April 30, 2006

Get Out Of Fresno

Prepping the approach....Finally, after six solid weeks of rain-outs and cancelations, a flight (woo hoo!) This time, it's the long-planned (and long-postponed) 160 nm run down to San Luis Obispo (KSBP) with my usual flight-share partner Boyan B. It's all about the mythical (but very real) thousand dollar hamburger (inflation, you know). We'll take one of Cal Air's G1000-equipped 172's; I'll do my leg (there or back, I don't much mind) IFR under the hood (except for the scenic bits :-)), and Boyan will do his leg VFR. The weather around our Hayward (KHWD) home base and the Bay Area in general is perfect — clear late spring weather, barely a cloud in the sky. And San Luis Obispo's a nice friendly scenic little airport with a decent restaurant (the Spirit of San Luis) that Artists 1 and 2 and I visited on our way back from Venice and Santa Monica last year. But there's a hitch (there's always a bloody hitch…).

San Luis Obispo's near enough to the coast that it gets the same sort of regular coastal stratus that we get up here, and while it's unusual for the Bay Area to be clear of it and San Luis Obispo to be socked in, today's the day. And while it's unusual for San Luis Obispo and nearby airports to be below minimums with this stratus, today's also the day: all likely airports in the area— San Luis, Paso Robles, Santa Barbara — are reporting at or below minimums (with Paso Robles reporting 100' and less than a mile visibility for an airport with no precision approaches). San Luis also starts reporting 100', 1 mile visibility (it's getting worse!), so even the ILS isn't going to help me here (and I feel too rusty to want to shoot an ILS to minimums today, especially in a place like San Luis Obispo with some interesting terrain around it). It's the same for all airports along the coast from San Jose south, pretty much all the way to at least LA. So I can't even file Santa Barbara as an alternate; I'll have to file Fresno (KFAT), an hour's flight away inland. We sit and wait a while, suspecting it'll clear down there, or at least get better. But it doesn't — the stratus just clings to the region, and the forecast calls for no lifting until well after midday, if at all.

Boyan B. at Hayward.Now what? We can't do San Luis Obispo. We can't do Santa Barbara. We can't even do Arcata, at the other end of the state — it's even worse off. It's just the Bay Area that's free of stratus (a first, in my experience). Plan B? (This sounds familiar…). There isn't one, of course. So we settle on flying to Fresno, where there's allegedly a place to eat in the main terminal. Neither of has actually flown there, so at least it's a new airport. I'll fly out IFR, Boyan will fly back VFR. Fresno's not exactly the most interesting or scenic destination in California (a lot of Californians will say it's one of the least interesting and scenic destinations in California, but I think that's a little unfair), but it's all flying, and if we don't start soon we'll never go.

So I file for Fresno, which is reporting a lot of haze (almost MVFR) but is otherwise hot and cloudless. I don't remember what I filed or got from Deliverance, but in typical NorCal Approach fashion, we probably fly less than 10 nm of what I filed, being cleared direct Clovis VOR (CZQ) a minute or two after we're airborne, and being constantly vectored for traffic on the first 20 nm or so where you cross the approaches into Oakland. I find myself thinking I'm rusty as hell — not so much the raw flying skills (e.g. keeping the plane on course or right-side-up which went OK, if a little roughly at times) but in procedures (I blow a few radio calls, I momentarily misinterpret a chart) and G1000 management (I sit there for a few seconds at one stage thinking "what the hell am I looking at?" after I push the wrong MFD soft key; earlier, on the ground, I had one of those blank moments when I simply couldn't remember how to do some flight plan thing or other; neither incident was a real safety issue, more just a reminder of how irritating the G1000 (and GPS 530) interfaces can be). We do the ILS into Fresno coupled with the autopilot, which goes fine. We notice a bunch of what-look-like F18's (or whatever they are) next to the end of the runway when we're on final.

Prepping the approach....Fresno's dead. It's 11.30 am Sunday and there's nothing moving on the ramp except the Mercury FBO line guy in his golf cart trying to guide us to parking (apparently the airport is digging up and re-arranging the normal transient parking so we have to park at Mercury). We ask him about food. There's a snack bar / coffee shop in the main terminal, but nothing else. We ask them to refuel the plane (shouldn't take more than a dozen gallons), then on the spur of the moment Boyan calls the ATIS number for San Luis Obispo while we're out on the ramp. It's good news — San Luis Obispo isn't VMC, but it's now above minimums, 600' and several miles. This is a real no-brainer: get out of Fresno! We pay for the fuel, then file for San Luis Obispo, the long way around (FRESNO5.CZQ PXN ROM PRB, from memory). We'll ask direct PRB when we talk to either Fresno Approach or Oakland Center.

As we're standing next to 04E on the ramp we hear and then see two of the F18's taking off. I'm used to the sound of military jets at reasonably close quarters, but this was louder than usual, absolutely ear-splitting: they pass by, gear up, not more than 50' off the runway, at what looks to be about 200 knots, then depart almost vertically into the murk just over the opposite numbers. Cool! I want to do that when I grow up. A minute or so later they land and then depart again in a haze of noise, that familiar mixture of low roar and high shriek. Unfortunately, they do this while I'm talking to FSS on my phone, trying to file. When she can finally hear me again, the specialist on the other end of the line asks whether I'm standing right in front of a DC8 or something. I deadpan that no, it's just a little 172 (Noise? what Noise?!). She one-ups me by drily saying something like "that's the jet-equipped 172, right?!". For once I'm left short of a snappy response and confess that we're watching the F18's doing another low pass. "Not much else happening in Fresno", I say. "Yeah, I think I'd rather be in San Luis" she says. Time to depart….

