Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Oh, What a Lucky Man I Am, Part 4

Part One of this multi-part series of posts is here. Part Two is here. Part Three is here.

After all the work of getting the plane ready, taking off, climbing to 2000 feet, and setting up for medium cruise power, I am in the sky over Palo Alto, flying towards Skyline Ridge and the clouds that are hanging over it and in front of it. Crossing over highway 280, I cross under the first cloud, whose base is 500 feet above me. This is as close as I’m allowed to get below a cloud when I’m flying using Visual Flight Rules (VFR). Because of the clouds, there is no way to immediately cross the ridge, which rises to a height of 2500 feet in front of me. However, as Skyline Ridge stretches out to the northwest, it lowers in elevation, bottoming out at a 900-foot saddle where Highway 92 crosses over (this is the road between the San Mateo Bridge and Half Moon Bay). The cloud bases are uniform at 2500 feet, and I can simply follow the ridge until the land drops enough for me to get over it with, say, 500 feet of clearance. I’ve done this before. There might not be a whole lot of point in crossing the ridge if it’s super cloudy on the other side, but it’s worth having a look.

As I turn right to follow the freeway, I can see a long distance up the Peninsula, with 280 (considered one of the prettiest freeways in the world) snaking through the hills and up past Crystal Springs Reservoir, which is an elongated lake lying directly on the San Andreas Fault. A look at the GPS shows me that I’m doing about 130 knots (150 mph) over the ground. I’ve got about a 10 knot headwind at this altitude and heading.

One thing I noticed after getting through my first 20 or so hours of training is that I don’t really perceive the yawning void between me and the ground as a height. Nor do I particularly perceive my high speed. Instead, it is as if the whole world has been shrunk down and made accessible to me. If there had been no clouds today, I could have climbed right to 3500, vaulted over the ridge and been over the ocean, all in about 8 minutes after takeoff. The nearest car route following roughly the same path would take about an hour and a half. On the auto route, you need to take a windy road up past the mansions of the Palo Alto Hills, and through chaparral and oak forests to the ridge crest at 2200 feet after which you descend down the other side, driving through rustic redwood forests, fern-filled canyons, and the occasional hillbilly shack, Christmas tree farm, or retreat center, and finally past a buch of artichoke farms to the coast. Another example: if I wanted to drive to North Beach in San Francisco, it would take about an hour and a quarter. The Trinidad can do this in about 13 minutes. When I started flying, it was an amazing thing to rediscover home in a brand new way after living in the area for almost 30 years. The Northern and Central California landscape is like a friend, and after seeing so much of it from the air, I perceive it differently while on the ground. It is no longer just a backdrop to a landscape painting. I know its scale and three-dimensionality in a way I hadn’t before.

As the ridge drops in elevation off to my left, I finally get a good look toward the coast. Almost all the clouds are bunched up along the ridge itself, and the skies over the shoreline are pretty clear. Good! I’m going to fly down to Santa Cruz for a joyride! I’m about 9 miles out from the San Francisco VOR, which means I can climb as high as 4000 feet (although VFR cruising altitudes occur on the 500’s, so effectively that means 3500 feet). Crossing the ridge, flying under a cloud, and making a left turn to the south, I see I can do a climb in clear air that will take me past a big puff of cloud ahead and to my right. So: mixture full rich, prop control to 2500 RPM, MP to 25”, and pitch the nose up to climb. I’m on a diagonal course that will take me to the shoreline. I look at the terminal chart and see that along the shoreline as soon as I pass the 15-mile ring of the San Francisco VOR, I can keep climbing to 5500. I won’t have reached 3500 before that, so this will be one continuous climb. Every thousand feet, I open the throttle more to compensate for the thinning air and to maintain manifold pressure. Passing 3000 feet, I can now lean the mixture during the climb to a fuel flow rate of 18 gallons per hour.

