Friday, June 27, 2008

The road to 1st Solo Cross-Country!

Well, it's certainly been a while since I last updated everyone on my flight progress! It's been frustrating at times, yet a few exuberant leaps keep me going! Frustrating from battling other students for instructor time, to dealing with undeniable finance hardships. Exuberant in the progress made and the overall feeling of having improved one's flying ability. I really feel I've made allot of good headway, especially after completing the second milestone in the process...solo cross-country flight!

Sure it's really cool to solo locally, but that's not the end idea is it? After a while, when your more profficient in the flight manuevers, your anxious to actually GO somewhere! The 25 nautical mile limit starts to feel like a cage.

To break free of this invisible pen, one must prove to be capable of navigation by a number of methods (Pilotage, VOR NAV, GPS...). Secondly, you've got to show you can plan the flight down to a tee. Fortunetly, I've been a duck to water on the planning. Calculating all the headings, compensated for wind & magnetic deviation, the fuel required, ground speed, wheather, notices, and how long it's going to take. It actually takes a good amount of time to do right. Being heavily dependent on wind & wheather, it has to be completed close to planned flight. Lastly you need to handle all of the above while communicating to ATC & making live flight corrections due to actual conditions. At times your so busy, you have to the plane stupid!

The Journey towards Solo Cross-Country:

Learning to multi-task on cross-country, for me, has been slow and overwhelming. My first official cross-country (X-C) with my instructor was humbling to say the least. I kept track of where I was pretty good, but my heading and altitude varried wildly. I hate to think of what I looked like to the flight following crew! I had to teach myself to work all the communications equipment (dialing in and changing frequencies, etc), without altering the plane's flight.

My second X-C to Beaufort, NC wasn't much help, as scattered clouds at 6500' didn't allow me to maintain heading track. In VFR flight (Visual Flight Rules), you cannot enter or go to close to clouds. While I was dismayed at a chance to prove myself on navigation, it was FUN! I had never flown around, above, and under clouds this close before... I really felt I was flying. My instructor could 3-D visuallize the clouds much better than I. The clouds ended to a gleaming North Carolina shoreline. I got back on course and headed down to the airport, in which the locals seemed disappointed that we weren't staying.

Thankfully the third time's the charm, when my last dual X-C to Clinton, NC went very well. I was feeling more at ease working with the flight centers, having most of my radio freqs. dialed in long beforehand. My ETAs were spot on, as I flew over Seymour Johnson. My landing in Clinton was right on time, and greased to boot! I was smiling all over...even though I was trenched in sweat! Yes, wet as dog, happy as can be baking in a two person cabin on hot tarmac. I wipe the sweat from my eye, or is it tears?

When we arrive back, my instructor says, do you think you did? I felt it went well, with only minor things to continue to working on. "I think your ready...schedule a stage check ASAP"! WOOT! I was close to freeing myself, and the realization of my dream was near. I went to schedule time with the lead CFII, only to find he was booked for the next two weeks. My heart sank with a thud. Over the next few days I prayed there would be an opening, and it was answered.

The Stage Check:

I'd flown and had some training from the Lead CFII before, and he's a fair but intense instructor. Intense in the fact that he's gonna drill ya, fail equipment on you, and you better not mess up badly. The ground inquisition went really well, and after being happy with my answers and preflight planning, we headed out. A short flight to Kinston, NC (Class D Towered), and back would be the trip. I knew he'd be failing the GPS, so I immediatly tuned into the Kinston VOR...a 1960s technology still used today. Can't complain, as it does it's job! The test continued to go well. At Kinston he asks for a short field landing, and my glide was perfect for I just cross the threshold and land. Whew, never wants to land poorly or bounce while on a stage check!! We stay in the pattern for a while, doing some soft-field T/O and more shortfields. On the last one we do a low approach (flying low over runway but not landing), and get a nice tower light demonstration.

We're heading back to Greenville, and as expected he kills the primary coms and navigation equipment...all of it. Even the 1960s VOR can't be used... No problem I thought, I know where I am. I'll just keep my planned heading and use pilotage (using a sectional map only, and terrain info to guide). I finally slipped coming in to the airport...figured I'd have to screw something up. I forgot to pull out my checklist and double check my pre-landing list. I'd forgotten to turn back on my fuel pump. He calmly said "so are you ready to land?" ... I caught it quickly, but still, not when I should've.

Back inside, we reviewed the flight, and he said I did well. No major things of note, other than checklist usage. I considered this somewhat ironic, as my pre-solo stage check had a comment of "too much concentration on checklist, instead of flying plane." Hmm, seems I went to the opposite extreme. He congratulates me, and says he's signing me off for solo cross-country! WOOTAGE! Again, I wiped my brow... the sleepless nights, and the extreme review of the FAA material had been worth it. My cage was lifted, a free bird to fly wherever I desired (well, for the most part.)

