Written Test to Checkride, Part 1
The long cross-country: for days it's been hot and unstable, the Central Valley MVFR and even sometimes IFR due to smoke from the fires in the hills, temperatures in the low hundreds day after day at Red Bluff (RBL) and Redding (my two likely destinations). Ten days ago I booked 12R from 11.00 to 19.00 today, on the off chance that the weather might be good enough both here and in the Valley for the flight I've planned. The real frustration with things like this is usually the small window you get between the time the fog clears at OAK and the time it returns: sometimes only four or five hours (and sometimes not even that), not nearly long enough for an unrushed cross country like this. I really don't want to find myself stuck at (say) Concorde or Livermore by the clouds, and have to wait for the next day to ship the plane back again (or get Dave to get it back IFR...).
Today dawns fine and clear in Oakland (pretty rare), and I'm up early checking the weather with DUATS. It's a good forecast, with much cooler autumn weather in the Valley, and only the lingering smoke worries me. I phone the club and make sure I can take 12R earlier than 11.00 (no problem), then get a full weather briefing from Oakland FSS. Everything looks fine, and I file two flight plans: OAK / SUU / ILA / RBL (Red Bluff via Travis AFB and Williams VOR), and RBL / CIC / MYV / VCB, i.e. Red Bluff via Chico (45 minute stopover) and Marysville VOR to Vacaville Nut Tree. I'll get fuel at RBL and VCB, and eat at whichever of RBL and CIC looks easiest when I get there (the Blue Book says they both have cafes). RBL and VCB are uncontrolled, CIC has a Class D tower.
I take off at about 10.15, and head straight for Travis. Approach immediately clears me into the SFO Class B airspace, which helps by giving me an uninterrupted climb to 7,500' by well before Travis. The weather is cool, the plane climbs well, and I can see for miles and miles. Plus there's very little traffic. In fact, with flight following all the way to RBL, I think I only got maybe two traffic advisories the entire time, one of them a precautionary note about possible wake turbulence from a heavy C5A climbing out of Travis in front of me, the other a lone Cessna I'd already spotted over Williams. Regardless of the lack of traffic, it's great to have flight following all the way, if only to have someone to notify if things are going wrong. All the non-Bay ATC people (including Oakland Center, Travis Approach, Chico Tower, and Sacramento Approach) were unfailingly helpful and polite the entire flight, which makes a bit of a difference from the necessarily-terse and occasionally grumpy Bay Approach controllers.
Bay hands me off to Travis, and I overfly the base at 7,500', with great views of the various transport planes on the tarmac: C5A's, C41's, a 747, DC-10's, etc. Travis has an odd runway arrangement: two long runways with the same heading, parallel but almost end-to-end. I spend some time trying to figure out the advantages of this, but I still don't get it. I turn towards ILA VOR, and climb to 8,500. At 8,500' it's actually cold -- 2C outside according to the plane's OAT thermometer. Being a typical Berkeleyan it didn't occur to me to bring any warm clothing (or rather, I brought some, but it's not within easy reach), so for the first time ever in this plane I have to use cabin heat.
Travis hands me off to Oakland Center. The view of the Valley and the hills on both sides is brilliant, if slightly hazy. What worries me, though, is the very white smoke cloud to my right, over the area I want to fly back though later today. I can't see through the smoke at all, and I'd judge its tops to be about 7,000', with a ground radius of maybe 30 or 40km. Oakland FSS didn't have much information on the smoke situation except they claimed it was VFR in the entire Valley. It doesn't look like VFR to me from this angle, and I mentally re-plan my return to go RBL / CIC / VCB direct, bypassing the Marysville area where the smoke looks worst.
Otherwise this leg of the flight goes well, and I identify all the checkpoints and calculate my actual groundspeed. At 8,500' and 2400 RPM, I'm getting about 95 kts, which my GPS confirms. We have about a 15 kt headwind according to the forecast, but my calculations show it's probably less than half that. Nothing terribly significant, anyway. The ground below me is very familiar -- I've driven through here many times on my way to Mt. Shasta or in search of things to photograph. I can identify Orland and Williams easily without a map; the straight lines of I-5 and SR99 sure help... (I've also brought my Northern California topo map book along with me just to be able to identify interesting things I see on the ground).
When I finally sight Red Bluff at the northern end of the Valley (a little south of Redding on I-5), Oakland Center gives me the frequency change and I face the first stupid hurdle: RBL's CTAF, according to the sectional, is 122.8, but according to the Blue Book and the A/FD it's 123.0. I've been listening for the past ten minutes on both frequencies (while also listening to Oakland Center) but haven't heard any Red Bluff traffic or Unicom calls on either. My instincts tell me the sectional is probably the most authoritative, so I try 122.8. As soon as I call RBL traffic on 122.8 for advisories I get a woman's voice telling me Red Bluff's changed to 123.0... Oh well, try again. On 123.0 there's no response at all, so I overfly the runway at about 1,800' AGL to determine wind direction. The Blue Book claims there are windsocks at each end of the runway, so I start to panic when I can't see windsocks anywhere on the field... at last I see a segmented circle midfield near the apron, and announce my intentions based on that (left traffic runway 33). Landing is pretty normal and smooth into a small headwind, and I taxi towards what looks to be the fuel pumps.
It's probably going to sound really dumb, but the things I've been worrying about most for this flight have been mundane things like: how do I get fuel at strange airports? Will there be clearly-marked fueling points at the pumps? Do I have to call Unicom to get someone to help (how do I call for help for things like this on Unicom?)? Will the visitor / transient parking spots be clearly marked so I don't park in someone's reserved spot? Etc....
Dave keeps saying don't worry, it'll all be obvious, and if it's not obvious just ask. And (of course) he's right: where things aren't obvious, it's easy to call ground for help (as I did at Chico when I wasn't sure where transient was ("Cessna 12R -- see the hangar with the Texaco sign on it? Just taxi in that direction anyway you like from where you are now and park anywhere there's a free space in front of the hangar. There'll be plenty of space.")), or simply stop the damn plane and ask the nearest person (as I did at Nut Tree ("Oh, just about any vacant tie-down out there behind the first row will work...")). People everywhere so far have been unfailingly helpful, and fuel pumps and how to use 'em turn out to be pretty much the same across this part of California, at least. And I'm sure my accent helps (I can't help wondering whether they think I've flown in from a really long way away...).