Passing through 3700 feet, I note that this is the level of most of the cloud tops. Quite often, when puffy clouds are in the sky, the air below the cloud top level is bumpier and hazier than the air above. As I reach 5500 feet, I’m in silky smooth, crystal clear air with a deep blue cirrus-streaked sky above, and the clouds, instead of being behemoths that I have to dodge and watch out for, are now far below me and look like cute, harmless little puffballs. As I level off, I set up for full cruise power (24”, 2300 RPM). I lean the mixture to 15 gallons per hour. Checking the GPS, I see that I must have a 13-knot tailwind, because my ground speed is 173 knots, or just about 200 mph. The temperature outside is about 50 degrees.

Okay, let’s talk fuel economy. In an hour I burn 15 gallons. And I go 200 miles. So that’s 13 mpg. But wait! If I want to compare that to a road vehicle I should add another 30%, because I don’t have to follow any twists and turns. I’m doing “as the crow flies” miles, not road miles! So, it’s more like 17 mpg. Well, maybe that’s not so great. A Cadillac Escalade or Lincoln Navigator SUV can probably do that. Ah, but would they do that at 200 mph? The driver would have to pay some serious attention to the road at that speed. Who knows, she’d probably even have to hang up her cell phone!

Now I’m enjoying a pure, unadulterated, magic-carpet joyride. I fully understand the weather situation, and I’ve made all my decisions. Now I’m just going to fly south over the water, following the shoreline off to my left. Truth be told, right now my perception isn’t that I’m sitting in a machine and controlling it. It feels more like…being an angel? I don’t know, but being up alone in an airplane on a gorgeous day, well, what does it compare to?

The view is tremendous. Off to my east is the highest part of the Santa Cruz Mountains with the tallest peaks right around 3000 feet. The stratocumulus is scattered over these ridges and also over the ridges to the east of the Bay Area and southern Santa Clara Valley, giving an impression of a solid wall of clouds all the way to the horizon. Ahead of me about 50 miles away across the waters, I can see the mountains of Big Sur (which start just south of Monterey), glowing a hazy blue in the distance. The November noontime sun is hanging low in the sky, creating a wide band of sparkle on the ocean starting directly under me and going all the way out to the southern horizon. There’s a little sprinkling of puffball clouds hanging low over the water about 10 miles out over the ocean to my right. I can look down and see the cars driving along the Pacific Coast Highway. They look like ants (ha-ha).

After a while I reach Santa Cruz, which is half-obscured by a fairly big bank of clouds (visible from space, as you’ll see shortly). I cross over the Santa Cruz Boardwalk at about 11:30 AM, and do a descending 180-degree left turn to head back up the coast. I’m going to descend to 3300 feet for the flight back up the coast. This time, as I descend, the problem is that the air gets thicker, and the engine starts putting out more power than I want, so I have to throttle back 1” every thousand feet to maintain 24”. The flight back up the coast is slower going because my tailwind has once again become a headwind. Also at 3300 feet I’m back in the slightly hazier bumpier air.

Here’s a closer view of the 11:30 AM weather satellite picture, with my route superimposed on top (click to enlarge):

Click to Zoom

The yellow lines on the map are the one thousand foot elevation contour of the topography. My route is in red, and I've pointed out some of the cities.

I haven’t mentioned the green yet, have I? The heavy winter rains have come much earlier than usual this year. The previous time I flew, back on October 12, it was still summer. It was 91 degrees at Monterey, the air was full of forest fire smoke coming from the northeast, and the hills had a dead, dusty look about them. Northern California is sort of a parched wasteland by the time October comes around. It just so happens that there are a couple of low earth orbiting satellites that cross over the area every couple of days, taking beautiful, high resolution color photos that are then posted on the web. Here’s what the area looked like the previous time I flew:

Burnt, Brown, Hot, and Smokey

The Santa Cruz mountains are a dark green because they're heavily forested with pines, chaparral, oaks and redwoods. But the rest of the state is covered with dead brown weeds on the treeless hills. You can see forest fire smoke blowing over from the northeast.

