Post-Solo (Part 1)
A perfect day for flying: clear, warm, slightly breezy, no fog in the morning or afternoon, one of those brilliant Bay Area spring days we haven't really seen this year until now. Oakland's ATIS, for one glorious hour around midday, starts with "Hi. How are you? It's a lovely day for flying" before some manager somewhere cottons on and the tape goes back to the formal "Oakland International Airport information charlie,...". The sound of the weirdly-accented synthesised voice lurching through the greeting is oddly touching. Almost human.
When I get to the clubhouse I find that both 12R and 9UL are down: 12R (which I've booked) has a cracked cylinder, 9UL's got a dead battery. Both will be ready tomorrow afternoon at the earliest. 12R's just had a new engine, so Doug's pretty unhappy about it -- it's gone back to the shop at SQL for warranty repairs. Doug and I sit around and talk about everything from tax preparers to the origins of the club to the price of airplanes. Doug's incredulous at the almost unheard-of twice-in-a-row failure to remember to turn the master switch off in 9UL, the reason for its dead battery. Doug muses about what's going to happen when he's not around looking after the planes; as he says, there won't be any retired flying fanatics with time on their hands who can stand being around the clubhouse half the day....
When Dave turns up we discuss what to do: we could take out the Cherokee, but only for 90 minutes. We could rebook. We could go for a good drink.... We rebook for Wednesday, then twice a week for the next few weeks. I'd love to take the Cherokee up, and Doug's worried that it's not getting used enough, but there's just not quite enough time. Dave likes the idea too. Oh well. Next time....
Another perfect day, clear, breezy, hot (CCR ATIS says it's 38 degrees; OAK is much cooler at about 28). Dave's emailed and said he'll be half an hour late, so I pre-flight 12R, then lie in shade under its wings for a while. The hangar at the far end of the club's row is open, and they've wheeled out an enormous-looking Cessna Conquest II, a turbine-powered large twin. Very rare, apparently. Inside the hangar an old man is pottering about in overalls at a workbench with assorted drills, lathes, etc. A kid (his son?) is spray-painting a 60's Mustang (the car) inside. Dave later says he's flown the Conquest several times to LA and back for the old guy; he owns some sort of fuel storage company. The plane looks great, but it has cobwebs along its leading edges and intakes. When was it last flown? There's clutter, junk, and tools everywhere in the hangar. It's hard to see where the plane fits....
The club's old C177 -- sold to a local doctor a year or two ago because people preferred the 172's -- is sitting in its Old-T's spot next to the club without its engine. Doug says the engine lost its oil when the plane was within about a mile of the airport: a slightly-misaligned nosewheel managed to retract a little too far and pushed the oil drain in just after takeoff. The oil rushed back out.... The doctor's apparently a paraplegic, and uses a special stick arrangement for the pedals. You've got to be keen....
When Dave arrives I lay out my idea of what we'll do: fly to Richmond / San Pablo Bay, do airwork, then do Concord (CCR) for general Class D practice and tough-and-goes, then, if we've got time, let's try Livermore again.
We take off and head for Richmond, where Dave wants me to do the MCA maneuvers. On the way he asks a series of questions about the airspace: how high can we go here before we bust the Class B? What about over there? What's the Class C floor just here? What landmark do you associate with the start of the inner area of OAK's Class C? Etc. I'm stumped: four weeks ago I could have told him pretty much everything, but I realise too late that I didn't even look at the SFO terminal chart when preparing for today. I spent all the time obsessing over CCR's runway arrangement and approach details. I feel really stupid, but it's a great lesson in preparation. It's even worse when I try to get my charts out to give him some sort of on-the-fly answers: I can't extract the charts easily from the kneeboard arrangement I've been using lately, and when I do I have trouble keeping the plane straight and level. And then the kneeboard spills over and gets wedged next to the seat. Argh!. An even better lesson in cockpit management. I've absolutely got to be able to do this smoothly and efficiently while in the air, especially on my own. I need to rethink my approach to charts, etc.: it's too complicated, I've tried to be too clever with it and all my little sheets of frequencies and airport diagrams....
Over Richmond and San Pablo I try the MCA maneuvers. It goes really badly: I lose and gain altitude, I lose heading, I just can't get it at all. I'm out of practice, and I can't seem to remember what's wanted: I get confused about whether Dave wants me to keep a steady speed or altitude, etc., and I end up getting it all wrong. Very depressing. Dave makes me do it again, and the second time it's a bit better, but still barely up to PTS standards, and not nearly as good as it was four weeks ago. The lack of practice really shows....
Since I'm obviously depressed about it, Dave gets me to do steep turns and stalls. I love the steep turn stuff, and he knows I'll get them and the power-off stalls right each time. Which I do, but it doesn't make me feel any less depressed about both the MCA and earlier cockpit management / chart problems. Too much to (re)learn. Power-on stalls are also OK (still a bit ragged, but not terrible). We do another simulated engine-out over the fields on Mare Island, which goes OK but not brilliantly. At least I would have got us within a few hundred metres of where I said I would.... We also do turns around a point and S-bends along a road, both of which go OK for a beginner, and both of which I haven't really done much before.
Then off to Concord. This is a new airport for me, and I've been warned it can be an unpleasant experience. Dave obviously dislikes the place, and spends a lot of time pointing out how few places there are around it for emergency landings. It's also -- as I discover over the next 30 minutes -- bumpy as hell. The Valley seems to attract turbulence from the hills around it, and several times in the pattern I just couldn't keep us straight and level. Another useful lesson....
