First Solo Cross Country Flight!

I did it. I managed to leave the Fairbanks airport, find destination airports, and make it back.

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Solo Cross Country Flight Route: PAFA – PAML – PANN – PAFA [skyvector.com]. Normally takes 1.5 hours in a 152.
My flight block started at 8am – not my favorite time of the day – but I needed to avoid the winds and thermals of the Alaskan afternoon. I’d done true course and altitude planning and weight and balance calculations the day before (and I was flying the same route as my night cross country) so I wasn’t worried about needing a lot of time to do my final wind calculations (I was wrong). The winds aloft for the morning are updated at 6am but I’ve since learned that starting calculations at 7am is too late due to how slow I currently do the math.

Because I was slightly late, another student was allowed to use my plane for a short solo practice run while I got the xc endorsement from CFI7. When I filed my flight plan at 9am, I was speaking to the same briefer who’d given me the FSS tour yesterday, ha! You can tell he spends too much time on the radio & phone because he recognized me from just my undistinctive voice ;). Today I learned that flight plans not activated are automatically deleted from the system after 2 hours.

There was full fuel when the other student started …and she was only in the air for half an hour (burning ~4 gallons, and leaving me way more than enough fuel for my trip)…but I still wanted to top off the tanks before leaving. Delay, delay, delay – part of me was still secretly hoping to find a way out of going because I was so apprehensive. I hadn’t been allowed to do solo work since November because all my flights had been when it was too windy. I really wanted to do a loop out to the practice area first to ensure I’d actually be able to find PAFA from the air…but the other part of me didn’t understand my own apprehension. This year, I’d been doing fine at recognizing airports from a distance. Plus, I had GPS, Fairbanks’ VOR, and once near Fairbanks, I could get radar vectors at any time.

I finally got going at 10am.

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My first “passenger” as PIC. He’ll be guarding the legally required survival gear for this trip. He’s developed a pinhole leak since my first solo flight and I haven’t had to to re-inflate.

TRSA departure on 2R, easy enough to handle. But I was having the same sidetone and volume issues as on a previous flight so I missed when tower told me to contact departure. Ended up flying across the entire city of Fairbanks before I was able to ask to switch to departure and turn on course:

UAF. Hey look, I live in that building down there!
UAF. Hey look, I live in that building down there!

I saw Murphy Dome:

Murphy Dome
Murphy Dome

Hey…that means I’m about 7 miles north of my intended path, grr.

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My first moment to myself in the air. It started getting bumpy so I couldn’t take time for the camera to do a light correction and let me see the outside background.
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Getting back on track – Minto Lakes ahead
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Minto Lakes – woah, these colors!
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Minto Lakes
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Tanana River (near old Minto?) – flying from Fairbanks to Manley
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Tanana River from Fairbanks to Manley
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Interior Alaska

It was somewhere around here that I realized that the GPS was indicating I was about 3 miles off track. No matter which direction I turned though, the distance off track still kept increasing (up to 9 nm off track at one point)….but it was really a lack of patience – of course one direction has to be the  correct one – I just didn’t wait long enough for the distance to start decreasing. I finally realized that on that specific GPS: “- – – -Δ” meant turn left and: “Δ- – – -” meant turn right. Number of dashes increases with distance off track. ‘On course’ was: Δ, it’s what I vividly remembered from the xc the other day. CFI4 was told of my gaff and he did call me that evening to answer any additional questions I may have had. That was sweet of him.

I had a SPOT GPS tracker with me and I later saw this track:

First solo cross country flight - SPOT GPS track updates position ~every 10 minutes.
First solo cross country flight – SPOT GPS track updates position ~every 10 minutes.

Manley (PAML) is point ’12’. Note I was on track until point ‘6’, and then I somehow ended up at point ‘7’. What happened was that I knew I’d have to go through a low point between two hills…and I chose the wrong set of hills. Between points 6 and 7, I remember I had caught a glimpse of houses at point 12 and I realized what had happened (lucky me that there are no other signs of civilization out this way). I went around the hill at 12 and saw the entirety of Manley. I was really high and I knew I needed to do a low approach anyways to pick my landing runway (no weather information has been available at Manley since the weather observer there passed away). I flew south of the Tanana and back north parallel to runway 36. Winds almost straight out of the north, hurray. 36 has left traffic (woo, one less decision I had to make)….but it did make things a bit too exciting for me since there is a large hill to the left of 36:

The entire community of Manley Hot Springs. Runway 36 and hill to the left.
The entire community of Manley. Runway 36 and hill to the left.

I ended up doing a go around on my first approach because I felt I was too high (no glide slope indicator at PAML to assist). The second attempt was fine though; it was one of the softer landings I had ever done although my flare angle wasn’t as high as it should have been for an extreme soft field landing (look at all that gravel in the next picture!). Someone else had put a huge ding in this very same propeller just the other day on this very runway – glad I did not.

