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Post-Solo (Part2)


Three days of winter weather, cold low grey skies, unbroken 1,000' ceilings... three days in a row I book a plane, three days in a row I have to cancel. Week one of my flying vacation almost totally wasted. I feel frustrated, irritated, depressed and a little bitter.

* * *

In an effort to do something useful I concentrate on the written test. I've got all the tools: books, calculator, test software, etc., but I'm running low on the necessary patience. The study and (especially) the related testing is some of the most tedious stuff I've ever done (and as someone who did undergraduate electrical engineering, that's saying something...): page after page of weight / balance calculations, landing distance calculations, etc. It all has to be done right -- no errors -- but some of the test software has errors in it, making life difficult (you have to remember which of the tests is wrong, and what the wrong answer is, in order to score 100% or get past the question with the program). Sometimes I just have to get up and leave it for an hour before I scream; after the hour's over it's a real trial getting back to it....

My strategy so far is to first read the Jeppesen textbook ("Private Pilot Manual", ISBN 0-88487-238-6), which provides a good overview (and lets me sit in comfort on my couch, at least), but doesn't do much to motivate me to sit down and actually do the real work -- calculate, figure, plan, solve the problems, etc. I then use the Jeppesen FliteSchool (sic) software to structure the hard work, i.e. the testing and problem solving. Unfortunately (at least in my experience), the Jepp software has a few bugs and one or two wrong answers in the test sections. This is really hard on a student.... It's also a bit weak in the look-and-feel department, with videos that (in my opinion, at least) add little to the written parts, and diagrams that often look poorly-scanned or just plain useless. Still, it seems to be doing the job....

My favourite test software is the (shareware) Dauntless Software Groundschool package. This also has a few wrong answers (or, rather, according to the ASA book, wrongly-phrased or maybe outdated questions), but it's a lot nicer to use than the Jepp tests, and has a much more flexible set of test options. I use it to randomly test and review things, either after doing in with the Jepp software, or (say) first thing in the morning, or in front of the TV news. Highly recommended, but it too, has a few bugs.

* * *

The test questions themselves are all multiple choice. You get 60 of them randomly chosen from a large pool of questions covering all areas of the knowledge; you have to get more than 70% correct to pass. This makes it sound easy: why not just memorise all the answers? And surely it can't be that hard to do if they're all multiple choice -- why not just pick the obviously correct answer?

Well, firstly, there are just too many questions for me to be able to completely memorise. Additionally, some questions have no correct answer, and you just have to pick one at random. There aren't many of these, but one that I remember is a question about the type of VOR at Love Field (Dallas, TX) -- but according to the FAA's own chart to be used with this question, there is no VOR at Love (they presumably mean DFW, Dallas Fort Worth, a few kilometres away).

Secondly, and far more importantly, quite a few questions are deliberately either a bit sneaky or tricky. Unless you catch the fact that a question is asking for compass heading instead of the more usual magnetic heading, you can find yourself confidently picking the wrong answer. Not all questions have an obviously-correct answer in the given multiple choices, either, so you can't just pick the "obvious" answer.

In any case, working through the questions is actually a good learning experience as well as a test; it's really been the only way to force me to sit down and actually do the calculations.

I find it a lot easier to do the questions that can be worked out from first principles or with a good knowledge of the underlying model (e.g. weight-balance calculations or weather ). These might take more time (and are usually tedious as hell), but you don't have to remember a large number of apparently-arbitrary facts, as with the sort of regulatory question like "which section of the FAA circulars covers airspaces?", or "how many days does a pilot have to notify the FAA of a change of address?". Those questions are a lot harder; I'm just not the type of person who easily memorises arbitrary facts in this sort of circumstance, I guess.


Cindy G.The weather continues, cold, grey, wintry... but at about 14.00 it clears enough to make me think of driving out to the club with some sort of hope of a flight. At 14.00 OAK ATIS says 1,200' broken, 14,000' overcast -- i.e. not really VFR -- but actually looking up at the sky, there's no visible cloud below about 10,000'. It's worth a drive, I think... until I get stuck in a huge traffic jam on Interstate 880 in Oakland. It takes 90 minutes to get the 20 miles from Berkeley to the club. I arrive about 30 minutes late after planning on being 30 minutes early.

The plan today is -- weather permitting -- to do a short cross country trip to Rio Vista (O88), an uncontrolled field in the [Sacramento River] Delta. We'll kill several birds with one stone here: VOR and hood work, uncontrolled field work, short and soft field takeoffs and landings, a bunch of touch-and-goes, and VFR flight planning (including weather). Well, if we can fit it all in....

Unfortunately, the weather's closing in again, and it really does look like a Bay Area winter now: low clouds over the hills (i.e. IFR to get anywhere useful), low dark grey / black clouds scudding across the Bay, even some spots of rain [this last bit won't sound significant unless you're a Californian]. And I'm late. So Dave spends 30 minutes going through the planning for the trip to show me what's expected, but we don't actually do it; instead, we'll stay in the pattern and work on my landing problems. We'll do Rio Vista on Wednesday (weather permitting). The trip planning all seems fairly obvious, but I make one really dumb gaffe: using the standard plotter I get the magnetic course 90 degrees out, due to a really stupid mistake. I've been doing course plotting for decades on nautical charts with the same equipment, so this was really embarrassing.

In any case, the local touch-and-goes were just what was needed for my landings. By the fifth or sixth time around, I was visualizing and doing the flares properly again, and after an hour of this I was really feeling pretty pleased with my landings. None of them were brilliant, but with Dave's help I got a much better idea of what it is I keep doing wrong, and what to do about it. I still need a lot more practice, but it's a relief to see how quickly it all came back, and to confirm that it wasn't a permanent thing. Not yet, anyway.