My First Solo Cross Country Flight:

I couldn't wait, sitting in my office chair, giddy as a schoolboy. Pouring over the online scheduler for flight availability & wheather outlook, I was anxious to go flyin! My instructor suggested going somewhere I'd flown X-C before, so I choose the one with the easiest ground reference points. Clinton, NC it would be...though I'm sure no one there would realize their town would be so immortalized in someones mind.

I found the following day (26th of June), looked ideal. I sat up and did my preflight, checked all the NOTAMs, radio freqs, airport goes on and on. The next day I finish by entering all the wheather and wind compensation into my plans. I arrive at the airport nearly shaking with exitement. My instructor ends up being late from his last lesson, and so I'm there to twitch and shake. Just then the winds begin to pick up, with gusts at 16knots. Ah crud...this can't be happening! Just barely over my allowable limits. He said it was my call...winds were right down the runway, so I felt comfortable with it. With a flick of his pen, I was released to join the friendly skies.

With full fuel, and everything checking out on the plane, I was off to the runway. I called up Raleigh Radio to activate the flight plan, and off I went on RWY 26. It's late afternoon & really hot today, and she doesn't want to climb as much, but 700'/min still isn't bad. I turn to my 240° heading and call up Washington Center. They allow my request for flight following, and I squawk 3634 and ident. They indicate radar contact, and I feel more at ease to have ATC watchin' my back.

So far winds were a little more, and my groundspeed was slower, and thus a little off schedule. No biggie, 110k of groundspeed still isn't shabby. That's 143mph to the poor folk down below on I-70. Soon after Washington Ctr calls me up "223DC switch to Seymour Johnson on 123.7" I call back confirming the change and switch comm to 123.7 which was easy, having it ready several minutes ago. "Seymour Johnson Diamond 2-2-3-Delta-Charlie with you." A lady with a pleasent voice replies, and gives me AWOS (automated wheather observation station) freq info. At this point I'm finally relaxing... just flying over at 4500', looking about, and otherwise fighting to maintain proper altitude. It'd be nicer if there wasn't as much turbulence and headwind, but I'm not complaining.

I fly over Mt. Olive, Seymour, Falcon, and cross I-40. All my checkpoints are a little behind (about 4 minutes so), but still right on course. Soon I have Clinton (Sampson Co.) airport insight. Before I get the chance to cancel flight following, the nice lady calls me up and has me switch to VFR. I squawk VFR and begin my decent into the area. It's been hazy, so everything clears up as I get down to 1600', just 500' above the pattern. I've been listening to the comm channel and I've heard no local traffic. Strangely enough, it's the same come for Beufort and Greenville, so while I'm 62nm away, I still hear what's flying back home.

I broadcast the usual positional and intent info to Sampson Co, and cross mid-field. The fresh black tarmac looms below, with the high contrast "24" letting me know I'm in the right place. I teardrop around and enter downwind for RWY 24. This is it, don't screw this up Brian. By the time I turn base I see I'm looking good on the glideslope. What seems as flash later, I've smoothly landed on 24. As I slow down, I'm somewhat comatose and in disbelief. I back taxi, check everything and I'm off again.

Short and sweet and I'm off to my next destination, Kinston. Time to get my 3 T/O and landings at a towered airport out of the way. The wind is on my back, and I'm kickin it at 128k...yes! In less than 20 minutes I'm there and on the radio with the tower. "223DC report right base RWY 23." I call back, and listen as FedEx prepares to take off. Turbelence is gone by the time I'm there, but I still stay high in the glide to avoid it. On final, the RWY looks hugely different, as it's 11500' long, compared to the 4000' one I was just at. I literally land and taxi off within the first 1/6 of the runway. I hold for a citation jet, and then taxi back to the active runway. The next two flights in the pattern go fine. With that done, I get vectors out of the airspace to Greenville.

I've done this portion of the flight four times before, and it's cake. I spend my time enjoying the sights and pointing out Ayden, Winterville, and lastly the outskirts of Greenville. The gusts are still there as I set up for entry into the downwind of RWY 26. Mother nature decides my trip has been too easy, and shakes me good until I've landed. I taxi back with a big sigh of relief, and call up Raleigh to close my flight plan. I've heard nightmares from other students about getting lost, and mistaking one airport for another, etc... I didn't have any problems, and for that I'm thankful. Thus ends my first 1.45hr cross-country flight. Before the airplane is even parked, I'm thinking about my next one... Kitty Hawk (FFA - first flight) looms in my mind. My dream will be fulfilled, and then...then I'll consider myself a worthy pilot. To land where it all began one December long ago...

...until next time.