In this case the airport attendant (who turns out to be from Shoshone, near Death Valley, a tiny two-horse town I pass through when I'm down that way) comes out and does the fueling for me and shows me around. She says it's a lot cooler today than last week. She's right: it's no more than 70F today, as opposed to last week's 110F (the sort of temperatures they get at Shoshone...). It feels like the beginning of autumn.
After refueling, I park in transient and wander off to the small terminal building. I remember to close the flight plan with Rancho Murieta FSS. There's a restaurant on the second floor, "BJ's", and I'm feeling hungry by now (midday(ish)). Unfortunately, when I get there it's full -- it looks like it's a favourite local restaurant for the industrial estates nearby, and I'm feeling too antisocial to share a table or sit up at the bar. I decide it's probably not worth the wait, and go back downstairs. I sit on the couch in the foyer and plan the amended CIC to VCB flight. I'm still unclear on whether I'll need to do this, but I plan it just in case. I'll make the decision at CIC.
So I go back out and make the short hop to Chico, without opening my flight plan. I'll do that by amending my existing one when I get to CIC after talking to FSS about the smoke. At Chico there's a lot of smoke haze below about 5,000', and I've been warned that there'll be a lot of USFS fire fighters and tankers around. I never see any in the air (they're all further south and east), but there's quite a few on the ground. Chico airport itself is quite large, with a commuter terminal and a bunch of GA businesses, and a lot of semi-derelict old military planes (P-3's, DC-7s, etc.) being either scavenged for parts or restored (I couldn't tell which). The Blue Book and the A/FD both claim CIC has two runways, the main 13L/31R and a much smaller 13R/31L, but when I fly over on my way to 31R, there's no sign of 31L -- it used to be part of the big tarmac area to the west of the main apron, but it appears to have been painted over, or the whole area's been resurfaced and it got lost in the changes. There's no sign of any runway or anything like it at all. I'm about to ask tower what happened to it when I'm asked whether I can help out by doing a 360 for a USFS spotter (a Bronco) coming straight in from the southeast. No problem, but of course I forgot to ask in the rush to circle and then watch the small spotter land at high speed on 31R and taxi to the USFS area....
I get some lunch at the on-airport Deli, just a sandwich and a drink or two. There's a military C130 doing pattern work, which is fun to watch, and several orange / red and white USFS twin-engined spotters (Broncos) land during lunch. I walk back to the FBO pilot's lounge and ring Rancho FSS. They say they still don't have a clear idea of the tops for the smoke, but that in any case visibility is reported as being at least 6 miles in the smoke area. They ask me to give them a PIREP when I'm up there so they'll be able to have a better idea of the situation; I agree, but later I get too caught up trying to raise Oakland Center and then Sacramento Approach to remember. Oh well. In any case, I amend my previously filed flight plan by starting it at CIC rather than RBL, and check the charts and plans.
The leg from CIC to Marysville VOR is uneventful, and the visibility is as forecast. It's definitely hazy with all the smoke, but it's not too bad. I have a lot of problems raising Oakland Center for flight following, mostly because of the large amount of traffic he's handling (I wait nearly ten minutes before he gets back to me), and as soon as he's on to me he wants me to switch to Sacramento Approach, which is another few minute delay. Over Marysville I turn to Vacaville, descending to 6,500, with the smell of smoke getting pretty strong.
By the time I'm approaching Vacaville Nut Tree (VCB), the smoke's cleared, but it's getting very turbulent below 4,000'. I circle over Nut Tree trying to get advisories on the CTAF, but I never hear anything. I finally see the segmented circle and do a pretty decent right pattern to runway 20, announcing each step of the way. Just as I'm flaring I realise that the crosswind at the surface is much stronger than I'd thought, and probably stronger than I've experienced before. And probably stronger than I've got the training to cope with.... I'd guess it's about 20kts, gusting quite a lot higher, and about 70 degrees across the runway. It's too late to do much about it, and I land very rough and hard, and somewhat faster than usual. Looking back, I wouldn't have chosen to land there if I'd known the wind conditions -- I'm not signed off for such strong crosswinds, and the turbulence on final was really pretty gruesome. I suppose I could have done a go-around, but by the time I worked out what was happening, I was committed to the flare. More learning from experience, I guess. I taxi to the fuel pumps, fill up, then taxi to the transient area, park, and call Oakland FSS to close my flight plan. I sit on the seats in front of the little GA building at the airport, and chew on a PowerBar (one of Berkeley's more ambiguous gifts to the world (of course, I live in Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto, so what would I know...?)).
The flight from VCB back to Oakland is routine, and I land smoothly at about 16.00. It's over!
The night cross-country: a short flight to Livermore (LVK), then LVK to Sacramento International (SMF) and back to Oakland. The flight to LVK is supposed to let us do a bunch of soft- and short-field touch and goes there before leaving for SMF, but on the way Dave springs a hood-and-VOR workout on me, and I do a poor job of intersecting and flying the radials he gives me -- I keep forgetting to reduce the intersection angle as the radial gets closer and overshoot horribly each time. Nothing I won't get with a little more practice. The hood part of this is fine, though: no disorientation, and the ascent / descent and standard rate turn parts are routine. He gets me to try some foggles instead of the hood, but it's a lot easier to see the ground out of the corner of my eyes with these, and I'd rather use the hood where I can't see anything except the panel. The recovery-from-unusual attitude exercises also go well.
By the time we get to LVK it's getting dark. Except for the landing at OAK with Joel K. on my solo phase check, I haven't landed in anything except broad daylight before. The first landing here is rough, as I realise I'm not used to the darkness and misjudge the flare height. We quickly give up the soft- and short-field workout idea, and concentrate on my learning the landing-in-the-dark stuff. It's not radically harder than landing during the day, except the height judgement is trickier, both on final and in the flare, and (just for today...), 12R's windshield is filthy. I can't see too well through it in the dark. This isn't helped by the fact that 12R's landing light isn't working (again...), and I have to use the taxi light for landing (all the nav lights and strobes, etc., work just fine). This isn't nearly the same thing as a good landing light, but it gives me a good feeling for night landings (no, it's not illegal to land without a landing light. In fact, you have to be able to land without lights, and I would have had to practice that anyway).
