First cross country

I was a cold day; great for airplane performance, but not so great for comfort. It didn’t get above 2°C the whole day. I put on my heavy coat for the first time this winter and brought a pair of gloves knowing that preflight can take long enough to freeze my hands. Our flight would be from Sanford (TTA) to Blue Ridge (MTV) near Martinsville, VA, to Person County (PCZ), then back to Sanford.

Gene and I met at 10am. He said he thought I would’ve been there earlier taking care of the plane and finishing up the plans, but I was surprised at that, since we had talked about us spending the first hour or so going over the plans for our first dual cross country (XC) flight. I had gathered all the information for each of the three airports we would visit and I had drawn the direct route we would take, but I wasn’t sure about choosing checkpoints and filling out the flight log sheet. We spent the next hour plus going over the details of what makes a good checkpoint and how to calculate ground speed and such. You may recall that ground school covered a lot of this, so I had some idea of what to do, but I was with Gene now, so I wanted to get his procedures. I figured things would go much better if I did what he liked to do instead of going on the theory we practiced in class.

One of the first differences that I noticed from class is that Gene made a distinction between a visual checkpoint and a checkpoint for timing. It’s important to mark visual checkpoints to make sure we’re on the right path, but we really only needed two checkpoints for timing. The flight wasn’t long enough to bother with more. From the first checkpoint, just a few miles from the airport, to the second, we would use a stopwatch to get our actual ground speed and use that newfound information to adjust our preflight estimates of time between the remaining checkpoints. XC flight is nothing more than a bunch of short segments put together to get from point A to point B.

As we were finishing preflight planning, Gene got a call from his wife. Uh oh. She had a problem and needed Gene to take her to the hospital. Another instructor offered to go with me, but I could tell Gene wasn’t crazy about that idea, and neither was I. I could still use the time to solo and get in some practice, so all wasn’t lost. Several minutes later, however, his wife called back and said that she had another ride, so Gene could fly after all. Apparently it wasn’t serious enough for him to go with her. I asked if he was sure; I didn’t mind canceling for something that important, but he said it was fine.

As we got ready to preflight the plane, I realized that our scheduled 40B was gone. Someone had swapped us in the schedule because they had a checkride. Everybody takes checkrides with 40B because it’s the plane with the fewest quirks, so those that have a checkride get 40B priority. I wasn’t happy about that because they hadn’t notified us, and I really wanted 40B on my first XC. Oh well. What can I do. I’ll have my turn to steal 40B someday.

Since we were running behind a little, Gene took care of the preflight while I got the latest weather information and filed (for the first time) a VFR flight plan. The plan is filed with the FSS briefer. Right after I got the weather, I told them I needed to file a flight plan and then I just rattled off all the information (conveniently numbered) to the briefer. They know in what order it’s coming, so I don’t have to spell everything out for them, just “VFR, 89433, C152/U, 100 knots, TTA, 1630Z, 2500 … ” and they know what goes where. That’s all. It’s filed.

Given the cold, we both kept our coats on, which made the area more cramped than it already was. I had no idea how I was going to manage the charts and papers during the flight. I ended up using a full size clipboard set on my lap. All I really needed was the flight log sheet and the two sectional charts (and the E6B computer, which I could grab from behind me when needed). I’ll probably invest the whopping $10-$20 in some sort of kneeboard, which is nothing more than a clipboard that straps to your thigh and is the size of a folded 8.5×11 sheet of paper. Lots of charts and info are distributed in kneeboard format to fit nicely on it. I wasn’t really sure what I’d need in flight, so I didn’t bother buying anything until I knew.

Takeoff and climbout went fine. Once we got to cruise altitude, I called Raleigh Flight Services on 122.45 to open our flight plan… “Raleigh Radio, Cessna 89433 listening on 12245”. I waited for a response, which I heard, but didn’t pay attention to. I responded, “Cessna 89433 would like to open our flight plan from Sanford to Martinsville, departed at 1706”. FSS responded, “Aircraft listening on 12245 please standby. You stepped on [another plane’s communications].” Gene said, “You didn’t wait for him to respond to you. That wasn’t for you.” Oops. Then I realized that I should’ve paid closer attention to the response I got. I assumed it was for me, but it wasn’t. A few minutes later, FSS came back… “Aircraft on 12245, sorry for the wait, go ahead.” I repeated my previous transmission and he followed with a “your flight plan is open” and some other info about remembering to close it and the current altimeter setting. I messed that up, but I didn’t let it bother me; there’s much to do.

For the first time since early in my training, I felt overwhelmed at all that was going on. Even at a mere 100 knots, the ground is moving along under us and reviewing the chart and keeping the plane on track is a huge challenge. The air was not smooth at all. We got bounced all over the place the entire trip. That didn’t bother me physically, but I had trouble holding heading and altitude. We climbed from our desired 2500 to as high as 3300… that’s not good, but it wasn’t a big deal in this case since there was nobody around. In fact, we didn’t see a single other plane in the air on the whole trip until we got back to Sanford. However, the headwind was worse the higher we went, so I tried to get and keep it down at 2500.

