Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Presidents' Day, Part II: My First Cessna Flight

2d Lt Kat Allen and CAP453
Of the five people who participated in the two air sorties on President's Day, I was the only one who had never taken a flight in a light-weight aircraft before.  I was briefed thoroughly on what would take place in flight: I would practice scanning techniques, take notes, operate the aircraft communications equipment to stay in touch with Oakland base, and keep my eyes up for oncoming aircraft.  I would also be asked to search for a white Bronco.  The familiarization and preparatory work was done: now I just needed to survive the flight!

My husband and fellow CAP member, 1st Lt Mike Allen, helped me prepare that morning.  His pointers went something like this:

-Wear the proper CAP uniform.  (Since it was a C Mission, the navy CAP polo and grey slacks sufficed.)
-Don't eat much before the flight.  The turbulence in a Cessna is a lot more noticeable than the turbulence you'd feel on a commercial flight.
-Bring a sealable plastic bag in case you get air-sick, because no one--including you--wants to smell your vomit from three thousand feet all the way home!
-Bring your camera for pictures, bottled water for hydration, and granola bars for energy.
-Print your current 101 card and make sure you've got your CAP ID.
-Have fun!  There's no point to this training if you're not enjoying yourself.

1st Lt Mike Allen and 1st Lt Lou Rivas discussing the Flight
When we arrived at the unit, my husband and four-month-old daughter assumed supervisory roles as I gathered with the other sortie members for pre-flight preparation.  We mapped out on paper the grid where we would be flying, noting landmarks at the corners and other noticeable features around the grid.  One of our pilots also called in for weather reports so we could figure out where the cloud deck was and how high we could safely fly.  One particularly amusing moment came when we had to calculate weight and balance.  One by one, the members of each sortie were asked to call out their current weight.  I was the last one to be asked.  1st Lt. Luis Rivas quietly edged away from me as Capt. Noel Luneau walked over and whispered the question about my weight.  "How funny to be the only woman in a bunch like this," I thought, and I called out my weight so the whole room could hear.  Fudging the number would have been unsafe, and I was not about to put my life or theirs in jeopardy over my post-pregnancy pounds.  My announcement let loose a ripple of laughter to break the ice, and we moved on to other details.

First Sortie refueling
As the first sortie took flight, Lt. Rivas and I took turns operating the radio.  This was also a first for me; I had never gone "live" on the radios to interact with an air sortie before.  "CAP 453 to Oakland Base, over?"  I looked around; no one was nearby to take my place.  They called again.  I took a deep breath, sat down by the radio, picked up the microphone, and spoke.  "CAP 453 this is Oakland Base, go ahead."  They reported that they were engine start and would call back to base when they were wheels up.  When I finally heard "CAP 453, out," I set down the mic and sighed with relief, then hurried over to the computer so I could download a list of CAP prowords as a refresher.

Taxing to the runway
When the first sortie returned to base, Lt. Rivas and I were gathering our gear together. While Capt. Luneau sat in on the debrief with 1st Lt. Allen and the other members of the first sortie, Lt. Rivas and I walked out onto the airport, and I experienced yet another first: setting foot on the OAK Tarmac.  Lt. Rivas suggested that I climb into my seat while he examined the plane.  I looked at the controls in front and took out my camera.  It wasn't long before we were all buckled in and ready to move.  Capt. Luneau read off a checklist for Lt. Rivas, and the call was made to the Oakland tower requesting permission to depart.  The bounce of the Cessna as we rolled along surprised me, but I breathed deeply, steadying myself.  Pretty soon we were in the air, ascending and heading eastward towards SFO grid 238-B.

A reminder to check 121.5 for ELT's
Imagine our surprise when we checked 121.5, only to hear the familiar whirring of a distress beacon come over the airwaves!  A live ELT?  My eyes and Capt. Luneau's were glued to the direction-finding equipment; it pointed us southeast, toward Livermore.  Capt. Luneau communicated with Oakland base and 1st Lt Allen began the process of getting an AFRCC mission opened.  The distress signal ceased within minutes, however (perhaps the pilot of the plane heard us on the radio or saw our red/white/blue plane overhead and scurried over to check her/his ELT!), and we ended up turning back toward SFO grid 238-B.  

Grid SFO238B
After that, it was a standard grid search.  We boxed the grid, flying from corner to corner to corner, and then utilized the creeping line method to cover the rest of the grid.  I settled into the task of systematic scanning, moving my eyes in an upward invisible line, looking for unusual objects as well as our search objective, the white Bronco.  Once I spotted a white Bronco (or at least what appeared to be a white Bronco), I snapped a picture with my camera, noting our altitude, direction, the time, and our location in my flight log.  Toward the end of the flight, I took the opportunity to call in "ops normal!" to Oakland base.  

All in all, the flight was uneventful in the best sense, and fun was had by all.  Lt. Rivas piloted skillfully, and both he and Capt. Luneau maintained a contagiously reassuring calm, even when my stomach was doing somersaults during our thirty degree banks.

We landed safely at OAK with the sun falling on the horizon.  I had 238 pictures, my final two Mission Scanner SQTR task sign-offs, and an unused plastic baggie as my first-flight reward.

A few of my photos from this flight can be found at

2d Lt Kate Allen is Squadron 188's Assistant Finance Officer and is training for Mission Scanner rating.

Images courtesy of 2d Lt Kate Allen.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Kate for the very good article you wrote. I hope other members see the advantage of participating in these activities so they can be ready for the real thing.

    Lt. Col. Juan Tinnirello, CAP