Updated: Jan 31, 2020
My First Solo Cross-Country Flight
Working up the nerve for my first solo cross-country was no easy feat after months being out of the plane to nurse a broken foot. When I started flying again, it seemed like I had to start all over again to remember what I had already learned.
At this point in my training, it occurred to me that perhaps a broken foot was a sign from the heavens that maybe I wasn't supposed to do this thing after all. But dreams of soaring above the crystalline waters of Higgins Lake, the jewel to the north, won out. I needed to attempt this goal at all costs, or live with regret for the rest of my life.
The days and months ticked by in a flash, and I had practiced the maneuvers over and over again until confident enough to go it alone. Still a greenhorn when talking to airport approach and tower controllers, even after several more practices, I determined the basic knowledge I had would suffice for what needed to be accomplished.
Confidence in my abilities increased after every lesson, but my crosswind landings and forward slips still sucked enough to keep the worry niggling at the back of my mind. Regardless, David was certain I was ready to attempt the cross-country on my own so we picked the date: May10th, 2017. Only two days away.
Part of the solo cross-country requirement included computing a flight plan, and like cramming for a high school exam, I poured over the airplane's performance charts the days prior to take off. Filling out a flight planner helps a pilot to determine how much time and fuel would be used on a trip in relation to the winds at the chosen flight altitude.Using measuring tools and an aeronautical map, I calculated the distances, marked airports for emergency landings, and identified landmarks to look for along my route of flight.
I had my phone app GPS as a backup just in case I got lost along the way, but there is one huge advantage to living in a state like Michigan. We have lots of lakes, and they are easily distinguishable landmarks that can help to determine your location from above.
Houghton Lake itself can be seen a long distance away, and appears as a huge beacon to mark my way home. And if I really get turned around while flying, all I need to do is climb above 5,000 feet and look for the outline of our big, mitten-shaped state surrounded by lake Huron to the east, and Michigan to the west.
Staying up late to figure the flight plan calculations the night before wouldn’t help me catch a good nights rest for the trip. I dreamt of flight computations and tower communications all night, waking with a headache and nervous knots in my stomach.
This was the day.
Although a good pilot chooses not to fly if they are physically and/or mentally unprepared, I figured I would never get this part of my training done if I cancelled every time I felt nervous. I was prepared as I was going to be, and procrastinating any longer would question my intentions.
Did I have it in me to become a pilot or not?
This was the question I would wrestle with throughout my training. As each task grew more difficult, I continued asking myself if I could really do it.
I decided that morning that if I couldn’t handle a solo cross-country flight, then I had no business continuing the training. I would need to pull myself together, and just do it!
It wasn't long before I pulled in to the terminal building parking lot, and headed in to see David on jittery legs. Holy crap, I was nervous!
As a good friend always says, “Fake it till you make it!” and that’s exactly what I did. I plastered a fake smile on my face willing myself to be braver than I felt and met my flight instructor with all the confidence I could muster.
I had prepared to fly to Traverse City first, but after noting the winds favored west, I decided to do the longest part of the journey first, rather than have a headwind to deal with on the way home.
The longest leg took me to MBL – Manistee Co-Blacker near Lake Michigan first. Going in the morning when the winds were usually calm, I hoped to avoid dealing with any crosswind landings. After a full stop, I would fly northeast to Traverse City, and then head home.
By the time we poured over my flight plan for half an hour, I had a splitting head that felt like a migraine coming on. Yep… I was stressed the hell out, but I reminded myself once again that I wanted this. This was going to be one of those hard to accomplish dreams.
Glad I experienced Lamaze class at one point in my life, I had quickly learned these breathing techniques came in pretty handy for a student pilot freaking out prior to difficult tasks... like the first long flight alone.
Ever encouraging, David reminded me that the people in the tower were there to help, so it didn’t matter if I messed up the communications a bit. With that in mind, I took another cleansing breath and headed out to the Piper Archer ll awaiting me on the tarmac. I named her Roxanne because she was beautiful, and my landings in her were indeed a little ROXY!
Making sure all was well before taxiing her down to runway 27, the wheels were leaving the ground at Roscommon County Airport in Houghton Lake minutes later, and I continued the Lamaze breathing trying to keep myself calm as I left the safety of my training ground.
Thoughts of someone being with me through this first solo trip made me feel a little more at ease, so I imagined my Dad sitting in the copilot seat encouraging me. He would say, “You can do this!” and I wished for the umpteenth time that he was still alive so he could see me flying an airplane.
Not long into the flight, I found myself enjoying the act of navigating through means of dead reckoning as I matched landmarks from my map with what I saw out the window at 4,500 feet. More than once, I discovered how easy it was to lose or gain altitude when you are busy looking out the window. I guess that is why the solo cross-country is so important. As David put it, “You learn a lot when you are all by yourself.”
