Being able to pilot an aircraft is always a privilege. Being able to wake up, grab a cup of coffee, and look at a map to figure out where you want to fly that day is priceless. Yesterday, when I awoke I thought about taking a quick flight down to Fresno in the afternoon. Earlier in the week, I reserved an Archer N3576J (known around the flying club as Rudolph due to its bright red nose cone) from 1-5p Saturday afternoon. After completing my first 5K run in the morning with Kaitlyn and friends along the Mountain View Shoreline, I stopped off at Peet’s Coffee in Palo Alto to do some preflight planning.
Though the original forecast called for haze and 4 mile visibility in Fresno up to 1pm, by 1pm the weather hadn’t changed. Fresno is about 125nm from Palo Alto and is scheduled as about a 1hr flight in the Archer. Yet, even though the weather in much of the entire state of California was perfect (clear and minimal, if any, winds), I didn’t feel like potentially dealing with reduced visibilty in the Fresno area. So I sat with my decaf vanilla cappucino on the patio of Peet’s with map in hand desperately trying to figure out that perfect spot to fly to for the day.
Bradley (my roommate, sometimes first officer and sometimes captain depending on who’s flying) decided to tag along with me. He wanted to use the time test out ForeFlight which he’d just purchased on his iPad. He met me at Peet’s and once I told him of my concern with Fresno, he suggested Columbia (O22). Columbia is about 98nm from Palo Alto and in the Sierra Nevada Foothills. Columbia is known for tricky winds and is surrounded by trees. That said, since I’d be flying a different Archer for the first time (and I hadn’t flown in over 5 weeks since my trip to Sacramento with Kaitlyn), I wasn’t comfortable flying into Columbia. So I sat with the map and debated whether to fly to Monterey, Merced, Stockton, Modesto, or even Harris Ranch. I eventually decided to make the most of the day by flying out towards the Monterey Peninsula but flying into a couple of airports I hadn’t landed at before – Watsonville & Salinas.
Lo and behold, N3576J became unavailable by the time I reviewed the squawks while at Peet’s. Apparently someone flew it earlier in the morning and reported an abnormal condition – an oil covered cowling after the short flight. Rather than deal with a potential problem, I decided to switch planes and fly a Warrior (N4352G), which would end up saving me a few bucks anyway. Plus I’d flown N4352G a couple of times earlier this year on flights to Santa Rosa (STS) and a Bay Tour flight with friends.
Brad and I arrived at the airport a few minutes before 2pm, performed a quick but thorough preflight check, and then I took a few minutes to contact Flight Service (FSS). With my iPhone, I can do about 80-90% of my flight planning for local trips, yet I always like to call FSS for an abbreviated briefing of any Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs), Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs), and Pilot Reports (PIREPs). There were no TFRs, a few negligible NOTAMs, but a some interesting PIREPs. Though the weather was unbelievably amazing, there were some pesky areas of reported moderate to severe turbulence near mountain ridges. Those reports were helpful given our route, which would take us over San Jose through the Santa Clara Valley over South County Airport (E16), then a right turn west towards Watsonville (WVI). The flight from E16 to Watsonville involved crossing over a ridge of about 2500-3000ft. So I chose to fly a route at 4500ft to hopefully give us enough altitude to fly above any potential turbulence.
Apparently, everyone thought it was a good afternoon to fly because the runup area at PAO was overflowing with aircraft. When I initially arrived there were about 7 planes in the runup (stacked) and 3-4 planes in the pattern. At one point, the ground controller radioed something to the effect of, "ok, there are too many people trying to talk. Everybody just stop and be quiet." Not surprisingly but painful to the wallet, we spent the first 0.6 hrs of the flight on the ground waiting to take off.
After departing PAO on a left downwind departure, we climbed to 2000 ft before being transitioned over to Moffett Tower and then NorCal Approach over San Jose. Three o’clock in the afternoon must be a pretty quiet time in San Jose airspace because we didn’t hear too much on the radio. We were pretty much cleared to any altitude and direction, so long as we stayed west of SJC. We did encounter a little bit of light chop towards the south side of San Jose but nothing close to the moderate to severe chop that had been reported earlier. We did, however, experience a couple of surprising updrafts and downdrafts ( +/- 200-300 ft) along the way.
