**Author’s Note: This was written in May, 2016. A shorter version can be found in the 2016 September issue of AOPA Flight Training magazine.
The long solo cross-country. A huge day in a student pilot’s life. This is the day when you travel over 150 miles. In a plane. By yourself. Strangely enough, I was more excited than nervous. I had a four state tour meticulously planned out. I accounted for every detail. I even flew the path a few times on Google Earth. My destinations: Bedford, MA (starting point), Nashua, NH, Groton, CT, and North Central State, RI. Grand total of 190 nautical miles. The weather was forecast to be absolutely divine – clear skies, excellent visibility, calm winds. What could possibly go wrong?
Oh, Murphy. How I hate your Law.
Rearing to go, I climbed into my lovely little plane that I had successfully flown only two nights earlier. I smiled, noting that I wasn’t even remotely nervous. For a pessimist like me, that’s a remarkable thing. I taxied down to the runway, got my clearance for takeoff and away I went – off into the great blue yonder.
The adventure began!!!
Or so I thought.
My radio was a little staticky, but, whatever. I waited for ATC to give me clearance to depart north, but I heard nothing but silence. I finally took the initiative and called in. No response. I called again. Still no response. I cranked up the volume on the radio and my headset, checked to make sure my headset was still connected and tried one more time. Static. Just static. Taking a stab in the dark, I tried the ground frequency to see if they could hear me, but I still got no response. At this point, I realized I had lost communications. I looked for conflicting traffic, made a call into the tower hoping they could hear me and headed back. As I got closer to the ground, I started to regain contact with ATC and by the time I landed, they were coming in crystal clear.
Safely back on the ground, the school shook their head in confusion, sent out a mechanic and gave me a new plane. The new plane was actually the one I did my first solo in six months prior. I called in for a fuel top off and started my preflight inspection of the aircraft. All was well. Only thing left was to untie her and take off.
The wings of the airplane are tied down with rope, while the tail is chained to the ground with a lock. I put the key into the lock, turned and pulled. Nothing. It was jammed. I started pulling and yanking, but the cursed thing wouldn’t give. I hate to admit it, but I started to feel like… a girl! I saw a guy climbing out of a nearby plane – a big, burly man who looked strong and save-the-dayish. I sheepishly asked him if he could help me with the lock before I, like, break a nail or something. To the relief of my pride, he had the same struggle and was only able to get the thing off by breaking it entirely. Awesome.
At this point, I’m thinking, “Maybe this is all a sign I shouldn’t do this.” But I remembered the enthusiasm I had earlier that morning and all the work I put into the planning. I looked up at the clear, blue skies and thought back to the perfect weather forecast the briefer gave me, knowing that these days are rare up in New England. Signs be damned, I was going up.
Thankfully, I made it to my first destination with ease. I’ve landed at this airport a few times before and every time I managed to annoy its cranky ATCer. My communications, approach, landing and taxiing all must have met precisely to his approval, as, for the first time ever, I received no attitude. (The next guy who landed did not share my luck…). I took a quick, harmless picture to note my accomplishment, texted it to my probably-not-all-that-amused instructor and went into the airport diner for coffee and a muffin. I like to eat at my destinations.
Nashua, NH (aka Norway!)
The next leg of my journey was to be the hardest, or so I thought. It was 90 nautical miles and involved circumventing some restricted military airspace. While this leg of the trip was long (almost a solid hour), it was mostly uneventful. I had some clouds come down on me around Worcester, MA, but I was able to drop 500 feet to remain VFR. It started to get a little bumpy the closer I got to the coast, but I figured it was just some winds off the water and I’m pretty used to bumpy conditions. No big deal.
Things got a little stressful as I was on final approach to Groton. ATC tried to squeeze another aircraft in front of me for a landing, asking them if they could make a short approach. Normally, something like this would be fine. But in this case, the other pilot didn’t see me and I didn’t see him. Initially he agreed – no one likes to question or deny ATC, but as he was turning base he apparently saw my proximity and didn’t feel the approach could be safely made. He called in and told the tower he was unable and requested I land first. I never did see him.
