December 05, 2011

What Could Possiblie Go Wrong? (Rust Never Sleeps, Part 2)

Things are going quite well for me under the cone of stupidity on Yet Another Quest For Currency (the aviation sort, not the hard stuff I can use to get boutique bagels and exotic coffees down at the neighbourhood local). John's in the right seat, watching carefully. We've left Stockton (KSCK) behind after having successfully completed several approaches and landings in the still darkness of a Central Valley autumn night.

John's given me his iPad to play with on the next approach, the ILS into Livermore (KLVK), and it's working nicely with my new Dual XGPS150 GPS unit sitting up there on the dash. I've also got my little iPhone in my hand as I watch how well it works without coupling to the Dual (it'll only couple to one Bluetooth device at a time). Well, it does quite well, actually, and I feel pretty impressed with all the technology surrounding me (but it's really me doing all the real work, telling the G1000 what to do and such — well, that's what I like to tell myself). Suddenly I can't help it: "Siri! Set up a practice ILS 25R approach into Livermore from our current position, please!" Siri does nothing — either she's not listening, or she's as confused by my accent as everyone else is, and I revert to doing it all myself again. Oh well; I'm guessing we'll have to wait a few years before that'll work (and if you don't know who Siri is, this blog's probably not for you :-)).

Anyway, that's not the "what" that could possiblie go wrong in the title (diehard Simpsons fans will probably get the reference). What went wrong was the string of mostly weather-related cancellations and postponements that lead up to this flight — all sparked off (I'm absolutely certain) by my ending an earlier email to John with the words "what could possibly go wrong?". I'm just not the sharpest tool in the tool shed: one day I'll learn not to tempt fate like that. So what did go wrong? An example: we had to cancel our previous attempt when a howling gale caused by an unusually-strong high pressure system sitting somewhere over Utah was driving high-speed rivers of wind down over the Sierras and the coastal ranges towards the Pacific. As locals will know, this makes for unpleasant turbulence pretty much anywhere within sight of a mountain range or even hills (and there are ranges everywhere in California…). I looked up the winds on DUATS: 65 knots at 6,000 — a nice tailwind if you can get it, but we'd be going straight into it for at least half the flight, and that's a fierce source of rotors and bumps even over the Valley or in the lee of the Berkeley Hills (especially in the lee of the Berkeley Hills).

I might have been up for it even given all that, but my knee's still a bit iffy and I thought the better of it. So here we are, several non-existent flights later (I'll spare you the details of the other delays and cancellations).

The ILS into Livermore goes reasonably well — I'm getting better with practice — and we do the low approach past the tower over 25R when I come out from under the hood. Woohoo! (I always feel like doing a victory roll on low approaches — a hangover from my aerobatics days — but I know better, honestly). And now it's off to Oakland for the ILS 27R approach back home….

This goes fairly well as well, but we get the slam onto the localiser from somewhere between GROVE and UPACI intersections, and I can barely bring myself to program in the required 1,100 fpm descent to capture the glideslope from below. We just don't get low enough, and in the end I take over and hand fly the last few minutes (which kinda negated the point of this approach — it was supposed to be about managing the G1000. Oh well). The landing on 27R goes well (they've all gone well tonight, which was pleasing after all the time off from flying) and we taxi back to the Port-A-Ports.

* * *

Yes, I'm current again — but still a bit rusty. There's a touch of the old death grip creeping back to haunt my control of the plane, and my radio work definitely needs some polishing, but overall, this flight went basically as planned, despite all the preceding hiccups. We started it by taking off from Oakland's runway 9L, a bit of a treat for me: the winds nearly always favour one of the 27's, and I hadn't taken off from 9L for literally years, and we ended it an hour or two later with me feeling fairly OK about my flying, especially the landings and the big-picture procedural issues on the approaches. My hand flying on one of the approaches was definitely a little agricultural, but hey, I can't do everything.

* * *

Earlier, while prepping the flight I do due diligence with DUATS and notice the following NOTAM:

MSA WITHIN 25 NM OF ECA VOR/DME, 070-160 3000, 160-250 5300,
250-340 3400, 340-070 4200.

Hmmm, I think — what the hell does that mean? It basically seems to mean there's simply no way to do my fave ILS for currency at the moment. But why make the approach unavailable that way? Why not just NOTAM the entire approach N/A? I ask John — he's not entirely sure what the FAA's thinking with this either, so I decree that we'll just do the RNAV 29R approach out there instead. It's all flying to me….

October 26, 2011

Comments, We Have Comments… Somewhere

Yes, several readers sent in comments over the past few months and somehow I missed or mishandled a lot of them, meaning they either just got published a few minutes ago, or they just got deleted a few weeks ago. Argh! I'm sorry about that — I'm supposedly both blog- and computer-literate.

