I did it!
I got back in the plane by myself (with Gizmo) and flew to Corvallis and then to Scappoose and then to Hillsboro, completing my FAA required solo time for cross-country flying. From this day forward I never have to venture more than a few miles from my home airport BY MYSELF again!
But here’s the thing: what got me in the plane this time was realizing that I wasn’t alone.
Over the course of the past year and a half of flight training I have picked up a small army of supporters along the way. First it was just a retired pilot that agreed to take me up a few times in exchange for a pool cue rack I was selling. Then I was invited to the pilots’ standing breakfast every Saturday morning at the Blue Hangar Cafe. It wasn’t long before friends and family jumped on board. Then I met the 99s. Supporters began commenting on my blog. Once my first solo flight was announced to the office I found other aviators and sailors and navigators in the woodwork at my workplace. Even my non-aviation minded friends ask how I’m doing and encourage me to keep at it.
I thought it was appropriate, since I was thinking of all of you, for you to come with me on this second cross-country solo. So sit back while I spin my yarn and enjoy the pictures.
Yesterday morning I felt nervous as usual as I got in the car to drive up to the airport. I turned on the radio,
“Good morning Portland, beautiful weather today on this 79th anniversary of the Hindenburg…”
Channel change. It was Tom Petty.
“…and I’m free! Free falling!…”
You’ve got to be kidding me. Channel change.
Classical radio was the only safe channel. So, it was Schubert all the way to the airport. When my brain wandered and began to think of all that could go wrong I heard Patty’s voice, my 99s scholarship mentor, in my head, “Whatever happens, you will find that your training will take over.”
I got to the plane, strapped Gizmo in and performed my preflight only calling my CFI over twice to double check why my radio wouldn’t work and why the flap rod didn’t move freely.
I took my time. I added oil to the engine even thought it had the minimum required. I ordered full tanks of gas even though I wouldn’t need all of it. I had the windshield cleaned. I ate a granola bar. When I felt good and ready, the 115 lbs me lugged the 1,405 lbs airplane down to the end of the row by myself. A sight that did indeed turn heads.
At Colins’ recommendation I said all of my checklists out loud. I gave Gizmo the preflight briefing and instructed him in the requirement of the shoulder harness and the importance of a sterile cockpit during takeoff and landing.
Up and away we went into the clear blue sky, 700 feet per minute until we reached 3,000 feet. I didn’t request flight following this time, but decided to listen to each airport as I passed along the way.
As I approached the southern edge of the West Practice Area, I made a radio call that I was over the Newberg VOR. A familiar voice came back “sounds like you’re kicking ass and taking names.” It was CFI #5 out with another student.
Over the ridge, out of the [somewhat] familiar, and then boom, there it was – the Willamette Valley stretching onward as far as the eye could see. My first checkpoint was a particular crook in the Willamette River.
I found all of my checkpoints along the way, and even some other stuff I saw on the map I decided to look for just for fun. There were airports everywhere – Newberg, McMinnville, Salem, Independence. Cross country solo #2 was going swimmingly well.
In no time at all I was crossing East of the large hills just North of Corvallis. Just over those hills was Beaver Stadium (Oregon State U’s unmistakable stadium with a beaver painted on the field) and just past that would be the airport.
I didn’t spot the stadium at first, but fortunately I had once interviewed for a job at OSU and was familiar with the town and campus. I found the university, and I knew from my airport diagram that the airport was 4 miles SW of the town, so that’s where I headed. It took a minute, but eventually I spotted the airport.
The weather reported variable winds at 9 knots, mostly from the North. I set up for runway 35, called my turns and then about 30 feet off of the runway decided I didn’t like any of what was happening. The glide path would have worked but I couldn’t get the nose to line up with the runway and I was all over the place with my ailerons. Nope, it’s a go-around.
I hadn’t done a go-around in a while. I remembered the carb heat and the throttle go in, I forgot not to pick up all three notches of flaps at once and not before my airspeed picked up, so instead of climbing out I coasted just a bit lower and lower to the runway I didn’t want to land on. I caught what I had done the minute I did it and then had that panic moment when I heard Lee, my very first CFI’s voice “nothing happens fast in an airplane.” Right. Just hold it steady, it will climb.
Sure enough it did. I decided the winds were just a bit too much for me to try again and headed back out over the little town.
Ok, in two minutes I should see the airport in Independence, right when the Willamette River meanders over almost to the town. Two minutes came and went. I could still see Corvallis. I wasn’t even past the hills. Twelve minutes passed and I believed I was over Independence, only this town didn’t have an airport. The river turned across the valley just as it was supposed to, but no airport to be found.
