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….

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