Author Topic: My first cross-country solo, a.k.a. "Learning the Hard Way"  (Read 23642 times)

Offline ifanyonecan

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This is my first post, after staying up all night and this morning reading on here. I love seeing ATC perspectives, and I wanted to share my own tale of being "that guy".

My dad got his license in college and flew F15Es in the Air Force. He became a CFI to teach my brother and me when we were old enough. I've had my license for about a year now (I'm 19). I've noticed many differences in how I fly compared to my friends who learned through a formal college program. In some aspects I have an advantage, but I am much less comfortable on the radio than them. While I have flown with Dad since I was little, I only knew uncontrolled airports until I was studying for my license. I've gotten better, but as a student pilot, I hated flight plans, flight following, flight watch, controlled airspace, and any other radio traffic that wasn't CTAF or an AWOS. Sorry for the long introduction, but I think it helps with context.

My solo was to go from our home airport, Columbus, TX, to Bay City, TX, then Victoria, TX, then home again. Victoria Regional was the only stop with a tower, so Dad said I should do three full-stop landings for the practice. I planned out the flight and wrote out word-for-word what to say to the tower. That day, I adjusted the numbers with the weather briefing and prepared a flight plan and called it in. I felt excited and prepared after the man said I was the first person all day to say everything he needed and in order.

Drive, preflight, taxi, take-off. I noticed at about 50' AGL that I hadn't set my gyro heading indicator, so I quickly fixed it while I was still on the runway heading. After turning to course and climbing a bit, I called the FSS to activate my flight plan. They told me I should contact Houston Center, so I changed over. I didn't feel comfortable with the flight plan to start with, since I'd never done one, even with Dad, so now I felt nervous. I called Houston Center several times with no response. I thought about calling the FSS again, but I didn't want to sound stupid by not knowing how it's supposed to work.

This was too much for me while flying and looking for my first checkpoint, so I went back and landed, discouraged and embarrassed. I called Dad, and he said to stay cool, forget the flight plan, and just fly it. So I did, and I landed in Bay City without issue. I got out, told Dad, drank a soda, and took off. I felt pretty cool.  8-)

"Hm... Why can't I see my checkpoint? I guess I missed it, I'll look for landmarks and see where I am. Huh, what's that water up there? Oh, wow, it's big. Oh, wow, that's the Gulf. Crap."

So I'd forgotten to set my DG again. After a thorough self-kicking, I saw a power plant, found it on the chart, drew a new line, fixed the indicator, and went the right way.

On my first call, I informed Victoria Regional's tower that I was a student pilot, which probably helped them understand what was to come. I was cleared for 12R, so I looked at my compass and the field, finding which one lined up that way. It didn't occur to me that 12R is probably next to 12L. I also didn't think it was weird that he'd give me the longest runway by far, with several times what I needed. Oh, and the big 17 that was freshly painted? Yeah, I missed that too. He was nice, and after I sheepishly confirmed it was me, he told me what my clearance was, and I apologized. I was cleared to takeoff again. The field had two runways in an acute V, and I (of course) took off from the wrong one. He nicely told me what I did, and I blushed more. The next landing I did right, though by now, I was told not only what runway, but exactly where it was and all the runways it wasn't. I took off again, with his step-by-step directions to get me where I needed to go. This takeoff and landing were fine, but I still felt shaken, so I parked and stretched my legs. I was cleared for takeoff, and I nailed it (took long enough  :roll: ).

You may not believe this. I had forgotten to reset my directional gyro again! I went west of my planned course, and realized it after I was off the Houston sectional (which wasn't too far to go from Victoria). I was pissed at myself by now. Besides, one of the fuel gauges in the Cessna 150 was broken, and with all my exploring, I was worried I would run out of gas. I did a turn to look for anything I recognized, and believe it or not, there was a runway directly below me. I landed as quick as I could. I called Dad, worried about fuel and the closing daylight. I looked around and found a tiny sign saying I was in Yoakum, so he flew over. I flew behind him to Columbus in the dark, telling him everything on the ride home. It had been an exhausting day.

I still get jokes from my immediate and extended family about that trip all the time. As bad as it was, I can say I've never taken off with the wrong DG heading since. Also, I practiced quite a bit, and I haven't had any ATC embarrassments either. I like to tell stories, so I apologize for the length. I hope you enjoyed it.

