Growing up one my best friends was Marc Sedaka, whose father is the songwriter and singer of Breaking Up is Hard to Do (and a bunch more hits). Neil became famous when he was young, at nineteen he already had a hit in the Billboard Top Twenty. When Marc and I were in high school Neil wrote his autobiography, “Laughter in the Rain,” and in it related a story that at the time seemed hysterical. He had fallen for a girl in Monticello, New York, in the Catskills (they’ve now been married over sixty years). Since he had just bought a fancy convertible (picture one of those fifties Chevy monsters with all the chrome), he decided to drive it upstate to take Leba to her prom. When they came out of the dance hall after the prom he was upset to see that the hubcaps had been stolen off the car. More distressing, he wasn’t sure if that meant the car was unsafe to drive back to Brooklyn. He had to call his father, a cab driver, to check.
Marc and I thought that was funny, a guy with the ability to buy a fancy car, but so inexperienced he didn’t know that hubcaps were decoration and had nothing to do with the function of the automobile. Flash forward…
The Twinstar is in its new tie down at the base of the tower. I haven’t written properly about getting our new plane, that will have to wait, but I had taken one flight with the ferry pilot (super knowledgable Dick Filbey, with 800 hours in type). I flew him down to Long Beach so that he could fly our Diamondstar to Houston the next morning. Then I flew home solo from Long Beach to Santa Monica and that went well. The next morning, Friday, my friend Susan flew up to Camarillo with me and tolerated half a dozen landings so I could make sure I was safe to fly Dexter up to Oakland that afternoon to see Demetri Martin perform at Berkeley. Susan said I was solid in the plane.
We parked back at Santa Monica and I asked Atlantic to top off the tanks with JetA, the fancy kerosene fuel that the diesel engines enjoy.
I went back home, packed up my bag, checked the mail, locked up the house, and drove down to get Dexter. I signed him out early with the reason “Starving.” While we were stopped for lunch, Atlantic called to say that the fuel guys had started fueling the right side and as soon as they put in any fuel it start dripping out of somewhere, so they stopped. Since I had topped it off at Angel City the day before and had used ten gallons practicing in the morning, that was fine, but I wondered what they were actually seeing.
Staring at the fuel dripping from the wing, and possibly from the right engine, I felt the way Neil Sedaka must have felt in the parking lot of that Monticello dance hall. Confusion, regret, disappointment, embarrassment… but I didn’t have time for any of that. Dexter and I wanted to be in the Bay area instead of here in SoCal. So I hustled our stuff over to Susan’s plane and we flew up in the backup plane. On frequency I told the ground controller about the situation and they said they would call the appropriate people.
I had an instrument clearance filed for the Twinstar, but not for Susan’s plane. I had also lost some time moving stuff, scratching my head about the leaking fuel and switching to a slower plane. It looked pretty nice out there over the Pacific so I took off VFR. (I don’t like the usual IFR routing when I am in a Diamondstar. They want me to fly up over all of the high terrain between the coastal areas and the Owens Valley.)
Susan’s plane has a much nicer autopilot than the KAP140 I am used to. (JFK Jr. and I used the same autopilot.) All I had done for navigation was punch in the first waypoint, the Ventura VOR (VTU). As I turned over the Santa Monica pier I dialed in an altitude under the shelf of LAX’s bravo airspace, activated the navigation to VTU, and engaged the autopilot. I told it to climb at 105 knots, which gave us a brisk vertical-feet-per minute up from sea level. The nice thing is that it will keep the airspeed for the climb, rather than trying to keep a climb rate. So as the air thins and the engine is less efficient, the autopilot will drop the nose a little. You don’t climb as fast to your altitude, but you also don’t wind up having the autopilot pulling the nose too high, stalling the wings, and leaving you plummeting to earth in a stall/spin accident.
SoCal was happy to clear me into the bravo, so I continued the climb to 10,500 feet. As we motored on to VTU and the edge of the bravo I plugged in the rest of the navigation points. The San Marcos VOR (gliding distance to the Santa Barbara airport), then Paso Robles (on an airport), up the Salinas Valley and over Hollister to the Silicon Valley. Mostly flat terrain with a bunch of airports and a lot of people in gliding distance.
We leveled out at 10,500 feet above sea level and I pull the power back a little. We tool along at 138 knots, which is hard to complain about. We have a twelve knot tail wind. Dexter is in the back reading, listening to Eliot Smith, snoozing, occasionally playing on his iPhone.
An hour later as I look ahead near Paso Robles I see that the clouds are closing in. On the XM radar display there is quite a bit of precipitation up around the Bay area. I hear a charter jet going into Paso Robles getting an instrument clearance to land. So I wait until the controller has finished with that guy and key my mike, “Eight-sierra-delta, we were hoping to make it VFR, but it looks like we’ll need an instrument clearance to get into Oakland.” “Roger, eight-sierra-delta, standby.” He came back in two minutes and read me our clearance. I descended to 10,000 feet (IFR flights fly on the thousands, VFR flights fly on the five-hundreds) and headed direct to Panoche, a VOR out ahead of us. (I would like to point out that I had checked the weather forecast for the Oakland airport. They said it would be mist with some light showers in the area. I have learned not to trust those forecasts, but this seemed quite a bit off from that.)
As we drew closer to the northern end of the Salinas valley, I kept an eye on the outside air temperature (OAT). Anything below 46 and I put on the pitot heat. If I were in the Twinstar I would have squirted some anti-icing fluid onto the wings as we approached the first bank of clouds. As it was I called up ATC, warned them that I had no de-icing on board, and inquired about the Minimum Vectoring Altitude in my area. (I might have asked for the MEA (Minimum En Route Altitude), which is a slightly different number, but he responded with the MVA.) He said to let him know, that where I was he could drop me to seven thousand feet if I needed to get to warmer air.
