July 20, 2007

The Cirrus Rescue Unit ("All Systems Go!!")




I wake up stupifyingly early, maybe 7am, and have a quick breakfast at Javarama in Alameda. I'm not sure how today's going to sort itself out (or, indeed, if anything's going to be sorted out today at all), but I suspect there's going to be a fair bit of traveling involved if Alex has been successful with the alternator. Strangely, I feel physically pretty damn good, maybe a little too sunburned, but not especially tired or anything. I potter about my studio trying to blog the earlier bits of the trip, but since I don't know how the story ends yet, my heart's not really in it. I read email. I walk around the block for exercise a couple of times. I browse the blogs of the other Usual Suspects. I just know it's not worth actually doing anything sustained yet…

Sure enough, at about 11.30 Alex calls and says he's got good news — the alternator's been repaired. And could I drive to Sacramento to pick it up … right now? Sure, I think, I could actually enjoy doing that, especially if we can get 75T back this evening. And that's his plan, so at about midday I drive the 90 miles or so through the oppressive Central Valley heat to the electrical repair place way out the other side of Suburban Sacramento. I meet someone I'll call "Mike" in the repair place (he's been told ahead of time that I exist, apparently), and this rather engaging, odd, wild-haired older guy goes over the paperwork and tells me what happened. He's worked on quite a few Cirruses before, apparently (mostly at MacLellan), and he's impressed that Alex managed to get 800 hours out of the alternator — the ones he's familiar with don't usually last unrepaired more than about 500 hours, if that (I'd already heard similar things from other people). Plus he's never seen one of the older belt-drive alternators like this — they're mostly geared nowadays. Still, the alternator's ready to go, and the paperwork's properly signed sealed and delivered, and I call Alex and discover that he's arranged to fly the club's Mooney back to Skyblue at Camarillo (KCMA) with me and a student of his at 18.00. I'll ferry 75T back after he and the Skyblue A&P install the alternator. I'm up for this, too, so after a few minutes of electrical shoptalk (yes, I was an electrical engineer in a previous life, albeit in electronics rather than electrics) I drive the ninety miles back through the heat and traffic to Oakland.

An hour or so later I park at Hayward (KHWD) outside CalAir. I check out the keys for the Mooney, and go out to start preflighting. Although I have a complex endorsement and a bunch of hours in an Arrow, I'm not checked out by the club to fly the Mooney, but I might as well get acquainted with it ahead of time, and besides, I'm curious — I've never actually flown in one before.

The club's Mooney turns out to be an older version, with an absolutely classic of-its-time panel full of ADFs, LORAN, ancient radios, etc. No GPS. No DME. An autopilot that looks like it's entirely mechanical, or at least uses tubes for guidance. A confusing array of switches. A weird panel layout. Yes, this plane would be, umm, fun to fly IFR… luckily it's forecast clear VFR there and back. Not really my cup of tea, the Mooney, but I guess you can see why they have devoted fans. They're supposedly fast and efficient. We shall see….

Alex and his student Eric turn up around 18.00, and after the usual formalities and procedures, we're heading off into the wild blue-turning-yellow-and-purple Southern Californian yonder. Alex has arranged with Skyblue for one of their A&Ps to be around when we land (original ETA 8pm, which we're not likely to make). I'm in the back seat, which isn't as bad as I'd expected. The intercom isn't working for me in the back, but other than that, it's just enough space for someone of average height and average weight (i.e. me). The Mooney seems to fly nicely, if a little stiffly, and it's surely not the slowest plane I've ever flown in. For much of the next two hours or so Alex has Eric under the hood as part of his instrument training, and we track down towards Camarillo pretty much the route we'd do for an IFR flight plan; we get flight following with vectors for the firefighting TFRs, and I just sit in the back and watch the usual beautiful California landscape go by. Around Santa Barbara the smoke's as bad as it was for me a couple of days ago, but it's basically clear VMC away from the smoke.

The boys and the alternator...

