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First Flight to First Solo (Part 2)


For the past six weeks or so it's been unusually windy, much stronger and gustier than the normal steady Bay Area afternoon sea breeze. It's been too strong for quite a few days now for taking a small Cessna up into the air. It feels unnatural, I feel that same sense of unease and resentment I feel during long droughts, I keep looking out the window just knowing we'll have to cancel this week.... (It's also surprisingly cold for this time of the year: there haven't been any of the usual hot April or May days yet, and I haven't needed to remove my sweatshirt to fly yet. Which is welcome).

The Author, again...Today it's not too windy for 12R (close thing though, by the time we've returned to the tiedown area), and I meet Dave at 15.00. We take off for the Mt Diablo practice area, with me doing all the radio work today except (as explained later) in Livermore's airspace. The pre-solo maneuvers all go well -- steep turns, slow stalls, power-on stalls, climbs and descents, slow and MCA flying. I'm even getting used to the mushy controls and pitch / throttle control swap; it almost feels intuitive (but I need to be more precise on both). With a bit more practice most of these things should get good enough for the PTS; even the power-on stalls go well this time (I don't know what I was doing wrong last time; this time it all just seemed to fall into place, with little altitude loss, no wing drops, and no heading loss [I think last time I may just have been over-correcting for the yaw-kick with the rudder and forgetting the ailerons in the process. We shall see...]). The emergency landing stuff doesn't go quite so well, mainly because I still don't know how to slip: we end up far too high over the emergency field despite a couple of early 360's. The hills around here are still too green for California, luscious and smooth, too damn rural for the new Diablo Valley. There's the real California just over the next ridge (and the next, and the next...), the bare deadly rash of factory-built multi-storey boxes and treeless streets and leafy post-industrial industrial estates. None of this existed when I first drove to the top of Mt Diablo in the 1980's. We see one cow.

Then off to Livermore (LVK) for touch and goes. My first call to LVK tower goes awry due to headset problems, and I never really recover. I let Dave do the radio from this point on until we leave the airspace, which proves smart later when it gets too crowded and tower's turning people away. The first T&G is uneventful, joining a right pattern for 25R (the longer of the two runways) at 45 degrees. There isn't much traffic at this point, and we follow a King Air in about a mile or two behind. On this and the rest of the LVK touch and goes I do everything except the final flare; in each case I have little trouble with lining the aircraft up on final or with the pattern, but my flares are awful, with Dave co-controlling each time.

After the first "go" on 25R the airspace fills up quickly, and we're switched mid-pattern to a left pattern for 25L, the (very much) shorter and narrower runway. Over the next six landings we're instructed to do 360's (twice), S-bends on final to delay landing, switch frequencies to a second overloaded-tower frequency for the 25L pattern only, and extend downwinds nearly every time. The air is full of planes, at one stage when taking off from 25L I can see eight other planes (mostly 172's, 152's, and Cherokees) through the front windshield without turning my head more than a few degrees. One of them is at our altitude, maybe 200 metres to our right, a little bit ahead of us. Cool. This looks great, I think, but it's making me nervous, and I concentrate more on traffic avoidance than the pattern, and my flying gets sloppy. It's also almost impossible now to get a word in edgewise on the radio, and tower keeps miss-saying our number (keeps calling us "one-two-papa", which makes me think he's got terrible handwriting...). Amazingly enough, we seem to be one of the few well-behaved planes in the pattern: at one stage, tower reams out about half-a-dozen planes in a row for misreporting or missing position reports (and tower doesn't even have radar here, so it's quite a feat of positional awareness). We don't even get scolded; in fact we're largely ignored, which I count as a minor triumph on our part. One plane consistently confuses its numbers; tower starts sounding really exasperated. A Cherokee in front of us in the pattern just keeps going on and on .. and on... on the downwind leg, way too long and wide, with us following perplexedly about a mile behind; tower finally asks him what the hell he's doing, just as I'm debating whether to facetiously ask tower whether we're cleared to Altamont. The Cherokee sounds surprised that anyone cared and rather miffed that it mattered.

We decide to get the hell out before we get hit; besides, I'm not enjoying this at all. Oakland looks a lot better from this distance. We're given a straight out for Oakland from 25L and climb for the hills. At the edge of LVK's airspace Dave checks out smartly; the controller then takes the time to thank us for our patience and sighs on-air that it's just the beginning of (his) rush hour....

More touch and goes on Oakland's 27L, this time more leisurely and better-controlled. Oakland traffic -- all of it, even the low-time students -- just sounds so much more ...professional and controlled... than at LVK (I'm such a snob). I actually land the plane several times completely on my own, Dave holding back the entire way. But I also do two absolutely terrible flares, bouncing and skidding around lethally as Dave fights to rescue us (hey, C172's can take this, they're designed for landings like this. Or so I'm told). This is going to take a lot more work.... Basically, right up to the flare it's fine -- although I can't slip I can crab, and I have no trouble lining up even in today's crosswind (230 at 10) and crossing the numbers on altitude and more-or-less right on the centerline and at the right airspeed (take that, FS98!, I think at one stage). And my pattern flying itself is fine, even if I do turn more sharply and steeper than Dave would like. He keeps ribbing me about my "60 degree turns", but they're not that steep; basically, I think it's just me reacting to the sight of the DC10's and 737's on and over 29 less than a mile away on the crosswind leg, and the traffic on 27R when I'm on the base leg. But I just can't get the last part consistently right. Nonetheless, I enjoy these T&G's immensely, and the contrast with LVK is obvious -- our controller sounds relaxed and in control, I know the airport, and most of the traffic isn't T&G. One of the advantages to learning in a busy Class C airspace under an even busier Class B, I guess. Hayward also looks like a good place to learn, but I'm not sure I'd like the OAK-bound jets just above me like that....

