“Cessna 69N, 20 miles south of Atwater, say intentions?” asked NORCAL Approach.
“Request ILS 31 approach into Atwater” responded I.
“Descend and maintain 5000, fly heading 310”
“Roger” said I and eased back the throttle to 2000rpm to start a slow descent from the 8000ft we were flying on our way to Atwater and turned to a heading of 310.
The VSI still stayed at zero. The tachometer read 2000 rpm.
What was going on?
It did not look like we were descending even an inch. I pulled back some more to 1500 rpm. Still nothing happened. I scanned the other instruments to take stock of the situation. It was only a month ago that I had flown. I couldn’t possibly have forgotten how to fly. What was I missing. As I glanced over the airspeed indicator, it read 80 knots. My heart skipped a beat. We were slowing down.
Kevin and I had decided to fly to Atwater and visit the Castle Air Museum that day. He and I have been trying to fly whenever our schedules allowed it. While he played safety pilot for me, I reciprocated by being his safety pilot. I was hoping that San Luis would be blanketed in low clouds and fog as is common after a few days of hot weather. But the day loomed clear and sunny in San Luis.
Still there was hope.
Merced, which was the closest airport to Atwater with automated weather information was indicating ceilings of 100. The cloud layer was expected to start clearing any time after 10am. Meeting at 9am, Kevin and I discussed our options. I wanted to ensure that he was okay with flying in actual IFR as he did not have his IFR rating yet and would have to rely on my skills. We decided to get another briefing at 10am and if conditions improved we would file and fly to Atwater.
The second briefing proved much better. Though VFR flight was not recommended, ceilings were expected to be higher. Moreover, Stockton airport to the north of Atwater was already clear. So we had a good alternate airport to fly to in case, Atwater proved unapproachable. Finally at 10:30 we set off on an IFR flight plan. Once level at 8000ft with autopilot on, there was nothing much to do but enjoy our surroundings. As usual fate had played its turn. Not a cloud graced our direct flight path. Clouds laced to the east and west, but at our altitude and direction of flight, there was not a chance that we could even graze through one by chance.
Returning to the moment at hand, all sorts of thoughts raced through my mind. What was I forgetting? I scanned the instrument panel again. Of course the autopilot! “It’s the autopilot” said Kevin, echoing my thoughts. The autopilot had been on, all this time. Reducing the power, had caused the airplane to slow down, in order to maintain the altitude. Disconnecting the autopilot, with a sigh of relief, we started our descent.
Atwater was at one time an Air Force base, but now is open to public. It has huge runway long enough that a Cessna 172 could perform 3 landings in one go. The airport itself feels eerie. Landing there and taxing to the transient parking we realized that there was not an airplane in sight in fact we had the whole airport to ourselves. It almost felt like an abandoned airport. After tying down the aircraft, we headed out to the Castle Museum, 7/10th of a mile from the airport.
Castle Museum boasts of 49 aircraft most from the world war era and even includes an SR-71.
After a refreshing afternoon spent at the museum, we were ready to head home. Trip back was almost event less. Main challenge for me as safety pilot was to keep Kevin out of the clouds!