After a few touch and goes to give me the hang of it, we land and taxi to the GA terminal, which turns out to be closed (of course). We both munch on a couple of ... Power-Damn-Bars (I haven't really had dinner, and I just happen to have a bunch of PowerBars in my bag. I feel like a shill for PowerBar Corp.), then climb back on board. We take off and point in the general direction of SMF, which immediately takes us over very dark ground next to Mt Diablo. I trust the charts to give me terrain clearance here, along with my own local knowledge. There's nothing flat at all to land on below us at this point. Even if I could see it....
The flight to SMF goes smoothly, with very clear skies and easy-to-see and identify navigation waypoints and traffic. The final into SMF is brilliant: the runways are both 8,000' long and lit up for heavy commercial traffic with full ALSF-2 lighting, all yellow/white, green, red, and pink lights, and strobes and other flashing lights everywhere. It's like entering a video game: the runway seems to float up slowly towards you out of the surrounding blackness at slowly changing angles, with your hands on the yoke doing everything in response to the not-quite-real arrangement of lights and colours. And suddenly we're in the flare.... I land a bit roughly, but not terribly, and tower tells us to keep going down the runway to the other end. Hey, we landed in the first 1,000', and now we have to stay on the damn runway for the next 7,000', doing 40 or so MPH so we don't get hit by someone coming in behind us. I don't know why he kept us on the runway rather than get us off onto the parallel taxiway immediately (our amusement, I suspect), but it's a rush. I try to run over as many centerlights as I can with the nosewheel. Pierre would not approve.
The only thing to note about SMF was the unattended and tiny but luxurious GA building off the end of the runway, and the fact that although the door said "Press button at left for entry" -- which we did -- when we tried to leave we realised we'd locked ourselves in. The only way back out to the plane seems to be through the door that says prominently that the alarm will sound if we open it. Maybe we're not supposed to be here at this hour (it kind of surprised me that we could get in)? But then why the (equally prominent) sign inviting us in? We contemplate calling airport security, but we don't know their number either, and we figure there must be some sort of switch to let us out. We find a likely candidate, hit it, and walk back out. There's a slight beeping, but nothing too loud. A few minutes later as we're getting ready to taxi, a security van pulls up outside the building, and some guards get out to look around. They don't seem to be in a hurry to talk to us or anything, and we leave, taxiing the two miles or so back to the take off point. I'm still waiting for SMF security to leave me a message on my voicemail....
On the way back we get handed to Travis Approach. The controller sounds as though we've just woken him up, confused and a little resentful at our intrusion. I actually apologise to him later when he hands us off to Bay. Bay sounds equally confused by our existence.
I get Dave to do a full IFR ILS approach into Oakland. We may need it anyway -- the airport's under an MVFR layer of cloud -- but, really, I just want to see what it's like. The deal is he'll do the radio work, and I'll fly the headings and altitudes ATC gives us, and do the ILS and VOR needle-chasing. I'll have to fly the vectors and altitudes more accurately than I'm used to this time -- no weaving around homing on a heading or losing 100' here, gaining 200' there. I'm up for it....
We intercept and fly the Scags Island (SGD) 124 radial to get us on the initial path, taking us down the east side of the hills towards the pass into Hayward (I may have the wrong radial here, it's all from memory), and get cleared for the ILS approach to 27R. We start getting vectors, which I do my best to fly, mostly within tolerance (it helps that it's a smooth night). Dave does the clearances, which to my ears are incomprehensibly complicated compared to the simple VFR communications I still sometimes strain over. At least I can hear the vectors and altitudes.... Over the hills we pass about 1,000' below and across the path of a FedEx DC10 descending for OAK 29; it looks beautiful up there, all abstract shapes, colours, and light patterns in the silence.
From this point on, pretty much right up to the point where we're over the middle marker, I keep my eyes glued to the instruments and don't look outside. I don't even notice that we're in cloud (or not): I still don't really know whether or when we flew into clouds, I was so intent on keeping things straight inside. Apart from the tendency to clumsily over-correct on the needles, I get the thing mostly right, with a lot of hints from Dave. We don't bust any clearances or veer too far from course, and when Dave tells me to look up over the middle marker, voila, there's the runway and approach lights dead ahead. Cool! (It's a pity that OAK's 27R lights are only bog standard MALSF lights rather than the delirious ALSF-2 riot). We slip in and land, refuel, and taxi back to the Old T's. It's about 23.00.
* * *
Even after this experience -- enjoyable, relatively easy, interesting -- I suspect I'll only ever fly night VFR on local Bay Tour type trips where I'm over familiar ground (or water...). The thought of losing the engine while 2,500' over totally dark countryside (or worse, over unfamiliar urban or suburban areas) doesn't do much for me. It's also dead easy to see how quickly you can get disorientated at night (a la JFK Jr., as everyone keeps telling me), but that seems less worrying to me than just having to aim at a dark surface without an engine and hold on for whatever throws itself up at you as you "land" somewhere. The old saw about this situation is "when the engine fails, aim for the darkest spot you can see. When you're ready to land, turn on the landing lights. If you like what you see, keep descending. If you don't like what you see, turn the lights off". Sums it up, really.
On the other hand, I could easily get addicted to the sheer visual enjoyment of it all, the sensations, the patterns and colours, the hypnotic effect as the approach and runway lights float up at you in the dark, the relative silence of all the bright points in motion....
* * *
I've flown more than 8 of the past 48 hours. I'm tired, I need a break.
Another Cessna down in the Bay Area, this time an Oakland Flyers C150 with engine failure near San Carlos (SQL). Made the TV news; the pictures show a badly-twisted and broken blue and white 150 on its back on the mudflats near San Mateo bridge. Apparently the pilot walked away uninjured. Doubly close to home; I may even know the pilot. [It turns out I didn't, but I now know a couple of Oakland Flyers people. It also turns out that the 150 is an ex-AAC plane that Oakland Flyers bought from us a few years ago; Dave used to fly it...].
A solid and comprehensive airwork review with Dave over San Pablo Bay and environs, then back for about 10 short- and soft-field touch-and-goes at OAK. The airwork goes well except for the hood work, which is still a bit of a challenge, and the ground reference maneuvers which I'm beginning to dislike a lot (only because I don't have the patience...). Nothing went badly, though, and by the time we returned for the T&G's, I felt pretty good. I really enjoyed the recovery-from-unusual-attitude stuff, too, with Dave putting the plane into what seemed like impossible situations and attitudes when I finally look up at the attitude indicator. This stuff is fun....
