The past few weeks have been one of the biggest roller coasters of my life. After the Doce Fire ended, the town of Prescott sadly lost 19 of our hometown heroes. The Prescott Hot Shots are no strangers to Embry-Riddle, as the flight line is located just down the road from their base at the airport. It has truly been a tragedy and I think its safe to say that everyone in this town is suffering from the loss whether they directly knew the crew or not. Yesterday, a chilling procession of 19 white hearses made their way from Phoenix to Prescott, for a memorial service tomorrow. I happened to be driving back up to Prescott from Phoenix after a short trip home for the 4th of July, and was in shock by the number of people lining the overpasses and sides of the freeway while waiting for the procession to pass by.
In the mean time, since my last post, I have finally completed my multi-engine flight training, and now soaring through my flight instructor coarse. As a member of the “Fast Track” Program (an accelerated CFI program that students apply for to be trained and hired by the school before the end of the summer), I have been conducting several training activities every day to try and make up for lost time. This coarse is truly some of the most difficult and stressful training I have ever had to do, but I can see the light at the end of the tunnel and am working extremely hard to complete it.
Over the 4th of July weekend, I was able to travel back to my home in Northern California for a short change of pace for the first time since winter break. While it was relieving to return home, some unexpected events ended up happening on my short visit. On Saturday July 6, I made plans to rent the Cessna which I received my pilot’s license in nearly three years ago. My little brother, two of my aviation friends, and I decided to go for a fun flight out to lunch in the Bay Area. With wheels off just before 11am, we proceeded south towards our desired destination of Half Moon Bay, a small airport just south of San Francisco International Airport. The flight down was a typical day of flying in the bay: Sunny, 70 degrees, calm winds, and the fog sitting just on the edge of the shoreline down the coast. Being that our aircraft didn’t have the equipment to pick up an IFR clearance into Half Moon, we began circling over the town of Sausalito, to look at our options of places we could go for lunch. While listening in on Oakland Center in the anticipation we would be contacting them for a clearance through the SF airspace, we heard a strange call from another aircraft, “Skywest 389 on the missed out of San Fran, we aren’t going to bother trying, we’d like to divert to Sacramento.” Most people wouldn’t even notice the call, but my friends flying with me, one an airline pilot, knew something was off. Within seconds, the next plane called up on the missed approach asking, “How long will SFO be down? We can hold but if it is going to be a while we will go to Oakland.” At that point something truly was wrong, airplanes do not just begin diverting out of one of the largest airports in the world, especially with the beautiful conditions that morning. As we listened in, more and more aircraft began calling in to center asking for information about where they could divert, hold, and how long the airport would be closed. International flights inbound from Singapore, Germany, and the Netherlands, were all choosing to divert to Oakland International, an airport typically only used for cargo and domestic aircraft. We tuned in the frequency for HIWAS (Hazardous Inflight Weather Advisory Service) only to hear “Notice to airmen: San Francisco International Airport Closed until further notice.” But what could be causing this? Was there an accident? Did something happen at or in the airport? Being that air traffic control was so busy, we decided to switch to another frequency to get our clearance down to our new destination that we decided would be Palo Alto. I called the approach frequency and asked if it would be possible to even get to the airport and was told I could get there, but would have to divert around San Francisco and go over Oakland. We proceeded over Oakland at 2000ft and watched as the airport took in some of the largest aircraft in the world. I witnessed an A380, the worlds largest commercial airliner, touch down, and quickly followed by a 747 that was inbound to SF from Amsterdam. At that moment I looked across the bay to SFO, only to see a massive cloud of smoke. I got the chills realizing that everything we had just witnessed was an accident of some kind, and there was a serious emergency in progress. Before I knew it I was being transferred from controller to controller, switching frequencies relaying messages to different towers, and attempting to stay focused on getting to our destination. We crossed the bay and landed in Palo Alto after a 40 minute flight of absolute shock and chaos. Upon landing, we still did not know what had actually happened, but found out quickly when we walked into the airport building to see breaking news on CNN with a Boeing 777 off of the runway and on fire. Initial reports were saying things such as the plane had hit wind shear, or hit birds, but I knew that they couldn’t be correct with such a massive and reliable aircraft on such a perfect day to fly. We decided to get a cab and go into town for lunch, and tried to get more information about what was going on, and how we could go about with our plans for the rest of the day.
After a few hours in town, we took back off and began our trip home. Although we didn’t stop for long, we found some gaps in the clouds and managed to stop in Half Moon Bay for another hour or so. We were able to get an IFR clearance out of the airport with the required equipment to meet the departure and enroute procedures, and punched through the fog layer on our way back up north. On the way back, we passed by SFO and were able to see the aircraft still sitting next to the runway. At this point the airport had been partially opened with just two runways instead of the four that they usually use simultaneously. We descended into the vineyard filled valleys of Sonoma County and landed just before dinner time. That day was truly the most intense flight I have ever had in my entire flying career, and an eye opener to the realities of flying. As a pilot, you never know what will happen, or how things will go, even on the most normal of normal days. Always be prepared for absolutely any circumstances, and always have several options ready if something changes. I learned more than on any other day I’ve had in an aircraft, and am thankful I was able to stay safe and keep my friends safe during such chaos.