Lucky me, there’s a beautiful satellite photo taken the exact moment I was over Santa Cruz! Have a look:

Beautiful Emerald Green

Notice how much more green and alive the area looks. If you’ve never seen it before, there is nothing quite like the green hills of California during the rainy season. Well, maybe some parts of Ireland. In early spring the glowing emerald of the hills becomes sprinkled with the orange of California poppies and the purples, blues, and yellows of wildflowers. It’s just phenomenal. So on this flight, in addition to the blue sky filled with luminous streaks of cirrus (visible in the photo), a sparkling ocean, and puffball clouds, I’m also glorying in the view of emerald hills and fields. And, because, the winter rains came so early, I get to see all this green accented with trees that are still aflame with fall colors!

If you look at the photo you can see the very cloud bank that I was above when I did my turn over Santa Cruz, you can see why it looked like unbroken clouds to the eastern horizon when I was over the coast, and you can see the line of clouds over the ridge between Palo Alto and Half Moon Bay. You also see the pretty cirrus clouds that were above me. Coming back up the coast I flew over the Pigeon Point lighthouse (pannable view here). I was prepared to go all the way back up to the highway 92 saddle again if necessary, but I was looking to see if I could find a passage between the clouds to get me back over the Skyline Ridge at 3000 feet, preferably over 2000-foot Windy Hill (pannable views here and here), which is a prominent landmark on the Ridge (it is the only grassy spot on the Bay side of the ridge).

In preparation for crossing the ridge, I stage-cool the engine, one of the tasks that you have to do with these high performance piston engines. If you reduce power too quickly, the engine can sustain damage or reduced life due to the stresses of “shock cooling” the metal. The stage cooling procedure is to reduce the MP by 2”, wait two minutes, and repeat until the MP is down to 18”. 18” is the power setting I’ll want to use to execute a steep descent on the other side of the ridge, cross over Palo Alto, and enter the airport traffic pattern. Any more power than that and I’d be barreling home like an out-of-control meteor. I also listen to the latest ATIS for Palo Alto and copy down the information (the sequence letter now is “Oscar”).

A bit north of abeam Windy Hill, I see a clear passage between a small cloud puff on the left, and a big cloud puff on the right, with nothing but clear skies past the ridge. For legal VFR, I need to maintain at least a 2000-foot lateral separation from all clouds. This notch looks like it’s just about 4000 feet wide. I’m quite alert as I cut through the notch. My biggest worry would be some other plane crossing in front of me from behind the big puffball to the right. Once I cross the ridgeline, I point the nose down into a rapid (about 1000 feet per minute) descent. I call the tower, who clears me for entering the left traffic pattern. As I steer towards the 2-mile-long Stanford Linear Accelerator (SLAC) building, I’m dropping fast, but the ground is dropping even faster. Being back on the civilized side of the ridge, I’m seeing the ritzy homes of Portola Valley, golf courses, small lakes, Highway 280, and the town of Palo Alto. Ahead of me is the Bay, off to my right is Stanford Campus, and along the bay shore I can see the Dumbarton Bridge, to its right, a railroad bridge, and to the right of the railroad bridge, a golf course almost at the edge of the bay. Behind the gold course is the runway.

I meet my goal of crossing SLAC at 2000 feet. I continue toward the railroad bridge, until I intercept the 45 degree course to the left downwind. All of this is happening very quickly after I cross the ridge. For noise reasons, I am not allowed to descend below 1500 feet until crossing highway 101, so I shallow my descent to about 300 feet per minute as I fly over the town of Menlo Park. By now the runway is clearly visible ahead. I do the pre-landing checklist, which includes turning on the landing light and the fuel boost pump, as well as switching to the fullest fuel tank. I’ve got my head on a swivel looking for other planes. It is my goal to be level at 1500 feet, carrying 18” of power a bit before crossing 101. Because the left downwind is just past the freeway and is supposed to be flown at 1000 feet, I’m going to want to have the landing gear down before I descend, so I can use their drag to do a steep descent at a reasonable speed. I need to be below 129 knots of airspeed before I lower the gear (otherwise, damage!). 18” and level puts me at about 125 knots.

