Unabashed boldness…meh, not for me

Hello, my name is Valerie, and I’m a weenie.

It took me fifteen days to get back in a plane by myself after my last solo flight, and even that I only did after bursting into tears and having to sit in the plane for half an hour to deliberate on it.

Believe it or not, this was progress. The last solo flight I had scheduled I didn’t even make it to the plane.

The extreme weenieness began after my first cross country solo flight. Three specific thoughts occurred to me:

1) Every time I am alone in a plane, something new and unexpected seems to go wrong.

2) Most of the emergency situations I have trained for are things I can only read about, not actually experience (ex: How do I know I can land in a field with no engine since school policy prevents deliberately killing the engine or field landings? How do I know I can pull out of a spin when school policy prevents practical spin training?)

3) I don’t know enough to be doing this by myself. For the past few months I have been sprayed with a fire hose of information and caught what droplets I could believing that one day, I would have it all absorbed and understood. I thought that day would come before I had to be alone in an airplane, but it didn’t.

I still hold my breath when leaning the mixture (suppose I kill the engine by pulling too much), I discovered yesterday my gravity fed, not fuel injected system, does house a fuel pump, and don’t ask me how VORs work. Seriously, those things are magic.

Other contributing factors to my weenieness are that I’m new to Oregon and don’t know how to drive to most of the places I’m trying to fly to. I constantly feel lost up there. I look out the window and it’s all forest and rivers and mountains and little towns that look identical to the next little town. If I can pick out Hwy 26 or the Columbia River (I confuse it with the Willamette River all the time), it’s a really good day. If I can navigate back to my home airport without help, it’s a miracle.

Plus I still don’t have the experience to know what is a danger and what is normal. Flying over mountains, every time there’s even a hint of an updraft the first thing in my mind: “Oh no! IT’S WIND SHEAR, I’M GUNNA DIE!!! CLIMB! CLIMB! CLIMB!” When that right mag starts to bounce on the run-up, is it just carbon burning off from too much fuel or is the engine about to explode? I truly don’t know the difference yet. Which is why I came back to the parking lot on my last solo, burst into tears and refused to go up yesterday. A pilot that can’t even figure out what is wrong with her engine (or the fact that NOTHING is wrong with it) isn’t someone competent to go up there.

I am constantly out of my element. Out of my comfort zone. I do my best to stay calm and positive, and then something always seems to go wrong. Yesterday when I did finally make it up there for just a local flight instead of the cross country I had scheduled, I learned my transponder wasn’t reporting my altitude (this was bad because I had managed to fly myself right back into Delta airspace when the clouds that were supposed to be higher were not and I turned back).

The weenieness has not gone unnoticed by my CFI. Frankly, it’s hard to ignore a woman leaking Niagara Falls out of her face while conducting a preflight. He is trying lots of things to try to get me comfortable up there. First he got special permission from the flight chief to go to a little airport with a grass strip and practice (yes, actually do instead of just talk about) emergency field landings. Now I know I can land in a field and I know what to expect.

On our next flight I told him to deliberately make things go wrong with the plane without me noticing and let me figure it out and fix it. It was much more helpful from the way the flight school teaches it, “ok, now we’re going to pretend we’ve had an engine failure, but we’re not really going to do it.”

For the last part of the lesson he said, “ok, close your eyes, put your chin to your chest and when I tell you to look up, I want you to recover from whatever I have done to the plane” This proved the most valuable – and most nauseating – part of my training so far. He put the plane in strange attitudes, at strange speeds, sometimes almost to a stall when I looked up. Each time, I was able to pinpoint very quickly what to do to make it fly right again.

Yet, the next time I was supposed to go up by myself, I was in tears before I got to the plane.

I’ve tried everything I know to do.

Meet Gizmo, my copilot.

Gizmo is helpful, he holds my water bottle between his belly and his seat belt, I can tuck my map under his leg and it won’t fall between the seats, and he provides someone to talk to. (“Do those clouds look much lower than reported to you too, Giz?” and “I don’t like this turbulence either Gizmo, let’s get out of  here!”)

