A Fun and Challenging Cross Country by Jean Liddle

Last Wednesday my instructor signed me off for my second cross-country flight after the successful completion of my first flight from Midway (MDW) to Peoria (PIA) and then to Champaign (CMI). Although I didn’t need another long x/c to meet the minimums, I did need another 1.2 hours of solo x/c and another 1.6 hours of solo time total. That was my excuse for the second, even longer solo x/c, but the truth was I had to go to Cincinnati anyway to attend my cousin’s graduation ceremony, and I would much rather fly than drive. 🙂

Friday morning I got up, pulled the GTE DUATS off of the Internet for my planned route (MDW to Lafayette, IN (3AR), to Cincinnati Lunken (LUK). I had planned my route to go around a couple of fairly large MOAs in central Indiana. The weather reports for my route all indicated that my minimum visibilities, winds, etc. would be met, but it was still too early to be certain, and the entire air mass over the mid-west was pretty unstable. I hopped the “el” out to Midway, dropped my flight bag/suitcase off at the FBO and talked to my CFI. He noted it was possible things might improve enough for me to go, but in all likelihood the weather would crap out somewhere along my route and bust my minimums, and I’d have to drive. But if things were OK weather wise, I was still signed off to go and have a good flight! He emphasized that if I went and if the weather were to turn bad while in Cincinnati, to not push it or violate my minimums trying to get the plane back, but to simply call and let them know the plane was stranded and they would take care of it. He noted that this happens all the time with VFR pilots and it was no big deal, and certainly not worth jeopardizing my life, or the airplane, over. I like to think I would have shown good judgment had he not said anything, but I’m glad he did tell me this as it really did take the pressure off with respect to the return flight.

My CFI headed skyward with another student as I took a short walk down the street to take the written exam. The clouds hanging over Chicago weren’t promising, but I was prepared to rent a car and drive if things didn’t work out, so there was no worry. Either way I’d be in Cincinnati in plenty of time to see my cousin graduate and take part in the festivities afterwords.

Two hours later I emerged with a big grin on my face and a passing grade in my hand (95%!!!), to see the sun shining on a beautiful, almost windless afternoon. It was one o’clock, and it looked like I might actually get to do this flight!

Back at the FBO I got a standard weather briefing for my route and did my wind calculations. All was well along the route and within the requirements for which my CFI had signed me off, although that could still change at any time. I decided to go for it, but to be very certain to check the weather often with flight watch along the way.

My preflight was extra-thorough, probably because I was a little nervous about such a long flight to a city I’d never been to, along a flight path over towns and cities I’d never seen before. I double checked the fuel after they had topped off the plane, once right after and once again after the rest of my preflight was complete. All was in order: both the Cincinnati and Chicago sectionals were laid out, one over the other, on the passenger seat, with landmarks clearly highlighted, flight log and checklists easily accessible on my lap pad, first two VOR radii set up for the first checkpoints, and so on. I was as ready as I was going to get, and the familiar adrenaline high was already starting to make itself felt.

Preflight checklist complete. Before starting engine checklist complete. “Clear!” and the engine started almost eagerly. Radios all set up for Midway departure. As I pulled out of the parking area onto the main ramp I listened to ATIS and got the current winds and weather, then called clearance delivery with a departure on heading 120 while positioning the plane on the ramp for my run up. All went well on the run up, throttle back to idle, call ground and let them know I’m ready to taxi. Taxi as directed to 31L, hold short of the runway, and finish the Before Takeoff Checklist. Before Takeoff Checklist complete, call the tower and report ready for departure at 31L. “Cessna 5227K cleared for takeoff, left turn to heading on course approved.” Full throttle, and I’m airborne! Before I’m even 300′ AGL the tower requests for me to begin my turn, making way for a departing 737. I begin a fairly shallow turn, steepening it once I pass 400′ AGL and am more comfortable with my altitude. I continue the climb to 2000′ MSL, the highest altitude I’m cleared for, then trim for strait and level cruise. Climb Out and Cruise Checklists complete, all looks well. I clear Midway’s Charlie airspace, request flight following and switch to Chicago Center. Approved to climb to 4500′ MSL just as I clear the O’Hare class Bravo. I just get settled comfortably in to a cruise at 4500′, pass my first checkpoint, when droplets begin to form on my windshield and things start misting up fast. Reduce power and attitude for a quick descent out of some clouds which are just forming at my altitude — I get down to 3500′ and all is well, with some broken clouds overhead about a thousand feet above. There’s the lake I should have used as a checkpoint, about half way between my first and second checkpoints. I check the charts and the time — looks like I’m running about a minute and a half ahead of schedule. I request a temporary frequency change and am told to report back on a different frequency when I return.