We land at Camarillo and taxi to Skyblue. The next hour or so is taken up with reinstalling the alternator. As the Boys are putting the finishing touches on the alternator (photo above), I realise I'm bloody starving. I had a croissant for breakfast about 14 hours ago and a minimalist lunch at about 11.30 before driving to Sacto, and, well, dammit, it looks like more junk food for me this evening. I discover a packet of Kettle chips in the bottom of my backpack (I sort of suspected I'd be late and hungry today…), and I find the yogurt health (ha!) bars I'd stowed in my flight bag yesterday. Not too bad. They'll keep me going another six hours or so.

After a bunch of testing and paperwork, Alex flight tests the alternator and electrical system in the pattern for a while, then we're good to go. We discuss the plans for the return trip. We'll get flight following back as a loose flight of two, with me leading and navigating, and Alex in the Mooney doing the radios and squawking appropriately. We'll use the air-to-air frequency to communicate between us. Both Alex and I have done formation flying before, and as long as he stays a reasonable distance away from me, I'm up for this. Especially since I have the nice GPS for navigation, and it's good to have the Mooney around in case I have to land at King City or somewhere equally out of the way on the way back if the alternator fails again.

After refueling the Mooney we depart Camarillo at about 22.00. It's an almost moonless night, very dark, but the area's fairly well-known to me, we have flight following (with, again, vectors around the TFRs just to be sure), and both the GPS and the autopilot in 75T work wonderfully. Alex has Eric in the Mooney some distance behind me second guessing my course and doing VOR radial versions of my course and cross-checking my GPS distances and estimates with Eric's manual versions (I picked a course that would make it easy to follow along with VORs — what's the fun in Camarillo direct Hayward?!). About the only surprising thing about the return flight is that the Cirrus consistently seems to out-perform the Mooney, even with my rather conservative power settings. At somewhere around 2500 RPM / 23-25 inches MP the Cirrus slightly outclimbs and outcruises the Mooney, at least during this trip. This doesn't seem right to me, but the Mooney's quite old, and the Cirrus surely can't be called slow, even if it doesn't have quite the speed demon image that the average Mooney's supposed to have.

Nothing goes wrong with the electrical system, or anything else, for that matter, and we land back in the cool still air of Hayward sometime after midnight. It's good to be back. I park the Cirrus in its new spot on the Green Ramp and meet up with Alex and Eric at CalAir for the inevitable paperwork. I finally get home about 1am.

* * *

A few hours later I'm woken suddenly and violently by a fairly major tremor epicentered close to where I live in Oakland. It's been that sort of day for me now, a couple of days in a row…


July 19, 2007

I Can Think Of Worse Places To Be… Stranded

At about 2,500' and a few miles after departing Camarillo (KCMA) in beautiful warm late-morning VMC, Tower gives me the frequency change. Just as I'm about to call Point Mugu Approach for flight following up the coast past Santa Babara to San Luis Obispo (KSBP), I notice the low voltage annunciator come on in front of me on the panel.

What now?, I think. I don't panic (what's to panic about in a plane like this in clear sunny VMC five miles from a large towered airport?). I turn to the red side of my SR-20 checklist and look under "Low Volts Light On". I follow it to the letter (but I already know pretty much what it's going to say). After a minute or so it's obvious it's not a transient problem. I suspect the alternator's gone, but that's not a sure thing at this point.

"Camarillo Tower, Cirrus 75 Tango, we're going to have to make an immediate return to the airfield. We've got an electrical problem up here…"
"75T, understood. Confirm that's you 5 northwest?"
"Affirmative, 75 Tango."
"75T do you need any assistance or want to declare an emergency?"
"75T… nah, I think we've just lost our alternator. We'll debug it on the ground. If you don't hear us again that'll be the reason."
"75T, understood. If you lose the radios, look for the lightgun."
"75T, will do, and thanks."
      …
"75T, cleared to land 26, wind 240 at 15, traffic on the upwind is a Cessna in the pattern."
"75T, cleared to land 26, traffic in sight."
      …
"75T, exit at Charlie, ground point eight, and, um, good luck…"
"75T, ground point eight, and thanks. I'm sure the owner's going to be thrilled…"

I exit 26 and taxi to transient. I shut the engine and electrical system down, then start everything back up again. No change. I try again. I make damn sure the breakers are all OK. I try again. No luck.