The T&G's go better than I expected, and I think I may soon have the hang of these. More work on them tomorrow, when we'll probably just stay in the pattern (we got booted off 27L at about 17.40 due to the incoming cargo traffic).
* * *
As Dave and I pre-flight 12R, we watch as a Westwind business jet takes off on runway 33 (by far the shortest and narrowest of North Field's runways). It screams down the runway at full thrust, and barely makes it: I'd guess it was at less than 40' AGL by runway's end. Impressive, in all sorts of intended and unintended ways.
Later, we watch from the pattern as a beautiful old silver and green twin-tail Lockheed Electra lands on 27R. Tower asks the pilot a bunch of questions about its lineage and the other Electra models. It's small and very graceful, even from the air. While we're refueling it takes off again, the twin radials making that combined buzz and deep-throat throbbing roar as it goes.
The old 727 with winglets, VP-BIF, has returned to OAK. Still don't know who owns it, but we saw it taxi past us as we're refueling, then a bunch of guys in Dockers, neat shirts, and short haircuts got out the rear airdoor. The pilots wore casual clothing. And short haircuts. We've never before actually seen it in action -- it's usually either gone or just sitting there on the tarmac totally dead-looking (the "VP-B" registration seems to mean it's registered in the Bahamas. Someone once facetiously suggested it's one of Donald Trump's 727's but what would he want with it out here?).
* * *
While we're in the pattern doing touch and goes, we hear tower sarcastically chide some guy in a Cherokee who apparently decided to do a long approach to 27R after he agreed to tower's request to do a short approach for traffic. "We don't ask for short approaches just for kicks and grins. If you can't do one, just say unable and we'll all be happy". Later, tower tells us to contact ground on 124.9... just as we're 600' in the air over the United hangar. I stifle the urge to make a suitably smart-assed reply. These guys are really pretty damn helpful even when they're being grumpy or gruff.
* * *
On Thursday I'll be doing the club's cross-country phase check with Zack. This will cover pretty much all the stuff (airwork, short- and soft-field work, and cross-country navigation) we've done so far, as well as ground work such as weight and balance calculations.
Why do the cross-country phasecheck after the long and night cross countries? Basically, because we screwed up the scheduling... and also, the phase check is not an FAA thing, it's a club thing. It has to be done before I do the FAA checkride, but not necessarily before I do the cross-country stuff itself. It -- like the earlier pre-solo phase check -- is a sanity check and progress indicator, a chance for another instructor to get a look at things.
* * *
Earlier, waiting for Dave in the clubhouse, Doug and I talk about flying, and who's going to look after the planes now that he's giving up the maintenance officer position after 15 years. No one, I'll bet.... Doug reckons that if he had his way he'd spend the rest of his life living in a log cabin next to a lake in the woods of Arkansas, near where he grew up. And I always thought Doug was a Texan. Oh well.
* * *
On my way out to the parking lot the Old T's cat strolls over to me from Lou Fields's hangars and demands attention. It's such a friendly, talkative, and confident thing, it's hard not to stop and be nice to it for a while.
Who killed Bambi? We're in 5445H today, which recently become (in)famous in the club as a result of one of the club's members unintentionally hitting a deer with the right main wheel and strut while taking off somewhere in rural California (or it could be Wyoming -- your mileage may vary here. Sources differ on exactly where this happened). Luckily the plane and pilot survived; not so the poor deer, apparently. The strut cover has been removed for repair, and there's still evidence of contact. And someone's written "Bambi Was Here" on the right wheel pants with a marker pen.
Weird weather: it starts typically, fog, mist, a 700' overcast (tops 2,000'). By lunch it's sort-of clearing, by 14.00 it's clear. By 15.00 there's a line of large cumulonimbus clouds to the west. This is unheard of 'round here -- this is the sort of weather you get Back East (or where I (sort of) come from in Australia). It looks like we might get... a thunderstorm. Locals are scratching their heads and asking what those big funny-shaped grey things in the sky are. For an area of the world that gets at most one or two mild storms per year, this is novel. We try to ignore it -- it's a freak, it'll pass to the south -- and get on with the short- and soft-field T&G's at OAK. This goes much better than I'd expected, mainly because Dave hits on a rule of thumb for estimating when to cut the power and approach the flare for short-field landings that makes sense to me, and when I finally try it, I get several decent (but still rough) short field landings in a row. It's pretty simple: come in above the glideslope, aim to be 100' AGL 500' short of where you want to touch down, cut the power when you're at the 500' point, push the nose down to keep the 65 MPH speed up, flare at the last moment. It kinda works, at least for today. I'm worried I might not get this right elsewhere, especially where I can't get exact visual clues for the 500' part (it's easy at OAK with the runway and approach markings; it might not be so easy at something like LVK's 25L).
The storm gets more threatening; we start seeing lightning over the Peninsula and Bay. It might even rain (once again, this won't mean anything much unless you're a Californian, in which case it means a hell of a lot -- see the weather primer in my California Driving Guide for an explanation...). The ceilings are pretty high -- generally five to ten thousand feet -- but the clouds are vicious-looking, with virga and that twisted and tortured mottled grey look that means trouble. But it's actually very calm, almost no windshear, etc., at our low level. The crosswinds keep changing direction -- one minute 300 at 5, the next 240 at 5, etc. -- but it's otherwise pretty pleasant flying. And the altimeter settings are changing rapidly, in both directions.
Tower eventually boots us off 27L for the approaching cargo traffic, so we depart for Hayward (HWD) to continue. We do a bunch of soft field work at HWD, with me slowly getting the hang of this, as well. I'm starting to feel like I can actually do all this stuff. It's no longer as difficult and scary as it was even a few days ago; I might even do OK with tomorrow's phase check (probably not, but I can hope...).
While doing the short field landings, Dave tells me to "play it [the plane] like an instrument". I shoot back that he's never seen me play a guitar, has he? Did he really want the plane played like I played "God Save The Queen", "Anarchy In The UK", or (to bring it full circle) "Who Killed Bambi?" all those years ago? This brings on a whole series of Punk and Sex Pistols jokes and imitations for the next ten or so patterns (anyone interested in my current musical leanings can see the Handsome Poets home page (it's a bit out-of-date, though). Yes, I was a Punk once. But I got better).