At about 200 feet AGL on short final into 27R for refueling we're joined by a huge eagle or hawk, flying only slightly slower than us. It dives down sharply, then soars straight back up just in front of us, only a few metres away. You can see the individual brown feathers on its wings.... I'd hate to hit something like this; not just because of the obvious damage it'd do to us (especially on short final), but because it's so striking, so assured, so beautiful. These birds are very much a part of Oakland flying; they're everywhere around the airport, but especially noticeable on final, of course.

* * *

From sometime over LVK right up to refueling at Kaiser, I have trouble with my headset. I'm not sure what's wrong, but sometimes it just keeps slipping off or into odd uncomfortable angles, and other times it just doesn't sound right (the two problems are probably related, but I don't know yet). It's frustrating, but it could also be mildly dangerous if it happens when I'm on my own -- it's one of those classic distractions that could end up killing people.... On the ground, I can't see anything wrong, but I'm going to work on them this weekend and see what I can do.

* * *

Dave watched Spinal Tap last night, and today he's just full of Spinal Tap imitations, sayings, accents and trivia (in addition to the great little Oz accent he uses when he's joshing me). I keep waiting for him to call Ground or something with a Nigel Tufnell accent. We've also developed a silly little in-joke around a scene we both remember from the Battle Of Britain film where the boys are standing around watching their village being bombed, arguing about what the planes are ("It's a Heinkel!" "No it's not silly, it's a Messerschmidt"). Whenever we're not sure what the plane ahead of us is in the pattern (or on the ground or crossing ahead of us or parked on Kaiser's ramp, etc.) we descend to fake-accented "It's a Heinkel!", etc.). Very funny (actually, since I'm re-reading Johnnie Johnson's "Wing Leader" at the moment, it seems kind of appropriate).

* * *

On the way out we run into "Milo" the Stearman driver. Dave stops and compliments him on his recent appearance in "the paper" (I don't know which one -- apparently there was some GA-friendly story about Milo's plane and business). Milo's a character: older, rakish, big dog hanging out the window, huge old yank tank car, softly spoken (at least to us). This is the guy I saw with flying helmet, goggles, scarf (the full quid) looping straight up and off OAK 33, then diving back to pick up his banner just above us as Gary and I waited to cross 15 after the Shelter Cove trip a year or two ago. Impressive. I want to do that when I grow up.

* * *

I'm egotistically starting to think of myself as cautiously fearless. Or vice versa. At least as far as flying goes....


I casually mention on the phone to my brother that I'm learning to fly. I didn't know quite how he'd react, and I'd held off mentioning it to anyone back there (Australia) because of the image thing (above...) -- what the hell would he think I was doing? Had I gone totally bourgeois? Become a rich Californian geezer? Do I wear greasy-looking aviator pimp glasses? But he actually sounded enthusiastic about the whole idea.... He didn't seem to think it was odd at all. Humph. It's strange hearing him say this -- as far as I can remember he's never taken much notice of flying except as a means to get from A to B, but he'd probably make a bloody good pilot (for many of the same reasons I'll probably only be average).

I threaten that the next time they're out here I'll take him and Derek for a flight. But of course it turns out he's ringing to tell me that he and Derek will be out here mid-July, so that's out. Oh well. I say next time I'm out there I'll rent a plane at Bankstown and fly around Sydney. We shall see....


Canceled again... this time, someone's screwed up the booking for 9UL, and Doug's about to put it under repair for some sort of non-essential cowl work. We could fly right now if we get it back "soon", according to Doug, but I don't push the issue -- it's not Doug's fault the plane's been mysteriously un-booked, or that Dave's late, and Doug's always really pretty friendly to me anyway. Oh well.

When he gets to the clubhouse, Dave gets all apologetic, but we book another flight for Monday afternoon, planning to head for Napa (APC) for touch and goes, ground reference maneuvers, and general pre-solo airwork. Then we talk for a while about things -- flying, Spinal Tap (he's brought the video for me to watch), bad students, other flying clubs (in case the AAC goes under or something).

Bad students: he says the worst are the ones who don't really understand the mundane realities of flying (especially at a relatively financially-strapped club like the AAC). They whinge incessantly about the weather, the state of the aircraft, the unavailability of instructors, or they just don't understand the demands being put on them. He mimics one whiner complaining in a single extended sentence about the seat backs on 12R, the eternal cloud cover over Oakland, the fact that Dave can't just reschedule his own time arbitrarily one hour in advance, the rental prices, and the need to do more hard work before the checkride. These guys typically either leave the club fairly rapidly for somewhere like Oakland Flyers, or keep plugging on annoyingly until they finally get their license and leave Dave alone. The ones who can't actually fly aren't the worst -- they typically realize it at some stage, and lose interest. Or they don't realize it, blame the instructor, and move on to some other unsuspecting instructor. Which from Dave's point of view is a reasonable outcome....

Other clubs: the canonical Good Club 'round here has to be the West Valley Flying Club in Palo Alto (and, I think, San Carlos). It's rich (all those Stanford students and alumni!), it's big enough to have full-time mechanics on-field, it's not hugely more expensive than the AAC, it's universally regarded as being friendly and well-run, and it's a non-profit club. It has some 20 or so C172's and a bunch of other stuff including a real simulator. Plus a large roster of instructors. The only problem for me is it's on the other side of the Bay, an hour or more stressful traffic-clogged drive from home or work at the best of times. The AAC is usually less than 20 minutes' easy drive from work or home.

