Cell phone, wallet, laptop, helmet, keys; check. My pre-commute checklist that I run through before leaving the house in the morning. I unlocked my bike, bid farewell to the dog in the backyard and pedalled towards the train station.
The night prior, Thursday, I couldn’t keep my eyes open. The tired, dryness stinging my eyes as I poured over my sectional charts, trying to mentally process and digest all the thinly drawn lines, bisecting clusters of tiny glyphs indicating the landmarks of navigational merit to a pilot.
It was about 8:30 in the morning and I had already been up working for an hour and a half, finishing my flight plan for the night flight planned. My instructor and I needed to fly a night cross-country, and decided to bring our wives along and make a trip out of it.
This was going to be a long day.
After leaving work early, EC drove the two of us to Hayward. From the right car seat I filed my flight plan, got a current weather briefing, and did my final caclulations.
As we drove into Hayward, the clouds hung low over the city, my concern about the feasibility of our flight rose.
At the California Airways office, my instructor and I reviewed my flight log, route of flight and the weather. Current conditions indicated overcast at 1,100ft, still flyable but I was uneasy about it. Since EC and I drove down from the north, we did know that the clouds hung low over Oakland, and then it was fairly clear further north.
We decided to proceed with the flight and drove out to the flight line.
The plane for the evening would be N296ME, the one 172SP in the fleet. A more modern, powerful Cessna 172 with 16 more gallons of fuel, 20 more horsepower, and probably 15 fewer years of service.
The wives stayed in the car while we preflighted in the dark.
With that complete, we piled into Mike-Echo under a mat of darkness. The internals of the plane wasn’t too unfamiliar to me, I had actually flown a 172SP while on my trip to florida. Like that plane, this one was fuel-injected and had a different starting procedure then the other 172s.
Coughing alive, Mike-Echo was ready to go, as were we.
“Hayward Ground, Two-Niner-Six Mike-Echo at the green ramp, with Charlie, like to taxi to 28L.” After a pause, I chimed back in “Hayward Ground, we’d also like to transition through Oakland to Napa.”
My first mistake of the flight, we wanted to fly through Oakland towards Napa, we didn’t actually want to stop at Napa. After consulting with the right seat, we cleared up the situation, and taxied off to our runway.
The engine humming along, we barreled down the runway with 10 degrees of flaps in to assist getting our heavy ass off the ground. Just like the 172SP in florida, the trim take-off setting is wrong. We rose from the runway, my instructor calmly commanded “pitch-down”, I obliged, and snuck a look at my airspeed indicator which was pointing at around 60 knots.
The correct trim take-off setting, and by correct I mean “won’t put you dangerously close to a departure stall”, for a 172SP seems to be about an inch of nose-down trim.
Pushing the yoke forward, adjusting trim, watching my heading indicator as we ascended towards Oakland and towards that ceiling, my heart rate started to rise.
Around one thousand feet, the view started to get milky. The taxi and landing lights were highlighting the bottom of the clouds for us. Depressing the yoke with sweaty palms, we remained beneath the clouds, I asked “Can I skip writing down the times and everything until we’re clear of this?” referring to my flight log for the cross-country. Right seat reassured me that my first priority is flying the plane, and that I shouldn’t overwork myself with non-critical activities, like performing calculations or jotting down times.
A quick run-through of my cruise checklist, while we pass over the Coliseum in south Oakland, and my eyes are back outside.
Nearing downtown, I’m certain I’m high enough to clear the buildings, but I don’t want to get in trouble or anything, so I turn to the right of them, offering my wife, who’s in the left passenger seat, a great view of downtown lit up.
In turning, I disoriented myself from the highway I was following north. “You see the 80? Let’s follow that.” I start following a highway, which misled me in the direction of the Bay Bridge. With a nudge to turn right, I see the highway I’m supposed to be following, and some clearer skies to climb up into.
“That was quick” I think to myself, navigating low over the city is tricky, and it took me less than 30 seconds to get pointed in the wrong direction. Noted.
Passing abeam Berkeley, the sky is clear, I climb to 2500ft and start picking up more landmarks to navigate northward with.
North of Concord, I am passed over to Travis Approach, and request a frequency change to open up my flight plan. This is the first time my wife has flown with me since my introductory flight last October, and while she doesn’t say anything from the seat behind me, I’m sure she’s suitable impressed at all these skills I’ve spent all our money acquiring.
Flight plan opened, we climb to are cruising altitude of 6,500ft over Vacaville on Victor Airway 195..
Leveling off, my instructor shows me how to use the SP’s auto-pilot feature. With Robo-Plane maintaining heading and altitude, I’m able to relax a bit and start comparing what I’m seeing outside the cockpit to what’s on my chart.
Approaching the city of Willows, I see the airport’s beacon, a good sign. Clicking the mic 7 times, I turn on the runway lighting and the right seat says “I have the runway in sight, do you?”
Uh, no. I see lots of lights, some of them in a line like a runway, but nothing I’m comfortable starting my descent towards. He offers some clues, still nothing. I see the beacon, and I know where the runway probably should be, but I don’t see the damned lights.
We delay our descent, and fly to the right of the field. There it is! Time to start coming down. Trying to keep the runway in sight as we descend, while trying to keep my eyes bouncing inside periodically results in a little bit of a roller-coaster descent for the passengers. I would see the runway outside, and let our descent slip from 500 to 1000+ft per minute, look back inside, notice the VSI, pull back to 200-500ft per minute, then look back outside again.
