The check ride

I made a series of bad decisions before my check ride. I am certain beyond a reasonable doubt under any other condition I would never get into a plane in the shape I was in. The day of the check ride I did it because I was more concerned with external pressures than my fitness to fly.

When I left Oregon for GIFT week I left a sick husband (he had just come home from the hospital and a surgery the day before) and a week of income to earn my license. I had it in my mind I wasn’t coming home without at least trying for a private license. It didn’t help that CFI #5 had moved on to an airline job and I didn’t want to go through the gauntlet to find a decent CFI at a flight school again. Scheduling the check ride at my flight school looked to be at least a few weeks, a few headaches, and a few thousand dollars away. But if I took my check ride and passed at GIFT week I could return home the victor!

This is where my mind was before I even got to Texas.

GIFT week started out great, beautiful weather, an abundance of optimism, planes and students at the ready. At noon Tuesday a storm blew in.

“…and the skies are not cloudy all day.” Bullshit. The clouds didn’t lift for two and a half days.

There was talk Thursday night that the clouds might clear Friday and some of the girls that were ready could take their check rides. I was determined to be one. Every few hours Thursday night I woke with a start about things I already knew…

“How do I use an E6B to compute groundspeed?!”

“What does the second A in AV1ATE stand for?!”

“What are the pitot static instruments?!”

Arriving at the airport Friday morning I learned the examiner was already booked and I would have to test the following morning – Saturday, the last official day of GIFT week. That same Saturday I was scheduled to catch the last available flight from Dallas to Portland, meaning I had to leave Vernon no later than 11 am – if I was willing to speed and skip lunch.

The examiner decided to begin my oral exam at 6:30am to give us enough time, but we were still dependent on the weather for the check ride and the forecast called for fog and low ceilings until noon.

I’d now like to run us through the IM SAFE checklist to illustrate the state I was in by 6:30am the following morning when my oral began.

Illness: Beginning stages of a cold and I’d had the nervous poops for a good 40 hours.

Medications: Tylenol, to stave off the headache that comes with the beginning of a cold and lack of sleep.

Stress: Mini meltdown territory. That morning I could be found alone in the dark  – silent tears dribbling down my cheeks – outside the hotel waiting for the examiner to pick me up.

Alcohol: None. I opted to study the night before instead of celebrate with the newly licensed pilots that passed their tests.

Fatigue: Not a wink of sleep in close to 40 hours between my roommate’s fog horn decibel snoring and the bathroom faucet that dripped all night long. Also, did anyone catch that 6:30 am Texas time is 4:30 am Oregon time?

Eating: I managed half a plain bagel and then gave up on food. For those that don’t know me: I need food roughly every two hours if I am expected to function as a peaceful, intelligent human.

It was against all of my better judgment that I stepped into the examiner’s car that morning and began my oral exam before the sun was up while we drove to the airport.

Like countless student pilots before me I was asked about medical certificates, Bravo airspace, the legality of carrying marijuana on board, Victor airways, and all of the other good stuff that pilots have to know about. To be honest, I don’t remember most of the oral. Only that it lasted THREE HOURS. My eyes kept drifting over to the clock as inconspicuously as possible wondering if I was ever going to make it to the check ride.

The sun came up and the fog that was predicted never formed. The skies were mostly clear except for some fluffy little clouds at 2,500 feet. There was only one questionable weather phenomenon that day – the wind. Again, on any other day, I would have checked the weather, saw 19 knot winds gusting at 24, decided I’d never flown in something that strong and made the call to stay on the ground. But on check ride day this is what came into my head: “I’ve made it this far, I should give the check ride a shot. Worst case scenario: I find myself up there unable to manage these winds and I have a talented CFI and DPE in the right seat. The worst that can happen is I fail the test. No one is dying today. Go for it.”

So, up we went, even with the examiner saying “are you sure?” [Hell no, I’m pretty sure I should stay firmly planted on the ground!]…which came out as a deceptively confident “yes.”

Another bad decision I made that day: I was in a hurry (to catch my flight out of Dallas). I’ve never taxied that fast in my life, and twice the examiner made comments that I  needed to slow down. I heard her. I even intended to slow down, but before I knew it my hand was on that throttle again and we were whizzing down the taxiway.