We do a few attempts at short field stuff, mostly Dave doing the work and me co-controlling and / or following along. Short field landings are really pretty scary -- more-or-less a controlled crash onto a chosen spot on the runway with full flaps and lower-than-normal airspeed (closer to the edge of stalling), followed by hard braking. The idea is, as the name suggests, to be able to land safely on a short runway without running off the end of it or hitting any prominent obstructions on final. My one attempt without Dave's help came unstuck when I lost concentration and treated it at the last moment as though it were a normal landing, and quite instinctively, without thinking, I smoothed out the landing and touched down several hundred metres further along the runway than where I'd said I'd land. (Much) more practice needed. Short field takeoffs seem more controlled and benign, but it's going to take a lot of discipline and practice before I can really just yank the plane up into the air the way it's supposed to be done....

* * *

While we're on final, with Dave demonstrating a short field approach and landing, tower tells us to be on the lookout for wake turbulence from the Hawker (business jet) crossing 27L just ahead of us. Dave acknowledges this and then can't help facetiously adding "but I'm sure it's a Falcon" (me: "Nah, it's a Messerschmidt!"). Tower rather wearily says "12R, it's a Hawker. Trust me on this". Dave tells Tower that we trust him, really. But (turning to me) "it's a Falcon. Look at it!". A minute or two later Tower clears us for the next T&G, then adds "and, ah, 12R, you're right, it was a Falcon". I had this vision of the two tower controllers arguing with each other over this vitally important issue for the previous few minutes before our controller finally owns up....

The same controller keeps referring to the "mud pit" (as in "12R you're number two behind the Cherokee over the mud pit", or "Cessna 365, traffic's approaching the mud pit"). The first time I hear it -- during a slightly garbled / stepped-on transmission -- I hear it as "mosh pit". Cool!, I think. Just what OAK needs. But no, it has to be that large flat pre-construction site below us on final, being flattened and graded. It's currently more of a dustbowl. I'm not sure it's an official OAK reporting point (I haven't heard it being used before), but it ought to be. Along with the rifle range below base we're always imagining being shot at from, and the brown van that's a permanent part of OAK VOR.

[Tower later tells us it's going to be yet another golf course. It'd have been par for the course for it to have been a set of 5 storey condos, just under the flight path...]

* * *

One of today's little joys was watching FedEx's Cessna Caravans -- single turbine-engined high-wing freighters that look like fattened elongated 172's on steroids -- land on 27L in front of us, stop before the aiming points (less than 1,000' down the runway), turn 180 degrees on the runway, back-taxi to the numbers, then get off the runway, all in the time it takes us to turn base and then final. These are real short field aircraft... (they start to converge en masse on Oakland's FedEx hub in the late afternoon in time for the big Memphis-bound 7pm 767, DC-10, and MD-11 push. Their appearance often seems to signal the end of touch-and-goes on 27L...).


The weather clears just enough for more local pattern work. No chance of Rio Vista or anything more than touch and goes on 27L, which suits me just fine. Twenty-eight (!) times around in the pattern, the first half doing short field landings and takeoffs, the second doing soft-field takeoffs and landings.

The short field work is scary: as mentioned above, it's basically a controlled crash onto a selected point on the runway followed by heavy braking, all in order to land in the shortest possible distance. You tell the instructor or examiner exactly where you're going to land (the numbers, maybe, or (to give yourself a safety margin), the "aiming point" 1,000' from the threshold), and you get an allowable 100 foot either way horizontal margin of error on this after coming in on final on what always seems to be the edge of stalling. I never quite get this right in ten or more attempts, but I'm making progress. The really scary part is being told to land on the threshold itself, which basically involves aiming the plane to land short of the threshold (i.e. on whatever grass or mudflat or road or taxiway or whatever it is that happens to be short of the runway start itself) and just scraping over the end of the runway in the flare so you touch down on the threshold stripes, i.e. within a few metres of the edge of the runway. Get this wrong and you basically stall in and crash short of the runway. Not my favourite part of learning to fly so far.

Soft-field landings are much more controlled, much safer, but actually a lot harder. Soft field work basically involves a normal approach until the flare, when you hold the plane tail-high and in ground effect so that you land as gently as possible on the main gear and then hold the front wheel off the ground until the plane has slowed right down. The idea is to float on the edge of the stall, very nose high, as long as you can without touching down. This is hard, especially with the ever-present OAK crosswind. It involves real piloting and flying skill (short field landings mostly just require judgement and courage...). It also needs a surprising amount of physical effort to keep the controls effective at slow speed; it feels like a species of arm-wrestling at times. Again, in ten or more tries I didn't get it quite right, but towards the end I think I was getting the idea.

(I think it's this sheer physicality that's most missing from PC simulators like MS FS98: there's really no easy way to give a novice any sort of feel for how hard it can be -- and how physically draining -- to keep a light plane stable and on-course during pattern work with touch and goes. FS98 might do a fine job of teaching you instruments and things like VOR navigation, but it misses out completely on the wrist-wrenching and upper-arm flexing (and of course the inner-ear fooling, the external visual cues, etc.) that really goes on when you're trying to control a small plane at slow speeds in typical crosswinds with typical low-level windshear. To say nothing of how hard it really is to keep the yoke back far enough to keep the nosewheel off the ground until well after you've slowed to a crawl on landing...).

By contrast, both the soft- and short-field takeoffs seem fine. I'm a bit rough and ragged, but nothing near as rattled or as bad as with the landings.


The day stays low and grey right up until about 12.30, when it miraculously clears. I drive out to the club early, and grab 12R for the afternoon. Finally!

I depart OAK 33 and head straight to APC [Napa], where I do a full stop on 18L (the small runway) and get a drink at the terminal. I then do five touch-and-goes in the pattern for 18R, mixing it with JAL's Kingair trainers, big twins that seem to use huge extra-wide and long patterns. I struggled to keep up with them the entire time (and the downdwind legs seemed to go on forever behind them, half way to Sacramento...). Then a straight-out for OAK, where I do five touch-and-goes on 27L and then get a right downwind departure for LVK [Livermore] without a stop. Over the hills and into the pattern for LVK's 25R, then a full stop (I'm dead thirsty again by this time). Then a right crosswind departure up the Diablo Valley and over CCR [Concord] at 4,500, then a descent to 2,500 over San Pablo Bay for airwork. A bunch of MCA maneuvers, power-off stalls, and steep turns, then a leisurely approach back into OAK for a full stop on 27R. Tower asks whether I can do an immediate short approach for 27R due to the Hawker barreling in on final; no problem, and a minute or so later I'm just over the numbers and ready to exit on echo. Cool! I've done it... at last.