We do about ten touch-and-goes on 19R (the much bigger of the two runways 19), and I really don't do a very good job. I'm unused to a (stiff) right crosswind, and my coordination on the flare and just after was terrible. Dave had to take the yoke once. And it was so hot I just wanted to get out and lie in the shade. But I didn't kill anyone.... The only excitement came with the arrival of an apparently NORDO (no radio) Cessna, which ends up being uneventful and by-the-book NORDO stuff. It was encouraging to hear how much work Tower did in this case, going through all the various ways of working out whether the pilot could hear her but not transmit, etc.; the only question we had was how she knew (without radar) it was coming. Stockton approach may have told her; I don't know. It didn't sound like a routine ferry-to-have-the-radios-fixed NORDO flight either, as she clearly didn't know the true status of the plane's radios.
Anyway, I'm even more depressed after the touch-and-goes: bad landings, bad preparation, poor MCA airwork, bad cockpit management, etc. I try to be positive about it -- these are great lessons -- but it's still depressingly obvious how much I've unlearned over the past four weeks, and how much I still have to learn.
Dave suggests we leave the pattern and fly for Livermore. I'm game, and we exit and fly down the valley. Once again I'm quizzed about airspaces and landmarks, and once again I don't have good answers and find it difficult to get the answers without upsetting the plane.
We land at Livermore and taxi to the transient area to get a drink. It's really hot here, about 39 I think, and very dry and windy. After a drink in the little terminal building I feel a lot better; I even landed OK at Livermore (behind a Pitts that seemed to be doing twice our speed). When I'm ready I get up and suggest we go out. Dave says no, he'll stay here and let me fly the pattern a few times. I didn't see this coming, and I tell him that after all the crap airwork and landings I've just done, I can't imagine I'm ready for another solo. But he's encouraging, and I think I can do it, so I go out and do it all myself from scratch. Five touch-and-goes and one full-stop to pick Dave up.
This part is really enjoyable: everything goes right, and if the landings were a little rough, well, I didn't bend anything, and only once came even close to thinking about a go-around. At the first takeoff I was told to do a left pattern, and, sure enough, got switched to 25L, the tiny runway (2500 x 70). Slightly wider than Palo Alto's but still very small. One time around while on the runway just after landing I suddenly got this horrible feeling: maybe I've just landed on a taxiway (there's a couple of long parallel taxiways at LVK). The surface looks too rough and unpainted for a real runway... but it is the real runway, of course, and my little moment of existential angst passes quickly. I feel confident, maybe too confident. The third time around I realise I'm way too high on final, and decide to just ... slip a few hundred feet. It works. Perhaps I shouldn't have done it, but I was extra careful to keep airspeed up and not to get out of the slip too late.
The contrast with Concord and with the last time we were here at Livermore is obvious: I'm much more at ease, and I'm actually familiar with the pattern and airport now. Even with a full pattern, LVK just seems easier to understand. I actually see the other planes; and once again, I feel pleased that Tower generally just leaves me alone except to issue the landing clearances. What a difference... Still, though, my landings are not as good as at Oakland: I'm flaring slightly high, and landing a little too roughly as a result, but it's nothing a little practice won't cure.
I pick Dave up and we leave for Oakland. Nothing much out of the ordinary this time except the small Cessna that came straight at us in the pass above 580 until we flashed our lights and veered right, and the immaculate P51 sitting on the apron in front of Kaiser.... Refueling at Kaiser, we hear the dreaded Abex startup. This time it's one of the old-engined DC-8's, and the noise comes inexorably closer to us on the ramp (at first you can only see the tailfin above the intermediate fences and buildings, then the white and red plane itself emerges). Abeam of us it's deafening, even at idle, a terrific shrieking roar. It's hard to believe anyone still flies them with the old engines -- even Airborne Express has a couple with newer high-bypass engines on them.
* * *
So what went right this time? Radio work, mostly. Really nothing goes wrong or causes much of a problem the entire flight, which was to some extent one of the aims of today. I heard all the CCR and LVK directions, including reporting points and traffic without any prompting from Dave, and when I was confused about the LVK left traffic clearance I didn't even think: I just called Tower and asked him what he wanted just to be sure. At another point during the solo I asked for the full stop on 25R, and got asked whether I wanted right or left traffic. I just asked Tower what he'd suggest, and got a nice suggestion in return, laid-back and untroubled. Dave's listening in on my handheld, and later compliments me on handling the whole thing. I hate to admit it, but as far as ATC goes, I feel more confident when he's not there: I can concentrate on it, and since he's not around, I just have to do it. It's not that hard any more, and I've learned how to sound relatively authoritative at the same time as not hesitating to ask for clarification.... Maybe I'm too glib: I reply to a traffic call during the solo with a "12R. Gotcha. He's dead ahead", instead of the regulation response ("traffic in sight"). Well, at the time, that was all that came to mind (I was on base watching the Duchess zipping past dead ahead a few hundred metres in front of me with a feathered right prop)....
* * *
I took my GPS 195 along for the trip this time, using the yoke mount. The results were mixed: it helped identify airspace boundaries and general direction / distance stuff very well, but it was a) too hard to see well inside the cockpit because of the varying light conditions and limited contrast available (and it doesn't help being yoke-mounted -- it's too close for comfort with my long-sighted eyes), and b) it's difficult to use properly without a lot of button pushing, which just got lost in the general rush and business this flight. Yet another cockpit management lesson....
I don't know what to do about the first problem; the second should improve with practice. I may (re)try strapping the 195 to my left thigh, but that puts it very close to the yoke (there's not much clearance between the top of my legs and the bottom of the yoke as it is), and it won't solve the general lighting / contrast issue. But it might make it more readable for me.
Another perfect day for flying... but my flying's pretty damn ordinary. Oakland to Concord (across the hills and up Diablo Valley for a straight-in to 32L), a few touch-and-goes at CCR (Dave teasing the controller about her strong Minnesota accent), then San Pablo Bay for airwork, then touch-and-go's at Napa (APC) 18L, then a full stop, my third solo (5 landings), then back to Oakland. CCR as bumpy as ever; APC less so, both with quite variable winds especially on final. Not as hot as last time (APC 29-30 degrees, which is bearable).
