December 15, 2014

Boring Airport Photos

As all three of my regular readers probably already know, I spend a lot of time traveling on commercial airlines for work (I'm one of those techies who's actually trusted to go to my company's client sites and talk directly to these clients without a chaperone; I'm even trusted with a knife and fork in front of clients!).

So I spend a lot of time in airports… taking boring airport photos with my iPhone while waiting in (say) Burbank for a flight back to Oakland, or while stuck for six hours in the bursting-at-the-seams Southwest gate area at La Guardia for a long-delayed flight to Chicago Midway, or while waiting in Minneapolis airport for tornadoes to subside before flying to Phoenix (I'm sure that all sounds so glamourous).

All of which is to excuse the fact that I haven't been flying much lately (and won't be flying much for some time) except in the back of Airbuses and 737's, and to introduce to a wider world my Boring Airport Photos gallery. Yes, there is such a thing: see the writeup for an explanation if you want the usual wordy exegesis, otherwise go straight to the gallery….

Just another (confused, visual) look at the realities of flying for me, I guess.

November 29, 2014

Twin Star

This was supposed to have been another of my tediously-long and wordy postings, this time about my introductory flight with John in the Diamond DA-42 Twin Star out of Hayward (KHWD) a couple of weeks ago, but life got in the way, and this is all you'll get. Sorry.

Summary? A really addictively enjoyable — and scarily expensive — hour and half of airwork, engine out exercises, landings at Rio Vista (O88) and Hayward, and a lot of fun just flying around doing 140 KTAS at 11GPH (total!). I don't end up killing anyone or damaging anything, the DA-42 is a joy to fly, and John doesn't swear off instructing as a result of anything I did (well, at least as far as he's told me).

Is there serious multi-engine training in my future? I don't know — I can barely afford single-engined planes — but I've been eyeing a multi add-on for a decade. We shall see, as I always seem to be saying….

You're not supposed to laugh when the critical engine stops…

November 02, 2014

Blimey, It's Circular!

A few hundred feet above Hayward (KHWD), immediately after departing VFR for Concord (KCCR) on an IFR (re)training flight, I look at the panel in front of me to check my altitude. We're in a Class D airspace (KHWD) under a Class C airspace (KOAK) which is itself under a Class B airspace (KSFO), and I need to keep below 1,500' for the next few miles to avoid blundering into the overlying airspaces. Par for the course, of course, if you fly out of Hayward, but when I look at the altimeter it looks so… weird. I point at it and blurt out something like "Blimey! It's circular!" to John who's in the right seat. John laughs.

This is your brain on steam, I guess. All those circular electro-mechanical steam gauges in front of me — I remember them! — and it's even got an ADF! Mesmerizing, in its own sort of way. Quite a shock to this jaded G1000-spoiled techie, but what did I expect?!  I'm in one of the club's C172's instead of the usual DA-40, and this is obviously going to be an exercise in old-school IFR flying. Flying the way it was when I got my instrument rating a decade ago. Some pilots get nostalgic for this sort of thing, but not me — I'm just a bit bemused and rather apprehensive. It's not just the old steam gauges — can I also cope with being under the hood again after all this time? Can I keep on top of the process and ahead of things on an approach?

* * *

This wasn't really supposed to be about steam gauges or Cessna 172's — it was just supposed to be a way back into IFR flying for me. Which is why I'm flying with John today — to start the long process of getting IFR current and proficient again after a two+ year break from instrument flying. But the DA-40 and John weren't available at the same time for a while, and I thought it might actually be fun to fly the old 172 — and remember or relearn how to program the KLN 94 GPS or use an old-style heading indicator (HI) or an ADF. So I arranged things for today, and — as usual — set myself some easy targets. If I can get through the flight without upsetting the plane or making too many egregious mistakes, I'll feel confident enough to start working on the formal instrument proficiency check (IPC) that I need to get IFR current again.

This is actually the first non-G1000 (i.e. non-glass) panel I've flown PIC in (I think) more than seven years. It's also the first time I've flown a C172 in more than two years, and the first attempt at IFR since around that time as well. At least I have Foreflight on my iPad with me as a safety blanket. And the panel's not quite as bare as the one I started with all those billions of years ago, even if it does still look a little, uh, Twentieth Century.

* * *

Right from the start, this flight's just one damn thing after another, in so many unexpected ways. I'm not talking about the actual flying (more of which later), but about the broken nav light I find on pre-flight (meaning we have to be back earlier than I'd like), or the paper oil funnel that I lose in the cowl necessitating some deft work by John to retrieve it, or the way my headset starts a high-pitched screeching oscillation as we taxi to the runway (meaning I have to dig out a rarely-used second pair from my flight bag), or the total pilot-side audio system failure at the start of the LDA RWY 19R approach into Concord (basically meaning John has to handle the radios from that point on as I get plugged into the rear passenger intercom without PTT), or the ADF that doesn't actually work properly, or the … well, I'll stop there, because I'm making it sound like some sort of trial or annoying chore. It wasn't — this was actually a really enjoyable flight, and although I'll probably never fly this particular aircraft IFR (except maybe to get through a thin benign summer stratus layer back into Hayward or something), it's definitely fun to sit in the left seat of a 172 again and play old-time Real IFR pilot.