As calm winds welcomed my arrival at Manistee, I would soon realize that I had forgotten how to tune in the airport weather from this particular airport because it was a VOR frequency - meaning it required more than just dialing in the numbers. I fumbled with the radio working myself into a panic when I couldn't get the frequency to tune in.
"Now what?!" I thought.
As if David was sitting in the seat next to me, his conversations throughout my training sifted through my mind until I recalled what you would do if you landed at an airport without a forecast frequency.
First, you would check the forecast at nearby airports because the winds aloft would probably be similar. Next, you would look for the windsock at the airport to determine which runway to use. But being so close to the water, I knew that a temperature difference could greatly affect my altitude indicator setting.
The Pilot’s Rule of Thumb reads that when flying from High pressure to Low pressure – or from Hot to Cold temperatures, the aircraft will be lower than indicated altitude without changing to the local altimeter setting. I needed to adjust my altimeter setting to the current airport’s altitude so I wouldn’t be coming in too low on final.
Ever the worrier, I decided to try and call the airport ASOS for the altitude information and hope that I could hear it from the noisy cockpit of my aircraft. I punched in the phone number and pressed the phone’s speaker against my ear as hard as I could, barely making out the voice recording.
Pressing my headphone down over the phone in an attempt to muffle the excessive cabin noise, I listened again as the recording started over advising for wind conditions and the airport’s altitude.
The altitude from home was off by 1,000 feet, so I was very happy to confirm the correct setting. Along with the airport’s altitude, I also learned there had been huge flocks of geese hanging out at the airport, and I needed to land with care.
“Great!” I thought recalling the aircraft that had recently hit a Canadian Goose in Houghton Lake.
It had blasted through the windshield, through the front and back seats, smashed through the bulkhead, and died in the tail of the plane. The incident required the pilot to perform an emergency landing, file an incident report to the FAA, become front page news in the local paper, and have months of airplane repairs to follow. It was said if the goose hit the pilot’s side of the windshield it would have killed him for sure. Luckily, there was nobody sitting in the copilot’s seat.
Dire thoughts of deadly goose strikes hung in the back of my mind as I made my way around the pattern scanning for bird activity. Turning final, I flew over the trees on glideslope for landing and was only a few hundred yards from the threshold before I spotted a huge flock of geese all running for take-off in the grassy field, directly in front of me.
“Go! Go! Go!” I cheered, readying for evasive action if they didn’t clear out in time.
Those little legs were pumping as fast as they could, and those giant wings extended within a mass of black and white, flapping until they caught air as one. Veering south, they cleared the way for my safe landing and my little Piper glided down to meet the pavement, flaring for a soft touch down at a lonely little airport in Manistee.
I had made it!
With the longest leg of the journey out of the way, I really wanted to get right back in the air and be on my way to Traverse City, but I did as David said instead.
I shut off the plane and took a moment to clear my jumbled mind. Making my way into the terminal building, I signed the visiting pilots register, and thought, “Yep! That’s me. I’m a pilot!” Then I texted Kurt to let him know I had made my first stop and would be heading out again soon.
Back in the plane, I adjusted the map for the next leg of the journey, found the notes for all the radio frequencies I would need, and took off… this time to the northeast. Traverse City Airport would be the first towered airport I would experience on my own.
“I can do this,” I chanted over and over, the closer I got, and it wasn’t long before I could hear all the radio chatter at TVC and realized my error in choosing Manistee for the first leg. The late morning hour put me into Traverse City at what seemed like airplane rush hour!
“Be brave,” I said to myself. “You can do this.”
As I neared the outer ring signifying their airspace, I called out to let them know my intentions and received my inbound instructions.
I decided it would be to my benefit in this busy airspace to let the tower know that I was a student pilot on my first solo cross-country flight. Especially since I didn’t have a big sign on the top of my airplane blinking a warning, “Student Pilot! Watch Out!”
Having trouble identifying which aircraft I was flying, the tower soon asked if I could please Ident.
“What?!” I thought. I told them my aircraft make, model, and tail number hoping that information would suffice.
When the tower asked again if I could please Ident, I didn’t know what to say or do. I thought back through all of my lessons and recalled David mentioning an Ident button during one of our very first flights in the Cessna, but we hadn’t used it once during all of my cross-country training.
I looked over at the transponder and saw two ident buttons above with the squawk code dialed in. “Was I supposed to push one of those?” I wondered, reaching my finger for the button. Always erring toward caution, I thought, “What would happen if one of those was an emergency button?”
Opting not to push the button, the Tower soon asked, “Do you know how to ident?”
“Ummmm… I’ve never done it,” I admitted, “but I know how to squawk!”
"THAT sounded ridiculous," I said to myself, thinking about all those other pilots listening in, and betting they were having a good laugh over it.