I can't even handle blog comments correctly but they let me fly an ILS to minimums with passengers?! Hmmm.

October 19, 2011

Rust Never Sleeps

On the LOC RWY 36L missed approach out of Napa (KAPC) I go back under the Cone Of Stupidity, tell tower we've gone missed, then get back to Oakland Center to tell them what we're planning, all while twiddling the relevant knobs on the G1000 to get me to the hold as published at Scaggs Island VOR (SGD) and setting up the autopilot for the climb and hold. I start feeling a bit better about what has so far been a rusty flight, with shaky radio work and somewhat iffy flying. Worse than either of those, though, was that I'd been distracted at a crucial time while prepping the approach and forgot to set the altimeter according to Napa's ATIS, leaving it on Oakland's setting, a really basic error, but one that in this case wouldn't mean much in reality — especially given how close Napa and Oakland are. But still — these things can have serious consequences in less benign circumstances….

We do a leisurely turn around the hold, I tell Oakland we're departing back towards Oakland VFR from the hold, then punch in KOAK direct. No problems — everything feels smooth and under control, and the plane's going well, it's a nice night out there, and I'm starting to get back into the groove, thinking ahead about setting up a practice approach back into Oakland. I don't actually have any preferences for this, so John suggests the RNAV Y 27L, an approach I've done only marginally fewer times than I've done the ILS back into Oakland (or so it feels — sometimes I pine for the old NDB RWY 27R approach with its hair-raising tendency to throw you at the wrong side of the airport up close and personal to a 777 landing on runway 29, or something smaller coming straight at you in the pattern for 27L. A bit of variety goes a long way, you know).

Anyway, we get handed off to NorCal approach and I ask for the practice approach. The controller acknowledges this, gives me a vector, clears me into the class bravo, and tells me to expect the approach down the line. So far so good. I anticipate we'll very soon be sent direct JUPAP (a useful intermediate fix (IF) on the approach), and reach over to set up the approach on the G1000. And, surprise surprise, the usual keystrokes aren't producing the usual response — and I have absolutely no idea what it's telling me. I sit there for a few seconds. John suggests I try it on his side (on the MFD); the same thing happens. I sit there for a few more seconds, quite unsure what to do. The menu options are simply not what I expect for the sequence of button pushes I've just done. What the hell is happening?

I don't panic, but it takes a few seconds — and some prompting from John — to get myself out of the mess (which is a classic G1000 Thing I won't go into here, but that I should have recognised easily). In the meantime, of course, I've lost the plot a bit, and it takes time to return to normal and set the approach up. A few seconds later we're heading direct for JUPAP, and all's (relatively) well again, but I'm back feeling rusty — very rusty.

But fairly quickly I realise that the real rustiness here is in the way I handled the unexpected, not in flying or planning or understanding the procedures themselves — after all, apart from the faux pas with the Napa altitude setting, I didn't really do anything wrong, I just did things sloppily (especially with the radio, when I reverted to long-winded plain English requests for what should have been terse by-the-book transmissions). My rustiness is mostly in forgetting to concentrate on getting around the problem (by any means necessary…) rather than on working out why something happened, at least in the short term. Don't get sidetracked! I take the little lesson to heart, and we plod on, waiting for further vectors or "direct JUPAP" (which never comes, but never mind — it's vectors all the way, as usual).

There's enough actual IMC on the way back in to Oakland that we end up needing a real clearance, and I take the hood off as we skim over and then through the light stratus layer — this part's as enjoyable as ever. I hand fly the approach (with LPV guidance) back in to Oakland feeling much better, and nail it to ATP standards (on a night like tonight, that's not hard, but still…). On the ground the ramp seems quite dead, and we taxi back to the Port-A-Ports and wait for the fuel truck. Outside the plane it's actually quite cold for this time of year in Northern California, quite a lot colder than I'd expected, and I rue the fact that my winter jacket is sitting in the back of my car somewhere on the other side of the security fence. Oh well, I'll survive.

* * *

This should have been an extensive IFR workout with John to regain both currency and competency (I wanted to do at least four approaches and a couple of holds as well as en-route stuff this evening), but I've injured my right knee sometime in the past month. I don't remember any specific incident, but whatever it was I made it much worse last Friday night when I spent six hours continuously standing, walking, running, climbing, crouching, etc., without a break with a heavy ENG video camera attached to my shoulder at the annual Beats 4 Boobs breast cancer fund raiser (I do the videography for the event — check out Beats 4 Boobs SF 2010 for a taste of my work…). By the start of the flight this evening, it's obvious I'm going to have trouble doing more than a relatively gentle workout, and I warn John we might have to cut it short (and that I might have to have him take the controls while I push my seat back to stretch my leg). And so it goes — by the time we do the stop and go at Napa, my leg's quite painful, and after the hold at Scaggs Island, it's clear that I'm not even going to be able to do the series of night stop and goes I'd wanted to do to regain night currency back in Oakland. It's disappointing, but I'm not dumb enough to push it too hard (except when it involves a San Francisco fashion event…); maybe next time. By the time I'm back home, I'm in quite a lot of pain, and starting to think maybe I should see a doctor. We shall see… (I come from a medical family, most of whose members would probably rather eat broken glass than see a doctor).