Predictably, my instruments skills are rusty, my instrument flying rough. The first time around the practice LDA 19R into Concord (with full pilot nav) is an endless procession of missed cues and my looking blankly at the KLN 94 GPS wondering how the hell I should set it up for the procedure turn or the next leg, etc. And I'm not even under the Cone Of Stupidity for this first time around — and I'm using the autopilot, for at least some of the way (before I ditch it and hand-fly for the rest of the flight — much more satisfying).

And when I do go under the hood, while my actual flying isn't terrible, it's hardly going to impress anyone. What does make me feel good, though, is just how quickly I internalize what the tiny attitude indicator (AI) and other instruments are telling me when I'm under the hood — I think that was my biggest worry, steam gauges or not, but it turns out it's not much of a problem at all. I feel gratifyingly comfortable mentally integrating all the needles, planes, and numbers the entire flight in ways that are simultaneously quite different from my way of working with the G1000 in detail but fundamentally the same with the big (mental) picture. Probably the thing that most flummoxes me during the flight is the inscrutable interface on the KLN 94 (an interface I once actually knew really well); I basically have to get John to prompt me every time I reprogram it or set it up for another approach. I have a few blank moments with the simple OBS as well — mostly, though, to do with how it relates to the KLN 94 rather than what it's telling me or how it works in general. So I start feeling good about things, despite the roughness and puzzled moments.

I manage to blot my copybook, though, with one monumental blunder — on the start of the circle-to-32R maneuver at 700' I confuse Concord's runway 01L with the intended landing runway 32R, which is something I haven't done since my student days, I think. I'd probably have caught it fairly quickly and not caused some sort of international incident (I always check with the HI), but it was still a sobering thing to do. Thank god John caught the error early on and I could get away with a normal landing on the correct runway as though I knew what I was really doing. The landing (a touch and go) itself was also pretty rough — all that time away from the 172 is definitely showing.

The second time around the LDA 19R approach — this time entirely under the hood and hand-flown — is smoother and better-executed, but still not precise or particularly inspiring; John still has to quietly prompt me here and there. And I'm definitely helped by having John have to do the radios for me; I'd probably be flying a lot worse without that help. And I've intermittently got the old death grip again on the yoke, something I thought I'd been cured of years ago. But as I tell John, at least I haven't killed anyone (yet), and it's definitely turning into a really enjoyable flight.

We go missed again at Concord and head south for the ILS 28R into Oakland (KOAK), an approach I think I've said a million times that I could probably do in my sleep. But I'm actually wide awake right now, and I wonder how this one's going to turn out — it's one thing to be able to remember all the fixes and waypoints off the top of your head (and I can), it's another to be able to dredge up the muscle memories that let you make those small smooth adjustments on the way down the glideslope to keep you falling off the localiser. We shall see.

As we're heading towards the ILS with NorCal Approach, John makes gentle fun of my accent and then admits he can't do an Australian accent to save himself. I taunt him with the observation that my first instructor Dave Montoya (RIP) could do a wicked good imitation of my accent, especially on-air, and that in any case, I don't really have an Australian accent any more — it's actually always been some sort of weird Anglo-Australian, and really never was truly Australian (I have three nationalities, and was born in in a country that really doesn't exist any more). John tries a few phrases, but he'll need a lot of coaching before he'll pass as an Aussie; I suspect it's easier for me to get IFR current and proficient again than John learning my accent. I'll do the funny accents on this flight if he'll do the radios, I guess.

The ILS goes surprisingly well — John gets me to fly the AI so that the top of the AI plane's wings are just touching the bottom of the horizon bars, which works wonderfully — and I nail the approach, looking up at about 500' feeling pretty good at seeing the runway dead ahead. Woohoo!

We go missed (well, you don't really go missed at Oakland, you just terminate the approach) and depart for Hayward, where I (finally!) land smoothly and gracefully. Mission accomplished, I think.

* * *

So how serious am I about getting IFR-current and proficient again? Fairly serious, is probably the best answer — I definitely miss the challenges and fun of doing approaches, and the ability to get back in when the nearly omnipresent stratus layer comes in over Hayward or Oakland in the non-winter, but the cost of staying current can still be prohibitive. I'll probably book another instrument flight with John fairly soon, this time in the DA-40 (or some sort of G1000-equipped airplane), and if that also goes well, I'll try a full instrument proficiency check with him after that.

We shall see, as I always say.

October 28, 2014

Night Flight

I carefully clear the airspace and start a steep(ish) 360 in the night sky somewhere west of Concord (KCCR) at 4,500', and one quadrant of the cockpit canopy fills with the lights on the ground. It's a great sight, and around we go. After rolling out on the 360 mark I hand JT the controls again, and tell her to try it herself this time. And so she does — she steers us around in her own 360, much shallower than mine, but pretty damn good for someone who's never been in a small GA plane before. She's already spent the past ten minutes flying us here from a few miles out of Livermore (KLVK) under my supervision, and she's kept us right-side-up and pretty much within a hundred feet of the target altitude all that time. I'm impressed; and she seems to be enjoying it a lot. As always with newcomers to small-plane GA flying, I'm really most relieved that she's not screaming "we're all going to die!!" or something while curled up on the floor. No one's ever done that yet, but that possibility is something I always keep in mind when I size someone up before taking them flying. I guess we've both passed this test.

