September 09, 2010

Not A Good Sign

There's a large column of smoke rising up in front of us somewhere in the distance across the Bay as we drive through Alameda. We're heading towards Oakland Airport (KOAK) for a short VFR fun flight; my passengers are N. (a colleague from work) and his girlfriend C., neither of whom have flown in small aeroplanes before (they're English (and I'm mostly British, dammit) so it's spelt that way just this once). At this stage and from this distance it looks like someone's burning industrial trash or something, or it's a brush fire in the hills, but I can't help mordantly joking it's probably a plane gone off the end of the runway at San Francisco (it's that British sense of humour, I guess). A few minutes later it's looking pretty serious; it's rising up a couple of thousand feet and spreading horizontally maybe a couple of miles at the top of the usual inversion. It's dark brown, and looks menacing and sinister. I start thinking it may actually be a plane crash — from here the smoke looks to be rising from just under the departure end of KSFO. Not a good sign. My passengers make nervous jokes about it; I point out that we see columns of smoke like that a fair bit around here, and that it's probably a small brush fire. These things happen in California.

We can't see the smoke from the ground while preflighting and running up the plane at Oakland, and basically forget about it. A local pilot's pushing his 182 back into one of the neighboring hangars, and we talk a while with him — he's just back from Burning Man and spent hours washing the plane trying to get the alkali salts and dust off the exterior (I don't envy him that job — one of the clubs I used to belong to basically banned their planes from going to Burning Man because of the dust, which clings tenaciously and corrodes very quickly…). N. and C. learn about the basics of clambering into and back out of our little 172, and how to use the intercom and headsets, and seem fine with the idea of trusting their lives to me and the plane. I think (like me) they're both nerds enough to be impressed by the G1000 system and the way it all works together. We get in, talk to Ground, request the Bay Tour, and take off after the runup off runway 27R. And there it is again — much larger this time, and looming over the area south of San Francisco (South City or San Bruno(ish)), with clearly visible flames at the base. It's not in an industrial neighborhood, so it's probably some sort of major house fire or something. I can't shake the idea that it's a plane gone in off KSFO — it's in just the right place for an errant departure or arrival.

Immediately we're switched to NorCal from Oakland Tower someone on-air asks the controller what the hell that smoke is — the controller responds with something about a burst gas main, and it all seems a lot less worrisome as we potter on towards the Bay Bridge, Alcatraz, Angel Island, the Golden Gate, etc., in perfect California weather. If it weren't for the periodic requests on air by planes coming on-frequency for information about the spreading smoke and flames, we'd probably forget the thing — there's just too much to see elsewhere, and my passengers are enjoying the view.

We circle the Golden Gate a couple of times, then head off towards Napa (KAPC) so we can swap seats — N.'s done his bit of flying and now C. wants to sit in the front. The landing at Napa's fun — it's getting dark and it's Just Another Boring Bay Area Sunset all around us — and Napa's empty and quiet. We stop at the runup area off runway 24 and C. gets in the front. We depart 24 out towards San Pablo Bay, and once we've departed Napa's airspace I let C. fly for maybe fifteen minutes. She enjoys it (more so than N.), and we do a bunch of turns and mild maneuvers in the darkness over the bay as she gets the feel for it all. She seems to enjoy this a lot, but we have to return to Oakland after about twenty minutes. I take the plane back and call NorCal.

And sure enough, within a minute, someone asks on-frequency what all the flames and smoke off San Francisco are all about… in the darkness, we've basically forgotten it all. We get the standard "Temple 2,5000, right downwind 27R" VFR instructions, and in the magic of flying above the lights of Richmond, Berkeley, Oakland, and other sundry places we forget it again. On final for 27R C. looks at the flashing lights and the runway lighting and says quietly "it's like a video game, isn't it…". It is. We land smoothly and taxi off to Kaiser to get fuel; over on 27L a Coast Guard helicopter is practicing lights-off short approaches and landings; there's a steady stream of light aircraft and freighters moving across the ground and in the air, visible mostly as just flashing abstract patterns. The whole airport often feels like a video game at this point. A few minutes later we're shutting down and hangaring the plane. N. and C. seem to have enjoyed the whole thing, and I got a fun VFR flight between the IFR workouts (which I don't seem to blog as much as I used to).

* * *

Hours later, back home, I can't help turning on the TV to see what the fire (which I'd mentally written off as fairly minor, if spectacular) was really all about. Not that minor at all: several deaths, large parts of a whole neighborhood up in flames. Not good news.

1 comment:

ETRPA Exposed! said...

Attention CA Voters.
Defeat the aviator-hater politicians!