Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Shakedown Cruise, Part II

Predicted rain again failed to materialize, and the fourth day of our motorcycle trip dawned clear and crisp over Shelter Cove, CA. A thick cloud bank roiled just offshore, threatening a change of weather should we linger too long. I was excited to be going, as we would finally be riding a stretch of road I'd never driven, to a place I'd never been other than just passing through. The weather was again forcing a change in plans, this time delaying our arrival to Redding by a day. A happy side effect was the addition of today's leg down US-101 to Napa Valley.

But first we had Shelter Cove Road to pass again. I needn't have worried, for Dawn tackled it with skill that belied her fourth-day rider status. She was starting to relax and really enjoy the trip, which made it all the better for me. We were back in Redway not 40 minutes after leaving Shelter Cove, and eating breakfast at the House of Burgess in Garberville shortly thereafter. There was no threat of rain now; the sun was shining brightly through the redwoods and we could cover the 150 miles to Napa Valley in leisurely fashion, if we so chose.

In fact it went rather quickly. The section of US-101 south of Leggitt, which I'd never been on, is mostly four-lane highway, albeit the rather fun type with lots of fast sweepers through several pretty valleys. It's a split personality road, though: every once in a while it abruptly narrows to two lanes, slows down, and snakes through a dense redwood grove, or twists over a ridge, or shimmies along a cliff. Just as suddenly it opens back up and you're again cruising on an expressway hacked through the wilderness. To me this is the perfect kind of road: enough variety to keep things interesting while the miles fly right by.

South of Cloverdale the road straightened out and the terrain opened up as wine country began in earnest. We were making good time to Calistoga, our destination for the day, so we turned onto CA-128 at Geyserville to take the scenic route. It was an unexpected treat, a quiet stretch of good blacktop alongside neat vineyards hemmed by prim rows of Valley Oak. We tucked in behind a Harley with two helmeted riders festooned with Iron Butt Association regalia, and then were quickly left behind in a thunderous cannonade as they charged into a twisty section through a brookside oak-copse. Not your typical Harley riders, I thought as they disappeared around a tight right-hander in a Moto-GP lean. I kept the FZ1 at a dignified trot and soaked up the glorious afternoon sun.

After checking into the lovely Wine Way Inn in cute-as-a-button downtown Calistoga, Dawn and I continued down the valley two-up on her FZ6. St Helena, Rutherford, and Yountville proved to be equally as pleasant, with dozens of inviting wineries in between each town. I was starting to see the appeal of Napa Valley, my only previous experience with which was one hurried pass through urban Napa years ago. In the interest of staying upright and DUI-free, we limited ourselves to one wine tasting, but found a few really nice wines to take home. In Napa we turned around and completed our circuit of the valley via the Silverado Trail as the sun disappeared over the hills. Back in Calistoga, we parked the bike and walked down Lincoln Avenue for a very nice dinner - best meatloaf ever! - at the Flatiron Grill. After that we enjoyed a quiet night of reading and sipping wine back at the B&B, which felt a great deal more civilized than most motorcycle trips I've been on!

Thursday morning was fairly chilly but at least clear, and the sun had warmed the valley considerably by the time we finished breakfast, loaded the bikes, and headed north on CA-29. The route over the Mayacamas Mountains looked worse than Shelter Cove Road on the map but actually turned out to be quite easy. North of the summit, we crossed into Lake County and the road was quite good and fast. I'd seen the area around Clear Lake many times from the air but never from the ground; I didn't realize how sparsely developed the area is, particularly between Clear Lake and Williams. Failing to find an opportune gas station, we coasted down to the central valley on mere fumes. After filling up, we headed north on I-5, the first stretch of freeway we'd seen in five days and 900 miles. We covered the 100 miles to Redding astonishingly fast and still got passed with regularity. Interstate travel may be somewhat lacking in charm but it is certainly efficient.

My sister Rachel was still in classes when we arrived in town so we headed to the nearest Cycle Gear store, drooled over many things, and purchased a few things I deemed necessary for the subfreezing temperatures expected over the passes on Friday - namely insulated gloves and riding pants for Dawn. After meeting up with Rachel, we were convoying to her apartment when Dawn accidently killed her bike in the left-turn lane of a busy intersection. When she attempted to restart it, the battery slowly turned the engine over for a few seconds and gave up. I parked the FZ1 and ran out into the street to pushstart the Fz6, and then rode it around for 20 minutes in low gear in an attempt to charge the battery back up. No luck, it was still quite dead when I got back. Back we went to Cycle Gear to purchase our second motorcycle battery in three days. Once I swapped it out, my "test drive" conveniently included a fast ride up Shasta Dam Road with my sister on the back in time to catch the sunset over the Trinity Alps.

