A Greenhorn’s First Solo to an International Airport

The morning I left the county airport for the MBS (Midland, Bay City, Saginaw International Airport), I was a bundle of nerves. As a pilot, all I needed to do was walk, chew gum, and rub my tummy all while flying the airplane and trying to decipher what the controller instructed me to do. And that was freaking me out!

Think about this…

You get ticketed for driving a car and texting, for crying out loud! Yet a pilot is supposed to be able to switch radio frequencies and take note of wind and airport conditions from ATIS while keeping a safe attitude (wings level) and maintaining their altitude and heading; communicate, understand and do what you're instructed, and watch for rogue traffic too.

Indeed I was a little wound up!

But getting in to MBS wasn’t so much of a worry. It was getting out that had me tied up in knots.

For days before the flight, I had watched YouTube videos on cross-wind landings, forward slips and radio communications trying to absorb any tips or tricks that would help elevate my current skill level. While in the shower that morning, I continued listening to the radio communications videos, willing their smooth wording to somehow morph into my brain. I hoped that when the time came I would be able to speak as effortless as them.

But speaking the lingo wasn’t my only inadequacy.

Deciphering what ATC (Air Traffic Control) was telling me to do gave me the most hang-ups. I hear the words, but with such little practice communicating with air traffic controllers, translating what the hell they were instructing me to do was like listening to a squawking box. The only way to get better at it was to keep practicing, and putting actions to the lingo. I just had to remember what specific lingo meant.

By the time I left HTL (Houghton Lake Airport), I had to convince myself to calm down, and take charge as the PIC (Pilot in Command). I reminded myself that I had studied and practiced for months, and even though I felt a little shaky-quaky in the knees, I knew what I needed to do.

Getting too excited about the process would mess up my focus, and my listening skills would be out the window. I had to keep my cool at all costs if I was to become a safe and successful pilot.

Coming into the airspace with my shit together, I rifled off the pertinent information to MBS Approach as if I had been speaking the language for years. After I was done, I thought, “Damn, that was good! I sounded just like those guys on YouTube!” :-)

After a few seconds of no response from Approach, I started wondering if my radio wasn’t working right. Then a familiar voice keyed up the mic.

“Ummmm…. That you Marianne?” the voice asked.

“Yeah,” I squeaked, wondering what was going on. Was this a joke? How did MBS Approach know my name?

“You forgot to change frequencies,” the voice said. “This is Kevin, by the way.”

Kevin is the president of our local chapter EAA, and to think that he had heard my screw-up made my embarrassment worse. If I had taken just a second to think about my response, I would have said something witty like, “I was just practicing. How did that sound?”

Instead, all I could think to say was, “Oops! Thanks!”

Sheesh! How many times I’ve messed up on the radio, I cannot count, but here was another one for the history books.

Flipping to the correct frequency, I shored up any bravado I had left and tried to sound as confident as I had on the first go around. Of course, it wasn’t nearly as cool sounding, but it was what it was. The Approach guy responded just as expected so bonus… I understood what he was saying!

I guess some of that studying actually sunk in.

For whatever the reason, I never would have guessed that I would have felt so comfortable flying into an International Airport. I mean, the first time I flew to MBS I could barely keep my hands from shaking as I worked the controls. Now I was flying there all by myself, and my hands only shook a little bit.

Maybe because I had practiced the MBS trip more?

Maybe because I liked the enormous runway being situated in the middle of farm country, whereas Traverse City had a lot of trees and city-like hustle and bustle to distract you?

Maybe it was just how luck would play out that I never had to deal with a ton of traffic at MBS versus Traverse?

But just when I was getting comfortable, Approach let me know that there was an unidentified bogie in my quadrant. If possible, I was to report back the make and model of the aircraft.

“Okay… no problem,” I thought.

I knew the difference between and over-wing and under-wing plane, and I knew if a plane had two propellers instead of one. I also knew what my own Cherokee looked like, and that a Mooney had a tail that looked like it had been put on the plane backwards. Beyond that, I couldn’t tell you airplane makes and models with absolute certainty unless they were Cessna’s.

Sure enough, a little red and white job that looked similar to my own Cherokee came within a couple thousand feet of me at nearly the same altitude! The shock of seeing another aircraft in a supposedly ‘controlled airspace’ was enough to freak me out.

Why, you ask?

Because as you start learning to fly, you quickly realize that it doesn’t matter how often you scan the skies, you don’t see everything until that something is right in your face!

I’ve seen enough airplanes close up at 4,500 feet to scare the crap out of me. It makes you crazy about scanning the airspace. As a matter of fact, I have hours of go-pro footage of me scanning so much it appears I am watching a tennis match.

So the plane goes whizzing by, I report to Approach what I see, and just that quickly I am transferred to Tower being cleared for landing.