A frustrating sort of day: I did nothing really badly, but I also did nothing really well. My landings were rough but not terrible, my airwork was OK but nothing special (I need more attention to detail), and I ended up feeling like I hadn't made much progress except in two crucial areas: radio / ATC and CRM. Once again, my radio work was good and fairly confident, except for two stupid mistakes: I called APC tower and told them I was over Napa rather than Mare Island; Dave caught this, but I wouldn't have, and it's a major mistake with potentially dire consequences; and I remained on tower's frequency at OAK instead of switching to ground when instructed. And this time my CRM was much better. In fact this time -- after rethinking it all over the past week -- I had little trouble getting the charts out and reading them properly, or using the 195 conveniently, or getting frequencies and noting things down. A lot better than last week. The 195 came in very handy for distance reporting and airspace confirmation, and after thinking about how to yoke mount it differently over the last day or two, I got it set up so it was relatively easy to see and use.
Once again, too, CCR seems a lot better the second time there, even if we did get the tiny 32L instead of 32R. It's barely more than a taxiway, and it's between two longer and wider actual taxiways (or that's what it looks like from final). APC was comfortable, especially while soloing.
Again, nothing really bad, but nothing really good either. Dave wants me to start doing local solos next week (i.e. fly out to CCR or LVK or APC, etc., entirely on my own), but this may be complicated by my brother's arrival -- he'll want to come with us, and I'd love to drag him (and Derek) around the Bay.
* * *
Just as I'm going through the gate from the parking lot, a large black unmarked police car drives up and enters the vehicle gate, driving on to the DEA / FBI hangar next to the club. As I'm going past a burly guy with longish blond hair and beard, unbelted black jeans, and South Park t-shirt opens the hangar door and disappears inside. The next time I look neither he nor the car are visible, and I still haven't seen what's inside the hangar....
My brother (Angus) arrives, and he, Dave, Derek, and I all pack into 9UL for a typical Bay Tour. The boys bring along a little handicam to document the flight, and we spend about 90 minutes doing the East Bay, Marin, Golden Gate, the 101 transition south over SFO, etc. A lot of fun. Nothing to note except the landing, where Dave, Derek, and Angus kept up a steady stream of jokes and banter, to the extent that I lost concentration and landed roughly. Another good lesson....
A cool, hazy, foggy sort of day... I get to the club at 15.15 to find 12-R next to the clubhouse, Doug and Pierre working on the front cowl. They're apologetic -- they should have had this finished by 15.00 (I'm due at 15.30), and say it will be finished a little before 16.00, but I could take 9-UL if I want. I wait for Dave instead, and hang around "helping", mostly by holding tools for Pierre and talking shop to both of them about radials, rotaries (if you don't know the difference....) and various other mechanic type things (I didn't spend four years in high school learning and doing mechanics for nothing...). Doug and I also talk about his B-17 experience: 35 missions, two that nearly didn't get him home, a dead tail-gunner, a wing on fire, a plane that had to be left in Russia due to flak damage, his months of training in Oklahoma and Texas....
Dave turns up about 15.45, and we go through the plans for today: take off on 33, go direct to Hayward (HWD) for a few touch-and-go's, then cross the Bay to San Carlos (SQL) for more T&G's, then back home, depending on the time. I tell Dave not to expect too much because I'm fairly tired and under a lot of pressure at work to get my demos and presentations ready for next week's San Diego trip. I'm also feeling a little nauseated, probably lunch. Nothing terrible, just not quite right.
Doug comes in and tells us it's ready, and we eventually take off on 33 and head back immediately south towards Hayward. Since HWD is only 6 or 7 miles from OAK, the trip requires some deft radio work and controller support to avoid busting HWD's class D airspace, but we get it right with OAK tower's help. Hayward gives us right traffic for 28L, the bigger runway, and I do about 5 touch and goes (using left traffic after the first landing). Nothing terribly interesting here except the cramped feeling from needing to turn crosswind almost immediately you're up in the air at the end of either runway 28 to avoid hitting OAK's class C (less than a mile from the end of the runway), and the wildly swinging crosswind on final. None of the landings is good, none of them terrible. I think I need more solid practice again, just going around and around the pattern at OAK or LVK on my own, concentrating alone on everything. Radio work here was fine, no confusions, no problems. On the whole, a fairly pleasant experience for a new airport.
We then depart left crosswind for SQL via mid-span San Mateo. It takes forever to get through to SQL tower: there's a ton of traffic, and we nearly bust the airspace before we're finally acknowledged. I'm unfamiliar with SQL, but the reporting points are pretty obvious (the cement plant, the salt pile, the diamond waterway, etc.). We do a few touch and goes, with, again, a wildly-swinging crosswind on final, sometimes left, sometimes right. I'm still not flaring very well, still not as good as immediately pre-solo, but once again, I don't bend anything or kill anyone. There's a lot of traffic, and I'm slowly getting better at spotting it all and keeping an ear out for the calls. I'm seeing them almost as soon as Dave now. There are also great views of the Oracle campus, the traffic on 101, and the Bay. Not too unpleasant, but the runway is so short and narrow I feel mildly stressed on each approach and landing.
We decide we'll do another touch and go and then try for the 101 transition north through the SFO class B again. So as I'm turning crosswind just past the diamond, I call tower with: "12-R turning crosswind over the diamond, we'd like to do one more touch-and-go then depart straight out for the 101 transition north". The next few minutes confuse me terribly: tower asks me whether I want "real north" or "the 101" (he's making the obvious point that most of us Bay Areans think of 101's direction as north here when in fact it's almost due west). I tell him we want to follow 101 north west to San Francisco. He asks us whether we're crosswind yet. I say yes, almost turning downwind. He says to climb to 1200 feet. I acknowledge this, but it seems strange... then I realise he missed the "one more T&G part". I ask Dave what to do; he's not sure himself, but says let's humour him and forget the T&G. We both assume we'll be told to turn 180 abeam the numbers. But abeam the numbers tower tells us to continue downwind and contact Palo Alto tower on .... What's going on? Dave immediately calls back and says there seems to be some sort of problem, we're trying to get the 101 transition through SFO. Tower simply says they're not approving the 101 transition now, continue south.