The storm's getting really pretty threatening, and after Hayward tower makes a general severe weather alert about the impending lightning and turbulence, we head back to Oakland (all of seven miles away). As we land, it sounds like tower and ground are having a party -- there's all sorts of laughter and cheering in the background whenever they speak. When I thank tower for her help, I get a breathy and seductive reply thanking me. Well, gosh.
It starts raining as we refuel... and then stops almost immediately (this is California). There are still people taking off VFR into the mess; I guess I wouldn't try it, especially since it's closing in on us, and while it's VFR directly over OAK, it's mostly IMC elsewhere. There's some spectacular lightning now over the hills and south past Hayward. The west is just a dark grey mass of cloud and lightning.
* * *
While I'm preflighting 45H I watch the same Westwind as yesterday scream down 33 again. This time it's airborne at least a thousand feet before the runway end, and this time it climbs steeply, almost aerobatic. Very graceful and sharp -- this time.
* * *
Sure enough, the storm is the lead story on all tonight's late evening network newscasts, complete with breathless live reports and special storm graphics. Ho Hum. When I was a kid we had to dodge the lightning on the way to and from school. And that was real lightning, not this flashy Californian stuff.
The cross-country phase check with Zack... another mixed bag. We meet in the clubhouse a little after 15.00, and go over the planning I've done for a trip to Truckee (TRK), which I've planned via Grass Valley (O18) and Blue Canyon (BLU). Zack's told me to assume four 170 lb adults, and the weight / balance calculations show that we'd need to leave with only 22 gallons of fuel (cf. the usual 38 gals for 12R). The exercise here is to be able to convince Zack that my plan would get us to TRK with enough fuel (including the legal 30 minutes diversion requirements), and that I could justify the route and checkpoints I've planned, and that I understand how to use the weather forecast resources. The trick here is that Truckee is 7,000' above sea level in the Tahoe area in the Sierra, and surrounded by mountains in a range that reaches 14,000'. And Truckee regularly gets temperatures in the 100's during summer, meaning landing and takeoff distances are much longer than when it's cold. The minimum altitude to get there along I-80 needs to be really well thought out to avoid hitting a mountain; and with that little fuel and that much weight, and the need to climb so high (9,500' minimum), will it fly...?. (Answer: yes, with a reasonable (and legal) safety margin. I wouldn't do it as planned -- four full-size adults in a 172 seems to be asking for trouble at the best of times. But it's only a paper exercise, after all). In general, I do well at this part of the phase check. He seems impressed by the planning, and we go on to the charts, which (once again) prove to be the easy part.
We then discuss the rest of the check. Due to yesterday's storm, he had to leave a Sierra Academy 152 out at Byron (C83), and we turn this into a rescue trip for that plane as well as the phase check. We'll fly out to Rio Vista doing the VOR work, navigation stuff, etc., on the way, then do the uncontrolled field / short- and soft-field work at Rio Vista, then fly to Byron, where I'll drop Zack off and fly back to Oakland behind him (or in front, given I've got the faster plane...).
The early parts keep going well: I intercept and track OAK VOR 028 radial towards Rio Vista with little trouble, I do a bunch of pilotage and dead reckoning work, and we get to Rio Vista without causing anyone's blood pressure or stress levels to rise. This part's actually enjoyable. The weather's fine, if very hazy. Not too hot, either.
We join the pattern at Rio Vista, and I start to realise we've got a very strong headwind (with quite a cross wind component). This doesn't look good -- Rio Vista's a narrow runway, and it's getting bumpy. Zack tells me to do a soft-field landing to a full stop. The crab angle on final is ... interesting. No excuses, though: I need to be able to do this. So I do an actually fairly decent soft field landing, but not close enough to the centreline, and very rough on short final (not my fault, I keep thinking). Could do better, but the actual soft-field part is fine: we really do land soft, nose up. We stop, and I do a short-field take off. This is OK, but Zack notices I spend too much time watching the airspeed indicator -- I should be able to do this with just a glance or two, and judge it by the cowl / horizon angle. He's right, but it's yet another thing to remember in the growing information haze....
The next landing is the first short field one. I try the thing Dave had suggested yesterday, but it's difficult without the visual markers, and the wind is unnerving me. I land short for the first time, just in front of the numbers, and very roughly. We stop OK, but I've broken the cardinal rule for short field landings: don't ever land short. I apologise, and we do a short-field takeoff. This pattern in a bit rough, and Zack has a lot of things to say about the pattern work, all useful, but also just more stuff to digest. Argh! The next landing is no better, so Zack takes the plane and shows me how it's really done. He does pretty damn well, considering the wind, which makes me feel depressed. The strategy we developed yesterday just isn't working. The next landing is also pretty bad, but it's not short this time. Just rough and off-center. [Later: it's kind of obvious now, but it wasn't then: the reason I landed short so consistently was the strong headwind, I suspect].
We depart towards the southwest, and do a simulated lost procedure. This goes OK, and I do well with using the VORs to tell Zack where we are, so he makes me do a diversion to Byron. Not unexpected, but the diversion is a thing Dave and I haven't really done yet. Not too hard, and I derive a heading, then follow it and the railway to Byron. Byron's busy, and everyone's landing on runway 30. As we get closer, 30 seems an odd choice: the wind's coming almost straight down runway 23... and it's obviously strong and gusty as hell. And Byron's runways aren't exactly the widest in the world. We crab in on final in the biggest crab angle I've ever experienced, and I just know it's going to go bad. It does: I don't correct enough for the crab angle on the flare, and we land sideways, well off the centreline. I don't bend anything, but it's a close call. The crosswind turns out to be well above my limit, and we haven't done much stiff crosswind practice lately. More practice needed....
On reflection, I should have just done a go-around at about 50'AGL, when it was obvious that it was too strong for me, and announced to the world that I was going to circle and land on 23. I suspect no one else in the pattern would have objected; 20 minutes later everyone was on 23 anyway. Another lesson....
