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.