Left Crosswind 23 at North Central
KSFZ - North Central
KSFZ - North Central

I’ve been watching the weather like a hawk all week.  In among the winter fronts and gusts there is possibly going to be a quiet, clear, spot on Saturday for my morning lesson.  My instructor Greg  Hamelin calls the day before and says the slot after mine has opened up and do I want a double on Saturday?  Sunday looks like snow and I will probably lose the Sunday lesson.  We both know a double is code for the possibility of flying solo this weekend.  On my last lesson I was last told I was making “safe” ‐ though hardly smooth ‐ landings. 
I arrive at the school.  I have radio frequencies and possible cross wind components researched and calculated for every runway in a 20 mile radius.  Greg asks where we should go?  I share the research relative to the weather and add my usual – “whichever the instructor thinks would make a good learning experience”.  He picks North Central (KSFZ) – 12 nautical miles to the north ‐ uncontrolled Class G airspace.  This will have me self‐announcing my position in the landing pattern.  I’ve been practicing while driving around in the car because I’ve not done too much of this when working out of Providence (KPVD) under Air Traffic Control. 

Pre‐flight is freezing cold.  I’m glad of my new thermals under my new flight suit.  The aircraft has had cooling restrictors fitted for the winter so the frigid air doesn’t shock cool the engine and crack the cylinders.  We discuss strategy to avoid a wet start when the engine starts, coughs, dies and the exhaust condenses on the spark plugs as water and the engine will not start for another hour till they dry out.  However the overnight engine heater makes sure we get a perfect start.  I elect to run up down by the runway once the oil has warmed up from the taxi down there.  At the run up pad the temperature is just coming off the stop and into the green – the engine is just warm enough for service.   Run up ‐ all is well and Providence Tower and then Departure sends us straight off under our own navigation.  No one is around ‐ I announce “Providence Departure ‐ North Central in sight” while still in the Class C and Providence releases us to our own devices ‐ “Squawk VFR, clear to change frequencies”.  I switch the radio to North Central.  It is quiet.  Almost no one in the pattern.  I announce my entry to downwind and start setting up to land. 

My first landing is on the centerline, a little above glideslope, I’ve been visualizing the final flare in my mind all week, watched a video of that critical round out moment and though I am slightly better than my last lesson – I still drop in hard from 3ft above the runway.  We touch and go and I do it again, and again.  On my fourth drop in I am getting annoyed with myself.  Greg is the model of patience but is wondering if I am ever going to listen to his final “pull back – now” said with polite, firm emphasis.  It is not going well.  We pull off to review.  Then round I go again – I balloon early, catch it, level it, fly it back down – and drop in hard again – DAMN!  One of the approaches I am so high I can’t see the glideslope lights.  I elect to go around – “Good call” says Greg.  It IS a good safe call – expected even ‐ but on my next landing I’m still dropping the plane in.  Greg is trying really hard to let me learn but is also getting a little frustrated with me – I don’t blame him!  “In for coffee and a break” he says and we taxi over to the FBO.  We stand outside the aircraft while he demonstrates the height difference between my drop‐ins and a good landing ‐ it is not much.  We go into the FBO.  I don’t need coffee – I’m too keyed up.   I take enough to wet my mouth – dry from all the radio work – but I don’t drink any.  Greg casually looks over the noticeboard ‐ to slow the pace ‐ distract me – pointing out news items.  I fixate on the “Runway Markings” and “Use the CTAF” posters. 

Vicky Kuo the Deputy Chief Instructor is there.  She has just cut her pupil loose to go solo and he is carving around the pattern in Sierra Papa while she keeps warm in the office, watching out the big window.  She asks Greg if he is going to let me solo today.  “Not till I get the final part of the flare right” I suggest.  Greg encourages me with the fact I’ve got everything else lined up.  Vicky offers – “You are 95% there – you will get it”.  With the time running into the second block I mentally accept the fact that solo is not going to happen today and out we go and preflight.  There are 5 planes ahead of us ‐ taking kids for Santa plane rides – the momentum is lost while we wait.  We eventually get our turn – I circle round and drop it in again.  DAMN!  Greg has me pull off.  He says I might be zoning him out on his final words because I am too focused on everything else.  Together we look for another way.   I suggest he taps my arm instead.  “I promise to pull back firmly on that last bit if you tap my arm.”  We agree to try it. 

