Monday, September 30, 2013

Why doesn't everyone do this?

Last Friday I got to do a very special flight. My very first flight with a brother or sister. In this case it was my brother Rob who got the honors of "First Sib" in the cockpit with me :) Not only was this a chance to fly with a sibling, it was a chance to land at an airport I've never landed at before and fly a route I've not flown before. So it was something I was looking forward to doing in addition to flying with someone very special to me.

My brother was in town working with a client located in Palo Alto (PAO). He would get off work around 5:30 and then we "needed" (wanted really) to fly up to Santa Rosa (STS) to meet my husband there to give him some clothes and supplies for the race the next day. Santa Rosa happens to be the location of my favorite $100 hamburger restaurant, the Sky Lounge. So it was a perfect set up. I would fly to PAO, pick up my brother then we would fly up to STS, meet up with the husband for dinner, then fly back to Reid Hillview (RHV) and go back to my home from there.

I've never flown to PAO before, its only 16 miles away from RHV so it's never been a place I've needed to fly to. Not to mention there were four air spaces to fly through and one to fly under if you fly the most direct route there. You have RHV's Class D, San Jose's Class C, Moffett Airfield Class D and then Palo Alto's Class D with San Francisco's Class B over the top of it all. In general, unless there's a good reason, most VFR pilots avoid that sort of airspace and an IFR flight to PAO would take twice as long as it needs to be. Now I had the perfect excuse to go!

It was remarkably easy... when I was ready to taxi at RHV I requested VFR flight following to PAO and told them I would also need a Class Charlie transition. I was assigned a squawk code and told to stay out of Charlie until in contact with San Jose's tower. After take off I was quickly handed to San Jose tower. They cleared me direct to Palo Alto and it seemed only 30 seconds later they handed me to Moffett tower. Moffett tower pointed out the helicopter flying in the pattern there and then handed me over to Palo Alto tower in about two minutes. Palo Alto cleared me to land straight in on 32. I flew the straight in approach, landed, taxied clear of the runway, contacted Palo Alto ground, taxied to transient and shut down. Less than 30 minutes engine on to engine off. Cool!

After about 45 minutes of hanging out in the terminal building and talking with one of the employees there my brother arrived. I walked him out to the plane, loaded his luggage and briefed him on flying in a small airplane. He was calm but I could tell he was excited too. We taxied out to the run-up area, did our run-up and were ready to go. I had requested VFR flight following to STS and a "Right Dumbarton Departure" which one of my pilot friends told me was the normal way to cross the bay and head north. We were cleared to take off and accelerated down the rippling PAO runway. That was an unusual but fun experience to ride the ripples until we were airborne.

We turned right at the Dumbarton Bridge and flew over the Bay. Rob looked around and watched the bay and the ground slip underneath our wings. He grinned broadly and started taking pictures. Then he said, "Why doesn't everybody do this? This is awesome!" We hit some of the normal bumpiness as we passed over the Sunol grade and then turned north towards Santa Rosa. He was seemed enchanted, relaxed and happy. After we crossed the delta I handed him the controls and he flew for a little while. He gave me back the controls and asked how long it would take to drive where we were going. Well, I knew the answer to that... intimately... [young readers cover your eyes] "For-Fucking-Ever" I told him. [you can uncover your eyes now]. I have sat in traffic for 3 to 5 hours to cover the same distance we were winging over in 45 minutes. It was wonderful.

About 15 minutes out from Santa Rosa ATC pointed traffic out to me that was "8 to 9 o'clock" I looked and found it at my 7 o'clock and low. I told ATC I had the traffic in sight but I would have to break my neck to keep it in sight. I asked them to let me know if it caught up to me. The controller laughed and said, "Well, don't break your neck! We'll let you know." My brother remarked how friendly ATC seemed to be, not what he was expecting. We landed at Santa Rosa which has a very large runway compared to Palo Alto's. I wasn't too pleased with the approach but my brother didn't care. He loved it. We had arrived at the Sky Lounge 50 minutes before my husband, who drove. Proving once again the great value of flying to avoid traffic!

