Would you fly with this man?
My father-in-law, Mel, and his wife, Lilla, were in town for the month of January and wanted to spend a couple days in the Bay area. I offered to fly them up and, even faced with a slightly nervous travel companion (Lilla) and a two-and-a-half hour journey, Mel agreed.
I tried to make other plans for the time up there, so I wasn’t just an air taxi, but my cousin was going to be in SoCal for the day and my friend in Atherton was having lunch with someone from even further out of town. I tentatively planned to have lunch by myself at Half Moon Bay. The diner gets good reviews and I love that part of the coast.
The weather was meant to be beautiful all the way up the coast. The arctic jet stream delivering colder than usual temperatures was being forced off shore by high pressure. It was clear down here in Santa Monica and meant to be clear in the Bay area by 9am. We would be flying up to CCR, Buchanan Field (Concord, CA), which was ten minutes from Walnut Creek where Mel and Lilla were due for lunch.
I sent Mel the information about FBO and he had them arrange a rental car. He said they were pleasant to deal with, which has been my experience. General Aviation is a very small community and people are very friendly.
They planned to come back down on a commercial flight, so they took a taxi to the little Santa Monica airport. I explained how they could walk out onto the observation deck to see the planes, and that if I wasn’t there waiting I would be there shortly. I just needed to taxi from my tie-down on one side of the airport, across the runway and to the transient parking area.
Just as I was getting the cover off of the plane Mel called to say they were inside the pilots’ lounge because it was so cold out, and they would be waiting for me. I did my usual careful pre-flight inspection and taxied over. I helped them in with their bags (and joked about checking luggage), and then helped them get comfortable. It was cold enough that keeping a jacket on seemed more comfortable, but I knew eventually we would be wriggling out of them.
Lilla sat in back and Mel sat up front. I explained how the headsets worked, and made sure we could all hear one another. The evening before I had explained how turbulence, when the airplane got bumped around, was just like waves on the ocean: it makes the ride less comfortable, but it doesn’t mean we are going to sink.
It was a gorgeous day and there was only a little wind aloft, less than ten knots in most places. The Central Valley can get bumpy if there is more than twenty knots up high, so I planned a coastal route, flying up to Santa Barbara, then to San Luis Obispo, Monterey, San Jose and on around the edge of the Bay to Concord.
We rolled down the runway and took off. The Pacific glittered under us, lapping against the sandy shore as we turned right to follow it north. I spoke to SoCal and then explained how we were now under their watchful eye. I climbed to eighty-five hundred feet over Ventura and leveled out. We watched the Santa Barbara Mountains come up on our right before we turned over the Santa Barbara airport. The winds aloft were lower than forecast, so I decided that I could head north sooner, which meant a turn inland.
Soon after we crossed the San Marcus VOR along the ridge of those mountains, Mel’s head nodded a few times and he fell asleep for a forty-five minute nap. I pressed the button on the audio panel so that we were isolated from his headset. Lilla and I talked about the view, the land below, and flying while Mel snoozed. She said, “I guess Mel’s pretty comfortable with your piloting skills. I mean, he clearly isn’t worried at all.”
Mel woke up as we were flying over San Luis Obispo. I pointed out the edge of Hearst’s land, even though we couldn’t see the castle itself. I showed them how I was continually checking the weather up at the airport we were flying to. It showed LIFR, which means Low Instrument Flight Rules, a sign that the weather at that airport was very unfriendly. It appeared, checking other nearby airports, that a fogbank had rolled into the little valley and was sitting on our airport. This was considerably worse than what was projected just a couple hours before, when I picked up my detailed weather briefing.
Fog is notoriously difficult to predict.
I explained the problem and said that as we got closer I would make a decision about whether to try to land there or just stop at a nearby field that was not fogged in and wait a bit. I had understanding passengers. When we were more than an hour away the fog was so low on the destination runway that it was below the minimums for the instrument approaches into the airport.
When we were about forty minutes away, the fog lifted some. I spoke to the NorCal controller to pick up an instrument clearance into CCR. He read it back to me, had me turn further northeast, and had me drop five hundred feet to an appropriate IFR altitude. The air was smooth and the autopilot was doing a fine job holding the heading and altitude. I explained to Mel and Lilla that we were now under the true “control” of Air Traffic Control and that we would be vectored around a bit to be sequenced to land.