* * *

JT's yet another acquaintance of mine willing to brave a flight with me, and here she is, climbing into the club's DA-40 with me on a cool October evening for a night VFR flight to Livermore for a bit of landing practice (my landings, that is, not JT's...) and then up to San Pablo Bay and back down the line of the hills to Hayward. I'd originally planned this flight for yesterday evening, and on my own, but someone (I know who you are!! :-)) forgot to leave the DA-40's keys and paperwork in the after-hours dropbox and I couldn't fly. And then on a moment's notice it turns out that JT would like to come along, and since these sorts of flights are always much more enjoyable with someone who actually likes flying coming along with you, I jumped at the chance, and rebooked for this evening. And so here we are….

After the impromptu 360's we fly on up and out over a dark-looking San Pablo Bay and back down over Richmond, Berkeley, and Oakland to Hayward (KHWD), where we land in that video game way I love with night flying. It's a beautiful clear night, and the traffic is minimal, and (once again) it's a reminder of why I keep flying.

October 13, 2014

Just Another Airport Sunrise...

7am, Hayward Executive Airport (KHWD). I currently work a lot on New York time, so I'm used to being at work this early, but it's still a slightly weird experience looking forward to a flight in the club's DA-40 as a passenger — I've never been in the right seat of a DA-40 before. I watch the sunlight hit the only clouds in the sky and the news guys warming up the helicopters just down the line. A wonderful sight; and the weather's perfect for what we're about to do.

I'm waiting for Arpad M., another club member, who's going to pilot us up to Obsidian Ridge (near Clear Lake and Lampson Field, 1O2) and then back via Napa to do some aerial photography of the two vineyards he co-owns. I'm not too sure we'll get any useful images, for several reasons: firstly, most of my aerial photography experience has either been air-to-air or has been done with a full window removed on a 172, and the DA-40's tiny opening side windows probably won't cut it (they're more like small vents than windows); and, secondly, it's probably a little too late in the year, and the sun will be too low and in the wrong place. But it's worth a try if Arpad's up for it, and it surely can't hurt. I've brought along my two main DSLRs — a Nikon D800 and my old D300, with a bunch of assorted lenses.

Arpad arrives and pre-flights the plane. We discuss the goals and the problems a bit, and end up with an informal plan that amounts to, well, "let's see what works..." once we're over the vineyards. Which works for me, but I'm a pessimist at heart.

Once in the air heading north(ish) over the East Bay it becomes obvious my original plan of sticking the lens a little way out the window on my side and using the cameras' live view screens to frame and focus (etc.) just isn't going to work. And neither is just looking directly through the viewfinders — in both cases the angles are too difficult (I'm not a contortionist) and the live screen view is too small and washed out by the light in the cockpit. I should have known — and I even have a separate much larger properly-shaded screen I use for live viewing of video work with the D800 that I could have hooked up and used. Oh well, next time.

In the meantime, we fly on up through the clear early morning air towards Obsidian Ridge; Arpad's a good pilot, better on the details than I am, and it's enjoyable just being able to look out without worrying too much about altitude or airspeed. I have to admit I didn't know where Obsidian Ridge actually is until now, and even flying up there I still had only a hazy idea of the lay of the land around it — this isn't a familiar part of the world for me, unlike the coast to the west or the Central Valley to the east, both of which I know well from the ground and the air. I do know where Clear Lake and Mt Konocti are, though, which is better than nothing — Obsidian Ridge is near enough to the latter that I could find it if I had to. It's beautiful, rugged country up there, and there's a bunch of new age and hippy settlements down in the forests along with the vineyards and small farms dotted around the area.

Once we get to Obsidian Ridge, I start taking photos in earnest. We fly around the vineyard — clearly visible on the slopes beneath us, surrounded by forest and one or two other settlements —a bunch of times and I quickly get the lay of the land and start taking photos. Unfortunately, as predicted, the sun's a little too low and southerly now, and although the air's pretty clear, having to shoot through the canopy degrades the image a lot, both with internal reflections and with the poor visual quality of the plastic. I try a few randomly-aimed shots out the side vents but they don't work too well either. Oh well, once again. We circle around several times looking for different angles, etc., and I get a lot of shots, but I'm pessimistic whether any of them will turn out well. But I can see what Arpad's aiming for — the vineyard surrounded by forests with the quiet drama of the Mayacamas mountains as a backdrop.

After I get maybe a hundred shots of wildly-differing quality and viewpoint, we head on back south(ish) towards Napa. Our next photo point is Poseidon vineyards, Napa Carneros, and I recognize it fairly easily from the air from some distance out. It's down near the bridge across the river, in Napa Airport's airspace, and as we approach Arpad calls up Napa (KAPC) and advises them we'll be circling here doing photography for a while.

And so we do — but I still have the same problems with aiming the cameras and the glare from the cockpit canopy, and after another hundred or so shots, I have to basically admit defeat. There's probably a couple of good(ish) shots, but I'm really not pleased by the way they're turning out in general.

We head off back towards Hayward after a while, and land at about 9am. It's been an enjoyable flight
— some wonderful landscapes and sights — but I can't get over how irritated I am by the likely poor results. Next time I'll try the external monitor for (at least) framing and let the camera do its own focusing and exposure.

A lot of lessons learned, but expensively (sorry Arpad!). But hell, it was an enjoyable ninety minutes or so of flying, even if I was in the right seat.

September 17, 2014


It's a beautiful warm cloudless California day. I do what I think is a nice smooth landing on San Luis Obispo's runway 29 in the DA-40, slow down, and turn towards the taxiway. Tower tells me to contact Ground on 121.6, and as I switch frequencies there's an ear-splitting ELT (emergency locator transmitter) going off on frequency. I very quickly suspect it's me, even though I landed without a bump, and they're only supposed to go off automatically like that after a severe accident.