After a leisurely dinner Rob and I hopped in the plane for the flight back to RHV. It was well after dark and the tower at STS was closed. So Rob got to watch a regional jet take the option of a straight in landing on 32 before we taxied out to take off on 14 going the opposite direction. He also got to hear how pilots self announce on CTAF at non-towered airports. We launched into the air at 9:15PM with a light tailwind to speed our trip back. I knew RHV tower closed at 10PM and figured we would right about the time the tower closed.

Rob was very quiet on the flight back. We both were with the exception of talking with ATC. I took the time to look around and enjoy the beauty of flying at night. As we passed major land marks like the top of Mt. Diablo I pointed out the red lights at its peak. I got the ATIS at RHV and they were still reporting the tower open. When I told ATC I was ready to change frequencies, however, they told me the tower was closed. OK, I would just do the normal calls. At 10 miles out I did a call for Reid-Hillview Traffic with my location and intentions. The tower answered me and told me to make right traffic for 31R. I laughed and told them I was told they were gone. The tower responded, "We have seven more minutes." They cleared me to land and on the landing rollout the tower announced they were closed for the night. It was the first time I've landed right at the time the tower closed.

We taxied back to Squadron2 to park the plane. When I shut down the engine my brother took off his headset with obvious reluctance. He said he was sad the flight was over. I was sad too, but very glad that we did that flight together. It renewed my spirit and joy in flying. My brother is right, everyone should do this!

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Best of My Ability

Today I took the FAA Commercial Pilot Airplane written test for the first time. This test is one of the requirements for a Commercial Pilot's License (CPL). To pass you have to complete a 100 question test in 3 hours with 70% or better score. It took me around an hour to complete the test and I got 100% right.

I am pleased but not entirely surprised with the result. I studied for a long time and very carefully for that test. I expected to get at least 90%, most likely over 95%, but I always know its possible to miss a couple questions due to not reading carefully or just questions or concepts I've never studied before appearing in the test. However, I had studied longer for this test using more different methods that I did for the Instrument or Private tests. Especially since studying and preparing for the written test was the one thing I could do to get closer to my CPL goal for the months I was waiting to get started on the flight training. I was aware the questions would not all be exactly what I studied so I was on my toes, paying very careful attention to the questions and very careful that I knew my answers and my reasons for those answers.

Someone asked "Why?" when they heard I got 100% on the test. I don't know if this "Why" was "Why? Was there any question?" or "Why get 100%?". I reflected on the answer to the latter question. Why go through that effort to get 100% on a test that it only takes 70% to pass. 70% is good enough. I could have passed with a 70% two or three months ago. The answer to that question goes to the core of my being. 

I've always believed and lived the ideal that if something is worth doing at all, its worth doing well. If the something is something that I'm particularly passionate it is worth doing the the very best of my ability. If there is one thing I'm very passionate about, it's aviation. Some call me anal or a perfectionist. My husband teases me frequently about it. I have to admit, I do exercise a lot of attention to detail and strive for perfection. Smile. However, I have learned, through the process of learning to fly, I have to strive for perfection yet accept rarely being perfect all of the time. I have to do that without allowing it to limit my enjoyment of the pursuit.

Fortunately for me, it seems I do have some talent in this field. Sometimes the best of my ability can be perfect. Like today when I passed a test that I could have passed with 70% with 100% instead. In aviation I will always strive to fly, learn, train and enjoy to the best of my ability and that isn't so bad at all!

Monday, September 16, 2013

You Know You're A Pilot When #3

You know you're a pilot when...
  • You feel a pang of "uh oh" when, 45 minutes out you realize you forgot to study the STARs, approach plates, and airport taxi diagram for your airport of intended landing, and you are sitting in row 14!
  • You automatically visualize a little miniature runway aligned to the appropriate magnetic headings when you hear 28-10 (and if you hear 28L-10R you visualize two parallel runways). 
  • You say 28 as "two eight" instead of "twenty eight".
  • You mentally compare the pitch or climb angle of the roads you drive with bank and pitch angles of the plane you fly.
  • You can't remember which type of plane you are in, but you sure know the call sign and can hear that call sign no matter how busy the chatter is.
  • You know when you see three people standing by a particular location they must be a flight instructor and family waiting for someone as they do their first student solo. 
  • Any time you see a picture with clouds in it you automatically think about the relative stability of the air that created the cloud and how smooth or turbulent you would expect the air to be in and near that cloud.
  • You find yourself mentally calculating the crosswind component for any wind reported by ATIS on approach as a reflex. 
  • Your daughter catches you walking around the living room holding a trekking pole up in front of you to represent the wings and cowling of a plane as you walk through a chandelle. 
  • Any time you are outdoors you scan the skies looking for airplanes and smile whenever you see one.
  • You can't think of a better way to spend a Sunday evening than fly a friend over the city and bay at night. 

