All rainy Wednesday I’ve been watching the weather. There is a brief ridge of high pressure crossing the area on Thursday morning and if I time it right and double the lesson block then I think I can get in my first cross country solo. I call my instructor to see if I can get an airplane for a double block because the best of the high pressure I need for my plan will probably lie across two blocks. He tweaks the schedule and confirms I can have a plane for two blocks.
I work up the plan, research my destination (Orange County in MA on the Vermont border) and alternate (Worcester). I plan it by hand, by the online FAA DUAT tool and with the AOPA tool. They all come out within a degree or so for courses. I get the latest airport diagrams and pictures for the destination and alternate, calculate the aircraft performance and fuel burn and then run the whole plan through the online Air Safety Institute Risk Assessment tool. Even with my low hours and low experience it all comes out with green ticks. I head for bed.
Thursday morning – Newport is in thick fog, the ridge of pressure is not as strong as last night – but it still looks flyable inland. I call the weather reports at the airports I am flying to – and over. It is clear and calm. As long as Providence is clear – and the fog is still burning off – I should be on. I put the latest wind aloft forecasts into my flight plans, copy them to my notebook computer in case I need to make any last minute adjustments and head for the school. When I get there – the last of the fog is burning off. I go in and give my instructor the plan. My cover sheet is:
Solo over 50 miles to an airport – land and return.
KPVD to KORE – 64 miles
Alternate at midpoint KORH – Class D top 3500.
Overflying at 4,500 on outward leg for VFR/terrain and clear class D at KORH
On return overflying at 5,500 for quartering tailwind assistance.
Rationale – this builds on a similar X-Country already flown to KFIT only is further west. Finding KORE should be relatively straightforward. It is at the north end of the largest lake in the area. It is before the terrain rises in Vermont. The Gardiner VOR will give a cross bearing.
If completely lost flying east / west over the north end of the lake and south of the rising terrain will help find the airfield.
Rising terrain should be met with an immediate turn to the south and means you are 10 miles north of destination
The KORE runways meet solo requirements. 14-32 is 4800×75 and 1-19 is 5000 x 75
Worst case X-winds based on forecast 290 / 6 knots on runway 32 is left 3 knots
Wind can back and rise to 260 at 8 knots before X-wind limit of 7 knots is reached. Then runway 19 is indicated.
The airport is CTAF controlled – 122.8
Parachute Jumping is listed as “Weekends Only”
Fuel is available
Option 1 – With instructor approval – some pattern work can be performed at KORE for landing practice before return trip.
Option 2 – With instructor approval – stopping and taking a break at KORE
Option 3 – With instructor approval – some pattern work can be performed at KSFZ before final return to Providence.
Options are cumulative. If fatigue threatens to become a factor – further options are simply not performed and direct return to KPVD.
My instructor checks the plan and approves it including the options. My logbook and license are endorsed. I head out to preflight the airplane. I check the tanks first – half full. It would be enough but my plans require I leave with full fuel and I call the fuel truck while I preflight. My instructor and I have a lighthearted tussle over who is last to check the fuel caps are really on the tanks. It is Pilot in Command’s responsibility – me. He is the instructor and likes to check – now I have to check he did it right, now he has to…..