Offline dentaylor

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Re: My first cross-country solo, a.k.a. "Learning the Hard Way"
« Reply #1 on: January 30, 2011, 06:33:25 PM »
Nice post. You did the right thing by turning around and landing.

It sounds like you tried to do too much at once. Put the DG sync in your 'before takeoff' checklist. You shouldn't be doing anything at 50' AGL except flying the plane. I wouldn't even correct for drift or pull-up flaps until reaching at least 100' AGL. For my cross country flights I never plan the trip from the airport. I select a waypoint within 5nm from the AP that I know I can find without the compass or any navaids. My trip starts there. This enables me to get away from the airport and keep my eyes out instead of looking at charts and nav instruments. I call the FSS and activate my FP after I have turned on course from that waypoint.

My instructor taught me to develop good habits. One of those habits was to sync the DG at every checkpoint (10-15 minutes).

Don't worry about the airport mishap. Landing at a new airport is always tough.

Offline StuSEL

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Re: My first cross-country solo, a.k.a. "Learning the Hard Way"
« Reply #2 on: January 30, 2011, 10:38:20 PM »
I'll tell you why you have the advantage, and that's because you did this without a GPS. Except in maybe the surrounding counties, where I know most landmarks, I can't say I'd be very good at figuring out where I am without some significant study of a map. You're lucky that your skill allowed you to figure out where you were.

Here's another tip: Houston Center does not handle VFR flight plans, nor does any other center, TRACON (Approach/Departure), or ATCT (Tower, Ground, etc.) VFR flight plans are stored and monitored by the Lockheed-Martin Flight Service Network, or flight service stations (FSS). The FSS operator may have had you contact Houston Center after mistaking you for wanting to open up an IFR flight plan. Why he or she would have done that, I have no idea. But VFR flight plans can't even be accessed by controllers working a radar position or in a tower. Their only purpose is really to provide you with that special insurance that if in the event you don't show up to your filed destination on an activated VFR flight plan, they will notify search and rescue that you are missing, and they will go at great lengths to find you.

If you're flying with the guidance of ATC flight following the entire way, a VFR flight plan is not necessarily something you need. During an emergency, you can squawk 7700 and call any ATC facility on 121.5 and usually be located pretty effectively if you're not talking to controllers before your emergency happens. But knowing how to use the FSS network to your benefit is really quite important, not to mention that you can also receive en-route weather briefings from them.

Most importantly, you should not be afraid to talk to ATC. Put yourself in the controller's shoes. If he's working a tower without a radar scope (which is how most are set up), what does he need to know to find you out the window? He needs your distance and direction, and he wants to know what you want to do. If he's working behind a radar scope with a lateral view of essentially a bunch of IFR and VFR charts on the scope, what does he need to do to be able to find you? Again, distance and direction, and what you want to do. Be familiar with your transponder functions: IDENT, recycling, resetting (just typing in new numbers), etc.

Radar flight following is perhaps one of the best things you can do to enhance the safety of your flight. Controllers will point traffic out to you, workload permitting, and provide that extra cushion for you to find aircraft that may impede on your route of flight. I always use it when it's available.

If you ever get the opportunity to do so, go visit an ATC facility and see what they're all about. Meet the humans who work as controllers, get an idea of what kind of equipment they use and what kinds of tools they have in their bag of tricks to help you out. Heck, go visit an FSS sometime, too.

Offline dave

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Re: My first cross-country solo, a.k.a. "Learning the Hard Way"
« Reply #3 on: February 05, 2011, 04:16:37 AM »
Excellent story, and congrats on your flight and some good decision making.  Some of the most important flying lessons you will have involve making good decisions...and occasionally not so good decisions.  Just try to avoid the really bad decisions.

I will echo what the other poster said about messing with the DG at 50' AGL - fly the plane.  Your job at that point is to get up and away from the ground and safely on course, avoiding other aircraft and obstacles.  Focus.

My only other general comment is: checklists.  Develop your own - and use them religiously.  Many of us have had the occasion where we try to shortcut the checklist - it almost always results in something missed.  That something could end up causing serious issues.

Congrats on your cross-country - exciting stuff!  You are well on your way to being a good pilot - stay safe.