About twenty minutes later as we were passing through some light precipitation I saw the OAT dip to thirty-one degrees and saw clear ice start to form in skinny lines along the wings, arcing backward over the shiny white fiberglass. So I called my friendly controller, told him we needed to descend immediately and he cleared me down. As we dropped through nine thousand feet the temperature jumped to thirty-four and the trace of clear ice disappeared. The precipitation continued.
The wind had shifted around and now we had a six knot headwind. That was the component we were flying directly into, it was actually a twenty-five knot wind coming in over the Pacific. We were over the low hills near Hollister and we started to get bounced a little. As we drew abreast of Reid Hillview I asked the controller if we had to go direct to Oakland, or if we could get some vectors to flatter land, since we were getting knocked around.
He immediately gave me a vector toward the lower portion of the foothills and handed me off to the next controller. I mentioned again that we were getting bumped around and the new controller said, “Would you be able to go direct San Jose?” Sure, I plugged in the SJC VOR and we were over flatter terrain in less than five minutes. And then the skies opened, the clouds cleared, and we had a magnificent view of the San Francisco Bay and the peninsula alongside it. I checked the weather at Oakland and they were still reporting VFR. When the controller asked how I wanted to make my way there, I said it was clear enough that we could cancel IFR and fly along VFR as long as we had flight following. (This is really busy airspace and with the clouds hemming in the usual VFR traffic to an even tighter corridor it seemed like a good recipe for mid-air collisions.) He acknowledged our cancellation and stayed with us as we flew up toward Hayward.
Oakland was landing to the south, which is extremely unusual. In fact, I think it was the first time I landed on the tens at KOAK. The tower controller asked us to fly a left pattern for one-zero left and we kept it in close. He warned us to turn our base a little early, otherwise we’d set off the TCAS (Traffic and Collision Alerting System) on board the passenger jets arrive on runway one-two over on the large side of the airport. And then as we were entering the downwind I heard him start talking to a Citation who was also coming into the left downwind behind us. A business jet is just a little faster than our little four-cylinder can huff along, and the runway was really long so I said, “Eight-sierra-delta making a short approach.” The tower said we were cleared for the option already and I tipped us up on the left wingtip, rotated, and we fell toward the numbers on the end of one-zero left. All of our flaps were extended to slow us down and as we turned I pulled up the nose. The little Diamondstar crossed the threshold at 95 knots but dropped a bunch of speed and was down just after the thousand foot makers. The tower thanked us for the help and ground directed us to Kaiser Air.
I would say that it was my second hardest IFR flight, after the one that Dexter and I did this summer to get from Pittsburgh to Manhattan. It’s not that there was some magic circle that I had to fly through, squeezing the wingspan through some narrow gap, and there was no terrifying moment where it was “remember that lapse rate per thousand feet of altitude or we’ll wind up in a smoking hole in the ground.” It was more that there was icing above us, inhospitable terrain below, and barely fifteen minutes went by that I wasn’t making a decision, changing our navigation, or communicating with Air Traffic Control, our partners in getting up there safely. I was always weighing our options, considering the risks and comfort of my passenger, and then gathering information about the next portion of the flight. Stay ahead of the plane.
I never think about getting there. That kills a few pilots (and sadly, some of their passengers) every year. Once I close the canopy on the plane it is all about the flying. I don’t think about the hotel, the rental car or route from the airport, or what it is I am flying for. I just focus on the flying. If we wind up landing somewhere between, somewhere short of our destination, then I will deal with that once we are on the ground. That’s one of those cases where a sense of adventure, and a credit card, really changes your perspective. If Dexter and I had wound up in Monterey for the night and gone to the aquarium in the morning, that would have been a fine alternative to making it to Oakland through that rain storm.
As it was we pinged an Uber and were on our way to our hotel in ten minutes. Our hotel was comfortable, the walk to the venue on the Berkeley campus was a pleasant, quiet evening, and Demetri Martin was as funny as his specials and albums would suggest. Really, really funny. Afterwards we went backstage and talked with him for a bit, helped him out to his car with his props, and then walked back through the dark mist to some frozen yogurt and our warm hotel.
I sent email to the ferry pilot about the fuel leak. He wrote back instantly. “That happens all the time. They fueled it improperly. If you fill it up past the bottom of the tab [a bit of metal that the fuel cap is attached to with a cable], it will overflow through the overflow vents. If you are on the road, just fly it off.” Oh. In other words, sort of cosmetic issue, nothing that affects the operation of the plane or whether it can fly. Got it, and apologies to Neil for thinking it was a funny story.
Susan texted me when she got the details of why I’d left the new plane behind. She wrote, “You were meant to be humbled one last time.” I replied that I expected to be humbled many more times, that it was part of why I was excited about the new plane. It’s good to be challenged.
The day after returning to Santa Monica I wanted fly the plane for half an hour to burn off the fuel, which was still dripping out of the wing because the level hadn’t dropped below the tab yet. There were now two plastic barrels full of a sand-like absorbent material and smelly diesel fuel. But it was windy, sort of gusty, and I wasn’t sure about taking it up on a Sunday when no one was around to help if the ferry pilot was wrong. Finally, as it got toward dusk and the wind had died down, I figured that if there was something wrong mechanically the computers would tell me about it. I taxied over to the run up, waited for the engine meters to get into the green zone, held the buttons for the fifteen second run up routine, and took off into the sunset. After half an hour the fuel gauge on the right finally showed that it was below “overfilled,” and I turned back to KSMO.
It was pleasant to pull through into the new parking spot at the base of the tower. Somehow I feel like the tower controllers are watching it from above, keeping track of my visits to learn to be a better Twinstar pilot, and making sure no one troubles the plane while I am away.