December 21, 2013

Back In The Comfy Chair

Once again I'm sitting in the California Airways Comfy Chair at Hayward (KWHD), answering John's questions and feeling a little... well, uncomfortable. How could I forget that detail? What does this question really mean? And so it goes — but this time it's for the club's DA-40 signoff, and this time it's actually pretty straightforward. I filled in the DA-40 fam sheet while down in LA over the last few days (I have a client in the Mid-Wilshire area, and I spend an inordinate amount of time at both Burbank and Oakland airports as a result; unfortunately, all the flying between those two airports is done on Southwest, not in the DA-40), and I didn't find it difficult — just incredibly tedious. Oh well — at least it's not a bundle of trick questions or anything, and if I can't work out how to answer all of those questions quickly or even by memory (in an emergency), I really shouldn't be flying this plane. After a fairly short session, John signs me off for the DA-40 without too much ribbing about my spelling mistakes and typos.

Theoretically, now that I'm signed off I could just wander out on to the ramp and fly away in the DA-40 on my own, but I have other things in mind. In particular, I want to drag John along to help me tighten up power setting / throttle management on approach, landing, and takeoff (it was pretty rough and abrupt last time), and I want to try a practice approach somewhere to remind me what IFR flying is like, and to set the stage for further work in reclaiming IFR proficiency sometime in the new year (maybe). So we drive off to the Green Ramp, and twenty minutes later we're sitting off runway 28L, waiting for take off. The plan is to do the left 270 departure off towards SALAD intersection, while contacting NorCal Approach near the Hills for the practice RWY 28L LOC/DME approach back in to Hayward. I tell John I'll do the approach without wearing The Cone Of Stupidity (a.k.a. "The Hood"), mainly because I think I'll screw up enough of the approach after 16 months off without also worrying about keeping the plane right-side-up. Plus this is a Procedure Thing (a.k.a. "taming the beast", where "the beast" is my old friend the G1000, a system I really like a lot, but that does have its idiosyncrasies) — or at least that's what I tell myself.

Hayward Tower dumps us over Castro Valley, and I call up NorCal, who sounds really busy today. Luckily, I don't stumble too badly asking for the approach, but I do feel really rusty. The controller gives us a heading of 90 degrees for sequencing, and I struggle to remember how to set up both Foreflight and the G1000 properly for the approach. With some hints from John, I finally get the approach set up, and it's only then that I realise I just didn't study or prep properly for this — too much effort into getting the sign-off, too little into actually looking over the approach plate(s). I could probably still do the Oakland ILS and / or RNAV approaches in my sleep, but I haven't done IFR into Hayward in many many years, and it shows. I don't even know the names of the important waypoints or fixes, let alone the associated altitudes. Oh well — that's why John's along.

A lot of it does come back pretty quickly — the noting of crossing or minimum altitudes, intersection names and distances, and the missed approach procedures, but I still spend some time hitting the wrong buttons on the G1000, and my power and autopilot management skills definitely need more work. And I stumble on radio calls a bit more than I'd like (but at least I catch myself doing that). But it's an enjoyable experience, and as we get a couple of long vectors for traffic and then the localiser, it all sort of comes together in my mind. The controller's busy as hell, and there are several students on air doing approaches or whatever who are taking way more of his time than he'd clearly like, and it makes me wonder if we're about to blow through the localiser or hit the Fremont hills looming up ahead. But we get turned on to it in the nick of time (and the hills are actually below us, despite the way it looks from the cockpit), and I basically let the autopilot handle most of the horizontal tracking, while I watch with an eagle eye and set up the vertical bits. I can't help noting the autopilot's having trouble tracking the centerline at first, and wonder why out loud. John points to the crosswind display on the G1000 — there's something like 33 knot quartering headwind pushing us away. Looking out over the nose, I should have noticed — we're heading quite a way away from the airport (which I can see off in the distance) towards the hills, while tracking more-or-less correctly. A lot of the altitude management stuff comes back, with John's help, but I have so internalised the C172's settings, that I don't always do things as smoothly as I should. But, again, that's basically why John's here….