Now what? I'm stranded, I guess. I'm sure there are worse places….

* * *

KVNYI'd returned to Van Nuys (KVNY) at about 10am and dropped the rental car off at Skytrails.

Everything checked out on pre-flight, and I went back in to Skytrails to go over DUATS again for the TFRs and forecast. It was a beautiful sunny warm clear VMC day in Southern California, but, weirdly for this time of year, it wasn't just IMC back in the Bay Area, it was apparently raining (you don't know how odd "summer rain" sounds to a Californian unless you've lived here…). There'd been a rare front moving through, meaning the IMC wasn't just the usual low thin quick-clearing coastal stratus, but a more persistent layered set of clouds and rain extending much higher. At least the freezing levels were reported as being thousands of feet higher than I'd be flying. So I planned for a simple VFR-up-the-coast departure for San Luis Obispo for lunch, and filed a suitable IFR flight plan for the San Luis to Hayward leg after a decent lunch.

I taxied the full length of the airport from Skytrails to the 16L runup area, did the runup and GPS programming, then got a very rushed "75T cross 16L no delay cleared for takeoff 16R no delay traffic is a Citation on final right turn out approved" takeoff clearance. Nothing too unfamiliar to a pilot raised in Bay Area airspaces, I guess. Departure was routine out over the flood control basin, and I turned right towards Camarillo (KCMA), my first VFR waypoint. The view was perfect, a slightly hazy mix of mountains, urban sprawl, the ocean… at about 4,500' I leveled off, and thought "Hey, why don't I land at Camarillo?". It's dead ahead, it's apparently got some sort of air museum, and if it looks good I can come back next time. I'm in no real hurry now, it's good landing practice, and, yes, it's another airport to add to the logbook.

About eight miles out I called Camarillo Tower and got the straight in for runway 26. Closer up, I realised this was a bigger place than I'd expected, and by the time I'd taxied past the Commemorative Air Force hangars and the assorted warbirds on the ramp (and the Constellation being rebuilt near the runway), I'd definitely made up my mind to return.

So I departed runway 26, made a right crosswind departure, climbed to 2,500', got the frequency change, and… returned.

* * *

I park the plane in transient parking, then call the club to ask them what they want me to do. Keith runs through the obvious things (e.g. check the breakers…), then gives me the owner's mobile phone number, and says it's probably best to call the owner direct. Before I do that I call John just to make sure I haven't missed anything obvious — the last thing I want is to cause a huge hassle when it was something simple like a hidden breaker or fuse that I just didn't know about.

No such luck, so I call Alex, the owner. I briefly met him just before I pre-flighted the outbound flight to Van Nuys, and in retrospect, it was Alex who showed me the bullet mark in the Cirrus's wing a while back. He's an instructor, a young guy, and (apparently) an NPS grad. I suspect I'll get to know him a fair bit more over the next few days….

There's some sort of weird interference on my phone, and Alex can't hear a word I'm saying on the ramp, so I walk across the ramp towards what looks like a suitable FBO, Channel Island Aviation (yes, the CIA), and ask the guy behind the counter if I can use their phones because "I've got a broken Cirrus out there on the ramp…". Sure, he says (like everyone else I meet today, he's unfailingly helpful and friendly), and after a bit of maneuvering I'm on the landline to Alex in San Jose (Los Gatos, actually, but close enough).

I go through the symptoms with Alex, check off the obvious things, then Alex plugs me in to a conference call with Cirrus tech support. They basically run through the same checklist we've all been through already, and then suggest I find a suitable service center with an A&P who knows Cirruses and / or electrical systems. They don't suggest one, but the tech rep gives me his name, number, and cell phone if I find a service center that needs a Cirrus contact. Alex tells me to use my judgment and see what's available locally, and he'll wait for news from me. I tell him this might take an hour or two….

