Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Tough - Touch - n - Gos

Recently I decided it would be a good idea to get in a little take-off and landing practice. I am a member of more FBOs (fixed base operator) than any other pilot I know. I belong to 2 in the Bay Area and 2 in Stockton. I like to hedge my bets if I want to fly at the last minute and all of the planes are taken at one I can go to plan b... or c or d.

Since I was only planning on droning around the traffic pattern at KPAO I decided I would drive in to Palo Alto and fly one of the older Cessna 172s at Shoreline Flying Club. It is pretty inexpensive compared to the other clubs - I mean FBOs. I didn't need anymore horsepower, fancy GPS, leather seats.... or carpeting as it turned out. I decided I would take my wife, Kristina, and spend a little quality time on a Sunday afternoon. As we are driving in to Palo Alto Kristina mentions she is hungry and directs me to the next McDonalds for some greasy little treats. This is before getting in an unnaturally small piece of aluminum going up and down and around in circles.... I did give fair warning.

I get out to the ramp, log in, grab the keys and go preflight while KK finishes the Mickey D's special. The plane is an old bird circa early 70's, white, with lime green stripes and seems to be in pretty good shape - even has a moving map GPS. When I pop open the door though I notice a very odd smell, faint but present none - the - less. Soon it dawns on what the odor is - it is cat piss! Thus the removal of the carpeting on the floorboard(??) How, why, who the hell had a cat loose in a small aircraft?!? Well, whatever, we could open a window if need be. The first opportunity I should have taken to call the whole thing OFF.

I usually have to spend some crucial Hobbs time (engine running) figuring out the avionics, radio stack in particular on these older planes because things have been modified many times and this plane was no different. None of these old planes have the same stack! I figure it out and call up ground and cleared to runway 31. Run-up goes well and just as I am about to call up tower to depart 3 - 4 planes come on line to depart at the same time with me at the end of the line. I saw it coming and couldn't rush my run-up to beat it. As I waited I was trying not to be impatient and I was trying not to get irritated... none of which was really working however. I was annoyed. My second time to have called the whole thing off.

Finally I get cleared to begin making a series of take-offs, right turns and landings - as many as I can within the 40 minutes I had left to fly. I only had an hour and a half to begin with. So we take off and all of the sudden a flock of geese (I think) launch off in the marsh just Northwest of the runway. I am staring down a flock of giant white birds suddenly disoriented by another giant, white, airborne 'goose' going muuuch faster than they expect it should be going and 'why isn't it going South'? Geese are much better at flying than I am by the way and somehow gracefully dodge my vain attempt to weave my way upwind like a drunk duck.

The plane feels tinny and flimsy and I never let it freak me out too much but a nagging thought in the back of my head is, 'I hope this plane, over 25 years old, makes it around the pattern just one more time'. I get on downwind and tower clears me to land and I look over and my wife is turning as green as those stripes on the fuselage I mentioned... yikes.... I ask her if she feels ok and she responds with a singe question: 'how many times are we going to do this'? The Mickey D's, the geese, the cat pee smell, it is all becoming too much. Let me say Kristina is a great passenger and copilot. Whenever we have flown in the past however it has been a trip going from point A to point B. Not some sort of demented merry - go - round that has become detached from its moorings. I ask her if we should stop which in retrospect was a dumb thing to ask because what I really should have done was land, park and go home - third strike! Instead I ask her if we can go around one more time. She says yes and I make a really crappy landing and flaps up, power up and off we go again, sans geese. The second time around the wind picks up a little so we are doing a little jig as we get settled on downwind and she is now pretty certain she cannot maintain and I g-e-t the message and we come around and again I make another bad, bouncy slightly uncoordinated landing. I really pride myself on making good landings and at that point the day has gone from fun to F-this!.

We taxi to parking space R18 and I shut down. KK gets out and tells me she needs to go to the car, uh - oh. She normally sticks around and helps put away the plane. I get out the tow bar and put the cat box, I mean plane, back in its space and tie down. I log out on the Shoreline computer with the Hobbs / Tach time having spent way too much on what was to have ostensibly been a value oriented outing in a great old trainer. KK is milling around the car when I return and I didn't ask nor did she volunteer but I get the feeling she may have sent back her value meal - so to speak.