October 12, 2011

The Knowledge

Regular YAFB readers (all three of you) will know that I'm based at Oakland (KOAK). Since Oakland's a busy airport with extensive airline, freight, and business GA operations as well as the whole light GA thing, I have to have a personalised security badge just to get out to the airplanes I fly. And that security badge comes with a serious background check, fingerprinting, TSA, FBI, OPD, and multiple other LEO TLA implications and obligations, and an in-person renewal every two years.

(Note that I'm not much bothered by the security requirements here: they seem fairly reasonable for a busy mixed-use airport where on a daily basis I might walk right by or cross paths with anything from beaten up old Piper Cubs through immaculate old P51 Mustangs to large Gulfstreams or commercial 737s to Justice Department MD-80's surrounded by gun-toting guards to late-model military planes and helicopters. I've made smalltalk with the OPD helicopter driver as his craft was being towed out of a hangar, I've chatted with the RNZAF crew whose plane was being refueled in front of the plane I was trying to refuel (size wins, ya know…), and been cheerfully shown around the interesting super-secret TLA-owned plane on the North Field whose purpose we're not supposed to talk about publicly — Oakland's that sort of airport…).

And this is renewal time… except that this year the process is different, as I discover when I visit the Oakland airport ID / badging page. You can't just walk up and get your badge renewed semi-automatically by brandishing the old badge and supporting ID any more, apparently. John's just been through the process himself, so I ask him what's in store: nothing onerous, just a more interactive process (and better documented) than before, involving booking a slot ahead of time, a useful checklist and supporting documents in PDF, and passing an hour-long interactive computer video training course on the basics. As long as I renew before the end of the 30 day window, I'm fine, so I wander in to Oakland Flyers (my badge is under their aegis), get the proper signoffs and authorisations (thanks Jim!), and book a slot from the Oakland Flyers PC, and wander off with the in-person bit set for a few days away.

* * *

So here I am, a few days later, outside the badging office up on the second floor of Terminal One, directly beneath the great old 1960's Jet Age control tower (within my memory there used to be a small restaurant and bar up just under the tower cab itself; the bar and restaurant were closed a decade or two ago for security reasons, but there's still an eighth floor button in the elevator for it — I didn't press it to see if it still worked…). You get a great view of the TSA security lines and procedures from outside the badging office, including direct views of the scanner monitors and what the operators are looking at, but I guess we're not supposed to talk about that.

What's immediately obvious as soon as I get there, though, is the surreal sound environment: over the usual clanging and clattering and loud voices from the security operations below, and the occasional noise of airplanes departing and arriving on the ramp outside, there's a loud thumping beat and cheerful dance music coming from one of the conference rooms next to the badging office. I can't help wandering over and seeing what's up — turns out it's the Oakland TSA Diversity Day, and TSA staff keep coming and going in small groups over the next hour. Looks like fun… but I'm here to do my rebadging, and after a few minutes I'm through with the first part, actually handing in the paperwork. The staff give me a sheet of paper with the computer training / testing login details and a minute or so later I'm sitting in the test room, with a handful of other testees sitting at booths around the room. I sit down, login, and start the process. Outside, it sounds like Karaoke mixed with security; inside, the effect is actually kinda cheering.

I go at the test and videos, and discover it's all a lot less irritating and hokey than I'd expected (especially based on the first time I did this, when the videos were like bad daytime TV with sinister-looking bad guys and ill-fitting uniforms and references to Pan Am and Eastern). I'm not allowed to talk about the contents of the video or training, but in general, it's pretty straightforward and the intent seems to be to help you learn and remember the rules and procedures, and there's nothing tricky about the tests (in fact, one of the dangers for me was the tendency to second-guess my own answers as though this was a typical FAA test where there might be a trick to the question, or even no right answer at all — this was quite straightforward by comparison). The videos were pleasingly localised — shots of real Oakland airport workers on the ramp or in the terminals, and obviously taken in the last year or two.

