Airborne ass-kickings 07 Dec 2013
vfrpilot aviation flying

We begin our descent towards Santa Rosa, lined up for runway 32 with strong headwinds and a warning of moderate turbulence from the tower.

The wind speed is variable, a fancy way to say “gusting.” The air gusting over the wing is making it somewhat difficult to maintain a proper 500 foot per minute descent.

I’m not thrilled with the weather, but the sky has been gorgeous, and a strong headwind isn’t that much trouble so long as you have plenty of fuel to compensate.

Descending through 3,500ft and something suddenly shoves my tail out to the right. In addition to kicking my tail out, the gust of air pushes us upward. I’ve flown in what is classified as “light-to-moderate” turbulence, but this patch called my bluff. I bank the plane, nose down a little, and politely ask the engine for more power. Entering a climbing left turn, I tell my passengers “we’re not going to Santa Rosa today, sorry”

In the car on the way home after the flight, I went through the flight over and over in my head asking that most fundamental question “did I make the right call to take the flight?”

The weather was scheduled to be windy, my briefer advised me to expecting gusting after lunch, but otherwise the skies were looking great, and except a 20 knot headwind, everything lined up for a chilly, but otherwise reasonable flight.

The air had other plans.

On the way to Santa Rosa, I filed a PIREP from about 4,700ft. We were experiencing light turbulence, but otherwise the 44 knot winds were all we were fighting against. On our return flight, those incredible headwinds became delightful tailwinds, shoving us southeast-bound at nearly 130 knots.

PIREPs filed from turbulence
PIREPs filed (mine is the green "47" one)

As we approached the northern end of the San Francisco Bay, NorCal Approach cleared me to proceed direct to the Coliseum at 2,500 ft. I begin our descent from 5,500. Over Hilltop Mall, NorCal advises me that they’ve received reports of moderate turbulence down the corridor from Oakland to south of Hayward. The skies over Oakland tend to be a little choppy during a good day as the earth heats up, I struggle to imagine what “moderate” means in this case since “moderate” in Santa Rosa sent me packing.

The current conditions at Hayward aren’t too favorable either, higher winds with some gusts close to 20 knots.

I’m a frustrated and stressed from fighting the waves of air with 738VU.

“NorCal Approach, 738VU, you can go ahead and cancel our Charlie clearance, we’re going to divert to the east and fly down by Walnut Creek and Danville”

I turn left towards the San Pablo Resevoir and ponder my options.

Over Danville, I’ve made up my mind. Hayward is not happening right now. I pick up the current conditions at Livermore, which are windy, but not gusty. I can do windy.

“NorCal Approach, Seven-three-eight Victor-uniform, diverting to Livermore.”

I “enter the pattern” at 3500ft, technically a few thousand feet above it, resolving to hold my altitude as long as can. My pilot philosophy whenever I’m in less-than-ideal conditions is always “I can fix too high, I can’t fix too low.”

“Livermore Tower, Seven-three-eight Victor-uniform, I’m going to extend my downwind to lose some altitude and then make a long straight-in approach.”

Tower acknowledges, resequences me, and clears me as a number two for 25R. The big runway. If I’m going to battle this wind, I might need to go long, so I want some extra runway just in case.

Flaps only out to 20 degrees for the long final, I arm wrestle with 8VU’s control column to maintain the proper attitude and my centerline. Less than 40ft from the runway, I level the nose and the headwind helps me bleed off my extra speed. Tap-dancing on the rudder pedals to maintain centerline, the right wheel quietly touches the runway, followed by the left. A landing so gentle, I wasn’t sure I was entirely on the runway until the nose wheel settled.

Airplane shut down and secured, we scurry off into the cold to get something to eat.

On the ground I brief my friends on what happens if the wind doesn’t get any more favorable, explaining that a taxicab is a lot cheaper than tempting fate. That’s one of the benefits of diverting to Livermore, the weather is sufficiently different to be a viable airport to divert to, but close enough to take a cab back to Hayward if necessary.

Brunch conversation predictably meanders through aviation, football and work. All the while, I find myself periodically checking the weather my phone.

Hundred dollar bacon and eggs gurgling around in our stomachs, we make the frigid walk back to the field.

After consulting with Keith (who owns California Airways) and my instructor regarding the current conditions at the field, it looks like in the previous hour Livermore and Hayward had switched places. It was now windy at Hayward, but that was it. Meanwhile Livermore’s conditions had changed such that the wind was 16 knots, gusting to 26!

Fortunately for our adventure, the wind’s direction was straight down the runway.

Livermore to Hayward

Pre-flight and runup complete, we taxi onto the runway, squaring off with the wind. Unafraid of a headwind, 738VU lifts off with a short take-off roll, followed by a bit of a shoving match between me at the wind. Nothing a little dance number on the rudder pedals can’t fix.

The story is largely the same en route to Hayward, holding onto altitude, mashing rudder pedals, and so on. After receiving the clearance for 28R (the short runway), I request 28L to make sure I’ve got enough room to float if necessary and start lining up.

20 degrees of flaps in, I center up and argue with the cross-wind as we descend towards the asphalt. At around 500ft I realize that my glideslope in this headwind is going to put me short of the runway and add some throttle. Descent arrested, we cross Hesperian Blvd, receiving the “Hesperian Bump”, a low-level thermal from a big asphalt intersection right below approach for Hayward, which gives me a short-approach boost every time I land on 28L.

Power comes all the way out, I flare, bleeding off excess energy allowing the wheels to ever-so-gently touch down. Considering my passengers have only seen one other landing of mine, I had to be sufficiently impressed by the landing on their behalf.

After detailing the flight to my wife at home afterwards, I mention that the flight was definitely fun, and full of gorgeous views, but I feel like somebody beat me up.

With what I know now, I would have scrubbed the flight. Presented with the information from this morning, I believe I would make the same decision and still go flying.

Leaving yourself options, and being able to re-evaluate and react to change are skills absolutely required to fly an airplane. METARs and current conditions are historical data, forecasts can be inaccurate and are not comprehensive. At the end of the day it comes down to the pilot, the airplane, the environment and what you decide to do with them.

Clear winter skies are excellent to fly in, so here’s hoping next weekend is smoother.