I got better at going back and forth from the charts and eventually figured out the timing thing, but all the little boxes on the flight log were confusing. I think I need to come up with a cleaner plan layout that doesn’t have so many little boxes that look the same. There’s no official log; the one we used was provided by the club, but I doubt any experienced pilots use it to its fullest. There’s just no need for all that detailed information on every checkpoint of the trip, except perhaps for training.

I did surprisingly well at spotting all the checkpoints and other landmarks. We passed just west of Burlington and I could easily see Durham, Winston-Salem, Greensboro, Pilot Mountain, and the Blue Ridge mountains. What a sight!

I pointed out MTV about 20 miles before we got there. Gene seemed pleased with that. It showed up as a little brown line in an otherwise green patch of land, but there were no markings to tell it was an airport. We were lined up for a straight in approach and with nobody in the pattern, we took it. I had only done one other straight in and I forgot all kinds of things: carb heat, mixture, flaps, because the regular pattern routine wasn’t there. This time I tried to remember them all, but was asking Gene about how to know when to do them. It requires judgment about distance from the runway compared to the usual distance when in the pattern. I’m getting better at judging distance, I think, but from the air, objects do appear closer than they really are.

MTV doesn’t have any glideslope lights, so I had nothing to tell me if I was on target or not, other than my visual memory and Gene. He didn’t say anything, and everything looked good, so I continued doing what I was doing. On short final I could tell everything was in good shape. After my very smooth touchdown, Gene complimented me with “It doesn’t get any better than that.” Cool. Nice way to finish the first leg.

We taxied off the runway and about 50 feet to a parking spot next to a small building. Behind a 4 foot chain link fence we entered the building not 20 feet away from the tiedown. Inside was a little waiting area, some offices, and a deli like restaurant. I called FSS to close the flight plan, then we ate (my treat) and discussed/planned the next two legs of the trip.

After eating and planning, I called to file a new flight plan for the rest of the trip as we weren’t going to stop for long at Person County. We were running behind so Gene took care of the preflight again. I tried to call the club to say we would be late, but my cell phone had no service. We were in the middle of nowhere, but it sure was beautiful… even on the ground.

After an abbreviated pre-takeoff check, we took off and headed east. We had a pretty good tailwind, so it didn’t take long. I did get off course a mile or two to the right, but I could easily see where I was supposed to be, so I adjusted. By the time I made it back over our desired track, I had the airport in sight. There was no traffic, so we entered the pattern on a midfield crosswind and made a not so great landing. It wasn’t that bad, but I was slightly high and slow before touchdown, so it wasn’t as smooth as it should’ve been.

Gene taxied back for takeoff while I tried to make another call to the club. I had no signal at all; I guess we were still in the middle of nowhere. We took off and headed for Sanford. A few minutes after takeoff, I saw the oval racetrack that was a visual landmark on the sectional chart. That was a neat thing to see from the air. We could actually see Sharon Harris power plant cooling tower already, so I could’ve stopped looking at landmarks altogether and made it back, but I followed the plan anyway.

We chatted about the surrounding area and listened in to the Raleigh approach frequency for fun and education. We were tracking just west of the class C airspace around RDU, so it was important to make sure we didn’t drift into it (the wind was out of the northwest). Durham and Chapel Hill were both easy to spot. We flew directly over Chapel Hill and saw the small airport where the club used to be, as well as UNC’s many buildings, football stadium, tennis courts, and baseball field.

After we passed Jordan Lake, I was back to familiar territory. Gene said it was fine to go ahead and cancel our flight plan once we had the airport in sight. After discussing the procedure again, we realized we hadn’t opened it. Oops. Not a problem; it’s completely voluntary (except that the club has a “must file” rule for solo cross country flights). We approached Sanford, I made some radio calls, and we landed. It was as good/bad as the one in Person County. Gene noticed that I was loosing airspeed before my roundout and suggested I work on keeping the 65 knots all the way to roundout to keep from getting too slow and high too soon. I’d love to work on that if I could ever get in a solo flight without this nasty wind.

We taxied back, tied down and spent a little time talking about the flight. Gene was very pleased with how well it went, especially considering the turbulence. I was on track the whole time and didn’t damage the plane. His words, not mine.

The XC flight time was 2.3 hours, putting me at 45.5 total. My next cross country will be a night dual in a couple weeks. We’ll be landing for the first time at an airport with a control tower (Stanly County). It’s class D, which is pretty casual compared to a class C such as Greensboro or Raleigh/Durham. The FAA requires three solo full stop landings and takeoffs at an airport with a control tower, but it doesn’t specify which class, so they will probably be class D airports.

Depending on how that goes, I may not need any more dual cross country flights before I solo XC. I’ll need two or three solo XC to meet the required time and number of landings. There’s no requirement for night solo XC, so I won’t be doing that. After my solo XC are done, I expect we’ll be getting into test preparation followed shortly by the big checkride. I can’t wait.