But to be truthful, even with Gizmo I’m still terrified to be all alone up there. There’s something about having another person in the plane. Another set of eyes to watch out or help you look for things on the ground. Even if they were in full panic mode, I could use them as a barometer. “Ok, you’ve got the panic covered, check, next we need to pitch for 60 knots…” Somehow the brain chemistry changes when it’s not just you up there. When you are responsible for getting someone else back safely.

I’m really not sure what to do. It has been explained to me that once I get my license I never have to fly alone again if I don’t want to. But I know to get to a license I have one more solo cross country flight I have to do before my check ride.

Anyone have a helpful tip or advice for how to get a weenie back in the plane by herself?

Angels in the outfield

This is the story of how my first solo cross country flight that was scheduled to take two hours took seven.

It was a beautiful day for flying. Virtually no winds and clear skies throughout the region. I had planned to go to Corvallis (an easy flight down the Willamette Valley and back) but was told two days before I was forbidden from doing that.

Allow me to explain. I have had five CFIs so far, each with their own merits. CFI #4 was my favorite. He got an airline job and disappeared from my life until just a few days ago when I texted him about my first solo cross country. When I told him it was to Corvallis (KCVO) he told me, “your first cross country solo is an amazing experience, don’t ruin it by going on a boring, ugly flight to the same airport every other student at the school picks. There are breathtaking flights everywhere else you can go.” Shortly after, he forbid me from going to Corvallis.

CFI #5 said I could go to any of the airports we had visited before. So I decided to go to Dallesport (KDLS). I remembered how beautiful that flight had been. Excellent views of downtown Portland followed by snow-capped mountains punctuated by valleys and hills that reminded me of Ireland. Although last time I got into trouble because while Mount Hood stood unmistakably in the distance, all of the other peaks looked the same and Hood River was damn near impossible to pick out as a checkpoint. I decided this time I would fly up the Columbia River Gorge instead. It would be beautiful with all of the waterfalls beneath me and it would lead me straight to three airports, the last being Dallesport.

I was scheduled to depart at 1300. CFI #5 and I met in the pilot’s lounge an hour before to review lost procedures and what to do if my radio died and every other way to possibly frighten a student pilot who is otherwise ready and excited (we had been over all of these multiple times before). Fortunately CFI #4 was back in PDX and dropped in to say hi and see me off. The two of them are polar opposites of each other. CFI #4 made flying fun. If I ever got frustrated in a lesson we would take a minute to do zero gravity flying or find that 747 a guy made a house out of in the woods. CFI #5 never lets fun last for more than a second or two without coming at me with “what would you do if your engine failed right now?” and “pinpoint for me where we are at this second on this sectional.” I can’t remember the last time I had fun flying with CFI #5. I like him, because I feel prepared and competent, but lately it feels like a lot of fear-mongering instead of training…and I miss the fun part of flying. A lot.

The last part of my ground school felt like having a good angel and a bad angel on either shoulder:

CFI #5: “Be sure to keep your altitude no matter what happens, you don’t want to hit a mountain or intercept someone else’s heading.”

CFI #4: “You know, Val, all of the really good views of the gorge are down low, get in there and find some cool stuff!”

CFI #5: “But not too low, there are power lines everywhere.”

CFI #4: “oh yea, power lines are for real yo.”

CFI #5: “No licking the window, make sure you know where you are every second of the flight on your sectional. Stay on top of that pilotage and dead reckoning.”

CFI #4: “Windows are delicious.” [wink]

As an afterthought CFI #5 mentioned “don’t forget to request flight following.”

Huh? How do I do that? We’ve never done that before.

So he gave me a quick rundown that I should tell Ground I wanted flight following and then the tower would give me a frequency on my way up.

Riiiiight…..ok, I got this.

CFI # 5 gave me a heavy sigh and a labored “ok” and that was it to see me off. CFI # 4 gave me two thumbs up, a giant smile and a command to “have fun!”

I was cool and calm on the radio. I requested flight following from Ground and trusted it would work out from there. My flight plan had me departing Hillsboro (KHIO), turning left and heading for Lake Oswego to skirt PDX’s airspace (CFI #5 insisted we stay out of their airspace…very dangerous stuff!) then head NE up to the Columbia River Gorge.