I'm rattled enough by this — and by trying to debug it on-the-fly — that I stop before the hold short line while exiting the runway, and try to contact ground over the noise. Ground responds, then admonishes me severely for not pulling over the hold-short line (it takes two tries for me to hear Ground properly over the noise). And he tells me my ELT is going off. Guilty as charged on all counts, I think, but my brain's lost forty points of IQ because of the noise and the sudden stress of the ELT going off, and I just forgot. I taxi to the transient parking in front of the Jet Center, and a guy comes out and marshals me in. I shut down the engine and avionics, and realise I don't know how to turn this particular ELT off. It doesn't take long to find the reset switch, but it's mortifying a) to have the ELT go off; and, b) to not be able to turn it off for several minutes.

Even worse was the knowledge that I did not handle the whole thing well at all. I should have just ignored the ELT until I was parked (it's not like it's a long taxi at that point); and I should have immediately reset the bloody thing instead of wondering where the hell the reset actually was. Instead of looking for the panel, I tried to find it in the manual. Not the sharpest tool in the toolshed, am I? Amazingly, perhaps, this is the first time I've ever been in an aircraft when the ELT's gone off.

Still, as far as I know, no people or cute furry animals were harmed in this episode, and I survived to depart KSBP a few hours later… only to have the bloody thing go off again at least twice in mid-air. But that's for later.

* * *
I've planned a trip to San Luis Obispo for several months, mostly to visit John at his new place down there, but also just as a good excuse for lunch and a day's getaway from Oakland. Life kept getting in the way, of course (work especially — I travel a lot for work, often with only a few days' notice, and planning more than a few days ahead can be a frustrating experience). But here I am with a day off and several weeks without being sent to New York or Minneapolis or Los Angeles or wherever, so it's off to San Luis for the Billion Dollar Hamburger (or so it sometimes seems with the cost of flying).

I arrive at the California Airways office around 9am, hoping the eternal summer stratus layer will burn off early. But it's officially OVC 1,400 (overcast at 1400 feet), and forecast to stay that way until at least 10am, so I can't depart VFR for a while. Not for the first time in the last year or two I rue the fact that I'm no longer IFR current; this is exactly one of the sort of situations I got the instrument rating for in the first place. Oh well, maybe one day I'll get around to doing the full proficiency check; maybe not. We shall see. In the meantime I wander off to the local Starbucks (not my kind of place, but hey...).

But there's also a more interesting weather issue on the horizon: an unusual Pacific storm system coming down the coast promising light rain and maybe even thunderstorms later today. Rain at this time of the year around here is unusual, to put it mildly; plus we're in a prolonged drought. So it feels ironic that the only day I'm likely to be flying for a while may end up being pre-empted by the sort of unusual weather we desperately need. At the very least I'm going to have to come back earlier than I'd like, to get in before the storm.

In any case it starts clearing by 10am, and I depart Hayward (KHWD) at 10.45, destination San Luis Obispo (KSBP), my tentative VFR route KHWD, VPEMB (the Embassy Suites, a local landmark and VFR reporting point), KRHV, E16, KSNS, KKIC, BRALY, KPRB, KSBP. Not necessarily the shortest or most direct route, but it keeps me out of a restricted area, keeps me away from some sharp terrain that often generates unpleasant turbulence, and keeps me close to a bunch of airports in case of trouble. This is a route I've done with minor variations a bunch of times in the last fifteen years.

Hayward Tower hands me off to NorCal on the downwind, and I quickly get cleared into the Class B at 5,500', my cruise altitude all the way to San Luis. I climb in the face of a steady stream of 737s and bizjets arriving for Oakland and Hayward, and get vectored several times for traffic — just the usual for this sort of departure. At 5,500' I level off and notice that the forecast 30 knot headwind for much of my journey is real — it wasn't an exaggeration or a pessimistic prediction. So for the next forty minutes or so — until well clear of King City — I have a TAS of something like 130 knots giving me a ground speed of about 100 knots. I'm not dumb enough to believe this will work for me coming the other way, and, sure enough, hours later on the return trip I have little more than a 5 knot tailwind for most of the trip back. The rest of the trip down is pleasant and uneventful until the ELT Incident; the landscape below me is typically Californian, rugged, mostly parched, and very familiar to me both from the air and from the ground.

After landing, parking, and resetting the ELT, I meet John at the Jet Center, and we go off to lunch. We go to Taste on Broad, a nice grownup-Hip sort of place with excellent food (I ordered the three sliders special which nicely did the trick), and friendly staff. John and I talk about instructing, flying, work, etc., down here, and SLO life in general (it's different from life in Berkeley or Oakland, that's for sure). He's covered most of the printable things in his blogs so I won't repeat them here, but it's an animated and very pleasant conversation. It's good to see John again.

After lunch we drive the short distance to John's place and down some strong home-made espresso over more enjoyable talk and gossip, but then I have to leave so I don't get caught in the promised storm. On the San Luis ramp in front of the Jet Center there's a rather odd-looking white-and-orange Navy Cessna 337 with only a rear engine, and instead of the forward engine, a long, thin, extended nose probably full of weirdo surveillance gear. Two crew-cut guys in business casual are walking towards it when I'm passing it, so I think twice about taking its photo. A few minutes later it's climbing out of San Luis just behind me.