In the end, I press the final test button, and get 100%, which wasn't exactly difficult. You'd think most of this stuff was obvious or common sense, but from my own observation over the years at Oakland, common sense in these things isn't common, and a lot of people let their own attitudes get in the way of getting along or at least getting about. Which is why we're having to do the interactive testing regularly now, but never mind — despite a lot of grumbling, it's really a fairly reasonable and unonerous way to get The (secret!) Knowledge and to know how to use it.

An hour and a bit after getting to the office, I leave with my new badge. The world's a safer place as a result, I'm sure, but more importantly, I can keep accessing the planes I fly for another two years.

* * *

Downstairs, on my way back out of the terminal building I pass a limo driver waiting for an arriving passenger; he's holding up a sign saying "Brian Jones", which seems a little surreal to someone who once worked in the music biz and has a decent grasp of history.

On my way out of the parking lot, I brandish my validated parking slip and get waved through. Free airport parking — woohoo! Such a deal.

September 06, 2011

I've Got A Fluffy 737 — And You Haven't!

Fluffy Southwest 737...

Yes, one of the side effects of having a couple of very young nephews (kids of some friends, really) who like flying and airplanes is you start finding all these sorts of things wherever you look (for several years one of the nephews' fave cuddly toys was a similarly-fluffy (but rather larger) space shuttle (tanks and all) that I picked up in NASA's space store at Orlando airport while there for a conference on Agile programming (yes, I'm such a nerd). I also have a fat pink knitted Dalek, but we're here to talk GA in CA, not Dr Who and TV icons, no?

Anyway, reading this blog lately you'd think I've given up flying, or at least given up blogging about it. Well, I haven't given up flying, but blogging's certainly been an issue. Basically, while I've flown several times since my last posting here, I've also spent most of May, June, and July away from home (overseas for work, mostly, and rarely in any exotic places, just places I'm from, like Australia or England), and August in a typical product release crunch (Agile? Right…). No complaints about all that from me, but it makes setting aside the time to blog about it all a bit difficult (I admire Aviatrix's continued discipline in blogging, but then she has a rather more interesting aviational life than I do, no?).

To make a long story short, in those months I've taken the four+ year old flying again, taken another English colleague on the Bay Tour (hi Sam! Thanks for not curling up and screaming "We're all going to die!!!!"), done a bunch of night landing practice, and other stuff I can't remember right now. Wish I had the time to blog it all in detail, but all I have is a bunch of photos I haven't had time to sort, and a vague hope that sometime in the next month I can get IFR current again and start writing about it all again.

We shall see…

May 28, 2011

May Showers

Puddles at the Port-A-Port hangars, Oakland North Field, KOAK, California

I live in a part of the world — Northern California — where you can confidently make plans for late May and know it won't rain. There might be a bit of coastal stratus or fog, and it might be a lot cooler (or hotter) than you'd hoped for, but it won't rain. It just doesn't rain around here — at all — from late April to early November in a typical year (and when it does, it's literally front page news, with breathless live reports on the evening TV news shows). So a few weeks ago when I booked a flight for this evening, I didn't give it much thought: a nice VFR run down to Monterey (KMRY) or up to Santa Rosa (KSTS), with a passenger or two who'd enjoy the view.

But when I check the forecast a day or two ahead, it's for rain. I've lived here long enough to not really take that forecast seriously — the weather guys get it wrong, a lot, when they forecast rain at this time of the year. But we've had a record year for rain (and snow up in the Sierras), and earlier today it's obvious: this isn't going to be a VFR sight-seeing flight, if it happens at all. I tell my passengers that the flight's off, but I keep the reservation, thinking I might get some nice IFR in (actual) IMC experience if things turn out OK — it's relatively warm, the airmass is fairly stable and predictable (at least on the large scale), and if I don't stray too far from home, I might safely spend a significant proportion of the flight peering out into that bright white or grey enveloping the windshield. Not the sort of thing a typical passenger would probably enjoy, but definitely my kind of fun.

And so it goes: by the time I'm at Oakland (KOAK) in the early evening, it's raining, and the field's IFR — the ceiling's low (but not too low to get back in safely if something goes wrong on departure), and the visibility's down to maybe 1.5 miles (officially; unofficially I'd have said it wasn't more than a mile in some directions). I've filed a couple of suitable IFR flight plans, and I've checked and checked (and rechecked) DUATS and Foreflight, so I'm cautiously optimistic that I'll be able to fly. The weather at my chosen destination (Napa, KAPC) is better than at Oakland (but still pretty mixed), and the en route freezing levels are fairly high (a few thousand feet higher than the highest altitude I'm likely to get assigned going there or getting back). Nexrad shows nothing serious, and there are no reported thunderstorms or anything especially worrisome in the area. And it's a short flight, combining a fair IFR procedural and communications workout with several outs in case of problems. So what am I waiting for?!