I spent the night with an anxious eye on the Caltrans and ODOT webcams at Black Butte Summit and Siskiyou Pass. At 3900' and 4300' respectively, these were the highest points on our trip and had been receiving quite a bit of winter weather, our reason for delaying this leg by a day. Friday was forecast to be clear before snow moved in again on Saturday, but subfreezing temperatures were expected overnight and I was concerned about melting snow freezing on the roadway. I've had a few experiences with ice on motorcycles and while they did not result in crashes, I have no desire to repeat them nor to expose Dawn to similar situations. The temperature at Siskiyou Summit was 22 degrees when we woke up on Friday morning.

To compensate, we left Redding a little on the late side, which I'd rather not have done since we were hoping to make it all 430 miles back to Vancouver WA on Friday. I hadn't really looked at the map, I didn't realize that it was an hour's ride from Redding to Black Butte Summit, and thus the sun had warmed the air to a balmy 28 degrees by the time we crossed it at 11am. There were a few patches of snow around but no ice on the roadway, so I felt alot better about Siskiyou Pass when we stopped for brunch in Yreka. There was actually no trace of snow at the summit, and we cruised down the north side into Medford OR luxuriating in the nice warm, 50 degree air.

We only stopped twice after breakfast, both times to refuel. I kept asking Dawn (via intercom) whether she would like to stop to rest, and she always replied that she felt good. The FZ6 turned out to be a better cross-country machine than I hoped, with a comfortable stock saddle that minimized monkey-butt and an upright riding position with very little pressure on the wrists. Dawn did complain of a stiff neck throughout the trip due to excessive wind striking her helmet with the stock short windscreen, so we ordered a taller model when we got home.

I let Dawn lead pretty much all day. After six straight days of riding, it was amazing to see the giant strides she had made in confidence and ability. Back on the Sunday we started out, we stopped at our old favorite bagel shop for coffee and bagels before our training sessions, and she had confessed that she was pretty terrified of getting on the bike. It had been 9 months since she last rode a little Virago 250 in the MSF class, and she had dropped that twice on the first day. I reassured her but privately wondered if I was pushing her to bite off more than she could chew. Now, I followed her over a winding section of I-5, admiring her riding style. She consistently chose good lines through the turns, used the brakes and throttle judiciously, and showed keen awareness in dealing with other traffic.

That said, she wasn't exactly always the model student. On one 45mph-rated curve, she slowed to a sensible 55 mph, leaned hard left, kicked her inboard knee out, and pinned the throttle. The howl of her 97-horsepower inline-4 reached inside my helmet and I found her pulling away from my 147-hp FZ1 rather rapidly. "Uhh, Dawn...?" I activated the intercom as she came out of the turn, mild concern in my voice.

"What's a matter?" she responded innocently.

"Check your speed." I was showing a bit over 80mph.

"Ooh! I didn't realize I was going that fast!"

Yep, I'm gonna have to keep an eye on this one....

Our arrival was considerably slower, as we spent the last 20 miles in stop-and-go rush hour traffic. Finally, a bit before 6pm, we pulled into Brad's driveway, 1440 miles after we left the previous Sunday. I shook Dawn's hand rather officiously, then gave her a hug and a "well done." Brad and his neighbors invited us to a BBQ they were kicking off as we pulled up. A few beers and burgers and a soak in the hot tub later, the 430 miles of the day were but an abstraction of memory. That will be a pretty average ride our Alaska trip, for days on end, on slower and rougher roads than I-5. I can't wait, and now neither can Dawn.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Shakedown Cruise

It was Dawn's idea in the first place to take motorcycles down the west coast in the first week of April, during her Spring Break. She had a brand-new-to-her 2005 Yamaha FZ6 waiting in Portland. I bought it for our planned trip to Alaska this June, but she quite sensibly balked at the idea of riding 6000 miles through wilderness on a bike she'd never been on. A trip down the west coast would be a perfect chance for her to build experience and would serve as a "shakedown cruise" for this year's big adventure to the Last Frontier.

I said no. The Pacific Northwest weather is too fickle in April. We'd have other chances to do it before June. I'd been over the route before. I'd have to borrow a buddy's bike, the surest test of a friendship. I wanted to go to China after years of intending to visit soon. Dawn agreed; China it would be.

