Updated: Jan 31, 2020
After my first solo flight, it was time to start practicing for the cross-countries. Needing 5 hours of solo cross-country time was nothing to sneeze at, but the idea of flying into an airport with a control tower left me panicked and edgy. It was all part of the training and I had to experience it at some time, so away I went.
The Private Pilot licensing requirements includes a minimum of 10 hours solo flight time in a single engine airplane on the areas of operation including:
1. 5 hours of solo cross country flying;
2. 1 solo cross country flight of at least 150 nautical miles (172.617 miles) total distance with full stop landings at 3 points and one segment of at least 50 nautical miles (57.539 miles) between take offs and landings; and
3. 3 take offs and landings to a full stop at an airport with an operating control tower.
Towered airport meaning you need to fly into airspace controlled by some chick or dude in a tower that gives you flight instructions.
Some people start their flight training at a busy airport that has a tower. For these people, this part of a cross-country should be easy because they are already used to talking to the tower and approach people on the radio.
Being a student pilot from a small airport with no control tower allowed for no practice in this scenario, so imagine you flying the airplane.
The very first cross-country trip was to Traverse City where they have a control tower. From there we flew to Manistee, which is a really cool little airport close to Lake Michigan, and then back home.
On the flight to Traverse City, the winds were perfect and the air was smooth. And although one purpose of the cross-country is to learn how to deal with other traffic, there wasn’t another airplane in the pattern. It felt like we had the whole place to ourselves.
David helped me through the cheat sheet he made for me to answer questions from the controller in the tower, and before you new it, I had landed with no problems, and taxied over to the GI Ramp where we could take a quick pit stop before continuing on our journey.
The take-off was uneventful other than I had to contact Ground for permission. I think we sat in the airplane for 20 minutes calling frequencies on the radio for weather conditions, then ground for taxi instructions. With their assistance, I navigated the plane through the taxiways indicated and we were soon heading for Manistee.
Unfortunately, my success at Traverse City was short-lived…
I don’t know why a different airport should matter when it comes to landing an airplane, but an unfamiliar setup can throw off a rookie pilot’s rhythm very easily.
Maybe it was the view overlooking Lake Michigan. Maybe it was the huge stand of trees that seemed way too close to the threshold of the runway. Or maybe it was the really scary thought that the runway I was landing on was soooo much shorter than the one I was used to, and I thought I might run right off the end of it.
Well, as it turned out, the latter is very close to what happened. I had to take off just about as quick as the wheels touched the ground for landing because I came in long and overshot the runway. The rest of the ride home was quite subdued after that.
For me, there’s not much worse than disappointing someone who thinks you are ready to handle something only to realize that perhaps you aren’t. And even though I know David would not have soloed me out had I not been able to handle the plane, I somehow felt that my botched landing at Manistee would make him rethink his decision.
The only consolation on our trip back to Houghton Lake was that the sun was setting over Lake Michigan behind us. Since we were flying east, I could only watch the line between light and dark creeping across the state of Michigan.
I had never seen anything like it. It was absolutely beautiful.
After the first attempt at the cross-country flight, I wasn’t too excited to try again, but practice makes perfect! Or so the old saying goes…
When flying into MBS (Midland, Bay City, Saginaw International Airport), it’s a little more complicated than Traverse City. You must first contact Approach when you are 20-25 nautical miles away from the airport.
These are the guys that are keeping watch over the outer limits of the airspace in order to keep everyone from crashing into one another. Obviously, it’s pretty important to talk to these folks.
We can usually receive the radio signal at about 30-35 nautical miles away, so I flipped to the frequency well before having to talk to anyone just to hear what was going on. Of course, the chatter on the radio indicated it was busy, so I knew I would have my hands full trying to keep up with all the action.
I could feel the tension building as we edged closer to MBS airspace. I first noticed it in my left hand. I had been gripping the yoke so tight that my fingers were starting to tingle. I shook my left hand out and willed myself to loosen up.
Taking a cleansing breath, I reminded myself to relax when I noticed my shoulders were practically shrugged up around my ears, and my teeth were clenching so tight that my jaw was beginning to hurt.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about flying, when you are that tense, things don’t flow very easy. It’s best to keep yourself in an alert but relaxed manner so you don’t overcorrect, or do something stupid with the yoke. So I opened and closed my jaw a few times and did a few shoulder rolls to relieve the tension as I watched the distance to MBS Airspace counting down on the GPS Screen.
I would have to make the initial call soon.
