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.


9 thoughts on “Angels in the outfield

  1. Brilliant job. I hope there are some student pilots that come across this so they can know what it is like sometimes. It isn’t ALWAYS fun, but you can focus on the fun and that helps. It also appears to have been a turning point in your flying, which my solo cross country was as well. Being on your own is totally different.

    My solo cross country had to be three airports and more than 50nm from home base to the first one. I flew KSMO – KBFL – KPRB – KSBA – KSMO. It seems like you were allowed to just do one hop. Is that your regulation solo cross country, or is that some flight school thing they wanted you to do?

    Liked by 2 people

    • I still have to do the 100 NM three touchdown points cross country. I did this one as part of my 10 hours of solo time before the check ride. I’m thinking of doing it one more time and touching down in Hood River. That or I’ll go to Astoria.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Sounds like your reaction up in the air was a perfectly normal physiological reaction to stress, you handled the plane well, CFI#5 isn’t the guy for you, but there are plenty of people out there who have been there and are more than happy to help. Again, the overriding sense I get was that as much as you didn’t feel it, you were way more in control than you thought you were. Gut level pilot, it sounds like to me πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What an adventure! I’m surprised none of your instructors had shown you how to change the transponder code, ask for flight following, or open a flight plan.

    It sounds like you learned some valuable lessons, primary among them is that you are the pilot-in-command. I didn’t sense that on the outbound leg, but it was there on the return flight. That’s a big deal, and it’s one of the big things I look for before sending a student out on their own.

    As for why some controllers are nice and others sound like Santa left them a lump of coal, well, that’s just because they are human. Don’t let it bother you in the slightest. You aren’t there to help them — they are there to serve you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ron, to be fair I have been shown how to file a flight plan, I just forgot to open it, and it has been explained to me that when changing the transponder I’m supposed to enter the numbers from right to left, but the part where you hit the “ident” button is just something I observed once before and flight following was completely new.

      I hope to do better with ATC as time goes on. It amazes me how friendly and confident the other pilots sound. I’ll get there someday. I’ve been trying to go tour the tower at my home airport for weeks and can’t get hold of anyone. I’m thinking one of these times I’ll just ask to pop by over the radio after I land πŸ˜‰

      Liked by 1 person

      • Great idea! Visiting the tower will reveal that the controllers are just ordinary people. We already know that, of course, but there’s something visceral about meeting them in person which will make future interactions with them much more congenial. It can be hard to get the tours these days because of all the post-9/11 security theatre. Locked doors, appointments, ID and security scan requirements, etc. It used to be so easy: walk up to the door and knock! There was even an exchange program (Operation Raincheck, I think?) sanctioned by the FAA which would have controllers ride along with pilots to see what goes on in the cockpit, and likewise pilots would spend some time plugged into a controller’s station to follow along with their work day. It was awesome.


  4. Pingback: Unabashed boldness…meh, not for me | The Bold Bluebonnet

  5. Hi! I recently discovered your blog (full disclosure: it’s Ron Rapp’s fault). This post really resonated with me. Around fifteen years ago, I did my first solo cross country flight. I was a nervous student and my greatest fear was getting lost. Like you, I was trying to engage with an ATC system that I did not yet fully understand. Mistakes were made, discomfort was experienced, etc. I remember it like it was yesterday.

    What really impressed me about your story is that, unlike me (whose initial cross country experience actually made me ATC-shy for some time thereafter), you learned that ATC is there to help and you drew on that help to your advantage. Well done! This is an idea that some experienced private pilots I know still do not understand. While I’m sorry that your cross country flight was not quite the serene trip you hoped it would be, you gained a valuable insight that I did not until I was flying around in my own airplane. That speaks volumes about the pilot you will be someday. I wish you well and am looking forward to following your adventures!

    Liked by 1 person

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