As expected we get direct Paso Robles VOR (PRB) from Oakland Center about ten minutes after departure, a good short cut on the victor airways routing we'd been given by Deliverance. Unfortunately, when I'd asked Fresno Departure earlier for Paso Robles direct, the controller responded with "Unable Paso Robles direct", which I heard as "when able, Paso Robles direct", a form of clearance or instruction that's fairly common around here (usually with an initial vector, though). I read it back my way and she catches the error, luckily enough. Not sure what to think of this — it was partly due to the really crappy sound we were getting from Fresno Approach's transmitter (everyone else was coming in loud and clear) and partly due to my expectations. I should have expected not to get it — Oakland Center would be the right place to ask for this, but I thought I'd try anyway — but for some reason I was being more optimistic than usual.

On the ramp at KSBPWe're instructed to climb and maintain 7000', which as Oakland tells us is the wrong altitude for this direction but that it'll help keep us clear of some other traffic he's managing. He promises higher or lower in a few minutes, but we spend the entire en-route sections at the "wrong" altitude. No big deal.

What is something of a big deal is the engine emergency we hear on air near Paso Robles. A small Cherokee under flight following calls Center with unspecified engine problems and asks Center for vectors to the nearest airport. He's vectored towards a small private rural airport the controller tells him is about five miles dead ahead of his location, and is also advised that Paso Robles airport is a further five miles or so in the same direction (I don't remember the actual details here). We listen as the pilot talks a bit more to Center, asking for details of the strip. After a few minutes the pilot says his engine's now "doing OK", but he's heading straight for Paso Robles for an immediate landing there. Wise move.

Strangely enough, when John and I flew Lou's Arrow down to Santa Barbara a few years ago we heard a similar emergency at almost exactly the same place. Hmmm. At least both incidents ended OK (as far as I know).

The ILS into San Luis Obispo must be visually breathtaking — you come in over the Coastal Range and Morro Bay and down through a sort-of valley with short sharp volcanic peaks and outcrops haphazardly strewn around below and to each side; plus, there's usually a lot of low stratus around creeping over and between the peaks. And that's the way it looks today: really beautiful. Or so I'm told — but I'm under the Cone Of Stupidity and miss most of it, doing the ILS to circling minimums and then finally seeing it all as I look up and circle for runway 29. We land uneventfully and taxi to the restaurant parking area. We're both really really hungry by now.

Lunch at the Spirit Of San Luis is predictably pretty good — I have the fish and chips and a decent cheesake, which does the job; Boyan has a hamburger — and after a bunch of coffee we stagger out to the plane and preflight. No need for fuel — we left Fresno with 50 gallons and we average about 8 GPH — so we depart VFR with flight following back to Hayward, with Boyan in the left seat. The flight back is uneventful but — as always in California — very scenic, and after the rainiest wet season in decades the ground is unnaturally green and soft-looking from 4,500'.

Coming back into the Bay Area we start getting TIS traffic displays on the G1000, and then a sporadic but really annoying series of "TRAFFIC!" calls on the intercom as planes pass over and under us on the approaches into San Jose and other airports (as is pretty standard for 'round here). As I've complained before, you can't turn this off, and you miss radio calls, or get distracted from other tasks, regardless of whether you already know about the traffic or not. This continues on and off all the way to Hayward. There are times when I'd like to take a surgical knife to certain parts of the G1000 anatomy….

The Comanche at Hayward

Back at Hayward there's a nicely-maintained old Piper Comanche on the ramp next to the Cal Air club offices. I'm somewhat partial to Comanches because when I was a kid in Australia it was one of the small GA planes that I got to fly in (along with a Cherokee a friend of the family owned). Sitting there on the tarmac it brings back memories of overflying western Sydney or the Central Coast north of Woy Woy and Gosford all those billions of years ago.


Well, the hamburger didn't end up costing us anywhere near a thousand dollars, but it's the thought that counts, no? It's a shame about Fresno, but I log two more approaches and a bunch of time under the hood, and even the Fresno bits were flying.

Home sweet home....


SloppyPilot said...

Nice post Hamish, glad to see your back in the air. I havn't been to San Luis by air, adding it to my go to list.

My family lived in Fresno from 69-79 and it was a decent enough place to grow up in, but it was also the the place you leave to go somewhere more interesting.

As far as the jets, that's the Air National Guard base. Last I recall they are flying F-16's.
Loud enough birds, but back in the 70's they were flying F-106's. Those were LOUD. Evey once in a while they wold do an afternoon scramble, class would stop for a good 10 minutes because of the noise.

Hamish said...

David -- I didn't know you were from Fresno! I actually rather like the Central Valley, so Fresno and Bakersfield have even been vacation destinations for me, especially when doing photo trips. Anyway, yes, I assumed the fighters were CANG, but they weren't F16's as far as I could tell -- they had two engines. I dunno....

harrier said...

You fly with cal airways right? What do you think of it there? I just moved up from the beautiful town of San Josey (cough cough) where I was flying out of Reid. I live 10 minutes from Hayward and gotta figure out where to fly from and where to instruct with, also. Gotta get teaching again, life is too dull when someone isn't trying to kill me.

Great blog by the way! I found it from http://rapp.org.

Hamish said...

Harrier -- thanks for the comments. Yes, I fly with Cal Airways, and have done now for about six months, i.e. not for very long. I like them a lot -- well-maintained planes, a good choice of planes, etc., and relatively easy to get to. I miss Oakland as an airport, but Hayward's fine, probably a lot like RHV. As for what it'd be like to instruct there, John over at Freight Dog Tales would be a good person to ask...