The other main Oakland club (apart from the UC club, which we can't join anyway [apparently, we can, according to a UC club member I ran into the other day...]) is Oakland Flyers, across the way on North Field over near Kaiser somewhere. It's fairly rich, bigger than AAC (but smaller than the WVFC), it's for-profit... and it's quite a lot more expensive than either AAC or WVFC. But the planes are newer, much nicer inside, and they've got a real clubhouse. It's how the other half lives around here, I guess.

* * *

I've bought a Garmin GPSMAP 195 for VFR nav work (with the external antenna and yoke mount for the 172). An expensive luxury, for sure, ($1,100) but I'm a great fan of GPS (I've got a GPS II+ and GPS III for backpacking, cross-country skiing, sailing, and desert trips), and it's an obvious backup to pilotage and dead reckoning on VFR x-countries. I can't believe the skepticism I see on Usenet about GPS: sure, it's got limitations, but if you understand how it works, and don't rely on it as your first line of navigation, how can it be a bad thing? And it's great for things like distance measurement, crosswind detection, airspace boundaries, etc. Plus it's got a full database of US airports, VORs, NDBs, intersections and fixes, etc. And if you ever find yourself in MVFR or even IMC by mistake, it's a reassuring aid to navigation and attitude indication. Probably cost $250 in a few years.... Haven't used it in the plane yet, but it's a lot of fun on the ground, driving along and being warned about airspace incursions, etc.


The constant wind keeps getting under my skin, unnatural, cold, gusty, destructive (290 at 15 at OAK; always more here in Berkeley, where it's rattling windows, doors, and gates, tossing the trees around). I'm catching myself impatient to solo, worrying more about hours-to-solo than what it really takes. I want to be an over-achiever....

* * *

I've passed one of those essential pilot milestones, participated in a defining rite: I've been sent a Sporty's catalogue. One day (probably tomorrow) I'll even order something from it. It's full of the sort of non-essential gee-gaws every pilot's just got to have....


When I was about 12, a friend of the family -- Bernie O'Shea -- invited me to visit him in the Sydney radar room (I don't know if it had a fancy name like "Sydney Centre" or was referred to as an ARTCC or something similar -- it was just the long dark windowless building a little across the road from the old TAA terminal at Kingsford-Smith). He was a controller there, and I spent hours watching and listening, and even being allowed to say things on air (e.g. "Roger Alitalia 606" or something equally safe). I knew just enough to be able to ask reasonably smart questions, but I could barely "read" even the simplest display. I was entranced by the displays and the way these guys (all guys at that time and place...) kept the situation in their heads. I was hooked, but I don't think I ever wanted to be a controller as such.


The usual: 240 at 15, a stiff crosswind takeoff from 33, this time for Napa County (APC). Dave's late, though, and I potter about the clubhouse. Suddenly there's an incredible radial engine noise coming in from outside. I know what it is instantly, and run out to watch one of Milo's blue and yellow Stearmans loop up at full power off the end of 27R, get up to about 200 feet, and turn immediately for the threshold of 15. Then at the end of a turning dive he crosses the threshold at about 30' AGL trailing a hooked wire. The Stearman streaks in towards the banner pickup -- a piece of wire attached to the banner, held up about 10' off the ground between two poles -- gets the banner on the trailing wire, then does a full-power steep climb high enough to get the banner off the ground before it's dragged along the ground. Then he's in a steep banking climb off to the Coliseum. It's all over in about 20 seconds, all within about 200 metres of me on the ground.

No one I've ever described this to has ever believed it unless they've also seen it themselves... everyone seems to think the banner is unfurled from behind the plane in the air, or something. This is so much more dramatic and aerobatic than that: the noise alone's impressive, but the sight of this beautiful old biplane roaring around just a few feet above us and only metres away across the tarmac and grass always stops everyone dead in their tracks.

* * *

Dave finally turns up, and we taxi out to 33. At the runup area we see a camouflaged B-17 and a bulky silver B-24 parked across the field near Kaiser. Then we're buzzed by some sort of WWII fighter, silver and orange, flying maybe 100' AGL over 27L at what I'd estimate to be about 150 kts or faster, which then loops up, over, and back to land on 27R. Is there some sort of airshow coming up soon around here? We don't know, and can't get a word in edgewise to ask Tower (who actually requested the fighter's fly-by as we were taxiing -- I hadn't understood what was being asked for until it happened).

We lurch gracelessly into the air feeling a little underpowered and unglamourous by comparison, and head for San Pablo Bay for a quick run through of the pre-solo airwork and emergency landing stuff again. This goes relatively well, so Dave gets me to do two ground-reference maneuvers: the S-turns along a road, and the turn around a point. We do both off and around Mare Island, and it's quite a lesson in cross-wind / downwind / upwind correction. I don't do particularly well, but these weren't the point of today's flight, which was landing. There's a smallish (25'?) yacht stuck in the mud just off Mare Island; there's a keel-trail leading back several hundred metres to the water's edge. Judging by the lack of more than a slight list, it's probably a raisable centerboard boat. It appears to have been abandoned -- there's no sign of anyone on board -- but it's also not secured by anchor or anything, as far as I can tell. No obvious tracks leading to shore, either. A bit of a mystery. Dave thinks it was there the day before yesterday when he flew here with another student.