It went wrong from the beginning. I was cleared to take off, then as I left the ground the Tower said “fly straight out to one thousand seven hundred, then turn right and depart East.”

But…..but……but….well, I did ask for Eastbound departure, that’s my fault….but….I need to turn left and go SE to Lake Oswego…..this puts me flying NE around the airport.

I climbed to 1,700 and turned right, then the tower came back on “Cessna 48286″ turn to 126.0 for Portland Approach.”

Huh? Oh, right, flight following…CRAP! I forgot to open my flight plan!

Ok kids, so to sum up, I’m less than five minutes into my first solo cross country, I’m flying the wrong heading to get around the airport (so much for my TOC (top of climb) checkpoint and finding Lake Oswego in the next few minutes as scheduled), no open flight plan, and no idea who it is I’m working with now on 126.0….onward!

I clicked over to 126.0 and listened, another pilot (clearly more experienced and super comfortable with this idea) came on the frequency, “Good afternoon Portland Approach, Skyhawk [whatever tail number, altitude and heading] with you and I sure would appreciate flight following.”

A nice man came back on the line “Skyhawk [whatever tail number] you got it.”

Ok, let’s try it out….[click] “Hi Portland Approach, student pilot, solo, Cessna 48286 two thousand five hundred and climbing about two miles NW of KHIO…and I sure would appreciate flight following.”

They came back “Cessna 48286 what is your destination?”

[click] “KDLS.”

“What is your route?”

[click] “I’m going to Lake Oswego, KCZK, K4S2, then The Dalles.”

“Ok, squawk 4202.”

Huh?….I bet that’s the transponder…that thing that always reads 1200 that I’ve only ever turned to alt and standby….

After two more “Cessna 286, please squawk 4202” I remembered once I saw CFI #4 hit ident and everyone was happy after that. I tried it, and it seemed to have worked. Whew!

“So let’s see….where are we…I’m at my altitude. Pull the power, lean the mixture. Ok, I’ve got KHIO behind me, Lake Oswego and the Willamette River (my next two check points) should be to my right at a heading of….of…of…”

Shortly thereafter I located my navigation log in that sliver of space between my seat and the door.

By the time I got it in my lap and found my heading I had lost a few hundred feet and that friendly man was back on my radio, “Cessna 286, contact Portland [mumbled] at [new frequency].”

Huh? I read it back to him, changed the radio and started all over, telling the new person my altitude, heading, destination and those all important words “student pilot, solo” that beg a controller “PLEASE BE NICE TO ME, THIS IS ALL NEW!” and followed it with “I was headed to Lake Oswego next, but I’m a little lost.”

The controller came back with a heading for me to find Lake Oswego, and from it, I did. Then the Willamette. Then….wait….ok, I didn’t cross over the southern tip of Lake Oswego but the middle, and now I seem to be following the Willamette…no no, I’m supposed to cross the Willamette and then find a tower, then Hwy 26….I consulted my sectional.

I’m not sure how the gremlins did this, but suddenly my sectional that previously had two rivers on it now had about 15. I looked back out the window…water, water everywhere.

Ok…I’ll just fly my next heading, that should get me to Hwy 26 at least…I know that one, it’s the big highway that runs through the city and then out to the mountains.

Just then the radio called my tail number again, “you have traffic at 11 O’clock at four thousand five hundred.”

Wait, my new heading says I should turn to roughly 11 O’Clock…I don’t see anyone and I’m at five thousand five hundred…well, when in doubt, ask.

“I do not have traffic in sight. I’m about to turn to a heading of 044, is that alright or should I wait?”

The controller barked at me, “286 I’m not in charge of your flight plan! I’m just making you aware of traffic.”

Yikes! Ok….I’ll fly straight for a little longer and try to orient myself.

A few minutes later he came back on, “Cessna 286 contact [new frequency].”

The new frequency had a very nice woman on it. I started out by telling her I believed I was over Hwy 26 but I was off course and needed to get to the Columbia. She gave me a heading and told me I would see a major road, 84, that would lead me to the river and run along side it. Once I got there I was told to stay to the North side until I arrived at The Dalles. Whew!

It was easy from here. Just follow the river until it makes a giant C shape and there would be Dallesport Airport.