Not much, really, and after a careful pre-flight, I'm sitting at the run up area off 27R with rain streaming down around me, programming my clearance to Napa (basically vectors for SABLO intersection, Scaggs Island VOR (SGD), direct, a route I've been given many times, IMC or not). From experience I predict it'll actually be flown with a couple of initial vectors, then REBAS intersection direct, then straight onto the localiser for runway 36L. Which is basically exactly what happens — after being cleared for departure I enter the clouds at maybe 1,000', and spend the next fifteen or so minutes in and out of (mostly in) IMC as a rather benign set of stratus and cumulus passes around me at 4,000'. I monitor the outside air temperature (OAT) every few minutes; it doesn't go below about 4C the entire time; each time I break out I look around for thunderheads or anything malicious, but really, it's all looking rather nice; it's not even turbulent except for some very minor stuff here and there. There's not much traffic on-frequency, and I don't (quite) get the usual Napa slam on to the localiser — this time I'm basically left to my own devices from fairly early on and can get down early rather than attempting a 1500 fpm descent in actual.

On the localiser into Napa I break out very early, then realise that, while Napa airport itself is actually VFR, I'm about to follow the localiser back into some extensive cloud — the localiser seems to be boring its way through the only large cloud formation in the area. If I were VFR at the moment, I'd just go a mile or two left or right (it wouldn't matter much which), and I'd be safely and legally VFR all the way to the runway. But I head on regardless, straight down the localiser, straight back into the clouds, and break out again well inside LYLLY (the IAF) at maybe 1,000' — and a mile or two to either side the ceiling's at least 5,000'. Yes, the clouds seem to have deliberately formed a long tunnel around the localiser, which makes me smile as I break out. Following Napa tower's instructions, I circle south for runway 24, and land on a wet runway in what seems to be a very dead time for KAPC; the place sounds and feels deserted (all those Northern Californians afraid of the unseasonal rain, I suspect). I taxi back to runway 24's runup area and wait for my next clearance, which comes after a minute or two's delay. The clearance is exactly what I expect, and after another minute or two of programming and double-checking, I'm cleared for departure.

A minute or so later, I'm back in IMC, heading for Scaggs Island VOR (SGD), then REBAS intersection. Just past SGD I'm given "Oakland direct, expect the ILS 27R", and that's what happens, with the inevitable stream of vectors for the ILS and traffic closer in to Oakland. The cloud bottoms and tops are all over the place now, and I'm in IMC pretty much continuously until I break out on the ILS back into Oakland. Every now and then I break out between clouds or layers; at one point I see the Southwest 737 I've been hearing on the radio paralleling me 1,000' higher and off to my 2 o'clock as we both break into one of those cloud canyons; then it's gone again (I can see it on the G1000's traffic display, as well; remarkably, it doesn't seem to be going much quicker than me, which can't be true). A few minutes later ATC calls traffic at my one o'clock, heading north, type and altitude unknown; I respond that I'm in IMC but I'll keep a look out if I get clear of the clouds. A few seconds later I break out into another cloud canyon, and there a few thousand feet below me, very (very) close to the ground flying up a valley in the hills, scud running below a broken layer, is a yellow Husky or Cub (or similar — it's a bit difficult to tell from this distance). He disappears below the layer as I tell the controller what I'm seeing and tell him if that's the traffic, I have it in sight — or not, as by then I'm already back in IMC.

I get vectored onto the ILS back into Oakland, and break out at about 900'. Landing's pretty routine, and I taxi to Kaiser for fuel. It starts raining again just as I start refueling (of course!); but it's definitely clearing on the larger scale, if a little raggedly. Just as I finish refueling, I slip badly and manage to scratch the paint on the leading edge of the wing — a small scratch, maybe 3cm long, and not really visible unless you're looking for it, at least in the semi-light during refueling and hangaring — but things like this always end up costing an arm and a leg, and later I squawk the scratch with a small mea culpa. We shall see what this ends up costing me….

Back in the hangar, the evening sun breaks out weakly as I'm closing up, and the Port-A-Ports where I am become a lovely mess of puddles, sunshine, structure, and the odd sodden business jet. Hence the photos above and below, taken from the hangar. Not quite what this Anglo-Australian Californian expected to see at this time of year, but never mind.

A good flight — quite a lot of benign actual IMC, and, as always with a short IFR flight to Napa, quite a navigational and procedural workout. It's a shame about the paint scratch (and the pulled shoulder from the same slip), but it's all flying — in some way or another….