At this point I contact flight watch on 122.0 and open my flight plan. They refer me to another frequency (one I should have noted during my flight planning but didn’t think of), but no joy reaching anyone on that frequency. I return to 122.0 to hear “Cessna 5227K, Kankakee Radio.” I respond and open my flight plan, then request an updated briefing on my intended route. A cell is forming to the east of my route, and thunderstorms have moved into the Chicago area from the north along a cold front stretching clear across from the lake to Iowa. There’s no going back — I either divert to one of the numerous airfields I researched during my flight planning, or continue the flight. Things are looking fairly nice: though turbulence is light to moderate there are only broken and scattered clouds overhead, plenty of sunshine and good visibility despite the haze. Flying with haze is a bit different I discover … on my first (and only other) solo cross country flight (the one from Chicago to Peoria to Champaign and back to Chicago) I had had perfect weather, unlimited visibility, and at 6500′ I could see almost the entire route from Chicago to Peoria. On top of that I went to college in Champaign and was fairly familiar with the downstate area, including Peoria and most of the landmarks between Peoria and Champaign, and between Champaign and Chicago. Not this time. This time I was over places I had never in my life been to or seen before, including my final destination. A whole new experience, and to make it even more interesting the haze cut visibility down to six or seven miles (worse near Indy, where it couldn’t have been more than four miles. Of course, I didn’t know this when I departed Chicago — if I had, I wouldn’t have been allowed to fly as it was less than the minimums my instructor had set. A Pirep underway had warned me, but by then t-storms had hit Chicago and there was no going back). Visibility was such that I was lucky to make out the next landmark, and often would get from one to the next only by dead reckoning, albeit usually for only a few minutes between each checkpoint. I could see well enough to avoid other aircraft (there weren’t many) and to fly, but it did make navigation a challenge. Totally cool with me — I like challenges and this was fun! Just as long as I can stay clear of any bad weather …

Flight watch suggests I follow a more westerly route to stay clear of the cell which has formed to the northeast of Lafayette (but not too far, as there are other cells forming over central Illinois). I acknowledge and initially divert my route slightly to the west of what I had intended, but still within sight of the landmarks I had planned on using. I note other landmarks and guestimate distances in case I have to fade even farther west. I note which airports are nearby, in case I have to abort this entire endeavor and put down sooner than I’d like. I then make a quick Pirep of my own, noting the VFR conditions and light with occasional moderate turbulence I am encountering, then switch back to the new frequency Chicago center had given me.

“Chicago center, Cessna 5227K is back with you”

“Cessna 5227K, we have lost radar contact. You will need to climb to at least 4,500′ to maintain flight following. I look up at the broken clouds overhead and decide it isn’t worth the risk of getting caught on top.

“Chicago center, Cessna 5227K would like to cancel flight following.”

“5227K flight following canceled, frequency change approved, squawk 1200”

“5227K squawking VFR, thanks for the help!”

“5227K, good day.”

As I approach Lafayette from the north, west of my intended course, I can see the storm about 15 miles away off my port side. I’m already well south of it, so I turn a little early to start my more easterly leg of the trip, passing north of Lafayette Aaretz (3AR) and resuming my planned course. Another call to flight watch on 122.0 and another briefing reveals that there are no alerts along the rest of my route. I have threaded the needle between storms and am now in the clear!

I have consistently been hitting my checkpoints a couple of minutes early. My expected airspeed had been 105 knots, but 5227K is giving me around 110 to 115 knots. Not enough to threaten my navigation, but I do make a note that I’ll use 110 knots when planning the x/c for my check ride, as this plane is quicker than the others I’ve been flying.

