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Solo Cross Country Flight: Starting to Feel Like a Real Pilot

The fun just never seems to stop for me these days, though it doesn’t always feel that way during the day.

After my long night flight a few weeks ago, it was so nice to get back to flying during the day.  Even when I fly at work I prefer flying during the day.  It is just so much more enjoyable seeing everything around you as you cruise along.  I also feel like my situational awareness is leaps and bounds better during the day, which is to be expected.

For my next flight I was planning to go solo cross-country, with the intent to knock out my long sortie requirement since the weather was so good.  As the day approached, I decided to be a little more ambitious, and knock out all five hours of solo cross-country time in one shot.  The sun ended up setting before I could finish, but it was still a good run.

I took off from Stead (KRTS) in a plane completely full of fuel on a warm afternoon, which meant it was a long climb up to 8500′ even when you are starting at 5000′.  No worries though as I mentioned that it was a beautiful day and I was thrilled to be in the air.  There were a couple of bumps on climb-out which is also to be expected when you fly through the mountains.  A completely smooth flight is essentially unheard of in this part of the world.

This is one of my favorite ridges to cross. We often do what is called a zoom climb in the C-130 here which gives you about 2-2.5k feet in a matter of seconds. I know that is no fighter stuff, but for a heavy that is pretty good.

My first leg would take me up to Susanville, CA (KSVE) which led me to fly through one of the areas that we often train in for work in the C-130.  It is so fun to fly through some of these same areas at a much lower speed and really get to enjoy more of the scenery.  It is also a trip to be the one at the controls.  Getting eyes on the Susanville airport proved to be quite challenging despite the small town that it is a part of.  Normally, you can look for an area that is a little more sparsely populated and that will help, but the whole area is pretty sparsely populated, so nothing really stood out.  I knew about where it should be though so I set up for a 45 to downwind based on the winds, and right about the time I wanted to enter the downwind, the runway popped up in front of me.

At this point, it dawned on me again that I was in an airplane all by myself again.  The last time I had done this was at Stead where I had already made dozens of landings with an instructor by my side.  Now I was at a brand new airport, that I had never seen, landing the plane all by myself.  I gave myself a little pep talk as I turned base and told myself it was no different from the other landings I had done by myself.  In hindsight I kind of wish I had done a touch and go at Stead before departing just to remind myself I knew what I was doing.  Fortunately, I still knew what I was doing and, while I floated it a little after coming in high, I landed smoothly and taxied clear well before the end.

After landing and pulling off the runway I had another one of those yell for joy moments like I did on my first solo.  It was the most incredible feeling to be out on the road all by myself.  I am once again somewhat speechless as I think back on it.

When you have wanted to do something for as long as I have wanted to be a pilot, it seems completely surreal that I am actually doing it.  It doesn’t even matter that it is not an airliner or some other big aircraft, pretty soon I will actually be a licensed pilot.

Stopped at Susanville and enjoying the glory of my first solo cross-country landing.

After taking a minute to enjoy the moment, I sent a message to my CFI, and my wife, to let them know I was safe.  Then after a drink and a quick look at the iPad I lined back up for another takeoff.  With the runway being a bit shorter I decided a notch of flaps wouldn’t be a bad idea, which I am glad I did, because it was definitely the most runway I have used for a takeoff.  I would have been fine either way, but it is always nice to have a safety buffer.  Leaving Susanville, I was also a little leery about birds because I know there are a lot in the area with the large lake east of the airport.

No worries though as I climbed out away from the town with no problems.  I fly in this area all of the time for work, and I was pretty much lined up on the run-in that we use for airdrops which was also fun.  I’m pretty sure there are no restrictions for flying in that area, and I knew none of our planes were flying on a Friday night, but I decided it would be better to just continue my climb so I could pick up some true airspeed.  It was still cool to see the area from a different perspective though.

Pyramid Lake is a great warm fuzz for navigation because it is huge, and easy to reset your bearings if you aren’t quite sure where you are.

This leg took me across the northern edge of Pyramid Lake, which is a great visual landmark in the area.  Right now the lake is super full with good spring runoff and a few little rainstorms we have had recently.  It is also one of the common areas for us to practice maneuvers because there are obviously no mountains in the middle of a large lake, and there are some great flat beaches along the shore in the event of engine problems.  I considered practicing some maneuvers, but decided my energy was better spent focusing on the task at hand, as well as making sure I got back before sunset.

After passing Pyramid Lake I crossed a bunch of the North-South running ridges that are all over Nevada.  It was a good reminder of how easily you could get lost if you aren’t paying attention, because they all look alike.  Those same ridges made for a bit of a different arrival into my next airport; Lovelock (KLOL).  Having to stay high over the ridges I pulled the engine almost to idle and started a more rapid descent into the airport than I did when I came in here at night.  It is amazing how different airfields look at night, and I was glad to come back and get that perspective.

