoke off San Francisco are all about… in the darkness, we've basically forgotten it all. We get the standard "Temple 2,5000, right downwind 27R" VFR instructions, and in the magic of flying above the lights of Richmond, Berkeley, Oakland, and other sundry places we forget it again. On final for 27R C. looks at the flashing lights and the runway lighting and says quietly "it's like a video game, isn't it…". It is. We land smoothly and taxi off to Kaiser to get fuel; over on 27L a Coast Guard helicopter is practicing lights-off short approaches and landings; there's a steady stream of light aircraft and freighters moving across the ground and in the air, visible mostly as just flashing abstract patterns. The whole airport often feels like a video game at this point. A few minutes later we're shutting down and hangaring the plane. N. and C. seem to have enjoyed the whole thing, and I got a fun VFR flight between the IFR workouts (which I don't seem to blog as much as I used to).

* * *

Hours later, back home, I can't help turning on the TV to see what the fire (which I'd mentally written off as fairly minor, if spectacular) was really all about. Not that minor at all: several deaths, large parts of a whole neighborhood up in flames. Not good news.