I get in and my instructor leaves to go give another lesson to someone else. I run the checklists, start up and immediately taxi to the run up pad to get clear of the hangar and the others who are getting their planes ready. Sierra Alpha is already there running up with a student and instructor. I slot in to the pad and run my checklists. I spend a lot of time checking the two VOR receivers against each other as my plan requires I track VOR’s. I also set up the GPS and radios and as the plane warms up – I call for clearance. I get my squawk code and run up. All good. Sierra Alpha calls to taxi a moment before me and I follow. As we pass the Fed-Ex ramp we pick up a couple of small Fed-Ex planes and we all waddle along the taxiway to the hold short line for runway 23. Sierra Alpha, Fed-Ex, Me, Fed-Ex. Sierra Alpha gets away in style. Then Fed-Ex. I make sure I am bang on professional and in my slot and on time so the Fed-Ex behind me is not un-necessarily delayed. I start the clock as I run down the runway and am quickly cleared on course as I depart Providence. It is slightly hazy to the north but as I make my climb I can already see North Central off the nose. I ask to go off frequency a moment to talk to Bridgeport Radio. Clearance is given. I call Bridgeport Flight Service station and ask to activate my Flight Plan. I’m happy that I am bang on time for it. Bridgeport reports I am activated, can he do anything else for me and pilot reports of weather would be appreciated. I say I see what I can do and go back to Providence Departure who acknowledge I am back. As I pass North Central it is already immediately apparent I am falling behind time. I correct the airspeed indicator for temperature and altitude and compare my true airspeed to the GPS ground track speed. The wind is blowing a whole 10 knots stronger than forecast. I start recalculating my waypoints. I’ll be 10 mins long on the trip. Something like 45 mins instead of 34. I have full tanks – fuel is not a factor. All the time I am keeping my head outside the cockpit looking for trouble. As I am at top of climb I lean for fuel efficiency. N470U is quite clear about peak lean as the engine starts to run rough and I enrich the 50 degrees Exhaust Gas Temperature from the operating manual and then 25 more for the school’s policy. The engine is running sweetly and I keep a close eye on the Directional Gyro precession as I gently bracket back and forth across the Providence VOR radial I am flying down. It is a lovely day. I can see most of my visual waypoints all the way ahead till the haze obscures the last ones.
Providence hands me off to Bradley. The controller asks where I am going and then I don’t hear from him again. Nothing to do for 5 minutes while I scan instruments and outside till I come up on Worcester. I recalculate the headwind against me and gather all the other weather information. “Bradley – I’d like to go off frequency a moment to talk to Bridgeport”. “Let me know when you are back.” I call Bridgeport. I offer a Pilot Weather Report. There is a mixture of surprise and delight from the guy on the ground. I read him my numbers. He thanks me and wishes me a good flight. No one ever calls with good weather. Only bad! Or they are pleading with pilots for reports. Back to Bradley’s frequency and check in with them. I get the weather at my alternate – Worcester – just in case I need to head there. Bradley are controlling aircraft in the area around Worcester which I am abeam of. I can’t see any of them. Ahead is the big lake and already it is obvious where Orange County airport is. VERY easy to find. I get the weather at Orange. Wind 360 at 3. Favors runway 32. I keep looking for the Ware private gliding strip below – one of my visual waypoints – but I can’t find it. I ask the GPS where it is. Right below. I bank either way trying to see it – I can’t. Orange is pretty obvious now. It no longer matters – though I put the time on my log sheet for later. Bradley calls up – I am north of his area. “Squawk VFR – clear to change frequencies”. He is done with me.
I switch to the CTAF for Orange which I have been monitoring for a bit alongside Bradley’s frequency. Another Cessna is coming in from the east to do touch and goes on runway 32. I announce my arrival from the south and that I am not a factor for him at this time. I start letting down and decide to fly a full pattern around the field to have a look and become familiar with it. I fly well to the right so I enter the upwind from well away from where anyone might be making a turn to final. The other plane announces his turn to crosswind. I’m 6½ miles away from him but as he banks I see a white flash of his upper wing surface and as he levels he becomes a tiny white dot against the dark green trees on the mountains. I announce I have him in sight and report I am not a factor to his landing. The instructor comes on and thanks me. I fly the pattern. As I turn crosswind – the other plane is turning base and I am following him around. He touches and goes – I turn base and am coming in with a slight right crosswind. Below I can see the hole in the trees where someone tried to land at night with no lights and didn’t make the runway last November. He lived – his daughter did not. I concentrate on the runway and do a textbook let down. For my first landing of the day (always a bit of a lottery) it is a slight bark from the tires but firm, safe and when I expect it. I taxi to the turn out, announce I am clear of the runway and go over to parking and shut down.