Once off the phone I think "where the hell am I going to find a Cirrus-savvy A&P in Camarillo?! Should've returned to Van Nuys…". I ask the CIA guy behind the counter. He looks at me a little oddly and says something like "well, you know Skyblue Air just up the ramp here is a Southern California Cirrus sales and service center…". Hmmm, so there are definitely worse places to be with a dead Cirrus.

I walk down to Skyblue ("just up the ramp" turns out to be a kilometre or so, in relentless Southern California sun, but never mind; on the way at least I get to see the on-airport Ventura County Fire Department depot and training center, with really impressive flames and smoke and gear being deployed or extinguished each time I pass it) and wander into their main office. I blurt out to the guy behind the counter that I've got a Cirrus up in transient with a low voltage indicator. He looks up at me, wanders over, shakes my hand, tells me he's "Larry", Skyblue's owner, and within a few minutes, he, "Tommy" (their main Cirrus A&P) and I are in a golf cart heading for transient. Tommy tells me it's almost certainly either the alternator (not cheap, but not too bad), or the MRU (really really expensive). It takes him about ten minutes to confirm that there's a real problem (i.e. it wasn't just me…), and we taxi 75T down to Skyblue. Tommy says it'll take maybe an hour to test the alternator properly, and I fill out a bunch of paperwork, call Alex with the good news, then tell Larry that if I'm not needed down here, I'll be back in an hour after getting some lunch at the airport cafe, a place called Waypoints back up near the CIA. I'm starving.

* * *

CH-46 Sea KnightIn the cafe over a pretty good burger I watch the LAPD and Ventura County Sheriff's Department cars careering around chasing each other in the shimmering haze out beyond the runway. There's apparently a special car chase training area on the airport. Alex has already called twice to see if there's been any progress. Suddenly there's a growing noise of military helicopters and out of nowhere three large grey-painted USMC CH-46 Sea Knights descend in formation into the heat at the far end of the ramp, out beyond the parked airplanes. The noise is deafening. They descend in a cloud of dust and blown-around trash, with all the smaller planes rocking around in the wash, and in a minute or so the crew chiefs lower the back ramps and three or four dozen marines in fatigues line up on the ramp. After what looks like a short briefing the marines stroll briskly across the ramp towards the cafe. I ask the cafe owner what's happening. "Oh", she says, "they've just flown in from Edwards. They've reserved the entire front patio. It's Tri-Tip treat day for them!". Cool, I think, as I watch them start to rush in like excited kids.

No, I've been in this part of the world a couple of decades and I didn't know what Tri-Tip was either.

Tri-Tip


* * *

Back at Skyblue I hear the bad news: yes, it's the alternator, and yes, it'll cost a lot to be replaced by the (Cirrus) book (the good news is that it wasn't the MRU, which would cost maybe $15K…) They give me a printed estimate, and I call Alex. He audibly blanches at the cost, and says he'll research alternatives if I can hang around another hour or so.

To cut a long story short, for the next seven hours I hang around Skyblue (and, for a short time mid-afternoon, Waypoints Cafe again), calling and being called by Alex, and lounging around on the bench outside the Skyblue office or on the sofa inside the office with various friendly and patient Skyblue staff. Alex and Larry negotiate some sort of deal on the phone; the upshot is that Alex is driving down from Los Gatos to pick me and the alternator up (ETA at Camarillo about 7pm if we're lucky), and he and I will drive straight back up 101 to Hayward (KHWD, 75T's home base up next to Oakland) later tonight (ETA about 2am tomorrow if we're really lucky). I can't complain (well, I don't complain (much)) — I'm on vacation, and the company's good (lots of gossip about a certain Hollywood dustup earlier that day involving someone personally known here), and while I'm occasionally bored, it's at least comfortable. It strikes me at one point that this is what freight dogs and Part 135 pilots go through, lounging around crew rooms and bad cafes (or eating out of vending machines, which so far today I've been able to avoid). Maybe this is some sort of initiation.