I’m still trying to figure out what happened next. I started to feel funny. Truth be told I felt a little funny since I took off and got discombobulated turning right instead of left. I told myself it was nerves and I just needed to stay calm. I was trying to find where I was with my sectional but having no luck. CFI # 5 would be so livid right now.

I know I got to the Columbia River Gorge earlier and farther west than I had expected. My next checkpoint should be KCZK (Cascade Locks State Airport).

Then the funny feeling got worse. I was going to throw up. Then I was dizzy.

All around me there were cliffs and mountains…beautiful sure, but not great places for emergency landings.

I got on the radio and asked for a vector to KCZK. The woman came back, “I’m not sure, it should be there below you somewhere.” I turned the plane left, then right….definitely going to throw up….hot sweats….panic starting. No airport in sight.

[click] “All I see is a dam.” The woman told me she didn’t have a way to get me to the airport, but she could confirm I was over Cascade Locks.

I consulted my sectional. Yup, it’s underneath me somewhere, but where?! I was told if I was lost I should climb higher and look around. But what if this was hypoxia…the last thing I should do is climb. Deciding that could be it, I descended a little.

That’s when the turbulence started. Light turbulence, but to someone that was holding back vomit…not welcome stuff.

I opened the cabin air and that thing that blows wind from outside the cockpit straight into your face. I drank some water. Neither helped.

Just then the woman came back on the radio, “would you like to terminate services or do you want a frequency for Seattle Center?”

Terminate services!? Why is she leaving me?!!! I’m all alone up here, desperate to land, can’t find an airport and trying to figure out if I should be breathing more (hypoxia) or less (hyperventilation) to curb the dizziness!!! DON’T GO!!!!!

I asked for a frequency for Seattle Center, got it, switched it, told them who I was and reported my position as “over Cascade Locks.”

According to my sectional, the next airport was Hood River, just a couple more bends in the river. I could make it. I could always pull an emergency landing on 84…I could see the face of CFI #5 in my mind’s eye “you pulled an emergency landing on an interstate because you felt a little queasy?! Is this a joke!?”

I studied the sectional for Hood River like a final exam, occasionally looking outside and at my altimeter…yup, still terrifyingly steep cliffs, still roughly 5,500.

The engine began to rattle. I pulled the carb heat. It got better.

It felt like eternity, but I got to Hood River. I was sure of it. There was the valley, there was the little town. According to the sectional there is a bridge over the Columbia that leads into Hood River and it points directly to the airport.I found the bridge. I did not find the airport. I turned the plane on it’s side and frantically searched for an airport, the voice of CFI #5 in my head “don’t lick the window, keep your situational awareness.”

I licked the window guys. I licked that window for a good three minutes, turned the plane on it’s other side and licked the other one for two more.

No airport. Seriously!?

Panic. Panic. Panic. How do I get down?! What if I pass out up here?! What is wrong with me?!

No other choice, I continued on. Look for a C in the river. Look for a C in the river. Look for a C in the river.

I could taste vomit and I was still really light headed. I dropped to 2500, barely skirting over the rolling hills into the Dalles. With very little warning Seattle Center terminated services and I was on my own.

Finally I saw it. The most beautiful crook a river ever made. And nestled just inside it was KDLS.

I tuned into the weather. The ASOS reported 8 knots from 040. CFI #5 came back to me, “as a student you are not allowed to land in more than a 7 knot headwind and a 5 knot crosswind.” My heart sank. The only airport I could find and I couldn’t land!?

While I debated what to do, the report came back again, this time it said the wind was 7 knots at 020. I listened more, it changed speed and direction each time it replayed.

Half talking to myself, half talking to CFI # 5 in my head I said it aloud, “I’m the PIC damn it! I’m landing this bird right here, right now!”

I made a radio call and told the traffic I was setting up for a landing on 31. As I turned base for 31 the windsock changed direction.

I made the radio call, switched it to runway 7, flew a right pattern instead of a left even though I knew better, and executed the best landing of my solo experience (thanks to a tip from CFI # 4 who recommended leaving just a little power in until I touched down).

