Whew. Just got back from a flight from San Carlos (KSQL) to Harris Ranch (3O8). I haven’t been flying much lately, as I’ve been working with my flying instructor to prepare for the Instrument Rating written test.
For today’s flight, I had a passenger with me: Cliff. Cliff is a very good friend of mine, but he’s been reluctant to fly with me. Apparently, some years ago, he was on a little puddle-jumper in Peru that scared the bejeezus out of him. It’s been enough to keep him from flying in a small plane ever since.
Imagine my surprise when a couple of weeks ago, he actually expressed a desire to go on a flight! I had told him a long time ago about flying down to Harris Ranch for lunch, and he thought that sounded like fun, so that’s what we did.
I’d been watching the aviation weather reports & forecasts for a few days leading up today. The weather in the San Francisco Bay Area has been decidedly mixed. I wasn’t at all sure that we’d be able to go today. This morning was somewhat overcast, and the report at San Carlos had an overcast cloud layer at 1800 feet. That’s considered ‘Marginal VFR’ (MVFR), and I’m not willing to fly under MVFR conditions, even though it’s perfectly legal to do so. They call it ‘marginal’ for a reason. We took the chance that it would burn off before too long and drove on down to the airport.
When we reached San Carlos it was already evident that the clouds had burned off to the point where it was ok to fly. But there were still other concerns to check out before departing.
The forecast for today had a little item about fairly high and gusty winds at SFO. The winds at San Carlos are somewhat less than at SFO, but it was still a concern. I decided to depart knowing that there was a possibility that when we returned, the winds might be a little to squirrelly to land. Fortunately, there are other nearby airports in the Bay Area where I could land instead if it was just too rough at San Carlos. One of the other instructors at Diamond Aviation (Thanks, Bob!) gave me his cell phone number just in case I needed to land somewhere else and call him for a ride back to San Carlos.
San Carlos has recently changed some of their procedures at the airport. Nothing dramatic, just tightening up procedures to be a little bit more “by the book”. One benefit of this is that it is now possible to request VFR Flight Following before departing. This makes using Flight Following a lot easier. I wanted to use Flight Following, rather than filing a VFR flight plan, as I wasn’t sure what route we’d end up taking. If the weather allowed, I really wanted to fly down the coast. Unfortunately, today, the weather didn’t really allow for that. I wanted to at least use Flight Following because that would allow me to practice my radio skills. Since I’m studying for my IFR rating, having good radio skills is essential. You’d be surprised how tough it can be at times to get a word in edgewise when a controller is handling a sky full of traffic. It’s important to be on top of your game to be quick, clear, and concise.
Departing San Carlos was uneventful, and we ended up doing the “Belmont Slough” departure that takes us across the San Francisco Bay. The weather was shaping up beautifully, so we had a very smooth ride down. I did a pure VFR routing that took me east of San Jose International Airport (KSJC), staying out of their airspace, and hugging close to the East Bay hills. After getting down abeam South County Airport (E16) we headed east across the hills and into the San Joaquin Valley. Once over the hills, we flew a course following Highway 5 south. Harris Ranch is located just beside Highway 5, so it’s pretty easy to find.
Lunch was terrific. We had a bit of a wait though. We arrived about 2pm. For future reference, mid-afternoon on a Sunday is not the best time to hit Harris Ranch if you’re looking for a quick lunch. Fortunately, I had reserved the plane for the whole day, so we didn’t need to rush. Cliff had “The Big Bull Burger”, and I had the “Harris Ranch Ribeye Dip”. We split an order of onion rings. Yummy.
We had a leisurely lunch, but at 3:30pm, I was getting anxious to get out of there. It would take about an hour and a half to get back to San Carlos, and this being Sunday, they close up at 5pm. Of course, they have procedures to accommodate pilots who want/need to get back later, but I had reserved the plane until 5pm, so keeping it later would mean making some phone calls, and of course, that’s a little difficult in flight.
Coming back into the San Francisco Bay Area, I made a last minute decision to go up the peninsula. This meant requesting a transition through San Jose’s airspace. In the past, I’ve needed to have the whole radio conversation played out in my head before I push the button on the mike to request ATC to allow me to transition KSJC’s airspace. But today was different. Everything just went so smoothly. Didn’t even really need to think about it. Everything just flowed as if I’ve been doing it all my life.
I’m realizing that part of my radio anxiety is due to being constantly in training. As soon as I got my Private Pilot certificate, I immediately started my IFR training. IFR definitely requires a higher degree of radio competence, so the training keeps me feeling like I’m a rank beginner. It’s only when I get out there and exercise my VFR piloting skills that I realize that I’m an honest-to-goodness private pilot, and a pretty decent one at that.
Landing at San Carlos was a little tricky. There was a very strong crosswind. I wasn’t sure that we were going to be able to land, but I figured I’d give it a try, and if it was just too difficult I could always do a “go around” and either attempt it again, or just decide to go to a different airport. Exactly the condition I had mentally prepared myself for before we ever departed San Carlos.
Since this was Cliff’s first time flying with me, and since his last time in a small plane had been a negative experience, I warned him as we were approaching San Carlos that we would be landing on one wheel due to the crosswind. I didn’t want him freaking out right at the most critical part of the landing, so I figured disclosing this information ahead of time would head off any surprise reaction. Fortunately, throughout the entire flight, I had earned Cliff’s trust in me as a pilot, so he was completely ok with whatever I had to do.
The landing was good. Not my best, but not bad. My instructor was at the airport, having just returned from a flight with another student of his. I was very glad that he was there and able to watch my landing. After tying up the plane, I talked to my instructor about the flight, and particularly the landing at San Carlos. He noticed one thing I should have done differently: I had full flaps in when I should have only had 20 degrees flaps. Duh! Of course that’s why the plane ballooned up while going down the runway! Approaching San Carlos from the peninsula, I was doing a straight-in approach. A straight-in approach is a little tough, as you don’t have the usual ‘legs’ of a VFR landing to gauge distance and height. I knew as I was approaching San Carlos that I was approaching high, so I put in full flaps to get down quickly. I should have either just put in 20 degrees flaps, or put it back to 20 after I got down to the right approach path. The result of having in full flaps in this kind of wind is that the plane didn’t want to come all the way down. We got a few feet above the runway and ‘whoosh!’, the plane ballooned up again. A little wrestling with the controls, and floating down the runway a little longer than strictly necessary, and we were back down on terra firma. As it turned out, I was able to exit the runway at only the second exit. Not bad.
The entire day was an unqualified success. Not only did we have a great flight and a great lunch, but I think I can say that I’ve restored Cliff’s faith in flying in small aircraft. He’s already looking forward to our next flight together.