We taxi and park, and talk about it all. Zack seems pleased by everything except the landings, and he'll sign me off on the phasecheck. He endorses my logbook for the trip back to OAK, and I wait for him to pre-flight and start his 152. I follow him up and over the windfarm (a beautiful sight on a day like today, huge lazy tall and thin hi-tech windmills, hundreds of them white against the golden brown hills), but he shies north away around LVK's class D, while I'm happy to transit the class D after asking LVK tower. By the time I'm over the Oakland hills, he's a few miles back, and I can hear him on Bay Approach reading back a clearance and then responding later with "Cessna 994 traffic [me] in sight, following Hamish!". A little earlier and just below us I hear Frank Astier in 45H on his way to LVK for touch and goes. The temptation to sneak in some silly remark to one or both gets awful strong. But with my accent it's always bloody obvious who did it... (unlike Dave, who's gotten away with some very funny (harmless...) radio murder in my presence).
On the way into Oakland, the incoming fog and clouds look a little iffy, but they open up at just the right time to make a nice broad cloud-free path almost direct to the airport. But the glare from the low sun still makes it very hard to see in the haze, and over the hills I realise I can't see the runways, or even the airport. I know the general direction, but ten miles out I really can't see where to go, so I intercept the OAK 27R ILS localiser and head in the right direction from about Hayward on in. I see 27R soon enough, exactly where it damn well ought to be, and I land OK with Zack in tow somewhere a few miles behind (cheating, using the ILS, I suppose, but it's another tool to use...).
[A few days later Zack and I are discussing this flight at my BBQ. It turns out he had the same problem as I did; he couldn't see the runway, but followed me, wondering how I made such an accurate bee-line towards the still-invisible airport...].
* * *
Back at the clubhouse I meet Tanmay T., a student at roughly the same stage as me. We hang around talking for a while about the whole process. I'm feeling really depressed and drained by today's experience, and it cheers me up a lot talking and exchanging experiences with another student. Even so, I leave for home later feeling really uncertain of my ability to ever nail the landings and get all the airwork and radio details dead on all the time. This is really depressing. For the first time since I started I'm beginning to wish this whole thing would end soon. I want to get that license and start flying.
I spend most of today feeling a bit better about things. I did a lot right yesterday; in fact, the short-field and heavy crosswind landings were the only things I did badly. Apart from the landings, yesterday was actually a lot of fun: Zack's a nice guy and enjoyable to be with, and the challenges were reasonable. Dave calls me later and gives me a pep talk. And starts talking about booking the checkride for mid-October, which suddenly doesn't seem too unrealistic if the weather holds, and (once again) I don't get sent to North Dakota or Canton (Ohio) or something like that for a month of (real) work.
A short trip to Palo Alto to pick up the new San Francisco sectionals and terminal charts, then a leisurely hood / VOR and general landings / slips / go-arounds (etc.) review at Livermore (LVK). This time nearly all the landings go well -- but then there wasn't much of a cross wind anywhere, and we didn't do short-field work at all. Nonetheless, it's good for the morale when nearly every landing is (relatively) smooth and on the centreline, especially at PAO's tiny runway and LVK's small 25L.
The old trouble I've sometimes had with wind noise and feedback in 12R came back with a vengeance: for the entire time we're in the pattern at LVK both our headset mics are unusable due to the whistling and feedback. We try everything, but none of the usual things (closing the air vents, playing with the squelch, etc.) work. Dave gives up and uses the handheld mic, doing all the radio work for me (Heaven! It's like having a servant to do your dirty work...). It's incredibly frustrating -- and only happens in the LVK pattern. I don't know what the hell I'm going to do if this keeps up. I could probably get around it with a more expensive headset, but that's more money than I want to spend right now -- and it might not solve the problem anyway.
Just as we're leaving LVK for Oakland, we hear that ATC nightmare, a stuck mic. Two people -- an instructor and a student -- chatter continuously and obliviously on LVK's tower frequency, making it impossible for anyone to contact or hear tower. Even when they're not talking, the mic's still transmitting cockpit noise (i.e. there's still carrier). It's obliterating everything else on-frequency. No one's getting through except one really persistent guy in the pattern who's able to get tower to clear him to land over the noise. It just keeps going on. Most cases end after a few seconds or a minute or two when the pilot realises what's happened, but this goes on for as long as we're listening, maybe five or ten minutes. There's really no way in a situation like this for tower or anyone else to get the message across to the people causing the problem. Dave was really keen to hear tower's response when it ended, but we have to switch to Bay over the hills so we miss the denouement.
Earlier, as we're leaving the club to preflight 12R, we run into Lou Fields (of Lou Fields Aviation just across the taxiway from the club at the Old T's). He's an old guy (in his seventies, I'd guess), bright, soft-spoken and smooth-voiced, an FAA designated examiner. He has a bunch of wise and pithy things to say about the testing process....
Another low grey day, IMC the entire afternoon and evening, cold, very wintry (by Bay Area standards), very hazy. We decide to depart IFR for VFR on top, as the tops are below 2,000', and Concord, Napa, and Livermore all have clear skies (typical). We'll do airwork and then touch and goes at Napa.
It takes us 20 minutes of taxiing, and just sitting in 33's runup area to get an IFR departure clearance... for the less-than-two-minute's worth of real IMC IFR we'll encounter before we break out of the clouds. But it's all novel to me, and (as with the night ILS approach a week or two ago), I'll do all the flying and needle chasing with Dave doing ATC and coaching until we cancel IFR.
The takeoff's routine (except for the initial headings, which keep us well west of our normal route east of the Nimitz), and we hit the clouds at about 700'. This is real IMC, and I fly by the instruments (roughly, but not terribly) for the approximately 90 seconds it takes us to break out of the clouds at 1400' and cancel IFR. The clouds disappear completely over El Cerrito, and we do airwork in the usual San Pablo Bay practice area. The airwork -- stalls, steep turns, MCA, hood work, VOR work, engine-out procedures, etc. -- goes fairly well, with only a few relatively minor things going wrong. One problem is that I can't get 12R to stall properly at all with the power-on stalls -- the damn thing just keeps flying nose-high and very slowly. You really have to yank the yoke back on a day like today to get a full stall effect. We also try the ground reference maneuvers. This just doesn't go very well (it never does), mostly because I still haven't quite sussed out and internalised the "obvious" wind-corrections and bank corrections needed to do the neat circles and squares. I really hate this stuff... but I think with a bit of practice and thought it should go OK by the checkride.