I had to turn around on the runway because I missed the taxiway…that was a fun radio call [click] “This is Cessna 46286, I uh….missed the taxiway, I’m gunna turn around here on the runway and go back, please don’t land.” [click] When I turned off I announced I was clear of runway 7…it seemed the right way to handle it.

Not really sure where to go, I parked where I saw other planes parked and a nice young man hustled out to my plane to say hello. (Thank you AOPA for that article in your Flight Training magazine about how FBOs work!)

Half walking, half stumbling I made my way to the FBO that strongly resembled an old country homestead. Standing just outside the front door was the airport manager, Rolf.

Rolf has been flying since the ’70s and he knows a thing or two about young pilots and the way their faces look when everything is not quite right. I told him I was a student pilot and I’d just completed my first cross country solo flight and managed to miss every checkpoint and nearly pass out and throw up at 5,500 feet and the last thing I wanted to do was get back in that plane and do it again.

He offered to look over my sectional with me and talk about my flight. He made me feel much better, “don’t worry, KCZK (Cascade Locks Airport) is impossible to find, besides, you don’t want to land there anyway. The runway is tiny and it’s completely surrounded by trees. The Hood River airport isn’t where the town is, it’s over a hill to the South, it can be a tough one to find too. On your way back, IF you decide you want to fly back, look for the bridge for Hood River and the dam for Cascade Locks, then follow these power lines over the mountains till you see Portland.”

He offered me a 7 up and some peanut butter crackers, which he refused to let me pay for, and told me I didn’t have to get back in that plane if I didn’t want to. He said he was headed to Hillsboro that evening and would be glad to let me ride along and that I was welcome to hang around as long as I needed to make a decision.

So I sat down on the wooden front porch to think it over and get my stomach back under me. And hours passed. Sometimes I sat there crying, still ready to throw up, certain I would need a ride home. From time to time he would come sit with me and ask why I got into flying or tell me how well I managed the situation, or talk about jobs in aviation I should consider.

Ya, that’s right. He talked to me about aviation jobs I should consider while I was crying and heaving on his front porch, and refusing to get back in one of the most stable, forgiving airplanes ever built because I was too scared.

CFI # 5 called. He said I must have gotten dehydrated and I should have water, not soda, and no rush, but someone had the plane reserved at 5 so…”

CFI # 4 called. He asked me how I was doing. Told me it was fine. Said he gets scared and sick sometimes too, even as an airline pilot. Told me I wasn’t really a pilot until I had thrown up in flight and the goal was to hit a car when I dropped the barf bag out of the window. He said if I get dizzy again I should breathe very methodologically and focus on something far away. He ended it with, “you don’t have to get back in the plane, but I have faith in you and I know once you get your courage back up, you are a force to be reckoned with. I support whatever decision you make…and always keep a barf bag on your lap in flight, if it’s there, you need it less.”

And then I sat there for another hour. Or two. I’m not sure. I just know I wasn’t ready yet.

Then Rolf had a suggestion, “what if you just go sit in the plane…and if you feel ok, just start it up and fly around the airport a little bit. You know where the airport is and you can land if you need. Then, if you feel alright, you can keep going, but only if you feel up to it.”

So I did. I sat in the plane for a while, watching the sun get lower and lower over the emerald hills, knowing it was getting close to that now or never critical point.

I got out and did a preflight.

I got back in and texted CFI # 5 that I was sitting in the plane, thinking about starting it and flying around the airport a little to see if my stomach was ok.

He came back with some fear-mongering question about having enough fuel…don’t want to run out over the mountains. The jerk knew before I left Hillsboro I had enough fuel to make this trip three times. I told him to quit frightening me and ignored his texts from then on.

I took off and flew the pattern twice. I felt fine.

I stopped at the FBO once more to thank Rolf for everything he had done and to tell him I was going to make the trip back. He smiled at me in a way that suggested he knew I would do that all along.

Just for good measure I checked the fuel once more before my final takeoff…still enough to make the entire trip two more times.

The trip home was entirely different. I flew lower this time. I knew how to request flight following this time. I remembered to open my flight plan this time.

I found the bridge at Hood River. I found the Hood River Airport too…didn’t need it this time. At the dam at Cascade Locks I followed the power lines over the mountains to Portland.