Here's how it looks when I'm getting close to the airport (click to enlarge):

Click to Zoom

You can see the golf course and the runway on the right, while higway 101 cuts across the bottom of the picture (note, this picture of the airport, and the other airport picture in Part One, are from Rich Acuff's Palo Alto airport page).

Just before I cross the freeway, I reach for the gear lever donut, pull it towards me to disable the safety, and move it down toward the floor. One of my favorite sounds is the gear coming down! One of my favorite sights is the gear lights turning green! The left main light turns, on, then the right, and a couple of seconds later I feel a satisfying “kick” in the rudder pedals as the nose wheel drops into place and its gear light turns green. Three greens! I won’t be accidentally bellying it in today! Life is good!

Simultaneously, I pull the throttle back to 15”, turn onto the downwind leg to parallel the runway and push the nose down to descend to 1000 feet. When I reach pattern altitude I level off and bring the power back up to 18”. “Trinidad 52JG you’re number three behind a Cessna on the right downwind abeam the yacht harbor.” I look to my left to see where the other two guys are. One plane is on 1 mile final, and I can see the other guy over the Bay on the other side of the runway. When he turns base, I’ll wait for a bit, then I’ll turn base.

Ahead of me, I see 101 stretching off into Silicon Valley, I see Moffett Field, I see Shoreline Park, with its lake and sailboats. My airspeed is about 100 knots. The number two guy turns base. I keep straight and level for awhile to keep separated from him, then I bring my power back to 15”, put in 10 degrees of flaps, and push the nose over to set up about a 300 fpm descent. Now my speed is probably about 95 knots. I turn base, push the mixture and prop controls full forward, where I’ll need them if I have to apply full power for a go around, and then, just before the final turn, I throttle back to 12” and put in full flaps.

I’ve always liked how the Trinidad responds at this moment. When the huge flaps start to swing down to 30 degrees, the plane surges upward as the new lift comes in. At the same time it pitches down. It's like riding a bird of prey that is flaring out its wing feathers, stretching out its talons, and getting ready for the kill. I’m pushed forward a bit in my seat as the airspeed drops due to all the massive drag. The plane also sounds different under these conditions. It sounds like a flying truck! With a little finesse on the yoke and throttle I nail 80 knots just before I line up with the runway (the throttle is back up to 15” again). There are a couple of lights on the side of the runway that help the pilot determine if he’s too high or too low. The rule is: “white above white, your high, red above white, you’re all right, and red above red, you’re dead”. I generally like to see white above white when I straighten out on final, and that is what I’m seeing. I’ve also got a light crosswind from the right, so although I’m moving exactly along an imaginary line extended out from the centerline of the runway, the nose of the plane is pointed a little to the right. I do another reality check. Gear lights are green, prop and mixture are forward. About half a mile out I’ll do this again.

Now we hit the Zen of the thing. My job is to keep the airspeed pegged at 80 knots (faster than this, I use up too much runway, slower than this, the plane is harder to control, and is more subject to the dangers of wind shear and gusts), right on a glide path to the numbers painted on the end of the runway (i.e. ‘31’). If I’m aimed right at the numbers they’ll just hang there in the windscreen getting bigger and bigger, without sliding up the windscreen (meaning I’m undershooting) or down the windscreen (meaning I’m overshooting). I make tiny adjustment to pitch and throttle to achieve this. If I’m too high above the glide slope, I’ll throttle back. The plane will slowly descend onto the right glide slope again at which time I’ll nudge the power back up. If I’m too low, I’ll do the reverse.

Now we get to the part that took 40 hours of initial flight training to perfect. The numbers I’m aiming at are some distance in from the runway threshold. When I get in close enough, I see that the runway threshold is fixin’ to cross under the plane. Now I shift my gaze to the far end of the runway, and slowly and smoothly ease the throttle closed. As I do, the Trinidad starts to drop toward the runway. As it drops in, I’m raising the nose of the plane. In my peripheral vision, I’m seeing the edges of the runway sweeping up on either side of me. It’s a big swooping transition from looking down on the runway to looking down it. This maneuver is called the round-out. It takes hours and hours and hours of practice to learn to do this. You wouldn’t believe what a klutz you feel like learning this! There are all kinds of mistakes you make during the learning process. Rounding out too late, so you darned near punch a hole in the runway with the nose wheel before you pull back on the yoke in a panic, resulting in a bounce. Rounding out too high, resulting in the plane hanging in the air with the airspeed draining away and the plane about to sudenly plunge onto the runway. All sorts of fun.

