Yesterday Jeff and I flew up to Willows for the NASA race this weekend at Thunderhill. Not a sight seeing flight, a get there flight. Even when you are in get there mode, flying can become an adventure. This trip had a couple...
It's a bird! It's a plane! It's... a plane.
We got flight following immediately after take off from RHV and our first little adventure was over Calaveras. Norcal reported traffic at our 11 o'clock just slightly below our altitude, opposite direction. We kept climbing and started looking for the traffic... we couldn't see anything. Norcal called out again and this time we could see a very large bird at about where Norcal said the plane would be. We looked and couldn't see anything else. Stupidly(?) I responded to Norcal we had some type of traffic in sight but it was a bird. Norcal was incredulous, "A bird?" they said. "Well, its a very large bird", I said. Just then I saw the twin engine plane, much larger than a bird just closer to us than the bird. "Norcal, traffic in sight and it is a plane. No factor." Even the controller laughed at that one. Then he handed us off to the next sector.
Rooms in the Sky
The next controller was handling the approach traffic for Oakland and SFO. He was BUSY. He kept up a rapid fire of instructions to what must have been 30 planes. Clear and concise. Everyone he talked to, including me, responded back just as clear and concise. We all sounded very professional. I was impressed with how well this controller handled all of that traffic. Jeff and I didn't talk with each other as we listened to the controller and the other planes. He vectored us around other traffic a couple times. Having spent a little time in the TRACON and seeing the screens the controllers look at, I marveled at how well this person was able to interpret the data blocks on that screen and provide instructions to us in the air that kept us all safe.
We cruised past Mt. Diablo and I started thinking we should be handed over to Travis soon. I was right. We were instructed to talk to Travis approach and it was like walking from a busy bar in the city into a room in an almost empty diner on a country backroad. All of the sudden the radio chatter stopped. The Travis controllers sounded much more laid back and conversational with not a whole lot to do. Jeff took the opportunity to show me how to lean the plane using an EGT instead of by ear. The plane I trained in doesn't have an EGT. This 172SP does. Made about a 1.5 - 2 GPH difference according to the fuel flow meter.
Traffic, 12 o'clock, 14 miles, 3, 9,000 feet
We were handed off to Oakland Center shortly. The frequency got even quieter and Jeff and I flew along. Bored. I couldn't believe it.. I was actually bored flying. I think its because I knew that we could get there so much quicker if we were in a faster plane, a 182 or Bonanza for instance. ATC tried to provide us with some entertainment though. "6SP, Traffic 12 o'clock 14 miles 3 9,000 feet". That was a strange call. Why were they telling us about traffic at 9,000 feet when we were at 4,500 feet? What did they mean "3"? I asked her to repeat and she said it again. I hadn't head wrong. We dutifully looked for the traffic and couldn't see it. "6SP, Traffic. 12 o'clock 8 miles 3 jets 9,000 feet". 3 jets? Oh! This could be interesting. We looked harder. Finally we spotted the traffic. Three military jets, going fast and high above. Cool! "Oakland Center, traffic in sight, not a factor." Oakland Center replied, "OK. I just thought you guys would like to see that." "Yeah, we did like that, thanks!"
We approached Willows and started our descent. There were crop dusters everywhere. Flying around at 500 feet or lower it seemed. As I got into the pattern at Willows a crop duster was doing maneuvers right under the location for the base leg for my target runway. Another plane in the pattern said they were using all runways. I asked if he had any suggestions, he said, "See and Avoid!" So that's what I did. I turned base about 500 feet over the crop duster flying straight at me. I turned final early to get out of his way and landed. See and avoid indeed!
Even on a 'boring' trip that is just about getting there, there's always the possibility of a minor adventure for this aviator. That's one of the things I love most about flying ;)
Side Note: It was very nice to be able just fly up here in an hour twenty minutes instead of driving three or four hours. Amazing thing though, even at 120 knots both of us wanted to go faster. Once you know what its like to make the trip in 40 minutes, taking a whole hour twenty minutes seems far too long.