Bonus -
You know you've been studying for the Commercial Written test too long when...
  • You know what Figure 8 looks like and what the fuel burn rate is at 55% cruise power without looking at it.
  • You don't like dealing with Figures 16, 17 and 20 but are OK with Figure 18 and 19.
  • You finally have figured out how to answer all of the ADF and RMI questions. 
  • You know how much weight you will have to shift to the new station to get the desired new CG without even doing the calculation.
  • If given a bearing change and time for the change you can calculate time and distance to station in about 20 seconds, in 5 seconds if the bearing doubles.
  • You know the difference between advection, radiation and steam fog. 
  • You know how many positive G's a normal category aircraft is certificated to handle.
  • You don't need to look it up to know a plane at a 60 degree bank will experience a 2G load factor.
  • You can get through 200 random questions from the test bank in 2 hours with no wrong answers.

Oh it is fun to fly!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Working With a CFI

I started my formal commercial pilot training last weekend. Today was my second training flight for the new rating. It was fun. It was fun because I talked with my CFI candidly about my level of comfort in the plane and my desire to try to keep the flying fun and not fixate on specs. My CFI is a darned good CFI. It seemed he had already detected my comfort level wasn't where it needed to be and when I told him how I am particularly sensitive to different sounds in the plane he decided he would address that as well. I've learned what the Arrow sounds like on normal climb out, cruise and descent. I am not familiar to what the plane sounds like when it is taken through its paces with full power and power off, full prop or prop full back, full power climb and no power descents. Planes making unfamiliar noises set off warning bells in my mind.

Today's flight started with a focus on the different sounds the plane will be making... the squeal of the landing gear horn when the power is pulled back to idle. The bit of a surge the engine makes, sometimes, when the prop is shoved forward or the manifold pressure is suddenly reduced. The changes in the sound when doing steep turns at 18" of manifold pressure. The brief cough in the engine when power is reduced or increased quickly. The feel of the buffet on the edge of a stall, the actual feel of a power on stall and the pitch required to make it happen.

After I got comfortable with the vast variety of sounds and pitches we started working on the components of chandelles. Taking the components one piece at a time worked really well and with increased comfort at the high pitch required for the second half of the maneuver I was able to roll the wings level very smoothly and slowly. The last one I did was to commercial spec without much effort at all.

Another thing to note on that last chandelle was a 172 was below us doing slow flight. We noticed him and did not get too concerned about it just made sure to "see and avoid". It turns out the Cessna had an ex-DPE we knew in it. He was watching us and caught up to me later to tell me he saw my chandelle and said it was very nice and smooth.

One thing chandelle's do is they make you climb, so, I got to learn how to do a steep spiral to descend quickly. That was fun too... then it was time to go back to RHV. I did a nice straight in approach and landing, ending on a high note for me.

I think a large portion of why this particular flight went so well is me being up front with my CFI about my level of comfort, sensitivity to sound and desires for the tone of my flying. In my opinion, being able to be honest with your CFI, having a CFI that is able to adjust to and address your concerns and needs, and then trusting that CFI and putting your best into whatever they tell you to do critical to successful flight training. It's a relationship that requires both people, CFI and student, to work together for a common goal. I'm happy and grateful to have a very good relationship with my CFI developed over many years of flying together. That relationship will drive my future successes in flying :)

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Standing at 13,200 Feet

Here are some brief impressions of a two and a half day trek in the Eastern Sierras. Our trek was from the Onion Valley trail head at 9,200 feet, over Kearsarge Pass at 11,760 feet, past Kearsarge and Bullfrog lakes, down to Vidette Meadow (9,000 feet), and up Bubbs Creek all the way to its alpine lake sources and even further, to stand on Forester Pass. Forester Pass is knife edge ridge between Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks at 13,200 feet. It's the highest point on the Pacific Crest Trail. We hiked around 35 miles total distance and a few miles of vertical distance as well.