I trekked on, I would see Salem to my right, it’s hard to miss, it’s a large city.
Much later than expected, I saw a large city to my right. Salem is Delta airspace and I was able to tune into their tower frequency. Only this time I couldn’t spot the airport in Salem either.
I studied the sectional, suddenly there were lots of features I didn’t recall seeing before. The sectional had multiple places where the river split, before I only knew of one on my route. I looked out the window and saw a large bridge crossing over the Willamette, but no such bridge on my sectional.
I had been flying for about 20 minutes, up ahead of me must be McMinnville, maybe Newberg? That large road below me must be I-5…but where are my checkpoints?
Then it happened all over again. Out of nowhere came the nausea, the lightheadedness, and the shaking. Only this time I was certain I was physically fine. This time I understood it better. This was panic.
At that moment I heard Monica, one of my Texas 99s in my head who admitted to experiencing the exact same thing on a few of her solo flights, “just remember, you’ve got a map and you’ve got a radio.”
Right. I looked at the map, got the frequency for the local FSS and tuned it in. A friendly man answered and asked how he could help. I explained I was a student pilot on a solo flight and I needed some help navigating.
You guys, he was amazing. He spoke to me calmly and checked in often. I’m certain he was a pilot because a number of the things he said to me gave me the distinct impression he knew exactly what I was going through.
He had me squawk 7700 (gulp!) because getting lost is an emergency. He contacted Portland Approach and said they showed me about a mile SW of Independence.
What?! How?! I was never supposed to be West of Independence! How has twenty-five minutes of flight not gotten me past a checkpoint I was supposed to pass five minutes into the flight?!
Then he gave me an option, “if you want I’ll stay with you and we’ll talk it out until you know where you are again or I could pass you to Portland Approach and they will guide you back on track.”
I opted for Portland Approach figuring he was just being nice to offer to stay with me. Portland Approach had a controller that was just as friendly and understanding. I admitted I was lost and he gave me a new transponder code to squawk and asked me to ident. Then he gave me a heading, asked a few things about my aircraft and affirmed that I was doing just fine.
Inside I was conflicted. On the one hand I was relieved to be in the hands of capable people that would hold my hand until I knew where I was again – the panic was gone. On the other hand I felt like a complete failure. Twice now I had ventured out on my own and twice I had gotten lost and bothered otherwise very busy controllers in Charlie airspace with my inability to navigate.
Then I heard it. Another of the pilots on the same frequency was repeating back an instruction the controller had given him and ended it with “…maintain 5,000, great job on the student pilot.”
That was for me. He just told me I was doing great.
I’m not alone up here. I’ve just added one more to my small army of supporters and I don’t even know his name.
The controller took me right back into the West Practice Area, flew me straight over KHIO (my home airport) and then, when I confirmed I had KSPB in sight, cleared me to change the frequency.
I came into Scappoose for a touch and go on 33, announcing each of my turns to the local traffic. Again, I didn’t like the landing and aborted it but this time I made quite literal the touching and going. I tip-toed the main wheels down, never touched the nose gear to the runway and jumped back up into the sky. On my way up a radio call came from the FBO “is there any traffic in the area, please report?”
[click] “Cessna 521 is on the upwind for 33.”
“Oh good! A man called over here from McMinnville FSS asking about you, how you doing up there?”
Pilots. They really are the coolest people.
On my way back over the ridge between KSPB and KHIO I called him up, assured him I was doing great and thanked him for being wonderful.
I used Rob’s trick of holding up my right hand when the tower cleared me to make right traffic for 31 Left (why can’t we just call it “the big runway” to reduce confusion?).
The last landing was just as botched as the first two. Some days you’ve got it, some days you don’t. I put it down hard. Hard enough to bounce a few times. Remembering as I did Rob’s comment that it is supposed to be messy now while I’m still new at this. Pretty landings will come later, right now just put it on the ground safely.
I taxied back in and the minute I started to beat myself up about getting lost flying a straight shot from South to North up a valley with a major freeway beneath me the whole time, I heard Ron’s voice (even though I’ve never actually heard it) when he told me to stop being so hard on myself. It’s way too soon in the game to expect 100% proficiency in navigating unfamiliar territory. I took a lot of people on that flight with me and all of them probably have similar stories worthy of a kick in the pants or two.
Finally, to all of you, those I named in this article, and the many many many many others that have been voices of support and encouragement along the way, thank you for seeing to it that I never fly alone.