The whole flight took about 3.5 hours (3 hrs logged). I really didn't mean to spend so much time in the air or do so much in one flight, but after the frustrations of the past few weeks, and the uncertainty with the weather for the next week or two, I just felt like doing as much as I could when I could.

Nothing went really wrong the entire time, and if some of my landings were a bit rough, none of them were bad, and one or two were actually pretty reasonable. Radio work was no problem at all. No real nervousness or apprehensiveness about any of this today, just the feeling of ... finally! ... and accomplishment. It just seemed kind of natural.... Overall, a real confidence booster. Oh, and OAK ground once again held one of the cargo DC-8's for me while I taxiied back to the Old T's. Must be something I ate.

* * *

Milo's Stearman appears during the pre-flight, and I watch him miss a pickup. My hero has wings of clay! Actually, watching his immediate recovery and the astonishingly-assured looping turn (a semi-vertical 360) he did to get back to the pickup point was worth witnessing the miss. He got it the second time. Milo's been flying since the 1940's, apparently. So's the Stearman, I'd guess.

* * *

On my way in, two unmarked cars and a couple of guys in police jackets are hanging around next to the half-open door of the hangar next to the club. They smile and say hello. So now I know what's in it, but the secret of the Alameda County Sheriff's flying saucer and nuclear death-ray technology will always be safe with me....


A perfect day for flying, somehow.... Another mad solo rush, this time OAK to San Pablo Bay for airwork, then CCR for maybe ten touch and goes, then APC for an hour of pattern work (touch and goes), then a full stop at APC for a drink and rest, then back to OAK.

Both CCR and APC have strong winds and fearsome windshear and turbulence on final today, but no real crosswinds -- in both cases the wind's coming almost straight down the runways. At both places I get switched between left and right runways (19L and 19R at CCR, 18L and 18R at APC) several times on final to juggle arriving aircraft, adding to the clutter in my brain. A good challenge, which I always like, and the controllers get thankful if you do it without complaining. Once again, only a couple of good landings, but no really bad landings. I always seem to land smoother at Oakland than anywhere else; not entirely sure why this is. The rest of the flying seems fine, with not too much polishing needed to pass the final checkride tests.

About the only thing to cause any problems was a whistling feedback or wind sound in my headset and microphone when I tried to transmit at APC. It was bad enough that Tower advised me that he could barely hear me. I worked for a while trying to sort it out -- it wasn't anything obvious like a misplaced switch or the overhead air inlet forcing air across my face -- but in the end it just gradually disappeared after a few minutes. Tower spent some time theorising what it might be (obviously a busy day at APC...) but we never really solved it. Oddly enough, the same thing happened for a few transmissions the last time I soloed at APC; I haven't heard it anywhere else or when Dave's also in the plane. Odd.

* * *

Both today and yesterday have been great confidence builders (and also just plain enjoyable); it's really good to see that you can do it on your own, handle whatever's happening, or just cope with the unexpected without looking across at the instructor....

Dave's starting to talk about the checkride now, or at least the detailed path from here to the checkride. This seems a little premature -- I haven't even done my pre-cross country phase check yet, and probably won't for a couple of weeks. But if the weather holds out, and if my company doesn't send me to Europe or Asia for a month as they're quietly hinting they'll do in September or October, it's looking increasingly like I may be able to get the license this year. My real fear is of not getting it before November, when the rainy season starts, and when we get three or four endless months of solid overcast, meaning I won't be able to get the license (i.e. do the checkride) until March or even April next year.

Besides the cross country parts, I still have to do the short / soft and uncontrolled field work, finally get some night flying done (cross country and landings), get the ground reference maneuvers right, and do more hood work. After that, I guess it's mostly coaching for the orals, and relentlessly sharpening all the flying skills.


I finally book the written test, for Friday 27/8, 10.00, at Link Services, OAK, through Sylvan Prometric. This is the way to force the issue....

* * *

I meet Dave at the clubhouse and go over today's work: we'll finally fly to Rio Vista (O88), using VOR radials and intersections to get there, then stay in the O88 pattern to do short and soft field work. I'll also get to practice uncontrolled field radio work.

We plot the course: it's 37nm along the 028 radial of OAK VOR, and we plot the airport as being on the Scaggs Island (071?) radial, giving us an intersection over the airport (we could just use the 37nm DME on OAK VOR, but that's not the point...). It's not that getting to Rio Vista is difficult or needs the VORs -- it's a short trip in brilliant weather over ground I know intimately -- it's just that we want to use the VOR stuff as practice for later real cross countrys. We discuss relative headings and what the VOR needles would say where again; this time it's "obvious" and I don't screw up too badly.

We take off about 16.30, and head pretty much straight for O88. Over the hills I try intersecting the 028 OAK radial, but it's tricky. Not because I don't know what to do, but because I have trouble doing the gentle standard rate turns needed to correct for heading problems or to make an intersection. In what quickly turns into today's theme, I just can't quite believe that the fairly subtle control inputs needed to do a standard rate turn at cruise speed will really get me to the heading on time, and I end up blundering past the correct heading in a way-too-steep turn. By the end of the day I still hadn't got this quite right, but at least it's not a deep skill or conceptual thing: I'll get it with a bit more practice (and faith in the efficacy of standard rate turns...). I guess I'm just not the subtle type.

We weave our way to Rio Vista via Bay Approach and then Travis Approach. I managed to miss what Travis said to me on callup, which worried me a bit, but it turned out to be standard altimeter stuff, just said at light speed. I know what to expect next time, I guess. This part of the world -- the Diablo Valley and the Sacramento Delta -- is beautiful at this time of the year, soft golden-brown hills, absolutely flat islands and fields, languid sloughs, wide meandering rivers, broad straight ship channels, endless ploughed and cropped fields, that hazy Delta light I've tried for years to photograph from the ground, and Mt Diablo always brooding in the background or periphery of almost every view. It's mesmerizing; it's one of the reasons I fly.

