This week I flew my first solo cross country! A cross country flight is defined as a flight with a landing at a destination other than the departure airport and a straight line distance of at least 50 nautical miles. The requirements for the private pilot certificate include 5 hours of solo cross country flying, so this flight was the first of two solo cross country flights I will do in preparation for my private pilot license check ride. I planned this trip from my home airport out directly west to Lancaster Pennsylvania, a total distance of 69 nautical miles (each way).
At this stage of my training, I am using paper charts and visual reference points to navigate. I spent the evening before planning the route on the sectional chart, and choosing reference points along the way which would verify my course. This is how all flying was done before the advent of GPS. While I am happy to learn this way, and I believe it helps one understand the fundamentals behind navigation, I sure am happy that once I begin instrument flying in the G1000 glass cockpit equipped aircraft, most of this type of navigation and planning is obsolete. With that said, it is important to learn how to do it, understand how it works, and be able to revert to ‘manual’ navigation if the need arises.
With my flight path, reference points, altitude (4,500 feet), and distance calculated, all that was left to do was get a weather briefing on the morning of the flight and calculate the estimated time for each leg of the trip (from reference point to reference point). The winds aloft dictate the time it will take to complete the flight, and you can only get the most current wind data just prior to departure. A few hours before my scheduled departure, I called the weather briefer and received a standard weather briefing for my flight. Winds aloft (4500 feet) were 272° at 25 knots, which meant I would have a pretty good headwind the entire way there. My course heading was 277°, which meant I was basically flying due west, and directly into the wind. This meant my ground speed would be quite slow, as the wind would effectively be working to push me back as I powered through toward Lancaster. My calculated ground speed was 85 knots (about 98 mph). The calculated time en route from takeoff to landing was 49 minutes. As you see in the video, it almost looks like I am standing still in the frames which I have not sped up. Conversely, when I departed Lancaster and flew due east on my return, my calculated ground speed was 135 knots (155mph) and the flight home only took about 35 minutes.
Throughout my flight, I was in contact with air traffic control switching between controllers as I moved through the airspace. As I approached Lancaster, I spotted the airport about 10 nautical miles away, and began my descent. I had landed at Lancaster once before, early in my training, but I really did not remember the layout of the airport. As I approached, I was cleared for a direct approach to runway 26. I briefly had some trouble figuring out which runway was 26, but I did some maneuvers a few miles out to line my magnetic compass up on 26 and orient myself with the correct runway. On my approach for runway 26, wind was 260° at 20 knots, a direct headwind! The wind was effectively pushing me, or holding me off, and my regular descent approach brought me in short of the runway. You will see in the video that I have to add a fair bit of power as I am approaching the threshold in order to carry me over the fence and onto the runway. This was caused by not accounting for the headwind during my approach. I could have descended at a shallower rate which would have lengthened my descent path, and counteracted the wind. Nothing to worry about, but a great learning experience for next time. I landed, taxied back for immediate departure, and flew back home.
This week I also worked on knocking out more of the flight requirements needed before taking the private pilot check ride. I went up for a few hours with my instructor and practiced maneuvers, tightening up my skills to make sure I can execute the maneuvers within the exam standards. I completed the remaining instrument time needed, and had a night flight with my instructor to finish up the remaining night time takeoff and landing requirement. I also flew solo and practiced maneuvers on my own for the first time.
Looking forward, all I have left in terms of requirements prior to testing for my private pilot license is one more long cross country flight, and a few more solo hours. I will probably have this complete within the next week or two. Time to hit the books and tighten up all my skills, and hopefully I’ll be a licensed private pilot sometime in March!