A successful round-out has the plane skimming over the runway with the nose tilted up, the main gear a couple of feet off the ground, and the throttle completely closed. Now comes the flare. What you don’t want to do is just push the yoke forward to put the plane on the ground. If you do that, you’re contacting the ground when the plane still has plenty of flying speed. Resulting in swerving all over the place because the weight of the plane is not really on the tires, or maybe porpoising, which is a series of bounces that if not squelched immediately can result in some serious damage to the plane (like a busted nose wheel, bent firewall, bent propeller, and a totaled engine).

No, your job is to keep the plane flying for as long as possible. You want there to be no flight left in the thing when it touches down. So you do a maneuver called a flare (hours and hours of training and frustration here, also). As you skim the runway with the throttle off, drag is slowing the plane down. As the plane slows down, the wings are losing lift, and the plane would like to sink to the runway, but you prevent this by increasing back pressure on the yoke and pointing the nose higher. This replaces the lost lift by increasing the angle of attack. The higher angle of attack results in more drag which results in more slowing, so you raise the nose some more, and the process repeats. Finally, you’ve got the nose pointed pretty high with the yoke pulled pretty far back. The plane has slowed way down, the stall warning horn goes off, the airflow starts to separate from the top of the wing, and suddenly the plane, all on its own, sinks that last foot or so to the runway. “GAJINK!” go the mains as you touch down. The nose wheel comes down soon after. With the nose wheel down, you’re at a very low angle of attack, and you’re below stall speed, so the wings are not generating much lift (they’re not stalled anymore, but there’s not enough airspeed to do anything with). You are now a ground vehicle again, steering with your feet.

Of course, crosswinds, gusts, and thermals on the runway greatly complicate the picture…Hours and hours of training!

I’m very satisfied with my landing. Once all the wheels are down, I retract the flaps in order to reduce residual lift even more and get maximum weight onto the tires. Carefully and slowly I start to increase pressure on the foot brakes, and as I do this I pull the yoke all the way back (this takes weight off the nose wheel and puts it on the mains where the brakes are). The Trinidad’s tires are a bit small for a plane of that size, making them very easy to skid. I’ve learned how to handle braking the hard way. I slow down enough to make it off the runway at the second taxiway.

Tower switches me to Ground frequency, and I’m given permission to taxi back to Delta row. I do the after landing checklist, turning off the transponder, fuel pump, and landing light, as well as resetting to takeoff trim for rudder and pitch. I also unlatch my door in order to get some ventilation from that big three bladed fan up front.

I stop the plane one spot past its tie down (this gives me room to push it back and steer it into its spot). I convert it back into a big inanimate object by switching off the avionics, pulling the mixture control to cutoff (this starves the engine of fuel after which it promptly quits), and turning off the magnetos and master switches. After noting the engine stop time (looks like I’ll be logging 1.4 hours, of which 45 minutes was the joyride to Santa Cruz and back), I open up my gull wing door, take off my headset, and to the sound of the instrument gyros spinning down, I climb back out into the real world. There’s a gentle breeze, and it’s warmed up since I left. Skyline ridge is visible in the distance, just part of the scenery again.

I’m feeling kick-ass and life is good!

A few years ago, a friend of mine was working as an advertising salesman for a weekly alternative paper. He came up with a clever idea, which he pitched to a local high-end motorcycle rental business. They placed an ad in the mental health and counseling services section of the classifieds, which said “There’s nothing wrong with you that two hours on a Harley can’t fix!” They got a great response.

It works that way with airplanes, too…

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