We head over to Napa (APC) for the landing work. There's a fair 10 knot wind at Napa, but it turns out to be very steady, and none of the landings goes bad this time due to crosswind or windshear (it's a really novel feeling being on final and just being able to fly the plane directly on to the numbers with your hands barely touching the yoke...). This time it's the soft-field landings that don't work very well, and I've got a lot of practice to do before the combination of flare, power, and attitude gets good enough that I can do this repeatably. Oddly enough, every short-field landing I do today is fine. I also get some sort of revenge when Dave does the first short-field landing to show me how it's done... and lands 300' or so long. Ha! All mine were on the money... (this time, at least).
We watch the sun turn a deep orange-red and disappear in the haze over the wetlands. The scene looks (and feels) more like a [Central] Valley winter than a Bay Area autumn: that indistinct heavy haze, the very pale blue sky, the weak sunshine, the lack of real shadows, the cool / cold air, the (relatively) calm air, the occasional denuded tree. Just like a London summer's day, come to that....
After a short rest break in the APC GA terminal, we take off towards Oakland. OAK, and most of the surrounding airspace, is now real IMC. And it's now dark (it's about 19.30 by the time we leave APC). Once again, I fly the plane and do the needle-chasing, while Dave does the radio and chart work, and makes damn sure I don't screw up. We intercept and fly the SGD 124 radial behind the hills, and get vectored across the hills and towards the localiser above the clouds. We join the localiser and glideslope somewhere near Hayward, and slowly lower ourselves into the clouds (which now have tops at about 2,500'). This is really cool -- the sight of the cloud tops in the dark slowly coming up to meet you, and then the total greyout in the clouds themselves, and then the later glimpses of lights below on the ground in little gaps in the grey, keep making me want to do this again and again. The actual needle-chasing and flying parts go OK, with only mild correction and admonishment from Dave, and we break out at about 700' bang on the glideslope with the runway lighting visible a little over a mile in front of us. Cool! Makes me want to get an instrument rating just for the sensations. This could be addictive... (admittedly, it takes a lot of faith when you're descending totally blind in the clouds that the ILS and all the instruments are OK and that the clouds really will disappear below you before you hit the ground, but I guess I naively have that faith already).
The landing goes well even though it's dark and the bloody landing light is out (again). When we get to the clubhouse we discuss the checkride, and Dave says I'm doing more than well enough to go ahead and book it for sometime mid-October with Larry Peters, a DE Dave likes.
I've booked the checkride with Larry Peters, for mid October (21/10 -- a week later than I'd like, but he's on vacation the previous few weeks). This seems realistic, especially assuming I can finally get the short and soft field landings reliably and repeatably correct. Dave's going to start coaching me on the orals and planning, but I don't think there's going to be too many problems with them.
* * *
Dave's had thirty-one students get their licenses over the years with only one initial checkride failure. It'd be just like me to be the second, especially with all the expectations being built up.
Another in a string of cold, grey days, very hazy, again more like a Valley winter than a Bay autumn... the clouds leave by 15.00, but the haze remains, and I spend much of the time flying with strobes and landing lights on. Not much of interest today: a Bay Tour and a bunch of touch and goes at Livermore, all on my own, mostly as an antidote to the intense landing and airwork of the past few weeks. Irritatingly, nearly all the landings go well, presumably because there's no one there to witness them.
About the only thing worth noting was the non-stop Bay Approach traffic on the way back -- it's nerve-wracking work trying to get Bay to acknowledge you before you bust their class C coming back over the pass from Livermore. The 130 second ATIS message coming back over the hills didn't help, nor the fact that unless you're above about 5,000' Bay can't hear you until you're on the hills only a few miles from the edge of the class C. When I finally get through I'm immediately vectored back east out over the pass I just came in over for a few miles, then due south for a minute or two, then north, then back northwest towards Oakland, all in an attempt to help juggle the traffic (I'm still so new at this that not only do I not mind it, I rather enjoy it. And anyway, I'm in no hurry). At one stage Bay tells me to do a 360, then immediately says cancel that, do a right turn to 180 (south) for traffic, then a few seconds later asks me to keep the 360 steep. I gently remind him he just asked me for a heading of 180; he shoots back with "Cessna 12R, thanks for keeping me honest. Maintain a heading of 180, and I'll get you back to Oakland as soon as I sort this tangle out". I watch a Learjet and a twin Cessna barrel past me a mile or two to the west in the opposite direction at roughly my altitude, then finally get directed to join a line of small Cessnas and Cherokees on a straight-in to 27R. Tower tells me I'm number five to land; magically, by the time I'm on short final, I'm actually number one. I can't help wondering where the other planes went. I can't see any smoking wrecks down there in the mosh pit....
Back at Kaiser I help Lou Fields push his Pitts S2A (N5300V) out of the way at the pumps so the next plane (mine...) can get in. The Pitts is a beautiful small acrobatic two seater hangared just across the taxiway from the club's planes, and we spend a bit of time talking about acrobatics. I promise Lou that when I have the money and time next summer I'll give him a call and he can teach me how to roll and loop and fly a real plane. (Or should that be really fly a plane?)
A thorough pre-checkride workout with Dave, with the emphasis on the diversion, VOR, hood, and landing work (at Napa), followed by a mock oral exam. By the end of the day I've been at work or flying for 14 hours; but by the end of the day I'm actually fairly confident I have a reasonable chance of passing the checkride and orals.
The flying parts go well, and I'm starting to think that with a bit more practice I'll be able to do both short- and soft-field landings reliably. No real problems anywhere -- or at least nothing that can't be easily fixed over the next few weeks. So we park the plane at the club and head out to the Java Jam (?) in Alameda (an atypically-hip place on Park), where Dave grills me on most of the topics I'm likely to get asked about in the oral. This includes everything from chart symbology through airspace requirements and flight planning to aircraft systems and mechanics. I do OK, but I have a tendency to over-answer (the academic / intellectual in me showing through...), and I couldn't for the life of me remember how to do density altitude calculations with the calculator (this is what happens after 14 hours on the go... sometimes the haze creeps into my mind as well).
Anyway, I'm starting to feel OK about the checkride. Or at least I'm not panicking. It's entirely possible I'll screw it up due to expectations, nerves, or just plain stupidity, but at least I feel I'll be ready for it.....
