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.