Puddles at the Port-A-Port hangars, Oakland North Field, KOAK, California

April 03, 2011

Taking A Four-Year-Old Flying

Well, he's actually not quite four, but he's been slightly mad about airplanes since I took him and his mother with me to Oakland airport's Old-Ts tiedowns to sort out a flying club issue a couple of years ago (we were actually on our way to the Berkeley kite festival, but never mind), and he got to sit in the front seat of a Cessna 172 while a long-suffering student pre-flighted it (we disabled all the dangerous bits while he enthusiastically played with the yoke and all the switches), then watched one of the local banner tow planes do the low fast swooping pickup right in front of us…

So here we are couple of years later at the run-up area off Oakland's runway 27R, and he's strapped into a child's car seat in the back of another 172 at Oakland. This time we're going flying. I've spent much of the past year or so wondering about the logistics of taking a small child flying (I flew a seven-year-old around a few years ago, but he was big enough to look after himself), and I've done my research; but the really worrying thing for me is whether he's going to enjoy it or not, and whether his mother (who's been flying with me before, but turns green at anything other than a slow turn) will cope with sitting here with us.

I needn't have worried, of course…

(Formation flying after the flight, on the ramp in front of Kaiser Air…).

March 11, 2011

Night Flight

My teenage niece visited me from Australia for three weeks in March before leaving for a nine month trek through Latin America; one of the things we did was take a nice evening and night VFR Bay Tour around the Bay and Napa, etc., from my Oakland home base in one of the club's 172s. She took to it immediately, and spent a lot of the flight actually flying (of course). She's also a photographer, this time using my little snapshot camera for the first time; some of the impressions are below, mostly as shot by her. A great break from work and all the rest….

Me, trying to look nonchalant…

Niece in charge…

Bumpy final, Livermore (KLVK) 25R.

Home (West Oakland).

Home (KOAK 27R).

February 11, 2011

Tree Of Life

We're pottering along in Cessna 051, 2,000' above the darkness of a quiet Central Valley night, on a wide downwind vector for the ILS back into Stockton (KSCK). A few minutes earlier we'd gone missed as planned on the KSCK RNAV 29R approach after a nice stop-and-go, the first of a projected four or five approaches to get me IFR current (and proficient) again. We're discussing John's new bluetooth GPS for his iPad (which he's brought along and is showing me how it works in real-world use), waiting for another vector back towards the localiser. We're also (of course) idly listening with one ear to NorCal Approach's frequency, when — out of nowhere — a voice we connect with a certain semi-local bizjet we'd heard earlier on-frequency pipes up and asks in a rather faux innocent tone something like "so when did you guys [ATC] start saying 'tree' and 'fife' for 'three' and 'five'? It sounds really funny to me" (yes, our controller's been saying 'tree' and 'fife' quite by the book all the while).

Argh, I think. Not this again — they've been saying it that way for years now, especially the newer controllers (and it's even in the AIM) — where's this guy been all that time? Or is he just trying to be funny? The controller responds with a fairly non-committal answer along the lines of "that's the way we're supposed to say it now", and the other guy persists with several lines about how silly it sounds; and, several times, we can hear the controller's increasingly "I-don't-really-want-to-be-having-this-conversation" responses coming back between the calls to other planes for real stuff.

Just as I'm snidely remarking to John that hell, that's the way we in large parts of UnAmerica have been saying it for a while now, and what's with all the Good Ole Boys in America coming out of the woodwork and complaining about it, a new voice pipes up on frequency — a (much) older no-nonsense voice (I'd almost swear it's Lou except the voice isn't quite his) that simply points out that 'tree' has been the way it's been for a long time, and what's to complain about? (and, implicitly, "get with the program!"). So much for stereotypes. I'm tempted to add my own accented voice to the conversation (something along the lines of "bloody whingeing yanks!" :-)), but, as I've complained about in the past, my accent really marks me out on air, and I'd never get away with it ("Cessna 051! That was you, wasn't it?! Expect to hold at JOTLY for 35 minutes!"). And, in any case, as John reminds me, "American" is actually now one of my (several) nationalities, so who am I to complain?! Humph. The controller tries to end it all by handing the original complainer off to the next sector, but the pilot on the other end can't help getting in a parting shot that (I guess) was intended to be humorous, but just comes off as lamely missing the point (again). We plod on in the darkness over the Central Valley, marveling at the state of radiophonic discourse and aviation standards-keeping, waiting for that vector….

A few seconds later it comes, and we head off towards the localiser, my brain back in approach mode. I hand fly the ILS (under the hood) steadily down to 150' with John watching like a hawk in the right seat — not bad for a flight that started out with me feeling very rusty indeed. It surely helps that the wind's fairly constant (a quartering tailwind right down to the ground) and the traffic's nonexistent.