Note to self: Pay the extra money for the nicer equipment, it's w-o-r-t-h it! Oh and uhhh... skip the gut busters before flying.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Cessna 182 Checkout

I started my illustrious pilot training career, ahem, way back in 1992 at Executive Airport in Austin, Texas. Technically speaking the airport was located in the small bedroom community just North of Austin called Pflugerville. The 'P' is supposed to be silent... supposed to be. So I began by flying one of the smallest planes known to aviation, the Cessna 150. This was the University of Texas flying club plane, N644OS and while well maintained it was definitely a tight fit for large land mammals such as myself. I was thinner then, shall I say skinny even and still, still my instructor and I had to fly with the tanks half full!! Believe it or not flying a Cessna 152 was really a luxury and the one time I flew a Cessna 172 for giggles it was like driving an SUV, well, an SUV circa 1992. They were smaller then. The upside to this whole experience was that the plane was $36 an hour and my instructor charged $15 an hour. They really were the good ole days in aviation as it turns out. I stopped short of getting my solo in the bag and didn't return to aviation for another 11 years.

I started my flying career again in 2003 at Diamond Aviation in San Carlos, CA and was shocked and amazed at several things that had changed since last I flew. The planes were certainly technologically advanced or at least more so than the 1967 Cessna 150 I had droned around the pattern in originally. Diamond only rents 172's for students and the cost of an instructor had gone up as well all SIGNIFICANTLY... mamma mia! The trusty 172S model really has enough juice to get the job done at 180 horsepower and the GPS moving map is truly a godsend for students and their initial cross country endeavors. But after you get your private pilot ticket punched you want to go faster, fly bigger equipment. For those with a few more lb's you want a little more loading capacity and perhaps a little more wiggle room in the cabin. Enter the Cessna 182T. It's a really niiiice plane and pretty much the same platform as the 172 so the transition is relatively easy.

Over the last few weekends I have been getting my 'checkout' as it is known in aviation parlance in the aforementioned Cessna 182T out at San Carlos. What's really very special indeed is that I have gotten to go flying with my good friend and instructor, Bob Wood. Bob is an interesting individual and highly entertaining. He was an airline flight attendant with United for many years and now, besides instruction in airplanes, is a voice-over actor and does some commercial work on TV as well. He is always very well prepared and before flying the FBO, fixed base operator Diamond Aviation, has me fill out a ground test on questions covering ALL aspects of the 182. It actually took me awhile to fill the thing out but it is a great way to focus you on the pilot operating handbook and the details surrounding performance, weight and balance, engine, airframe, emergency procedures... you get the picture.

The Cessna 182 is considered a 'high performance' airplane because it has an engine that is 200+ horsepower. In fact the C182 has 230 horsepower and trues-out at about 140 knots on the airspeed indicator. It's not that much faster than a C172 which maxes out at about 126 knots but the 14 knots does make a difference, believe it or not. The plane just feels heavier as well - like driving a modern day SUV. The 182 also has a 3-blade, controllable pitch prop. This means you can adjust the angle of the prop given the different flying conditions you are in. For example on take-off you move the prop control lever, in between the throttle and fuel/air mixture control levers, to the highest RPM position - full in - sort of like 1st gear on a car. When the plane reaches cruising altitude you pull the prop lever back a little until you get about 2300 on the RPM dial. The engine's power is registered in inches of manifold pressure on a separate instrument. It was much easier than I thought it would be because the best settings are what Bob likes to call 'squaring it up'. This basically means your best cruise is, for example, at 2300 RPM on the prop and 23 inches of manifold pressure on the engine. When you descend and land you move the prop lever again to its full in position. Piece of piss, mate.

Bob had me practice several different types of take offs and landings in the pattern at San Carlos. He had me doing soft/short field take offs and landings and then an engine idle short approach. He also had me do a no-flaps landing and all of these were total greasers. The thing about the 182 is that once you have it on a stabilized approach it just rides the glide slope down really nicely. The one thing about the landings that you have to make sure of is that you are trimmed up a little bit. Because the engine is much heavier than a 172 so you would have to have some serious upper body strength to yank the wheel back on the flare and get that nose up. Also you have just a skosh of power in when you flare and then pull throttle to idle to get a really squeaky clean touchdown. Otherwise you can get a pretty serious drop-in, never fun or very professional.