Aside of my taxi motor speedway act it started out great. The take off was nice, the climb was right at 70 knots, I found my first check point and calculated my ground speed on my E6B. Then the examiner asked me to fly above the spotted clouds.

I refused.

She asked again.

I refused again.

The third time she explained it wasn’t part of the test to see if I would make a bad call and fly above converging clouds as a VFR pilot but as a necessity since we couldn’t do many of the maneuvers below three thousand feet. I insisted I would only do it if she took responsibility for getting us down safely if the clouds converged. She giggled at me, made a mark on her paper and agreed.

Up we climbed through the spaces in the clouds to 3,500 where I was asked to do steep turns. Fun fact: I hadn’t practiced steep turns in six months. Another fun fact: it’s much easier to pick a point on the horizon when the horizon is full of mountains; it is very difficult to pick a point on the horizon when there are no points out there, just open plains for miles and miles. I picked a collection of farm buildings and did my best to keep the nose on the horizon.

Steep turns were followed by slow flight, which segued to stalls.

The power off stall…god bless it the nose wouldn’t buffet! I had the yoke all the way back, the airspeed indicator read 0 knots, still no buffet! My feet were dancing to keep it coordinated…..nothing….nothing….still nothing…is it the wind?!

I looked at the VSI and called it, “we’re losing 500 feet a minute, I’m declaring this a stall and starting my recovery.”

The examiner did not protest.

The power on stall was textbook, the nose buffeted as it should, I dropped it a little and recovered.

Then out came the hood.

The hood?!

Yes, I said hood. Did anyone else not know that the hood would be part of the check ride? No? Just me then?

I donned the hood [for the first time in eight months] and gave the examiner what she wanted. Then this happened: “were you the one in class asking about graveyard spirals?”

I was indeed one of a few people asking about the difference between a spin and a graveyard spiral…and everything else that can kill you in an airplane. What can I say, I’m a pansy.

On the spot the examiner asked me to do one. “Go ahead, bank the plane in either direction…keep going” Eventually we entered the spiral. “Now pull back on the yoke. Do you feel the g’s increasing, you’re only making it worse.” Faster and faster we spiraled “ok, now do you remember how to recover?”

I leveled the wings and the spiral was over. So was my hood time. Whew!

Next came turns around a point. This is how strong the wind was at 1,000 feet – I had to point my plane away from my point and look over my shoulder to watch it pass behind the tail to keep my distance from it on the upwind side. Somehow it was the best turning around a point I had ever done.

“Ok, take me back to Wilbarger Airport,” she said.

Riiiiiight…..I had tried all along to keep an idea of where I was during our maneuvers but there had been clouds below me for most of my navigation attempts. I knew there were wind turbines near the airport. I searched the endless display of fields and found not one but three windmill farms in the distance.

Well shit.

I pointed the plane vaguely at all three and began searching for the freeway I knew led into Vernon.

No freeway.

The examiner – watching me search the sectional and the ground wildly – pulled out her phone and said, “you know, it’s amazing how many navigation apps there are available to us as pilots. In the real world you will have access to them, I see no reason why you can’t have access to them now during the test.”

God bless that DPE. We made it back to Wilbarger Airport where the winds were stronger than when we took off.

“Ok, let’s see a short field landing.”

It was all I could do to line the plane up with the runway in what may have been the longest final in recorded history. I first shot for runway 20 and changed it to 16…ya, I uh…I meant to do that.

I did it like I had flawlessly practiced it days before when the winds were calm. I brought it in full flaps, cut the power just shy of the numbers and then coasted down the runway…..way past the numbers….way past the markings I intended to stop before….way past the point where the two runways cross…eventually the plane settled down into the best soft-field landing a girl could hope for. Too bad I was shooting for a short field landing.

“ok, show me a soft-field takeoff then.”

With the winds we jumped into the air well before Vr and I did my best to hold it in ground effect until Vx. With the wind I was all over the place. I came around the pattern and the examiner asked for a soft-field landing. So, naturally, I produced the perfect short field landing. I touched down HARD on the numbers – even with the power still in.

“Those would have been perfect if you had done them in the right order,” the examiner joked. I was completely deflated and cursing the winds in my mind.