We climb and head towards Napa County airport, APC, and check in with Tower over Marine World. We get a left base entry for runway 24, and I'm able to line us up on final and head in, approved for touch and goes. The first touchdown is pretty poor, but not terrible. I do a total of 14 T&G's over the next hour or so (?), with very mixed results. None of the approaches (in a reasonably strong cross-wind) are bad enough to need a go-around or more than minimal hints from Dave to salvage; in fact, I get the finals pretty much on the centerline and numbers each time. The flares are another matter. I do one -- the second attempt -- almost perfectly, but after that it's pretty much hit or miss. Mostly hit (bang!), of course, with Dave struggling to keep us from crashing to the ground from 50' up or landing nosewheel first (a real problem in this plane, leading to what's called "porpoising", which can have deadly effects unless you do a determined go-around or power-on long landing). Dave says each time that I'm only "literally inches" from getting it right, but again, he would say that, wouldn't he? I don't feel only inches from success: I don't feel I'm making much progress at all. I still can't "see" the flare height properly in my mind, and I just don't pull back hard enough when we're finally sinking. Plus I find it difficult to correct for last-minute yaws while just above the ground, meaning I've landed nearly sideways several times. Or at least it felt sideways, even if was probably only a few degrees crab in reality.

My pattern work was getting better, though, and I coped well with the other traffic and tower communications. The controller was a slightly laid-back sounding woman who had a very clear voice and enunciation, which helped. The only excitement was the arrival of a very fast, very low Citation into the pattern just ahead of us (we were warned, but it was still impressive), and the need to do a 270 on one base leg due to a Barron that appeared from nowhere (APC sits on a low plain near the Bay, and the main entrance from the east is through a low pass in some hills just east of the base leg for runway 24, which can make for some startling entrances...). We also switched patterns from the standard right pattern to a left pattern at Tower's request for some reason or other that I missed in the excitement [arriving left traffic, apparently], then switched back the next time. We were the only plane doing touch and goes, but there was another plane in the pattern pretty much each time we were in it. At one point a motorglider came in low over the hills; I've never seen one of these before -- just a normal glider with a small engine mounted above the wing, by the looks of things.

The final for APC's runway 24 goes over a large car junkyard (heaven!), then over some trees just off to the left, and then over a plowed field just before the threshold. While I was in the pattern, there was a strong unsteady updraft over the car yard, and a weaker but more consistent downdraft over the plowed field. Add the cross-wind, and no VASI, and it felt much harder to line up properly than either Livermore or Oakland, but I coped, wresting away at 200' AGL and 65 knots....

After 14 attempts, I'm tired and hungry, so we head back to Oakland. OAK Tower clears me for landing with a strange set of instructions that really baffles me for a few moments. In between telling me to follow the Duchess ahead of me over airport drive (in sight already) and to expect wake turbulence from the B-24 on the runup area between the runways (what?! wake turbulence... well, it does look kinda huge and squat down there, doing a runup with engines pointed 45 degrees across 27R), he mentions he's "released a Stearman". I haven't a clue what he means -- does this mean the Stearman's in the pattern? Is he ahead or behind us? I try not to panic, and just read back what I think the landing clearance should be: "1-2-Romeo cleared for landing number two behind the Duchess, Duchess in sight" or whatever it was I said. But I still don't know what was being said. I ask Dave what's going on, where the hell's the Stearman? He points laconically to 27R, where, sure enough, there's a Stearman rolling down the runway just before the Duchess lands. He says the controller's using non-standard terminology (it's an IFR flight-plan thing), and he doesn't understand why he's saying it because it's only going to confuse most listeners. Later I realize I should have just asked after the readback exactly what was that about the Stearman, and kept my head. Not an unusual request in the circumstances, and the controller probably just didn't realize I didn't get it. And besides, I should have seen the Stearman on the runway as part of my pre-base scan. Live and learn, I guess, but it also shows the point about standard terminology in an environment like this....

Back on the ground at Kaiser, we watch the B-24 take off on 27L, another real audio experience. It lumbers off slow and low towards Alameda. At the pumps there's another 172, this one an immaculate 172R, almost brand new. The pilot turns out to be a doctor from Rhode Island who flew it here solo VFR from Providence, across the South and Texas. We talk a while, and he laughs at our complaints about the fog here: back East, he says, he's lucky to get one flyable day a week due to rain, clouds, storms, etc. Such a paradise! he says, sweeping his hand towards our (typically cloudless but foggy-in-the-distance) horizon. He'd just flown in from Crescent City, just beating the fog there. He lets me open the door and look inside; it's clean, efficient, modern, well-kept. A bunch of instruments, including an IFR GPS panel. The doctor himself is amusing (very New York, especially the accent, despite the RI address), small, wiry, curly grey hair, beard, sunglasses, dressed in new khaki aviator's overalls, friendly, helpful, enthusiastic.

On the taxi from Kaiser back to the Old T's we hear the dreaded "Abex 1234" call to ground for push-back. "Abex" is Airborne Express, who keep three or four stretched DC8 freighters at the Northern end of the Earhart Road complex. The problem with this is that they need a full-width taxiway -- taxiway delta -- to get out of their apron area to runway 29, and that just happens to cause traffic like us to have to pull over and wait on the hangar side, for anything up to 15 minutes or more as the DC8 pushes back, starts, then slowly taxis up delta. But glory be! Ground asks them to wait until we've passed their pushback area. This is a first, especially according to Dave: the DC8's are never made to wait for lowly 172's -- their per-minute costs are probably greater than our per-trip totals. Plenty of ribbing from Dave about how my newly authoritative radio voice is the cause of all this.

* * *

What's going well? The big revelation for today was the radio work. I handled it all, with very few prompts from Dave. With the exception of the Oakland Tower / Stearman release thing, I understood pretty much everything and didn't get flustered once. I sounded like I knew what I was doing; I sounded like I was on top of things (too much so, in my opinion -- I want ATC to know I'm a student, but Dave doesn't like appending the magic word "student" to initial callups, so we've never made my status clear to anyone over the radio).

