Tour de Tower

How can one Saturday be so jammed full of things to do? Maybe this is where split personalities come in handy. Saturday, Feb. 26th was originally confirmed for Women in Aviation Int’l in Reno, Nevada. Our tour of the Travis AFB tower was conveniently planned for the week before. But alas, plans, planets and dates shifted and we were treated to an absolutely, exquisite day at the base.
(The weekend before would have been wet, gray and cold.)

Lieutenant Cliff Cochran had come to a Petaluma Pilot meeting discussing tour operations and radar services provided by Travis Approach. An ‘Ah ha!” moment had me introducing myself and asking if Cliff could give a tour of the tower to our 99s. Great guy, no problems! Travis Approach has always been like walking out your front door and sauntering down to the curb to pick up your newspaper. It’s perched at the funnel of the bay environment sorting out traffic as it climbs into the skies of central California. For years I’ve flown wing to wing with C130s and C-5s as they are doing pattern work and I’m skedadalling home to O69.

Now that our flying activity calendar is up on the web, thanks to Valerie, our little flying related adventures have become attractive to lots of people. Mary Jo and Heidi of Santa Rosa 99s, joined our group to explore the machinations of traffic separation. Nina, Pat and Joe, Pa t and family, Ruth and son, Cathy and Jeff, Beth and Rich, Sarah and Gerry, friends Jim and Barbara, newbie pilot Kimberly Anne, Don and I represented the Marin County 99s.

Between e-mail and carpools we all arrived for an absolute military moment: ‘hurry up and wait’ to register to get on the base. It was an hour of induction, security checks, picture taken and passes created to get us official. It was the long arm of the TSA. Cliff and a good friend of mine, Master Sergeant Randy Robb, were there to greet us and help negotiate our entry. Finally the seal of approval and off we went to learn all about air traffic control.

Being 22 souls we split into two groups; one up 11 stories to the tower and the other into the dungeon of Rapcon. (Radar approach control) The tower has exquisite views of the delta plain, 10,000’ feet of runway, Mt. Diablo, and snow capped peaks defining the horizon. A C-5 and C-17 were working the pattern. It’s amazing to see how short those giant planes can land.

The base maintains 30 C-5s and numerous other transport planes that support the Pacific and Middle East. Several of the controllers had just returned from Iraq and were loving the lack of security issues. Their biggest decision was which donut to nibble on. We had brought 3 dozen to fuel the troops. Everyone knows that’s what powers the military. My thoughts always wander to “who cleans the windows?’. They were sparkling on this sunny winter day. Off to the south massive windmills ply the venturi of the delta breeze. You can see the windmills as bleeps on the radar screens, they’re that big.

Down in Rapcon the only lights are the diodes off the radar screens and leds. Voices are hushed as the controllers handle and pass off aircraft transiting their airspace. ATC is one of the best bargains our FAA provides. Travis is unique in that the military supports civilian traffic too. You’ll find their jargon ‘by the book’, with a few sirs and mams thrown in. They are another eye in the sky. When the whole landscape is filled with population density, and every highway looks like a runway, ATC will get you to the approach. They have been my friend for countless cross country trips across barren landscapes, I’ve exchanged recipes while on a hold over Skaggs VOR and gotten updates on sporting events. These people behind the mic do an absolutely essential and incredible job keeping the metal from scraping and bending. They are professional, courteous and get us down when the wx is chewing on our egos. The three items of information they prefer when you are handed off are; tail ID, destination and type of aircraft. A pilot doesn’t have to be shoveling out the info at light speed. These folks listen at the same speed we do and appreciate clear enunciation.

Back out in the brisk winter sunshine Sgt. Robb took over and got us up close and personal with a C-5c. These are the behemoths of the sky; the plane the sun disappears behind when they’re traversing overhead. For 50 years they’ve been shuttling heavy equipment, tanks, vehicles, troops and supplies to the far reaches of our military web. We all got to clamor up 30’ to the flight deck, amazed that the upholstery, interior and panel still looks 50 years old. All the whiz bang, next gen, bells and whistles do not keep these aircraft aloft. These are the work horses, steadily and reliably plodding along doing the job without the glamour of the new members of aviation. The C5 would have been inconceivable to the Wright brothers 100 years ago. You look up at these giants amazed that physics and materials have created an incredible flying platform.

By now there’s a whole bunch of hungry tourists. We got to enjoy another feature of the base, the Base Exchange. The BX at Travis supports many military families of northern CA since most bases in CA closed down. It’s like a giant mall with a little bit if everything. After lunch most of us took off. Beth, Rich, Nina and Jim hadn’t seen it all and went to check out the aviation museum with lots of planes and exhibits.

Our sincere thanks go to Cliff and Randy for volunteering to be our guides and giving up their Saturday for us. We owe them our deepest respect and gratitude. ATC is a vital and unique part of aviation that makes our flying life so much easier and successful. Great friends, great fun, great flying!

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