So we do, and decide to do 101 south to San Jose through Palo Alto (PAO), Moffet Field, San Jose (SJC), and Reid-Hillview (RHV). But why the mixup? If I'd been there on my own, I doubt I could have handled it very well; even Dave was confused (or rather, all three of us, including the controller, were confused). For once it doesn't feel like my fault, although I could probably have done a better job trying to clarify things earlier. Dave's pretty irritated by the controller -- why didn't he just tell us straight out that we couldn't get transition north? Why did he miss the final T&G? If he thought we were going south why did he ask whether I wanted true north vs. 101 north?
Things don't go much better for the next 20 minutes or so. Dave dials in PAO and Moffet tower frequencies for me, and just past SQL I call PAO tower to get permission to transit their airspace. I get a puzzling response, advising me to contact South Field tower and / or Bay Approach. I ask Dave what to say; he also looks puzzled, and, taking over, tells tower they've misunderstood us, we just want to transition their airspace south along 101. It takes two more to-and-fro transmissions before ATC works out that we're talking to the wrong tower. I forgot to switch the comms back to comm 1; we're talking to OAK North Field on comm 2. I apologise profusely and call up PAO tower just before we bust their airspace. So how did I screw this up, and why didn't we catch it earlier? Once again, on my own, this might have been quite a problem. Dave spends the next few minutes cursing himself for not catching it. But I still feel pretty stupid. A good lesson (and within a few minutes we hear someone calling LVK tower on SJC's tower frequency...).
We follow 101 "south" (i.e. east) through PAO and Moffet Field airspaces uneventfully, then call SJC tower. The controller tells me to cross midfield at or above 1,500', which we do, then transit RHV uneventfully, then I turn us north towards the hills and over Calaveras to the Diablo Valley, This part is glorious: 4,500', flying quickly through smooth air over beautiful brown and gold hills. We see a few other planes, most of which I see first. Over Livermore I contact Bay Approach and get a squawk code. But we don't get any further response or acknowledgement from approach, which is very unusual (you typically get instructions like "cross abeam Hayward at or above 2,000'", along with the "radar contact / say altitude", at least). He's talking fifteen to the dozen, and we keep on towards OAK, without saying anything to, or hearing from, Approach. A little south of Chabot, Dave finally believes we must have missed a call, and I call approach and sort it out. We call OAK tower and get a straight in on 27R, all quite normal. I ride the ILS in as an exercise in seeing what that's like (trying not to look out too often), staying a little above the glideslope, and line up pretty well for landing.
And the landing is... terrible. Really bad. I'm tired and a bit depressed, and I use the wrong rudder correction in the flare. Dave takes the yoke and rudder seriously for the first time since sometime before my first solo. I feel depressed and humbled -- it wasn't bad enough to kill anyone or do more than bend the tires, I think, but it just sort of capped the day....
* * *
As we're refueling at Kaiser, a beautiful orange and white T-28 two seat trainer (N99153 "Mad Dog", with Navy markings) taxis to the fuel pump next to us. It's loud (that radial engine...), and it's in great condition. We amble over to look at it close up, and the old guy who just flew in in it actually invites us to climb up and look in the cockpit. The plane seems huge compared to our little C172, and very much heavier and more robust. The cockpits look shiny, modern, cramped, serious.
Back in the clubhouse, Gary's cleaning up and trying to make it look more habitable. He and I talk a bit about how unattractive the place is -- not somewhere you'd want to hang around in much. We might try to clean it up a bit during the club's annual BBQ.
* * *
Overall, a good lesson in recognising when you're not really up to flying: I would both have been better off doing something else today. I shouldn't have been up in the air in such a state.
The AAC annual BBQ: a bright, sunny, warm, breezy day. Attendance maybe two dozen. Basically just a fun get-together next to the clubhouse, a bunch of burgers and franks, salads, buns, etc. The usual bunch is there -- Dave, Doug, Gary, Zack, Cindy G., etc., and people I haven't met. The atmosphere is pleasant, relaxed. Some of us clean the insides of 9UL and the Cherokee, the supposed real aim of the BBQ. Others just hang around and talk. I meet Mike Voie, one of the instructors, who'll be doing my pre-solo checkride next week. He seems like a nice guy, younger than Dave, amusing. Gary brings out a bunch of those little balsa or plastic toy planes and we hold a plane-throwing distance competition. I pick the only British plane, a sort-of Spitfire with roundels. Unbelievably enough, against all the experienced competition, I win (I won an F16 shoot'em up / flight simulator game for my PC. Cool!). Cindy comes second (i.e. they let the students win...).
The club's "new" Cessna 172 45H has arrived at the Old T's, parked next to 9UL. It's a 172 M, I think, pretty much the same as 12R. Apart from the garish lime-green paintwork (so seventies), it looks OK. It'd better be -- I'm flying it with Mike Voie for my pre-solo checkride next Thursday.... Dave keeps joshing Mike about flying with me, and tells me I should assume the fetal position on final, intoning in a flat factual monotone "we're going to die. We're going to die." as Voie rides in with me. I love the idea. Voie now has a better idea of what to expect, I guess....
[For a full page of official AAC BBQ pix by yours truly, click here -- HR]
* * *
Milo's Stearman does at least three banner pickups during the time I'm there. When I see him drop the second banner, I race across the tarmac to get some close-up photos of the next pickup a few minutes later. It's the usual thrill... [and, of course, none of my pictures capture the experience. Maybe next time...].