My wife didn’t know any better, but my instructor’s wife certainly did, but not a peep was uttered from the passenger seats.
I had planned to fly in to runway 34, but the “wind T” was telling me to land the opposite direction on 16. Due to some pilot/instructor confusion which side the pattern would be on, we ended up on the wrong side of the field, entering a modified base at 1100ft, very high.
Since we were so high, the plan changed from landing, to executing a go-around, then entering right traffic, and “doing it right” on the next approach.
During downwind and base legs, I suffered similar inside/outside disorientation resulting in flying too low at various points of the pattern.
Turning final, with no glideslope aids (PAPI/VASI) I was relying on the shape of the runway to indicate how close we were, and when I should flare. Pulling the power all the way out over the threshold, I knew we would be longer than I would land during the day, but better too long than too short.
The landing light faintly illuminated the runway, I maintained the descent attitude and started focusing on the two red dots at the end of the runway to get a sense our height. Approaching the surface, I got suddenly worried about landing flat with an audience and applied some more back-pressure. The stall warning horn started hollering at me, followed by a quiet, gentle chirp of the mains touching down on the runway.
If my wife wasn’t impressed, the right seat certainly was. Unfortunately I couldn’t take credit for it, that felt like more luck than skill. I’ll still take it.
We exit the runway, park, and head in to Nancy’s Airport Cafe for some food.
Bladders empty, bellies full of breakfast and pie, we walked back out to the plane to head home. A full pre-flight and run-up later, we took the runway and ascended into the muggy night-time air.
The planned return route would take us over highways and between a number of different airports with pilot-controlled lighting. I identified a number of airports from the air, their green and white flashing beacon lights easy to see, the taxiway and runway lights I couldn’t make heads or tails of from a distance.
As we flew south, I caught Travis’ distinct military beacon, two whites and a green. For me that would have been enough, but my instructor wanted to light up an airport to positively identify it. Nut Tree near Vacaville was our last chance before we started to enter the bay area. Clicking the mic seven times, I see nothing, again. Our route of flight was close enough to Vacaville that I decided to fly over the airport directly. The stupid airport simply has no runway lights.
While I’m grumbling over the lack of runway lights, my instructor picks up the weather for Hayward. The field is IFR, our approach is going to be instrument, and challenging.
If it were just my wife and I, I would be properly pissed off, since it would mean we would be landing at Livermore. My instructor is both instrument rated, and an instrument instructor, which meant I was getting some instrument time tonight.
A full day of work, a long cross country, capped off with an instrument approach, at night.
Over Concord we picked up our IFR clearance, and I started focusing just on my instruments. We weren’t yet in clouds, but when you’re under an IFR clearance, maintaining altitude and heading is very important.
Southbound over Danville another pilot picks up IFR clearance into Oakland, a Medivac flight, who has obvious priority over our little pleasure flight. The controller vectors us out of the way and puts us in a big box pattern over the east bay, adding another 20-30 minutes onto our flight time.
Still better than landing in Livermore.
Making a right turn over south Oakland, the right seat spots the Medivac flight below us, I look down just in time so see him pass under the left wheel-strut.
Two more right turns and we’re lining up for the approach into Hayward. I’m hyper-focused on my instruments when the landing lights make our descent into the clouds very obvious at 1500ft (I think). In a sea of white, I’m still focused on my instruments, but not nearly focused enough on the HSI, which is indicating how far right and left of the approach we are. The right seat starts “helping” on the controls, which means I’m largely shadowing his inputs.
We keep descending through the white abyss. The clouds are thick, my heart rate quickens.
What was probably all of a minute or two, felt like an eternity.
I start to notice yellow lights below the wheels out of the corner of my eye, but I push myself to keep my eyes on the instruments until we’re fully clear of the clouds.
At 6 or 700ft, we pop out of the bottom of the clouds on a final approach for 28L at Hayward. Without saying a word, my instructor cedes control to me, and I start flying a normal night landing.
Carb heat..oh wait, the SP is fuel injected, skip that item on the checklist, gas, undercarriage, mixture’s rich, prop is there, seatbelts on, clearance received, flaps to 10. I pull the power out further, slow to 80 knots and put the flaps to 20. The wind from the left is beating me up a little bit as I line up on the centerline.
The last bit of power comes out as we cross the displaced threshhold, and I hyperfocus on the red lights at the end of the runway again. Mike-Echo’s stall warning horn starts crying at me again, followed by the mains gentling chirping as we touch the pavement.
My second greaser of the night, luck was certainly still involved, but I’m going to assert the credit on this one.
After parking and shutting down, our respective wives retire to the cars while we tie down and go through the usual post-flight procedures. The Hobbs indicates that we flew for 3.7 hours, a new high-score for me.
Both my instructor and I look and feel exhausted, each working a full day before the flight, then negotiating that thick cloud coverage on the approach into Hayward.
It’s 2 am, there’s a slight mist in the air while he logs the entry into my log book and it hits me how much money I just spent for two eggs, bacon, hashbrowns, an english muffin and a slice of chocolate cream pie.
Departing the airport, I caution my wife that we’ve got a lot of extremely expensive meals like that in our future.