We taxied “Little Blue” back to the fuel pump and shut her down.

“Well I’ve got great news!” the DPE said. “We’ve gotten you back by 11 am! You can catch your plane in Dallas.”

With those words – and those words alone – she got out of the plane.


Utterly destroyed I climbed out of the plane and began fueling it up.

When she came back within earshot I asked her for the words I needed to hear.

“Did I pass?”

She looked at me incredulously, “Yes, of course!”

I stared at her for a minute wondering why she would pull such a cruel joke on an already overstressed student. I was in disbelief. It didn’t feel right. I had royally screwed up the landings. I had gotten lost out there. I couldn’t get the nose to buffet in the power off stall. I had made a number of bad decisions all morning long, including getting into the plane in the first place. How? How had I passed?

Then my body started doing something to me. It started out slow, then it started to grow. I was jumping. I was shuffling. I was wiggling my hips like a boss. It was the happy dance.

My body had accepted the news, my brain had not.

The face of celebratory disbelief

I hugged the DPE. I said thank you. I got the silly string celebration when I stepped into the FBO – all the way in cognitive disbelief yet physical celebration.

A few minutes later I was climbing back in Little Blue with another pilot and logging my first 45 minutes as a private pilot. We flew back into the metroplex and got me to Love Field with all of 5 minutes to spare.

This is Alex. He is about to be a great addition to the CfI community. He joined me back to the metroplex on my first official flight as a licensed pilot.

This is Texas from 3,000 feet. Flat plains for miles and miles.

It was a whirlwind day. I wasted no time telling everyone sitting next to me on the plane that I was a pilot. Although it took special effort to edit out the word “student.” It was another 7 hours before I was back home in Portland .

I was still in disbelief that night. I’m told it will sink in soon. It’s been two weeks and I’m still in disbelief. I’ll let you guys know when it does.


Even more pics from GIFT week!

We worked hard this week and have lots of good progress to report. A number of girls passed their written exam, more will take the test soon.

There are three newly certified pilots as a result of GIFT this year.

This is Brenda, who flew in from Mexico to earn her commercial license (covered in silly string, per tradition).

This is Cameron from California who earned her private.

And yours truly, as of today a private pilot!

What it takes

I have found that very few – if any – student pilots’ journeys to licensed pilot are easy, simple experiences. Most contain a series of harrowing stories, a tremendous financial hurdle, a facing-off with ones mortality and deepest fears, an ability to prioritize something that feels out of reach, a small army of supporters, and a sprinkling of prickly personalities to contend with. I know this because of my own story, and from listening to so many others that did and didn’t make it to the finish line.

Today I arrived in Vernon, Texas to Girls In Flight Training week – a program modeled after the WWll WASP training program in Sweetwater, Texas where women trained women to fly. I have only met a few of the women I will be working with this week but already I am hearing familiar things. Things like “I have over 100 hours and haven’t soloed yet” and “I am the only girl at my airport” and  “my last three flight instructors dropped me because their wives didn’t want him flying with a girl.”

A few years ago AOPA published an article asking if aviation needed an all girls’ flight school. After some of the shared experiences I’ve heard today, I would suggest an all girls flight school in every state. There are women here from all over the country, one from Mexico.

This place feels like a sanctuary of kindred spirits. It hasn’t even officially begun yet but I am encouraged and excited. We’ve all made sacrifices to be here. It wasn’t just a plane ticket and a week off of work. It was leaving my husband a day after surgery after a two week stint in the hospital. I left him to his own devices because he insisted. He understood how important this would be for me. 

So, here I am in the middle of nowhere hoping to finish my private license in the next few days. Across the country on a different time zone my dogs are wondering where I’ve gone and my husband is ordering take-out to survive. None of it is easy, but no one’s story ever is, male or female. I hope this is the last hurdle to my PPL.

This is what the middle of nowhere looks like.

Breaking the stall

I flew for the first time since Memorial Day weekend today. Not as a pilot, but as a passenger on a commercial jet.

Why the hiatus?

