Weather: Scattered to broken clouds, 79 degrees, wind 220 degrees at 6 knots
Many pilots say their first solo cross-country is the fondest memory they have from their flight training. Others say it is simply their first solo flight. There's just something about leaving familiar ground, flying off into the wild blue yonder, navigating to an airport far (50+ miles) away, and returning safely home that yields a tremendous sense of accomplishment. Well, I certainly do feel like I accomplished something after my first go at it. But I can't deny that the grin was much bigger after I made those first three solo takeoffs and landings in the Champ on August 3rd.
Sentimentality aside, today turned out to be an excellent day for my first solo cross-country. Why? A cold front was moving in, forcing me to make important calculations and decisions based on the weather. I flew straight into the setting sun on the way home, providing a great opportunity to take advantage of flight following over the radio. I had to file a flight plan over the radio - more on that later. And then there's that whole flying 53 nautical miles away from home base and returning safely thing!
Video from today's flight to Circleville and back
I flew to Circleville, the same airport Dave and I visited on my first dual cross-country. With me managing enough other firsts in the cockpit solo, I decided it was in my favor to fly a familiar route - even if it was only one flight three weeks ago. Having been there before, I dusted off the old flight plan and recalculated the correction angle and groundspeed based on today's winds aloft.
Flight Service indicated during my weather briefing that visibility would be greater than 6 miles and the ceiling was forecast to be around 6,000 agl over my route, leaving me plenty of room. Thunderstorms and showers were not expected until after 8pm and I would be on the ground before 7. My personal minimums right now are probably around 5-10 miles visibility and 3,000' ceilings so I felt comfortable with the weather. Plus, I knew I could call Flight Watch (122.0) on the radio for updated weather information in flight if I had any concerns.
Well have a look at that - I flew somewhere today!
After topping off the fuel tanks, setting the frequencies in the radios, running through all the checklists, and starting the engine, I departed Runway 26. Leaving the pattern, I switched from the CTAF (Common Traffic Advisory Frequency - pilots at airports without control towers use it to tell each other where they are) to the frequency for the local Flight Service Station. I made a call for them to open my VFR Flight Plan, which I had filed online at DUAT.com earlier in the afternoon. The briefer who answered took my N-Number (60338) and said he had the flight plan on file. Then he mentioned something about thunderstorms North of the airport and advised against the flight - but this didn't sound right as I had just checked the radar and there was nothing in Central Ohio. I listened closely and realized he was looking at my flight plan from last week to Winchester, IN (I22) instead of today's.
I stated this over the radio and the briefer replied that this was the only plan on file. Somehow, the one I filed this afternoon (and I printed a confirmation receipt for) never got into the system. Not the end of the world, although it was a little peculiar as the flight plan he found (to I22) was one that I also filed online via DUAT. Anyway, with the situation cleared up for both me and the briefer I was able to provide the necessary information (route, altitude, time enroute, airspeed, etc.) and file/activate the plan over the radio. I consider that a good lesson and good practice all in one!
Proof that I did indeed land at Pickaway County Memorial Airport
Another photo of the airport in Circleville
Enroute to Circleville, I made my next call to Dayton Approach to request flight following. As I learned and discussed in Lesson 24, it's great to have another set of eyes watching out for you up there. Reaching the top of my climb at 3,500 feet, I realized that I had not leaned (reducing the amount of fuel going into the engine since the air density decreases with altitude) the engine. Dave told me he doesn't lean until the top of climb but I prefer to keep an eye on it while ascending. Of course, when you're only going up to 3,500 feet in the Midwest you barely have any leaning to do. But I digress.
My planning was right on track, passing by Clinton County Airport and over Washington Court House on top of the line on my Sectional chart. I was following the course via my VOR receiver as a backup, as Circleville has a VOR station right on the field. Using my stopwatch, I noted that my groundspeed was just about as planned as I crossed over my checkpoints enroute. Dayton Approach had me contact Columbus Approach as I got closer to Circleville and they canceled flight following when I had the airport in sight. I descended to pattern altitude (1,500) and entered the pattern over the Runway 1 numbers and landed on Runway 19. I got a tad low and it wasn't my smoothest landing ever, but I was safely in Circleville!
You can't see much when you fly into the sun on a hazy day
A Cessna Skylane passing about 500 feet above and 1 mile ahead of me
I took a couple photos (as you saw above) and quickly departed back towards Dayton. No reason to waste time on the ground when I knew weather was approaching, although I certainly left myself more than enough time to return home safely. I realized that I had forgotten to set the mixture to full rich (the opposite of leaning) on descent on the way into Circleville. From the relatively low altitude I was at it's not going to cause any serious consequences but it's something I have to remember in the future.
Heading into the sun - and with the associated visibility issues - I really appreciated flight following on the way home. Columbus Approach had me descend from 4,500 to 4,000 because there was a Cessna Skylane also at 4,500 and our paths were close to crossing. I snapped a photo of him that's posted above. Then, closer to home, Dayton Approach alerted me to a Piper about 1,000 feet above me and a few miles ahead. Thanks to ATC I was able to easily spot both aircraft and reported "traffic in sight" over the radio. Again, I really encourage all pilots to take advantage of flight following on all flights - it may just save your bacon some day.
Sun peeking through layers of clouds while flying back to 40I
More sunlight filtering through the clouds and into my eyes
The rest of the flight was uneventful and I contacted Dayton Approach to cancel flight following when I was over Caesar Creek Lake since I had the field in sight. I altered my course slightly to the right so I could enter the pattern by crossing over the approach end of Runway 8. My approach was pretty stable but I got a little low again on final and had to add some power. Seems that I am still not completely used to the descent rate of the 150, but I know it will come with some more solo time in the bird.
Some darker clouds rolling in as I approached Waynesville
You would think that the issues I had activating the flight plan were enough for one day, but you would be wrong. After landing and shutting down, I called Flight Service from my phone to close my flight plan. If you don't close your plan and about a half hour elapses, they start calling the phone number(s) you provided. And if nobody can be reached, it's not long before a search party is sent out to find you and your aircraft. Not a good use of our tax dollars when you're safely sitting on your couch at home.
But back to tonight, I did indeed call and the briefer confirmed I was back at 40I and closed the flight plan - or so I thought. Driving home about a half hour later, I see Flight Service pop up on my Caller ID. Apparently the plan was never closed and they (coincidentally, the briefer on the phone was the same guy I spoke to over the radio earlier) wanted to know where I was. A quick explanation that I had indeed called to close it and he officially closed my flight plan this time, saying that he wasn't really sure what happened.
Trusty old 60338, tied down back home in Waynesville
So I know I've written a lot but there turned out to be many good lessons and observations during my first solo cross-country. Maybe they'll help another student pilot along the way or remind other pilots what they went through long ago. I really enjoyed every aspect of tonight's flight, from planning and preparing to flying as the sun shined brightly through the clouds. Check off one more major milestone on my quest towards my certificate!
Flight Track: Google Earth KMZ File
Today's Flight: 1.7 hours
Solo/PIC Time: 10.5 hours
Total Time: 41.0 hours