I took some time off from the book today to go flying with my friend John. He got his power license last year (I think) and we'd been talking about a combined power and glider day sometime. So the plan was to meet up at Palo Alto (he's a member of the West Valley Flying Club or WVFC), get a plane, fly down to Hollister Airport along the Diablo Range, take some glider rides, and then fly back.

But things never go according to plan.

The weather wasn't being cooperative at all. I arrived at WVFC at 10am to find that the whole Bay Area was covered in clouds--low clouds. The ceilings were 2,400 at best. But the forecast said things should be clearing up, and typically around 11am or noon the fog/clouds are mostly broken up, if not gone entirely.

So we double-checked the weather and route and then headed out to find the plane and begin the pre-flight checks. Our plane for the day was N1648H a Piper Archer with 180 horsepower behind the prop. The plane is relatively roomy and has nice instruments, including a color Garmin GPS that was fun to play with. It beats the pants off my little handheld model.

After pre-flight and warming the engine a bit, we contacted the tower and asked for permission to taxi to the runup area. We hung out near the end of runway 31 for a bit and then requested clearance to take off. After one more plane landed, it was our turn to go. We pulled out onto the runway, John said "you ready?" and off we went. That Piper has a lot of power and we were in the air in no time.

We flew out over the southern tip of the bay, heading eastward toward the hills. The plan was to fly over highway 680 and then follow it down to Reid-Hillview Airport, request permission to cross their airspace, and then head south to Hollister. But the clouds were still quite low and didn't show much sign of going anywhere. We stayed at 1,500 AGL.

Roughly 5 miles from Reid-Hillview, we couldn't contact the tower because they were very busy. So we circled around a couple times, waiting for a break on the radio. It turns out that something like 4 or 5 planes were flying patterns and/or touch-n-go landings. So they were talking seemingly non-stop.

Eventually we got thru to the tower and they let us fly over the airport and head south. But then when we were 2-3 miles south of the airport, they asked us to turn left and fly northwest. Given that they knew our intention was to fly south to Hollister, this was a gently way of saying either "you can't safely get there with those low clouds" or "I'm not going to let you try, but maybe San Jose will." We never tried contacting San Jose.

Instead, we headed east to see if the clouds would be broken up (or gone entirely) over the Livermore area and into the Central Valley. As we came over the Altamont Pass (and associated win turbines), the sky turned mostly blue. The clouds were virtually gone. We had to fly past Livermore to get completely into the clear, but once we did it was pretty smooth and clear sailing--aside from some early afternoon haze.

As we flew along, we tuned into the various airports we passed along the way, Livermore, Tracy, Los Banos, and ultimately Hollister. As we flew along it was quite clear, but the clouds over in the valley didn't look promising. The breaking and clearing I expected by that time of day simply wasn't happening. We eventually found ourselves near the San Luis Reservoir where I had hoped we'd be able to cross the range and land over at Hollister. It was solid clouds over the hills and into the valley. It looked like 10 miles south of Hollister was broken to clear, but that didn't help us. With those low clouds, we wouldn't be able to do much glider flying.

So we turned around and headed home. After a few minutes of flying back the way we came, John said "Okay, your plane." He let me fly for 10 minutes or so while he relaxed and just didn't need to think about flying. I found the Piper pretty easy to control. I was able to maintain a heading and altitude within the range for Private Pilot testing standards. I flew a 360 degree turn and a few gentle banks. It was a relatively smooth ride. The plane didn't require nearly the amount of rudder that I'm used to, but I expected that and didn't find myself over-controlling.

We got to see a lot of the soon-to-be urban sprawl that's invading the Livermore and surrounding areas too.

After flying through the haze again, we found ourselves near the Altamont Pass once again where the sky was much clearer. We flew back into the Bay Area and contacted the Palo Alto tower to let 'em know we wanted to land.

The tower told us where to go and that there were, at one time, 4 planes ahead of us in the pattern. I'm not using to flying with that many planes in the pattern, but with a bit of looking we managed to find them all.

I knew that the pattern for powered aircraft would be different than what I'm used to in a glider, but it was quite different to experience in the air. There were a few times when I was thinking "we really should have turned back there" but we just kept on going. Eventually, though, we turned base and then final. Lined up for runway 31, we followed the plane ahead of us and came in to land. John did a good job of keeping the glide slope and we touched down pretty smoothly after a bit of floating.

We asked for permission to taxi back to the parking spot, taxied, parked and tied the plane down, and gathered up our stuff. We decided to try for a second attempt next Wednesday. But next time we're not planning to leave the airport until 1pm, so if the clouds decide to stick around longer, they shouldn't be much of a factor.

We'll see.

I've posted all the pictures from the day's flying for your viewing pleasure.

Posted by jzawodn at June 11, 2003 06:24 PM

Reader Comments
# JOSE J. JUELE said:

Very nice reporting of a personal experience.
enjoyed reading it especially that it had also
described John's.

on June 17, 2003 08:23 AM
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