Acclimatization works! I live at sea level. I fly, usually, at 5500 feet or below unless I'm going on a long cross country. There is no reason I should be able to hike with a 20 lb pack on my back at altitudes ranging from 9,200 feet to 13,200 feet without gasping and panting for air. No reason aside from the fact that, three days before our trek, my friend, Chris, and I drove up to Mammoth Lakes and worked and played at 7,600 feet to get our bodies used to the thinner air. The night before the hike we went down to about 4,000 feet at Independence, CA to have easy access to the trail head for an early start.

Trekking Poles

Trekking poles ROCK! They help you use your arms to pull your body up steps, up inclines, across level ground when the legs are tired. They help balance when crossing streams on little stepping stones. They provide extra balance and support for tired legs and knees when climbing down steep inclines and steps. They also double as tent spikes when needed.


If you are like me and don't eat a lot when exercising, and plan to hike from dawn to dusk, pack about 1/3rd of the food you think you need. This will leave you with plenty left over when done with your trek. When you are done and have the finish of the trip made, find a new hiker on their way into the wild and offer them your extra food. Someone will take it and make your pack feel much lighter.

Sleeping At Altitude

It is cold at 10,700 feet at night. Even if the general temperature is significantly higher than it would be on a "standard day", the temp drops significantly when the sun goes down and gets even colder just as the sun peaks over the mountain tops. Bring extra wool socks. Wrap your cold feet in the "emergency blanket" you brought if you are feeling too cold. That works in a pinch. Expect strange dreams and unsettled sleep as your body keeps waking you up to complain about the oxygen you're not breathing. Don't hyperventilate, it wont' help. If possible sleep in a grove of trees or in a sheltered spot so the wind doesn't batter your tent and make you colder. If you happen to have a sunburn you can use the heat from the sunburn to warm your cold hands.

The Sound of the Wind

Gusts at night in the high sierras just sound amazing. They start off as a whisper, then a hiss getting louder, then a whoosh, then a roar and a bang as the gust passes your tent like a freight train. Suddenly the tent is flapping wildly, only to calm again to gentle twitches as you wait for the next gust of wind.

Rods and Cones

If you don't believe what your CFI taught you about rods and cones and the way the night adapted eye cannot see what its directly focused on, try following the motion of a satellite across the sky by looking directly at it at night. You can't. The only way to see that satellite is to look slightly away from it. All of the sudden it will appear. Look at it directly, it will disappear.

Standing at 13,200 feet It Isn't Easy but It's Worth It

Like anything worthwhile in life, reaching the tops of Kearsarge Pass (twice) and Forester Pass was not easy, by any stretch. However, it was totally worth doing and not miserable to do.  I highly recommend it.

What's it like to climb up Forester Pass? Go to the gym. Put on a 20 lb pack. Get on the StairMaster. Set it to random between 50% and maximum grade up and start climbing... for... three... hours. That's where the similarity stops. Here's what's different.

You can stop any time you want for a brief break. You've got your trekking poles to balance you and pull you up. The sights around you are out of this world. The air is sweet and pure and the breeze keeps your body comfortably cool while the sun is comfortably warm. There's usually a creek flowing near by, or an alpine lake sparkling in the rocks, or at the very least amazing vistas of mountains and rocks as far as the eye can see. Every time you stop you can see you've progressed significantly since your last stop. Every time you pause near a large rock you can lean on that rock to take the weight of the pack off your back. And whenever there is a particularly amazing view, you stop a bit longer to take a photo or two and that helps your legs and lungs recover enough to continue on.

After three hours you stand on the knife's edge and peek over the edge of the world. You take off your pack, sit down in the cool breeze, lean back on a comfy rock, and grab a quick lunch. You've accomplished the hard, the difficult, the unlikely and unusual ... and it feels good. Not at all unlike learning how to fly. :)