And then our spring break plans were once again shattered, this time by a tragedy in Dawn's family. Her aunt Becky, who we had lived with once and were pretty close to, suffered a massive stroke during a comparatively routine surgury. For a week she clung to life with friends and family in constant attendance before passing away peacefully, surrounded by her ten siblings. It was a week before we were due to leave, and obviously family came first. We canceled our China plans to attend Becky's wake and funeral and to be with Dawn's family. Oddly enough, the remainder of Dawn's Spring Break was perfect for a six-day motorcycle trip down the west coast. The weather forecast was favorable. My friend Brad loaned me his 2006 Yamaha FZ1 without a moments hesitation. For the second year in a row, our Spring Break overseas travel plans were upset but replaced with a very enjoyable domestic trip on two wheels.

We landed in Portland late on Saturday April 2 and woke the next morning to grey skies and an ominous forecast: two inches of rain on the Oregon coast on Monday. Those are ugly conditions for an experienced rider, to say nothing of a novice, so I compressed our "training day" into a few hours to depart Portland a day early, on Sunday afternoon. Dawn practiced low-speed maneuvering in a parking lot for 30 minutes, took a few spins around Brad's neighborhood, and then took a ride around Vancouver (WA). I followed on Brad's FZ1 and offered tips and encouragement over our bluetooth bike-to-bike intercom. With that we were off to the coast, me leading a very anxious Dawn through the traffic of downtown Portland and the endless stoplights of Highway 99W. Past McMinnville, we exited onto OR-18 to Lincoln City. This is the least steep and winding of the routes of through the coast range, but still has enough curves to be thoroughly enjoyable if I weren't worried about how my new rider was doing.

I needn't have worried. The FZ6 is a wonderfully nimble, responsive bike, and Dawn carved through the turns like a seasoned pro from the very start. Our riding became progressively harder over the first three days but Dawn showed herself up to the challenge. By the end of the trip, it was her leading me back into Portland.

Threatening skies held their peace as we headed south on US-101 from Lincoln City; only after we reached our destination for the day did drizzle start falling through the gathering darkness. We were a day early for our reservation at Heceta Head Lightstation Bed and Breakfast, but the innkeepers were more than accommodating - not only switching nights but also upgrading us to a room with a view of the lighthouse and the angry-looking seas beyond.

The B&B is situated in the former innkeepers' cozy house, an 1893 Queen Anne with a white picket fence surrounding a neatly trimmed yard hemmed by the towering pines of Heceta Head. After we unpacked and explored the grounds it began to rain in earnest, just in time for our ride to Florence for dinner. We ended up just picking up some groceries from Fred Meyer, so as to ride back to the lighthouse before the steep, winding, rough, and wet road was completely dark. Thankfully we were both riding on Dawn's FZ6 and she had but to hold on from the back seat.

Our evening was quiet but very pleasant: a light dinner of hot sandwiches followed by hot tea and reading and chatting with other guests around the fireplace. Once we retired to bed, I fell asleep to the sounds of crashing surf and rain pelting the windowpane as the lighthouse beam swept by our window every 10 seconds.

Despite the light dinner I was unprepared for the seven-course assault on my stomach of the next morning. Every offering was delicious but I couldn't help protesting each time the chef emerged with another dish - but I cleaned my plate every time, of course. Our fellow guests were all friendly and witty, which is good because breakfast lasted an hour and a half! It was 10am by the time we waddled out to our motorcycles.

The rain of the night had ended and although another wave was coming in, lighter skies beckoned to the south. The air was chilly but we were both pretty well bundled up. It seemed so recently that I had followed the same route south on my BMW, but in fact it was December 2009. We had a late, light lunch in Gold Beach, which I know from my days flying for Ameriflight. South of Port Orford, we paused to take photos of a dramatic stretch of coastline I'd admired on my last trip. The clouds were thinning and the day warming; I was relieved that we apparently outrode the forecast rain. Dawn was riding the curvy sections of US-101 with considerable skill and more confidence than the previous day.

We arrived in Crescent City, CA, around 4pm and considered our options. The original plan was to proceed to Klamath, spend the night, and ride to Redding via Eureka the following day, tuesday. However, the forecast suggested we'd be stuck in Redding for a few days before the passes into Oregon on I-5 would be passable by motorcycle. Besides, we were a day ahead of schedule - why not take our time and explore further south? We decided to spend the night in Crescent City and ride to Shelter Cove on the Lost Coast the following day.

