Free Balloon Rides at Half Moon Bay

Afternoon flight lessons are always an interesting experience for me, both the temperature and wind speed pick up in the afternoons; makes for fun flying.

Building on my last lesson in Hayward where I was flying solo in Hayward's pattern, my instructor wanted to go elsewhere and solo there. After briefly considering Livermore, which was at 102F (38C), we decided to head westward towards Half Moon Bay (KHAF), an airport that has not yet graced my logbook.

I have flown in the direction of Half Moon Bay before, but never set wheels down there. Similar to my previous trip to Tracy, KHAF is an uncontrolled airport, adding extra radio work and traffic awareness to my game plan.


Instead of the usual Ugly Duckling, today we flew with N738VU, a similarly lesser-utilized airplane in the California Airways fleet.

When taking off from Hayward (KHWD) my instructor decides to show me a soft-field take-off which is unlike anything I've seen or done before. A normal take-off roll has the plane accelerating down the runway until the point of rotation, wherein you maintain a steady climb out. In a soft-field take-off, you get the plane off the ground as soon as possible, but keep it in ground effect for a while, until airspeed increases enough to begin a normal climb out. It's a neat manuever.

As we head towards San Carlos Airport (KSQL) our radio starts experiencing some weird feedback. Not a big deal, everything is loud and clear on our secondary comms, so we switch over for the remainder of the flight.

As we start to enter the pattern for KHAF, my instructor makes sure to point out the hills which are "right there" and can (apparently) mess with some students' heads when flying the pattern at KHAF. For me this was the least of my worries, I never even stressed about the terrain. The terrain wasn't going to fly up and hit me, the other pilots flying in and out of the airfield could though.

The first few landings with my instructor improve enough to where he feels comfortable with my radio work, and landings to step out of the plane. Unlike my first solo, it felt far more natural to be in the plane by myself. As if I've done it a hundred times already, I was just going up for some pattern work, no bigs.

Back up in the air I go, execute a circuit and come in for final approach. The wind is around 10-12 knots, and I have full flaps in, making my approach more wobbly than I'm comfortable with, especially as I get closer to the runway. Go around.

My next approach is a bit better, I didn't go full (30) degrees of flaps for this approach, left it at 20 degrees. Not because I directly connected my wobbly-ness to the amount of flaps, but with the stronger winds, I just didn't think I needed full flaps this time around.

I cross the threshhold, pull the power back, level the attitude, stomp around a bit on the rudder to keep centerline and start feeling for the runway. Thud. Left of centerline, not by too much, but by too much to be happy with the landing, especially with the thud.

Taxiing back to the start of the runway, I stop to get some quick feedback from my instructor. "Bit wobbly because you've got those barn doors down, try 10 degrees of flaps this time, or even no flaps." With his advice in hand, I take off again and come back around in the pattern.

On my turn from downwind to base, I descend more than I really should in the turn. I noticed this with my previous lesson; not enough back-pressure in my turns to maintain a good 500ft per minute descent. As I roll out of the turn onto base, I add some power because I know I'm not going to be on glideslope unless I delay my descent until I'm closer to the field. I wonder to myself if the people in the boats below in the harbor can tell that I'm too low. They're in boats, so it's not like their opinions matter anyways.

Centering up on final approach with a little bit extra airspeed to compensate for the wind, 10 degrees of flaps, things are looking better. The wind has been off-center for the past couple circuits so I am drifting a bit back and forth to maintain centerline. I'm feeling again for the runway (bad) and my left wing comes up when I don't expect it to, my right main wheel touches down, thud. Then my nose wheel touches down and finally my left main wheel touches down.

My face is hot as I hustle off the runway and go through my after landing flow. Once the flow is complete, I have the leeway to let the stream of expletives out as I begin to taxi back. That was an awful landing, but I just don't know why.

I stop and chat with my instructor at the starting point again. Surely the exasperation is clear either on my face or in my tone. He hops back in, tells me to pretend he isn't there, and do the same pattern again.

One more circuit later, I turn onto final approach and make my radio call, another aircraft on the ground announces he's going to take the runway (who "called it" first, I don't remember, he probably did). "You bastard" I say, and then make the call "Half Moon Bay Traffic, white Cessna, going around, we'll be on the right of runway 30". The other pilot apologies and says I can go ahead and land, "too late, I'm already 400ft above you, passing on the right."

We come around again, another thud of a landing that I'm not happy with. I execute a touch-and-go, and then we're off towards Hayward again.

The landing back at home wasn't spectacular either. No structural damage, and my instructor appeared to still have circulation in his face, so it wasn't that bad I suppose.

Today was an "off day", no doubt about it. In discussing the flight afterwards a few key things came up that were adversely affecting my performance. When we arrived at KHAF there was a slight cross-wind from the right of the active runway. By the time I was flying solo however, the wind had shifted to crossing the runway from the left. I did not notice this, so that awful landing, I believe I was correcting for cross wind in the wrong direction. Yikes.

I also learned that I really don't have a good perception of height as I near the runway, that's why I ended up "feeling for the runway" so many times. I just don't have a good mental gauge, something to develop and calibrate for the next lesson.

Finally, I believe I've had a minor misunderstanding about the landing process itself which affected me today. I've been thinking about landing as three concrete steps: descend with the nose pointed short of your aiming point, level off and drop power, then raise the nose and touchdown. I think the last two steps are really supposed to be one gradual movement, and I've been treating them as separate phases, pushing my touchdown point further down the runway than it should be.

I'm still a bit frustrated with my performance today, even a few hours after the event. The frustration is tempered by the number of things I believe I've learned, and by the fact that it's still a lesson after all. If I knew how to fly, I wouldn't need to shuttle 200lbs of instructor around with me all the time; he's not there just for conversation it turns out.

Either way, I'll be back up there in a few days, building on today's lessons.

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