Another Pattern
Yet Another Pattern.........

Another pattern, another final – Greg taps my arm, I pull back – it is MUCH better – not terrific but it is what I am supposed to be doing.  Round we go again – we are half way around the pattern and Greg asks if I would try and restart the engine if it quit.  I point at cross runway 33 and say – “No I’d go straight for that”.  I don’t quite get why he keeps revisiting if I would try and restart.  I keep saying I would go for that nice, close runway.  Later I realize I didn’t articulate that we were too low to waste time trying an engine restart.  So we fly on but at the end of the downwind we have a brief tussle for the throttle.  I miss his “My throttle” and wonder what he is doing.  He pulls the throttle out on me – “engine failure” he announces. 

I turn immediately for the closest runway – now 23.  The plane is horribly nose heavy from the loss of power. I fail to trim so it is a fight to get Sierra Alpha’s nose up to get the 65 knot long glide the plane is capable of.  I’m at 75 and going down faster than optimal.  “Could you make the numbers?” asks Greg.  “Yes” I say firmly.  He lets it develop a bit to see if I can.  I am still hauling back for 65 though I’m beginning to trim off the control pressure.   I’ve evaluated the nearby houses, cars on the freeway and the big roof of the appropriately named “Target” store in the shopping mall.  I’m sinking a bit below the numbers but I am positively good for the grass or a taxiway and it is the best option there is right now.  We are getting awful low over the ground and I’m simulating fuel and electrics off when Greg says – “OK you have it – go around”.  

My next pattern – in I come – it is all good – Greg taps my arm – I pull back.  The landing is still good.  Round we go again.  I overshoot my turn to final slightly and have to crab back, then I have to deal with some turbulence and crosswind as the wind fitfully puffs for the first time today.  I get lined up, I flare, I sink in – I pull back for the end and Sierra Alpha touches down (fairly) gently.  “OK ‐ pull off” says Greg.  I pull off and clean the plane up.  “I didn’t tap your arm that time” he says.  “Ready to try yourself?” 
I can’t believe it – the day is done surely?  It must be nearly time to head back to the school?   

I’ve already put nearly three hours on the Hobbs – the longest I’ve ever flown.  I mentally go through the “IM SAFE” personal health checklist from the online AOPA Decision Making for Pilots / FAA WINGS course.  I’m paying particular attention to “F” for fatigue.  But I still have some juice left in me.  The break in the middle helped.  Right now I’m on a roll.  The conditions are as good as they are likely to be.  There is almost no traffic in the area.   

I’ve also been in Greg’s shoes when passing over command to others – only with ships.  He has handed me his trust and the opportunity to bend a plane that would cost $250,000 to replace.  I know where he is coming from and I am mildly confident that this is as near a perfect solo opportunity as he could arrange if I stick to the checklists and drills I’ve been taught.  He obviously thinks I can now get down slightly better than “safely”.  We discuss the decision.  I finish with ‐ “Yes ‐ I’m ready”.  

I taxi over to the parking and shut down while Greg starts to endorse my certificate and logbook.   I fire up my handset for the ASOS weather: 

North Central Automated Weather Information one six fife niner Zulu.  Winds calm.  Visibility greater than ten miles.  Scattered clouds fife thousand.  Temperature two Celsius.  Dewpoint minus six Celsius.  Altimeter three zero zero fife.”  It is the same as it has been for the last two hours.  The windsock is still hanging limp. 

I correct the altimeter and turn back to the start of my checklists.   My logbook is endorsed for 90 days on dry runways over 3,000ft in length by 75ft wide, Visual Flight Rules with clouds above 5,000ft and up to 10 knots wind of which 7 knots can be cross wind.  Greg gets out and straps his kneeboard and headset in the right seat.  

