Saturday, December 09, 2006

First Solo Cross-Country!

I spent a lot of time flying today, a total of 3.7 hours. The first 1.6 were spent on a flight in the newer Skyhawk owned by a club I recently joined. I've been flying Skyhawks all along, of course, but because it's newer, it has some differences, and I wanted my first flight to be with an instructor from the club. He also treated the flight as a mini-checkride, and had me plan a cross-country flight to Potomac Airfield. When we were halfway to Potomac, though, he had me do some maneuvers, slow flight, steep turns, a stall, etc., and then "divert" to Frederick, where we did three touch n' gos before heading back to Gaithersburg. He said I'll have no trouble passing my checkride, though he said I have a tendency to flare a bit high when landing.

My second flight was the BIG one, my first cross-country trip by myself. I planned the flight to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and met with Rich on Thursday night to go over my flight plan. The weather was beautiful today, as clear as I've seen it (for this region) in a really long time. It was cold, though, and while the wind on the ground in Gaithersburg was light, the winds aloft were forecast at 21 knots, or nearly 25 mph.

I took off and headed for my first visual checkpoint, a "tank farm," a grouping of big white oil tanks that can be seen for miles from the air. Before I even got to my first checkpoint I was being bounced around a bit in the plane. The flight continued, and the turbulence got a bit worse. When I was about halfway, some turbulence tipped the plane over on its right wing. I think that makes it qualify as "moderate" turbulence by formal definitions. It was worse than anything I've experienced since I started training, but it wasn't terrible and I wasn't scared. I just reduced my airspeed to below Va, or "maneuvering speed," and continued on.

Before long, I crossed the Susquehanna (sp?) River and could see the Lancaster airport about 8 miles away. I listened on the radio for the winds, and they were "250 at 13." The tower cleared me to land on Runway 31, and I set up for the landing. I knew there was a cross-wind from the left, and compensated for it as I approached the runway. This involves "slipping" the plane, banking the plane to the left, into the wind, and using the right rudder to keep it lined up with the runway. The wind was a bit gusty, and at one point (for just a moment) I had the right rudder in all the way and still couldn't keep the plane straight. The landing was a bit bumpy, certainly not my best, but not all that bad considering everything. It was kind of like ALL my landings were when I was first learning.

I stopped at the pilot shop and chatted with the owner, who signed my logbook to prove that I was there, then I called Rich to let him know I had arrived safely. I told him about the turbulence and cross-wind landing, and he asked if I had been nervous. I was surprised, when I thought about it, that I hadn't been nervous at all. That's either bad stupidity (not smart enough to know when to be afraid) or good confidence, I don't know which. I knew what to do, and I never felt unsafe, so I think it's probably just confidence in myself and the airplane, rather than stupidity, but.... Well, who am I to judge?

When I left Lancaster, I demanded Runway 26, which was almost directly into the wind. The controller tried to make me go on 31, but I told him the cross-wind exceeded my limitations and he had me taxi for the other runway. With the wind nearly right down the runway, I was off the ground in about 600 feet, and I headed home.

The flight home was beautiful. I was at a lower altitude, and the turbulence was lighter. As the sun sank lower in the sky, the turbulence went away altogether, and when I arrived back at Gaithersburg there was just a 3 knot wind, albeit straight across the runway. I made a nice landing, and taxied in.

Overall, the trip went really well. Nothing made me nervous, and I did everything right, except.... In retrospect, I should have asked the controller in Lancaster to bring me in on Runway 26. For some reason, I never even thought about asking, I just factored the cross-wind into my approach to Runway 31. Maybe that's because I fly out of an airport with only one runway. Whatever, next time I'm going to be sure to ask for the runway I want based on the winds.

Next cross-country -- maybe to Potomac airpark, the trip I planned for this morning but didn't complete. I'll talk to Rich and see.

My GPS track is below. I wish I had pictures, because it was a beautiful, clear day, but when I took out my camera in the plane, the battery was dead.

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