Alex arrives at about 8pm, and it doesn't take long to get the alternator completely off and 75T parked out of the way with its cowl back on. Alex's plan is to drop the alternator off at a suitable place in Sacramento early tomorrow morning after the drive back up tonight (i.e. he'll get up at some ungodly hour and drive a two-hundred mile round trip after the mad dash up and down 101 to and from Camarillo), and if it's a simple deal, we'll somehow return tomorrow or the next day to install the repaired alternator (or whatever) and fly 75T home. So that's the plan. It's doable, as long as everything goes OK; I'm just damn glad it's not me doing the driving.

After a bunch more paperwork Alex and I depart in his car and stop off at a local Applebee's for something to eat. Amazingly, given the time I've lived in this country, this is the first time I've eaten at an Applebee's; it turns out to be exactly what I expected…. We talk a lot over dinner — Alex can be a pretty entertaining guy with a similar set of interests and professional concerns as me — and I find out a lot more about the Cirrus and Alex's background.

After dinner we depart Camarillo on 101 north and for the next five hours or so we drive through the darkness in very familiar country, up through Santa Barbara, Santa Maria, San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles, King City, Soledad, Salinas, San Jose… the names just roll off the tongue after all these years of driving or flying that route. At one point just before Santa Maria I see a freeway exit sign for Orcutt, and suddenly I realise there's a "real" Orcutt somewhere below the ORCUTT intersection or waypoint I'm familiar with on the IFR version of California I've internalised and flown (no, I don't know why I hadn't noticed the real Orcutt before). The conversation about hi tech, warbirds, flying, instructing, etc., continues pretty much all the way back to Hayward.

At Hayward I discover my truck's still there in the external parking lot (be thankful for small mercies…), and Alex says he's going to sleep on the CalAir sofa before getting up in a few hours to drive to Sacramento. Better him than me. I get home about 3am, I think (I lost track). I'm pretty sure tomorrow's going to be just as long…

* * *

I want to thank all the Skyblue staff, especially Larry, Heather, Brian, Lorenn, and Tommy for their help, humour, and patience — what could have been an excruciatingly boring or stressful eight hours or so was actually a fairly pleasant time. They'd get my business if I actually owned a Cirrus….

July 18, 2007

Santa Monica



Santa Monica, my fave LA place (along with Venice). No, that's not me up there, just some random character from Harry Shearer's "Home Of The Homeless". Me, I get up early and stroll the old familiar haunts, trying not to get too sunburned or jaded… I can think of worse places to be.

July 17, 2007

One Six Right

KNVY runways 34L-16R from taxiway Bravo at Quebec

I can still smell the smoke from the big brush fires above Santa Barbara as I cross OHIGH intersection on the Fernando Five (FERN5) arrival. 145 knots ground speed; 9,000' MSL. Beautiful rugged country below me in the post-sunset, hints and glimpses of dark-tone mountains, canyons, and chaparall. It's mid evening, getting dark, and there's the usual LA area haze as well as the smoke, but you can see bright smudged hints of the city in the distance. Southern California Approach tells me to expect vectors for the ILS. I cross CANYN intersection, still at 9,000', then turn to UMBER intersection over Filmore VOR. SoCal has me descend (rapidly) to 6,000' immediately after Filmore. I can hear SoCal Approach vectoring a Hawker onto the localiser a few miles in front of me, and a Citation on the arrival behind me; I'm the slowpoke in the middle. I'm almost immediately vectored with a sharp(ish) turn towards the localiser and asked to slow down for the aircraft in front of me. There's one for the books, I think: we small GA pilots are usually asked to keep as fast as possible on the approach because of the faster traffic we mix with. Cool! I briefly wonder what the Hawker thinks about being overtaken by a mighty Cirrus, but I suspect SoCal have the same staffing issues that NorCal has, leading to botched spacing and ad hoc vectors with newbies at the scopes….