At minimums I dump the power, pull back, put in full flaps, and, a few seconds later, we're on the ground for a series of touch and goes in the pattern. As hoped, these end up tightening my control over the power settings and general flying, and a few times around the pattern later, I call it a day with another swooping left 270 to get us into the right traffic pattern for 28R (when the controller asks if we want the left 270 rather than going the long way around, I answer with something like "2MA, sure!", which surely isn't approved aviation speak, but I guess it did the job).

And once again, I don't have a suitable photo from today's flight, so here's one from my latest trip to LA — a sight I see pretty much weekly from the Southwest terminal at Burbank (KBUR). One day in the next six months I hope to fly the DA-40 there and back for business. We shall see….

December 14, 2013


I still need to do my BFR (Biennial Flight Review) to get back into flying legally, so here I am in the California Airways office at Hayward Airport (KHWD) with John, sitting in the Comfy Chair being grilled on airspaces, VFR sectionals, and sundry other ... stuff ... to do with regulations and safe flying. John asks me what this particular airspace is, and I realise that while I know what it means (in this case, that 23 year old student pilots from Travis in giant C-17s will be under the hood in the vicinity of my little DA-40 or whatever, and that while I don't have to get permission to enter the airspace, keeping a good lookout might be appropriate),  I can't immediately remember what it's actually called (an Alert area). I quickly come to the conclusion that I still have an IFR pilot's view of airspace, which isn't all that helpful now that I'm likely to be mostly flying VFR. You fly IFR, and, to a first approximation, airspaces are the controller's problem; VFR, they're yours. It's kinda mortifying how poorly I remember some of this stuff.

On the other hand, I have done my homework (including a self-test worksheet from John), and most of the regulatory and other questions are not that hard, and much as I loathe the bad writing and inscrutable organisation of the FARs and the AIM, it's still light relief compared to some of the things I have to read or work on for a living as a techie. So the verbal bits go OK — John doesn't try to make the questions tricky, or ask about obscure regulations that would have no impact at all on a GA pilot like me — and we finish up after a little more than an hour, and decide to go flying. BFR part one, accomplished!

The agenda for the rest of the day was originally to get a club sign-off on the DA-40 as well as doing the BFR. Unfortunately, I haven't got the paperwork ready for the sign-off, so the focus today will be on the BFR only. I'll have to do the sign-off paperwork some other time -- I'd like to be able to rent the DA-40 on my own, as it's definitely a nice plane to fly.

This time things work really well with my iPad checklist, and that part goes OK, if slowly (I've internalised the complete pre-flight checklist for the 172s (including all thirteen fuel test points), but not the DA-40 yet). Once in the cockpit, I'm impressed at how well the new RAM mount for my new iPad Mini works (yes, I broke down and bought John's old iPad Mini after he got a new one). This time, the iPad just works, and throughout the flight it's a comfortable and useful addition to things. There's only one thing that irritates me — the Foreflight basic airport info should include pattern altitudes for each runway. Never mind, I'm sure I'll cope.

We depart VFR for Napa (KAPC), one of the most familiar non-Oakland non-Hayward airports in my life, and do the transition through Oakland Tower's airspace; we're then handed off to NorCal Approach. I haven't done this transition in years, and it probably shows — I pester John for hints on what happens next, and I'm not as immediately familiar with the various landmarks as I should be. Flying out of Oakland is definitely more straightforward, but then again, I can't rent a DA-40 there, can I? Hayward works fine if you can live with the little irritations of being a small Class D airspace airport wedged in under Oakland's busy Class C airspace (an airspace that extends to the ground only literally metres from the end of Hayward's runways and that gives you a 1,500' ceiling on departures that haven't been cleared into the Class C anywhere around the airport); Oakland's Class C is itself under San Francisco's Class B airspace, but that's less troublesome for departures towards Napa. Plus Hayward's a longer drive for me, but not significantly so (I could be like John and ride my bike, but I already ride my bike every day as part of getting to work, so sometimes I feel I need to exercise my car on drives like this).

So we potter off towards Napa, and NorCal gives us the frequency change about twelve miles out. I call Napa Tower and tell them we're inbound for touch and goes, and the controller responds with standard instructions for runway 6. This is a (somewhat) new one for both John and me — we both almost always get 18L or 18R, or 24. Woohoo! But I'm more interested in the controller's accent (being a funny-accented guy myself — I collect accents) and ask John what he thinks her accent is. Neither of us is sure, but John's probably right that it's very slightly Caribbean, maybe Guadalupe; in any case, it's pleasant and intrigues me the entire time we're at Napa.