About ten miles out (a little past Pittsburg) I call Rio Vista traffic for advisories, but get no response. The Rio Vista CTAF is shared by a large number of airports -- during the pattern work we heard Davis, Placer County, Sonoma, Tracy, and several other airport traffic calls on the same frequecy -- and the noise is terrible. About five miles out I ask again, and a Cherokee about to depart gives us the active (25) and winds (gusty, variable). We pass over the runway at about 1500', then do a 270 into the 45 and into the downwind at TPA. So far so good.

I spend the next hour or so learning how to cope with uncontrolled fields (not that difficult, just slightly nerve-wracking work keeping your ears and eyes permanently open for other traffic, and remembering to do your own calls at the right places in the pattern), and the short / soft field takeoff and landing stuff. As with the earlier attempts at Oakland, the short and soft field takeoffs are OK, but I'm beginning to hate the short field landings. It doesn't feel any safer or better than last week. And with the heat (38 degrees at least, I'd guess), the winds (gusty, bumpy, with windshear throughout the pattern), and the narrow runway, it doesn't take me long to work up a deep loathing for it all. I really don't enjoy this much, and it probably shows. I do one decent short field landing; the rest are (thankfully) overshoots by a wide margin, and rough as guts. I also screw up the follow-through each time, always braking hard enough to cause us to skid. I just can't seem to get the gentle toe tap you're supposed to use to avoid skidding. Again, I guess I'm just not the subtle type. Soft field landings are coming along better, but I still only do two reasonable ones out of the five or six I tried. Luckily we're the only plane in the pattern for the entire time, which leaves me with a greater margin of error and one less thing to obsess about.

Dave obviously likes Rio Vista -- it's a new airport (you can still see the remains of the old one a few kilometres away almost in the town centre), it's got decent runways (a bit narrow -- 75' -- if you ask me, but bearable), and it's usually pretty quiet. And there's plenty of open space surrounding the airport for emergency landings.... I guess I'd like it too if it weren't now so strongly associated in my mind with the short field work. Maybe next year I should return and exorcise the ghosts with a few leisurely touch and goes or maybe a full stop to get some fuel. It's a shame the airport's not closer to the town -- I like the town itself a lot: I've used it as a base for some of my Delta photo work, and it'd be nice to be able to walk into town and have lunch on the levee near the bridge.

The only real excitement came when a helicopter just appeared out of nowhere from the north -- no audible announcement or anything -- a few hundred metres to our right and maybe 200 feet higher than us. It made radio contact with us just as we saw it; by the time we'd turned downwind a few seconds later, it was out of sight.

In the distance we could see a C5 doing touch and goes or pattern work at Travis AFB; occasionally it overflew our area. They're huge and very dark when seen from the air a few thousand metres away; they also seem incredibly slow. One of them actually announced itself on CTAF when flying a mile or so to the west at 3,000'; whether it was just playing with us or really thought our mighty 172 could reach its altitude before it had crossed the Pacific I don't know (in this heat, even at our best climb speed (Vx), we could barely manage a 400 fpm climb -- you can do twice that in the cool air over Oakland). Nice touch, though.

Coming back, Dave makes me do VOR work for a minute or two, then makes me don the hood. From about Pittsburg right up until we're about to turn base for 27R at Oakland, Dave gives me headings and altitudes to fly, and I log another 30 or so tense minutes under the hood without ever seeing sky or ground. The tension this time doesn't come from the flying parts, which I do roughly but without causing us to fall out of the sky or hit anything, but from the radio work. For some reason Bay Approach has chosen to combine the usually separate sector frequencies 127.0 and 129.7 today, and the traffic is non-stop. It's hard enough flying under the hood, but coping with the radio and wondering whether we'd bust OAK Class C (which I couldn't see, of course -- I really never had any idea where I was except for Dave's hint to be used for reporting on initial callup) before we'd been heard made me want to rip off the hood and ... well, I don't know. It's frustrating.... We finally get acknowledged and get the usual sequencing into OAK over the Temple (which, of course, I can't see -- I just fly the headings and altitudes Dave's feeding me...).

We get handed off to Tower, which doesn't do much for my tension. It sounds like Tower's calling a horse race or a cattle auction; it sounds even worse when you can't see outside the plane. We're literally seconds from deciding to circle rather than bust Tower's airspace when I finally get acknowledged after maybe five attempts. Dave guides me into the pattern, without telling me anything about where we are (or even that we're in the pattern, though I had my suspicions...). It feels really odd saying "12R, cleared number two for 27R, traffic in sight" when under the hood, but I survive. Dave tells me to take the hood off, and voila, we're about to turn base a mile or so south of the Coliseum. I had no idea.

On final for 27R we watch a small Cessna over the mosh pit on final for 27L with a large twin still back-taxiing along 27L. The twin's still back-taxiing as the Cessna's over Airport Drive, i.e. on short final. It looks like a sure go-around, but neither Tower nor the Cessna pilot budges. I start to wonder whether I'm about to watch my first real accident. The twin turns off the runway at the threshold as the Cessna is itself only a few tens of metres short of the threshold. It gets cleared to land only a few feet above the numbers. I suspect in that position I wouldn't have the nerve to avoid a go-around, or I would have remained higher and aimed a lot further down 27L than the Cessna did, but that's second-guessing.

We land normally (which seems to be SOP for Oakland now -- wish I could do this so smoothly elsewhere as well). While taxiing from Kaiser to the Old T's Ground clears us across 15 (telling us to report clear of 15) while we're still a long way from 15. I repeat the clearance, but I can see ahead of us at 15 another 172 just crossing 15 as I speak. We never heard it call for clearance across 15; I suspect Ground thought it was us. A minute or two later we report clearing 15; the controller sounds surprised. I guess I'm not surprised.....