* * *
On the way back from the BBQ, there's a worse than usual traffic jam on Interstate 80 (a big, busy, local freeway) out of Emeryville. I can't see the cause until I get to Ashby: there's a relatively-undamaged looking Cessna 172 or 152 up on the bank in front of the freeway offramp, a few metres from the shoulder. I don't know any details yet, but it's pretty obvious that it landed earlier on I-80, answering one of my questions about whether that's possible given the usual traffic. No obvious signs of injury or anything, just a flatbed towtruck and a CHP car. Really sobering, it keeps staying with me the rest of the day....
[N5784T, C172 flown up from SoCal, engine ran rough over the hills, they headed for the Oakland docks (large flat spaces...), realised they wouldn't get there as the engine failed completely, landed where they could in E'ville, eastbound I-80, midday(ish) with several cars apparently realising what was happening, giving them a gap in the traffic. Easy to imagine what would have happened at rush hour with the usual slow or nearly stationary traffic....
No injuries; the pilot and passenger (both from Hemet) interviewed on the evening news, both sounded fairly sane and cautious, glad to be alive... the CHP's suitably unimpressed (and talk on the TV news about how illegal and wrong it is to land on the freeways), but what else can you do? I'd probably have gone for the mudflats if the tide was low, but that's local knowledge. It has to be said that the vast majority of the traffic problems were caused by people slowing down to gawk and take photos all day as they passed.]
A gusty, cool day, the temperature doesn't go above 20 all day, the low Bay Area summer clouds part about 2pm and come back by 6pm. I haven't flown for a long while, and it shows. We head out to the Diablo Valley practice area, do airwork, then (on a whim) go out to Byron (C83) for two touch-and-goes, then Livermore for a full stop and water break, then back to Oakland for more touch and goes. Due to the weather we end early.
The results are pretty depressing: although my airwork (MCA, stalls, emergency procedures, steep turns, etc.) goes OK, and -- with the exception of a couple of glaring errors -- my radio work is fine, my landings are terrible. I've lost the ability I had pre-solo and just after the solo, and I haven't had much practice. I find Byron's short (uncontrolled) runway claustrophobic, and LVK's little 25L not much better. I don't enjoy either, and land badly at both. We headed back to OAK to get (say) ten or fifteen simple T&G's in (in preparation for Thursday's checkride), but tower closed us out (weather and traffic) after about four, which wasn't nearly enough. All my landings were rough, and I'm just not visualising the flare right at all. The T&G's at Byron were just awful, with a small runway and strong variable gusting crosswinds (it wasn't clear to me that Byron traffic was using the right runway -- 23 was in use, but I'd have guessed the wind was much closer to 30, the longer runway). I didn't enjoy any of the landings today, which has never happened before.
I'm not sure what to do about this: I have the pre-solo phase check coming up on Thursday, and I don't have much confidence in my ability to pass the landing parts of this any more. What's going wrong? Mostly the flare height and attitude again (a matter for visualization), but I'm also having trouble keeping my airspeed constant and correct on final and in other parts of the pattern. It's a matter of concentration, mostly, but today was so gusty that even had I concentrated properly the airspeed indicator would have been unstable. Dave seems untroubled by all this: he says several times that the crosswind component was probably too large at both LVK and Byron for me, and that my airspeed-on-final problems really were due to the marked gustiness. I'd like to believe this, but I don't really.
Not everything was dire: I enjoyed the airwork this time, and on the steep turn practices I managed a full figure-eight without telling Dave I was going to do it (left 360, then flip over to a right 360 straight away without losing or gaining altitude the entire way around. Cool.). Dave also covered up the heading indicator and made me do a steep 360 with only a distant landmark reference (Mt Tam in this case). No real problems here, and as always I really enjoy the turns and sheer flying parts....
Yesterday, another GA plane down in the Bay Area, attempting to get to HWD. Landed short in a mall parking lot, apparently; no injuries. A Cherokee; engine failure, again. After this, the JFK Thing, and the I-80 landing, just about everyone keeps asking the obvious question: don't I worry about just falling out of the sky? The answer: yes, of course I do, but no more than I did (say) a month ago. I'm aware of the risks, and one of the riskiest things for me, one that I've always felt keenly, is engine failure over heavily-populated areas. I think I'm most worried about killing or injuring innocent people on the ground; I find it hard to believe I could land on I-80 or SR-24 without causing injury. I find it harder to believe I could even make I-80 or 24 while in the area: it's difficult not to think about the consequences of falling onto some small suburban street or rooftop.
Just about everything else seems manageable or at least bearable. Still, it brings it home when you see a damaged C172 on the Ashby I-80 off-ramp....
(And the JFK Thing: most of us don't have much to say about it except to sarcastically marvel at the astonishing effort put into the search and rescue; there's not a hope in hell that if any of us were missing that anyone or any organisation would do even a tenth of that for us.... The accident itself seems pretty normal. But the media coverage, and the dumb things said in the media, well...).
* * *
Mike Voie's got a family emergency this week. Joel Klein will step in for the phase check; unfortunately, I have no idea what he's like, let alone what he looks like. This doesn't feel good....
I wake up feeling fatalistic about the phase check; maybe, more optimistically, I guess I've just decided not to worry about it. It's a beautiful day outside, cool, sunny, very clear, very Northern California....
I get to the club a little early and potter about helping Pierre with a pre-100 hour inspection of 9UL -- holding the cowl in place, handing him tools, etc. Frank Astier turns up in 54H, the plane I'm about to fly, and we talk a bit about life, flying, the club, phase checks, etc. I like Frank: he's young (30), very European (lived in some of the same places I have), funny, and it turns out he works for Oracle -- my company's chief competitor. We're both typical Euronerds, with academic backgrounds in object semantics, etc. He and Pierre speak French a bit at each other; I can follow along, but not reply in French. We pass a few bits of juicy club gossip around about the club's various instructors....