Safely back on the ground, I took yet another harmless picture to mark my accomplishment, sent it along to my wondering-what-the-heck-is-wrong-with-me instructor and made my way into the airport diner. There, I chatted with a couple old pilots who were really confused to see a young lady climb out of an airplane – BY HERSELF! – and enjoyed a water and grilled cheese sandwich.
Groton, CT (aka Hawaii!)
I made a lovely takeoff from Groton, departing over water – which was both really cool and really surreal. I had never done that before. There’s a noise ordinance around that airport, so I couldn’t turn north to my next destination until I climbed at least 1,000 feet. Gave me plenty of time to wonder what it would be like to crash to my death into the Long Island Sound. Finally, I made my climb, turned north and asked the tower for permission to switch to the Providence Approach frequency for flight following.
“Groton Tower, Warrior 116-November-Delta, Permission for early frequency change to Providence Approach 123.675.”
I read all of my frequencies back just in case I happened to get one wrong…
“6–November-Delta… where the heck did you get that frequency from?”
…such as I did this time.
“Google. (joking) You got a better one for me? 6-November-Delta.”
“6–November-Delta, Early frequency change approved. Contact Providence at 119.45. Have a good flight.”
One thing that kept me calm during my flight from New Hampshire down to southern Connecticut was that at any time I could look out of the plane and find a decent landing spot on the ground. There’s comfort in knowing that you have a place to put the plane down in the event of an emergency. Unfortunately, this next leg of my trip included no such spots. Just trees. Power lines and trees.
Even more unfortunate was what started happening in the sky. I’ve experience light turbulence and some crazy winds on almost all of my recent flights, but this was a different beast entirely. I was getting slammed around. Twice, the winds shifted so strong that it whipped my plane around and I actually felt like I was being yanked from the sky. I dropped my speed, counter-corrected and held on.
As mildly terrifying as this all was, what I was hearing on ATC wasn’t much better. Another plane had been in distress and Providence lost contact. Any time an aircraft got in the vicinity of where he lost contact, they would ask them if they saw any smoke or signs of an incident. Thankfully every pilot, each sounding understandably concerned, gave the same answer – “Negative.” You could hear the increasing relief in the ATCer’s voice as each response came in. It was an ominous thing to listen to as a student pilot being tossed around like a rag doll thousands of feet up in the sky.
Finally, I had my next destination in sight. I called into Providence and asked for permission to switch to North Central’s traffic frequency. This was the only non-towered airport on my journey. Supposedly, non-towered airports are easier to navigate on the radio, but I’m used to a really busy Class D under Boston airspace, so I was a fish out of water. Obviously curious about weather conditions at this point, I tried to tune into the AWOS frequency, but, given my luck for the day, it was out of service. I monitored the frequency of my destination for a minute to figure out which runway people were using, but was met with silence. So, before going windsock hunting, I shot back over to Providence to see if they could advise.
“6–November-Delta, Negative. If it helps, I know another aircraft just landed on 33.”
“Thanks. Switching back to CTAF. 6-November-Delta.”
Still being violently tossed around, I started making my calls. No one was responding and I saw no one else around, so I assumed there was no other traffic. But as I was on final, I started to see what looked like a dark blob on the runway. The closer I got, the bigger the blob appeared. It wasn’t moving, weird. Finally, it dawns on me… helicopter!
The good news is that I saw him and was able to execute a quick go-around, the bad news is that he didn’t see me and lifted off just as I was overhead. By some miracle, we dodged each other and I circled back around for a landing.
The mistake was on me. Apparently, I had keyed in the wrong frequency… one number off.
I landed. In shame. Took yet another harmless picture for my likely-rolling-his-eyes-by-now instructor, fueled up and went into the sadly restrauntless airport office for a much needed breather.
North Central State, RI (aka… Mexico!)
Ok, so I’ll admit it – I was shaken by the last leg of my flight. I thought if I just went inside for a while and cooled my heels, I would be good to go for the last part of my journey. Only problem was that everyone inside was huddled around a TV blasting footage of the EgyptAir incident. Not helpful. I lasted five minutes.
