Thursday, February 14, 2013

Celebrating First Solo

Two years ago on Feb 10 I did my first solo flight. I remember it like it was yesterday. The extra careful pre-flight ... the four trips around the pattern ... my CFI climbing out of the right seat and me launching into the air on my own. I'll never forget it. Fast forward two years. I'm instrument rated, can fly high performance aircraft and am knocking on the door of 300 hours flying soon. Some of the best hours of my life logged in the left seat of small aircraft.

So, how does one celebrate the anniversary of their first solo? I started by emailing my CFI and my husband, the two people who are responsible for introducing me to flying, a little song that celebrated the second anniversary of my first solo. Then I had a day of running operations and emergency dispatch for our National Auto Sports Association (NASA) race event at Sonoma raceway. After which it was time to fly home. :)  Like all fun stories this is a slightly long one.

The day before, Saturday the 9th, I went for a 10 mile run as part of my marathon training. Then my daughter, Katie, and I had to get up to Sonoma Raceway. Katie suggested that we fly instead of drive! Well, it doesn't take a lot of convincing to get me to fly somewhere so I reserved the last 172 that was available for the weekend, got a quick weather and outlook briefing, and down to the airport we went. On the way there Katie asked if she could fly the plane a bit on the way! That blew me away... was my daughter showing a bit of interest in aviation? Of course she could fly! 

We launched on a Bay Tour route up to Gnoss field near Sonoma Raceway. Katie had her camera with her and was taking photos. She is a natural photographer and got a beautiful picture of the SJC VOR, the Golden Gate Bridge, a jet ready to take off from SFO and more. I hope I can get her to share them with me. I digress. We had a strong wind aloft and the ride was not smooth so my daughter didn't get to fly the plane there. Luckily for her, however, turbulence doesn't bother her in the least, she just complained the bouncing made it hard for her to get good pics. My approach to Gnoss was sloppy and I had to go around for the first time in a long time. That was humbling and reminded me that I need to be mindful when flying. I am getting a better understanding of how and why pilots die between 200 and 300 hours of flying. I don't want to be one of them.

Sunday, 2nd anniversary of my first solo, we needed to fly home. However, this time my husband had to ride back with us. This was upsetting to Katie because she wanted to fly the plane on the way back.  This was disturbing to me because this meant we would be flying at just below max gross weight, something I've never done before. Not something dangerous, just something different. Then I checked the weather forecast and there were strong winds forecast at 3000 feet and stronger winds at 6000 feet. Add to that there were AIRMETs for turbulence over most of Northern California. However, the many airports along the route were all reporting very low or no winds. Pireps for the area reported light or moderate turbulence aloft but no turbulence below 3000 feet.

If you've read my blog for any length of time you know, I do not like turbulence. Normally I'll cancel a flight if there is an AIRMET for turbulence unless my CFI is with me. This time, however, I "had to get there". We needed to get home, we couldn't drive. So I was more motivated to find a way, knowing there may not be a good way, in which case we'd need to land. My husband, Jeff, and I talked and he suggested flying back down the peninsula at 2500 or 2000 feet with a Class Bravo transition over SFO. With the direction of the winds we'd be less likely to encounter turbulence there, not to mention it would be cool to fly over SFO at night. Yeah, I forgot to mention, the whole flight would be at night.

So, two years and 8 hours or so after my first solo, I launch into the air in a plane loaded to just short of max gross weight with my whole family aboard, at night, with a high likelihood of turbulence planning to fly right through the airspace of one of the nation's busiest airports, SFO. Amazing how two years of experience and training can change someone isn't it?

In case you are wondering how the flight went... it went very well. The air was crystal clear. The ride was smoother than it was the day before. We got the class bravo transition we requested at 2000 feet through SFO's airspace and got to talk to the towers of four other airports along the route. There were many jets flying in from Hawaii and the pacific rim as we flew down the peninsula and they were lined up like diamonds on a necklace on approach to SFO, OAK and SJC. One jet in particular had its contrails lit up from below as it passed over head. It looked like it was riding a laser through the night on its path.

My favorite part was the approach and landing at RHV. Since I'd never landed a plane at max gross before I went back to basics and focused very hard on maintaining appropriate airspeed and track, just as my CFI taught me two years ago. As a result, I landed the heavily loaded plane, at night, very nicely right on the center line. Proving, once again, flying really is easy if I just do what my CFI taught me. I'm at a stage in my flying now that I need to remember while it may be easy, it's only easy when its done right. Doing it right is easy if I plan and think.

In any case that flight was not a bad way to celebrate the anniversary of my first solo at all. I wonder where I'll be when I celebrate the third anniversary of my first solo. With luck I'll be flying :)

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