I depart with flight following back to Hayward; the route back is basically just the route down to KSBP, reversed. Not much to report about the flight back except (as noted above) the strong headwind coming down turned into a pathetic tailwind going back, there seemed to be a lot more turbulence this time (too much for the autopilot), and the ELT goes off twice in quick succession somewhere abeam Salinas, in smooth, calm air. This time I'm prepared for it and immediately reset the ELT as soon as I hear it, but still, it's worrying.

The only other thing I took much notice of was that I had a weird hand-off between NorCal Approach sectors somewhere around Fremont. I usually check in on hand-offs with something like "NorCal Approach, Diamond Star N392MA, level at 5,500" or similar, and the controller typically just responds with an altimeter setting for a nearby city, and that's that. This time the controller responds to my checkin call with a gruff set of questions about where I'm going, whether I'm VFR or IFR, etc. All this despite having been on flight following continuously since arranging it with KSBP tower, and having one of the previous NorCal controllers asking me unprompted whether I wanted the Moffet / Dumbarton route back to Hayward (I'd replied with something like I'll take Reid-Hillview and up the hills, which satisfied him). I give my details to the new controller, who ends the exchange with  something along the line of "Next time, it'd help if you tell me where you're going, whether you're VFR, your altitude, etc.". OK, if you say so…. A dropped hand-off? I don't know, but only a mild irritation in any case.

Closer to Hayward I can see some interesting-looking clouds over the North Bay as the system rolls south towards us — the layered lenticulars in particular look kinda threatening and out-of-place in this most benign of all weather worlds. I'm sort of glad I got back early, but I'm betting the storm will be pretty dismal, rain-wise [later: yes, a little bit of warm drizzle only].

I park the plane back on the Green Ramp, then go back to California Airways to squawk the ELT problem. Not a bad day's flying, really.

August 26, 2014

Around and Around

Some sort of relaxation with an impromptu 1 hour flight in the California Airways DA-40 from Hayward (KHWD) to Livermore (KLVK) and back for touch and goes, and a side excursion over Brushy Peak and the windfarm, all on my own. There’s really nothing relaxed about getting to Livermore from Hayward — dodging the Oakland Class C and the SF Class B airspaces, trying to miss the hills, keeping a paranoid eye out for conflicting traffic coming in to Hayward and Oakland and the Peninsula across the hills, and trying to contact Livermore tower early enough for comfort — but I always enjoy it, and the touch and goes are hypnotically fun. I get better (more precise with things like MP and airspeed) with each landing, which is gratifying. I’d do this more often if it weren’t so bloody expensive….

July 06, 2014

Mercy Hot Springs

At 5,500' over Interstate 5 in the Central Valley, the outside air temperature (OAT) is reading 25C. That means it's hot down there (especially for Bay Area coastal types like me for whom a summer temperature above 20C is unexpectedly warm). The hills to our right as we fly south in the CalAir DA-40 are covered with that beautiful shimmering golden-brown that envelopes California in the dry season; the sky's California Blue, with a few high cirrus here and there. Mesmerizing.

J.'s sitting in the right seat, looking out at California passing below us. Suddenly she says "Mercy Hot Springs is around here somewhere, isn't it?!" It is —in fact it's maybe thirty nautical miles away if we head slightly to our right across those golden hills and keep going (a little local knowledge goes a long way here — I've driven past Mercy Hot Springs (a.k.a. "Mercey Hot Springs") a bunch of times on photo trips along the West Side, and I can easily recognize the hills and roads from the air). I ask J. if she wants to see it from above — "of course!". It turns out that it's one of her favourite hot springs (there's a lot of hot springs in California), and of course she's interested in seeing what it looks like from a few thousand feet up.

So we head off cross country, and maybe fifteen minutes later we're over the springs, a tiny set of green trees, brown buildings, and a grey parking lot just off the country two-lane blacktop that goes past it on towards Panoche. She looks down, totally absorbed, then says wow, I didn't realize how isolated it is — seeing it from up here makes it look like it's in the middle of nowhere. Well, Mercy Hot Springs is in the middle of nowhere — that's why people go there — but she's right, there's really nothing around it except for parched golden hills. It's beautiful, enticingly isolated; I could be persuaded to go there sometime myself. There's even a narrow dirt strip there, but I doubt that I'd be allowed to land the DA-40 there even if I wanted to (see this article for someone who has landed there). Maybe when I'm rich and famous and own my own nice little Husky… (ha!).

After a slow fly-by a few thousand feet AGL, I ask where she wants to go now? I don't know, she says, I just enjoy watching it all from up here. So I turn west towards Salinas (KSNS), and climb to get over the mountains between here and there. We're kind of making this up as we go along, which isn't my usual style, but it's a good day for it, and it's familiar territory, both from the ground and from up here.

* * *

This was supposed to be a flight up the coast to Shelter Cove (0Q5), but (as so often with a  California summer), the weather didn't cooperate, and there's a shallow stratus (fog) layer all the way north of about Point Reyes, meaning both Shelter Cove and Mendocino (Little River, KLLR) are IFR. Plan B was Monterey (KMRY), but if Mendocino's fogged in, it's likely Monterey is too — and, of course, it is. So I suggest we fly to Salinas the long way (via the Central Valley) and if Monterey is clear by the time we get there, great; if not, well, we'll go somewhere (or do something) else. Maybe we'll be able to fly back up the coast; maybe not.

