Thursday, August 14, 2008

View from the back

So it was time to leave behind the usual western USA world of school prep, glider checkouts, and fun BFRs and head Back East (this is a proper name in my part of the world) to visit my parents. We were flying out on Delta, and I was looking forward to a long period of sightseeing, playing games with my daughter, and watching for other airplanes. Kind of like a four hour leg in an EFIS King Air, without the need to check in with Center.

But I was wrong. You can learn about flying, even in seat 26A.

We were to change planes at KJFK. The kids were excited to see a little of New York, and since KJFK was using the VOR-DME 13L approach (the one where you track a radial off Canarsie VOR and follow the lead-in lights to the threshold, the closest thing to the old Kai Tak approach you're likely to see in the USA), we had a nice view of the Verrazano Bridge, Statue of Liberty, and Empire State Building while I kept track of flaps and gear, which came out only on close-in base.

But then came the taxi. JFK has a lot of taxiways, and more airplanes than gates. We taxied in a big clockwise circle around the airfield, the only relief being the sight of an Airbus A380 at the gate. We were headed toward a parking area somewhere near taxiway K. We taxied west and north, passed some parked airplane, people-movers nudged up against them. Then we turned left on LA, and left again on B.

Our crew had missed the turn.

Our parking spot filled with ground vehicles during the delay, kind of like parking spaces in Manhattan. We sat while they cleared it out. Passengers missed their connections. Ugly.

I was completely sympathetic, remembering a time at San Francisco. My alarm had gone off in Oakland at some oh-dark-30 hour for a medical flight from San Francisco to Reno, something to do with a transplant. The Bay Area was IFR, and I had to fly to San Francisco to get the team. It was already busy, and the vectors came thick and fast. At least I could get the KSFO ATIS on the ground in Oakland.

The ATIS said "expect ILS 28R," the first controller said "Expect ILS 28R," but the next guy had "Turn right heading 260 maintain 2400 until established cleared ILS runway 28 LEFT." Grrr.

The team was waiting and I was on the ground only long enough to pay the landing fee. My head was buzzing from the early wake-up, bad coffee, and the cockpit scramble with the runway change. I got the ATIS and called ground. I needed to taxi from the Signature ramp (northeast corner of the airfield) to runway 1L, at the southwest corner. At least it was daylight.

But I was on my game. I had the taxi chart out, and took my time, holding short where instructed, monitoring tower, and arrived at runway 1R as required. I was number three for departure, and now that I was stopped I took a moment to look around. After all, SFO is a cool airport, and I wanted to do a little sightseeing.

Airplanes were everywhere. RJs, 747s, A340s, even a few Mad Dogs (got a ride on one of those yesterday, too). The airfield choreographers were on their game, too, and all of these airplanes were at or going to the right place.

And all of them had at least two pilots up front. I got that weak-in-the-knees I-just-dodged-a-bullet feeling. I was all alone.

The thing is that San Francisco tower, like San Francisco, is always gracious and mellow. I did not hear JFK tower yesterday, but it's hard to imagine that much Marin County "go with the flow" attitude has made its way up there. Oh well.

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