A young pilot's solo thoughts

The process of getting a pilot's license involves many training procedures. A total of 40 hours' flight time is required, and 10 of those hours must be cross-country time. To be classified as a cross-country, the flight must be over 150 miles, with a stop at two different airports. The cross-countries are made solo, meaning that it's just the student, no instructor or passengers. This adds to the experience a sense of freedom, and also a certain degree of apprehension. Despite these feelings, I was looking forward to the opportunity to prove to myself that I could do this.

It was Saturday night, and I was looking over and over my flight plan. I had triple-checked the wind calculations and memorized all the frequencies used at the airports that I would be landing at tomorrow. I had chosen Bullhead City as the destination for my long cross-country. Located just inside Arizona, and about five miles south of Laughlin, it would be the farthest I had ever flown.

My point of departure was a small airport in Upland, Calif. I knew I was ready for the flight; I was prepared. But what if something came up? A radio failure, carburetor icing, a snapped fan belt, or worse, complete engine failure? Yes, I was definitely battling some nerves.

As the sun came up on what was to be a perfect day, I was in the car on my way to the airport. A few words with my instructor, and I was outside, pre-flighting the plane that was going to carry me 300 miles. Right after takeoff, I radioed Riverside Flight Service Station to open my flight plan. "Riverside Radio, Cessna Zero Bravo Whiskey, calling on 122 point zero."

"Cessna Zero Bravo Whiskey, go ahead."

"Zero Bravo Whiskey would like to open my VFR [visual flight rules] flight plan from Cable to Bullhead City." With those words, I had guaranteed a search-and-rescue effort if my flight plan was never closed, meaning I had gone down somewhere en route. Shortly after contacting Riverside Radio, I tuned to the SoCal Approach frequency to get flight following. They would be following me with radar all the way to Arizona. Twenty minutes into the flight, I had flown through the Cajon Pass and was getting settled in for the long hall over the desert.

Canyon after valley after pass after canyon. Man, how big was this desert? It seemed that I had been flying forever over a never-ending brown landscape. I had been tracking to the Hector VOR (a directional radio signal, part of the VHF Omnidirectional Range navigation system) ever since the Cajon. According to my instruments, I was right on course and should be passing over the VOR any minute. Sure enough, the little white tower came into sight right off the nose. After passing it, I set up the next VOR frequency that would take me within 10 miles of Bullhead.

Where was it? The airport should be in sight now. I kept scanning the terrain ahead, straining to see. Airports are a lot harder to spot from the air than you think. I was listening on the tower frequency, and started looking for a Piper that was supposed to be on its final approach. Then I saw the sun reflect off the Piper's sunny fuselage. I radioed the tower.

"BuIlhead tower, Cessna Eight Niner Zero Bravo Whiskey is 6 to the southwest, inbound for landing." The tower responded: "Cessna Zero Bravo Whiskey, enter a right base for runway 26 right, you're No. 2 cleared to land."

I set up for a right base entry to the pattern. Suddenly, I was startled by some severe turbulence. Apparently I had just emerged from the cover of a nearby mountain range that was blocking me from some 27-mile-an-hour winds. I felt my head hit the ceiling, and I remember having to adjust my headset after the impact.

Nevertheless, I touched down with a good, safe landing and headed for the gas station to fuel up before turning around and taking off again to head home.

But home was not my first stop. I now had to land at another airport, part of the cross-country requirement. I had picked a small airport outside the desert town of Barstow, known as Daggett. This would be tricky, because there was a Marine helicopter base there, and flying near a military installation after Sept. 11 came with some trepidation. The military was not too keen on small-engine aircraft flying over them.

Because of an earlier incident, I stayed way clear of the choppers on this flight. At five miles out, I broadcast my intentions on the Unicom frequency. "Daggett traffic, Cessna Zero Bravo Whiskey is five to the northeast, inbound for landing, left traffic for runway 22 right, Daggett."

Entering the traffic pattern on the downwind, I was careful not to fly directly over the choppers. Half-imagining an antiaircraft missile screaming up at me, I made my base turn. After touching down, I made my stay as short as possible, quickly taxiing back and taking to the air again. In an hour I'd be home.

This was my long cross-country solo, a landmark I had to pass in my flying career. I like to fly. I liked coming through the pass and descending to 3,500 feet, and how nice it was to see a familiar airport again! At 3,000 feet and three miles off, I made my last call of the trip. "Cable Traffic, Cessna Zero Bravo Whiskey, three miles to the North, over the dam, inbound over the wash, for left traffic, 24 Cable."

There is a certain feeling you get when tying down your plane after a solo flight, a feeling that I can't really describe. I have not been flying that long – only for 40 hours. But I was grateful and happy that I had completed my solo to Bullhead.

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