* * *

Salinas airport is — as always nowadays, as far as I can tell — quiet. We call up Salinas tower from some distance to the east, and make a long straight-in to runway 26; there's one other plane on frequency. We taxi to the terminal, park, and wander in. It's actually cool and sunny down here: 21C OAT, presumably from the marine layer coming in from Monterey and the coast a few miles away. Very, very pleasant. We retrieve the lunch cooler and water from the plane, and sit outside in the shade at the picnic table in front of the rather classic little old GA terminal. It's a leisurely lunch — the three-hundred dollar hamburger, except we're Californian, so it's a lot of salad and healthy stuff rather than a hamburger (we did bring along enough chocolate to keep me from complaining; but I forgot to bring any coffee, though, which was a major mistake). I was sneakily hoping the restaurant at the airport would be open, but it's closed on Sundays, so no coffee (or hamburgers) there. At least there is still a restaurant at the airport — for some time there wasn't really anything open at all, if I remember correctly.

We get to see a few helicopters and one or two planes arrive or depart; probably more than I expected, but it's a holiday weekend, I guess. There's briefly one other person in the terminal, but he disappears quickly. At one point a Citation lands on runway 31, then taxis slowly back towards runway 26, stops for a while with its engines still running on one of the taxiways, then departs on 26 to wherever it's going. Not the usual behaviour for a Citation, but whatever. Perhaps Monterey was full.

After lunch we stroll around the apron taking photos of the Calstar Eurocopter (that's its fenestron above) and a small old bubble-canopied ag helicopter with a massive spraying attachment. A reminder that Salinas is agricultural, for sure. We get back in to the DA-40, and a few minutes later we're on our way back to Hayward (KHWD). We can see that the coast north of about Santa Cruz is foggy, so we go back the long way, out over Hollister and back into the Central Valley. Those hills and mountains are way more attractive than going the short way up over San Jose, and we've got the plane for another couple of hours. This time, on contacting Hayward tower, we get "Report Cal State" and I can't make fun of the FAA for referencing a non-existent landmark any more. Oh well — the little things really matter in flying.

Back in Hayward it's cool and pleasant. We've logged just under 3 hours (Hobbs), and we take on about 20 gallons of fuel after landing. Not bad.

June 01, 2014

Welcome To Napa County Airport

Well, it's not quite the first time I've been here, but it's J's first fly-in, and that's pretty much all that matters, no?

We're on one of those enjoyable extended Bay Tours, this time out of Hayward (KHWD), once again in CalAir's DA-40. The weather's perfect for it, and we have the plane for four hours, so why not just ... fly? And so we do: departing from Hayward we do the (always-rather-stressful) head-for-Lake-Chabot-and-wait-for-hand-off-to-Oakland-Tower-while-trying-to-remain-out-of-the-Class-C-and-Class-B-airspaces-and-simultaneously-try-not-to-hit-the-Oakland-Hills thing, then get the Oakland Tower transition along Interstate-580 (which I asked for rather than Interstate 880, mostly because I'm like that (and there was some sort of game on at the Oakland Coliseum which we would have had to avoid on the I-880 route)), then get quickly handed off to NorCal for the usual "remain well north of the [Bay Bridge] toll plaza and clear of the Class Bravo at all times" Bay Tour, then potter along at 110 knots or so past Downtown Oakland and Emeryville, destination the Golden Gate. So far so good.

My passenger J., a recent acquaintance (we have several mutual friends) who didn't seem too horrified by the idea of flying with me when I first asked, seems to be enjoying it, and I start to relax. This is her second time in a small GA airplane; the first was a long time ago out of Willits, an airport that I've visited a couple of times, and that isn't exactly the least exciting place to land or take off at. We head off over the Bay towards Alcatraz, which we circle a couple of times, then wander off towards the Golden Gate. I hand J. the stick and let her fly for a while; she's a bit nervous with that, and hands control back to me after a couple of minutes, but she does pretty well, and no one dies or gets arrested as a result of her flying. The Golden Gate turns out to be invisible under the stratus layer, so we go back down along the San Francisco shoreline for a while before heading across to Marin via Angel Island. J. seems content to mostly just watch things go by — as she says later, it's great being above it all, no? Yes, it is.

We then head off towards San Pablo Bay, passing San Quentin and the Richmond Bridge, ending up over San Pablo Bay at 3,000' so we can do some light maneuvers. Once again, I give J. control of the plane, and we do a few turns and things until she gives it back to me. She seems to be enjoying this too, but I suspect she's more comfortable just watching the world go by. I do a few steep turns to show her how that works, and she enjoys that, at least.

We head off towards the Petaluma River, fly up and around it for a little while, then head off towards Napa (KAPC). We join the pattern for runway 18R on a long 45 from Scaggs Island VOR, then get an extended downwind and then a wide left 360 out of the way as we wait for a rather fast Challenger to do the straight-in from seven miles out. We finally see him and join the pattern again, landing on 18R staying high to avoid wake turbulence. We taxi to transient parking; embarrassingly, I have to ask Ground the best way to get there and where to park (it's been a while, and there was some weirdo stuff with orange cones and maintenance along the obvious way; plus the Challenger was bearing down on us from the other direction...).

We get out and wander off to the terminal, then spend a few minutes relaxing quietly in the comfy chairs looking out at the apron and runways. There's a beautiful view of Mt Tamalpais shimmering darkly way off in the distance, and in the foreground there's a bunch of reminders of how the other half (or 1%) live, shiny and simmering in their own way (or maybe they're just glinting).