A harried end to an otherwise interesting and educational sort of day. Apart from my inability to do standard rate turns, and the tension caused by the ATC near-lockout, the hood and VOR work was interesting and enjoyable. This time there was little or no disorientation, but then there was also no steep turning or sudden changes of course. A bit of turbulence, but nothing nausea-inducing. The short and soft field work is something I'm not enjoying much at all, and I don't feel I'm making a lot of progress, but it's essential work. I'll just grit my teeth and do it. And hope it gets better.

* * *

While refueling at Kaiser, we watch a small aerobatic-looking plane (with that distinctive-sounding radial engine) do a high pass over 27R then loop up and back for a very quick final. I always wonder what clearance this involves from Tower, especially during such a busy time, but I've seen this or similar maneuvers like the Stearman banner pickup or warbird fly-by's so often now at OAK that there must be a standard request and procedure here. It's one of those things that makes Oakland Oakland and not (say) the much more glamorous but orderly San Francisco.

A few moments later it's just behind us at the fuel pumps; it turns out to be the Yak two seater I've seen several times parked at Lou Fields's hangars. The old guy who jumps out also looks suspiciously like the old guy who was flying the T-28 last month, but I didn't have time to talk to him this time -- even the pumps are busy today, and I have to push 12R out of the way to let other planes into the fueling area.


The first cross-country: Santa Rosa (STS), then back via Petaluma (O69, an uncontrolled field). 55nm OAK to STS; good weather, 45 minutes ETE. Training for a real cross country.

Before Dave turns up, I get Pierre to show me how to add oil to 12R's engine properly (you don't want to screw this up, even if it's pretty obvious). He patiently shows me how to do it (you really need a third hand to keep the dipstick from touching anything, especially any dirt. Dirt in the oil can be fatal at altitude...). While we're doing this he tells me how he once left his Grumman to be refueled at Willits (O28, a couple of hundred km's north up US 101 from here) and went off to get lunch. When he came back he (stupidly, stupidly, as he keeps telling me) did only an abbreviated pre-flight, and took off south towards Oakland. Some way out from Willits he noticed a plume of fuel vapour over the wings -- the refueler hadn't properly secured the fuel caps. He got back to Willits before losing all his fuel, and spent an hour searching the runway for the caps with the FBO owner. He found them.

* * *

The by-the-book planning for this flight is excruciating. If done absolutely properly, it'd take two or three times the actual trip time for a short flight like this. I do a slightly-abbreviated version, using the standard weather / winds aloft briefing from DUATS, interpolating en-route windspeeds at cruise altitude (4,500), and estimating leg times between checkpoints, etc. In the end I get remarkably close to something useful, and when we actually do the flight, the headings, leg ETE's, fuel consumption, etc., are all as accurate as can be expected. You can't just draw a straight line and declare that you'll climb straight out of Oakland to (say) 4,500 at the standard 650 fpm here, for example, because there's the SFO Class B to stay below, a few 2,000' hills to stay away from, etc., so it's slightly more complicated. In this case, though, there are on-field VORs at each end, which makes the actual course tracking pretty easy.

I file a flight plan with OAK FSS over the phone, which we then activate via Oakland Radio as we take off on 33. It's a really fairly unremarkable flight to STS, everything going as planned. Bay Departure hands us off to Oakland Center over San Pablo Bay, and the only excitement is a Citabria doing aerobatics over the mouth of the Petaluma river at our altitude and right in our path. Center calls it for us ("Cessna 12R traffic at 12 o'clock, showing variable headings and altitudes..."), then asks if we can see what sort of plane it is, and whether it looks like it's doing acrobatics? We identify it for him and confirm the acrobatics, simultaneously veering to the right, all our landing and anti-collision lights blazing. The Citabria crosses over us too close for comfort (at least for a plane obviously intent on doing violent and interesting maneuvers with no notice); it shows no sign of having seen us, and I struggle to keep it in sight, but lose it rapidly. We can hear Center calling the Citabria out for several planes heading north behind us. The obvious question is: why's the Citabria doing acrobatics in the middle of a heavily-travelled VFR corridor? At VFR cruising altitudes? Center clearly knew almost nothing about it. Definitely not illegal, just maybe (perhaps) a wee bit foolhardy.

Santa Rosa turns out to be a nice, relatively-new airport, with two big runways and a helpful tower. Dave learned to fly here, and shows me around. There's a bunch of old seaplanes, several USFS fire tankers, and even a commuter terminal. While we're in the terminal building Dave smiles and asks me what I've forgotten... the flight plan! I've forgotten to close the flight plan. If you haven't closed it within thirty minutes after your filed ETA, they start the search-and-rescue preliminaries (as all the world's couch pilots know now after the JFK Jr. kerfuffle). I still have thirty minutes left, so it's OK, and I rush to the phone and close it. A good lesson.

We depart Santa Rosa for Petaluma, about 15 miles south-east of STS. Everything goes fine until we're turning right downwind for runway 29. Suddenly a large Cessna Cardinal climbs straight up towards us from the right, passing just in front of us and only a few hundred feet away vertically or horizontally. We swerve to the right, let him pass to our left and slightly above us, then do a 180 and follow him back into the pattern, keeping him in sight above and in front of us (he's a lot faster than us). Where the hell did he come from? What we (later) think happened was that we confused the Cardinal's traffic calls with the plane in front of us -- also a Cessna. The trouble is, the Cessna in front of us wasn't making (any) traffic calls, but he was close enough to where the Cardinal was that we thought he was making the calls. Pretty scary, but we did see the Cardinal (even if I don't think he ever saw us). Another good lesson in situational awareness.... Dave's pretty irritated at the plane ahead for making absolutely minimal traffic calls (just once, on base, I think).

The landing / touch-and-go at Petaluma turns out to be otherwise uneventful, and we do a right downwind departure for Oakland. We contact Oakland Center just out of Petaluma, and get handed off to Bay Approach mid-Bay. Bay tells us he can't see our transponder return, could we please recycle. So we do, but the receive light doesn't light up at all. It worked fine for Center, so it's not clear what's happening. Just as we're pondering this, Approach announces that due to an earthquake that's apparently just happened, Oakland's not accepting landings until further notice. He starts dishing out individual holding instructions to everyone on-frequency landing at OAK, including us -- we're to circle over Berkeley at 2,500' until told otherwise. We get a nice view of the Berkeley Hills -- and the houses neither of us will ever afford -- below us. Our transponder magically starts working again. Approach tells us all that they've got to "sweep the runways" at Oakland to make sure there's been no damage.