Tired, shaken and ready to be home, I did my preflight, climbed into my plane and prepped for the ride back. “You can handle this. You’re a great pilot. Get yourself together.” I told this to myself again and again. I started up the plane, but noticed something on my checklist wasn’t producing the result it should have been. The fuel pressure needle, which normally moves when I turn the fuel pump on, stood idle. I shut her down and tried again. Still nothing. So I called the school and spoke to one of the mechanics. He gave me a lot of jargon that meant absolutely nothing to me.
Me: “Are you absolutely sure that this paranoid student pilot isn’t going to die because of this problem?”
Mechanic: “Yes. Now fire it up and bring it home.”
Honestly, I think I was just looking for a reason to justify delaying the last leg of my flight. I hung up, closed my eyes and collected myself. My instructor has the magical ability to chill me out, so I decided to give him a quick call. No answer. He probably had his phone on silent to drown out all my texts. I was on my own.
“You can handle this. You’re a great pilot. Get yourself together.”
Finally, I was solid again. I COULD handle this. I WAS a great pilot. I tuned into the correct frequency this time and began my journey home.
I wish I could say conditions had improved, but they were so much worse. I spent the entirety of the flight forcing the plane to stay straight and level, and struggling to maintain my heading. I kept getting blown east – not a good thing with the Class B airspace right there. Unfortunately, Boston was too busy to put me on flight following, so I was on my own. Traffic was heavy and turbulence was strong. At one point, I swear my plane almost inverted on me. I kept it slow and beelined as best I could back to Bedford. The second I was back in range, I called into the tower – my wonderful, trusty ol’ tower! – and asked for assistance navigating the traffic.
Anything for you, I thought.
“6–November-Delta, Southbound traffic 10:00, two miles out at 2,700 feet. Additional southwest-bound traffic, 1:00, three miles out at 2,500 feet.”
I was at 2,700 feet. Going north. Super.
Little did I know that back down on the ground, a dozen or so of my coworkers were standing out in a parking lot staring up at the sky waiting to spot me go by. They had been following my journey.
While they were all down there smiling and cheering me on, I was up there holding on like my life depended on it – skirting traffic, fighting turbulence and wondering if Heaven had good whiskey.
Finally, I heard those sweet, sweet words from the tower.
“6–November-Delta. 4 miles left base for 29er. Cleared to land.”
It was the same guy from earlier in the morning when I lost my radio. There was other traffic that probably could have/should have gone first, but I think I got a sympathy clearance. It wasn’t my most graceful landing, but, God, it was my favorite.
“6–November-Delta. Turn left on Golf. Contact ground 121.7. Have a good day.”
“Thank you. I think I will now. 6-November-Delta.”
I hate to admit this, but there was a moment or two during the flight that really made me – for the first time ever – doubt my desire to be a pilot. I learned later that an advisory had been put out regarding “extreme temperature” difference of 9⁰C between 3,000 and 6,000 ft that was causing shear and turbulence. They were advising pilots use extra caution. That advisory hadn’t been put out when I called the briefer that morning, so I hadn’t gotten the memo. In hindsight, I should have used my time during all my diner stops to get updates on weather. But I was an over-enthusiastic student pilot, eager to make and complete her journey, and just kept plowing ahead.
I made it to my final destination. Took one last harmless picture for my likely-annoyed-but-equally- relieved-I-made-it CFI, downed the shizznit out of some beer and called it a day.
The Bar (aka… the bar)
Despite my fears and all that I faced, I remained strong and in control. I handled each situation as it came up as methodically and appropriately as I knew how. Yes, there were lots of things I should have done differently, but, at the end of the day, I completed my journey, learned from my mistakes and made it back in one piece. I may not be official until after I pass the FAA’s test, but, in my eyes, I passed an even more important test – my own. I became a pilot.
***I looked back and no aircraft incidents had been noted in Rhode Island that day, so hopefully the plane they were looking for – and the pilot inside of it – made it safely to the ground. And hopefully his or her beer tasted just as good as mine. If not, better.