Over the very last hill I contacted Portland Approach and told them (rather than asking sheepishly as I had on the way over) I had a forest fire at 12 O Clock and needed to divert to the NW. They approved it.

A few minutes later they asked if I was clear of the smoke yet, I wasn’t so they took over and put me through their airspace. I had never flown in class C airspace before but I can tell you now, I LOVE it. First, it has all the best views of the city. Second, ATC does all the thinking for you. They told me my headings and altitude all the way over until they handed me to Hillsboro Tower.

I didn’t sheepishly ask the tower for help either. I told the tower I had the sun in my eyes, could not see the airport, and needed a heading. They gave me a heading. A few miles out I contacted them and told them I had them in sight, they cleared me to fly straight in.

I got one more communication from the tower. “Cessna 286 you’re looking high, we could do a couple things, you could fly over the runway and do a left pattern or if you want you can start some S turns to get down.”

[click] “thanks, but I got this, I’ll make 31 Left. 286.”

I dove until the PAPI told me I was on the glide path and brought it in for another beautiful landing.

I was expecting a fun, scenic flight to an airport I had visited once before. I got a much larger lesson about all of the people on the ground that can help you out when the flight you expected is not the flight you get. I know there is much left to learn (like why ATC can guide you to KHIO but not KCZK and why some are happy to help and others bark at you for trying to be safe). In the future I will be friendly, but probably do a lot less asking and a lot more informing the people on the ground about what is going on up in the air.

And I think perhaps from now on I will make it a point to befriend the manager of every FBO I visit. They really are wonderful people.

These gremlins are good

Well folks, last night every channel on tv said the weather would be beautiful today excepting a slight chance of rain mid-afternoon.

So, naturally I woke to gray skies, low ceilings and gusty winds.

Not that it mattered much, the plane I was assigned today went down for maintenance and every other plane was reserved. These gremlins were so good, not only did I never leave the ground, I didn’t even make it to the airport before my plane went kaputz.

The weather is supposed to be bad for the rest of the week. (Not from the TV weather people who somehow can get it wrong 365 days a year and keep their jobs, but from actual weather reporting stations.)

I am scheduled for two more flights this week. I will keep you guys posted.

Building Confidence

Three nights ago I was plagued by nightmares.

In the first one my engine caught fire. In the second I lost my radio. In the third the door popped open and a rush of wind carried my sectional and navigation log out of the plane. In the fourth I lost my elevator.

I haven’t had aviation-related nightmares before. Truly, they didn’t begin until my CFI turned to me after three lovely cross-country flights and said, “you’ll be on your own for the next one.”

The nightmares continued the next night.

In the first my engine died and I executed an emergency landing on a freeway and killed a van full of children. In the second I was lost and nothing on my sectional looked anything like what I saw on the ground. In the third a gust of wind threw me into my first spin.

They continued the next night too. I saw the aftermath of my husband as a widow.

On the third morning I lied awake in the wee hours of the morning, bathed in sweat from the nightmares hours before, when it occurred to me: I had already had flights by myself where things had gone wrong and survived. What I should be afraid of was not an in flight emergency but losing my head. That was the real danger.

In all of the nightmares I lost my head. I couldn’t concentrate. I went hysterical. But in real life, though I wouldn’t say I kept my calm the whole time, I did exactly what I was trained to do and things turned out fine.

I have been trained in emergency landings, engine failures, engine fires and radio failure. My Cessna manual has an entire chapter on emergency procedures, including a section on what to do in the event of an elevator failure.

It might sound silly, but in all of my training no one has yet handed me a tiny pill and said “if all else fails, it’s swift and painless.” I will interpret that to mean as long as I keep my wits, this flight is going to be fine.

But better yet, it is foolish to say “it’ll be fine.” Why would it be?! I’m tremendously nervous and this will be my first time unsupervised more than three nautical miles from my home airport. So to prepare, I will plan for things to go wrong.