This was unexpected: I was still depressed about the problems I'd had at Livermore, and wondered whether I was really up to coping with all the information. I haven't done anything special to cure this beyond sitting down and thinking things through in my usual way (on the couch, (not) watching TV, usually...). What was I likely to hear? What could they say? It's always tower stuff that goes over my head, so I just analyzed my way through a bunch of situations involving Oakland and Livermore. The real problems seemed to be hearing the specific reporting points, and my relationship to other traffic in the pattern. I missed the reporting point for APC approach, unfortunately, but at least I heard that there was a reporting point, unlike at Livermore (Oakland I already know all the points, so this has never been a problem for me here). I had little trouble with situational awareness today -- I usually spotted the planes before Dave, or at least knew where to look, based on listening to calls to me and other planes in the area.

Oh, and my headset only came loose once this time. Big difference, especially in the patterns....

* * *

Later, as we're post-flighting 9UL, the Stearman's back, flying low and fast off the end of 33 to drop the banner on the grass off the Old T's. The banner falls to the ground from a height of maybe 200', then the Stearman races off at about 100' AGL across the grass parallel to 33, turns steeply at maybe 100' AGL, then curves in to 33 for a three point touchdown on the numbers. Perfect pattern, says Dave. Just don't you try it when I'm around.... The Stearman taxis back to the Old T's, weaving about on its tailwheel. Such a sight.

Less than a minute later we see the B24 in the pattern for 27R, coasting in low off the Coliseum. We stay to watch it land, almost silent from this distance across the field.


I feel a full-scale neurosis about flares coming on.... All last night and today I obsessively relive the bad flares, starting to worry that I'll never judge it right, nervous that I'll find myself stuck in the air without Dave, unable to come down. It feels like I made little or no progress on landing yesterday -- I was already doing the approaches and patterns OK, and I ended up with only one good flare, the rest just ... bad. I still can't tell the difference, I still can't visualize the correct way to do it as I sit here wondering. I get nervous chills and panicky tremors when I run through some of yesterday's landings in my mind. My first crisis of confidence, I guess.


Strange weather: 240 at 25G30, clear, cold, almost a gale (it's actually difficult to walk straight down Broadway). We cancel, my second weather cancellation. Yesterday: grey, ceiling 1,000', cold (low 50's), windy, drizzly (it actually rained last night in Berkeley). It's cycled between one or the other for most of the past ten days. The media's starting to blame La Niña. Me, I morosely think it's because I've decided to learn to fly.

I'm getting very frustrated and depressed about the lack of flying: I've flown only seven times in the exactly eight weeks since starting, nowhere near enough to keep the momentum going.... The real problem, much as I hate to admit it, is Dave: with his new kid he's just finding it difficult to devote enough time to instructing. I could do twice a week, easily (and could have for most of the past two months), but the next time he can do it is next Wednesday. By which time I won't have been in the air for more than two weeks. He's trying to shed some of his other students, but I can't see it getting better for another few weeks. Not sure what else to do, though -- I like Dave, and when he's around I learn quickly. He's acutely conscious of the problem, too, which makes it somewhat more bearable.

In the meantime, I just can't seem to be bothered studying for the written test at all. It's just too ... boring, too depressing when I can't fly.


At last... winds 240 at 15, temperature 17C, no cloud, a beautiful Bay Area spring day (except that we haven't had spring this year -- this is more like summer without the fog). The plan is to just stay in the pattern at Oakland (unless I get rebellious or sick of it) and practice all things landing-related: touch-and-goes, go-arounds, slips, landings with various degrees (or not) of flaps, etc.

I decide that instead of using runway 33, this time we'll taxi all the way to 27L -- just for the experience, really. I need to know my way around North Field, and the extra taxi and radio work will do me good. It's a long taxi, across two runways (33 and 27R), but it turns out to be a nice little jaunt. At least this part of the airport has a real runup area... On the threshold of 27L I get a sense of how big the damn runway is compared to our usual 33: it's luxuriously wide and well-groomed (the commercials use it and 27R when 29 is out of action).

The next hour and a half is pretty much as we'd planned. I manage a few fairly reasonable landings on my own (actually, every landing was on my own except where Dave took the controls to show me something new, or during the one or two really bad flares). I'm much happier about the flares: I'm almost there, just not reliably. After two-and-a-half weeks off, it seems to be (oddly) much easier to "see" the angles and altitudes. My real problems in the flare are to do with the final rudder / aileron coordination (and, often, cross-coordination) needed to get the plane straight on the ground after the crab or slip in on final (remember: in Oakland, there is always a crosswind, so you're always slipping or crabbing on final). I keep losing it at the very last second, although the effects aren't as bad as they probably sound, and I'm getting better each time. At least there's nothing like the near-sideways landing I did at Napa, for example. It's also really difficult to control the plane when it's so close to the ground and so slow: you really have to pull or push things hard to have any effect at all, unlike at higher speeds or altitudes, where the old two-finger approach works wonders. No matter how much I intellectualize it, I'm finding it difficult to actually push or pull hard enough when it matters.

Nonetheless, I suspect I'm close to getting the other parts of the final flare right -- attitude and altitude seemed almost obvious after about the first 10 circuits. My circuit work -- altitude, headings, airspeed, radio, etc. -- are all pretty decent now, and in all the landings and / or deliberate go-arounds there weren't any really bad approaches; many of them were pretty much right where they should be. Even with the usual stiff Oakland cross-wind and the turbulence near the VOR and on short final, I just didn't have any significant trouble with the final approaches.

I finally get to do slips, which turn out to be easier than I'd expected. I guess I didn't know what to expect, but, once again, my biggest problem seemed to be believing that you really were supposed to push the rudder over as hard as possible. After two slips they seemed fairly "obvious", but I'll need a lot more practice to be fluent. The problem with the slips turned out to be the straightening out just before the flare. I did OK, but it wasn't pretty.