The constant mist-haze is getting under my skin, it's not natural for around here, it's a ten day long alien presence making VFR iffy at best.... And then late last night we get a thunderstorm, with scattered rain (!). The second storm of the year (making this twice as many as we normally get by this time of the year). Once again, the Bay Area's agog at the spectacle, people talk the next day about how they "survived" the storm... and I get pessimistic about flying tomorrow or Friday. The weather this summer's been the pits.
A long solo joyride to nowhere in particular through the omnipresent winter haze: a few touch and goes at Napa, then a run down to Livermore for more touch and goes, then back up the Diablo Valley to San Pablo Bay, then back to Oakland. Napa's as laid-back as ever; Livermore busy but quite pleasant; and Oakland a disaster area. Bay had me circle over the Temple because OAK tower hadn't accepted his hand-off in time (I was one of many planes in a similar position); when they finally acknowledged my existence, OAK tower steared me towards a standard right pattern for 27R then changed their minds as I was joining downwind and made me cross the runways midfield at 1,000' and do a left pattern for 27L, following an extremely fast Hawker on final, and overflying two small Cessnas taking off on runways 27 right and left. I landed long in case of wake turbulence, with a small 150 only a few hundred yards behind me misjudging the whole thing and being sent back around. It's probably still in the air somewhere down towards Hayward waiting for another chance.
Coming back up the Diablo Valley it's hard not to just fly off past Mt Diablo towards the Central Valley, through the haze to the Delta... but until I get my license it's illegal. Frustratingly so.
* * *
At Napa I stop for a break, and taxi to the GA terminal. I watch a small sit-down mower hold short of the taxiway I'm on, and hear "county mower three" call ground for permission to cross the taxiway. The guy on the mower waves at me as I pass, big grin on his face. I wave back, big smile on my face. He's wearing a full aviation headset along with the inevitable baseball cap; the mower has a small VHF antenna on the back. This is serious stuff. He's last seen taxiing in line behind a Bonanza on taxiway golf, off to mow the approaches to the runup area, presumably (or maybe just taking a joyride). Wish I had a photo.
The club's Doug's-Leaving-(No-I'm-Not!) BBQ: a pleasant chance to eat and drink and schmooze with the usual crowd, and thank Doug for deciding to stay for another year as maintenance officer. Brilliant weather, too -- for the first time in nearly two weeks. I get a chance to apologize in person to Joel K. for scaring him on my first phasecheck, and talk with Dave Verespey about what it takes to buy and own a plane like 45H (a lot of work... sounds an awful lot like being a grownup to me). I'm also discovering what it's like to write a public diary about a set of characters who actually read the damn thing and then comment about it in real time (it's like Postmodernism, but without the twee "Irony"). And what it's like having a very public and visible chance to fail the checkride. Several people at the BBQ call Larry Peters -- the DE I'm booked with -- "Scary Larry", which really helps with my confidence. On the other hand, most people seem to think he's pretty reasonable and isn't going to go beserk if I don't do everything perfectly. A lot of club members seem to have Scary Larry stories; I'm not sure what to make of this.
During the BBQ Milo and his crew (two Stearmans (Stearmen?) and a Grumman Agcat) repeatedly do the banner pickup, tow, and drop thing a few hundred metres away. The noise during the pickups is overpowering, even beautiful to these musically-trained ears. Cindy keeps saying to anyone who'll listen that she really wants to fly in one of them (and pleading for someone -- anyone -- to introduce her to Milo), so as the BBQ's winding down, and just as the Agcat and one of the Stearmans land for refueling, I drag her with me to Milo's Old-T's corner hangar. I've never been there before, and I've only really met Milo once before in passing, something he wouldn't remember. I don't have anything much in mind except to get a few closeup views and photos, and to give Cindy a way in to asking Milo for a ride.
We spend the next twenty or so minutes talking with Milo, with the Agcat driver, and with the support guys, and watching the pickup from close-up. Milo's really friendly -- everyone there is really friendly -- and he says he'd happily trade an hour in the air for an hour working on the ground for him in the support crew. Or he'd even just let one of us sit in the front cockpit of the Stearman while he does a banner tow, if we're that desperate.... Cindy mulls this over. Me, I scuttle about taking photos and talking mechanics and flying (such a nerd...). The Stearman's got a 400HP radial; the Agcat's is about 450HP (that's about 3 times the power of 12R's engine, but to put this into perspective, the T-28 mentioned earlier has a 1,400 HP twin-bank radial...). We talk strut strengths and wire tension, about oil consumption and distribution, about cooling and control linkages. The Agcat looks a lot bigger closeup than I'd imagined; the Stearman looks slightly smaller. Both planes do about 50-55 kts when towing (I've overflown the Stearman at about twice that). The Agcat driver says he's used to watching cars on the freeway buzz past below him in the same direction. He says they just ask for a blanket "banner ops" clearance from tower while doing the pickup; pretty much all other traffic on 33 and 27R gets stopped until the banner ops complete (usually a minute or so later).
When Milo and the Agcat driver are ready, we wander across the apron to the grass pickup area, and stand around where we hope it's (relatively) safe. The sight of an Agcat coming pretty much straight at you 20 feet above the ground at full throttle, trailing a wire swinging wildly 20 or 30 feet behind it, then pulling back and climbing almost straight up just 60 metres or so in front of you is a little hard to describe (think "North By Northwest", but in urban California, in colour...). I realise with a start that the banner the Agcat's picking up is the one stretched out only a few tens of metres in front of us -- if it accidentaly skips or skids along the ground, or unfurls wrongly, we're going to get it... (and hey, if the Agcat crashes, we're done for too, but we already know that...). After the first pickup, we move away from the banners, but still less than 100 metres from the wire-strung-between-the-poles pickup point. Cindy mutters something about our winning the next Darwin Awards.
Milo comes in at full throttle for his pickup in the Stearman, and misses. A couple of bits of wood and wire tumble at high speed from the pickup point as the hook hits them rather than the wire between the poles. While he circles around (with the Agcat circling around at about 1,000' with his banner behind him), the ground crew resets the pickup, and all traffic on 33 and 27R is visibly stopped. Milo comes in again and gets it, and flies off, banner and Agcat in tow. An hour later at home in Berkeley in the background I can hear Milo and crew slowly trawling the air above me.