Flight with a Student Pilot

I met John in the ground school at the club. We both trained with the same instructor, but he started a few months after I did, so I’ve been passing on pointers along his way. He needed a break from training and wanted to just go for a fun flight, so I obliged.

We had 89433 all day and planned a trip to Halifax County, over Lake Gaston and Kerr Lake up to a small, privately owned, public use airport at Smith Mountain Lake in Virginia, then back to Sanford. Since John is still a student, I would be pilot in command for the whole trip.

On the way to Halifax County we flew over John’s house near Lake Wheeler and rocked the wings for his wife and kids who were watching from below. We made it to Halifax County with only half an hour to spare before closing; just in time to refuel, chat for a while with the new airport manager, and enjoy our bagged lunches.

The flight over the lakes is about 65 statute miles, and every bit of it was beautiful.

Nearing Smith Mountain Lake there is a bunch of nothing. I had taken the time to plug the airports into an old GPS I had, and along with a select few checkpoints on the sectional, we found our way with no problems. However, the airport is tucked away behind some small mountains/hills and has high trees on both sides. We were directly over the airport before we saw it. I made perhaps the worst pattern I’ve ever made, but the landing on the 3000 foot paved runway over some tall tress was very smooth.

We were hoping to get some fuel, so we called ahead to let the owner (who lived in a house at the airport) know to expect us. However, when we went inside the office, there was nobody around. We called the number on our cell phone, heard his phone ringing in the house, but nobody answered. I knew we had enough fuel to make it back, but it was pushing it if there were a problem and we had to divert. We hung around, snacked a little, and decided to stop at an airport on the way to use their self-serve fuel. We needed to get out before the sun set because we had read that the runway lights were out of service.

Just before getting in the plane, however, there was a couple and their two children walking down the runway. Mark and his family live at the other end of the airport and operate an experimental aircraft company. After talking for a while, he unlocked the self-serve fuel pump so we could refuel and offered to turn on the runway lights. Huh? He said the lights are functional, but the pilot operated part of them is not. He’d have to manually turn them on and then off after we left.

We refueled, by which time the sun had set, and took off in the dark. Given the short runway, the surrounding trees, and the large lake on the other side, I was more than a little nervous. Everything went perfectly, though. We climbed out to 5,500 feet, flew directly over Danville and back to Sanford. The air was clear and smooth. Over Burlington, we both looked left, then right, and realized that we could see Raleigh just to the left and Greensboro/Winston-Salem off to the right. A two-hour drive never looked so short.

It was a long day, but a fun 3.7 hours of flying to new places.