We took off out of San Carlos and went over to Half Moon Bay to practice some landings there and because it is one of my favorite airports in N. Cal. It is right on the ocean and makes for a beautiful approach on a sunny day. After a couple of touch-n-gos we headed back to San Carlos and that was that. I now have my 'high performance' checkout and will hopefully get a little 'stick' time in the 182 this month. I'm feeling pretty good about stepping up into a plane that is NOT considered a training aircraft, per se. I will always remember fondly those little training missions, and I do mean little, in the trusty old Cessna 150 out at Executive. I got as big a kick out of flying that plane as any I will ever fly.


ps. Thanks to my friend Reagan for requesting more blog action and Mayank, a fellow pilot, for kicking me in the pants to keep writing as well.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Post Checkride

I had all the best intentions of writing my post checkride blog but got lazy and well... on Sunday, October 26, 2008 I begin again.
I've mostly been flying for fun with my wife making the trek across the San Francisco Bay to various airports North and East. When I was a student pilot my instructor, Bob, would not sign me off to do a Class Bravo transition through San Francisco airspace. He knew I could probably handle it but didn't want to risk his flight instructor certificate if I screwed up. When you are a student your mishaps are blamed on the instructor who signs off on your student cert. So the very first thing I did when I got my private pilot cert, as you might imagine, was to transition San Francisco through the busy Class Bravo. I recently made a fun trip over San Francisco (Class Bravo) to Napa with my friend, Aldo, who owns a great little Italian restaurant in SF called Ristorante Milano. This is a great little trattoria style restaurant on Russian Hill. If you go get the grilled calamari and a glass of Masi Campofiorin - tell him Russell sent you.

I also really like flying across the Bay and over the San Joaquin valley to an old gold mining town, Columbia, in the Sierra foothills. The trip is fun because it takes about an hour each way and gives you a good view of the diverse N. Cal area. The landing at o22 (Columbia) is challenging because airport elevation is around 2,200 ft and also its position atop a small hill gives it that carrier landing feel - minus the pitching deck. (Disclaimer: I've never landed on an aircraft carrier.) When turning from base leg to final approach there is terrain that rises sharply to the left and though not really that close gives you a small twitter in the pit of your stomach. I have had a tendency to come in a little high which makes getting on airspeed - on glide slope - on centerline a little more of an effort. A little paranoia is sometimes good though, keeps you on your toes at least. Once you do land and tie up you take a great little 15 min hike in to town and grab a surprisingly good hamburger at a little shack outside the Columbia Inn.

Back in July my parents came to visit and for reasons I'm still not sure of decided they wanted to go flying with me. So I got a nice, relatively new Cessna 172 with leather seats and a big, instrument panel mounted, moving map GPS unit and off we went. The day was warm and pretty hazy because of all the early fire season forest fires blazing in N. Cal. I flew to Stockton to pick them up and my route of flight was to take them over to Half Moon Bay for a little seaside lunch. My flying was spot on that day and with light winds I didn't have any turbulence to speak of. We flew across the San Joaquin valley and over the Bay to HAF. The haze however made it really difficult to appreciate what would ordinarily be a beautiful bird's eye view of the Bay Area. We landed in Half Moon Bay and it was a real greaser - straight down the centerline with a little flare at the end for a light, asphalt kiss from the main wheels. Half Moon Bay is a great little airport that is situated right on the Pacific Ocean and seems to be fogged in most of the time. The runway is actually quite long and wide so landing there is usually a piece of cake. There is a little hill that separates the airport from the ocean so even if you have screaming crosswinds they tend to tame-out by the time you are ready for the landing flare.

We had lunch at the Moss Beach Brewery over looking the ocean, very niiice - no suds for me though. After lunch we loaded up and I got a Class Bravo transition so we cruised up the coast and came abeam the Golden Gate Bridge for a fantastic SF Bay sight-seeing tour. After cruising along side the GG Bridge I turned and headed to Alcatraz and circled around then over the tall buildings of downtown SF. The weather in the immediate SF area was clear and beautiful, nice! I called up NorCal approach control and got vectored back over San Francisco and then called up the folks at SFO for the final leg back to San Carlos. Yet again I had a great approach and landing on arrival at SQL. It was really one of my best flights and I felt a sense of goofy pride in having ferried my parents around Northern California in an airplane. My folks had a really good time, I think, and perhaps surprised them a bit with my flying proficiency. My father commented to me as we were walking from the plane back to the San Carlos terminal that he did not have 'enough superlatives' to describe his experience flying with me. Nice to surprise them sometimes.