February 06, 2008

Other Than That…

I sit there in the mid-evening darkness in the runup area just off Oakland's 27R thinking it's good to be back in the left seat again. As John points out, the Bay Area weather has been pretty dreadful for flying lately, IFR or VFR, and although I've been scheduled to fly since early January, this evening's the first time everything's come together well enough that I could actually fly without encountering ice or major winds or snow or whatever. In fact it's a perfect clear VMC California winter evening, meaning almost unlimited visibility, relative warmth (10C), an essentially cloudless sky, and no real wind.

The plan's simple: a short night IFR hop up to Napa (KAPC) and a few approaches and holds there to maintain currency, then a short VFR skip back for light relief. I've dragged my usual safety pilot Boyan along with me, and he's sitting in the right seat idly watching a Pilatus PC12 being towed across the ramp a hundred metres to our right. Tower clears me to depart on 27R and I start moving forward up to the flashing hold short line. Simultaneously as I look to my left I see the dark shape of (what I immediately recognise as) a Justice Department MD-80 bearing down on us as it crosses 27R inbound from runway 29, exiting at our location, and I hear tower's rushed "051! hold short of 27R!" (or something similar — I don't remember the actual words). I stop dead where I am just short of the hold-short line (if I remember correctly) and off to one side (the taxiway / runway interaction here is a little complicated), and the MD-80, now stopped on the threshold of 27R, has all its lights blazing away at us, and it's going to be a close thing. At this point I'm also worried about being blown back across Airport Drive if the MD-80 turns onto taxiway Charlie just in front of us. I don't (of course) hear the MD-80's side of the whole saga, but I call tower and tell him that the MD-80 can get around us — just — if he's careful as we're somewhat off to the side of the main runway entrance. My call isn't acknowledged. I don't move, because at this point any movement by us will bring us closer to the now-stopped MD-80, and might just confuse things. A few moments later the MD-80 gingerly lumbers past us, its wingtips only a few metres from us, and turns onto Charlie. We get rocked a little by the jet blast as it slowly taxis away from us, but basically nothing much else happens, and a short while later we're cleared (again) to depart 27R. This time it's all uneventful, and a few seconds later we're airborne and being vectored by NorCal towards Napa's LOC 36L approach. In all this time, there's been no apology, no real acknowledgment (to us, at least), nothing from tower at all. Just another night in Oakland, I guess. At least I didn't get shot (sorry, Oakland in-joke).

A few observations and Wednesday-morning quarterbacking from the next day:

Of such things are NASA reports made, I guess.

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Other than that little incident? A very pleasant and productive flight: alternating hand-flown with automated (G1000-driven) approaches is a lot of fun (I'm still amazed by just how well the new G1000 software drives the autopilot around holds, course reversals, etc.); the Oakland center controller's laid back, competent, and anticipatory ways work nicely with me on the Napa approaches; and the VFR flight back over San Pablo Bay and down along the line of the hills over Berkeley and Oakland back home is the usual wonderland of light and landscape.

All in all, an Interesting flight, at least in parts.

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[Postscript (later the same day): prompted by John I called Oakland tower and spoke to a quality assurance guy there and gave him my side of what happened (and a small piece of my mind). He called back later after listening to the tapes, and while his version is a little different from mine (and he seemed to treat it a little less seriously with a sort of "shit happens" attitude by my reading), and his understanding of the relevant transmissions is slightly different), the agreed-to bottom line is that while no actual incursion occurred, I was wrongly cleared onto a runway that was already occupied, and that the relevant controller will be, ummm, re-educated. He noted that if I hadn't called they wouldn't have known any such incident had happened. He stated that North Tower was closed due to a leaking roof and associated problems, and that (sort of off the record…), yes, staffing issues were probably a contributory factor, especially given the South Tower blind spot. He didn't seem to take my wild complaints about the flashing hold short lights terribly seriously, but hell, I don't expect anyone to really (unless they have a lot of experience with crappy Cessna windshields :-)). I'm not really pleased with the outcome — the situation's inherently unsafe there — but I'm hoping that at least the NASA ASRS report will add some weight to any internal enquiry. Or not. I dunno…].