August 13, 2004

Et In Arcata Ego

Welcome To Arcata!

A typical Oakland summer morning -- grey, overcast, cold (about 16C), breezy -- i.e. perfect weather for an instrument cross-country. DUATS claims the ceilings at Arcata are varying between 500 and 700 feet this morning, so (as planned) we'll head straight for Arcata and check with Flight Watch before Ukiah as a sanity check.

I call FSS and file an IFR flight plan -- V107 PYE V27 FOT, cruise 100 KTAS at 8000' -- and after engine startup and the instrument checks, I call Deliverance to get my clearance. Surprisingly enough, it's given pretty much as filed, the only (expected) exception being vectors on the initial segment to V107. John says I shouldn't be surprised, but I guess I expected more hoops to jump through -- something like "vectors to REBAS, SGD direct, STS direct, PYE ...", etc.

As we taxi to 33 we hear the Navajo we saw last week with the ferry tanks call ground with destination Honolulu, taxiing to 29. Runway 29's the main commercial runway, 10,000' long, over on South Field. I guess it'll take a substantial portion of that 10,000' to get airborne -- but more importantly, there aren't any obstructions on the extended centreline for a fair way after the runway ends, unlike the shorter 27L on North Field. It can stay low over the water for some time. We don't see it take off, unfortunately...

Click for larger image...We depart through the usual relatively thin coastal layer -- a few minutes of actual -- then head up to Arcata as planned. There's really not much to say about the enroute stuff except that -- as predicted -- I'm paying to block out beautiful views that other people pay large amounts of money to see. Urgh. My handheld GPS (an old Garmin GPSMAP 195 I bought during my private pilot training) works fine as backup (much better than the VORs at any real distance from the VORs themselves), but the suction mounting fails like clockwork every hour or so and drops the damn unit on my left knee. There's got to be a better way...

Getting close to Fortuna VOR (FOT) I start prepping the ILS into Arcata, still unsure whether Seattle Center will vector me or whether I'll have to fly the full approach (no big deal either way, I'm just curious). About 25 nm out, Seattle actually calls and ask me which I'd prefer. I ask for vectors -- I want to do this the routine way -- and sure enough, a few minutes later we're gently vectored into the localiser with appropriate descents. Arcata's now reporting 800' ceilings, which is good for Arcata but not so good for experiencing more actual. Oh well. The ILS goes well, with a FedEx Caravan coming along behind us to keep us at a reasonable speed (John turns out to know the pilot), and we break out of the thin layer at about seven or eight hundred feet AGL with the runway close enough to sort-of dead ahead and land on 32 with a stiff quartering tailwind.

* * *

Click for larger image...Arcata's a nice shiny little college town in the middle of a large rather remote economically-depressed timber region on California's Redwood Coast (the college being Humboldt State University, haven to hippies and newagers everywhere), and the airport's kinda the same way -- slightly slow-moving, a weird mixture of clean efficiency and delapidation, friendliness and wariness. It's got no control tower (more on this later), but it's got a steady stream of Brasilias and Dash-8's doing the run to and from San Francisco, Sacramento, Redding, etc., and a similar stream of FedEx Caravans doing the freight runs, so the commercial side is really quite busy. The GA side, by comparison, is almost non-existent (GA seems to happen mostly at Murray Field, KEKA, just down the coast), and we have to share the fueling facilities and staff with the big boys. Luckily we arrive during a lull, and after a quick refueling we park outside the old airport building and wander off towards the new terminal building for lunch. By this time the sun's actually appearing; it's enough to cause one presumably-local pilot to later point at the sky and shout something like "Look! It's VFR at Arcata!" to us while walking past us on the apron.

The restaurant's on the second floor of the terminal, with great views of the apron and the runways, and -- amazingly -- the food turns out to be really pretty damn good, especially for an airport. I pick the Fish and Chips out of morbid curiosity (Californians -- and Americans in general -- just don't get fish and chips), but it turns out to be freshly-cooked and, if not the Real Thing, it was the Northern Californian version (Even Better Than The Real Thing...). Our waitron -- a raven-haired woman with tats who just has to be a student -- keeps filling my cup with good fresh coffee, which always improves my mood. The view outside reminds me a lot of the Puget Sound area -- low rolling coastal pine forest hills with larger mountains in the background, everything on the ground some form of green, with housing poking through here and there. And that nearly omnipresent grey sky...

Outside, below on the ramp, a waiting Brasilia pilot drives one of the little baggage cart tractors around slowly looking rather pleased with himself and (apparently) taunting the other staff good-naturedly about something. His co-pilot loiters near another baggage cart while some ground staff gesticulate at the pilot. The incoming Brasilia from San Francisco gets later and later....

Click for larger image...I use the phone to file IFR to Ukiah as planned, and we stroll out in the cold sunshine to the plane. John tells me that Arcata was in line to get a tower not so long ago, but it fell through. As we pass the old building he points out the tiny portable control tower that was supposed to be the initial tower. It's now sitting forlornly in the debris-strewn mess of the old building; it's not clear what the future of Arcata's tower is going to be (it's hard to see why a somnolent place like Salinas (KSNS), with no passenger traffic at all, gets a tower while Arcata doesn't).

We taxi out to runway 20 and pick up the (as-filed) clearance from Seattle Center. He tells us we'll probably have to hold for release maybe five minutes for an incoming Brasilia, but as soon as he's finished giving us our clearance, the incoming Brasilia pilot tells Seattle he'll cancel IFR now (at 10 DME) if it helps get us off the ground earlier. So we get to depart immediately, thanks to the guy in the Brasilia (a nice gesture).

