Here’s a very old post to a message board where I described my first flight going cross-country in an airplane by myself. You’ll have to forgive the airplane jargon, it was originally written for other pilots.
I’m at a loss for words. There is no way that I can describe the what a fantastic day yesterday was and not because of the Solo XC… that’s sorta become secondary in my thoughts of yesterday.
The day started at about 4:30. I had scheduled a plane from 8-12 in the hopes that I could get a cross country in. I had planned a short XC (51 miles) earlier and had been planning a longer one for yesterday. I was a little behind at work on Thursday so Friday morning I logged in to finish that off. One thing led to another and I simply didn’t have time to plan the trip before my 8am reservation so I whipped out the older plan and updated it with the weather just to get up in the air. When I walked out to the truck and dew swamped everything so heavily that you could get soaked just leaning up against something. The temp was a crisp 5C and everything was perfectly still. A huge orange sun was just rising and turned the dew on everything to gold. Truly fantastic. As soon as I walked out the door I completely forgot about the fact that I should have been at work and didn’t think about it again until 5 hours later… Nice.
My instructor was about 10 minutes late so I called FSS while I was waiting for her and got a Standard VFR Brief. The briefer was nice and went through the motions but eventually said, “everything is clear, everything is going to stay clear for 500 miles in every direction, the wind will be 5-10 knots out of the east later but for right now it’s screaming out of the east at a blistering 3 knots. About the only thing I can tell you about is unlighted towers at your destination if you want those.” I declined the tower information and thanked him for his time. About then my instructor arrived and quickly went over my plan. She set up my endorsements and signed me out of the flight school.
I had 4 hours to do 62 minutes of flying so I wasn’t in any kind of a rush. I spent an extra 15 minutes doing preflight and setting things up in the cockpit. There wasn’t really anywhere that I had to be so it was nice to just spend time outside at the airport with an airplane under my care. After a while, things sort of came together to the point that I couldn’t find anymore buttons to play with so I taxied over and called on the unicom for fuel. While the lineguy refueled for me I wandered over and had a smoke with a few non-pilots in the observation area. It was pretty cool to just nod nonchalantly when they asked if I would be flying that plane at the fuel dock and then add that I was just going to hop over to Peru for a little sight seeing. There were a couple of kids there who seemed really interested in the whole thing and asked me a bunch of questions about the airplane. After that grilling (the checkride will be nothing compared to those kids and their questions) I wandered back over, thanked the line guy, checked the fuel caps and climbed back in. As I was taxiing out I gave the folks in the observation area a little wave which the kids really seemed to love. I grinned at the thought of the kids telling people how the airplane pilot had waved at them before he took off.
By this time the early fliers had already departed and there really wasn’t anyone on the ramp but me and the line guy. The dew was starting to burn off of the pavement and little wisps of steam were rising all around me and being lit up by the early morning sun. It was almost surreal to be out there on the taxiway by myself. I spent a few extra minutes doing my runup and pre-takeoff checks because I could and then called departing and eased onto the runway. In the cold, smooth air the airplane fairly jumped off of the runway and I flew a little lower and faster than I normally would just because it was great to be flying. When I got even with the observation area I looked over and saw the kids waving like crazy again so I wagged my wings for them and pitched for VX to climb out into the sun. Way, way cool.
The air was crystal clear as I climbed up to 2500 and turned back around to the west to get out from under the ORD Bravo. After I cleared the bravo I pushed it up to 4500 and realized that I could see forever. A little checking and I saw that not only could I see my next checkpoint, I could see the one after that too! So, like a good little pilot I punched in the numbers, kept track of my waypoints and pretty much just did nothing for the whole trip because navigation certainly wasn’t an issue. As you approach Peru from the east you have to fly over the larger part of the city. The early morning sun on the parking lots and quarries in the area was throwing up turbulence that reminded me of flak bombs in the movies. You fly along smooth as can be for about 4 seconds then hit a big bump and repeat that for a while. After I cleared the city and got back out over the corn field things calmed down a lot and I made a sweet landing on 18 at Peru (KVYS).
I took a few minutes to dig around in my bag looking for the camera that I didn’t have and then went inside to use the facilities and grab a coke. I realized that when doing XC trips I need two additional things in my flight bag. First is, of course, the camera that I didn’t bring and the second is cash. I had absolutely no money and no way to even buy a soda from a Coke machine much less anything else that I might need in places that don’t have credit card machines. Lesson learned. I spent a few more minutes outside the Peru airport while I called my wife for a quick chat and then headed back to the plane.
I had agreed with my instructor that for the flight back I would ditch the flight plan and use Pilotage along the river to get home. The river runs from just south of Peru almost all the way home and I’ve wanted to fly it ever since I started flying. I kept up with where I was on the chart and generally had a great time identifying bends in the river and cities and towns that I’ve been to along the way. I flew over the lock and dam and watched the flood waters from our recent rains roar over the spillway and then followed a barge and tugboat up the river for a while. I was flying about 1600 AGL and barely noticed when one of the barge hands walked across the deck and waved at me. There’s a section in “Flight of Passage” where Rinker Buck talks about the same thing happening to him with a riverboat on the Mississippi. In the story, he dove at the riverboat and did a low pass over him while waving and wagging his wings. I remembered the first time I had read that passage and how it had brought the idea of flight alive in me. I’ll be honest and say that I thought about dropping down to get a better look at the boat and maybe just accidentally do a low pass while waving and wagging my wings just like ole Rinker did but I didn’t. Those were different days and I think he had a little more time under his belt when he did it. I just wagged my wings at the guy to let him know that I had seen him and continued on my merry way thinking about other things I had read in that book that I wouldn’t be comfortable trying for a while yet.
As I continued on I hit a few bumps a little earlier and climbed up to 1800 AGL which seemed to work (though it was probably just because I had crossed over whatever caused the bumps). On the chart ahead of me I saw a “tall tower” symbol and thought, hmmm that’ll be cool to see, let’s see if I can find it. A few seconds of looking and I found the tower. It was about 4 miles southeast of my flight path and it was higher than I was. I was shocked. I’m flying at 1800 AGL and some guy on the ground had the nerve to build something tall enough for me to hit! I double checked the numbers on the chart and sure enough, it was listed as 1900 feet tall… jesus crimeny. The tower was a few miles away and really no threat to me but I climbed up above it anyway and continued on. I can’t imagine being the guy that has to change the lights on that sucker… that’s a looong climb.
The rest of the flight really went the same way. With me plodding along over the river, waving at river boats and generally enjoying the scenery (and looking for super tall towers that might not be on the chart). As I passed Morris airport and was into our practice area which is pretty much home sweet home for me by now. From there it was an easy ride into the pattern and an absolutely horrible landing at home base. The wind had picked up to a direct 11kt crosswind and I didn’t carry enough extra speed on final so ended up doing a lot of fighting to get the plane down safely.
I parked, cleaned up the airplane and turned in the log book. The kids were gone from the observation area, several planes were at the fuel pumps, one training flight was coming in and several new ones were getting ready to depart. There was a helicopter practicing hovering and a champ doing landings on the grass strip… it was back to being just another day at the Airport but I had been there for the good part and I’ll carry it with me for a long, long time.