I will expect the climb out to be awkward and frighteningly fast because the plane will weigh less. I will expect to have to change my course for unpredictable weather. I will expect a gremlin to do something to my airplane. I will expect to not hit my checkpoints on time, maybe even miss a few. I will expect to bounce the first landing. I will expect to bounce the second. And I will practice my solo landings until I don’t bounce before I return back to home base (or my fuel allowance runs out). And when I get there, I will expect (as usual) to not be able to find the airport among the neighborhoods and factories and stadiums everyone else uses to guide them effortlessly to the tower. And when I get on the tower’s frequency (and ask them where the hell they are because my heading isn’t doing the trick), I will expect to have no idea what they are saying because it didn’t so much come at me as mumble as it ran past. I will expect them to change the runway on me.

And then, when ANY of these things goes right (or I deal with them without losing my cool because I saw them coming), bit by bit, I will gain the confidence I lack. And after my flight tomorrow, I will know what I don’t know tonight as I try to find peaceful sleep: that I can be a pilot, come what may.

Pilots are the coolest!

Hi everybody!

This is just a quick one about something that recently happened that made my whole day and reminded me how amazingly supportive pilots are as a community to each other.

Today mixed in with the usual junk mail and bills a card came in the mail. A hand written card from none other than my regional director of Company X – whom I have never met face to face, and only know of by name on very official-looking company emails.

It was a congratulatory card. Get this: the regional director of my company is a pilot that got wind of an interpreter somewhere in their multitude that recently took her first solo flight and took the time to sit down and write me some encouraging, congratulatory words by hand.

I had no idea this person was a pilot but I read their card, “I remember very well my first solo flight” and their encouragement “You have done what very few people will ever do!” and now I can’t wait for an excuse to find a company event where I might meet this faceless comrade!

Pilots really are the coolest.

Wish me luck, guys, my first cross-country night flight is tonight!

Just once, could everything go right?

Today I was able to take my second solo flight.

This time it started as a dual flight, my instructor and I went to the west practice area, did some maneuvers, then came back in. I showed him three perfect landings, and he got out and sent me on my way to the west practice area by myself.

At first it was a great flight. Everything happened according to plan. Somewhat surprisingly, I did not jump straight into the sky like I had the last time but climbed very comfortably at 70 knots.

At 900 feet I departed west, crossed over into the west practice area, switched the radio over and then I played around. I turned around “the turning tree,” I crossed over an adorable creek, I did everything by the book, making radio calls for every turn. For a brief moment, flying was actually fun.

Right on target I made my call back to the tower to enter Delta airspace, reporting position, altitude and weather info. They told me to report on the downwind and I was good to come in, so in I went.

Just a few minutes later it occurred to me I was going incredibly fast. I looked over at my RPMs, normal range, I looked at my altitude and wasn’t climbing or descending so I figured I was just enjoying a tail wind and would be there in no time. Whew! This flight was going swimmingly better than the last solo.

Still, I was nervous about Delta airspace. The tower was busy. I could hear it all the way in. Every communication sounded like a take-out order read back and happened as fast as an auctioneer speaks. I was breathing deeply and reminding myself I had trained for this.

Then it happened.

Suddenly everything sounded a little different. I frantically scanned all of my engine instruments. They all reported in normal range. I checked my headset plug ins. Secure. Then a rush of wind came into the cabin…out of the corner of my eye I caught it. The passenger door had popped wide open and was now swinging wildly in the wind – the 130 knot relative wind!

At that moment – the moment my jaw dropped right out of the plane – I heard the tower call my tail number and ask my position.

What?! When do they ever do that?! Why?! Can’t they see me from their window?! Don’t they have my transponder?!

I have been taught in cases of emergency the rule is to aviate, navigate, THEN communicate. I wasn’t to the airport yet, and I was wrangling a derelict door back to the side of the plane…the tower could wait.

Still not yet able to grab the door on one of it’s passes closer to me, the tower came back with my tail number and asked if I was over TV Highway.

Fun fact, kids, I have lived in Oregon less than a year and believe it or not, I don’t have every single road memorized yet, especially considering I bike to and from work less than 5 miles from my apartment. So while my panic level was at about a 4 with the loose door, the tower thinking I was potentially somewhere else entirely from where I believed I was brought me up to about an 8. (Where the hell is TV Highway?!)

It was beautiful in Portland today. There were planes everywhere routing in and out of Delta airspace, not to mention nearby PDX.