I asked NorCal which approach to expect at Concord. He checked and said it would be the VOR-A approach. I opened my book of approach plates and went through the important information on the page. The advance avionics in the plane (the Garmin G1000) has all of the approaches loaded in. So I also told the plane what approach we would be flying, so it could steer us along the path while I dropped us down to the appropriate altitudes.
I was handed off to a Travis controller. At the time I didn’t know it, but this was a military controller. He vectored me a couple times and then said that I was cleared for the LDA approach. “Uh, NorCal said they were using the VOR alpha approach.” He sounded surprised. Oh, okay, if that’s what they said, then fly that. Since he sounded unsure I flew the path of the approach but I didn’t start my descent, until I was sure of the terrain. A few minutes later, he handed me off to the tower.
“N971RD you are cleared for the LDA approach to runway one niner.”
“The previous controller cleared us for the VOR alpha approach, which is what we are on.” At this point I was not in the clouds, just skimming along the bottom of them and was just dealing with severely reduced forward visibility. I could see the ground below us as we descended and, because of the ten inch diagonal screen on the moving map, I knew where the airport was. I started a cautious descent.
“Well, he shouldn’t have, we’re using the LDA to one niner right. Uh, just continue your approach. Report the outer marker.”
I reported my position in minutes to the next fix. The tower said I was cleared to land, but questioned “can you make it down from there?” I realized I was a little high as I spotted the beginning of the runway. Okay, I was several hundred feet, maybe even a thousand feet, high. Now I could see the entire airport and I asked the tower if I could circle to land on a different runway (winds were calm, there was a crossing runway). They said that if I couldn’t make it down to land I would have to go missed. (That means flying over the runway, climbing back up and circling around the hill for another try.) I said I could make it.
It’s a runway a mile long. I need a fifth of it to land. Although it is a little disconcerting for the passengers, I put the plane into a slip. That means I twisted it so that we slid sideways through the air. It slowed us down and dropped us toward the runway faster than usual. I swallowed to clear my ears and hoped Mel and Lilla’s ears aren’t too uncomfortable. We came over the fence a couple hundred feet up. Over the numbers I was nearly to the runway and I made a smooth touchdown just a little past the thousand foot markers.
I saw that there were charter jets lined up to leave, so in my haste to get off the runway I pulled off to the right. The tower asked me where I was parking and I said Stirling Aviation. The controller seemed to sigh and said, “Can you turn around on the taxiway and proceed across the runway to parking?” I could, and we did.
I apologized to my passengers for my somewhat unorthodox landing. Lilla said it was a great landing, that she could hear the confusion between the controllers and thought I had done a masterful job getting us onto the ground. As we rolled up to the FBO a lineman came out with waving hands and parked us where we needed to be. I helped Mel and Lilla out, gathered their luggage and brought them inside. They both seemed very happy with the flight, although I was still a little unsettled from what seemed like a lack of coordination between the people who are meant to assist me in getting back on the ground.
I helped them into their rental car and waved goodbye. I went inside to get some snacks for the return flight (too many beverages, I had to land for the restroom in Santa Ynez). When I picked up my clearance from the tower they had me fly the Kanan Two departure procedure. I was glad this was a part of my instrument training, because I was able to find the description of it in my book of instrument procedures and load it into the G1000. I followed it as I took off, even though visibility was good enough that I was really flying VFR.
When I got home I was reading the Aviation Mentor blog I read. He’s a Bay area pilot so I asked in the comment section about the poor coordination. You can go to his pages to read it (scroll down to the comments to see where I write in), but including in his comments was:
First off, Travis Approach controllers are military controllers and many of them are “in training.” It’s not uncommon to get a slam-dunk vector into Concord but I think it’s more a reflection of the controllers’ lack of skill than anything else. […] The coordination between Concord tower and Travis is, in my years of experience, sometimes excellent, usually mediocre, and on rare occasions it’s downright awful (and dangerous). […] The poor coordination that you experienced between Travis Approach and Concord Tower happens all too frequently. […] I could tell you about my firsthand experiences with poor coordination between CCR tower and Travis that would curl your hair!
I felt better after that and now I will be a little more skeptical of the controllers. We weren’t in solid clouds, it didn’t end badly, and my equipment makes it so much easier to remain entirely aware of the situation, but until then I had nothing but flawless assistance from the people on the other side of the radio.