My Cross-Country Experience by Sue Winsett

The day was perfect for flying. The clouds were at 5,500 feet with some haze below, but expected to move out before I reached my intended destination. Winds were calm, and not expected to reach peak gusts of 12 knots until between 3 and 6 p.m. – an hour or so after I would be home. As the weather briefer said, it was a beautiful day for VFR.

So as a student pilot embarking on my 150-mile cross-country solo, I felt nothing could go wrong. I had made the same trip planned for today just 2 weeks earlier with my instructor, so I was familiar with the route. And I had been intensively “drilled” and “practiced” by my instructor for weeks, now. So, after a final “cram session” lead by my instructor on “what to do IF. . . ,” I taxied away from the hanger and blissfully lifted into the air, totally unaware of what fate could do to this novice pilot.

The confidence I felt as I looked down on my “home” was not achieved without a lot of hard work and a lot of soul-searching on my part. Although now, because of my job, I am a relatively seasoned traveler, one of my first plane trips was on a shuttle hopper. I was seated on the last row in the tail of the airplane when a storm hit full force. We were bounced about so badly that even with the seat belt on, my head hit the ceiling. Lightening flashed everywhere around us, and hot water poured on us from somewhere up above. By the time we landed, I was very green, soaking wet, and so unnerved I had to sit in the airport for almost an hour to calm down enough to face city traffic. Back at my office, I had the travel agent place on my records: “NEVER MAKE RESERVATIONS THAT INCLUDE A SHUTTLE HOPPER.” Even if I had to keep traveling for a living, I would NEVER, EVER fly in a small plane again!

When my husband told me he had always wanted to fly a plane, of course I couldn’t protest. He has a heart of gold and has spent his whole life dedicated to his family . . . and has done precious little that HE wants to do. But, I reminded him, this is YOUR trip, not mine. I still could not easily set foot in a small plane. . . especially one even smaller than those terrible shuttles. But husbands have a way, and pretty soon it was sort of nice to visit the grandchildren in half the time it takes by car.

My birthday present last year was 3 hours of flying lessons, not the den flooring I had had my heart set on. After 6 months, when I STILL had not set a time to take my first lesson, my husband made an appointment with his instructor and told me what time to arrive at the airport. Reluctantly, I drove to the field. I told the instructor I just wanted to learn to fly and land in case of emergency – – that’s all. And I’m sure he became abundantly clear on how I felt when, after 4 months and 40 hours of training time, including 150 attempts at landing, I was still gripping the throttle with white knuckles and holding my breath throughout the whole landing attempt until touchdown (or “bumpdown”). He noted that one cannot concentrate on landing properly when one is not breathing.

The deciding factor was the day my husband bought a plane of his own. I knew I had to grit my teeth and learn. I was not going to pay that price for something I was afraid to drive. I knuckled down and passed the written test. I worked hard to manually attack my fears. And, as this flight was proving, I was winning my game with fear. And what’s more, today, I was really enjoying flying!

I landed at my first airport, taxied in and took off for the second stop. The skies were still balmy, but the winds were up to 9 knots, and the clouds were getting more numerous and lower. But not to worry-I had checked the weather station-it would be fine. I leveled out at 3,500 feet. Things were relatively smooth, and I breathed a sigh of relief that I had landed, taxied, and departed the first leg. I was confident about the direction I was heading, and decided to enjoy the scenery. I was proud that the VHF Omnidirectional Range (VOR) indicator and the Automated Directional Finder (ADF) receiver agreed and indicated that I was headed the right direction. The ADF receiver pointed to the expected Nondirectional Beacon (NDB) indicating that I was 1/3 of the way to the 2nd airport. I was busy thinking about the second airport and rehearsing in my mind what I would have to say and how I would approach the landing strip. But then the radio cracked on. My instructor came over the air. “How is the weather?” he asked. I told him that the winds were at 9 knots, the clouds had dropped some and still hazy, but everything was going OK. Then, in a very smooth tone, he told me to make a turn to the southeast and head home. Then, in a tone I was not used to from him, he had me turn to another station where we could talk without interfering the other pilots in the area. The winds were up to 18 knots at home base, and he wanted to be able to “talk me through” any trouble I might run into.

Suddenly, twenty-seven miles from home, I began to “rock and roll.” I fought to control the plane and keep it level. Very plainly in my mind, I remembered a ground school class that the instructor had taught. He had said to let the plane shift with the wind but keep the attitude level. I kept the rudders working and watched the attitude indicator to make sure I was close to level. I reported to my instructor every few miles. I was not scared at this point, I trusted my instructor and knew if I had a problem he would tell me what to do; but I did have a lot of thoughts going through my mind. What was I doing here? I had always canceled lessons if the wind was at 5 knots. Here I was, bouncing in the air and suddenly realized that when I got back to the airport that I was going to have to land the plane in a crosswind of 18 knots.

With the airport in site, I lined up on downwind and started in. When I turned on the final approach, the wind lifted me abruptly and I could not make the plane descend low enough to land. My instructor told me to go around-give it backpressure and throttle in. I followed the instruction, went around again except that I went farther out on downwind before turning on base. My instructor told me to turn the aileron all the way to the left and hold the right rudder firmly. Then as I came down again, to ease up on the aileron and continue to hold the right rudder. After three or four hop, skip, and jumps on the runway, the plane settled on all three wheels and I taxied to the terminal area. When I got out of the plane, I was weak kneed but thankful to be on the ground. My instructor and I sat down for a few minutes to discuss the landing. I asked if he had time for a crosswind lesson-what better time to overcome my fear of the winds! For the next hour we taxied, took off and landed. I went home very tired but I knew that now I had earned the title that the kids had given me-the flying granny.

I just passed my final check ride with flying colors and a new sense of confidence.

Sue Winsett