We go missed again, and back with NorCal we ask for and get full pilot nav for the Tracy (KTCY) RNAV 26 approach, starting at our current position with OMWAP as the IAF, and including the course reversal hold. This goes well (with the G1000 steering us around the hold), and John gets to do the landing after I look up at the MDA. About the only interesting thing about this approach is the use of waypoint names like "OMWAP" or "IVABE"; John and I argue about how the latter should be pronounced, and the controller avoids using it at all. Back with NorCal on the missed we head back to Oakland for the ILS 27R.

Somewhere close to GROVE for the localiser we start hearing a non-stop string of approach clearances, vectors for traffic, and ATC instructions on air, and just as I'm remarking to John about how it's suddenly a zoo out there, we get a square 360 for traffic on the ILS — traffic we can see on the G1000's TIS as several white diamonds converging on the localiser in an interesting-looking cluster. Par for the course for Oakland, I guess, but I enjoy this sort of thing, and I'm usually happy to go a long way out of my way for faster traffic and to make the controller's life easier (it's all flying, dammit, and it's always good IFR flying exercise). By the time we're back on vectors for the localiser and cleared for the ILS, there's only one plane competing with us for the approach, an Amflight Navajo bearing down on us from a dozen miles behind us Out There somewhere beyond our TIS display.

The ILS is an approach I know like the back of my hand — an approach I nearly botch in the last few moments as I'm hand-flying under the cone of stupidity and John casually suggests setting the flaps in a specific way that combines a momentary throttling back with flap deployment (nothing tricky, just done in a way I don't normally do). I make the mistake of thinking about it and then doing it, which puts me dot or two to the left and a dot low on the ILS before I recover — I should have just ignored John or done it by instinct, I guess. Still, no one dies as a result of my over-thinking, and the landing is a success.

We taxi to the Business Jet Center for fuel, and discover it's a bit of a zoo as well — a CHP helicopter, a King Air, and an anonymous and expensive Gulfstream, or Challenger or whatever are all departing from in front of Business Jets simultaneously, and we make damn sure Cessna 051's out of the way and has its control locks in. I stand outside on the ramp for a minute in the thick of things watching the CHP helicopter depart sideways to avoid hitting 051 and the business jet, and the noise of all three aircraft in the night is astonishing — the sort of thing you usually either love or hate (you can probably guess which applies to me).

After hangaring 051 John signs my logbook, and I'm IFR current again. What matters at least as much, of course, is whether I'm proficient as well, but after a bunch of hand-flown approaches and similar exercises, I don't feel too bad.

February 02, 2011

The Workout

There's been an unusually cold, dry, and gusty northeasterly wind all day, and I suspect there'll be turbulence out over the hills as a result, but by the time I get to Oakland Flyers it's calm and clear. And dark — it's going to be a long evening's work with John to get club- and landings-current again, and get the BFR flying stuff out of the way (if I can). Oh, and to get proficient again, even if just for the basic VFR stuff; I'll leave the heavier IFR stuff for next time. At least this time I'm feeling fine, and despite the earlier wind there's not even a Center Advisory threatening severe turbulence to rough things up in annoying ways, just a bunch of the usual obstruction and airspace NOTAMs littering DUATS when I looked at it.

I preflight Cessna 051 in the dark, managing to bruise and cut my hand (again) on the hangar door. I don't really have any detailed idea of what John's got in mind for tonight's flight, but the whole point of this evening for me is not to plan beyond making damn sure there are no TFR's in the way or that I don't do anything stupid, and that I keep ahead of the plane.

And so it goes — the usual menageries of departure and power-off stalls, slow flight, precision flying, unusual attitude recovery (there has to be a punchline there somewhere), steep turns, etc., bits of it done under the hood, most of it out over San Pablo Bay. In general, I don't do too badly, and I quite enjoy this sort of stick-and-rudder workout — stuff I don't get to do very much nowadays.

On the first of the unusual attitude recovery exercises I look up when John tells me to and see a very dim and monochromatic G1000 display in front of me and unthinkingly use it to recover rather than the reverted right-side MFD or the backup steam gauges. I feel kinda dumb (I'd just assumed John had turned it down to almost invisibility to make the exercise a little harder; I guess I wasn't smart enough to work out what was really happening), so we do it twice more, once with the steam gauges, once with the reverted right-hand screen. No problems here, either.

After a while John springs a surprise on me by getting me to do the KAPC (Napa) LOC RWY 36L under the hood. I don't feel prepared for this at all — I generally like to internalise likely approaches on the ground before I do them in the air, and I don't have the plates handy (they're in the bottom of my flight bag somewhere). Never mind — John hands me his iPad with the approach plate loaded, and I use it to get us onto the ground successfully, if a little roughly in the last segment or so of the approach (my flying at this point of the approach is what in Australia we used to call "agricultural"). In any case, it's not like I've never flown this approach before…. The iPad certainly fits easily into my approach to approaches (with a couple of minor irritations), and if I weren't putting off buying an iPad until the iPad 2 comes out (at least), I'd already have one. Oh well, can't have everything.