No cell phone signal. – I go into the FBO to borrow a phone. The manager and some locals are shooting the breeze. I ask to borrow a phone and it sets of a conversation about cell phone signals and carriers. “I need to close a Flight Plan” I gently drop in the conversation – between the headwind, the chat and all – I have five minutes left before Flight Service push the alarm bells and start looking for me. I’m quickly shown the phone. I call in and close the plan. I ask if I can call my instructor. Not a 1-800 number – this will cost the small regional airport. I offer to pay for the call. No – go ahead. My instructor is glad to hear I am down at my destination. The gallery at the FBO ask how many hours I have. On hearing 65 – I’m told nice landing. Where did I come from? Providence. There is a suppressed air of being slightly impressed – a student – out of Providence – we don’t fly down there – it is busy. We talk about fuel costs, the FAA and flying for a few minutes. I say I have to get going. I want a warm engine start. Can I pay landing fees? The manager points at the airport logbook. Just sign that for me – that is all the fees I need from a student. The gallery jokes that when I get to the REALLY big lake to the south – I’ve missed Providence and am headed for Portugal. I smile with them, thank them all and go out and preflight.
I stick the tanks to calculate my actual fuel burn rate from the flight up. I’ve got it much more close this time – between my leaning the engine well and using some better numbers – I’m in good shape – 12 gallons burned for 1.3 hours prop turning. 4 hours left in the tanks. I preflight the aircraft and then head out to do some landing patterns. There is a NOTAM about cracks on the taxiway. I pull the yoke back to take the strain off the nose wheel as I get to the first one. Even though I am rolling pretty slowly the main wheels fairly twang in the crack. This is discouraging – every taxi round is going to be pretty painful. Maybe I will just go back to North Central to do more landings. I’ll see. I pull over in the corner and run up the engine. All good. The rest of the taxiway is much better and I go all the way down to the end of 32 which is displaced. I can use the displaced and rest of the runway for a takeoff. It is a long taxi. I announce my departure and am airborne before I’ve even used up the displaced part of the runway. I fly a pattern and put her down. Nice. I taxi round avoiding the worst of the cracks and after checking the length I skip the displaced part and use the shorter marked runway. It is still nearly 4000ft but just for practice I treat it as a short field and configure the plane for a Vx steep climb out. I hold her on the brakes, power up, check the gauges and then release the brakes. We jump – well as much as a Cessna will jump – into the air and I climb out to 500ft above everything before reconfiguring for a normal climb out. Round again – but I notice the haze is thickening. I’m still VFR legal. But the ridge of high pressure extending up into the mountains is narrowing and I decide to make this my last one and get out while the going is good. I’ll head back to the clear coast for more landings. Another short field takeoff. I really try to get the plane at maximum climbout and up we go. I announce my departure and head south east.
With the slower than expected flight up – the chat at the FBO and my landings at Orange – I leave a little later than planned. My return flight plan is about to expire – be a pain to file one over the radio while flying. I quickly call Bridgeport Radio on the climb to activate my safety cover. They don’t reply. I’m probably not high enough yet to be heard. I quickly scan my sectional chart and find another closer frequency which I dial in. It is Bangor radio – I call them. They reply as Bridgeport! (It all feeds back to the same guys at a desk anyway!) Still I’m just in time – my plan is still “in the box” and they activate it. I climb for 5500ft. The correct VFR altitude for my course and promising stronger tail winds to get me home. Almost immediately I’m getting blown right of track. There is plenty of helping wind up here. At top of climb I lean and call Bradley Approach for Flight Following. Takes a couple of calls but I get my squawk code. I hear him give another Cessna in the area a code too. The wind is blowing me right still. I spend about 20 seconds at most getting the outside air temperature and correcting the airspeed indicator to get my true airspeed. I also check the Gyro which is not precessing much. My off course is a wind issue. I look out the window and immediately roll right and behind another Cessna which is crossing from right to left in front of me. I can see his tail number. I’m pretty sure he didn’t see me. He was probably about 1000ft away. It seemed closer. Well at least rule of the road up here is the same as at sea – I did the right avoidance maneuver because I’ve been doing it for years. I scan around the sky again – all clear. I need to get my head down for a moment to figure a new wind correction angle. I coarsely crab left to get rid of the worst of the error while I fine tune the answer with a new VOR radial and start working out a Wind Correction Angle.