As we're sitting there, a bunch of people come in through the main terminal door from the parking lot looking for Jonesy's, the steak house that used to be in the terminal. But Jonesy's has been closed for a while now, and they leave disappointed. In fact, the terminal's quite dead; we're the only people there as far as I can see.

We eventually wander back out to the plane, with J. commenting that our plane looks nicer, newer, shinier, faster, and better-maintained than the other small GA planes out on the ramp. I'm not sure I quite agree (she would say that, wouldn't she?!), but it makes me feel proudly-amused (or amusedly-proud; maybe both). There's a Cirrus SR-22 sitting there next to our plane, and for my money it's the better airplane overall, but it's got a puzzlingly-bad paint job on it (aesthetically, anyway), so I guess we still look the hippest and sleekest and most modern of all. Not that that matters to me, oh no!

We depart Napa towards Concord and the Diablo Valley, and it starts to get a bit bumpy. This doesn't faze J., but she definitely notices the way the plane's reacting and the way it affects the controls. The view of Mt Diablo off to our left is dramatic (I get so jaded flying around the Bay Area), and J. gets an appreciation for just how extensive the Berkeley / Oakland Hills are for the first time (it's difficult to judge from the ground). We fly down Interstate-680 until I decide to do a detour out towards the Altamont wind farm, after which we fly back up past Livermore, then up Interstate-580 (it's been an Interstate kind of day in the best sort of way...), and over the Hills into Hayward, getting the old "Report Cal State Hayward" thing that always amuses me (I'm easily amused).

Back on the ground at the Green Ramp, someone else has parked in our designated space, and I fret and fume my way around the obstruction and park in the spot next to it, wondering if the Hayward Airport Parking Police will come and ding me for it. I have to steal the wheel chocks from the plane parked in our authorised spot (actually one of the club's other planes, but never mind) because they're the only ones that fit under the reduced-clearance wheel pants on the DA-40. I keep imagining Hayward Tower watching me take the chocks through their binoculars, but no one turns up to arrest me or anything (and I do at least put the other chocks in the right place under the Other Airplane).

While we're still there, the fueling truck arrives, and I discover that we used a fair bit less fuel than I expected. I guess all that paying attention to leaning and throttle / prop settings can pay off, but then the DA-40's a pretty fuel-efficient plane anyway. Back in the club, I tell Susie about the planes being in the wrong place, and feel better that this is an irritatingly-common thing with certain club pilots (I KNOW WHO YOU ARE!), and I won't get blamed for it. Not this time, anyway.

* * *

Later, I ask J. what the best bit was. "Oh, everything!", she says, which is an enjoyable thing to hear after a flight like that.

April 26, 2014

The Way We Were

I can't help it: the image in the previous post of the cockpit instrumentation (including my iPad) I now take for granted made me go back to my original flying diary to find this image of 12R's panel back when I was learning to fly. Not exactly state of the art even then, but still, a pretty representative Cessna 172 panel from the late 1990's (12R's panel might even still look like this for all I know).

Do I ever look back on this sort of stuff with nostalgia? Not bloody likely. Like the old flying diary itself (which transmogrified into this blog, but still lives on as an extremely old-fashioned and primitive-looking thing if you can find it), I look on it and wonder (but not exactly with wonder)....

April 20, 2014

Because I Can

2,500' Over Oakland

A low-intensity solo local VFR flight… because I can. This should have been another flight with a friend, but he couldn't make it at the last moment, so why not just … fly? So I do, circumnavigating Mt Diablo, doing touch and goes at Livermore (KLVK), lazily sightseeing over the Diablo Valley, etc., all in perfect Bay Area spring VFR weather.

I've bought new headsets — Lightspeed Sierras — to replace my old Lightspeeds, and the new ones work nicely, after having wrestled with the odd settings on the audio panel which initially made me think the new Sierras were broken. Back when I had something to do with club aircraft maintenance, we used to joke that 90% of all pilot-initiated avionics-related squawks are ultimately caused by the pilot not understanding the audio panel, and this is nearly one of those (but I did understand the panel, and I did debug the problem, after first blaming the headsets :-)).

Early tomorrow I'll resume my more usual position somewhere in the passenger cabin of a Southwest 737 bound for Burbank (KBUR). Not quite the same thing, really.

March 16, 2014

Taking a Six Year Old Flying

(The latest pic in a certain theme...)

I haven't taken my little nephew Alex flying since he was nearly four, and now he's six and a half (going on seven), and he's been bugging me about it for a year. So here we are, on Hayward's Green Ramp, pre-flighting 2MA, CalAir's DA-40 in bright morning sunshine. I had to cancel this flight a few weeks ago due to rain, but this time the weather's perfect. I get Alex to help with the pre-flight — moving the chocks, unchaining the wings, etc., while he watches business jets, little Cessnas, a helicopter, etc., taxi around us or take off and land. He asks all sorts of questions about ... well, everything... of course, and I can't always answer them, but he learns what each bit of the plane is called, and how to drain and check the fuel sumps. He won't remember it all, but it's a start, I guess. He particularly likes the way 2MA looks — it has the sort of sleek modern style that seven-year(ish) old boys think is cool — more so than the C172 which he in flew last time, anyway.