I found myself holding my breath as the number clicked to 25 nautical miles, and swallowed the excess saliva that was watering up in my mouth at the prospect of speaking. I hesitated for just a second before depressing the mic button when I heard someone else jump in.
“Too slow,” I told myself.
While listening, I watched the GPS window showing the little airplane icon flying through the invisible line denoting the outer diameter of MBS Airspace. As I inched further and further into the space without letting anyone know, I slowly began to panic.
“Hurry up!” I grumbled, wondering if they would quit talking before I forgot what I was supposed to say.
Finally, the conversation ended and I looked over my notes again, real quick, so I didn’t bumble it up. I started to squeeze the button again, and another pilot jumped in ahead of me.
“Well shit!” I thought.
“You’ve got to be quick,” David said, smiling.
The distance clicked off another few nautical miles closer, and I finally got a second to elbow my way in to announce my position to the approach controller.
Then my mind went blank.
“Ummmm…,” I stammered scanning the notes neatly typed and highlighted, fastened to my kneeboard. Even though I had studied the landing and take off procedures for days, it suddenly left me to the point I couldn’t recall a thing!
“What was I supposed to say again?” I thought, desperate to find the answer as the print blurred before my eyes. I couldn’t seem to make sense of the letters on the page.
Ever supportive, David said, “Tell him this…”
I repeated his words, exactly, telling the controller what kind of airplane I was flying, what my tail number was, how many nautical miles I was away from the airport, what direction I was flying from, that I was flying VFR (Visual Flight Rules), and at what altitude.
I also needed to inform him my intentions – that I was planning a full stop landing, and that I had listened to the Atis (Automatic terminal information service) and what letter from the phonetic alphabet coincided with that time.
The Atis has both weather and airport information, and is a recording broadcast every hour on the hour. Each hour of information is represented with a letter from the phonetic alphabet. For example, information Alpha starts at the beginning of every 12-hour cycle.
When the controller asked me to change the transponder code in the airplane, I swear he spoke as fast as an auctioneer, and in a foreign language to boot! I couldn’t understand a thing he said.
Again, David told me exactly what to say in response, and I still flubbed up the numbers when I repeated them back.
Next, the controller asked me a question that was not written on my cheat sheet. Now what was I supposed to do?
“What did he say?” I asked David.
“Say aircraft type and model.”
I looked over at David, puzzled. “Why would I say that?”
“Just say it,” he urged me, as I was taking way too long to respond.
“Okay,” I said, and grabbed the mic key again.
“Aircraft Type and Model,” I repeated to the controller, looking for David for some sort of confirmation when it dawned on me what I had just said.
I could feel my face heat up to a blushing red. I had just made a humongous error on a live broadcast with a whole bunch of pilots listening in.
The controller wanted me to tell him again what model and type of aircraft I was flying. Mortified, but also utterly amused, I keyed up the mic laughing as I quickly fixed the error by giving him the information he needed.
It didn’t help matters that David was HOWLING in the background at my blunder, so when the controller came back on the line, it was of no surprise that he was also laughing at my mistake.
Yep… live and learn, I always say. Sometimes you make a mistake. So? LOL!
That blunder really helped calm me down and I concentrated on holding my altitude until we got closer to the traffic pattern. But as we neared, my nervousness took over.
With the airport just ahead, it wasn’t long before MBS Approach instructed me to switch frequencies to Tower.
Tower then gave me instruction on what runway to use, and directed me on how to enter the pattern for landing. I did the hoochie coochie into the downwind, and before you knew it, I’m getting my butt lined up on final to the biggest runway I have seen from the pilot’s seat.
At first, I thought I was way too high, but as I came over the threshold and the airplane got closer and closer to that HUGE cement pad, I suddenly understood just how small I was. And that one of those big guys could possibly be coming up on my rear at that very moment!
The wheels touched down and I cleared the runway to the nearest taxiway quickly, and with a huge sigh of relief.
I had made it IN!
Once you clear the runway at MBS, you get transferred to Ground who directs you to whatever building or parking area you’d like to go to at the airport.
You follow the instructions given and taxi on over to the parking dude who is swinging his arms to direct you for parking. Again, I was happy to have David along to confirm my interpretation of what the signals meant. I had only reviewed them briefly compared to the landing and take off instructions.
Shutting down the plane, I marveled at my ability to keep all vomit inside, not pass nervous gas in the cockpit, and get us landed safely at MBS International.
I had no idea how tough it was going to be to get back OUT!
To be continued...
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