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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.

The Doubleheader of Flying Act 2: Flying the Canyons, and Then Flying Solo

I really wish that I could just spend my whole life flying, writing articles about flying, and working on videos about flying. At the very least I wish I was better at making the time to get all of my thoughts out right after they happen, because it has been a minute since this day, and I know I have forgotten some of the things I wanted to share. Maybe I should just type out outlines right after the fact to help me remember. That being said, some aspects of this day I know I will never forget.

After a couple of good flights the day before, I was feeling super excited about getting back into the plane again for some more fun flying. On this day I was only there to help another experienced Nav get recurrent because he had been away from the unit for awhile. The nice thing about these types of flights is that I don’t have to be super involved because he already knows what he is doing, I am just there to make it legal again. The downside of these flights is that I don’t have to be super involved because he already knows what he is doing, and I just really love to instruct.

Fortunately, we were going out to fly a really fun route through the mountains. This route is one of the reasons that I wanted to come back to Reno and fly so bad after flying it during the AMATS course I attended a few years back. Not having a needy student did let me enjoy the route a little more, which is never something to complain about. Again, I wish I was done with the video I am trying to make so you can get an idea of how fun it is, but time is kicking my butt right now.

Just imagine cruising through the valleys of the Sierra Nevada Mountains at about 500 feet, with snow covered peaks all around you, going 230 knots, in a big huge plane, with a big cheesy grin on your face. That is what I call living.

Other than the joy that is flying in this area, there was not a lot of remarkable stuff that happened, so I will move on to the really exciting part of the day.

After we were done flying and debriefing, I confirmed with my CFI that he was still good to fly that night, and then tried to focus on work for the last hour or two that I had before leaving. Admittedly, it was a pretty strong mix of emotions as I was incredibly excited about the prospect of flying in a plane all by myself for the very first time, while at the same time realizing that if something happened, I would be all by myself and have to take care of it accordingly.

When I finally got out to the airport I was greeted by my CFI and handed a small stack of papers that he said I needed to fill out before we could go fly. I had stumbled across this pre-solo test in some of my studying, and my stomach immediately sunk as I didn’t feel like I knew all of the material well enough to possibly pass and be able to go fly that night. I was seriously sad inside.

We headed over to the little mission planning room the airport has and I started working on it while he was checking out my logbook, and I was right that I didn’t know a bunch of the answers, at least not as well as I thought I should. With the sun heading towards the Western horizon I wasn’t feeling very optimistic about my chances of flying that night, but then my CFI got tired of waiting and started to go through the remaining questions orally. I knew a lot of the information, but it was also a valuable learning experience with some of the other information. Apparently I did well enough because after we got through the questions he picked up his stuff and said, “Let’s go do this.”

I ran into the bathroom for one more pit stop, I am a stress potty user, what can I say, and then followed him out to the plane. We jumped in like usual, started up, and headed over to the runway. I did a normal run-up and pulled onto the runway. When we took off, the plane practically jumped off the runway. In contrast to the last flight where it had been warm and the gas tanks were full, it was now cooling off in the evening and the tanks were comparatively empty, since we wouldn’t be going very far.

We did two patterns after which he told me to go ahead and exit the runway to drop him off on the taxiway. As we pulled off the runway and he opened the door to get out I asked him if he had a handheld radio or anything, to which he laughed a little and said, “Nope, it’s all you.” Then he jumped out and closed and locked the door. Once he was well clear of the plane I released the breaks and started taxiing back down to the end of the runway.

As I was taxiing down it was an incredibly awkward feeling to be in the plane all by myself. I took a moment to say a little prayer just asking to be able to perform to the level I knew that I was capable, and to be able to have some fun. When I got to the intersection where I would be taking off from I stopped for a minute and just took a few deep breaths before making my radio call and entering the runway.

“Stead traffic, Cherokee 14W taking runway 32 for departure, staying in the pattern, Stead traffic.”

I put a little power in and pulled onto the runway, lined up on centerline, and then pushed the power all the way in. If I thought the plane jumped off the runway before, it practically exploded off with 250ish pounds less in it now. Before I knew it I was turning crosswind and shooting right through pattern altitude because I was not used to the plane climbing so fast. I quickly recovered and came back down as I turned downwind and prepared myself mentally for the part that had scared me only a few weeks before.

As I came abeam the threshold I pulled some power and dropped in the first click of flaps. At this point in the pattern you fly out of a little pond which doesn’t bother me because of the water, but because of birds that I had often seen out there. Fortunately the air was clear as I turned base, dropped the second click of flaps, and called on the radio.

“Stead traffic, Cherokee 14W turning base, runway 32, Stead traffic.”

As I normally am, I was a little high, but since that was normal, I knew how to handle it and bled off some airspeed to help me get down. One more click of flaps, and one last radio call.

“Stead traffic, Cherokee 14W final, runway 32, Stead traffic.”

Deep breath, I’ve done this a bunch of times, including two smooth ones just minutes before. Aiming for the numbers, since I always float it. A couple final turns of trim to take some pressure away. VASI looks pretty good. Over the displaced threshold. Crossing the threshold, chop the power. Little back pressure right as I enter ground effect. Keep that pressure back. Just a little more back on the yoke.

Squeak.

I did it, I flew a plane all by myself for the very first time.

After a moment or enjoyment I recomposed myself, raised the flaps, put the power back in, and lifted off for my second pattern. One again I shot off the ground, but this time I was ready for it and leveled off just prior to turning downwind.

After what was an uneventful pattern, I made my second landing and entered my third pattern. As I was turning base I saw a few birds above me, but I used the Force and kept them from dive bombing me. I touched down after the third landing with my smoothest approach and transition yet. Afterwords, my CFI said he didn’t even hear the last one squeak.

As I taxied down the runway to retrieve my CFI, which also took longer because I slowed down so fast being so light, I couldn’t help but yell and scream a bit from excitement! I am not generally an overtly emotional guy, but I was so completely pumped that I couldn’t resist.

This is another one of the moments that I struggle to actually find the words for. I have wanted to be a pilot for as long as I can remember, and for the first time, I actually felt like one. The completely liberating experience that it was is really incomparable. I have always sort of felt this way every time I fly, but this was an order of magnitude greater.

Taxiing back to the hangar I probably sounded giddy as a schoolboy, but I don’t care. It was only a 0.4 by myself, but I honestly feel changed. I am paraphrasing the quote that is attributed to da Vinci, but once I have tasted the freedom of flying I will always look heavenward because that is where my heart longs to be.

I really can’t say it enough, if you haven’t ever flown in a small plane, go and do it. Once I get my certificate I will be happy to take anyone and everyone that I have the time for up. This is just too amazing experience to not share with everyone.

On that note, you should check out the Flying Cowboys YouTube channel, and in particular the #flywithmefriday segment where Cory takes up people who have never flown in a small airplane before. It is inspiring.

I am actually going to take my written test tomorrow morning, so keep your fingers crossed for me. I feel like I am getting so close that I can actually taste it. I am actually going to become a pilot!

April 12, 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.