We do several landings with no flaps, and several with full (40 degree on 12R) flaps. The full flap landings were difficult but not terrible: the plane handles like a slow, bloated, rough-riding supertanker at 40 degrees of flap -- the drag is tremendous, needing quite a high throttle setting to stop you from falling out of the sky (normally you just come in on idle), and controls that are already mushy at that speed feel even worse (but with an added buffeting). The no-flap landings were just awful, not least because without flaps the nose was too high to clearly see the runway on short final. I need a lot more practice here....

Go-arounds were fine: we did three or four, I think, and after the first I got the hang of it pretty quickly. It's easy to see how easy it would be to screw up totally on a go-around -- raising the flaps too early, for one, with really fatal consequences if you're not careful -- but I somehow avoided the worst of this.

I've also started to get the whole trim thing right (or at least better). I used to avoid thinking about trimming the plane except at cruise -- it was just another thing in that vast fog of information overload to ignore while I focused on keeping the basics under control. But you slowly learn (and instructors keep hammering into your brain) that one way of keeping those basics under control and to lessen your workload is to keep the plane in trim. It's almost (but still not quite) becoming instinctual for me to reach down and trim the plane after almost any power or attitude change, even on final. This is a crucial skill for good airwork, but I've heard pilots admit on Usenet that they rarely trim except at cruise (Gene Whitt's website has a bunch of good observations and recommendations about trim (and a whole lot of other things as well) that I found useful).

Radio work was fairly reasonable throughout the flight, but I still get a little flustered when I hear something I haven't heard before. But I'm much more comfortable in actually talking on the radio -- it's almost feeling natural now.

For most of today's flight we're the only plane in 27L's pattern, which seems odd given that AOPA lists Oakland as one the top ten busiest airports in America (well above SFO in terms of the number of plane movements per year). More than half of that traffic is GA (unlike SFO, or course, where GA is insignificant), making Oakland the second busiest GA airport in the US (after Van Nuys). Certainly it's often difficult to get a word in edgewise on the North Field ground or tower frequencies....

* * *

I leave feeling pretty pleased with my progress. I'm not depressed at all about landings after today's flight, and the two-and-a-half week layoff doesn't seem to have hurt my flying all that much. Unless something really bad happens, or I lose it completely, Dave thinks I'll probably solo in about two lessons. This feels about right, if not entirely comforting.


Straight from winter to (a Bay Area...) summer: morning low clouds and drizzle, clearing by about 2pm, re-appearing by about 5pm. Every damn day.... Wind 240 at 10. Temperature 17, dew point 9. Waiting for Dave, I "help" Pierre replace one of 12R's landing lights (they fail, on average, about twice a month according to Pierre). While I'm holding a few screws for him, we hear and then see a P51 Mustang coming straight up off 27R, circling back towards the south. We both get up and watch as the P51 absolutely screams around the airport, doing a low pass in front of North Field tower, then doing a very fast, very assured climbing turn towards the hills. Last seen heading east at about 200 knots... Oakland's a cool place to fly from sometimes.

Cindy G. turns up at the clubhouse; she soloed yesterday for the first time, and she's very pleased. She describes it to us (Doug, Dave, Pierre, me) in almost ecstatic tones; even I get enthusiastic. She tells how her last solo landing was done in near darkness, and she turned too early for the taxiway and ended up on the grass between 27L and 27R. She had to get help to push the plane back onto the runway; tower and ground were really nice to her about it and no one panicked or get unpleasant. Dave says I might even solo this time. I say not bloody likely, but he has that inscrutable smile....

Dave turns up and we head out for touch and goes on 27L. It's getting easier: I'm obviously getting close to getting this right. No salvage attempts by Dave the entire time except one awful flare; the rest are bumpy but acceptable for a pre-solo student (my catchphrase: "Well, I didn't kill anyone..."). The weather's closing in again, and by about the 15th time around, the ceiling is close to 600' (pattern altitude for 27L, and not really legal). We keep waiting to be told OAK's gone IFR-only, but it doesn't happen. At one stage we do the patterns at 500' trying to keep out of the clouds. This seems barely legal MVFR or worse, but no one in the tower tells us to stop, and we're in tightly controlled airspace (and Dave is, of course, instrument rated).

Apart from a bunch of "normal" landings we do the usual repertoire of no-flap landings, full-flap landings, forward slips, go-arounds, etc. The best landings I do end up being the no-flap landings, for some reason: smooth, well-controlled, nicely-flared. I suspect it's just because the plane seems a lot more controllable and responsive without the flaps, but I'm not sure. Flaring after slips is still pretty rough, but nothing on landing or in the pattern is bad enough that I can't salvage things on my own or with a bit of prompting from Dave. Several landings are actually pretty good, and I'm starting to think they're not just flukes.

After about the 20th time around, Dave says he wants to let me do two more touch and goes, then he's going to get out. As long as I agree.... I hem and haw the whole time around, with Dave assuring me he wouldn't say that unless he was bloody confident in me, and that I'm doing much better than most of his students.... I say I don't think it's time, but the next two landings are nearly flawless (Dave says this always happens), and I easily convince myself that, yes, even though I land fairly rough, I am ready, dammit! This is it! I tell Dave I'll be fine to solo.

We pull over onto taxiway golf and Dave calls the tower to let them know I'll be soloing, and he'll be standing there next to the runway watching for the next ten minutes or so. Tower responds with "Sorry 12R, but we're a minute away from calling IFR-only". I feel both relieved and disappointed; and yes, the visibility and ceiling are deteriorating fairly quickly now. Tower then -- quite without prompting -- calls us and says if we just wait a minute, he'll call Hayward and see if they're still VFR. It's only a few minutes away SVFR. We wait, but tower reports back that Hayward's not in any better shape than Oakland. Oh well. Next time....