Taxiing to the end of runway 36. Turnaround point in front and taxiway to the left.
Taxiing to the end of runway 36 at PAML. Turn-around point in front and taxiway to the left.

There are large turn-around points at both ends of the runway and I was originally going to just turn around and take off again, but I found that the mud was super soft at those turn-arounds. Running the power up higher overcame the sponginess but I was a little concerned for a moment that I was truly stuck. I discovered later that up until recently, PAML had a NOTAM to be cautious of using the turnarounds for that exact reason – they probably should have kept the NOTAM around in my opinion.

I decided after that situation, I wanted a break. Turned onto the taxiway and then noticed it was sloped downwards. Another minor moment of panic as I wondered if the plane would be able to make it back up to the runway. Fortunately though, I saw 2 planes parked at the tie downs – whew, if they could make it up to the runway, so could I.

Taxiway back up to the runway at PAML
Taxiway back up to the runway at PAML. Looking at the angle going up isn’t so bad. Being higher up and looking down was concerning.
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The 152 and me at the Manley Airport tiedown. I somehow managed to spin and push the plane off the taxiway (yay, muscles) and I’m going for a walk. Wish I had time for the hot springs here.
Old PAML runway (thru ~October 2013). 2850x20. That's nuts.
Old, closed PAML runway (active thru ~October 2013). 2850’x20′. That’s nuts. 20′?!? Houses all along the left side of this picture (beyond the trees).

The 14 gallons of fuel in the tanks was plenty to finish my trip (only 6 needed), but that meant my PAFA-PAML leg had taken 5.5 more gallons than I’d calculated. Darn it. “I will not get lost again!” Back in the air to Nenana (PANN). Interestingly, the sidetone issue had disappeared and I could hear myself talk now. I’ve really got to figure this out. CFI4 showed me how to do it last time but I forgot.

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Tanana River – great reference I can follow on the way to Nenana

This was when the battery to the GoPro I was using cut out…so I unfortunately don’t have any good pictures of PANN. 2 batteries only lasted 2 hours, darn (was even turned off for my walk at PAML). However…the entire PAFA-PAML-PANN-PAFA loop was only supposed to take 90 minutes. What was I doing, mmmm.

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Hey, signs of civilization. The Nenana bridge is really distinctive; surprise for me: I *do* see the airport from a distance 🙂 . But I was way too high to reach pattern altitude without shallow turns, and I was a little further to the south than I intended to be. Click to picture to zoom in.

My experience at PANN was not my favorite landing experience. PANN has an ASOS which allowed me to decide on runway 4L early on…but I let myself get flustered because I hadn’t started descending early enough. I knew I was going for a low approach straight over 4L and then would enter the pattern – but I forgot 4L has right traffic. I realized my mistake as I was going to turn left and start flying towards the town on crosswind. I remembered in the A/FD that pilots are not allowed to fly over the town for noise control. I just went way wide, then it was easy to enter a right downwind for 4L. I was about 50′ off the runway when a sudden burst of wind made the right wing drop suddenly. I chickened out and did a go around. Coming around again, my downwind was slightly angled towards the runway due to wind, and I may have turned base slightly too late. Somehow, I managed to correct for everything and got an okay touch-and-go at PANN.

The trek back to Fairbanks was uneventful, thank goodness.

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Farmland?

I got a straight in final to runway 2R which made me nervous but I knew I needed to practice my straight in finals. Height slightly high and my speed was much faster than I was happy with (not white arc) – this was a problem for all of my landings today actually. Got things sorted out, and then, above the runway, the winds picked up a little. I messed up and did the downward sloped wavey up and down all down the runway before I touched down. The mains only came up slightly one time.  Had a pilot friend in the pattern who noted he saw my nose go up and down a few times after the mains touched, but the moment the nosewheel actually touched down, it stayed down. That’s good I think. To be ever critical, I didn’t use gentle rudder pressure to control my taxi direction and I’ll admit I didn’t stay on the centerline the entire time.

Flight time was about 20 minutes longer than I had filed for – but I was still under the 30 minutes “we’ll come search for you” mark. I’d realized I was 10minutes over when talking to Fairbanks Approach, but I was too hesitant to ask for a temporary frequency change to close the plan….and I know they always say not to close until you are safely back on the ground….I wish I could definitively figure out the radios so I could listen on 2 frequencies and talk on 1. I’m pretty sure I’ve got it, but I was too shy to try.

It was an interesting flight and I definitely learned a lot for future flights. It also marks my passing of the 40 hour flight time mark. Bittersweet.

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The long cross country is scheduled for tomorrow – and I haven’t been this tired in years – flying alone was stressful. I hope I’m up for it.

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