Somewhat becausethe end of May was when my scholarship deadline passed and I felt like a failure because I had made it all the way to .3 solo hours from eligibility for the check ride and didn’t close the deal. Somewhat because my husband started a new medication with tremendous side effects and I wanted to take care of him. Somewhat because of feelings of inadequacy – an inability to navigate; botched attempts at slipped and crosswind landings; still no idea how to do a VOR check from the ground; a foggy grasp of how to locate things in the FAR AIM. Somewhat because another CFI had moved on to an airline job. But mostly it was fear.

I had heard multiple CFIs tell me I was a good pilot. I was “private pilot material.” Even one disturbing remark “Val, I have soloed and checked out student pilots that have less talent than you do in your pinky, what are you waiting for?”

Fear. I’m waiting for the fear to pass.

Recently I saw a posting on my 99s board. A private pilot that earned her license 5 years ago admitted to fear. Tremendous, paralyzingly fear. She was afraid to fly to new airports. She was  afraid to fly alone. She asked for advice. Over the next two weeks responses poured in from all over the country. Kindred spirits with similar fears. Two that stood out to me were women with licenses that were afraid to leave the pattern even with their pilot husbands in the right seat.

So that’s it then?! The fear never leaves, it only gets worse after you earn your license?!

I gave up for a while. 

Then I started to miss flying. I found myself losing my place in a conversation because I was watching a plane in the sky – like a dog when it sees a squirrel.

How do I get back up there? Especially now that I’ve forgotten so much since I haven’t flown in 5 months and I’ve lost another instructor?

I posed this quierry to the universe and guys, the universe answered.

Once a year in the middle of nowhere (also known as Vernon, Tx) a group of women get together for Girls In Flight Training (GIFT) week. It’s a full week of free ground school all day everyday. Bring your dumb girl questions, bring your fears, and get over them in a room full of like-minded, equally frightened girls. 


There are also flight lessons each day tailored to the student wherever she is at and a DPE present for anyone ready for the check ride.

It only took this pansy two weeks to think it over, one night to see what her husband thought (he’s extremely supportive), and I was booking my ticket to Texas.

I arrived a few days early to visit family so tonight I am back in my childhood home, sleeplessly sweating buckets (it’s still 90 in Texas), watching the first lightning storm I’ve seen in a year and sifting through an old high school yearbook. I’m nervous and excited, just like being 17 again.

I’ll keep you guys posted🙂👍.

Facing Fears

This has been a week of facing fears and overcoming them.

The first fear: I’m afraid of being alone in an airplane. Suppose the engine makes a funny noise and I don’t know what to do? Suppose I get lost out there [again]? Suppose I can’t land the airplane? Suppose I can’t understand the controller at the airport (there’s one the pilots call “marble-mouth”)?

So, Gizmo and I completed a local flight on our own. A very local flight – we never left the pattern. I figured since the pattern is some of the most dangerous flying involving the most use of piloting skills and the most strain on an airplane and the most talking to the controllers it was the best place to spend an hour on my own to get over the fear.

It was a good thing I did. I’m rusty on pattern work. The first approach was so terrible it was a go-around at 200 feet. The next was rough to say the least, but by the end of an hour I was much more confident and had learned a few things about the plane one can only get from wrestling with it in the absence of an instructor. I had some close calls. At one point a plane cleared for 31L landed on 31R (where I was landing) when I was on final, but the controllers were calm and cool and ordered me to do a go around and then turned me crosswind early and lined me up again.

As always seems to happen when I fly solo, something went wrong. I was taking off from another touch and go when I noticed my oil pressure was all the way to the right in the red. Immediately I got on the radio and requested a full stop on 31L (aka “the big one” where all the full stop landings happen). The tower told me to standby for sequencing. A slew of other planes had made similar requests and I was instructed to extend my downwind until they had everyone lined up.

This is a regret of mine now that I understand how serious a high oil pressure reading can be, but I didn’t tell the tower about it because I really don’t want to be known as the girl that ALWAYS needs help up there (I’m pretty sure I am known as “she’s lost again” to a few incredibly helpful ATC personnel).

When my downwind leg was extended to the point I couldn’t see the airport anymore behind me I began picking out good fields for emergency landings. I could see PDX and all of downtown Portland when they finally called my base leg.

