To become a private pilot, you have to do some trips more than 50nmi from your home airport. There are a variety of skills you learn in the process – route planning, fuel management, weather, navigating by radios, compass, and staring out the window, talking with ATC, and more.
I picked a day with minimal winds and good weather. The previous few times out around the airport I had been feeling kind of out of practice and had noticed this showed up especially with a tail wind when landing. The predominant wind in the winter is from the north west, and the easy way to land at my airport is from the north. So basically I wanted a day with not much wind at all.
The flight planning seems to always take me way too long, multiple hours. Once I get my license, I think everyone just uses one of the online tools that calculates all the headings and wind correction for you.
The morning of it was quite cold, and I had a momentary concern that no one had plugged the airplane engine heater in and thus I would have to cancel. But luckily it was all set. Before setting off on my cross country, I wanted to reassure myself that I would not have any issues getting home, so I did two landings at my home airport. The first one I was a bit tense, but it went ok. The next one I was feeling better. Tyson watched and said it looked good even though I had a little tail wind. Then I set off.
First getting up into the air it was a little busy. I had to climb up to my pre-set altitude, turn to the right heading, make sure I don’t encroach on any airspace I am not supposed to, and open my flight plan. I did all that, then I started checking gages. I noticed my radio navigation gage said I was heading away from my destination. I had actually been expecting it to have no reception yet. I did some checking and determined that I was not picking up a different transmitter, but rather had gotten my calculations 180 degrees off.
Then it got rather boring actually. I tuned the comms radio to Boston approach just to have something to listen to. At each of my check points, I marked off the time. Flying my calculated compass heading and looking out the window was keeping me right on the radio beacon. Everything went nice and smoothly.
Nearing my destination, things got busier again. The first thing you do is tune the radio to listen to the current weather and airport info. I did that and heard static. This airport had a tower, so I needed to switch frequencies to talking to the air traffic controller by a certain distance out. I was really wishing the weather report would get clear well before I had to switch, but I ended up having to piece together the interpretable words from several partly garbled transmissions. Then I talked to the tower and said I wanted to land. That was no big deal. The controller told me to report when I was three miles out from the airport on base leg for landing.
I could not actually see the airport at that point. There was a decent sized ridge in front of me, and I had been warned that the airport was down in a valley. So I was not too worried. I followed my headings and the interstate marked on the map. When I crossed the ridge, I figured I was 3 miles out and told the controller. However, I still could not see the airport. I was pretty certain of where I was on the map and therefore where the airport was with respect to me. Eventually, given my location on the map, I figured I had better start getting ready to land even though I had not spotted the airport. Right about then, it finally came out from behind a smaller ridge. Seeing as the runway there is almost three times longer than my home runway, I had no issues landing.
The place was deserted except for one business jet headed out. I got some fuel for the return trip, took a pit stop, and called up my instructor to give him an update. I attempted to take a photo of my airplane and the airport buildings, but my phone crashed, so there is no photo of my first solo cross country.
Back in the airplane, I got all my papers shuffled, radios reconfigured, and mental state prepared to head out again. This time, since I was at a towered airport, I could open my flight plan on the ground. On takeoff, there was one other airplane in the air talking to the control tower, but I never spotted them.
For my flight back, I had chosen a path that relied entirely on dead reckoning and pilotage (aka looking out the window). My first check point was a mountain that on the map looked fairly prominent. In reality, I could not spot the thing. I found another prominent mountain, but by looking at the compass, it was too far west. The air traffic controller boosted my impression by referring to me as being south of the airport when talking to the other airplane. I should have been south east. So I gave up on that mountain and looked for other features. Out in the distance I picked up the windmills that were not too far from my path. Between looking at my compass and looking at the features on the ground, the whole way back I kept over-correcting too far to the left and too far to the right of the path. It was kind of frustrating because on the way out I had barely used the radio beacon as an occasional check and it had said I was dead on the entire time.
Coming back home, I checked the weather at a nearby airport since there is no report for mine. I attempted to close my flight plan in the air, but the radio reception was too garbled and I was getting close enough to the airport that I wanted my radio to talk to any other pilots around. So I gave up. I flipped to what I thought I had set up as the airport frequency and announced my position and intention to land. Turned out I had changed to the Boston approach frequency, which was a rather embarrassing mistake. I landed uneventfully with an audience of Tyson, a neighbor, and another student.