Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Long Cross Country - Part V - Colusa to Travis AFB

This is part V of the story of my long cross country solo flight.. the first half of the third leg of the journey from Colusa to Reid-Hillview. Travis AFB airspace was interesting enough to warrant its own "section".

Its funny, I planned this route assuming I would be doing better (more accurate headings, better handling of winds and airports) on the way out than the way back. How wrong I was. In the end, I did much better on the way back in all aspects. On the way back I finally dialed in the wind adjustments I needed to make from the headings I calculated. Not by recalculating but by turning to the planned heading, identifying the landmarks I needed, then keeping on track to the landmarks while adjusting for winds. (How do you do this when flying Instrument? You don't have landmarks to look at?). I found all of my checkpoints, held altitudes very well and kept my eyes on all traffic too.

CTAF stands for Common Traffic Advisory Frequency. This is the frequency pilots use to talk to each other when flying at non-towered airports. We do this to keep each other informed about what we're doing and to help avoid hitting each other :). Its not required, you don't HAVE to announce what you're doing on CTAF. But its a good idea. Its sorta like driving the racing line when racing even if you're the slow guy. If everyone else knows what you are doing and going to do, they are able to plan what they need to do to avoid hitting you. Same thing here. Another interesting comparison, many pilots and student pilots, myself included, sound a little lost on CTAF sometimes when they try to figure out what they're supposed to say as they talk. Jeff told me once he did a particularly bad radio call and when his CFI stared at him he simply said "I'm clearing the airspace!". In my mind an awkward radio call on CTAF is like a rookie plate on a race car... it lets everyone else know the pilot/driver may not be expert at these things and to give them extra room. Not a bad idea.

On approach to Colusa I was listening on the Colusa CTAF frequency, 122.8. And I got to hear what was going on in Colusa (nothing), Willows (ag pilot) and Placerville - over 60nm away (pilot practicing in the pattern). This is because there are very few CTAF frequencies available, you end up with overlaps and hearing traffic at other airports. It can be confusing to the uninitiated.

On takeoff I stayed on the Colusa frequency for a while and got to hear someone come for landing at Willows, less than 20nm away (I remember thinking I should have pushed for a trip to Willows, I could have had a pie at Nancy's Airport cafe!) The guy did all of his radio calls right, except one thing. He kept saying "Watsonville Traffic" and then correcting and saying "sorry, Willows Traffic". The way "Watsonville" rolled off his tongue it seemed he was very used to flying at Watsonville (just south of Santa Cruz) and not so used to Willows. I wanted to radio up and tell him it was OK, they both start with "W" :) but I kept it professional and kept my mouth shut. For now. I imagined this guy was another student pilot in his long cross country flight. Maybe he was, or maybe it was just his first trip to Willows to get a pie at Nancy's Airport Cafe. But it made me smile to hear him.

Playing with the Big Boys
I got flight following once I reached my cruise altitude over the Williams VOR and eventually I was flying in the Travis AFB alert area. Alert areas are such because they have high volumes of unusual or military air traffic. In this case, the volume was very high. I was listening to Travis Approach managing DC-10s and jets and Cessnas and Barons and other smaller GA planes flying into and out of the area.

At one point Travis Approach pointed out traffic at my 11 o'clock, same altitude, opposite direction. I looked and saw two small military jets flying in formation and then they quickly disappeared behind my left wing. I contacted approach and confirmed with him the traffic he was referring to was two jets. Yup, that was the traffic.

Then I see a large jet passing left to right in the distance. I was watching that jet when a larger jet, another DC-10, slowly flies into view. He seemed really close but Travis Approach didn't say anything, he was flying left to right and away from me. So I figured that's why I didn't get a warning. The thing was HUGE. I felt like a minnow next to a whale. And I wondered how on earth that thing could fly at all.

Eventually the DC-10 started turning left, Travis called it out to me then and said he was maneuvering to land, I said I had him in sight (how could I NOT?). Then I got to watch as this giant whale of a plane slowly and gracefully turned in front of me and descended towards the runways. I told Travis that I was planning to cross right over the runways at 5500 ft, they said the ATC equivalent of "go for it" :). I crossed the runway just as the DC-10 landed directly under my little plane.

I wish I took a picture or video of this ballet of planes. I think this was the high point of my flight. Me, flying a little plane and playing a small part in the dance in the sky. The careful orchestration of all of the players in this small airspace, the interaction with ATC and through ATC with the other planes. I was up there and just as important and involved as any other plane or pilot. Me. The same person that a year ago was terrified of touching the controls of any plane, playing with the big boys, and doing it well.

Looking back over this text.. it doesn't capture the beauty or awe or just amazingness of the experience. I guess you had to be there. Maybe you will come join me for a flight some time so you can feel and see it too?

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