First solo cross country

First Solo Cross Country - I almost let it get me - but I was on schedule!

I was a great student pilot.  The words natural, seat of the pants, instinctual, were all used by my instructor(s).  I certainly did feel at home behind the controls.  I could make the plane do exactly as I anticipated and wanted.  It was all working well and the instructors told me “I had what it takes”.

Text Box:  I was progressing rapidly and all the instructors were telling me how good or great a student I was.  The last dual cross-country I did with my instructor he was mightily impressed with my flight planning.  He was amazed at the end of our flight that my flight plan and our actual time were within a single minute.  He remarked it was the first time he had ever seen anyone – not just a student pilot – fly that precisely.  I, of course, took that as a supreme compliment on my piloting abilities and thought I should always fly that “precisely”.  Student pilots and even seasoned ones like to have people notice how “good” or professional a pilot they are.  Student pilots don’t have the basis yet to truly know what the different between what might be called good and what is truly important.  I was about to learn one of those lessons we all hate.  Fortunately what was going down the path of a disaster was averted.  I look at this today and cannot believe I have ever had tunnel vision and tunnel thought to this extent.

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The route of flight was from Fort Lauderdale Executive (FXE) to Indiantown (X58) to Witham Field (SUA) and back to FXE.
I was now ready to make my long solo cross-country.  I had to fly over 100 miles and land at two airports I had not previously landed at.  I was flying out of Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport (FXE) and knew I would be headed north.  South Florida in the summer time has rain, I new this from working in construction.  You could count on a summer shower somewhere nearby every afternoon.  They usually would give a pretty good shower and then move on or dissipate.  I prided myself at knowing the weather and the winds aloft.  You had to figure the winds, if you wanted to make your flight plan and your actual flight match.  I did all the long calculations from the winds aloft forecasts to get the ground speed on each leg.  I used a handheld, mechanical (round with turning circular overlays for those digital readers) E6B calculator to figure each leg of the flight.

 How accurate can a flight plan really be?  Well I knew from my last dual cross county that is was possible to fly for several hours with stops and land back at your starting field within 60 seconds of the predicted time.  If this sounds unlikely to you let me assure you it is true.  And while it may be remarkable that I did that several times, the real question I should have asked then is how important is it.

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Today they are all digital.  Then you had to understand how it worked. I like the digital.

It is time to go fly my long cross-country and I am ready.  I have read, and understand, all the weather.  In those days it was a long print out that the pilot had to interpret.  I didn’t rely on the weather briefer to interpret the winds aloft, because it was critical that I get the right numbers to get the calculations so my flight plan will be right.  I was good.  I completed my flight planning knowing each leg was calculated correctly and I had allowed the right time and speed to climb the Cessna 150 to cruising Altitude.

First stop was just east of Lake Okeechobee at Indiantown airport.  It was a huge grass runway that they landed old military bombers on.  They had been converted to crop spraying but they still made me think of all the war movies I had seen.  My flight plan allowed the time to land, taxi, park, find someone to sign my logbook and spend a few minutes looking at the planes.

As expected, everything was on time.  With the time I had allotted to look at the planes I was extremely lucky and I got to climb into the cockpit and play bomber pilot.

I took off and was on my way to Whitham field in Stuart Florida.

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Indiantown is still a grass strip, but now the community has grown up around the airport.  Then it was in the middle of just fields.

The weather was great.  A beautiful day with white puffy clouds just beginning to get a little larger.  Cruising in a Cessna 150 always gave you the time to look at what was happening around you.  In the 150 you and any weather happened together.  You couldn’t really be surprised by weather showing up because you flew so fast into it.

I called Witham field for a traffic advisory and field conditions while still 25 miles out.  I tried calling at Indiantown, but there was no one on the frequency.  I got a very prompt response with all the information I needed.  I had more than enough time to figure out how I wanted to approach the field and which way I would land.  I flew precise rectangular patterns and looked out for other pilots that may not have been as good as I was.

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Witham Field is just on the west side of the Intracoastal waterway.
Witham field came into sight and I setup to enter the downwind.  There was a rain cloud that was trying to occupy the same space that I wanted.  I did want my pattern to be correct.  Well I cut the pattern a little closer to the field than I wanted so I could keep my distance from the rain shower.  Now this was not a thunderstorm, but there was rain dropping from the cloud.  I had heard pilots say that if you can see through the rain coming out of the bottom of the cloud, then it is ok to fly through it.  I glanced at the time and saw that once again I was going to be no more than a minute off from my flight plan.  I was good.  Downwind was done and as I turn based it looked even better.  I was now in the position I wanted to be even though I had to adjust my downwind leg.  As I turned final I was not looking at the field.  The rain had moved over the runway.  Now I was in the clear and there was no turbulence, and every direction but the one toward the runway was clear.  And still I kept flying toward the runway.  If I could see through the rain it was ok to fly through.  I had little instrument training at this time.  And I kept flying toward the runway getting lower and lower.  The approach profile was perfect except I couldn’t see the runway and I was still getting lower.  Why I flew into that rain shower – I can only guess I wanted to make my flight plan work one more time to prove to the instructors how good a pilot I truly was.

How long will someone go down the wrong path once they have started.  I may have gone too far that day.  God Bless the person working the Unicom frequency that day.  I don’t remember the exact words but they hit me like this.  Student pilot on final what the hell are you doing, there is huge storm directly over the field!  Turn right now, climb and get into the clear.

Without hesitation I turned right, added power and was in the clear within 45 seconds.  It was a beautiful day.  I was shaken.  I came around flew another pattern and landed, all in the clear.  The storm had passed on by.  Once on the ground there was water everywhere! It had rained several inched in the 10 minutes the storm was overhead.

I taxied into the FBO to get my log signed and get some gas.  I didn’t think I was going to need any more gas to get back to FXE, but I had it on my flight plan.  I got the gas and I got my logbook signed.

The instructor that signed my book told me to enjoy the day it was a beautiful one for flying.  He asked if he could help me look at weather or any thing else to help me complete the flight.  I declined.  As I was leaving I heard them talking about that student pilot on final when they could not see 100 feet out the windows at the FBO.  They hoped he was all right.  One of them said and all he had to do was wait two minutes and the storm would have been gone.

Flying a flight plan to within one minute may impress some people into thinking that makes a good pilot.  I now know the difference between what may look good and what is IMPORTANT.  Waiting 2 minutes just a few miles from the airport I could have watched the storm pass over the field and then landed in the clear.