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.

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