Friday, 7 September 2012

Flying over San Francisco Bay

“I believe that anyone who flies in an airplane and doesn’t spend most of his time looking out the window wastes his money.”
— Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert

[Looking down Market Street to the Ferry Building from above Twin Peaks.]

My partner and I spent much of last Sunday on an aerial joyride from Palo Alto to Petaluma and back with Sanjay Saigal, an extraordinarily generous recreational pilot and reader of my books and blog. It was a fascinating introduction to a different sort of flying and a different perspective.

[Looking over the Marin Headlands towards Richardson Bay and Sausalito]

For all the airline trips I’ve taken around the world, this was my first time aloft in anything smaller than a 27-seat Yak-40 or, more recently, a 37-seat (including the crew) Embraer ERJ-135. These smallest of the “regional” jets feel like corporate jets compared to large airliners (and both are also used that way in alternate interior configurations). But flying in a single-engined four-seater is a completely different experience.

[Fog coming in the Golden Gate and over the Marin Headlands.]

In some respects, the view from above was more familiar than I had expected. For most of the day we were flying at altitudes between 1300 and 2500 feet — roughly the heights of the summits of two of my favorite bicycling destinations, San Bruno Mountain just south of San Francisco and Mount Tamalpais just across the Golden Gate to the north. The view of the wall of fog over the ocean off one side of the plane, and the Bay on the other, reminded me especially of the view from Trojan Point on Mt. Tam on a typical day when it’s just above the fog.

Outside of the rainy season in the winter, the dominant factor in the airspace above San Francisco Bay — other than the presence of whole lot of other aircraft — is the fog generated by the marine layer along the shore, and flowing through the gaps in the coastal hills including especially the Golden Gate.

[Alcatraz Island with drifting patches of fog]

Of course, you can’t move a mountaintop to wherever you want an observation point to look down on whatever interests you. It’s this freedom of movement that really distinguishes recreational small-plane flying from any other way of looking at the world.

At the moment I took the photo below, the A’s were on the field, the Red Sox were at bat, and the ball was in play. Curiously, although we were specifically ordered not to fly directly over the Coliseum, we were at that moment following instructions to cross directly above the numbers on the runways at OAK, where we looked straight down on a taxiing Fedex jet.

[Oakland Coliseum: A’s 6, Red Sox 2. Attendance 25,314]

I knew that it was possible for light planes with the requisite instruments and sufficiently skilled pilots to fly past SFO and the city of San Francisco, but I had naively assumed that they were restricted to designated corridors through such controlled airspace, and that they had to maintain more vertical and horizontal separation from highrise buildings and major airports — SFO is one of the world’s couple of dozen busiest, by almost any measure — than I learned to be the case.

[Balboa High School surrounded by typical San Francisco row houses.]

The USA may be an anomaly in this (as in so many other things). It isn’t as easy to own or fly a private plane in many other countries, even if you can afford it, as it is in the USA. And airspace in other countries, especially around sites of such critical importance as the San Francisco Bay, tends to be much more restricted.

[The view from the cockpit: Landing for lunch in Petaluma. “There’s no tower here, so we pilots just talk to each other and look out for each other.”]

General aviation security has (quite reasonably) been left to the common sense and “self-policing” of the community of aircraft owners, operators, and pilots, rather like public safety in a small town where people really on their neighbors more than the police. Pilots and aircraft are subject to strict licensing and safety requirements (see aircraft engineer Nevil Shute’s masterpiece, “Round The Bend”, for one account of light-aircraft maintenance and safety consciousness as an international discipline of religious ritual and sacrament), but virtually none of the “security theater” required of common-carrier airlines.

The TSA has no presence and essentially no role in general aviation. That’s not for want of the TSA’s trying, but general aviation is essentially the only transportation or aviation sector to have successfully and (at least to date) more or less completely resisted the TSA’s attempted impositions.

In 2008, the TSA proposed to extend its no-fly orders, mandatory logging of passenger identities, and other surveillance and control schemes to all aircraft weighing more than 12,500 pounds, which would have included some of the larger (but still quite small) recreational planes such as some restored antique twin-engine military “warbirds”.

The “Large Aircraft Security Program” (LASP) ran into a wall of opposition from aircraft owners and pilots, and almost four years later the TSA hasn’t dared to finalize any of the proposed regulations. At latest report the TSA still plans to implement some new rules for general aviation, eventually, but only for planes above some threshold weight sufficiently large (and sitgnificantly larger than the TSA’s original proposal) to exclude essentially all “recreational” flying.

For our host/pilot, the ability to pursue recreational flying as an avocation exemplifies what it means for the USA to be a (relatively) free country. Let’s hope it stays that way!

[Backseat flying. Ceiling panel with pull tab at top center covers airframe parachute deployment handle.]

There’s an odd and asymmetric mix of anonymity and ostentatiousness about flying in a private plane. You can see people on the ground, but they can’t see who you are. On the other hand, all aircraft are required to display their registration numbers in foot-high letters, and use them to identify themselves in flight over unencrypted, public air-traffic-control radio frequencies. In controlled airspace, they turn on radio transponders that “squawk” unique publicly-assigned tracking codes. Unlike private motor vehicle registrations, license plate numbers, and drivers’ license records, aircraft registration records including tail-number assignments are public records. Plane-spotters can and do compile and publish logs by tail number of private aircraft movements, including recreational flights. (That’s how the USA’s torture and “rendition” flights were identified and tracked despite having been outsourced to contractors using private planes.)

[Our gracious guide to the skies and his beloved Cirrus.]

A Cirrus is, indeed, a small plane, but it didn’t feel cramped inside, at least with only three passengers rather than four. Noise-cancelling headphones help, but even without them there was less noise and vibration inside the Cirrus than I had expected. As with larger jet and turboprop aircraft, most of the noise is imposed as an externality on people on the ground below, rather than on those onboard. (Despite handling only small piston-engined planes, Palo Alto Airport requires an immediate turn on take-off to mitigate the noise impact on East Palo Alto residents.) Other than noise, the ecological footprint of general aviation is small. Gas mileage for the plane we were in is comparable to that of an SUV, and several times better than that of a typical recreational motorboat. Total consumption of avgas (100-octane leaded gasoline) used by piston-engined planes is a drop in the barrel compared to that of jet fuel (kerosene) or fuels for road vehicles.

There’s a first time for everything, but I hope this won’t be my last.

Tonight I’m off to SFO to get on a full Airbus to Boston — a different sort of flight indeed.

Link | Posted by Edward on Friday, 7 September 2012, 13:36 ( 1:36 PM)

Thanks, I am a resident of Florida and flew in and out of SFO on a visit to California this past summer. So now these photos hold a little more meaning for me, and I enjoyed the general aviation information.

Posted by: Richard Moore, 8 September 2012, 07:44 ( 7:44 AM)

Awesome post!

You must have flown in a Twin Otter (about 20 seats) at one time or another. They're everywhere.

Posted by: Paul Karl Lukacs, 8 September 2012, 09:23 ( 9:23 AM)

wow! excited. so beautiful

Posted by: Jiessy, 19 September 2012, 00:42 (12:42 AM)

The world really does look totally different from high above, doesn"t it? The one and only time I"ve ever flown in a private plane, I couldn"t stop looking out the window either. Somehow, the world seemed bigger. Being in the air and seeing all the skyscrapers and the highways below reminded me that I am one of many very tiny things on this giant Earth. So, ironically enough, being in the clouds kept my head on my shoulders and my feet on the ground.

Posted by: Corina Ogan, 19 September 2012, 11:28 (11:28 AM)
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