We taxi to Kaiser and refuel, where we meet Cindy and her instructor / boyfriend Zack who just landed IFR through the murk in the club's C150 (an impressive feat if you ask me). I have to admit to feeling both disappointed and relieved.

* * *

I guess today was one of those little epiphanies: yes, I can do this. I'm disappointed not to be able to tell the world I soloed today, but I'm surprised to find myself confident that it could have -- would have, should have -- happened today. Dave had no hesitations at all; I suspect he already knew he'd do this today. I really didn't expect this; I expected that it would be next lesson at the earliest, and probably the one after that. I hate to admit it, but Dave's assessment that I'm "a natural" is having its effect... (especially on my already over-inflated ego).


* * *

It's funny what feels natural now that didn't even a few weeks ago: the relationships between pitch, throttle, altitude, and airspeed in slow flight; the use of the pitch trim wheel; uncoordinated and coordinated flight (each in their proper place); ATC and radio work. On final I don't even have to think, I just push in the throttle to gain altitude, or pitch the nose up to slow us down. Four weeks ago this seemed a most unnatural thing....

I've gone from being able to remember one thing at a time, to being able to remember about three, and now about five. It needs to be seven....


Another grey overcast morning, miserable, cold, steely, breezy... by 1pm it's clearing, by 3pm it's a beautiful day, winds supposedly 220 at 20 (more like 240 or 250 at 10; in any case, it's quite variable), no clouds, just the fog over the City. I wake up knowing it's going to be today... my mind's clear, I know I can do it. I'll be really disappointed if it doesn't happen....

At the club I meet Cindy again, she's very sweet and nice and encouraging about everything. She's soloing the 150 today, and she's welcomely talkative about flying, the club, geeks like me, etc. Good for the morale; but oddly enough I just don't feel more than usually nervous. It all just feels inevitable. I actually start feeling irritated by my cool -- this is supposed to be the big day, the day of nerves and terror. The truth is, though, that Dave's done a good job preparing me both psychologically -- I know I can do this -- and more generally: I can do this. I keep hoping it won't be an anticlimax (or, worse, a total disaster with me killing thousands because I got the flap setting wrong or something...).

We take off on 33, and do a standard right pattern for 27R followed by the long base to 27L. My first landing is nearly perfect -- on the numbers, on the centerline, and pretty damn smooth... for a student (meaning: I didn't break anything, didn't cause Dave to grab the yoke screaming "we're all going to die!!!!"). The next touch and go is even better... then the next one slightly worse, but still pretty good. I tell Dave I'm ready; he calls Tower and tells them he's going to solo me the next time around. The entire time around this last touch-and-go Dave keeps up a constant stream of chatter -- about Spinal Tap, the weather, about the brown van that's been parked in exactly the same spot next to Oakland VOR for the past three months, etc. -- in a transparent attempt to see if he can distract me or cause me to lose concentration enough to make a mistake. But this circuit and landing are fine, and I taxi to golf, do a 180 past the stop lines, and after a few bits of last-minute advice, a couple of photos, and a handshake, Dave gets out.... I'm on my own. Cool!

I'm finally cleared to takeoff (there are now three of us in the pattern). As I'm taking off I can hear Tower struggling to communicate with a heavily-accented pilot who doesn't seem to understand the "radar contact, say altitude" call at all. It's agonizing, and I'm impressed by Tower's patience: what's this guy doing in the air if he doesn't understand basic class C radio practices? Isn't there an instructor in there somewhere? Apparently not, and it takes several minutes to sort the guy out, while juggling us in the pattern and the others approaching 27R. Meanwhile, I do my first solo circuit. The plane climbs predictably quicker without Dave in it, but everything feels so... normal. There's really nothing difficult about this now, just a bunch of familiar and well-understood movements and procedures. I get time to look around. I get time to think about it. Yes, I'm elated! But I'm not more than mildly nervous. I'm enjoying it immensely....

The first landing is also so... routine. On the numbers and on the centerline, despite the crosswind and slight windshear on final. I wave at Dave, who's now standing off golf, taking photos of me. Off I go again, this time following another 172 in the pattern. It's acting oddly, rising and falling as much as 200 feet in a pattern altitude supposedly 600 feet AGL. It does a long downwind and I have to extend even further not to overtake it. It climbs initially on final, then does a couple of S-turns, then finally lands hundreds of metres beyond the numbers. I hold my breath and sneak in on the numbers as the other 172 finally lifts off. Tower asks him pointedly to keep the downwinds shorter. I touch down fairly smoothly, wave at Dave again, then climb back up into the pattern. Once again, no real nerves, and it all feels ... good, right. The last pattern goes better, the other plane seems to behave this time (still weirdly all over the place as far as altitude goes, though). I land again, still fairly well-controlled and smooth, and taxi off on golf to fetch Dave (yes, he's just been standing there between the runways listening in with my hand-held all this time). I've done it! I feel pretty good... except I'd forgotten to ask Tower for the full-stop this time. Oh well.

Dave gets in after taking more photos, then we discuss what to do next -- it's only about 16.30 and I have the plane until 19.00. Dave suggests running across to Palo Alto to pick up a couple of books, then heading for, say, Marin or San Pablo. Sounds good to me... as long as Dave does all the radio work this time. I'll do the easy part -- the flying. He agrees, and we're off.