The first touch and go at Napa is a fairly straightforward thing from a right base, and I don't break anything or kill anyone, even if I did come in like I was landing a bit short. There's really not much wind, but there's more traffic than I expect, with a constant (small) line of planes waiting to take off much of the time. Just as we're downwind abeam the tower for the second touch and go, tower clears me for another touch and go, with the short approach. Alllriiiighht! I think (I love these swooping approaches), and go ahead and try it. First lesson here: you can easily do a forward slip in the DA-40, and while it feels and looks dramatic from the left seat, it doesn't actually lose you much airspeed or altitude. Oh well. Again, I actually make it onto the ground and back up into the air without breaking anything (and only once, not repeatedly), but it wasn't as smooth or as professional-looking as I'd like.

The next few times around include a couple of power-off and no-flap approaches and landings, and, again, while they're nothing to write home about, they don't cause me to question my choice of ways to spend a Saturday afternoon (and what always feels like millions of dollars :-)). Despite the fact that I don't seem to have internalised the proper power settings for each part of the pattern, John seems satisfied, so we head back out over San Pablo Bay to do some airwork. The next fifteen minutes or so have me either repeatedly on the edge of a stall as I wander around the sky, or actually stalling, or doing steep turns (and definitely not stalling). I love this stuff, even if it's not the aerobatics I used to do, and even if we can't do spins. Again, although my flying is nowhere near as precise as I'd like (that word "agricultural" keeps popping into my head at times like this), John seems satisfied, and we head off back to Hayward.

We call up NorCal and tell them where we're going, and the rest of the flight — over Berkeley, over the Coliseum abeam Oakland (KOAK) and so on all the way to Hayward — is familiar territory and relatively easy. At one point as we're somewhere north of Berkeley I look west towards the Golden Gate, and, yes, it's Just Another Boring Bay Area Sunset out there. Hopefully fairly soon I'll start taking people up to see all this again....

I line up on final for Hayward's 28R... and promptly botch the landing. Well, as I seem to keep saying, I didn't kill anyone or break anything, but I was definitely a little slow, and while almost all my other landings were fairly smooth, this was not. Oh well. Must Do Better Next Time, as my old primary school teacher used to say. We taxi to the Green Ramp, tidy up, tie down, order fuel, and drive back to CalAir. On the short drive back I can't help noticing just how well-maintained Hayward Airport is compared to Oakland Airport nowadays — there may be fewer planes on the Green Ramp, but there's a waiting list for hangars, and those hangars, and the taxiways, the ramp and runway surfaces, the buildings, the lighting, etc., all feel both more modern and just plain newer than the Oakland equivalents (except, of course, Hayward's classic old tower). We discuss the different business approaches the Port of Oakland and the City of Hayward take to the respective airports — it's striking how much more care Hayward seems to put into the GA side of things. It's no secret that Oakland's not thrilled by the small GA side of its operations, but coming back to Hayward made it even more obvious. Not sure what it all means for flying out of Oakland, but we'll see....

Back at CalAir we do the debriefing — yes, John's signing me off for the BFR — and decide on next moves. I still need to get signed off on the DA-40, so hopefully next weekend I can get that out of the way and start flying out of Hayward again.

I wish I had some photos from the flight, but, hey, my little iPhone doesn't always come up to scratch for things like this, so what you see up there is a typically pastoral scene from my neighbourhood instead. Sorry.

November 27, 2013

Back In The Saddle

I drive to California Airways at Hayward (KHWD), not really sure what’s going to happen, but curious and not particularly worried about much. I haven't flown with CalAir for years, and this is my first flight PIC from anywhere since August last year, and I'm wondering whether I should be getting back into flying — almost all the things that were true when I announced I was going to take a break are still true, and it's going to be a long and difficult-to-schedule return to regular GA flying, if I make it at all. And while I renewed my medical and KOAK ramp badge, I'm way out of currency with almost everything, and need to do a BFR.