To my somewhat jaundiced eyes, it's clear the quake's not major: the traffic's moving normally along the freeways, and there are no columns of smoke rising from wrecked buildings as there were when I looked out my window after the Loma Prieta quake ten years ago. And that quake was only a Pretty Big One, not The Big One. Still, we're up here circling, and no one's allowed to land. We discuss diverting to Concord, but as we're debating, Approach says Oakland tower is starting to let people land as long as they understand they're not cleared to land and that it's at their own risk. We volunteer for 27R and Approach hands us off to Tower.

As we're switching to his frequency, Tower tells someone else that it couldn't have been that big -- they've still got all the windows in the Tower cab. We can hear several calls from trucks on the runways doing the sweeps. One or two planes are being allowed to depart under the same circumstances as we're being allowed to land. We tell tower we're OK about the clearance thing and we're ready to chance it, and we get what I'd call a "continuance" rather than a "clearance". Tower's tactics here were pretty interesting: rather than tell us what to do, he made us tell him what we wanted to do, then simply said "12R, continue". He called traffic and sequenced us, but never issued anything with the word "cleared" in it.

We carefully enter the pattern and wait to see what happens when the first traffic lands on 27R (a Caravan, if I remember correctly). Nothing happens -- the Caravan doesn't disappear into any sort of gaping chasm or immediately burst into flames. Or even bounce more than usual (funny, that). Which is reassuring, so we join the line, number three for 27R, all of us having signed our life (and life insurance) away. The landing's a bit rough this time, but that's probably forgiveable. A few minutes after we land OAK's declared safe again, and the normal traffic resumes.

Back at the Old T's, Pierre's changing the Cherokee's oil. He grins and says he didn't notice the quake at all. It's going to be huge on tonight's TV news. [It was. Despite Turkey having had a real quake -- thousands dead, etc. -- last night, it's today's minor local quake (a 5.0) that leads each local broadcast TV news show. Pathetic.]

* * *

Just another day in Northern California, I guess. I have to admit I was far more worried about whether my house in Berkeley was damaged -- whether any crockery got broken or books turned over, etc. -- than I was about where we'd land or what we'd do with 12R if we had to divert to Concord or Livermore. Without Dave I would probably have circled a bit more, then diverted to Concord and waited it out (it was obviously not the Big One. Or even a somewhat big one). In any case, we had at least three full hours worth of fuel left on board, which could have taken us to Reno or even most of the way to Los Angeles at a pinch....

* * *

Dave's plan for Thursday (the next time I have a plane booked) is for me to repeat the flight, but on my own. And minus the excitement due to quakes, uncalled traffic, and Citabrias in the way.


First solo cross country: OAK, STS, O69, OAK again. Plus a few extras.... Another Bay Area summer day, warm and sunny in the Bay (clearing by 11.00), hot and dry up the Valley at Santa Rosa. No clouds, moderate winds aloft; it feels great to be doing this on my own....

The flight itself turns out to be pretty uneventful except for a really stupid mistake I made approaching STS: I was told "left traffic for 14" and promptly started a right pattern for 14. I'm a mile or so out when Tower catches this, gently hinting at my mistake. I realise what I've done, and blurt out something like "Blimey. 12R. Sorry. Student pilot. Won't do that again...". Tower seems untroubled by the whole thing and helps me get back on track. Nice people. Coincidentally, there's an on-air discussion between tower and a pilot in the pattern about when STS would be getting radar. Tower reckons it'd take "a couple of million" to get a decent system. "Not going to happen any time soon...".

Just after landing we're buzzed by two ex-military trainers (T-34's? Two seaters) doing low and fast fly-by's above 14 with smoke trails. Cool. There's a couple of military A10 Warthogs parked on the tarmac in front of the airline commuter terminal. They look odd sitting there dark and squat -- and much bigger in real life than I'd imagined -- between the sharp, narrow, streamlined brightly-painted commuters.

On the way out of Oakland Bay Approach asks me what my intended cruise altitude is. I reply that I'll be climbing to 4,500' after REBAS (which marks the end of the 4,500' shelf of the SFO Class B airspace). Trying to be helpful, he immediately clears me into the Class B so I can climb to 4,500 feet earlier. I bite back the temptation to just go for it (who'd know?) and reply "12R unable -- student pilot.". Approach sounds a bit flumoxed by this. Refusing a free, unsolicited Class B VFR clearance?! People 'round here usually have to beg for them....

On the way back, 12R's transponder goes intermittent again. And once again, this is only a problem for Approach: both Center and Tower see it just fine. Not sure what to do, but it's irritating to have controllers keep asking you to recycle the unit or tell them if there's anything wrong. Approach is busy as hell and I worry that they'll throw me out of the Class C for not having a working transponder, but Approach just makes a few grumpy requests for recycling, then tells me he's getting a useful return about 1 in every 4 or 5 sweeps. "Better than nothing", he says over the Temple, "12R contact Oakland tower on 118.3. Good day." Good day indeed; Tower never mentions any problems.

So I get back to Oakland by 16.00. Now what?! I've got the plane until 19.00. Since the transponder's giving trouble, I decide to taxi back to 27L and stay in the pattern for T&G's. Taking a Bay Tour would be really pushing my luck with the transponder. So it's landing practice -- full flaps, partial flaps, no flaps, slips, etc. I get a bit carried away -- hypnotized, maybe -- and 90 minutes later I decide to call it a day.

* * *

I dragged my GPS handheld (the Garmin GPSMap 195) along for the trip, which proved successful. I'm slowly getting used to the yoke mount, and the previous glare / contrast problems seem to have disappeared, and I doubt that I'll ever willingly fly cross-country again without it. It's not a replacement for dead reckoning or pilotage, but it sure helps confirm or cross-check the results of those two methods (I did a ground speed calculation between Hamilton AFB and Petaluma using my watch and the calculator; it wasn't too far off the GPS's much more accurate reading). It's particularly good at identifying airspace boundaries and actual distances to those boundaries and / or airports for reporting points. By then I've always been a GPS enthusiast....