We climb in — Alex's mother Annette sits in the right front seat — and close the bubble (as Alex calls it). Alex loves his headset (which he's been wearing continuously since we finished the pre-flight) and I thank god that the back seats have no push-to-talk (he's not exactly the most taciturn of kids). We start up and I tell Ground we'll be doing the VFR Bay Tour transitioning through Oakland Tower's airspace, then taxi to 28L (I chose this runway rather than the smaller and closer 28R because I want Alex to see a big runway from the ground). I get a running "are we taking off yet? are we taking off yet?" from the back seat, which is pretty funny, especially when I have to patiently explain things like taxiing and the runup (I'm such a killjoy). I keep wondering when he's going to ask where the triggers are; sure enough, he points to the red autopilot disengage button on the stick and asks whether that's for the missiles. I wish, is all I say.

After a successful runup we taxi forward to the hold short line at Alpha, then get cleared for the usual takeoff and departure towards Lake Chabot below the Oakland Class C. And off we go... with Alex sitting quietly in the back as instructed, looking out intently at the world going by. We get handed off to Oakland Tower, then do the 880 transition up to the Bay Bridge, passing Alameda (where Alex lives) and Jingletown (where I live) to our left. Annette points out Alex's school for him, and he spots the various bridges across the Estuary, and then the Bay Bridge. He keeps saying things like "Coooool!" or "that's FANTASTIC!!!", which (of course) makes it so enjoyable.

(I live in the industrial area at the bottom centre of the photo above; Alameda's the island just across the Estuary from where I live).

We fly past the Bay Bridge toll plaza then head for Alcatraz. I circle it at 2,500' so Alex can look at it; he said the other day he wanted to see a jail, so here it is. Sometime soon I guess we'll take him on a boat to see Alcatraz up close, but right now it's wreathed in a loose tongue of fog coming in from the Golden Gate — which itself is picture perfect, with the fog coming in from the Pacific and bright sunlight above it all. We head for the Golden Gate, circling it a couple of times in each direction for photos and to give Alex a good view.

(An accidentally arty pic of the Golden Gate today).

We go back down the shoreline in front of San Francisco, then head across to Angel Island, then across to San Pablo Bay, where we drop flight following. I have the idea that I'll do some very light maneuvers for Alex to see how he responds; he loves them of course, so the turns get tighter, which amuses him, but Annette — who gets queasy at even the slightest bump — doesn't look so happy, so we return to normal level flying and head towards Concord, then along the Diablo Valley to Livermore. Alex recently went camping on Mt Diablo, and thinks it's really cool to see it from 3,000' up. On the way along the valley I do a series of little pull-up / pull-down maneuvers for Alex, which he later says was the high point of the flight, but Annette isn't so happy. Later, she sends me a short video she took on her iPhone of Alex reacting to the maneuvers — he's giggling ecstatically.

I was originally planning on doing a full stop landing at Livermore, and getting out to stretch our legs, but I suspect Alex would find touch-and-goes more exciting, so I call up Livermore Tower and ask for touch and goes. We get right traffic for 25R, and in what becomes a bit of an unintentional running gag, the controller promotes us to a Diamond Twin, then misunderstands my correction, meaning that for the entire time we're in the pattern, either we're a Diamond Twin, or she has our call sign one digit off (occasionally both). After about the third correction I just go with the flow — the controller's otherwise very competent and friendly, and who cares that we're missing an engine?! I keep waiting for a snarky comment on air about that missing engine, but everyone keeps it to themselves, I guess. It's predictably quite busy at Livermore, and we quickly get switched to 25L, which is a much smaller runway, and have our downwind extended a couple of times. Alex says he thinks the runway looks too small, but when we do the touch and goes, he's thrilled by the whole thing.

After the third touch and go (and to Annette's immense relief, I suspect), we head off back over the hills to Hayward. On call up to Hayward Tower, I'm amused that we still get asked to report "Cal State Hayward" when it's been "Cal State East Bay" now for years, and when the main landmark CSEB building was demolished a while back, and if you're not a local you probably have no idea where CSEB is otherwise, but never mind (it'll always be CSH for many of us locals anyway).

We land on 28R, taxi back to the Green Ramp, and tie the plane down. It's been a fun morning, and I suspect that the next time I take him flying, Alex will be sitting in the front seat. We shall see....

February 01, 2014

Fred, Flying

Fred's a colleague of mine, and has put up with enough of my stories at work about flying to call my bluff and ask me for a flight sometime. So here we are at Hayward (KHWD), taking the California Airways DA-40 for a nice VFR Bay Tour. The weather's perfect (creepily so, given the drought here in California), and, really, there's not much to say about the resulting 90 minute flight around the Golden Gate, Angel Island, San Francisco's Fishermans Wharf (we both work across from Pier 39), the Marin Headlands, Richmond, Napa, Concord, and other places nearby except it was a pleasant return to VFR flying with a passenger who's not a pilot but keen about flying.

The only drama — and really, it wasn't very dramatic — came on returning back to Hayward from across the hills when someone spotted what looked like clothing on the threshold of runway 28L, which was closed for maybe ten minutes, meaning we had to do a bunch of maneuvers to let the planes originally cleared for 28L land in front of us on 28R (it happened just as we were cleared on right base for 28R). Fred was following along well enough on the radio to understand what was happening, which was impressive; we ended up on an extended downwind waiting for a Mooney to flash past us. Otherwise, a scenic but entirely undramatic flight with a couple of touch and goes at Napa to keep proficient.

I'd spent much of the day before the flight wondering if I'd get the details — fuel pumps, flap settings, prop settings, etc. — correct on my own, but in the end, the combination of the iPad checklist app and my own memory seems to have served me well. I know I keep saying this, but I should do this more often...