In front of me and off to my right LA's now a blaze of light smeared across the hills and mountains, and my brain keeps misplaying the old Doors lyrics as "City at night, city at night!" over and over (no, I'm no Doors fan (understatement), but LA and the Doors have History, you know). It's beautiful, and the smoke and haze and warm air has everything on the ground shimmering or slightly veiled. I can easily pick out the Van Nuys (KVNY) runway 16R lights as I turn towards the localiser (I have a certain amount of local knowledge here so I know exactly where it should be in relation to the 405 and the other main landmarks down there). I'm cleared for the ILS RWY 16R, and a few seconds later I've joined the localiser, and a little while later I'm on the glideslope. This is a steeper than usual glideslope (take a look at the terrain around here…) and the final approach segment is also rather long — roughly 8 miles with an intercept altitude of 4,300 MSL (for a runway at roughly 800' MSL), but otherwise it's a pretty straightforward approach.

Tower clears me to land after the Hawker, and 16R floats up towards me in the darkness in that very familiar unreal videogame-for-real intense concentration way I find so enjoyable. After a book-perfect approach I'm over the threshold and a few seconds later I'm on the ground in the muggy warmth surrounded by lights and aircraft. I'm told to exit 16R at November, and that's what I do, with the Citation not far behind me on final.

So that's Van Nuys One Six Right in real life, I think. Cool! It's tempting to say it's a special thrill, a really distinctive experience, but really, it's the views of LA and the approach and descent into the airport environment at night that's the thrill, and Van Nuys may be the busiest GA airport in the US, but it isn't proving any harder to cope with than my native Oakland (KOAK) or Hayward (KWHD) — I've been trained well. At least that's what I'm thinking until I fluff the ground call on exiting 16R at taxiway november and hear the mortifying and very public "75T, you're still on tower frequency…". D'Oh! I taxi to Skytrails, park, and a few minutes later (thanks to the excellent ground staff at Skytrails) I'm on the 405 in a little rental car bound for the hotel in Santa Monica.

* * *

This is another of those always-wanted-to-do-it trips, and a combination of a break in jobs and having seen One Six Right a few weeks ago gives me a good excuse. Unfortunately there's not enough notice to drag the Artists (or anyone else) along with me this time, so I go alone. An IFR flight to Van Nuys via San Luis Obispo (KSBP), an overnight stay in Santa Monica, and a leisurely VFR trip back up the coast (lunch at San Luis Obispo maybe) all seem like a good idea to me, and I have the time (if not really the money), so I organise, plan, and arrange things over a few days, and at around 16.30 I'm sitting sweltering in the club's Cirrus on Hayward's Green Ramp getting my clearance to San Luis Obispo from Hayward Clearance. A few minutes later I'm departing on the familiar dogleg route ("runway heading until 400', left turn heading 160, radar vectors for ALTAM, V244, Manteca VOR (ECA), V113, Paso Robles VOR (PRB), direct", and there's really not much to say about this leg of the trip except this time at least I remembered to put on some sun screen, and the ground below and airways all seem very familiar nowadays.

I stop for fuel and food at San Luis Obispo, and spend a pleasant hour or so eating decent American Diner food watching the planes out on the ramp and runways at the Spirit Of San Luis restaurant at the airport. This is one of those unusual airport cafes where the food really ain't bad, and where locals go to eat with no intention of flying. It's an almost ideal place to stop and eat if you're flying GA to LA from the Bay Area.

I watch the coastal stratus coming in from the west towards the airport and reflect that I'd be in a hell of a hurry to eat and leave if I were VFR. But I'm not, and by the time I pick up my clearance from Tower ("Cleared to Van Nuys airport via the CREPE3 departure, Morro Bay transition, San Marcus VOR, V386, OHIGH, Fernando Five arrival…") the clouds are overhead, and VFR would not be strictly legal (you could depart "VFR" east if tower looked the other way, I suspect). As with the last time I departed here for LA, I wonder how long that clearance will last, especially since it seems to be taking me straight into the firefighting TFRs inland from Santa Barbara. Sure enough, immediately I switch to departure (in a few moments of actual IMC before breaking out), Santa Barbara approach calls me and says "75T, bad news, got a new clearance for you, advise ready to copy…". The new clearance is basically just vectors to San Marcus (RZS) around the TFRs, then as before — so nothing too difficult.

