Sunday, 26 June 2011

Cross Country to Alturas

About a year ago I finally decided to get serious about my Commercial Pilot's License (CPL). Not that I have any ambitions for a second career as a pilot, but with well over 1000 hours of flying under my belt it just seemed like an appropriate thing to do.

Getting a CPL involves a checkride with an examiner, a written test, and a bunch of experience requirements, such as a minimum of 250 hours of flying. Most of the training goes towards the checkride. For single-engine planes, this requires a bunch of new things which don't form part of the Private Pilot checkride, specifically some not-quite-aerobatic maneuvers: chandelles, lazy-eights, eights-on-pylons.These are actually pretty hard to fly to the required standard, but after struggling with them for a while I can begin to see some point to them: they definitely do make for a finer touch in aircraft handling.

One of the experience requirements is a long cross-country flight, at least 300 miles round trip with the furthest point at least 250 miles away. Oh, those are nautical miles, of 6080 feet or about 15% more than the everyday statute mile. Why flying uses nautical rather than statute miles - and the corresponding unit of speed, knots (nautical miles per hour) rather than mph - is lost in the mists of history. And not all the time, by the way - some things, such as visibility requirements, are expressed in statute miles. More on that later.

There are a bunch of other requirements associated with this flight, such that, although I have many flights of this length, none of them qualifies. There have to be at least three landings, it has to be day VFR, and it has to be solo - nobody else on board, not even a non-pilot passenger. I suppose this is intended as a test of flight planning and navigation skills. The FAA, or the part that deals with "airman certification" anyway, doesn't seem to have heard of GPS, and doesn't know that nowadays all you need to do is enter the code for the destination airport and follow the resulting magenta line on the screen. Well, almost - it's as well to take things like mountains and restricted airspace into consideration, and to make sure you have enough fuel. So anyway... in the preparation for my checkride, I needed to make such a flight.

There are lots of places I could go. The LA area is over 250 miles, so a round trip to say Santa Monica would qualify, or to southern Oregon, or to somewhere in Nevada like Elko. I've done all of those, though. It would be nice to do something I've never done before. Looking at my wall-map of California, with pins for the airports I've been to, showed one big pin-free expanse, the north-east of the state. There a very few towns and it's not even on the way to anywhere. Alturas, the north-eastern most town in California, is 251 miles from Palo Alto, so just qualifies.

A straight line from Palo Alto to Alturas passes overhead Livermore, east of Mount Diablo, overhead Sacramento and Grass Valley, then across 8-9000 foot mountains to Quincy. The mountains are gradually replaced by high plains at around 4000' with the occasional pointy story-book volcanic peak. You can't fly in quite a straight line because of the TFR for the pilotless aircraft testing centre at Chico, so I flew a slight dogleg to the south which also kept me out of the big military training areas in the region. The easy way to do this is to find a waypoint in about the right place for the desired route. My route ended up as KPAO-SUNOL-HAGAN (the waypoint in question)-KAAT (Alturas).

The flight northwards was uneventful but beautiful. Crossing the mountains is always a bit scary - there really aren't too many good options if the engine stops. Luckily it didn't. I flew just to the south of Quincy airport. That's a scary place too - I went there one Saturday when I was on my own. It's the only airport I know that has mountains in the traffic pattern! You can't fly left traffic at approach speed, if you tried you'd quite literally hit a mountain.

Past Quincy, there was really almost nothing. I picked out Susanville to my right. There were just vast, green grassy plains, a few lakes, the very occasional small settlement and a few roads. For nearly a hundred miles I didn't pass within ten miles of a town. The last part of the flight, over the high plains, was very bumpy, too much for the autopilot, so I hand flew. Finally Alturas came into sight. It's a tiny place and the runways are narrow, so it took a while to find the airport. Needless to say I was the only person flying.

It was with great relief that I pulled up to the fuel pump and stopped. It had been an enjoyable flight but it's a long time to sit in the same position. The airport was completely deserted - a sign gave the number to call for fuel, and it took about 15 minutes for the fueller - who is also the county building inspector - to show up. Later the airport manager showed up too. I ended up spending nearly an hour on the ground, which allowed me to witness the arrival of another airplane. It's a quiet place, and beautiful in a Swiss, mountainous kind of way.

It would have been nice to walk into the town, which is only about a mile away, but it would all have been closed by then and anyway I wanted to get back before dark. Alturas would make a nice destination for a quiet weekend, except that unfortunately there is no car rental. Without a car there is really not much you could do, and as far as I can tell the nearest are at Klamath Falls, over 60 miles away.