It starts well when I walk up to the CalAir office and there’s Keith, playing a fighter pilot shoot-em-up on a large screen overlooking the runway. He looks up at me, grins, and says “Well, well, well — look who the cat dragged in!” We talk a bit about the TSA, Hayward Airport's (non-) security, and how GA’s dying — pretty much the same things we talked about the last time I saw him, all those years ago. It's good to see him again. The office is buzzing with students and instructors, which is always a good sign.

John and I sit down and discuss the flight — what's the aim, what's the agenda? I still haven't even started my BFR, so that's a possibility, but really, for me, it's mostly just about getting back into flying after a 16 month absence, and becoming familiar with a new plane, the Diamond DA-40, a type of plane I've never even seen before as far as I know. If I can still take off, land, and do basic airwork without major issues in a plane I've never seen before, I'll be pleased; I'm really not that fussed yet about the BFR. Aim low, I tell John. He seems amused by this dedication to underachievement, and we decide we'll just head for the Diablo practice area and do a bit of airwork and see what happens. It's a hazy day in the Bay Area, and it's even hazier out in the Valley, with Livermore (KLVK) reporting three miles visibility, which makes me a little cautious.

John spends some time prepping me for the DA-40 — some idiosyncrasies in the controls, the G1000 (which I remember well), the V speeds, the best way to approach and land, etc. — and then there's a bit of paperwork (bringing my club records up to date mostly), and then we’re ready for the plane. At the old CalAir location, you simply walked out of the building onto the ramp, but the new location’s at the eastern end of the airport on Hesperian, and we have to drive to the Green Ramp near the tower up towards the other (western) end of the airport. As an Oaklander normally based at KOAK, with its high security and all, I sort of expect to drive up Hesperian, park in the parking lot under the Tower, then walk on to the ramp, but this is Hayward — we just drive through the gate onto the ramp (there's a combination lock there), then drive up the marked vehicle access “road” on the tarmac on the north side of the airport to the Green Ramp, and park right near the plane. Cool! The Green Ramp looks almost deserted, which is not a good sign, especially since when I last flew out of Hayward, it looked difficult to get a space there.

The plane’s pretty much what I expected — sleek, relatively modern-looking (at least compared to a 172), and in good condition. We spend maybe twenty minutes doing a thorough pre-flight, using John's iPhone checklist app and his DA-40 specific checklist (we tried getting it to work on my iPad checklist app, but it didn't take, for some reason), and there’s nothing much to report about this except it all made sense and there’s really nothing unfamiliar or surprising about the mechanical bits. One of the news helicopters lined up next to taxiway Alpha a hundred metres away starts up and flies off, and three or four shiny business jets taxi past interspersed with a handful of smaller 172s. The noise is at times too loud for talking, but I'm not complaining — it's a welcome, very familiar background chorus.

We get in, which is a little difficult the first time — the canopy is large, and it should be easy, but it isn't, for some reason, possibly due to the need to drop in rather than climb in. I don't know. Once in, I have to adjust the rudder pedals rather than the seat — the seat's fixed, and at first this feels weird — there are simply no adjustments at all for the seat, meaning it's basically a like it or lump it thing. I'm not sure I like it at first, but we'll see. The first problem is immediately obvious: my old iPad 3 won't easily fit on my thigh (like it did with the 172) because the DA-40 uses a stick; the iPad just gets in the way, much more than I'd expected. This is actually something of a long-term show-stopper — I have to rely on John's iPad mini as held and manipulated by him — but with the G1000, at least, for VFR it's no big deal, just annoying. The good news? My old Lightspeed headset still works. Battered, clunky, bulky, and outdated, but still usable.

I follow the checklist for startup, and it starts first time, which always seems to be a bit of an accomplishment with fuel-injected GA engines like this; I feel gratified. The engine controls (prop, throttle, mixture, etc.) feel familiar — I have a complex endorsement, some time in complex aircraft, and the G1000 really makes this sort of thing easy to monitor and control. We go through the checklist again, then I call Ground. The second issue… argh! The call sign is weirdly difficult to say (some just are, for pilots and controllers alike; the AAC's old (and long-gone) N5445H was the worst I've had to use), and it'll take a long while to get used to saying — and hearing — “Diamond Star …” rather then “Cessna …”. Oh well.