In the distance towards Santa Barbara I can see what looks like an unforecast thunderhead above the pervasive smoke layer in front of me, but with a shock of recognition I realise it's an enormous billowing smoke cloud reaching way up into the flight levels and spreading horizontally like an anvil. The smoke will be the dominant visual element all the way to around Simi Valley — there's a large fire down there out of control, and the TFRs extend up to 15,000' 24 hours a day for firefighting aircraft. I can see Santa Barbara and the Channel Islands and most of the coast line fairly clearly, but almost everything inland for what looks like 50 or more miles is buried under the smoke layer. The layer reaches to about 7,000' by my estimation, and it's making for a beautiful sunset, I have to say, all reds, yellows, purples and pinks. Just Another Boring Southern California Sunset, I guess.

About this time approach reports that they've lost my transponder return, but they sound unconcerned (he says it's probably just terrain or antenna geometry, and he's got me on the primary anyway), and for a short while I get to do IFR the old school way, reporting a couple of waypoints and estimating waypoint ETA. The GPS units sure help with this, and I can't help reporting my next waypoint ETA with the spurious accuracy the 430's giving me, down to the last second. I'm sure that impressed the controller… in any case, after about 15 minutes the transponder return magically re-appears and I proceed as planned towards OHIGH for the Fernando Five arrival…

July 09, 2007

No Aircraft Were Hurt In The Making Of This Film

I finally got to see "One Six Right" on DVD the other day. As the Wikipedia entry says,
One Six Right is an independent film about the general aviation industry as seen through a local airport. Within a short period of time, it has achieved a cult-like following and presence among pilots and aviation enthusiasts worldwide who see the film as being able to communicate their passion for aviation. Concurrently, the film has garnered both local and national political attention in the United States as an accurate depiction of general aviation and its important contributions to all aviation industries worldwide.
OK, I guess I'm going to be a dissenter here. Well, not radically, but in my own muddled way. Firstly, yes, I enjoyed the film a lot, especially the "pilot porn" bits (you know, all the beautiful flying, the smooth glossy warbirds and bizjets, the aerobatics — all that and more) and the pure history stuff (I'm a big fan of local history, and when, in cases like this, local and national (or even global) history merge in one location, it's a real joy to connect the dots and just watch the story unfold). I really didn't enjoy the intrusive and rather-too-sentimental (or perhaps a bit unimaginative) soundtrack, but that's just a detail. Looked at purely as an independent human-interest and local history documentary about an important GA airport, it gets top marks, and I would have been even happier had it gone on longer, with more history, and more personal stories. These things fascinate me, and it's an obvious labor of love by the filmmakers.

But I doubt that it'll convince too many people out there that GA is important or more than toys-for-the-boys or a rich guy's or old geezer's pursuit. Perhaps "show, don't tell" might have been a better approach here: rather than just stating that lots of economic and social advantages come from having something as big and noisy as Van Nuys airport in the middle of the Valley, it might have been better to do some actual tracing of day-to-day work and activities. For example, follow a mercy flight, or a medevac helicopter's daily routine, or a small freight operation, or a flight school… show the money coming in, show the business accruing to the neighbourhood, show how the airport is such a part of the city's lifeline. And rather than concentrating a little too much on the more glamourous aircraft (the warbirds, the aerobatic planes, etc.), it might have been nice to show just what the workaday planes give to the community (or not); and, unfortunately, all those nice shiny bizjets probably only reinforce the "GA as rich-guys toys for the boys" image in many viewers' minds, no matter how aerodynamically and aesthetically pleasing they might be to you and me.

And as for being able to "communicate [our] passion for aviation", I think it certainly communicates the fact that many of us are passionate about flying and all that goes with it (including local airports), but I don't think it instills or inspires that passion in most people who don't already feel that way. And perhaps it's not meant to — it's certainly a difficult thing to convincingly show rather than tell. While I mostly liked the people the movie used to convey the passion, GA now has such an image problem that showing presumably-rich actors standing in front of expensive shiny (noisy) machines probably isn't going to convince anyone not already convinced; and the use of so many older people as interviewees really hinted at one of the main problems GA faces. In some ways the movie felt more like an unwitting elegy for a GA era than a look forward through the past.