Lovelock may not be real pretty, but…yeah, it just isn’t very pretty.

Being as high as I was, I decided to do a bit of an overhead pattern to set up for the landing, which proved to be uneventful.  Something that I was grateful for after every landing.  They say any landing you walk away from is a good one, but I was grateful for no real issues other than maybe not being as close to centerline as I would like, or it not being as smooth as I would like.

Leaving Lovelock would be my shortest leg so I spent a little extra time making sure I had my frequencies squared away as well as looking at the airspace for Fallon Municipal (KFLX) as it sits right on the edge of NAS Fallon’s airspace, and I had heard them recovering aircraft on the radio only about half an hour before.  This would also prove to be the bumpiest leg flying over a bunch of fields that had been warming up with the sun sitting high.  I am quite familiar with turbulence from work, but it is always rougher in a small plane.  Knowing just how durable planes are makes the whole thing easier to tolerate.

Fallon almost felt like home after flying over so much open land for so long.

At this point I was about half way through my sortie and this would be the first traffic I encountered.  As I was setting up for a 45 to downwind there was another aircraft taking off from the field.  We both communicated clearly, and I thought he would just fall in behind me, but instead he decided to bug out, so I had the pattern to myself.  It was nice to get back to a field I had been to before as well as an area I had previously flown the Cherokee in.  I think those factors contributed to this being one of my better landings of the day.  After a quick stop for a text to my CFI I was on my way back towards busier airspace.

This is exactly what I would experience flying over a couple of smaller airports, including an amazing airpark that I would love to live at, but a few simple radio calls made the whole thing a non-issue.  I will say that my comfort on the radios has made this whole training much less stressful.  I still mess it up on occasion, and I have plenty to learn, but knowing enough to keep the whole system flowing relatively smoothly has made a big difference.

I talked to this guy a few times on my way to Carson. It is always fun seeing different aircraft types.

As I approached Carson City (KCXP) I came in behind some traffic, and had to quickly clear the runway for some other traffic headed inbound.  Another smooth landing, and a quick exit made me feel like I actually knew what I was doing.  While I was taking a quick break in the run up area I was able to call out a flock of birds to another aircraft in the pattern which made me feel like even more a part of the community.

When it came time to leave it got even busier with a Bonanza approaching the runway from the opposite side parallel runway, and a 172 on base.  Not being in much of a rush, now with plenty of time before sunset, I let them both go first before taking the runway about to head towards my tower controlled airfield.  I had spent even more time on the ground preparing myself for this leg since it was very short and I would need to contact approach almost immediately.

With the mountains in the way they couldn’t see me, even though they could hear me, so they directed me to the East of the departure corridor and I set up for an extremely long downwind.  I think that flying in a radar controlled area can be a little intimidating for some people, and admittedly Reno (KRNO) is not the most busy of airspaces, but it is amazing how calm it can actually be once you understand the basics.  This is another field I had been to quite a few times, but the runways are about twice as long as all of the other fields I had been to over the last 3.5 hours, so I bet many of you know what was coming on my first landing.

Reno is a little bit bigger than the other fields I visited on this trip, and my landings reflected that.

I flared high, and plopped that thing in there.

I will say that it was not as firm as some of my landings that I really struggled with earlier in my training, but after that first one I had to remind myself about the optical illusion that I was experiencing.  Needing my extra full stop landings at the towered field I spent the taxi time walking myself through the illusion of feeling lower than I actually was to help on the subsequent landings.  They were all still a little high, but they did get better.  Before my final departure I took a nice deep breath as I was about to start my last leg.

By this time I was about four hours in and I could feel the length of the day starting to come on.  Nothing unsafe by any means, just a quick reminder to myself to stay alert and not get lazy on the last leg.  Probably because of that, and the natural straight in that this leg lines up for, I came in too high and had a nice steep descent down to the runway.  I had decided before hand that I would take a couple of victory laps around Stead upon my return as long as the daylight would let me, and it certainly did.

As I took my last couple patterns around I was able to enjoy a beautiful sunset and my best landings of the day.

After leaving the runway and taxiing back to the hangar I took a few moments to think about how amazing of an afternoon it was.  Most people on a Friday night would have taken advantage of an early work day to get in some extra drinking or partying, but as a non-drinker that is also not much of a partier, I couldn’t think of a better way to spend a Friday evening.  I didn’t get the full 5.0 that I had hoped for, but I did log 4.4 hours of some of the most empowering flying I have ever done.

