Solo cross country

Wow, it’s been a while since I posted here.  As noted, though, I’ve been pretty busy!

Flight training has been moving along.  I’ve been flying a Cessna 172, mostly solo.  I passed the knowledge test last week, and am looking forward to finishing up and taking the practical test  (the “checkride”) soon.

I did my long solo cross country trip yesterday.  It was a pretty interesting ride.  As a student pilot, I have to have 5 hours of solo cross-country flying.  To be a cross country flight, one leg has to ne at least 50 nautical miles (67.5 statute miles) long.  For the long cross country, you have to land at at least three airports other than your home field.  Yesterday’s flight satisfied all of those requirements, in addition to covering two of the three required takeoffs and landings from airports with operating control towers.

The original flight plan was for KMLE (Millard) to KGRI (Grand Island, NE), a distance of 100 nautical miles (a nautical mile is equal to 1.15 “regular” statute mile) navigating by VOR (directional radio beacon) and pilotage (reading the map and looking out the window).  From there to KFSD (Sioux Falls), 172nm, also by VOR.  From KFSD I planend to go to KAIO – Atlantic, IA, 151nm.  I planned to use the GPS and/or pilotage for that — meaning pilotage, but I might cheat and cross check with the GPS.  From there I’d make the short hop back to KMLE by following the route I’ve driven countless times. It would take me through KOMA’s (Eppley Airfield) airspace, giving me a little more radio work practice.

Weather looked OK for the trip.  There was some rain south of GRI moving west, but it was going to stay south of my path.  There was also rain between GRI and FSD, but it looked like it would be clear of my route by the time I got there.  This was not to be the case.

My arrival and landing ar GRI was less than stellar.  The runway there is twice as wide as I’m used to, and when the grass disappears from your peripheral vision it’s tough to convince yourself you’re still not on the ground. I landed OK, but there was an authoritative thump.  I had planned a stop & go, but had forgotten to tell the tower that… or the fact that I was on my solo X/C.  I taxied over to the FBO and spent a couple of minutes re-hydrating and de-shaking.  It was my first solo landing anywhere other than Millard and I had just dropped in rather unceremoniously, so I was a little keyed up.

All the mistakes I made, I made at KGRI. I didn’t tell them I was a student on a solo X/C.  The landing there was the worst of the day.  I had also told the tower when I contacted them that I was 7 west… no, I was 7 east.  I made the correction, but apparently the controller didn’t hear that!  He was looking for me to the west and didn’t’ see me until I was crossing mid-field.  I told him I’d been mistaken but had corrected, which he may not have heard… he was laughing when he asked if that “W” on the compass had confused me.

Takeoff was fine, but getting to KFSD was interesting.  There was significant precipitation along the path, which I could tell I’d miss most of.  I was a little surprised to see it still west of my path, since I’d thought it would be well past there by now.  Still, none of it looked severe, just light rain.  I did fly through a little rain (another first for me) but I was well below the cloud layer and could see through it.  At one point, though, I watched as my altimeter spun from 5500 to 7000 faster than the airplane could possibly climb.  MN Center asked my altitude.  I asked for a new alitmeter setting, told them I must have crossed a front or something, because I was flying straight & level but my altimeter had just climbed 1500′ rather abruptly.  Nope, they said they showed me at 7100.  I boogied back down to 5500.  Apparently I’d caught a pretty big updraft, but it was very smooth, no turbulence at all.  I landed at KFSD and taxied over to Maverick Air — great service there.  I refueled and checked the weather; it was not pretty at all.  There was a line of storms headed right into my proposed flight path to KAIO, and now a conductive SIGMET to the south of FSD.  A conductive SIGMET means very heavy turbulence — like the “Don’t fly through this” kind of turbulence.

I waited about an hour, checking radar as I did. I checked with my CFI… I was thinking I’d just go back the way I came and pass behind the storms to the west.  He suggested I head to KONL (O’Neil, NE) for my third airport, then head south and turn east when I was clear of the storms.  By now it was getting a little later in the day than we’d have liked.  Getting back home before dark would be “iffy”, and I don’t have a logbook endorsement for solo night landings.  So I guess I’d have to either hurry up, or circle until morning.

Took off from FSD and headed direct to ONL on a VOR radial.  Oddly, there was no information I could find about the runways at ONL.  Nothing on the sectional chart, AND nothing in the airport facilities directory.  Oops.  The automated weather broadcast from O’Neil said that runway 4/22 was now officially open, so I planned to enter a downwind for 4 (winds were from 100 degrees at 5 knots).  As I got the airport in sight, though, I saw that 4/22 was a brand new, shorter crosswind runway.  I overflew and saw that 13/31 was a good choice, so I did a stop & go on 13 and was off to the races.

By now I had a text from my instructor.  Radar showed clear weather for direct to KMLE.  It was clear, but very hazy — I would say visibility was 10 miles at best, maybe less in places.  It had been hazy all day, and wasn’t getting any less so.  I wasted no time getting back home and landed just under the wire for what could be called a daytime landing… although I did turn the lights on.  While not officially night for aviation purposes, it was quite dark.  I was legal with about five minutes to spare.  I got to see a ton of fireworks going off as I got back over the Omaha burbs; it was pretty cool as a “big picture” although the fireworks themselves would be better seen from the ground.  Certainly the cool factor of seeing EVERYONE’s fireworks from the air instead of just what you can see from the ground, makes it worth doing at least once.