After Frank leaves I help Pierre test 9UL's compression ratios. This involves hooking a compressor and two pressure gauges to each cylinder's upper spark plug hole in turn, making sure the cylinder's at the top of the firing cycle, and measuring the difference between applied pressure (80 psi) and actual pressure (usually mid 70's). All four cylinders turn out to be in the mid seventies today, which is good. Lower than 70 is bad.
Joel turns up at about 18.30, and we eventually pre-flight 5445H. He doesn't really like the fact that I don't use a pre-flight checklist, but says it went fine. I should make my own checklist and use that (which I did at the beginning). He shows me a bunch of techniques for checking the control cables, which seems a reasonable thing to do. He's a lot stricter and attentative to certain details than Dave; he's also an electrical engineer, which gives us something in common. He seems pretty friendly.
We get in, do ATIS, discuss where we're going (San Pablo Bay, but I won't know the details until we get there), start up, then contact Ground. We're cleared for taxiing -- just as I notice I've left my mainwheel chock in. Damn! And of course Joel's not going to just let me drive over the bloody thing at full power, so I shut the engine off, clamber out, kick the thing out of the way, climb back in, and do it all again. Not the best way to start things. I start feeling really flaky and stupid; it seems like an omen.
We climb out towards San Pablo, and everything goes smoothly at this point. I climb to 3,000' over the Bay, where Joel turns me towards the Marin side and has me do a bunch of different climbs and descents. Nothing too taxing, and I seem to be doing it smoothly and accurately. He gets me to pull out the chart and explain the various airspaces, symbols, etc. Again, nothing unexpected or difficult.
As we're over the Marin shoreline, Joel pulls the throttle and just looks at me. I do the drill -- trim it to Vg (80 mph in 45H), locate a likely landing spot (the closed Hamilton AFB a short distance away -- the overgrown runways are still pretty usable), tell him what I'd do with the radios and transponder, then do the right-to-left "fix" stuff (fuel valves, mixture, throttle, etc.). So far, so good, and we glide towards Hamilton in pretty good shape. I do a 270 and line up on final, way too high. I slip a bit, and as we're passing through 400' Joel says OK, good enough, let's go.... I climb to about 1200', and he directs me towards a series of flat fields an the shoreline a little north of Hamilton.
He tells me we'll do ground reference maneuvers (GRMs). I half-heartedly protest that Dave hasn't had me do too many of these yet (practiced twice only, in fact), but he says don't worry, I'll talk you through them. Which he does -- and which helps a lot, considering I'm still pretty shaky on these. Nothing bad happens, though, and he seems satisfied after a couple of TAPs (turns-around-a-point), a bit of pattern flying, and several S-turns along a "road". I'm OK with keeping the altitude constant, but pretty bad at airspeed and accuracy. Oh well.
He makes me climb out to about 2,000', and then announces we'll head to Gnoss field (Novato). I don't know anything about Gnoss except that it's not towered and it has a reputation for fearsome crosswinds. Zack once told me it's common enough to have opposite crosswinds on the different ends of the same (single) runway. I feel the panic rising -- an uncontrolled field when I've only been to one other uncontrolled field before (Byron, Monday), and heavy crosswinds when I'm feeling badly uncertain about my landings at the best of times. The fatalism takes over, and he says he'll do the radio work (thank god...), he just wants to see my pattern entry and pattern flying, and, of course, my landing. We'll do two or three touch-and-goes. The pattern entry and flying go OK (as usual), but on final I can see the runway's another of these small, narrow things I don't much like yet (3,300 x 60).
The first flare and landing is terrible -- I think Joel actually swore when the flare went bad. I recover OK, but feel just awful. It's cool, but I'm sweating heavily into my t-shirt. And while there's a significant crosswind, I can't really blame that.... We speed back down the runway and into the pattern, my fatalism and panic battering each other into a sort of flat miserable stoic depression. The next landing is nearly as bad, and I apologise nervously as we take off again. We depart for the Bay with Joel saying I definitely need a lot more work on landings....
Over the Bay he has me do stall and MCA airwork, which went OK. No steep turns, though, which was what I think I'm best at. Humph. Still feeling pretty depressed, I climb to 3,000' and turn towards Oakland. We get ATIS, then contact Bay Approach, and do the usual cross-the-Temple-at-2500 approach to 27R. Tower clears us to land number 3, but neither Joel nor I can see the first aircraft. We never do. The landing this time is actually fairly reasonable, and we taxi to Kaiser and then the Old T's. By this time it's actually dark; on final into 27R the runway lights were on and I was having trouble reading the instruments.
Back at the club Pierre is still working on 9UL. Joel and I go into the club and discuss the flight: overall, he says, airwork and procedures were fine, but until the OAK landing he was going to endorse the phase check paperwork with a strong suggestion for much more work on landings. He seemed to think I redeemed myself with the OAK landing, which is gratifying but a bit surprising. I start cheering up a bit. He asks a few more easy questions about FAR Parts 61 and 91, and then signs the sheet and my logbook. Joel leaves with a smile, telling me he's looking forward to doing the cross-country phase check with me. We shall see....
By the time I leave the clubhouse (21.15), I've been at work or flying (or helping Pierre...) for 14 hours straight. Towards the end of the flight I felt exhausted; if it hadn't been a phase check with a CFI, I probably would have chosen not to fly today. Am I ever going to learn this lesson?
As I leave the Old T's, one of the Fields hangar doors is wide open in the darkness, flooding the planes and tarmac in front of it with warm light and the sound of the BBC World Service news on KQED. The accent makes me feel momentarily disoriented and simultaneously very aware of where I am....
* * *
The overall experience was better than I expected: if nothing else, I learned a lot about coping with the difference in teaching and flying styles between Dave and Joel....
I'm still too tired to feel jubilant (or at least pleased) that I can now go out on my own, but it'll hit me this weekend.... I don't plan on doing any solo flying until Wednesday, but after that I should be doing one full solo local flight each week.