My wife asked for proof that I was actually doing it. This is the face of a very happy man.

Not only CAN I actually do this, I AM DOING IT.  This is no longer a dream that I have had for over 30 years.  This is no longer something that I will get to when my kids are older, and I have no more debt, and the Cleveland Browns are no longer the laughing-stock of the NFL (aka never), this is happening now.  For the first time, that really hit me after this flight.  I guess it was just doing what I have dreamt of for so long that brought it home for me.  I dream about going out for a $100 hamburger, or just cruising around with my kids for an hour or two and enjoying the wonder of flight, and that is essentially what I had just done for the last 4+ hours.

Weather and work continue to delay the timelines I had originally set, but even that is not going to stop me from finishing and forever wearing the title of pilot.

April 30, 2018 I Written By

I'm Dave and I am a proud Avgeek. It goes way beyond liking airplanes. It is a passion that cannot be subdued.

Cross Country Flying, Foggles, and Short Field Takeoffs and Landings

As you hopefully saw in my last post with an incredible video of some amazing mountain flying, I finally got back in the air earlier this week, and was rewarded with a fantastic flight.  Fortunately, the weather is finally turning Spring-like here, and my flying day didn’t end after work.  I was able to hustle over to the other local airport for some more flight training.

On the agenda for today was a little cross-country to get us out of the local area.  My CFI told me to just plan however I normally would, and then we would adjust from there.  Initially, I didn’t think much of it because planning for flights is literally what I do for a living.  However, when I sat down to do some simple flight planning (only about 50 miles away) I was genuinely at a loss.

You see normally I just plug all of my information into the computer and then it prints out a nice little flight log for me.  I have the ability to do it by hand, but even then it is over hundreds, if not thousands of miles, and while the principles are the same, the dynamics are a little different.  I did put together a simple little flight log, only to find out upon arrival at the airport that there is an actual VFR flight log that is commonly used.

Different awesome plane than the morning, but still the same incredible weather. How could you not love this?

When I got a good look at it after the flight, I saw that it really isn’t that different from what I use on a regular basis, and it would have really helped in planning the flight.  All of that aside, we had enough information to still make the flight safely, so we proceeded onward.

The biggest thing of note on departure was how poorly the plane was climbing.  While I have experienced this regularly in a C-130, the effects of high, hot, and heavy on a small plane is even more dramatic.  Our tanks were about two-thirds full, my CFI and I are not small men, the airport sits at about 5,000 feet, and as I mentioned, it was the warmest day I had experienced since starting back to flying.  We were still able to safely climb out, but the combination of all of the above was definitely noticeable.

Upon getting to altitude we were in range of the VORTAC we would be navigating towards so it was time to put on the foggles for the first time.  Now I was not overly concerned about the navigation aspects of flying, because after all that is what I do for a living.  The difference in this case is that I only had a VOR as opposed to the two VORs, two TACANS, two INUs, GPS, and Self Contained Navigation System, or SCNS, that brings it all together for me.

Man did I feel stupid.

I got it figured out eventually, but I had certainly overestimated how easy it would be for me.  It was a good reminder that I really need to put in the extra time and effort to make sure that I am prepared for the rest of this training, or quite simply, I will fail.  This was a common lesson on this flight.

Enroute to the VORTAC we started to discuss descent points as we were about 4500′ above our destination, and it turned out the VORTAC would be a good descent point.  Getting to that conclusion proved to be another reminder that I don’t have all the same tools I am used to, and the brain disconnect switch, otherwise known as the pilot’s seat, was in full force.  I have taught this principle to numerous students, but when it came time for me to do it in the plane I drew a blank.  Eventually it came around and we were able to descend without any real issue.

As we approached Fallon Municipal Airport (KFLX) we discussed the fact that the airport sits right on the edge of NAS Fallon airspace, which you may or may not know is the current home of Top Gun so we needed to be on the lookout for fighters, and Tom Cruise.  I mean, you never know.

It was also worth noting that the runway is a little shorter and more narrow than at Stead where I had done most of my landings, so we discussed the optical illusion of feeling like I was higher than I actually was.  No worries though, and I landed relatively smoothly, and we taxied off just to get a momentary break, and set up for the next training event, short field takeoffs.

We dropped the flaps to 25 as we pulled onto the runway, stopping as soon as we made the turn to centerline, stomped down on the breaks, and ran the power to full.  Refraining from putting back pressure that would increase drag, I was impressed with how quickly the plane accelerated to a safe takeoff speed, especially considering how much of a pig it was climbing earlier.  We popped off the ground, and once we reached Vx we climbed over our 50 foot obstacle, transitioned to Vy and as the speed came up got rid of the flaps.  It was no C-130 assault takeoff, but it was still pretty fun.