We were still stuffed so we skipped dinner altogether and instead explored the area on Dawn's FZ6. Crescent City itself was considerably less charming than I'd assumed, but the surroundings were beautiful. We walked to Battery Point Lighthouse and rode the first 15 miles or so of Highway 199 through breathtakingly gorgeous redwood groves. I wanted to venture further but the light was fading, so we retreated to our cheap-but-clean motel room, which disappointingly did not come with a sea view and a living room with a roaring fire and a 120-year old lighthouse faithfully showing the way just outside our bedroom window. In the words of one of my favorite movies, "We don't want to spoil the girl!"

The next day dawned bright and beautiful, with pink wispy clouds floating in from the sea and over the solemn redwoods. I was really excited about the stretch of US-101 south of Crescent City. It was one of my favorite stretches from the 2009 ride. Sadly it was less spectactular than I remembered, certainly less than the section of US-199 we rode the previous evening. Memory is a tricky thing. Fortunately I detoured onto the Newtown B. Drury Parkway through Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park and was rewarded with a road that bested the US-101 that had existed in my memory. We stopped for a hike at "The Big Tree," which lived up to its name.

We stopped in Eureka to attend to some pressing business. Brad had warned me that his FZ1's battery was having trouble holding a charge overnight, and indeed we had to push start it in the morning at Heceta Head and again in Crescent City. In Eureka we visited the local Yamaha dealer to inquire about a new battery. I was gobstopped to learn that the OEM replacement battery, indeed the only compatible battery they had in stock, was $214. I knew it shouldn't run more than $90 but the only other nearby motorcycle store was closed on Monday and not wishing to tarry in Eureka, I ponied up. I'm sure they thought "what a sucker!"

We stopped in the charming Victorian town of Ferndale for lunch and continued southward via the Avenue of the Giants. I'd done at least a portion of this ride in 2009 but don't remember it being so fantastic. Having a sunny day to send narrow beams of light piercing down through the majestic gloom certainly elevated the cathedral effect. I opened my visor, breathed deeply of crisp, piney air, and enjoyed the ride. When a series of tight curves slowed our progress a bit, my intercom came alive with a squeal of delight. "This is FUN!" Dawn exclaimed. I glanced in my mirrors for the first time in a while. She was right on my tail, leaned over hard in a tight left hand turn with her low knee slung out and her eyes out around the curve, a grin hidden behind her helmet but evident in her voice. I could have burst with pride.

At Redway we turned off for our object of the day, Shelter Cove. It is a lonely outpost of the Lost Coast, so called because even the intrepid road engineers of the 1930s deemed it too rugged to be traversed. Highway 101 veers inland to the north, and CA-1 squiggles its way back down to the sea at the southern end. Shelter Cove is in fact the only town along this stretch of coast, and the only access is either via light airplane (an airstrip forms the town's nucleus) or a winding, deteriorated narrow little strip of asphalt flung over 23 miles of mountains from Redway.

If I'd been on that road before, I'd probably have declined to do it again with a novice rider along. Very little of it was easy riding, and for the finale it climbs straight up and over the last ridge in a series of tight, steep switchbacks. On the way down, Dawn's voice made it clear that she was no longer having fun. I dropped behind her and coached her through it. Despite her anxiety, she had exactly the right idea: coast along in low gear, brake to a near halt before the tightest turns, then let go and swoop around them before gravity builds your speed back up.

Our reward for the last challenging bit of riding was a neat, quiet town with a lovely view of the ocean and stunning coastline in either direction. We rode the local roads as far as they would take us, then relaxed the evening away, sharing a bottle of wine outside our cabin as the sun sank to the sea. After sunset I built a crackling fire in the wood stove, which combined with the distant crashing of waves to lull me to sleep without even a thought that we'd have to ride the same treacherous road first thing in the morning.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Growth and Rumors of Growth

Rumors are a constant fixture of airline life. People trapped in aluminum cylinders for hours on end will talk to pass the time, and seldom limit their conversations to unembellished, supported facts lest they die of boredom! Union politics, management backroom wheeling and dealing, the latest "stupid pilot tricks," scandalous layover love triangles - the topics are limitless. Nearly any source will do: buddies, friends twice removed, check airmen, assistant chief pilots, sim instructors, flight attendants, maintenance guys, some random guy who overheard a VP on his cell phone.

The most common rumors concern growth; new airplanes are perpetually just around the corner. Everyone wants to believe it, because everyone benefits from an instant shot of seniority. Without growth, the only way to move up is when someone else moves out. In times like these when the majors aren't hiring and Age 65 has the codgers "flying till they die," only growth has the power to turn FOs into Captains and reservists into lineholders.

