Thursday, June 2, 2011

A doubly good day! - Part I

*Note: no chickens were harmed to allow me to fly, this time or any time!

There are four major milestones in a student pilots journey towards the coveted Private Pilot's License. The first Solo flight. The first solo cross country. The long solo cross country. The check ride. It seems a chicken sacrifice may be required for each. I had to do a pre-solo chicken sacrifice.. and, after 3 scrubs of my first solo cross country, my CFI emailed me last night suggesting I sacrifice a chicken or something so we can finally get this cross country done! I found the pre-solo sacrifice chicken (fortunately these things have four lives, one for each milestone) and viola! the weather was *just* good enough for me to do my first solo cross country today.

Today's flight was to from Reid-Hillview (RHV) to King City (KIC) and back. Approximately 89 nautical miles the route I had planned. Before the flight I got a weather briefing and used the winds aloft data to calculate my wind correction angles, headings, ground speed, time between way points and fuel burn. Then I reviewed my flight plan and the weather picture with my CFI.

A rain went through Wednesday, this morning was predicted to be dry. The weather briefer said from RHV south had stable dry air. Oakland north had unstable moist air. He didn't expect the moist air to make it all the way to RHV. My CFI, Scott, had a slightly different view. He showed me the satellite loop of our area where you could see a cloud layer swinging south towards my route, not to get down to my destination but potentially affecting the route there and back. So we talked through my options if the clouds came down sooner than later.

I was planning on flying to South County airport (E16), then swing west over the Santa Cruz mountains to Watsonville airport (WVI), then south to Salinas (SNS), then down the Salinas valley to King City. I would use Salinas airport and VOR, a prison and the end of a mountain ridge and an arroyo for my way points to King City (KIC). At a cruise altitude of 5500 feet. Here's a map of my planned route:

The problematic portion would be E16 to WVI. The mountains are approx 3500 feet with some towers going as high as 4050 feet. The clouds could be as low as 5000 feet over the ridge line. I had to maintain visual reference with the ground at all times, no flying over clouds allowed. According to Scott, it would be unlikely for me to be able to fly exactly the route I had planned. And, if I could on the way out, it would be even less likely on the way back. And, its not a good idea to try to squeeze oneself between clouds and mountains. That often causes a "premature and terminal arrival".

My alternate route would be to continue further south and cut across the mountain range in clear air. Coming back I would do the same thing, but, if I got to Salinas and saw the clouds were lower and closer, I would turn from Salinas to Hollister (CVH) and continue up the valley from there to E16 and then back to RHV.

Scott did three more endorsements for me, one on my medical to say I can fly cross country in an airplane, one in my logbook to say I can fly cross country in a C172 and one in my logbook saying I can fly cross country in a C172 to KIC via WVI and back on June 2, 2011. I think I mentioned earlier, I'm in the endorsement phase of training. With a suggestion to get going sooner than later from Scott. I was on my way.

When I called ground control I requested VFR Flight Following. Flight following is a good thing. It means ATC knows who you are, what kind of plane you are, what your equipment is and where you are going. They give you a transponder code so they can track you on radar. You do this so you have some extra eyes watching traffic for you and with you. ATC lets you know when other planes are near by and where they are and what they're doing so you can "see and avoid" them. You just stay in radio contact with different controllers as you pass through their area of responsibility. Another side benefit is the fact that ATC will notice if your plane suddenly disappears from radar and will try to find you quickly. It's a very good thing.

I wish I took pictures on the way. I had my camera with me, in my flight bag, sitting right behind my seat! The clouds were where Scott said they would be. They were very pretty. I flew around them as I should. I didn't fly the route I planned, due to the clouds. So I flew via "pilotage". Pilotage is basically using landmarks instead of headings to navigate. It worked wonderfully well (and I've had some practice on a couple of my other flights recently!) It was amazingly easy to fly using VOR, pilotage and headings calculated to get to King City.

Coming in to King City I started my descent as planned and it worked out perfectly. I was at pattern altitude 3 miles out from the airport. Did the radio calls, perfect (so much easier to do when CFI isn't there). Flew into the pattern, flew the pattern, and.... landed ON THE CENTER LINE! In spite of a cross wind!!!!!!! It wasn't my smoothest landing, but it was on the center line and that is all I cared about. I was NOT going to let the plane off that center line no matter what.

The flight back was a little more interesting... more on that tomorrow.

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