Thursday, September 25, 2008

Flying a San Francisco Bay Tour

It's been a long time since I posted anything here, but a recent comment about the San Francisco Bay Tour inspired me.

I love flying SF Bay tours. It is one of the greatest ways to introduce non-flyers to general aviation. I've done them during the day and at night, in Cessnas as well as a Citabria taildragger where the passenger gets to experience stick and rudder aviation with amazing views out both sides.

There are a few different ways to fly the Bay Tour. I will describe the procedure when departing from my home field of Palo Alto (PA). After getting the ATIS, I call PAO ground and announce my intentions: "Palo Alto Ground, Cessna 96934 at Romeo 2-8 with Quebec for a Bay Tour." The usual response is taxi instruction and "code on request." Before departure, I am usually assigned a squawk code and cleared for a straight out departure.

As soon as I am airborne, I get a hand-off to San Carlos (SQL) on 119.0. SQL clears me through their Class Delta with instructions to stay west of the Bayshore (US101) above 1400 feet (don't go too high, you are under the Bravo). SQL will hand you off to SFO Tower on 120.5. The Bravo starts right past the Bay Meadows raceway, a race track at the intersection of 101 and 92 just north of SQL. DO NOT ENTER THE BRAVO until cleared. After you report in with SFO, they will eventually clear you through the Bravo, again to the west of the Bayshore and usually at 1500 or so.

If you follow the normal clearance, you will divert slightly to the west, either over the top of Mount San Bruno (with lots of radio towers) or to the left of that. However, if you request a midfield crossing, you will get it 5 times out of 10. Then you can fly right over SFO and rejoin the 101 just to the north. You will exit the Bravo around Twin Peaks and be handed off to Norcal. Keep your eyes and ears sharp. I like to fly straight up through the city, crossing out to the Bay by the marina. Then I make a right 270 around Alcatraz and head straight between the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge. At the bridge, I make a 180 or a 270, depending on how I plan to return. If the coast is clear of clouds, I like to fly straight down to Half Moon Bay (HAF) and then turn inland to return to the field. If you fly this route, announce to Norcal that you are departing for HAF. They will usually terminate radar services right then. You need to look closely at the SF Terminal Area chart to understand the floor of the Bravo along the coast. It is down to 1500 at one point.

If the coast is cloudy, the alternate return is to fly across the Bay to Oakland and then south. You must remain north of the Bay Bridge. You will get several hand-offs, including Oakland (OAK). It's a bit tricky, they will ask you to cross the Oakland Coliseum at 2000 and then direct you to cross the 29 numbers at 1500 before sending you off to the south. There is also a handoff from one tower frequency to another as you cross the field. Of course, you can also request another Bravo transition and just fly back the way you came.

If you are arriving by air instead of departing PAO or SQL, you need to contact Norcal on an appropriate frequency and request a bay tour. My understanding is that you may be given a higher altitude in that case.

If you are local to the area, I encourage you to find a pilot who is a bay tour veteran the first time you go. The mission is well within the skills of a sharp VFR pilot, but there is a lot of traffic and ATC activity. Some people are just more comfortable with a second set of eyes and ears on board.

Have fun!
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