I landed just fine incident free, taxied to the flight school parking lot and squawked the high oil pressure reading. It was fairly simple. The valve needed an adjustment so that pressure would not build up again. Whew!

Second fear: flying with clouds. I know. I live in Oregon. At some point I have GOT to get comfortable with the idea of flying when it is raining/cloudy but I wasn’t there yet – much to the chagrin of my former military captain flight instructor who could be dropped in a forest with a chicken bone, fashion a compass before using it for nourishment and finding his way home. He fears nothing and he never gets lost. Ever.

So, for the next solo flight Gizmo and I got out there on a day with overcast skies, steady precipitation and in some places pretty tough visibility and deliberately flew away from the airport for an hour and a half. We practiced S-turns and turns around a point and turns around a field. We flew up valleys and over lakes. We followed creeks. We stayed out there until the terror subsided into joy.

The final fear: admitting out loud I am not going to make the May 31 deadline to get my pilot’s license. For a year now I’ve been operating under this notion. I’ve had a scholarship that depends upon my finishing on this date. I’ve put other things in my life on hold until this deadline passes. I’ve had a whirlwind year – a cross-country move, a new job, a hospitalized husband, and a month of quarantine and still made it all the way to the finish line only to find I am just a tad short. And yes, it’s devastating.

I am close. So close I can taste it. Only a few weeks away in all likelihood, but getting there in the next few days? No. It’s just too much and I am not ready. I am still trying to understand some concepts that I am certain will be on the oral test. This weekend I have a wedding anniversary to celebrate and there is no way I’m going to be ready for, schedule and do a progress check and get a DPE lined up on a holiday weekend.

Now, if I could just get my puppy to face her fear of skateboards…

It’s a bird…it’s a plane…it’s unbridled jackassery

Hi again!

I’ve had two memorable flights since my last post. One for all the right reasons, the other for all the wrong ones.

First the good one. I flew to the coast for the very first time as a pilot. It was beautiful! Have a look:

Now for the bad one. My lesson today involved practicing my instrument skills with the hood on. After a while my instructor told me to take the hood off, figure out where I was and navigate back to my home airport.

I began the 5 Cs of lost procedures (climb, circle, conserve, communicate, confess) and just after I pulled back my power to conserve my fuel and consulted my sectional something whizzed past my windshield.

“What…was that a bird?” I asked.

A split second later there was another. Less than 100 feet away a man in skydiving goggles dropped from the top of my windshield to the bottom.

I looked out my side window. Yup, a group on skydivers below…and above still?

CFI #5 grabbed the controls and turned the plane on it’s side. We both wildly searched the sky above us.


No plane. No skydivers. Just blue sky as far as the eye could see.

It was eerie. There was no radio call. There were no NOTAMS that day for it. Not a word. Not a hint that people would be dropping out of the sky above us. And just for good measure I have to add: who drops parachute jumpers where two Victor airways intersect without taking a few seconds to clear with ATC that there aren’t other planes in the area?!

It did, however, help me locate my position on the sectional.

Eureka! We must be where that little parachute icon is located!

So if you are a pilot out there and you find yourself in the vicinity of Molina, OR (a few NM SE of the class D Aurora State airport) head’s up: there is an organization called Skydive Oregon that I have learned is begrudgingly known in the area for dropping skydivers without clearing the airspace, making a radio call, or giving a damn about anyone else in the sky. I believe the official aviation vocabulary for this type of behavior is jackassery.

And if you are thinking of jumping with Skydive Oregon, you might want to reconsider unless the idea of being sliced in two by a propeller is part of your skydiving fantasy.

All by myself…sort of

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.

My 1,405 lbs bird.

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.

This particular crook in the Willamette River was my checkpoint.

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.

Bird’s eye view of Independence’s airport.

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.

Corvallis, Oregon State University and Beaver Stadium.

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?

Baby bird. Lost. Again. Wishing I had Fred Noonan on board.

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.

Can you spot KSPB? I can!


I took this picture for my folks, I knew they’d love the aerial view of the boats.

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.

Can you spot KHIO? Me neither, but I know it should be on the left-hand side of this picture.

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.

Snapped this picture of KHIO as I was flying over on my pass from Corvallis to Scappoose.

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.

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?