Having said all that, definitely see it if you get a chance. It's good local history, and the pure flying documentary bits were beautifully shot, addictive, and deeply affecting. Almost makes me want to take up aerobatics again….

July 04, 2007

Hands Off!

A short under-the-hood IFR-in-VFR flight to Santa Rosa (KSTS) and back with John, mostly just to get some tips from him on my IFR flying, to keep proficient as well as current, and to get better at managing the complexity that is the WAAS-enabled G1000 and associated process and tools, etc.

The highlight of the flight? Sitting there under the cone of stupidity watching the G1000 / KAP 140 combination fly us around the STS GPS RWY 14 course reversal hold at GETER intersection (including the proper teardrop entry) entirely on its own. No prompting or hints from me at all — it just aimed straight at GETER, entered the hold, and proceeded to fly the hold exactly the way I would, but smoother. Kewl! I love this stuff. As John said at the time, there really wasn't any need for me to be there at all. Actually, as we were approaching GETER I wasn't 100% certain whether the G1000 would push us around the hold or not (the older versions don't), but John just told me to wait and see. And what I saw was very slick and cool, as was the rest of the mostly-automated flight (I flew the ILS back into Oakland by hand for fun; the other approaches were all done coupled). The G1000 is IFR magic, no doubt, even if all you're doing is plain old ILSs or VOR-to-VOR victor airways routes. For VFR, it's nice, but basically just a very expensive way get too-easily distracted — I much prefer the older steam gauge SP's or whatever for just flying VFR around the Bay, etc.

A few other points from the flight: I'm still landing a little too flat for the 172 (it's the baleful influence of the Cirrus, or at least that's my excuse), and (at least on this flight) I was a little too lax about dialing in the underlying VORs for routes and approaches (I'm normally pretty good at that sort of thing, since what the hell else can you rely on when you're having a GPS Moment with the G1000 and you still have to do the hold or go missed or intercept a course that's also based on the underlying land-based navaids?). I'm also still a little too rough-and-ready with power / speed / altitude control trade-offs — the sort of precision John brings to this is still beyond me, unfortunately. But I did nothing terribly wrong, and the refresher was an interesting exercise (and for the short time I was allowed to look outside the cockpit, the view was typically gorgeous).

On the way back into Oakland (KOAK) I'd requested the ILS 27R practice approach, and after a bunch of vectors for traffic and a hand-off, I'd asked the new controller for an intercept outside GROVE intersection (a fairly common sort of request here, as it helps forestall NorCal's habit of instead dropping you closer in onto UPACI intersection, at least a thousand feet too high, meaning you have to drop like a rock to have a chance of intercepting the glideslope from below). The controller didn't quite understand what I was asking for, which wasn't as interesting as his response, which was to query whether I'd really be comfortable with intercepting at GROVE from my current position (a bit of a stretch, for sure). As John pointed out, while it was mildly irritating that he didn't "get" what I was getting at, the controller was definitely thinking the right way about the intercept, and given his understanding of what I wanted to do, was reacting in a really pretty helpful and thoughtful way. Top marks for that, I guess, and in the end I didn't have to drop out of the sky at 1,500 fpm to make the glideslope, and maybe the controller's got a better picture now of what I was really asking for. It's not all doom-and-gloom for GA pilots with NorCal….

Back at the fuel pumps in front of Kaiser, there's a big old Apache with a handful of twenty- and thirty-something hipsters milling around it taking a break. I chat with the pilot, a New Zealander who's lived around here, and it turns out they're just back from the Black Rock Desert (think "Burning Man", but a month or two before time). Seems the perfect way to get there and back (it's a hell of a drive), and I have to admit I've been attracted to the idea of flying there several times, but the alkaline dust and the dirt strip there make it a non-starter with club planes. (At first the New Zealander actually thought I had a New Zealand accent, which kinda amused me. His accent was obviously New Zealand, but, as he later admitted, my accent's a lot harder to pin down, having strong elements of my native British accent as well as a few thin insurgencies from my surroundings here).