What a full week of flying! I’ve been having a blast. I’m working through the remaining requirements necessary in order to be qualified to take the private pilot certificate check ride. This past week I flew solo in the traffic pattern two more times, and had my first solo flight out past my airport’s airspace. Lets talk about that first!
Friday was an early day. My instructor wanted me to come in early when the winds are usually calmest and have my first solo flight out to our practice area, about 15NM north west of our airport. We also had a regularly scheduled lesson at 10AM, in which we were doing a cross country flight out west. I had spent the evening prior planning out our route of flight and creating our navigation log. The plan was to have me come in early and do my first “further out” solo flight, and then when I was back we’d review my flight plan and fly the cross country. I arrived at the airport at 8am and pre-flighted my plane. This was the first time I was heading out all on my own and leaving the traffic pattern of the airport. I have done this flight since beginning my training, but this was the first time I did it alone. As I climbed out after takeoff, I reached 1200ft above ground and started a turn out to the northwest. I climbed to 2500ft and before long I was outside of my airport’s Class D airspace. There I was, completely on my own, free to fly any which way (for the most part) I wanted to. My instructor told me to practice some maneuvers as to not “waste the flight” but for once I was just happy to be able to fly around, look around, and simply enjoy being there after all the work I have been doing. I switched radio frequencies once I was clear of my airport’s airspace and radioed the practice area, “Skyhawk 5-Lima-Papa” entering the practice area from the south-east, 2500ft, anyone else out here?” To my pleasant surprise, my instructor radioed back with a good morning, his position (out east of me with another student), and told me to enjoy my flight. I headed out to the west toward a large lake I have become familiar with and climbed to 3500ft for a better vantage point over the land. I remember thinking about how just over two months before I had never flown a plane, yet there I was, on my own, completely in control, and free to do as I wished. After a bit more flight, I did a 180° turn above my friendly lake, and heading back toward the airport. I contacted the tower, and flew to enter the traffic pattern. As I turned onto final approach, tower radioed caution for bird activity, and just as I approached the runway a large flock of birds left the treetops and passed from right to left directly in front of me. I was a few seconds from adding full power, breaking off to the right, and going around. They were close! I landed, a quite good landing I may add, and headed back to parking.
Not to long after, my instructor arrived back after finishing his lesson with another student. We reviewed the flight plan I had put together for the next flight, and headed out together for my second flight of the day. This flight would be out west to an airport about 51NM away. The term “cross-country” denotes flights of over 50NM from one airport to another. I had planned the navigation to our destination airport using visual reference points on the ground, performance of the aircraft, weather conditions, and altitude. Each leg of our flight (from one visual point to another) was planned and timed out, and as we flew we would confirm our time and position to make adjustments as necessary. This is how all navigation was done prior to GPS, and this is how I am learning it… although with modern GPS much of this kind of navigation has become… dare I say it.. obsolete. Our flight went as planned for the most part. Some minor adjustments for wind and power setting of the plane were necessary inflight. As we approached the destination airport, I had trouble getting a visual on the airfield. There is some high terrain just east of the airport, so you need to keep your altitude and then descend pretty abruptly to enter this airport’s traffic pattern once clear of the obstacles. I spotted the airport, and as I passed over the high terrain, I was all of a sudden over a densely populated town descending down to a base leg of the traffic pattern, cleared to land. I turned base to final, only to find that I had a very substantial sustained crosswind from the east. I pushed in the right rudder and held the most rudder pressure I’ve every had to apply during a landing. With my instructor shadowing the controls in case he was needed, I landed the plane at our destination. I felt really good about this landing, considering the amount of crosswind. Truth be told, I felt more connected to the plane and in turn to the wind itself, because of all the physical pressure I had to keep on the controls. Maybe it was an intense concentration on the task at hand, or heightened senses, but I felt like I was one with the plane, as though I was gliding through the air myself and the inputs I was providing were keeping me on track with the runway. Incredible sensation, and good fun. We taxied back for immediate departure, and flew back to home base.
Planned for Saturday was a night cross country flight, as per the requirements for the private pilot certificate. I spent a good amount of time on Saturday planning our flight for that evening. I planned a for a south east departure and flight to the coast of New Jersey, where we would turn south, pass Atlantic City (scenic @ night) and fly direct to Cape May County airport where we would land, taxi back, and return direct north to our home airport. Navigation at night with visual references are much harder for obvious reasons. I chose points along the planned route such as lighted towers, areas of population, and certain airfields. From the air, you can activate the high intensity runway lights at certain airports from the airplane using radio frequency. This helps for navigation as you are able to choose an airport as a navigation point, even though you can’t see it at night from the air. As you approach this point or when you think you are flying over, you can activate the lights and see it come alive on the surface. This confirms your position, and is also just plain awesome to see. We lit up several airports along our route as we navigated from point to point. Since it was night, we also utilized VORs and had flight following from air traffic control for the majority of our flight. Flying at night is incredible. I wasn’t sure how I would feel about it, but I loved it. It is peaceful, you can navigate with reference to all the lights on the surface, and you can see air traffic much easier against the dark sky. As we made our turn to south to follow the coast of New Jersey down to the tip of Cape May, I could see the lights of Atlantic City. As we flew over the Atlantic City Expressway I could see all the familiar hotels from a new vantage point. It was really awesome. Landings at night will take some getting used to. You don’t have much visual reference to the ground and the tendency is to come in steep. There are a lot of ‘tricks’ that your brain and your eyes can play on you at night, for more on that, check the textbooks. I landed at Wildwood, taxied back, and took off for home. My first time flying at night was went better than expected, and I can’t wait to do it again.
Until next week….