We request a right crosswind departure from 28L and get taxi clearance. I do the runup in the runup area — nothing weird or unusual about this, either — then we saunter up to 28L at Alpha. I call tower, and get told initially to hold short for traffic in the pattern (a 172 I can see on downwind for 28L), then get a quick “2 mike alpha, cleared for immediate take off runway 28L, traffic's on left downwind, right crosswind departure approved” (or something like that). I get the hint, and we do a fast arcing turn onto the centreline, and start the takeoff run. The DA-40 has a castoring nose wheel, with little rudder authority below about 30 knots, so you have to use differential braking on the ground for most turns; this can be an issue for the first few hundred metres of the takeoff roll, as you really don't want to use braking to maintain directional stability as you're trying to accelerate, but what else is there? I'm familiar with this from both the Tiger and the Cirrus, but it's still a bit annoying, especially on narrower runways. Still, we survive, and I rotate at Vr — or, rather, the plane lifts off with little input from me on this, before I'd even started to pull back on the stick. Flaps up and fuel pump off on initial climb out, then a quick right turn to heading 030, then we're on our way. Pull the prop back to 2400, keep the throttle full forward (this plane is fine running continuously oversquare), and we climb quickly — we have a 1400' ceiling here below Oakland's Class C airspace we can't break for several minutes, and I have to be very careful with this (I'm used to departing Oakland, where this isn't an issue as long as you stay out of the much higher KSFO Class B airspace, which is easy). The controls all feel absolutely fine to me — it's a nicely balanced plane, and nothing about stick or pedals feels weird or uncomfortable. But the climb out angle at Vy feels too high for me, and I drop the nose a bit so I can see better.

Once past the edge of the Class C we climb towards 3,500 and head out over the hills. For the first time I can see the Diablo Valley, and it's really hazy. I tell John I'm not sure I'm comfortable with doing airwork out there — the visibility is MVFR at best, and I'd like to be able to actually see other planes while doing steep turns, etc. John's OK with that, and suggests we circumnavigate Mt Diablo, which I'm up for. I quickly get a feel for the trim on this plane — a lot more sensitive than the 172, but easily usable, and within a few minutes I'm very comfortable with the way it all handles. As John says, there's a nice harmony between aileron and elevator controls, and the engine's efficient and effective. After leveling off and proper trimming and leaning, we're doing (from memory) 135 KIAS on 75% power at 9.5 GPH, which is considerably better than a 172. I engage the autopilot (a bog-standard KAP 140, something I could probably use with my eyes closed), and we start around Mt Diablo. The view from up here is hazy, wintry, beautiful, almost monochromatic. On the far side, John asks if I'd like to go over to Rio Vista (O88) for landing practice. Of course! We set the GPS accordingly, and off we go. Ground visibility here is poor — a few miles — and the sight of the windfarm's windmills in the same nearly monochromatic soft Delta haze is other-worldly.

We can hear another plane in the pattern on CTAF, using runway 33; we want to use 25, and John carefully negotiates our way into this with the other pilot, who sounds a little grumpy at the intrusion (he leaves the pattern after our first landing, leaving us to ourselves for the rest of the exercise). Runway 25 is longer and wider than 33, and for my first few landings, makes a lot more sense — and, in any case, there really isn't a lot of wind in any direction on the ground (or at altitude) today (hence the haze). John does the first landing on 25, talking me through it, then hands the controls to me again on the upwind. The pattern is straightforward, and I do OK — flaps, prop, mixture, fuel pump, throttle, etc., and on final it all looks good. I realise once again — for probably the hundredth time in my flying life — that Rio Vista's 25 looks kinda narrow to this Big City Airport kinda guy. Luckily there's no significant crosswind, I guess. The first landing goes fine — this is not a plane you want to land in a full stall, unlike the 172, but that's no problem, and the sighting in my mind just works. This feels like it isn't going to be problematic, and it isn't — the rest of my landings here and back at Hayward are OK, perhaps a little agricultural sometimes, but the plane handles nicely, and while it's slippery and there's a lot of ground effect (the wings are quite a lot longer and thinner than a 172's), that's not a big problem if you think your way through it and hold off all the small adjustments you'd probably make in a 172. Again, the mental visualisation for landing this plane seems particularly easy, and while the differential steering thing could be annoying on rollout, it's not much of an issue for touch and goes.