* * *
This was my first time in 45H, the "new" 172. Dave, Frank, and just about everyone else seems to rave about it, so I wasn't sure what to expect. Well, apart from a few minor differences with the radios and a few switches here and there, it was pretty much the same as 12R, so that hurdle proved to be nothing much. It's rapidly becoming the club's favourite 172, which leaves 12R for me -- which suits me just fine, of course. It's supposed to handle identically to 12R, but both Dave and Frank claim that it cruises a good 10 knots faster. This makes me wonder a bit about 12R's trim and overall rigging.
I've started studying seriously again for the written exam; I'd like to take it sometime late August or early September. This time around it seems easier to take -- not just because it's the second or third time through it, but because more of it is now based in experience, more of it is real now after three months of flying. It wasn't a mistake to try to learn it all in April; it was just a mistake to believe it'd all make sense in isolation. Most of it's really fairly easy; it's just a memorisation task that's easier when it's grounded in something familiar.
The only part that I still haven't really touched is the weather stuff. This shouldn't be too hard, but there's a hell of a lot to learn -- all those METAR abbreviations, all the various SIGMET and HIWAS information, all the various rules and heuristics for predicting the weather. And besides, we here in Northern California just don't have weather. At least not in the same sense that the East Coast does....
Last night, Doug calls from the club at about 22.30, and tells me that 12R -- the plane I've booked for tomorrow -- is stranded down in Monterey due to the fog. If it doesn't clear by midday, it's unlikely I'll have 12R tomorrow. He says he'll try to book me one of the other 172's early tomorrow. It doesn't look good....
* * *
Another boringly perfect Bay Area day, visibility 40 (miles), temperature 21, winds 270 at 10. But no airplane. I sit around at home wondering whether we'll have to cancel this one too. No word from Doug. After talking to Dave I go out to the club early to see what's happening... and there it is. 12R's back, sitting in the tiedown area. No problems...
Waiting for Dave I watch a variant on the usual Stearman towing spectacle: this time it's a smaller Pitts Special (I think) doing the pickup, but it's the same noise (a cross between a harsh buzz and a much lower, more steady, deep-throated roar), the same 10'-above-the-ground pattern and pickup....
Dave turns up bang on time, and he spends the next 30 minutes doing a whiteboard lesson on how to use VORs. This stuff is both very obvious and rather difficult for me: I know how VORs work at the electronics level, and I understand the difference between radials and headings (etc)., and the whole idea of intersecting and tracking VOR radials is "obvious". What I don't get at first -- and what's so counterintuitive to me and (according to Dave) just about everyone who tries -- is relating that knowledge to the actual instrument in the panel in front of you, and being able to visualise which way to turn to do the intersect, or how to set the VOR to give you the information you want, or being able to predict what a plane's VOR will show in different circumstances. Dave tells me it will all make sense fairly soon, but I'm dubious.
The VOR workout starts as we're taxiing. Using OAK VOR (clearly visible a few hundred metres away on the field), Dave gets me to tell him what radial we're on, what heading we should "fly" to intersect xyz radial, etc. Telling him which radial we're on or what heading to fly to get to the VOR itself is pretty easy, but even still I make a few silly mistakes. The intersect-a-radial and inbound stuff I screw up each time. This is depressing. I'm really just guessing, not applying any consistent procedure or knowledge here.
We take off and head for San Pablo Bay, and continue the workout. There are at least seven or eight (maybe more) VORs visible to us over the Bay, and Dave picks random VORs, radials, directions, instructions, etc., for me to fly. At first I keep totally screwing up the radial intersection and "inbound / to" stuff, so Dave reiterates a rule-of-thumb for intersecting inbound and "normal" radials he gave me earlier in the club. This time I listen. This time it works. I discover fairly quickly that as long as I don't think about what's really happening -- as long as I don't try conceptualising it -- it's straightforward and quite easy. Sure, the first few times I keep making stupid mistakes, but these mistakes aren't conceptual errors, just forgetfulness or inexperience. Still, while I'm gratified that it's all coming together so quickly, I'm really uncomfortable with being unable to conceptualise or intellectualise what's going on.
We do the VOR workout for quite a while, then Dave says that since I've been such a good boy, he's got a surprise for me: the hood! ("Argh! The comfy chair!", I think). This is the torture instrument used to block out the outside world and force a pilot to fly with reference to instruments alone. It looks like one of those odd cone things people put around a dog's neck to stop them from biting themselves (only cut in half and worn across the head). For the rest of the flight I keep making stupid jokes about biting myself, which Dave wisely ignores. Anyway, I've always wondered what would happen at this point: would I get sick when I used the hood? Would it be as disorienting as some claim?
Well, flying under the hood is definitely disorienting, a disquieting and sobering experience. And no, in 30 minutes of turns, VOR tracking, climbs and descents, and recoveries from unusual attitudes, I didn't come close to feeling sick, but I got a good feeling for how hard it is to fly with instruments only. The first problem is the most obvious: without reference to the ground, you really have no idea what the plane's actually doing unless you can read the instruments well. It's amazing how wrong your senses are in this situation. While I knew academically that this would be true, really experiencing the disorientation and the constant feeling that you're turning or climbing (or whatever) when you're actually not, or the certain knowledge that you're turning left and climbing when the plane's actually in a descending right turn (etc.), does a lot to turn theory into practice....
Since I knew what to expect, I more-or-less kept my head about me, and tried to fly by the instruments alone. This was only somewhat successful: the problem I had was not so much disorientation (which I expected and just tried to ignore), as the realisation that I just didn't really know how to react to what the instruments were telling me. Right up until now, even though I've kept my eyes on the instruments, I've really been using the outside horizon and distant landmarks for pitch, roll, and yaw information and reference.The only instruments I've "internalised" (not quite the right word, but it's on the right track) are the altimeter, the airspeed indicator, and the coordination ball in the turn indicator; I react to changes in these almost intuitively. Obviously not so with the heading indicator and the artificial horizon, even though I've used both extensively. More stuff to learn.