So after saying my farewells - it's hard to imagine I'll ever go back, although it's a pretty place - I set off on the next leg. I'd decided to hop over the mountain to Cedarville. It's only about 30 miles but the Warner Mountains are in the way, ascending to 9000 feet, so the whole flight is spent first climbing then descending. Cedarville is an even tinier place, population 514 - the kind of place you'd retreat to when you just couldn't stand the bustle and crowds of Alturas (pop 2827). It's in the centre of a long narrow valley mainly occupied by three large alkali dry lakes, imaginatively called the Lower, Middle and Upper Alkali Lakes. Unsurprisingly, the airport was deserted, the narrow runway further limited by high weeds at the edges. I turned straight around and set off on my next leg, to Susanville.

I chose to fly down the eastern side of the mountains, just for a change of view. At the end of June there was still plenty of snow above 8000 feet. Once out of the valley I quite literally saw no human presence until I was close to Susanville, a hundred miles south.

Susanville has a huge prison, like so many small, remote California towns. California of course has the highest per capita prison population in the world, higher than China or Soviet Russia, thanks to some seriously misguided right-wing politics and the even more misguided "war on drugs". The state is bankrupt and can't afford to run even the most basic services, but is still not willing to reduce its prison population. But that's not really a topic for this post.

The prison did however make a convenient visual aiming point. When I landed there were still a few people around the airport, and a very friendly dog. But I didn't linger - I was getting hungry as well as tired.

The rest of the flight was uneventful - back across the slightly scary mountains, then over Sacramento, to the left of Mount Diablo, and so home. The landing was spectacularly beautiful - by good luck I landed exactly as the sun set, disappearing under the horizon as I descended on short final.

When not flying, I'm working on my written - actually a computer based multiple-choice test. Fortunately, all the possible questions are published by the FAA, and assembled into a book called Gleim, which also has (one hopes) the correct answers and the reasons behind them. The majority of the questions are perfectly reasonable, having to do with things like the airspace rules and how to read charts. But others are ghosts of a former age. There is not a single question about the use of GPS, even though probably 90% or more of long flights are made using it. But there are dozens of questions on a nearly-obsolete device called the "Automatic Direction Finder", a miracle of 1940s vacuum-tube electronics. The operational side of the FAA is busy closing down the corresponding radio beacons as fast as it can. New planes (sold in the US anyway - the rest of the world is a different story) haven't had ADF equipment in them for well over a decade. Mine had one when it was new, in 1980, but I had it removed when it developed a fault about five years ago.

Not only is the ADF obsolete, but the questions are about ways of using it that nobody has ever done in flight, complicated trigonometric exercises to do with angles of intercept. Flying a plane looks easy enough but it actually takes a lot of concentration. The idea of doing complicated mental math at the same time is as absurd as it would be to do the crossword. (Airline pilots do of course, but they have at least one extra pilot and three autopilots which they are obliged to use in cruise. And they are not constantly looking for reasonable places to land if the engine stops, since they have several of them).

My pilot friend Bill thinks that a lot of the regulations, and the questions that go with them, are just a thinly-veiled intelligence test. For example, there are three definitions of "night" (sunset, civil twilight which is about 30 minutes later, and one hour after sunset). There are many things you must or must not do at night, but which definition applies to which activity is pretty much random and just something you have to learn off by heart. The same applies to the various sources of aviation weather information. These exist both on the ground (via phone and now the Internet) and in the air, from various different places. Each one provides slightly different permutations of all the available information, without rhyme or reason. There are of course numerous questions on these. And, as you probably guessed, there are no questions at all either on Internet data sources, or on in-flight satellite based weather - which between them probably account for 90% of what pilots actually use nowadays.

The written will be my next step, in another few weeks - whatever one may think of it, it just has to be done. I don't expect it to be as enjoyable as my cross country flight to Alturas. More pictures from the trip here.


Badger said...

I thought the reason nautical was used is that it's the same distance over the earth at any altitude, whereas due to curvature a statute mile is a fixed distance, not a fixed distance on land?

n5296s said...

Almost... the nautical mile is defined as one minute of arc at the equator. Why this is of any use, unless you're circumnavigating the equator, I have no idea. Anyway it's a fixed measure, 6080 feet as opposed to 5280 for a statute mile. Curiously, the meter/kilometer are defined in a similar way... one meter is one ten-millionth of the distance from the North Pole to the equator... passing through Paris, bien entendu.