So I gave up on the door for a minute and got on the radio and this was about how it came out: [click] “Cessna 64942!…I think I’m over Baseline Road [click] I think over Hillsboro????! I’ve got an [DON’T SAY EMERGENCY! DON’T SAY EMERGENCY! DON’T DECLARE AN EMERGENCY OVER A FLIPPING DOOR!] open door!” [click]

The tower came back: “ok.”

That was it.

Back to the rogue door before any number of random things students have lost under these seats find a way to drop on an innocent jogger below.

Finally I caught the door and wrangled it back to the side of the plane, but no matter how hard I pulled, it didn’t latch shut, it just stuck to where I could see a sliver of light through it and there it remained the rest of the flight, taunting me with the notion it could randomly depart again at any given second.

Then the tower said what I thought was my tail number and told me to report on base. Maybe it was my tail number. Maybe it wasn’t. I still have no idea. I was shaking like a leaf from head to toe. So I radioed back that I would report on base (completely forgetting to include that I was a student pilot soloing like I’m supposed to tell them).

Then I heard my tail number over and over again. I would ask the tower to repeat, but the tower was unresponsive. “Hmmm….must not have been for me. I feel like an idiot.” Thinking on it as I write this tonight, I’m pretty sure I was so panicked I responded to everything that had a “9er” in it as if it was for me.

With the confidence of a turtle on a fence post, I entered the downwind. Still asking the tower to repeat their last instruction….that wasn’t probably for me, but I sure thought it was.

The tower did not respond to me.

Was my radio transmitter out too?!

I reported my base turn, just in case. The tower then responded that someone was clear to land, but I wasn’t 100% sure who – apparently you can get tunnel hearing when your panic level leaves the charts. I was scanning the sky like a hawk for anyone else coming in to land.

The passenger door began to squeak at me as I turned final.

I executed the approach as best I could, still shaking uncontrollably. The PAPI told me I was high, now low, now high, now low, now good, now low….full flaps, airspeed 60 knots.

“I can do this. I can do this. I can do this. I can do this.”

I held the flare for what felt like forever. Then, once again, I started climbing. I released just a little pressure and waited and instead of gently touching down on the ground it bounced. Again! Then it started to turn sideways. I aggressively gave opposite rudder but it just wasn’t working out, I was bouncing and turning more and more with each bounce. “Ok, go around. Full throttle.”

Nope.

I got on the radio to announce a go around, but the plane would not leave the ground. Instead of climbing and trying again, I was going full speed and accelerating right off the runway into nearby obstructions. I couldn’t get it back to the center line to save my life no matter how aggressively I pressed on the rudder. But it did occur to me at that moment I was no longer bouncing. So I killed the power and applied full brakes.

Now during this near death experience, my thumb was on the radio the whole time. So instead of the go around I was planning to announce, the tower (and everyone else on that frequency) got to hear an assortment of very high pitched expletives. When I finally released my thumb, the guy in the tower, with the calmest voice I’ve ever heard told me: “It’s ok, just land on the runway in front of you, pull off whenever you can.”

So I did. It took a while to slow down….many many taxi ramps later I turned off of the runway, thanked the controller, and switched over to ground.

I pulled past the hold short line and stopped. And for the next little while, the only movement in the plane were the tears streaming down my cheeks.

I contacted Hillsboro ground with my best attempt at a non-quivering voice, followed their instructions back to the tie down area and saw my instructor standing at the end of the lot.

My stomach sank. I had let him down again. He trusted me with his credentials and reputation as an instructor, and I botched the landing a second time.

Once again he was really cool about it. He said it wasn’t so bad and neither of us were in any trouble. The plane was fine and other than my pride and nerves, everything was in tact.

It was a few hours before the shaking stopped. I still cry a little when I think about it. How it was equal parts humiliating and terrifying. How at one point I was certain I was going to crash.

Fun fact, my previous post where I had a mechanical problem with a plane during the run-up was this exact same plane. This is actually the third time I’ve had a problem with this particular plane. I can comfortably declare Cessna 64942 dead to me. I will NEVER agree to fly it again.

My next lesson is Tuesday. If I try to pilot a plane again. Ever. Right now I’m not so sure.