As I leave the Indianapolis area I make another Pirep, nothing serious, just noting the light and occasional moderate turbulence that I’m encountering. Now things become interesting, as there are no more convenient interstates to follow, only a couple of distinctive lakes, and a lot of rolling green hills with winding roads and rivers, all of which look alike. At this point I’m using towns and airfields as my checkpoints, which is working out allright, although next time I’ll use airfields and lakes more, and towns only when other, more distinctive features aren’t available. This is the trickiest part of my flight, as there are the fewest checkpoints available and the distance between them greater than I usually like. A quick calculation based on my current airspeed (115 knots) and the predicted winds aloft, and I cut my wind correction angle almost in half. Now we’ll see how good of a mathematician I really am, as it is dead reckoning from here out to the next checkpoint, invisible somewhere ahead, out of view and hidden by distance and haze. Luckily there is a distinctive lake and dam north of the town, so if I miss it I’ll probably be able to see the big lake. Unless I drift too far south …

I did drift a little south, but have no trouble picking out the town, the dam, and the lake, and correct my course accordingly. At this time I pick up LUK’s ATIS (winds 220 at 6, departing and landing runways 21R, 21L, and 25), then call Cincinnati approach and request flight following into LUK. During this time I never see my last checkpoint (a small airfield northwest of Cincinnati), but I do see the city and am vectored in to Lunken and turned over to Lunken tower when about five miles to the north. At this point I *should* be able to see the field, but am still unable to pick it out.

“Cessna 5227K, you are cleared to land on runway 21 left”

“Lunken Tower, 5227K does not have the field in sight”

“27K, what’s your heading?”

“27K, 140 at 2000 feet”

“27K, the field should be off your right side at 1 o’clock.”

“27K, Roger, I’ve got it. Landing 22 left”

“Roger 27K, that’s 21 left”

“21 left, Roger, 27K”

The airport is in a river valley between two wooded hills which more or less hide it until the last minute. At this point what felt like a comfortable approach altitude is in fact way too high, and there is the distinct possibility I’ll have to do a go around. However, the runway they’ve given me is huge, so I decide to try for it, my hand on the throttle ready to give it up if things don’t go just right.

Full flaps and I’m descending, but not quite good enough. After reading about people doing forward slips with flaps on rec.aviation.piloting I decide to try it, although I’m a bit bashful and only do a light forward slip. Now the plane really starts to lose altitude, so much so that my ears are popping noticeable. As I intersect a descent angle that will let me use the latter half of the runway to land I ease out of the slip and continue the descent with full flaps. My hand rests lightly on the throttle, ready to go around if the runway gets too short on me. I descend into a perfect round out and flair, the stall horn sounding as the wheels grease into a landing I barely feel. I have touched down at 45 knots airspeed and even less ground speed. The tower asks where I am going, and then instructs me to take taxiway Bravo to Charlie and taxi to parking. By now my landing roll has become a taxi as I pull up abeam the Bravo taxiway, pull off the runway, taxi to parking, and follow the hand signals of the lineman directing me onto the ramp.

Switches, Lean, Ignition, Master off, and the prop comes to a stop. I’m in Cincinnati, in only 2.2 hours! I can’t help but feel a tremendous rush and feeling of accomplishment, to have managed to fly to a completely unfamiliar city and state alone!

I check the After Landing Checklist and discover the carb heat is still cold. Damn! I forgot to do the Before Landing Checklist! ARGH! I really should have gone around, for that reason if no other. A perfect landing, but the lousy approach and forgetting the checklist would have no doubt caused me to bust the check ride. I vow not to do that again, although I can’t help but be pleased with the way the landing turned out.

After filling out the paper work I met my cousin (now Dr. Cousin, M.D.!) and we drove back to her place. I’ll skip the details of the weekend — while interesting to me, my close friends, and my family, it would undoubtably bore the rest of you. 🙂 Suffice it to say it was a weekend of festivities as well as family fun, and I had a great time seeing cousins, an uncle and and aunt I hadn’t seen in a while, and meeting a bunch of really cool friend’s and fellow Med students of my cousin’s.

Sunday I was to fly back to Chicago, but the winds were way over what I was signed off for, visibility was VFR but below what I was signed off for at Lunken, and there was occasional IFR along my route back to Chicago. I called my FBO in Chicago and left a message for my CFI that I would not be coming back that Sunday, but would try flying back the following day (Monday). As the day progressed some nasty storms moved through the area, vindicating my decision not to fly. So instead I helped my cousin move, then hung out with her and some friends across the border in Kentucky.

Monday the weather was beautiful once again. I got a weather briefing first thing in the morning, and although conditions were IFR at Midway for the moment, that was expected to burn off by about 10:00 Chicago time and the rest of my route as VFR. Winds at Lunken were calm, and the fog was burning off even as I was being driven to the airport by my cousin.

