Don’t Wait for the SFO Hole

I took this morning off work to take advantage of the “crummy” weather we’re having, so I could shoot some approaches in real Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC).  The ceiling was 900′ and visibility was 3 miles in mist at San Carlos (SQL) when I was ready to depart.  These were probably the lowest conditions I’ve departed in since I’ve received my instrument rating but I was confident that I could make it back to San Carlos if I had any problems during takeoff and on my way down from the city I noticed there was a sizable break in the cloud cover over SFO so that was an option as well.

For this flight I filed from SQL to Charles M. Shulz, Sonoma Counta Airport (KSTS) in Santa Rosa.  Usually the weather is clear up there but today the ceilings were around 1000′ so it was perfect weather for getting real IMC approaches.  I filed my flight plan as KSQL → SAU → BURDE → KSTS.  From San Carlos I would be heading north to the Sausalito VOR (SAU) so I was happy to see that the active runway at San Carlos was 30 (that’s on a heading of 300°).  It looked like I was in for a straight shot. When I called for clearance to taxi to runway 30, ground control responded:

…winds are currently from 280 at 3 knots, you can have either runway 12 or 30, please advise…

Huh? Why would I want a runway that heads in the exact opposite direction of my destination? I recognized the voice of the controller and he’s always been top notch but I went ahead and asked for and was cleared to runway 30.  While I was in the run-up area I received my IFR clearance.

Skylane 96988 is cleared to the Santa Rosa airport via runway heading climb to 600′ then make a right turn to heading 120 vectors to SAU, SAU 330 to BURDE, STS 141 to LUSEE, Direct. Climb maintain 2100′ expect 5000′ 5 minutes after departure, contact Norcal on 135.65 squaw 4511.

It’s amazing how much easier it has gotten to copy all of that down, the trick is to not think about it just write it down.  After running up the engine, I started to plug the flight plan into my GPS.  If you’re not familiar with the San Carlos airport, it is extremely close to San Francisco International airport (the A380 lands there).  That right turn to a heading of 120° would put me smack dab in the middle of the heavily used approach path for runways 28L and 28R at SFO.  I just wrote it down earlier and hadn’t really given it a thought but about the same time I’m realizing it, San Carlos Ground control calls me up:

Skylane 96988, that right turn to 120 for terrain avoidance is going to require a hole in San Francisco traffic, the winds are now 300 at 2 knots and I can give you runway 12.

The controller was under no obligation to let me know this but essentially what he’s saying is, “if you can deal with a very small tailwind on take off, I can get you out of here this morning, if we have to wait for a hole in SFO traffic, you might as well stay for lunch.” Now realizing what he was trying to hint to me from the beginning, I gladly accepted a 12 departure.  My personal limit for a tailwind take-off is 10 knots at San Carlos so we were well within my safety margins.  I received departure clearance about 30 seconds after I was ready to go at runway 12. After waiting another 60 seconds for some Canadian Geese on the runway, I was on my way.  From the Flight Aware ground track, you can see I really didn’t lose much by heading south to start my flight.

Instead of flying right through SFO traffic, I had an amazing view looking down onto the airport thanks to that break in the clouds I mentioned earlier.

That was pretty much the last time I saw the Earth until I came through the clouds over Santa Rosa and was happily rewarded with the view of runway 32.

I learned a few lessons on today’s flight but I think the main one is that air traffic controllers are excellent resources and the next time I think they’re hinting at something that I’m too dense to understand, I’m going to ask them to spell it out for me. It will save us all time and it will save me some gas.

The challenges and rewards of this hobby are hard to describe… but here’s a view from on top to give you a taste: