Flight School Update: Cross Country Time Building (Part 2)

Anyway, part 2, because the cross country discussion got long.

At ground school the other day, the instructor was commenting “I always tell my students, you learn more in those 200 hours after you get your private license, than in the hours it took to get your license.” I said “I believe that.” Because that was right after my last cross country trip, from St. Andrews, to Gimli, to Dauphin, to Brandon, and then back to St. Andrews.

Weather wise, it was a perfect day for flying, and I took Nathan. He’d been looking forward to it, and I was feeling more confident, and ready to have passengers to tend while I handled getting more used to the size of a cessna 172. Cross countries do present the novice pilot with a bunch of extra challenges, from needing to pay attention to navigating, taking times, recalculating ETAs, radio communication, all while flying, and then there’s landing at unfamiliar airports – figuring out how you’re going to join the circuit, and estimating where your key points are going to be as you turn base and final – so you know how high you should be at what point as you descend to land. That I’m definitely getting better at – especially with the 172, which likes to float  over the runway a long ways – my landings that day were much shorter and neater than some of my earlier cross country landings.

Approaching Gimli, I noticed something I hadn’t noticed before. I’d never flown to Gimli at all so far, so had never seen it from the air. But I had no trouble spotting it at all, and I pointed it out to Nathan. He couldn’t see it. I got on the Gimli frequency, and there was a water bomber doing touch and go’s at the Gimli airport – he and I worked out where one another was, and I spotted him just short final, but Nathan couldn’t see him until we were a good bit closer. The same thing happened approaching Dauphin – minus the water bomber – I spotted the airport a good five miles or so before Nathan was able to see it when I pointed it out to him.

I know Nathan needs new glasses, but still – I remembered then how it was on my first dual cross country, and while I wasn’t having too much trouble working out where I was, I had trouble spotting the airports from a distance. Sandra would be pointing at it, and I would be saying, nope, can’t see it. Or I saw two or three things that might be it, and wasn’t sure which it was. But even over such a relatively small number of cross country trips, my ability to spot the runways has got way better – I have a better sense of three dimensional orientation, I think – a better feel for how far away something is by looking at other landmarks. It’s not that I wasn’t trying to think about things that way before – it just comes with much less effort, and more certainty than before.

So I can definitely see why the cross country time building is important. Even in the little bit I’ve done, I can see how much I’ve improved on pretty much all aspects of cross country flying. Nathan has an amateur radio license from his time in boy scouts, so he understood what was happening on the radio a lot better than a lot of people, and thought it was pretty neat to see the radio being used for an actual purpose rather than just people hanging out and chatting. He also thought the fact that we were actually talking to the guy flying the water bomber was really cool.

As we were leaving Brandon, I heard an instructor telling Brandon Radio that he was sending his student up for his first solo. He took off just ahead of us, and as I was turning on course, I stayed on the frequency, waiting for for his radio call that he was clear of the runway and on the ground again. In St. Andrews the tower almost always congratulates students when they get back from their first solo. Brandon Radio I guess doesn’t – or maybe it’s just that one, I dunno, but since Brandon Radio didn’t, I did. He answered “Thanks!” sounding like I must have caught him off guard (that’s probably why the tower doesn’t congratulate them until they’re on the ground – that and well, you don’t want to congratulate them prematurely – it’s probably bad luck or something.) But I could hear the elation in his voice, and it brought me back to my first solo. It started to sink in how far I’ve come from then. It was kind of an awesome way to start the last leg of the longest cross country flight I’ve ever done so far.

When you get your private license, it doesn’t mean you’re particularly good at flying, it just means that they’re reasonably confident that you’re capable of getting a plane from one place to another without killing yourself or anyone else, and that you’ve got the maturity to know what you can and can’t handle weather wise and won’t take off into something beyond your abilities. But still, lots of pilots do take risks, and some do get themselves killed – just like inexperienced drivers on the road go out on icy roads and get themselves killed when they have bit off more than they can chew. I remember the day I went out to see my family doctor last – the highway had huge patches of black ice that when I was on them, I could touch the brakes and couldn’t even feel it. A year ago, I might have driven half the speed I did that day, or even turned back, but at that point, I’d been driving a lot more, and was more confident. The sun was shining off the ice, so I could see where the road was icy and where it was clear, and though I saw three cars in the ditch on the hour’s drive to Portage La Prairie from the ‘Peg, I got there without incident. A driver who’d just got their license shouldn’t have been out on those roads that day, but an experienced driver can assess the situation, and make a good decision on whether they can handle it or not.