The rest of the day is relaxed and really enjoyable. The trip to Palo Alto is a much less adventurous version of the first flight (except for an interesting encounter with an un-called Baron taking off on 33 as we curved around in left traffic from 27L...), and this time I land at Palo Alto. This is quite a feat for me: the runway's only 2500 feet long and 65 feet wide (even Oakland's 33 -- by far the smallest at OAK at 3,300 x 75 -- is bigger, and 27L, the usual touch-and-go runway, is roughly 6,000 x 150 feet). Anyway I put us down a few metres beyond the numbers with another plane on final just behind us. We get off at the first taxiway -- not bad for a first try. I start feeling this isn't all a fluke... in fact, the PAO landing was in many ways the hardest part of the day (on the approach I told Dave he'd probably have to salvage it), and I feel really good about getting it right without any prompting from Dave at all. We do the Airport Shoppe, then go over to the WVFC to use their toilets (uh, "restrooms"). Dave lets everybody we meet know that I've just soloed. I feel embarrassed, but everybody seems pretty happy and complimentary about it, especially at the WVFC. Nice place, luxurious by comparison to our little shack. Plus they have a wall full of instructor photos and a ton of planes....

We take off from PAO very close behind a slow old 150 or 152, and with someone seemingly only a few hundred metres or so behind us on short final. It's tight... PAO feels really busy compared to OAK at this time of day. Within a mile of the end of the runway I have to keep the nose down so we don't run up the back of the 150. We pass below him, making me feel a bit uncomfortable, but we don't have much choice: PAO tower (with radar) tells us to keep going.... I get Dave to ask for the 101 transition through SFO's class B airspace, something I've always wanted to do. You fly almost directly over SFO at 1,500 to 2,500 feet, keeping slightly to the west of 101. It's a genuine class B thing, not a VFR corridor, but it's not well known except to locals. It's not mentioned anywhere on the terminal chart, unlike the famous LAX VFR corridor or the Hudson corridor in NY; Dave reckons it's because SFO controllers don't want people using it.

We're approved for the 101 transition (with a climb to 2500 to get over the cloud coming in over San Bruno), and the view's brilliant -- we're above the runways, we can see the various planes on the aprons, taxiways, runways, in the air, etc., and we try matching calls with planes and identifying the various airlines. It's a buzz.... At one stage there's a Commander climbing straight up towards us from 29R; it seems to be climbing at about 2,000 fpm. It turns to the right and passes us at 2,500 a mile or two to our right. The view of the City is also a Bay Area classic, of course, with the fog rolling in and lapping Twin Peaks and Sutro. The Golden Gate's got just the right amount of fog and clear air around it, and I circle it a couple of times. Beautiful! Much better than circling OAK at 600 feet for the 30th time....

I head up over Marin and San Pablo Bay, then back to Oakland. At the last moment we're told to do a short approach to 27R. Again with no real prompting from Dave, I just do it: abeam the numbers at about 1,000' AGL I pull the throttle right back, dump 30 degrees of flaps, and do a slow nose-down curving turn right onto the numbers (I put 40 degrees of flaps in just after starting the turn to keep the airspeed slow and lose altitude quickly). I wasn't sure this was what was supposed to happen, but I trust Dave to tell me if I'm do something wrong. He doesn't say anything much until we're on the ground, when he complements me on getting that right, too. I'm in danger of exploded head and ego. We land normally, and taxi to Kaiser. By the time we've landed we've been in Class B, C, D, and E airspace all on the one flight. I've done all the landings, all without any significant prompting from Dave; I'm particularly proud of the PAO landing and the smooth short approach to OAK 27R.

At Kaiser there's the usual collection of bizzjets and, unusually, a Boeing 717 in Boeing experimental colours and registration (N717XB), with its left engine pod open. It's next to another DC-9 derivative, an MD-80 with the numbers N3H (what do you have to do to get a number like that? [Surprisingly little, apparently]). What's the 717 doing at Kaiser? After refueling we're stuck for 5 minutes abeam an Abex 767, itself stopped on delta (since it looks too short to be a 767, we argue about whether it's really a 767 or an Airbus: "It's a Heinkel!". "Nah, it's a Messerschmidt"). We pass in its wake a while after it's departed, a strong smell of kerosene in the cockpit.

Back at the clubhouse I meet Al Burri, one of the club's senior instructors. He discovers it's my first solo, and comes over and shakes my hand with real warmth and pleasure. He seems really likable. He leaves with a student in the Cherokee after some banter about my t-shirt, which Dave is decorating with a union jack and suitable annotations (it's an old flying tradition: you cut off the tails of the shirt you soloed in and it gets written on and put up on the wall). Later, it's up there on the wall along with the rest of them. Cool, as I keep saying. I'm so tired.... I wish my mother were alive to see (or at least hear about) this.

* * *

I know this makes for a boring diary, but basically nothing's gone wrong the entire time so far. I haven't hit any major snags, I haven't had any major conceptual or skill problems yet at all. No heart-stoppers or existential crises. I'm surprised by how smooth this all is so far; I thought this would be more of a triumph-over-adversity sort of story. I really didn't think I'd be able to do all this quite so... naturally? I don't know. I still don't think I'm a natural, but it hasn't been nearly as much hard work as I expected. Once again, a large part of this is Dave: he's pretty damn good. Plus, of course, there's always a hell of a lot that I can get wrong coming up in the next few months....

* * *

My Grandfather, 1918So I solo with a little under 20 hours (10 flights) behind me. This feels about right: not rushed at all, and well-prepared (in my opinion, anyway). Let's put this into perspective: my grandfather learnt to fly and was sent to fight in France during World War I with less than 20 hours total flying time, including what passed for fighter instruction in those days. It's a miracle he survived (and went on to also instruct fighter pilots in WWII). I can't conceive of being ready with only 20 hours for anything more than small solo flights....

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