What this meant in practice -- for today, at least -- was that VOR tracking, climbs and descents, and shallow turns all went roughly but basically OK with a bit of practice, because I had the time to think about which way to turn or what to do; these maneuvers didn't need intuitive or fast instinctive reactions, and I could always nut out which way to turn the yoke (or whatever) to get us there. But the first time I tried a steep 360 degrees turn, it was a disaster: I lost more than 500' in about 270 degrees, and had to abandon the turn in total confusion. I didn't know where I was. I just didn't interpret the instruments properly, and I had real trouble ignoring what my inner ear was telling me about the pitch angle. But I plugged away at it, using a 30 degree bank instead of the 45 degrees, and it slowly came together. Still pretty rough, but a recognisable 360 degree turn with a more-or-less constant 30 degree bank angle, airspeed, and altitude. I started feeling pretty pleased with myself. (This exploding ego stuff's gotta be bad for the flying, but it sure feels good).
Dave then puts me through the "recovery from unusual attitudes" exercises. This involves the instructor or examiner putting the plane into an unusual attitude -- maybe nose down, heavily banked, and close to maximum airspeed, for example, or close to stall in a nose-up and banked attitude -- while you're still wearing your hood, and without you being able to see even the instruments until told to take over the plane. The idea is to learn to use the instruments alone to reliably recover from this attitude, while still under the hood. This is scary enough when you do it without the hood (Dave did it twice to show me what would happen), so I was really nervous. But in the two or three attempts at this, it was surprisingly easy to recover using just the instruments. I'm not sure why this was so much easier than the steep turn stuff, but apart from the inevitable roughness and inexactness, I think I coped OK. Beginner's luck, I guess.
After all this, we head back for Oakland, where I do a rough-but-didn't-kill-anyone landing, after Tower rather irritatedly told us that in future we should keep to the east of the Coliseum on downwind. First I or Dave had ever heard of that one.... At Kaiser there's a long late-model 727 parked across the apron towering over the Citations and Learjets, and further down a smaller Dornier commuter with six-bladed props and open side door (but no one around at all). There's a newish looking twin commander further down at the New T's. The Cayman Island registered old-model 727 with new winglets has disappeared after standing untouched in the same place for months. The DC3 usually parked north of Kaiser took off earlier in the day as Dave was explaining VORs; the apron looks a little empty without it.
* * *
The whole flight felt so good -- after all the problems I've been having with landings, and the obsession with the pre-solo checkout, this just felt so much more productive than the last few flights. Virtually nothing went wrong today, and by the end of the day I just felt good. I felt like I'd achieved a lot, made a huge amount of progress.
Even still, I have a lot of work to do on landings; I'm booked to do touch and goes on my own on Wednesday. Similarly, although the hood stuff went well, it's really obvious how hard this stuff would be in reality, or how difficult it would be to keep stable and safe in MVFR or worse. Doing this for hours in IMC without an autopilot sounds like suicide to me....
By the end of the day, the VOR stuff -- even intercepting radials or doing the "to / inbound" version -- really seemed straightforward, as long as I didn't start thinking about it and just applied the rules and procedures Dave told me. Whenever I started thinking, I made mistakes. This is a bizarre thing for me to say, since I'm always uncomfortable following rules that I don't understand, and I'm always determined to understand something before I use it.
My main problem is that I haven't developed an intellectual model underlying the whole thing yet: I'm one of those people who isn't satisfied just using (say) a set of rules of thumb without knowing why the rules of thumb work. This could be a real handicap one day, but in this case it's just going to take an evening thinking things through in front of the (non-existent) television or riding my bicycle around Berkeley (I'm such a nerd). In any case, the rules of thumb work, and were really fairly easy to remember and apply, so I can live with my intellectual discomfort for a little while longer, I guess....
The Oakland waiting game: nearly every day of what we call "summer" here starts cool and grey, a low cloud layer usually at about 500', a slight wind, and a decent chance that by midday or early afternoon the cloud or fog will have burned off. When it does clear, the day turns into one of those glorious Northern California summer days, cool in the shade, breezy, warm in the sun.... But sometimes it simply doesn't clear, and you spend all day feeling edgy or irritable, waiting to see whether you'll fly or not. Since the official daily forecasts for most of the eight-month non-winter are usually pretty similar day-to-day, it's nearly impossible to tell beforehand which days will clear and which won't. Most do, but I never schedule my flights before 15.00 for this reason. Just a few miles over the Berkeley Hills at Concorde or Livermore, the weather's totally different: they might as well be in another country. They don't get the morning (or afternoon / evening) fog or clouds, and it's a lot hotter (and drier in the wet season). Almost perfect for flying. Livermore and Oakland do tend to share the constant westerly winds, though. You probably get twice as many full flying days at LVK as you would at OAK.
(E.g.: 11.30 today, LVK ATIS: 260/10, temp 21, vis 10, sky clear; OAK ATIS: 240/11, temp 15, vis 10, ceiling 700 overcast).
* * *
And the cloud layer just stays put, ceiling 1,000.... By 14.30 it's obvious I'm not going to be flying today, and I drive out to the club for a closer look and to rebook a plane. I book a few hours in 45H tomorrow and Friday. This is really frustrating: I'm on vacation, and a large part of the vacation is supposed to be flying. And I desperately want to practice my landings and get them right. There's no way of knowing whether either tomorrow or Friday will be clear enough for flying, either: their forecast is exactly the same as today's: "morning low cloud clearing by midday". Oh well.
At the club I meet Cindy and Zack. They're going out in the 150, VFR on top (Zack can do this for them). Cindy did her written test last week and scored 98%. Cool, I think, but she's really irritated that she didn't get 100%, and still talking about it as though it were a failure. Me, I'm aiming for (say) 90%, but I'll be happy just to pass (70%). We'll see....