In order to ever need to takeoff from a short field, you must first land there.  So we came around for a short field landing, with full flaps, aiming for brick one, and keeping it nice and slow to minimize the ground roll.  As I have a tendency to still float it a little, I was pretty proud of myself for how close to the threshold I actually put it down.  It was a little firmer than I would have liked, but my instructor pointed out that they are expected to be a little more firm in general.  It is amazing to me how many of the principles never change between small GA aircraft like this beloved Cherokee, and the C-130 and what we do.  I am yet to bounce a landing, but it happens relatively often in the C-130 when we are doing assault landings, which are really just short field landings.

After having a good landing, I had to get one more, so after one more smooth pattern, we headed back for Stead utilizing the same VORTAC, and those super fun foggles.  I can personally attest to their uselessness as sunglasses, as we were flying West into the sunset and I had to duck below the cowling to even be able to see my instruments.  This leg proved to be much more effective on the VOR while climbing out to clear the mountains between us and home.

One of the first incredible sunsets of the spring that you get here in the high desert. The perfect way to end a perfect day.

Upon arriving back at Reno-Stead, we decided to do a few more patterns before the sun set.  All went well, and as we taxied off the runway my CFI pointed out that I had done 7 smooth landings without him even thinking about touching the controls, so the next time we flew I was going to be going solo.

SOLO!

Based on the crappy landings I had performed for the first few flights I will admit that the thought was both exciting and terrifying.  I knew it was the next major step in my progression, but I also have seen enough videos of idiots jacking it up that I didn’t want to end up on YouTube.  But for the moment I would simply enjoy the compliment on my landings as we taxied back to the hangar and put her to bed.

All in all, it was an amazing way to end an awesome day of flying.  I really couldn’t think of a much better way to spend a day than flying all over the place.  Possibly even more exciting to me was that I had the same thing planned for the next two days as well.  As you will see in the coming posts, I did a whole lot of learning, and had a whole lot of fun.

March 30, 2018 I Written By

I'm Dave and I am a proud Avgeek. It goes way beyond liking airplanes. It is a passion that cannot be subdued.

Becoming a Pilot: Getting Better Each Time You Fly

It is always amazing to me how much of a mental aspect there is in everything that we do in life. We spend so much time talking about skills and abilities, but in the past we pretty much ignored the mental aspects. Fortunately, we are starting to realize how important the mental side is as well.

As I went out for my second flight in the Cherokee, I was a little down on myself because I was struggling so much with landing. It is kind of an important part of flying so I think that added to my frustration.

For this flight we ran through the maneuvers and then headed over to KRNO for some visual patterns there. It was fun to be at a towered field as all of the other work we had done was at the non-towered Stead Airport. I am grateful for all of the time I have in the C-130 to help with all of the radio aspects of flying. I can see it being a ton harder if I was also having to learn that.

After a few patterns I was finally starting to get some relatively smooth landings. Both my CFI and I both realized that the sight picture I was familiar with was in a C-130 where we fly significantly faster and I am also sitting much higher. This was causing me to flare high, float it, and land too firmly.

Once we made that connection I forced myself to push through the ground rush and my landings got even better. Coming back over to Stead, my first landing was a little off adjusting back to the shorter runway, but the second landing was my best one yet.

I was on speed the whole time, I pulled power on-time, flared nicely, and smoothly touched down. We wisely stopped on a winner landing and put the old girl to bed.

We then went back and filled out my information for my student license. Along with my medical I got yesterday, I am finally seeing the reality of becoming a pilot, and I am almost shaking typing those words because I am so excited.

It was just amazing to me the difference it made in analyzing what I was doing and how quickly it could be corrected once we diagnosed it. No matter what you are doing, understanding the mental aspects will always make you better.

I also wanted to share how cool it has been flying around the Stead airport. My CFI owns his plane with his brother so they are a very small “school”, but they seem to know everyone around the airport. On the radios he is constantly talking to people he knows and talking about their planes and where they are flying. It is really one of the best parts of aviation, the community.

On our way out to the practice area, a buddy of his pulled up in his Kit Fox and we flew near each other for a few minutes chatting and just enjoying the wonder of flight. With the snow covered mountains all around us, I just couldn’t imagine how anyone could not absolutely love flying. It is the most incredible, empowering experience I have ever had.

I think the thing that is getting me the most excited about all of this experience is the community I am finally tapping into. If you haven’t been out to your local airfield recently, get out there and make some friends. As awesome as the planes are, it is the people that truly make aviation special.

March 8, 2018 I Written By

I'm Dave and I am a proud Avgeek. It goes way beyond liking airplanes. It is a passion that cannot be subdued.