First Solo X/C by Dave Trahan

I didn’t write about my first solo because it so unexciting – takeoff, land, takeoff, land, takeoff, land – it was old hat by then so it wasn’t particularly meaningful to me. My first X/C solo was a much different story, and this is it…

The flight was to be from Sterling to Pittsfield Mass (from the center of the state due west to the western edge – almost NY). I had been scheduled to do it a week ago, but when I arrived at the airport, there was still ice and snow on the planes from a snowstorm 2 days before. I cleaned it off and turned it into the sun, but it was not gonna happen (if they had done this the day AFTER the storm it would have been fine – I guess they don’t want people to rent their planes).

I rescheduled for 11:00 yesterday. I showed up a little early, my instructor reviewed my flight plan and double checked the numbers with DUATS – he doesn’t let me use the DUAT flight planner since it encourages dependence. Everything looked good. I went out to preflight the plane and found quite a layer of ice due to several nights of frost on the wings. We pulled it over to the hanger, threw a tarp over a wing and stuck a hose from this monstrous army heater (they use it to heat the hanger) under the tarp. While we were waiting for the wings to clear, my instructor had to take off the front cowling to put some air in the nose strut – it was completely bottomed out.

Wing #1 cleared off after about 20 minutes, so I moved the tarp over to the other wing. By this time, three people were messing with the nose strut – they couldn’t get any air in. About 15 minutes later, wing #2 cleared off and the “experts” announced that the valve stem on the nose strut was broken – the plane is grounded. “Guess you’ll have to take the other 150” – grrrrr.

Needless to say, the other 150 was as icy as the first, so I spent yet another 45 minutes clearing the wings. Finally it looked like I had a plane to fly, I even remembered that I would have to notify flight service of the plane change when I opened my flight plan. My instructor wished me luck and I was on my way.

Takeoff was routine and I quickly settled on my course at 3000 feet. I dialed up flight service to open my flight plan and heard… silence. Check the freq, try again… nothing. Tune to a local ATIS – yep the radio is RECEIVING fine. Check the headset, push-to-talk-switch, plug in to the right seat plugs… no luck – the radio won’t transmit (this plane has a history of radio problems). Go or no-go? The flight plan isn’t really a big deal – my instructor knows where I am and when I should be back, and Sterling and Pittsfield are both uncontrolled fields so I really didn’t need a radio. I would have liked to get a confirmed active runway from Pittsfield Unicom, but I figured I’d just overfly the field and see how things looked. I vote we go.

Checkpoints are flipping by slowly but accurately – piece of cake so far. My true course was 270. The wind was from 270 at 25 knots, so the outbound flight was dreadfully slow – about 65 knots. The scenery was nice though. Pittsfield is in a valley near the Berkshires which is a short segment of the Appalachians – I was looking foward to flying over them. As I approached them, I notice the clouds getting lower and darker in the distance, so I dropped down to 2500. About 10 miles from Pittsfield (guesstimate), there was light snow and I could see it was going to get worse. It was clear to the south though. Taking the initiative I decided to see if I could scoot around to the south of the snow and come around the back – perhaps it was just a mountain storm and might be clear at Pittsfield. I went about 10 miles south of my planned course and it didn’t look any better so I decided to go back. I had plenty of fuel and I did fly the required 50 miles, even though I didn’t land – maybe my instructor will count it towards my X/C time anyways. I was not gonna be one of those pilots who ignores the weather and gets to their destination at any cost.

I turned the plane around and decided to figure out exactly where I was. I had made several small turns after leaving my course, so I knew ABOUT where I was, but not exactly. Unfortunately, this part of the state is nothing but trees and hills. Still, I wasn’t too worried. There were several MAJOR landmarks east of my location and there were no controlled airspaces I might bump into. I found a VOR that would intercept my planned course near a major highway so I tuned it in and followed it back to my checkpoint.

By now, I’m feeling pretty confident – I can “do” flying. I know I have a lot more to learn, but basically, I can fly. On the way back I passed about 5 miles north of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst campus which is pretty impressive – there’s nothing out there for miles and suddenly this small city pops up. There are several 15+ story buildings. I have a friend who goes to school there so I figured – what the heck – let’s have some fun. I dropped down to 2000 and overflew the campus. Right over the main campus I did a steep left turn (50 degrees or so) back to a course that would intercept my original course. Yeehaw!

The rest of the flight was technically uneventful, but very enjoyable. Due to the heavy tailwinds, my groundspeed was much higher than I was used to. At one point the ground elevation was fairly high so I was probably around 1000 AGL – boy it goes by fast at that height! That’s when I realized that THIS is what flying is all about – this is why I started taking lessons in the first place. I think after endless touch and goes and an instructor constantly jabbering in your ear about what you could be doing better, that we tend to lose touch with what it’s all about – this flight was a wonderful reminder. It’s like going through a long, curving tunnel and forgetting that there’s light at the other end. When you finally come around that last bend and see the light, it’s darn thrilling. I’m happy to report that, although I was enjoying my freedom, I found myself automatically and almost subconciously playing the “what if” game – where could I put down, what if I saw conflicting traffic, etc. – I guess all that drilling worked!

Landing was as uneventful as takeoff even though there was about a 10 knot gusty crosswind component. My instructor was glad to hear I had enough sense to turn around and agreed we should count it as a X/C – we’ll double check the FARs though. Next I’m off to Plymouth Mass – yech – I gotta mess with Boston/Logan approach (class B). I’m sure it will be an adventure!

Thanks for reading!

Dave Trahan