A squawk code wouldn’t do any good at Traverse City because they did not have a radar system… Just some dude standing in the tower with high-powered binoculars watching for air traffic, and back-up radar radioed in from Minneapolis Center in Wisconsin.
There would be no squawking, no identing, and no flashing sign marking me as the student pilot coming in for a landing. Indeed, I was learning some very hard lessons on this trip, and I wondered if the Tower guys were calling David this very minute to bawl him out for allowing me in the air by myself.
Tower quickly reassured me that it was fine I couldn’t ident, and to be aware there was an unidentified aircraft in the same vicinity.
“Fantastic!” I thought. “Another thing to worry about while flying into rush hour traffic.” Locked in for landing at TVC, there was no turning back now.
Nearing the pattern, I soon learned I was number two for landing with three more planes behind me. Being I was coming straight in to the runway from the southwest, I quickly realized I would not be required to fly the pattern. Not good, as I had very little practice with a long final. The couple of times I had attempted it, I was way too high and had to go around for another try.
I swallowed my fears and reassured myself that I had plenty of runway to use up if needed. It wasn’t until approaching the outer edge of airport property that I realized I was still at pattern altitude required for downwind which was way too high for final. I would need to lose some altitude, and fast, or miss my landing completely.
I was not about to miss the damn landing at an airport with a HUGE runway, for crying out loud! David would be hearing about my inadequacies for certain if I did. Pulling back the throttle to idle, I grabbed the last notch of flaps and prayed I could drop enough to make the runway.
“Come on,” I begged, working the rudders as needed to keep the plane straight. Without power, the plane flies like a wet sponge, and steers even worse. Rudder and aileron corrections tend to be sluggish and mushy.
“Steer with your feet,” I recalled David’s lessons turning over and over in my mind, as the runway finally appeared close enough to flare for landing. Thank goodness, I wouldn’t have to call a miss and go around.
I finessed the brakes as best I could in order to make the first runway exit after touchdown, and rolled the little Piper up to the bold, yellow safety markings with a sigh of relief. Phew! I had made it.
Wanting to rest my forehead on the dashboard for a second in quiet relief, I was quickly brought back to my senses when the tower called my tail number and awaited my response.
“Yes?” I said, wondering what I did wrong now?
“Come over the yellow lines, please,” the tower guy encouraged.
Shit! I had stopped on the wrong side of the yellow lines meaning I was technically still in an active runway, and there were three more planes coming in behind me. This was a stupid mistake since I knew what side of the dotted and solid lines I was supposed to be on.
“Oops, sorry!” I said, gunning the throttle to get Roxy’s tail safely away from danger.
I was mortified as the tower guy continued giving me a lesson on the difference between the double solid line and the double dashed line on the live tower frequency. After his reprimand, he instructed me to contact ground.
Sighing in frustration, I asked, “Could I just take off again, please.”
The tower controller agreed, allowing me to line back up for take off and I got the heck out of there!
I was just about out of confidence by the time the little Piper climbed out over the turquoise waters of Traverse Bay. It was so beautiful, looking like a giant jewel wedged between both Leelanau and Old Mission Peninsulas. When the tower asked if I wanted them to keep tabs on me until I got out of their airspace, my waning confidence wavered toward none.
Was he asking because he didn’t think I could get home by myself? Being I knew exactly how to get home, I stubbornly declined and set my heading for home. I was running on frustration, adrenaline, and a full bladder hoping to hang on to at least one of those until I got back home.
In retrospect, I should have agreed. It wasn’t because I was a rookie pilot that the tower asked if I needed their assistance. In fact, it was a normal proposition, especially with the high volume of air traffic in the vicinity.
No matter, as I had made it out of TVC airspace without incident, and when I could see Houghton Lake glistening in the distance, I relaxed knowing that the rest of my trip would be made with ease, and my first solo cross-country was nearly finished.
When the wheels touched the ground at HTL, the events of the day were still rifling through my mind. Taxiing up to the tarmac to shut down for the day, I exited the plane to a smiling flight instructor who had been waiting on pins and needles as his latest fledgling took to the skies. I had made it back safe and sound, just as he knew I would.
My first cross-country flight wasn’t pretty, but it was done, and to this day, David still laughs about my telling the tower that I know how to squawk.
The trip had taken 2 hours, which left me with 3 hours of solo flight time to complete. My decision for a quick leave shortened the trip by at least thirty minutes because I didn’t have to contact ground or departure while there. I would have a lot more time in solo cross-countries before I could check it off the long list of things to do in order to get my license.
Maybe the next solo trip would go a little smoother. For MBS, I intended to be a little more prepared.
Again, I questioned how badly I wanted to accomplish this goal. But after months of dreaming about flying, I would see where the road would take me.
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