We do a handful of landings and pattern work, then depart straight out for Hayward. John calls Travis Approach for flight following back (I was about to do it myself, especially given the haze — I'm not one of those nutters who eschews ATC contact just because ATC is The Government or because they cherish “freedom”). The flight back to Hayward is uneventful, and, as suspected, it's a bit difficult to get back into Hayward itself without GPS — the haze and the glare is pretty bad. The conditions are a lot like my PP-ASEL checkride with Larry Peters, where I decided to use the ILS to get back to Oakland from several miles out (Mr. Peters was impressed and pleased by this, but what the hell else could I do safely?). We land back on 28R, and taxi to the Green Ramp. I feel pleased to have done it all without killing or scaring anyone, and with minimal clobbering around the head from John. The plane feels good, the flying was fun, and it was weirdly easy to land and handle the plane after all this time off — and in an unfamiliar cockpit. John seems fairly pleased as well.

* * *

While prepping for the flight last night, I go through my old flight bag, trying to sort out the useless crap from the more useful crap (and occasional non crap). It's an odd experience. It contains the collected detritus and paraphernalia of nearly fifteen years of flying, spanning simple pilotage-based VFR through steam-gauge era IFR to complex GPS and autopilot IFR (with side jaunts for things like aerobatics). The biggest change is that I've simply junked my old paper backups — I was already using my iPad for charts and approach plates before the break, but I kept the old paper stuff around just in case. That doesn't make much sense any more, and in any case I stopped my paper subs a year ago, sort of forcing the issue. My ForeFlight app has been at the centre of my flying since it first appeared (I was a very early adopter, actually quoted on their website in the early days), but its role has changed from just weather and info to charts, plates, briefings, filings, etc.; now it's difficult to imagine being without it, IFR or VFR. The result of all this is that my gear now fits in my normal backpack; I'm no longer carrying around a heavy black flight bag. I stand there thinking: will this all work? I don't know — I feel rusty at everything, especially packing for a VFR local flight.

And I probably need a new headset if I'm going to take this seriously again. Not cheap.

* * *

So will I keep flying? Will I do my BFR anytime in the next few months? The simple answer is: I don't know. This was a fun and morale-boosting flight, but as I said earlier, all the reasons I took a break are still valid (in some cases even more so — I work in LA a lot nowadays, which is a long commute). We shall see....

January 21, 2013

Lou Fields, RIP

Lou Fields (CDR, US Navy (Retd.)) died yesterday (see John's thoughtful Memento Mori on Lou). This is sad news — Lou was a welcome, wise, drily-funny, respected, and much liked presence around Oakland's North Field and elsewhere.

Lou served in the Pacific during World War II, then stayed in the navy for a couple of decades afterwards, flying everything from Corsairs to jets off carriers, retiring as a (full) Commander in 1969. He later ran Lou Fields Aviation out of a trailer at Oakland's Old T's, where, as well as being an instructor, he was also an FAA Designated Examiner (DE, aka DPE).

Lou was one of my mentors when I was learning to fly, and for a long time afterwards, as well. He often had interesting and sometimes sharp things to say about the way instructors taught, about things like GPS (he could be surprisingly enthusiastic about — and adept with — new technology), and things like the wisdom (or lack of it) of tailwheel training. He took an interest in my learning aerobatics with Ben Freelove, and had a lot of advice on aerobatic technique and instruction (he also used to threaten to take me up in his Pitts and teach me some "real aerobatics", but that never happened, unfortunately). He let me rent his old Arrow, 29J, after a thirty minute sign-off flight to Hayward and back in appalling weather, during which he mostly just talked about Australia, while occasionally giving me terse advice on my crosswind landing technique or telling me a few tricks about descent planning in 29J, etc. Lou would have been my instrument rating DE if he hadn't got an extended bout of illness back then.

He was always joshing me good-naturedly about being both an "Aussie" (he pronounced it the Australia way) and a "Brit", and always asked about how things were going with me whenever he saw me around the airport. An all-round good guy, easy to talk with, amusing and knowledgeable about almost any subject, and one of those seasoned old warriors who'd come to believe that peace was always a wiser choice than war. He once told me he'd make a more effective fighter now than when he was younger — not so distracted by trying to stay alive nowadays, much more willing to take stupid risks now, as he put it.

Lou will be sorely and sadly missed.