Flying is just like that. Overwhelming at first, and even when you first get your license, you can do it, it just takes all your concentration to keep everything together, and you’ll make mistakes, but theoretically, you’re at the point where they shouldn’t be fatal ones if you listened to your instructor and keep up with the good habits they taught you.

Anyway, wish me luck on time building. I’ve got to work my way up to my 300 nautical mile straight line cross country to fulfill the commercial requirement.

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Flight School Update: Cross Country Time Building (Part 1)

This got long, so it’s going to be 2 parts.

Commercial pilots will be looking at that title and going, “uh huh, yep, that.”

So, I’m at the point where I’m supposed to be just kind of going around flying places and getting experience, mainly doing cross country flying to other airports.

I’m a goal oriented person, and I have trouble motivating myself to do something that’s pointless. And I have trouble convincing myself of a purpose to flying around southern Manitoba, once I’ve seen most of it, when there’s no score displayed to show me how well I did at the end of the level.

And getting ready for a cross country is a lot of fuss – the nav log still takes me forever, and getting friends together to go with me, for someone with Aspergers, it’s more stressful than it is for other people. After the first one, I did a couple trips alone, just to let myself get in a rhythm without having to worry about getting passengers organized.

The first time I took passengers was to Lac Du Bonnet, and on the way back I got a bit off course. There’s two sets of power lines running at an angle from Lac Du Bonnet, and I ended up following the wrong set, and when I came to the end of them, and didn’t see anything I should have seen, I realized I wasn’t where I was supposed to be. It was the first time I’d gotten even a little bit lost. And honestly, that was only a little bit lost. There was a bunch of contributing factors – I forgot to get a cushion, so I was having a hard time seeing to navigate, the clouds were low, so I was down at 2000 feet, with only about 10 statute miles visibility – way more than minimums, but, I realized, just a bit more than I was ready for, plus, forgot to reset my heading indicator.

But I did get my time over my set heading point, so knew how far I’d flown. So I knew there was a point where I’d hit Winnipeg airspace, and of course, that’s class C, and you can’t go in there without giving them 30 mins notice, so I had to turn away before then. But if I turned North, there’s the river, and the river’s big and you can’t miss it, and St. Andrews is right next to the river, so all I had to do was turn North and I’d find my way. And at that point where I knew I’d have to turn North, that was the moment one of my passengers pointed out a small town, and I recognized it right away as Oakbank.

I was pretty embarrassed at the time about getting that far off course, but it was also a learning experience. I was a fair ways from making a desperate radio call for help, and I wasn’t short of fuel (I had enough fuel to get a lot more lost than that!) but my mind was working out the next step, if I couldn’t get my bearings. The obvious one was turn North, but had I not had that option, I could have hopped on the radio, because I was still well within radar range and I figured I could ask Terminal to help me out. But I was starting to work out at what point I did have to admit that I was all out lost and make that radio call, so it was valuable experience.

Anyway, after that, I went to Kenora, and did another trip to Brandon – those were the couple I did by myself. Those both went well, though the Brandon one I was racing weather, and that never goes well for me. When I got to Brandon airport, Brandon Radio gave me the winds as something gusting thirty two, and I decided discretion was the better part of valour and did a low and over (flying over the runway without touching down). I think I could have done it – I’ve done landings in winds like that – not solo, but I’ve done it. I could not kill myself, if I had to. But I didn’t have to, and Harv’s Air school rules are that no student go up if the winds are gusting over twenty. I knew the winds would be fine when I got back to St. Andrews though, and they were. It was a piloting decision, and any instructors I’ve talked to agreed it was a good one.

And in Part 2 I’ll talk about my trip with Nathan to Gimli>Dauphin>Brandon and back.