Back at the club I run into Dave Verespy, 5445H's owner. Nice guy, especially after I apologise for the "so seventies" remark about the lime green paint scheme on his plane. I'm still addicted to 12R, though.


I've started detailed planning for the long solo cross country, Oakland to Red Bluff to Chico to Vacaville (Nut Tree) and back to Oakland. Planning for this trip is actually pretty enjoyable: it's a decently long journey (more than 350 nm round trip with the dog-legs I'm using), and the planning seems to make sense in this case (it didn't for the short 55nm hop to Santa Rosa, especially over ground I know so well and along a route constricted by airplane performance and airspace considerations). I deliberately plan the route to keep me close to Interstate 5 and State Route 99 for much of the way, mostly in case I lose track of other landmarks. All the intended airports are close to I-5 or SR-99 (not that this probably matters much here either: this is also country I know very well both from the ground and from the air).

This time, too, I'll be flying at a decent altitude, probably 8,500' rather than way down in the Valley. The route's dotted with small airports for emergency use, and the extra altitude gives me some reason to believe I could probably make a safe landing somewhere if the engine fails.

* * *

More studying for the written test. This is the most tedious stuff I've done in years....


Edd P., a friend from work, has long offered to take me up in a light twin to show me what it's like. We finally get it together to actually do it, and I meet him at SQL at 8.45. Another beautiful Bay Area day, this time (unusually) no surface wind (this doesn't last -- it never does).

He's rented a Beech Duchess for a couple of hours; we walk out and pre-flight it. It's bigger than the 172, but not hugely so; the cockpit is roomier, and a lot longer, and you sit a lot higher, but it still feels like a GA plane. This particular plane -- N23852 -- is probably a mid-70's model, looking a little tattered but still sturdy. It feels solid, comfortable.

There's little traffic at SQL at this time of the day, and we take off on 12 with a right departure over the hills. I'm impressed by Edd's fluency with the engine controls: not only is everything doubled, of course, but there's the whole variable-pitch propeller manifold pressure vs. throttle thing and cowl flap management as well. Apart from that, and the complications of retractable gear, and a whole lot more switches on and around the cockpit, a lot of the plane seems familiar. Nonetheless, I wouldn't have a hope in hell of flying it successfully (let alone safely) on my own....

The most obvious non-instrument difference is performance: this plane easily does a sustained climb of 1,200 feet per minute (vs. 600 fpm for the 172), and cruises comfortably at 140kts (vs about 95 kts for the 172). And this is not a big or relatively highly-powered twin, either. Over the hills Edd hands the plane to me. I guess I wasn't sure what to expect, but it's very pleasant: obviously heavier in roll and pitch, but also a lot tighter. It doesn't take much to roll or pitch this plane. It also feels a lot steadier than the 172, if only because of its weight and speed.

We head out VFR towards Half Moon Bay (HAF), listening to HAF's CTAF. There's already a lot of traffic; Edd shares my dislike of uncontrolled fields, and we decide to head for Salinas instead (he needs to do some landings for currency, and there's the luxury of a real tower there). As we turn south along the coast, we can hear a bitter-sounding argument on HAF's CTAF over who's really on left base ("Who's on first?"...). Not a confidence booster for uncontrolled fields (later, as we're coming up the coast a mile or two abeam HAF, a Cardinal (another Cardinal...) comes straight up at us out of the pattern, unannounced and obviously unconcerned (or perhaps just oblivious). I veer to the right and slide below him; I'd guess he never saw us nor bothered to listen to our careful CTAF announcements).

The flight along the coast to Salinas is beautiful -- the coast here is classic Northern California, cliffs, mountains, small flat green fields (asparagus, onions, etc.) in among the heath and scrub, and despite the HAF traffic, there's not another plane in the sky until we're over Watsonville. I "fly" the plane -- with Edd doing the engine controls and telling me what to do -- right up to final at Salinas. Edd takes over, and we land on runway 26 at what seems a huge speed to my 172-trained eyes (70 or 80 kts -- not really that fast...). The landing's smooth; Edd doesn't flare this plane, he just lowers it slowly onto the runway at a constant slightly nose-high attitude. We taxi back (no touch and goes in a twin like this), and take off. I fly the pattern back to 26, then let Edd take over again on short final.

I fly most of the rest of the flight, with Edd's help on the engine controls, flaps, and gear, right up to short final at SQL runway 30. We fly up the coast to Golden Gate (dipping below 1,500 feet past HAF to avoid the SFO class B), then take the 101 transition south to SQL through the class B and over SFO itself.

A great two hours of flying....


A solo Bay Tour, pottering about at 2,500' over Golden Gate, Marin, and Angel Island, then a trip over and around the Diablo Valley. Nothing interesting to report except the view, all patterns and geometry, colours, movement, stasis... and the really annoying 15 minute wait to take off on 27R at OAK behind a bunch of Sierra Academy 150's and 172's. To be fair to ATC, there were apparently some stray dogs running around near 27L and the airport trucks were dispatched to get rid of them -- with Tower calling the dogs' location for the trucks just like airborne traffic, in between clearing the real traffic -- meaning only 27R was in use for a while.

Once again, I'm almost gratuitously cleared into the Class B airspace (ATC: "12R, give me a call if you want the 101 transition south, it's currently wide open..."), and once again I have to decline something that people here sometimes kill for....


Touch and goes, short- and soft-field landings and takeoffs, all in the pattern at OAK. This is relentless work, but I'm slowly getting the hang of it all. Still very ragged, but the short field work no longer scares me so much, and I think with another day's practice I'll be OK. For the first hour or so OAK's a zoo, with 12R being given all sorts of differing instructions, runways, clearances, etc., including a go-around to help Tower (brownie points here...) sequence an IFR departure on runway 9 (i.e. the wrong way -- how does this guy do it? It's always the same plane, a big Dornier twin commuter with six-bladed props), several last-minute runway switches, and a few cut-in close approaches when the student pilot ahead of us got too far downwind.