Bradley calls me – do I know I am south of optimal track for Providence? I reply I’m aware and thank you. They call again. Again I reply I’m on it. Then I get a very formal call and “can I hear them?” I tell them they are 5×5. They call AGAIN. There is a tone of asperity. Lost comms procedure. I press the transmit button and a “T” appears on the radio. Volume up – not relevant – I can hear them. I call – watch for the “T” and ask if they can hear ME. No reply. I drop down to my second radio – where I keep my ground frequencies and dial in their frequency – then switch to that radio and call them. They come straight up. “We have been calling you for five minutes”. “Radio out” I reply and get on with more important tasks. Aviate – yep – all gauges green, altitude good and in trim. Take away that distraction. Navigate – well my coarse crab is just fine – even if I have not done the math. I can see North Central – see the shape of the coast where Providence is. The steam rising from the landfill is the other big pointer home. I’m tracking a VOR radial to Providence just fine. Now I just need to manage my 5 radio frequencies on the two slots on my remaining radio. It is easy to see how you can get sucked into working the problem in the cockpit and forget to keep looking outside. All those accident reports I’ve read about just this sort of situation come to mind. Fly the plane first. I keep looking outside while quickly checking my kneeboard for the note of light gun signals at airports for when all radios go down. I have them – right get back outside and fly the plane. Bradley hands me off to Providence when I am 25 miles out. I’m a poisoned chalice – they can make me someone else’s’ problem. I check in with Providence. All good. Then as I have a moment and I’m tracking well – I call Providence on the apparently bad radio. They don’t hear me. I resolve to stop bothering with this problem. Though I do use the bad radio to receive the Providence weather. I just get on with flying. It is also a nice day – but North Central and further landings practice is off the slate. Get the plane home and if I get in early – they can look at the radio before the next lesson. Providence promptly puts me on another arrival frequency just to make my workload more amusing for a moment.
It is still a gorgeous afternoon though and it is quiet. I’m arriving in the middle of a lesson block so no one is taking off or landing. They are all out at the training areas. From 10 miles out I’m cleared to right base on 23 and land. I start letting down. Over to tower and I set up ground on the reserve on my radio while I’m on my base leg – but I don’t expect to use it – when it is quiet they usually have you stay on tower frequency for the taxi. The weather report said calm but the plane is letting down through light chop like it is bumping down shallow steps all the way down. As I turn final I call tower and ask for a wind report for the runway. They say calm – I wonder why I am crabbing for a right cross wind. However as I get into the last 300ft – it all goes quiet and I delight in greasing the landing and pulling up with a lot of high wing drag to slow her down fast. A very short landing – I can come straight off. I’m told to taxi back to the school on runway 34 – the shortcut home when they are not using it – oh and change to ground frequency. Glad I set it up!
I nail the parking and then let the engine run on a moment. I set up the bad radio again and call Providence Clearance – No reply. Then I go to my good radio and call again – they hear me fine. Seems it is bad. I shut down and secure the plane. Then I call Flight Service to close my flight plan. Then I call the school for my escort into the building. I stick the tanks again before we go. 7 gallons used on a 40 min flight back AND three takeoffs and landings. That was one mighty tail wind pushed me home. With all the take offs and landings and the flight out and back – I put another 2.5 hours solo pilot in command in the logbook. AND Cross Country. Debrief with instructor and squawk the radio. Pay the bill – GREAT lesson.