* * *

The HOCUT2 departure takes you straight out over the (rough, cold, foggy) Pacific for at least six miles at low altitude, which is a little scary in a 172, but I'm under the Cone of Stupidity again and don't think too much about it. Like the rest of the flight to Ukiah, the departure is pretty routine, with just a tiny bit of actual on the way out. John starts getting bored and tries to find some music with the ADF. Not much to play with, but some cheesy Conjunto and rapid-fire Spanish DJ-ing from a couple of stations in the area livens things up for a while. Pity about the sound quality from the ADF.... Some distance out from Ukiah Oakland Center tells us to advise him when we have the airport in sight, presumably for the visual, but we tell him we'd like the localiser 15 approach (another little lesson in real-life radio work and procedures). No problem, and we start being vectored towards the localiser. You have to stay high for this approach until fairly close in, and even close-in you're only a mile or so off a bunch of hills that reach to within a thousand feet of the minimum altitude for that segment (I've approached Ukiah from the north VFR several times and know what's off my starboard wing...).

Nothing much to report about the localiser approach itself except that from just before the FAF to short final things get intermittently rather bumpy, and I tend to wildly over-correct for the bumps while under the hood. We could also hear some CDF aircraft on the ground on CTAF preparing for takeoff on a firefighting mission, and with another Cessna in the pattern, I just trusted John to sort out whether we'd join the pattern VFR or do the straight in. In any case we cancel IFR at the last moment and land straight in between the traffic with the appropriate CTAF calls (one of my pet peeves at untowered airports has always been the oblivious IFR pilots who call in with positions in terms of IFR waypoints or fixes -- e.g. "Ukiah traffic, Citation 12R is at the outer marker on the localiser..." -- which the average VFR pilot may not recognise; I at least trying to learn to report in terms of direction and distance).

Click for larger image...Ukiah is hot -- the sort of place where you see everything distant through heat waves and mirages -- bone dry, and sleepy. A red-on-white CDF Bronco spotter and two S-2 tankers taxi past with that turboprop buzz and the smell of burning jet fuel. The Bronco's a plane I'd love to fly.... There's a Calstar medical helicopter hooked up for quick use just in front of the airport building. Inside the FBO, it's cool and dark. I file IFR to Oakland, and we return to the plane.

John asks me how we're going to depart Ukiah. I've given it a bit of thought, and although there's a published obstacle DP for Ukiah, it takes us back many miles to the north, and crosses the pattern. It's currently very VFR, and there are firefighting planes in the vicinity heading for the pattern, and given the conditions and the fact that under Part 91 we don't have to do the published departure, I suggest we do the missed, which takes us to 4,000' on heading 140, then ENI direct. Neither departure is perfect, but at least this way we get clear of the pattern very quickly and safely. John agrees, but says that if it weren't perfect VFR, he'd do the obstacle DP.

After startup we call Oakland FSS through the RCO, and promptly get told to call Oakland Center on 127.8. Hmmm, another useful lesson (in this case it's rarely clear which you should call; it wasn't clear that the RCO also does Center as well as FSS). Center gives us the clearance as filed, and off we go. The return to Oakland is also pretty routine -- as suspected, we don't get to fly any of the filed route back: Center just gives us a vector from above Mendocino straight for Oakland (about 90nm away at that point) and clears us Oakland direct when able. The GPS comes in handy here, since Oakland isn't really indicating reliably until about 50 nm out, but the controller's vector is pretty accurate in any case, and we just potter along at about 100 KIAS back towards Oakland on the suggested heading until the OBS needles stops swinging erratically. Over San Pablo Bay we start being vectored for the VOR/DME 27L approach, which ends up going OK, if (as always) my flying gets a little agricultural in the final moments.

On the ground again -- 5.5 hours in the air, 5.3 of them under the hood or in actual. I'm exhausted...

* * *

This is the sort of lesson I really enjoy -- a lot of real-world IFR flying, lots of little lessons in practical procedures, interesting destinations, and a nice variety of weather and approaches, etc. (plus some decent food and coffee). The main lessons were in planning and procedures, I think, and this time lots of things went right: for the most part I was ahead of the plane and the instruments, and my radio work was mostly acceptable (I made a few minor gaffes that didn't cause any real problems, like calling Oakland Center from Ukiah and claiming to be on the ground at Arcata, which probably caused some puzzled looks down in Fremont...). My altitude and airspeed control were better than last week, but still a little rough. The approaches were OK -- I went one dot below the glideslope at Arcata for a little while, which is cause for concern, but otherwise kept at or above all relevant altitudes, and I never went more than a couple of dots off the localisers or inbound courses horizontally.

What went wrong? According to John, two main things: firstly, as mentioned, I didn't handle the turbulence on the approaches well (I seem to have forgotten the lesson I learned from Dave Penney during tailwheel training, i.e. just ride it out, don't try to correct for the sudden movements unless they turn into trends, etc.). Secondly, the Death Grip still returns during moments of confusion or stress, and also when I'm distracted by doing things like chart-folding, reprogramming the GPS, etc. It's getting better, but it's still definitely there at the wrong times.

So what's next? Practice, practice, practice... more specifically, tightening the various procedures up to consistent PTS levels, which will takes some time (I sense a lot of On Top time in my future...), and polishing up for the orals. Also, now that 4JG is back on line, we need to do some real GPS approaches with the Garmin 530 (I've booked it for next week).

FedEx Caravans on the line at Arcata

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