When I arrived at the airport it was sunny, with visibility, winds, and ceilings within the limitations my CFI had set. An updated briefing revealed VFR all along my route and at Midway (the clouds had burned off earlier than expected I guess). I filed my flight plan, paid my bill at the FBO, and preflighted the plane. Got ATIS (“Winds calm, … Notice to airmen, deer and bird activity on and near the airport”) I actually saw a couple of deer grazing between 21R and 21L! In any event, I called ground, gave them my departure heading, and was told to back taxi to 21R via Charlie to alpha and golf, hold short 21R.

As I pulled up to the taxi way I was uncertain of exactly where I was to go, so I called ground again, mentioned I was unfamiliar with the field, and requested vectors to the runway. Looking at the airport diagram now what I did seams absurdly simple, but at the time it was really nice to be told “27K, take a left on Charlie”, “27K, take the next right onto runway 21R”, “27K, take the next right onto taxiway alpha, then an immediate left on taxiway golf, hold short 21R” rather than trying to figure all that out and have my eyes inside the cockpit looking at a diagram while trying to drive the plane around the airport. (It was a confusing clearance anyway, taxing part of the way on a runway I was then to hold short of … something I’d never done quite that way before and didn’t really understand at the time.)

Before takeoff checklist complete, call the tower, cleared for takeoff with a right turn onto my heading. The runway seems really short to me, especially with those hills past the end of it, but then I recall my takeoffs at Sanger field south of Chicago (really short, narrow runways), note that the temperature is almost standard and that, according to my weight and balance calculations I’ll only need half of the runway to get airborne, chide myself for being such a chicken (“it’s only a little hill”), punch the throttle and go. I’m airborne and don’t even have to use Vx to clear the hill, but ascend at Vy, turning onto my heading over the Ohio river and climbing to 1900 feet MSL as I fly over the city.

“Lunken tower, Cessna 5227K here. I’m currently squawking VFR, is there a code you want me to squawk?”

“5227K, negative. For flight following contact Cincinnati Departure on XXX.X, frequency change approved.”

“5227K Roger, going to Cincinnati Departure.”

Set the frequency on COM 2 for Cincinnati Departure …

“Cincinnati Departure, this is Cessna 5227K departing Cincinnati Lunken, would like to transition your airspace on a heading of 310 at 3500 feet.”

“5227K, your still on Lunken Tower frequency.”

Ouch! I hate it when I do that! “5227K, apologies, switching now.” I flip the toggle over to COM 2 and try it again.

“Cincinnati, this is Cessna 5227K departing Lunken, would like to transition your airspace on a heading of 310”

“Cessna 5227K, squawk XXXX and ident.”

I do so. “5227K, we show you over downtown Cincinnati at 2000 feet, what are your intentions.”

“5227K. I would like to climb to 3500 feet on a heading of 310.”

“5227K, climb to 3500 approved.”

“5227K, climbing to 3500.”

Cincinnati ended up vectoring me to the north on a course of 360, then cleared me to resume navigation a few minutes later. At this point I was sufficiently far north that I decided to forget my first landmark and fly due west, where I should pick up my second landmark (that small town to the south of the dam, with the big lake to the north of the dam). This worked out really well, at which point I resumed my planned course and headed back toward Chicago. Having flown the route once it was much easier to identify my landmarks, which was nice because I had some moderate turbulence and fairly aggressive thermals to deal with, and a lot of scattered clouds to dodge as they always seemed to want to hang out at whatever altitude I was cruising at. I kept the VFR minimums firmly in mind (2000′ horizontal, 1000′ above, 500′ below) as I zipped around these things, generally opting to descent below when too many appeared on the off chance that they’d converge into overcast and I’d be stuck, though flight watch didn’t indicate any overcast except over Midway, which was breaking up.

2.4 hours after departure I landed at Midway (also coming in too high, damn it, although this time I did get the checklist done properly, and I didn’t need a forward slip to make the runway. Still, I’ve got to get better at coming in lower — although I like the safety of being able to glide to the runway if the engine goes out, especially over the city). The sun was shining, the temperature was perfect, and my landing was quite good, though not the greaser I had managed at Lunken. Met my CFI at the FBO, paid for the plane rental, caught the “el” home, and then slept for two hours strait before heading to the neighborhood cafe’ to study for my oral exam and check ride. All of my requirements are met, except for a few hours of prep for the checkride. This weekend was another taste of what it will be like when I finally do get my PPL — I can’t wait!

Jean Liddle