Upon reaching E16, we made a right turn direct to WVI. Though WVI is pretty close to the mountain ridge and I was pretty much set up for a straight-in approach to the arriving runway 20, I wanted to say as high as practicable on our flight over the ridge. The last thing I wanted to get was a downdraft without much room for error while flying above the ridge. That said, once I cleared the ridge, I needed to lose altitude pretty quick to setup for landing at WVI. We headed north for a bit and radioed the Unicom traffic frequency that we’d returned for a midfield cross for a left downwind approach into runway 20. Yet upon setting up there were numerous aircraft in the pattern and everyone was entering at 45-degrees. Hence, we altered our approach to flow with everyone else.
My landing into WVI was pretty good. I was a bit fast on final approach but knew that I had plenty of runway (4500ft) to lose energy and settle it down nicely. It felt nice to make a decent landing on my first flight in over 5 weeks. There’s just something settling about the landing process. Even though I may get a bit nervous thinking about it days or hours ahead of time, once I’m in the rhythm of landing, I feel so comfortable and don’t even think about the stress.
The flight to SNS from WVI is pretty short (about 18 nm) and quick. Though I’d overflown SNS numerous times, I’d never landed there. So I wanted to get down and check it out. We departed out of WVI and climbed to 1200 ft before making our turn to the south to overfly the "stacks" and begin our calls to SNS Tower. Given the short flight, we settled on a cruise altitude of 2500 ft and upon reaching it, we picked up the ATIS (airport weather) and then made our call to the Tower. SNS was also pretty quiet that afternoon and I was pretty much cleared to land at about 5 miles out.
On my approach into SNS, I flew a tighter downwind. This ended up making my turn to base pretty much a loop turn to final. I don’t like to increase my flap settings during turns, so I waited until I was setup on final to slow down with full flaps. My final approach into runway 31 at SNS was pretty stable (better than WVI), though I didn’t hold it off a great as I wanted. It was a good landing but a bit harder than I would have liked.
Back Home to PAO
Brad and I had thought about doing an overflight of Monterey Airport (MRY) but given the time, we decided to simply head back to PAO. I checked out the map and did a quick eyeball assessment to see what heading we should fly to direct to E16, and so we departed SNS and turned to a heading of 340. The flight back was slow with groundspeeds of 65kts on climb out to 5500ft and 95kts while in straight and level flight. However, the air was perfectly calm and the views were incredible as the sun began to set over the Monterey Bay and the Santa Cruz Mountains as we arrived back in the SF Bay Area.
The approach into PAO was pretty interesting and something I hadn’t done before. I overflew Moffett at 1500ft and received a transition clearance to PAO Tower. Moffett is about 3-5 miles south of PAO and typically PAO runs traffic down to the Shoreline Ampitheatre when traffic heavy. I called PAO Tower and she cleared me into her airspace, but she didn’t immediately give me a landing clearance. She did give a number 3 clearance to another aircraft in the pattern and told him that he would be behind me. Then there was silence. I was expecting her to radio back to me and let me know that I was number 2, but she didn’t. This probably lasted about 20-30 seconds, but that seems like a long time when you’re about 2 miles from the approach end of the landing runway and traveling at 100kts.
Brad looked over to me and said, "you’re too high!" I told him that I knew that but didn’t want to start my desent until I was cleared for either the approach or landing. I called PAO Tower and requested landing clearance again and that’s when she confirmed that I was, "number 2…now number 1 cleared to land runway 31." There was an aircraft landing in front of me which had just crossed the threshold. At this point, I was "way over white" and I didn’t want to slip it. So instead, I pulled the power back and pushed the nose down. I began to descend rapidly at about 600-700 ft/min and was exceeding 100kts. Ironically, I felt completely comfortable and felt it was more important to lose altitude than airspeed. Once I felt like my sight picture was closer to normal, I raised the nose to bleed off airspeed so that I could put in full flaps. It all worked perfectly and I crossed the threshold at about 15-20 ft and at 60-62kts.
I wish the touchdown would have been a bit smoother but at that point I didn’t care. Brad commented that for not having flown on a more frequent basis that I did pretty good. And just like that, our 2.1 hour beautiful fall afternoon flight had ended. It was great way to spend a day and, like always, I can’t wait until next time. Until then…"keep the dirty side down."