We head back to Oakland for another practice approach followed by some landing practice, a bunch of stop-and-goes on 27L in various configurations and a couple of nice swooping short approaches (I love these…). John gets a nice short field landing and take off in there somewhere, and, overall, I feel OK with my performance.

Back in the clubhouse John signs me off for the BFR, and I guess I'm legal for another two years.

* * *

Before we clamber into Cessna 051, I mention to John that I'm idly thinking of buying new headsets — my old Lightspeeds are getting pretty ratty, and I need another headset in any case for visitors and passengers (I have some friends from Australia visiting in March who'll want to fly). John happens to have a spare set of Lightspeed Zulu's in his car, and I end up borrowing them for the flight (thanks John!). Not bad, not bad at all — both more comfortable and better-sounding than my old Lightspeeds; I may have to invest a bit of money in the next few weeks on some new headsets. Or not — it's not like I fly enough to really need anything much better than my clunky old passive (and very sturdy) Dave Clarks that my passengers usually get to use nowadays.

January 25, 2011

The BFR, Part 1

I've flown more than I've let on in this blog in the past few months, but not much — bad weather, vacation, and the pressures of a real-world job have combined to keep me out of the cockpit for a lot longer than I'd like. So I look forward to today as a chance to do a bunch of things: first and foremost, ensure that I still remember what all those things on the displays on the front panel are trying to tell me (and what to do when they tell me something Interesting); to get club-current again; extend my landing currency (it's not expired yet, but it's getting close, and I could do with some serious landing practice); to get instrument current again (a few approaches and holds will probably do — I'm not really that un-current as far as IFR goes); and then (maybe) get the whole biennial flight review (BFR) thing rolling again. It's been a little under two years since my last one; I need to get it out of the way again before the end of February. I book a long session for this evening with John to try to get as much done as I can.

So, a lot on my plate. It's not helped by the Center Weather Advisory for severe turbulence issued for the Oakland area mid-afternoon a few hours before I'm due to fly, nor by the self-imposed deadline I had at work of getting a particular bit of tech stuff working properly by 17.00 today. Which I do, but when I get home to prepare for the flight, I realise I'm exhausted — I'd worked until very late last night and got up very early (for me, at least) this morning. I recheck the weather and NOTAMs, etc., with DUATS — the center advisory is still there — then grab some food. I'm still exhausted (what did I expect?). I wander out to the car and drive to the airport (Oakland, KOAK). On the way there I realize it's not going to magically get better — I probably shouldn't fly this evening. I certainly wouldn't fly with passengers or on my own; I could probably get away with it with an instructor on board, but I don't like doing that sort of thing. Maybe I can salvage something from it; we shall see. Mostly, I don't want to have wasted John's time by dragging him out to Oakland just to have me cancel on him (his drive to the airport's a lot longer than mine; I could easily walk there if I had to…).

John's already at Oakland Flyers when I get there, and I immediately tell him the situation — I think I'm too damn tired to fly properly this evening, especially with that center weather advisory still current (not that I actually believe it's as bad as reported, especially later in the day when the offshore winds have died down, but it's yet another factor in the decision making). He's good about it all, and suggests we do the non-flying bits of the BFR instead. I knew he was going to say this as soon as I walked through the door — and I know I haven't really studied for it or done the required reading in enough detail to be confident of getting through it. I've done a bit of preliminary reading, but digesting the whole FAR/AIM thing in an hour or two isn't my kind of thing, and I'm not particularly confident I won't make a fool of myself. I tell John all this, and he just suggests we do it anyway — it really isn't all that hard, and hell, if I really do screw up, I can do it again when I actually expected to do it.

So for the next ninety minutes or so we sit there in the club's luxurious space (ha!) while I try to answer a bunch of questions about charts, Part 91 legalities, airspaces and clearances, decision making, weather — all the stuff you're supposed to know. In the end I don't do too badly — I have to bluff a bit with some of the VFR chart stuff (I'm sadly more used to IFR charts nowadays, and ATC is usually responsible for my airspace usage or avoidance) and some of the answers to the more obscure stuff just seem to well up out of my subconscious — and I pass, or at least satisfy John that I'm good for another two years of flying, at least from the legal and knowledge point of view. Shame about the actual flying bits though — I guess I'll have to wait till next week or the week after that to get back in the air, get current, get at least half-way proficient, and (hopefully) complete the BFR. We shall see….