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Nov 15

Inching towards a license to fly

Still inching along towards getting my private pilot license. The weather hasn’t been cooperating lately, and there was a stretch of about 6 weeks where I only flew once. I’m currently sitting on about 55 hours of flying, which is about average for the stage I’m at. It’s definitely taken longer than I thought it would, given that I started in mid-March.

I took the private pilot knowledge test a couple weeks ago. It’s a computer-administered test. 60 multiple choice questions over 150 minutes. There’s an outline book you use to study it, and you can get through it in a couple weekends. Compared to the MBE for the bar exam (200 multiple choice questions over 6 hours), this one was a piece of cake. Took me 60 minutes for a 97%, but I think if you eyeball the questions requiring chart reading and calculation and make educated guesses, you should be able to get through the whole thing with a passing grade in under 40 minutes. Not that a pilot wants to just scrape by on a test like this – the main person that’s going to lose out if they don’t actually know the materials is the pilot.

KPAO-KSTS-KPAO: 7.00pm Thursday 11/19 (3.1 hours) – 824LB

Earlier this week, I met my night flying requirements. Before you can take the checkride (the practical test that’s the final hurdle to getting a license), you have to clock 3 hours of night flying, including a cross-country flight of at least 100 nautical miles. You also have to perform 10 full stop landings at night.

John was kind enough to accommodate my request to fly north up to Santa Rosa in Sonoma, which would be a much more interesting route than going south to sleepy Salinas (another popular training route). The weather over San Francisco is always a bit iffy, but fortunately the weather held and we had a beautiful calm, clear night under a waxing quarter moon.

By the time I arrived at the airport after work, it was almost completely dark. John was caught up in rush hour traffic on the 101, so he texted me that he would be a bit late. Preflighting was a challenge, as was seeing around the cockpit. There wasn’t enough gas in the tanks, and fuel service had closed for the day, so we had to taxi over to the fuel island where I got my first chance to refuel a plane. It’s almost exactly like refueling a car, except that you first need to ground the plane with a metal cable, there are two tanks to fill, and there’s no auto-shutoff valve so you have to watch the tank closely to see when it’s getting full. The Cessna I was flying holds 53 gallons of usable fuel.

With the tanks all full, we were ready to go. The route we plotted would take us into San Francisco’s Class B airspace, up along the 101, over the city, between the Golden Gate and Alcatraz, into North Bay and up to Santa Rosa. On the way back, we would fly via the Skaggs Island VOR and Oakland.

Flying at night was equal parts beautiful and unnerving. Shortly after we took off, we were handed off to San Carlos Airport’s tower and were directed to transition their airspace while keeping the 101 off our right side. Ahead of us, two trickling streams of white and red – El Camino Real on the left and the 101 on the right – traced their way up the Peninsula through the glistening city lights.  On the right we could see the black surface of the bay waters, framed by the lights of East Bay towns flickering in the haze. On the left, city lights extended for a short distance before abruptly terminating in an inky darkness. The foothills were there, but it was disconcertingly impossible to see them.

The night both sharpens and hides. While during the day other aircraft are difficult to see – beyond 3 miles, it’s difficult to spot anything other than large jet airliners – at night the distractions and background fades away, leaving just the moving flashes of airline strobe lights. Traffic becomes less of a concern, and focus turns more to “terrain avoidance” and hoping that there isn’t a stray cloud right in front of you.

San Carlos Tower handed us off to San Francisco Airport’s tower and, for the first time, I got to speak with the same people that speak everyday to the airline pilots who take us to lands much farther than Sonoma.

“San Francisco Tower, Skyhawk 824LB, Level 1500.”

SFO Tower cleared us into their airspace and then went back to directing the big jets. “United 455, San Francisco Tower, Wind 290 at 5, Runway 28L, cleared to land.” Off our right side, we watched as pairs of airlines landed on the twin runways of 28L and 28R, while pairs took off on 1L and 1R, alternating in a graceful aeronautical choreography. “American 218, Wind 290 at 6, Runway 1L, cleared for take off.” Two points of light, Skywest 312W and American 218, started crawling down the runway, followed by a small shift in angle indicating that they had become airborne.

“Cessna 4LB, fly to the control tower and then make one left 360.” They wanted us to make a circle to create some spacing for the jets that were taking off. I pointed the plane directly at San Francisco airport, flew overhead, and then started my left turn, 1500 feet above the ground. We had an amazing view of the airport.

“Tighten up the turn a little bit,” John said, as the plane pointed towards the foothills, still cloaked in blackness.

With the turn completed, we resumed our course and flew over the city, the Golden Gate and Bay Bridge extending like arms from downtown San Francisco. Then we were in North Bay, with the city lights rapidly fading behind us, and the terrain rapidly becoming more rugged and less populated. It felt like we were leaving civilization – and more so when we were handed over to Oakland Center.

Airspace is carved up into different pieces for air traffic control to manage. Generally, the busier the airspace, the smaller the chunk that gets sliced off for an air traffic control facility to handle. Airport towers deal with the areas immediately surrounding the airport (and potentially neighboring untowered airports) and Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facilities can control airspace spanning thousands of square miles around them. Oakland Center, the callsign for the Oakland Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC), is responsible for millions of square miles of coverage – a staggering amount of almost 10% of the Earth’s surface area, mostly over the Pacific Ocean. It spends the majority of its time directing jet traffic at altitudes where even the tallest mountains don’t reach.

It is not unusual, but it is relatively uncommon for an ARTCC to be watching over a small Cessna crawling up the California coast at 6,500 feet. It was just an indication of how relatively remote things were even a short distance north of a major world city.

Mount Tamalpais was supposed to be off our left side but, without any lights, land, sea and sky had merged into an inscrutable void. Ahead of us, small islands of lights – the towns of Novato, Petaluma, and Santa Rosa – speckled in the void as beacons to our destination.

By the time we were about 25 miles out from Santa Rosa Airport, Oakland Center told us that the airport tower had closed for the night and then terminated our radar services, meaning that they were no longer tracking us. We were alone in the night.

At night, airports can sometimes be difficult to make out among the other city lights, but Santa Rosa airport was pretty easy to see. A slowly rotating green and white light beacon marked the airport. The airport had what’s called pilot controlled lighting. You tune your radio into the airport’s frequency, press your microphone button several times and then, magically, the runway illuminates, emblazoned with a frame of light. There’s a certain sense of satisfaction that comes with being able to press a button at a distance of 10 miles and turning on a whole bunch of bright lights.

We landed at Santa Rosa and then returned to Palo Alto Airport without incident. Landing at night was not as difficult as I thought it would be and, after I had dutifully made ten landings, we called it a night. This was the longest flight that I had done to date, and although it was tiring (especially after a workday on which someone had decided to schedule a 7.30am meeting), it was one of the most fun flights I’ve had.

So, what do I have left to do? I have a couple hours of solo flying to complete, as well as an hour or so of hoodwork, and then it’s all down to preparing for the checkride. Winter is coming and with it, if you believe the meteorologists, the rains, so hopefully I can get it done before they hit.

  1:46pm  •  Travel  •   •  Tweet This  •  Add a comment

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