Instructor Left his Headset
Instructor Left his "Spirit" in his Headset

“I’m still here in spirit” he says pointing at his headset.  I resist the temptation to joke I hope I bring them back in one piece.  “Three full stop landings” ‐ he shakes my hand ‐ “Good Luck”. 

Checklist – start up.  No trusting to memory – use it.  Don’t make a mistake.  This is what checklists are for.   A realization that though I can articulate this and I’ve always known this – this time it REALLY matters.  Greg is not there in case I miss something.  I scrupulously work the checklist.   

I taxi out ‐ it is really noisy – far more than normal.  We have been stopped more than 10 mins.  The power saver on my headset has turned the noise canceling off.  I look down and stab the button on the cord and my world reverts to a muted roar and the radio becomes much clearer.  I taxi to the active runway and pull to the side of the taxiway for my run up.   

Checklist – Run Up.  Everything is good.  The pattern is quiet.  I call my departure over the radio. Checklist ‐ Pre‐takeoff.   I look both ways again then I line up on runway 23.  Instrument scan – is everything green?  Yes.  I power up and head off down the runway.    

Plane Takes Off
Sierra Alpha - Takes Off

Time stands still – I have an impression that I’m not developing full power – but a further instrument scan tells me all is good with the power plant.  I recognize the adrenaline rush that “slows down” your perception of time.  “55 knots – rotate” I announce as I pull back.  There is no one to hear me.  Sierra Alpha flies herself off.  I establish my 80 knot climb and hands off trim.  I twist in my seat to look back to see I am still on runway centerline – I am.  1,200ft – I scan for traffic and call my turn to crosswind – no one else is about.  Coming up on KSFZ’s 1,500ft pattern altitude, level off, power back, trim.  I’m bang on ground track and I call my turn to downwind.  For once I have the plane spot on altitude as I fly the downwind.   

Someone calls in to use runway 33 – he is a way off but that is going to be a problem as it crosses my 23.  UNICOM calls up from the ground and tells him everyone else (meaning little‐old, student, first‐solo, me) is on 23.  I hear him elect to join the pattern for 23.  I pull power, dial in flaps and call my turn to base.  Everything Greg has been stressing about this being the best place to correct altitude comes to mind.  I examine the angle the runway makes off my nose.  I watch the horizon ‐ “Remember the runway isn’t going anywhere”.  Scan for traffic. Horizon.  Runway angle – high.  I dial in flaps 20 and power back a little.  Altitude is money in the bank but you have to get down sometime.  The glideslope lights are out.  I click the radio three times to turn them on.  I’m still a little high ‐ manageable.  I call my turn to final.  I come in with power low and Sierra Alpha sinks in nicely.  I make the runway; pull back the power and flare.  I drop in and bounce slightly on my left main.  Not from three feet – but not great.  I’m annoyed with myself – but I stop well in time for the first turn off and clear the runway.    I taxi round to try again.   

Someone else is ahead taking off.  I wait.  Now someone else is landing.  I wait.  Someone else is calling in that he is in the pattern on downwind.  If I wait longer and let that plane land it would be safe.  A good call.  I ignore the plane RIGHT behind me on the taxiway – the pilot probably wondering if I am ever going to get a move on and go.  I scan the sky – the other aircraft really is on his downwind.  I have plenty of time to slot in and take off while he turns his base.  I announce my departure and pull onto the runway.   I judge I’ve balanced safety with keeping things moving.   Off I go again. 

Not quite as straight on centerline after takeoff.  Every time I need to make a turning call – someone else is making theirs.  I have to follow quickly on the radio to tell people I am actually in or completing my turn.  I want to stay right on pattern.  The pattern is my Talisman.  The pattern gives me a predictable landing.  My mantra  is 

“The pattern”.   