I thought, "Already?!"

Tower offers me two runway options, which I think is kind of weird. I go with the original plan that I am going to quarter into the downwind and fly the pattern like planned. Then I realize that I cannot see the airport in front of me, AT ALL, even though the GPS shows I am right on their doorstep.

I’m looking and looking, wondering what I am missing when Tower comes back on the radio and asks if I would like a straight in for the runway.

I decline wondering why they would ask me that. I fly a little more, and Tower asks if I need any help. Finally I concede stating that I need some help finding the airport.

Tower responds, “Sure! No problem. Turn to a heading of 05 degrees.”

Since I am heading southeast, I only have to do a 45 degree turn to the north to see the runway laid out before me.

DUH! Did I ever feel stupid! I had flown past it while watching for the damn bogie. If I would've just looked out the window to the left, I'd have been fine.

Although I'm mortified, I respond in the most upbeat voice I can muster, “Oh, there you are! Thanks!”

I turn and see that big ole runway splayed out before me and all confidence returns. This place seems so easy to fly into.

For one, when you actually see the runway, it's like you have all kinds of room to adjust your altitude for landing because there is nothing but open space and farm fields all around you. For two, trees and hills around a runway tend to cause updrafts and downdrafts and this place doesn't have any.

I landed with ease and taxied to the GI Ramp where I headed inside for a pit stop and a cup of liquid energy. It's amazing how a flight like this will exhaust a pilot. But I wasn't done yet. The biggest test of all lay before me... getting out safely.

After getting buckled back into the airplane, I did all the frequency calls, got my ok to taxi and started heading out just as a passenger plane wheeled across the taxiway right next to me.

I took a picture and texted it to Kurt. “Pretty cool, huh?”

“OMG! Get out of there!” he texted.

I taxied out to the runway and did my check list and run-up. Roxy was in perfect form and raring to go as much as I was.

This was the moment I had been tore up about…

The moment that had haunted my nightmares and made me feel faint when my feet left the ground about a half an hour prior.

All I would need to do was:

1. a bazillion frequency changes while maintaining straight and level flight

2. fly at the heading instructed until I could make my turn toward the north

3. be sure to hold my altitude

4. communicate correctly

5. and do anything else Departure commanded.

To top off my stress, I didn’t have David in the copilot seat to help me. If I messed up, I could be staring a big passenger plane in the face, or worse… crash.

No pressure...

Take off was perfect and my little Piper took to the skies as if she had never been grounded a day of her life. Her big wings grabbed the wind like a giant kite able to glide on even the slightest breeze.

The Tower frequency stayed with me until I got in the air, then reminded me to switch to the Departure frequency.

Thinking I had needed to wait for permission like everything else, I replied, I tried not to let my blunder or the impending stress mess up my focus. This was the moment I worried so much about. I needed to get it right!

I aimed Roxy's nose in the direction required, locked in the heading instructions, then flipped frequencies to departure. All I had to do now was make sure to stop climbing when I reached the required altitude, and relay my flight information correctly.

I let Departure know I was with them to which they came back with their babbling auctioneer garble, and you can't believe what happened next.

I understood what the hell they were saying!

I even answered in pilot lingo, though at a bit slower pace, and they understood me too. This was a HUGE accomplishment!

Even though my head started buzzing with excitement over my successful communications, I couldn't forget rule number one which is FLY THE PLANE!

Snapping myself back into focus, I did as departure instructed and held my current altitude and heading until further notice. After a few minutes, they gave me permission to climb to my requested altitude and adjust my heading north. Other than receiving instructions for avoiding other aircraft in MBS airspace I was pretty much on my own until they said, "See ya!" at the boundary line.

After a second stop at a small airport like HTL, I headed home and was never so happy to see Houghton Lake as it shone like a golden beacon on the horizon.

By the time I got back to the hangar I could barely crawl out of the cockpit because my legs were so shaky. But I did it!

Why the previous trips seemed so extreme, I have no idea. Yes, it sucked to make mistakes like missing the airport by a few hundred feet, and having mistakenly announced my intentions on the wrong frequency. But all in all, it was a great flight.

Indeed, flying felt more natural the more I flew. Not that it wasn’t a teeny bit scary to fly into an International airport and chance contending with a passenger plane or two… but I was realizing that this flying business was a matter of practice. Lots and lots of practice! .

With the last cross-country time requirements fulfilled, it was on to the next obstacle on the list to getting my pilot’s license… 10 full-stop landings at night including a cross-country night flight to a towered airport.

Unless I wanted to fly to MBS for the fun of it, the next time I would see the wide runway situated in the middle of farm fields would be with my landing lights on.

Things were about to get a bit more dangerous.

Thanks so much for reading!

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