* * *

Dave's now endorsed me for solo Class B clearances, but solo students are definitely not allowed to land at SFO, just overfly the airport or transition through the airspace. Which is fine by me. Will probably come in handy for the long cross country. Or not.


A joy ride with Jan, Dave coming along to make it legal.... The Bay Tour: Berkeley, Richmond, Marin, Golden Gate, San Francisco, the 101 transition south: SFO, SQL, PAO, Moffett, SJC (all in quick succession), then up over Calaveras and north(ish) through the Diablo Valley, then through the pass on home to OAK.

A beautiful day, but very hot: away from the immediate coastline, it's in the high 30's and low 40's (for those of you addicted to Nineteenth Century measurements, temperatures today in the Central Valley reached 110 degrees Fahrenheit; it wasn't a lot cooler in much of the Bay Area). Over San Jose we're unable to get better than a 400 fpm climb, and I contemplate having to circle several times in order to make it safely over the hills. It turns out to be unnecessary, but it's a sign of the way the 172 flies on a very hot day with three full-size adults and full fuel tanks. I'd hate to try this out of Truckee or Tahoe on a day like today....

Just north of SFO, SFO tower asks us to do an impromptu 360 to give him some room for the BA 747-400 departing SFO 28R in front of us. It's a beautiful sight, this huge 747 slowly climbing -- below and just in front of us -- up the valley beside Mt San Bruno, while we turn a shallow 360 at 1,300' just over the other arm of San Bruno. We're really careful about wake turbulence while crossing its track a minute or so later, but since it was visibly quite a lot lower than us where we cross its path, we don't get too obsessive. Later, over the pass between Hayward and Castro Valley, we're again asked (by approach, this time) to do 360's, trying to help approach sequence a couple of Hawkers and a Duchess into Oakland and Hayward. It feels mildly dangerous doing 360's at 3,000' in the middle of a major VFR route into Oakland and Hayward, but it's probably even more dangerous (and stupid) to tangle with the jets. We keep our eyes peeled for traffic, but never actually see anything that approach hadn't told us about.

* * *

The Class B 101 transition south's becoming fairly routine for me now, but the radio work needed to avoid busting the five or more busy abutting airspaces along the standard route (SFO class B, SFO tower, SQL class D, PAO class D, Moffett Class D, SJC class C, at least...) is still nerve-wracking. Once again I screw up the switch between comm 1 and comm 2 and confidently request transition through Moffet's class D... on Palo Alto's frequency. At least the controller's nice about it, if a little weary sounding. Once again, it took a few moments of confusion on my part before I realised what had happened. At least I got it, this time.


The written test.... I wake up early, feeling jetlagged, dead tired. Nothing a cup or two of coffee doesn't cure, though. I feel fairly calm and stoic about the whole thing: if I study any more I'll start to lose motivation and interest, and I just want to get it over with. I know this sounds arrogant, but I know I'm well prepared and that I'll pass; I suspect I can get 90% without killing myself, maybe even more than that if I can concentrate properly. It's my penchant for distracting myself while doing things like boring tests that's the danger here. I've never been much good at multiple choice tests.

I drive out through unusually light traffic and get to Link Services -- the test place -- early. It's on Earhart Avenue, North Field OAK. Hangar 7. Familiar territory. I wander in to Link, and the guy behind the desk asks me the usual questions, then asks me for my CFI sign-off. I get this sudden sinking feeling: I've left my log book -- with the sign-off inside it -- on my desk at home. I feel really stupid: this isn't the sort of thing I usually do. I blurt out that I've left the thing at home, could we start without it and I'll bring it in later? No way. I ask if they'll wait while I drive home and get it -- it'll only take me 45 minutes, max. No problem. I'm early, so that should make me only 30 minutes late.

So I rush back home without much trouble, pick up the sign-off, and start driving back. I carefully chose the freeways (I-80 / I-980) instead of the usual surface route to I-980 because on the way home the freeway traffic looks relatively OK (i.e. slow but still moving). As I get onto the freeway at University, though, the traffic slows to a crawl, then stops dead. It takes 30 minutes to get the mile from University to Ashby, where I battle my way across to the Ashby exit and "surface" to 24/980, bypassing the stopped freeway traffic at the cost of another 20 minutes (on the other hand, staying on 80 would probably have cost me an hour or more -- there appears to have been a major accident in the Maze). All the time I'm cursing myself and feeling dumb as hell (the line "I'm not the sharpest tool in the toolshed" from a song I recently heard on KALX keeps coming to mind). All the time I'm feeling like I'll explode. Maybe they'll cancel the test if I'm more than an hour late? Maybe they've already written me off. How well am I going to do under these circumstances? On the other hand, I couldn't stand postponing the bloody thing.

I return to Link 90 minutes late. It's now 11.30. The guy says don't worry, I still have 2.5 hours, he's not going anywhere else. He shows me to the booth after inspecting the plotter, etc. The test itself -- fully computerised, just another PC application -- goes OK, no unexpected questions or problems. Some of the questions are a bit unfamiliar, and the accompanying book of charts, figures, etc., is a little different from the version I studied from, but it's no big deal. I go through all 60 questions one at a time, noting the ones I'm not certain about (about ten or so). All the usual question types are there. I then step backwards through every question, checking every answer. I turn up one or two mistakes from my earlier pass (stupid errors). I then recheck all the questions I'd noted on the first pass, making an educated guess for two questions, one regulatory, the other to do with wind shear, and doing all calculations on questions that need calculations twice. It takes a little over an hour. Then I press the "finish" button....

So I get 100%. I didn't quite expect this. Lucky, I suppose. Maybe I do better under pressure, or when challenged by my own stupidity. Anyway, I feel relieved it's over -- and incredibly thankful that Link were so flexible for me.

* * *

So what's next? The long cross-country and cross-country phase check; night flying; a little more hood work; nail the short and soft field stuff (before it nails me); and generally tighten up the airwork and maneuvers. Plus start working on the orals....

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