I detect my bad habit of being a little high near the end of the downwind.  I power off and let the plane sink down.  I dial everything back in.  At the end of the downwind I’m back 
at altitude.   I start the drill to put her on the runway.  
Someone is joining the pattern on downwind behind me – I can hear him on the radio.  I scan the sky for those who are not using radio and turn to base.  As I call my turn to final the pilot behind loses sight of me and calls to ask where I 
am.  “I’ve already called my turn and I’m working too hard to do this right AND talk to you” I think to myself ‐ but blip back on the radio – “One Sierra Alpha is on final runway 23”.  I wonder ‐ should I have said “Short final”?  He calls he has seen me.  I pitch Sierra Alpha down, I flare, I sink, I round out and we touch the tarmac.  Not perfect but my best landing of the day.  I’m mildly pleased.   Again I stop in time for the first turn off – I see Greg standing with my camera.   

Taxiing to pick up my Instructor
Taxiing to pick up my Instructor - Gosh - I did it!

Time is pressing – we are supposed to be back in Providence for the next lesson.  I fully expect Greg to call me in – but all I hear is a quick blip on the radio and “Nice job”.  I taxi around again. 

I have the airport and pattern to myself as I go for number three – I’m really working at the numbers – trying to hit every altitude and V number and ground track and radio call.  I’ll have to do PTS one day – let’s start here. 

My crosswind track is a beautiful 90 degrees to the end of the runway, I turn my downwind a little earlier for a tighter pattern. 

I make my base and I turn to final.  15 mins are up – put another quarter in the meter if you want more lights.  I blip the radio three more times and the glideslope lights turn on again.  I am a hair high but this is my best glide of the day.  I am so on the numbers – I am dropping into the first red light on the glideslope indicator as I come over the end of the runway and get a perfect two white two red as they flick by in peripheral vision over my left shoulder.  I flare.  I pull the round out as Sierra Alpha sinks through the ground effect.  The stall warning horn is screaming and I am floating just an inch or so above the runway.   

This time there is no bump, no twang or bounce – the wheels just start rumbling as they lightly graze the runway – I hold the nose wheel high and floating while the stalled wings provide drag to stop fast – I greased that one – I nailed it – YES!  I turn out and stop.  I call I am clear of the active and clean the aircraft up.  Greg is standing at the edge of the taxiway.  I pull over.  He jumps in.  “Did you grease that last one?”  He is smiling.  He knows I did. 

I probably could haul the plane back to Providence if I had to but I am done for the day.  I rerun the “IM SAFE” checklist again.  My 30 min adrenaline spurt is wearing off.  This time I don’t checkout on “Fatigue”.  Pressure of the next lesson time slot is also a factor working against this rookie pilot.  We need a better pilot to get home safely and on time.   

“Your aircraft” – I tell Greg ‐ “You get to fly for a bit.”  I offer to swap seats so he has left seat.  “Oh I fly from the right all the time” says Greg as he flies home treating me to a masterful demonstration of a soft field take off, waltz into the sky, minimalist professional radio calls into Class C space and a sharp landing behind a SouthWest 737 “with caution” for wake turbulence.  “Thanks – I enjoyed that” says Greg.  I’ve just been given a demonstration of a level of professionalism to aspire to – I enjoyed it too. 

Achievement Board
On the Achievement Board

Back in the school – my name is already on the achievement board, the manager and other instructors are shaking my hand, my picture is taken for the website and Greg writes up my lesson.  “Of course – now we start to teach you to fly” he says.  I believe him. 

I turn to my logbook – 16 lessons since my first “lessons” in a Tiger Moth and Texan ‐ September 4/5th  at Duxford in the UK during the Battle of Britain airshow.  I’ve had 26.2 hours of dual instruction with 62 takeoffs and landings.  I put in a new separate line in my logbook:
12/18/10 Cessna 172R  N721SA  KSFZ To KSFZ – SOLO - Pilot in Command  0.5 hr – 3 takeoffs   3 landings.  


I had just enough hours and experience to pull it off in ideal conditions after a final assessment at the airfield on the day in the prevailing conditions. It is a tremendous feeling and achievement – not just for yourself – but for the school and your instructor.


30 mins PIC time!
30 mins PIC time!  I'm a pilot!  (Not)


It probably took over a week for me to come down from the high!