Horizon's seniority list was especially stagnant, so growth rumors were constant; everyone desperately wanted them to be true. We were getting more Q400s; we were going to fly for Northwest. We were converting the Q200s to freighters and starting a cargo operation. We were getting Embraer 195s - in fact, engineers were in the PDX hangar figuring out how to modify the door to accommodate the E195! Bill the airport shuttle van driver said so!

What actually happened was that Horizon lost their Frontier JetExpress contract three years into a 12 year deal, brought those CRJ-700s back to the Horizon side and put them on unprofitable short routes, sold half of them, then sold all their Q200s to CommutAir, replaced them with fewer Q400s, withdrew from a bunch of small markets that couldn't support a 76 seat airplane, and then leased the remaining CRJs to Skywest to fly Horizon's former routes as Alaska Express. Horizon is 30 airplanes smaller than when I left in 2007.

There have been rumors at NewCo, too. We were going to fly as Alaska Express. WidgetCo was furious with Republic becoming a competitor by purchasing Frontier and Midwest, and was going to terminate their feed contracts and give the flying to us. For the last six months, there were persistent rumors of new JungleBuses, albeit a smaller version than we fly now. Management consistently denied specific rumors while coyly suggesting that our new ownership certainly opened the door to additional flying.

About a month ago I was flying with Jay, one of our most senior flight attendants and also the head of NewCo's flight attendant union. "So have you heard of any rumors of new airplanes?" he asked me before our flight to Vancouver. "Naw," I replied with a grin, "Not much. Just that we're getting ten airplanes from Australia and Italy and they're coming this summer." Jay nodded seriously. "Yes, that's basically it. The announcement comes out Monday."

I politely suppressed a chortle, because not once in my career has an "impending announcement" rumor come true. I quickly forgot about what Jay said, and indeed Monday came and went without a hint of an announcement. But a few days later, I was sitting at home when I got a call from Mitch, a Horizon friend who recently came to NewCo.

"Dude, you hear about the new planes!?" he asked excitedly.

"Suure! Pretty much constantly for the last six months!" was my sardonic reply.

"No, it's for real this time. Check your company email!"

So for once a growth rumor came true, and it was even pretty accurate. NewCo is getting 12 used JungleBusses, six from Alitalia and six from Virgin Blue, at a rate of one a month starting around June. NewCo will grow 33% over one year, from 36 aircraft to 48. I'd probably be more excited about it if I were on the cusp of an upgrade or was just about to hold weekends off or was nearly off reserve. But being a senior Captain, the growth will have very little impact on me.

I can't help but note that this isn't true growth, but a capacity reshuffling. Widget's available seat-miles are remaining essentially flat from last year. Some of our growth likely replaces Widget DC9-30s and -40s that were parked last year and the -50s that will be parked this year. As someone who would like to fly for Widget soon, that's not a good thing. I would rather see mainline aircraft replace mainline aircraft (and in a perfect world, replace regional aircraft too!).

For the most part, though, we're growing at the expense of Comair. Those poor guys don't seem to have a friend in the world. Widget management has been rather vindictive to Comair since their pilot strike ten years ago, and is now apparently intent on dismantling them piece by piece. Regional pilots are mostly sympathetic to the Comair pilots' plight but of course stand to gain from their misfortune. Widget pilots generally range from neutral to downright gleeful over the situation. There's a lot of bad blood there, much of which stems from a few very public spats the respective unions had in the late 90s and early 2000s. A surprising number of Widget pilots bear a grudge over the Comair strike itself, feeling that it cost mainline so much money that it helped lead to eventual bankruptcy. These are usually the same crusty old types who gripe about regional pilots working for slave wages; God forbid it's one of their slaves that revolts for 89 days.

So really what's happening here isn't any different from the situation with Alaska and Horizon and Skywest. Flying is being transferred from one carrier to another largely based on who pays their employees less money. It's the latest round in the twisted game of musical chairs that is the regional airline industry, and I'm not sure that grabbing a seat this time is really cause for celebration when you're still stuck playing the game.

That said, you can also look at it this way: Comair was going to lose that flying no matter what. Widget could have awarded it to Republic or Skywest or Pinnacle. I have nothing against those carriers (well, the first two anyways) and have friends at each, who I would be happy to see benefit from growth. But I have a lot more close friends at NewCo, and I'm very glad to see them moving up and gaining the quality of life that I've enjoyed simply because I got here a few months before them. I'm sure that at some point NewCo will be the one left standing without a chair, but like everyone else at the regional airlines, I hope that my friends and I are long gone when that happens.